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Poet and U.S. Veteran Brian Turner On 'Incoming'

Portrait of Brian Turner in an undated photo.
Justin Hudnall
Portrait of Brian Turner in an undated photo.

Poet and U.S. Veteran Brian Turner On 'Incoming'
Poet and U.S. Veteran Brian Turner On 'Incoming' GUEST: Justin Hudnall, producer, "Incoming"

In every war there always seems to be veterans who rise up and are able to speak about their experience that has been shared by so many. They are artists who can translate the extreme experiences of combat into fundamental truth that everyone can understand. One of those artists who has emerged from the post-9/11 wars is poet Brian Turner, joining me now is Justin had no he is executive director of so say we all that's a San Diego based literary arts collective, he is here to introduce his program about Brian Turner and is part of the incoming radio series. Justin, welcome back to the show. Thank you for having me. This crew out of the say so say we all project that the project here in San Diego and also project core or comes home is that right? That's right the downtown central library were given a grant by Cal Eumenides as part of the project and we were lucky enough to help facilitate that would offering free veteran writing workshops to San Diego and Oceanside. Headed military veterans respond to the call for stories? Is not very strongly. We open it up to national call for print anthology as well and we were really overgrown by response and the quality of the responses was exceptional pixie met when you say writing workshops that mean something comes in with a story to tell you a story and they need to know how to put it in narrative form? We help people tell the story that they want to tell and the way they want to tell it and they come in with an idea usually in this case it's typical to have a variety of stories to choose from and then we hone in on one and we kind of go through 4 to 6 weeks or work with them and it's something that's representative for what they want to tell. EMac now Brian Turner served in Iraq, many of his poems are about the service. How would you say having gone through a lot of different service members coming in with their stories how would you say he manages to capture the experience of the work? Is optional thing about Brian Turner is he's a curator and a collector of veterans voices, he teaches and he's the chair of the program here Sierra Nevada College or letter writers have studied. Brian writes across the spectrum on the subject up war from everything from colds dispassionate to rage and subject matter that's not easy to talk to but the thing that he always accomplishes and I'm so envious of him he humanizes everyone's so beautifully. I think that that's something that in working kind of got lost. The fanfare of combat in the process of being a soldier he really 621 he wanted to know these people. I remember Brian Turner was a guest on midday edition and I was so happy to have them here and he read some poetry for us and I remember one poem in particular that sort of juxtaposed really sort of dropped the whole idea of what PTSD to life and he talked about being in a Home Depot and having flashbacks and in Home Depot because of the lights and the way the crashing to the ground and he did it in such a sort of a matter of fact skillful sort of the way that a really made the connection to someone who's may be floundering around trying to figure out what the heck that is for people. That's right. I think we have to really take the kind of magic out of PTSD and post medic stress I don't think the disorder, I think it's a normal reaction to something as incredible as combat or deployment and I think leaving your brothers and sisters to shared a profound experience and being dropped back into a world that really has not been participating in it who wouldn't have issues their? I think when you're in country you don't manifest as much as you within a Costco or guest Alex Flynn a few month ago is trigger happened in a forklift and it took them right back to Afghanistan. Justin, you have heard an awful lot of stories, an awful lot of dramatic stories and heartbreaking stories I would imagine, from veterans who have been part of the the all writing workshop, I'm wondering what that is done to you, has that changed in some way? It has. And I think for the better. It's been a cathartic process and I myself am not a veteran I work with UN overseas and not a stranger myself by one trauma and it's been really heartening to have people be so candid and so vulnerable. We finished the people who participate in our monthly vamp showcase that we produce here in San Diego, you're going to be nervous about what you're going to say, you're going to struggle in the process of putting it together but when he got there, what would happen when you got on stage is when the five people who want to tell you their story that's why we do this. I think the reason we tell stories is so other people don't feel alone in this world and that's a noble cause I think. It must've been. Hearing about all the stories editing and working with the authors. Is been a incredibly humbling experience without a doubt the most rewarding enterprise in life. Tell us a little bit about the incoming series in general and the episodes that we are going to be hearing on KPBS as the weeks go by. So incoming as a corporate production and it is a form series for veterans appellate shoe stores in their own words from their own mouth which is a very important distention because even with the best intentions it's important and I think veterans have been talked about more than they have been heard about and hopefully by the end have this kind of oral history of storytelling archives that showcases the experience of the post any level veterans experience. And you really do a whole range of experiences of value in this particular series? We do, and we are very committed to trying to represent