Interview

Brian Turner

This interview was conducted during Brian Turner's visit to England and Ireland in the Spring of 2008 and serves as a compliment to Imogen Robertson's critical review of Here, Bullet (Turner's debut collection, published by Bloodaxe and reviewed in issue 17 of The Wolf). The interview questions are by Imogen Robertson and Wolf Editor, James Byrne.

JAMES BYRNE: Driving through your hometown of Fresno in December, I wondered what it must have been like for you growing up there as a poet? My presumption on passing through was that there appeared to be a strong religious backbone to the community and an overt sense of patriotism. How has Here, Bulle t been received by your local community in California and how does this reception compare with America's general perception of the book?

BRIAN TURNER: I wish I'd known you were coming through—I'd have welcomed you to my home and shared dinner with you! My home town of Fresno is nearing the 1 million mark (when the outlying population is added in). It exists—as a city—because it is a major distribution hub for farm products. There is a very strong religious backbone to the community, but I suppose I have to amend that phrase a bit. That is, we have Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, Armenian, Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, and…The list goes on and on—it's very much a melting-pot city. It's also a very hardworking, minimum wage city.

I've been invited to read at my hometown alma mater (California State University at Fresno) and I've also generously been given a few poetry courses to teach over the past couple of years. The local paper has recognized the book a couple of times with very kind articles, as well. However, by the time I complete my current reading engagements with the Bloodaxe edition of Here, Bullet in the U.K. and Ireland, I'll have read more on this side of the Atlantic than I have in my home state.

In America, I've been invited to readings supported by peace and activist groups. I've also been invited to read at West Point, Annapolis, and the Coast Guard Academy. It seems that interest in this book has come from all across the political spectrum.

IMOGEN ROBERTSON: In the review published in The Wolf 17, I talked about Here, Bullet as being part of the tradition of 'poetry of witness' as discussed by Carolyn Forché in her anthology Against Forgetting . Do you see your writing as part of that tradition, and how do you see the role of poetry as a way of understanding and communicating the experience of war?

Absolutely. I'd studied the ‘poetry of witness' as a concept while in college (at the University of Oregon). Once on the ground in Iraq, I was thinking about those concepts. In fact, during the very earliest portion of my deployment there, I wasn't writing poetry. I began by writing in college-ruled notebooks: I was writing diary entries, drawing diagrams of ambushes and patrol tactics, remembering the day just lived. And that's really where the poetry began to emerge from—I began to write poetry out of my journals, which were written as a way to remember, as a deliberate act of memory, to not forget what had happened.

To be honest, I found much of my year there to be incredibly boring. Mind-numbing, teeth-melting boredom. Still, the boredom would suddenly erupt with an adrenaline-intense moment that only later would I try to capture with the pen. I think poetry, and the lyric with its intense meditation on the moment, was the perfect vehicle for trying to get at what I experienced taking place around me.

Though you don't explicitly comply with traditional verse forms, your work appears intentionally accessible to the common reader. How did you arrive at that style for this book? Is it specific to this collection, and who were your key influences?

Even when I was in graduate school, I was very aware that I wanted to write poetry which was accessible, poetry that might draw in those who might not normally gravitate toward the art. I used to read the workshop poems to people in Eugene, Oregon, while waiting at a bus stop, for example. (I wouldn't tell them which was mine, either.) I believe in art which opens a world to people and invites them within it. I also believe that the art must then have many layers, so that it can be a wellspring for learning. The tricky part is this: we must discover places of mystery within our poems, places which offer the possibility for learning. If we don't, then once we put down the pen and turn the page, well, there may be no real reason for the writer to return to that poem. Likewise, if a reader turns the page and doesn't feel a need to dive back into the poem, then how rich and rewarding was the experience to begin with?

Many of the poems in this collection are aware of traditional verse forms, but have mutated them and layered them deeper into the poem. Philip Levine, T.R. Hummer, Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigl, Tim O'brien, Whitman, Owen—these are among my favorite influences/mentors. For example, when I read the signature poem to my own book “Here, Bullet”—I can hear echoes of my old teacher, Phil Levine, and his breath-taking poem, “They Feed They Lion.” (I hear the echoes in the rhythmic pulse of his poem, along with the concepts of lyric repetition and lyric substitution—concepts I'd studied as ideas during my university days but leaned on more instinctually when I found myself in a very difficult period of my life.)

JB: In England many leading non-European poets are largely ignored by the curriculum – from school syllabi to universities. Larkin is a prime morsel in the staple diet of any reading of major international poets. As a MFA Creative Writing graduate before serving in Iraq, what understanding (if any) did you have of many leading poets from the Middle East, and how have your reading habits changed since serving in the military?

