Soldier poet: Brian Turner reads from his new collection at the Sonoma County Book Festival.
Poetry Goes to War
Veteran poet Brian Turner captures Iraq experiences in 'Here, Bullet'
By Patricia Lynn Henley
Words written by the light of a red-tinted flashlight offer a poet's-eye view of American soldiers' life in Iraq: the fear, the loss, the heartache, the uncertainty and the rare moments of calm and beauty in an ancient land. Spare, finely crafted and with a punch that only war-torn reality can give, the poems in Brian Turner's Here, Bullet (Alice James Books; $14.95) reflect his dual training, first as a poet and then as a soldier in the U.S. Army.
Here, Bullet won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, a heady accomplishment in the poetry world. The book has garnered glowing reviews and feature stories in a range of publications, among them The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review, and Turner has been interviewed by ABC News, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, BBC London Radio, NPR's Morning Edition and public radio stations from coast to coast. He was hosted by the Maine Veterans for Peace last November, will be at the Dodge Poetry Festival at the end of this month and is scheduled to speak at West Point in December and the U.S. Naval Academy next spring.
This Saturday Turner will be one of the featured poets at the Seventh Annual Sonoma County Book Festival in downtown Santa Rosa. He's happy when someone at a reading tells him they don't really like poetry and don't buy it, but they came across his book and loved it.
"That's the best thing," Turner says by phone from his Central Valley home. "That's what I was hoping for. Maybe it will bring people over to read more poetry by other people."
The only comments that mean even more to him, Turner adds, are when another Iraq veteran walks up and "says I got it right."
"That's one of the things I worried about, that other soldiers wouldn't find it true to their experience. Each person has a very different view of the war, even among those who were there."
Born in Visalia and raised in Fresno and Madera County, Turner attended Fresno City College then went on to earn a bachelor's degree from California State University Fresno and a master of fine arts from the University of Oregon. He spent a year teaching English in South Korea and then, at the age of 30, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served for seven years.
His standard response when asked why he enlisted is that it's a long story which would require a bottle of vodka and all night to tell. Some things are private. But there's a military tradition in his family, it was a pre-9-11 peacetime Army and he had college loans to repay. He was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000, and spent a year as an infantry team leader in Iraq beginning November 2003. His poems about his Bosnia experiences are one of his seven unpublished manuscripts, which he now hopes will stay unpublished.
"When I went to Bosnia, I thought there was a lot of interesting material there. Writing that one taught me how to do the current one. How to do my job, be somewhere, do research, add cultural elements, historical details. I think that experience [writing poetry in Bosnia] helped mold me as a writer and prepare me for Iraq."
His fellow soldiers in Iraq didn't know Turner was writing poetry. He kept his poems secret, because they didn't fit well with his image as a hard-bitten team leader. But his late-night writing gave him an outlet, a bit of sanity and a connection to his old life.
All but two of the poems in Here, Bullet were written while he was on duty in Iraq. They have the spare intensity and power of words dashed off in a flurry of emotion, but they are also carefully and beautifully constructed. Turner points out that one of the poems, "In the Leupold Scope," has an underlying structure that is loosely based on that of a traditional ode.
"I was writing under pressure there, but I tried to write pieces that were strong," Turner explains. "I wanted them to be written so that anybody in America could pick them up, read them and hopefully be moved by them. But at the same time, because I had studied the craft, I wanted them underneath to have layers that people who study poetry could enjoy and appreciate."
Turner's flattered when someone calls him a "war poet" or a "soldier-poet," because it means they read his book, but he sees himself first and foremost as a poet--no modifier. The work in Here, Bullet, he says, is really about the eternal issues of love and loss. "It's not really about me," he adds. "It's mostly about things happening around me."
He never expected to return to his native town of Fresno, but when he got out of the Army, that's exactly where he headed. He lives in a suburban cul-de-sac with his girlfriend, her two children (ages 15 and 18) and a cockatiel named Pepé, after the cartoon character Pepé Le Peu. Turner's teaching two nine-week-long creative writing classes at Fresno Community College, working part-time updating data bases for a scientific manufacturing company and conducting the paper chase required to apply for a permanent teaching position elsewhere, since there aren't any opportunities in Fresno.
"I was doing construction work, but I've been so busy with the book stuff that I had to drop that," Turner explains.
On a recent hot Fresno morning, he sits in his home office clad in just green cargo shorts, sipping a cup of orange pekoe tea while being interviewed over the telephone. His hair is above his ears, he says, but longer than the buzz-cut he wore in the Army. He's grown a goatee.
"I don't think I look like a soldier," he says when asked about his appearance. "I went back to my civilian way of walking. I'm just the average Joe on the street. The persona of Sgt. Turner--I sort of mothballed that guy."
He wrote an essay about what's next, about life beyond the war, for November publication in the online NYFA Current magazine. This summer MamaJama Productions commissioned Turner to write 10 poems about Cuba--he hasn't been there, but he did considerable research--which a classical composer is putting to music. The concert premiere is scheduled for next spring.
And Turner stays in touch with several members of his old unit. They're aware of his book and the attention it's generated. They're proud and happy for him. But they're also back doing another tour of duty in Iraq, while Turner's safe at home, pursuing a writing and teaching career.
"I know that I'm on the right path for my own life right now, but at the same time I can't help but worry for them."
Despite his concern, he's looking forward to the Sonoma County Book Festival and a chance to present his poetry and interact with readers. However, it's not always easy for him to read aloud the poems from Here, Bullet. He's proud of the praise the book has won, but he's deeply aware that the poems are based on loss and on other people's pain.
And he isn't finished.
"Some things were left unsaid that I still feel a need to talk about. Some things take more time to develop and find their way to the page."
Writers, readers and book lovers of all ages will gather at the Seventh Annual Sonoma County Book Festival from 10am to 5pm on Saturday, Sept. 16, in Old Courthouse Square and the Central Library in Santa Rosa. Brian Turner reads at noon at the Library's Forum room. This free outdoor literary celebration features poets, authors, panel discussions, more than 60 exhibitors and a full program of children's activities and events. For details, call 707.527.5412 or visit www.socobookfest.org.
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta's opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you've started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.