Photo courtesy of Lynn Hill
"Dreams. Black, white. Bent metal scrapping the roof of my mouth. Burned rubber and oil. Gas like garlic. Sharp flavor of vomit jagged down the back of my throat. Track wheels. Loud engines. Striker tanks rolling into a city. Screaming babies with no sleep after a gun fight. No. I dream in color. Of green grass and tall trees. A backyard with a pool. A neighbor’s dog pooping on my front lawn. Red roses and yellow daisies. Blue skies. Pink gummy smiles. A rainbow of laughter. Bright eyes in a big brick house with a porch. Wind chimes. I dream in color. Holidays, birthdays, home for the six o’clock news. Dinner at a table. Arguments over useless shit and forget over a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Evening showers and pillow talk before clicking off the light. When I dream, I dream of normalcy. I dream the color of peace."
Jo Reed: That was writer, actor, and air force veteran Lynn Hill, reading her poem, "Dreams in Color." Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Last month, at the Atlas Theater's annual Intersections Festival here in Washington, DC, I saw "Holding It Down," Vijay Iyer's and Mike Ladd's extraordinary performance piece about the dreams of veterans of color who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Based on actual conversations with veterans, "Holding It Down" is an often discordant, but always gripping mixture of poetry, music, video monologues by veterans, and visual images reflecting the hallucinatory nature of both dreams and war. Two poet veterans are key performers in "Holding It Down:" Maurice DeCaul and Lynn Hunt. Lynn Hunt’s passionate reading and charismatic presence underscored her unexpected story: her experience operating predator drones, firing missiles into Iraq remotely from a central station in Las Vegas, and the subsequent conflicts this duty caused within her.
How she moved through those conflicts to the life she's made now as new mother, a wife, an author, and an actor, and the role of writing and performing to that process, was the topic of our conversation. We began it with "Holding It Down."
Lynn Hill: "Holding it Down" is-- it's a collaboration of poetry, music, visual representation of the war, a visual representation of the poetry and also interviews. Its primary focus is veterans of color, their dreams. And one of the things that I think is beautiful about it is that a lot of people don't think about the dreams that people have when they get back. So, it's a series of interviews of what is it like--what type of dreams do you have and if you even dream at all. And Vijay just craftily put it to music. Because sometimes your dreams don't make sense, and sometimes the visual and the music and the way the cello and the drums are going off of each other and then the poetry sometimes may not make sense. And one of the things that he said was that he just made it so fluid so that it's not a song. This poem-- quote, unquote, poem-- can end at a different place every single time you hear it. We tried to just reach out to the veteran community, to the--and I just want to say the American community--to open up the conversation about veterans. Everyone always says "Oh, the heroes are always the soldier who's an active duty who's in uniform," but when you take off that uniform and you're walking among everyone you're like an invisible-- you're like the unsung hero now that's back here trying to put their life back together.
So I think "Holding it Down" is to show that people are still trying to hold it down, they're trying to hold it together, and hopefully we can start the dialog and say, "How can we help these guys? How can we encourage them? How can we empower them? How can we change their dreams from being of bombs and shady gray and sand to being blue skies, smiles, and hearing laughter. And it's the normalcy of their lives that they can come back to.
Jo Reed: How old were you when you joined the air force?
Lynn Hill: I was 18. It was 5 days after graduation.
Jo Reed: What drew you to the air force?
Lynn Hill: Mmm. <laughs> So, I had a strategic plan, and then I had another kind of forced scenario. My high school was called the Academy of Finance at Overlea High School in Baltimore, and a part of that program was to really get students minded about finance and business and going in to the business realm of investments and such and they give you internships and everything. And I worked as a human resource manager when I was 17. As a human resource manager, I noticed that the people who I was looking at were people who had experience and military experience and a college degree wasn't enough. You would just go to a telemarketing job if you had a college degree, so I wanted a whole package person who I could send off and be like okay, this person is a candidate that we're looking at for managerial or midlevel, midgrade type of employment. So I'm like you know what, what's going to be a good way that I could get out of college, be in my mid twenties and be a competitive candidate for employment for a big corporation? And I felt like the military would be the organization that could kind of set me up with discipline, with experience and training and all those things to just make me attractive for an employer. And I didn't want to pay for my college, so I was thinking about my parents. I don't come from a rich background or upper middle class--none of that. My parents were working parents and they tried to provide the best for us, and I didn't want my parents to be burdened with my college education when I graduated. So, I figured hey--the military would also add that added bonus of paying for my college, and it would be something that I would do myself. Now, I go to Columbia University. My tuition was completely paid for. It's a 50- $60,000-a-year school. It's an Ivy League education, and it's something that my parents would never have been able to provide for me, so I'm really thankful that I made that decision.
