AN INTERVIEW WITH GERARDO MENA:
CAROLYN SUPINKA: Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like? Did you read or write poetry before your experiences in the war?
GERARDO MENA: Well, as a small child, my biological father abandoned my mother, younger brother, and I, and we were dirt poor living in the seedier parts of southern California for a few years. My mom worked hard, married a decent man the second go-around, and when I turned eight we moved to Missouri for a fresh start. From then on I was lucky enough to enjoy a middle class upbringing. As far as poetry before the war, I was never really into it growing up. In high school I never looked forward to creative writing. I always wrote differently than other students and had teachers that didn't appreciate my style, with one even telling my mother during a parent teacher conference, "He'll never make it as a writer. He doesn't have the talent," which is interesting because I had no ambition to become a writer and her comment was completely unprovoked. Also, now that I'm on the other end as a high school English teacher, I am more confused than ever about her comment because no matter how bad of a day, or how frustrating a batch of students may be, I would never discourage any of them to try and do anything they wanted to with their lives. And I would definitely not try and set limitations to parents on the potential of their children.
CS: Can you talk about your decision to enlist?
GM: My decision to enlist was fairly simple. I loved my country. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And I was completely unsure of what I was capable of, which is the reason I tried out for Spec Ops.
CS: What do you think of the term 'war poet?" What does it mean to you, other than (obviously) that you have been through a war?
GM: The term "war poet" is an honor and a responsibility that I take very seriously. To be a war poet is to become a voice for others. I'm not just writing for myself, or for vets that have lived through similar experiences, because I think that's not enough. I try to write my poems and prose in a way that speaks to the average American that has forgotten about our wars, to show them that there are still men and women fighting and dying in the mud overseas. In fact, another Reconnaissance Marine, Justin Hansen, just died a few days ago in combat. Remember him as a great and caring man.
CS: On your website, you say that after your service, you surrounded yourself with music and poetry at the University of Missouri as a way of dealing with the events you experienced in the war. Is poetry therapeutic, or healing to you?
GM: Poetry was very therapeutic for me. It allowed me to view different perspectives of major events that shook my world, which resulted in me having a greater understanding of why things happened the way they did.
CS: What do you think of art as therapy?
GM: I love the idea of art as therapy. But the question then becomes is art your saving grace, or the reason you're going crazy? Either way, I think the world needs more creative, unique, eccentric artists to help make life interesting and beautiful.
CS: Did you write poetry while you were stationed in Iraq, or did you just start to write once you returned to the states?
GM: I didn't even know what poetry was until I started attending college at the University of Missouri and took a creative writing class on a whim. I had a teacher that become a mentor, and is still a great friend of mine. He told me my voice was important and that getting it out into the world was going to be extremely difficult and full of critics that "don't get it," and people that love saying "no." But all I could see was a lovely new challenge and I haven't looked back since.
CS: On the Veterans Affairs website "Vantage Point," you offer suggestions for soldiers who have returned home and have started college. One suggestion you make, for all soldiers, is to take a creative writing course. Can you speak to the importance of sharing the experience all soldiers have lived through?
GM: I always promote taking a creative writing course when possible, not so that everyone becomes a writer, but because developing a unique voice and being able to express one's self confidently is one of the most liberating and satisfying experiences. I also believe that the more you share your stories, the more you widen people's eyes to the fact that not everyone is the same, and the world is beautiful for that.
CS: Another suggestion you make is to reach out to other veterans and continue to build friendships. Have you made friendships with other poets? How has this affected your writing?
GM: I have made some great friendships by reaching out. Brian Turner was the first one to motivate me to start writing my war poems when I saw him at an AWP conference several years ago. It didn't take much. He just said, "we need your voice," and that was all I needed to hear. We still trade e-mails every now and then. Also, since starting my website and making it easier for people to find me, I've had some great and inspiring conversations with other poets about literature that would not have taken place had I, or them, not reached out into "the void" that is the internet.
CS: In your poem "So I Was a Coffin," which won first prize in the 2010 War Poetry Contest, you write about a soldier who tries to be many things that he is ordered to be, but finally ends up being buried with his fallen comrade as a coffin. This poem was very moving. Could you talk a little about this poem?
GM: It's sort of about losing yourself as you try to become all these things for other people. I hope this doesn't disappoint too many folks, but I have no idea where this poem came from. It wasn't mapped out or planned ahead. I was driving home one day and I texted it to myself on my phone in a brief flash of creativity and loved it, and have never really sat down and tried to figure out its meaning beyond the fact that it rings true for so many vets. And while I used my friend Kyle's name, I think it stands for all vets that gave their lives.
CS: What advice can you give to those soldiers struggling to adjust to civilian life?
GM: My advice is: It gets better. It gets better. It gets better. No matter who you are life is going to kick you in the teeth at some point. Accept help from friends and family and other people that have been in your situation, dust yourself off, and then try and pay it forward every single day for the rest of your life in the hopes that when you die, someone will say, "that was a good man (or woman)."