That fact appears all over the Internet. The Washington Post repeated it just last month. But when a reader asked me how we know that, I discovered a thicket of sourceless claims and cagey assertions.
Coincidentally, I’d just finished scheduling Turner for an appearance at “The Life of a Poet” series in 2015, so I took the opportunity to ask him about the poem-film connection.
That’s when I realized I’d fallen into a little literary urban legend, complicated by a legal challenge.
Turner’s Iraq War poem was published in a collection called “Here, Bullet” (Alice James) in 2005, several years before Bigelow’s Iraq War movie was released. The connection seems obvious, but Turner said he’s never made any claims about that. Nonetheless, people keep asserting it as a fact — when he’s being interviewed by the media or introduced at readings. “It continues to be something that’s misunderstood, taken out of context, and, well, vexing,” he said. “It’s not the poem I’m most proud of, and it’s not one I want to rest my hat on as my best poem, but there it is.”
In fact, Turner readily acknowledges that he didn’t make up the phrase “the hurt locker.” He got it from his squad leader. “I’m a word guy, so I pay attention to things like that. It was a bizarre phrase. It stuck in my head, and about two weeks after he said it, I wrote the poem,” Turner said.
After Bigelow’s movie came out, Turner learned that the phrase has an even older history. In 2010, a U.S. Army sergeant named Jeffrey Sarver filed a lawsuit against the makers of “The Hurt Locker,” claiming, among other things, that the phrase was his creation. But “the hurt locker” was tracked back to the Vietnam War and found in newspaper articles in the late 1960s. (Sarver’s lawsuit was eventually thrown out.)
All this has long been well known, but still, isn’t it possible that the filmmakers had read Turner’s poem and drew their title from it?
“The answer is, of course, that I don’t know,” Turner said. “Only Ms. Bigelow or Mark Boal, the screenwriter, would know. I saw him once at a conference, but he was ushered out quickly after his event, and mobbed, so I couldn’t ask.”
At this point, I enlisted the help of The Post’s movie critic, Ann Hornaday. She wrote to Boal and received this reply: “Nope. . . . No connection. Didn’t know about the poem until much later. Title was inspired by what I heard in Iraq in ’03: Soldiers used the term, and it stuck in my head.”
“Amazing,” Turner said. “You’ve solved something I’ve wondered about for a long, long time.”
One literary urban legend down. Just 8,482,873,967 to go.