Matthew Komatsu: Together We Ignite

Last year, at
the age of 37, I began the UAA MFA program with not a little trepidation. Things
I worried about: Discovering my potential as a writer was much lower than I
hoped. How well-read everyone else would be by comparison. But really, what
kept me up was the idea of being the lone serving veteran in the bunch. We’re
an ill-understood creature in any modern landscape. Once, farmers and
shopkeepers set aside their scythes and registers to answer the call. Now, we
are an all-volunteer force who answer the call of the full-time profession of
arms. Once, warriors came home and beat their swords into ploughshares; now we
redeploy and await the next run into the breach. There’s a divide between the
military and civilians as a result. It’s an experiential barrier to
understanding that leaves us to regard each other from a distance.
At best I
thought I might receive the “automaton” stereotype; at worst, “goose-stepping
fascist.” But as it turned out, my fears were entirely misplaced. Labels fell
away quickly under the clear light of the workshop process and the demands of
craft refinement. After a few days, the most important thing we knew about each
other was that each of us was a writer. And that we needed each other to get
I don’t want to
gush, but my experience at my MFA workshop was absolutely formative, and it got
me thinking about Alaska, war writing, veterans, and the war writing workshops
that have sprung up throughout the Lower 48 through organizations like Words After War and Veterans Writing Project. Curious, I
looked into the demographics of the state. According to a 2010 VA factsheet, there were 76,000 veterans in the state. Crunch the numbers: that’s 10%
of the state. Then I asked Linda Ketchum, the former 49 Writers Executive
Director, if there had ever been a veterans writing workshop in Alaska. Not to
her knowledge. See, here’s the kicker: in the lower 48, a workshop is
potentially a cheap plane ticket away. In Alaska, we’re an entire country away
from access to that kind of thing.
A crazy idea
lodged in my noggin: why not put one on in Anchorage?
So that’s what
I’m going to do, with a slight twist inspired by the Words After War model of
uniting civilians and veterans interested in writing fiction, nonfiction, and
poetry that in some way address war. 49 Writers and Words After War have agreed
to work with me to make it happen in February of 2016. The plan: find six
civilians and six veterans who want to spend two days getting after the craft
of writing about war, with the hope of creating stronger bonds across the
civil-military divide through the production of high-quality literature. I’m
recruiting faculty and figuring out the fundraising right now, and I hope to
have more news in the months to come.
I’ve enjoyed
sharing some thoughts with you all this month, and I hope this is just the
beginning of a much longer conversation in the months and years to come. Thanks
for stopping by, and circle next February on your calendar. I hope to see you
Matthew Komatsu
is an author and currently serving veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2014, he enrolled in the University of Alaska-Anchorage’s MFA in Creative
Writing program as a nonfiction candidate. He has published essays in The New York TimesWar, Literature and the Arts; and on stage at Anchorage’s Arctic Entries. WLA nominated his memoir-essay, “31 North 64
East” for a Pushcart Prize. He also has a flash essay upcoming in the
September 2015 issue of Brevity. You can follow him on Twitter @matthew_komatsu.

3 thoughts on “Matthew Komatsu: Together We Ignite”

  1. Thanks for this, a great post and a great idea. It sounds like you probably already have a lot of tools at your disposal but here are a few more resources that may help in planning or funding, as well as for others who may be interested in the issue:

    1. William Joiner Center for the Study of War & Social Consequences runs writing workshops every year:

    2. Warrior Writers Program:

    3. Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace–anthology by Maxine Hong Kingston.

    Good luck with this, it's a necessary project in Alaska.
    Christine Byl

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    This is a great idea — thanks on behalf of readers and writers everywhere for taking it on, Matthew! I love the idea of bridging the veteran-civilian divide. Way back when 49 Writers first started, these were the kinds of much-needed national caliber projects we hoped to see happen.

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