Poet Warrior Tells Story for Each of Us

New Memoir Breaks From Tradition

By Timothy Gillis

Benjamin Busch, author of “Dust to Dust,” a remarkable new book on life and death, peace and war, braved Hurricane Sandy Monday night to read at Longfellow Books to a handful of brave souls. The non-fiction work may speak about “ordinary things” like the “adventures of childhood and the revelations of adulthood,” but this is not your mother’s memoir.

Busch has been to 47 states, promoting the new book, in between the continued pursuit of a varied career in film, art, photography, and writing. Busch spoke this week between setting up an art installation in New York City and heading to Maine to talk about his book.

“It’s all about finding our place in the world, with readers turning away from my story and into themselves,” he said.That ideal hope may be hard for many readers to fulfill, as his story is captivating in detailed imagery and compelling in wartime narrative.

Compared to a combination of Tim O’Brien and Annie Dillard, Busch’s book weaves war scenes from Iraq during the deadliest days of Operation Freedom with youthful meditations on a life in nature in Michigan and Maine.

He spent several summers here in Maine, roaming the rocky coast in boyhood quests for natural combatants. As a kid, he remembers his family would stop in Freeport and then push on to Machias and Cutler, to discover what he called “the American shore.” Those early forages into Maine’s watery wilderness stayed with him, he said, and kept him calm and focused during the most dangerous moments of combat.

“Maine does something with space. There’s a literate section, and then there are vast other portions, with people working, going day to day,” Busch said.

Son of the noted novelist, Frederick Busch, the young Benjamin always seemed destined to a literary life. But early on, his sense of adventure pulled him from the desk and into the outdoors.

“Maine has a sense of isolation that’s startling. One gets a distance by going to the rocky coast, where the sea mashes into earth. It’s the middle of everything in the universe.That’s what I love about Maine,” he said.

Sections of his book are broken into elemental topics like “Water,” that features him as a kid trying to change a river’s direction to build a waterfall because an old-timertold him that trout love it. Another section called “Metal” has him trying to build a plane to fly home to Maine from an England that treats him as an outsider, with kids in school calling him Yank.

In a section called “Soil,” he moves from the cellar he’s exploring as a married traveler to a bunker he’s investigating in Iraq that brings with it far weightier consequences of the search. In another section called “Bone,” he tells of an early love for football as a rite of passage, with its helmets and pads like armor. He hit the field before a game, his “blood was rich with something like growing up.” (Dust to Dust, page 147) That same game saw painful disillusion replace feelings of immortality, as he left the game with a serious leg injury.

Busch is visual artist, a photographer, and film director. He played the role of Officer Anthony Colicchio on the HBO series “The Wire” and has appeared on “Homicide,” “The West Wing,” and “Generation Kill.” His writing has been featured in Harper’s and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He has also been a guest commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered.

But most pointedly for this book, Busch was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer who served two combat tours in Iraq.In 2003, he was the Commanding Officer of Delta Company, 4th LAR Battalion, mobilized by Executive Order 13223, Presidential Recall, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and deployed to Kuwait and Iraq for action in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Phase III Combat Operations and Phase IV Security and Stabilization Operations.

“In war, you’re in a suspended state, despite how close you are to the war. You have to suspect everyone,’ Busch said. “Frankly, it’s about self-preservation. If you’re worried about not dying, you can’t fight. You sever almost everything. You are under threat all the time, so you have to be bold.”

Busch trained for fourteen years before he saw action. “My skill set was pretty good. I was a dangerous individual if it came down to that. But death is random in war. My best friend in Iraq – near to in front of me – I watched his vehicle blow up, not because I had a particular prowess. They just picked him.”

He has a serene fatalism about himself, and a brief phone call expanded into a long discussion on life, death, war, and our place in it, even if we never put on a uniform or see combat. He sees his near-death experiences as comparable to the daily mishaps we all make that could become fatal.

“If a sniper misses me, it’s because he missed. He misjudged my speed when aiming at me. The randomness of war requires so much suspension of disbelief of how much you contribute to your own circumstances,” he said.“I got strangely calm during action.”

In 2005, he returned to action, and was deployed to Iraq as a Civil Affairs Team Leader, Team 1, Detachment 3, 5th CAG in direct support of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines at Camp Hurricane Point, Ar Ramadi, Iraq.

The second tour was much like the first, in the day-to-day details of a constantly imperiled life, but the greater picture started to become clearer. Now looking back, he is able to focus on philosophy.

“Vets ask, ‘So, how’s the war with you?’ They don’t mean how am I feeling, physically. They are asking how my head is,” he said. “With Vietnam vets, whatever happened took twenty years, took up a lot of storage space.”

