Afghanistan service captured in poems

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May 11, 2013

Kanina Dawson was a master corporal in the Canadian military when she spent 10 months, 2005 through 2006,  serving  in Afghanistan. Her first book of poetry, Masham Means Evening, published by Coteau Books in Regina, Saskatchewan, explores the vivid images and stark experiences of that time. Dawson entered the armed forces right out of high school, she says, because she “wanted to do something that counted.” Now 37, living in Ottawa with her family, Dawson runs her own small business, The Blue-Eyed Bunny, which distributes environmentally sound pet supplies. Forever affected by her experiences in Kabul and Kandahar, Dawson recently linked her business with a foundation that helps women in Pakistan,, to support themselves by making and selling scarves and blankets. “It’s a small thing,” says Dawson, “but the women are paid per scarf, and it’s their livelihood.” Dawson spoke recently with Lynne Van Luven about her writing and her life post-Afghanistan.

Kanina, why did you decide to use poetry, not prose, to explore your deployment with Canada’s military in  Afghanistan?

I think largely because the time in which those moments occurred was so very short, sometimes a matter of minutes. I viewed those experiences as heartbeat moments that, while connected to each other, existed for a split second in isolation. For me that doesn’t translate into prose. I didn’t want those moments getting lost in lost in the longer thread of a narrative. I wanted–needed–each of them to stand out on their own. Protected in a sense, from the peripheral noise of a longer story–and yet unprotected in that they stand alone. In fact, that may be an accurate comparison to the way in which conflict is experienced.

Were there poems you could not write, ideas you could not explore, due to issues of national or military security?

Not so much, no. Obviously, there are things we’d all be hesitant to discuss–like the way in which troops might conduct a patrol or what sorts of drills they might do–anything that might negatively affect the outcome of their situation. As we say, “that’s just common dog,” and most soldiers instinctively abide by that code. But for me, those kinds of mechanics were largely irrelevant to what I wanted to convey–what the sky looked like in the minutes after we lost someone. What evening smelled like–or heat–or Kandahar airfield in November. How grief can taste like a weedy-bottomed lake. Those were the more crucial truths for me.

Do you stand out among your military peers as a “scribbler,” or is that quite common amongst members of the armed forces?

Am I allowed to use LOL here? Me as a “scribbler” was something I definitely hid–especially when I first joined the Canadian Forces. Otherwise, yes, I likely would have stood out. I feared it would earmark me as a loner, or perhaps as someone too “artistic” to be a good soldier. The people that know me, know better. Although, yes–I did swallow hard when I told [military friends] it was a book of poetry that was getting published. Scribbling is one thing–soldiers do that in email form all the time–but poetry? In practical, mission-focused circles, that kind of thing tends to generate a lot of preconceived ideas. I think there’s the antiquated notion that war poems need to involve rhyming couplets and heroic verse, neither of which holds any interest for me. Despite the odd, raised eyebrow, I actually find today’s environment in the Forces so much more open to creativity and diversity among its members than it has been in the past. I think Afghanistan generated quite a bit of that–unnecessary rigidity is more likely to fall away in the face of conflict.  And it’s clear from the government’s War Artist program that there is both a need and a place for artistic corporate memory.

You describe your poems as “snapshots” of lives lived in the midst of conflict. Are there specific pictures, such as those in “Disconnected,” and “A Night in Hospital,” that you wish you had never seen?

That’s a hard question to answer. I can tell you I took no enjoyment out of seeing those things. But did it make me a deeper, more focused person? Did it give me a perspective I wouldn’t otherwise have had? Absolutely it did–and that’s not something I would want to undo. But that still doesn’t stop me from wishing the same effect could have been achieved differently. I believe in the value of experience, but when I think of the far more horrible images that so many in this conflict have been left with, I can’t help but want to undo it for all of them. Since I can’t, I prefer not to be ignorant.

Your daughter was five and six when you were in the military, and she’s now 12. How will you share these poems, and your “visuals” with her when the time comes?

We actually kind of joke about that–I’ve dedicated this book to her and yet have laughingly forbidden her to read it until she’s 16. She was quite young when I left for Afghanistan. Consequently, she has sort of grown up with this idea of international conflict and my participation in that. She’s very motivated by issues of social justice and quite knowledgeable in terms of some of the problems facing the world. I use my experiences to feed that interest and to inspire her to do things she might not have thought possible, so I think she will take this [book] in stride.

I’ve let the water out of the dam slowly on this one. I think it’s likely that my language will shock her more than my experiences. Ultimately, as a parent, my job is not to shield her from everything, but to give her a safe place in which to feel.  So when she finally makes herself that cup of tea and sits down to read, I hope that’s what I’ve done. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see a swear jar appear on the kitchen counter . . .

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