Brian Turner’s latest book is My Life As a Foreign Country: A Memoir published by Jonathan Cape/Random House UK (June 2014) and in the U.S. by W.W. Norton & Co. (September 2014). His two collections of poetry are Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2005; Bloodaxe Books, 2007) and Phantom Noise (Alice James Books, 2010; Bloodaxe Books, 2010) which was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in England. His poems have been published and translated in Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, and Swedish.
His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Poetry Daily, The Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review and other journals. Turner was featured in the documentary film Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. He received a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, a US-Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation.
Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon before serving for seven years in the US Army. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Prior to that, he deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division (1999-2000).
Kelle Groom: Brian, your stunning memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, will be published by W.W. Norton next month. Tim O’Brien wrote of its brilliance, “It surely ranks with the best war memoirs I've ever encountered—a humane, heartbreaking, and expertly crafted work of literature.” As a poet and author of two critically acclaimed poetry collections chronicling the experience of war, what drew you to write a war memoir?
Brian Turner: I didn’t initially set out to write a memoir. A few years ago, in early 2009, I was awarded an Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship—a truly astonishing opportunity to travel anywhere in the world, for an entire year. I’d written several short pieces for Peter Catapano (for “Home Fires” at the New York Times) and then, as I traveled under the Amy Lowell Fellowship, I began trying my hand at a series of haibun—a traditional Japanese travelogue. Of course, I ended up mangling the form and I’ve yet to figure out how to fully inhabit an English-language version of the haibun form. That experimentation led me to an approach to the essay that was far more fragmented than work I’d done in earlier essays. I was beginning to learn how to trust the jump cut, the bright turn from one thought to another—as well as the reader’s ability to cross the wide synapses between disparate fragments.
I was excited by the short pieces I’d written, and that enthusiasm evolved into a much larger, uncharted essay I began to write while traveling from one country to another. Looking back, I can see how that meditation grew in fragments, one country at a time, as I boarded a train or stowed my gear on a ferry. Once I’d reached about ninety pages of material, it was edited down to a much tighter, leaner piece of writing. The Virginia Quarterly Review published that now twenty-two page essay (“My Life as a Foreign Country”) and I knew a book had announced itself.
Part of what I enjoy about the essay, as a form, is that I feel as though I can explore the wide canvas of the page, and, by extension, even more of the tertiary and dimly-lit pathways of the imagination.
Kelle Groom: My Life as A Foreign Country is comprised of 136 chapters (and two short bookend pieces). Did you always see it organized as over a hundred short chapters? How did your work as a poet influence the structure? When you first began writing the memoir, how and where did you start?
Brian Turner: Once I had the first chapter, I dove in headlong and committed myself to seeing this book through to its last page. The first chapter (which no longer fully exists in that form) braided several narrative and lyric threads together, fragment by fragment, in a style that depended upon successive accumulation of revelation. I challenged myself to create a different stylistic approach in each chapter of the overall book while simultaneously developing the initial threads to a greater and greater complexity throughout. One early reader said, upon completing the book, that each chapter had a kind of internal culture that the reader needed to adapt to and learn. For example, I wrote one chapter as a 3-act play and another as a semi-linked series of haibun.
I’m grateful for the early readers and writers who sat with the book at this stage and shared their thoughts on how the work might mature. By this point, I was working with Alex Bowler at Jonathan Cape. Alex is brilliant and he rolled up his sleeves to dive into the bizarre creature I’d placed before him. We disassembled the entire book, piling like items/events/meditations together to regroup the internally braided threads by type. The book was then reordered in something close to what it is now (though that effort would take many more drafts to accomplish). The one image that I held in mind, from first draft to the last, was something I called a 21st century rain. Even from the beginning, I had a vague sense of some cascading visual hallucination, something beautiful and terrible all at once, that would appear near the end of the book. I didn’t know what it was, but I had a sense of it.
Kelle Groom: Why was it important for you to find parallels in the history of war?
Brian Turner: The movement of the mind through an extended meditation, as in the essay, can allow us to witness some of the connections binding our own internal wiring together. It can help us to see how the year 1862 or 1924 or 1965 might speak to the year 2003. In the vocabulary of the poet, we’d say that parallels work in ways similar to a rhyme scheme. This begs the question—what can be learned from the echoes, or repetition, of sound? In the case of war, perhaps when we begin to recognize generational parallels we are actually beginning to chart a kind of pathological inheritance, one handed down from generation to generation, often from incredible people, people we might revere and whose character we might deeply wish to emulate, people we love. This is certainly true in my case.
Kelle Groom: Your memoir is stunningly imagistic. How did you work to create such powerfully visual/visceral scenes? Did you rely on memory? Photographs?
Brian Turner: A wide range of research went into the writing of this book—from calling up old friends and creating a series of email conversations with family members (most in California, with some as far as Perth, Australia) to the study of historical books, books on flora and fauna, photographs, old journals, and much more. Some research cast light on language, offering tones and textures for a descriptive passage, for example. Some research, promising at first, left me retracing my steps out of dead end streets.
