Martha Ellen Florence was showing previews of Ken Burns' Vietnam War documentary in communities around the state before PBS aired the series last fall, when the Nebraska Educational Television director noticed something.
Young people, she observed, knew very little about this war.
“It was sort of in their (history) books, but not a part of their history,” said Florence, director of community engagement.
Chris Maly, an English teacher at Lincoln High School, and a friend of Florence’s, noticed the same thing when he attended a screening, and the two began talking about what they could do to remedy that.
“There were lots of conversation about the younger generation not knowing much about the war and (people) expressing hope that people would ask questions and be eager to know more.”
In that spirit, the Vietnam Poetry Project was born.
Florence and Maly — with the help of a Lincoln Community Foundation grant — paired nine young poets from Lincoln High with nine Vietnam veterans. They picked a diverse group on both sides.
The veterans include those who landed in Vietnam as young men; a son who’s never met the father who died in the war; a Mexican-American and Purple Heart winner who talks about the racial and cultural differences in the war; a man who had family members who were Tuskegee Airmen in World War II; a medic; a woman who was in nursing school and joined the Army to pay for school and ended up in Vietnam.
Many of the students are part of Lincoln High’s slam poetry team, an ethnically diverse group of students who are curious and passionate about writing, Maly said.
Each student was paired with a veteran, and they met for one two- to three-hour session, then for an additional hourlong session that was videotaped.
After their interviews, the students wrote slam poems, or “poetic pieces” based on what they’d learned.
The culmination of the project will be a public event Sunday — during National Poetry Month and the day before the 43rd anniversary of the fall of Saigon that marked the end of the war.
The event will be 3 p.m. at the Lincoln High School auditorium, 2229 J St.
Students will perform their poems for the veterans for the first time, and their readings will be interspersed with snippets of video from the interviews.
Students worked hard to honor what the veterans shared, Maly said. Some of the students and veterans created strong bonds during the project, e-mailing and meeting for lunch or coffee.
Although the project was done outside of school time, students learned an important lesson: how to relay the experience in a way that’s equal to the respect they have for the subject.
“That was a really great conversation to have, because they’re writing with a purpose that goes way beyond the classroom,” he said.
It was also a challenge, he said.
“We have a lot of respect for these veterans who took time to provide a glimpse into their sacrifice, which is obviously still a part of who they are.”