Hugh Martin is a veteran of the Iraq War and the author of The Stick Soldiers (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2013) and So, How Was the War? (Kent State UP, 2010). He is the recipient of a Sewanee Writers’ Conference Walter E. Dakin Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, and the Gettysburg College Emerging Writer Lectureship. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Kenyon Review, The New Yorker, and many other journals. He is completing his Ph.D. at Ohio University. For more information, visit his website at hugh-martin.com.
Leilani Squire: When did you begin writing about your deployment in Iraq? Why did you begin and was it difficult to write about your experiences there?
Hugh Martin: I began seriously writing about the experience after I had been back for roughly two years. Primarily, I started working on poems and essays because I’d taken a creative writing class in undergrad with a very supportive and encouraging teacher. I’d always been an avid reader and a sort of amateur writer, but I really wrote as a way to process and respond to the how and what I felt being back in America. It was nearly impossible to discuss or explain “what it was like” or anything similar, so I found, ultimately, the most precise and powerful form of expression was through the medium of writing, specifically poetry. It was difficult but only because, at first, I had very little knowledge and understanding, as many people do, of the long tradition of literature about war that’s ubiquitous in almost every culture, country, history, and so on. Truly, it was reading a lot of, specifically, the past century’s veteran writers that helped me understand my own experience. Once I began reading these writers, in a way, I saw a sort of form and history that I could, with humility, begin to follow and understand, though “understand” is not the best word.
Leilani: BOA Editions published The Stick Soldiers. BOA Editions has been a great support for poets for over forty years. Was it challenging to get them to read your manuscript? What was it like working with this prestigious publisher of poetry?
Hugh: Thank you for saying that. Honestly, I submitted to their first book award (the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize), and fortunately they chose it as a finalist to be looked at by the judge, Cornelius Eady. He chose it as the winner. They were, and have been, very supportive and wonderful. It’s been great to be able to see what they publish every year.
Leilani: You must be proud of The Stick Soldiers. How long did it take you to complete the collection of poems?
Hugh: I began seriously writing about the war about a year or two after I came back, when I was twenty-two, and then slowly continued writing poems for about the next six or so years. Around 2010 I began really working with my professors at Arizona State to find an order for the poems, and that’s when I really started sending them out. As far as the idea of a book being “complete,” it is difficult to think with that term since I feel, like many writers, no work is ever “complete” but one just has to know when it’s time to stop working on it and move on.
Leilani: Why poetry and not prose?
Hugh: Throughout my life I’ve actually read more prose and been more interested in prose; however, in undergrad I ended up, sort of arbitrarily, getting into poetry since that was the focus of the creative writing class. I became very comfortable with focusing on one moment or image or scene and trying to build that on just one single page (most poetry, today, is merely one page—a good thing, I think). I enjoy reading work that revolves around the moment, the image, a brief interaction, the particulars, the smaller details—all aspects commonly found in poetry.
Leilani: I believe that it’s important for civilians to read novels and poems written by those who have served in the military. I believe it might even be more important to read the stories of those who have been in war. What are your thoughts about this controversial view?
Hugh: That’s certainly something always up for discussion. The distinction between someone in the military versus someone in the military AND in a war doesn’t so much matter to me though. If we’re talking about nonfiction, then of course the writer is limited only to his life experience; however, for poetry and fiction, the doors are open for anything. We can view a work, perhaps, through a new critical lens — only focusing on the page and its content — or we can view it through more of an historical or cultural lens — focusing more on the author, the time in which she lived, her biography, all of the historical details and aspects. As a reader, I strive to read — I hope — through both of these lenses. I believe a work should be well written enough to exist alone, maybe without knowledge of the cultural or historical context; however, we know it’s impossible for a piece of writing to NOT come out of a certain period of history, of time, and it can often benefit us greatly and truly enrich a piece to learn any information about the author or the world outside of the text. On a more general level, readers of literature should always strive, of course, to read stories/poems/memoir from as many differing backgrounds as possible — it is, truly, the only way we can experience what it is to live another life.
