As an American poet who has experienced the front line of this country’s foreign policy, his writing provides a rarely seen, but nonetheless important, perspective on how the world sees us and how we see the world.
Brian Turner’s debut collection of poems, Here, Bullet, won the 2007 Poets’ Prize and several other awards. A former soldier in the U.S. Army, Turner earned his MFA from the University of Oregon, and this fall he is the Writer in Residence for Old Dominion University’s MFA in creative writing program. As an American poet who has experienced the front line of this country’s foreign policy, his writing provides a rarely seen, but nonetheless important perspective on how the world sees us and how we see the world.
AltDaily: You have been described as a soldier-poet. How do you feel about this distinction? You got your MFA before you joined the military. Does that make you a poet-soldier?
Brian Turner: If I think in these terms at all, I suppose I’d say I’m a poet who has also at one point been a soldier. I don’t mind people sort of stereotyping me this way—simply because it means someone has taken the time to read my work. That, in itself, is a great honor. I’ve been a writer for most of my life. During most of that time I’ve had to work a variety of jobs to survive and pay the bills. One of the threads connecting the years together has been that of my writing life.
How much has your experience overseas reshaped your view of the world? How much has it shaped your writing?
It’s an intriguing thing—looking back at America from the vantage point of a different nation. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Kampala, Uganda, a couple of years ago and watching the evening news, which included news highlights from around the world. I began to better appreciate America’s role within a larger community of nations. Travel creates the opportunity to learn in both an interior and exterior way. I’ve been overseas as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia-Herzegovina and as a soldier in Iraq. I’ve been to several other countries as a traveler, an explorer, as a poet, and as a teacher. I think my experiences in Iraq made me a bit more sober—my writing seems much more focused now than it did before, as if I recognize more clearly the tenuous nature of our lives. If I have time to write today, what will I put on the page?
In Here, Bullet you use quotes from the Qu’ran. Was Islam something you familiarized yourself with before you were deployed, or did it become important or significant after your tour?
I have not yet read the Qu’ran in Arabic. Some might instruct me to do so—and they might also say that I have yet to read it because I haven’t read it in Arabic. I did read an English translation while in college—not as part of a course, but on my own. Prior to deploying to Iraq I read it again (as a kind of preparation for the land I was about to enter). I wanted to better understand the people I would meet and the deep history I was about to experience.
Do you feel there is a lack of understanding upon the part of most of the American public about Middle Eastern culture? Does your writing aim to provide readers insight into something they might not otherwise understand?
I wrote Here, Bullet poem by poem in my notebooks while I was in-country, interspersed with journal entries. I was trying to learn about where I was—and the poems, I think, often show a writer struggling to understand a culture and a history that is new to him. In general, though, I’d say Americans have much to learn about Middle Eastern culture, myself included. So many have died. So many lives have been changed by tragedy and trauma. What does it say about us, as a people, if we can go about our lives here in America while knowing little to nothing about Iraq or Afghanistan?
Will your next collection focus on similar subject matter as Here, Bullet? If not, in what direction is it going?
My next book (Phantom Noise, April 2010) is written as a kind of bookend to Here, Bullet. That is, my first book was written in Iraq while serving there as an infantry soldier. The second book is filled with poems which study the war at home, in America. It is a book of ghosts. It also travels back into my childhood to study the inheritance of war passed down through the generations.
Regardless of your reasons for joining the military, would you recommend it to other writers who are coming out of graduate school?
Each person has to choose what they will do with the few days they are given in this world. I have a hard enough time trying to figure out how to live my own life, you know? However, I will say this… Like many before me, I recommend that writers read voraciously. That said, I also recommend that they get out in the world and live.
Brian Turner will be reading at 4pm at the University Village Bookstore at ODU. For the complete Lit Fest schedule click here.