Monday, 10 October 2011

An interview with Mark Burnhope

Mark Burnhope was born in 1982 and studied at London School of Theology before completing an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University. His work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications. He currently lives and writes in Bournemouth, Dorset with his partner, four stepchildren, two geckos and a greyhound, and his first chapbook, The Snowboy, was recently published by Salt.

I talked to him about it, poetry in general, and much much more…

How much of an influence is your background in theology on your writing? One of the things I liked most about The Snowboy was the way it made me look afresh at religion, and specifically Christianity, in terms of metaphor.

That’s very kind of you. Yes, my first degree was in theology, and you could say it’s been a lasting influence, especially some progressive and liberation theologies like Nancy L Eisland’s The Disabled God, and various things written from within the L’Arche Community. In poetry, though, I try to avoid exploring those abstract concepts in a way which divorces them from life (‘No ideas but in things’ and all that). I’m a fan of the Metaphysical poets; as well as being serious explorers of faith, they were irreverent satirists. In Donne’s early work there’s this confusion, self-doubt, the personal tension of needing to write honestly while still honouring God, and that kaleidoscope of feeling, mingled with a range of aesthetics, often amounts to something very funny. My poem The House, the Church and Fisherman’s Walk is a slightly farcical metaphysical conceit where I pit two Christianities’ pictures of disability against one another. It has some of the ecstasy of Hopkins, and the comedic side of Dylan Thomas.

I try not to write narrowly ‘religious’ poetry, but I’ve found threads in the poetry I’ve loved and pulled them together: the Romantics, landscape and nature, Confessional poetry, which grabbed me in a big way as a teenager, and hasn’t let go. I love strong, blunt feeling. Emoliage, with its flower that can never be black enough, plays with that stuff. If my poems have ‘God’ in them, I hope it’s by way of motifs, metaphors and symbols which add up to an impression of him/her/it. I’m usually more interested in open-ended symbol than metaphor. RS Thomas saw words as vessels which embody, or signs which point towards, ‘something other’, rather than just descriptors. His poems have that sacramental / incarnational approach. I see it in current poets like Michael Symmons Roberts and Andrew Philip. I try to make that part of my writing. Thomas often used ‘The Poet’ for ‘God’, which is symbolically suggestive, not prescriptive. I’ve used ‘The Man Upstairs’ in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, playing with the story of the seamstress that Schopenhauer allegedly pushed down the stairs (and to whom he’d owed money for 20 years). God backs me up in my demand to see buildings made accessible, but there’s this suggestion that maybe he metaphorically pushed me (or us) down the stairs, and is shifting responsibility. So it’s not all overly serious. In other poems, God is situated in a landscape or relationship. I want to leave space for the reader to interpret things for themselves.

Ah, I didn’t want to mention RS Thomas, because I’m such a fan, I tend to worry that I see his influence even where it’s not! I think in talking about ‘The Man Upstairs’, you touched on one of the other things that’s most impressive about the chapbook – its very pragmatic, realistic engagement with political concerns, most notably disability. My own impression is that this is something that’s gathering real momentum in UK poetry (thank heavens) – do you think that’s the case?

I really hope so. I remember discovering Zbigniew Herbert years ago; his deadpan, caustic wit in dealing with difficult and public subjects like the Nazi occupation in Poland, and received religious and poetic meaning. I wanted to see people doing similar now in the UK. It cemented my view that poetry is as diverse as visual art, so political and near-the-knuckle subjects should be encompassed and encouraged. There’s only so much pure wordplay I can take. I hear talk about ‘poetry for poetry’s sake’, and I know what it’s getting at, but nothing can be written in a vacuum. There are always cultures, viewpoints, theories buried in the words. Word-choice and form can carry a political and public message as much as, or better than, any soapbox.

Maybe the biggest clue that we don’t sniff at political / social activist stuff anymore is that Blake is back in fashion (was he ever out of fashion?). There’s great queer poetry being written in the UK at the moment, John McCullough’s The Frost Fairs and others. Lots of stuff which isn’t UK-centric: Vesna Goldsworthy’s Crashaw prize-winning The Angel of Salonika, just out from Salt, is partly based in her ‘vanished Balkan homeland’, Communist Yugoslavia, but also speaks about learning to write poetry in English. I’ve only read a sample, but there seems to be an undercurrent about resituating ourselves, finding freedom in language then having to take that freedom back when old ways are lost to memory. That makes me think about reforming language in a political sense, to speak about things which we apparently can’t or shouldn’t. I recently reviewed two first collections by David Swann and River Wolton. They cover prison life, war and political exile consecutively. There’s that social element again, the urge to prove Auden wrong, and see that poetry does make something happen.

