Poetry, and the Beginning of Voices in Wartime

Interview Questions for Andy Himes from Joy Helmer, Peace By Design Blog

Q: Was there a particular event that that fueled your desire to make the film Voices in Wartime? Do you have a personal experience of or reaction to war that made this film something that had to get made—and by you? What fueled the passion in the film, the anthology and the project, to create a less violent world and to heal the trauma caused by war?

A: In the beginning of 2003, as the Bush administration was on the verge of invading Iraq, I was really on the verge of despair. I had protested the war and seen millions of others oppose this bizarre and misguided invasion, but it appeared to be going ahead no matter what was said or done to oppose it. I was one of the founders of an international movement called Poets Against the War, which gathered and published over 13,000 poems written in a global outcry against the impending war. But somehow the war proceeded, and Bush carried many Americans with him, including many of my own conservative and Republican relatives. I decided that we need a different language to help Americans understand the terrible cost and traumatic experience of war. We need to get beyond political debate and into the human experience of war. Only then can we begin to undertake the work of peace.

Q: Is there something about poetry in particular, and literature, that allows the experience of war, to shine through? If so, what do you think that is? The economy of words? Can you name one or more war/peace poems that have had a powerful effect on you personally?

A: We need the language of poetry and art to talk about matters of the human heart. In political debate, you can use fraud and lies, twisted statistics and warped logic, and you can still be very successful. You can use fear and false accusations as weapons. But I don’t think it’s possible to create a great poem unless you are telling the most powerful truth you know. As Wilfred Owen, the British soldier-poet in the Great War, said, “True poets must be truthful.” Poetry tells the personal and human story of war with deep emotion and powerful metaphor.

Q: What is your personal vision of how the wounds of war can be healed? What is a “culture of peace” and how is that created?

A: It’s not only war’s wounds we need to heal. It’s also the violence in our communities in our families, and in ourselves. Creating a culture of peace requires creating a space for peace within ourselves and a capacity to show kindness toward others. The first step, as the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has said, is to notice those times when we are reacting with fear and anger toward others, and when we are hardening our hearts toward each other. And then we have to intentionally soften those places in our hearts. Then we can take steps toward peace. Our Education Project is designed to help young people develop awareness of their own perspective so they can understand that other people have different perspectives and different stories. That perspective awareness is basic for a true global understanding that can help us create a more peaceful world.

Q: Where is Voices in Wartime going in the future now that you have a film, an anthology, a curriculum, a blog and a website? What’s next?

A: Our great challenge now is to make these resources widely available to many thousands of teachers and millions of students across the country. We are now completing the project of publishing our curricula on the Internet for free access by students, teachers, parents, and educational activists. You can go to our new web site to see the resources available – http://curricula.voicesinwartime.org. We are working with many other organizations and individuals to build a movement that can spark compassionate action through global education.

Q: I understand that you have not served in the armed services. What is your relationship with veterans? How do they respond to the Voices in Wartime project? Are they supportive of it?

A: Veterans are witnesses to war, and are also victims of war, so I don’t think any group of people can match veterans for a heartfelt desire to create a peaceful world and heal the terrible wounds of war. Vets are going into many classrooms now to tell their stories and help young people understand what that experience is all about. Although I have never been a soldier, I have discovered that virtually every single person in our society has been affected by war. Almost everyone has a personal story or a family member who has been damaged by war. We all live with the legacy of war’s trauma, and we are affected by war in ways most of us are not even conscious of.