In a conversation with Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles Bookshop, London, author Kevin Powers discusses how poetry served him while writing The Yellow Birds, and the reaction the book has received from service men and the general public alike.
How did you come to join the army at the age of seventeen?
I wasn't a particularly good student in high school, but I knew that I wanted to go to college. And given the fact that there is a long tradition of military service in my family, enlisting always seemed like a viable option. It was neither encouraged nor discouraged, but I had by then inferred that the military was where a person went to develop the qualities I had come to admire in my father, my uncle, and both of my grandfathers. The cliché, in my case, was true: I thought that the army would "make me a man."
First World War poet Wilfred Owen wrote in the preface to his poems: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Does this apply to The Yellow Birds?
I can only say that the impulse to write The Yellow Birds came from a desire to look for some truth that I hoped could be found at the core of that most extreme of human experiences. I also thought that by placing the emphasis on the language, using it to demonstrate Bartle's perpetual, unbearable sense of awe and wonder, I'd have at least a chance of connecting to another human being on an emotional level. I wanted to engage with the imagination above all else, because I believe that empathy is an imaginative act.
What sort of reactions have you had from those with combat
experience in Iraq?
I don't know if many vets have had a chance to read the book yet, but I have had several kind messages of encouragement and support, for which I am deeply grateful.
You're also a poet and this comes across in the deeply lyrical
quality of your prose. Was this intended in counterpoint to
the rawness of the dialogue?
I intended it as counterpoint not just to the rawness of the dialogue, but also to the rawness of the experience. In that respect it is more point than counterpoint. In trying to demonstrate Bartle's mental state, I felt very strongly that the language would have to be prominent. Language is, in its essence, a set of noises and signs that represent what is happening inside our heads. If I have faith that those noises and signs can be received and understood by another person, then I should also have faith that they can be made more finely tuned.
You've said that you were asked most often on your own return what it was like in Iraq. Do you feel that fiction works better than reportage in overcoming people's squeamishness and portraying the reality of combat?
I wouldn't say that it works better, only that it works in a different way. The benefit is that it can confound expectations, particularly in the case of these wars that have been going on so long. It is perfectly understandable that people become inured to the violence when it is presented to them in the same way for ten years or more. Art will sometimes allow you to see the same thing in a new way. But this is only possible because artists don't have the same kinds of responsibilities as journalists. The work that journalists do during wartime is utterly essential and, to me, incomprehensibly difficult.
One particularly poignant moment comes when Bartle promises the mother of his future comrade-in-arms Murphy that
he'll make sure her son makes it home safely, by which time in the book we know he will not be able to do so. Is Bartle's guilt fueled more by Murphy's death or his own survival?
I would not be able to separate the two. The root of his guilt is that he wanted to be good, and he tried to be good, but he failed. His conflict is between his desire to redeem that failure and his acceptance of complete powerlessness.
The Yellow Birds has already brought comparison with books as diverse as Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Were there any particular books that served as an inspiration to you?
Those books were all very meaningful to me. I would include Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright, as well as
the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.
Can you tell us anything about what you're working on at the
I have a collection of poems I'm nearly finished with. And I've begun work on my second novel, about a murder that takes place in Virginia just after the Civil War.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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