What Poet Brian Turner Knows

Maybe I’m one of those late-bloomers or else just take my waking slow, but I often come to read books long after everyone else already has. It’s fine with me, since by the time I get there the books are succeeding on their own merits, not merely on buzz.


November 21, 2008

Maybe I’m one of those late-bloomers or else just take my waking slow, but I often come to read books long after everyone else already has. It’s fine with me, since by the time I get there the books are succeeding on their own merits, not merely on buzz.

In this case, I’m only three years late to the party forHere, Bullet(Alice James Books, 2005), the fine first collection of poet Brian Turner, recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a PEN Center USA “Best in the West” Literary Award in Poetry, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, and many other honors. Brian served seven years in the US Army, including a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, and a year in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division.

Here, Bullet begins with an epigraph from Ernest Hemingway: “This is a strange new kind of war where you learn just as much as you are able to believe.” The 65 pages of poems that follow are surreal, lovely, violent, sad, smart, and disturbing—an anatomy of what we too might have learned or come to believe if we had served in Iraq and had the eyes of poets.

As soon as I read the book I knew I’d like to talk with Brian. Today I’m delighted to post an interview with him, conducted by e-mail over the past few days. Additional questions are from Micah Riecker, who first recommended the book to me.


Brian, welcome. Can you tell us how you found yourself a poet in the Iraq War?

I had always thought I’d join the military, and came very close to joining the Marine Corps twice when I was 19—having grown up in a military family—but I put that off and opted for college, initially. Once in college, I realized that I wanted to pursue a deeper study of poetry & poetics. To this end, I went to the University of Oregon and earned an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry). Much of the reason I initially gravitated toward poetry is due to the fact that I was terrible at writing lyrics for the rock band I was playing in—a band I still play in (and a band I still do not write the lyrics for!).

How was the MFA useful to you?

In a very general sense it showed me in a very real way that people actually dedicate their lives to the deep study of this art (poetry). I’m from Fresno, in California. When I found out that I was accepted at Oregon, I was working as a machinist. I remember telling the guys that I had been accepted and that I was planning to study poetry (and that it was part of a Master’s degree program). They were incredibly encouraging and congratulatory, but still, I could tell that they mostly thought I was sort of following up on a hobby, that I was putting off getting ready for a “real job” somewhere. Where I come from, being a poet just isn’t a thing people actually do, or become. In fact, doing something you really love, that you’ve always wanted to do—that just doesn’t normally seem like a real possibility. In fact, I’m still shocked at where I am now.

Why did you go in the army as an enlisted member/NCO, and not an officer? Is any of this experience a search for material or to serve witness? To rid yourself of American insularity?

I was raised with a proletarian chip on my shoulder, which has yet to be knocked off. I thought it presumptuous to become an officer prior to having learned the ropes, basically. Once in, I found many officers I respected very much. Still, I wouldn’t ever have wanted to rise very high in the ranks—the best work, the real work as far as I could see, was at the lowest levels, the soldier and lower-NCO level jobs.

I certainly didn’t think Iraq would give me material for a book. As soon as I learned my unit would go, I was honestly worried about where we were going and concentrated wholly on preparing for it.

In joining the military, part of me did that simply because I thought I would get to see places and travel—a very simplistic vision of military life, yes, but that’s part of what I was thinking. Once in Iraq, though, I did see (about halfway through the year there) that I was writing as a witness in my own journals; I was writing as a way to witness my own life and to stave off the blurs of exhaustion that might later make it impossible to remember all that had happened.

You use the carving into stone of the epic Gilgamesh in your poem “Gilgamesh, in Fossil Relief,” as a symbol of “translating” and “reinventing,” and you quote the David Ferry translation (“This is the path of the sun’s journey by night”) at the end. I’m wondering if your experience in Iraq is your own way of reinventing a solution to “the questions we must answer”? Was it a sort of “night journey”? Is this your Gilgamesh?

I’d have to have an ego the size of a civilization to think this is My Gilgamesh, or that I could even come close. I think the year I spent there was a kind of “night journey”—one I wrote my way through as it passed by. I found no answers while there, but found only more and more questions.

Sadly, tragically, criminally—it seems each generation must relearn the difficult lessons of the past.

