Visiting Writers Series

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.


When I was a sophomore taking Intermediate Creative Writing with Professor Nezhukumatathil and Literary Publishing with Dustin Parsons I was given the opportunity to conduct an interview via e-mail with fiction writer Karen Russell, author of the collection of stories St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Below is the interview in its entirety.

Alex Duringer: What is your advice to writers considering an MFA program?  Do you think they should take time off after their undergraduate work or should they continue straight through? How did you choose your own MFA program?

Karen Russell: I definitely think it can be a good idea to take time off—the MFA is a big time and often financial commitment. I did attend my MFA straight out of undergrad, because I was on a story-writing tear and I had this probably silly sense of urgency about the whole thing—I really wanted more time to write, when I was 21 it felt like life or death. Now I wonder if it wouldn’t have benefitted me to take some time off from school. All of the jobs I was applying for as a senior had titles like “math workbook coordinator,” so when I got into Columbia University I was thrilled.  I chose Columbia because Ben Marcus was teaching there and because I was excited to live in New York, and while I had a great experience there, I left school with heavy student loan debt.  So one thing to consider are your goals for attending an MFA program—if you want time and support to write, it’s a great gig, but if you’re expecting to come out with a lucrative degree you might want to rethink your decision to attend an MFA. I heard a friend say that an MFA is like a deed to an invisible castle in the sky.
AD: Did you always know that you wanted to be a fiction writer or did you have a difficult time choosing what to focus in?

KR:I always feel lame telling people that yes, I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer—it seems so pretentious. It makes it sound like I had a quill behind my ear when I was nine or something. The reality is that I was an anxious kid and books were my world. I grew up reading, and my desire to write my own story grew at-pace with my love of books. I think I might have mentioned this at the Fredonia reading, but I was helped in this matter by absolutely sucking at many of my other pursuits—piano, science, even running, which is hard to do wrong. So it was writer by default in some ways! I did sort of think I’d write a column like Dave Barry, who was my idol in grade six. His book, “Dave Barry Turns 40,” really spoke to me at that time.

AD: If you were locked in a tomb with a flash-light, a pack of Big Red chewing gum, and three books of your choice, what would the three books be?

KR: This is a scary question, Alex! I am going to chew through that gum so fast, and then what? I hope you at least give me a flashlight in there, to read the books. I think I would bring…am I supposed to say the Bible, in case there is evil in that tomb? I’d bring Caron McCuller’s “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” because that’s a book my mom and I both love; George Saunder’s “Pastoralia,” for laughter-in-the-dark purposes; and “Believers” by Charles Baxter because I’m reading it right now and I’d want to finish it!

AD: I know that you’re currently working on a novel (good luck!). How different is it from working on a short story?  Do you ever get bored or frustrated with the content?

KR: Oh, you said it! I love my characters but I do get bored and frustrated sometimes, because we’ve been together for years at this point—it’s like a marriage. So sometimes I miss the freedom of stories, and the way you can order scenes to produce a really particular emotional effect, almost like a poem. I miss the risks and pleasures of stories (if we’re using the wedding analogy, maybe a story is more like a torrid summer romance or a one-night stand). But that said, it’s been really amazing to get to stay with the same characters over time in this  novel and watch them develop. I think readers invest in the world of the novel differently, and often have a deeper relationship with a novel’s protagonist—the trick is to keep that voice strong and compelling all the way through, I think.
AD: Many of your stories are both morbid and humorous, often at the same time.  How do you effectively balance and blend them together?

KR: I think my imagination has a dark streak, but I’m also goofy to the point of annoying all of my friends and family, so I guess it all ends up in there. I don’t know how conscious I am of working that balance, but I did learn a lot from reading George Saunders and Italo Calvino, Flannery O’Connor and Denis Johnson. Those writers showed me that you can be comic and consequential, gothic and hilarious, whimsical and philosophical, lyrical and literal/scatological. I think that the funniest things often arise out of an honest acknowledgment of tragedy, and I love when writers anchor their most beautiful metaphorical passages with literal, concrete details. So I think that you can temper a morbid impulse with humor, and deepen a joke with a pinch of darkness.

AD: Setting is obviously important to the majority of your stories and is often very surreal in nature.  What kind of planning goes into your settings and is it one of the first things you craft in the initial planning?

KR: In this collection, I almost always started with setting before character. I would get an idea, like the sleep-away camp or the Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and start to embroider it. I also drew pretty heavily on my memories of summer on the beach and in the mangrove woods as a kid.  I didn’t plan so much as just let myself draft and invent—I got a kick out of inventing the details for places like the City of Shells.
AD: “Out to Sea” is very different both content and perspective from the rest of your works (though it is, in a way, a coming of age story and the protagonist happens to be the grandfather of a character from another of your stories).  Where did this story come from and was it always going to be included in this collection?  (Small tidbit—it’s also my favorite.)

KR: Ah, I’m so glad you enjoyed that one! Yes, it was always going to be included—I wrote it alongside the other stories, and I imagined it occurring in the same sort of semi-mythic island world. But that is maybe one of two successful “adult” stories I’ve been able to write. Sawtooth is in some ways, as you note, very similar to an adolescent—senescence and puberty overlap in a strange way, I think. Like the younger protagonists, Sawtooth is at a threshold. With this story, I imagined the place first—the Out to Sea Retirement Community. I had been working with elderly residents at the Stay Well Center in Manhattan, and that experience gave rise to the story.

AD: In “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” Ava is confronted with a “Bird Man” who more than likely sexually abuses her.  It is never revealed whether or not he is a real, physical being or some kind of spirit/phantom. I’ve noticed through reading your other stories that, very often, much of the concrete information is left up to the imagination of the reader.  Why do you do this?

KR: Well, in this one instance I do think there was a real man who abused Ava. But I like to leave some things ambiguous, particularly when doing a child’s eye narration, in part because it underscores the child’s innocence—the disparity between what the child believes is happening and what the adult reader knows or suspects to be true. And I also try to write stories that blur the line between fantasy and reality, because I myself love stories that produce that uncanny effect (I’m thinking about the twilight sensation I always get from Ray Bradbury’s fiction).  Kids, I think, can still view the world through this double optic, and what they see about the adults around them is often very revealing.

AD: Because you write so much surrealism/magic realism, do you ever come across a story that is just too implausible to work?  If so, what are some of these ideas?

KR: Yes! Oh my God, ask my sister, she is always vetoing my bad ideas. I wanted to write, I’m not even kidding, a sort of Moby Dick story set in space once. I’ve repressed the specifics of that one. Like, the space ship would be going after some big white object or something. I think there was one about a locomotive that was also a giant snake? The worst was probably “Half-Blind Clyde and the Oculus;” the less said about that, the better. I seriously just wanted to use the word “oculus” in a story, I think.