Art Talk with poet Brian Turner
Brian Turner. Photo by Kim Buchheit, courtesy of Blue Flower Arts.
"If a body is what you want,/then here is bone and gristle and flesh." ---from "Here, Bullet" by Brian Turner
Having served in the U.S. military for seven years, in his work poet Brian Turner bears witness to the human costs behind the statistics of war, eloquently rendering not only life on the military battlefield, but on the battlefield that is civilian life after military service. He has published two collections of poetry: Here, Bullet, which won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, and Phantom Noise, which was shortlisted for the 2010 T.S.Eliot Prize in Poetry. Turner's work also appears in the NEA anthology, Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families (Random House, 2006), and in 2009, he was selected as a United States Artists Fellow. You can read some of Turner's poetry here.
NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?
BRIAN TURNER: When I look over the last 25 years of my life, I can see a wide variety of answers to this question. With the publication of my first book, I?ve experienced a kind of social engagement unlike anything else in my life. I?m honored to be a small part of a much larger discussion---and that type of interaction is something I hope to continue as I write each new book.
I write intensely on my own, then share it with other writers. (I?ve found the revision process to be very collaborative.) Initially, I write to better understand the interior and exterior world(s). In revision, though, I work hard to discover what the poem is trying to learn (which may be something altogether different from what I am hoping/trying to learn).
NEA: In five words or less, how would you describe your work?
TURNER: It recognizes love. Witnesses loss.
NEA: What?s your earliest memory of engaging with/experiencing the arts?
TURNER: I remember a Joe Cocker album being played over and over one night when I was very young. My mother and a group of her friends were in the living room. I think the album was With a Little Help From My Friends. It was the first time, I believe, that I?d heard the human voice be given such voltage and beauty.
NEA: In 2007, you received an NEA Literature Fellowship. What did that make possible for you?
TURNER: There are many things the Fellowship helped make possible. The main thing it did---it made me realize that a jury of poets, people whose work I deeply admire and respect, had chosen to support my own work with a Fellowship. There is a psychological lift in this part of the Fellowship [that] is difficult for me to put into words. It was tremendously encouraging.
NEA: What is it that poetry allows one to say (and the reader to see) about war---and about the people asked to fight them on the country's behalf---that can't be gleaned from newspaper accounts or other nonfiction?
TURNER: The landscape is war, but the subject is love and loss. Poetry can reawaken us to this fact. It can remind us. The human is what I?m talking about here. The political often overshadows the moment and dominates the conversation in news accounts (and in much of the nonfiction being written). I think it?s important that we know that 14 people died today in a roadside bomb attack, for example. However, the number 14 is not what is lost. The number itself subsumes the lives of 14 people within it (as well as all of those connected to these people). The number 14 can look simple and clear in a newspaper column, but what exists within that number could take the rest of our lives to try to come to grips with and comprehend. This is part of poetry?s work. In poetry, the intellectual and emotional and historical landscapes are often fused together. It?s certainly the case in poetry that serves as witness.
NEA: Why do you think we---the general public---need poetry? Why do you need poetry?
TURNER: We need poetry (and I need poetry) because it is a language that expresses what cannot otherwise be expressed. It creates pathways into the sublime, the profound. At its best, it refuses to flinch or look away. We are renewed and made new by it. In fact, the ?stanza? is a room, a habitable place. Poetry enlarges our interior lives. It allows us to see the world anew.
NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?
TURNER: The community has a need for a wide variety of artists. Some artists offer insights into the interior world, the personal, the individual. Others apply their gaze to the wider constructs of culture. Most work by fusing elements of both. I believe that it is the artist?s responsibility to walk as far as they can into the unknown. They are guides into the human experience. They are the cartographers of the imagination.
NEA: Conversely, what?s the responsibility of the community to the artist?
TURNER: To recognize and support the idea that Art creates doorways into understanding and more fully experiencing our own lives. Beauty has an enduring place in our culture. Without it, our humanity is lessened, our focus shifting from the neocortex to the basal brain.
NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, ?I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can...I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren?t yet part of our work but should be.? When it comes to the field of poetry---or even the arts as a whole---what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work that poets are making that isn?t yet there?
TURNER: Many of the hallmarks of fiction and cinema were once more commonly associated with the domain of poetry. Poetry itself, for the most part, has constricted (and continues to allow itself to be constricted). I?d like to see poetry regain many of these elements---characters, character development, plots and subplots, long sweeping narratives. Collage is the dominant form of our time. We recognize in Frankenstein not only the monster within us, but also that life is a fusing of elements (and there can be incredible beauty in this). I think poetry might use the collage form to renew its relationship to the poetic traditions handed down through the centuries of verse before us.
What isn?t yet in the poetry is that which we now need to learn. I know I may appear to be talking a circle around the question, but it?s true. The vast universe awaits our curiosity.