In recent years, there has been a tremendous literary response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from such celebrated luminaries as Phil Klay, Ben Fountain, Brian Turner, Siobhan Fallon, and many others—fostering a larger, much-needed conversation about military life, combat, and PTSD. Living with trauma is an isolating experience for many. Stories and poetry form connections with readers to help promote a deeper understanding of the realities that many veterans live with. Colin D. Halloran’s first collection, Shortly Thereafter, a spellbinding memoir-in-verse, recounts his time as a US Army infantryman on the front lines of Afghanistan, and the devastating impact it had on his life when he returned home. His collection won the 2012 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and was named a Massachusetts Must-Read Book of 2013. His latest collection of poetry, Icarian Flux, also set to be released by Main Street Rag this fall, blends persona and metaphor with experimental narrative to explore his life with PTSD. The poet Ravi Shankar describes the poems of Icarian Flux as “demonstrat[ing] how loss permeates the many incarnations of Icarus, some fallen, some failed, but all courageous for at least having made the attempt.”
Colin is currently working on a memoir that reexamines his service in Afghanistan, and the surprising effect his experiences had on the relationship with his family. I recently sat down with Colin to discuss the many complicated issues surrounding his work, along with poetry’s place in the ongoing war narrative.
The Rumpus: Your first collection, Shortly Thereafter, offers readers a fierce and penetrating gaze into the heart of military life and the trauma of combat. What strikes me the most about your work is both its deep compassion and brutal honesty. In one of the most haunting poems of this collection, “Spring Offensive,” you shift in perspective from the persona of a suicide bomber to a more personal narration, recounting the experience of your convoy being hit with an improvised explosive device (IED). A young Afghan boy is also killed during the explosion. Why did you make this choice in narrative shift? How do you approach poetry as a storytelling device in examining your war experiences?
Colin D. Halloran: One of the things I struggled with, both during my deployment and in writing about it, was the idea of parallelism existing between myself and the “enemy.” The idea that I was fighting against people who were potentially just like me—twentysomethings with hopes, dreams, girlfriends, families—the only thing separating us was our countries of birth, a random circumstance we have no control over. I tried to write more explicitly about this idea, but I found it difficult to accomplish without being overly preachy or sentimental. “Spring Offensive” offered me the opportunity to explore that sympathetic side of my experience. I actually had the second half of the poem written first, but it just didn’t seem to be working for a reason that I couldn’t place my finger on. Then one day, I was driving northbound on I-95 in Virginia and this voice came into my head. I immediately pulled off into the shoulder, grabbed my notebook, and started transcribing what was rushing through my mind. Two hastily scribbled pages later, I looked at what I had and it was the voice of the bomber, the missing piece of “Spring Offensive” and my collection. I paired the two sections of that poem, “I Have Heard the Mullah Speak” with “Reflections,” utilizing the narrative shift, in order to illuminate the parallels in war, the fact that not everyone we’re fighting over there is a bad person. I had my reasons for joining the fight, and so did they, and few of them really have to do with any sort of ideology. And that’s something that I think a lot of civilians back home don’t entirely understand. It’s strange to people when I express sympathy and understanding for a suicide bomber. But wouldn’t they go to any length in order to protect the ones they love? We have a tendency in this country to break war into binaries—good vs. evil, Christian vs. Muslim, US vs. terrorists, us vs. them—and a series of numbers—money spent, our soldiers killed—but that way of looking at war is not only false, but dangerous. It ignores the fact that war is a human experience on both sides.
Rumpus: You touched on a similar idea in an interview with Radio Boston, where you stated how essential it is for you “to really access what it [war] does to an individual—not to a country or an economy or policies. To focus on it from an individual standpoint—for me, it just had to be poetry.” In this sense, how does poetry challenge the existing narratives of war? Can it break through the images of clichéd sensationalism perpetuated by Hollywood? Perhaps the experiential gulf between civilian and soldier is too great to foster a real understanding of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the consequences they continue to have for those who served?