Each section of the book is chronological, with the action moving from boyish outings and conflicts with neighbors and nature to action with his Marine troop in Iraq.

“The book builds up to prepare you for what is coming. I’m the messenger. It’s not my story. It’s the story of us, of all of us,” he said.

In 2007, Busch was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and his decorations include the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart medals. While his military life might have gone the way of many other heroes, his written reflections on it are quite distinct.

The book breaks entirely away from convention, with little biographical material about family and friends. “If you go into the book as if it’s a standard memoir, it’s the wrong idea. To describe what family is thinking is fiction. The portrait is from my perspective, but it’s not a portrait of me.”

Busch says he doesn’t get into a tell-all about his love life. “I didn’t write about girlfriends. They’re not elemental. Girlfriends are not part of the landscape. They’re just something that happens to you.”

Busch read Monday from “Dust to Dust” and talked about his vast experiences and how they may relate to each of us. He says, “I hope what I do (in the book) gets your seeing into yourself. It’s a trigger.”

He gave a free copy of his father’s last book, “A Memory of War,” as well as his film “Bright,” to each person who faced the elements and attended his talk.


Portland Maine Film Festival

Tyler Johnston, (background) founder of the Portland Maine Film Festival and Malachi Whitten (foreground), two-time winner of the Golden Lobster for Best Student Film.

New faces & a familiar winner

Story and photos by Timothy Gillis

The end of the Portland Maine Film Festival brought with it a familiar winner in the Student division, and several new faces to the local film scene.

Malachi Whitten, a 16-year-old student from Casco Bay High School, won a Golden Lobster last year for Best Student Film with “Recur,” about a dream that keeps returning to a guy who dies each time.

His entry this year, called up “Wake Up” is a “surreal, psychological thriller about a man stuck in a recurring cycle of running from himself in the dream world.” Whitten may seem to work with a finite canvas, but the judges loved his work again this year, and he won his second Golden Lobster.

Whitten, whose family is from the Caribbean, says he doesn’t hold auditions for his films. “I just see who’d be best for the shot. I have a few friends I use,” Whitten said. “I’m having one friend grow a beard and stay up late to look tired.”

Tyler Johnston, founder of the Portland Maine Film Festival, showed his powers of adaptation when his festival kicked off last Thursday night.

He was with John Cahall, co-director of programming and operations, finishing up a few hors d’oeuvres at the Think Tank, before their festival’s opening films at the Maine College of Art across the street. When they went to Osher Hall at MECA to begin screening, the room they’d reserved was already occupied by thirty some-odd students and their teacher. Johnston and Cahall both had Gan as a teacher themselves, and instead of disturbing his class, they took their film crowd back to the Think Tank and watched the opening night’s films there.The mix-up didn’t seem to bother the organizers, and the rest of the four-day schedule seemed to go off without a snag.

Some new faces were in town for the festival. Doug Zogby, of Zogby Entertainment, has been at his Presumpscot Street locale since just October 1, but his company is already jumping into the film fray. Zogby, who is from Phoenix, Arizona, was joined by Roberto Mendoza, a photographer from Oklahoma (originally from Portland) and Laurie Notch, who has been in Portland the last six years.

They specialize in commercial training videos, especially those that use “machinima,” which is high-tech video animation.

“Younger generations don’t want lectures. We’re using video to get the message across,” Zogby said.

Film fans at a pre-festival soiree

Krystal Kenville, a local director, producer, and actress, who also handles casting and location setting, donned yet another hat for the festival, and was one of the five listed jurors. (There were also five secret jurors.)

Kenville, who was field producer recently for a Biography channel crime series, said the film talent in Maine is an “untapped resource” and compares favorably to the talent she worked with when in Los Angeles.

“There are infomercials produced out of Maine, and no one realizes,” she said.

Johnstone and Cahall said they are planning next year’s festival already.

“We want to open up the submissions as early as possible, and then stop admissions two months in advance of next year’s festival,” Cahall said. “This year we only had 20-30 days at the end of submissions.

One of those submissions may well come from an LA transfer named Bobby Divito, who was at the festival with Jason Spooner, the popular local musician who was college roommates with Divito, of Back Roads Entertainment. Divito is an actor who spent four years as Jerry Stiller’s personal assistant, from 1999-2003. “I wanted to quit after one year,” Divito said. “He had four others all quit in the year before me.” He worked on the set of King of Queens, as Stiller’s rehearsal partner and dialogue coach. His mother passed away in 2002, and shortly after her death he realized that, despite all the gloss and glamour of LA, he missed being back in Maine.

“I started to miss my home, my family,” Divito said. “I realized that, with the advent of technology – what it costs now to shoot and distribute film, I could be almost anywhere and produce my own TV shows. That’s one of the main things I learned from ‘King of Queens,’ it’s all about the script.”

