“How We Say It” A Free On-Line Poetry Workshop for National, International, and Deported Veterans
by Jim Moreno
My interest in teaching poetry classes began when I found John Fox's book Poetic Medicine The Healing Art of Poem- Making in the Small Mall bookstore in Encinitas, California sometime in 1997, the same year the book was published. A poem by Laurence Tirnauer, titled The Sleepless Ones graced the second page of the book:
The Sleepless Ones
What if all the people who could not sleep
at two or three or four in the morning
left their houses and went to the parks
what if hundreds, thousands, millions
went in their solitude like a stream
and each told their story
what if there were old women
fearful if they slept they would die
and young women unable to conceive
and husbands having affairs
and children fearful of failing
and fathers worried about paying bills
and men having business troubles
and women unlucky in love
and those that were in physical pain
and those who were guilty
what if they all left their houses like a stream
and the moon illuminated their way and
they came, each one to tell their stories
would these be the more troubled of humanity
or would these be the more passionate of this world
or those who need to create to live
or would these be the lonely ones
and I ask you if they all came to the parks
at night and told their stories
would the sun on rising
be more radiant and again I ask you
would they embrace
~ Lawrence Tirnauer
Unbeknownst to me, this poem initiated me to the poetic healing consciousness of John Fox and his poetry gift to our world.
I then set about to create my own poetry community.
After almost a year I sent John an e-mail thanking him for writing Poetic Medicine. I let him know how my life had changed since I purchased his book. John answered my e-mail with an invitation to attend a weekend workshop with him at UC Santa Cruz. Off I went to Santa Cruz. I was so impressed with the his workshop's Friday night session I invited him to have breakfast before the Saturday workshop. At that breakfast with John I brought examples of my poems and my workshops. As we finished breakfast, John invited me to be on the Advisory Board of The Institute of Poetic Medicine. I accepted.
Fast forward several years and my role as a Sexual Assault Advocate for Indian Health Council, Inc. on Rincon Reservation. My job was to help Indian women who were in domestic violence or survivors of sexual trauma. I was asked to facilitate a seminar on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at a Native American women's conference for women who were survivor's of domestic and sexual violence. In my research for the seminar I found a book called, The Rape Poems by Frances Driscoll. I decided to have the women in the seminar write poetry. The power and the depth of the poems written by the Native American women in the poetry workshop that day at the Bahia Hotel in Mission Beach inspired me to further poetry as an artful clinical tool.
Since 2002 to the present I've been immersed in poetry as a healing art. I've been the Language Arts Teacher at the All Tribes American Indian Tribal School, a Teaching Artist in Poetry for the Juvenile Court and Community Schools, facilitated poetry groups at Lasting Recovery, an outpatient program for Chemical Dependency, taught poetry classes for adults at San Diego Writers, Ink, and worked as a Regional Editor for the San Diego Poetry Annual's adult, Juvenile Hall, and Native American chapters.
Bringing Poetic Medicine to Veterans
My time in Vietnam (1969-1970) included witnessing the best and the worst of mankind in war. Sounds, ordinary sounds, become distorted in meaning in wartime. Like the sound of a fire siren heralding the fire department's mobilizing to save property and lives contorted to mean a mortal danger sound, rocket or mortars coming in, get to a bunker, go to your battle station. NOW!
In 2007 I authored Dancing in Dissent: Poetry for Activism (Dolphin Calling Press) a book of poems that countered racism and war, but amplified, diversity and nonviolence. When you write about something as powerful as what happened between a strong army sergeant and you and your shipmates one night in Vietnam, you start to heal from getting it down on paper. Godfather is Gone is a poem like that from the book:
Godfather is Gone
by Jim Moreno
He brought round after round―boilermakers! Shots and beer―making us laugh, making us sing, indigo army sergeant in this hellhole called Dong Tam―Vietnam
We had watched the firefight all day from our sitting duck T, that's LST. Large Slow Target, above blackened, blasted palm tree stumps.
We had watched Victor Charlie rounds splash spouts, water pocking the muddy, bloody river―splashing dead near lightning fast swift boars and PBR's
We had watched all day wondering, all day weighing if a mortar round, all day weighing if a rocket stray, would blow us out of the water, all night wondering if a swimmer would blow us out of this swift current Mekong Delta river?
Black Texas army greens sergeant helped us white and black Navy blues seamen drink aweigh the scales of doubt, the scales of fear, ebony man garbed in green seemed to get stronger as we blue swabby boys got sloppier, his uniform got neater, seams creased crisper as we spit and puked on ourselves, we Navy riverine men, spitting at death, spitting at war, spitting on it all.