Leilani: Recently, a handful of novels have been published written by veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Do you think veterans should read other veterans’ writing? Do you think it helps veterans to read other veterans’ stories? If so, why?
Hugh: This is really up to each person. If I have a veteran wanting my advice on writing, I tell them, without hesitation, they need to read voraciously, from as many time periods as possible. If anything, I’d say read more of the literature from past wars since those writers have had more time to reflect, assess, polish their stories; the wars today are still ongoing and don’t seem to be slowing. Bottom line: you have to read, and read a lot, to be a decent writer, I think.
Leilani: Why is poetry important to read?
Hugh: In this historical moment, with our short attention spans and desire for instant gratification, poetry, I think, can appeal to many readers with its tendency to be brief, succinct, and without any excess—time-wasting—language. It’s the best form for the pace and click-happy way of the world today.
Leilani: Do you read much poetry? If so, who are your favorite poets? Why do you like these particular poets?
Hugh: I’m not too sure what to say as far as “favorites” but here’s a list (just copied off a document I keep):
The Book of the Dead, Muriel Rukeyser
The Complete Poems, Randall Jarrell
The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen
Archaeology of the Circle: Collected Poems, Bruce Weigl
The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg
Against Forgetting, Carolyn Forche, Ed.
Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, Yusef Komunyakaa
Darks Field of the Republic, Adrienne Rich
Women on War: An International Anthology, Daniella Gioseffi, Ed.
The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser
Poet in the World, Denise Levertov
Bending the Bow, Robert Duncan
Poems: 1968-1972, Denise Levertov
The Collected Poems, James Wright
Erosion, Jorie Graham
Vice: New and Selected Poems, Ai
The Infirmary, Ed Micus
Leilani: What books do you like to read? Publications? Poetry journals? Who is your favorite author?
Hugh: As for publications, I like a lot of the work in The Kenyon Review, the New Ohio Review, Tin House, The Sun, FIELD, Creative Nonfiction, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. For favorite author, again, hard to say but the above list has a lot of favorites.
Leilani: Please describe your writing life. Do you wait for the muse to arrive and then write? Or do you sit down in your chair and stay no matter how great the temptation to get up, until you begin to write?
Hugh: That’s a good question, but I’d say it’s probably a little of both. I’m certainly not a believer in waiting for “inspiration” or a “muse” but I do have many moments, like most writers, where ideas or images or lines come at various moments throughout a day. Mostly, I try to write these down, somewhere, and maybe, for only a few of them, I’ll get to some poem or story. For me, writing has always been, and always will be, a daily act like, but very unlike, regular work. I try, every day, to put my time in front of the keyboard or notebook or whatever, and I will constantly work to push a piece “forward.” The biggest dilemma for me has to do with focus: I have too many projects, too many ideas, and I usually plan work on two or three (poems or essays) during any given week. If something is going particularly well, I’ll probably give more time to that; however, if something isn’t getting anywhere, it might be put away for awhile.
Leilani: What writing project are you working on now?
Hugh: A second collection of poetry and a few essays dealing with topics as various as war literature, wartime rape, the Stolen Valor Act, veteran identity, and sports jargon.
Leilani: What advice can you give to veterans who may want to write but aren’t able?
Hugh: If it’s a matter of time, then it’s of course very difficult to offer any advice. If someone just simply works so much that they can’t have time to write, I guess it involves figuring out a way to carve out maybe twenty minutes a day where one can pull out a notebook and write. That’s the good thing about writing; it can be done almost anywhere. Otherwise, if a veteran is unable because he or she simply feels the material is too heavy or green to put on the page, then there is nothing wrong with that. Work takes time to process. Some veterans write about the same events, pretty much, over and over again. Regardless, one should always, always, be reading — it really doesn’t matter what — war, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, Shakespearean sonnets — the bottom line is that “writing” always involves that act of putting down language with a pen or pulling it up from the page.