the military as it serves which is very diverse and I think surprising a lot of people with maybe assumptions of who is soldier is and we always try to explore that assumption pixie like I was the team with Justin had all he is executive director of so say we all and producer of the radio program and podcast incoming, I want to thank you very much for speaking with us today Justin. Coming up after the break a special veterans day edition of incoming. This is KPBS midday edition. Today we're spending the next 20 or so minutes with Mr. Brian Turner from our fall 2015 conversation with three pieces from his collection. Refer to Brian is the poet laureate of veterans writers even though he is to give actual worth a necklace to his name. His collection here bullet won the 2005 features Hollywood and is followed collection pantomimes was shortlisted for 2010 T.S. Eliot prize. He has won the 2006 USA best in the West literary award and poor tree among others. Before he became one of the best-known post-9/11 veteran writers he was Sergeant. terminer serving in Iraq or the third Stryker brigade combat team think of infantry and before that in Boston Herzegovina. His curly serving as the NSA program chair in Sierra Nevada college where many of the writers on this show studied under him and it's that perspective especially as a teacher for returning veterans that is really eager to talk to him about. Here is Brian Turner. Hymen is Brian Turner and I'm about to read a fragment from MMR my life as a foreign country. The soldiers entered the house, soldiers determined and board into the house of shouting curses that court 5.56 mm soldiers entered the house of pixelated camouflage, flex cuffs are markings and duct tape. The soldiers enter the house with only suits and Remington sniper rifles night vision goggles, leaders invisible maker and I missiles bandolier strapped across their chests. The soldiers enter the house on fire team after another and they fight brutal dirty nasty. The soldiers enter the house of the five of the nation and uniforms in Baton Rouge and printed with rubber soles with the desert combat boots. Enter the house and shout him home and here's Johnny. The soldiers enter the house of conversations of Monday night football and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. The soldiers enter the house with obscenities in their tongs. The soldiers enter the house with paperbacks in the cargo pockets buckled down we were soldiers once and young. The soldiers enter the house straight out of Compton with Eminem saying if you have one shot than one opportunity. They enter the house of the left foot they enter the house with the way they wanted the cemetery. The soldiers enter the house with their insurance policies filled out signed beneficiaries named last will and testament sealed in manila envelopes half a world away. Soldiers enter the house having just ordered a new set of chrome mufflers on eBay for the Musick stored under blankets in the garage north of San Francisco. They kick in the door and enter the house with a member backyard barbecues in their minds to kick in the door while cradling their little sisters in their arms they kick in the door and pulled the bargains and canoes from the hillsides of lakes of Minnesota. The kick in the door to bring in the horses from the barn hitching them to the kitchen table inside. The soldiers enter the house with Mrs. Ingram from second grade elementary school and with Mrs. group from AP English and Midshipman air high. The soldiers kick in the door and entered a house with their arms filtered all the harm they ever did enter the house and sit down to consider the equations. The soldiers enter the house the sit crosslegged on the floor, as the family inside watches on watches how the soldiers interrogate them, saying how to say the word for friend in Arabic? How do I see the word love? Private. Miller has holes in the top of his head, what is the work for ghost in Arabic and how many live here next are the ghost in favor of the coalition forces, are the ghosts with us here now? In a telephone ghostwriting? Where the ghosts keep their weapon counts where they sleep at night, what can you tell us about other Ali Baba, is there an Ali Baba? The soldiers enter the house and take of the dusty combat boots and pull out an apology of poetry from a salt pack a rocky portrait today and start reading palms out loud. This is warden and all is well. They say the missiles bombed cities in the airplanes that the clouds farewell. The soldiers remove their flag rest and turn off their radios. The soldiers smile and stretched her arms one of them yawning and other asking for a second cup of chai. Soldiers give chocolates to the little children in the shadows of the house. The soldiers give chocolates to do little children and teach how to flip off the world. The soldiers recite portrays cigarettes and are brought into the room. The soldiers are in the candlelight of the room with Iraqi men and military subtype kneeling sent back over their heads, read verses from rocky portrait today. The soldiers search after night vision goggles and scepter patents on the floor while the children pretending to chocolate there given and their mothers shushing them to begin to cry. The soldiers from Kansas and California to call my college station, the soldiers are moved to block less from the have to show little children that they mean no harm how American the soldiers are. The mapping a picture of water for the bound and blinded man to drink from soon perhaps if there's time. The report you for them call their own poetry in English thing between time and time the cream blood and blood, all is well. All is well the soldiers say. The soldiers kick in the doors and entered a house in subtype diminished military aid and shush to women and drink the spoon sugar stirred in the hot chai and remove their stinking boots and take of their flack vest and that their weapons in turn off their night