Holding it Down | A Poetics of War and Occupation

Oct 2013

Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd | Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz

Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd | Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz

“Once a Marine. Always a Marine.” When Maurice Decaul returned to New York after his marine service in Iraq, this adage rang almost too true. In the city, most of the people around him barely thought about the wars beyond their borders, but Maurice carried Iraq with him constantly. In his mind, he was still a soldier. “I was hyper alert all the time,” he says, “never falling asleep on the subway.” Shortly after his return from Iraq in 2003, Maurice found work in the security department at a bank. Most of the other employees had never left New York. One day, a coworker decided to play a joke on Maurice by sneaking up on him.  “I don’t know why she thought it would be funny,” he says, “I could feel the carpet vibrating. I could see her hand waving behind me. I did what I would have done in Iraq. I hyperextended her arm and I threw her. She went flying.”

In 2006, Maurice began attending Kings Borough Community College in Brooklyn, where he did well enough to transfer to Columbia University a year and a half later. He now holds a B.A. from Columbia and is working towards an M.F.A. in poetry at New York University. He says he started writing poetry because he needed something to do. When he found out about a writing program for veterans at New York University in 2009, he thought it would be for nonfiction, but it was for poetry. “So I adapted,” he says, “I had never written poetry and had never thought about writing poetry.” Once he started writing, he realized how badly he needed to get his experiences out somehow. He was writing as many as five poems each day. “At that point I was just dumping words onto the page,” he says.  It is difficult now for him to look back on the poems he wrote during that period, raw in style and emotion, not only because he was early in his development as a writer, but also because he was in a very different state of mind. But one poem, “Derelict Poetry,” came to him all at once on the subway, exactly as it is now recorded on Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd’s new collaborative album Holding it Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Projects, which released last month.

In “Derelict Poetry,” Maurice speaks about himself in the first person, unsure whether he is dead or alive. He told me that death felt more concrete in Iraq, when each day after he left his compound he knew he might not come back. “It wasn’t fatalism,” he says, “It was just a reality of the job.” The wavering between life and death in the poem also fed into the album’s focus on dreams.

Holding it Down is the third collaboration between jazz musician and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Vijay Iyer, and poet Mike Ladd.  Veterans who inspired and collaborated on the album all survived the war, but as the ghostly strains of words, piano and electric sound tell us, many of them have experienced death again and again while they sleep.  “Last night he died for the last time,” Maurice says of himself in “Derelict Poetry.”

“Before I went to Iraq I died,” the track called “Walking with the Duppy” begins, “I jumped on a grenade to save my boys in long summer off LA. They kept me straight through the day. That night I died again.” This poem was written by Ladd, but inspired by an interview with a veteran called Rashan. Much of the poetry on the album is Ladd’s, based on interviews with veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first names of these veterans are listed with the other artists’ names on individual tracks.  Several tracks also feature Maurice’s performances of his original poetry, and Air Force veteran Lynn Hill’s performances of her original poetry. Starting a year before it was released as an album, Holding it Down was performed in New York City and Washington DC as a multimedia show including video as well as poetry and music.


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The album is part of a series of collaborations between Iyer and Ladd. These works give voice to groups that have been marginalized since 9/11. The first, “In What Language?” uses an American airport as its setting. The title comes from the experience of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who was detained while transferring through JFK. “I’m not a thief! I’m not a murderer!” he tried to explain to fellow passengers.  “I am just an Iranian, a filmmaker. But how could I tell this, in what language?” The lyrics for “In What Language” consist of a series of poems by people of color struggling to negotiate an international airport. Iyer and Ladd completed another project, “Sleep Song” in collaboration with Maurice Decaul, as well as Iraqi musician Ahmed Mukhtar and Iraqi writer Ahmad Abdulhusein. That work attempted to relate the impact of American missions in Iraq on Iraqi civilians. Holding it Down focuses on the experience of minority veterans in the United States.

“We wanted to set up a situation where we had to listen to veterans’ inner life,” says Iyer. “Often times there are veterans in our midst, but we don’t know what it is that they carry. We don’t know what it is that separates them from us…It’s almost like this a minority population within the US. Similar feelings of invisibility and dispossession and not really getting to be part of the American conversation.” Iyer says the veteran experience is marginalizing for people of all colors, but that he and Ladd decided to work with minority veterans in order to bring into question how America sees itself.  “We ended up specifically working with veterans of color, partly because these were two very racialized wars,” says Iyer. “This was really part of the way that the enemy was dehumanized, through race. Whenever there would be someone speaking on behalf of veterans in the public eye, it was always a white man.”

The underrepresentation of minority veterans in the media is especially a problem because minorities are actually overrepresented in the US military. Iyer says that disadvantaged minorities often join the military because they are led to believe that military careers will bring them opportunities that would otherwise have been inaccessible. In reality, veterans are more likely to end up unemployed than civilians.

Iyer says he and Ladd wanted to use dreams to break down the wall of isolation surrounding veterans. “It’s particularly nice to begin in a place that at some level everybody already knows, because everybody dreams, of course,” he says. Finding veterans to talk about their dreams, however, was difficult at first. Civilians themselves, Iyer and Ladd got little response when they first started emailing veterans about the project. “Maurice was kind of the catalyst,” says Iyer. He and Ladd found Maurice through a photo essay about his life on the New York Times website, “There he is, this Afro-Carribean who’s majoring in creative writing and was in Iraq,” says Iyer, “Exactly what we were talking about.” Maurice helped Iyer and Ladd get in touch with other veterans in New York.

