Voices in Wartime
Andrew Himes on Art and War
Interview by Timothy Harris
People who know Andy Himes almost inevitably wind up employing the V word sooner or later. A minister’s son with a background in civil rights and labor organizing, Andy seemed an unlikely candidate to end up a tech writer at Microsoft. When he did, he became a pioneer in on-line publishing. Later, he used his resources and tech savvy to build Project Alchemy, an organization that brought the benefit of technology to grassroots social change work. He is a person who likes big goals: ending poverty, stopping war, changing history. Andy is what you would call a visionary and is good at putting ideas in motion.
Voices in Wartime, a movie that will debut this September 11 in libraries across the United States and soon be distributed worldwide, is one of those big ideas. What if poets around the world who have been affected by war found a mass audience? Who would listen? What difference would it make? We’re about to find out.
Himes and his team have joined with veteran documentary filmmaker Rick King to produce a feature length film that looks at war through the eyes of poets, both known and unknown. Soldiers, civilians, journalists, and historians have joined in to examine how poetry and war have been intertwined since the beginning of recorded history. A companion website, voicesinwartime.org, will build an opportunity for global dialogue on this critical issue.
Poetry and war famously collided last year when Laura Bush invited Copper Canyon Press founder Sam Hamill and others to the White House for a celebration of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, and Langston Hughes. The event was abruptly cancelled when Hamill invited poets to protest the impending war on Iraq. The phenomenon that followed, Poets Against the War, was probably the largest literary protest movement in history.
Andy Himes sat down with Real Change recently to talk about poetry, war, and how people can be moved to take action. Voices in Wartime will be publicly shown for the first time in Seattle this September 11 as part of a dialogue hosted by the central branch of the Seattle Public Library.
RC: So, let’s talk about Poets Against the War. Is this a movement, or was it more of an extended media hit based on a political blunder by Laura Bush?
Andy Himes: Well, it was probably both. It was certainly a movement. There was a moment in time when thousands of poets came together to express a very specific opposition to a very specific policy of invading Iraq. Poets felt a very deep opposition to this war, and expressed it in a way that was most natural to them.
It was significant that these were poets, not insurance agents or cab drivers or whatever, but poets. They work with words and with meaning and tell stories. They can’t write a successful poem that doesn’t try to tell some deep truth. A poem that is just a kind of an intellectual discussion is no good as a poem.
One thing that I’ve heard from so many poets is that is that you don’t write poetry as a protest against war that is very good poetry. You write poetry that expresses and explores what you feel and what you see and what you’re living through. The poetry has to come not out of a political point of view, but rather out of the poet’s emotional reality.
RC: Tell us a bit about the groundswell that happened.
Himes: Well it happened really, really fast, and it was triggered by what happened at the White House. Within six weeks, poets talked to other poets and it just snowballed, and we had 13,000 poets on the website. We had had several hundred poetry readings against the war, and events took place in over twenty countries that we knew about. There were hundreds and hundreds of newspaper articles and radio interviews and television stories and so on around the world. And in the end, you know, poetry did not stop the war.
No matter how significant Poets Against the War was, it’s still a tiny movement, in comparison to world history. This film is about the power of poetry to explore the reality of war, the emotional essence of war and how it’s experienced across borders from different perspectives. We’ve got a lieutenant general from West Point for example, and we’ve got a woman Columbian poet who’s lost her brother in the dirty war in Columbia, and we’ve got a Vietnam veteran who returned from the war to face thirty years of nightmares.
The idea is to help the audience understand war in a new way. It’s not going to change history to tell the story of Poets Against the War. What might change history is if people come to the next decision point about whether to go to a war and they have a different point of view, because they understand the reality of war at a deeper level.
RC: When I think of wartime literature, I think of Orwell and Hemingway on the Spanish Civil War. I think of Heller’s Catch 22, or Miller’s The Naked and the Dead. Who are the wartime poets that similarly spoke to their generation?
Himes: Well, you know, we don’t always know which wartime poets will make a difference until years after the war. In the English-speaking world, we think of Wilfred Owen as being the greatest war poet of the 20th century, and he is an extraordinary poet. He was a young guy who went off to war as a Lieutenant. He fought in France against the German army and led his troops on the ground. He suffered months of privation and disease and disaster and the experience of war and death and killing, and he was broken by that experience. He was sent to a military hospital to recover from shell shock and went back out, voluntarily, to the front lines, and he was killed. One week before the end of the war.
His memory was held only by a tiny handful of people for years after the war. His poetry wasn’t published for years, except in little chapbooks with little tiny circulations, and it was at least 10 to 15 years after the war that he began to be thought of as an incredible writer, an extraordinary thinker, and an artist of unparalleled magnificence, someone who understood and could express the horror of war as a soldier better than anybody else had in the whole First World War.
In the future there may be poetry that comes out of the Iraq war that’s been written by soldiers and civilian victims that we will think of in a hundred years or fifty years as being the most extraordinary poetry of the 21st century, but it will be poetry that we’re not aware of right now. Poetry that is powerful resonates and lives beyond and outside of the understanding of the people who write it and the people who are around when it’s being written.
RC: In the last hundred years or so, war has changed pretty dramatically. How has that been reflected in poetry?
