Devil’s Lake


Interview with Hugh Martin

Q: Your first book, The Stick Soldiers, comes out of the eleven months you spent in Iraq while serving in the Army National Guard. Can you talk about navigating fact and fiction? What kind of obligations, if any, did you feel for writing “the truth,” whether that truth be factual or emotional?

I don’t feel I have permission (maybe I will eventually) to write about something I didn’t experience firsthand over there or something that didn’t happen very close to me in our AO.

This is a great question because in the military there is an unwritten rule that, if broken, can really hurt your reputation and make many soldiers not only lose respect for you, but just plain hate you: this rule basically states that you never embellish, exaggerate, or lie about your experience serving in a combat zone like Iraq or Afghanistan. This could mean anything from saying you fought in Fallujah when you didn’t to saying you shot camel spiders with your pistol (which one soldier I know insisted to his friends back home) when that’s just ridiculous and could never happen. The idea behind this “rule” mostly revolves around those darker sides of war such as attacks, bombs, and any kind of engagements with the enemy. Many times veterans might return home telling stories about nearly escaping an IED, shooting an insurgent, maybe pulling their wounded buddy from a mortar-barrage to safety, but the thing is: this can sometimes be a lie or just exaggeration (of course if it happened, that's fine, but if it didn't—oftentimes soldiers will fluff-up their stories for effect—then that's breaking this rule). So how does this relate to poetry? For me, this mindset stuck with me when I began writing poems about Iraq and it still remains with me today: I don’t feel I have permission (maybe I will eventually) to write about something I didn’t experience firsthand over there or something that didn’t happen very close to me in our AO (area of operations). Obviously, this is not the way you write poetry and this rule that I hold myself to—though it’s loosened its hold as I’ve gotten older—can be seen as an unfortunate crutch in my writing. This can obviously be restraining because the fidelity to the lived experience can of course complicate and confuse what the poem needs to do. Overall, though, I think (I hope) I’ve been able to take experiences and write them as strong, distinct poems, rather than simply records from a soldier’s life. And as for the big “Truth” about experiencing war, being a soldier, all those things, I really don’t have an answer; not surprisingly, Tim O’Brien would be the one I’d suggest to look into with his The Things They Carried and how much of that book tries to discuss truth in war.

Q: The Stick Soldiers enters into a tradition of poetry written from the soldier’s experience at war, following poets such as Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigl, Wilfred Owen, and most recently Iraq veteran Brian Turner. How much did you hold that tradition in your mind while writing The Stick Soldiers? Was there a conscious effort to either be influenced by it or to separate your voice from what had come before?

Before going to Iraq, I had always been an avid reader and lover of literature, but I’d never read much poetry at all. It wasn’t until I was back in college, after Iraq, that I began to slowly read poets like Weigl, Owen, Komunyakaa, and Turner. Out of all those, Owen has probably been the most important to me because of how many of his poems strive to deconstruct those meaningless, dead terms we use for war such as “glory,” “honor,” “hero,” and so on. There is a controlled anger in his poems that he uses to push through and expose the euphemistic language we often use about wars and the war-dead. Those other poets who are still writing today in the free-verse mode have taught me ways to stretch the limits of what a war poem can do. In Weigl’s “Song of Napalm,” one of the best poems about war ever written, I really admire how he weaves the post-war life at home with the vivid memories of his time in-country; this poem, like Owen’s “Dulce et…” pushes the reader to acknowledge real suffering and carnage, pushes the reader to not turn away. A poet like Komunyakaa has been important to me for many reasons, but one aspect of his work I like is the strange, unexpected avenues he takes to write a war poem; one example would be his incredible poem, “Thanks.” This poem’s content—a butterfly, a tree, different aspects of nature—doesn’t appear to be about war, but Komunyakaa brilliantly turns it into a poem of praise or “Thanks” to parts of a jungle that helped him see a trip-wire on a trail, blocked a bullet from hitting his body. The poem itself heightens our senses and freshly engages our emotions regarding what it’s like to be a soldier at war. Beyond the content, of course, the writing is just remarkable.

As far as my own voice, I’m not worried about being influenced by other war poets or writing in their “tradition.” My main priority has always been to continually improve my awareness about what has been written about war before my war came along—in short, I try to read all I can from others who have written on war; this is obviously a life-long task.

Q: I was surprised by the tonal range within the The Stick Soldiers. Your use of humor and playfulness adds an unexpected emotional component to its spectrum, and for me, deepens my investment in the speaker during the unflinching poems that make up most of the collection. Can you talk about writing humor, and more specifically, presenting a gamut of human experiences in a landscape of war?

… the challenge is always creating the proper tone along with presenting the imagery in a very distinct manner.

I think it’s unexpected for many people to expect humor in a book of poetry about war, and it is rare, but realistically, as most people who have been to war know: dark humor is very much a part of surviving and being a soldier. Robert Graves writes about long arguments he’d have with soldiers regarding how best to kill the lice on their bodies, in their clothes: kill the old ones, the young ones will die of grief, but others argued if you killed the young ones, you could knock out the old ones when they went to the funeral. As for the humor in my poems, not only does it represent a lighter and sometimes satirical perspective throughout the book, but it also provides a sort of relief or break from the heavier poems, which make up the bulk of the work. I didn’t plan this of course, but I did (and still do) write many humorous poems about different aspects of war. As far as writing humor, I have had difficulty sometimes communicating a humorous situation through poetry; the challenge is always creating the proper tone along with presenting the imagery in a very distinct manner. Sometimes this means a certain juxtaposition, other times it can be by using anaphora.

