A lyrical look at war, at FDU’s WAMfest

The American String Quartet at WAMFest 2015. Photo by Linda Stamato
The American String Quartet at WAMFest 2015. Photo by Linda Stamato
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American String Quartet, ‘Adagio for Strings,’ video by Linda Stamato

By Linda Stamato

Lyric in the Time of Warpresented Thursday at the Madison Campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University,  was a sublime, captivating meditation in words and music, containing reflections and complementary compositions rich in tribute to the veterans and victims of war.

It was the main event in the annual Words and Music Festival, known as WAMFest. The art of healing veterans, the theme for the three-day event, concludes on Friday, Oct. 16, 2015.

The American String Quartet at WAMFest 2015. Photo by Linda Stamato
The American String Quartet at WAMFest 2015. Photo by Linda Stamato

The American String Quartet, playing a cello, viola and two violins—all Stradivarius instruments–is internationally recognized, having performed in every state domestically and in countless concert halls worldwide.

The group chose its works with great care and executed each piece luxuriously, starting with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F minor (The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I), and moving on to the String Quartet No 8 in C Minor.

This familiar and well-loved piece by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was created in 1946, in memory of the victims of fascism and war. The performance was rich, somber, passionate, disturbing and mournful.

Evoking the emotions, turmoil and pain of war, the program moved to Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No 2. A funeral dirge, in many respects, the slow fugue set just the tone for the poems that followed.

Barber’s Adagio for Strings, exquisitely rendered by the Quartet, is a piece of music frequently chosen to mark occasions of public mourning. It concluded the program.

Interspersed among the musical performances were poems and narratives by a veteran, Phil Klay, and “another kind of war reporter,” Tom Sleigh.

Klay, a U.S. Marine who served in Iraq’s Ambar Province, read first. His short story collection, Redeployment, won the National Book Award for Fiction, among others.

Phil Klay gives a reading at WAMFest 2015. Photo by Linda Stamato.
Veteran Phil Klay gives a reading at WAMFest 2015. Photo by Linda Stamato.

In words, he created images for the audience of the realities, the horrors and the ordinary moments of war: Scattered helmets, muzzled in the dust; families vanishing in flames; bodies decomposing in the streets; and, after taking out insurgents, artillery units going to eat, dining on lima beans and Salisbury steak, ravioli and Pop-Tarts.

Sleigh, a poet and a journalist, has published nine books, winning the American Academy of Arts and Letters John Updike Award, among others. His most recent book is called Interview with a Ghost.

At the outset of the program, two other veterans, Eli Wright and Kevin Basl, who served several tours in Iraq, read from their own works and talked about two projects with which they are associated, the Warrior Writers and the Combat Paper Project, both of which are have a presence and offer programs in Morristown.

These programs provide opportunities to help veterans “come back home,” in the words of Wright. So many,  Basl said,“still struggle to swallow it all.”

Eli Wright and Kevin Basl reflect on their war experiences, at WAMFest 2015. Photo by Linda Stamato
Eli Wright and Kevin Basl reflect on their war experiences, at WAMFest 2015. Photo by Linda Stamato

Basl teaches papermaking and printmaking to veterans and he is an instructor for Combat Paper NJ. Basl earned an MFA in fiction following two tours in Iraq with the Army. He serves as a workshop facilitator with Warrior Writers and Combat Paper NJ.

The formal program ended but the audience did not move from its seats. Questions were posed to the writers and the musicians, leading them to reflect on their experiences and the reaction to their art.

Art is not therapeutic to Sleigh, yet he contends there is no greater pleasure than being in the state of writing a poem. Whether you feel grief, or even are hitting bottom, there is a sense of being projected outside of life: “It’s in the making of a poem … that you find deep solace, deep pleasure.”

Tom Sleigh reads at WAMFest 2015. Photo by Linda Stamato
Tom Sleigh shares stage with the American String Quartet at WAMFest 2015. Photo by Linda Stamato

To Klay, “art is a meeting place,”  where you share an experience and receive it, where people push against each other about where they’ve been. If you’ve been at war, he said, the emotion is so intense you close yourself off.

“Art allows you to open up, to create a place for healing,” Klay said.

But how do you cope with the ordinary, the mundane, the walk down Madison Avenue in New York, when images of bodies decomposing in Ambar Province remain in your head?  How do you deal with knowing first-hand “the unjust sting of occupation”?

For Sleigh, you live a “split-scene” existence, always alienated. For Klay, it helps to try to understand and ask questions about war.

It’s most helpful, Klay feels, to honor veterans — and not by “off-loading on them” your antipathy to war.  Thanking them for their service is okay.

At the same time, Klay believes veterans and citizens must insist that our government takes military action seriously:

What I want is a country that is more thoughtful about how it uses weapons, why it goes to war.”

 

The American String Quartet, video by Linda Stamato

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1 COMMENT

  1. A good article about a moving, important experience. An attempt to resolve and surmount the residue of tragedy.

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