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A Conversation with Brian Turner


ISSUE:  Fall 2008

Brian Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon and lived in South Korea for a year before joining the United States Army. He served in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division and he was an infantry team leader in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. His first collection of poetry, Here, Bullet, explores his experiences in Iraq as both a soldier and a human being. His work crackles with life and is unapologetically blunt about the realities of modern warfare.

Here, Bullet

His literary rise has been meteoric and he has received an impressive number of awards, including an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry. Aside from reading his work around the world, he has made recent appearances on National Public Radio, the BBC, RTÉ in Ireland, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Here, Bullet was a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” Selection for 2007, and the awards are still rolling in.

Turner is initially soft spoken, but in front of an audience, his readings become dynamic explorations of literature and global politics. Whether he is comfortable with the role or not, he is rapidly becoming a voice that helps to explain the soldierly experience in Iraq and, as such, he is frequently compared to such Vietnam War writers as Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigl, and Tim O’Brien. Turner’s book may well be read for years to come not only because of the art he has achieved in its pages, but also because it is the first poetic landscape that we have of the Iraq War. He cracks open conversations that need to be had in this country, and he does so with a sense of quiet humility. Veterans of all wars stand around him during booksignings and he listens to them. By so doing, he encourages the rest of us to do the same.

We sat down one sunny afternoon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to talk about his work, the war, and what it means to be home without a machine gun or body armor. He leaned in, suddenly serious and ready to talk.

*  *  *  *  

Hicks: You earned an MFA in creative writing , then you moved to South Korea for a year, and then you enlisted in the US Army for seven years. It almost seems as if you were searching for experiences outside of what you knew as a young man. What motivated you to enlist?

Turner: I never really thought of it that way, but I wanted to see and experience life outside of what I knew. I come from a military background and I heard all these stories about adventure in other countries and things they’d seen—never about combat itself actually—but about other cultures. There was an exoticification of things that I knew nothing about and it was a lure that made me want to learn more about other places.

We were talking earlier about the ethos of the warrior. Do you think you were drawn to that or curious about what it means to be a warrior in America?

I don’t think it was about wanting to be a hero, but it was about certain rites of passage or being branded by fire. Those are themes that probably, I hate to admit it, are in my psyche and that’s part of my reason for joining up. Other things were more practical and mundane, like I was recently married and I was trying to set up my family and pay back my college loans. We didn’t even have enough money for a pillow. The military took care of all of that.

You are frequently compared to Yusef Komunyakaa and Tim O’Brien. I’m curious though about some of the Iraqi poets that you could also be compared with. I understand that you read Iraqi poetry while you were deployed. If we believe the old adage that poets and prisoners can tell us something about a nation, what did you learn from these Iraqi poets?

I was definitely influenced by their work although I’m not sure it’s visible. I think of Al-Jawahiri, and . . . [long pause] I was looking for insight into the psyche there and how poets that lived there responded to their home and their history. I wanted to learn from that. I think my own work is definitely more an American poetics that comes from Phil Levine and T. R. Hummer. I would say I was influenced more by the land itself than the poets there, although I learned a lot and wanted to include them within the work because they were a part of what I was experiencing. That’s why you see quotes in Here, Bullet because I thought they were amazing writers. The free verse poets I was reading there—specifically out of the Iraqi Poetry Today Anthology—they are much more overtly political than I am. Their metaphors stretch further than mine do, but I found it all very interesting even though it hasn’t influenced me yet. Maybe later it will, in another book.

One of your poems, “Eulogy,” is particularly powerful because it addresses the taboo subject of suicide. Many soldiers have killed themselves while on active duty in this war, and no one really talks about it, so I wonder if this poem has opened any doors. Has discussion been generated at your readings or have you had families approach you about these quiet tragedies?

No one’s really approached me about it other than to thank me for bringing the experience home. I expected more specific conversations to evolve out of that poem now that I’m back, but I’m not really finding that. It seems that many people are affected by that poem but it’s a very difficult subject so it’s hard for them to articulate what’s going on inside them when they hear it.

I suppose it’s only natural to ask this question of you since Here, Bullet is a soldier’s perspective of Iraq: Do you feel that the sacrifices over there are worthwhile?

I was against the war from the beginning and nothing has changed since, other than a deepening and heightening of that belief. To me it just seems like a huge tragedy on a scale that I can’t fathom or understand completely because the numbers are beyond my imagining. I can’t really comprehend half-a-million people, for example. I can’t understand each of them being dead and how that influences the world. The scale is just beyond my ability to understand.

You have been reading your work all over the world. Do you feel like you’re becoming a de facto spokesman for soldiers of the Iraq War?

