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The Return of the Poet-Soldiers

By mmguestblogger  •  March 16, 2007 11:08 PM

Brian Turner is a part time professor at a Bay Area college and a published poet.

He’s also a soldier.

Words written by the light of a red-tinted flashlight offer a poet’s-eye view of American soldiers’ life in Iraq: the fear, the loss, the heartache, the uncertainty and the rare moments of calm and beauty in an ancient land. Spare, finely crafted and with a punch that only war-torn reality can give, the poems in Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet (Alice James Books; $14.95) reflect his dual training, first as a poet and then as a soldier in the U.S. Army.

brian turner.jpg

Brian Turner in Mosul, Iraq 2004. Photo by Tom Bosch

Here, Bullet won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, a heady accomplishment in the poetry world. The book has garnered glowing reviews and feature stories in a range of publications, among them The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review, and Turner has been interviewed by ABC News, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, BBC London Radio, NPR’s Morning Edition and public radio stations from coast to coast. He was hosted by the Maine Veterans for Peace last November, will be at the Dodge Poetry Festival at the end of this month and is scheduled to speak at West Point in December and the U.S. Naval Academy next spring.


Born in Visalia and raised in Fresno and Madera County, Turner attended Fresno City College then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from California State University Fresno and a master of fine arts from the University of Oregon. He spent a year teaching English in South Korea and then, at the age of 30, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served for seven years.

His standard response when asked why he enlisted is that it’s a long story which would require a bottle of vodka and all night to tell. Some things are private. But there’s a military tradition in his family, it was a pre-9-11 peacetime Army and he had college loans to repay. He was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000, and spent a year as an infantry team leader in Iraq beginning November 2003. His poems about his Bosnia experiences are one of his seven unpublished manuscripts, which he now hopes will stay unpublished.

“When I went to Bosnia, I thought there was a lot of interesting material there. Writing that one taught me how to do the current one. How to do my job, be somewhere, do research, add cultural elements, historical details. I think that experience [writing poetry in Bosnia] helped mold me as a writer and prepare me for Iraq.”

His fellow soldiers in Iraq didn’t know Turner was writing poetry. He kept his poems secret, because they didn’t fit well with his image as a hard-bitten team leader. But his late-night writing gave him an outlet, a bit of sanity and a connection to his old life.

All but two of the poems in Here, Bullet were written while he was on duty in Iraq. They have the spare intensity and power of words dashed off in a flurry of emotion, but they are also carefully and beautifully constructed. Turner points out that one of the poems, “In the Leupold Scope,” has an underlying structure that is loosely based on that of a traditional ode.

I’ve read a few of Brian’s poems and they are simply brilliant. Amongst the ranks of the legendary British poet-soldiers of World War I. Highly recommend taking a look (or listen) at Brian’s work at NPR’s website.

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