Hugh Martin never expected to be where he is today.
A so-so student in high school who joined the Ohio Army National Guard in hopes of making his life better, Martin had never written a poem when he was deployed to Iraq nearly a decade ago.
Years later, while a student at Muskingum University he took a poetry class.
“It was an interesting situation. I immediately recognized him as a poet, even though I’m fairly sure he had never written a poem before then,” said Jane Varley, an associate professor at Muskingum and chair of the English department. She taught the poetry class Martin was taking.
“He had a poet’s sensibility, and it was simple to get him started,” Varley said. “All I had to do was give him the names of some books and poets. From there, he discovered the world of poetry.
“From the start, his poems were good because they didn’t mess around with unnecessary language, and he has gotten better and better at balancing clarity with an incredible depth of feeling,” she said.
Martin, 29, a Nordonia High School graduate and native of Macedonia, is midway through a two-year Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Novelist Wallace Stegner established the fellowship in 1946.
Martin hopes to land a position teaching poetry and writing at a college or university after his fellowship ends next summer, but also plans to continue writing and is interested in filmmaking as well.
He was one of about 2,000 who applied for 10 of the fellowships at Stanford, including only five in poetry.
His book of poems about his experiences in Iraq, The Stick Soldiers, was published in March. It was named winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize.
Also in March, the New York Times published an essay Martin wrote to mark the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war.
Martin, son of Ken and Katherine Martin, joined the Ohio Army National Guard’s 1-107th Armored Battalion out of Stow while still in high school, a few months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He went to basic training the next summer. He had been enrolled at Muskingum for one semester before being called to active duty and was deployed to Iraq in 2004.
While he was trained as a tanker, he served in Iraq as an infantryman. He wrote a journal daily but no poems.
It wasn’t until Varley’s poetry class that he began to write free-verse poems about his experiences in the Middle East.
“I got very comfortable with working with one page and focusing on a very particular, specific moment and writing different drafts and working on one poem at a time,” Martin said during a recent interview at his parents’ home in Macedonia.
“My teacher was very encouraging and she gave me a lot of authors to read. And that is when I started seriously writing about Iraq.”
Ken Martin, 60, an attorney and Macedonia councilman, said he appreciates his son’s sensitivity.
“He wrote from the standpoint of the ordinary grunt out there slogging through it,” he said. “I admire what he has been able to do with storytelling.”
Katherine Martin, 61, also an attorney and a media relations official at NASA, said her son’s poems make her realize the importance of poetry in painting a mental picture.
“It is amazing to me that he has turned what he experienced in Iraq into poetry,” she said.
Martin said he really doesn’t consider himself a poet but more of a writer.
He has hundreds of drafts of poems, is working on a second book related to Iraq that includes poems and essays and also has put together 150 pages of a memoir.
“It is very relaxing,” he said of the act of writing. “It helped me adjust a lot because I have learned how to get [his war experiences] out there in a way. It feels good.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in English from Muskingum, he spent three years at Arizona State University, where he received a master’s degree in fine arts in creative writing.
Writing poems about Iraq, he said, “was a way to write about these experiences that were very strange to me, and it was hard to communicate them to anybody or to civilians. ... It was therapeutic.”
His first book, a chapbook or pocket-size book, contained 25 poems. Titled So How Was the War? it was published by Kent State University Press in 2010.
Poetry, in terms of writing about war, Martin said, “is sort of superior than all forms of written communications. To write a good poem, it has to be very precise. You have to use an economy of language. ... You have to look at the humanity of everyone — American, Iraqi, civilians.”
Eavan Boland, director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford, said Martin’s work “came off the page so strong, so authentic, so deeply involved in an important public event.”
She said what makes Martin’s work so strong is “not so much that it’s war poetry ... as that it leads out into the really universal theme of the struggle between humane individual feeling and the intense collective obligation any soldier puts on with a uniform. That is a tension that could swamp any poem. But it doesn’t in Hugh’s work. It enriches and confirms it.”
Muskingum’s Varley said the reason Martin has had success as a poet “is because he is working with the compelling and complicated landscape of war, but beyond that, his poetry speaks to all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. If I had to pinpoint one quality that characterizes him as a poet, I’d say it’s compassion.”
There is something about the experience of war, Varley said, that draws people to art.
“Art is an endeavor to try to make sense of chaos,” she said, “and in the case of Hugh Martin, to make poetry is not a reaction to war but a present-tense, proactive, ongoing effort to find what is beneath the surface of our lives.”
In the forward of The Stick Soldiers, Cornelius Eady wrote: “Here’s eleven months worth of sawdust, sweat, dear reader. Somehow, Hugh Martin has wrung poetry from a scab, and now, the full shock and beauty and mystery of the things of war that won’t let go will stick to you.”
Martin’s books can be purchased through Amazon.com.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org.