How has your first book changed your life?
102. Brian Turner
Your manuscript won the Alice James Books 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award. How did you find out? Had you sent it out often before that?
When I returned home from Iraq, I used my first month back to type up the poems I had written while in Iraq (and to write another two or three poems). It was very difficult for me to have any distance from the poems and this made it hard for me to have a sense of order in the work. A great friend of mine, the poet Stacey Brown, helped me to create an order and to work on revision ideas at the time--the manuscript she suggested is basically what I sent in at the end of that month to the AJB contest. I was behind on my bills, in debt, and I didn't even have enough money to cover the contest entrance fee--again, Stacey helped by paying my entrance fee.
I'm pretty sure it was a Friday when I was called up by Alice James and told that they'd chosen my manuscript. I was working a variety of odd jobs at the time, really trying to hustle just to make it out in the civilian world, and it was a shocker to know that a publisher had chosen my manuscript.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I remember signing for the box at the front door to my apartment and I remember how heavy the box felt. I also remember opening the box and pulling out each four-book pack (the books were sealed in clear plastic bundles of four). I do remember an odd feeling, too--as I held the first book in my hands, I remember thinking: This is part of me? It was a classic sunny California day and I drove over to my parent's house (they live nearby) to show them. My best friend and I went out to celebrate that night, too.
I've asked many wonderful writers to sign their books for me. Before that first box of books had arrived, I'd already mapped out who I would give those first 25 copies to, but I hadn't ever considered what I would write inside of them. The first time I picked up a pen and opened up to the signing page, I felt as if I were outside of myself, observing myself from a distance. It was a bit surreal.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
April Ossmann, the Executive Director of Alice James Books, has helped guide me as an author every step of the way. She tried to prepare me--she and I often had long phone conversations in which she would mentor me and walk me through the events that were waiting for me.
When I was a young boy, I dreamed of one day growing up to be a writer. One thing I never really considered was that my book would be a doorway through which I would meet a wide variety of amazing people. It's been a great and unexpected gift.
How has your life been different since?
Along with what I said above, I'd have to add that I've been incredibly fortunate with this book, in many, many ways. I love to travel and this book has brought me to many places (including readings in Germany, Ireland, and South Africa). It's also been doing well enough that I've been able to scale back on all of my odd jobs and concentrate on writing and teaching.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I think the biggest surprise for me is the reaction to the book, in this sense: I was surprised that military institutions would invite me to read at their service academies. (I've read at West Point, Annapolis, the Coast Guard Academy, and at the Virginia Military Institute.) I have found that soldiers and officers are eager to talk about what is happening and what has happened.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you?
I have tried to be as accessible to every outlet I can to share these poems with a wider audience. Someone in Germany read an interview I'd done here in America at one point. Because of that connection, he ordered the book, read it, and invited me to read in a festival in Augsburg, Germany. Opening one door sometimes leads to much more than we might have expected.
I was given plenty of great and useful advice, by many people. But I suppose there are a few other small things that might have been helpful. For example, I wish I had kept a travel journal dedicated to the places I visited, the readings I was a part of, and the people I met. I also wish I had sat down with my schedule and been more diligent in scheduling time for new writing--I allowed little to no time for new work.
Some of the best advice I was given related to down time. A wonderful mentor told me, basically: You're going to be incredibly busy and you're going to have many demands for your time and energy. Be sure that you don't overtax yourself. Schedule breaks so that you can refresh your spirit. Not only will it allow for new work to begin, it will help you to maintain the passion you need in order to share the work you've done.
What advice would you give now to someone about to have a first book published?
I would encourage them to take the time to sort of take stock of their lives. If they are going to be doing readings and presenting their work in a public way, then they might want to consider: what is private and what is public?
There are some things I decided early on not to disclose. For example, I am often asked why I decided to join the military in the first place, after earning an MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. I do share many of the reasons that lead me to join the military. But I often respectfully decline to share all of my reasons for joining.
At first, I felt a crimp on my writing. There is more I want to write about Iraq. But if I do that, will I basically typecast myself as a writer? I also felt a pressure, from within, to write something important and worthy of a reader's time. This is a terrible way to approach the page.
Last summer, I was invited to teach 18 gifted writers in Oklahoma at a summer arts institute (where high school kids from around the state gather to create and study art). Each day I gave assignments to these writers and watched how receptive they were, how open to the possibilities the blank page offers. The page is a creative expanse, a majestic landscape, and it waits for us each day. We need only arrive to witness what lives there. These young writers in Oklahoma taught me a great deal (and I'm still trying to learn that lesson).
How do you feel about the critical response so far and has it had any effect on your writing?
I try to concentrate mostly on what I'm writing now and what my 'best readers' have to say about it. (I have a few wonderful friends who read my rough drafts and offer great suggestions and insights that really help me grow as a writer and as a human being.)
There have been some great critiques/reviews of Here, Bullet that I've been able to learn from as a writer. But it's tough. Each new work has its own pitfalls to overcome.
Do you want your life to change?
In terms of writing, I want to write a novel and to feel what it's like to create a world in that form.
I'm working on a collection of short stories centered in Uganda. It's a step toward the novel and I'm excited about the possibilities it's opening up on the page.
Yes. Poetry can touch us and teach us spiritually, emotionally, politically, intellectually. It is a physical experience. I've seen people in tears simply from listening to the poetry filling the air.
There is much work that needs to be done in the world around us and within us.
I believe in the maxim that a writer's job isn't to pose the solutions to the problem; a writer's job is to state the questions more clearly.
What questions do you have?
The explosion left a hole in the roadbed
The shocking blood of the men
Allah must wander in the crowd
Alhazen of Basra
If I could travel a thousand years back
. . .