vision goggles and say to define little children softly with her palms held out in the most tender of gestures they can offer their eyes as brown as the hills were as blue as the rivers of the sea saying all is well at once. All is well. I almost joined the Marine twice when I was 19 years old. 1819 around there. Both times I went down to the recruiter took the test, and talk to them and both times said I would max out the test both times I didn't believe them. I thought maybe my verbal acuity may be in a good day maybe, but the mechanic not a chance, not possible. So I thought they were pulling my leg to pull me in and then I also thought well, if the reverse is true, and I'm a smart guy in the room with mechanical things, like this when a 50 call goes down to fix it, while, I don't want to be in despot. So I grew my hair out pretty long place his guitar in a band called was marked as more charges, or did that guys, as in Fresno California from the Central Valley, and I finished I thought of him going to follow dispensing, finish college, and maybe will tour Japan things like that,*stunning portrait classes that that might help you would lyrics for the band, which did help but then never took off in terms of like CDs and that kind of thing although I still enjoy playing with the guys. When I was about 30 almost 31, I remember I remember thinking in my head I'm going to miss it. I'm going to miss the timings so I wouldn't be allowed to join. I wish I could go back to that guy another version of the Brian Turner and ask him what exactly? I don't think it was fully formed in my mind. In fact when I was in Iraq and infantry Sergeant. Edward Fenton was another collection fibers after I came home, one is written the soldier in the war and the other is the war coming home with me. But I didn't neither really got into question which is something that's been asked for the last 10 years why did you join the Army? Was the impetus to let me to the memoir that I wrote a while although the memoir doesn't answer the question really. It skirts around the just as I'm doing now but I think there's an curtains in my family I know that's true with a lot of families throughout our country that when I was asked a question about reporters I come from a long line of military effort I would say which seemed to answer the question but it doesn't really say nothing at all. What is I really mean? How to get me to sign up and carry a weapon and put a weapon in my hand and actually on the tarmac climb up into the plane that would take me to a combat zone. But I do think it has something to do with manhood and masculinity in my case. There are men and women both after I can just speak for my own personal experience. I think it has something to do about a rite of passage, but the unknown, it seems like a culture once in every generation in large-scale way the tribe sends out its lawyer class into usually somewhere far away and then place for most of us and they go through some type of they come back changed or augmented or altered and they don't talk about it. That's true for the most part of my own family and as a boy I looked up to my uncles, father, grandfather, and heard the stories of those before them and there was always this peripheral discussion violence and war and especially military service in general. So violence in combat were never talked about. Always talk about were the edges of things like National Geographic version of military service like I was hoping the ocean was and what this island was like and what it was flying over this particular landscape never being down inside that moment. I think I learned early on but I wasn't aware of this even up until when I was 30 when I was about to join, I then I'm going to miss it. I think what I was learning was that in order to become the men I mostly beer in my family I would have to do something like that. Go to some foreign place and come back changed. Never to return to myself. A.B. negative the surgeon's point. Failure feels lies under a great feeling of clouds just on the turbulence. With anesthetics dripping from an IV into our arm. The flight surgeon says the shrapnel cauterize us in trouble through our here working this burning a hole through the left long to finish in our back. And all of this she doesn't hear except perhaps his music that faraway music of people's voices when they speak gently, a comfort to her on a stretcher in a flying hospital about to launch to them the rain in the midnight. And failure trips in and out of consciousness as a nurse doubts her lips with a moist towel her poem unveils his forehead. As burnt flesh gives away to the heat of blood, the tunnels opening to fill her. Just enough lot to cough up and drown in. Failure see people working to save her but cannot fill their hands, cannot hear them anymore and once she closes her eyes the most beautiful colors rise in darkness. Tangerine washing into Russian blue at the droning engine humming on in the dragonflies wings island forms pink in the sky and impossible you think precious green. The way of dealing with the fact that failure feels as Don, long gone. About as far from Mississippi as she can get 10,000 feet above Iraq would a blanket draped over her body, in an exhausted surgeon in tears. His bloodied hands on her chest his head sunk down. The nurse guiding him to nearby seat and holding him as he cries and no one hears it. Because nothing can be heard or pilots fly in black op. Lane like a shadow guiding the rain here in the droning engines of midnight. Deflect that's part of your job as a writer? After this I will probably stop by and I will get a to the coffee shop and get iced coffee and get it sugared and cream benefits to sugary and probably gonna not be happy with it should have put it in myself. Wait, what I doing? Sometimes the trivial seems to permeate throughout the day and I know that halfway across the globe there is massive trauma inflicted whether it needs to happen doesn't happen, there's