If I’m anything, I’m only a small part of a larger conversation. I hesitate to think that I’m a de facto spokesman because—in some sense I want to give voice to some of the things that I was a part of and saw—but each person has such a very different view of what has happened. There are so many voices. So many soldiers come home without talking, which is the normal mode of the warrior, where they tuck it away and “suck it up and drive on.” That’s what they say in the Army. I think it does a disservice to them and it does a disservice to the larger population because we need to know what war is about, as much as possible, so that when we do go to war we have a deeper appreciation of what is happening. And that appreciation seems to be lacking here in America, in my own view.

Do you think that’s one reason your book has received so much attention? It’s not just the power of your poetry, is it also that you show us something that we aren’t seeing in the media?

I think people want access into the experience of what’s happening, and we know that journalism doesn’t quite do it. It might describe some things a bit, but the detachment that a journalist has . . . [long pause] Even by the very nature that journalists work, it often erases the emotional content or it doesn’t explore it. If we don’t have a connection to the human quality of the moment then we can’t feel or experience that moment. With poetry, one of its domains is the emotional content so that’s part of its territory. As far as being a de facto spokesman is concerned, that’s a tough one. There are a lot of soldiers who don’t have voice and aren’t able to articulate the things inside of them. Maybe many of them want to talk but they don’t have the skills, so I may not be saying what they need. You know what I mean? I’m a very incomplete spokesperson because there are so many voices and my book even tries to acknowledge that because there are poems like “OP #71” and “OP #798”. It’s a discursive nod to the reader to say that—

That there are other Observation Posts out there? Other viewpoints?

Yeah, yeah. Where’s #797? #796? #802? There are many other voices and experiences that this book doesn’t go into and it’s an incomplete book on its own. I’m trying to say that, but I’m also trying to say that there are many other voices that we need to hear. Like the Iraqi people. How often do we hear their voices?

I suppose that explains why you’ve included phrases of Iraqi poetry, the Qur’an, and epics like Gilgamesh into the book.

And in fact I wanted a specific Iraqi painting for the cover of Here, Bullet. I didn’t know who the painter was, I didn’t know his name or how to get a hold of him for permission, so that nixed that idea. For a future book I will have an Iraqi painting because I try to be inclusive of their work. I try to learn from them.

I know there’s a story behind the cover of Here, Bullet. There’s a picture of you in full military battle dress and you’re in the middle of the desert. You’re quite small, actually, and we can’t see your face. It’s a very stark photo. There you are under the large words “Here, Bullet” and you look like a target. How did you arrive on using this image?

The editor at Alice James Books asked me to send along a number of photos so that, while she was editing, she could get a feel for the people that show up in the poems. She wanted a visual feel for the landscape, and I think she was trying to get closer to the material too. She came across one photo and said “this has got to be the cover”, but it was very contentious for me for several reasons. One, someone like Walt Whitman can put his face on the cover of his book, but I’m a rookie and that seemed pretentious to me [laughs]. In the original photo I’m much bigger but they had to minimize me so that I could be an anonymous soldier, and then they did this watercolor effect to make it even more so. I wanted to take the focus away from me and move it towards just being a soldier.

The second issue is the tire tracks that go from left to right across the cover. Behind me and to my left there was our Stryker, our vehicle, and it was in the photo. It was facing away from us and its ramp was down, and from the photo you could see inside the back. There was stuff inside that might be considered classified or secret, so it was just easier to take it out. The contentious part of the photo—and I struggled with this—on the cover just above my name in the lower half of the photo, between the photographer and me were three Iraqi prisoners. They were on their knees, they hands were flexcuffed behind their backs, and they had sandbags over their heads. Jackowski, he was my M203 gunner, he took the photo. The prisoner on Jackowski’s right had a leather jacket on and we’d written RPG across his back because he’d fired a Rocket Propelled Grenade. In fact, Jackowski was in the center of a circle of prisoners—about ten or thirteen of them—and the stance that I have in that photo looks sort of like John Wayne. That photo looks like “I came over here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum,” as they say in the movies. It just wasn’t right for a cover photo, especially with the sandbags over the heads because that’s now synonymous with torture.

If I were someone walking into a bookstore—as we were talking about this during the editing process—I felt like some people would be repelled by that image. They would just think torture right off the bat, and this book isn’t about torture. There are books that need to be written about torture, and some of those are starting to come out, but my book isn’t about that. I wanted to invite people into the book rather than push them away.

The violence in some of your poetry is startling. It leaps off the page and refuses to let go. One such poem is “16 Iraqi Policemen”—you drop us into an explosion and show us the bloody brutal aftermath. There is an otherworldly feel to this poem and we are forced to become witnesses whether we like it or not. Is this what good war poetry should do? Should it act as a type of witness?

