Like many Southerners, Kevin Powers considered military service something of a family tradition, and also a means to pay for college. In 2004 his Army unit was sent to Iraq, where he served as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar. He saw combat.
He returned home a year later, and, after working a few jobs that he loathed, he landed at Virginia Commonwealth University. He took his first poetry class, and promptly switched his major from history to English. “Poetry has helped me order the world,” Powers said. He then attended the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, which requires its students to write in more than one genre, and there Powers completed his first novel. The Yellow Birds, published in 2012, is an elegiac and impressionistic portrayal of young combat soldiers during the Iraq war. Roundly lauded by critics—Michiko Kakutani called it “brilliantly observed and deeply affecting”—The Yellow Birds was a finalist for the National Book Award, won the Guardian First Book Award, and was listed by the editors of the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2012. Powers spoke to the Poetry Foundation via telephone while visiting his family home in Virginia.
I’m curious about your early ambitions. Could you tell me when you began writing poetry?
I’ve been writing poems since I was 12 or 13. I was always a big reader as a kid—mostly fantasy. I’d routinely visit a used bookstore just outside of Richmond, and there I stumbled across its tiny poetry section. I was curious and picked up a Dylan Thomas collection. I read it, and it completely blew my mind. I was a kid, so I didn’t really know what was going on in the poems, but I knew something special was happening. I started trying to write poems right away. It never occurred to me to tell my friends that I loved poetry.
You didn’t receive praise for your poems from your teachers, or anyone?
No, I didn’t tell them.
And when did you begin showing people your poems?
I discovered poets as I could, but I wasn’t a good student. I joined the Army, was always reading and writing, but after I got back from Iraq I had a couple of jobs I hated, so I ended up going back to college. I’d started as a history major, and I told myself, “I’m going to take a poetry class and see what that’s all about.” My initial class was with a guy enrolled in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University—he was teaching an Introduction to Creative Writing course to undergraduates. His name is Jonathan Rice, and he’s become a really good friend of mine. He encouraged me to commit to writing, and to send my work out.
Were you writing when you were in Iraq?
I wasn’t writing then. I was reading a little bit, here and there, but not writing. It wasn’t practical. I didn’t have the time or the mental energy.
Private Bartle, the main character from your novel The Yellow Birds, appears as a character in your poem “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.” Did The Yellow Birds originate as poetry?
Yes, in a way it did. I don’t remember exactly when I wrote that poem—probably in 2007. I’d been back from Iraq for about two years, and I was writing poems about the war. This name, Bartle, came up, and later I began a story, and it felt like the boundaries were permeable. I had all this material, and was just putting it down in whatever form felt right in that moment. But yes, it’s probably true that germs of the ideas in The Yellow Birds began in poems.
Was writing an attempt to document Iraq or to make sense of the war? Or was this an older impulse, since you’ve been writing from an early age?
Writing has been my primary mode of trying to understand the world, to interact with the world, and ask questions about the world since I was young, and I had this huge question that was being posed to me over and over again after I returned from Iraq, and I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t even know how to begin formulating an answer. Rather than responding with simple information I focused on this idea of likeness—because they weren’t asking, “What happened?” or “What did you do?” but “What was it like?”
One of the functions of poetry is attempting to answer what things are like—how one thing has a relationship with another thing that may not be immediately apparent. It seemed natural to try to engage with that idea of like. How do I find some sort of connection between these really strange experiences that can somehow be communicated to another person? One of the things I am after as a reader is trying to make these connections. Poetry has helped me order the world.
I’m curious if you like one of my favorite poets, Randall Jarrell. His career extended far beyond World War II, but I do think he’s considered one of the premier poets of that era—he served stateside, didn’t actually see combat.
Yes, Jarrell wrote “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and lots of amazing stuff. That he didn’t see combat demonstrates the power of the imagination to deal with these enormous issues. I ended up reading a lot of war poets although I wasn’t seeking that out as a subject matter—just in the course of my reading I stumbled upon Yusef Komunyakaa, who I think is incredible, and Bruce Weigl. When Brian Turner’s book, Here, Bullet, came out I was excited about it because here’s a guy writing poems about Iraq. I thought, “This is fantastic.”
Tell me about the Michener program. I’m curious about what it was like to be fully immersed in poetry while simultaneously writing your first novel.
One of the reasons I was attracted to the Michener program is that you’re required to work in multiple genres and produce a secondary thesis. I’ve always been interested in poetry and fiction (and prose). I wanted to have the opportunity to work on both, so it was perfect for me. There were fellow poets in my fiction workshop, and fiction writers in my poetry workshop—it was an incredibly fruitful environment with a multitude of perspectives.
Were they able to keep the marketplace out of the classroom? There’s such a stark financial contrast between the two genres.
Because poetry was my main concentration I knew the score going in, but it wasn’t a big issue. The point is to do the work. You put as much work into it as you possibly can. The work is the only thing you can control—making the best work you can possibly make. No one knows if they’ll ever have three years again to devote to writing, so everyone in the program took it very seriously. The economics of it never really came into play.
Have you been sending your poetry manuscript out?
I haven’t, no.
I imagine you’re distracted by obligations to The Yellow Birds.
Yes, and the poetry manuscript is not quite finished. I need to be free of distraction even during revisions, and I have not had enough time to focus on the manuscript—I’m hoping [to] in the next couple of months. A good thing about writing in multiple genres is if I get frustrated with a piece of prose I can set it aside and go work on poems for a week or two, and vice versa.
Growing up in Virginia, did you feel part of the Southern literary tradition?
I wouldn’t say that I felt part of it or had a special relationship to it, but it did feel natural. One of the first novels I fell in love with was Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. I read it when I was young, so it was difficult. But there’s something about the approach that felt natural to me. I felt an affinity with that book. Recently, in an interview, I was asked if I thought I got away with lyricism in The Yellow Birds because I’m Southern. I thought that was funny.