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, Phantom Noise (also by Alice James Books). 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.
DJ: Going back to our earlier conversation about music, I see where you might fall into too many “thes” and “ofs” to create a certain sound at the sake of stretching the language out too much. Compression brings it back to the language, and the music is there anyway if you let the language take over.
TWO STORIES DOWN is an example where you create slowness in a moment that probably, in reality, occurred in a split second. You capture it in such a way that it becomes this slow…as if we are watching a movie and the film slows suddenly. We see a guy jumping in the air in what, to him, seems like a joyful leap because he’s hoping for a certain end. The end doesn’t come the way he envisioned, but it comes.
BT: Part of what spurred the writing of it was because I didn’t know what the soldier, that sergeant, should have done. He wound up being sent to the colonel, who basically chewed him out for killing this guy. We were stunned. He tried to help the guy and the guy took his knife. What was he supposed to do? Then it was the sergeant’s life on the line.
There’s something much more important to it than the actual narrative of what happened. It’s still true to the narrative of what did happen, but I tried to keep it open a bit. That’s probably the only one that, when I’ve gone to a high school, students will debate about it.
DJ: I also wanted to ask about the poem, ASHBAH, which is somewhat haunting, subject wise. There’s this great juxtaposition between the ghosts of American soldiers, who are wandering and unsure, and the ghosts of the Iraqi dead leaning toward Mecca. You can read this in a couple of ways. Of course the Iraqi dead are in their homeland, and therefore closer to Mecca, while the American soldiers are far from home. Or is there a greater commentary going on there, as it relates to faith?
BT: Some of the backstory that led me to think along those lines, and that allowed for this poem to develop in the first place is that, one of my friends is a photographer in Pennsylvania who often goes out to the Gettysburg battle site. She says she feels a very strong sense of souls being trapped there. That was in the back of my mind, not constantly, but it was one of the things I thought about, figuring I could die there, or people with me could die, and there were people dying around us.
I remember having this idea of being trapped in an alien landscape, a beautiful one, but one that wasn’t home. It seemed tragic that the world could work that way, and it reminded me of Southern soldiers that might have been from Florida but got killed and stuck in Gettysburg.
I knew I was walking a line with that poem because there is a sense where one side is given faith and is at home, and the other one is wandering, hoping for a way.
DJ: That wasn’t your intent, but you did leave it open…
BT: It could be interpreted that way, and the person interpreting it wouldn’t be wrong. I feel very strong that the poem finishes in the reader. If it lands that way in the reader’s psyche, and they can justify it from what they see in the poem, then they’d be correct.
DJ: The idea that the poem finishes in the reader, I guess that’s the best anyone could ever hope for.
BT: That’s the honor as the writer, the honor that we readers give to writers as we read their work. It seems that if the conversation happens, then the writer’s been successful.
I don’t judge success on people liking it, or “getting” what I thought it was supposed to mean in the first place. Just the honor of that conversation is pretty amazing. I’m already happy at that point.
DJ: The book stands on its own merit, but there’s also the extra connection to the war and the national appetite for the war, especially in 2005 at the time of its release. Did you ever get the feeling that, “Oh, now I’m going to be branded as a ‘war poet’” or anything like that?
BT: I struggled with that a little bit. Prior to Here, Bullet coming out, I wrote roughly about seven other books from grad school on. Things were published here and there, but they were on a wide variety of topics. Part of me was thinking, I don’t want to be so-called “Hollywood typecast,” and have this become my niche. But another part of me was thinking, “People need to hear the stuff on the other end of the conversation, and if I need to write it in order for the conversation to begin, then it’ll happen.” That’s not a bad thing. But I wouldn’t want to write it just to write it.
Also, I want to be a writer who has the opportunity to write about other things, because there are so many interesting things in the world. I understand “the idea” of writer’s block, but at the same time it’s hard for me to understand the reality of it. It doesn’t seem to be a problem of finding something to write about, but it seems to be, of all the things in the world, what am I going to write about today? There’s too much in one lifetime to write. We live such short lives.
So I struggled with that, and at the same time, these emails kept percolating up from guys I’d served with who had gone back to Iraq. And I thought, “I’ve got to write a second book.” I figured that years from now I’d write a second book about the war, but I didn’t realize it needed to be said now.
