War Poetry, Inspired By A Husband's Service

fromWHYY

Philadelphia poet Elyse Fenton recently won the University of Wales' Dylan Thomas Prize for her collection of war poetry inspired by her husband's service in Iraq. The prize is the largest given to an author under 30 years of age, and she is the first American and first poet to win the $47,000 award. Her husband served as an Army medic in Iraq. He struggles with the notion that he was her muse.

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The University of Wales' Dylan Thomas Prize honors a literary work in English by a writer under 30. And this year, it's gone to a young American writer whose collection of poetry was inspired by her husband's service in Iraq.

While honor comes with a roughly $47,000 prize, it has also brought a certain amount of discomfort for her husband, who is worried about how his war experience might be perceived.

From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Susan Phillips reports.

SUSAN PHILLIPS: Elyse Fenton is the first poet, and first American, to win the award. Just before her husband Peenesh Shah deployed to Iraq in 2005, she moved to Eugene, Oregon to study poetry.

Ms. ELYSE FENTON (Poet): So Eugene is a small, you know, historically hippie town, really homogenous, gorgeous, woodsy, foggy. It was lovely. But then I had this alternate reality in which I was a war bride.

PHILLIPS: Seven thousand miles away, her husband was working as a medic at an aid station in the Green Zone. He says he treated ordinary medical complaints more often than the wounds of war.

Shah ended each day with a trip to the Green Zone's Internet cafe where he would have instant message conversations with his wife.

Mr. PEENESH SHAH: I remember them being very sort of ordinary, like just conversations often about nothing really, just to talk. For me, I think it was just, like, a sort of a maintenance of familiarity.

PHILLIPS: Shah's wife woke up to those messages each day before she began to write.

Ms. FENTON: The last thing I looked at before I wrote was the screen with our sort of fractured and distant communication. And so, that text was what I focused on, what I was navigating when I began to write, was thinking about all of this distance and these attempts at articulation and then also just seeing all the white space on the page.

PHILLIPS: And Fenton turned those white spaces into poetry, what she calls an emotional record of her experience of the war in Iraq.

Ms. FENTON: Mid-conversation someone comes looking for body bags. Medic, I can hear you rummaging the shelves, know the small fury of your hands and the way they used to settle, palms sinking...

PHILLIPS: Fenton says her work reflects those daily instant message conversations. But her husband says they reflect her reality, not his.

Mr. SHAH: The bulk of my experience there was really sort of monotonous and routine. There were, you know, maybe, like, a handful of times when anything, you know, even remotely war-like happened. But, you know, those things get more attention in the book.

PHILLIPS: Shah worries about how other soldiers may view the poems. He says he was safe for the most part and didn't see combat. And he struggles with the idea that he was his wife's muse.

Mr. SHAH: Whenever I hear Elyse talk about her work, I think about the potential of my peers, people with whom I had served, hearing it and what they would think. And I have no regard for what poets or the academy might think.

PHILLIPS: Elyse says her poems illustrate what it felt like to be the spouse left behind. What stood out for her were the fragments of their conversations that did speak to war.

Ms. FENTON: It's hard not knowing. I mean, I think that's the position of the spouse left behind is no reassurance is worth anything because you don't know. I mean, you're not there and safety seems very relative and tenuous at best.

PHILLIPS: Fenton says that uncertainty, along with the language of war slipping into their conversations, inspired her poetry.

Ms. FENTON: Bricks mortared into a broken kingdom of sleep where I found you, dream-sift, rubbled, nowhere. Forgive me, love, this last infidelity. I never dreamed you whole.

PHILLIPS: Shah is now clerking for a judge in Trenton, but he still has more than a year left on the inactive reserve. Fenton says she won't be completely at ease until he's off that list.

For NPR news, I'm Susan Phillips.

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