just no conversation about it. I have been watching the news and not hearing not a sentence about about the bombing campaign that were part of right now called the massive air campaign that we have in Iraq against Isys for example. We are a country so accustomed to war, so used to it, right now that it's just breathing, we don't think about breeding we just do it unless someone you are challenged by being on the water or something but we haven't been pushed under water. We can sustain this. For me there something very there's a kind of psyche disconnect in the world when it country and this is something I've said this is one of my themes that's been throughout for me untroubled by living in a country that can wage war and be part of it for so long and not even talk about it. For the most part. So look around to people writing in the cars and here in Florida sadly nobody seems to be texting and driving car there any good at it. And I'm just wondering there so much conversation going on but there is one that seems to very little that's taking place that have to do with things that should be addressed. Part of me saying this is because if we were Iraqis for example from 1991 to 9 until now it would seem as if there was some type of war occupation, there was connected to America continuously. We call the years from 1991 to 2003 sanction years, and the words sanction itself is very sterile but would be called in sanction years if Iraqi jets were flying over Los Angeles or San Diego or Birmingham Alabama and every now and then targeting and installation? Which we call the building. Eliminating enemy targets we did which we might call uncles we met people know by name in that building people we lost. It might feel more like a low-level conflict or war so what I'm saying is we are in our 25th anniversary of war just in Iraq and with Iraq so messy endurance I mean we have endurance. Sebastian it went along with an article he wrote and why coming back or even he's an embedded journalist of course in Afghanistan, and struggled a lot as a lot of his soldier counterparts with coming home and he has this take on the word for him that was specifically about the acting space separated about from a tribe and he knew exactly who was on the side and who wasn't. All of a sudden even he was no longer in a war zone he's never felt more in nature than when he came back to America and lost that tribe. We talk a lot about every entry sickness and the difficulties of coming home but because it's different for everybody I wanted to ask you what reflecting on it was the specific qualities that made transitioning back to civilian life difficult for you. Initially was just tried to slough away Sergeant. Turner and become Brian. I remember right at the very beginning I had to do things like I had to stop my eyes from or try to stop us from scanning the street the way I would do. Sort of rooftops, down to the levels of the building checking the corners of the streets, when I'm walking down the street doing this slow pirouette likes in to see I got my 360 to see what's behind me, not looking on their overpasses as I'm driving and watching the top of the overpass in case something popped up from there and want to go under an overpass, and then exiting on the other side of the freeway not looking back in my rearview mirror to see if there's someone on the other side of the overpass on the top. You know some basic things like that. Sort of sloughing away the job of the soldier on the train part of it. And I guess eventually trying to find a way back into -- I went back with National Geographic to do an essay about the city no longer in uniform no longer a soldier, and this is 2011 I think I was there for a while from December 2011, I was remember walking boots and there was a guy with me at bodyguard is that the soldier's jacket and I think he has a black belt in tae kwon do. I remember thinking that's not really going to help. I mean that might help baby in a car in Fresno but I didn't think it was going to help. He had a pistol but how is good to keep this gives is this guy keep me alive. But as we are walking it's been a few years since I had been in uniform but I did that slow turn, you know, that circled turned as I was walking that. Forward looking back around to check my six, and as soon as I stopped and I have completed it and I was looking forward again looking forward again, the voice in my head was like do not do that again, do not do that again, because I knew I already looked I didn't look Kurdish, I was hoping to look Kurdish, I guess what I'm saying is I can quickly revert back into that given the right situation. That's a good thing but it's also may be a dangerous thing. Even last night my wife and I met a friend at a burger joint hearing College Park in Orlando, and we were sitting down and it was a picnic table outside and our friend sat on the table was parallel right down the street but parallel to the street, Sophie said on one side you look out to the street and if you sit on the other side you have your back to the street. Initially estimate to sit there but it was so uncomfortable as I remember I was to buy my wife but in this one instance I sat across from the table because it was too uncomfortable. It's been 10 years and I'm sure that will happen for much rest of my life and it's the small things like this but many of them don't get talked about and I know this is common for many. This poem is from my second book sense of always, it's called insignia. It starts with a quote which that's one in three female soldiers will experience sexual assault while serving in the military. Insignia. She hides keeping on a roll of foam drape and mosquito netting sand flies hover throughout the night. She sleeps on the vehicle exhaust and heat treatment of mortars three stripes painted on each cold to a rocker of yellow below. It's you she is dreaming of Sergeant, she will dream of you for years to come if she makes it out of this