Veterans and Poetry

Dayl S. Wise was drafted into the US Army in 1969 and served in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970 with the First Air Cavalry Division. After six months in country, he was wounded while on a reconnaissance team. Upon his discharge he studied engineering and worked as a draftsperson and design engineer for many years. Wise is a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace, and recently returned to school to become a teacher. He has self-published two collections of poems by veterans,The Best of Post Traumatic Press 2000 and Post Traumatic Press 2007.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: How were you received when you came back from Vietnam?

DAYL WISE: I was not directly involved in the peace movement when I came back. I had spent approximately a year in a hospital, and when I got out all my friends from high school were graduated from college, and now in grad school or working, starting families. I felt that I was lagging behind, so I immersed myself in my engineering studies. I was brought up in an Irish family, where things happen to you and you move on. I tried doing that.

Going to college, I was on crutches with a full leg brace. I always told people I was in a car accident, because I didn’t want to get into that dialogue. I went to CUNY-Manhattan, and a few members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War — of which I am now a member, but did not join then — went to demonstrate. I stood on the sidelines, watching.

People left me alone. I didn’t really engage, I didn’t really have any lasting friendships in college — just studied. By the time I got out of the hospital it was late ’71, in a working-class town where people mostly were starting to come around that this war was really stupid. A few people did seek me out and ask me questions, but I was always given respect and I didn’t really have the problems that others had. Or maybe I just wasn’t noticing it, because I know my brothers really had problems and turned to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. I never really did; I just moved ahead. That worked until the first Gulf War, and then I had some issues with the military and started getting more involved. I was always involved with peace and justice issues, but never was an activist for peace using my veteran status until probably the first Gulf War.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: What happened at the time of the first Gulf War?

DAYL WISE: It started earlier because I wasn’t addressing things I was involved with as a soldier, so by the time of Panama and Grenada, I started asking, “Why are we doing this?” I was just getting angrier and angrier until I kind of exploded. So, with the start of the first Gulf War, I started seeking out veterans at Veterans for Peace chapters who thought more like me. One of them introduced me to my wife.

When I got back from Vietnam I studied engineering and was an engineer for many years, but I’ve only been writing for about nine years now. My wife’s a writer, and one day she gave me a notebook and said, “You should write some of this stuff down.” I started writing prose, short stories, but I met a few veteran poets at readings and was intrigued by the intimacy that poetry can bring out. I was never thinking that I would share it with the public, but I’ve found now that I do that quite often. I live part-time in Woodstock and part-time in New York City, and in New York City there are a lot of venues to read at. My wife and I just read for the first time together.

Writing’s been very important to me. I started doing it for therapeutic reasons, but now I find that I enjoy sharing it, and being around other veterans who write. At the event at Busboys and Poets, for instance, there were three other writers I knew. And I’ve only known them for about three or four years, but they’ve become dear friends. There’s this weird connection that we have, in which we don’t have to explain ourselves to each other. We accept each other for all of our faults, for all of the things that we did when we were much much younger.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: You returned to Vietnam with Project: Hearts and Mind. What were your experiences with that program?

DAYL WISE: The program was started initially by Veterans for Peace, delivering medical supplies as a form of reconciliation. I joined in 1990s, and made three trips back: in 1993, 1995, and 1997.

It was really an eye-opener. I had always associated the word “Vietnam” with war. After taking those trips and working with the Vietnamese people, I now view Vietnam as a country, as the country it is. And whenever I heard the word “Tet,” I always envisioned the Tet Offensive of 1968. But now I celebrate Tet New Year, and see it as a time of reflection. It really made a deep impact on me.

I realized that the Vietnamese people have this beautiful ability to move on. A lot of veterans, and even non-veterans, have a problem with moving on when their life is interrupted. Maybe it’s because the Vietnamese are so poor that they have had no choice but to move on…But Vietnam is always improving, which we’re very happy about. In the 1990s, something like 60% of the Vietnamese people were born after the war — they just had this population explosion. And it’s a beautiful place. My favorite place in Vietnam is Hue, where the citadel is. It’s kind of the cultural center of Vietnam, and it has a different pace than the rest of the country. It has a lot of schools, a lot of artists, it attracts a lot of poets — Ho Chi Minh went to school in that area, studying and writing poetry — and the Perfume River is right there. It’s all very beautiful.

