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Warrior poet: An interview with Brian Turner
Story by Jarret Keene
Photography courtesy of Brian Turner
Army vet Brian Turner translates the experience of war and its aftermath into powerful verse
Finally, America has its own Homer, a bard obsessed with delineating the grief and horror of armed conflict. His name is Brian Turner, and he's a professor at Sierra Nevada College and a winner of many prestigious literary awards and fellowships. Though his work doesn't sustain the epic narrative of a hero's rage and jealousy à la Achilles, Turner's two books, his 2005 debut Here, Bullet and this year's Phantom Noise, possess just as much scope and as many characters.
Turner earned an MFA in creative writing from University of Oregon before serving seven years in the U.S. Army. Turner was an infantry team leader in Iraq for a year and later articulated his experiences in his first poetry collection, which was praised for its savage and beautiful music, and for its necessity, by The New York Times.
The 43-year-old poet spoke to me recently from his home in Lake Tahoe to share his thoughts on being "truthful" in a poem, his novel-in-progress, playing bass in a rock band, and more.
Desert Companion: Haven't read much Randal Jarrell, but Here, Bullet made me think of a richer, broader version of Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," which I encountered in an American lit class in college. Know it? Brian Turner: A great, unforgettable poem. I'd come across it during my college years, too, but not in class. It's one that haunts the reader, I believe.
DC: After earning your MFA, did you set out to be a war poet?
BT: Not a chance. I was writing poems about drug use and poverty. After college, I moved to South Korea and wrote a book of poetry about that. As I learn more about myself, I realize that the best poems that I can write are the ones that choose me, rather than the other way around.
DC: Why'd you enlist?
BT: A ton of reasons. Some big. Some small. I often joke with people that we'll need to sit down and drink through a bottle of vodka to get to the root of this question.
DC: Are you tired of the question, "Did everything in these books really happen"?
BT: Not at all. Of course, it's not something I really answer either, and this might be frustrating for some. Still, I believe that a poem finishes in the reader. My hope is that a given poem "rings true" to the reader's gut and that the world of the poem is a place a reader might want to revisit, or, in other words, read again. What's true and what's not true is slippery ground. Consider car wrecks or divorces, for example. Those involved each share a portion of what might be called "true," though even that might be argued. In both cases, accounts of the events that took place can be wildly different. What, then, really happened?
DC: Your poem "The Hurt Locker" has a great final line: "Open the hurt locker and learn/how rough men come hunting for souls." I prefer the compression of your poem over the [unrelated] two-hour film. Did you enjoy the movie?
BT: I'd first heard the phrase - which means, broadly, a private place of pain -when my squad leader expressed frustration with so many attacks from mortars, roadside bombs, and snipers. "Sometimes I just want to put them in the hurt locker," he said. The phrase stuck with me for a while before I wrote the poem. So I was interested in the film. The final image of The Hurt Locker [film] expresses a theme I've tried to address before. In the film, the main character can't completely return to the U.S., to a "normal" life. He's still in Iraq, no matter where he is physically.
DC: "2000 lbs." weaves a tapestry of different but equally destroyed lives, their final thoughts in the moments after a suicide attack in Mosul-a dying sergeant in a bombed Humvee, a shrapnel-carved taxi driver, an old woman cradles her dead grandson. This affecting poem works like a novel. Are you writing one now?
BT: I am, in fact. It's very different from this poem, but you're right to note the tendency in me to want to work in a much larger form. I'm in the very rough, very early, stages of the book now - discovering the people that live within it, how they get along with one another or don't, and so on. It's an intriguing form, one with a wide vision. Writers can stretch out their legs within the novel, wander around some.
DC: In the poem "Cole's Guitar," you use the term "palm-mute," which not many non-musicians know. Are you in a rock band?
BT: I've played in a band back home in Fresno, Calif., off and on for all of my adult life. I'm a bass player. We're in a year-long process of mixing an album right now, in fact. I recorded the bass tracks back in May and June of 2009. I've been incredibly lucky to be a part of the band. Brian Voight [guitarist and primary songwriter] has been a lifelong friend since early childhood. Russ Conrad is our singer and percussionist, and he and I have been friends since high school days. A newer friend, Darren, rounds out the group on drums while occasionally jumping in to sing and play guitar. We have a hell of a good time making music. It's one of the things that keeps each of us sane, I think.
DC: Phantom Noise is an even darker book than Here, Bullet. Especially the poem, "At Lowe's Home Improvement Center," where a box of nails hitting the ground sounds like firing pins to the speaker, who's clearly suffering post-traumatic stress. "Lowe's" is the best poem about PTSD I've read. It's also brutally violent, much like heavy metal music. Does your band perform any punk or metal material?
BT: Some, yes. We started out with more punk influences, but that quickly shifted to rock and blues. We've branched out more into more experimental territory as the years have gone by. I have a wide taste in music. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Andrew Bird, Cake, Beck, Jolie Holland, Chris Knight, [Charles] Mingus, [John] Coltrane - these are some of the musicians and bands I've been playing the last couple of days.
DC: "Sleeping in Dick Cheney's Bed," in which the speaker, back from a tour, finds himself comfortably ensconced on a mattress once reserved for Dick Cheney at a cadet school in Colorado. Is it a stretch to say your poem suggests we're all sleeping in Cheney's far-away-from-the-wars bed in some ways?
BT: Not a stretch at all - that's one of many things I'm hoping a reader might take away from that poem. Exactly.
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