The other thing I’ve noticed recently is sheer variety, the blurring of boundaries like ‘light’ and ‘serious’, ‘mainstream’ and ‘experimental’. Poems are multilingual, multi-worldview, infinitely pliable in structure, respectful of ‘tradition’ and given to linguistic anarchy. Katy Evans-Bush’s Egg Printing Explained has a kaleidoscopic approach where no worldview, school or aesthetic is given precedence. Jonty Tiplady, Anthony Joseph, Benjamin Friedlander (and so many others) are pushing that pretty far. Some have called this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach ‘post-lyrical’. I don’t know the term, but to me it amounts to a political act; or at least, it reflects where we are as a culture: a desire for diversity, inclusion, equality. That’s a good landscape for poets to deal with those difficult public subjects, I think. I’ve found so little poetry being written from within disability in the UK. In America there’s a fledgling movement some have called crip poetry, comparable to queer poetry in that it’s trying to redress tradition, a very able-bodied one in this case; trying to take back and redefine vocabulary (‘crip’ as a term of endearment, for one). My interest in that happened by accident. In compiling my poems, I realised that lots of them had this disability, prejudice and discrimination thread running through them. I’m happy to join the conversation, if there is one. It seems arrogant to think I’m starting one; I just want to write more poems. Incidentally, I’ve just heard of an anthology of American disability poetry coming out in September, called Beauty is a Verb. Really excited about that.

One question I always find myself asking poets is how their collection came together. Did you set out writing with a definite plan, or was it more a case of allowing ‘occasional’ poems to coalesce around the themes that emerged?

There was no plan initially, I was just collecting together what I thought were my best poems. But I wanted the book to cohere in some way, not just be a random collection of jottings. They had to talk to each other. I’d had vague ideas before: one of those was to respond to Blake. I had a couple of poems which did, but not enough reasons to force the Blakean idea on the whole pamphlet. I had poems about the sea, and at one point I thought I’d have a sea pamphlet. But then that seemed too one-note for me, even though I’d seen others do it well. I had these epistles to fictional characters, and chose three of the best ones. I hadn’t been consciously writing about disability or faith at the time; they were both things that I wanted to do, but I considered them blind spots (apart from two or three poems which spoke of disability explicitly; they were a fluke, I thought). But collecting them together, I found that I’d used these images of the body – sea, land, constructed things, buildings, puppets, machines, monuments. I’d written poems where prejudice tended to pop up, those prejudices which religion has tried to excuse, to do with the body, sexuality, nationality. I wanted The SnowboyThe Snowboy was a good central poem to encompass the whole. I got used to that idea pretty quickly. That’s when I had my title. in there but it was a while before I saw it as an emotional focal point, being born out of the miscarriage my partner and I had grieved a couple of years ago. Ira Lightman was looking at the manuscript, and one day he said that

That seems a good point to ask about influences and mentors. I think I was very lucky when I started writing and publishing that the internet was just starting to make it easy to get feedback and support from all over the place, and that seems to be even more the case now. Or have you been part of a more traditional ‘scene’, centred on a local group, for example?

In some ways, I’d love to say I’ve been part of a ‘scene’ or a local group. I’ve seen these mentoring schemes and always slightly envied anyone who did them. The truth is, I did my creative writing MA, but I didn’t write much poetry as part of the course. I’m not sure what it’s like now, but at the time it was very much focussed on fiction, and to say I’ve written very little fiction since would be the understatement of the century. No, I’m definitely a product of the Internet generation. I’ve been a member of the online poetry workshop PFFA for a few years, and that’s where I’ve learned so much of my craft. The opportunities the Internet gives you to meet other writers either at a similar stage as you, or a little further forward, is staggering. PFFA allowed me to learn the technical basics, to interact with a few writers I didn’t know who were going through the same baptism of fire as I was, as well as a few I’d already read and respected. Around the time I was published in Magma last year, I was reading about the need to have an ‘online presence’, so I started blogging, feeling the fear but doing it anyway. Shortly after that I joined Facebook. I didn’t know how to network, but I said hello to various poets one after the other. Some of them have become good online friends, and haven’t been shy about critiquing and offering advice. So I feel as if I’ve had lots of mentors. There are so many poets I’d thank for their advice, criticism, correction and support over the last year or much more, if only I could get them all in the same chat room.

And how about the next step? Are you working towards a full collection?

