American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq

You can say things in poetry and they have to be said that way. There are no other words. But if you say them to most of the people I was working with [in Iraq], they would go, 'What the fuck's wrong with this guy?' I would talk to them in one way, but there are these other things I have got to express, that are boiling around in me. I can see now that poetry was a very useful process."

There are, it seems, two Brian Turners. The first is Sergeant Brian Turner, who in November 2003 began a year-long tour of Iraq. Those "people I was working with" were his fellow infantrymen in the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

The Brian Turner I meet is the 47-year-old prize-winning writer, whose poems, drafted in secret while on active service, have shaped his life over the past decade. His debut collection, 2005's Here, Bullet, won several prestigious awards; Turner's experiences in Iraq hang heavy over his second volume, Phantom Noise, which was nominated for the TS Eliot Prize and expands his range with meditations on his father, on Bruce Lee, and on finding love with his second wife, the poet Ilyse Kusnetz.

"Now I see that Sergeant Turner was a role – that he was too small a space for any human being to live in. Normally we have larger roles: husband, teacher, friend – all these fragments that compose our self. In Iraq I was just Sergeant Turner. But my notebooks were a space where my imagination could explore a larger whole."

Both Turners collide in an extraordinary and powerful prose memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country. Some of its 136 sections are visionary to the point of fiction: imagining an Iraqi bomb-maker, for example. Others are unflinchingly candid about boredom, fear, suicide and sex, in ways that Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen could scarcely have imagined. But it is also a story of salvation, of sorts, through love and art.

We talk in Liverpool, where Turner is reading alongside the poets Carolyn Forché and Ilya Kaminsky at an event exploring literature and war. Turner stands out as the only writer to have served, spending two of his seven years in Bosnia before that final tour of Iraq. In this, he participates in a tradition dating back to Sassoon, Owen, Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg writing from the trenches of the Great War, and Keith Douglas's work from the Second World War. Britain has not produced anything to compare since. The US, by contrast, has amassed an ever-expanding canon over the past half-century.

Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was inspired by the bombing raids he flew in the Second World War. Thom Jones may have been discharged from the Marines before his platoon was sent to Vietnam, but the stories in The Pugilist at Rest are classics of the period. Arguably the laureate of contemporary American soldier-poets is Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien. His masterpiece The Things They Carried casts a shadow not only over Turner's memoir but also writers such as Kevin Powers, whose prize-winning novel The Yellow Birds was followed by his first volume of verse, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, and Phil Klay, whose story collection Redeployment was described as "the best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America's recent war" by the New Yorker. Benjamin Busch may be best known for roles in The Wire and Generation Kill, but his memoir Dust to Dust and poems have earned him widespread acclaim.

"I feel there's a great inheritance," Turner acknowledges. "Our songs sing backwards as well as forwards, but first they have to sing in their own time. We inherit these words of war, but I am learning the definition of them as I go into combat."

Iraq did not make Brian Turner want to be a poet: he completed a Master of Fine Arts course in creative writing before joining up. But it certainly made him the poet he is today, giving him a subject and a voice. Poems such as "Ferris Wheel", "Night in Blue" and "The Hurt Locker" are by turns terse and lyrical, shot through with despair but alive to fleeting beauty.

Turner recognises that the marriage of writing and fighting makes for unique, if occasionally unsettling perspectives. Soldier-writers don't simply bear witness to war, they are implicated in the violence they describe. "I was an occupier, an invader. Being a part of this mighty military apparatus imposes a power dynamic on the story. I believe that some child whose door I kicked in will have more to tell us about the war than anything I could say. We don't yet have that witness. Over the years hopefully we will learn more."

He gives an example. Nicknamed The Professor, Turner wrote depositions that imprisoned young, possibly innocent, Iraqi men arrested on raids. "Putting people in prison is something I have to live with for the rest of my life. Who knows whether they should have been there or not? Complicity starts with me, but I don't want to use the book as a confessional."

"Complicity" is a favourite word of Turner's, just as "I have to live with…" proves to be a recurring phrase. This complicated complicity is expressed through two related questions. The first he was asked on a previous visit to Liverpool by an inmate at Walden Prison: "Did you kill anyone in the war?" His response is always the same: "1.2 million" – the estimated death toll of Iraqis since the US-led invasion in 2003.

The second question, which Turner claims no one ever asks, is, "Did someone try to kill you?" When I take the bait, Turner's answer is, characteristically, both personal and philosophical, an act of memory and an attempt at empathy. "I wondered about the people who tried to kill us – who pulled the trigger or set off the bomb." Turner recalls the day he was almost blown up by a rocket-tropelled grenade. "He was shooting at me. There was no one else there. Does he now wonder about me? Am I one of the ghosts he carries in his head? He might think that he killed me. How does he live with that? Would he be happy if he found out he hadn't?"

Turner is participating in a tradition dating back to Sassoon (pictured), Owen, Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg writing from the trenches of the Great War Turner is participating in a tradition dating back to Sassoon (pictured), Owen, Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg writing from the trenches of the Great War (Getty Images)
War, Turner writes in his memoir, is "the narrative I have carried with me all my adult life". Joining up was both a challenge and a form of destiny. His grandfather fought in Bougainville, Guam and Japan during the Second World War. His uncle fought in Vietnam. His stepfather flew high-altitude reconnaissance missions over Russia. His biological father served in the American Navy. "When I was seven years old I was learning to emulate these men. [I knew] I would have to go on a similar journey, and come back, to understand them and be like them. It's a pathology, an illness handed down." Turner was proved right. Iraq made him one of the family. "They talked about the periphery of war but not its interior until I came back from one."

Turner himself has no such qualms. He talks openly about his disillusion and sense of complicity after Abu Ghraib. "It was like a light switch. You could see deep disappointment on people's faces [at home]. There was a lot of resentment and anger." He speaks vividly about Iraq as "a year of boredom punctuated by intense events or moments. They might be two seconds or 36 hours. Then back to boredom." Many of these episodes inspired Turner's earliest war poems such as the eerie combination of terror and death-wish in Here, Bullet: "If a body is what you want,/then here is bone and gristle and flesh./ Here is the clavicle-snapped wish…"

The lure of violence is one of many uncomfortable truths Turner has had to confront over the past decade. He remembers a conversation with his squad leader shortly before returning home in 2004. They were on a hillside outside Mosul, watching the city burn beneath grey skies. "My squad leader said, 'Man, this is beautiful.' He turned to me and said, 'You're going to miss this.' I think that's when it's disturbing – that allure. That's what worries me about writing books [such as the memoir]."

This allure may sound close to obscene, but it proves hard to give up, especially for k veterans returning to dead-end jobs, limited prospects and divorce: only one relationship in his entire platoon survived that year in Iraq. "You come back to that shit job, changing diapers, supermarkets. It's vacuous. There's a lot of meaning possible but it's hard to see. That's why I think people want to go back to where the moment is so heightened."

Coping with the anti-climax of the everyday is, tragically, the least of the challenges facing American veterans today. "For most people, Iraq is like a slow-motion car wreck over a year," says Turner. "And then you step out of the car wreck and try to figure what it was all about." Suicide runs throughout his work – as a weapon, an escape (the poem "Eulogy"), a symptom of trauma and ultimately a release. "When I was writing [the memoir], the suicide rate in America of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan was 18 a day. For the rest of our lives there will be people committing suicide and it is connected to their experiences there." He pauses. "Among the Iraqi population you could expand that number in far greater ways." Has Turner ever contemplated suicide? He takes a second to respond. "No, actually. I have been very fortunate."

There are moments, however, when even the resilient Turner alludes to his own psychological scars. "There are still things I don't share around it. There are things that have to do with other people in the platoon that I don't talk about. They are things for other people to write about."

Later, he mentions talking to a troubled student whose desire to "be medicated 'for the rest of my life…' rang bells for me". He is critical of the support offered to veterans of all America's recent wars. His grandfather has only recently been offered pills to help him sleep, despite decades of insomnia. "We have a slow learning curve. People are so quick to send soldiers out into the world, then so reticent to deal with the consequences."

I ask Turner whether he considers himself a political writer. "How can you not be?" he replies, before mentioning his visit to a Swedish town that has taken in 12,000 Iraqi refugees. "That's more than the entire United States.

"What does it say about a country that can bury so many people, cover them over with dirt [as they] take their last breath, and then know nothing about them? It's astounding. There is a deep sickness in a culture that can wage war and not even pay attention to it."

He sounds pessimistic about the prospects for progress in his homeland. "People aren't doing anything. I go to college campuses across America and it is quiet." He contrasts this with his own college experience in the mid-1990s. "There was shit going on all over the world and at that time there was a very active political atmosphere on the campus. Now there are wars going on and no one is talking about the soldiers in the field." Later, he adds: "This is partly why I share the book. I want people to give a shit. The war is not over. The historians are wrong. We have decades of work ahead of us just with Iraq, not including the fighting going on right now."

Turner himself remains a work in progress. Happily married to Kusnetz, he teaches creative writing at Sierra Nevada College. When I ask whether he has learned to live not only with Iraq, but after Iraq, he offers a haunted take on Rupert Brooke's vision of "a corner of a foreign field/That is forever England"... "Part of us died in Iraq. We are like ghosts still wandering the landscape and it is a static landscape for the most part. Occasionally it is interrupted by news of change, such as Isis coming down. But it is not just the war here in America. It's us still left in the war."

I ask whether poetry helps him understand these feelings of loss, the death of one Brian Turner and the survival of another. "I guess I am trying to find a way," he begins, before asking his own questions. "How do I live with the memories I have? How do I integrate that experience so I can be healthy and happy for the rest of my life? I'd like to be happy, do useful, good things. How can I do that with this baggage I carry?"

So, I wonder, how do you do that? Turner smiles. "I am still trying to figure it out."

'My Life as a Foreign Country' is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £16.99

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