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A POETIC ADVENTURE
In the last six months, Brian Turner has been interviewed all over the world about the unlikely intersection of two topics that loom large over his life: war and poetry.
The Fresno native spent a year in Iraq as an infantry team leader beginning in November 2003, and has received considerable critical acclaim for his first collection of poetry, Here, Bullet, published this past November.
Turner, a former Fresno State creative writing graduate, is now a part-time English instructor at Fresno City College and a part-time construction worker. But with the three-year anniversary of the war in Iraq this week, Turner is being asked more and more to talk about his unique perspective of combat and literature on a bigger stage.
In an interview, community journalist Jefferson Beavers talked with Turner about putting together his book, turning war into art, and claiming his new place among the San Joaquin Valley's great tradition of writers.
To start, what's the brief timeline of the life of Brian Turner?
I was born in Visalia. Was raised in Fresno and then Madera County through high school. I went to Fresno City College and transferred to Fresno State for my BA and MA. I planned on being a rock star, but that didn't really work out. So I became a machinist. I eventually got a fellowship at the University of Oregon and got my MFA there. Then I taught English in South Korea for a year, and traveled to Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan. I had lots of adventures.
I joined the Army at age 30. That's more common now, for older people to join. I moved to New York, and then was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000. I was in Iraq for a year in 2003-04.
When I left Iraq, I moved back to Fresno. I had been gone for 10 years and I wanted to get to know my parents again. I didn't want to move back at first, but I realized that it was a steppingstone for something, and that was reestablishing my old relationships again.
How would you describe your book to someone who's not familiar with poetry?
On the surface, it's about my time in Iraq. It's about being a soldier and about the people of Iraq. It's narrative, with some lyrical elements. But really, the book's main concerns are loss and humanity. It deals with war, but the deeper, real subject is loss of all kinds.
With the publication of your first collection, you are now being fully welcomed into the world of Fresno poets. What is your first memory of San Joaquin Valley literature, and what is the importance of the Fresno literary community in your life?
As a writer, I felt that I'd found a place here. I was made comfortable with learning how to write in a poetry workshop I took from Corrinne Hales at Fresno State. It was a very welcome environment that was nurturing for a young writer. There was still a lot of critical care. It wasn't just a feel-good class. But it took care of both sides of that coin. I had to try and write poetry worthy of people's time, and Connie helped with that.
I remember reading "They Feed They Lion" by Philip Levine. It's an old poem, and I think it's his greatest poem. I fell in love with his work, with the way he writes things grounded in real life. But it's also lyrical, in passionate sense. It really spoke to me, in my early 20s, and it still does. I felt like, wow, if I could ever write something as good as this, my life would be worthy of writing. I haven't done that yet, but I'll try and try.
How did the ideas for your first book come about, and how did you get a publishing deal?
I was writing poems while I was in Iraq and had e-mail access now and then. I knew TR Hummer, the editor of the Georgia Review, and I sent him some poems. He decided to publish a couple. It gave me an inkling that people must be interested in what's happening. I continued to write for other reasons, too. I felt isolated from America, and poetry helped me.
A good friend from grad school, Stacey Matejka, gave me lots of encouragement. She kept saying that my work was important and should be put out there. I was still so deep in it that I couldn't see how people could relate to it. Then came the Beatrice Hawley Award and Alice James Books.
Alice James Books has kind of a cool process. Once you are chosen, they have a poetry co-op, a kind of board of poets. The one with the deepest affinity for your work is chosen as your mentor. I got Ellen Dorey Watson, who combed through my manuscript and took out about 15 pages, stripped away some things, and then focused on the small details on the poems remaining. I also got advice from [poet] Dorianne Laux, and my friend Stacey helped me see the meaning of the larger whole of the work.
What has been the most surprising thing about the critical acclaim for your book?
As I tried to write the book, I mindfully cut out some of lines that may have pushed out some of audience. I didn't want to preach to the choir and cut out people that I disagree with. That inclusiveness shows itself when I visit places now. The book is being taught at the Air Force Academy and is equally embraced by peace groups.
War is such a divisive issue. And it's complicated. Both pacifists and warriors have picked up the book, and I've seen a broad spectrum of people willing to engage the work. I'm proud and happy about that.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on two essays right now, one about my grandmother and her Alzheimer's disease and the other about my grandfather and his pre-World War II days in the Marines. In the bigger picture, I've been thinking about poetry that could come out of my time in Bosnia. I'm working with an editor on that.
I did a week's worth of journaling for the Poetry Foundation recently. It sparked minimal conversation, but I enjoyed doing it. I'd love to start a blog.
Finally, you've said that poetry got you through your time in Iraq. What else helped?
If people are interested, they should check out the Books For Soldiers website. It's a good way to support the troops overseas. I was in Iraq when I found it. I just plugged in the name of a book I wanted on a wish list and a month later, someone I didn't know sent it to me from the States. I carried a few books with me like that in my pack, and I read a lot. It was a really neat thing.
I'm lucky that I've got a lot of experience out of this book. Going on Jim Lehrer's show, the BBC, NPR, places like that. It has been kind of surreal. I've made mistakes too. People always ask why I joined the military. This question has taught me some important things about the ownership of my public and private lives. To navigate that kind of a question, you have to be conscious of things from the very beginning. I'm learning.
Brian Turner will give a free public reading with fellow Fresno poet Blas Manuel De Luna on March 23 at California State University, Fresno, as part of the San Joaquin Literary Association's ongoing Visiting Writer Series. Check the calendar for details.