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Book World: 'Here, Bullet'

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Brian Turner
Poet and Veteran
Tuesday, April 22, 2008; 3:00 PM

"Here, Bullet"

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 fight, 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.

Brian Turner, poet and Iraq War veteran, was online Tuesday, April 22 to discuss his collection of poems, "Here, Bullet," which was featured in Book World's Poetry issue.

Turner earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon, then spent seven years in the Army. He served as a sergeant in the Iraq War in 2003 and 2004.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

A transcript follows.

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Brian Turner: Brian Turner here. I want to thank each of you for sitting down with my work in the first place, and for your questions and comments (and poetry, too!).

I wrote the bulk of Here, Bullet (my first collection of poetry) while serving as an infantry team leader in Iraq (2003-2004). There are 2 or 3 poems also included in the book which I wrote the very month my unit returned from Iraq. I was in the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.

I'm writing from Galway, Ireland today--where I'm part of a literary festival here.

Looking forward to your questions--Brian

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Herndon, Va.: What unit were you with?

Brian Turner: Thanks for asking--3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. My first unit was with the 10th Mountain Division.

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Lima, Ohio:

I've taught war literature for a number of years. In teaching the war poetry of WWII, I noted that the British wrote a lot more and a lot better poetry than the American soldiers. How about American soldiers today? Is there an anti-intellectualism that might make it unlikely that most would even consider putting pen to paper to express their experience of war? Are they more likely to express themselves through music -- particularly country and hip-hop music?

Brian Turner: When I was in Baghdad (at one point late Spring of '04), I saw signs posted in the chow hall which said: Wednesday Nite Poetry Nite, Open Mic. That surprised me. Still, when I returned, I found that there were other soldiers beginning to write poetry, too. Hip hop has a big influence. As does slam poetry/poetics.

I think we'll find many young soldiers returning with a need to express and study what they experienced, and they'll try to do this through some artform. Many of them will need to school themselves and learn the craft tools of whatever artform they are drawn to. We can see this in the poetry of Viet Nam-era veterans. Michael Casey (Obscenities) wrote his book while the war was still raging, on a similar trajectory to my own. However, in the years following the war, we find amazing works of art, in verse, coming from Komunyakaa, Weigl, Balaban, Anderson, and many more. I don't think it's necessarily anti-intellectualism. It could be that young soldiers may simply need to school themselves within the rigors of an artform--to hone their skills, basically. What do you think?

_______________________

War poetry: There is such a long tradition of poems written about war and by soldiers - are there poets or works that are particular favorites of yours?

Brian Turner: Absolutely.

Tim O'Brien is one of my very favorite authors. Technically, he's a fiction writer, but for my money he's very much the poet.

Yusef Komunyakaa

Bruce Weigl

John Balaban

Doug Anderson

Keith Douglas

Wilfred Owen

Uncle Walt (Whitman)

Homer

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Los Angeles, Calif.: How many poems did you write while in Iraq? I also see you received your MFA prior. Did you focus on poetry in your studies?

Brian Turner: I wrote all of Here, Bullet while in Iraq (71 pages, incl. preface material, etc.) plus about 10-15 poems which, as the poet Joe Millar suggested to me, were better off left 'as woodchips left in the woodshed.'

I also wrote another 10, roughly, in the month we returned. 2 or 3 of those made it into the final manuscript.

Mostly, though, I wrote journal entries, like a diary. Some pages included diagrams drawn also--of ambushes, patrols, things like that.

My MFA was at the University of Oregon, where I received an MFA in Creative Writing (with an emphasis on poetry/poetics).

All of this began as a teenager--when I started a band, playing bass guitar and trying to write lyrics. The lyrics were horrible, and I stopped writing them. I still play in the band, though, and our guitarist writes the lyrics!

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Philadelphia, Pa: Last fall I was at a gathering on Maryland's Eastern Shore to eat and celebrate rockfish. It was outdoors, with fire pits and beer and later in the evening a "spoken word." Granted, the majority of readings were about fishing and "the rockfish". But I choose to read four of your poems - A Soldier's Arabic, What Every Soldier Should Know, Kirkuk Oilfield and Where the Telemetries End. I received a rather cool response (maybe it was my delivery), but several people came up afterwards to say they understood or appreciated the readings. Majority of the crowd were in their 20's and 30's but some in their 40's and 50's. On the whole, and based on your experience do you find people expressing a certain apathy about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Brian Turner: Thanks for reading my work and for sharing it. That's an honor.

