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VCU grad pens 'classic of contemporary war fiction’

The buzz began early for VCU alumnus Kevin Powers’ debut novel, “The Yellow Birds,” a story of a young soldier’s experience serving in the United States Army during the Iraq War. At the start of 2012, Entertainment Weekly placed the book on its short list of the most promising new novels for the year.

That early hype proved justified this month when the book was published to gushing reviews, including a prominent rave by Michiko Kakutani, notoriously finicky book critic for the New York Times, who called the book “extraordinary” and declared that Powers “has written a remarkable first novel, one that stands with Tim O’Brien’s enduring Vietnam book, ‘The Things They Carried,’ as a classic of contemporary war fiction.”

Kakutani is not alone in quickly affording “The Yellow Birds” classic status. Tom Wolfe, the legendary novelist and journalist, said that “The Yellow Birds” was the “’All Quiet on the Western Front’ of America’s Arab Wars,” while John Burnside, writing in the Guardian, said, “Few will have expected the war in Iraq to bring forth a novel that can stand beside ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ or ‘The Red Badge of Courage,’ ‘The Yellow Birds’ does just that, for our time, as those books did for theirs.”

Powers grew up in Midlothian and attended James River High School. He joined the Army when he was 17-years-old, serving as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He graduated from VCU in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of Humanities & Sciences.

Patricia Strong, director of core writing at VCU, first taught Powers when she was an English teacher at James River. Strong recognized Powers’ potential as a student – “his work was striking and mature, just not consistent” – but she said he was not an engaged or interested student yet. She pushed him, including moving him into an upper-level English class despite his protestations, but she does not believe the lessons took root until much later.

Strong reconnected with Powers when he arrived at VCU, and she found a driven, disciplined student who impressed his teachers and flourished in his college studies. Following his graduation from VCU, Powers attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he received a master of fine arts degree in poetry this year. Powers has been effusive in his praise of Strong and the effect that she had on him, a reward that she calls “a gift.”

“I think he knows that I saw possibilities in him that maybe he didn’t see in himself at the time,” Strong said.

Strong said she imagines Powers appreciates the attention that “The Yellow Birds” has received, but she doubts he will allow it to affect him much.

“I don’t believe that he’s motivated by ego or a need to garner attention for himself,” Strong said. “I do believe he’s driven by a need to tell an authentically true story.”

Powers will hold a Richmond-area reading on Sept. 22 at 2 p.m. at the Chesterfield Town Center Barnes & Noble.

“The Yellow Birds” follows Private Bartle, a 21-year-old Richmond native, before, during and after his tour in Iraq. The novel is structured in chapters that alternate between scenes of Iraq, including a battle in Al Tafar, and basic training and the aftermath of Bartle’s time in combat. Part of the novel is set in Richmond following Bartle’s return home.

In the run-up to the publication of “The Yellow Birds” earlier this month, Powers took the time to exchange emails with VCU News.

VCU: What drove you to write this particular story -- of a young man both in war and after it? It appears to be a very personal story, down to some of the biographical details that you share with the narrator, and I wondered whether the story's purpose "to create the cartography of one man's consciousness" was at least partly your effort to explore not just the protagonist's but your own. 

KP: It’s absolutely true that I had questions about my own experience. People often asked me what it was like over there after I returned home. I realized that I didn’t have what I considered to be a good answer. You could say that my first motivation in writing the book was to find out why. For reasons unknown to me, I’ve always related to the world through my imagination. So, in a sense, I consider The Yellow Birds a work of the imagination that would not have been written without the experiences I had. I may have started with my own experience in terms of geography and time, but I recognized that I would have to depart from it immediately if I wanted to write something with the kind of clarity and honesty I hoped for. That imaginative distance was essential.

VCU: The novel is told in first person and kept tightly to the point of view of a single individual, but it has an expansive feel. The opening paragraphs prepare the reader for that (The striking opening sentence: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.”). Was that central to what you were trying to do -- show the big picture through a single man's story?

KP: I wanted to avoid the presumption that I could say anything about the war as a whole. It is so large and diverse that I felt like it was neither my place nor my desire to speak for anyone else. I decided that my only obligation would be to my particular vision, and that whatever resulted from this attempt at understanding would stand as one example of the experience of war, nothing more or less than that.

VCU: As a writer of both poetry and fiction, why did you turn to the novel form in this case?

