Kevin Powers is a best-selling novelist who’s been called a “poet first”—but he doesn’t consider the distinction particularly apt. “To be honest, I don’t really think in those terms,” he says. “I think of myself as a reader first and a writer second. It just so happens that the two forms I’ve been most attracted to, both as reader and writer, are the novel and the poem.”

First came the novel The Yellow Birds, a Kirkus Best Book of 2012. It is the poignant, lyrical account of two young American men, Pvts. John Bartle and Daniel Murphy, fighting the war in Iraq. It won PEN/Hemingway and Guardian First Book awards and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Now, Powers offers his first collection of poems, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, exploring similar themes: identity, community, war and its aftermath.

That Letter Composed treads some of the same ground covered in The Yellow Birds seems inevitable. They grew from eight years of service in the U.S. Army, which Powers joined at just 17. From 2004-05, he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq. Powers began writing both books after an honorable discharge in 2006, while studying English at Virginia Commonwealth University. He continued work while earning an MFA in poetry from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.

“For a few of those years (2006-12), I was working on the novel and poems simultaneously, just looking for the best way to express or explore what was capturing my curiosity at that time. Each book was conceived in my mind, so I’m sure there are things that pop up in both—they bleed into each other,” says Powers.

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Nowhere is this overlap more apparent than in the titular poem, where Pvt. Bartle is mentioned by name:

I tell her how Pvt. Bartle says, offhand,

that war is just us

making little pieces of metal

pass through each other.

This third and final stanza completes a deployed soldier’s account of writing to a beloved back home. Powers names it one of his favorites in the collection. “It feels complete to me,” he says. “That’s something I think all writers hope will happen, and it doesn’t often. What I’m always striving to achieve is a clarity of expression that somehow equals the complexity of the thoughts, emotions and experiences that inspire the poem.” “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting” was an earlier poem, written before the story of The Yellow Birds crystalized. “At one point, I wondered if I should change the name in the poem, because of the novel, but it’s a record of the way I was thinking about the subject at the time.”

Divided into four sections, Letter ponders subjects from civilian casualties and photographing the dead to the physical and psychological wounds of returning soldiers. “Improvised Explosive Device” communicates the fearsomeness of encountering a bomb:

If this poem had wires

coming out of it,

you would not read it.

If the words in this poem were made

of metal, if you could see

the mechanics of their curvature,

you would hope

they would stay covered

by whatever paper rested

in the trash pile they were hidden in.

Translating the soldier’s experience for civilians remains one of Powers’ primary aims. “Ultimately, my approach to reading—and, I think, my approach to writing—comes out of a desire to get into the mind of another person, to try to have an experience that I can’t necessarily have myself. My intention was to create an access point for somebody who was unfamiliar with being in war or the experience of coming home,” he says.

While he is quick to point out that none of the speakers in Letter Composed is necessarily the author, the collection contains autobiographical elements beyond armed service. Powers was born and raised in Richmond, Va., and the state serves as a setting for a number of the poems. In the prose poem “Fighting Out of West Virginia,” a broken-nosed boxer laid flat on a gymnasium mat is assessed by the bleacher-seated crowd at a Virginia high school. “While Trying to Make an Arrowhead in the Fashion of the Mattaponi Indians” and “The Locks of the James” also invoke the home state.Powers_cover

“The idea that our personal histories relate to a larger history—whether it’s family or community or country—is important to me. How do I, as a person who grew up in Virginia in the ’80s and ’90s, react to the history of the state, to the country and all that’s gone before me?” Powers asks. “What does it mean to be just one individual human being asking questions about the world? I spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship we have as people among people, among the other creatures of the planet.”

In imagery, Powers returns to the earth: Soldiers dig in to evade impending mortars. Mothers kneel in garden dirt awaiting their returns. They plant their knees to pray, and the unlucky ones may be buried beneath it at an early age. Metal, that useful earthen ore, is just as much of a textual presence—in bullets, medals, the wires of IEDs. While there’s satisfaction to be gained by digging deeply into the meanings of Powers’ carefully curated words, he hopes the poems can be enjoyed by diverse readers on many levels.

“When many of us are introduced to poetry, it’s presented as a kind of challenge to unlock the puzzle. A lot of people do take satisfaction in approaching it in that way, but it might put some people off. If we let people know they’re reading to interact with the poem in any way they’d like, they might be surprised by what they find in it,” Powers says.

“Some poems, you can really sit with them and think about them for days or weeks or months after, but for me, the thing that’s really great about poetry is the immediacy of it, and a lot of that is the way the music of language can carry this immediate emotional experience to the reader,” he says. “It seems to work through a different part of the mind—less comprehension, more apprehension. Poems happen to you, in a way.”

Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York.