We have seen the products of war: widespread destruction, traumatized populations, resurgent enemies—as well as an abiding need to document and grapple with it. In its complexity, its larger-than-lifeness, its impossibility, war demands words. Brian Turner, who earned his MFA in poetry before enlisting in the US Army, has given us not one but two poetry collections (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise) exploring his experiences in Iraq, and his latest—the memoir My Life as a Foreign Country—revisits his deployment to navigate landscapes still mined with bombs and haunted by the dead of decades past.
Turner served seven years in the military and deployed twice, once to Bosnia-Herzegovina (1999-2000) and once to Iraq shortly after the invasion (2003-04). The memoir follows his life as Sergeant Turner, an infantry team leader in Iraq, through his return to the States and subsequent travels around the world searching for an elusive answer—how do you come back from war?
Divided into 136 numbered sections, the memoir splinters Turner’s wartime experiences and gathers them up again, arranging them alongside his family’s recollections of other wars. We see his father, who fought in the Cold War, his grandfather, a veteran of World War II, and his great-grandfather, who served in World War I. Interspersed among their stories are the imagined lives of the so-called enemy. From sections 59 to 61, for example, we move from a kamikaze making his final preparations, to an Iraqi woman contemplating her reflection as she dons a suicide vest, to Turner’s platoon approaching the site of the blast.
Using associative leaps like these, the memoir moves us beyond the more immediate sensations of war—adrenaline, fear, thrill, even boredom—toward a meditation on our collective experience of it. I reached out to Brian to talk about what links his memoir to his poetry, and how reading about and later returning to Iraq affected his perceptions of a still-troubled region.
The Rumpus: How long did it take you to write your memoir, and what was that process like?
Brian Turner: At first, I didn’t actually know I was writing a memoir. I started out writing an essay for the Virginia Quarterly Review, but once it was about to be published, I knew that a book had announced itself. That process began around 2009, so up until publication, it took about five years.
Rumpus: In your acknowledgements, you mention that your literary agent expected a novel?
Turner: Oh yes, that was even prior to the essay. My first published book came out in 2005, 2007 in the UK, and right around that time I met my agent. Early on, she said I was going to have a novel, and she was very encouraging, but it never materialized. I still have it sitting on my hard drive. But in that novel, there was a dead character—the main character of the book. Years later, as I was writing the memoir, I grabbed the dead character and pulled him over into the memoir. I made him an alternate version of myself, and I think that doubling effect heightens some of the psychological processes that are going on in the dynamics of the book
Rumpus: Right, I think it works amazingly. The way the figure who is you moves on at the end of the memoir while “Sergeant Turner” is left behind, still at his post, was really powerful for me.
Turner: I was surprised by it myself. And that’s what I often say to my students, that their writing should surprise the writer. It’s an old Frost maxim—no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.
I often work on projects I think are good but then they don’t catch fire. I sometimes try to force what I think are these brilliant ideas when some other idea pulls me toward it. I’m continuously learning to pay attention to those moments.
For example, years ago I wrote a poem called, “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.” That poem is based off of going into a hardware store to get some nails. I looked at the type of nails that were in front of me, and they looked like the firing pin I carried in my weapon. I could have been like, “Oh, that’s something weird,” and kept it to myself, internally. Or I could have done what I did, which was realize that a poem had announced itself. So I went back to my car and got a notebook, thinking maybe I’ll see more things in this environment. And I did. And a poem came out of that. So in a larger way, when the memoir announced itself, I had to pay attention.
Rumpus: Certain moments, such as the scene where you and your father are making homemade napalm, appear in both Phantom Noise and My Life as a Foreign Country. Do you think that poetry and prose let you access or illuminate different parts of memory?
Turner: I do. They’re different vehicles. As I turn the lens of memoir on an experience or I put the lens of poetry on an experience, they yield different results. Also, the memoir feels more spacious. So I have room to travel and explore tertiary routes. There might be a small idea that I might nix in a poem to keep the poem concise and tight. You know the word stanza can mean room in Italian, and so you can see the poem is constructed with these habitable spaces. It’s very concise. Meanwhile, in a memoir it feels as if the walls are knocked down and you’re out in a field. The scope is much wider. I’m very digressive and I wander all over, so the memoir is a useful place for that. It gave me a space where I could see the connections between things, and I could tie them together very quickly rather than write one poem and then another poem and another poem. Here I could have a series of distinct sections that I could then tie together.
