We Should All Carry Poetry (Part 2): An Interview with Stanton S. Coerr

Recently we reviewed Stanton S. Coerr’s (SSC) Rubicon: The Poetry of War onThe Strategy Bridge (TSB). TSB also sat down with Coerr to learn more about him and to ask a few questions. Originally from North Carolina, Coerr grew up in a family of all women and attended school at Duke where he enrolled in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC).

Coerr was inspired by his grandfathers. One was an ambassador and the other a Navy admiral that helped raise him. He also instilled a love for the military.Top Gun, by Coerr’s own admission, also helped. On day one of school, Stan felt a calling to join the Marines. They seem to be a “tighter group, with stronger personalities, and better leaders — a tribe.”

He became a AH-1W SuperCobra pilot, but spent most of his career with ground units: a rifle battalion, First Force Reconnaissance, and two Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) units.

He deployed to Iraq in 2003 to go over the border on the first night of the war as a liaison commander to the 1 Royal Irish Battlegroup (1RIR), part of the British Army. He was responsible for keeping American and British soldiers from shooting each other by accident as many crossed over the border in a sandstorm.

“There is nothing like commanding Marines in combat. Nothing.”

His commander with 1RIR was Tim Collins, who was later awarded the Order of the British Empire. Some may have seen the magnificent BBC documentary “10 Days To War” in which Kenneth Branagh recreated Collins’ inspirational speech that Coerr witnessed. Collins, as Coerr recalls, was a real poet andwarrior. But then again, he believes all Irishmen are poets. And who can disagree!

Coerr got out of the Marines after 25 years to go to graduate school at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He still works for the Marine Corps, though now as a civil servant. He has three boys. And as he suggests in the opening toRubicon, he wishes they “never know the hard hand of war.”

(TSB) When did you write your first poem and what was it about?

(SSC) Rubicon just came out of me; I don’t know its origins. My first poem was “Shiloh.” One day I just saw the scene in my head and wrote it down. I want to get the entire story out in a page or two. I am intrigued by the dark side of war: not just the killing and maiming, of which libraries have been written, but emotions. I am interested in what men think. I am interested in what children left behind go through. I want to write about women, like my protagonist in Shiloh, who watch helpless as men march off to a losing cause. War is about men. Period. All the machines, aircraft, ships, weapons, missiles and rockets and bombs — none of it matters without people. The apex of skill is to win without fighting, which means that John Boyd was right: wars are fought in the minds of men.

(TSB) On your first deployment, what did you miss most?

(SSC) Books. I spent most of the time on a ship and my books stayed behind. I could feel my brain atrophying. There was plenty of flying and lots of sights to see, but I am by nature an introvert and I live in my head.

Stanton S. Coerr in the Ramaylah Oil Fields, Southern Iraq. March 2003.

Stanton S. Coerr in the Ramaylah Oil Fields, Southern Iraq. March 2003.

(TSB) Children are a substantive part of your writing. They appear constantly. What is the significance?

(SSC) They are the standard by which the rest of us measure innocence. Children have little or no agency in the course of their first ten or twelve years. Men can — and do — die for children who are not their own: cops, firefighters, soldiers, Marines. Most of us have a hard time being sympathetic to grown men; all of us feel for any child in distress.

Children in Iraq were living in a different world from their parents. They were cheerful and laughing and open-mouthed with glee and joy, always approaching us to see what we were about. They hadn’t yet learned to hate. That is for adults.

(TSB) Snakes appear often too. Was this conscious? If yes, what meaning to they hold? If not, what’s your reaction to this discovery?

(SSC) I am fascinated by apex predators. Humans are of course at the very top of the predation pyramid, but I am intrigued by sharks, raptors, snakes, and big cats. Like all poets, I need things that represent other things. I love that snakes represent many things to many cultures — death, life, fear. I love that snakes appear among all cultures, going back to hieroglyphs. My first squadron was the Vipers.

(TSB) Will you write again or was the book a one time way to share your feelings or perhaps even vent?

(SSC) I have several books in various stages. I have 400 pages of memoir about my time in Iraq; we had a fire at the base camp in Kuwait and I was able to save only my journal (which was my most important item anyway). I figured that meant I had better get it down on paper. I did not have the most exciting war, but I may have had the most interesting one: for instance, my battalion had 17 nations represented to include an entire company of the Nepalese Gurkhas.

I have another book of poetry complete: my first was written from the perspective of men; this second one is written entirely from the perspective of women. It is done; I am trying to figure out how to publish it.

In this second book, titled Undertow, I wrote from a place of deep and abiding passion. All of us in our lives are searching. We search for happiness, for money, for fame. The hardest-driving people are those who are restless and cannot find what they want.

But our searching goes deeper, down to the base emotions: we are searching for happiness and love. In Undertow, I reflect the love I finally found after 35 years of restless search. When you have found your life’s partner, you know it…instantly. I did. That is whence this second book of poetry arose. I wrote the entire thing in a matter of days, as emotion poured out of me and onto the page. When something is perfect, you know.

(TSB) Did you try to find a publisher? If yes, why do you think you hit barriers? If no, then what was the rush?

(SSC) Poetry doesn’t sell. Agents and publishers are therefore extremely unhelpful to people like me.

The publishing model has not changed in a hundred years. The standard publishing model is dying a slow and painful death. In the same way that Uber is destroying the taxi industry and AirBnB will ruin the hotel industry, I hope self-publishing will break loose the grip New York has on writers.

