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Vijay Iyer On Learning From War

For three years, jazz musician Vijay Iyer has worked with poet and performer Mike Ladd to set the words of war veterans to music. The resulting album, released earlier this month, is called <em>Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project</em>.
Jimmy Katz
Courtesy of the artist
For three years, jazz musician Vijay Iyer has worked with poet and performer Mike Ladd to set the words of war veterans to music. The resulting album, released earlier this month, is called Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project.

This past week, Vijay Iyer joined the ranks of the world's certified "geniuses": The jazz pianist and composer is among this year's recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. But lest it be forgotten, Iyer has another accomplishment to celebrate this month — the culmination of a three-year effort to capture the poetry of war.

For more than a decade, Iyer has worked with poet and performer Mike Ladd on a series of musical works about the lives of people of color since Sept. 11. The latest installment is called Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project, and features lyrics culled from interviews they conducted with Iraq and Afghanistan vets, who shared their still-fresh memories of combat.

NPR's Arun Rath recently spoke with Vijay Iyer and Holding It Down contributor Maurice Decaul, who served in Iraq as a Marine and led a battalion into an-Nasiriyah in 2003, about how veterans live with the weight of those memories. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

ARUN RATH: Vijay, how did you and Mike Ladd first come up with this project?

VIJAY IYER: We had done two previous large-scale projects considering American life since 9/11: The first was called In What Language? and the second was called Still Life With Commentator. And we came to realize we were sort of looking at life in the shadows of war — you know, these two wars that the U.S. has been conducting on our dimes for the last decade or so. But we also realized that we hadn't really come face to face with the lived experience of war. So it seemed like if we were going to continue in that vein, the thing to do was to speak with veterans. As two civilians, we couldn't just make a piece about wartime experience; we really had to feature the voices of those who had lived through it.

RATH: How did you start reaching out to those people?

IYER: It was kind of haphazard. First, we tried just cold-calling and emailing people. [But] if you just walk up to someone and say, "Tell me about the worst part of your life," it's going to be hard to win their trust. I think we realized that we had to be realistic about what was fair to others, what to expect from others.

Then, just by the good graces of fortune and circumstance, we happened to see this wonderful profile of Maurice Decaul in The New York Times. It was really a photo essay — they had a series called "One in 8 Million," where they would follow someone around for a day and take some beautiful photographs and do a little bit of narrative. And there was this guy who was sort of everything that we had in mind. He's a New Yorker, he's a man of color — Afro-Caribbean descent. And he's a veteran, and he's a creative writer. At the time he was a student at Columbia, pursuing a degree in creative writing and dealing with his wartime experiences in Iraq.

RATH: And Maurice will be joining us in a moment. You mentioned he's African-American; you made the decision at some point to have the voices only of veterans of color in this project. Why is that?

IYER: Well, there's a number of reasons. Partly, that's sort of been the underlying theme or framework that we've been working in. Our first project, In What Language?, was about the experiences of people of color in airports both before and after 9/11, and considering the possibility of community by virtue of a shared experience of surveillance and paranoia. That sort of set the tone for all of these works.

The other thing about it is that we found that, because these two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are so racialized, because the way that the enemy was construed and talked about was in very racialized terms, and because we just saw brown and dark-skinned people being targeted as suspects across America over the last decade, both through airport surveillance and through homeland security roundups and all of these things ... And then, at the same time, it just happens to be the case that there's a disproportionate presence of people of color in the armed forces, especially among the lower ranks — people who enlist, often out of reasons of need, or perceived need, or the perception of the possibility of opportunities for some kind of a career path and access to an education. Often people enlist because they think that's their best ticket out of poverty.

So, there was this double-sidedness to the whole effect of these wars. On the one hand, the enemy is racialized, or thought of in very racialized terms — you know, all the terms that they use to dehumanize the enemy. But on the other hand, people on our side are possibly finding some point of connection with people on the other side of the rifle. I remember there was a poem of Maurice's — it was written after we made the album — that refers to someone on the other side as "cousin". And there's also a moment on the album where Lynn, the woman who was a drone pilot...

RATH: That's Lynn Hill?

IYER: Lynn Hill, yes. There's a moment where she says that the last thing she thinks about at night is how she could have been one of those families over there, that that could just as easily be her. So the idea that somehow you find this empathy with the enemy by virtue of your experience as a person of color in America — that created this very different dynamic that we just wanted to explore. And it's not that it really gets foregrounded in the course of the piece, but it's a thread that is woven through it.

RATH: I have to ask you, Vijay, because the perspective that you're laying out — it's a pretty leftist perspective, that sees the wars as being highly racialized, somewhat imperial misadventures. Obviously, that's kind of a minority view in the military, and, I would imagine, probably even a minority view among the veterans of color. And I noticed how, aside from Maurice and Lynn, very few of these poets actually used their last names. Do you think were they reluctant to share their stories in this way?

