War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

Question from a reader

I have been reading and listening on this site for a while. I’d like to know if you could express what your personal quest is on this long journey?

I am always so grateful to have contact with my readers. To date, I’ve had over 13,500 hits on my site. Maybe a couple of hundred comments, emails, and conversations with my readers, most recently at garrison at the Brigade Officers’ Mess Dinner.

The question above came yesterday. I’d like to try and answer it if I can. It’s a difficult one.

Something I’ve learned over the years, is that I can never predict where my work will take me. Never in a million years, as I wrote the Elegy for Cpl Anthony Boneca, did I imagine that my quest for the correct colour of dust in Afghanistan would take me to Shilo, Wainwright, the garrison at Edmonton, and more poignantly, into the stories of the soldiers serving and retired, and ultimately, to that place I’ve dreamed of since I was a young girl, Afghanistan.

If someone had told me that I would rise at 04:45 and join the cooks on Ex at Shilo, watch them warm up and feed an army of 800, watch them play pranks with Vinny-bombs (vinegar on hot skillets, no harm, just lots of tears), pour each other coffee, laugh, work their asses off, show their babies’ pictures off, in cold and wet and general misery, I’d have been extremely surprised.

Or if someone had told me that I’d be a guest at the inner sanctum of the Officers’ Mess Dinner, listening, watching their uninhibited traditions, I would have thought they had the wrong person. After all, who am I? I am, as I said in my sonnet To Infantrymen Training for Afghanistan, I am nothing. Certainly I am nothing, as a writer, a poet.

And that is as it should be. I am here. Gone… Witness is my food… To record, not judge. I am not the story. I am the conduit. I hope.

Is this then my quest?

It’s interesting. I’m almost on autopilot with this project. I found out I was chosen as one of 5 war artists, last February. I was ready to go overseas immediately. But the army doesn’t work that way. I was told I might go last June, then August, then 2009…to quote Cpl D, who has been so helpful to me, “with the infantry, it’s get on the bus, get off the bus.” And certainly, this past year, I’ve learned this lesson well. I’ve learned that monk-like Infantry meditation… when it’s time, chill totally, because any second now, you might get orders to run like hell.

So what is my quest? I can’t really answer this yet. All I can hope, is that in the thousands of words that keep coming, that I get at least a few of them right (and I’m not exaggerating when I say I can only hope for a few), that some of my work might have a shelf-life of more than a few minutes (all writers want this), and that maybe I’ll give a voice to the speechless.

thanks for asking the question. I’ll think about it.

4 Comments (Closed)

Brenda Schmidt

“I am the conduit.” Nice. What a thoughtful response. I’ve thought of you and your role as war poet a few times as I’ve been making my way through The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. Certain passages pertaining to war and others about nomadic life. Have you read it?

Feb 10 2009 · 20:07

Alex VanderWoude

Very few people try to be such a conduit. It seems that these days even to want to be one is looked at askance. I’m glad you have chosen to do so none the less, and publish your observations for all to see. Brava. By the way, that picture you posted below of you being escorted to the washroom — killer dress! Wow!

Feb 12 2009 · 17:31

Brian Thompson

Thank you, Suzanne, for posting the question and elaborating about it. It is now my turn to give it some thoughts..
Giving a voice to the speechless, at least now in my mind, is more a matter of Reporting, like Press war correspondents would do.
But War Poetry? Does it give some positiveness, some beauty, to the war that would’t exist otherwise? Or can Poetry exist on the “dark “side and be used to sublime the nightmare?
Poetry is opening a world of Dreams and enchantment. Should we have any different expectations?

Feb 14 2009 · 21:42

Bob Devine

Your comment that you are but a writer and a poet is perfect. A writer and a poet who records bits of history that are not usually recorded, that show the personal side of the people in that history. What an honour to have ! and you have been doing an exceptional job of it.

Feb 15 2009 · 01:51

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