With a gun and a pen, Brian Turner has traveled the mental and physical landscapes of war, sending dispatches from the darkest reaches of the human soul.
In his poem “Ashbah,” from the award-winning collection “Here, Bullet,” exhausted American ghosts wander the streets of Balad where the desert wind blows trash and carries a “soulful call” from the minaret “reminding them how alone they are, how lost,” while Iraqi dead watch in silence.
His poem “The Hurt Locker,” with its line, “Open the hurt locker and learn how rough men come hunting for souls,” provided the title for the acclaimed Hollywood film.
The journalist reports the facts and the politician plots the course, says Turner, 45, in a phone interview from Orlando, Fla. “A poet’s job is to go in and uncover the humanity of the moment.”
Turner will speak at 7:30 p.m. Friday for the Stegner Lecture at the Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts & History in downtown Lewiston.
Not all his poems are about war. He was a teen poet before becoming a soldier at age 30.
“I was in a band and it was part of trying to figure out how to write better lyrics for the band. I thought poetry might help, which it didn’t.”
He earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Oregon in Eugene before following a long tradition of family military service and enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1998. He wrote poetry throughout his deployments to Bosnia and Iraq, where he spent one year as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.
His first collection, “Here, Bullet,” was published in 2005, the same year he transitioned out of service. It was a critical success. The New York Times made it an Editor’s Choice selection. The book won awards, including the 2007 Poets Prize. He followed up with 2010’s “Phantom Noise,” which was short-listed for the 2010 T.S. Eliot Prize in Poetry.
Turner says he is conflicted about the national recognition he has received.
“The soldier part of me struggles with the idea of being rewarded for sharing some of the difficult things that happened to people. The writer side of me is … I’m not sure of the right word, maybe grateful, as writers often write in obscurity and are not honored. That conflict is difficult to live with.”
However, the response from service members of his and past generations has been overwhelmingly positive, he says. People tell him they connect to his poems even though they served in a different time or place.
“That’s an honor because each person’s experience is so different, even in my own platoon where we experienced the same events.”
Turner describes himself as a “news junkie” and says that journalistic reports of the war are essential but a sentence like “five dead, eight wounded, is only an abstraction.” The poet adds the emotional dimension.
As the wars have gone on and on, over the years Turner noticed the public lose interest in war news and turn to other stories. The narrative went static, he says.
“It’s not because it wasn’t important but because people felt that static. With poetry and art in general it feels like there’s a new doorway into that conversation,” he says.
“Sometimes the things we need to apply great attention to tend to get washed or lost in the mix.”
One of the conversations he has with his audiences is whether or not the war in Iraq is finished, or if a war can end at all, he says. He takes a soldier’s approach to the poems he will read, choosing them at the last minute.
“Once I land on the ground and start meeting people there I’ll get a feel for the conversation,” he says.
The author, Jennifer K. Bauer, may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2263.