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  • Mark Stibbe

WRITING AS THERAPY: LESSONS FROM A 21st CENTURY WAR POET

There’s long been a debate about whether having mental health issues helps or hinders the writing process. Some argue that it helps to have a touch of madness and sadness to write the deepest poetry and the most memorable love songs. Others flatly deny this, even to the extent of arguing that it’s impossible to be genuinely creative while you’re unhappy. They say we must wait until we’re stable and joyful before composing the finest songs. As Albert Einstein once said, "In my experience, the best creative work is never done when one is unhappy."



To help us with this hotly debated topic, let me introduce you to Karl Tearney. For 34 years, Karl was a helicopter pilot in the British Army. After seeing the most appalling atrocities in Bosnia, and being forbidden to intervene and help, Karl suffered with an acute form of PTSD. In 2017, having left the army, he started writing poetry. He has written a poem a day for the last 2 ½ years, more than Tennyson wrote in his entire lifetime! He is now regarded as a modern-day war poet. His first book of poetry Second Life is out soon.


I spoke with Karl recently and asked him about his writing.


Karl, when did you discover that you had a gift for writing poetry?


It was in 2017, just after I’d left a six-week course on Combat Stress. I had to leave early. I couldn’t handle it. I then spent a week at home, unable to leave the house. Then I just told myself I had to get out of the house, so I went for a walk. I saw this willow tree and climbed underneath its branches, which took some doing, and leaned against the trunk. As I sat there, I thought to myself, “I’m like this willow tree. All sad, forlorn and weepy on the outside. But I have a strong core, like this trunk, on the inside.” Then it just came to me, “I’ll write a poem about that.” And I did.


Willow, Willow, Willow Tree

We’re very similar

You and me


While others climb up to the sky

We stay quite low

And wonder why


We twist, we turn, we look so strong

But deep inside

There’s something wrong


We weep, we weep, we weep all day

We try so hard

To run away


But we’re both rooted to this land

And so I’ll stay

To hold your hand


Our arms outstretched and hanging low

We look so sad

Quite rightly so


But willow Tree I have your back

So we can stop

The lumberjack


Willow Tree, 2016,

©karltearney



What happened next?


I felt calmer, more connected to the world around me. The next day, I was in Tesco. These two kids were kicking off and screaming at their mum. All I could think of was the traumatic experiences I’d had in Bosnia, the terrible things I’d seen. I couldn’t believe that they were shouting about something so unimportant. I felt sick and had to leave the shop. I went outside and wrote a poem. Then I felt better. Like the previous day. Calmer. More connected. Grounded. So, I went back into Tesco, and I continued shopping. I’ve written a poem every day since.


This is the poem I wrote, entitled Tesco:


I stand in Silence

I stand in Fear

I cannot see

I cannot hear


I’m not in Battle

I’m not at War

I’m simply stood

On a shopping floor


The people rushing

From here to there

They cannot see me

And do not care


For I am different

For I’m part dead

You cannot see

What’s in my head


I wake, I shake

I wonder why

And now its coming

And now I cry


I simply popped in

For some bread

But something happened

Inside my head


So please you people

Do not stare

Just pass me by

Til I’m aware


I need my time

I need my space

I can’t be normal

I’ve lost that race


Now don’t be sorry

Its not your fear

I can be normal

But not in here


I guess its time

To shop online

My friends say try it

You’ll be fine


But that won’t help

It just delays

The need to conquer

And have good days


So off to Tesco

I must go

Please lets have quiet

I do hope so


Tesco, 2016

©karltearney



What forms of poetry do you prefer to write?


I met the actor Charles Dance recently and he said to me, “Karl, you need to have quality not just quantity. Try writing sonnets.” But I thought, “I know that’s not me.” I had a troubled childhood and left school with no exams in literature or language. I learned to write in the army where reports must be spelt correctly, and where the grammar must be just right. If you misspell words or write with poor grammar, it’s as if you’ve thrown away the Holy Grail. What this means is that I’m not a formally trained and technical poet, but I have learned how to write. My words just pour out of me. I almost feel that I’m a vessel for some other poet. I’m just recording it. That’s why I don’t like a set format. Sometimes I use four verses rhyming. Other times I might squash it all down to something minimalist. My poetry doesn’t have any formula. It’s normal, natural language, not formal. Recently, I was showing my poetry at an art exhibition. A bloke came up to me and said, “I don’t read poetry, but I’ve really enjoyed reading your stuff because it’s written for normal people, not for thespians or people with literature degrees.” I think I’m on the border of rap music and poetry. I call myself a gutter poet.