Jo Reed: Was your experience in the air force different from what you had imagined?
Lynn Hill: In the beginning it was exactly what I intended. I wanted to work as an intelligence analyst. I wanted something that would transfer into the civilian corporate world easily. I didn't want to be a jet engine mechanic or a tank operator or something, like what are you going to do when you get out? So, I wanted to have the job that I eventually wound up doing, and it wasn't until the last two years of my assignment when I transitioned into the Predator Operations Unit, which is the drones aircraft. Once I got into working with them, then my idea of what the military was started to change, because that was a different type of job.
Jo Reed: Tell us about that job. What did you do with Predator Drones?
Lynn Hill: Well, with Predator you're part of a team that operates the aircraft in another country while you're in a different country. So the planes were in Iraq or Afghanistan and we were in Las Vegas, and now I was no longer an analyst, I was an operator. So there weren't these--making reports and reading and writing and giving briefings to higher-ups to make decisions. Now I was a part of the operation of the aircraft. I was directly involved in the mission of that aircraft, that plane, of whatever's going on with the target that we're looking for, so it just made it really different.
So I would communicate with analysts who were in Iraq, who were in Afghanistan, who were on the ground, the marine, the army guy, the special forces. And they wanted to receive coverage of this house, and they wanted it to be continuous or we're looking for this specific car, we're looking for this specific guy, this is what he looks like, this is what he wears, something like that. Then we're directly involved. So I'm collecting this data on finding this car, finding this guy, so that's what made it really change and made it very exciting because now you're no longer a step away from the war, you're a part of it. You're an active participant and no longer looking from the outside. But the thing that makes Predator drones so unique is that even though I felt like I was a participant I was still 12,000 miles away. And that makes it very different and difficult to kind of compartmentalize the war between your real life and your war life. And I speak about that in my poem, "Capacity."
I have a capacity for war. I have a capacity for hate. I have a capacity for insanity. For anger. For lies. 525,600 minutes times 2, before I break into an explosion of thoughts, of insurgents and soft kills, and career moves. Capacity for destruction. Capacity for loss. Capacity for death, violence, nothingness. 24 months of pain and disgust. Actions of my hands accuse me. Guilty, charge. Unclear clear details and shaky intell, but still I pull the trigger. There’s a limit to madness. Gague clocks out at two years, but they serve up poison like entrees at Blueberry Hill. Crazy with a side of numb. It took 63,720,000 seconds to go from me to somebody else. To change.
Jo Reed: That’s Lynn Hill in "Holding it Down," performing her poem, "Capacity." I asked Lynn when she realized that poetry could help her come to terms with the residual feelings she had about her work in the Predator drone program.
Lynn Hill: I'm actually a literary short story writer, and I wrote about being in Predator in a short story. And in that class I met with the poet Maurice Decaul.
Jo Reed: And I’m assuming that’s at Columbia?
Lynn Hill: Yes. And we were taking another class together and he says, "Hey, I'm doing this project about veterans and their experiences and their dreams. We're looking for women of color. Would you be willing to come down for an interview?"
Jo Reed: And he was part of "Holding it Down" with Vjay Iyers and with Mike Ladd?
Lynn Hill: Yeah. When, I spoke with him I told him I wrote this short story, and I've never really put it into poetry. And throughout my interview the director, Patricia McGregor said, "There's a lot of things that your words that are trigger words that you're coming out with like "capacity" and "time" and "two years" and this would be a great poem." And I would say that poetry is probably the hardest language that I've ever learned. It's a completely different beast, so in writing "Capacity," it's very specific. Each one of those words are very important and it kind of speaks of the double life that you have as being a soldier and being a real person, a human being, the divide between your humanity and your orders and how long can a person stay within the war environment before it starts chipping away at your sanity, your normalcy, your humanity, the things that make you "you."
Jo Reed: Was it a difficult transition for you to transition back into civilian life?
Lynn Hill: You mean each day or once I got out of the military?
Jo Reed: Actually both because I think how odd it must be to be in Las Vegas--
Lynn Hill: <laughs> Yeah.
Jo Reed: --with these screens in front of you of Iraq--
Lynn Hill: Yes.
