I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The poet on her new collection of documentary poetry, military simulation zones, and how Americans are regularly ensconced in the diorama of war.
In her second full-length collection of poems, poet and anthropologist Nomi Stone submits herself to the 21st century American war machine. The documentary poems of Kill Class (Tupelo Press) were composed as Stone conducted an ethnographic study of military training modules for her doctoral thesis in anthropology. In these poems, Stone acutely observes the physical and social structures of Pineland, a large-scale set piece created by the United States military to prepare soldiers to deploy in war and conflict zones. The marketplaces and dwellings of the four mock villages that Stone observed are populated by American and Iraqi civilians employed by the United States government to act out roles in the installation, in addition to the new recruits undergoing training.
The tradition of the documentary poem, an auto-ethnographic mode of translating the world into verse, has been practiced widely by socially conscious poets working across formal and experimental forms. Kill Class bears witness to the American military’s use of war as a game of logic and as a productivity strategy. From the use of rubber products and plastics, to the emotional labors performed in daily life (“managing up” to superiors or regulating emotions with corn syrup) – everyday behaviors “trickle up” to multinational gain, where the gears of capital spin to the warhead, eventually. Contributions to the war machine are visible and invisible, from conscription into the Army to investing in 401k portfolios that hold Lockheed Martin stock. American lives, their minor and major cruelties, are ensconced in the diorama of war.
—Jasmine Dreame Wagner
Jasmine Dreame Wagner I’m interested in the way that war culture permeates our human connections. Could you speak about being a “student of war,” or what being a student writing about war, means to you?
Nomi Stone I recently drove through a military town, past the Arby’s, AT&T, and golf club—all with military discounts—the barbershops and boot repair shops, the billboard for Black Ops Paintball, which invites church groups and bachelorette parties to “Blast your friend with FUN.”
The anthropologist Cathy Lutz describes towns around military bases as microcosms, saying “we now inhabit an army camp”—all of us. And as you say, war capitalism is cellular and almost imperceptible because it is everywhere: from Lockheed Martin stock in your 401K to agricultural corporations manufacturing Agent Orange. And it’s true, American war culture does permeate human interactions and relationships. I think this is most true when human actions and desires and connections are treated like “lines” and “planes”—fodder for extraction and use. This is a logic that Adorno and Horkheimer trace back to the Enlightenment, which extends most prominently perhaps to capitalism, militarized capitalism, and America’s war economy. The opposite of the utilitarian line is the spiral, and it’s only through this spiral in approaching each other that true tenderness is possible—or so says Adorno, and I believe this deeply.
May we spiral towards each other in tenderness, reveling in the world without instrumentalizing it and deleafing it, turning it into planks used in our war ships.
For me, this spiraling is the act as writing a poem. Or as Galway Kinnell says, “The secret title of every good poem might be Tenderness.”
JDW Do you think it’s possible to write an American poem whose forms are free from war?
In one of his more beautiful passages (also later reprised by Adrienne Rich), Marx talks about how capitalism creates a condition where “all the physical and intellectual senses have been replaced by the simple alienation of all these senses: the sense of having.” How diminished we are without other forms of experience and sensory plenitude. What about a sense of being or knowing without having? To “have” is maybe a fallacy, as possession often requires destroying a thing—for example, a tree that can only be “had” as lumber.
I’m teaching a class right now about a local river in Princeton. The other day, we darted around muddy and slushy banks until we encountered a beaver lodge, its striated branches, the regular marks of its teeth. We looked and took notes and felt the wind and laughed and walked through thorny backwoods and as my wife noticed (she came on the fieldtrip), we took care to not let the thorns fall on the person behind us. Through this kind of wide-awake living and attention, the world punches into the body, and out comes a poem made by something other than war.
JDW We practice opposition in our games, in schoolyard antics, in participating in fandoms and as spectators of professional sports leagues before we as children know what an opposition, or a nation, or a tribal resonance, really is—or what conditions these modes of being create. Beyond care and attention on a micro-level, how can we escape the militarized metaphor?
NS When war as a condition is cellular within a nation, embedded within its culture and economy and forms of amusement, I don’t think we can easily escape its metaphors. Metaphors about adversaries and allies, about obstacles and triumph, circle us back to war. Yet, maybe, it’s deeper than metaphor, and deeper than our conscious linkages. War is embedded within language: the word infantry—foot soldiers—comes from “infanterie” in French and “infanteria” in Italian, meaning “youth.” It’s true, foot soldiers had less experience than soldiers of other ranks. But the word infant, which we use for a newborn, is marked with its history: it is milk but it is also blood, and we would do well to feel the shiver of that etymological legacy.
Poetry’s work is to bring these violent ghosts to consciousness, but also to open language and shake it loose—to feel the sharp aroma of words on the page reach our bodies. “Wintergreen.” “Strawberry.” “Two Indian Ponies.” “They bow shyly as wet swans.”
