A controversial poem slated for inclusion in the new WNC Veterans Memorial will probably be modified or replaced. The city’s Public Art Board postponed a final decision on the matter during its Nov. 29 meeting to allow time for alternatives to emerge. Board members plan to revisit the issue during a Dec. 28 retreat.
After an Xpress article called attention to the controversy surrounding Charles M. Province‘s poem “It is the Veteran,” Public Art Board Chair Barbara Cary says she received multiple complaints about its content. (See “The Writing on the Wall,” Nov. 7 Xpress.)
“A lot of people felt it was negative and took cheap shots at the other professions mentioned—who, while not veterans, have their own dignity and have also made important contributions to our freedoms,” Cary told Xpress. “We asked the veterans to come back to us with another poem—one more recent, more positive and more in harmony with the surroundings. This is a public project.”
Written at the height of the Vietnam War protests, the poem (originally titled “It is the Soldier”) credits veterans, rather than other members of society, with securing various basic constitutional rights (see box, “The Controversial Poem”).
The memorial is part of an ambitious overhaul of City/County Plaza that’s being carried out under the aegis of the nonprofit Pack Square Conservancy. Funding for that $20 million-plus project is coming from Asheville, Buncombe County, federal funds, grants and private donors. The city, county and the town of Woodfin have also made specific contributions for the $450,000 memorial. Another nonprofit, the WNC Veterans Memorial, is in charge of fundraising and design for the project, subject to approval by the art board and the conservancy. The veterans’ group has raised most of the money from private sources.
Cary, an art instructor at Mars Hill College, also feels the poem is “a little dated.” After reading it to some of her students, she says, “they thought a campus organizer was someone who organized dances or social events.”
One possibility, said Cary, would be commissioning a poem by a local veteran. “I think we’d be willing to put money into that—finding a poem that reflected the unique contributions of WNC’s veterans.”
Another proposal raised by art board members at the meeting calls for changing the wording (with the author’s approval) to give it a more positive spin. Cary said the art board had tabled the issue “so they’d have time to do the research and come back to us.”
The idea to use the poem came from area resident Walter Plaue, who heard it read at a patriotic event. A member of the board of directors for the memorial, he brought it to the group for approval. Plaue did not respond to requests for comment.
Public Art Board member Bill Fishburne, a veteran who is senior editor of The Asheville Tribune, defended the poem at the meeting, though he found himself in the minority. “There’s a lot of strong support for this … among the veterans,” he told Xpress. “There’s a feeling that it has to be this poem.”
The veterans who serve on the memorial’s board of directors represent many other groups around the region, he added. “This isn’t just a few guys pushing for this—they represent thousands of veterans.”
But Fishburne also said “it’s clear [that] in its current form it can’t get the number of votes it would need,” so he favors modifying it. Finding another poem—especially an original composition—would take too long, he asserts, as bidding for construction began Nov. 6 and work is scheduled to start sometime in the coming months.
Province holds the copyright to the poem—a fact the veterans’ group only recently discovered. The author has given permission for his work to be used and says he’s open to modifications “as long as they retain the message that the soldier is to be admired and respected.” Plaue, he said, had already called him to talk about possible modifications.
An Army veteran who founded and heads the George S. Patton Jr. Historical Society, Province says he wrote the poem after seeing how soldiers returning from Vietnam were received.
“I was sick and tired of it. Here were soldiers that, whether you thought the war was right or wrong, were coming back after having been shot at by communist a**holes, and they were coming home to be spit on,” Province told Xpress. “So I put some thoughts down.”
But the poem, he says, was “absolutely not” meant to be derogatory to any of the other professions mentioned. “It’s a reminder that soldiers have given up a lot—sacrificed their very lives, in some cases—so that we can enjoy the lives and freedoms we have here in the U.S.,” Province explains. “Liberals need to realize that these are the people that give them the right to complain, to protest.”
This wouldn’t be the first time Province’s words have ended up carved in stone. A Korean War memorial in North Dakota carries a version of the poem as well, he notes. The author also dismissed criticisms of his creation, which he feels is still relevant today, saying, “It absolutely is: We’re still fighting to spread freedom around the world, to bring other countries the freedoms we enjoy. No other country’s spent billions on that like we have.”
This isn’t the first time the monument has been the subject of debate on the art board. When the group first submitted its proposed design two years ago, there were concerns about the specifics. After significant changes, the art board finally signed off on the design this spring.