Friday, April 26, 2013

Poet David Allen Sullivan: Compassion The Missing Piece

Chris Cooper – 1,894 Words

“David Allen Sullivan’s gaze is steeped in compassion for all connected to the combat zone; these finely crafted poems recognize that which is deeply human.  
During a recent trip to Baghdad I was asked by  an Iraqi poet, “When will the artists in America create work in conversation with us?” 
Every Seed of the Pomegranate is a part of this neglected and difficult conversation.”
Poet Brian Turner

“It’s easy to show off your intellect and your cleverness.  The risky most vital thing is to have compassion and empathy for others.  And that opens up your heart and your vulnerable place to be – our lovers, children, other cultures.  The soldiers who seemed best able to cope with the return to so-called normal civilian-life were those who learned from and talked to the Iraqi people.  Empathy is really crucial and the danger in our country is we are losing the capacity to look at the other side.. “
Poet David Allen Sullivan

            In 2007, Dr. David Allan Sullivan, who has taught literature, creative writing, and film at Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz, California since 1996, noticed a change in his student make up – now his classes consisted not only the traditional full time students, but also the Iraqi war veteran.  In fact, he learned that several of his students were Iraqis, Iraqi war veterans, and spouses of Iraqi war veterans.  His relationships with these students led him to learn more about the Iraq War.
            He had an Iraq veteran student enroll in his screenwriting class.  The veteran was struggling to write what he had experienced because he stayed in the green zone of Baghdad and never saw combat.
            He had friends who lost limbs and life during the war.  He felt guilty.  He was sheltered but he heard the bombs and the sirens, and he had friends who never came back.  The students wanted to know the gory details, but he didn’t have them.  He felt his experiences were not valid because he came back essentially whole.    Iraqi War Veterans often have trouble articulating what they have been through.  The other students want to say congratulations but they don’t want to hear their stories.”
            But Sullivan wanted to hear their stories and so he listened.  The stories came alive to him and he began to see the war through the eyes of the United States soldier, the Iraqi soldier, the United States citizen, and the Iraqi citizen.  

            That summer, he watched documentaries on Iraq, and one night, he woke up at 3 a.m., grabbed the journal he kept on his night stand at all times, and, without turning on the light (he didn’t want to wake up his wife), wrote the second poem of his now published book collection Every Seed of the Pomegranate.
            “It’s interesting because I don’t take credit for having written it.   I started writing down what I was hearing and pretty much the whole thing came out.”
            Angel Jibril (Gabriel), The Messenger” is the poem’s title.  And when Sullivan showed it to his poetry group they insisted that he had to pursue this powerful and compelling material.
            “And it was really that angel voice that said:  you don’t know what you are in for but you need to take this journey.    So I took on this project and then it got harder – I realized If I’m going to do this I have to look on both sides.”        
            Sullivan read all he could on the Iraq War from both points of view, watched documentaries about both sides of the conflict, and learned a few Arabic phrases.  He also looked up words in Ukrainian so he could use them in the poem “SASHA KSENYCH, DOMESTIC”, about a Ukrainian woman working in New York City.   In the process, he wrote six more poems.
On September 9, 2008, Sullivan attended a poet reading at the Bookshop of Santa Cruz.  The reading was by Iraq War veteran Brian Turner who read from his two books of poetry Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise.   After the reading, Sullivan, Turner, and poet Ken Weisner went to Costa Brava on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.  The three poets talked poetry and had drinks, when Sullivan revealed to them what happened that 3 a.m. night and the six other poems he had written since.
            “I told them how uncertain I was.  I’d never been to Iraq, didn’t know Arabic, and had no experience in the military.  Brian said, “This war is being ignored by almost everyone.  And the repercussions will be dealt with for years.  If citizens don’t educate themselves and take an interest they do a great disservice to the vets.  Write what you’re called to write.“  Brain Turner is the one who got me to believe that I could do it.  He told me I should pursue this all the way through.” 
            Sullivan took Turner’s advice and continued to write more poems, often using words and images from his own students as the poem’s backdrop.
            “I was writing poems in the voices from the students I heard from.  The more I kept going the more I had to write it.  This project itself demanded that I take it seriously and do my homework and get the things written as accurately as possible.”
            Soon he had a collection of poems – enough for a book – and the first individuals he had read his poems were his own students; one of which was Corporal Angel Milan III, an Iraqi War veteran from New York. 
            “Angel pulled out this poem, and came to me and said, “This is my poem.”   He had tears in his eyes.  I asked him, “Can I give this character to your name?”  And he said, “Yes, I’d be honored.”  I began to remove the pseudonyms from people because I realized I needed to connect this to the individuals who inspired it. “
            The poem, “Corporal Angel Milan III” is in Part 3 of Every Seed of the Pomegranate.