Himes: In the film we talk about 4 different stages of war in the last hundred years. First, in the 19th century, with poems such as “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and from poetry before then, we see poetry that often celebrates the individual, the glory of the warrior and of individual combat. With the First World War, the character of the war — because of the new industrialized and mechanized ways that we have of killing each other — changed. The dominant image of the First World War is the image of trench warfare: mud and blood and gore…and gas.
In the Second World War, the dominant image that we have is that of the fire from the sky. That’s the incendiary bombing of cities and the nuclear bombing, finally, of cities — the wholesale destruction of human life in a war directed principally at civilian targets. In the first world war it was soldiers killing each other; in the second world war, it was 50 thousand citizens of a European or a Japanese city dying overnight because of the firebombing of the city, or the murder of 6 million Jews in occupied Europe by the Germans, and so on, or the slaughter of Soviet civilians.
In the wake of the Second World War, the poetry turns to the horror and the terror that people feel when they think about the prospect of a nuclear war, a holocaust that puts the very survival of humanity itself at stake. Poetry observes a world that lives on the brink of disaster, but doesn’t ever get there, because the use of nuclear weapons made it impossible for war to be fought at that level again.
And then the final kind of poetry is that kind of poetry that is written in small wars — almost always in the Third World — by combatants who are fueled by the international arms industry, and by, in the past, the needs of the two superpowers to combat and undermine each other, and, now, by all of the positioning and repositioning of empire around the world. So war today is fought typically in places like the Middle East and Africa and Latin America, and it’s often civil war, and not war between states. So the poetry that we have today is very different from poetry written about war, or that came out of war, at any previous time.
RC: It seems almost as though poetry in the last 2400 years has come full circle. I’m thinking of Euripides’ ‘Trojan Women,’ which focused on the impact of war to civilians. War has never been especially civilized, but it seems that we’re returning to a more indiscriminate sort of warfare.
Himes: It is in fact an assumption that any civilian who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time is a legitimate target, and as Jonathan Schell says in our film, civilians are thought of as collateral damage in war. In the wars that the United States has fought within the last 2 1/2 years, which are all predicated on, you know, either revenge for 9/11 or preventing another 9/11 or whatever, there are several times as many civilians, innocent civilians, in other countries who have now been killed in wars initiated by the US than were killed in the US in New York City at 9/11 itself.
There is kind of this bifurcation in our understanding that occurs. On the one hand we are terrified that another 9/11 might happen, with legitimacy. If we’re not terrified, we should be – this is a really dangerous world we live in, but our terror has been used by folks who want us to support wars that don’t take into account what might happen to innocent civilians, just as those who died on 9/11 were innocent.
RC: One of the themes of Voices in Wartime is the emotional cost of war; how people struggle with the unspeakable. We hear about the dead — sometimes we hear about the wounded — but we seldom hear about the psychological toll. I’ve heard for example, that more U.S. Vietnam Veterans have died of suicide since the end of the war than were actually killed during the war itself. That’s shocking, and you don’t really hear about that.
Himes: One of the people in our film is Jonathan Shay, who wrote the book “Achilles in Vietnam,” and one thing that he says is that psychological injury and physical injury or death go hand in hand. It’s suffered whether you are the recipient of the wound or whether you are someone who is giving the wound. And it’s probably the latter that has been the most ignored by the military establishment, by the medical establishment and by the political establishment. The assumption is that if you are killing in a war, you’re doing so for patriotic reasons, and therefore you simply shouldn’t receive any psychological injury from partaking in the war itself.
But there is something about being human that reminds us that it is unholy to kill other people. We might be able to justify it politically or justify it spiritually even, but there is something that is deeply horrifying about needing to kill or damage other people for any cause whatsoever, no matter how just or right it is.
RC: Poetry seems sometimes almost like an artifact from a different time. It demands that we slow down, that we think, that we meditate on meaning. Can poetry in the 21st century ever be more than a minority movement?
Himes: In some sense, poetry is at the core of who we are as human beings. When we hear a powerful poem that explores in the most visceral way the life and death reality of war, you know – witnessing your best friend have their head blown off, or seeing your child die because the water supply has been destroyed in your town in southern Iraq, or looking at your neighbor who has just returned from the war with no legs, and watching them attempt to put the pieces of their life back together again — a poem written about any of those realities is going to have a powerful impact on any human being who hears it, if they’re not frozen like a block of ice, and it doesn’t matter whether they love poetry or know anything about poetry or ever studied poetry.
It’s got nothing to do with whether the line scans properly. It has nothing to do with the quality of the metaphor. Our film is not about great poetry. It’s about poetry written in wartime. There are a couple of poets in this film who are not great poets. As a matter of fact, their poetry might even be mediocre. But when you see them on screen, when you see them in the film, and they’re saying ‘this is who I am, this is what I’ve observed, this is how I feel, let me tell you about…’ You know, I don’t think you can watch it without crying. I don’t think that you can watch it without learning something about who you are as a human being.
voicesinwartime.org: Publishing art in response to war - building a global communityVoices in Wartime is a new online community that serves as a venue for the profound human urge to counter unspeakable fear, sadness, and anger in the face of war with creative action.
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