My reading habits, up until I served in Iraq as a soldier, had been basically very insular. My fiction reading habits were much more international. As I prepared to go to Iraq, however, I found myself re-reading an English translation of the Qu'ran, searching the internet for Iraqi poetry and poetry springing up from the wells within the Arabic-speaking world. I tried to study some of the history of the region. I came across a wonderful anthology: Iraqi Poetry Today (from King's College, London), among others, and I found those words ringing in my ears often as I walked the streets of Mosul, and along the banks of the Tigris river.

I think this process has since made me a reader who looks outward much more. As a people, Americans have so very much to learn about the world. Our ignorance is great. And I recognize that I fall into this same category; I also have much, much to learn.

IR: As elaborated on in the review, the 'I' makes relatively few appearances in the poems in Here, Bullet . Was it a conscious decision to remove yourself from the action in this way? Did you aim for objectivity, or were you reflecting a disconnection between the American and Iraqi cultures you observed?

This was a very simple and natural process—my own life, honestly, wasn't very interesting and it didn't carry much importance in the grander scheme of things. However, I was acutely aware that the events taking place around me were in need of memory. That is, I knew that they needed to be remembered, that they needed a witness. As I say in one poem: The history books will get it wrong.

I was very aware that the news reports from back home (CNN, BBC, and so on)—they lacked the emotional content, the depth of specific, personal history. The numbers are tallied and the newscasters and newspapers report the numbers along with their exotic-sounding place names. After awhile, the people become numbed by them. I don't want to be numbed by them. No matter how difficult, we must learn the humanity represented by the numbers given. How much easier is it to continue on with our lives and do nothing if we have no real and felt connection with these people we bury in the earth in some distant land we may never set foot in?

JB: Recently, driving into West LA, I passed a tall hospital for War Veterans. Under the freeway was a makeshift ‘village' for homeless vets, who, presumably, slept there in full view of the hospital. How do you think the US Military veterans will be represented in society following the occupation of Iraq?

I hope they will be cared for with compassion and understanding. I feel I have a responsibility to do what I can to help them and to raise awareness to their internal struggles to those who come to me as a poet. That is, I'm hoping the poetry will help to raise an awareness that so many will need psychological help in America. And if we need the help in America, imagine how much help is needed, and desperately, in Iraq.

During your time in the military, how did your fellow soldiers respond to your practice as a poet? Have you received any comments from those you served with since the publication of your book?

I didn't share my writing (or the fact that I was writing at all) to other soldiers while deployed in Iraq. I thought it might undermine the confidence which other soldiers might have in me—a poet can often be stereotyped as too sensitive a soul for kicking in doors and walking on patrol as a combat infantryman. I knew that most soldiers in my platoon, however, would be surprised if they actually took the time to read my work. I knew that they would find it much different from the poetry they may have encountered previously in their lives.

Many of the comments I receive from those in uniform have been encouraging and complimentary. It's an honor—I know that many of them, as with so many Iraqi people (who number in the many millions), have experiences to tell which we could learn a great deal from. One day, perhaps, their voices will be heard, too.

IR: You end 'A Soldier's Arabic' with the lines 'This is a language made of blood./ It is made of sand, and time./ To be spoken, it must be earned.' How do you feel about those poets who have written about Iraq relying purely on the consistent filtering of news reports and propaganda? Do such poets have the right to narrate from a distance? How can poets who do not directly experience the horrors of war approach such a key theme, one that is so central to the times we are living through?

I realize that this beginning poem can read to many as a call to authority, the authority of experience, and that it may sound a bit like an acknowledgement that the confessional age (and its expectations) have not been transcended in our own literary time. I urge artists to write about the war. One does not need to stand in the streets of Mosul to engage the streets of Mosul in art. And if the artists (who have not been there) do not speak out and create art in reaction to the events of the day, then we leave a vacuum to be filled by politicians and journalists.

I think the key to writing about this experience is to write from where one lives. I'm now writing poems that take place within department stores and farmer's markets. I'm wondering where the war is among us, in America, and when I look hard enough, I find it, even if it doesn't appear to be noticed by others walking right there among the wreckage and the ruins.

In what ways do you expect your poetry to change thematically in a second collection?

I'm currently hip-deep into my second collection Talk the Guns . Because my country is at war, I don't think I can turn my gaze, or my scrutiny, away. I do hope to write about work, labor and class issues, and labor history, in a subsequent book. (In fact, I've already written this book once before; I plan to scrap that version altogether and to start it all over again.) I do this as a means to learn and to understand my own history, and the history of those I care so much about.

Questions by James Byrne, Editor of The Wolf, and Imogen Robertson, reviewer of Here, Bullet in The Wolf 17.


 

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