Shining a spotlight on Veteran, Poet and Author, Ben Weakley!

Today we are honored to spotlight someone who is no stranger to the CBAW community; Our friend and colleague, the incredible, the talented, Ben Weakley!

Ben Weakley spent fourteen years in the U.S. Army, beginning with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and finishing at a desk inside the Pentagon. He writes poetry and prose about the enduring nature of war and the human experience for veterans, their families, and anyone who would help them bear witness to war and its aftermath.

A believer in the power of words to empower and heal, Ben leads writing workshops for Active Duty Military, Veterans, their families and caregivers, as well as Frontline Health Care Workers and other communities of ordinary people bearing witness to a difficult world.

We sat down with Ben to discuss his craft in our Q&A session below.

CBAW: “Can you talk a little about your chosen medium?

Ben Weakley: “I work in poetry primarily, though I also write creative non-fiction. Poetry is ultimately my first love, though, because it can be so accessible and so performative. The medium in poetry is ultimately the spoken word, which is to say the medium is really the body, the voice. Poetry can be performed by oneself or for others, adapted to about any use or any occasion. It’s been used over millennia to record history and myth and legend, to seduce lovers, to slander rivals, to make friends laugh, to commemorate or memorialize, or just to express basic human truths. At its core though, poetry is breath passing from lungs and over vocal chords and lips and tongue to reverberate out into the world, and if someone’s listening, into receptive ears to vibrate along nerves and change another person’s brain. We all have these parts and, therefore, the capacity to give and receive poetry. I think that’s why I keep coming back to it as a medium.

CBAW: “When did you develop the writing bug?”

BW: “I’ve always been a writer. Working with words came naturally for me from an early age. In fact, one of my earliest memories was in 2nd Grade, when my teacher had us write short stories each week and every so often she would choose one of our stories to share with the class, calling the student the “author of the week”. I remember having my story chosen one day – I’m sure she worked her way through each of us, and I’m not sure my story was anything special – but I remember lighting up at being recognized for expressing something with words. Along the way, I studied journalism and creative writing in college, took a detour with a career in the Army, and rediscovered writing as my Army career was ending. Poetry became an outlet for processing all of what happened and what it means to have been an American at war in this early part of the 21st Century.”

CBAW: “What do you love about making art?”

BW: “I love the feeling of flow that comes over me when I’m writing in solitude. I’ve done some blue-collar work with my hands before and it’s very similar. Time passes quickly and I feel in full control of what I’m doing. It’s the time when my actions are most clearly and immediately connected to outcomes. When I’m productive, it’s very satisfying. What I really love, though, is reading my work for people. The connection that comes about when I read and get positive feedback from engaged listeners is electric, magical, even in a virtual space. For someone that does not connect with people easily, it’s a very beautiful experience when I get to read and be in conversation with other people.”

CBAW: “What does art mean to you?”

BW: “So much of art is about bearing witness to the world as it is. I think a big part of what art is for is to put that stuff which is often swept under the rug by polite society out there for the broader public to see and react to. It’s about starting conversations. 

In Tim O’Brien’s classic story “How to Tell a True War Story,” the quote goes: “You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.”

CBAW: “What experiences have led to you making art?”

BW: “At first, my experiences with war led me to writing. As I’m getting through a lot of that material, I’m more interested in the intimate relationships that make us human and how they fill us and leave us yearning. The space between fathers and their children, what it means to really be seen by the people closest to us, what we show and what we hide. These are the things I want to explore next.”

CBAW: “What do you think about when you’re making art?”

BW: “When I’m working, specifically generating new work, I’m not thinking. I’m feeling. The words come from my body, as an extension of what I feel as the physical, the tactile, the sensory. It’s when I’m revising that I start to think about rhythm, which is really a function of line length and line break, word choice, punctuation, etc. Even then, whether I’m in poetry or prose, I’m still very much guided by the body – I have to read it out loud and it has to feel right, it has to sound right before I’m happy.”

CBAW: “What medium is exciting for you right now?”

BW: “I’m working on a memoir right now, which is a departure for me. I am still unpacking the story of my wars, but now I’m doing much more exploration about why I chose that path and how I’m going to make peace with it in our current environment. I’m trying to come to terms with the choices I made, some of which weren’t great for me, while cherishing the good that came from it – the woman who married me and followed me through it all and the family we built along the way that is still standing strong today.”

CBAW: “What do you hope someone gets from reading your work?”

BW: “Because so much of my work right now revolves around the experience of war for 21st Century America, I hope that Americans who’ve been to war, or who love someone who has been to war, will see a little bit of themselves reflected and feel less alone. I also hope those who have no experience of America’s wars will read and seek to understand with a little more complexity. Ultimately, we’re all human, so if I’ve done this right, there’s something human in these poems that most anyone can connect to.”

Ben lives in the Tri-Cities of Northeast Tennessee with his wife, two children, and a well-meaning but poorly behaved hound-dog. You can learn more about, and pre-order a digital copy of his debut poetry collection, HEAT + PRESSURE (Middle West Press, 2022), right now on Ben also guest authored the CBAW Veterans Day 2022 blog post. Read that article now by clicking here. Write with Ben in our Cohen Veterans Network-partnered virtual poetry writing workshop (Noon eastern time, the forth Tuesday of each month), and hear him perform virtually from his new book in our Glowing In The Dark Winter Reading on November 30th.