By Cassandra Sottile
Elm Staff Writer
Before writing award-winning poetry collections, Brian Turner was a soldier, serving seven years in the U.S. Army. He wrote much of his poetry while deployed in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. On Feb. 21, he read some of his work at Washington College.
“The best poetry is written in contemplation. While in Iraq, I wrote on the spot with the fire of immediacy,” he said.
Turner’s reading was part of the Personal & the Political series. He has written two poetry collections: “Here, Bullet,” published in 2005, and “Phantom Noise,” published in 2010. “Here, Bullet” won the Beatrice Hawley Award, The New York Times’ Editor’s Choice selection, the 2006 PEN Center USA Best in the West award, and the 2007 Poets Prize.
Turner’s poetry deals with topics such as the loss of identity, the suicide rate of veterans, the continuity of war, and tries to answer the question of what war is.
“These are all things that we have to think about. The suicide rate among veterans is between 18 and 22 per day. My entire platoon could be dead by tomorrow. America has been at war non-stop for a quarter of a century, yet it doesn’t feel like a warzone. If this is the case, we have to ask ourselves ‘is the war actually over, and will it ever be?’” Turner said.
His work also highlights recent events in history. His poem “Horses” is about the occupation protest in Oakland, Calif. where protestors were hit with tear gas canisters. Another one of his poems focuses on the Iraqi Olympic team at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and all the red tape the team had to get through. Another deals with the sexual assault women experience while serving in the military.
“There is still so much work to do in our country,” he said.
Turner’s poetry is based on topics that are arguably distant considerations for traditional students.
“His poetry is highly specific and it is understandable to have difficulty relating to his experiences; however, not once during his reading did I have trouble understanding what he was discussing. He has succeeded in creating this feeling of universality within his works, something that not many writers are able to accomplish,” said junior Casey Williams.
“The public has this stereotyped ideal of veterans: they’re treated differently and distanced from the general population. I have heard all things Turner discussed many times before, through activists, writers, news articles, and so on. Hearing it spoken in person, not only by a veteran, but by a poet, is different,” Williams said.
Turner’s ability to communicate his experiences through poetry results in a powerful and emotional experience.
“There is an overlap between poet and soldier, one that allows me to give back the name of Sgt. Turner to history. Three decades of war plagued with the sufferings of millions. What is war? That’s why I write poetry,” he said.