Jo Reed: --and you're a part of this Predator drone program and then you take a coffee break and you to Starbucks down the street.
Lynn Hill: Right. Yeah. <laughs> We would ask that question, "Why Vegas of all places?" And some of the reasoning behind that that we got we thought were jokes but it was well, you're in Vegas so don't complain. Everybody wants to be in Vegas. It's a 24-hour town so if you work 16 hours a day, you can always still have a personal life at any time of day. So you might get off of work at seven o'clock in the morning, you still can go to the bar and it not be weird because it's a 24-hour town.
So I guess the transition for me-- In the performance I'm asked that question, what did I do when I get off of work? And I think that there is a mental shedding of your day. Like a baptizing you have to do for yourself every day. Not to renew yourself but to transition yourself from I'm taking that off and I'm leaving it here and then I'm going to go home. The problem comes is when you can't leave it at the door. When you bring your work home with you. People do that all the time but you can't do that in Predator. When you bring your work home with you it has dire consequences, and we had a very high divorce rate. We had a lot of people who had their vices. They self-medicated with drinking. We didn't have the services that you would have if you went to Iraq. So you don't have the psychiatric services, you don't have the debriefing, you don't have just the communal support. Everyone's kind of handling their stuff differently. So you may not know if someone's losing it or not.
Jo Reed: It must be really difficult to maintain a sense of balance when you have two feet in such different worlds.
Lynn Hill: Yes. And I speak to that in my main poem. Predator, the stress that you have from being in these two worlds, being one at home and the other foot in the war, we created a very informal environment. It was very casual so we didn't call each other by our call signs or your rank. You call yourself by your first name like, "Hey, John, are you going to hang out with us? Hey, John, do you see that target? Hey, John, fire; we're locked on." And what does that do to a person when you're no longer able to use say just the name Sergeant to say, "I'm Sergeant at work, but I'm, for me, Lynn at home. You're Doctor at work, but when you come home your family doesn't call you Doctor, or "Officer Jones, what do you want for dinner?" No-this language that we use to kind of separate us from who we are from what we do. And that's explained in the "Name" poem. I tried to use that.
Jo Reed: Would you read the "Name" poem?
Lynn Hill: Yes. One day I was a civilian, the next a serviceman. I didn't hear my first name for years. It was replaced by my rank and last name, stripping me of my gender and ethnicity where Sergeant Hill could be anybody, adopting me into a new kind of family. We wore a uniform outfit behind a blue mask. Our straight backs, creased slacks, hair pulled tightly into buns and skirts to knees made me feel like a powerful army of one. I was a sergeant and when a sergeant was given an order she followed.
I relocated to a new unit that didn't follow military formalities. No one used rank or last name or call signs. I was addressed by the unfamiliar first name my daddy had given me at birth, Tamika, but Tamika is clanking brass and doesn't fit in my mouth like the number five. But Lynn is smooth and soft like the number nine. It rolls over my tongue and flies out like a free butterfly. Lynn is my name. Lynn is my name. It holds my personality, my individuality. The military didn't issue it to me and it will be there long after my military days are over. I wanted to be Sergeant at work and Lynn at home, but when the orders to fire were attached to Lynn I had nothing to hide behind when I got home, no blue mask, no DOD seal, no insignia on my sleeve nor the name Sergeant to separate me from the atrocities I had committed. It was as if I had done them. When Lynn was given an order she questioned. Now Lynn is a monster. My name is scarred, the holder of my reputation, and I can't change it.
Jo Reed: That’s wonderful Lynn. When did you begin performing with "Holding it Down?"
Lynn Hill: <laughs> The first time I got brought on board was last June and I guess it's been about a year. We started writing the poems. We did our first recorded CD in June-ish and we performed the first show in September.
Jo Reed: How have audiences responded to it?