The program no longer exists, though, partially due to the [lifting of the] embargo. Now there are much larger organizations going over and working there. Agent Orange is still an issue, and of course we still have unexploded bombs. In 1997 at one of the clinics we went to, a bomb went off. A farmer was clearing an area that had not been used in a while and found some type of large mine. One person was killed and six were injured. Sorting through the injured was very hard to take.

It seems like we can never get away from this. I was in London in about 1999, just having a good time, going to the theater every night, and then I pick up the London Times and see that they found an old German bomb that had been dropped during the Blitz, down at the Docks. We just keep leaving things behind.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: Why did you decide to put together the first anthology, in 2000? Why did you revisit it in 2007?

DAYL WISE: The first book, The Best of Post Traumatic Press 2000, was a modest chapbook that included friends who had written short stories and poems on their military experiences. They were all Vietnam veterans. This book, Post Traumatic Press 2007, started out to be the same but, as word got out, many other vets of all eras submitted work from World War II, the Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War, peace time and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eighteen writers in total, three generations.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: How did you choose the poets in the anthologies?

DAYL WISE: Of those who submitted work, I only rejected two. One was poorly written and the other glorified war. I have to mention that the work may seem uneven to some and that is because I wanted to include both seasoned writers and those new to writing.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: Have you helped any other veterans get started writing poetry?

DAYL WISE: I didn’t, up until I started putting this anthology together. Then I got a few people writing. We started an informal writing group — my wife was a creative writing teacher, so she was helping us explore how to reflect and look at things. It’s not easy for some people; some people don’t want to look back. I think it is healthy to look back once in a while, but firmly have yourself planted in the present.

My dog is so much in the moment — just the moment when she’s alive — so I’m trying to be more like her now.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: The contributors to Post Traumatic Press 2007 are a combination of poets who served in the military and soldiers or veterans who began writing poetry in response to their wartime experiences. Is that division reflected in their writing?

DAYL WISE: Yes, somewhat. Some of the work is about loss — of life, of innocence. Some is openly political. But I believe that there is a common thread of expressing the folly of war.

The war was 12 years long. Every year was different. So many people served, and people had different jobs, so everybody has their own story.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: At readings, is there anything about responses from the audience or other participants that has surprised you?

DAYL WISE: Yes, the interest in the book has surprised me. Many times when we read as a group, other veterans want to talk to us. But others want to talk about a neighbor, school friend, or relative who served in the military. One woman, a poet, spoke of her father, whom she never knew, who was killed in Vietnam.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: What audiences do you reach out to, and how? What audiences should we be reaching out to?

DAYL WISE: It’s not so much that I was trying to reach a particular audience, at least in the beginning. Overwhelmingly, I wanted to give other veteran-writers I have read, who have important things to say, the opportunity to have their work heard. In my own work, some of it is directed to my fellow combat veterans, but I also want the public to know about the reality of war. This may seem like a cliché. How many times do we have to say these things?

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: Have you seen a change in the antiwar movement since you returned from Vietnam?

DAYL WISE: Big question. Yes indeed, a big question and not enough room here. The short of it is that the antiwar movement, which I’m a part of, has failed. We’re still at war, which makes me feel discouraged. But I will continue keeping on writing and looking for new strategies to attract mainstream people to think about the cost of war.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: In 2003, the White House canceled a poetry symposium because it feared too many poets would “politicize” the event with an antiwar message. Do you think it is possible for poetry to be apolitical?

DAYL WISE: I guess in the end, it’s all political. Poetry is deeply personal, and, in the words of the women’s movement, “the personal is political.” When people reveal the truths of their lives it can be a powerful force for change.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: Brian Turner said that “[a]rtists must raise their voices when there is wrong in the world. If writers remain silent to the questions of their time, they leave the framing and the investigations of the moment to journalists and politicians.” Why do you write? Is it a moral or personal impulse?

DAYL WISE: I agree with Turner on the responsibility of soldier-poets…You can read history books and memoirs and blogs. But to know the intimate face of war or any subject, I, for myself, turn to poetry. I also write because I have to.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Kathryn Zickuhr was an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies.