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Giving poetic license to vets

ASU-sponsored, military-affiliated journal features poetry, prose and profiles

Woman with glasses and long dark hair poses for a photo in front of historical family photos and a folded American flag

ASU Teaching Professor Rosemarie Dombrowski is the founding editor of ISSUED: Stories of Service, a military-affiliated journal of poetry, prose and interviews. Her family, who has many military connections, has been a source of inspiration for her work with the journal. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

May 10, 2024

When Rosemarie Dombrowski took over as editor of a new academic military journal, it seemed like a mismatch at first.

Dombrowski is the inaugural poet laureate for Phoenix, an author and a teaching professor at Arizona State University, and is the curator of several literary arts programs. She was also the co-founding faculty editor of Write On, Downtown (2007–22), an annual publication dedicated to showcasing the work of Phoenix creatives.

As it turns out, Dombrowski is a “military brat,” and her work focuses on socially and medically vulnerable populations. That includes health care providers, caregivers, dementia patients and the formerly incarcerated.

ISSUED Launch event

When: 6 p.m., Wednesday, May 15

Where: Changing Hands Bookstore, 300 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix

More details

Now she’s helping military members find their voices as the founding editor of ISSUED: Stories of Service, a military-affiliated journal of poetry, prose and interviews by and for active-duty military members and veterans. The journal is sponsored by ASU’s Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement and is making a splash within the community.

The journal contains personal stories of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and profiles in its more than 100 pages. The creative contributions express the spectrum of experiences within military life, including gender and sexuality, physical and mental health, combat-related trauma and reintegration into society.

ASU News spoke to Dombrowski before the launch event for the journal's second issue.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Cover of "Issued: stories of service" (2024)
Cover of Issued: Stories of Service (2024)

Question: I found it curious that the Phoenix poet laureate was put in charge of a military journal. How did that happen?

Answer: When Manuel Aviles-Santiago was still the director of OVMAE (Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement) in the spring of 2022, he offered me a fellowship, then asked if I would be willing to theme an issue of Write On, Downtown for the military community. And though I initially said yes, I realized that I was interested in taking on a bigger challenge, so I suggested the creation of a new military-focused journal. I knew it was a tall order, but I’m passionate about creating platforms for marginalized voices and I also love surprising readers — especially the ones who wouldn’t typically pick up an anthology of poetry — with the power of poetry.

I also wanted to build this platform for my father, who died when I was 14 and was a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps and a Korean War veteran. I also have two half-brothers that are veterans, and my maternal grandfather, who I never met, was also a veteran. So this was also about the reclamation of family history — mine and others. So many of us are merely one generation removed from veterans and yet we know little to nothing about their service, or maybe more importantly, how it impacted them.   

Q: How long did it take you to put the journal together, what was involved and how was the first issue received in 2023?

A: In the summer of 2022, I reached out to a former student who happened to be both an Air Force veteran and a creative writing major, so with Virgil Connor as our managing and co-founding editor, and a couple of other unsuspecting undergrads who signed up for ENG 484: Journal Editing Internship, we started building the foundation for ISSUED in the fall of 2022.

Thankfully, ASU hosted the Veterans and Society Conference that fall, so the entire editorial team attended, and we met a content editor for HigherEdMilitary, and we were eventually able to connect with all the educators, scholars and mental health professionals who attended and alert them to the journal that we were building. We also liaised with the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU, and they were generous enough to give us contact information for some really talented veteran poets around the country.

By the spring '23 semester, the journal had a name and a format — poetry, prose and profiles — a format I was rolling over from Write On, Downtown. Submissions were trickling in, I was actively soliciting work from veteran poets and many of our interviews were underway — including one with acclaimed veteran poet Brian Turner. ... Since then, ISSUED has been distributed at national veterans conferences and local veterans events, and veteran authors have even reached out to us to find out how they can be involved, so I’d say it’s been pretty well-received.

Q: What do you find interesting about their stories?

A: As someone who has studied/lived poetry for over 30 years, my love of military-inspired writing, specifically poetry about war and conflict, is nothing new. I’ve been teaching Walt Whitman’s Civil War collection "Drum Taps" for years, as well as Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam short story collection "The Things They Carried." But as far as why I’m attracted to this body of literature, there’s a fragility, a vulnerability, a tentative quality that permeates these stories. War poetry in particular captures the ephemeral nature of the moment like nothing else — perhaps because the next moment isn’t guaranteed. We don’t live our lives with that kind of mindfulness, so for me, there’s something really appealing about that.

I also think the literature of conflict, like dystopian fiction or science fiction, challenges our values, makes us question ourselves in physical and psychological and emotional ways. It heightens our awareness of our own desperate quest for survival. I think there’s also something beautiful and troubling about seeing the human condition — and humanistic values — pushed to its limits.

Finally, it’s not so much that these veteran-writers are writing about trauma, but their traumatic experiences often result in the generation of intensely sensory memories ... so the written re-creation of them is strikingly vivid as well. That’s a remarkable byproduct of the horrors that so many soldiers endure. But it’s not only the descriptive quality of these texts that make them literarily appealing — it’s the art of enduring and surviving these impossibly violent and chaotic conflicts and living to tell the story. It’s the ultimate triumph of the spirit, and I think humans/readers are very attracted to that.

Q: What are you personally getting out of this new endeavor?

A: In some small way, ISSUED allows me to be part of this literary tradition that I have immense admiration for, and that I believe holds some of the greatest lessons of humanity. I also get to reconnect with the spirit of my father and his history of service, which was something he was extremely proud of. But ultimately, the reason why I do this is to create a platform for the veteran community. Veterans, as we know, are medically marginalized and very much at risk for the development of diseases — of both body and mind — and I think depending on the political climate, they’re oftentimes socially marginalized as well, and this journal provides them with a supportive, appreciative, communal space in which to reflect on their service as well as their reintegration into civilian life.

Q: How would you like this project to be replicated in veteran circles or at another university?

A: I would love for ISSUED to be used as reading material in programs like Trek for Vets, in veterans writing circles, narrative medicine programs for vets, etc. Not everyone has the time and resources to curate a journal like this, though I hope we’re at least inspiring others to engage veterans through narrative/storytelling and poetry.

Our first issue made its way to conferences, local veterans events and into some VFW posts, but I’d like to see ISSUED everywhere that veterans are, and everywhere that veterans aren’t being heard.

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