KP: I started writing about the war in my poetry. I’ve always written both, but at the time I was really focused on developing as a poet. In spite of that, names and places kept appearing in my poems, the same kinds of ideas, and so forth. One poem sort of morphed into a story that kept getting longer. The boundaries feel quite permeable to me. People sometimes tell me that my poetry is too narrative or my fiction is too poetic, so I just decided to trust my instincts. Now, when something feels like it should be a poem, it’s a poem. And the same goes for prose.

VCU: Do you think your poetry background helped you "get at" what you wanted to in the book? In particular, I'm thinking of the lyrical descriptions and the intense reflectiveness of the narrator.

KP: Poetry has taught me to have faith in the music of a line, that something can be revealed or hinted at that may be beyond the full comprehension or apprehension of the writer. I suppose we’re talking about the ineffable, but I really believe that a kind of freedom exists in a poem that allows connections to come together organically, and that it can get to those connections through alternate routes, separate and apart from one’s reason or intellect. There are places in the book where I’m trying to explore the territory between apprehension and comprehension, and the particular difficulty of being in that space for Bartle.

VCU: Your narrator is a great noticer/observer of the intricate details surrounding him. Were you aware during your time in Iraq of these small pieces to that world or did they accumulate in retrospect?

KP: It’s funny the way memory works. There have been times in which I’ve had sensations that seem so immediate, even now: a smell, a glimpse of some color out of the corner of my eye. But I often can’t recall why they feel so present, or what it is they remind me of. I certainly experienced moments of true awe and wonder, and not all of those were of obvious importance at the time. A small whirl of dust, the slant of a shadow with origins unknown; I was aware of them at the time, and that they were instances of beauty, but it wasn’t until I started writing the book that they came to feel like something that could be patterned.

VCU: Are there particular writers who write about war whom you particularly admire or who have proved to be influences?

KP: Certainly the list would have to begin with Wilfred Owen, and would include, but not be limited to, Hemingway, Tim O’Brien, David Jones, Yusef Komunyakaa, Stephen Wright, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Caputo, Robert Olen Butler, Bruce Weigl, Anthony Swofford and others. And there are more contemporary books that I either greatly admire or am very excited to read, such as Brian Turner’s “Here Bullet,” David Abrams’ “Fobbit” and a forthcoming story collection by Phil Klay.

VCU: After your time in the Army, you worked a series of jobs before attending college. What prompted you to go to college?

KP: I’d already completed some college credits, and while I truly enjoyed some of those jobs, briefly working in the admissions office at VCU and being a substitute special education teacher to name two, I had always known that I wanted to write. It just took what it took for me to be willing to take a chance and go for it.

VCU: Did you arrive at VCU already writing? Did your time at VCU affect or aid this interest? Were there particular courses or teachers who helped you during your time here?

KP: I probably started writing when I was about 13 or so, but it was something I did privately. I’m not sure anyone outside of a few very close friends knew I had those kinds of aspirations. So my time at VCU was essential. Getting the permission to think of myself as a writer, learning how to engage with literature and my own writing in new ways: all of this happened at VCU. I was lucky enough to know Patty Strong from my time at James River High and she has always been an incredibly important person to me. She was always willing to listen if I needed to talk, about books or life in general. If there were more teachers like her, the world would be a better place. And I had two classes each with Bryant Mangum and Gary Sange, and it’s only now that I’m fully able to appreciate how extraordinary it was to be able to sit in a room with these two men, a couple of times a week, and try to absorb their knowledge and passion for books. I took a fiction writing class with Thom Didato, and I still have a document he gave out that described the kind of rigor and discipline necessary for making good work. Jonathan Rice, who was a graduate student while I was at VCU, and who is now a very close friend, took me under his wing and mentored me. It really felt as though I was part of something special.

VCU: Your novel has received a great deal of pre-publication attention and praise from literary luminaries, such as Tom Wolfe, Ann Patchett, Philip Caputo, Robert Olen Butler and Colm Toibin. What has that experience been like for you?

KP: I’ll admit, it feels quite strange. I hope that the attention convinces some people to read it, and that some of those people finish the book feeling like they’ve had a valuable experience. I can’t control anything beyond the work that I put into writing it, and I do feel some level of satisfaction and pride in the knowledge that I wrote the best book I was able to at the time I wrote it. The rest is up to other people, and that is as it should be.

VCU: What are your future plans?

KP: I’m hoping to finish a collection of poems before the end of the year, and I’ve started some (very) preliminary work for my second novel.

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