- A Conversation with Brian Turner
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Brian Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon and lived in South Korea for a year before joining the U. S. Army. He served in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division, and he was an infantry team leader in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. His first collection of poetry, Here, Bullet (2005), won the Beatrice Hawley Award, the Pen Center USA Best in the West Award and the 2007 Poets’ Prize and was a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” selection. He has also won a Lannan Literary Fellowship, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry and the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, among others.
Turner’s latest collection, Phantom Noise (2010), was short-listed for the T. S. Eliot Prize. He now travels the [End Page 61] world for readings and has made appearances on National Public Radio, the BBC, RTÉ in Ireland, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.
: Six years ago you were unknown to the literary world. You were just Sergeant Turner leaving the army. You didn’t even tell your fellow soldiers you wrote poetry. What have the last few years been like for you?
: They’ve been phenomenal. When I was seven or eight I initially wanted to be a historian—that was the first job I ever wanted—and then it shifted to wanting to be a baseball player. Then later again, I thought I’d like to write books, so I got into poetry, and it became this quest to have a book. I wrote seven books that didn’t get published, but my eighth book, Here, Bullet, was published. Prior to that, I never thought about what happens after a book is published, which is, when we’re lucky, we get these amazing gifts of friendship with new people who bring interesting and various backgrounds with them.
: So it’s been the friendships that have been the biggest blessing?
: Yeah. Absolutely. There have been great awards that have allowed me to do certain things, and without them. . . . I was doing electrical work when I got out of the military, and that’s how I was paying the bills. I cobbled together four jobs, and I was working from two in the morning until nine o’clock at night when I first got out. As the book started taking off, I was able to slough off job by job, until suddenly I was no longer an electrician.
: What laid the groundwork for your wanting to become a poet? Why were you drawn to this particular genre at such a young age?
: I played the trumpet from elementary school through high school and then switched to bass guitar in my late teens. That’s when my best friend and I decided to form a rock band that would one day tour Japan, rule the world, all that. I initially thought taking poetry classes at the local college would help me write better lyrics for the band, but I quickly realized they are—for me at least—very different creatures. I still play in that band with my lifelong friends, by the way, and I still don’t write the lyrics. [End Page 62]
: Before you joined the military, what did you write about? What was your early writing career like?
: The poems I wrote prior to military service, and during the early years of my time in uniform for that matter, spanned a wide range of subjects. I wrote several manuscripts, none of them published as books, though many of the poems were published individually. I wrote a book about invention. I wrote another about South Korea. Bosnia. Labor and work. A failed marriage. And so on. I don’t think this should surprise anyone, either. We live short lives, and we live in a world that is nuanced, fascinating and complex. There is simply too much to write about and not nearly enough time.
: Why did you turn to poetry in...