A Letter from Afghanistan

July 13, 2010

In 2008, I was chosen as one of five artists nationwide, and the first poet in the 90+ year history of the program, to participate in the Canadian Forces Artist Program (CFAP) as a war artist. For eighteen  months I have observed and written about the 1st Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry battalion as they prepare for war. A few weeks ago, I attended live-fire exercises, next week I go to Wainwright, Alberta, to participate in the ‘dressrehearsal’ for war at a Canadian base that has fake Afghan villages and real Afghans. There, I will be embedded once again with the infantry and will have a chance to watch how they continue to prepare. In the autumn of 2009, I will be deploying with Task Force 3-09 to Afghanistan.

My war work, some of which can be found online in beta (real-time, unedited, continually developing) at www.warpoet.ca, is the direct result of a single question: what is the colour of Afghanistan’s demon dust? In 2006, after returning from Edinburgh, I read about the death of a young Canadian soldier in Panjawaii district, Afghanistan. My immediate response, as poet and human being, was to write ‘Elegy for an Infantryman’. My first lines:

In fields of grape vines and hot white dust

– Afghanistan –

set the tone. A landscape-based poet, I needed to get the details correct and knew the dust wasn’t white yet I couldn’t tell, from photos or YouTube, its exact colour. I requested to speak with a vet from Afghanistan and received permission from Department of National Defence to interview Corporal D, a young Canadian infantryman who had just returned. We spent dozens of hours together looking at his photos, chatting, looking at his videos. It was then suggested by the Canadian Forces that I might want to apply for the war artist program. Amazingly, I was chosen.

In August, 2008, I had met LCol. Walsh, the CO of 1Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. I told him that I wanted to go to Afghanistan and he said, ‘Come with us.’ He invited me to spend as much time as possible with 1PPCLI as they prepare. This invitation has opened doors to a world I knew nothing of before this project.

Over the course of a year I visited Garrison, several bases, armouries etc. I have spent thousands of hours with soldiers, their spouses, parents, friends. I have been on ex (exercise) with them several times, shared meals with the soldiers, slept in tents with them, been sick with them, laughed with them, been bored with them, celebrated, and mourned with them. I know what it means to wear a frag vest, a helmet, sit in the belly of a LAV for 20 hours, sleep out in the open, run for safety, eat hard rations, rise at 4:45 with the cooks and dollop out food in a flying kitchen, listen to Karl Gustav, a truly frightening weapon, all day and feel his percussion through my body (exhausting, fearsome). I have done night watch in a gunner’s turret, seen live fire, sat for hours in the Quarter Master’s… it’s all been fascinating.

It’s been equally fascinating watching the response I’ve had to this project. Once the soldiers realize that I’m not a journalist, they open up. I’ve had 99% positive reactions to my project from the general public, and the other 1% have used me as a target at which they can fire opinionated shots. I’ve been kissed and yelled at … pretty interesting stuff for a poet.

I’m often asked if I’m afraid to go to Afghanistan. Perhaps foolishly, I’m not afraid. I believe 1PPCLI will protect me so well that I’ll be mad at them for not letting me see anything. But what I’m afraid of, and I’m being honest here, is that my work will not be good. To date I write everything on the fly. I have so little time for reflection, for revision. I long for an editor. Still, I post my work in its rough state because I heed the words of the great Canadian- Scots poet Tom Bryan, who has helped me so much throughout my work, ‘You need to be getting your stuff out there while Canadian boys [and women] are being injured and dying.’ I just returned from an ex where a soldier died. I have written about it. Someday I’ll publish it. A huge challenge is to differentiate between witness and exploitation.

Ultimately, I see my work as witness. I try not to love the troops. I want my work to be record. I can only hope I have the courage to really write.

For a description of Suzanne’s work and projects, visit her site www.warpoet.ca,which includes a BBC World Service interview from October 2008. Poet Suzanne Steele wrote us this letter for Issue 5 of our Poetry Reader.

One Response to “A Letter from Afghanistan”

  1. sunnydunny Says:

    Suzanne was one of the stalwarts of the School of Poets while she was living in Edinburgh. It’s been a privilege to read her reports on her work over the period. A branch of her family is from Uist, and she spent some time there too, composing a fine poem sequence about island life.

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