Pilot uses poetry to deal with past trauma

Art Elser, a former Air Force pilot in Vietnam, avid poet, and a novelist who currently resides in Denver, Colorado, was awarded for his work in the 2016 issue of the High Plains Register.

The High Plains Register is a student-produced art and literary journal which aims to reveal upcoming and established writers from Wyoming and surrounding Midwestern states.

The Denver poet won an award from the Colorado Author’s League in the “Collection of Poetry” category. Elser submitted five poems to the High Plains Register and all were featured in the 2016 issue. This is his second Colorado Authors League award with his first one coming in 2014 for another set of poems titled, “for We Leave the Safety of the Sea.”

“Writing poetry has helped me relate to the beauty and craziness in my life,” Elser said.

The poems that Elser submitted to the High Plains Register reflected memories from his past, with the Vietnam war being the biggest. Elser wanted to be a pilot since he was six-years-old and lived on Long Island, New York during world war two.

“I loved planes so much that I could recognize what type of plane it was just based off of the sound,” said Elser, who lived near several airfields.

After graduating in the first class at the Air Force Academy in 1960, Elser moved back to the Northeast where he began flying KC-135 jet tankers out of Loring AFB in Maine during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“I had flashbacks, nightmares, and emotional incidents during a normal day that triggered nasty emotions,” said Elser, when asked about his Vietnam experience. “Not sure exactly why, but writing about them in poems seemed a way to deal with them.”

In 1966, Elser volunteered to go to Vietnam. Upon arrival, he was told he was going to be a Forward Air Controller. He flew small single-engine Cessna aircrafts, Birddogs, and directed fighter strikes on enemy troops and guns. “I flew over 400 missions and only came home with two bullet holes in my airplane, and not because the enemy wasn’t trying to shoot me down,” Elser said.

The judges who awarded Elser with the award in the High Plains Register said that his poems were thoughtful and they found that they address a variety of themes from the search of extraterrestrial life, the Vietnam war, and the plight of unfortunate humans and animals who are lonely, homeless and disabled.

Elser decided to invest in his poetry writing skills and tried to grow as a writer when he joined WyoPoets in 2009, which is an organization for people who write poetry for publication and poets who write as a hobby. Like the High Plains Register, many members of WyoPoets come from Wyoming and other members are located in neighboring states.

Many people have inspired Elser, including workshop leader Ted Kooser at Wyoming Writers, who was Elser favorite poet at the time. He also said that Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Donald Hall, Barbara Crooker, Joyce Sutphen, Jim Harrison, and Tom Hennen, were big inspirations.

Elser has also spent his time relaying his passion for poetry and writing in general to students and was a English professor at the US Air Force Academy. He also spent time at other universities such as the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and Denver where he was an adjunct professor.

Elser has three books ready for purchase on Amazon.com. “Writing from Scratch: For Business,” published in 1990. “What’s It All About, Alfie?” was published in 2003 and is a novel about his experiences in Vietnam as a combat pilot; many stories inside that novel emulate his emotions during 1968 where he experienced terror, fear, joy, sadness and guilt. His most recent book, available for purchase, was published in 2017 and is a collection of poems called “A Death at Tollgate Creek: Songs of the Prairie.”

After everything Elser has been through, he said that poetry was the best trauma treatment he found.

“Poetry requires the poet to look the situation square in the eye, write a first draft and then revise and revise and revise,” Elser said. “During that revision process, I discovered that I was starting to deal with the trauma I was feeling.”



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