Overall, the humor (I hope) ultimately brings more humanity to the speakers, whether it’s a soldier or a civilian. It is very much a part of being in the military and being at war, so I think those moments add more nuance and realism from the lived experience of deploying to Iraq or any combat zone.

Q: Your book is organized into six sections, each seemingly rooted in a specific time and place. For example, the poems in one section are focused on the period of time leading up to deployment, and another section focuses on the period of time after returning to Ohio. The idea of returning home to America after Iraq is prevalent throughout, but is crowned in “Nostos: Quinn’s Bar, Cleveland Heights,” which closes The Stick Soldiers. Though not always linear, there seems to me a distinct narrative arc spanning this entire book. How aware were you of constructing such a narrative? Was there an effort to create a beginning, middle, and end, or did such an arc only become apparent to you after all the poems had been written?

Honestly, I had no awareness at all about the order of this book, much less that when I first began writing poems after Iraq that they’d become a book. The shape that the book is in now I probably started formulating during the first year of my MFA. Brilliantly, I first put the poems in a simple chronological order: training for Iraq, leaving for Iraq, time in Iraq, and returning home. This made sense at the time, but it of course made the book very predictable and dull. So, yes, the arc it’s in now started taking shape after I had really spent a couple years with it and began reading the poems in different orders. The “Nostos” poem was one of the last poems I wrote for the book, and it is probably the only poem I wrote knowing exactly where I wanted it to be, which is at the end.

Q: The Stick Soldiers is at once—as a result of its subject—a political book, while on the other hand it seems to divert attention away from the polemical or hortatory, as a greater emphasis is placed on the connections and experiences shared between these soldiers. Can you talk about the experience of writing about a politically-charged subject? Was there an intentional effort to avoid taking a political stance? What are your thoughts on the poet’s role or responsibilities (if any) to write poems that carry political or ethical weight?

… I prefer a poem that allows the reader to try to understand and confront their feelings, their political stance, their world-perspective.

As impossible as it seems, I tried to leave out politics as much as I could in these poems. I didn’t want them to be didactic or screaming for some thing or another—I wanted to present an experience of being there, of what it was like, how it felt. Obviously, a poet like Levertov took her work in a much different direction, especially with her Poems: 1968-1972. Even a poet like Owen was very political and explicit regarding how he felt: in the short preface to his book, he says “all a poet can do today is warn.” That was one hundred years ago and although I think it was very apt at the time, especially considering the complete detachment and lack of understanding civilians back in England had about trench-life, when writing poems today, in my opinion, we can be more subtle, more understated. Some may disagree with this, but I prefer a poem that allows the reader to try to understand and confront their feelings, their political stance, their world-perspective. Many times, though, it can be wise in a poem to be explicit, to hit the reader over the head with something, but this can obviously turn off and isolate a lot of people. I don’t think the poet should feel responsible to sway someone politically, but they should write to make the reader feel an emotional truth, feel the humanity in the speaker or the characters. This is an oversimplification, but when writing many of these poems, my mindset has always been the following: whether or not you voted for or against the war, whether or not you agreed or disagreed with its mission, it did actually happen—and most importantly, it happened to real people, soldiers, Iraqis, in the front yards of Iraqis.

Q: You also write essays. Can you speak to the different processes of writing about Iraq in two different genres? Do poems ever become essays, or vice versa? How do you determine which medium will make the best vehicle?

Certainly I think poems can become essays and vice versa. I do actually have essays and poems about very similar stories or incidents. The question about which medium is the best vehicle is a great question and difficult to answer. I really just think you approach a poem much, much differently than you would an essay. The poem obviously depends more on form, sound, image, and usually what is in the white space, the unsaid; the essay, however, usually involves being more explicit and straightforward, allowing yourself to explain something, generally. Overall, though, I really can’t say which medium is best when tackling a certain story or event; I believe you can find ways to make a poem and an essay about the same thing and do it well. As far as process goes, there is much more planning in the essay form; I take many notes and write many outlines. With a poem, it’s much more waiting, reading out loud, setting it aside for awhile, things like that.

Q: The Stick Soldiers is a striking and compelling debut. What are you working on in its wake?

Just more poems about Iraq, a lot of them dealing post-war situations. My second manuscript, though I haven’t even considered ordering it or organizing anything, is about fifty pages in length. Lately, I’ve been writing more slowly but also spending more time reading—this has been great. Among other things I have a few essays brewing about topics ranging from being offered a seat on first-class due to my veteran status to playing basketball against LeBron James in high school. These are mostly rough drafts with lots of notes right now, but I hope to have at least one ready soon. Since my first book is in the midst of coming out, I’ve found myself just reading more, working on prose, and just not worrying about trying to work on a poem every day (though I usually do).

HUGH MARTIN grew up in northeast Ohio and served six years in the Army National Guard as an M1A1 Tanker. He deployed to Iraq in 2004 and later graduated from Muskingum University. Martin is the author of the chapbook So, How Was the War? (Kent State UP, 2010) and The Stick Soldiers (BOA Editions Ltd., 2013), winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Prize. His work has appeared on PBS Newshour, The New York Times’s “At War” blog, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, and in many other journals. Martin has an MFA from Arizona State, and he is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. You can visit his website at