If anyone who comes across this hasn't yet read the epic of Gilgamesh—I urge you to read it. (I prefer the Herbert Mason version. There’s also a very intriguing collection called Myths from Mesopotamia : Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others.)

You kept secret from the other men in your unit the fact that you had an MFA? Did you ever get caught writing poetry?

No—I mostly wrote in my journals, usually not poetry, but prose diary entries. Sometimes a poem would arrive, or develop. Over the course of the year, however, I wrote the poems which would later, compiled, become Here, Bullet…. I didn’t share that I was a poet because I thought it would undermine my job as an infantry sergeant. Also, in a broader sense, it just didn’t seem to have much relevance to my job, in a day-to-day sense. Oddly, I wasn’t asked what I had actually studied until I had only about one month left in service (I was in for over seven years)—and that was from a newly-minted LT [lieutenant] who had just come from college himself.

Dana Goodyear says at The New Yorker that the only book of poetry you took to Iraq was the anthology Iraqi Poetry Today. Did it shape your view, how you saw people or landscape, or affect the tone or formal elements of your own poems?

I had a couple of other books with me, but that was the primary book I carried as I deployed over there (and I kept it with me the entire time). I think it helped me to see that Iraqi poetry is highly metaphorical and that there is a very, very strong relationship in that part of the world with the oral tradition, poetry in particular. It’s taking time to become rooted, but my study of Arabic poetry and Arabic poetic tradition(s) will be more visible in my work—in terms of craft, approach—in subsequent books I write.

What’s one of your favorite poems from that anthology, and why?

I like much of the work in the anthology, so it’s a tragedy to choose from among the different poets assembled there. Still, I suppose Fadhil al-Azzawi’s poems are the ones that are marked and highlighted most in the volume I had with me in Iraq.

Another amazing poet is Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati, who has lines such as:

13 [from “Shiraz Moon”]

They found me at the springs of light, slain, my mouth dyed with red
berries and white mountain roses and my wing planted in the light.

Who can fail to be amazed by poetry such as this?

Your poems imagine or inhabit other experiences than your own. Here, for instance, is “Autopsy”:

Staff Sergeant Garza, the mortuary affairs specialist
from Missouri, switches on the music to hear
there’s a long black cloud hanging in the sky, honey,
as she slices out a Y-incision with a scalpel
from collarbone to breastplate, from the xiphoid process
down the smooth skin of the belly, bringing light
into the great cavern of the body, in the deep flesh
where she cuts the cords which bind the heart,
lifting it in her gloved palms, weighing
and measuring the organ, she can’t help
but imagine how fast it beat when he first kissed
Shawna Allen, or how it became heavy
with whiskey and what humbled him.
What Garza holds in her hands,
thirty-four years of a life, will be given
in ash to the earth and sea
if we’re lucky, by someone like her,
singing low at the chorus
there’s a long black cloud hanging in the sky,
weather’s gonna break and hell’s gonna fly,
baby, sweet thing, darlin.

How much of what’s shown in the book did you see yourself? How much was research? Overheard? Imagined?

Ahhh, the great questions. And, just for the readers out there, they remain unanswered.…

An MFA student here would like to know about your revision process, especially for poems based on intense events. Is revision an act of keeping things fresh in your mind? Or do time and distance allow a transmutation of event into art? Is distance a good thing for either poem or poet?

Prior to this book I would have said that tranquility and reflection are the way to go. Distance is needed. Things of this sort. But I’ve found in my life that I write poems all the way through and that the intensity of the line created in proximity to the event has a value and a quality which is difficult to capture at a distance. It’s similar to the differences between a photographer, who takes the moment as it happens, and the painter, who must stretch that moment into the future and discover it there.

You mention many dreams in the book, most of them nightmares. Do you have these “dreams burn[ing] in the oilfires of night”?

I would think that most people who experience life in a combat zone (whether as a civilian or as a combatant) would carry baggage with them the rest of their lives. They should be changed by it, affected. Of course, a small percentage of our population is sociopathic (and they may or may not carry a deeper weight back).

I’m trying to learn how to live a worthy life. Still, I don’t think I personally have the right to “heal”—only to find a way to live with humility and respect for the losses I was a part of. I am complicit in much pain and suffering and indignity—I have to find a way to live with that, perhaps to struggle to find ways to own up to that responsibility.