JDW Off and on, I’ve followed a social media debate on IQ measurement—a few tweets and blog posts about the validity and biases of intelligence tests. Initially designed to screen for the military and for police hiring, the tests reward those whose minds work best when perceiving systems. They don’t necessarily reward those whose minds analyze how a system works, or a system’s efficiency. The tests can’t measure a person’s ability to question systems, a trait that is more likely ascribed to “genius” (to adapt, to think outside of context, to make extra-system connections). They reward participants who play and master games, not those who create games, or who question systems that facilitate games—never mind those who ask whether game systems are ethical to begin with.
War games and standardized tests presume that sets of behaviors and data are valid or invalid; right or wrong; rewarded or prohibited. Yet, is any war “won” by following the war game’s rules? Can a war game be ethical? Does any standardized test—whether testing for infantry, police academy, or the ivy league—predict the “outcomes” of an individual’s inscription into or expungement from a system? Obviously, my personal answer is “no,” but I’m interested in your experience of Pineland as an assessment tool, as an educational structure, and as a war game.
NS The war games I observed were typically governed by either a logic of binaries (I’ll call these “Game A” for the moment) or by a system of contained contingency (I’ll call these “Game B”). These games were possible to “win” through the mastery of the game.
Let me elaborate on how these two kinds of games unfold and why they were so unsettling to me.
“Game A” is typically set up so soldiers in training move through a series of cultural and tactical dilemmas facilitated by civilians who are employed as role-players, hired to enact interconnected characters in a village. The training soldiers’ goal is to map out and decipher the human terrain of the village, to identify the persuasions and political orientations of different sects or groups within a population, the power-brokers (for example, the “Mayor,” “Imam,” and “Police Chief”) and their motivations. Soldiers must determine the political orientations of the village (for example, are they pro-American? Pro-militia?) and if those orientations are malleable. These simulations function something like a mechanism of identification, where fixed categories of identity (“bad guy,” “good guy”) are linked to categories of imagination and action. Within this calculus, training soldiers are taught to predict behaviors and motivations based on allegiances.
The second and more complex and contingent form of simulation (“Game B”) is referred to by some military personnel as “Choose Your Own Adventure.” These war games typically last 24 hours a day and run for approximately a week. They attempt to incorporate all potential cultural and tactical outcomes. In these more sophisticated installations, not only cause and effect are woven into the games’ permutating storylines; the soldiers are required to anticipate what are called “second and third order effects”—the potential ripple effect of their own decision-making.
In this kind of simulation, any chain of action can theoretically be predicted or interrupted. For example, if in a scenario, a black marketer meets with a criminal entity to buy stolen fertilizer, transport it to another town, and sell it to insurgent forces, then, the plant manager must realize the fertilizer is missing, report the missing product to the Iraqi police, and the information should eventually reach the training soldiers, who must react immediately by erecting traffic control points or initiating investigations. The trainees can catch the black marketers and detain them. If they’re equipped with the proper knowledge, distilled into operationally useful information, any “bad guy” or “bad event” can be averted. As Scott Magelssen quotes in his book, Simming: Participatory Performance and the Making of Meaning,
one public affairs officer explained: “If this was done perfectly, the Americans should have been able to decipher the puzzle, go to a village, ‘knock on door number three and find the leader of al-Qaeda.”
Yet, any system that imagines it can encompass and map human beings—and their messy, cracked, tangled work of living and loving and dreaming—is deeply disturbing, and also, of course, flawed. Game theory and rational choice theory forgets our joyful and anguished surplus, and our internal contradictions (as Nuar Alsadir tells us, “so much of the violence we encounter at the daily level is intrapsychic, between different parts of mind.”) All of which is incalculable. I’m drawn to anthropology and poetry because they leave room for breathing singularity and do not try to corner human surplus into a formula.
Systems must be questioned, including the ethics embedded within them. You asked if any war is ethical, and this brings us to the debates on “just war.” The political scientist Michael Walzer says just war is governed by principles of proportionality (violence must be balanced to the goals sought), and necessity (relying on an idea of morality and noms in common). But Talal Asad counters that it is typically powerful states (read, the West, at this moment, at least) that decide what is proportional and necessary. I find arguments defending virtuous killing unsettling. At the very least, they should ask us to look closely at the wars being waged, for the benefit of and to the detriment of exactly whom?
JDW Formal poetry follows the rules. Or uses subversive content to jam the formal poem’s system. “Working to enact change within the system.” As a woman, I’ve been told my entire life that I need to please the system first before I can change it. The older I get, the less enamored I am of “playing games.” Where I once enjoyed playing with formal verse as generative tool, it’s begun to feel like a cruel tactic. A pandering to a game. Help me.
NS Games are meant to be sites of imagination and rehearsal, a way to try an act without doing the act. But how about a violent act pantomimed in the body and mind? What are its repercussions? This spring I was on an AWP panel with Sumita Chakraborty, Sara Eliza Johnson, Paige Lewis, and Roy Guzmán on oblique violence. As Toni Morrison writes of violence, “wanting to is doing it.” Early in our conversations on the topic, we circulated the Ross Gay poem and book, “Bringing the Shovel Down.”
