Memorial Day is a day for remembering the men and women who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. And while the cause is a powerful one, many people don’t quite know how to show their support. As writers, our first instinct may be to draft a beautiful poem or short story to commemorate our fallen heroes.
But to what end?
This year will mark the twenty-first anniversary of the Memorial Day Writers Project, an annual event meant “to memorialize and remember those men and women who sacrificed themselves in Wars.”
The Memorial Day Writers Project was created by two Vietnam veterans: Poet and English Professor Mike McDonell, who served with the 11th Marines in Vietnam, and Poet and Playwright Clyde Wray, a rifleman with the Army’s 199th Light Infantry Brigade. It was meant to be a one-time thing, held at the Market Place Gallery in Washington, DC, where veterans could read their own poetry, fiction, or other prose. Among the first participants were McDonell and Wray, along with writers Ed Henry, Rod Kane (author of the critically acclaimed Veterans Day: A Vietnam Memoir), Roger Dorsey, and songwriter/musician Tom McLean.
Soon, both individuals and organizations asked McDonell and Wray if they would be willing to present similar programs elsewhere. One request was to present the program near Vietnam Veterans Memorial. From that beginning, the group’s experience and intentions grew. At first the members borrowed a tent to do the readings. Other prose and original songs became part of the presentation. Before long the MDWP had its own tent set up on both Memorial and Veterans Day each year – and the group included readings by veterans of all wars and others, just so the work was in a “literary vein” and presented by those “touched by war.”
Goals of the MDWP are to “deliver a personal and unromaticized message about war and its aftermath”…”to provide performance venues” and “to promote and foster the creative and educational process among…those who have been touched by or in contact with the MDWP.”
Each year without fail, McDonell says, a magic moment occurs at the MDWP tent, something that can never be anticipated. Once it was a last-minute arrival’s singing “Amazing Grace.” At other times it’s a reading of a powerful and affecting poem or prose piece.
On the MDWP site you can find a list of books published by participants, as well as a page that lists a number of poets and musicians. Each has a short bio, as well as a printed copy or recording of their writings. The folks whose work appears here are among a dwindling number of writers who look beyond the fried chicken and potato salad that Memorial Day has come to represent.
Before this year’s picnic, why not include take a few minutes to give thanks to the men and women who have served, protected, and in many cases died to preserve our land?
Write a poem, an essay, a story, or an article about a veteran – someone you know or someone whose story inspires you. Little by little then, maybe we can focus more clearly on the true meaning of Memorial Day, one writer at a time.