And I think it does because stuff kept coming to me. Then poems started coming out. When I think about it, there might be people who want to engage in this conversation, because now it isn’t the war “there” any longer, but it’s become the war “here at home”. It’s a different conversation completely.
DJ: That’s a huge conversation. What were those emails that were coming in…what were they saying?
BT: Different guys telling me about raids that had gone on, about helicopter gunships firing upon villages. I’m hearing about the wounded, I’m reading the email and 15-minutes later I’m sitting at a coffee shop on an outside patio with palm trees nearby and people talking on their cellphones. It seemed like there’s a war taking place, we’re a nation at war, but it’s absent here somehow.
I started looking around and thinking, maybe I can find a war here imagistically, but I’d have to find imagistic rhymes. I wondered, what rhymes with “helicopter motorblade”, and I thought about the fan blades in the hardware store hovering overhead.
The starter was, I was shopping for nails for a building project, and there were a (ton) of nails for whatever you need. One kind was called “double-headed nails”, which are used for building scaffolding. They look a lot like the firing pin that used to go inside my weapon. That started this process of looking for and creating imagistic rhymes. And also, there’s the idea of an over-layering of life. I’m living here in Fresno, but at the same time, all around me, war is taking place, and I’m a part of that same world. It’s a matter of if I choose to recognize it or not.
DJ: In your own way, and maybe in that Tim O’Brien way of, “The Things We Carry,” due to your experience and the fact that you maintain relationships with people still there, it’s almost like you’re in two places at one time.
BT: I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think a lot of people feel a psychic disconnect. I don’t know what the word for it is. Disjunction between the way the world seems and the way it really is.
DJ: Like a dissonance almost.
BT: It’s not dissonance though. It’s more of a consonance. There is a dissonance there, but our ears aren’t tuned to it. We have to tune our ears to, “Oh, we live in a really fucked up world, and we need to fix this stuff.”
Everybody right now, it’s become, “Oh no, my wallet! The economy!” And I understand, because we have to survive, but at the same time, there are responsibilities that need to be tended to. If there are 400,000 or 700,000 dead Iraqis, for example, then we have ghosts that we have made, that we’ve collected. Maybe I wasn’t involved in them personally, but I had the American flag on my shoulder. So, America, as a collective, is doing this. I feel we need to shoulder the burden of our responsibility.
DJ: You have a very sobering view of the whole experience and the reality of what the war is. Have people or groups asked you to speak out against the war?
BT: I’ve been asked by some politicians to speak at political rallies and events. I’ve chosen not to do that. I don’t want to preach to a choir. I really would rather talk to the people with whom I’m furthest away from on agreeing, then find a way to affect them, regardless of where they may stand on these things, that might spur them to do something.
DJ: As if to affect them from the middle path…
BT: Yeah. To preach to the choir, then we’re just singing a song together. If I can somehow invite in people who disagree with me, and if they’re affected somehow, it might alter their consciousness in some way. I don’t mean just me. I think the process of people doing it in many different ways, if we have this type of communication with people we don’t always get along with, creates a bridgework.
If I go to a rally just to fire up a crowd, I’ll fire up some fairly motivated people who don’t have any trouble motivating themselves. For me, I’d rather talk with the people who disagree with me, and I with them. I might be able to learn from them as well, which you have to be open to.
DJ: So you do feel something of an obligation, and it’s not something you’re shying from?
BT: No. And I know it’s odd, because there’s the whole deal of the “writer making art stuff,” and sharing his art, but then there’s the other part that says there’s no way to avoid the political, especially with this particular type of art piece. And I think all art in a sense has a persuasive component, which makes it inherently political.
Even if you paint something that’s just trying to show an idea on the construction of beauty, or something like that – maybe it’s a sunset, and maybe on some level it’s a comment on death. Someone will get the deeper value out of it, the greater appreciation of life and beauty – that’s the political content.
Here, Bullet is right on the surface in the political context. I’m honored to be a small part of a huge dialog. Within that I want to avoid pushing away the people I most want to affect and get in dialog with.