Etymology of War:
An Interview with
Photo by Paula Champagne
Karen Skolfield’s book Battle Dress (W. W. Norton) won the 2020 Massachusetts Book Award in poetry and the Barnard Women Poets Prize. Her book Frost in the Low Areas (Zone 3 Press) won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry, and she is the winner of the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in poetry from The Missouri Review. Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran and teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; she’s the poet laureate for Northampton, MA for 2019-2021. www.karenskolfield.com
LH: I’ve been a huge fan of your work since I first read, and reread, Frost in the Low Areas, which won the 2014 PEN/ New England Award. I’ve been hoping to interview you since that book, and I am thrilled that the time has come for us to do this now. Frost in the Low Areas and your newest title, Battle Dress, have very different focuses in regards to subjects. Was there a decisive moment in your life or a series of signs (or signifiers) that told you it was time to publish a book about your time in the US Army?
KS: I’ve been writing military-related poems since I served, but in a very haphazard way, which unfortunately might describe how I tackle many writing projects. When I was working toward my MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, my advisor Dara Wier praised a couple of military-themed poems I brought to workshops, but I didn’t buckle down on the project until after Frost was released. It was a good goal especially in the weird, floaty year after a first book comes out, and I worked on poems for Battle Dress plus my usual, ahem, haphazard poems over the next four years.
LH: A follow up to that question is why did you choose poetry instead of, say, nonfiction? And what do poetry and the military have in common? I think of your poem “CNN: Rise in Sexual Assaults, Reprisals in the Military (2016)”:
asked me what I thought
of my time in the military.
It’s the motion of a deer
that catches my eye,
makes me look back and see
a sunrise I almost missed.
Blazing and violent,
and once it’s gone,
no evidence it ever existed.
KS: This will sound strange, but I feel disingenuous when I write prose. There’s something about sentences and paragraphs that has too many hiding places, too many dark pockets. I say that even though many of my poems are grammatically correct, with some connective tissue removed; I also love writing occasional prose poems. So it looks like I write (often) in sentences and (sometimes) paragraphs, but they’re different units to me than lines and stanzas, and they feel like different languages. Poetry, for me, is a language of honesty and engagement, even when the speaker is trying to avoid a painful truth.
What do poetry and the military have in common? They’ve broken my heart in similar ways, but they’re also, for better or worse, an integral part of me.
LH: I am glad to hear you say that about poetry—that it feels like a more honest and engaged language because I have been feeling the opposite lately. I’ve been feeling like so many poets are signaling to the reader that they are ok, that they are on the right side of history and always have been, and that feels like hiding to me. I think if poets are honest with themselves, the honesty and vulnerability come through on the page and we are all better for it. What I love about your work is that is does ring true. Furthermore, you aren’t trying to make me feel a certain way about the military—rather, you are showing different aspects and glimmers and letting me have my own complex emotions in response.
I have to ask, though, were there any poems in this collection that you struggled to write? Were there times when you might have initially tried to edit yourself, and if so, how did you move past that self-censorship?
KS: Interesting that you say that about honesty, history, and self-censorship and struggle. I don’t know that I was successful in moving past all self-censorship – probably good in some ways, probably not in others.
For instance: In 2014 the Army updated AR-670-1, which includes guidelines on hairstyles for Black women. The Army has long had both formal and informal guidelines on facial hair, tattoos, hairstyles, etc. – when I was in, I was warned not to get my hair cut too short, but I didn’t understand at all how Black women’s hair was much more tightly policed. Reading the 2014 “relaxed” guidelines on hair for Black women made me understand how very targeted and controlled it must have felt and still feels.
I wanted to write about that – and it turned out not to be my poem to write. At the same time I’m sad that a poem on that topic is not in the book.
Side note, as of 2017 the Army allows dreadlocks (with very specific guidelines about width, gridding, and length). Uhm. 2017.
