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Interview with Brian Turner

Friday, March 20th, 2009

When Brian Turner and I spoke a little while ago, he was preparing for a series of poetry workshops as well as revising his upcoming collection, Talk the Guns (to be released by Alice James Books toward the end of the year), the title of which comes from a fire command team leaders give to their fire teams, often during combat. “An evocative phrase”, as Turner put it.

The poems in his first collection (Here, Bullet, © 2005, Alice James Books) reflect in lucid detail his own experiences as an infantryman in Iraq. In addition to discussing how his military experience continues to influence his work, we also touched upon other places from where he draws his language, his early influences, and his role in the ongoing conversation around the war itself.

DJ: Are you consciously aware of how the military language comes into your work? Can you remember back before the military to what your language was like, and how it’s shifted?

BT: With these two books, I can see the effect and influence, and how the language drives the line. It affects the psychology, too, in the type of language I’m using. I’m sure there are subtler effects I’m not yet aware of. It might take some time to figure out the deeper psychological influence.

On the surface, and in the lines themselves, I can see the lingo and jargon that’s used “on the job.” I’d have to go back to some of my old stuff and see what’s there, because my family has generationally been in the military, so the language was always sort of there, just not as much when I was younger.

DJ: I’ve heard other writers use the expression “drive the line” before. As if the words are there, though not exactly a conscious thing. The poem’s already moving, you’ve already accessed what you need to say, and the language wells up because it’s in your makeup.

BT: Imagine a phrase comes to mind. I sit around with it for a week or two. I write it down quite a bit. I try to start a poem, but it doesn’t work. I try again, and it still doesn’t work. I stew on it. Whatever the phrase might be – maybe military jargon, or something I used when I was in uniform – it has a certain music.

I play trumpet and bass as well, and it’s similar to when you’re writing a song. You start off in a certain key, which leads to certain notes. I might not be aware of them ahead of time, or I might not be prepared for them. Maybe I was just noodling around, and suddenly it feels like it’s being birthed on its own, like there’s a connection that leads to certain pathways. If that makes any sense at all (laughter).

I think the words drive and create certain possibilities that come forward from them and feel natural in the process of doing so. If it feels unnatural, then there must be a reason for feeling that way, or I just need to scrap it and try over.

DJ: It’s not like you’re trying to force something where it doesn’t belong.

BT: Yeah. It’s like when you hear false notes, you know it’s not right. You keep working at it.

DJ: So the music of the poem, especially playing bass and trumpet, must be very important to you.

BT: Language is musical. The way we speak, the phrases we use…music is inherent in the language itself. Playing an instrument, it has an influence, but I don’t think it matters so much. I like the rhythms of language. That’s why I gravitated to poetry more than prose. I’m still learning how to write a sentence. Maybe once I figure that out I’ll dabble at something longer (laughter).

DJ: I know you were in Bosnia as well as Iraq. Being around these other languages, was there a sense of allure to their musicality?

BT: It starts back here in the Central Valley, California. My father was a Russian linguist in the Army. His main hobby, even to this day – he’s trying to learn Thai, Cambodian – is to learn parts of new languages while brushing up on stuff he’s previously studied. I was sort of raised in that environment.

I’m not multi-lingual in any way. I know a few phrases here and there. When I was in Bosnia, it was frustrating because I didn’t have much contact with Bosnians. I wasn’t out patrolling the streets and meeting people. In Iraq, I was out meeting and talking to people. It was more intriguing in that sense.

DJ: Were there other writers in your family?

BT: Several. My aunt – she’s not published, but all my life I looked to her as the wordsmith of our family. She seems to have more knowledge than the dictionary has in her head. A very amazing woman. My dad as well. He’s not a writer, per say, but his affinity for and interest in language affected me. Also my uncle was an English teacher who lives about an hour away. He would drop off books that were above my grade and reading level. So it was inspiring, encouraging and challenging. And I’d send him stories or poems and he’d comment back, try to encourage and urge. It was very helpful.

DJ: You have these split influences, which is quite interesting. I’m curious, outside of war writers and things like that, who were your earlier influences?

BT: Some of them are still my influences. I mentioned this elsewhere, and it’s a question I should have considered more carefully earlier. These people, my uncle, my aunt, they’re big influences, but I’d say one of my biggest influences is a guy who doesn’t even write any longer. The guitarist in my band, a guy named Brian Voigt. I’ve known him since I was seven. He’s brilliant. He’s helped shape a lot of my thoughts about art by the arguments we’ve had over art through the years.

In a similar way, a poet named Stacey Brown, who I was in graduate school with, is my best reader. She seems to know my work better than I do, and knows how to challenge me. A lot of people in the MFA program for that matter. Their influence lasts to this day as well. A guy named Nick Barrett was always saying, “Compression.” It wasn’t a new idea, exactly, but it was new to me, and I got it from Nick.

DJ: Tell me about compression in your work. It seems to me that there’s just enough air between your lines where it’s not completely flattened. Is that what you mean? That idea of keeping the story dense? Because there is a good density to your work. Not too dense. More like a happy medium.

BT: If it feels like the work comes close to it, then I owe it to the people who helped me revise. As I was writing the first book, and still now, the word “compression” is in the back of my head. Often there’s a part of me that wants to tell too much and do too much of the reader’s work. I really have to focus on cutting so I leave some of the work for the reader to do, sort of create the “unsaid,” in a sense.

There’s a poem, TWO STORIES DOWN, where a man jumps off a building. Hopefully people have to figure out “why” for themselves, because the narrative doesn’t really address the reason behind it. And who kills who at the end. That kind of thing.

It’s almost one of those cheesy stories with a sort of “cliffhanger ending”, in a sense, but I think that poem is one of the most blatant for what we’re talking about now, because the lines are compressed a bit.

The lines themselves, musically…I have a tendency to use a lot of anapestic rhythm, that rolling sort of, “du-du-dum-du-du-dum” stuff, which I like a lot, but I wind up with a lot of “fors” and “ands” and other connective tissue language. Then in the revising process I try to compress and cut those out to heighten the pressure of the language. It works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t.

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