An interview with writer Matthew Borczon about poetry as catharsis, having served in a combat hospital in Afghanistan, writing about war and his struggles with PTSD.
What was your role in OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom]?
I was a hospital corpsman on Camp Bastion. It was a Role 3 hospital.
How do you feel, and what do you think, regarding the recent fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban?
I was not at all surprised. I was also not surprised by how fast it happened. I remember watching village elders sleeping on the hard ground on the coldest nights I had ever lived through, they had no blankets or pillows, just dust and icy wind. I thought then there was no way we were going to beat them.
Why do you write?
I was suffering from PTSD and did not even realize it; my family was worried, and my wife was frustrated, and I was drinking a lot. I had written as a young man and, at first, I thought I would write just one poem about it all to get it out of my system. That is fifteen books ago now. I do it as a way to find some productive use for all the negative stuff I feel. It is a form of self-therapy, sort of tell my story over and over until I am sick of hearing it.
Your poetry is formatted in a very unique way. How is this received by readers? How about by editors?
I tell people I write like falling down a deep, narrow hole. Most people are okay with it, but many poets and editors think I do it out of ignorance. When asked, I tell people I try to take everything poetic out of my poetry. There is no poetry in war. Some editors complain that I take up too much space on their page, and I guess that is valid.
Your work is visceral, which is appropriate given how much viscera. Does writing help you heal? Or does it sometimes trigger you to recall in vivid detail memories of your time in theater?
I think it heals; the triggers are a daily part of my life. I still have nightmares and the news just now does not help. A guy in a turban can set my paranoia off like a rocket. I try in each poem to be a little more honest in the hope I will eventually get to exactly what it is that is stopping me from healing all the way.
You have several children. How do they reconcile the horror in your work with the man who brings it home?
I only share it with them if they ask. My oldest is the most aware of how much I have changed. She was 12 when I left. She is a choreographer with a degree from Temple University, she made a dance once out of all the physical tics I had picked up while I was away. It was hard to see how much she saw my issues in her movements.
When you think back to your time overseas in Operation Enduring Freedom, what comes to mind?
Right now, that it did not mean much of anything in the grand scheme of things. I hope it mattered to the individuals I took care of, but I feel awful for all the dead and maimed who now have to wonder what it was all for.
How does your wife engage with your work and experiences?
Actually, she does not engage with it. Does not read the poems and has had nothing to do with my attempts at therapy. I used to want her to, but time has taught me that my wife cannot be my therapist. We both try to pretend we are still the same as before the war. Some days, it works.
I was suffering from PTSD and did not even realize it; my family was worried, and my wife was frustrated, and I was drinking a lot. … I thought I would write just one poem about it all to get it out of my system. That is fifteen books ago now.
Do you vote?
I do, I am a liberal Democrat.
Do you own firearms?
I do not. I still have two teenagers in my house, so I do not want them around my kids. Maybe someday, though. When I am older and need more than my two pit bulls for protection.
To any veteran, it’s obvious the general population cannot conceive of war. Do you begrudge them their ignorance?
Yes and no. I think you do not need to be a vet to have an opinion that is valid, but I know that there is much you can only know about war by being in one. I do really hate it when people try to speak for vets, like the veterans must feel this way about the flag, or Afghanistan, or whatever. Vets are as different from each other as anyone else and we should not be pigeonholed.
Do you regret joining the service?
Not at all. I will retire this coming March with twenty years of Navy service. I learned how to be a corpsman in the Navy and then went to nursing school in the civilian world because of that experience. I owe the Navy a lot. I can’t say I loved it all, but I would do it again.
Do you have regrets from your time in the service?
Not really. In the Navy, they say pick your rate, pick your fate. I never regret being a corpsman. I tried to help and never hurt anyone.
Why did you join the Armed Forces?
I needed a part-time job, and the Navy offered good training. I was an art major in college, so I did not have a lot of marketable skills. I had two kids and crummy health insurance. The Navy offered better, so I took it.
What are some misconceptions about the military?
That we are all the same. We are as different as people in any walk of life. I had a chief who was also a yoga instructor.
Many people think that, as a reservist, I am a part-time sailor and somehow not in the Navy as much as active duty. 80% of the Navy in WWII was reserve. We serve in every conflict the same as active duty.
What are some misconceptions about Afghanistan?
That it never gets cold there. Winter nights were terrible. That we would defeat them easily. That we would defeat them at all.
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What don’t people understand about Islam and Muslims?
That not all Muslims are extremists.
What advice would you give to a young person joining the military?
Make sure you are looking for training that you can use in the outside world. Learn a job you can take back to civilian life. The Army will certify you as an LPN, where the Navy will not. If I had been in the Army, I could have skipped nursing school.
What advice would you proffer the nascent writer?
Do it exactly the way you want it done. I make no edits to my work or changes to my form for ANYONE! No poet makes money, so, do not let anyone steal your shine!
Where did America go wrong in Afghanistan?
We maybe should have just gotten out way sooner. There was enough history to tell us we were not going to take them over and change them. Look at all who tried and failed.
Where did America go wrong in America?
My list is too long, but lately I am bothered by the people who seem to forget that America is a country where you are free to stand or kneel at the flag, free to protest anything and anywhere; so, when a sports star does it on the field, it is their right; when an actor does it on stage, it is still their right. I do not have to agree with the protest, but I believe that freedom needs to be protected.
What challenges do you face as a non-academic, working-class writer?
I am sort of an oddball on this one. I earn my living as an LPN, so I write as a personal therapy and an outlet. I also tend to write against the grind of two jobs, a military commitment, and four kids. If I could earn a living as a poet, I think my poetry might suck. I have little interest in the academic poetry world.
What are you reading as of late?
As far as poetry, I like a lot of small press writers. Jason Baldinger, Wolf Carstens, Jeff Weddle, all have books on my shelves. Currently, I am reading The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy.
You’re a prolific writer by most people’s standards. What are your works? And what are you working on now?
My poetry books? Okay, let’s see if I can remember them all. A Clock of Human Bones, Battle Lines, Ghost Train, Ghost Highway Blues, Capp Road, PTSD Blues, This Many Years After the War, Today is a Michigan ghost town, Saved Rounds is my newest book. If you Google my name, you will find the rest.
I write like a shark swims. I move forward and try to focus on the next thing. I have a new book called PTSD, A Living Will coming out soon through Rust Belt Press. I am also working on a collection of poems about the war for my youngest daughter, she was only 2 when I went to Afghanistan and now she wants to know more about it, so I started a bunch of “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” poems that will hopefully be a book someday.