How do your poems come to you?


Something happens during the day that kickstarts my mind. It could be something I see. For example, I was driving, and I saw a railway bridge with an icicle hanging down underneath it and my brain went into overdrive. In a sense, I’m blessed because my PTSD gives me hyper-vigilance. I see everything, even in my peripheral vision. I was already alert as a soldier. I went through my military career analysing threat. But in addition to that, I have this hyper-vigilance which is a component and symptom of PTSD. It can be quite exhausting because it can lead to a sensory overload. But it makes the world more open. I see more. And I record that in my poems.



A lady at King’s College London has this theory that when you’re a child there are great areas of your brain that are empty, ready to store memories. The nugget of creativity you’re born with tells you that you can have free access to all these empty areas. However, when you get older, you need to give these all back so those spaces can be emptied and then filled with memories. When you suffer PTSD, large chunks of your brain become empty again. Your nugget of creativity goes Bing! “I can go over here and over there.” I believe my poems are the direct result of this greater awareness and alertness that comes from my PTSD.


How much of your output is war poetry?


About one third is based on my experiences in the army, and my memories and reflections of war. Sometimes these war poems are about wars and battles that I haven’t been involved with myself. I wrote a poem about D Day even though I wasn’t there. I could imagine how it felt because I had spent so much time with soldiers. I have written a colossal amount of WW1 poetry. I have no idea how my mind works when it comes to how it decides the content. I write war poems when my mind thinks I need to process that part of my life. These war poems not only help me. They help others who have traumatic memories.


I was on a beach and this guy came up to me and said, “You were in the army, weren’t you?” I said yes. He went on to say that he had been in Bosnia. I told him I had written a poem about my time in Bosnia. When he read the poem, he wept and I thought to myself, Oh no! “It’s fine!” he said. “These aren’t sad tears. They’re tears of happiness. I thought I was the only one who felt these feelings. Now I realise that I’m not alone. Thank you.”


Sometime ago I went to war

But not a war for me

Because my job to sit and watch

Report what I could see


Serbs, and Croats, Bosnians too

The things they did unkind

I struggled each and every day

It tore apart my mind


To see young children suffering

Was just too much for me

I see those children every day

They cry so vividly


To be at war but not at war

Tis the very worst of things

I hate that I was tied by law

To watch those sufferings


Now times a healer so they say

That's simply so untrue

Those memories are still so clear

I'm glad it wasn't you


Now when I joined up long ago

I didn't have a clue

I thought I would defend our land

Protect the things we do


Now when I hear a child scream

For want of better things

It tears my soul, and rips my gut

For the flashbacks that it brings


War not War, 2016

©karltearney



Finally, Karl, what can you tell us about your first book of poetry?


I’d been doing poetry readings and exhibiting my poems and people were asking me if I had a book. People were asking about if I had a book. That got me thinking. I looked online, doing a search for poetry and mental health. I found Fly on the Wall publishers who are interested in poetry and mental health. I sent some of my poems. I’d been led to believe it was a nightmare getting a contract, but they wrote back immediately. “We’d like to offer you a contract.” I told them I wanted hardback. They said they’d not done that before. But I insisted. And now Second Life is coming out next month (July 2019). The first section contains poems about mental health. The second poems about love. When I had PTSD, I couldn’t feel love. My love for everything went. I fell out with God, everything. The third and last section is called Moments. The Willow Tree poem is the last in the book because it’s a random moment. So, there’s a structure, and an order. I wanted it to be random, but my publishers wanted it in sections. Originally, they only wanted MH (mental health) poems, but I didn’t want to be known as the MH Poet. So, there’s variety.


Thank you very much Karl. You really have shown us that poetry is therapy. We wish you every success with the book, and our heartfelt good wishes as you manage your PTSD, write your poems, and bring hope to others through your words.



To hear Karl’s poem “100 Years” celebrating the centenary of the RAF, go to

https://youtu.be/YwERf6Qs-_E

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