Monday, 23 June 2014

An interview with Mark Burnhope

Mark Burnhope is a poet, editor and disability activist born in 1982. He studied at London School of Theology before completing an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University, London. His work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies in print and online, as well as two previous chapbooks: The Snowboy (Salt Publishing, 2011) and Lever Arch (The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2013). Mark co-edited Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot (English Pen, 2012) with Sophie Mayer and Sarah Crewe, and Fit to Work: Poets Against Atos online (launched April 2013) with Sophie Mayer and Daniel Sluman, books which won a Saboteur Award and the Morning Star Award for Protest in Poetry consecutively. More recently, he became co-editor of Boscombe Revolution alongside Paul Hawkins. Mark can be found living in Boscombe, Dorset, with his wife Sarah, four stepchildren, two geckos, a greyhound and, occasionally, one or two stick insects or mantids.

Species is his first full collection of poems, and is available here.

You've published two chapbooks ahead of this, your first collection, but this already feels like something of a change in direction, or rather a settling upon your preferred direction, in the way that the poetry tackles disability issues head on. Would that be fair?
In a way. I definitely hope the book represents my settling into a more confident interest in poeming the non-normative body, embodiment and bodily experience. Disability is a focal point for that, but also the ways in which it impacts and interacts with sexuality and gender. My chapbooks touched on disability as part of a wider exploration of embodiment. Maybe they showed me playing with these ideas in the hope of one day doing something more conceptually coherent with them (Is that Species? I hope so). Three of the Snowboy poems were epistles to fictional characters who represented various aspects of my own embodiment (there are three more of those 'To My...' poems in Species). Poems like 'Wheelchair, Recast as a Site of Special Pastoral Interest' and 'Milo Won't Go in the Water' referenced disability in a (slightly) more clinical manner. But I was more nervous of the pitfalls then. An early draft of 'Wheelchair, Recast...' was my very first attempt at using the wheelchair in a poem, and I still transformed it into a monolithic landscape sculpture. It was still an irreverent symbol, a half-joke.
Lever Arch, my second chapbook, was partly inspired by Larry Eigner, whose poeming of the body through his Cerebral Palsy has massively influenced Disability/Crip Poetics in America. When I discovered that, and the disabled poets collected together in the online journal Wordgathering and anthology Beauty Is A Verb, I wanted to play with that sense of making poems using my 'hidden' bodily experiences: anxiety, neurodiverse thought and speech patterns, spacial recognition, memory, and particularly (in the case of Charles Olson's 'Projectivist Verse', Black Mountain poets, and particularly Eigner) breath and white space. So Lever Arch's approach to disability was more the aesthetics of disability than what the medical dictionary, and the medical model of disability, fixates on.
I'm more interested in disability as a social phenomenon than a medical one, though one arises from and impacts the other (when terms like 'social construct' fall into the wrong hands it's a problem): barriers caused not by our 'wrong' bodies but by a society which, instead of taking responsibility to alleviate struggles between us, blames us and makes us responsible for the 'mistakes' of our impairments. Maybe I'm more confident in that as an obsession now. That we 'other' humans into 'species' based on what we deem to be 'natural' and 'unnatural' is more clear than ever. There's also a conscious effort to include poems that came out of my disability activism and political protest against David Cameron's government, particularly Iain Duncan Smith's 'Welfare Reforms'. There are still poems about grief and loss after my wife Sarah's miscarriage ('The Snowboy' poem was an earlier attempt at that). It's all generally explored in, or alongside, or in the middle of, that natural history context.
I don't revert to self-mocking jokes about disability as easily as I used to, and when I do, it's angrier. The failings of so much contemporary white and non-disabled satire are rife: it so often draws together the privileged to laugh at subjects they feel are socially transformative, but ends up playing out as a kind of identity tourism meant to enrich their experience without affecting ours in any crucial way. The upshot is that there is no upshot: the status quo is maintained. Liberally-minded people are made to feel proud of themselves for thinking of those below them, again.
I don't know. Maybe the biggest departure (surely the biggest risk) was deciding not to include any poems from my chapbooks. I hope that gives readers a sense of culmination, if not change as such. In those senses, yes, maybe I've started with as clean a slate as possible. In many ways I feel a need to take stock, even start again.

