The Sundress Academy for the Arts’ first writing retreat for veterans and current service members will take place October 7-8 at Firefly Farms. A weekend pass includes one-on-one and group instruction, writing supplies, food, drinks, and all on-site amenities for $75. Tents, sleeping bags, and other camping equipment are available to rent. The event will be open to people of all backgrounds and experience levels. Space at the workshop is limited to 15 people, so reserve your spot today!
On behalf of Sundress, Sean Purio interviewed Jeb A. Herrin, a poet and U.S. Army veteran, who will lead the retreat along with fiction writer and current military service member Jan LaPerle.
Sean Purio: What advice would you give to people making the transition back into the civilian world? If you were to suggest to them a particular book, poetry collection, author, film, what would it be?
Jeb Herrin: As far as advice, I always make sure I tell my buddies to never go it alone. Even if the transition isn’t a hard one to make, we’ve spent so many years working as part of a team that it doesn’t make sense to try and move back into our old lives on our own. Whether it’s just staying in touch with the friends you served with, reaching back out to the friends you had before you joined, or just making new friends, it’s still good to have someone watching your back.
In regards to recommendations, Yusef Komunyakaa. I love his collection, Dien Cai Dau, but I don’t think there’s a bad Komunyakaa piece.
SP: Is there a particular book, poetry collection, author, or film you would suggest people encounter before going into the armed forces? Why?
JH: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It sets a realistic precedent of what to expect from military service; not just the job itself, but the diversity of people you meet, and the expectations placed on you by your peers and the civilians who don’t know what it’s like to do the job.
SP: What do you think is the role of cultivating an artistic sensibility—a way of perceiving the world—for those who serve (or have served) in the armed forces?
JH: I think we spend so much of our time in the military looking at things head-on, looking for the best way to overcome obstacles or to accomplish tasks. Looking at these experiences with more of an artistic eye gives us different perspectives by which to judge them, which is really important for our own mental health. Rather than looking back on our time and dwelling on whether we made the “right” choice or the “wrong” choice, we get the opportunity to see more of how our choices affected us on a more personal level. The downside of that is sometimes we get stuck in the bad, and it’s good to have that backup I talked about before to keep us in the good.
SP: It’s a loaded question if ever there was one, but: Why do you write?
JH: Because it’s fun. It gives me the opportunity to explore ideas, daydreams, storylines that get stuck in my head; not unlike listening to a song because it’s been stuck in your head for the past week. It also gives me the opportunity to read a story that I wish someone else would write.
SP: I’m always curious what books artists are reading. What books have you read recently and what did you find remarkable about them?
JH: I finally started getting into Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet. I haven’t gotten too far into it yet, mostly because his poems are really visceral and I want to give each of them time to process. I don’t know if this works in with your question, but I’ve also been reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series to my son. He’s not quite old enough to get into them on the same level I do, but he keeps bringing the books to me to read for him, so I like to oblige; encourage that spirit of adventure and education that comes with reading. What I really like about Pratchett is his ability to delve into all sorts of different personalities and stories for his characters, and build a real world that mimics our own, while still embracing the wonder and discovery that you get with really good fantasy.
Jeb A. Herrin was a medic with the 3rd Infantry Division during Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. He earned his BA in English and MFA in Poetry from the University of Tennessee, where he was the 2016 winner of the John C. Hodges Award for Creative Writing for Poetry. His work can be found in Political Punch and O-Dark-Thirty. Jeb has future plans of blending the world of composition with creative writing as well as finding ways to make the voice of the veteran heard. He lives in Knoxville with his wife, son, and two dogs.
Sean Purio is an active-duty officer working toward his PhD in Creative Writing. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.