Halloran: I don’t think I’m necessarily challenging all existing, or even any existing narratives of war, so much as trying to add to them. Many of the existing narratives out there are true for those who write them, but the war experience is so varied that it’s nearly impossible for one narrative to fully embody the entire contemporary war experience. Each person who serves or experiences war has their own individual thread of truth. For me, my thread had to (at first) be poetry. I had to tap into the most condensed version of my emotional experience in order to begin to intellectualize it. The gap between civilian and veteran understanding of war is perhaps paralleled by the gap between readers of poetry and everyone else. This will be the biggest challenge that other veteran poets like Brian Turner, Gerardo Mena, Maurice Decaul, and I face—more people will see a Hollywood blockbuster than will buy poetry books. The most important thing is for people to tell their stories in whatever form they feel best suits them, be it poetry, fiction, sculptures, film, essays, photography, paintings, songs, whatever. The more people we can reach, the better we’ll be as a society. But I think it’s also dangerous to talk exclusively about the gap between civilian and soldier. There are plenty of civilians who are doing an outstanding job sharing stories of war from various perspectives. You have people like Andria Williams, Jehanne Dubrow, and Siobhan Fallon who are sharing the oft-overlooked spouse/family perspective. They play a very real role in these wars of ours. Then you have people like Katey Schultz and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, who both have no military connections, but have produced fiction that presents multiple perspectives and therefore multiple truths about these wars. It’s not so much about a divide between civilians and soldiers, as it is a divide between those who are willing to share and listen, and those who, veterans and civilians alike, would rather remain closed off on their side of understanding.
Rumpus: One of the aspects of Shortly Thereafter that I deeply admire is your inclusion of those Afghan people who are just trying to live out their lives in the midst of war. The poem, “Boy for Sale,” for instance, gives readers a heartbreaking, raw insight into some of the brutal realities that many Afghan children face.
Halloran: That poem went through a lot of editing because I was so emotionally attached to the circumstances in it. The early drafts of that poem were so angry and preachy. That’s not good poetry. I had to take that anger and boil it down into the essence of that situation, where an Afghan boy had tried to sell me another Afghan boy. The first line of that poem became “14. 11. 20.” I boiled it down to the numbers involved—a fourteen-year-old kid trying to sell me an eleven-year-old kid for twenty bucks. Moments like that were extremely heartbreaking.
There are also poems like “Democracy, Tea, and Belly Dancers,” where there is this massive language barrier between myself and these Afghan security guards at the governor’s compound that is broken by a hilarious moment exposing our mutual attraction to women. Then there’s the poem, “Anomalies in Vapid Landscape,” where I write about the Kuchi, who are the wandering tribesmen of Afghanistan, who have been living this nomadic lifestyle for over a millennia. They are such an isolated, unique culture that even our translators couldn’t communicate with them. And yet when we came across one of their camps, they welcomed us with open arms and offered us tea. Even though they had so little, it seemed that they would’ve given us everything, despite our limited means of communication through only handshakes and smiles. They were beautiful.
The vast majority of people I came across in Afghanistan were the kindest, warmest, most welcoming people. And yet you have moments, such as in “Boy for Sale” that are tragic. I remember seeing nine-year-old girls being paraded around town in loads of makeup, jewelry, and in the finest silks because they’re coming up on their tenth birthday and would soon be going under the burqa. Their families painted these young girls as dolls and paraded them around because that’s the last chance that potential suitors will have to see them. The violence against women and young girls is rampant. There was a girl’s school where I was stationed that was consistently threatened and attacked by the Taliban. I don’t know how anyone can experience these things without feeling compassion. In “Boy for Sale,” there is this helplessness I try to convey. I had twenty bucks. I wanted to buy the kid and bring him back to base, just to get him any better life than his older brother was trying to sell him into, probably as a sex slave. But I couldn’t.
Rumpus: Do you think there is enough focus on the experiences of Iraqi and Afghan citizens in other war narratives?
Halloran: I certainly can’t speak for all war writers, but I honestly don’t think there is. It takes time to process those experiences, then to write about them and go through the publishing process. In terms of local nationals, there is the additional issue of translation, which adds more time to getting those stories heard. From a veteran’s perspective it isn’t there. It’s such an important part of the war narrative. Translators, for instance, are such an important part of this war. Yet most American civilians know almost nothing about them. I address this in Shortly Thereafter in the poem “Chess at the Gate,” where the son of one of our translators was kidnapped by the Taliban because he wanted to be a US translator like his father. With the Chelsea Manning leaks, a lot of veterans were screaming Operational Security violations, as there were missions written out in detail. Some believed that since those missions had already happened, people weren’t in danger. What was overlooked was the number of translators and Afghan informants whose names were in those documents. The Taliban released a statement saying basically that they had those documents too and that they were going to find every single one of those people and have their revenge. A lot of former interpreters, who were Afghan nationals, are now trying to get into the US. It’s a long and very red tape-ridden, difficult journey for these people who put their lives on the line for us in hopes of improving their own country. These people are often turned away for a visa.
On the other hand, you have Iraqi and Afghan people desperate to continuing making a difference. I once met an Iraqi hotel concierge in North Carolina who was reenlisting as a translator. He’d done two or three tours with the US Military as a civilian translator, and had a delightful life living in Raleigh. Yet he couldn’t ignore the state of affairs in Iraq with ISIS moving in, and wanted to do something about it, so now he’s going back. This is the type of person that our government is turning away.
