When Kevin Powers shipped out to Iraq in 2004, he unwittingly took a pivotal step toward joining the ranks of authors whose wartime service would shape their work, such as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Graves, and Tim O’Brien. His National Book Award finalist novel, “The Yellow Birds,” draws on his Mideast experience, as does his poetry collection, “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.” Powers reads at the third annual Nantucket Book Festival at 12:30 on June 20 in the Atheneum’s Great Hall. Most author events are free at the three-day festival.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
POWERS: I’m reading Allison Seay’s first poetry collection, “To See the Queen.” It’s fantastic — so measured and restrained. Weirdly, I went to high school with her, but I didn’t know her then. I’m also reading Jack Gilbert’s poetry collection “The Great Fires.” I tend to have a few books going at once. I just finished rereading, “How Many Miles to Babylon?” by the Irish writer Jennifer Johnston. It’s a compact, beautiful novel about the First World War.
BOOKS: Speaking of wars, when you were in Iraq when did you have time to read?
POWERS: We had a peculiar schedule. We were alert for 48 hours and then 24 hours not on alert but still having things to do. I was able to read a bit, sometimes only two pages a day. Other times I’d be lucky to get in a chapter a week.
‘I’m drawn to subjects I have no understanding of. Challenging myself is one of the things I enjoy about reading.’
BOOKS: Did you make it a point to read?
POWERS: Yes. It felt like a connection to a life that I understood. My mom would send me a box with cigarettes, moist towelettes, and a couple of books. She sent me Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” which was interesting to read there. She sent me Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” which was fascinating. I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” That took awhile to get through.
BOOKS: Did being in the middle of the Iraq War affect your experience of reading?
POWERS: Reading “The Quiet American,” in Iraq made it powerfully apparent to me why that book was still relevant. Reading gave me a way to escape, but it also provided me a way to think about the situation I was in.
BOOKS: Did reading play a role in your transition home?
POWERS: Yes. When I first got back I was introduced to Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry. He writes about many subjects, including Vietnam. I admire his poetry and his ability to make art from the experience of war. I also admire Stephen Wright’s “Meditations in Green” a great deal.
BOOKS: What else do you like to read?
POWERS: History, specifically ancient history. Not too long ago I read “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language” by David W. Anthony. He tried to reconstruct the origins of what we call Indo-Europe. I was totally engrossed, though there were definitely passages I had to skip. I’m also reading this book called “Time Reborn” by Lee Smolin. He’s re-evaluating the way physicists think about time. I feel like I’m grasping about half. The rest is way over my head.
BOOKS: Do you like heavy reading?
POWERS: I’m drawn to subjects I have no understanding of. Challenging myself is one of the things I enjoy about reading. If you fail to fully grasp the subject, you don’t have to tell anybody.
BOOKS: How’d you become a fearless reader?
POWERS: Even as a kid I tried to read beyond my grasp. My mom would take me to the bookstore every weekend, and I’d pick out a book. I think that’s where I got my ambition as a reader because she’d never discourage me if something was above my reading level. When I was about 12 I picked up a collected poems of Dylan Thomas. I’m not sure I got 1 percent of what was happening in those poems. It was so different from anything I had found in a book before. I can trace my love of poetry to that day.