IYER: Well that's part of our agreement with them — in order for them to feel that they could speak freely, they only have to share as much of their identities as they want to. That sort of seemed like the easiest way. In fact, some of these names are not their real names.

But the other thing is, it's one thing to say that you're anti-war. But then to speak with people who went and fought on our behalf, funded by our tax dollars, and sit with people from that community and listen to them — you can't say that you're anti-war and at the same time try to accommodate their experience. And so in the interest of not invalidating somebody's life choices, I had to put that aside and just really listen. And actually, it's not even that this whole project is specifically anti-war. I think something else comes out of it, which is, "What do we do now?" You know? Now that people have come home.

RATH: These men and women have these experiences now.

IYER: And they carry them. And they're among us. I mean, it's a few million people in this country who've been through this experience in various ways and it's all of our problem. So now what do we do? That's what we were hoping to both demonstrate and actually enact in some way — the possibility of reconnecting.

RATH: This seems like a good time to bring in one of the poets that you worked with on Holding It Down, Maurice Decaul. Maurice, welcome.


RATH: I imagine that your poetry predates your work with Vijay. Were you writing throughout your deployment?

DECAUL: Actually, no. I didn't start writing until around the end of 2009, the beginning of 2010, I think it was.

RATH: And that was after you had returned?

DECAUL: Right — I returned in 2003 from Iraq. I think it took a long time to be able to think through what had happened [there]. Around six years after the deployment, I needed an outlet and I was lucky enough to find one through NYU's Veterans Writing Workshop. I went there looking to get help writing narratives, because I was gonna be studying history at Columbia, so I thought I'd end up being a history professor writing history books. I just wanted to get some practice writing stories. But they were teaching poetry, and I tried it, and it just kind of stuck. And I've been doing it since.

RATH: Maurice, the track "Derelict Poetry" seems to be about imagined scenarios for yourself. You imagine staying in Iraq rather than returning home, and you imagine dying on the battlefield. Can you talk about this piece?

DECAUL: Sure. That actually came out of a workshop at Columbia. The professor asked us to use — there was a Cesar Vallejo poem and it starts with, "Cesar Vallejo is not here." So she asked us to all write poems based on that first line.

You know, you go to places like Iraq and there's always the possibility that you might not make it back home. So oftentimes, one has plenty of time to really think about what that possibility might be like and why it is that you might not be able to come home. So that poem came out of thinking about those kinds of experiences or those kinds of thoughts. It starts talking about how the main character, he's not home, he's never come home; he's still in Iraq, just hanging out with the Bedouins. What that really means is, even six years after deployment, you never really do come home fully. There's always a trace of the war, there's always a trace of the Marine Corps; it never leaves the body.

Then it goes into talking about that possibility that one doesn't make it home. I was an infantryman in Iraq. You go out on patrols, and oftentimes, you have missions that are quite simple: traffic control points, roadblocks or raiding houses. But, you know, you could go out on a mission that feels very familiar to you because you've been doing it for months on end every single day, but that particular day that you go out could be the last time. And that second part relates to an incident, the first time that my squad was engaged in combat. It was very ... if I had been standing all the way up, I probably would have been dead right now.

RATH: Vijay, your piano has a strong rhythmic drive always; you've got a strong left hand and we're hearing that hard on this piece. I'm wondering what you were thinking musically to support Maurice's thoughts.

IYER: Well, I kind of wanted to capture his nobility, and the dignity that he just sort of radiates. Generally, when I was creating these pieces of music, it was about creating an environment for these individuals to really be heard. It has a sort of sturdiness to it, and an elegance, I hope. But then also, in the middle of it, there is a sort of storm that happens — and that's part of anybody's life, at some level. We've all had extreme experiences of one kind or another that we have to keep contained.

RATH: I'm curious about the composition process, because it's not sung, but it's not quite spoken word. It's almost a Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets kind of rhythmic talking. How did you make it sync up like that?

IYER: You can say "rap" on NPR, right? (Laughs)

RATH: (Slowly) Hip ... hop? (Laughs)

IYER: That's right. No, I mean, we have a lot of points of reference for this, and to be honest, we weren't really trying to sound like any specific thing. We were really just trying to make something together. And when you just sit in a room for a week or a year — or, in this case, three and a half years — you find some things that work and some things that don't. So that's really how this whole process unfolded: "Here's this poem." "Oh, well, here's this piece of music that seems to kind of have something in common with it, or seems that it would complement it in some way." Some of the pieces on the album are sung and some of them are spoken. Some of them are more kind of heightened, performed speech. Some of them, I think, can be called rap — like the piece called "On Patrol," that's Maurice basically rapping.