Rumpus: And we seldom hear from those narratives.
Halloran: Exactly. It’s rare to hear from those voices. Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Left Among the Living and A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar are among the few Afghan memoirs out there right now, along with I Am the Beggar of the World, an anthology of landays edited by Eliza Griswold that went with the Seamus Murphy micro-documentary Snake. Landays are a traditional type of poetry used among Afghan women to express their secret inner lives. I teach these to my college students, but a lot of people don’t know that these narratives are out there about Afghanistan.
Rumpus: As an educator, have you worked with veteran writers on helping them process their experiences through creative writing? What is that experience like? How can people really learn about war through poetry?
Halloran: I’ve led various workshops for veterans through the VA, the Missouri Humanities Council, and other organizations. When working with veterans, I feel like it’s more about sharing my own story to create a zone of comfort and trust. Through opening myself up, revealing my own vulnerabilities, it almost gives the other vets leave to do the same. I’ve had Korean War veterans who have never talked about or shared their experiences write about it for the first time in my workshops, and share with the group. I had a couple of veterans of Iraq, a few Vietnam vets, a Korean War vet and one or two vet spouses in the group as well. Everyone wrote and shared, which is rare in a non-established writing workshop. Every single person cried while writing. These are seventy-year-old men who had never talked about these things, not even to their wives or children. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable in that moment. My hope is that they will somehow continue to do that and take that experience out of the room and continue to share it.
I also teach college freshmen, who have lived with the presence of this country at war most of their lives. Most are too young to remember 9/11, so for them being at war is the norm; it’s almost become white noise. Part of my job is to give them a greater context of war. I really try to emphasize to my students the difference between fact and truth. But for those older and younger vets if they remember things a certain way, who is to say that that’s not true for them? Truth is not objective. Truth is subjective because reality is subjective.
Rumpus: And that makes adding these stories and poems to the larger war narrative all the more essential, especially since we live in this time where we so often must question the media. Consider the narrative that society was given when we first got into the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan compared to today.
Halloran: Even still, we’re getting that. President Obama recently gave a speech on Memorial Day and said that this Memorial Day was particularly important because it’s the first Memorial Day after the war in Afghanistan. We still have troops in Afghanistan. We still have guys dying in Afghanistan. And yet their commander-in-chief is standing up in front of the public saying that this day is special because we’re no longer at war. I really try not to get into politics but what the public is given by the media or by leadership is often very different from what actually happens.
Rumpus: Your second collection, Icarian Flux is a beautiful, often dreamlike portrait of living with PTSD as described and explored through the myth of Icarus. In many ways it is a departure in style from your first book, with poems layered more in lyrical association and experimental narrative. Yet, there also isn’t much specific mention of your military experience. What inspired this collection? Why did you choose the image of Icarus to examine life with PTSD?
Halloran: First, thank you again for your kind words. And thank you for recognizing the difference between this collection and my previous one. It was a very conscious departure. When I first realized that I would be a poet, I was honestly terrified of being pigeonholed into being a “war poet.” Yusef Komunyakaa, whose work I admire above many, wrote Dien Cai Dau, then didn’t revisit Vietnam in his work at all. I was writing in the tradition of Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon, but I didn’t want to be known for only that, especially starting out so young. I’ll never forget the wave of relief I felt when I wrote my first “non-war” poem. “As Flies Are Wont to Do,” a poem which appears in Icarian Flux, was inspired by the work of Ron Padgett. It’s a poem that seemed to just happen while I was recovering from serious surgery related to my wartime service. A month after I scribbled it on the back of a receipt, it was published in a journal in England, giving me the confidence I needed to not write exclusively and explicitly about war. In fact, many of these poems were written while I was still writing poems for Shortly Thereafter. And I think that’s what made me realize they were all part of my war and recovery experience. It was important to me to be able to write about what I was going through, but in a different way than I had in Shortly Thereafter. This, of course, took on a whole new meaning when the voice of Icarus came into my life.