Tell us a little about the writing of the book - first collections are often a "Best Of so far", but this feels much more coherent. How much of it was written with the collection in mind, rather than as occasional poems slowly accumulated into a book?
For a long time now I've known that I'm interested in 'concept albums'. I like to read a book with a sense that all the poems in it add up to a larger conceptual whole, that the poet is trying to tell me something. I don't think this approach is particularly in vogue, and in a way, I get that: there's a danger that such books can repeat themselves, or feel ham-fisted in terms of how much they're trying to instruct readers and point them to that 'Aha! I get it' realisation of what the book's about. I hope readers don't feel cheaply manipulated by my writing. At the same time, though, I'm unsatisfied with books that feel like a 'best of my stuff so far', with no organisational principle other than 'Which were my best poems?' This might be to do with how my Hydrocephalus-addled brain works, but how do I prioritise a criteria for 'Best' if I'm aware of so many possible ones? So many poets seem to come forward with 'objective criteria' for pinning down 'Best', I really had to find an emotional or conceptual onus with which to pick one way over another, or I was lost. So my way was to discard questions like 'Which are my best poems?', and to think 'What have I been trying to say all this time?' I wanted readers, if possible, to be able to say I remember that book because it was about... which was pertinent to my life at that moment. All of my favourite books have stuck in my craw for that reason.
As far as how this was put together, there are poems (particularly the Leopard Gecko sequence now called 'fragments from The First Week of the World: the herpetological bible') which date back to early versions written something like five or six years ago, possibly more. I'm not sure, I don't date my drafts. I'm fairly prolific, and a lot of these poems were started before, or written in parallel to, The Snowboy and Lever Arch. But those each seemed very self-contained to me, and even when I first felt the spark of the idea, Species took all that time to become a potentially-coherent piece. For a start, I had to come to realise that all of the elegies to dead pets I'd been writing (which I'd considered totally geeky indulgences) had to be something that other people might want to read. I also had to realise they symbolised quite a significant thread in my work as a whole: this central motif of 'natural' and 'unnatural', 'domestic' and 'captive', 'familiar' and 'queer/alienating', 'heaven' and 'hell', 'life' and 'death', that sort of thing. Some of the later poems I wrote, which are perhaps more explicitly about human experience, were written as I was realising that I might be able to throw nature, queer and disability poetries together as kind of a trilogy of concerns that talked to each other about 'otherness.' I was trying this in the past. I hope it's more fully-realised here.
Ultimately, I guess I don't care much for poetry in a vacuum. If it doesn't draw strands together from our lives lived in a particular society (and in terms of the UK at the moment, a society being heavily engineered and conditioned to be anti-disability and anti-welfare), if it doesn't seek in some way to give to or interact with that society, I'm not amazingly drawn to it. With a few exceptions, 'poetry for its own sake' seems like a non-entity to me. There's a sense of urgency, a need to want it to matter, especially now.

Do you use other poets, workshops, forums, etc. as sounding boards during the writing process, and if so, who?
I used the online forum PFFA (the Poetry Free-For-All) for some years before I was first published in Magma in 2010. A few forum members will recognise the lizard poems in Species, early drafts of which I very tentatively workshopped there. Eventually I felt that although I had met some great contacts and supports through online workshopping, I had to go it alone. I had to more closely guard my work in order to make it something readable before showing it off in public (I was a serial poster, a habit which hasn't changed in social media circles), especially since my approach to disability had to reflect my own living with it; there can be so many expectations built in the minds of able-bodied critics about how the disabled experience should be presented and written about to a 'wider readership' (which I came to realise would not, in most people's minds, include me). For a long time I felt the frustration of that without knowing how to articulate it, or (more importantly) find a solution to it.
I was published in Magma after I got frustrated with workshopping, sent some poems out on a whim, hardly expecting to get them accepted. But that's what happened. Since then, I've met some incredibly supportive writers who have truly grasped, I think, what I was trying to achieve in my work, and helped me find and hone my various voices and techniques. I'm guaranteed to forget someone so I don't like lists, but I feel particularly indebted to Ira Lightman and Andrew Philip. We've often passed poems back and forth to one another on Facebook (a social network site I love and hate in equal measure!). Since co-editing Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot in 2012, Sophie Mayer and Sarah Crewe have been incredible influences to me in terms of thinking about my subjects and concerns, my various political, social and bodily identities, and how to channel those into poems through an intersectional lens, queer and feminist poetries, body-positivity. These all converse with disability in some great ways, and I'm trying to move forward into a more intersectional practice. I feel like, if my poetry doesn't draw together all the separate strands of embodiment and oppression in my lived experience, it doesn't cut it anymore. Maybe even the lizards (I keep lizards as a hobby, it's an obsession) speak to that.
Daniel Sluman, whose Nine Arches debut collection Absence Has a Weight of its Own deals with his experience as an amputee after having had cancer as a child, has been a great ally in terms of thinking about disability/crip poetics, the ways we might be more involved in it, even try to shed more light on it in the UK, if we can. I got to know Daniel better over the time I was co-editing Fit to Work: Poets Against Atos with he and Sophie Mayer. We agree on a lot of things regarding disability, and even when we disagree, I always come away from our arguments with a deeper, more nuanced perspective.