Salman Rushdie talks about fatwa, new memoir

Story and photo by Timothy Gillis

Best-selling novelist Salman Rushdie spoke at the Music Hall last week, about his new memoir called “Joseph Anton” and the life he lived in fear since the 1989 “fatwa,” or death sentence, imposed on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The fatwa was for his allegedly blasphemous novel “The Satanic Verses,” which Rushdie said is actually one of his least political works, much less so than “Midnight’s Children,” which took on the public life of India or “Shame,” which was based on “genuine political confrontation” in Pakistan.

Rushdie seems to have weathered the storm, though the 600-page book is a harrowing account of the effects of the fatwa decree, including the dissolution of a dying marriage, his raising of his nine-year-old son, and living with a 24-hour security detail from Scotland Yard.

He was shocked at the reaction to “Satanic Verses,” especially the accusations in the British press that he did it on purpose to attract attention.

“‘Joseph Anton’ is how my real life turned into a novel, stranger than anything I had ever made up,” Rushdie said.

A dream sequence from the work, in particular, seemed to incite Islamic tension. Rushdie read from this episode to start his talk, and emphasized that “Satanic Verses” was a novel “primarily about migration,” he said.

“In the middle of it there was this dream sequence… about a prophet, not called Muhammad, living in a city, not called Mecca, inventing a religion not called Islam. And the person having the dream was losing his mind and going insane. This is what we, in the trade, call ‘fiction.’ Unfortunately, it wasn’t read like that.”

The serious thing that this passage talked about, Rushdie said, was the nature of revelation, or “how does a new idea come into the world?” Also integral to the contentious passage was “what do you do when you are strong? When your enemies are at your mercy?”

After a short break, Rushdie returned to the stage with Virginia Prescott, host of Word of Mouth, for an interview. The Music Hall house band Dreadnaught played the Platters “Great Pretender,” and Rushdie noticed the tune and sang along.

Prescott asked how Islamic culture has changed since he was a child. Rushdie said he grew up in a house that was “happily godless,” where his father and his father’s friends would discuss whatever they wanted. Rushdie was free to think and express himself. That did not mean his opinions went uncontested. There just wasn’t a threat of violence for unapproved thoughts. Then came Valentine’s Day, 1989, when the fatwa was issued, and there began “the difference between rhetoric and reality,” said Rushdie, exasperated after all this time at the extreme reaction.

“Books are books. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. This is why they have books by more than one person in bookstores,” he said. The United States is a very divided country, he pointed out, where half the people are often saying things that the other half of the country can’t stand, “but it doesn’t occur to either half to burn the country down.”

Rushdie was often light-hearted and humorous on the night, belying the years of living in fear. Asked if he was still fearful or looking over his shoulder, Rushdie motioned to the audience and said “Look, there are hundreds of them in the dark. They don’t seem that scary.”

Audience reaction to Rushdie was overwhelmingly supportive of his plight, even if many in attendance knew more about his life’s story than his written works.

Peter Randall, a filmmaker on local farms, was invited to the talk by a friend. He said he was interested in the whole story of Rushdie and the fatwa against him.

“It’s ridiculous,” Randall said. “I don’t understand why people get so upset about something written. An act, I can see, but it’s just words.”

Henry Linscott said he was in grammar school when the fatwa was issued. “I didn’t know what the book was about, but it sounded scary.”

Twenty-four years after the fatwa, Rushdie feels it’s “get-along time” now and looks forward to discussing the literary merits of “Satanic Verses,” a work which has been analyzed through political and religious lenses, but has remained unstudied in the language of literature.

Rushdie said he is proud of the novel, but would have changed its history if he could. Related to the “Satanic Verses,” an Italian translator was stabbed, a Norwegian publisher was shot, and a Japanese publisher was killed.

Rushdie lived in hiding, in England first and then in the United States, and tried to provide a normal life for his young son.

“Joseph Anton” tells of his hidden life and was his alias with the police, based on two of his favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. His case, called Operation Malachi, was considered the most dangerous assignment for the police, and they served by volunteering instead of being required to do so. Despite the disdain from some higher-ups who didn’t feel he had done anything to deserve their protection, hadn’t “performed a service to the state,” Rushdie grew close to many of the police officers who were protecting him. He thought they had it tougher than he did, since “sitting around, looking out the window, wondering what to do next” was the typical life for a writer.

“Joseph Anton” was originally written in the first person, a standard voice for a memoir, but Rushdie changed it to third-person.

“I had to get beyond the anger and resentment. That’s why I waited so long to write it,” he said. The objective voice also gives him some emotional distance and allows him to write more “novelistically.”