RATH: And that's kind of a stream-of-consciousness piece. Maurice, can you talk about that one?

DECAUL: "On Patrol" also references that same incident in "Derelict Poetry." It was an ambush, so when I was writing that, I was thinking through what that environment felt like. There is a very specific checklist that you go through before you leave the base. You check the marines for their dog tags — make sure that they're laced into the boots properly, and also around the neck. You want to make sure that they're silenced, because any noise can give you away, and also that they're taped with black tape, because a glint from the sun can also give you away as you're walking.

[I was] trying to create the environment of going out on a patrol and being ambushed, and what does that feel like. It's a very chaotic event, [so the poem is] chaotic. It's just two very big blocks of text; it's not crafted. Even on the page it feels chaotic to me. I was interested in recreating some of the sounds because, you know, there's machine gun fire — there's always machine gun fire in Iraq. That was an important part of the poem, too, just trying to recreate the sounds of battle and that particular ambush.

RATH: It's sort of wild that the album is subtitled The Veterans' Dreams Project. Even though we're talking about dreams and dream imagery, insomnia — and the kind of killing of that dream state — is a theme here. Maurice, was that a problem that you faced?

DECAUL: I didn't have insomnia, but — and I don't remember this — my wife would talk about how at night I would wake up, and I would maybe hit her or wrestle with her or fight with her. That happened for a few years. There are a few dreams that I remember that are pretty intense, pretty scary. Like, one of them involves faces coming out of the wall and coming towards you. And another one — it was entirely a dream, it never happened to me — but, people being shot.

IYER: Mike did a lot of interviews with other veterans too, and so many of the pieces on this album are derived from their telling of their dreams. But some of the people he interviewed said they didn't sleep at all, or didn't dream at all, and if they did, it was a medicated kind of sleep. That's where the song "Rem Killer" comes from: It's a litany of all the medications that people would take to not have to relive some of these memories in the course of sleep.

RATH: Maurice, what do you hope that listeners will take away from this collection?

DECAUL: That's a good question; it's something that we talk about. This is '13, so we've been at war for 12 years now. [More than] 2 million or so veterans have gone through the two wars. That's not counting the families that have also been a part of the wars, and that's not counting the people on the other side who were affected by the wars, and that's not counting the rest of the American population.

What I'm really hoping is that we'll be able to create a space for dialogue. We're drawing down Afghanistan next year — so that's another 60,000 or so troops coming home. I was actually speaking with another vet this morning, and he was talking about how when folks first come home they might not be so willing to talk — it might take them a few years. But what I'm hoping is that the project will create a space ... for dialogue between service people, their families of course, but also just the larger community. I really do think that if we constantly, constantly, constantly, constantly talk about these wars or wars in general, maybe we would be less inclined to run headlong into another one. It's really important to have the means of expression so that you can tell your own story, but also create the space for dialogue to happen.

RATH: And Vijay, for you, same question. What do you want people to take away from this?

IYER: I think Maurice captured it very well. One of the hallmarks of these wars, from a domestic perspective, is that they were almost invisible. You know, you barely noticed that they were happening. At some point, people got tired of hearing or reading about it — it would be buried in the middle of the front section of the paper. You couldn't really tell we were at war if you just looked out the window or looked at what was happening in culture. And so there is a sort of indifference or fatigue that set in, that I think we need to face. Do people really know what war is, and what is it like to carry those experiences?

This project is, first and foremost, for the veterans — it was created with and by veterans and it's very much for that community to experience. For me, one of the best responses we got was from Lynn Hill herself, who's one of our collaborators. She said that after being involved in this project, she was able to leave therapy and she stopped having nightmares, and now she's married and has a baby. So she underwent a certain healing process through the telling and through being heard. That, to me, is far beyond what we ever expected or anticipated. So the healing potential of this kind of work — whether it's this project or another one that it might inspire — I think that's what I would like to see.

RATH: Finally, Vijay, just days ago it was announced that you were the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius Grant," as they're called: $625,000 over the next five years, no strings attached. What are you gonna do?

IYER: (Laughs) When you put it that way ... . You know, a project like this, it's not about me. It's something that I can kind of be a conduit for and help set in motion, but it has larger aims of trying to be in service to others. That, to me, is probably the best thing I could do with this prize. I mean, it's still sinking in: It's sort of like, "Welcome to the rest of your life." That's the kind of scale I have to think on, so it's a little early to say anything specific. But if I can keep doing this kind of work and, hopefully, keep inspiring others to do something better — better than me, that is — then I'll feel like I've done something good with it.

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