I can’t imagine a stronger or spookier title than Here, Bullet. How’d you decide on it, instead of, say, The Hive Humming Its Prayer, which is (also) a line from the book? (Please note that I’m a prose guy, Brian, and well aware of my limitations in this and other questions. But I bear up cheerfully under my shame.)

You know, not to make poetry—or the magic you do with prose, either—become a cult of the initiated, but, to be honest, I have no idea. I mean, at some point deep within the brain, at some syntactic level, down there in the cerebral fluid where the vaulted dome of skull rises over a bizarre world where the past, present and future cohabitate, words appear. They rise up out of the void somehow. When constructing a poem, I often have a phrase to guide me, to egg on the continuation of thought, development. But the title of this book is one of those immediate voicings from deep in the brain and I’d be lying if I said I knew how that came about, or where that title came from.

Not being a poet myself, I’ve wondered where a certain kind of poetic style or form has entered the American scene. Your poetry is condensed, sensory, and uses lots of natural images, but not everyone comes from the Waley-Fenollosa-Pound lineage. (The Iraqi anthology is proof of that.) Who are your influences, and why’s your work look and sound like it does?

Different poems have different sources. For example: I didn’t realize until recently that one of my favorite poems of all times is the wellspring for the title poem (“Here, Bullet”); Phil Levine’s “They Feed They Lion”—the ENERGY of that poem, the rhythmic drive of it, the beat pulse underneath the syllables—here is the branch from where my poem emerges. I read that poem 20 years ago and did my best to study with Levine (which I did) because of that one poem alone.

T.R. Hummer ( Walt Whitman in Hell), Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigl, Tim O’Brien, Kurt Vonnegut, Walt Whitman, Wilfred Owen—these are some of the influences.

What rarely is mentioned by many poets are the influences of their closest friends—Brian Voight and Stacey Brown are two of the strongest influences on my writing. I’ve known Brian Voight since I was seven years old and many of his ideas on art in general (and our arguments about story, politics, representation, avenues into artforms, and more) were incredibly important to my development as an artist. Likewise, my grad school friend and colleague—the poet Stacey Brown—was tremendously important to my development as a writer. Kwang Ho Lee also has influenced me. These three affected me far more than my internal discussions with Foucault, Jameson, or Eagleton.

Any idea of the book’s reception abroad?

I’ve been amazed at the reception overseas. For example, I’ve read more times in Ireland than I have in my home state of California. (There’s just no love at home, you know?)

Bloodaxe Books has supported my work and helped it reach an audience I never would have thought possible. Much of this is due to the hard work of my editor here in America (April Ossmann at Alice James Books)—she pushed the book and made the connections overseas so all of this might be possible (as if she weren’t busy enough!).

I’m planning to return to the UK in the springtime to do some more readings and to do some work with the BBC. I’m also trying to work out a plan to visit Libya for a brief series of readings and discussions there…. It seems that when one door opens, numerous other doors offer themselves afterward.

What about with Iraqi-American readers? Or American vets?

I’m looking forward to learning more about how Iraqi-Americans react to this work—I don’t have enough to go on to answer this question at this time. With current vets, I’ve been amazed at how receptive they are—each has had such different experiences than I have had. In fact, in the book I try to allude to these dynamics: There are a series of poems entitled OP (observation post) poems. These poems are numbered ("OP 71," "OP 798," for example). I was trying to give a nod to the reader, in revision, to beg the question: Where is OP 799, OP 802, OP 27? There are simply, and tragically, far too many stories and experiences for me alone to put on the page. Millions upon millions, in fact.

How close to the Iraqi people were you able to get? Do you speak Arabic?

I’m studying Arabic now, with the hope that I might one day be able to read Arabic poetry in the original. And, I’d love to be able to converse with Arabic speakers—to better learn how they perceive and experience the world we share.

The NY Times’ review of Here, Bullet said, “The day of the first moonwalk, my father’s college literature professor told his class, ‘Someday they’ll send a poet, and we’ll find out what it’s really like.’ Turner has sent back a dispatch from a place [the war] arguably more incomprehensible than the moon…and deserves our thanks…” And in the introduction to Iraqi Poetry Today, editor Saadi Simawe says, “We hoped that translating poetry might contribute to the appreciation of other civilizations and even to peace in the Middle East.” Does poetry have utility?