I also didn’t write any on-the-ground battle poems. There are so many amazing veteran poets with poems that take on enemy engagement or IED explosions or patrols or checkpoints. I have no combat experience and I didn’t see a route into those subjects.
Of the poems included, I certainly struggled with some, and I sometimes used outside commentary to find my way in: “CNN Report: Rise in Sexual Assaults, Reprisals in the Military” and “CNN Report: Symptoms of PTSD Mimic Lyme Disease” are two examples, because how do you tackle those huge topics? The headlines gave me a way to start. There are more than a half-dozen poems that use headlines as titles; I appreciated and exploited that boost and that little bit of distance from the topic as I found my way to the poem’s center.
LH: The poems set in civilian life seem not only integral to the book’s narrative arc but to the larger mythos of the female soldier. The book opens with “On Veterans Day, My Daughter Wishes Me Happy Veterinarians Day,” and ends with two poems about visits to historic battlegrounds—“Civil War Reenactment, Look Park, Massachusetts,” and “Sayler’s Creek Battlefield.” These poems seem to have in common an awareness that the speaker will always straddle two worlds and perhaps never quite be at home in either one—do you agree? Was there something else you wanted the “civilian life” poems to capture?
KS: When I read this question, the first thing I felt was joy. She has two worlds! I thought. Isn’t that a rich life, if looked at the right way?
I wanted the “civilian life” poems also to show those skin-prickling moments of recognizing history repeating itself: her son growing older, getting to draft age; battlefields forever so, both moored to place and time and unmoored.
At some point in the semester, I tell my engineering students I’m a vet. Invariably, the first response is “you ARE?!?” and then the second is “Oh, that makes so much sense.” I’m a little unsure what they mean by that. I understand being a vet is a little surprising: I’m 50, I’m short, it’s hard to imagine me toting around an M60 machine gun (which I have done at least briefly, and yes it is stupidly heavy), and no one’s seen me in camo and combat boots since ’93. But what makes sense to them, once they’ve gotten over the surprise? Is it, I don’t know, I have good posture? I still have excellent push-up form, but they don’t know that. I don’t think I’m more of a stickler for rules, something civilians assume about military members. So. What am I revealing to them without knowing it? What can’t I see about myself?
When my writing group gave me feedback on early drafts of these poems, there was military-specific language and situations that were often incomprehensible to them. I was surprised at how much they did not know.
There are around 2.3 million military personnel currently serving, including active duty, Guardsmen, and Reservists. There are about 20 million veterans. That’s just under seven percent of the U.S population – significant, but not well understood by many civilians. Curious, I just googled this percentage and learned that about seven percent of the U.S. population lives with an autoimmune disorder – another category of living and adapting and being misunderstood that feels analogous in some ways.
LH: Many poems in Battle Dress reference primary documents including the Army SMART Book, the headlines you mentioned, and the origins of specific words. I love how the narrator seems at times to be in conversation—and sometimes in direct confrontation—with these texts.
Army SMART Book: “Small-arms fire may sound like mosquitos”
Then those are the scariest fucking mosquitoes
ever. Mosquitoes. Who told you that?
Some writer? Mosquitoes the size
of a dinner plate, size of an exit wound.
Did including these external sources allow you certain freedoms in examining and perhaps critiquing the military? What was your instinct when it came to including these references?
KS: I collect articles and etymology snippets and military guides the way some people collect commemorative plates. I have versions of the SMART book back to WWII (Soldier’s Manual Army Testing, though it’s gone by many different names).
The training books are terrifying. Reading through them I can’t believe anyone enlists or understand how I enlisted – there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance involved, some “Oh, no way that ‘In combat, you need protection from enemy direct and indirect fire’ applies to me.” Seventeen-year-old me may not have been the most cautious.
But the older me is fascinated, re-reading the training books, understanding the implications now and analyzing the text and diving into the language (thank you, grad school!). I’m sure, at the time I enlisted, that I just wanted to understand and fit in to the new-to-me world of the military. I wanted to belong.