My Icarus, like many literary characters before him, was born out of whiskey and rejection. I had been reading quite a bit of Zbigniev Herbert’s Mr. Cogito poems, and exploring the idea of persona when a poet whose work I greatly admired put me in the runner-up position for a book prize. That was fine; rejection is part of the game. But it was after the announcement, when I was talking to him, and he kept asking questions about the winner and talking about how mature he was to write about such things at such a young age. I had written a book about war. And I was younger than the other guy. And this particular poet knew war. Before long, I found myself with a whiskey bottle, lying on the rocks by the sea, and writing “Self-Portrait as Icarus,” a poem that ended up in Icarian Flux. I began to see the mythical figure in another light. Maybe he wasn’t prideful or ignorant or rebellious at all. I began to see my experiences differently through his eyes. I wasn’t the first to try and fail, the first to fall, the first to seek something seemingly unattainable. Perhaps more importantly, I realized that by using the persona of Icarus and the person of the poet exploring Icarus, I was able to detach myself from my own experience, my own life. I was able to approach it not as the person living it, but as an outsider. Ultimately, this provided a cleaner way to access my struggles with PTSD.
Rumpus: The aftereffects of trauma, the fragmented sense of self, are all sensations that can be keenly felt in the poems of Icarian Flux. But time and perception also play interesting roles in the reader’s experience of such. In “Post-Modern Poem,” the narrator states that “impressionists capture reality closer /….for what appears / reality at distance, on closer inspection— / on approaching intimacy— / reveals itself as anything but.” In choosing the innovative and often impressionistic style of these poems, how might you connect readers to a deeper understanding of PTSD.
Halloran: We often don’t fully understand who we are until we’re already someone else. PTSD is a complete embodiment of this idea. Even the name, Post-Traumatic, implies the relationship between distance and understanding. One of the traits I admire most in poets is the ability to convey something entirely foreign through the use of some known quantity. There’s a lot of variation in this collection, and, just like with visual art, a lot of room for interpretation, which was important to me. PTSD is not one size fits all. Just as war is experienced and understood differently by all who experience it, those with PTSD don’t all experience it the same way or share a common symptomology or treatment plan. In this collection, I tap into the many aspects of my struggle, but I also present poems that deal with my regular, day-to-day existence, and with happy things. Life with PTSD is not all about hating the world and hiding from it and reliving nightmares. Successful treatment and management depends on the realization that one can still live a full life. That’s the message I hope these poems convey in their entirety, and that’s why, though much of the collection could be considered on the depressing side, it was important to me that I end on a message of hope, talking about ruins, but also, “to a certain eye / what / can possibly / be.”
Rumpus: The sense of interpretation and possibility definitely have a presence throughout many of these poems. At certain points in pieces such as “There’s Blood on the Floor,” readers are left wondering what’s real or imagined in the wake of perceived violence. Was that intentional when creating a space that’s meant to articulate trauma?
Halloran: I think a lot of the poems in Icarian Flux really ask what is reality? What is perception? What is time? A ripple in perception occurs. For me, as far as my PTSD goes, that’s part of my symptomology. I have moments when, stone cold sober, I have little blackouts and also moments where I question my own relationship to reality. Before I was officially diagnosed, I drank a lot and used drugs as a way to cope. My brain was constantly going, thinking about everything. I had insomnia because my brain was constantly going at one-hundred-percent so I would drink until my brain shut off. “There’s Blood on the Floor” is the embodiment of that, where I had one of those moments when things got fuzzy, just enough for things to become a problem, and then I was back completely lucid and realized that things had gotten entirely out of hand and I wasn’t sure how. There are these pinpoint moments in our lives that completely shift our paths and redefine our experiences. It’s almost impossible to see them coming. If it’s impossible to see them coming then how much can we trust ourselves to identify them once they’re past? We have some facts but we can’t really tell the whole story with what we know to be “true.” For me that’s where that poem lives.
Rumpus: After publishing two collections of poetry, has it been difficult transitioning into memoir writing?
Halloran: I honestly don’t think I could’ve written the memoir I’m working on now without having written about many of the same experiences as poetry first. Before I could really intellectualize and write about my war experience through prose, I had to understand what it meant at its core and what it meant in relationship to me at its core. Once I had done that I was able to expand out from that core and start to philosophize about it more, connecting it to other things I had read or other aspects of my life.
We tend to view war as this solely destructive experience but it also has this beautiful ability to bring people together. My experiences going to war actually healed my relationship with my mother, which was almost nonexistent before I deployed. That’s what I’m really trying to convey through my memoir, not just the relationship with my mother, but also about the brotherhood of the military, and my experiences with some amazing local nationals in Afghanistan that I met.
I hope that my work reaches civilians and gives them a better understanding of what this experience is. I hope that veterans find my work representative of their own experiences. I think it’s important for veterans to just tell their stories. History has a tendency of repeating itself. If less than half a percent of this country is fighting this war than the other ninety nine point five percent of the population down the road is bound to make the same mistakes again. The only way to stop that cycle is for veterans to share their stories and for society to listen.