Art Talk with Literature Fellow Hugh Martin

By Rebecca Sutton
Black and white photo of man with beard and moustache
Hugh Martin. Photo by Kent Corbin

It’s difficult to imagine finding poetry in makeshift latrines or tear gas basic training, but Hugh Martin has done it. A 2019 Literature Fellow, Martin transforms his sometimes putrid, sometimes traumatic, and frequently wrenching experiences serving in Iraq with the National Guard into searing imagery that captures the pathos and atmosphere of war. A writing instructor at Ohio University, Martin has penned three books of poetry and countless articles and essays, all of which take a nuanced, empathetic look at both Americans and Iraqis touched by the Iraq War. In addition to his award from the Arts Endowment, he has also received a Pushcart Prize, a Yaddo residency, and a Sewanee Writers’ Conference Fellowship, among others. We recently spoke with Martin about his creative process, what he hopes to teach his students, and how he continues to find fresh inspiration from his deployment.

NEA: How did you make your way to poetry?

HUGH MARTIN: I had been a pretty avid reader prior to joining the military. When I joined about three months prior to 9/11. I didn't have many expectations because it was just the Ohio Army National Guard. Of course, after 9/11 happened, everything obviously changed. I went to Iraq in 2004, and I had to withdraw from school because I was on reserve status. When I came back to my undergrad, I just happened to take creative writing poetry. Poetry was the first medium that I came to as far as trying to think about my experience and reflect upon it. I became very comfortable with thinking about imagery, thinking about short scenes, thinking about persona of certain speakers, and trying to capture something with as little language as possible. I had a great teacher, Dr. Jane Varley, who encouraged me and supported me, and I just kept at it.

NEA: Obviously there are some people who come back from deployments or other traumatic experiences who find it easier to repress the situation than speak about it. But you’ve chosen to continually re-explore it through your poetry. How do you think that affected your own transition home, and your own post-war experience?

MARTIN: I don't like to generalize, but I would say most people that I served with almost need to keep their deployments and memories of service in their lives, whether that’s maintaining friendships or going to the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] or working with veterans. I think for my situation, being able to write about it helped me transition because it was this form where I could think about it and reflect upon it. The years after I came home—you think about it all the time. It’s a really overwhelming experience, just the deployment itself. It doesn't matter what you're doing or what your job is—it’s very overwhelming. Even though I was in Iraq for a little under a year, in my memory it almost seems like decades. Without writing, I don't know if I would have been able to transition back into civilian life as smoothly as I did. It helped me shape my identity as a soldier into my civilian identity.

Being able to talk about it on the page it did give me some solace. When you come back, people ask you so many questions—as is expected, and as I would if I was a civilian meeting some soldier or veteran. There's really no way to answer a lot of these questions sufficiently or appropriately or to do justice to them. So being able to write and being fortunate enough to publish a lot of my work, I’ve been able to get it on the page and develop some kind of narrative out of it. I think that’s helped me distance myself from it, but also remain very close to it because everything I write is obviously an extension of myself. Everything I do, everything I think about is always going to be affected by my military experience and by my deployment.

NEA: I’m always impressed by people who continue to find inspiration in a common theme. How do you continue to create fresh imagery and create fresh lines from your wartime experiences?

MARTIN: Whether it’s war or adolescence or any type of trauma or even just memories that keep eating at you—anything you're obsessed with—I think you're always able to write about it as long as it’s still pulling at you and it still grips you. When something’s very present, very bright in your mind, you have a lot of access to memories, to conversations, and voices and scents and certain scenes. Having a lot of those memories so present in my mind, I’ve never had any moment where I haven't had something to write about, or some kind of scene or moment that I want to get on the page.

As far as writing it and doing it justice—that’s a completely other story. I struggle with that every day. I’m often struggling with form, with genre, should this be nonfiction, should it be poetry, how should this look on the page, who is speaking, what kind of power do they have, what’s the perspective that they have. In the second book I did, In Country, I was with so many Iraqi interpreters and Iraqi soldiers and thinking about their voices in the book and how they're portrayed and how to handle that, what’s their place in the book. I don't know how to write [about] that really, but I want to try more and that pulls on me. There's a friend of mine, an Iraqi who worked on our base, and he lives in Arizona now. I’ve spoken with him a few times and I’d like to talk to him and hear about his memories of it. If he could tell the story about his experience, how would he do it? I feel a very intense emotional connection to that country. My company was out every day talking to people. We got to know a lot of people, and I care very much about Iraqis and about the country.

NEA: What has your creative writing fellowship allowed you to do?

MARTIN: Over the next year, I’m planning to arrange certain trips to go speak to Iraqis and talk to other veterans. I’m planning to use the time I spend with them and the interviews I do and the research I do to not only write more poetry, but also to do some more nonfiction type of work. I’ve done some of that work already in preparation and talking over email and online, but this specific funding from the NEA will allow me to make those travels. It’s giving me that time to conduct those interviews.

NEA: What do you hope the impact of your writing will be both on veterans and service members, as well as people with no military experience?