So those documents gave me rich material – to use, and to struggle against. I didn’t want to write a book about me, me, me, at least not directly about me at all times. I love learning things and I’m energized by research – ugh, I am such a dweeb to write that – and writing the etymology/origin poems and the SMART book poems gave this book shape.
LH: I love Frost in the Low Areas and Battle Dress (I love your work!) partly because of your humor. You can be funny and break my heart at the same time—which is what great storytellers do. Do you think of yourself as a funny poet? Were you inspired by particular poets to incorporate humor or was this your natural inclination all along? Did the military change your sense of humor in any way?
KS: I definitely think of myself as a funny poet and I think I’m often hilarious in real life – only my teens would argue with that, hm. I use humor frequently in my writing, though less often with Battle Dress poems because of the subject. War preparation and military culture don’t make great punch lines.
But I know that I use humor – in writing, in my life – sometimes as a way to distract or deflect. When I write I’m better at looking the hard stuff head on, and this gives me the ability to be both funny and, eventually, serious in a single poem. I can let the voice be flippant until right near the end. In real life, in actual conversation, I’m less skilled.
The late great James Tate was one of my teachers in graduate school, and I owe him much. We are very different stylistically, but he was a master of humor in poetry.
It’s hard to know if the military changed my sense of humor. One of the funniest people ever, Laurie Herbert Larson, was my ranger buddy in basic training. She made me laugh the whole way through, even at times I wasn’t allowed to laugh, which was 90 percent of the day. What a gift. Worth every single extra push up.
LH: I can’t say I personally know of any other female veterans who have published poetry collections that focus on their service and the military in general. Do you feel like something of a frontrunner, and is that at all nerve-wracking?
KS: There are a small number of female vets publishing poetry (Khadijah Queen and Suzanne Rancourt spring to mind) but the number of military-related poems and collections by female vets should certainly be expanded. So many more veterans’ voices are needed! Battle Dress feels very particular to me, a book that contains my writing DNA, and that leaves infinite space for more poems and collections by female vets. I love that. I look forward to reading those works-in-progress, those experiences and poems in the making.
I’m part of Warrior Writers, a national group devoted to providing support to veterans through writing. The work I get to hear in the workshops is jaw-dropping. These are thoughtful, honest, smart people coming together in a safe space to write on difficult topics: the past, hopes, racism within and outside of the military, the future. They write from the heart, they pull no punches. Participating in a WW writing session is always a blessing for me.
Beyond veteran writing, there are a number of wonderful poetry books by military spouses and families: two I’d recommend are Abby Murray’s Hail and Farewell (Perugia Press) and Pamela Hart’s Mothers Over Nangarhar (Sarabande Books).
LH: Have you heard from other female veteran writers who have been inspired by your poems to tell their own stories via poetry? What has the general reception of Battle Dress been so far?
KS: I’ve gotten some really kind notes from some female veterans, though I don’t think many of those vets were also writers. I’ve heard from plenty of male veterans, too, probably more men than women.
I’ve never brought up my books or publishing in a Warrior Writers workshop. If any of the other participants or the workshop leaders know about my books, they don’t mention it. I love that. We’re all just there to write together.
LH: I always like to ask writers what they are working on now. The “now” we have is so unlike the “now” of the past, of course. So I’ll ask this question a little differently for you. Can you share one way that the pandemic has changed your creative process so far? And what are your goals for writing and creating in the coming months ahead?
KS: I share office space with my husband and daughter when we’re all home together. Since March, that’s been almost 100 percent of the time. It’s taken me a while to adjust to that and I’m not sure I have, really. I hate sharing my early drafts before they’re ready, and I always have the sense that someone is watching me write these days. Mild paranoia. Or – is it?
My goals are modest. Any day that includes a poem written is a great day. Some day the thick stack of poems may coalesce into another book – fine fine, but individual poems are the prize. As long as I keep writing, as long as the pauses aren’t too long, my world’s okay.