An Interview with Poet Brian Turner
by H.K. Hummel, Blood Orange Review co-editor
In February 2009, I happened to attend two AWP panel discussions that included poet Brian Turner. He spoke with quiet openness, and he read his work with gravity and honesty. I was intrigued by what he had to say about poetry in wartime, and I was especially interested in what he just briefly touched on-our responsibility toward the war veterans coming home.
Turner’s first book, Here, Bullet (Alice James Books), won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award and the 2006 Northern California Book Award in Poetry. His accolades continued to grow with a 2006 Maine Literary Award in Poetry, a 2006 Sheila Margaret Motton Award, a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” Selection, a 2006 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Poetry, a 2006 Lannan Literary Fellowship, a 2007 NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, a 2007 Poet’s Prize, and a 2008 Charity Randall Citation. This year, Turner landed the prized Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship. His numerous awards show how many people are reading and being moved by his work.
Despite a full schedule and summer travel, Brian Turner was gracious enough to have an email conversation with me about his writing, his thoughts on poetry in a time of war, and his new book. Turner’s second book, Phantom Noise, will be available in 2010.
HKH: Here, Bullet asks a lot of questions. Is there one particular question that you
BT: I don’t think it’s a reducible process for the writer. A reader may be able to extract a heart-of-the-book question (or line of inquiry), but what I found in the process of compiling the poems into book form was a mirror, in many ways, of my own interior landscape. There is also a parallel landscape, though not exact, in what I witnessed. I’m not sure I’m being clear here …. The year I spent in Iraq has produced more and more questions, rather than creating a process in which the questions melded together to form one crucial, underpinning question.
HKH: Author Tim O’Brien says in “How to Tell a True War Story” that “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed.” Did you struggle with how to choose the right “angles of vision” as you composed your manuscript?
BT: I still struggle with it. While writing one of the poems—I won’t tell you which one (in keeping with O’Brien, in a way)—I tried to write the poem from my own perspective (from where I was, what I saw, experienced, etc.), but it didn’t work. My own experience, my own ego was in the way. I had to realize that I wasn’t important to the poem. My own experience wasn’t the poem. The poem needed its own life, beyond me. And so I tried it again, this time from a very different perspective, and I think the poem found its way closer to where it needed to be.
HKH: The book opens with “A Soldier’s Arabic” and the lines: “The word for love, habib, is written from right / to left, starting where we would end it / and ending where we might begin.” Do you see Here, Bullet as a love story?
BT: I see it, in some ways, as a recognition of how the world often seems to be flipped upside down. I realize the book comes out of war, but I think its deeper focus is on love and loss (with pain and suffering as the difficult passageways into our common humanity). That’s how I see it now, in retrospect. As I wrote the poems (while in Iraq), I was caught up more in the emotions of the moment (in relation to the things I witnessed around me). I wouldn’t have been able to articulate the process, nor the overall intent, as I am trying to do here.
HKH: The poem, “Warning,” by Taha Muhammad Ali, a Palestinian poet, evokes a similar response in me as your work does. The poem’s final lines, “my happiness bears / no relation to happiness,” echoes a gorgeous melancholy that is present in many of your poems. I’m wondering how your sense of beauty and happiness has changed?
BT: I suppose I became much more acutely aware of the transient nature of our lives, the fragility of them, the absurd when it lacks comedy. It made me pay even more attention to the moment. Of course, everyone dies. And we’re all, for the most part, aware of this fact. Still, when I was in Iraq (2003-2004) death became a much more living presence within every moment. I emphasize every. Words like “tragedy” simply don’t survey, or encompass, the gravity and depth of what’s being lost. Language is an incomplete vehicle for this kind of loss. But, for me, poetry is about as close as I can get to it. I’m not sure happiness was an overt thought for me at the time. Still, by studying the inverse, we often are simply looking at the shadow cast by our true subject. Beauty was definitely on my mind, though. I struggled to find something beautiful in the moment. I do remember that very clearly. I was well aware of the shadow cast by Beauty.
HKH: Here, Bullet isn’t simply a book about an individual American soldier. It includes the voices of Iraqi translators, Iraqi poets, and Islamic history. I know that you read a lot while you were stationed in Iraq. Did you have the chance to build relationships with some of the local Iraqis? And how did this reading and conversing help you conceptualize and shape your collection of poems as a whole?
BT: For the most part, I wasn’t able to form deep relationships with those I met while in Iraq as a soldier. In fact, I never had a conversation with an Iraqi (while in Iraq) in which I wasn’t wearing an American flag on my shoulder and carrying a weapon in my hand. In a sense, all of my conversations were filtered through the lens of a nation and guarded by an instrument of war. Since then, I have met Iraqis and I am trying to create friendships. I am also trying to, in some ways, collaborate with their work. For example, the cover art for my next book was painted by the amazing artist Ahmed Nussaif, who lives and works in Baghdad.
HKH: In other interviews you have described the significant amount of alterations that were done to the cover photo of Here, Bullet in order to make it less disturbing and more acceptable to the readers. Did you feel pressure to alter or soften other aspects of the book to make it acceptable to the audience?