country alive which you probably will. You will be to fire and the hovering breath not the sniper, not the bomber industries. You. I'm here to ask this one nice reprieve let her sleep tonight. Let her sleep. Pause smoke colored mint green and a bottle of mouthwash take a long swirl at it, let it blur your vision into her tremor of life. Explosions in the distance are not your own. If long hours before dawn the banks of the tightest river that her sleep. In her dream your eyes polls of light, you and cheated by Annette while she wakes, under a mattress Senate foam there in the motor pool, she waits to kiss lots into your mouth. Would anyone is known for anything they also can feel like they are trapped by it, you feel like you can no more not be a soldier veteran and I could be a unicorn but you ever feel like I'm ready to be known as not the veteran writer anymore cracks You know come as soon as you said that I could be a unicorn I know people out there are going to quickly they will see his uniform for a moment. Maybe that was my intent all along. Dreams come true. I don't want to raise the past couple of the things that happened in the past are part of the lens I see the world in and we all do that like that. So as I write something new, you know it's good to be in conversation at least in some even in ways that I have no idea or are taken place, and some way the past will be involved at the present and with the future. If I'm lucky to have a future. I do sometimes feel like the work call you numb often invited to places and I will be introduce a soldier poet and I'm no longer a soldier, I'm a civilian, I'm a veteran, and so soldier poet like I'm fighting for poetry, I do call them get me wrong but it just seems I'm hoping if I'm fortunate enough to be able to write more but that might change and shift. The one thing I would like to say there so many things but one just in case is with the current wars in the book lover, I'm a book junkie, and I love to read and there is a wave of war literature that's come to America and it's kind of a it's the right time for writing in America. It's a busy time for writing in America and a lot of new books has been put put on the shelf of what I'm waiting for is that combat narrative, that collection points or that novel with amazing memoir or all of these, that book written by a female veteran or service member, that is put up on that rare high shelf like the Michael Harris Dexter Filkins, the call in for Shays, the Temple Bryans, on that shelf. I know it's coming, I know a lot of them are in writing programs right now and some of them are scribbling away on chapter 17 right now, some town that have never been to but I'm waiting and I'm looking forward to reading that work and learning from them and it's time, it's way overdue. Maybe you've already taught her next. I've been very fortunate there are a couple that I think. If you were to meet soldiers sailors weight women and you could give them one piece of advice what would it be next One piece of advice is tricky but I would encourage them to just take it slow. That part of it will be coming back to the world will be the process, and not to put too much on the civilian population around them. Sometimes I feel like myself I put too much on people in this country, we are we have busy lives there working hard it may not look like at any given moment. If you look at an aunt when it's walking as its one individual aunt, in the dirt, walking along an edge trail it looks pretty purposeless. What is it doing cracks have you ever just watched one and it rambles around checking things out. You can't see really why does that when he to be there. But you start to see if you step back and look at a lot of them you can start to see the formation and you can see community, and you can see an organism of these ants as they try to help each other to survive and make their way in the world. And I was always complain about people punching letters into your cell phones and driving in traffic and it looks inane and banal and pointless oftentimes that I know I'm included in that. Also try to take a little bit easy around us and recognize that some of them have cancer, they have loved ones in the hospital, diseases that will be treated, some of them have failed marriages etc., we have hurdles in our lives but he plays the blues if we live long enough. So to recognize that and just take it slow. I encourage people who meet veterans of service members was come back and those who didn't serve overseas, there is a military community and their transitioning into civilian life of the tents I hear people asked me what should I do for them, what should I say? I heard one person say this once and I repeat the advice and that's just if it seems like something you want to do, it's the natural than just be their friend. And I think that's probably the biggest gift you can give anybody. Connect Brian Turner. Brian Turner. Thank you. With that we conclude our show. Incoming is produced by Mike self Justin Hudnall. Thanks for listening we will talk again soon.

There are men who earn eighty dollars

To attack you, five thousand to kill.

Small children who will play with you,

Old men with their talk, women who offer chai—

And any one of them

May dance over your body tomorrow.

From Brian Turner's "What Every Soldier Should Know"

After earning a masters in fine arts from the University of Oregon, Brian Turner did something probably not many of his fellow students did, he joined the U.S. Army.

He was deployed in 1999 to Bosnia-Herzegovina and finally to Iraq, where he spent a year with the 2nd Infantry Division's 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

He knows whereof he speaks.

And he speaks eloquently. A critic writing in the "New York Times Book Review" said of "Here Bullet," his first book of poems: "Turner has sent back a dispatch from a place arguably more incomprehensible than the moon — the war in Iraq — and deserves our thanks."