Of course, I did my best to inhabit the moments under construction on the page. Memory is the faulty guide for much of it, but I tried to accept the blurry edges and missing portions the way, perhaps, the term wabi sabi is sometimes used in conversations on aesthetics.
When we stand before ancient ruins and experience a sense of breath-taking beauty, our minds clearing away the debris and reconstructing the invisible to its former glory, isn’t there also a doubling that takes place which intensifies the experience, offering the sublime? In moments like these, we hold two contraries together in the same moment—the resplendent past coming alive within the ruins whose beauty is also inescapable. They are one and the same. We are witness to both the compression and expansion of time itself. And, here’s what intrigues me even more: the entire process is analogous to writing and the act of memory. We build and rebuild the invisible with language, while living within the ruins of our own lives.
Kelle Groom: How do you write about terror and the unspeakable grief of war? In his introduction to Best American Poetry 1991, Mark Strand wrote of his father reading his first book of poems: “The ones that mean most are those that speak for his sense of loss following my mother’s death. They seem to tell him what he knows but cannot say.” This ability to tell us what we cannot say, is what matters most to me in poetry. I understand, in particular, the importance of form when writing of violence and grief. Can you talk about how poetry works in/enters your memoir? What did poetry offer you?
Brian Turner: From the time I was a small boy, I loved to read books on history. In fact, before I wanted to grow up and become a major league baseball player, I wanted to be an historian (at about seven or eight years old). Still, one of my problems with history mirrors some of the issues I have with memory—most of history is a vast and overwhelming vault of the unrecorded, the lost, the excised, the deliberately omitted.
Historical accounts, films on war, war stories—they are often composed of streamlined narratives that follow a fairly traditional arc. I didn’t find that steady narrative in my own experience of a combat zone. I experienced something much more fragmented and lacking in cohesion. The art of collage, a kind of pointillism of experience—this was the form that I thought might help me explore the questions I had before me as I sat down with an empty notebook, pen in hand. Great meaning can be culled from the silences between things, as well as the things themselves. Invisible threads tie one fragment to another. What are the threads, and what can we learn from them? I believe this is part of the reader’s work, part of the joy of listening deeply to a book… Poets converse with silence, as much as they do with language.
Kelle Groom: Would you talk about the importance of empathy in My Life as a Foreign Country? I’m struck over and over by the urgency to see through the eyes of Iraqi citizens and soldiers.
Brian Turner: First, I’ve struggled with the ethics involved in attempting to inhabit another’s experiences and to ‘write them down’ as I imagine those experiences to be. At the same time, I’m trying to shape the meditation in a way that includes the cares and wonders and concerns I have for the world. I’m hoping any potential reader will grant and recognize that these are my attempts to widen the lenses available to the world of this particular memoir. And this process is something I’ve done all of my life. The old clichés remain valid—we can better understand our lives and the world we live in when we imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, when we try to understand where someone is coming from…
It’s more than that, though. At a much more human level, my heart was not a closed room, one shut off from the lives of those around me. And around me, in Iraq, millions suffered and struggled (and still do). And for those who might want to kill me? How could I not recognize their humanity? How could I not also recognize that many of their possible reasons for doing so were sound? All of this has only amplified over time, rather than diminishing.
Kelle Groom: Of your memoir, Nick Flynn wrote, “One question echoes through these pages. How does someone leave a war behind and walk into the rest of their life?” Is this answerable?
Brian Turner: My hope is that the last few pages of the book might prove useful in considering these questions.
Kelle Groom: One of the most powerful sections of your memoir begins:
“The soldiers enter the house, the soldiers enter the house.
Soldiers, determined and bored and crackling with adrenaline, enter the house with shouting and curses and muzzle flash, DET cord and 5.56 mm ball ammunition. The soldiers enter the house with pixelated camouflage, flex-cuffs, chem lights, door markings, duct tape. The soldiers enter the house with ghillie suits and M24 sniper rifles, phoenix beacons and night vision goggles, lasers invisible to the naked eye, rotorblades, hellfire missiles, bandoliers strapped across their chests.”
Can you talk about the creation of this incantatory chapter?
Brian Turner: I was an infantry sergeant while in Iraq. I was also one of my platoon’s demolition guys. During the various missions my platoon took part in, we conducted so many raids that they blur and meld in my mind. They break into pieces, fragments, moments, voices, sounds, gestures, images. When I think of those raids, the fragments roll in like waves, one after another. In this sense, the form in this section is organic and it builds in intensity, just as my own body reacts to the gathering of memory.
The key to finding my way into this section, however, came from an unexpected and phenomenal source: Rick Moody. I saw him read his absolutely stunning story, “Boys” (from Demonology) during a visit he made to Lake Tahoe, where I direct the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing. The form he created with that story has incredible velocity; it’s a vehicle with great power. It’s a gift I’ve done my best to honor.