An Interview with Poet/Veteran J.B. Stevens
Author photo courtesy of J.B. Stevens
With April being National Poetry Month, I knew I wanted to interview J.B Stevens before I even read his debut poetry collection, war-memoir All the Violent Memories (Close to the Bone, U.K.). I got to know J.B. though the "First Cut" poetry collective we both belong to. While he’s just one example of the diverse angles that group brings to their verses, I knew J.B.’s military background would bring a particularly sharp edge to the form.
Then, to prepare for the interview, I read All the Violent Memories and it completely annihilated me. I put it down on my kitchen table, and just sat there paralyzed for a small eternity, whispering a variety of obscenities. To be honest, it took me a bit to build myself back up from the experience, to carry on with my day — I couldn’t help but abandon all the petty complaints in my own life in contrast to the real devastation of J.B.’s poems, an experience of true resonance that still lingers as I type this out.
First off, how did you get into writing — did it come before or after being a soldier?
Growing up I was obsessed with reading. I still remember passages of the Hardy Boys and Hatchet and it’s been thirty years. As a kid, my dad ran an auto body shop and didn’t get my “book-thing.” When I was bad, instead of grounding me, dad would take my books. It sucked. When able, I’d sit and read for entire weekends. The obsession never left. Authors were my rock stars. When I was fifteen, I read The Lords of Discipline and loved it. I devoured all of Pat Conroy’s stuff. I went to The Citadel because of Conroy, it was the only school I applied to. College wasn’t hard academically, not because I am a genius, but because I would read the textbook twice in the first week of class. Then, the rest of the semester was easy, as it was the third time I’d heard the material. That way, I had more time to read for myself.
After 9/11 I read Gates of Fire and decided to join the Army Infantry. That led to the war and my poetry. In Iraq, I read a lot of Elmore Leonard. After I got back, I got into the law-enforcement gig—because of Elmore Leonard. So, around 32 years old, I looked back on my life and realized: I’d read a book and done the thing in the book over and over and over. I said “Hey, stupid, maybe you like books and not the activity in the book.”
No one had suggested I try writing outside of academic-type assignments — never was I given a creative writing project as a student. I bought Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight and read it a few times. Then I did the exercises in the book. My writing was very bad at first. I read about twenty books on craft. I also read numerous grammar textbooks. I wrote more though 2015. Six years later, I have a lot of short story publications, a lot of poetry publications, a contract reviewing gig for St. Martin’s crime website (Criminal Element), and a few novels completed. I’ve been nominated and listed for some awards.
Someone recently asked me how I produce so much? Do I have a daily word count? Do I set a writing time? I don’t, I just read and write when I can. There is no secret. I enjoy it, so I do it. I skip my lunch and stay up late reading and writing, because it’s just who I am. It led to other stuff, and now I have a law-enforcement career and a mortgage.
The first poem, “Outgoing Tracers”, wastes no time, coming out swinging:
Lord, if I owe you a pound of flesh/Take my left foot and my left hand/Not my balls — not my dick/I want to have a kid/I need to have a kid.
Do you see modern war as a continuum of tribal/religious human sacrifice on a grander scale? If so, who is the God who’s being served, besides the personal one a soldier prays to in these desperate moments?
I don’t see war through a religious or sacrificial lens. In war, I feel religion is something many people use to find some measure of control in uncontrollable situations. I was raised Catholic but I’m no longer a member of that church. However, in life-threatening situations, I recite Catholic prayers. The prayer comforts me.
During World War One, a Chaplain wrote a letter to Devon, England’s local newspaper. He said, “We have no atheist in the trenches. Men are not ashamed to say that, though they never prayed before, they pray now with all their hearts.” I’ve never worked in hospice, but I imagine it is the same. When a person is on the edge of death, faith comes out.
War is very much a tribal thing for the actual warriors. Some people were born to fight. Alwyn Cashe, Mathew O. Williams, William D. Swenson—fighting is a gift for them. I have friends who were made for combat. In a gunfight they’re super-stars. When they’re back home paying taxes, taking out the trash, going to PTA meetings, they shine less-bright.
For others, the military is a way to create a better personal future through noble service. It’s a way many young people honorably escape unfortunate socio-economic situations. For the kids from hollers and beat-down trailers and ghettos, it represents opportunity. Free college and societal respect are a legitimate draw. They are elevating themselves, and their nation, through service. The sense of purpose provided by the military is massive and intoxicating. Feeling connected is a special thing. This is what attracted me, and it was provided. Every day I’m thankful that I served. The Army gave me myself. Joining was the best thing I ever did. The American Military is an exceptional, all-volunteer, institution full of outstanding Patriots. The line-level contractors who service our military endeavor to do the best possible job to take care of the troops.
While I love the military, I hate the war machine. War, at its highest levels, is a money-making endeavor for a huge military-industrial machine. They manipulate the hell out of the first three groups. The CEO of Haliburton has a jet on standby and can finance a new dorm so his son can go to Harvard. How many times has he been shot at? Young people are dying — sacrificed — so that a few super-elites make money and gain power.
The armed forces should only go to war in undeniably clear and dire circumstances. It should be a last resort, and it should always be voted on and authorized by Congress before anything kicks off. The blood of our best should not be shed lightly. We should respect them enough to only send them into harm's way in the most critical of circumstances.
