How does one become a war poet? Suzanne Steele began by being curious about the exact colour of the Afghan dust when writing “Elegy for an Infantryman” in 2005. She contacted DND and asked to talk to someone who’d been in Afghanistan. And she got her wish. Long chats with a soldier not only helped her finish her poems, but changed the course of her life. Wanting to understand why and how Canadians would want to serve in that war zone, she put these poems into an application to volunteer in the Canadian Forces Artists Program. The most current version of the war artists program was established in 2001 and is open to writers and poets as well as painters. After she was accepted, she asked to spend time with the troops in training as research before she left for Afghanistan: she was with them throughout their road to war, interviewing, visiting military bases, attending military functions, going outside the wire and finally attending a repatriation.
In November 2009, Steele deployed with Task Force 3-09 to Afghanistan. She shared the conditions of the soldiers, from her bed on the ground to the food and even illness. In order to get the full picture of life in Kandahar, she also spent time with the support staff — the cooks, medics and clerks. Her online diary mentioned serving potatoes to the soldiers; of course I asked if all war artists served in the kitchen. She chose to do so because it was a good spot from which “to look them in the eye, to see how the boys were doing.” Her website (warpoet.ca) was crucial to overcoming initial reservations about her presence (why is a poet here), as they could see that she was not judging. While the soldiers did let her into their lives, boundaries were kept: she addressed by rank the members of the First Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal 22nd Regiment (Van Doos).
Her site, warpoet.ca, drew thousands of responses from military and their families and from non-military. Some of the responses were critical, accusing her of being pro-war. As Steele says, war is a human activity, and she was there to bear witness. Over the course of her time spent with Canada’s soldiers, she grew to love the people in the subculture that is the military. She pointed out, however, that her poems are not about an individual but about a type.
Combine her undergraduate degree in music with her Afghan experience and what do you get? An elegy. Steele wrote the lyrics and Jeffrey Ryans composed the music for “Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation,” which was performed by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, the Calgary Philharmonic Choir and Cantaré Children’s Choir on 10 November 2012. This has been recorded by CBC and and you can listen to it by following this link.
Steele is now working on a PhD with funding from the University of Exeter, with the working title of “The Art of Witness, a Poet’s Road to War.” She considers the ethical and aesthetic issues of war art, examining both contemporary and earlier artists, including an unknown Canadian poet, Quentin Mullen, a sniper who served in Afghanistan in 2002. She writes: “I am extremely interested in the performative aspects of literature, and narrative psychology, having witnessed the role literature plays in the lives of those serving in the front lines of the war in Afghanistan.” You can find “Wadi (5),” one of her war poems, below.
you signed up for every patrol you could.
your death wish: step on metal/plate/wires.
sierra echo out. done. finished. fade black. gone.
me to you on Sat. phone, “smarten up, cut it out.
stop that crazy talk. there are good years. still to come.
the baby waiting to be made, to be born.” you couldn’t hear
your heart. brain-dead. too many years of dust/sleep dep.
dread. your ears filled with the dead. so much, so
you couldn’t hear, “I love you” sanded soft turned
between our words. words planed. words lathed.
then today I understood. rode my bike
into the season. turning leaves like salt. in the forest.
on the gravel. path. without you I didn’t care
to stop. wished cars would T-bone my heart.
over-filled. the heavy rains. a wadi green. unstill.
(© Suzanne Steele)
Her poems have been published on her site, in literary quarterlies and anthologies. She would love to pull them together as an app or in a digital publication.
- photos from the composer (jeffreyryan.com)
- Review “Tribute to war sacrifices deeply moving” by Stephan Bonfield, For The Calgary Herald, Monday, November 12, 2012.
- Photos: Canadian Remembrance Day Ceremonies From Afghanistan (blogs.ottawacitizen.com)
- AUDIO: War poet wrote about ‘stupidity and futility’ (bbc.co.uk)
Dust to Dust is dedicated to my sister who ended her personal battle
on November 1, 2013. — D. Martens