There are holes in Hugh Martin’s poetry, much like there are holes in Iraqi cars — holes left in Iraqi soil, holes left in Iraqi civilians and holes left in American soldiers.
“When an [improvised explosive device] or a bomb goes off there’s always going to be a hole,” Martin said. “There are these holes everywhere which are sort of these artifacts or reminders of where a bomb went off — whether it went off and no one was around, or if it went off by accident or if it went off and people were killed.”
Martin’s book of poems, The Stick Soldiers, was chosen as the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle’s Week Two selection. He will present his work at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
In early 2005, after serving in Iraq for 11 months, Martin returned to school at Muskingum University. He enrolled in a creative writing class which happened to focus on poetry. By early 2006, he had begun the initial writing that led to his A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize-winning Stick Soldiers. Martin said the collection is a product of his last six to seven years of work: writing, revision, compilation and organization.
“I never had any desire or plan to get into writing poetry,” said Martin, now a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program. “I think, like most people — especially coming out of high school — you don’t really know much about it. It was kind of an accident.”
The collection is divided into six sections. The poems span the arc of a soldier’s experience, from training to combat to the return home — but not chronologically. Part of the writing process for Martin was composing the order in which the information would be conveyed. The purposefully fragmented trajectory of the collection creates a confusion in reading that, in part, mirrors the confusion of the experience of war.
“I’m not always writing exactly what happened in certain experiences or situations,” Martin said. “One of the many, many reasons I always wanted to write these poems was just to show how complex, and confusing, and terrifying, but also humorous — darkly humorous, in a way — how all those things go into … being a soldier, and being in Iraq.”
He believes that the war is often oversimplified. He wants people to understand that “Iraqis are human beings, and soldiers are human beings, and they’re just trying to survive in their own ways.”
Civilians and soldiers cannot see one another, Martin said. In a literal sense, soldiers are often hidden in combat, camouflaged. But between the two groups also lies a chasm of miscommunication, a lack of common ground and meaning that is lost in translation.
This is not a new problem for Iraqis. From the British occupation in the early 20th century to Operation Desert Storm, Iraqis have long been forced to negotiate with foreign lifestyles while trying to maintain their own.
“All those situations could be metaphors and maybe elegies, in a way, for trying to see eye to eye and communicate,” Martin said.
Martin was also inspired by a number of World War I poets. Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and others from the era learned from reading pastoral poetry. Dug deep in the trenches, their tendency toward sweeping landscape ballads was snuffed out by the exposure to the devastation the war had wrought.
A similar change could be observed in writers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. While the countries’ landscapes are beautiful, Martin said, they have been devastated by a decade of warfare. Wounds have been inflicted on the land and its people alike.
“There’s this sort of anti-pastoral poetry coming out of that,” Martin said. “I think some of my poems — they could seem sort of pastoral, but they’re really just focusing on the devastation and the after-effects caused by battles in different forms of violence.”
Martin also suggested that words like “Iraq,” “terrorist” and “evil” are overused, effectively numbing their meaning. This creates a white noise of sorts that appears throughout his work.
“Through repeated use of a word, again and again — especially in the way media or society uses words … nobody really can define what it means anymore, or whatever its original meaning was has sort of vanished,” Martin said. “A lot of poetry is about how language is misused and sort of dead.”
One poem in the collection, “Four-Letter Word,” includes a section with five tercets — all fifteen lines, systematically and almost robotically, ending on the word “Iraq.”
“That word ‘Iraq,’ especially in that poem, becomes more than a place or a country where people live,” Martin said, “and it becomes more of an expletive.”
Many poems in the collection graze the surface of a thought or a feeling but leave much left unsaid. Martin said reining his poetry in short of explicit analysis leaves room for the reader to stop and think.
“An ending of a poem, a white space in a poem … it’s where the reader can take the language that’s there and be forced to confront something with their own imagination,” he said. “It makes the reader participate in the poem … and it also forces them to use their imagination and maybe come to conclusions or develop opinions about an event, or even about the whole war.”
Martin said he believed that the reader should meet the poet halfway. Poetry calls for attentive reading, an effort greater than simply processing text on a page. Part of poetry lives in the reader’s reaction to it.
“In this country there’s a lack of imagination, I think,” Martin said, “and poetry is a way to fight against that.”