Author Paulo Coelho once said,
“Writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things – thoughts, ideas, opinions.”
Veterans from all eras, from WWII and Vietnam, to Kuwait and Iraq, took part in two writing workshops earlier this year launched with the National Endowment for the Humanities Standing Together initiative. Both workshops were hosted at Arizona Humanities, whose home is the historic Ellis-Shackelford House, a unique 98-year-old building that is the only original remaining structure from ‘Millionaires Row’ on Central Avenue. The front room overlooks busy Central Avenue, and also became an inspirational space for writers who attended each week. Each session began with a meal and conversation, allowing veterans to meet and talk before proceeding to read, write, and explore the creative writing experience.
Elizabeth McNeil, M.F.A., Ph.D. a longtime instructor at Arizona State University in composition, creative writing, literature, and career development, led the spring workshop titled, Writing for Our Lives: Remembering through the Power of Poetry. “Most of the class members reported never having considered writing poetry before this workshop and really enjoyed the writing exercises and the readings. All of the participants who completed the workshop came to know themselves as writers,” said McNeil.
One veteran wrote, “The class went beyond expectations. I gained complete knowledge of real writing.” Another commented, “I learned about different writing styles expressing in different ways, lots of techniques and thoughts to question.”
While attendees all become more confident and skilled in writing abilities, it was helping veterans share their unique perspectives that made these workshops so powerful. McNeil explained, “In addition to their increasing enthusiasm during the course was the obvious development of their actual poetic/writerly skills, and their seemingly greater awareness of and ease with the idea of their memories as viable subjects for poetry/artistic expression.”
One attendee commented, “I learned just how beautiful poetry could be and how this means was a great way to express one self.” Another veteran remarked, “Our military viewpoints are vastly different then we tend to acknowledge…I enjoyed this experience immensely.”
One WWII veteran, who attended based on the invitation from his friend, surprised himself, “All I had intended was to support my new friend. I was thoroughly engrossed and consider this learning poetry as a place on my must do list.” At the conclusion of the workshop he mentioned, “I am now writing my life story from early childhood for my kids.”
During the course of the poetry workshop, a group poem celebrating the power of the humanities emerged. One participant offered the basic structure, with end rhymes, and then several other participants offered further elaboration. The coda is a haiku by the wellness facilitator for the workshop. We congratulate all the participants in these workshops, and encourage visitors to stay tuned for future veterans programs.
Oh, Poetry—Oh, Humanities!
From us to all of you, we shout, “Thank You!”
For providing this chance to remember through poetry.
While not aware of what I would do, I knew
Others needed to write, perhaps reluctantly.
Missed gardens, summers, mothers, and childhood toys.
Guns, jungles, jackals. Lost friends. All needing said.
We spread lyrical wings, learning from language her joys
And the pleasure of hearing our words from other mouths read.
Pleased to share our images with you,
This class taught us that, to gain a poet’s voice,
We must strive to show, always new,
Our shared humanity in every line, every choice:
We saw invisible people on buses and at stoplights,
A powerful child riding her bike in ric rac on black.
We felt heat from a fire crackling red-bright,
Heard gunshots’ splitting, shattering attack.
Nourished by books, pizza, cookies,
And the new friends we’ve met,
We thank AZ Humanities for helping us rookies,
Giving our minds this poetry safety net.
Thank you for this group of souls
Creating with me.