Sullivan got the title for his book collection from a famous Arabic saying:  Every seed of the Pomegranate must be eaten, because you can’t tell which one comes from Paradise.  When Sullivan read the saying, it made him realize that in order for an individual to experience life fully he or she must take in all of life’s experiences:  sorrows and pains, as well as joys and pleasures.   The hardest part was yet to come – he had to find a publisher for his book collection.
“I knew it would take an unusual publisher to brave this manuscript.  I looked at books on my bookshelf that I liked and sent it to a number of them.  Mifanwy Kaiser of Tebot Bach Books texted me within twenty four hours and said, “I haven’t read it all but I want to publish this.’”
For the book cover – Sullivan went to the Internet to look at images by Iraqi artist and found the pomegranate photograph by Sama Raena Alshaibi, Assistant Photography Professor at University of Phoenix, Arizona.  He sent Alshaibi the manuscript and asked her if he could use her photograph as the book’s cover.  She said yes, and gave him permission to use any of her images for free.   Four of her photographs are featured in the book.
Every Seed of the Pomegranate is 116 pages with 63 poems divided into a preface poem, three parts, and an epilogue poem.   Parts 1 and 3 begin and end with an angel poem: “ANGEL JIBRIL (GABRIEL), THE MESSENGER”,  ANGEL ISRA’IL (RAPHAEL) THE BURNING ONE”,  ANGEL MIKAEL (MICHAEL), THE PROVIDER”, and “THE OBEDIENCE OF IBLIS, THE DEVIL.”  Part 2 consists entirely of the angel poem “THE BLACK CAMEL,” which features the angel of death, a United States soldier, and an Iraqi father.     
THE BLACK CAMEL” is the last poem I wrote in three voices.   It was time I felt I could pull these voices together into one poem.  THE BLACK CAMEL” performs the bridge that I hope the book interacts – getting Iraq and U.S Soldiers and Iraq and U.S. citizens to talk with one another.”
The entire book follows the haiku format in groups of three lines – the first line having 5 syllables; second line 7 syllables; and the third line 5 syllables.  Sullivan says the linked-haiku format forced him to focus on the images not the narrative threads.
“It’s my invention.  It also appears a few times in my first book, Strong-Armed Angels.   The haiku stanzas allow for some breathing room.  I convey the detail and hope that the rest of the stories are told in the reader’s brain.  Since I was dealing with an incredible diverse amount of material I wanted the reader to find some connective thread through it.  I realized this form works because it makes it feel like a book no matter how diverse or strange it gets.  Some of the haikus can stand on their own, while for others it’s necessary to see a few of them in a row to understand it fully.”

All the poems via the eyes of a United States citizen or veteran are on the left side; the Iraqi voices are on the right; the poems written in Sullivan’s voice or the third person are indented from the left; and the angel-voiced poems are centered.   There are also notes at the end of the book adding some sort of detail for each poem.
The book was finally published on July 7, 2012.  In the forward Sullivan writes, “I wrote these poems to help myself see beyond the simplistic labels of PTSD and jihadism, xenophobia and patriotism, and to imagine looking through others eyes.  I hope they become part of the ongoing dialogue that is the only way to begin healing the wounds – physical, psychological, social, and cultural – we suffer from in both countries.  Poetry can create opportunities for empathy and understanding; it is one way to re-see ourselves, and the ones we too often see as other.”
Sullivan had his first poet reading at the Horticulture Center at Cabrillo Community College on July 15, 2012.  It only seemed fitting that he invited his students, including Angel Milan III to participate in the reading.  Milan read his poem “CORPORAL ANGEL MILAN III” and then introduced Sullivan at the reading. 

            Sullivan was born in Illinois, and grew up in Vermont, with one year spent in Vienna where his teacher, the novelist Jonathan Carroll, inspired him to write poetry.  He received a B.A. from the University of Chicago, where he edited The Chicago Literary Review, and went to graduate school at the University of California, Irvine.  His dissertation was on the ethics of address in the poems of Emily Dickinson and Killarney Clary.  He teaches English, Film, and Screenwriting at Cabrillo Community College where he edits the Porter Gulch Review with his students and serves on the Veterans Task Force Committee.  Poems from his first book Strong-Armed Angels, were read on The Writer’s Almanac by Garrison Keillor.  Two recent poems were selected by Alberto Rios and recorded as part of the permanent public art and poetry project Passage, in Phoenix, Arizona.  He was awarded the Morton Marcus Poetry Prize, and won the Bloodroot poetry contest.  The manuscript for Every Seed of the Pomegranate was a finalist for the May Swenson and Sarabande book prizes.  He lives with his wife Cherie Barkey, a professor of history, and their children, Jules and Amina Barivan.

Contact Sullivan at or for more information.

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