Poetry Master Class with War Poet Brian Turner

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Words by Kevin Danson

In a room with a cosy number of people, Brian Turner took the stage (or, rather, perched on the edge of a desk) with a welcoming natural ease. I have no idea why I ended up plonking myself on the otherwise deserted front row, making myself an easy target for this trained face-to-face combat officer, but there I sat. Having previously addressed impressive numbers of people (1600 soldiers, for instance!), this small gathering would be like recalibrating an AK47 (is that even a gun?) with his eyes closed.

Brian immediately launched into his signature poem, Here, Bullet, also title of his first book . I just handed in my second poetry assignment on this poem, so to hear some backstory was a treat. One of the bonuses of poetry is that it is an easily transportable art. He tells us that he had only one poem, by the American Laureate, Philip Levine, called They Feed They Lion, which had embedded itself in him. When the first lines of Here, Bullet came about, the rhythm of that single poem came through in the beat of his. Finishing this poem (with a powerful voice much different to his talking one), he admitted the meaning remains strange. I know every time I have read it a new image comes to mind – or a new thread of thought. I fail to see how he can consider himself a rookie with the ability to cause such abstract interpretation from his words.

Between the end of some of the behind-the-scenes elements to Here, Bullet and some ‘release’ sound effects (not that sound… an unscrewing of a coke bottle) being provided by a member of the audience, Brian reads a stunning poem – Thalia Fields. For me, this poem is all about the line, ‘The plane, like a shadow, guiding the rain, here…’. It’s an impressive way to see the mind of this poet/soldier through his memories and feelings. These are just tasters remember, for more you need to get your hands on his books!

I have to admit that there were many comments made on the subject of war, of course, but unfortunately I have no views politically, patriotically or morally when it comes to such matters. One fact mentioned, however, which caused me to raise my eyebrows in surprise, was that on average, from the Iraq war alone, a number of 18 soldiers commit suicide per day. That’s all of his platoon (48) gone in a matter of days. Chilling.

The Hurt Locker, a powerful poem with a pensive ending line, “how rough men come hunting for souls”, allowed Brian to provide us with another backstory to the origin of this now famous term. Although his poem came out several years prior to the award winning film, he remembers hearing it from his squad leader. When he asked this leader whether he had said it or not, the reply was a down-to-earth, “Yeah, shit just comes out of my mouth”. After further research, the term was found to have originated in a small Texas newspaper talking about a local football (that’s American football) game during the war in Vietnam. I mean, how else?

His poetry, usually found under the war genre is, for me, entirely different to how I perceived this genre to be. The words bring satisfying, albeit horrible in experience, images to the mind, many of which are formed in free verse. I never got the opportunity to ask whether this style of writing came from his (sub)conscious gratification of freedom from the army and from war…

Many of us wanted to know what made him enter the army after having received his Masters in Poetry. Giving only a bit away, he shares that his family had a heavy military influence and despite not being forced over the threshold, it was the expected norm. Not giving much away though, Brian ‘lets slip’ that his book, My Life as a Foreign Country, will be coming out early 2014 as the deal is being linked with an undisclosed British publisher as I type.

Always concerned with our well being, Brian was worried whether he had been reading too much or talking too much. I would have preferred he did both to the extreme, as he seemed to have a lot of stories and anecdotes to tell, as well as recommendations and inspirations of other poets. He mentioned Carolyn Forché with admirable gusto, telling us how he has a signed copy of her poem – The Colonel, on his wall to which he looks at for inspiration, picturing the destination of where he wants to end up: ‘I’m at the foothills that lead to the mountains’. Another poet he mentions with personal fondness is Yehuda Amichai and gives us a reading of another thought-provoking poem, The Diameter of The Bomb.

With time to shoot questions at Brian, he is asked what kind of writer he is; everyday, sporadic, organised? Since writing from a young age, he tells us, it is easy for him to go with a poem when it comes to him instead of needing that discipline of daily scribblings. One day, when out looking for nails to complete some overdue odd jobs around the house, he found himself picking up a nail which resembled a bullet out of one of the weapons he used while in Iraq. Before he knew it, his notepad was in his palm and he was walking around the store retrieving images only a poet can. He recognised the rotating fan on the ceiling as the blades from a helicopter. I would have recognised them as blades on a fan. His experience and education have allowed his mind to look at things in ways my mind never would. Maybe from now on it could.

I didn’t know what to make of Brian when I first watched him reading his poems on a Youtube video. All I knew was that he was a soldier and went to war. Having now been within spitting distance of him, seeing and listening to how he talks about serious and trivial issues in a soft-spoken voice, I’d say he’d be the top of my list if I was to go camping, not just for his army experience (major plus), but also for the stories I could listen to by the fire with either bubbling marshmallows or a blanket covering my eyes in terror. If you’re up for it Brian, this summer, Edale.
Kevin Danson is an English Literature student at MMU who likes to share his ramblings. Read his blog Pebbleddash and follow him on Twitter @pebbleddash

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