“The thing about an autobiography, in the end, is to tell the truth,” he said. “Otherwise, why write it?”

A Great Day in Portland

Story and photo by Timothy Gillis

Last Saturday morning, more than 100 musicians did something they don’t normally do. They got up early on a weekend. They did it for a good cause, though, to raise money for Music and Magic Maine, a local group that donates musical instruments to kids in need.

They gathered on the steps of the Maine Irish Heritage Center to recreate the iconic black and white photograph known as “A Great Day in Harlem,” a 1958 shot of 57 jazz musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Count Basie. The photo recreation was the brainchild of John Maclaine and Brian Graham of the Fogcutters, a 19-piece big band that likes to “play the normal repertoire but do more with modern sounds,” said Graham, who plays the sax. Maclaine, who plays trombone, and Graham each came to Portland for college, from Foxboro, Mass. and Bennington, Vt., respectively. They started the Fogcutters two years ago, but the idea for the photo has been with them a long time.

Rob and Shelby Subia from Port City Photography are fans of the band and volunteered to take the photo, organize the musicians, and get image releases. They drove around the city searching for the perfect steps.

“We spent hours looking all around,” Rob says, “looked at City Hall obviously, but the light wasn’t right. And it was pretty sterile. What’s great about the Irish Heritage Center is its character, and of course, the doors. There’s a warmth about the place.”

Proceeds from sales of the photograph, being dubbed “A Great Day in Portland,” will benefit Music and Magic Maine, which invited a Mount Desert Island family to the photo shoot to give them a cello and a keyboard. Michael and Jennifer Miller pulled up with their three children in tow, looking a bit haggard from the three-hour morning drive. Their children perked right up, though, when presented with the instruments as part of the program’s goal to give away more than a dozen instruments this year.

Alex Miller is 14 years old and plays the drums. A freshman at MDI high School, she is already composing music. Emrys, 9, was excited to check out his cello. Rowan, 4, eyed the keyboard. Emrys attends Mount Desert Elementary School in Northeast Harbor. Rowan pursues his musical passions at home.

Since 2009, Amanda Parkhurst, the self-described “creatress” of Music and Magic, has given away more than forty instruments, including an upright bass, flutes, a clarinet, bongos, and djembes, or African hand drums. The waiting list for clients with instrument requests is “a couple of months,” she said. “We’re currently looking for a flute and a left-handed guitar.” All the instruments have gone to kids from Maine, except a guitar and a flute to Guatemala (a child-sized acoustic guitar to a music school there) and a violin to a music teacher in Ethiopia. “We donated a guitar to ‘Guitar Doors.’ Jim Stevenson works with kids at the Longcreek Youth Development Center,” Parkhurst said. She went to school for dance, and while she loves music (her son is named Dylan; her daughter’s name is Garcia), she doesn’t play an instrument herself. So why the idea to start a company that gives instruments to kids?

“I was inspired by Van Lawton,” she explained. “He died in 2009. He played banjo, 12-string guitar. He played at my daughter’s birth. After his death, his bandmates and friends tried to keep his spirit alive.” They talked about creating a non-profit in his name. Parkhurst took the idea and ran with it. “I felt his fire under me. Some bands donated their time. We donated a fiddle to a kid. Did that a couple of times, and it started catching flame,” Parkhurst said. The organization was originally called “Open Sky,” after a song Lawton sang to a few close friends just before he died. Music and Magic now has a book and CD for sale called “The Frog Song,” with lyrics by Lawton and illustrations by Liz Fallon.

The Fogcutters decided on Music and Magic Maine because they loved the idea of keeping the music going by helping young kids get into it.

“We created a Facebook event, originally inviting 150-200 people. Those musicians invited musicians, and we were up to 800 invites,” Graham said. They had 167 confirm for the photo shoot, and ended up with about 118 on the day. The Fogcutters, named after a drink from the 1920’s, said they want to take big band in a new direction.

“With us, you can hear Duke Ellington one song and then Rage Against the Machine the next,” Graham said.

After the photo shoot, the musicians met up at the Big Easy for an early cocktail and appetizers donated by Granny’s Burritos. Port City Photography was able to post an early version of the photograph on a TV screen there, and the rockers cheered the black-and-white version of themselves.

As the party broke up, several musicians came by to thank Maclaine and Graham for organizing the event, buoyed by the knowledge they were part of something historic.

The Fogcutters turned the sights on their next gig: October 26 at the Big Easy Hallowe’en show, the Speakeasy Ball. On December 7, they will play at the State Theater in a show called “Big Band Syndrome.” They select eight local musicians and re-arrange two of their songs (each) for their 19-piece band.

In the meantime, they created a new historical image of musical talent. Copies of the photograph can be purchased at portcityphotography.com.