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‘The Iowa Review’ features veterans’ writing with Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award

Though many words are used to describe members of the armed forces, one that you don’t often hear is “artist.”

Like any large group, the American military is comprised of people from all walks of life with many interests and many talents. However, the art of veterans and active service members doesn’t often get the attention it deserves.

The Iowa Review, published three times per year at the University of Iowa and one of the most respected literary magazines in the country, is helping provide that much-needed showcase. The publication is bringing veterans’ work to a wider audience through the Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans writing contest.

Since 2012, The Iowa Review has provided monetary prizes to the winners—and space on its coveted pages—to bring that writing to a wider audience. The Spring 2017 issue, available now, highlights the work of first- and second-place winners, as well as three runners up from the 2016 contest.

The Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans contest is open to U.S. military veterans and active-duty service members. The Iowa Review accepts works of narrative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction for the contest, which has been held in 2012, 2014, and 2016.

The award honors Jeff Sharlet, who became an anti-war activist after returning from the Vietnam War and was the founding editor of Vietnam GI. Sharlet died in 1969 at age 27. The Sharlet award is the only known veteran-specific prize awarded by a literary magazine of The Iowa Review’s stature.

Bob Sharlet had always been looking for new ways to honor his younger brother and began writing a memoir. During that process, he was surprised by his children, Jocelyn and Jeff, on his 75th birthday with the news that they had funded a literary prize in their late uncle’s name with The Iowa Review. Jocelyn, a college professor, came up with the idea and Jeff, an author himself, handpicked The Iowa Review to be the publication to house the prize.

In addition to being included in the Spring 2017 print issue, the veterans’ pieces will later be archived and available on The Iowa Review’s website along with past winners’ work.

Learn more about the winners featured in the Spring 2017 issue here.

“He picked it because the university has the strongest reputation for writers,” Bob Sharlet says. “They have done a great job with the award.”

Bob Sharlet says he believes the contest is another way to extend his brother’s legacy of giving veterans a voice.

“I want my brother’s reputation to outlive me,” says Sharlet, professor emeritus at Union College in Schenectady, New York. “I’m pleased that the group he addressed and felt he represented—the veterans and active duty—are getting their shot at literary glory.”

The popularity of the contest continues to grow, thanks in part to additional funding from the National Endowment for the Arts for the last two contests.

With the help of the NEA grant, The Iowa Review doesn’t have to charge submission fees for the contest. Additionally, it was able to increase the number of awards given out, with runners up also receiving cash prizes in addition to publication. As a result, the number of submissions has continued to grow.

Lynne Nugent, managing editor of The Iowa Review, has been involved with the Sharlet Award since its inception. She says that the magazine received 268 submissions in 2012. In 2014, it got 416. For the 2016 award, the magazine received 459 submissions.

The NEA grant has helped The Iowa Review with the contest in another way: The magazine can now provide a small honorarium for a guest judge. Phil Klay, who won the National Book Award for his collection of short stories called Redeployment, served as the judge for the 2016 Sharlet award. The Iowa Review staff narrowed the 459 submissions to a smaller cohort of finalists from which Klay chose the winners.

Graham Barnhart, who took top honors in 2016, calls being published in The Iowa Review a “big deal” due to the platform the magazine offers and the validation it gives to veterans’ writing.

“It’s very humbling to win any writing prize,” says Barnhart, whose collection of poems reflects on his time deployed as a special forces medic in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as returning home. “Specifically, this one was important. It’s one of the more unique contests as there aren’t many open-genre contests where it’s not just poetry or just nonfiction. To submit to a contest that is only for veterans is a privilege.”

Barnhart, a native of Titusville, Pennsylvania, also sees this contest as a way to showcase the value of veterans’ writing.

“Generally, it is perceived that veterans aren’t artistic,” he says. “The importance of the award is that this is a recognized literary venue. It’s a chance to showcase the high-quality work coming out of the veteran community and get some recognition. That’s important to military personnel.”

This year’s contest also featured a native Iowan among the finalists.

Jason Arment, from Grimes, Iowa, was one of the three runners up for his nonfiction essay “White Whale,” which detailed an experience he had while deployed in Iraq with the Marines.

Arment says one of the things that made this contest particularly appealing was the lack of parameters The Iowa Review puts on submissions.

“I cannot allow anyone to dictate the content of my work,” says Arment. “It’s a genuine take, and it allows the writing to speak for itself. That’s why I appreciate The Iowa Review existing. Having this veterans’ anthology is huge. I cannot stress that enough.”

Nugent says that the magazine didn’t want to put the writers in a box. Their work does not have to be specifically about their experiences in the military, though most of the submissions are.  Additionally, the contest does not filter for particular ideological messages.

Arment sees being published as an opportunity to give readers a better idea of what life is like for veterans.

“I want readers to be impacted and I want them to not forget,” says Arment, who plans to publish a memoir in the fall. “Maybe if we proliferated what is actually going on, more people would have a good, genuine, or accurate idea of what to understand.”

Nugent says the publication doesn’t dedicate an entire issues to veterans’ writing because they don’t want to differentiate veterans’ submissions from the rest of its content. The veterans’ submissions have to meet the same high standards The Iowa Review requires of any of its published work.

“Just to see how high quality the submissions are has been really gratifying,” Nugent says. “To know this work was out there and it wasn’t getting this kind of audience before, and that we can provide the space for this really excellent work, that’s what I find to be most rewarding.”