Vijay Iyer On Learning From War For three years, the jazz musician and his collaborator Mike Ladd have been working with war veterans-turned-poets to bring their words to light. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Iyer and Iraq veteran Maurice Decaul about the album that resulted, Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project.

Vijay Iyer On Learning From War

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And if you're just joining us, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. This is the poetry of war.


RATH: The still fresh memories of U.S. combat veterans have been transformed into music by acclaimed jazz composer Vijay Iyer. The voice you're hearing belongs to Mike Ladd, Iyer's partner on a series of projects, all about the lives of people of color since 9/11. This latest work features lyrics culled from interviews they conducted with Iraq and Afghanistan vets. It's called "Holding it Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project."


RATH: Vijay Iyer says this album is less about archiving the experiences of war and more about how vets live with the weight of those memories.

VIJAY IYER: Now that people have come home and they're among us, I mean, it's a few million people. It's all of our problem. So now what do we do?


RATH: This track features the voice of Maurice Decaul. He served in Iraq as a Marine and led a battalion into Nasiriyah in 2003. Decaul returned home that year, but he didn't start writing poetry until 2009.

MAURICE DECAUL: It took a long time to be able to think through what had happened in Iraq. And around that time, around six years after the deployment, I needed an outlet. And I was lucky enough to find one through NYU's Veterans Writing Workshop.

RATH: Maurice, the track "Derelict Poetry," it seems to be about imagined scenarios for yourself. You imagine staying in Iraq rather than returning home. And you imagine dying on the battlefield.


DECAUL: You know, you go to places like Iraq, and there's always the possibility that you might not make it back home. So the poem starts talking about how the main character, he's not home, he's never coming home. And he's still in Iraq. He's still just hanging out with the Bedouins. Well, what that really means is you never really do come home fully. Your mind might still be there. There's always a trace of the war. There's always a trace of the Marine Corps.

Then it goes into talking about how that possibly could've happened, that one doesn't make it home. I mean, it's - I was an infantryman when I was in Iraq. And you go out on something, on a mission that feels very familiar to you because you've been doing it for months on end every single day. And that particular day that you go out could be the last time.


RATH: Vijay, I'm kind of curious about the composition process because, you know, it's not sung, but it's not quite spoken word. It's sort of like almost in that Gil Scott-Heron, "Last Poets" kind of rhythmic talking. So..

IYER: You can say rap on NPR.

RATH: Hip-hop?

IYER: That's right. No, I mean, we have a lot of points of reference for this. And to be honest, we weren't really trying to sound like any specific thing. We were really just trying to make something together. And so when you do that, when you just sit in a room for a week or a year - or in this case, what, three and a half years...

DECAUL: Three years. Yeah.

IYER: know, you find some things that work and some things that don't. We kind of approached it in a lot of different ways. And some, you know, some of the pieces on the album are sung and some of them are spoken, very plain spoken. Some of them, I think, can be called rap, you know, like the piece called "On Patrol."


IYER: That's Maurice basically rapping is what's happening there.


RATH: And that's kind of a stream-of-consciousness piece. Maurice, can you talk about that one, "On Patrol?"

DECAUL: Hmm. Well, now that I'm thinking about it, "On Patrol" is also referencing that same incident in "Derelict Poetry." It was an ambush, trying to create the environment of going out on a patrol and being ambushed and what does that feel like. It's a very chaotic event. And training kicks in. So the poem starts to really think through what that event feels like.


DECAUL: I was interested in recreating some of the sounds because, you know, there's machine gun fire, and there's always machine gun fire in Iraq. But that was an important part of the poem to just trying to recreate the sounds of battle and that particular ambush.


RATH: It's sort of wild that the, you know, the project is called the "Veterans' Dreams Project." Insomnia is a theme here, and even the kind of killing of that dream state is sort of a theme, this - Maurice, was that a problem that you faced?

DECAUL: When I came home, I wouldn't - I would be able to sleep but - and I don't remember this, but my wife would talk about how at night I would wake up and I would maybe hit her or wrestle with her, fight with her. And that is something that kept happening. That happened for a few years. I don't personally remember that.

IYER: There was also, you know, when Mike - Mike did a lot of interviews of other veterans too. And some of the people he interviewed said they didn't dream at all. And if they did, it was a, you know, it was a medicated kind of sleep. So that's where the song "REM Killer" comes from is the kind - it's a litany of all the medications that people would take to not have to relive some of these memories in the course of sleep.


RATH: Maurice, what do you hope that listeners will take away from this collection?

DECAUL: That's a good question, something that we talk about. What I'm really hoping for is that we'll be able to create a space for dialogue. I think it's really important. I mean, we're drawing down Afghanistan next year, so that's another 60,000 or so troops coming home. And, it's funny, I was actually - I was speaking with another vet this morning, and he was talking about how, you know, when folks first come home they might not - it might take them a few years before they are willing to talk.

But what I'm hoping is that the project will create the space so that if people do want to talk, maybe we could model the way that this could be done.

RATH: Finally Vijay, I have to ask you, because just days ago it was announced that you were the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, as they're called. Of course, we knew you're a genius because we had booked this well ahead of that. So $625,000 over the next five years, no strings attached. What are you going to do?

IYER: Oh...

RATH: I put you on the spot.

IYER: It's kind of early. You know, it's still kind of sinking in. But it's sort of like welcome to the rest of your life, you know? What are you going to do now? But basically, if I can keep doing this kind of work and hopefully keep inspiring others, then I'll feel like I've done something good with it.

RATH: Nice. Well, congratulations.

IYER: Thank you so much.

RATH: And congratulations also on this amazing album. That's pianist and composer Vijay Iyer with Marine and poet Maurice Decaul. Their new collaboration is called "Holding it Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project." Gentlemen, thank you.

IYER: Thanks, Arun.

DECAUL: Thank you.


RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on Programs and scroll down. You can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. Until next time, thank you for listening and have a great week.

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