Well, first things first: I have The Snowboy to promote. I have a poem in Roddy Lumsden’s new anthology The Best British Poetry 2011 (Salt), which is doing well I think. I have poems in two other anthologies coming up, the details of which will be released fairly soon. I have vague ideas about what a first collection might look like. But I’ve only been publishing poems for just over a year. I’ve got a way to go, I’m in no rush. I have a couple of new pamphlet ideas, one of which might go to The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, if I can get it up to scratch. I’m excited about pamphlets; they’re realistically inexpensive, a good introduction to a poet’s work, and a great way for a writer to practice collecting together poems on a larger scale. I’m happy to stay in that territory for a while. Other than that, I’m going to just keep writing poems, and reviews. I hope to end up with enough stuff for a full collection, eventually.

Yes, the revival of chapbooks in the last decade or so is something I like a lot, and a lot of younger poets, or new poets (Helen Mort is one who immediately springs to mind), seem to be using them really imaginatively to try different approaches before moving to a full collection. I want to ask now about readings – do you do them, and is it something you enjoy?

I’m fairly new at reading my poems, and the only major readings I’ve done so far were at the Magma 48 launch last year, and the Best British Poetry launch in September. But I plan on doing more, yes. I have a couple of readings coming up for the Salt Modern Voices Tour, in Oxford (24th Oct) and London (28th Nov). Part of the problem is my lack of funds, a car, and the lack of disabled access in so many of the venues where poetry is read. I’ve not found a reading venue without a staircase (or with a lift) yet. There’s an infinite amount of loopholes preventing many cultural heritage sites, arts venues and stuff, from becoming accessible. So there are those barriers. Lack of disabled access is possibly a big factor in why there aren’t more physically disabled people on the circuit. But yes, I’m looking to do more readings whenever I can, and based on the Magma 48 launch, I can say that I really do enjoy the live event. I have this uncomfortable mixed feeling: I think poetry really does belong on the stage (and if it was seen in more public performance venues, maybe it would get wider recognition) but that as long as readings are held in cellars and lofts, it’s excluding some of us. That complaint isn’t exclusive to poetry: I was in a band for 10 years or so, and the problem of finding gigs at accessible venues was the same. As a way of counteracting all that, I’ve been looking at alternative ways of providing readings online, all of that viral marketing stuff. I don’t think the Internet has been fully mined yet, in terms of the opportunities it might present to those with similar difficulties in ‘getting out there’.

I think that’s a good point – I’m not sure poets and people staging poetry events always think hard enough about just what audience they’re trying to attract. It’s interesting that you mention a band – what did you play? And did your involvement in poetry and music ever cross over?

I was in a rock band, yeah. I played drums. We formed (if I remember rightly) in ’97, when the grunge / alternative scene was still a huge deal. At that point we were called Hollow. I don’t think my musical heart has ever really left Seattle, to be honest (I’ve never been to Seattle, but in terms of that early-mid 90’s music scene). We changed our name to The Witness Reel much later on, when one of our friends joined as a fourth member, our style was changing quite a bit, and there was a trend of having ‘The’ at the start of your band name. Shortly after that, we all lost touch for various reasons, and now we’re all living in different parts of the country. I miss the gigging, actually. If I could go back, I would definitely try to involve my poetry in some way. I really believe in all the projects people are doing to fuse the artforms, or just have them work alongside one another. That synthesis is really important. Poetry started with that, didn’t it? The word ‘lyric’ gets thrown around today, but its original intent has largely been lost. Anyway, when I was playing in my band, I hadn’t fully settled on poetry as a main priority. I did try and get a few songs written, but I don’t play guitar, so the most I could do was to write lyrics and give them to Jon, our guitarist and songwriter, to see what he could do with them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Besides, you’ve heard all the jokes about drummers who think they can write songs? Needless to say, mine never became live staples.

Finally, one question slightly out of left field – which one thing would you do to enthuse schoolkids about poetry (it can be as little as exposing them to a particular poem)?

I’ve only taught young adults, and in a charity workshop capacity rather than school. But based on the little experience I have, the first thing I think is that we can’t force enthusiasm. It seems to me that kids need to know that their own response is OK. Very often our own response is all we have as a bridge into a poem. Something about training kids to answer questions ‘correctly’ in order to pass exams etc. seems paradoxical (if not antithetical) to teaching poetry, because all that stuff tricks kids into thinking they should always be aiming for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers. The one thing they’re not being asked is ‘What do you think?’ There’s always a fear that they will say ‘I hate it; it’s rubbish.’ Why are we scared of that? We could be saying ‘OK then, tell me why it’s rubbish.’ There’s a massive learning opportunity there; and when we’re encouraged to delve in and find out why we don’t like a poem, we often realise that we actually do. This piece of writing we once thought had nothing going for it is actually extremely exciting. That’s exactly what happened to me years ago with The Red Wheelbarrow.

