Combat widens war poet's view

May 2, 2010 

WASHINGTON -- Combat was a good career move for award-winning war poet Brian Turner, though it took a toll.

The native of California's San Joaquin Valley now has a deep, dark pool of memories from which to draw. He dips down, if he dares, and there they are.

He's been learning "how to write about the ghosts that live among us, whether we recognize them or not," Turner said.

Now, the former Army sergeant has a second volume of poems out influenced largely by his service in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The collection called "Phantom Noise" follows up on "Here, Bullet."

Considered the first collection of poems by an Iraq war veteran, "Here, Bullet" helped Turner win the 2009-10 Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Fellowship, a Boston-based award that's given annually to a U.S.-born poet to spend one year outside North America.

The fellowship put Turner in stellar company. Past winners have included literary heavy hitters such as Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Bly and Galway Kinnell. Tellingly, each was tapped early in his career, a sign that much is expected of the Lowell fellows.

More concretely, the fellowship provided Turner with roughly $50,000 so he could spend a year traveling the world.

Back in the United States briefly in late April, waiting for Iceland's volcano ash to clear so he could head to Ireland and then Bosnia, Turner ticked off the countries he's seen thanks to his way with words: England, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Portugal, Spain and Morocco.

"I've met an incredible number of amazing people and I've been able to visit places I never dreamed I'd ever really get a chance to see," Turner said. "Right now I'm still kind of spinning from all the possibilities that have opened up for me."

The Library of Congress catalog lists at least 892 books about the Iraq war, ranging from scholarly treatises and investigative accounts to I-was-there memoirs. Since Turner's "Here, Bullet" walked point in 2005, other poetry volumes also have appeared.

The editors with Maine-based Alice James Books, publishers of both of Turner's poetry collections, still consider him a writer apart, however. They report that "Here, Bullet" sold nearly 25,000 volumes, which for poetry is extraordinary.

In Amazon.com's sales rankings, Turner's slender poetry volumes outperform the Iraq war policy memoirs of former Bush administration officials such as L. Paul Bremer and Douglas Feith.

"He writes what he knows, about his experiences, as many great poets do," said Carey Salerno, the executive director of Alice James Books. "There's sorrow haunting the lines."

Turner writes lines such as these, from his new poem "VA Hospital Confessional":

"I tell no one, but sometimes late at night I uncover rifles and bullets within me.

Other nights I drive through Baghdad. Firebaugh, Bakersfield. Kettleman City.

Some nights I'm up in the hatch, shooting a controlled pair into someone's radiator.

Some nights I hear a woman screaming. Others I shoot the crashing car."

Hard to keep track of globe trotter

Salerno, a poet herself, acknowledged that "it can be hard" for editors to track someone who globe-hops as much as Turner does. He called her the other day from some faraway place, and though she said their conversation was "heartfelt," she had to listen very closely to understand him.

Travel -- wanderlust, perhaps -- is part of the package, though. Well before Uncle Sam showed him the world, Turner spent a year in South Korea teaching English.

"When I return to California, to my life with its many engines," Turner wrote in one new poem, "I find myself changed."

At the ripe old age of 30, he enlisted in the Army. All told, he served seven years. From December 2003 to October 2004, he patrolled Mosul and escorted convoys around Baghdad as a Stryker force team leader. In his downtime he wrote poems, which he e-mailed to editors, eventually finding his market.

Since he left the service, Turner, who's now in his early 40s, has received several fellowships, worked construction and taught some community college classes. Starting in the fall, he'll be teaching at Sierra Nevada College near Lake Tahoe.

"We've reached the line of departure," Turner wrote in one new poem. "So lock and load, man. From here on out we are on radio silence."

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