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A poet borne from war

Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers graduates this spring with an M.F.A. in writing amid accolades for his forthcoming novel “The Yellow Birds.”

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Before the Iraq War, veteran Kevin Powers says he could not have imagined becoming a writer. But the attention reaped by his upcoming contribution to the genre of war literature has solidified his future as one.

Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers at the J. Frank Dobie House, the home of the university’s Michener Center for Writers. Photo: Marsha Miller

The desire to focus on writing after leaving the military led Powers to The University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. And his sophisticated and masterful poetry earned him a spot in the competitive, top-ranked program.

This year he celebrates his graduation from the three-year program and a lucrative book deal with Little, Brown and Company the same group and editor that recently published the unfinished manuscript of award-winning author David Foster Wallace.

Coming out on Sept. 11, “The Yellow Birds,” a haunting novel about two young soldiers in Iraq, has already been called an “international sensation.” Publishing rights have been sold in 16 countries.

New York Times bestselling author Chris Cleave compared Powers to Ernest Hemingway after reading “The Yellow Birds.” He said, “Reading ‘The Yellow Birds’ I became certain that I was in the presence of a text that will win plaudits, become a classic and hold future narratives of the war to a higher standard.”

Powers calls the accolades “strange,” but he said he is proud of the novel and humbled by the interest.

“I wrote the best book I could,” he said.

Powers said he spent about four years writing “The Yellow Birds.” It is a work of fiction, but critics have said there’s a sense of truth to it. Powers said he was adding and subtracting variables from his own experiences in Iraq.

It begins, “The war tried to kill us in the spring” and from there relays a stunning account of friendship compromised and fortified by death and danger. Bound together since basic training, two soldiers one 18 years old and the other 21 are dropped into a war neither is prepared for, the book jacket reads.

The Yellow Birds book jacket

“The Yellow Birds” will be available Sept. 11. 

“I hope that when people read it, they will feel that they’ve had an experience that they might not have otherwise,” Powers said. “The stories of the men and women who fight our wars are often I believe seen in our culture as incomprehensible, that if you haven’t been there you can’t understand. I don’t know if I agree with that notion.”

Michener Center Director James Magnuson read swatches of Powers’ novel in a fiction workshop during Powers’ first year in the program. “The battle scenes were so intense and poetic. I knew there was something really special going on,” he said.

“The true reason for all the excitement over this novel is not the size of the book deal, but the extraordinary response of readers,” Magnuson said. “This is a book that has already been compared to (Tim O’Brien’s) ‘The Things They Carried,’ and the reaction has been worldwide.”

Powers is a shy fellow, an introspective and meditative writer, according to his thesis adviser, Dean Young, chair of poetry at the Michener Center. While at the Michener Center, Powers’ primary field of concentration was poetry. He’s currently completing a book of poems.

“Kevin is not a frivolous poet, nor a frivolous young man, but that’s not to say he doesn’t have a sense of humor,” Young said.

Powers, who is 31, fits in well in a city like Austin. He has tattoos, rides a motorcycle, goes to University of Texas at Austin football games and enjoys the outdoors.

He grew up outside Richmond, Va. Not a particularly good student in high school, he joined the military instead of going to college right away. He was a machine gunner in Iraq, serving in Mosul and Tal Afar during 2004 and 2005. After his honorable discharge from the military, Powers started writing the first draft of “The Yellow Birds” (a version he’d later abandon entirely).

In 2008 he graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a bachelor’s degree in English. During his last semester there he took a poetry class that he says inspired him to pursue his M.F.A. in writing. He persuaded his girlfriend, Kelly (now his wife), to move with him to Austin so he could attend the Michener Center’s full-time residency program.

“Even if I could have designed the ideal place to go work for three years, and all those things had come true, it still wouldn’t have been as great,” Powers said about the Michener Center. “It is inspiring and competitive in the best possible way.”

Magnuson said the members of the center’s class of 2012 all 13 of them bonded and learned from one another.

“In the history of American literature this class will matter a lot,” he said.

Powers said he plans to move abroad with his wife, who is deciding on a fashion design school to attend.

He dedicated the novel to her.

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