Interview with Annette Grunseth

“Invisible Wounds”

Your poem “Invisible Wounds” was not only well written but also very impactful. It really left me wanting to know more about the character’s background. What was your inspiration behind the poem?

“Thank you for your comments. My inspiration for the poem ‘Invisible Wounds’ is from my brother, Peter Langlois, who was a U.S. Army infantry soldier in Vietnam from 1968-69. He was drafted shortly after he graduated from University of Wisconsin–Madison with a degree in journalism. From the war zone in a remote jungle of Vietnam, he wrote first-person letters home reporting on ambushes, mortar fire, and heavy combat situations where his buddies died right before his eyes. In the 1960s-70s and years since, the trauma he and other soldiers experienced affected them permanently, yet was not recognized when these soldiers returned home. Today we know these invisible wounds as post-traumatic stress, but veterans from the Vietnam War were not helped with treatment, acceptance or easing back into our world. This group of veterans returned home to being shunned, yelled at and spat upon, unlike any group of veterans ever experienced. At the time, treatment was scarce to help with the trauma, grief and later depression and/or anger they experienced. This poem is part of a book I am hoping to publish that features thirty-six letters my brother wrote home from Basic Training through his year in Vietnam, utilizing his excellent journalistic skills and first-person reflections of this horrific war. Woven throughout the manuscript is my poetry in response to his letters and my concurrent experiences as a freshman on a turbulent UW-Madison campus. At that time, the campus was called ‘the Berkeley of the Midwest’ with anti-war protests. The National Guard was even called in to help with clashes between police and protesting students. Incidentally, both my brother and I experienced bayonets and tear gas half a world away from each other.”

Did you find it challenging to depict such a painful experience in your work?

“It has been challenging but also healing for me to write about the trauma my brother experienced. It was hard to watch him deal with grief and depression. I am also fulfilling a promise to my parents (deceased now), who felt my brother’s letters needed to be published as part of our nation’s history. It has been painful to read his letters over and over knowing the incredible fear and hardship he experienced in a war zone. He described times where he looked death in the face yet miraculously made it home. Years later, he developed a rare cancer related to exposure from the chemicals in Agent Orange, which was used to defoliate the crops and landscape in Vietnam. He lived with this cancer for 15 years until it took his life. I wrote these poems and assembled his letters to honor him and let readers know how this war affected him and our family. In a way, working with this manuscript has been helpful to me in coming to terms with the profound loss of my brother and my only sibling. It has been 50 years since this war ended and I want to add his story about what happened in Vietnam.”

Poetry is a very popular industry, and poets are subjected to a lot of judgement. What are some tools you use when handling rejection or criticism?

“I have been writing poetry for more than thirty years, so rejection letters and emails are part of the life of being a writer and for me it is also a learning experience. I try to select poems that fit with the style and subject of a publication. Before I send out poems I read selections from a journal or anthology and make sure to follow their specific submission guidelines. I try not to take a rejection personally (though, that’s hard sometimes) but I know there are many writers submitting their work and not everything can be accepted. I welcome criticism in the form of constructive comments and suggestions since I want to improve my writing. Most editors of publications do not send comments as to why a poem was rejected, so if I do get some feedback, I consider it good news that someone took the time to comment. In that way a rejection is an opportunity to edit, improve a poem, and submit the work again somewhere else. I go through ups and downs with writing, but just when I think I’ve had too many rejections, I will get an acceptance! Overall, I have been happy with getting poems published so I try to focus on the successes and keep the rejection side in perspective. I also look at my goals of why I am writing. Sometimes it’s for the personal pleasure of writing and sharing my work verbally in a poet community; it goes beyond just publishing.”

Annette Langlois Grunseth has published widely in journals and anthologies. Her chapbook Becoming Trans-Parent, One Family’s Journey of Gender Transition (FinishingLine Press) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She often writes while on the bike trail or in her kayak where her muse tags along just for the exercise.

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