From the Battlefield to Brooklyn

11/23/2011 4:00 AM |

On a recent Thursday night, just before Veterans Day, Matt Gallagher stepped up to a microphone at Pete’s Candy Store to read a short story about Arlington National Cemetery. The audience hummed knowingly. Gallagher had served as an armored cavalry officer in Iraq and, unusually for a Brooklyn literary event, many in the crowd were also veterans—as were the others who stepped up to the small red-lit stage after Gallagher finished.

The night of fiction and poetry by soldiers-cum-scribes featured Gallagher (a Columbia MFA student and the author of the novel Kaboom), Matthew Mellina (who has been an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Specialist and contributed an essay to the Daily Beast), and Roy Scranton, who curated the event, the second such reading at Pete’s. Scranton and his comrades are part of a long tradition of writing about war by those who know best—Hemingway, Vonnegut, Orwell—and although the bar’s regular reading series has seen bigger names, this performance had big goals. Its organizers, Mira Jacob and Alison Hart, conceived the event as a way to narrow the gap between war and daily life by exposing Brooklynites to veterans’ stories—all while showcasing serious literary work.

Scranton, an Iraq War vet and author, often writes about the disconnect between military life and civilian life. He still feels it: Jacob said that, last time, she had to convince him that a bar doesn’t run on military time, that he couldn’t fit six ten-minute readings into one hour. This time, having been out of Iraq for seven years, he chose to read mostly love poems—but he returned to Baghdad in the last selection of the evening, a poem about the city that, to a casual listener, could have been about New York.

“I try not to write about the war anymore,” he said, “but it’s hard to shake off.”
Jacob and Hart had originally wanted to host veterans because life in wartime felt very far away to them—“there’s this whole other life going on that we know so little about,” said Jacob.

The audience is not the only group that can benefit from events like this one. Veterans’ writing workshops have grown on college campuses and in advocacy organizations during the past decade. Lovella Calica, the founder and director of Warrior Writers, a nationwide group that leads such workshops, said that the act of writing helps veterans process their wartime experiences.

And it’s not just veterans. Mark Galarrita, 22, a writer and a ROTC cadet, said he was due to report for training in February. As a soldier-to-be, he had a special connection to the stories read. But as a writer, he understood that fiction is fiction, and the stories read that Thursday couldn’t tell him what to expect. After all, whole wars can be fought in the time it takes to polish a draft. “Hearing him speak is really cool,” he said of Matt Gallagher, “but I’m going to enter into a different army.”