V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




The following questions and answers were compiled from parts of an ongoing conversation I conducted with featured-poet Brian Turner in a sporadic series of e-mail messages during this past winter while he was traveling through various countries — including England, Ireland, Greece, Turkey, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I thank Brian for generously giving his time and effort in responding to my correspondence whenever he was able to find locations with Internet connections. I am also grateful for the opportunity he gave me at the time to read the manuscript proofs for his forthcoming book, Phantom Noise. In addition, I am appreciative for his poems included in this issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review, works submitted to VPR last fall that were scheduled to be included in Phantom Noise.

Edward Byrne:
How did you begin as a student poet pursuing an MFA in creative writing?

Brian Turner:
I mostly tried to write short stories in my early teens, imagining myself one day writing a novel. In my late teens I began playing bass guitar in a local band with my childhood friend, Brian Voight. (He’s probably the most formative artistic influence in my life as a writer.) While playing in this band and beginning to go to my local city college, I thought I might hone my lyric-writing skills (which were virtually nil) by taking a couple of poetry classes. What I didn’t realize is that, for me, they are two very different creatures. I found I had an affinity for verse. And, to this day, my old friend Brian Voight still writes the most compelling and challenging lyrics for the band. He’s much better at it.

What circumstances occurred that led to your transition from academia to becoming a member of the military?

A great many factors contributed to this decision. I was newly married, for one, and joining the military instantly solved nearly all of our initial financial worries. (We’ve since divorced.) It also paid back my college loans. But I think the decision goes far deeper than these surface monetary issues (though they were important). I come from a family with a long and proud military tradition. The short form of this answer is that deep down in my psychology I wanted to learn what it was like to be a soldier, something I’d heard about, in mostly peripheral ways, since I was a small child.

Did you discover a conflict between the two roles, or did your writing easily adapt and absorb the encounters you experienced in the military overseas? Did you witness a dramatic shift in subject matter or style in your poetry between the work written as an MFA student and the poems produced when in uniform?

Initially, I thought of it mostly as a kind of duality, a splitting of personality. Oddly, one of the foundation stones of the poet is also one of the crucial aspects of soldiering. Just as the poet must be a keen observer, the soldier’s survival depends on his/her paying attention to details. (That’s exactly the key phrase, which was repeated over and over to us while in Iraq: Pay Attention to Detail.)
    It’s the same phrase my sensei often used when I briefly studied kenju kempo. I’m not sure how it’s spelled, but the phrase sounds like kuit-si-kay; pay attention.
    I was raised in the San Joaquin Valley, California. We lived in the country near table grape vineyards and open rangeland for cattle. A very spare, direct environment. It was an environment that lacked sensory overload. It was an environment that called out to the curious to take in each individual part of the whole.
    To get more closely to your question, though… When I look back at myself as a soldier writing poetry in Iraq, I see a writer who is beginning to learn how to write as a witness. (As a witness to my own life, as well as those around me.) In previous manuscripts I’d written (on a variety of subjects), I mostly imposed my style, my music, on to the subject at hand. In Iraq, though I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, I was learning how to listen more to the poem rising from within the moment. The results were poems unlike what I’d written before. In contrast to the more melodic intent of my earlier poetry, the poems in Here, Bullet are often bare, stripped down, and direct.

Were you aware of any influences on the poetry in Here, Bullet, particularly from American poets who had written about situations in war, from Walt Whitman through the writers associated with experiences in the Vietnam era?

I wrote the poems in Here, Bullet during the time I was deployed to Iraq. (I wrote roughly 10 more poems during the month after I returned — November — and only 2 or 3 of those made it into the book itself.) So it was written fresh, near the moment, not from a place of tranquility. Some have characterized the poems as dispatches from the front, having a rough, hurried quality. I myself often called myself an “embedded poet” once I returned, though I don’t anymore. Looking back on it, I’m not sure if my situation was as unusual as I’ve often thought it was — in terms of being a writer.
    To answer the question — no; not at the time. I wasn’t thinking in terms of the tradition I’d studied and grown up with as a writer and as a human being. It was a very strange time for me. I’ve told people — and I still feel this way — that it felt as if the borders of Iraq had a kind of hermetic seal on them while I was there. The past and the future didn’t really exist — they weren’t as infused within the current moment the way they are throughout the rest of my life experience. Now. I was very clearly living in the present tense. In hindsight, that doesn’t mean the tradition wasn’t with me every step of the way (to include Walt Whitman, and especially Vietnam era writers like Weigl and Komunyakaa and Anderson and Balaban and O’Brien) — it’s just that their work had simply become deeply rooted.
    Did I think to myself — I’m going to approach this poem with Weigl’s poem in mind? No. The influence wasn’t on the surface like that (in the actual process of writing Here, Bullet). But the influences are incredibly strong, to my ear. Whitman is nearly echoed in parts of “Cole’s Guitar,” for example. I can hear that now. The title poem (“Here, Bullet”) inherits its rhythmic drive and initial breath into the poem from Phil Levine’s “They Feed They Lion.” It’s unbelievably obvious to me, in retrospect. When I read both poems aloud (especially the opening stanza of “They Feed They Lion”) I can feel the influence. It’s a physical thing. We carry poems with us. It’s the portable art. It’s a great part of the art’s beauty. Sometimes the influences are bald and overt, as we take part in a kind of ongoing conversation through verse. Other times, the influences are more translucent, ineffable. So — in writing Here, Bullet I wasn’t consciously aware of either taking place. In looking back, I see that both the ineffable and the overt were a living part of the process (whether I was clearly aware of it at the time or not).
    I won’t rehash the many intriguing discussions widely available on the crisis of influence and the struggle to find one’s own voice here. But in the context of this question I think it might be useful to many writers if I mention the following. Sometimes, when we find ourselves within one of life’s tremendously intense experiences (the death of a loved one, for example) we might lift the pen and put words to the page. And I don’t want to paint with too wide a brush, here, because these moments are far more complicated than my brief comments here, but… In a sense, we act as a type of witness to the moment, to the experience, when we choose to write during these times. Times of great intensity can, for some, overwhelm us as human beings and as writers. So, if we pick up a pen, the tradition may not be overtly on our minds at that time. I would say their work, their influence, works below the surface of the known. It’s something we, or others, may recognize later, in retrospect.

