This month, the Colorado Authors' League included Art Elser's chapbook, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, in its list of 2014 award-winning books.
The chapbook is a collection of some 20 years of poetry he wrote about his combat experiences in Vietnam as a forward air controller, flying a small Cessna, directing fighters and artillery on enemy troops who had ambushed friendly troops or were engaged in a firefight with them.
"Writing those poems saved my life in a manner of speaking," he said. "I was able to work through some really deep emotional issues and leave behind most of the flashbacks, nightmares, daymares that plagued me for many years.
He also has written a memoir for his son who wanted to know what Art had done in Vietnam. "The year I spent writing that helped me perhaps even more," he said. "I think the memoir really started the healing process and the poetry moved me to where I am today."
Art currently serves as treasurer of WyoPoets. A Colorado resident, he joined the organization because the other poetry groups he looked into seemed closed to outsiders or were too academic. "WyoPoets graciously accepted me and many of them have become friends over the years and mentors," he said. "Chris Valentine, who escaped from Montana to WyoPoets, has become, as my wife says, my Montana Wife, and we trade a haiku virtually every morning. Chris also critiques poetry when I ask her to and has helped me a lot with her critiques."
Here is the opening poem in the book, one that he wrote in 2012. A woman who regularly cuts his hair is Vietnamese and is the inspiration for the poem:
The young Asian woman motions me to a chair
and covers me with a black cloth. As she reaches
for her tools, I read Anh Lam on her license.
I ask if she’s Vietnamese. “Yes,” she answers.
But her tone allows no further discussion.
I watch her graceful motions and try to imagine
how she’d look in an Ao Dai, the traditional
white silk tunic—ankle length, slit to the hip--
over black silk slacks, a white rice-straw
conical hat covering her beautiful black hair.
I remember the graceful women of Kontum,
and those of Pleiku, and Quang Ngai.
I think abstractly about Anh’s mother.
She probably wore the Ao Dai for celebrations,
perhaps even for her wedding to Anh’s father.
Then, I feel a familiar chill in my soul as I
imagine her mother forty years ago, a child,
learning her father would never come home.
He had watched from a bunker in a tree line,
as my little Bird Dog dove to aim a smoke rocket
near where he hid. He didn’t see the bombs,
only felt the fire engulf him. I imagine that
I had killed Anh’s grandfather, widowed
her grandmother, deprived Anh
of her grandfather’s love.
“How’s that?” Anh’s cheerful voice breaks
into my thoughts. She holds up a mirror.
It reflects a sad man with dark memories.
“How’s that?” A distant voice asks.
We Leave the Safety of the Sea may be ordered from Finishing Line Press.
Here, WyoPoets asks its members to summarize their writing lives, poetry backgrounds and inspirations. We hope that if you are not a member you will think about joining. If you are a member, this is a chance to learn how other WyoPoets’ members get their poetry onto paper. Submissions receive only minor edits. Each poet’s voice clearly shines through. If you would like to share your poetry experiences, email Myra L. Peak for details.