When I most needed something for my interior life to lean on, poetry is what I leaned on. It wasn’t cathartic. It didn’t get anything off my chest. But it was there for me when I needed it.

Poetry is a portable art. I now carry Phil Levine’s “They Feed They Lion” within me. It is part of who I am and who I am becoming. It is part of how I experience the world. When we allow a poem a space within us, we enlarge our capacity for understanding. I think we allow ourselves another chance find meaning within a confusing, difficult world.

It’s often argued and lamented that “poetry is dead,”but I just saw the cover of US News and World Report with a photo of President-Elect Barack Obama on the cover. The cover-story title, right there visible on news racks all over America? “Promises to Keep.” What does that tell you? It tells me that Robert Frost is deeply ingrained in our larger culture. That is, POETRY permeates our lives, whether we realize it, or not.

I would urge poets to get out and read in the community—go to readings and be a part of them, off-campus as well as on-campus. Create and be a part of something larger than yourself. Share your work and why you do it, why you love it. When I was attending the University of Oregon, I had to catch a bus to campus. While waiting at the bus stop, I’d often read the workshop poems to people there and ask them for their thoughts (never telling them which one was my own).

Last year you got an NEA grant, but one does not often survive financially on poetry alone. May I ask how you provide? Any plans to teach?

I’ve been supported in ways that boggle the mind. The Lannan Foundation has supported my work in phenomenal ways—with a Fellowship, a writing residency, and more. I would stress that whenever another human being sits down and reads a poem you’ve written, it’s an incredible moment/gift.

In very practical terms, I’ve been fortunate enough to do what I never thought possible—I’ve been able to live as a working poet for the last couple of years. Prior to that, and right after the Army, I had cobbled four jobs together (one of them full-time doing electrical work) in order pay the bills (and to keep busy—returning from Iraq I found that I had far too much energy for everyday life back home).

I’m looking for a teaching job for next year. I want to create a life in which I can write and have extended periods of time to do so. I also would like to settle down some, and have a backyard where I can walk barefoot on the grass, pee on the shrubs, that kind of stuff.

All my shrubs are dead, Brian, word of warning. Being a “war poet,” as you’ve been called, is an honorable tradition. But do you see yourself that way? Do you find the title limiting?

I think it would be best for me not to try to place myself within the larger whole—there are far, far too many names I revere there and I would never presume my own name could reach so high up the mountain. I’m honored enough to have someone read my work—that’s an incredible honor. (I’m a reader and a book junkie myself, so I respect the fact that someone would sit down and read my own work.)

Do you worry about loss of material since you’ve left the army?

Writing is a way to investigate the world, and myself within it. The problem I have always had is not in finding something to write about, but in simply choosing one thing to concentrate on for an extended period of time.

Evidently you had a manuscript of poems from your Bosnian experience in 1999-2000. Will it find its way to publication?

Fortunately for us all, no. Many of those poems have made it into literary journals around the country, but the manuscript as a whole doesn’t stand up on its own (and isn’t worthy of a reader’s time, in my estimation).

What are you working on now?

I’ve just completed my second book ( Talk the Guns)—a book I avoided writing for quite some time, but eventually realized I had to write. It will be available from Alice James Books early in 2010. (I’m working with the editor on it now.)

I’m also working on my third collection, which I’m very excited about, too—it takes a radically different turn from the first two, in terms of subject matter (and in many ways in terms of style/approach).

Thank you very much, Brian, this was a pleasure. Any last words for aspiring poets who might be reading this?

I send my very best thoughts for your own words and work. It’s a tough gig. It’s tough answering somebody (when they ask you what you do) by saying, “I’m a poet.” And it’s tough getting rejection after rejection while creating that office wallpaper. I know. I also know that if I’d never published my book, I’d still be writing the poems I write. That’s what I do. And if that’s what you do, then the writing is the thing. If someone reads your work and decides to publish it and share it with a wider audience, well, that’s all gravy on top. You already have the poem.

Brian’s generously provided a reading list of literature he’s enjoyed. Click hereto download the PDF file.

"Autopsy" fromHere, Bullet. Copyright ©2005 by Brian Turner. Reprinted with the permission of Alice James Books.


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