Most poets do not expect their initial collection of poems to garner great attention; however, your book certainly did. What were your reactions to the relatively large readership and widespread expressions of admiration for the poems in Here, Bullet?

I was, and continue to be, surprised and honored by it. To imagine that someone might take the time to sit down, open the book to a given page, and read a poem — it’s beyond me. It seems kind of unreal.
    It’s true that Here, Bullet was my first published collection. But I’d written six or seven full manuscripts of poetry prior to this book (covering a wide range of subjects — from living in South Korea to a collection focusing on a failed marriage). I spent months working on some manuscripts. Years on others. I sent a couple of them to contests. A couple of times the manuscripts made it to one of the later rounds, which I took as a sign that maybe I was improving as a writer. But it was daunting. And disheartening sometimes. And I sent individual poems out to magazines all over the country (as well as internationally). In fact, I sent a submission to a journal in New Zealand and received a reply that baffled me at first. The editor replied, “Don’t even try to pass yourself off as Brian Turner.” Seriously. That was the reply. Of course, what I didn’t know was that the poet laureate, one of the most revered of poets for New Zealanders (and for many abroad) is a poet named, of course, Brian Turner. That Brian Turner had published books, but not me.
    Our lives are short. There are so many things to do and so many ways we might live within the time we are given. So when I think of someone sitting down to read a poem of mine — I’m amazed. I’m honored and appreciative. But I can’t let myself get wrapped up in it. It won’t help me to improve as a writer. And this reaches into the depths of the question itself, I think. I know that I have yet to write a book that’s truly astonishingly good. As a reader, as a book junkie myself, I love — absolutely love — opening the pages of a book and being transported. Experiencing the known world made anew. (My most current obsession is with the translated fiction of the Albanian novelist, Kadare.) It is my hope that one day, if I work hard enough, then maybe, just maybe, I might write a book that’s worthy of a reader’s time.
    There’s little I can do now about what I’ve already done. Once a book is published and out in the world, it takes on its own life, one beyond the life of its author. So where does that leave me, as its author?  
    ...The page in front of me is blank. What will I do with it? What will you do with your own?

Phantom Noise appears an apt gathering of poetry, exhibiting a blend of domestic and exotic poems. Since Here, Bullet received such positive responses, particularly for a younger poet’s first book, from readers and critics, I imagine there must have been a bit of pressure to merely repeat the style and content in your follow-up collection. Nevertheless, the new volume seems to contain a complementary blend of pieces that move forward while also establishing a bridge between the two books for readers familiar with your work. Were you conscious that the poems in Phantom Noise display connections with works in the prior book yet also develop some separation from the content in Here, Bullet?

Oftentimes, I think a writer’s sophomore book can be the most difficult to approach, for a wide variety of reasons. I agree with those who say the more intriguing book — in terms of studying the breadth of a writer’s career — is the author’s third book.  Here is where we often begin to see greater separation of theme(s), divergent subject matter, great shifts in landscape, and other hallmarks of maturity and development (or the inverse of these).
    I initially avoided writing this book (Phantom Noise). I already have the next 4 to 5 books sort of lined up in my head — simply needing time to write them. And Phantom Noise was not on the list. But while I was consciously trying to avoid writing this book and being pigeon-holed or stereotyped as “the war writer guy,” parts of the war in Iraq were percolating up from within my own life. How could I ignore this? And yet, it was a struggle. Sometimes we choose a subject; sometimes the subject chooses us.
    I’m not sure how to articulate this beyond what the book tries to do. We have our ghosts inside of us. There are landscapes within and without. Closing my eyes is not an escape. I had to recognize what’s going on inside of me, as well as how it connects to the greater world. (In thinking along these lines, I highly recommend the work of Larry Levis.)
    “Bridge” is the right word. In fact, that’s exactly how Phantom Noise works for me as a writer. That is, I see Phantom Noise as my attempt to learn how to write my third book (which is just in the beginning stages now). So, to extend this idea — if the connections between Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise work as a sort of footbridge, then the connections between Phantom Noise and my third book span a much wider body of water, arriving in a different land. Here I am already talking about the next thing I’m working on. But isn’t that how we live? I’m always circling back to the next blank page, to the next project. It was the same when I did electrical work in new housing developments, or when I was a soldier, or when I was a machinist before that.
    What’s the poem I’m working on now? Each time we write a poem, we create a small world. Or we add a room on to the world. Though I often initially love to look back at the work I’ve just completed, I’m happiest as a writer when I’m standing there in the sawdust, tool belt on, hammer in my hand, checking the window frames to see if the light shines through.
    Let me double back to the question. Once I gave in to the book (Phantom Noise) and allowed the obsessions within it to take over, I began to write (what one might call) war poem after war poem. I wrote an entire manuscript of them, in fact. Early on, I was working with April Ossman (who was my editor on Here, Bullet and who now has her own manuscript consulting business). She asked me a crucial and telling question, though it may appear utterly simple on its surface: Where are you now? It was exactly the right question for me at the time. I scrapped much of the book as it then stood and started to write poems that explored the wider compass of my life. And, to my own surprise, I often found the war where I didn’t think the war existed. 



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