Very much so. I wasn’t writing the poems and thinking that I would have a book later, especially at the very beginning of my time in Iraq. When I came back to my bunk to get some sleep, I’d turn to my notebook and write a journal entry of what had happened during the day. Sometimes I’d draw a little diagram of an ambush or how we patrolled down the street—professional development kind of stuff—sometimes poems would come out. I wanted to meditate upon what had happened. I wanted to get it down, what I had experienced that day, especially at the beginning because we were swamped with work and we had very little sleep. It was kind of fuzzy and I remembering thinking that I was going to forget things, and I didn’t want to forget things, so it was a conscious act of memory to put these images on the page.

This next question is difficult, and maybe you can’t answer it, but what do you think America has learned from Iraq so far?

I think America has learned very little, other than something so obvious that I can’t even believe we needed to learn it: if you’re going to invade a country maybe you need to have a plan afterwards. The plan might be better suited if it didn’t have things like our tanks rolling past the museums, and the banks, and the police stations, and the schools, and people’s house, and we just go and surround the Ministry of Oil. All it has is paperwork inside anyway. It’s not even important. There’s nothing in there to protect, but it sent a big signal and the Iraqi people still remember this even if we forget back home.

That was the Holy Grail we wanted to protect first.

Sure seemed like it. The museums wouldn’t have been looted if we were around to stop it. Having no plan afterwards, which is really obvious now, was a huge problem. There are things that we can’t plan for but it looked very much like we assumed they were going to give us roses and kiss our cheeks and let us go back home. That’s just so naïve. I worry that we won’t learn from Iraq, and there’s much that we can learn. It’s one of the birthplaces of civilization, it’s a wellspring of literature and art and mathematics and philosophy—there’s much there, but have I learned Arabic yet? No. I’ve learned some, but when am I going to learn their language and read their work and try to understand them better?

What did you learn about human nature while you were in Iraq?

[long pause] I learned a lot about myself. But in the squad I was in, for example, I also learned how people react under pressure. I learned how abusive people can be towards each other, and then also how forgiving and kind people can be under that pressure as well. It made me really respect the people I worked with in my squad and my platoon more than I ever had when I was back with them in training. I still have resentments and they have resentments with me. Psychologies don’t mix well sometimes—people don’t get along—for example, a lot of times I hated my boss. I knew that he hated me too, but at the same time I loved my boss. I think he had the same care for all of us that worked for him too. If I saw him today, I’d buy him a beer. No matter how much we seemed not to get along, I still cared about people that normally I would turn away from and they’d probably turn away from me as well.

Is that because of this hyper-compressed atmosphere that you find yourself in? That you all need to rely on each other?

Yeah, I think so. We all depend upon each other. I mean, if I got shot in some room I need to know that they’d bring me back out, and vice-versa.

What are some of the difficulties or obstacles that you, as a veteran, now experience that you’re back in the United States?

Some of it was the transition into becoming Brian again because Brian didn’t quite exist anymore. I had been in for seven years, so I had started to become something of a lifer-sergeant. I knew that I was getting out, but I was bitching a lot and counting my days down, but at the same time I had become used to all that. A lot of times here, back home, I’ll see something that I think could be easily fixed—like in some store I’ll see something inefficient—and I want to jump in and fix it, but it’s not my place to do that [laughs]. It’s hard to check myself and relax a little bit.

It’s also simple things, like when we were in Baghdad driving around and a car came up to close on the back of us, we had to push them off. We had to give them warning signs and we often shot at people who were driving in their cars, and when I got back to Seattle—and to Tacoma—there’s this crazy traffic and people are tailgating right on my bumper. I still had some of that same psychology where before I could shoot at cars and at people, but now I had to turn all that off. I had to realize that I’m just Brian back home, that I’m not some soldier on the street. It’s hard not to be a sergeant. I have to shift back to whoever I am now. I’m not the same Brian that I was before the service, so I have to figure out who I am if I’m not a soldier.

We were talking earlier today about how you went into Lowe’s to do some home repair. You saw all these things that triggered memories of Iraq for you. How frequently does that kind of thing come up?

Those things happen fairly often. Sometimes you hear a crack or noise that goes off and it sounds like a gun report. I’m not going to roll, duck, and cover under a table, or try to assault a hill or something [laughs], but when I was in Lowe’s I needed some nails. And they got a lot of nails in that store. I noticed this one type of nail for scaffolding, it’s a double-headed nail, but they look like the firing pin that goes inside the M4 that I used to carry. The M4 is a carbine that’s a cousin of the M16, but it’s basically the same weapon. When I saw that, I started to look around the store and I wondered about other imagistic rhymes I could find. What here reminds me of what I saw in combat? Like the ceiling fan department, right? I counted all these fans, they had ninety-two of them, and they look a lot alike, at least imagistically, they rhyme with the rotors of a helicopter. The cash register when it opens and then it slides shut—you know, the metal ones?—they sound a little bit like a machine gun being charged.

