THE MODERN WAR POETRY OF BJ LEWIS

In 2008 BJ Lewis deployed for six months to Basra, Iraq as part of the British military deployment 'OPERATION TELIC'.

He worked as part of the C-RAM Battery, tasked with protecting the Contingency Operating Base at Basra airport from lethal rocket and mortar attacks regularly made by the insurgents at that time.

Once the adrenaline rush of an attack subsided, and back at his accommodation tent in the quiet hours, BJ first came to record his thoughts and feelings - turning to the fine tradition of writing war poetry.

An attempt at a noble tradition ...

BJ felt the need to keep some sort of record of 'his' war but proved to be a useless diarist. Having studied the WWI poets when at school he attempted to turn his hand to poetry, despite having not attempted any kind of prose since his school days some fifteen years previously. He wanted a way to keep the memories fresh, knowing that they would fade in time, so that he would be able to recall precisely in the future just how he had felt during his tour.

His first poem 'The Mask' was written and he submitted it to the Forces Literary Organisation Worldwide (FLOW) website at www.forcespoetry.com. They were very supportive of his writing and encouraged him to write more.

As he continued to put pen to paper when the mood took him, and as he interacted more with the kind people at FLOW, the poetry started to become more important to BJ. It was no longer just a way to make a record of what was happening to him but a therapy that helped him put his thoughts in order. Sharing the poetry through the FLOW website also gave him a way to share his experiences with others. As time passed, more poems were submitted and he found that not only were some of his words helping others to empathise with the troops in theatre but some words were being read by other service men and women and their families and helped them to make sense of similar feelings and experiences that they were going through.

Other than sharing online BJ kept his poetry to himself, in the macho world of the deployed military he was worried that his writing would be seen as a sign of weakness somehow by his fellow war fighters. However, in October 2008 that all changed when he was contacted by White Pebble Media. They were putting together a programme for BBC Radio 4 about modern war poets to be aired close to Remembrance Day, they had read BJ's work online and wanted to include some in the programme as well as an interview with the author. He was about to be publicly 'outed' as a poet!

He needn't have worried, after his interview was broadcast on Radio 4 and the British Forces Broadcasting Service his colleagues were impressed and supportive of what he'd been doing - although he did have to endure the usual good humoured ribbing.

Since then some of BJ's poems have taken on a life of their own. His work has been published in a FLOW anthology, on various websites as well as local and national press. 'The Fallen Kindly Wait' was included in a book produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities entitled 'Surviving War'. His poems have been read at Remembrance services, even put to music and sung by a Scottish choir during their service. Most exciting of all some of his poetry has been read and understood by the next generation with young people in the UK and the US appreciating his work as part of school projects. In 2009 BJ was even invited to Formby High School on Merseyside to talk about his poetry and experiences, he was astounded by the reaction his poetry had provoked in young people and impressed by their dramatic interpretation of his work they put on to the public to raise money for the charity 'Help for Heroes'.

BJ is humbled by the positive response to his poetry, he maintains that he is NOT a poet - merely a bloke who wrote some poetry and some people liked it. He also maintains that although his time in Iraq had some hairy moments, his role was a relatively safe one, there were far more troops who did far much more and lived far more dangerously than he. Some of them made the ultimate sacrifice for us and will never come home. His poem 'The Fallen Kindly Wait' is dedicated to them...

November 2011 saw the publication of "Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets", several of BJ's Iraq poems were chosen to be included. This was quite an accolade considering the selection panel included Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate and General Sir Richard Dannatt.

There was some press interest in the publication of the book which led to BJ's appearance on BBC's The One Show which featured his poem "Incoming!".

However, BJ would have to wait to see his television debut as the show screened the night after he left for another deployment. This time Afghanistan. He spent four months working within the ISAF Joint Command, enjoying a tour much more comfortable than his time in Iraq albeit quite draining. There was little or no danger to himself on this tour, however he worked tirelessly to give assistance to those comrades who did find themselves in trouble, directing Close Air Support assets to those troops that needed it on the battlefield. BJ found it an immensely rewarding job, though at times it could be horribly frustrating.

His experiences in Afghanistan didn't move him to write that much more poetry, with only a couple of poems penned during that time. This not due to any less sensetivity on his part he feels, more that he couldn't find the words to describe the emotions he felt when he could hear the voices on the radio nets calling for help accompanied by the sounds of raging battle in the background.

Poems from Afghanistan:

Nov 2011 - Mar 2012

Ode to a civilian.

You hope you can get another day out of that shirt,
I just hope for a day here where no-one gets hurt.
You dream of a lottery win, riches, fast cars,
I dream of seeing my wife again, and she won’t notice the scars.
You hope that your day’ll go quick, there’s your favourite for tea,
I hope that the mail gets through, and there’s something for me.
You dream of a great career, a position of power,
I dream of the simple pleasure of a hot, clean shower.
You worry that your toast will burn and the bus will be late,
I worry that the next soldier to die will be a good mate.
You think that I’m stupid to do what I do,
I think you may have a point, but I’m here doing it for you.

Ramp Ceremony in the Snow.

Ranks of soldiers flank the way
to honour the fallen who leave here today.
On a frozen airfield, white with snow
we wait in silence for the coffins to show.

The cold cuts through us, we feel its bite
but our thoughts are with those who have died in this fight.
From behind we hear a muffled command,
we salute our comrades, united we stand.

In our moment of grief we are proud of those men,
but pray that we won’t ever have to stand here again.
They slowly pass by with barely a sound,
just the crunch of feet on the frosty ground.

Their flag draped crates are placed with great care
in the transport plane that’ll soon take to the air.
We’ve paid our respects, our ceremony ends,
but the grief’s just begun for their families and friends.

Rest in peace those men of the 93ème RAM, French Army,
who gave their lives on 20th January 2012.

© BJ Lewis 2012

P2020021

Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan - Jan 2012

BJOneShow

Interview for The One Show - Sep 2011

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