The line: Why can’t I relax/The assholes all fucking missed in the poem “Endure” seems an appropriate segue to the subject of PTSD. What is the long-term price of endurance?
First, I want to say, there are guys and gals who have endured things that I can’t even imagine. I could list so many names, but I’ll only say a few — Neil Landsberg, Logan Lonkard, Almar Fitzgerald, Warren Frank, Ryan Hall, Ryan Rawl.
I don’t think I have PTSD. I am fortunate and am in no place to complain about my lot. I am thankful. Regarding my personal price: I have a lack of sleep, hyper-vigilance, ringing in my ears, tingling in my hands, and bouts of guilt — not depression — where I feel like I should have done more. Luckily, I don’t have a taste for alcohol and have avoided drugs. Personally, I’ve never had any “flashbacks,” even though they seem to be a popular narrative/literary device.
In “Homeward Bound” — which I felt was a great double-entendre for a title — you give a glimpse into your transition from soldier to cop. Was it difficult, especially as a Veteran, to navigate 2020’s social upheavals when it seemed “the entire world hates the blue?” What’s something you’d like to impart to those of us who are outspoken when U.S law enforcement’s abuse of power is under the magnifying glass?
I have so many thoughts about this, and it could easily be a book by itself. When you’re a soldier representing the American tribe abroad, everyone loves you. When you are a cop, huge sections of society hate you. But soldiers and cops are mostly the same groups of people. Numerous people in my law-enforcement organization were in my same military unit—we’ve been together for twenty-plus years. Everyone loved us, now they hate us.
In my agency, we aggressively ferret out the bad apples. I’ve personally reported people to internal affairs. Most cops have zero tolerance for criminal behavior or abuse of power. All cops should have zero tolerance and my organization is working towards that goal every day. We want the public to respect us, trust us — we want to do a good job. At the end of the day, people want to be liked and valued, and all cops are people first. Honestly, I’m terrified to tell the literary world I work in law enforcement. I feel naked and exposed. This collection is a painful piece of my soul, and now I’m providing the world a reason to dislike me. It is not a comfortable feeling.
As a civilian, please report bad cops to the agency's IA and/or the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General and/or other law enforcement agencies. Please remember most cops are regular people that want to do good for their community, want to be liked and respected. They got into law-enforcement because they want to help. I became a cop because I want to do good things for my country.
When I was facilitating a writing class for a Veteran/Active-Duty Military non-profit, I assumed we’d be mainly tackling the horrors of war. It turned out to be the last thing these people wanted to write about — it was more themes of simple escapism and being thankful for mediocrity. Do you find it cathartic to write about war, or does it re-shackle you to a traumatizing past?
I loved my time in the military, but dislike writing about the war. I started because I want to tell my daughter everything, but I loathe talking about it even more than writing about it. Writing about it brings up horrible memories and feelings and I do not enjoy the experience. Stephen J. Golds, editor of Close to the Bone Poetry, asked me to do a second volume, and I initially said no. It hurts.
However, I ended up doing the second book for a November 2022 release, because I want to tell my daughter everything so she can understand. After that second one, I doubt I’ll do more war-memoir stuff. I’ve written enough war poetry for a lifetime. It’s too personal and drains me emotionally. I love writing and reading crime fiction/noir, good spy thrillers, comedy, pop-poetry, and literary fiction that has a plot and not just gorgeous prose.
As far as non-fiction goes, Major General Smedley Butler (author of War Is A Racket, 1935) is my spirit-guide in this, his work should be required reading for Congress. I might write some war fiction. If I ever write a military-political thriller it will surely be a lone-wolf type taking out a high-level war profiteer or saving an old battle-buddy. Again, Pro-Military/Anti-War.
I live by a military base where a substantial amount of crime is actually committed by the idle hands of off-duty military. We all know it’s difficult for a soldier to return from the lawlessness of war back into a rigid society, but is there a temptation to seek cheap, even amoral thrills as a trained adrenaline junkie? Or is there more a craving to continue being disciplined?
My combat experience was not lawless. It was regimented and very well controlled in the legal sense. It was mostly boring, only occasionally action-movie-exciting-but-terrifying. But always very “legal”—if that makes sense.
Regarding idle-military-crime, I think it is a combination of a few things. Adrenaline yes, also in combat things are immediate and clear. The immediacy and clarity are intoxicating. So… you rob a bank. You get a hit of adrenaline and you get a thousand dollars, and it is done. That is as far as the thought process goes for some people.
I often miss the clarity. Life at home is murky and there are so many things to worry about. At the line-level infantry, war is deliciously simple. The cause and effect—the mission driven existence in pursuit of a single goal—creates a clarity of purpose that doesn’t exist in modern first world civilian life.
I didn’t know how badly I needed some levity in AtVM until I laughed out loud reading “The Bunker,” yet I was still impressed how you were still able to turn yourself so inside out in the piece. Is it going to freak you out when we’re all winking at you at the next writer’s conference?
If you, or anyone else, winks at me, I’m going to assume I look amazing, and you want to hook up with me. But my spouse will cut you, so be careful, regardless of how hot I look.
Any last words?
Since this is a veteran’s focused piece, before you donate to any charity, Veteran’s or otherwise, please go to Charity Navigator and make sure they spend the money on the actual charitable mission.
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