Lynn Hill: Initially, everyone is very taken back by it. They're like oh, my gosh, this is overwhelming but it's so powerful. My parents went to see the show that we did in D.C. last month for the Intersections Festival, and my dad was a veteran. He was really-- he was very impressed, he thought it was very powerful. My dad isn't a music guy. I wasn't sure what he was going to think of the show because it's kind of funky, it has some ways to kind of make you think, but he said he really got into it and he never thought about the veterans when they come back and their dreams. And at least for my husband, he said that he wants to think more about veterans. Whenever he saw an older veteran that would wear the hat that would say the Korean War or Vietnam War, he just thought they were wearing it just to be wearing it to get attention and I said, "No. When you see them, thank them for their service because they're still holding on to that. They still identify themselves as being veterans." The thing about the new generation is we don't wear hats. You can't identify us as easily, just say, "Hey, thank you for your service. Do you need anything? Can I buy you a cup of coffee?" And I'm hoping that that's what happens and I think that a lot of the people that have seen the show-- not all of them are veterans. Most of them that I've spoken to are not, and they came to the show because they either, they know someone, they frequent shows like that, not necessarily veteran shows but they go out and they see shows and they were like, "I never thought about the war like this. I never thought about veterans like this." They always thought about the soldier who was still in the military. So that's one of the things that I know that has come away, not to mention how-- at least for the veteran.
There's one girl in particular who, she's a Caucasian girl, and initially they interviewed her just because she's a minority but she wasn't in the final cut of the interviews and she was very shy, never wanted to talk about her military experience, but since doing this interview, now she's an active supporter and participant in the SWAN program—the Service Women’s Advocacy Network—something like that, I don’t know the exact acronym, but it’s for service women. She's an artist, she paints, and she works with veterans to help them with PTSD by using paint. She's just really reached out to the veteran community, just because no one has ever asked the question, even for myself. Patricia-- she's the director--she was the first person that have asked me, "Well, tell me about that," or "Tell me about this," and this was the first time I had ever really wanted to open up and talk about it. I wrote about it but it was still a fictional character, it wasn't real. But when someone asked me about it, it was like "Oh. Well, this is what happened."
Jo Reed: Does performing the material regularly affect you? Does it have an impact on you?
Lynn Hill: Yes. From September to February was a big jump for me because I--I don't know, for me, in performing, I drop down to that place in my gut to really feel it to make the poem authentic every time. So I feel like I was able to deal with everything in September and it was liberating to get it out and let other people hear it. February when we did it again, I was a little removed from it, so when I came back to these poems it was almost like taking that shoebox out of the attic and opening it up and seeing those memories that you had stored up and it healed or it separated yourself from them and then having to drop down back in that place it was really like wow, these things do affect us. And now I've walked away from it saying, "How am I going to help veterans now, 'cause I really need to."
Jo Reed: So you’re saying that you’ve seen first-hand how art can be used to heal the psychological wounds of war?
Lynn Hill: Yes, that is exactly what I think. I believe in a creator, and if we're created in his image then maybe we should be creators as well. And whenever there's something that's painful or disturbing or something lovely and beautiful, that to use our power to create something and use the pain to drive that energy or use the love and the joy to drive it, like I have great joy in my acting. I think it can heal a lot. I think it closes some wounds because you're able to express and get it out of you, but I also think that the same way we chitchat and can't stop talking about the guy that we love like, "Oh, my God, I met this guy, blah, blah, blah," you want the whole word to know, that that same energy can be used to be like, "I want to let it out of me because I can't contain it. I can't contain the pain, the dreams, the confusion. I need to let that out." And if we don’t let it out some way we're going to let it out destructively or in a way that's going to harm ourselves or others, and I think with the arts you're able to really express yourself non-judgmentally. I think there are very few platforms that we can still do that without judgment. So we should create.
Jo Reed: That was Air Force veteran, writer and actor, Lynn Hill. Art You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes-- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, the great jazz drummer, Antonio Sanchez.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
"Dreams in Color", "Name", and "Capacity" written and read by Lynn Hill.
Music for "Capacity" written by Vijay Iyer
Excerpt from "There’s a Man Slouching in the Stairway," vocal performed by Pamela Z written by Vijay Iyer, Mike Ladd, Pamela Z, and Maurice Decaul.
"Capacity" and "There’s a Man Slouching in the Stairway," from Holding It Down: The Veteran’s Dream Project, from the EP, Five and a Wake Up, used courtesy of Music and Art Management, Inc.
Vijay Iyer piano, compositions, laptop, production
Mike Ladd poetry (1 & 4), vocals (1 & 4), analog synthesizer
Maurice Decaul poetry (2 & 5), vocals (2)
Lynn Hill poetry, vocals (3)
Guillermo E. Brown vocals (2), electronics
Pamela Z vocals (5), electronics
Liberty Ellman guitar
Okkyung Lee cello
Kassa Overall drums
Lynn Hill discusses her participation in "Holding It Down" -- Vijay Iyer's and Mike Ladd's performance piece based on the dreams of veterans of color. [26:44]