I never had the illusion I would sell books; I wanted a hard copy I could hold in my hand and give to my sons.

(TSB) Was writing this ever a chore — was it ever deliberate and forced? Or did it come as a muse?

(SSC) It was never a chore; it was a release. Poetry was a place to go to be inside a different world; I loved my characters and my stories. I couldn’t wait each day for my time to write.

I have tried several times to write a novel, but I am not wired to force myself to write each day. I write in bursts and it is totally instinctive, the same way Lee Haney used to train for bodybuilding competitions. He said that his training was by feel, whatever was weak and needed work that day was what he did. I am the same way. I have to let it flow.

(TSB) What is your favorite book and why?

(SSC) There are two real abiding drivers in human behavior: love, and conflict. Books on those two topics interest me intensely, and the very, very rare men like Hemingway who wrote about both are my favorites.

If I had to choose, it would be one of the books on my shelf with all the pages falling out, and a rubber band holding it together, and lamination paper keeping the cover from coming off.

Fields of Fire, by James Webb is the most powerful book I think I have read, it came from the heart. He wrote the entire book longhand on legal pads, seven times. That level of drive and commitment to a story is rare.

Dispatches, by Michael Herr, led me to Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, men for whom writing is just not hard. The thing I love about books like this — and like Hell’s Angels by Thompson and stories like “Party at Lenny’s” by Tom Wolfe or HST’s story about the Kentucky Derby — is that these guys just let it rip, every sentence. It is narrative nonfiction, the first of its kind and the only of its kind.

Wolfe, Herr and Thompson are like Led Zeppelin: huge, overpowering talent, but using force and power without volume. No one else can do it, and it is pointless to try.

Stanton S. Coerr again, this time in May 2015 standing in Ernest Hemingway’s office, Key West, Florida.

Stanton S. Coerr again, this time in May 2015 standing in Ernest Hemingway’s office, Key West, Florida.

(TSB) If you had one hour to spend with anyone, who would it be?

(SSC) Teddy Roosevelt. There has never been — and never will be — another like him. The days of Renaissance men have passed and I think he was the last one. Widely published, voracious reader, Medal of Honor winner, master of the intricacies of government, devotee of getting things done. He made this country what it became in the 20th century. I want to know how he did it.

And the great thing about an hour with Roosevelt is it would be a monologue…I would get my name out and then he would be off.

(TSB) Have you ever done a public poetry reading? Would you want to?

(SSC) I absolutely want to and have tried to get people interested.

Poetry is viewed as something for women, though the world’s great poets have been men. I want to break open the other half of society…to put across something that resonates with everyone. I know that if I could get this in front of men, they would think that someone is finally speaking to them.

(TSB) Why did you choose to write historical fiction for some of the poems?

(SSC) I find historical narrative a very facile and flexible medium. It gives you the best of both worlds: you can anchor people in something they know and then wander away into a new world of fiction. The authors I admire have all written in this way — Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Orwell, Tim O’Brien, James Webb — and it is very effective when done right.

(TSB) I spent a long time looking up titles to your poems? How did you choose them? What was your process? Why the mix of latin or other “non-english” words?

(SSC) I detest most titles for books and chapters and poems. The colon and subtitle should be banned from English literature for the rest of time. Titles are stories unto themselves. For instance: Ding Zui is a Chinese term. It means the process by which rich people will actually pay poor people to accept a punishment, even a prison term, on the rich person’s behalf, just like rich men here used to pay poor men to serve for them in the army. So if I am talking about men sent to fight a war for the wrong reasons, I can express that in the title alone.

Another example: 58195 is the number of Americans killed in Vietnam.

APGAR is the test used to determine the vitality of a new baby….how evocative is that?

(TSB) Most American or British poets we read or cite frequently were drafted. Do you think an all volunteer force recruits enough poets?

(SSC) There really aren’t any poets anymore. It is a shame that American education has become so highly specialized and that adults tend to be really good at one thing. Renaissance men are thin on the ground these days.

I have a theory. My generation is the last that can really, truly think deep and hard about anything. This is because there really were no computers until we were all in college. When you have to write on a typewriter it forces you to think and organize in your head precisely what you want to say and in what order. This forces a discipline and grit for writing that my kids don’t- and won’t -develop.

(TSB) How do you feel about someone that’s never been in the military reviewing your work?

(SSC) Best of all. It is not written for infantrymen and combat veterans. It is written for those who haven’t been there. If I can make that world come alive — as JK Rowling made people believe in a school for wizards — I have succeeded.

(TSB) Scotch or Bourbon? Why?

(SSC) Irish whiskey! I will tell you exactly why: it tastes the same on ice or at 125 degrees. In Iraq it is about all we could carry and there was nothing better than Irish whiskey in a canteen cup, looking over the Euphrates River, enjoyed with Irishmen. You know how a cat will run from anywhere in the house when you push the can opener in the kitchen? That is how Irish officers were when I opened a bottle of Black Bush. They would materialize, canteen cups in hand. The British mail system allowed only small packages through, while Americans could receive things of any size (my #2 officer once got an entire case of beer in the mail) and thus we had all the booze. When you are drinking in Mesopotamia in June, and it is 125 degrees, it has to be smooth.

Mikhail Grinberg is one of the editors here at The Strategy Bridge. By day he consults aerospace and defense companies on corporate strategy and mergers and acquisitions. Mikhail is also on the board of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. He dabbles in photography and tweets at @mbgrinberg.

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