Dear Editor,

Operation Homecoming was born of a conversation between NEA Chairman Dana Gioia and myself, so I leap to its defense. While I understand Eleanor Wilner's suspicion of the support it has received from what we used to call "the military industrial complex," her arguments against the project seem to be based on a belief that this "unholy alliance" must necessarily co-opt the intention of the project's architects and somehow harm the returning troops the project hopes to support. Wilner must be uncomfortable with the funding of the Nobel Peace Prize as well.

It is true that the roster of writers involved in Operation Homecoming ranges widely—witness the chasm between millionaire thriller-writer Tom Clancy and myself. Clancy and I participated in a workshop at the Norfolk Naval Station on September 22 and 23. The military personnel I met took Clancy's literary advice (He jangled his car keys and said, "Mercedes Benz. All you have to do is tell your stories, and you can have one, too.") about as seriously as I did. I suspect it was no accident that there were lots of media people but no military personnel in the room when Clancy pronounced in our press conference that, "Oh, yeah. Poets make the best killers."

I spoke the day after Clancy. The lengthy Q&A period which followed my brief presentation of writing tips ranged from copyright laws to how an elderly couple can find a writer willing to help them record his WWII stories. A Navy nurse is writing about her grandmother, one of the first African-American nurses in the Navy. Another sailor wants to write about his eating disorder. Several people asked how to encourage their children to write. I told them about literary journals. I recommended books. I told them to avoid widely advertised poetry publications which I know to be scams. I encouraged them to use the discipline they've learned from military service to commit themselves to disciplined literary apprenticeships.

Tom Clancy is not the voice of Operation Homecoming. Nor is Boeing, Inc. NEA Chairman Gioia has made clear the fact that "the Boeing money comes without restrictions and that submissions will be based on artistic merit, not on whether they're pro- or anti-war." (Hillel Italie, Associated Press) And the editors of the planned Operation Homecoming anthology will come from a wide spectrum of political viewpoints and have been assured that they will be given free rein. Wilner asks, "Are these returning troops once again being used as a shield against the scrutiny of the very policy which put them in harm's way in the first place?" A shield against scrutiny? I should think the words of these returning troops will more likely beam a very intense light on the effects of that policy.

As to whether the program "serves poetry," and whether the products will be "literary," I remind Wilner that such questions may not be answered in our lifetime. As a matter of fact, those of us who consider ourselves "poets" might well ask them about our own work.

Originally Published: October 30th, 2005

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, into a military family, Marilyn Nelson is a three-time finalist for the National Book Award and an accomplished poet, children’s verse author, and translator. She has won two Pushcart Prizes, two Yaddo residencies, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and...

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