MARTIN: No matter who’s reading the work or what their perspective is or where they're coming from, I hope that the voices I create on the page seem authentic and true and self-aware of power, of privilege, of perspective. I would hope that any kind of characters that I introduce, whether in poetry or whether they're in a nonfiction piece, seem multidimensional, well-rounded, realistic, and humane.

With the wars, very few Americans have had any direct involvement with [them] since September 11th. They're already fading into our memory, and I think that’s obviously an issue. So I would hope that my work creates more awareness and reduces that specific American amnesia. I’m complicit in it too. I hope my work keeps these post-9/11 wars in the American consciousness longer. You don't hear about them too often because I think they're very uncomfortable and they make people uneasy. We don't like to look at this stuff.

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?

MARTIN: It really hasn't changed since I was starting to write poetry in my early 20s. I treat it just like any 9 to 5 job. I never use the word “inspiration”; it’s more of just sitting down and trying to do that work, and spending time with the poems. It’s not only producing new work, but it’s always trying to push work forward and move it towards publication. Any writer will probably agree with this, but when you're not doing the work and you're going about your day or when you're teaching or out with friends, you will inevitably almost always have thoughts, ideas, or answers to what you might be writing or working on. That’s something that’s kind of a 24/7 operation in my head. I’m always thinking about how to finish a certain poem or how to write about something that I just haven't been able to figure out how to write. So primarily I do try to sit down at the desk and spend a few hours every day with the poems or with the essays. It does get harder, and it’s not fun, it’s very frustrating, and I think the more I read, the more I study, the more I write, the more complicated it is for me, the more obstacles you see. Then also looking at work I have published, I do see the shortcomings, I see the clichés, I see the issues that I wasn't able to identify. So I think about that when I write now.

NEA: Does your process differ at all when you're writing poetry versus nonfiction?

MARTIN: I’d say generally for me, poetry is much more about image and sound, making associations, developing some persona on the page, and figuring out what the poem needs to do, where the poem needs to go. But also while you're writing, [it’s about] making discoveries.

With nonfiction and essays, there's certainly discovery when you're writing, but it’s more premeditated in that I know where I want to go, I know the story I want to tell. It’s figuring out how to get that on the sentence level.

So I think there are fewer formal questions when I’m writing essays. With poetry, there's working with the space on the page and working with the visual aspects of the poem. Poetry has more capabilities. But of course with nonfiction, you are sticking to—and I don't like to use the word—the quote-unquote truth. So you have the story you want to tell, but it’s figuring out how to tell that, and thinking about linearity or chronology and fragmentation and things like that.

NEA: Do have any processes for when you're stuck—if you’re having trouble figuring something out, do you have a way to unlock it?

MARTIN: I tell all my students the best revision technique is time. Many times when you're writing, you're going to be frustrated, you're going to be annoyed, you might get upset, and that’s healthy and fine. But when I reach a certain point of frustration, I have to basically walk away. That means doing something else, changing my focus, or saying I’m not going to look at this piece for a week or a month or six months or even a year. I think time away from it can help you process it. But also when you come back to it and look at it again, you're going to have more objectivity and you're going to have fresher eyes because you've created some kind of emotional distance. But the main thing is, when you walk away from a piece, you want to make sure that you're doing other work that you feel hopeful and encouraged about. Myself, and many writers I know, are always working on something—dozens of poems and multiple prose pieces, and always pushing one forward every day. That’s how I’ve always worked: knowing when the frustration is getting to be too much, and getting up from the desk and doing something else.

NEA: As you mentioned, you also teach at Ohio University. What’s one of the most important lessons that you try and impart to your students?

MARTIN: It’s two things. The first thing’s obvious, but I tell my students again and again that the absolutely best thing they can do is read, and read widely. Read work that’s being published today, read work being published by dead authors, read as much as possible, read all the time. Also read books by people who have had vastly different experiences than you. There's no such thing as an end to it—it has to be a lifelong activity of constantly reading. And if you read something and you're not getting it or you're not liking it, do not be afraid to put it down and pick up something else. Don't waste time reading work that maybe you're not ready for, maybe it’s just not the time for you to read it, maybe you'll want to read it in a few years and then it will speak to you.

The other thing as far as writing goes is to know that everything in the world, especially in the United States, is designed to make you not write. Everything is designed to get your attention, to get you to buy stuff, to watch something, to check a screen, to go out and have fun. In order to write, that really just involves your own integrity, your own effort, your own attitude. It’s a habit that you have to develop, and no one can do that for you and everything in the world will try to keep you from doing that. You need to develop a thick skin—I always call it arrogance—to say that I will sit down every day whether it’s 20 minutes, half-hour, an hour. I’m going to sit down and I’m going to try to write something, and I don't care what anyone has to say about it. You have to develop that mindset because [otherwise] you're going to be questioning yourself too much and you're going to be hesitating too much. The biggest enemy for writers I think is hesitation. The caveat is that absolutely when you are sending stuff out to be published, when you're moving stuff forward in revision, you want to hesitate, you want to waver, you want to think about it from every direction you can. But as far as that everyday process of writing, try to get rid of all the doubt and the hesitation. Just get the words down, say what you want to say, and develop that habit. That’s something you really want to protect.