UC Berkeley News


A 'poet always on duty'
Haas staffer's war-related poems see ink in book of veterans' writing

| 01 November 2006

Dennis Fritzinger with a poster of Maxine Hong Kingston's new anthology of veterans' writings. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Asking Dennis Fritzinger what he likes about writing poetry "is like asking a bird what it likes about singing," he says. "It's something that's part of me. If I haven't written for a while, I don't feel quite like myself."

Coordinator of mailroom services at the Haas School of Business, where he's worked for 27 years, Fritzinger hears and jots down his eclectic "songs" - on nature, ecology, family, his wartime experiences in Vietnam - in the interstices of daily life: walking to and from his job at Haas, taking a coffee break, en route to his veterans' writing group.

"I can compose a few lines in my head, but once I get to five or six, it's hard to keep it all together," he says of his ambulatory composing sessions. "It makes you want to dash into a café and steal a napkin and anything to write."

Once, while on foot, Fritzinger composed the following, titled simply "the poet":

the poet is always on duty.
the muse is always alert.
the poet gropes for his toothbrush,
and grabs for his favorite shirt.

the muse is already yelling,
"lazy one! time to get dressed!"
the poet feels for his glasses
and hurries to put on a vest.

"the sun's been up 15 long minutes!
the wildflowers are doing their dance!"
the poet is dreaming of coffee,
and struggles to put on his pants.

the poet is always on duty.
he's ready with paper and pen.
now where is the muse when he needs her?
doggone it, she's gone off again!

This year has been a good one for Fritzinger's poetic career. It began with the publication of three pieces in The Dire Elegies: Fifty-nine Poets on Endangered Species of North America (Foothills Publishing, 2006). There, his poetic meditations on the green sea turtle, the black-footed ferret, and the now-extinct California Golden Bear share two covers with such poets as Maxine Kumin, W. S. Merwin, and Gary Snyder.

Others of his poems - such as the long, rhyming "Charlie Don't Surf," whose title comes from a line in Apocalypse Now - limn Fritzinger's experiences in Vietnam, where he ran a message center in 1969-70, "one of the quietest years of the war," he says. Though "relatively uneventful," his service in the Army Signal Corps was nonetheless formative, he insists: When your first time away from home is shipping off to wartime duty in a radically different culture, "you spend the rest of your life processing it," he says, "even if you're not in the middle of a bunch of fighting." Fritzinger's father served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. His experiences in the former - where he was shot down during the bombing of Dresden and held as a prisoner of war - are treated in the poem "Brown Bread."

After "more or less writing in seclusion for many years," Fritzinger started reading his Vietnam poems in public in the mid-'80s, and about four years ago joined his writers' workshop for veterans. Conceived on Yeats' notion that "the end of art is peace," the group meets quarterly for sessions of writing and meditation under the leadership of author Maxine Hong Kingston, a former senior lecturer at Berkeley and a campus alumna.

In her newest book, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace - a hefty, 614-page tome from Koa Books, published by Arnie Kotler (M.A.'69, political science) - Kingston, this time as editor, has selected works of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction penned by members of the vets' writing group. "Charlie Don't Surf," "Brown Bread," and Fritzinger's four-line poem "Cool Dad" are among its entries.

The Haas staffer, now 63, is busy these days sharing his contributions to Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace at Bay Area readings to promote the book - while remaining "always alert" to the next poem working its way toward life.

For details on Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston, including a schedule of readings, see vowvop.org.

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