Gay’s collection is bookended by two versions of the title poem. In the first version, which unfolds over a single, sinuous, impossible sentence, the speaker recounts to his lover a devastating childhood experience: “in the story is a dog and unnamed it leads to less heartbreak / so name him Max.” He was told by the older boys in the neighborhood that an old, ill dog was rabid and monstrous, and “on the third night of dreams which harden his soft face,” he goes to the yard at night, and upon the dog, he brings the shovel down. In the last poem in the collection, “Again,” with the alteration of a brief succession of clauses, he does not: “Max catches the gaze of the boy who sees / at last the raw skin on the dog’s flank, the quiver / of his spindly legs.” Instead, a moment of tenderness ensues between the child and the animal.
Time isn’t linear in this sequence. Rather, time loops back on itself in the mind: did the child bring the shovel down, or not? And if he did, does the second version of the poem allow for redress, an undoing of the act?
In her introduction to The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt tells us that human beings are bound together in a world of radical contingency: “one deed might suffice to change every constellation.” Our deeds have impacts, particularly, unconscionable, violent deeds. But as Arendt says in reply: “The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility—of being unable to undo what one has done—is the faculty of forgiving.”
In Ross Gay’s second poem, “Again,” the dog both dies and undies. There is an unspeakable tenderness as the dog is spared, right alongside the ghost of the violent act that stays. We are inside a single sentence in Gay’s poem, and it begins with the word because. “Because I love you, and beneath the uncountable stars / I have become the delicate piston threading itself through your chest, // I want to tell you a story I shouldn’t but will.” The sentence is hypotactic, beginning as it does with a dependent clause, and moving through the twists of the story. We can’t ever entirely go back, unthink the thought, erase its shadow from the poem.
Rehearsing violence in the mind and body, and in the imagery of a poem can be terrifying. The war game in particular is a form of play that might allow us to lose our bearings, to only think inside a system whose ethics might be wedded to power. What is righteous and humane is conversely attuning ourselves to the frame of the game in order to re-see it. In the context of the war game, as the frame emerges, we see how human beings are treated as inputs and outputs rather than as fragile, beautiful, and contradictory embodied beings.
For me, formal poetry is a different kind of grid and structure: a means of moving towards the body through song. I remember hearing once Eleanor Wilner, a dear friend and mentor of mine, give a talk about Maxine Kumin, and she discussed Kumin’s poem, “The Green Well.” In it, Wilner described how grief and its stiffening were represented as near rhymes hardened into pure rhymes. Form is one way to do this. Other ways: experimentation and pushing against form.
JDW Pineland is a fictional place that occupies real space, on real American land. It’s a place where soldiers and civilians rehearse death. Dominion is rehearsed as well, not only dominion over others, but dominion over death. The simulation—the game—allows us to practice death. And of course, with practice comes mastery, with its shades of perfection. How we’re creating “perfect” death. As though the manufacture of death could be optimized, like an assembly line, or the business strategies of private equity.
We also have the more classical ideas of a perfect death—a kind of sacrifice, an offering. What is a perfect death, really? A death that is morally and ethically sanctioned for the benefit of others? Do you have any thoughts about the manufacture of sacrifice?
NS How surreal to keep dying without dying. In some of the simulations, the participants used Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement (MILES) gear, basically a military version of laser tag. If the individual is “killed” a high-pitched tone sounds. A bright blue “God-Gun” re-sets them.
“When dead, lie shirtless
in a clearing whisper
your eulogy to your partner
until the blinking
Gun reboots us just as
the sun comes up.”
George Bataille talks about how this kind of eerie proximity to death might produce a jolt of laughter—you might go to a wake and project yourself into the corpse without being subject to its fate. Or, in the case of the role-plays, you play dead and then come back to life. Or in Bataillian terms, you step back into the discrete and autonomous boundaries of your life without dissolving into the beyond.
In the end, there’s no perfecting death of course. Still there is the fantasy of producing a perfect, sacrificial death. In war, a perfected death is one given to the State’s dream of itself—a death given for freedom or democracy, for one’s own freedom, or for the freedom of others.
This “gift”—of a nationalized body given to an idea—is reinforced constantly in America. I just returned from the airport, where armed service members were asked to board the plane first: essentially a way to make the public aware of their sacrifice. But I want to note also that some kinds of suffering and death are considered more justified by the State—I think of Condoleeza Rice, in 2006, describing the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” amidst Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon that killed hundreds of civilians. Those bodies, then, are fed to the nation’s gods, a sacrifice to a particular world order. Sacrifice is, as you say, a form of barter: give the body to maintain the order, or to create a new order. In this economy, the noble fighting body risks and potentially trades itself to staunch the floods, expel the enemy, send the dark gods away.
JDW What are you negotiating for, by writing these poems?
NS As I reply to you, I realize that I’m negotiating for a kind of poetry where—as I wrote above—we spiral towards each other in care and tenderness rather than seeking to extract something from each other. Where we treat ourselves and each other, and all that is sentient, as precious, a Thou, in Martin Buber’s terms, rather than an It. A poetry where “the world punches into the body, and out comes a poem made by something other than war.”
Jasmine Dreame Wagner is a writer, artist, and musician. She is the author of the collections On a Clear Day (Ahsahta Press, 2017) and Rings, and six chapbooks.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee