On Capturing Complexity: Brian Turner’s War Memoir

September 23, 2014 § 4 Comments

Poet Brian Turner. Photograph by Kim Buchheit.

Poet Brian Turner. Photograph by Kim Buchheit

Brian Turner’s new memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, is astonishing: at times, hard to read, but always impossible to put down.  Becca Lachman gives the book a full review in the new issue of Brevity, and here Brian talks with Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore about the process of writing about war and soldiers:

DM:  You have covered some of this territory, or at least some of this part of your life, in the books of poetry Here Bullet and Phantom Noise. How was capturing this surreal world in prose, particularly memoir, a different challenge?

I felt as if I were working with a much, much larger canvas. One of my life-long friends, Russell Conrad, is a painter, often working in oil. I’ve watched him paint different variations of a scene on the same canvas–over and over, layer by layer—so that the original scene disappears into the foundation of all that remains visible. There’s something analogous here to the process I experienced in the writing of this memoir.

Or perhaps it’s the opposite. Each fragment, each meditation became a way to strip away the paint in order to reveal something of Iraq in 2003, or of napalm in 1981, or a spy plane in the mid-‘60s, or my grandfather struggling to gain the beach on Guam as the Japanese defenders fought to kill him in the water.

And I had to learn to trust in the failures and slippages of memory, the fractures in history where fact turns to smoke and drifts beyond our view. These are lessons I’m still trying to learn—to discover meaning in the ruins of my own life, to assemble what I can from all that remains, and to trust and challenge the landscape of the imagination in equal measure.

DM: Did you intend the segmented, brief chapter form in this book, or did that develop as you wrote and revised?

During a year spent traveling overseas (under the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship), encouraged by an old-school editor, I tried my hand at writing haibun—a traditional Japanese form that often begins with a brief prose travelogue and culminates in haiku. I didn’t know that I was writing a memoir (or even that I was working on a book at the time). I was simply experimenting with form and trying to discover how it shaped my thoughts on memory and travel. While working on these pieces, a much larger essay began to form; this essay was cut down from roughly 90 pages to about 22 pages and then published in VQR as “My Life as a Foreign Country.”

The essay braided fragments into a larger whole and depended upon a reader that enjoys participating in the construction of the work itself. With each subsequent chapter, I tried to create meditations that worked to further develop the elements introduced in the first chapter while situated in a completely new landscape. That is, each chapter had its own unique approach: one chapter was a 3-act play, another was a compilation of haibun, and so on. The manuscript had to be stripped down to its elements and rebuilt, and it’s at this point in the process that the book really began to congeal into its current shape.

So, the impulse to write in brief, segmented chapters that launched the book was something I veered slightly away from (during the middle manuscript drafts) before returning to it in a large-scale way. That said, it was useful to explore and stretch the meditation—in those middle drafts—in order to discover and recover more of what lay waiting within the imagination and within memory.

DM: Other than wanting to write a powerful book, which you have done, did you feel strongly about any political repercussions? In other words, did you ever think, “I’m writing my own anti-war book?” or “Maybe folks who oppose the recent wars will at least understand and empathize with the price paid by the men and women who serve?”  Or was it just the writing, just getting your experience down on paper, clearly and in full, that motivated you?

Over the years I’ve often been asked why I decided to join the military. I think it’s difficult for many to square the idea of a poet/writer and a soldier coexisting within the same human heart. That was part of the motivation. I also wanted to better understand, to get it down on paper–What does it mean, in very deep and meaningful ways, when I say that I joined, in part, because “I come from a family with a long tradition of military service”? I wanted to try to answer the question I’d so often been asked (and had answered at the time with a kind of shorthand response for something much more profound and layered and nuanced).

I still don’t believe I’ve found the answer with this book, but I’m closer to some of what I set out to learn. And, in sharing the work with others, in sharing this meditation, part of my hope is that it might serve to spark a larger, necessary dialogue. Do we fully comprehend the magnitude of responsibility and attentiveness to the world that we take on, as a nation and as individuals within a nation, when we go to war? Do we recognize that the historians nearly always get it wrong? Wars do not sit in history books, neatly encapsulated within parenthesis the way birth and death dates are often inscribed on cemetery tombstones. Wars outlive the firing of the guns.

I also wanted to write something that approached the complexity of the times we live in. I didn’t want to sing to a choir and I didn’t want to preach to those I might politically disagree with. I wanted to recognize the humanity in those I may have fought against, too. I wanted, very much, to try to come closer to understanding my own culpabilities, my own complicities. And, in sharing these, perhaps readers might discover or question their own internal landscapes.

I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t also say that I wanted to make something that might be considered Art. I love the making, the crafting, the tremendously difficult and rewarding moments of discovery available within the field of language. It is a type of architecture, and the raw materials–words themselves–are filled with the crackling electricity of the imagination. I love those moments when I’m lost to a passage that I’m trying to create, the world around me falling away, time suspended, and a moment or an image or a single phrase is all that exists in the world in that very instant of surprise and wonder. I’m addicted to that.

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