I’m not sure kids need encouragement to write poetry; create the right environment and they will. They do need teachers who will tell them it’s OK to write poetry – in fact, it’s cool, and fun, and can be meaningful to them. Those teachers need to then cultivate talent when they see it, as one teacher – Mr. Matthews – did for me during my GCSEs. Most kids are worrying about what their friends will think if they pick up a pen and withdraw from the ‘real world’ of video games and football. Again, there’s a balance to strike. We can’t force kids to think poetry is cool. We have to rely on the fact that it just is, and some kids will see that. Some won’t, but that’s alright. Films and music are cool as well. Oh, and we need to be showing kids more contemporary stuff. They need to know that poetry’s still being written. They’re so used to reading stuff which is 30 years old or more. I was at secondary school, anyway.

To buy The Snowboy, click here.


The Ideal Bed

Double bed which shouldn’t look
like this: so skewiff but no one on,
I can’t even stand to smooth its sheet.
I try to circle round it, but my wheels
won’t fit down the right side, the one
which, incidentally, I try to imagine hides
who we were five years ago: you standing
heaving the bed to and fro, trying to catch
our south-facing garden’s light
(the bulbs were always blowing)
and me laughing; then afterwards
us, falling bed-long into this
self-same undividable iron maiden.
My nurse has just replaced our mattress
with a manmade, farcical memory-foam
thing: cures pressure sores faster.
You’d laugh if you could be here.
Remember shopping in IKEA,
wondering what kind of carpenter
constructed, folded, boxed and sold our bed?
Hardly an artist, probably couldn’t
have given an actual fuck, you said.
When we got home the bed refused to stand
up in the room we’d meant for it. In its form,
we saw the ideal parts to shed:
a little off this surface, that corner.
We grew hungry, desperately so
pushed it against the larder door
so neither of us could hoard
when the waves crashed hard. Its back
was flimsy chipboard and would give
out in the year’s most unnewsworthy
quake, if the front of the frame stayed.
So you sanded back for days, weeks,
months; pored over cookbooks,
catalogues and promotions; reclined
on the mattress like an ocean, faced
me and my canvas, and said, Draw!
(But the kitchen bulb was dying.)
Hardness the Lord made then tore:
the one you pushed aside to get past
the fact we never found
the perfect light to lie in.

The Man Upstairs Drafts a Letter to the Councils
obit anus, abit onus

Dear . . . no. My Loving . . . no. None of you
love me; neither should you, really. Look,
we never intended our peaceful landlady
to tumble those twenty steps to her death.

So I am about pay forward the blame,
but do you blame me? Money’s a root
of nearly every evil, don’t you know. Hers
was a house but henceforth, let all places apply:

eatery, train tour, music venue, centre for
the frothing-over of mugs and mouths —
grant yourselves a great favour, raise
every lower surface to its higher. Fit a lift.

Twelve Steps towards Better Despair

Rehearse its salt between your fingers often, vigorously.

Have it amalgamate into your petrol-slick tinted lethargy.

Write of the cormorant’s yellow beak over her black body.

The iceberg: for a sound few seconds, it will stand
for solid material to marvel at. It need not sink your battleship
before you shy away from it. So don’t bemoan its tip, thank it.

Make sure you have shouldered the world for a man who tried
dying — sorry, died trying — to climb a cliff summit,
or summat like it, to find a stronger sunlight.

Write of the good in global warming, icebergs melting, salt.

Recite names of the dead on your fingers often, vigorously.

Have their ashes sown into the stinking spumes of elegy.

Write of the widow’s blonde wig over her black bodice.

Go fearlessly: for a modest seventy years we’ll stand,
most of us men, to be gawped at; never forget that. So choose
your battles, and — if you buy — the best cruiser in the marina.

Make sure you have shouldered rope for a man who tied
skilfully: docked a boat and helped his lover onto the land
for both to stand under the cliffs and observe a cormorant.

Find and write of the good in swiftly dying — sorry, flying.


1 comment:

Caroline Gill said...

I'm not sure if my comments vanished into the ether! I was very interested in this interview on several counts (theology, disability ...).

I wonder if Mark has encountered groups like Disability Arts Cymru, who produced what was termed a groundbreaking book in 2004, 'Hidden Dragons/Gwir a Grymus - New Writing by Disabled People in Wales'(Parthian Books). I had six poems in the volume and found the launch at the Hay Festival exemplary in the way it catered for a whole variety of access needs - for readers and audience alike.

I have come across editors who do not favour 'exclusive' anthologies e.g. women-only or by those with disabilities - because there is exclusion (even if of an unusual kind). I wonder what Mark feels about this ...