Like Maurice, many of the veterans who were interviewed carried the war home with them, especially in dreams. Iyer says that they interviewed one veteran who had been to Iraq and Afghanistan and “associated specific color schemes with those two places. Like Iraq was more desert-like oranges and yellows and tans, and Afghanistan was mountainous and had all these cooler colors, blues and grays and greens and browns. In his dreams, he’d be walking down the street in Harlem or something, but the colors would actually mean he wasn’t home. He was actually there; he was in Afghanistan. He was in Harlem but in Afghanistan.”

For Lynn Hill, the other veteran who performed her original poetry in Holding it Down, the war was literally at home. When she joined the AirForce, she expected to do deskwork that would translate to the corporate world, but she was eventually transferred to a drone operation based in Las Vegas from where Predator drones are operated. In her poetry, she describes the insanity in a work environment that makes combat a part of everyday office life. Her frank and unyielding voice as she describes her daily trauma is impossible to ignore. In the poem “Name” she explains how in that Las Vegas office, she was unable to hide behind the mask of military formality.

Drone attack survivor Fahim Qureshi, a teenager,  touches his glass eye | Photo: Madiha Tahir

Drone attack survivor Fahim Qureshi, a teenager, touches his glass eye | Photo: Madiha Tahir

Unmanned aircraft called drones, Predator

Came with no formalities or courtesies.

No ranks. No last names.

It was a club T

he good old boys’ system

And what you did there was attached to your name,

But your first name.

And they said “Lynn, pull the trigger”

And they said, “Lynn, hit that target!”

 And they would say “Lynn! Are you hot? Bombs away!”

In another poem, “Capacity”, she describes the constant guilt she felt while she operated Predators:

Twenty four months of pain and disgust

Actions of my hands accuse me, guilty


Unclear details and shaky intel

Still, I pulled the trigger.’

Iyer says that Lynn became part of the project late in its development, but that as soon as she started recording, he was amazed at her fearlessness. “She came into the recording studio and a lot of the stuff you hear is just super raw.” In “Capacity”, Lynn describes how the daily experience of getting into her car became difficult to bear while she worked as a drone operator.  The first half of the track consists of a poem composed by Lynn, and the second an impromptu interview between Lynn and Mike Ladd. During the interview, Lynn says that each day after work, she would sit in her car and try to decompress and “strip off everything that wasn’t me,” and “deal with the guilt of what I did that day.” Before she drove home, she hoped that putting her car in drive wouldn’t “feel like a joy stick that I’d been flying all day.”

“That’s real time stuff,” says Iyer. In the same track, Lynn says that she dreams about driving off a cliff and ending it all. “At that point we had to stop,” says Iyer, “We asked her “do you want this on the record?” She said, “Yes, this needs to be heard. People need to know.”’

“She wasn’t afraid of grappling with it in public,” says Iyer, “Get up on stage. Look an audience in the eye. A bunch of arts-going progressive ticket buyers who want to sit in a theater and look at art. Suddenly they’re looking in the face of someone who killed for them, who they paid for, so that’s deep. “

In her poetry, Lynn questions whether her work with Predator has turned her into a  “monster.” The United States’ bombs several countries using Predator drones. By engaging in remote warfare, the US effectively erases not only the lives of drone victims, but the voice of affected communities as well.

Both Lynn and Maurice were able to heal through their performances. In an interview on Iyer’s YouTube channel, Lynn describes how working on the album helped her: “Your experiences, the pain or how you struggle with it—sometimes all you need is just a voice to just bring it out and give it wings and give it life, and this project really helped me do that. “

“She actually stopped having nightmares, she said, and she was able to leave therapy,” says Iyer. Lynn may have been able to move on from the atrocities she committed by confessing, but her candor unsettles the logic that is used to support drone warfare. Lynn’s admission that she carried out executions based on “shaky Intel,” and that she experienced the trauma of combat, questions the assumption that drones are are a more precise weapon.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/playlists/2415910″ params=”” width=” 50%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

Maurice says that at first, writing about his experiences and performing was difficult. “It’s not that it got easier,” he says, “But, I began to realize that Iraq wasn’t my whole life. In fact, it was a very small part of my life.” Throughout his work on Holding it Down working with other veterans, Maurice found that “It stopped being my individual experience and became a more universal experience.” He was no longer an isolated soldier, but part of a collaboration between veterans and soldiers to tell the truth about the war.

While Maurice is grateful for his experience with Holding it Down, he says that it is important to have conversations about these wars, not just for the sake of veterans’ mental health. Other Americans need to do their part to bear the burden of the war. “I’m not saying that everyone should go overseas and fight. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that people need to understand the cost of war,” says Maurice. “Not the financial cost, that’s not what I mean. I mean the human cost. The cost to families, the cost to the people overseas, the people we’re invading. Maybe if we talked about it more, we wouldn’t go to war so easily.”

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Hannah Green is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Asia Times Online, and OPEN Magazine. She has a B.A. in Asian and Middle Eastern history from Northwestern University, and has studied Urdu intensively with the American Institute of Indian Studies. She tweets at @write_noise.

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2 Responses to Holding it Down | A Poetics of War and Occupation

  1. شاہراہ بنوں | Tanqeed on Oct 2014 at 1:57 PM

    […] Holding it Down: A Poetics of War & Occupation | Hannah […]

  2. mr. quanny quan on May 2015 at 3:37 PM

    yo man just keep on being savage’s mane we on top baby lets rock!!!

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