|Art Elser during the time he served in Vietnam.|
The first serious poem I ever wrote was in 1993. I felt a strong need to express my grief over the death of my mother-in-law, a very special person in my life, and the joy I felt that she was finally free from the pain of her cancer. Then, in 1995, after dropping our daughter off at college in Philadelphia, we went to DC and I visited The Wall. Seeing the names of classmates, friends, and 58 thousand comrades in arms etched into that black marble, moved me to write a second poem.
In the late 90s my son was in college and would often ask about my role in the war, so in 1999, I decided to write a memoir about that year and the emotional trauma that resulted from it. That book, What's It All About, Alfie?—we called our son Alfie as he was growing up—brought up a lot of pain that I had to deal with. I worked a couple of hours almost every evening after dinner on the book. cried lots, and had lots of nightmares, daymares, and flashbacks. I also uncovered a lot of anger at politicians who lied to us and mismanaged that war.
Writing not only brought stuff I had repressed to the surface, but also seemed to help me deal with it. More and more seemed to surface after writing Alfie. I turned to poetry to tell about what I felt. I wrote a poem about a grunt who was suffering flashbacks, although I was not a grunt, but I supported them almost every day. My cousin suffered flashbacks and emotional problems for many years. Incidentally he read Alfie, and reading my story seemed to prod him to get help. Another poem I wrote is about a patrol being blown apart by a booby trap set off by a young boy, similar to an incident that happened to a patrol near one of my bases.
Since Alfie, I've written many poems about my experiences, some very recently. A sound, smell, sight, will trigger a memory or a flashback and a poem starts. My writing process begins with chewing over the memory in my head for days, sometimes weeks. I often journal about it and do free writing exercises to pin down memories and emotions. Those writings help get the poem into a draft.
I think writing about deep trauma helps because to write well, one must also revise well. When I revise I look for the right words, syntax, and structure. That means I have to look the memory right in the eye, think hard about it, and recognize the emotions it evokes. That, I believe, is how serious writing can promote healing. At least it seems to have helped me. I no longer have heart pounding flashbacks or nightmares that keep me terrified for days. I no longer wake up shaking and soaking with sweat at night from a dream I don't remember but do know terrified me.
The trauma never goes away, but it becomes easier to deal with. Or I could be a raving lunatic. After all, I am a poet.
Susan chimes in...
Art was kind enough to send me both his book about his war experiences, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, and also The Healing journey -- Morning Haiku to Repair Hearts. The latter was a book of haiku co-authored with Christine Valentine when he was healing from another trauma -- a massive heart attack. The two exchanged haikus every day while Art worked his way back from the fog of illness. The chapbook contains poems selected from their exchanges.
Art's poetry is compelling. Many of us have found healing in our writing; not all of us have shown that in the writing we've shared. Reading his work, I was able in a sense to take the journey with him, and I am grateful for that gift.