Barb Caffrey's Blog

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Archive for November 21st, 2010

More on the War Poetry Contest at

with 2 comments

Folks, I wrote to the kind folks at and asked for a link that would work so I could talk more about the War Poetry contest than I had, and Adam Cohen wrote back to me this morning with a link that will work:

Now, let’s talk about the top three poems since I have a good link to the contest that y’all can use.  (By the way, if you are a poet or a writer or want to know more about what is available out there to read and to try for as far as contests go, the Web site is an outstanding place to start your research.  I’ve been getting their free newsletter for at least a year and a half and I’ve found it very helpful.)

The Grand Prize winner was Gerardo “Tony” Mena with his poem, “So I was a Coffin.”  (He won $2000.)  He is a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his poem was written for his friend Corporal Kyle Powell.

This poem is searing in its imagery, and goes through a series of steps — we first see a spear, and when that doesn’t work, we see a flag.  When that isn’t quite right, we see a bandage — and this is where the poem really starts to hit between the eyes — and when the bandage doesn’t work, then the poem talks about coffins.  And about how finally, at long last, he’s a “good coffin,” when he’d been inadequate as a spear, a flag, and a bandage.

This poem stands one step away from heartbreak from the beginning, and its imagery is stark in its simplicity.  Knowing it was written for Mr. Mena’s friend just adds another layer to what makes this personally moving, but even had I not known that (had Mr. Mena not said anything about it) I believe this poem would’ve had similar emotional intensity.

The second place winner, Bruce Lack, sent in three poems entitled “FNG,” “Get Some” and “Hadji.”  Mr. Lack is a former member of the United States Marine Corps, and it’s obvious he’s used his military service as a springboard for his poetry.  All three of these poems are searing, and there’s bad language in two of ’em — understandable bad language, to be sure.  (I mention this in case anyone wants to read these with their children; adults, please check these out by yourselves just in case.)  He won $1200 for his poems, but as with Mr. Mena, it appears far more important to Mr. Lack that his poetry be read and understood than that it earned money.  (I’m sure neither of them are adverse to the money; it’s just that these poems do need to be read and understood by as many as possible.)

Specifically, “FNG” is about a soldier’s duty and how you’re supposed to keep yourself “shipshape and Bristol fashion” at all times.  (That’s not how Mr. Lack puts it, mind you.)  “Get Some” is all about a soldier who saw one of his friends die, and how he can’t put that image out of his mind no matter how hard he tries to resume his life.  And “Hadji” is about war, and about what he thought he’d see but didn’t — yet what he saw was far more than he could deal with.

All three of these poems work as a set, but they’d work by themselves, too.  But as a set, they show that even the most mundane tasks a soldier deals with daily can be difficult to deal with because all of them — all — lead to the soldier’s ultimate duty, that of war and how he (or she) must learn to deal with what they’ve seen and done, not to mention wanted to do.

The third place winner is Anna Scotti, and is the only non-veteran in the top three winners.  Her poem is called “This is how I’ll tell it when I tell it to our children,” and it’s about “prettifying” the war so what the soldiers did to the protagonist doesn’t seem as terrifying as it actually was.  Ms. Scotti won $600 for this poem, and it is a nice counterpart to the four other poems written by Mr. Lack and Mr. Mena in that it’s quieter, but no less intense.  This is the one poem of the five that takes some effort to read, but once you figure out she’s talking around the subject rather than about it,  it becomes just as heart-rending as the others.

I believe that this War Poetry contest is extremely important to highlight, which is why I’ve written this second (and far more comprehensive) blog about it.   The two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fallen out of the public consciousness to a degree because for whatever reason the media isn’t covering it as much as it used to — maybe they’re bored with it.  Or maybe they just don’t think it’s “sexy” to talk about people dying in a far-away place for an undetermined objective.  (Or, rather, an objective that the media would rather not discuss; trying to undermine al-Qaeda or the Taliban is very important, but it’s something that can’t be conveyed in a quick “sound-bite.”)

I’ve known many veterans in my life; my husband Michael was a proud Navy veteran, my father is a proud Navy veteran, my uncles served in the Army and Marines, my cousins have served in the Marines and the Army, and my friends have served in all branches (Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, and Air Force).  I believe that serving our country is extremely important — my own health would never allow me to serve (I tried, in my youth) — but we can’t forget what our fine men and women see when they’re dealing with war and death.  We can’t “prettify” it — that’s why Anna Scotti’s poem is so moving — or “gussy it up” so it’ll be more acceptable in a conversation.   And we certainly cannot ignore it, because that also ignores the huge sacrifices our military men and women have made for us over the years and is damned cruel, besides.

Those fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq deserve our support, and our understanding.  And the first part of giving our support and our understanding is to listen, to read, and to understand — not to shut out the soldiers who’ve given everything of themselves in order to derail the al-Qaedas and Talibans of this world so perhaps fewer innocents will die than would’ve died had our soldiers not given everything they have in the attempt.

The War Poetry contest is a good way to keep the conversation going, and to understand exactly what is going on with our returning soldiers and how hard it is to deal with what most of us see as “normality” after dealing with things that no man, or woman, or child should ever have to see.  It also is a way to affirm the sacrifices of our men and women in a positive, life-affirming way.  

But the War Poetry contest really needs more people to go and read these fine poems (including the honorable mentions and the published finalists — I didn’t see a bad poem in the lot) and reflect upon what our veterans have done for us, as shown by the many veterans (and non-vets) who’ve written outstanding poetry about war for this contest.

So please, go to the Web site — go to the link that was provided — and read these poems.  Then think about them, and talk about them, and pass them on to your friends and neighbors.  Because maybe we can get the conversation going that seems to have been woefully absent in Washington, DC, and in all of our state legislatures besides — and a “maybe” in this case is far better than the “Hell, no!” our servicepeople have been getting to date in their personal re-writing of history in order to make it more palatable to their children, to their spouses, and to their friends.

Written by Barb Caffrey

November 21, 2010 at 2:34 pm