Hmmm...I'm, to be honest, very troubled by our country at the moment. It seems that the journalist's narrative has reached a point of stasis--news from the wars overseas basically remain the same. That doesn't keep people's attention (and maybe doesn't help in selling advertising spots?). The news lately is: our wallet; the economy. This is understandable, but disturbing.

I've said this before and I'll repeat it here...I think it's a decadent society that can bury so many in the earth and displace so many from their homes and yet know relatively nothing about them. Shouldn't we know the people we bury in the earth? And if we don't, and we don't really try--what does that say about us, as a culture, as a people?

I travel to many college campuses around the country and I hear, to be honest, so very little debate about the war(s). Afghanistan isn't even talked about at all, it seems.

Thanks again for sharing my work and for trying to create a dialogue.

_______________________

Haymarket, Va.: I have four children from 19-26. All have mentioned their interest in going into the military, not to protect, not to become a hero, but to hope for a jump start on life, a jolt, and path to 'somewhere'. They still play their video games, and paint ball, and talk about their friends who have taken the plunge and have enlisted. Some have come back, some have not. I don't want them to go. I know life would still be here when they returned, expecting effort, offering them the same paths before they left.

Rebecca, mother of Wes, Taylor, Brenda, and Daniel

Brian Turner: I suppose each will find their way in this world, and each must make their own choice.

I myself value military service. I often am asked what would I say to those who are considering joining the military. I say, among other things--you might want to wait until we have elected the next President. It may give you a clearer picture of how your efforts will be utilized. I also suggest that people go live in a foreign country for a year or so, but not in uniform, and not in war. See some of the world. Join the diplomatic corps--our country is in dire need of good diplomats to help repair much of our good name abroad. If they don't think this is so, send them on a trip abroad. Let them experience the general perception of our country abroad at this particular time in history.

At this point, I often begin to discuss the dead. The maimed. The psychologically tormented. This is where the conversation turns incredibly difficult.

The hero was killed with the advent of the machine gun, chemical warfare, the concept of total war. But many young people still don't want to miss what they might perceive as the historical moment of their lifetimes. Ah, what to say to the young. How to guide them. These are difficult questions.

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Washington, D.C. : Did your fellow soldiers know you were writing poetry over there? If so, what did they think of it?

Brian Turner: Actually, no. I didn't share it with them at the time. However, before I sent the manuscript off to the contest at Alice James Books, I did show many of the poems to some of them--basically I wanted to make sure it rang true to their own ears and to their own experiences.

I did find that a couple of other soldiers in my own platoon were writing poems while in-country as well.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: Did your poetry change from the way you wrote before you went to Iraq? What did you write about before?

Brian Turner: It did. I wrote with a much more musical, layered, dense line prior to my time in Iraq. I don't remember being cognizant of style while writing these poems. But, in retrospect, I can see that the land and the people forced me to write in a more direct, stripped-down, narrative way.

When I wrote before this, I often was forcing my style over whatever subject I would write about (Bosnia, South Korea, Labor/work poems, poems of intimacy, poems of a failed marriage, and so on). However, in Iraq, I had to listen for what was around me. I had to think within the soldier's credo: Pay Attention to Detail. I had to be a witness to my own life, and to the lives of those around me.

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Lima, Ohio:

I've developed a course on combat PTSD in literature and film. Thanks to the work of psychologists like Jonathan Shay, we are coming to a better understanding of how widespread and serious is psychological illness among surviving soldiers. Most of the texts I use are novels and memoirs, with a few poems. Do you think the war in Iraq is particularly likely to produce the poetry of PTSD?

Brian Turner: Very much so. I think this in part because our country seems so much more aware of the existence of PTSD. Still, the warrior ethos of our tribe, and we really are just a fancy tribe dressed heavily in the trappings of technology, asserts that warriors should take all of their psychological 'stuff' and put it into a box. They should then bury the box and never dig it up. Suck it up and drive on, that's the model we follow. Of course, nothing buried seems to remain so for very long; it rises up in one way or another.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Two questions (if you don't mind): 1. Are you planning another book? 2. Has there been any international reaction to your book?