Then he insisted that we scoot to his hooch for some real drinking, two hours before curfew, three hours before the next siren sounds warning of the clump, clump, mortar giant walking, clump, clump, walking down on you, walking death on you.
Something about him drew us: his friendliness, his strength, his laughter, deep belly laughs, his camaraderie, his straight seams, when we got to his hooch he put on Martha and the Vandellas and poured another round, poured another round, poured another knock it down round, Jack!
I could hardly stand or see in this in-country hellhole. I could barely stop the spinning room in-country war hole, but I wanted to drink like a man, I wanted to drink like him.
When the news came down that his best friend was blown away, blown to bits by a rocket stray that very afternoon, he went down like weeping coal rock, sinking to his knees, wailing...tears flowing from some deep subterranean African blues spring water, mourning brothers deluged by despotic gashing, stinging, tearing cracker whips, bittersweet Georgia tea, T-Bone Walker Mississippi River delta blues, drowning us all in his real profanity-laced, Charley hating, curse the Navy, cut the cheese, ensign who? Kiss my dock, dock sucker blues.
His best friend was gone, his closest brother blown away, his best friend was also Texas army sergeant, good man, his best friend was also godfather to his tiny son, waiting for god poppa in Galveston, his best friend was also a white man, and they―Black sergeant, white sergeant―
His wails touched some nerve deep inside of us, six sinking sailors sobered by his deep blue water blues. We put our glasses down, walked outside, back into the sweaty smoke hot tropical night, we walked outside back to the duplicitous war, blinding the stars and the moon, back into the deadly war thundering in the hot tropical night.
Summer 2000 Thirty years after the eventful night.
In the summer of 2022 I read an article in Poets & Writers Magazine about creating a free zoom poetry community for at risk populations like Veterans by attending a workshop by Poets & Writers. I liked the people at the workshop, asked the publisher of the San Diego Poetry Annual to write a mini-grant and it all fell into place. We had our first Veterans online poetry workshop on Veterans Day, November 11, 2022. I write with the poets who attend my poetry workshops on account of it's about writing in community with a Container of respect and dignity for all in the workshop.
Writing in community is not the same as writing in solitude.
There's more safety and dignity in it.
Here's 2 poems influenced by the March poetry workshop of “How We Say It”:
By Carre St. Andre
“I’m triggered” some say
at the mere hint of discomfort,
as though the declaration itself will shame others
into behavior that’s more accommodating.
First jump, Airborne school, Ft Benning, 1988
500+ soldiers, less than 20 are women.
The best fitting equipment is a men's small;
the best we can do is try to fit into the men’s world
in body and mind.
I jump out the side door of the C130
into the prop blast.
It hurls me across the sky
like a potato chip thrown out a car window
on the freeway.
My men’s Kevlar helmet blows off,
dangling behind my head
held by the chin strap
that has slipped across my neck.
The parachute lines are twisted into a thick rope
between my head and my helmet,
tightening the chin strap across my throat.
I grab the lines and kick
bicycling myself in a circle, untwisting the lines
until I can breathe.
Stay calm, stay calm...
ETS, 1990, still having the desire to fly
I’m at Otay Lakes, indulging in free fall
Every chance I can afford, and even when I can’t afford it.
A woman is visiting; she’s in town on business.
She states that some people travel with their golf clubs - she travels with her parachute.
She’s tiny but mighty.
She exits the airplane but her harness doesn’t tighten enough for her small body.
It sits crooked on her back, causing her to spin, faster and faster
until she’s in a flat spin.
When it’s time to pull her chute
the centrifugal force has her hands
flung hopelessly outward
unable to reach her rip cord.
She manages to deploy her chute
just in time to slow her down
before hitting a pile of soft sand
saved by fate or the luck of the draw.
“I’m triggered” is a flat spin
A potato chip out a car window
A separation from a world
where nothing fits
the only hope to ride it out
and try to survive.
It was June or July of 1969
by Jim Moreno
The front bunker watch was blown up
by a satchel charge thrown from the back
of a Mob*, exploding the two Viet Cong, the sailor
& the bunker, the yards of concertina wire behind
the bunker, and half of the Annapolis Hotel.**
The 2 VC didn't understand the power of the C-4,***
Where did they find C-4?
Pieces of the front bunker watch were never found.
“Hey, Jim, did you see the Stars & Stripes**** today
and catch the news?
“Naw, what'd it say?”
“Check out the back page!”, then the bosun smiled ― a dark
smile that you sometimes see from shipmates in war.
Finding the article, I read the riveting story of the sailor
who had my watch. I was in that bunker two weeks before.
That could have been me that was blown to bits.
Sometimes Chance doesn't have your best interests in mind,
In that moment, I didn't feel relief that I wasn't blown up,
I didn't know what to feel? I did feel Death looming
somewhere in the war, biding its time....Waiting...
