Interview with Brian Turner
Intern Mary Hammond and Editorial Assistant Patrick Bagley teamed up
to ask Here, Bullet author Brian Turner about his experiences in Iraq, and the difficulties of writing poetry about
Alice James Books: Having earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon,
you enlisted in the army and spent seven years as a soldier. What was the impetus for that decision?
Turner: Hmmm…If we could drink a bottle of vodka and talk about this until dawn, I might be able
to answer that particular question.
AJB: There have been many great soldier-poets, from contemporaries
like Doug Anderson to the ancient masters like Li Po and even further back. How conscious of their work were you as you shaped
the poems that became Here, Bullet?
BT: While in Iraq, I felt very isolated from the relevance
of what felt like a prior life. All that existed was the here and now. That said, the novels of Tim O’Brien
probably held the most resonance for me. The series of malaria-induced dream poems in Here, Bullet are certainly
influenced by Going After Cacciato. Yusef Komunnyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau was definitely in the back of my mind.
Also, Whitman’s care for the wounded may find its echoes in my own work. An anthology of Iraqi poetry (Iraqi
Poetry Today) was very influential. Fadhil al-Azzawi, Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati, and Muzaffar al-Nawwab had particular
impact. As a writer, I have a tendency to be overly musical and layered. I deliberately forced myself to write Here,
Bullet in a more stripped-down, direct style—a choice I hoped would be honest to the events I was witnessing.
AJB: Were most of the poems written in Iraq or after your return home?
Nearly all of the poems in Here, Bullet were written while I was in Iraq. The exceptions: "Najaf" and "Dreams
from the Malaria Pills (Barefoot)" were new poems which were written within one month of returning stateside…
When given time to sleep after a mission, I would often use a red lens flashlight (to avoid disturbing other exhausted soldiers)
and either work on a poem or write in my journal about the day’s events. A typical poem might evolve in the following
From April and into mid-July of 2004, my company was given the task of providing convoy security for
supplies moving through Baghdad each day. I was quietly fascinated with the women who harvested salt from large stands of
evaporating water off the shoulders of the highway south of the city. They worked in the most brutal heat, fully dressed
in black. From a distance, their blurry forms moved over the surface of the water. Was it resignation? Was it perseverance?
What was it about the salt harvest which fascinated me and made me write the poem "Milh"? I believe it
is the struggle to preserve something of value from what seems to be the inexorable pull of loss.
Are many of the soldiers with whom you served aware of the book at this point? If so, how do they feel about it?
Did you have to change anyone’s name for the book?
BT: While we were in Iraq, some
soldiers in my squad knew that I often spent my downtime working on a book. However, I never shared the content with
anyone while overseas. Once home, I did show a few of the poems to Thomas Bosch (a good friend and my rifleman during
our year-long tour). One of the reasons he joined the military was to save enough money to put himself through film
school. I wanted his opinions, thoughts, and, ultimately, his approval regarding "Dreams from the Malaria Pills
(Bosch)" and "Eulogy". I wanted to know, from someone who was there and from someone who cared deeply,
if I had got it right. Only a handful of other soldiers are aware of the book at this point. I really don’t
know how they might feel about this work. It’s my hope that it rings true to them.
A few of the names
have been changed in Here, Bullet. For example, all of the Iraqi translators are mentioned only by their first names.
This is done to protect them and their families. In "AB Negative (The Surgeon’s Poem)," Thalia Fields
is a fictitious name given to a soldier that I served with in Mosul. I wanted to avoid hurting a close friend or
family member who might come across this work.
AJB: In poems like "Into the Elephant
Grass," "Trowel" and "Kirkuk Oilfield, 1927" you step outside the soldier’s point-of-view
and look at events through the eyes of Iraqis. Why was it so important for you to try expressing that point-of-view?
Were there any poems in which you tried one perspective and ended up switching to the other?
In the summer of 2004, I had several long conversations with Louie (one of our Iraqi translators). It’s very
likely that he has been killed since we last spoke. He was an ex-Iraqi Special Forces soldier who had been captured
(in 1986) during the long war with Iran. He spoke of the snow on the mountainsides in Tehran and of his twelve years
in the Iranian prison system. He’d lived an amazing life… I knew, while conducting patrols through
Mosul and convoy operations through Baghdad, that I was surrounded by an amazing and storied humanity. There were people
with incredible stories, like Louie, on every street. I did not want to give in to the process of de-humanizing
the Iraqi people so that I could get on with the job at hand.
AJB: The poem "2000
lbs." is about a suicide bombing in a bustling Mosul square. You devote a stanza to the bomber, and among the
more powerful lines are "he is obliterated at the epicenter,/ he is everywhere, he is of all things,/ his touch
is the air taken in,...." Many of the other poems deal with this anonymity and omnipresence of death and fear
as the common Iraqis try to go about the simple daily business of work, play, love. How did this affect you as a
soldier and how did you, as a poet, manage to capture that sense and get it onto paper?
My squad would often set up an observation post atop an apartment building in Mosul. At first, we would talk with
the children who lived in the building and they would run errands for us (to get blocks of ice, canned sodas, and
plates of chicken and rice, for example). After a couple of weeks, one of the fathers very gently tried to persuade
me to move the squad to a nearby vacant building, as this would lessen the danger of his children being killed in a firefight.
It’s one thing to be a soldier among soldiers and to try to live in a combat zone knowing that there are people
who are actively out trying to kill you. It’s an altogether different thing to be a mother or a father simply
trying to raise their children and put food on the table in that very same war zone.
In "Night in Blue," one of the book’s final poems, you ask yourself questions about the things you
experienced. Have you yet been able to answer them?
BT: History may prove me wrong, but
at this point in time I cannot say that the lives lost have been worth the cost. As a country, are we learning from
this experience? In regard to love and relationships and personal development, I think it worth noting that there
are many returning veterans who will need help for PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. There are many organizations
which are trying to bridge the divide and offer assistance to those who need it.
In that same poem, you say, "I have no words for war." It may have been how you felt at that moment when you
were flying out of Iraq but, clearly, you did have words for this war. What were some of the difficulties you came
across in writing Here, Bullet? Are you still writing poems about the war? Here, Bullet is incredibly powerful and
will surely be widely discussed. Where do you see your writing going from here?
realize that the line "I have no words to speak of war" may appear coy on a literary surface. However,
the line must be said. I felt I owed that to those who saw and experienced war in a much more devastating way. Some
lost their homes. Some lost their family. Some lost limbs or came back to America with horror embedded within them.
I was fortunate. Also, there are millions of stories needing to be witnessed and told. More needs to be said. Perhaps
an alternate line might have read: We haven’t enough words to speak of war.
One of the biggest
challenges I faced with this book involved discovering order among the poems. That is, when compiling the manuscript
after returning home, I still didn’t have nearly enough distance from the material to be able to see a wider
arc of meaning. I had no sense of cohesiveness and progression. It may take years for me to understand some of the
deeper ramifications of what happened and why it happened. I have a feeling that the same can be said of America,
as well. That is, what does this war mean to our national consciousness? How does it change and add to the idea
of America? Of Iraq?
Of course, there is much more to be said about what has happened and what continues
to happen in Iraq. I might write more on the subject, but I don’t see myself using poetry as the medium at
that point. I’m currently finishing up a screenplay. For the future, I have two projects which I want to follow
up on. One is set in Russia and the other is set in China. I’m looking forward to 2006.