Brian Turner is the author of the collection of poems, Here, Bullet. He served in the Iraq war and gained a majority of his material from his experiences as a soldier.
This is an interview I conducted with fellow students Ann Trietley and Ryan Crowley, both of whom have since graduated. Unfortunately I am unsure of who asked which questions. The interview can be found below.
Student: When did you know that you wanted to be a poet?
Brian Turner: I didn’t know for sure, I just started being one. When I was in high school, I was in a band back home in Fresno. I was trying to write lyrics, and to this day I still don’t write lyrics, it’s a different thing. But it’s very similar to poetry, so I started studying some poetry, thinking that It would influence my lyric writing. The poetry writing developed into my 20’s, and the lyric thing I just left off.
S: Can you explain why you joined the military?
BT: I can’t really explain it, but I can say the factors involved in the decision. For me it was my background – most of the living members of my family have served in the military, both the male side of the house and the female side. When I was 19, I almost joined the military twice. I took the test and I got a 99% each time. For the course of my life I knew I wasn’t good at mechanical things, and I remember thinking “I think there’s some bullshit here.” I didn’t quite trust the 99 percentile. I said, I’m going to go to college first and if I still want to do the military, I’ll do it afterwards. When I was 30 I came back from overseas and I didn’t have a pillow, dental insurance, anything. The military seemed like a quick option.
S: Do you regret joining the military?
BT: I could have made wiser choices. On a similar trajectory, I think this nation could have made wiser choices. I thought the nation had been stung hard enough in Vietnam to do something like Iraq. I think Iraq was a huge mistake.
S: In all your poems, you focus really deeply on the present moment.
BT: Back home, I wasn’t really connected with America at that time. There was a seal around the borders of Iraq, and the present tense was all I could focus on. I never had the experience anywhere else in my life, where the past and the future don’t mingle. For instance I’ll be thinking about if I said something stupid to my girlfriend before, meanwhile I’ll be doing an interview, and I know when I get back there’s some bills that are waiting. Here these things are present in the moment, but it wasn’t like that in Iraq. I didn’t feel connected to those things.
I can give a good example. After the first section, after Miller commits suicide, there’s a break and a quote. I had 2 quotes originally. The first quote was President Bush and he said, “This crusade, the war on terror, is going to last a while.” My editor was very savvy and she taught me something important. If I leave that in there I’m preaching to the choir. If I take it out, I let the moment be what they are. People that disagree with me politically might be invited into the work and be moved by the things that are happening. I wasn’t thinking of global politics, I was just moved by some of the men and wanted to put it down on paper.
S: What have your fellow students said about the book?
BT: A few of the ones I’ve served closely with have asked for copies. Bosch, a rifleman in my squad, was interviewed by Dana Goodyear for The New Yorker. She asked him how he felt about a poem that was about one of his dreams. He said, “Well it’s kind of weird.” He joined the military so he could save money to go to film school. I knew in using that poem about him that he has an appreciation to art that’s similar to my own.
S: Iraq becomes a character in many of your poems, and it seems like the history of the land merges with the present.
BT: One primary part – and I would have wanted to have more of this in the book, it’s a very slim book – is the landscape, and what’s there in the land. There’s layers of civilization. It’s like the Bush quote I mentioned before – “this war, this crusade, is going to last a while.” I think it’s foolish to say something like that. It’s a concept that we can say in America, this “crusade.” That’s a word you read in history books in school. It’s difficult to walk around somewhere and see something from the crusade in daily life. When he said that I remember being on the banks of the Tigris River in the pre-dawn darkness. I remember it being too dark to see the river but you could sense it. It was too dark to see the river, a few lights here and there, but it moves quickly. I could see the skyline across lit by the ambient lights of the city. There was an explosion, something was under attack. It was only 3 football fields away, but I had gotten so used to it that I didn’t think it was my job. I remember thinking there was one odd shape, and it was the castle ruins of Saal Hadim. He’s famous there for his heroic pushing-out of the crusaders back to Europe. If you’re a little kid going to school in Iraq, they could reach out and put their hands on the building. There’s a living connection to the land, and history is alive there. Sometimes it isn’t quite as felt here.
S: Do you have any advice for young writers?
BT: One is I would advise them to not put so much weight on publishing. Once it’s published it’s published and you don’t want to say, “Oh I can do much more than that.” I’ve worked hard to get published, but at the same time that’s not what it’s about necessarily. There’s a parallel, when you sit down to write a story or a poem and there’s a moment like when 2 lovers profess their love to one another. There’s a moment that’s private, and then there’s some kind of public thing like, We’re a couple now. When your work is published, it’s public and it’s accepted. If you have the first one, that’s what it was all about, and cool if you have the second one.
Also, we should learn as much as we can from those who came before us, so read. Read, read, read. And go out and live. I’m not saying go out and join the military and get a gun. There’s many other ways to get out in the world.
S:Do you think writers should take time off after undergrad or jump right into MFA?
BT: I don’t think you even have to go to school to be a writer. One of the most educated people I know is the guitar player in my band . I’ve known him since we were 7 and he’s as educated as most people I’ve met, but he’s a self-taught person. He doesn’t have any degrees to itback up, but he has the degree. Each person has their path. If I was Buddhist I’d say you have to pay attention to what it is you want to do with your life. You may be on a path that’s fairly conventional, like mine – BA, MFA – but you have to listen it is that you and your work need. Not what the prevailing wind says that I need.
Although my dad, even if he agreed, would always try to have a counter argument. Oftentimes he would go to the pub after a performance, and he’d be drinking and talking with his colleagues, and he would say, “why go against the wind? See where the prevailing wind is and catch it and go to amazing places
That way I didn’t answer your question at all.
S: Any advice for young soldiers?
BT: I would tell them that if they ever want to pick up a weapon, before they do that go outside of America, leave and go live in another country for a year. Don’t live in a big industrialized country; it’ll be an amazing experience. If you come back and still want to serve in the military, ok.
If you look at history, big countries like America, France, Russia, Germany, will beat up on smaller countries. They crush people they never really get to know. The people there are just like us, there should be an equality. A country that can bury so many people and know nothing about them – what does that say about us?
S: What’s been inspiring you lately?
BT: I’m working on revising my 2nd book, which is really my 9th book, because there were 7 books before this one but they weren’t published. It will come out next spring. I was reading some poetry at the laundremat downtown, a book called Midlands. The last poem in there gave me some ideas. There was a bridge in Iraq where tens of thousands of people were observing a religious event, the bridge was packed. Someone said there was a bomber in their midst, panic ensued, people were crushed under the crowd. People poured off the bridge into the river. 1,000 people died that day. I’m writing a poem about those people; it barely made the newspaper.