Even when Chance is kind you can still feel 86'd―
Lost, and not know where to go, where you might be
tomorrow in the dim light of dawn.
Hoping that when you were born, as the ancient Irish tale goes,
that when God first wrote your name in ink, that the ink from that
signing is still wet and hasn't had time to dry, you see when that ink dries,
that's when the Great Mystery calls you home.
*Mob-The Mobylette, sometimes shortened as Mob, is a model of moped by French manufacturer Motobécane during the second half of the 20th century.
**The Annapolis Hotel -The Navy billet in Saigon where sailors coming in-country awaited their ships.
***C-4 - A plastic explosive substance similar in structure to Semtex that is used by both military and terrorist organizations.
****The Stars & Stripes - A daily newspaper from soldiers for soldiers providing up to date news of the war..
Carre's poem is an example of how a soldier carries events from military service when Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) disrupts their consciousness, awareness, and life. My poem is about the meaning of what you are saying to me when you thank me for my service in Vietnam. It is not acceptable that 22 Veterans commit suicide every day in our nation, 600 a month, 8,000 a year, most likely more. How many of them are suffering from PTSD, or for not understanding why they survived a theater of war when others didn't.
Why This Work Matters
It is not acceptable that many Veterans from other nations have been deported after they were told that they would be given citizenship if they served our nation in the armed services. It is not acceptable that more amputees do not have emotional and psychological support in the transition time after they have lost their limbs. It is not acceptable that there is not more support for Veterans for the transition between leaving the military and rejoining civilian life. It is not acceptable that Veterans who have experienced life changing trauma, that they continue to relive the trauma & have no vehicle to transform that nightmare. These and other issues can be addressed in a free online poetry workshop for national, international, and deported Veterans, for beginning and seasoned poets.
This poem was published in the current edition of the San Diego Poetry Annual in this month of March. The poem reflects how a moment of noticing the threads of one's life that need more attention can become a harbinger of much needed change.
A Thread To Follow
by Jim Moreno
There's a thread we follow that leads us home.
That University of Florida correspondence course I took
When my ship was sailing the rivers in Vietnam.
A time when we were not sailing upriver, flanked by gunboats,
all of us shooting up riverbanks, both sides of the river, all day long,
defeating any Charlie ambush before it started.
The sounds, the pow, pow, pow, 40 milometer mounted on the bow...
after bursts, port and starboard, of the rat-a-tat-a-tat fifty caliber machine
guns, empty shells hitting the steel deck sounding like little bells all day,
all day long.
A time when we were not fixing something that was broken, there was
always something that was broken, a radio, a radar, a rigol, a rudder.
Like the time the captain made us work on the radar three days straight. No
sleep for 72 hours. We finally found the problem but didn't have the part.
It was then he gave the order to secure. We all fell into an exhausted, dreamless
No, this was a time when we were sailing up the Mekong Delta, it was the
time of monsoon, the river was rushing, swollen, deep.
I was off duty. I'd received my grade from an essay I wrote for the
correspondence course―a B!―a B in English! That never happened, ever!
Ever before in my life.
As the war rumbled outside my ship I realized maybe I could make it
in college on the G.I. Bill. As someone who had graduated in the bottom
third of my high school class, I never dreamed I could make it in college.
Now I just had to make it through the war, make it home alive.
There we were, a sailor, a war, and now a beautiful dream.
The thread we follow can lead us home to live a beautiful dream.
I have a dream that poetry can intervene on the current numbers of our men and women Veterans who are committing suicide. Many of us from Vietnam to Gulf War Veterans have not been able to come home again. As a Vietnam Veteran I have been able to come home and live a productive life. Poetry can be a map or a compass for that to happen for other Veterans as it was for me.
I left mind-altering, mood-altering chemicals behind me 41 years ago. So on the day of class we ask that there be no alcohol or drug use.
Thanks to the generosity of The Institute of Poetic Medicine (IPM) and the Health Care Alliance- Medellin (HCA-Medellin), this 6-week course is free for Veterans and begins on Thursday, April 27.
The poetry workshop will be held twice each month
on Thursdays, 2:30 pm (Pacific Time)
This poetry workshop is for beginning or seasoned poets and is conducted in a Container of respect for all cultures, genders, and colors of skin. My poetry teachers have been men and women who have taught me to tell my story in my poem and to use poetry to find out who I am and who I'm not.
The classes should fit your budget, they're free.
If you are a Veteran or someone you know is a national, international, or deported Veteran, please share this page, contact IPM or send me an email at email@example.com.
The flyer for this workshop here available here, please share these links with others who may be interested in this program - people may join the workshop at any time between April and July.