Brian Turner on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Brian Turner by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


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Biographical Information—Brian Turner

turnerBrian Turner’s latest book, My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir (W.W. Norton & Co. US 2014; Jonathan Cape/Random House UK 2014) has been called “Achingly, disturbingly, shockingly beautiful” by Nick Flynn and “a humane, heartbreaking, and expertly crafted work of literature” by Tim O’Brien. A Dutch edition was published in 2015 and an Italian edition is forthcoming in 2017. His two collections of poetry: Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2005; Bloodaxe Books, 2007) and Phantom Noise (Alice James Books 2010; Bloodaxe Books 2010) have also been published in Sweden by Oppenheim forlag and Poland by Galeria Literacka. His poems have also been published and translated into Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish.

His poetry and essays have been published in the New York Times, National Geographic, Poetry Daily, Virginia Quarterly Review, Georgia Review, and other journals. Turner was featured in the documentary film Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which was nominated for an Academy Award. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship, 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. Phantom Noise was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in England in 2011. His work has appeared on National Public Radio, the BBC, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Here and Now, and on Weekend America, among others.

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). As well as an infantryman, Brian has worked as a machinist, a locksmith’s assistant, a convenience store clerk, a pickler, a maker of circuit boards, a dishwasher, an EFL teacher in South Korea, a low voltage electrician, a wide variety of day labor jobs, and as a radio DJ.

Another of his ongoing passions is music; Turner was the bass guitarist for Fresno-based bands The Dead Guys, Chrome Grandma & the Shakes, and The Dead Quimbys. His recent musical collaborations and compositions include a concept album to complement an ongoing book-length poetry project.

Composer Shawn Crouch set Turner’s poetry to music, which was recorded by Chanticleer as “Gardens of Paradise” on their album Best of Chanticleer (Warner Classics, 2010). Other composers who have taken up Turner’s work and woven it into their own pieces include Jake Runestad and Rob Deemer—with performances by Vocal Essence, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, the Manitoba Singers, and at Carnegie Hall (November 2016) with the Park Avenue Symphony Orchestra and Choir.

Turner co-edited The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders (McSweeney’s, 2013) for The Poetry Foundation. He serves as a contributing editor at The Normal School, and he curates an ongoing series for Guernica Daily called “The Kiss.” He also founded and directs the MFA in creative writing program at SNC Tahoe, which emphasizes writing in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and writing for children and young adults.

Brian is married to poet Ilyse Kusnetz. They live in Orlando, Florida.

For more about Brian Turner: www.brianturner.org.

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Intro to My Life as a Foreign Country

I am a drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body, flying over my wife as she sleeps beside me, over the curvature of the earth, over the glens of Antrim and the Dalmatian coastline, the shells of Dubrovnik and Brčko and Mosul arcing in the air beside me, projectiles filled with poems and death and love.

I am 32,000 feet over the Atlantic seaboard. The fields, the orchards, the woodlands below press together the way countries on maps do, coursing waterways, paved roads and dirt tracks and furrows cutting through. Countries touching countries. Bosnia and Vietnam and Iraq and Northern Ireland and Korea and Russia pressed together in the geography below. Cumulus scattered above them, their shapes authored by sunlight on the ground beneath. The Battle of Guadalcanal emerges from the shadows where my grandfather lives. Now Bougainville. Guam. Iwo Jima.

Highway 1—Iraq’s Highway of Death—stretches through desert on one side and California’s San Joaquin Valley on the other. The eucalyptus trees of my childhood line the sides of the highway. In places I can see the scorch marks on the asphalt where transport trucks were left to burn. My dead Uncle Paul steals oranges in the night groves there, just as he did when I was eight years old, while fresh dark earth covers the newly dead on the other side of the highway. Owls perch on their gravestones calling out for water.

Each night I do this, monitoring heat signatures in the landscape, switching from white-hot to black-hot lenses as I bank and turn, gathering circuit by circuit the necessary intelligence, all that I have done, all that we have done, compressed into the demarcations in the map below.

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