Award-winning authors Natasha Tretheway and Phil Klay united poetry, war and philosophy at Stanford Live’s Writing About War event on Tuesday, June 30. The event included a set of readings and a discussion led by Scott Sagan, professor of political science and senior fellow at both the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Sagan began the discussion with reference to a famous quote by John Adams: that war must be studied before the humanities and sciences, and the humanities and sciences before the arts.
“Now, I think it’s highly unusual, indeed almost sacrilegious at a meeting of the American Academy to say anything critical of John Adams,” Sagan said.
Marine Corps veteran Klay relied heavily on humor in his storytelling. He read excerpts from “Redeployment,” his first book of short stories, which were chock-full of witty banter in the face of grim situations.
Klay explained that most people expect war stories to be predominantly bleak, but his stories aim to dispel that image.
“Soldiers are really funny!” Klay said. “What else are you going to do? Sit around, saying, ‘War is hell,’ then shoot yourself in the head?”
Despite his experiences, Klay’s book is not autobiographical. While he did pull parts of his stories from his own wartime experiences, he interviewed other veterans and conducted old-fashioned research, too. Attention to detail was extremely important in his writing process, said Klay, for any small part of a war story could have intense significance.
“I wrote with this sort of imaginary line of veterans waiting to kick the crap out of me,” Klay said.
Klay also acknowledges, however, that it is impossible to write a war story without some dissent from those with firsthand experience of the war.
“If you could bring back a Trojan war veteran and have them read ‘The Iliad,’ they would do nothing but bitch!” Klay said. “It’ll be, ‘We didn’t wear that armor; we didn’t fight in phalanxes… and I’m the one who killed Hector! You should read my memoirs!’”
Tretheway is a former Poet Laureate and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University. Tretheway’s poetry, with its vivid imagery and clever wordplay, is based on the Civil War.
Tretheway did extensive research for her poetry, especially at the Library of Congress, where she found collections of letters from soldiers stationed at Ship Island. These letters were often quoted and served as the inspiration for her poems.
One of the most prominent concepts in Tretheway’s poetry was that of race during the Civil War. After black Union troops were shot down by white Union sailors, Colonel Nathanial Daniels of the Louisiana Native Guards gave a speech, a record of which Tretheway found in Daniels’ diary during her research.
“[Daniels] wrote… ‘Their names shall deck the page of history,’” Tretheway said. “That was the thing that got to me the most.”
But despite Daniels’ quote, Tretheway explained that she does not see those black Union soldiers’ names on the page of history.
“I’m a native Mississippian, and I grew up between Mississippi and Georgia, so I grew up in the land of the Lost Cause Ideology, the land of the Confederate flag,” Tretheway said.
“I grew up in a place where, if you were visiting from somewhere else and didn’t know the outcome, based on all the monuments, you might think the South won the [Civil War],” she added.
For Tretheway, monuments are one of the many ways we inscribe the memory of wars onto both our physical landscape and cultural imagination.
“It took until 2005 to get another monument erected in the Vicksburg Military park to black troops who served in the Civil War,” Tretheway said. “And even when the park ranger introduced the monument, he still refused to refer to the black troops as anything but supply units [instead of] cavalry, infantry, artillery… the things that they actually were.”
The event closed with questions from the audience, one from author and Georgetown University professor of philosophy Nancy Sherman, who asked Tretheway about her experience and role as a Poet Laureate.
“I often believe that if I didn’t tell you I was going to read a poem… if I just said, ‘look, I’m going to read a short story,’ you might not have even been confused about it,” Tretheway said.
“If you just hear it as rhythmic, lyrical prose, then it’s less mystifying,” she added. “I want to demystify it, but also keep it mysterious for all its beauty.”
Sagan closed the event with a remark quite in contrast to John Adams’ famous quote.
“I hope you will agree that political scientists and historians and soldiers and statesmen and all of us as citizens need great poets and great writers to understand both the face of battle and also the heroism and horrors of war,” Sagan said.
Contact Riya Mirchandaney at riya.mirchandaney ‘at’ menloschool.org.