A small but captive audience of less than two dozen people came to listen to the forceful and confident presentation by Colin D. Halloran of his award-winning debut collection, Shortly Thereafter. They applauded appreciatively between the selections of unpublished and published work. But the first question out of the gate was something like this: What is a nice middle-class boy like you doing in a war like that?
"I'll get to that later," Halloran said cheerfully, displaying the engaged style of the college professor he is now, both rattling his audience with the brutal, haunting details of what he calls his 'memoir in verse,' as well as bringing them back to the more peaceful world of an evening reading at a branch library in a country at peace. "Part of me hates giving these readings because it's all so depressing," Halloran commented. "It's not happy poetry, but my attempt at happiness. I wanted to capture as many facets of the war as I could. That means, the 95 percent of time when you're waiting for something to happen and the five percent, when you wish it didn't."
Halloran wasn't a writer before he went to war, although he had composed songs for his school band and kept a journal. Coming home in 2004 less than a year after deployment due to a severe knee injury, he was angry, guilt-ridden and depressed. He was institutionalized twice. A therapist, to whom the collection is dedicated, convinced him to write. "Writing saved my life. If not for that, I probably wouldn't be here," he said. His first poem was published in the New York Times, after which MFA programs began to recruit him. Driving around one day, struggling with a poem that didn't seem to work, a voice of the enemy came into his head. Incorporating the suicide bomber's narration, it became, Spring Offensive, of which the first section is called, "I Have Heard the Mullah Speak." The long story in verse is dedicated to the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. A more upbeat work is Democracy, Tea and Belly Dancers, depicting an Afghan man who associates exposed bellies and ankles with a better life: "Democracy good," the man said, his thumbs pointing up.
His decision to go to war was complex, Halloran said. He had been in college for one semester and needed money for school. He had plans to run for office, and wanted to perform public service. He didn't mind going either, he recalled, seeing himself as "a man of action" more than a yellow-ribbon man. "I felt a sense of patriotism, too, " he added, "which was very surprising." Despite high test scores which could have kept him from the front lines, he choose the infantry, which brought him there. "That's where the important decisions are made," he felt. The difficult road back to civilian life from war's brutality included small victories, such as "successfully taking the Green Line from Brookline to Harvard Square by switching to the Red Line at the right station and making it to the Harvard Book Store."
Halloran teaches workshops understanding war through poetry throughout the country. He advocates for veterans and civilian education on veteran's issues. Shortly Thereafter was named a Massachusetts Must-Read Book in 2013 and won the Main Street Rag Poetry Award in 2012. He co-edited T(here), a collection of essays about reverse culture shock among veterans.