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IdeaFestival: Maurice Decaul Uses Poetry To Express Veterans' Needs

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Maurice Decaul didn't set out to be a writer: He thought he was going to be a cop.

Decaul went into the Marine Corps after high school, did his four years of active duty, and came home to New York City in 2002, intending to go to the police academy. Then, shortly after the 2003 invasion, his reserve unit was called up, setting in motion an experience that changed his trajectory.

"When I came back, I decided I didn't want to carry a gun to work or have to wear body armor, so I was kind of lost," he said. "And it wasn't until I found writing at New York University — I kind of got hooked."

Decaul, who speaks Wednesday during IdeaFestival in Louisville, started attending a weekly writing workshop for veterans. Through it, he realized that he had found a new way to process his war experience. He was surprised to find that poetry — something he had never paid much attention to — was especially useful.

"What it allowed me to do was to not necessarily think in a practical way but think in an artistic way, and to challenge and interpret and acknowledge my war experience," he said.

Decaul has written essays for The New York Times and other outlets, his poems have been translated into French and Arabic, and his plays have been performed in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Paris.

His collaborations with poet Mike Ladd and pianist Vijay Iyer, "Holding It Down" and "Sleep Song," are theatrical works that draw on the experiences of soldiers of color in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Decaul's talk at the IdeaFestival will center on his assertion that veterans returning from war need more than practical help like job training and health care; they also need ways to express their feelings about their experiences, and avenues to work through them.

"I think that part of the conversation that we have to start having with ourselves is how do we integrate our veteran populations back into the country also through expressive means," he said.

Decaul speaks at 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Kentucky Center. He will also sign copies of the "Holding It Down" album and a recent anthology of writing by veterans.

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