BT: I probably haven’t been clear enough in presenting my reasons for those alterations. That is … Originally, there were three Iraqi prisoners, flex-cuffed and sitting on their crossed ankles, facing away from the camera and—here’s the most important point—hooded with sand bags (acting as blindfolds). I simply couldn’t use this image because Abu Ghraib happened while I was in Iraq. We need books written about torture. We need discussions about it. It’s a crucial dialogue I don’t think our country has properly delved into—we need to cast a searing eye toward our own national interior life, in terms of the use of torture. Still, my first book (Here, Bullet) really isn’t about torture. I thought it would push away people I most wanted to speak to with these poems. I didn’t want to simply preach to the choir of those who might sing with me. In contrast, my second book (Phantom Noise, which will be available in April of 2010 from Alice James Books) does delve into torture and its ongoing aftereffects.
April Ossmann (the previous Editor at Alice James Books) is an incredible editor—she was very, very supportive and she did her very best to help me put to the page what I most wanted to express. Carey Salerno is now the Editor at Alice James and I’ve found her editorial style to have the same deep care and respect for my intent. I feel incredibly lucky to be supported by them—they care both for the work itself and for the writer’s life.
HKH: Did you imagine a particular audience when you were writing these poems?
BT: The whole process is, for the most part, very mysterious to me and I don’t know if I can articulate how the poems came about. I think my best poems came as a surprise to me, especially the endings of the poems. We can echo the sentiments of Frost here.
HKH: Has your relationship to the reader changed?
BT: In writing this next book (Phantom Noise) I think I’ve learned that the editing process is where I need to concentrate on the reader.
HKH: How does your newest book follow or deviate from the poems in Here, Bullet?
BT: It breaks new ground for me. At first I was writing poems which explored the war here in America. I mostly found access to the war, visually, through the use of imagistic rhymes—fan blades in place of helicopter rotors, double-headed nails in place of firing pins, etc. (It’s a painterly technique stolen from Salvador Dali, among others.) Over time, and with encouragement from April Ossmann early on, I began writing poems that expanded the territory. Childhood poems appeared, oddly foreshadowing violence. Or, maybe it isn’t a foreshadowing. Some of these poems are beginning to study and recognize the inheritance of violence we have in our country, the pathology of it embedded within our cultural multitudes. I am also trying to find ways to come to terms with what is inside of me. I’m trying to become aware of the resetting of my own internal trigger mechanism, which was reset while in Iraq—like many, I’ve come home with a rage or anger that is just under the surface and instantly available to the moment. I’ve had to become aware of that (as well as how to try to reset the mechanism, which is tied physiologically to the psychological). These are some of the things this new work delves into.
HKH: At a panel you participated in at the 2009 AWP conference, I was moved by what you had to say about our responsibility towards returning veterans. Can you tell me more about what you see our citizens' responsibility is to our veterans?
BT: For the health of our large and complicated tribe, America, we must not bury the living among us. Ignoring the walking wounded who return from war, marked and altered by what we cannot see (as well as those whose physical wounds are evident)—this is not the answer. Ignoring them only helps the next generation gain an inheritance they would be healthier without. How do I say this? We, as a nation, are like a small pond. If the water is troubled for one, it is troubled for all—whether we are aware of it, or not. And if we are not aware of this dynamic, what does that say about us as well, as a nation, as a people? How great are a people who can wage a war and care little, if any, for those they wage it against? How great are a people who can wage a war and care little, if any, for those who wage it for us?
HKH: In 2007, Maxine Hong Kingston released Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, a book that resulted from fifteen years of writing workshops, which she lead to help veterans write their stories. Are there any other projects out there, or are there any projects that you wish were out there, to help veterans share their stories?
BT: I would like to see more documentary/news style coverage of women veterans and their experiences. I think this is a crucial discussion which needs more attention in our national dialogue. I would also like to see, at some point, a dialogue/discussion which involves children—we need to educate our young to the realities of war, suffering, conflict. We need to talk to them more about reconciliation and conflict resolution. We need to begin talking about how to live a life of peace, and how a nation might operate on similar principles.
On a related note, not only do we need to consider “retooling” America to adjust to a fluid and dynamic economic world, but we also need to talk about retooling our military industrial complex. We are, to a large degree, a nation that runs on war (and the preparation for war). For our own sake, for the sake of those in the larger community of nations, and for the lives of future generations, we need to find a new business model.
HKH: Can you share some ways that we might use poetry or other forms of writing to facilitate helpful dialogue, and dare I say it, healing?
BT: I wish I had an answer that would work in many situations. I don’t. Still, if we care for someone—care enough to get to know them, learn who they are, what it is that makes them unique and rare and amazing (though they may be scarred and wounded and defensive because of it)—that may be enough to offer inroads toward a greater understanding. Let me try to be more plain. I’d advise people to simply get to know one another. Don’t be afraid to be someone’s friend. Each veteran is different. Some will need to build a boat. Maybe they don’t talk all that much. Others might want to write poetry. The avenues in are many—the effort toward the conversation is what is important.
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