Actually, my practice in poetry helped me to write the kind of memoir that I’ve written. Even though there is a basic linear drive throughout the book, it’s broken up into fragments. It trusts the jump cut. I might be talking about World War II and then I might jump to a painting somewhere in a museum and then jump back to World War II, for example. I trusted that move more because I’d written poetry before.
Rumpus: In your memoir, you describe your grandfather as a man of “historical silence.” Similarly, in your poem “Homemade Napalm,” you end by saying:
to be a man is to carry things inside
no one would ever understand,
things better left unsaid; sung about,
maybe, those rare nights in winter, alone,
the world fuming with alcohol, spinning in the blue dark.
How do you view your writing in light of perhaps both your father and grandfather’s silence about their war experiences?
Turner: You mean speaking out instead of being silent as well? I think that in a way both of them—and others in my family, too, my uncles, and my cousins, and my brother-in-law, there are so many living veterans in my family—have helped me. They didn’t talk about their direct combat experiences so much until I came back from a war zone, but regardless, they were always very encouraging of me being a writer, so I trusted implicitly that they would support me in the process of talking about my experiences, even if that wasn’t necessarily their way.
My grandfather did talk about his war experiences, just not so much to me. He talked to my dad about them, and through my dad I would get them second-hand. I would send chapters to my dad and my uncles and others, and they would come back with what rang true to them, and then they would point out where memory had shifted and changed from them to me and had over time transmuted in me. To boil that down, I would say they came back with corrections. Sometimes I printed them verbatim inside the book itself, so they became part of the conversation in the book.
I did that also with Stacey Lynn Brown, a poet who went to grad school with me and that I saw when I came home on leave. I sent her a chapter, and she came back with all her corrections as well. I put part of her e-mail in the book. And I quoted my uncle talking about Vietnam. So the book is a process of discovery. It’s not a recap of things I figured out. It’s definitely an act of discovery.
Rumpus: It seemed to me your memoir was telling us something about where memory comes from, and how it can be supported by the people around us. After your brigade returns, a colonel gives a speech remembering the dead, but he doesn’t name the soldier who committed suicide during the deployment. But the sections around that part were all about your fellow soldiers remembering Private Bruce Miller. Your memoir really pushed this idea that the people around you can help you construct memory and remember who you are.
Turner: One of the memoir’s undertones is definitely how things are lost—what you remember and what lens is applied to a certain moment. So for example, if Private Miller commits suicide, I’m looking for my own viewpoint on that, but the person that’s on the left or right of me may have a very different memory of it. These are all partial stories. So the book is in fragments, and even the fragments are slivers of moments. As are our lives, really.
This book is teaching me how to write what I believe will be my next book. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and so I want to consider that process in her life. This book is not completely male-centric, but it does look at masculinity in a family and its generations. I want to look at the other side of the house, look at the inheritances that I have in my life, using the idea of Alzheimer’s and the way memory is stored or lost as part of the guiding principle.
Rumpus: You mentioned looking at the “other side of the house” in your next book, but your memoir also includes more imaginative sections in which you explore, for example, what it’s like for the wives of soldiers who are deployed as well as what it’s like for Iraqi insurgents and their families. Was this empathic leap something you practiced while you were deployed, or something that you found you could only explore after some time had passed?
Turner: A little bit of both. And I don’t think it’s unusual, though I didn’t hear people talk about it much. You’re going through a traumatic period in your life, so part of going through that is considering what it’s like to be in the shoes of those around you. When I was in Iraq, I was fascinated by the people around me. I wondered what it was like for them. How they would get through their day. You know, I was there for a year, and Iraq has been at war pretty much ever since. And the same people that I saw on the streets, and in the marketplaces, and in their homes, they’d been going through this for many years before that. We call them “sanction years,” but there were low-level bombing runs, and if that happened in New York or Florida, we would call that war. Occupation and war. On the outside, we call them “sanction years” because it feels more sterile. And then before that was the Gulf War, and going back a couple more years, there was the massive war with Iran.
In 2012, I went back to Baghdad and had a conversation with two different sets of early-twenties Iraqis. There was one group that I talked to on the grounds of Baghdad University, and another couple guys that I talked to at a hookah bar in the Karrada district. Both groups were talking about the generations before them, and they said the same thing. They said, “I never got a childhood.” Those born before the war with Iran were able to have a childhood. But many of the people who are alive now have never had a time when their country was at peace.
A year of my life is there. It’s watermarked me with this indelible imprint, and I will surely carry it throughout the rest of my life—but there are people in Iraq who never left it. They’re continually watermarked with the experience because it’s ongoing. I don’t know how they do it. They’re incredibly brave and stoic and resilient and courageous. I was fascinated by them.