What do you mean, a “machine gun being charged?”

That’s when you pull back on the charge and you [makes sound of bolt being moved back and forth]. It’s that sound you hear in the movies, and when you listen to a cash register drawer being shut you can hear that sound.

So you have all these triggers which put you back there for a second.

A lot of vets do. I’ve talked to some vets and they say they have a similar experience where they might be talking to someone—as you and I are now, nothing’s happening right now—but we might be talking and maybe a sheet of plywood is dropped. If it’s big enough and it falls from a couple of feet there’s this airy breath. This woosh, you know? It sounds a bit like how some explosions might sound. A lot of vets might be having a conversation and you wouldn’t notice a reaction on their face, but part of their brain recognizes that moment, or hears it or sees it, but just doesn’t acknowledge it.

So even part of a noise can . . .

Yeah. Sometimes.

What do you miss about Iraq? You were there for over a year—and maybe I’m trying to salvage something out of that experience—but what do you miss?

The guys I worked with—don’t get me wrong, if they ever came across this I really miss talking with many of them, but we probably won’t talk to each other again—we all heard each other’s stories. I know everything about them, they know everything about me, we stood on guard shift and burned each other out on our stories. So when I was there, I was very eager to talk with some of the Iraqis that I came into contact with through the interpreters. We’d be out in some park in the middle of Mosul, for example, just sitting in a berm waiting to see if a mortar attack happens and we’d be there for hours. I’d just talk with these guys. It was fascinating to get an insight into their lives. I’d ask about their families, and what their dads did, and I’d learn about their family histories. I’d ask them about the park before the war—what was it like?—and we were in this one park that was overgrown with weeds—it’s going to be a long time before it looks like a city park again—and this guy says that couples used to sneak out there and make love at night.

That’s a lovely metaphor for what the park used to be, and what it is now. It sounds to me like you miss access to the native stories of Iraq.

They’re amazing people. They have this life that I’ve never experienced before. They have a long poetic tradition, and I think someday it would be great to go back there without war taking place. It would be great to have some coffee and talk to them some more.

I’ve never experienced combat but I’ve read a lot of “war literature,” whatever that term may or may not mean, and I wonder when you pick up something by Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon or Tim O’Brien, you’ll now read it differently than I possibly could. So, for example, when they talk about firing a gun you know exactly what that feels like. How has your appreciation for that type of literature changed since Iraq?

It’s heightened more. When I read Sassoon now I hear more of the Victorian age, and I know he’s a really good poet but for me it doesn’t ring as true as Owen does. Owen has his boots in the mud and he’s connected to kinds of trauma that I never even experienced. World War I was wholesale slaughter on a massive scale. This war [Iraq] is too though. I mean, we have 500,000 people dead but it’s not like in groups of 30,000 in one day, at least that’s not happening today. Although there were things that happened like the al-A’imma Bridge in Baghdad when a thousand people died. Not a single shot was fired. It’s almost forgotten here in America, but a thousand people drowned and trampled each other to death for fear that an attack was taking place. That’s how close the fear of death is in their daily lives.

So when I read these other writers—and I love Tim O’Brien’s work—there’s something about the visually surreal in his work that really strikes a cord. So does his sense of beauty juxtaposed with these incomprehensible images. I remember, for example, being in Mosul and going out to this firing line. We were registering our weapons to make sure the zeros were good, and I was walking the firing line to make sure my guys were doing their job. At one point I walked away to take a break, to get away from the shooting for a minute and clear my head, and I looked out into the valley. Between where I was and the city of Mosul, down in the valley, there was this tank graveyard. It had all these blown out vehicles and—

From the Iraqi Army?

Yes, from them. They crammed them all together and the whole place is overgrown with weeds. I looked down and saw these flowers blossoming. This is the classic poet’s kind of thing: spring, flowers, et cetera. I remember hearing these guns fire in the background, and I’m there in this uniform because it’s wartime, and there are all these dead tanks, but at the same time the earth is still doing its thing. It seemed really hopeful and amazing and surprising to me. It’s odd because what was surreal for me in that moment wasn’t me or the weapon I was holding or the tanks, it was the flower. That seemed odd.

Beauty had become surreal to you.

Yes.

How do you find moments of beauty now that you’re home? That’s one of our jobs as poets.

It’s hard for me because it’s always tinged with something painful or difficult. I’m not sure that’s the most healthy way to approach beauty . . . but, it is what it is.
 


Related Interest: The Washington Post hosted an online chat with Brian Turner and its readers.

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