Brian Turner:1. I'm well into a second book now. It's called Talk the Guns.

I'm trying to write about the war--the war as it exists overseas and also the war that feels nonexistent at home.

2. I've had quite a bit of response from overseas. I think many overseas find it strange to meet and read a soldier who writes poetry. This is a good thing. It helps to break down the stormtrooper image and to help them see Americans more as human beings. At least, that's one of my hopes. I'm in Ireland today, for example. I've been to Germany, England, Scotland and South Africa. The book has been put out by the Bloodaxe Books in the U.K. and I've been requested to do a lot of interviews. I think art is an avenue back into the discussion of the war(s).

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Washington, D.C.: Have you met any Iraqis or Kurds who also write poetry and who have read your work? If so, could you describe their comments or reflections?

Brian Turner: There will be a book of Iraqi and Kurdish poetry coming out soon--I've just been sent the work so that I might blurb the back cover. I'm looking forward to reading it. We need to hear their stories, their acts of witness.

I've had a review of my book done in an Egyptian magazine, and that was received very well. I'm hoping the overall book will be translated into Arabic and that a discussion may begin between myself and those in the Arabic-speaking world. We need to build bridges, and poetry is oftentimes a good material to build with, I think.

I'm amazed at how some Viet Nam era poets, like Bruce Weigl and Doug Anderson and John Balaban, have found ways to create bridges with their work. They've traveled back to Viet Nam. I would like to think maybe one day that could somehow happen in Iraq.

_______________________

Brian Turner: to the person writing from Lima, Ohio...

I would very much like it if you could contact elizabeth.terry@wpni.com

I'm hoping that we might talk more, when I get home to the States, about the project you're working on.

Please feel free to contact me through her.

_______________________

Brandywine Maryland: A poem that I wrote that I would like for Brian Turner to read.

I'M NOT JUST A SOLDIER

I'm just one single grain of sand.

Over here fighting on another man's land.

For my country, I am willing to die.

But I need to know the reason why?

Maybe you can tell me what is happening, what is going on.

I came to stop the mass destruction, now they say that we were wrong.

I don't know about you, but I don't like to see people die.

Crying children spitting on me, saying that I am the reason why.

Tell me was this whole thing all a mistake.

God, why am I still over here in this place.

When I see children no older than those of my own.

Starving in these streets because we have destroyed their homes.

I just feel there must be some better way.

At least this is what I ask the Lord every night I pray.

I am just like you, or any other.

I'm not just a soldier, I am your brother.

I thought by now that I would be back home.

But I guess not until the box arrives with the flag draped on.

When I see children walking around with missing limbs.

Because of the bombs that guys like me flew in.

All the destruction of so many lives in the name of democracy.

All the cries of pain and suffering, how could anyone claim victory.

These horrible things every day my eyes must see.

Tell me again that what I'm doing is right for my country.

Someone tell me that what I'm doing is right ,tell me that this is God's will.

God made these hands I thought to build, but lately all they do is kill.

If you too, don't understand what is going on.

Do you too, feel that there is something wrong.

I am just like you, or any other.

I'm not just a soldier, I am your brother.

I thought by now that I would be back home.

But I guess not until the box arrives with the flag draped on.

By Gregory St. James Mundy

Brandywine, Md

Brian Turner: Thanks Gregory--one thing I admire about this poem of yours is that it helps to see the humanity within the uniform. Many people find it difficult to look beyond the weapons and the gear and the uniform to see actual human beings within.

Have you been writing a long time?

_______________________

Brian Turner: I'm sorry I haven't answered everyone's question(s)--I have to run off and attend an event as part of the literary festival here in Ireland.

I want to thank you all for considering my work and for taking the time to talk here in this forum. We need to talk, as a nation. We need to be active in this dialogue--regardless of where our positions may be. This is not a time for silence and for letting others do the talking for us.

Our leaders are merely surrogates for our own will. We must continually remind them that they work for us and that it is a great honor we allow them.

Keep asking the hard questions--our country will be the better for them.

My best to you and to all you care for,

Brian Turner

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