Rumpus: When did you hand in the final draft for this book? I’m curious if any of the events of this year [the rise of the Islamic State, which in June captured Mosul, and where Turner was stationed during his deployment] played any part in your decisions in the final draft.
Turner: That happened after the book had already gone to print. But if I would have had enough time, I’m not sure I would have had anything full to stay about it. I’m still trying to figure it out. It’s horrific and frightening and surprising. But it hasn’t crystallized for me yet in a way that I would want to put into a narrative.
Rumpus: In one of your endnotes for Phantom Noise, you mention that while you were in Iraq, you were sent a copy of Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine. I also saw that you read Arabic poetry while you were abroad. Do you feel that reading about the culture helped you cultivate empathy?
Turner: I was simply curious. I could die in this land and I wanted to understand the space as much as I could—even though that wasn’t exactly possible. Imagine—I’m wearing a uniform with a flag, so I’m a proxy. I’m not even Brian anymore. I’m Sergeant Turner. I’m a small representation of a larger whole—America—and I have a weapon in my hand. I never had a conversation with an Iraqi without a weapon in my hand. And so what kind of conversation is that? The dynamics are not fully human. People use the word “friend.” I never hang out with friends here and have a weapon in the room.
As for that book—I wanted to learn as much as I could about the country and one of the simple things was through the food itself. I went to this amazing site called BooksForSoldiers.com to request it, and about three weeks later they shipped me this massive book that goes into great detail on the history of different Iraqi dishes. It was incredible. It is incredible. Food can suggest things that aren’t in the politicized speech that often comes out in journalism. I love journalism, but food has a way of talking. It’s very communal and so it can say something about a culture, crossing borders and uniting people. And combining that with poetry, that felt like opening a window into the human soul, a way to hear expressions of beauty and expressions of pain. I could try to understand the spaces I was in in a way that was different, again, from the news reports on television or interviews with Iraqis via interpreters.
Rumpus: Your memoir is steeped in its own sort of artistic heritage, drawing on Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Japanese art, Arabic literature, and the writings of other poets. I want to use your endnotes as a reading list. Could you point to any one particular work that provided overarching guidance or that you would recommend to your readers?
Turner: I would recommend a wonderful anthology: Iraqi Poetry Today. I had it in my assault pack with me the whole time I was in-country. The other books that I had shipped to me I would hand off to other people, but that’s one I kept with me the whole time. When Alice James Books picked up my first book, one of the people who advocated for it, who later became my first-line editor, was Ellen Doré Watson. I didn’t realize until later that I had already met her—she was one of the translators in the anthology. And she had no way of knowing that I had carried some of her translations with me while I was in Iraq. It’s interesting how small the world is sometimes.
And because you mention the endnotes—one of the things that I was happy that the publishers let me do was include a hyperlink to a song from the band I used to play in with my best friend—really, like my brother, I knew him since I was seven—Brian Voight. Over the course of my life, he was the biggest influence on me artistically. Over the decades, our conversations about art helped me immensely as a writer. He passed away from cancer in 2012, before the book was finished. But one small gift is embedded in the endnotes, a link to our album Believe Everything. I play bass guitar and do backing vocals. Backing vocals is a very fancy term for what I was doing. Hopefully people will enjoy hearing the music and, hopefully that hyperlink is a doorway into keeping him with us through his work.
Rumpus: You ask many powerful questions in your memoir. One moment that stopped me cold is Section 114:
“How does anyone leave a war behind them, no matter what war it is, and somehow walk into the rest of his life?”
I get the sense that you have grown with these questions, and that the answers may have changed for you over time. What kind of questions are you hoping that your readers take away with them?
Turner: I don’t mean to be coy, but I try not to answer my questions in my books. I believe that art finishes in the reader, in the perceiver, so I want the book to do its work. Each of us, when we come to a book or a film or a concert, brings our own world of experiences to that moment. We participate in the construction of the art in front of us. I’m not trying to write a book that can be passively read, something that can be skimmed over and you get the gist of it. I’m trying to write something that challenges me and that intrigues the reader enough to participate, to take the language and then use the imagination to build up the architecture.
With the subject matter that’s in this particular book, I’m hoping that in a country that pays very little attention to the wars it wages, I might bring the conflicts home to those that may not feel connected to it all. If I share my own complicities and culpabilities, if I question myself out loud, maybe the questions will find a home in the hearts and minds of those who read those questions as well.
I don’t know how my work is going to finish, but my hope is that it will engage people and in some way augment them—by engaging their own internal dialogue on war and conflict in our time. I’ll leave it at that.