In the News: 'War Through a Poet's Words'

Brian Turner, a veteran of the Iraq War and acclaimed poet, will share his work and reflect on his life experiences during "An Evening With Brian Turner" at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 11, in Kresge Recital Hall. The discussion is free and open to the public.

His discussion kicks off Augustana’s first-ever Academic Festival, a celebration of scholarship and academic achievement.

Argus Leader Columnist Jill Callison interviewed Turner from his home in Florida. Callison's column is featured in the Tuesday, April 10, issue of the Argus Leader:

Callison: War Through a Poet's Words
Books Give Voice to Iraq War Soldiers
By Jill Callison, Argus Leader

Like so many South Dakotans, Brian Turner has been to war.

Like so many South Dakotans, Turner has returned from war.

He hopes to meet those South Dakota veterans — and their family members — during a visit to Sioux Falls this week.

“Family members, their story hasn’t often been told,” Turner says.

“They struggle with a great many things. Also, women veterans — they have to self-identify most of the time. I’m not sure their voice is being heard.”

Turner, however, has made sure the voices of soldiers who fought in the Iraq War are being heard through two books of poetry, “Here, Bullet” and “Phantom Noise.”

The former was written while he served as an Army sergeant, the second after his return home.

Patrick Hicks, an Augustana College writer-in-residence, says Turner’s work matches that of two other writers.

“I do believe Brian is to the Iraq War what Tim O’Brien is to Vietnam and Wilfred Owen to World War I,” he says. “They address this topic in ways we don’t get through other types of media or art.”

Turner’s best-known poems are “Eulogy,” which he wrote about a suicide that took place in his platoon, and “At the Lowe’s Home Improvement Center,” which portrays a veteran who sees the war in the everyday objects around him.

“Nails remind him of bullet casings, the cash register sounds like a machine gun charging,” Hicks says.

Hicks, who brought Turner to Augustana in 2008, asked the poet, a California native who now lives in Florida, to return as part of the college’s first Academic Festival.

“It was important to me that someone of that war spoke to our students while the war was still raging,” Hicks says. “I wanted to bring him back with the war over because I’m afraid America is getting some amnesia, forgetting we were involved over there.”

Turner enlisted in the Army when he was 30 years old, after obtaining his master of fine arts from the University of Oregon and teaching in South Korea for a year.

He can’t explain in a few sentences why he enlisted in 1998, Turner says. A complete explanation will be shared in his current project, a memoir titled “My Life as a Foreign Country.”

Part of it was the fact that the men in his family have a history of joining the military.

“The experiences you have in uniform, that’s a very important part of the overall life process,” Turner says. “I do remember thinking right before I joined — I was 30 — ‘This is my last chance to do this.’ The cut-off was 32 at the time.”

Turner served in Bosnia during the conflict there as part of the NATO force, then was an infantry team leader in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.

He has studied with Philip Levine, the current U.S. poet laureate.

It was a poem by Levine that first made an impact on him.

“The language was completely different than the language I heard around,” Turner says. “It was unusual for his work, too, unique for his work. That music echoes in my poem, ‘Here, Bullet.’ ”

Music lyrics also played a role in preparing him to write poetry, Turner says. Storyteller songs, such as Paul Simon’s “Slip Sliding Away” and Don McLean’s “Vincent” mimic the tradition of narrative poems.

He often hears how accessible his poetry is, Turner says. And while it’s not pretty, because no war ever is

(“Because here, Bullet,

here is where I complete the word you bring

hissing through the air, here is where I moan

the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering

my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have

inside of me, each twist of the round

spun deeper, because here, Bullet,

here is where the world ends, every time.”), it’s a way of forcing the world to make sense.

Turner cautions parents that he was a sergeant, and some of his poems contain words that sergeants have been known to use. But Turner hopes to draw everyone from teenagers to the oldest adults to his event on Wednesday.

He wants it to spark conversation.

“For years my parents and friends knew my opinions and I knew theirs on the war,” Turner says. “We got talked out. Art is a way the conversation opens up again.”