Iraq War veteran Hugh Martin has won the first-ever Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award from The Iowa Review, the literary journal announced Tuesday.
The Iowa Review received 265 entries for the prize, which is only open to active duty military personnel and veterans and includes an $1,000 award and publication in the journal. Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler was this year’s judge.
Martin, a poet and author who served in the Ohio Army National Guard from 2001 to 2007 and spent 11 months in Iraq, submitted a collection of poems about his war experience and his return to civilian life. He has an MFA from Arizona State and is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Martin’s first book, “The Stick Soldiers,” recently won the A. Poulin Jr. First Book Prize from BOA Editions and will be published in March.
Here’s a poem by Martin:
A rope of black smoke
above the city. Police sirens. The feet
of the crowd over pavement.
We don’t know who she is: barely
a year alive, her blue leggings wet, stuck
to the skin with her own blood.
Doc Johnson holds her head
like an orange in his open hand. He kneels
beside the white Opel while Kenson aims
the mounted light from his M4
through the shattered window to her face,
the glass spread around her
like rock salt on the brown
seat cushions. Doc scissors her cotton sleeve,
pushes his thumb to her arm for a vein–nothing…
He finds one, eye to hairline, pulsing
with her screams; he wipes the skin
with antiseptic, and with one hand,
steadies her head as an Imam’s voice
blankets the night in waves; cars filled
with wounded weave around us with the dust.
Doc lowers the needle to this girl’s blue vein,
and it touches her skin like pricking
the Tigris on a smooth map of the earth.
According to Russell Valentino, editor-in-chief of The Iowa Review, the somber and profound themes in Martin’s poems were frequently present in the other submissions. “Some of the stories were…very raw,” Valentino said. “You could really tell [a] person was writing from a first-person perspective.”
“The quality was very high because of that sort of authentic voice,” Valentino said. Yet writing about war represented only a portion of the topics covered by entrants. “It’s not for writing about war. It’s for writing by veterans,” Valentino said of the prize.
The award is named in honor of Jeff Sharlet, a Vietnam veteran and antiwar writer and activist who died in 1969, and is funded through a gift from his family.
“Most writers who are veterans don’t have access to the same kind of literary ladders,” said Sharlet’s nephew, Jeff Sharlet, who carries his uncle’s name. “Here was a guy who, it’s become such a terrible cliche, but really did write truth to power,” Sharlet said of his namesake.
An award like the one his family has endowed might be a step toward changing “knee jerk assumptions about what veterans believe or don’t believe, write about or don’t write about,” said Sharlet, an assistant professor of English at Dartmouth College, a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine and the author of several books.
Martin kept track of his experiences in a journal but never wrote poems while in Iraq. “I knew when I came back from Iraq, I’d write about it in some way,” Martin said. He also threw himself into reading, citing authors like Don DeLillo, Robert Penn Warren and John Updike as influences, in addition to other veteran writers like Bruce Weigl.
“It’s very strange and you don’t really know how to talk about it and it’s hard to find people to discuss the experience with,” Martin said. “So you can write about your experiences and get it off your chest that way.”
Writing isn’t just therapeutic for Martin, however. As a student of literature, he said he always keeps literary context in mind, looking back to veteran writers who came before him like Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves. “[S]hedding away the layers and the rhetoric” of warfare is one of his goals in writing about the military.
“All I can really do is write about it,” Martin said, “because I want to and because I want to show people who weren’t there what it really was like.”