Who: Master Sergeant Brandon Short, Specialist Arvinette Brooks
What: Poetry Night at the Falcon
When: Every other Tuesday
Where: Baghdad, Iraq
“Open Door” features audio, video, and other online media to document dynamic interactions between poetry and its audience. “Open Door” showcases performance, scholarship, and engagement outside the usual boundaries of slams, workshops, and book publications. This week: Poetry Night in Baghdad.
Every other Tuesday night, soldiers in Baghdad get together at The Falcon, a place Master Sergeant Brandon Short describes as a “club-type facility” run by the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation department of the Army, to read and listen to poetry.
The Falcon is a small structure of four wooden walls, with a small bar, no windows and two doors. Short explains that on poetry nights, they bring the house lights low, set the tables with paper, pencils and green glow sticks, and spotlight the mic at the podium.
When I ask Specialist Arvinette Brooks about the venue, she begins to describe the building, but is soon talking about the “blistering heat” from which it is a respite. “Like right now, the heat—it’s like 106,” she says. I ask her if I may infer from her words that The Falcon is air-conditioned, and she states clearly and with relief: “Yes, it is.”
When Short first started going to poetry night, there were six poets who participated on a regular basis. Now, “regularly in the poetry group, sixteen to twenty show up,” he says.
“People of all different ranks—from private on up to officers and everything in between, men and women, all cultures and races, different ages,” he explains.
As poets perform, their comrades listen, then snap in response.
“You can tell from the body language and the faces and the snaps how people have received your poetry,” he goes on. “[It’s] a loose, safe atmosphere, where people won’t judge you. Poet-to-poet, it builds a sort of camaraderie. When someone goes up there and they really bring it, it makes you wanna step up your poetry game--make people snap harder.”
Talking to MSG Short and SPC Brooks, it becomes evident that, for them, that’s what poetry night is about for these soldiers in southern Baghdad—receiving each other. Brooks thinks that receiving each other is even more important for poet soldiers in Iraq than the “poet-to-poet camaraderie” that goes beyond the military.
“I have to say it’s more important here. In the venues in the states, you’re just a spoken word artist on the mic. You’re doing your thing on the mic, and everybody loves you, because all poets, they connect," she says. "And here I’m speaking to people who are probably poets within themselves but are not able to speak on the mic. I’m speaking to people who are venting something, but are not yet at that point where they’re able to tell what they’ve been through.”
Poetry nights help people get to that point where they can “tell what they’ve been through.” Expressing a sentiment that came up a couple of times in my conversations with both Brooks and Short, Brooks said “being in the army, you see people differently,” and so it’s a “big risk” to open up.
MSG Short elaborates: “If you just put your whole life out there, there might be some undesirable things. Some people might not understand. Especially in the military, with rank, people might think, ‘This guy is a sergeant I respect’. If he goes up on the mic and says he’s experienced some things, people might look at him a little differently.”
Regarding his personal experience, MSG Short says, “[My rank is] Master Sergeant Brandon Short—one away from the top of the enlisted ranks. I work in a place where respectability is important. I preface my poems, ‘This used to be about me but I’m alright now--I wasn’t born a Master Sergeant, and I wasn’t born in the army.'”
Like Short, Brooks is happy to inspire fellow soldiers through her performances:
“[People] come to me and they talk to me about their experiences. It makes me feel good that they can confide in me, but I don’t look at them any differently than I did before—telling me things that they’ve been through—telling me my poetry inspired them. When the people hear my poetry, however it touches them, they always come back to me, and when they do that, I just look at it like, I didn’t do anything special. I just put down on paper, because that was what was put on my heart to do.”
Both SPC Brooks and MSG Short have been poets longer than they have been soldiers in Iraq, but being a solider has, for obvious reasons, become their short-term priority.
“The people I do my poetry with here, we’re not in the same unit or anything,” Brooks, a water treatment specialist, explains. “When I do my poetry, I don’t have to think about work. I enjoy the fact that I can be a person and not a soldier. I can be a soldier, but I can just be me—because when we’re doing poetry, you can be yourself. You don’t have to be that soldier.”
“Going all out with the military, really trying to be the best soldier you can be, really prevents you from doing a lot of other things,” he says.
“I think soldiers really need to write about what they’re going through here. I believe everybody should keep a journal. It gives everybody else a glimpse of you and what you went through. Everybody’s not gonna get a chance to come to Iraq. There’ll be archives, there’ll be history. The poets that are here and are writing about the things they see, they’ll have their own history.
“[Soldiers in Iraq] have a lot more to write about than people in the States. You see things that a lot of Americans are not going to see.”
For example, Short explains how he wrote two poems while out on convoy, rolling through the streets of Baghdad in an armored vehicle.
“It’s bumpy! Kind of hard to keep a pen straight. Your heart is already racing, from the time you exit the gate, from the time you see things, a spark inspires you—it’s pretty intense. When you’re in that vehicle and you’re goin’ down through the streets of Baghdad, you see trash on the side of the road—is that trash or is that a hidden bomb? Along with the excitement, mortality comes into play.
“It affects everything. You’re on you’re guard—you’re looking, scanning, doing what you gotta do. Any atmosphere will affect your writing. Where you are, what you’re doing. Mentally, spiritually, physically—writing is calming. So even if you’re in that situation, it does give a sense of relaxation. If you start writing a piece, once you’ve finished writing a piece, you’re like, ‘Aaaah, I’m finished!’ If you’re rolling through the streets of Baghdad, you finish writing a piece—even if it’s two lines, you’re like, ‘Aaaah, I’m done!’”
“I want to give the best of me,” he says. “I’d like to leave something for my kids to be able to pick up a book and say, ‘This is my dad’s book.’ For my great great great great great great—squared! – ‘Granddad’s book’."
After a reflective pause, Short says, “We all leave some day.”
“And you’d like to leave something here?” I ask.
“Roger,” he says.
Hear Brandon Short read his poem "Exile":
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Yael Shinar was born in California and earned a master’s degree in divinity from Harvard Divinity School. She writes in both English and Hebrew, and her poems have appeared in journals such as the Drunken Boat, Poetry Daily, Third Coast, and the Beloit Poetry Journal. She is currently working toward...