Interview with poet Brian Turner, author of Here, Bullet

by Jeannine Hall Gailey

From the first poem in Here, Bullet, Brian Turner's 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award-winning book, the reader is hit with intimate scenes of life during wartime. We're shown rusted Ferris wheels serving as shields from enemy fire, escaped zoo animals terrorizing a marketplace, and the furtive glances of a woman hanging laundry. Here, Bullet vacillates between intense emotion and taut control, producing direct, powerful poems—poems that give us the riveting snapshots not shown on the evening news.

Turner, 38, received an MFA in poetry form the University of Oregon before heading out to for active duty with the U.S. Army. He served in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq from 1998 to March of 2005.

Recently, I had the opportunity to ask the author about his fascinating new book and the circumstances surrounding its creation.

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Where did you write the poems for this book, and how long did it take to produce this manuscript?

Brian Turner: I wrote the bulk of the manuscript as a soldier on duty in Iraq. About 10-15 poems were weeded out during the editing process (once the manuscript was taken by Alice James Books). The core of the book was written over the course of 1 year.

JHG: Did you have any trepidation about your wartime poems being released?

BT: Yes. I did have some reservations about publishing this material. My unit didn't see the heavy combat that, say, some units which fought in Falloujah experienced. This leads to a question which plagues many of us writing poetry in America today: When do we become authorities on our own subject matter? I suppose we each must answer this in our own way.

JHG: Can you tell us how the book came to be published? How did you find out Alice James was going to publish your book?

BT: I was very fortunate with this manuscript. Here, Bullet was solicited for another manuscript competition, at a school down in Texas. But, I pulled my manuscript from that competition once I learned that Alice James had chosen the work. A friend of mine, who is an editor, had approached a very good publishing house and it looked very promising that we would have a book deal through that publisher, but in the end I chose Alice James Books (after they chose me, of course!).

JHG: Your subject matter is at once universal and personal. For instance, you often bring up the incongruence of the war landscape in your work (escaped zoo animals, a broken Ferris wheel) or try to write from the perspective of Iraqi citizens, like a surgeon. Was this a conscious effort of your part to be more inclusive, to reach for a more complete vision of what you went through?

BT: Absolutely. I knew that I couldn't bring all the voices which needed to be heard. Still, I tried my very best to be as inclusive as possible. My own personal story was so small within the larger framework of what is happening over there. More than anything, I wanted to capture what I thought was fascinating and to share that with these poems.

JHG: Throughout Here, Bullet, you use source quotes—material from the work of Iraqi poets; pieces from the Qur'an, and Iraqi philosophers. What significance do these quotes have for you? For me, they stitch together the disparate points of view, the landscape, and the book's sections together.

BT: That was much of my intent. I was intrigued by what I was learning while I was there. In my free time I researched Iraqi history (and other histories) as much as possible. I wanted to meld that research—those incredible stories and thinkers and histories—into the body of this work. America is now blending its history with that of Iraq. What does that mean? What is that history? What does it mean to be an Iraqi? These are some of the questions I was grappling with at the time.

JHG: The poem "Here, Bullet," is probably the one most familiar to readers from the book. It begins:

"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."

and ends with the lines:

" . . . because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time."

The poem's tone seems both defiant and fatalistic—that the struggle is really between the bullet's will and the will of the person in the bullet's path. How was that poem created?

BT: I was listening to Queens of the Stone Age on a Walkman, over and over for about 12 to 15 minutes while I wrote this poem. A poem normally takes much more time for me to get out onto the page. This one was a burst of energy. It arose, as much as I can tell, from the fear of impending death, that sense that death is possible now, today, maybe tonight. On the flip side of that coin is definitely a defiance of death. A taunt in the face of death.

JHG: Your direct and straightforward style in this book seems uniquely suited to poems about war. For example, you veer into surreal territory in your poems about the dreams from malaria medication. How did you approach your subject matter? Did any other writers of war poetry influence you?

BT: Tim O'Brien has influenced me the most in this regard. His Going After Cacciato is a brilliant novel and one which I highly recommend to those who would like to study the surreal in wartime. Some soldiers who took our malaria medication experienced strong reactions. For example, the poem about Bosch is nearly verbatim reportage from a couple of his dreams, as told to me by him. As soon as I heard it, I knew it had to be in the book. I also found that these malaria poems were perfect vehicles for me to deal with issues of the subconscious in a way which, I hope, don't interrupt the direct and straightforward style the rest of the book uses.

JHG: How do you feel when you read poems about the current war by poets who may not have experienced, directly, the war as you have? Is there a favorite book or two that you've read lately you could talk about?

BT: I haven't come across anything lately that fits this question. I have been troubled by poems by non-soldiers writing about soldiers/soldiering in the recent past. Often, I find that large generalizations are used and these don't ring true to my experience. Of course, this happens many times when we, as writers, don't write about what we truly know (regardless of subject matter).

My favorite book of the moment is John Balaban's Remembering Heaven's Face. It's an incredible memoir by a guy who volunteered to go to Viet Nam as a conscientious objector (during the height of the war). Please read this book, if you haven't already.

JHG: It's an unusual career move, to go from studying poetry at an MFA program to enlisting in the armed services. Can you talk about that decision?

BT: There are many reasons involved in the decision. Some include my family's long tradition of military service. My father served as a Russian linguist in the Cold War 1960's and had many intriguing stories to tell of his time in service. My grandfather served as a marine infantryman in WWII in the Pacific. I also found it a great way to repay my college loans. There are a few other reasons, but I've chosen to keep those private. I've found that, as a writer, I've had to learn which things about my life are private and which experiences are ones I want to share in a public way.

JHG: My father went to graduate school in electrical engineering while serving in the Marine Corps, and has talked about how studying mathematics helped him retain some vital sense of himself. Do you feel that studying literature helped you emotionally or mentally in your military career?

BT: I think it helped me realize that military service was a part of my life, and not necessarily the foundation stone. Many soldiers join very young and it proves to be a defining element in their lives. Many of them are nervous about leaving the military because they have never worked outside of the service and don't have a proven track record of outside success. I knew I'd been successful prior to the military and I looked forward to new adventures outside of the uniform. I remember reading Papillon [by Henri Charriere ] while in Iraq and being transported by the experience. I don't think the MFA aided in that—I think it was literature which spoke to me which did it. However, the MFA experience definitely played its part. I approached many of the Here, Bullet poems with the knowledge and experience gained from having been in the MFA program at the University of Oregon.

JHG: What are you up to these days? Anything else you'd like our readers to know?

BT: I'm teaching at a local junior college and I'm hoping to land a creative writing job sometime during this next year. This year is packed with readings around the country (Chicago, Virginia, Oregon, New York, Maine, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey). I've dreamed of publishing for many years now. I never really thought about what it would be like after I was published. Here is the great benefit I never considered prior to having a book: all the people I would get to meet. This book has given me the chance to meet incredible writers and thinkers from around the country. It's been a tremendous gift.

Jeannine Hall Gailey

Jeannine Hall Gailey is a Seattle-area writer whose first book of poems, Becoming the Villainess, is being published by Steel Toe Books in spring 2006. Her poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Columbia Poetry Review, 32 Poems, and Verse Daily. Gaily recently had a poem nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is studying for her MFA at Pacific University, where she is a poetry editor for Silk Road. Her chapbook, Female Comic Book Superheroes, is available from Pudding House Press and her Web site,