One of your main concerns seems to be the poet's urge (well, everybody's urge, really) to name and categorise neatly. My own feeling, increasingly, is that the very act of writing helps clarify for you how impossible, and often undesirable, this is. Would you agree?
Yes and no. I do think part of my task, personally, is to explore how, ultimately, labels are like birds: you'll be looking at them through your binoculars, and they'll fly away before you've got your camera out. And yet, we need them: poetry needs to always allow for continual exploration, interrogation and renewal of descriptors and their definitions while always insisting that we need to name. If there's any reason for language at all, it's to embody experience in a vessel, the word, so that we can take it from one place to another. Like an ark. Insisting that your 'names' be set-in-stone if you like (especially if you need them to be set-in-stone to be able to flourish in an ecosystem) this doesn't deny that evolution will happen. We need both the 'now' and the 'not yet'.
In doing disability activism with other disabled activists online, many of them intersectional feminists, I've become conscious of the difference(s) between labelling others as an oppressive act, and naming ourselves with 'self-identifiers', words and concepts that people who have lived non-normative experience have had to find and guard closely in order to both understand their experience, and articulate that experience to others. Without those self-identifiers, we could never campaign for our rights. We could never demand our equality unless we could first familiarise people with our chosen labels and what they represent for us. 'Labels' and 'self-identifiers' are too often confused. In my experience, non-disabled people particularly are so used to being told that labelling disabled people is bad, negative, harmful (we are all essentially human beings!), they will often have a knee-jerk impulse to neutralise and remove your self-identifiers, even if you've explained why you need them: they perform the function of making you visible in a world which would rather erase you. It's easier to get along with you if it doesn't require me to understand you. But we can't rush to wipe that slate clean between us. 
In Species, animal taxonomy, and the religious 'taxonomy' of social groups (finding its most gruesome manifestation in Social Darwinism, eugenics, the execution alongside the Jews of the deformed, and the economically unproductive 'workshy' during the Holocaust), seemed like a way of handling all these concerns. Our neatest human categorisations tend to result in the strictest, most trapping prejudices and stereotypes. The book begins with an epigraph about the alleged division of the Mosaic Law into three 'species': moral, civil and ceremonial. In part, it's that arbitrary separation of the Levitical prohibitions into 'categories' by Christian theologians which has allowed continual discrimination against LGBTQI people to survive even in spite of other arguments. Evangelicalism, particularly, is hooked on a seemingly endless number of binaries: 'gay' / 'straight', 'male' / 'female', 'sick' / 'healed', 'heaven' / 'earth', 'sinfulness' / 'righteousness,' you name it. Many discourses (queer, feminist, crip, chronic illness and more) are trying to demolish these binaries and replace them with spectrums. Of course, the 'spectrum' itself can be problematic. No disability experience can be said to fall neatly onto a horizontal line; there are too many variables and offshoots. I'm reminded of the movie Donnie Darko, when Donnie (Jake Gylenhaal) gets angry at his teacher for making him place different human experiences onto a horizontal line beginning at FEAR and ending in LOVE. Given a choice between the two, I would rather the 'spectrum' than the 'binary,' but is that not another binary?
What I do think is that while so many self-definitions must be written down so that they are able to be shared and explored in safe communities, they also need to be open to constant upgrades by, and within, those communities. I'm repeating myself, but words are never just words, they're vessels: for stories, histories and experiences.

I'd extend that to poets themselves. The various schools and categories that they get lumped into seem increasingly irrelevant, and in the best possible way your poetry feels like an example of that, drawing on very disparate influences and inspirations. Is that fair?
Yes I think so. One of my very earliest poet-obsessions was William Blake: painter, illustrator, poet, nursery-rhymer, alleged madman, utopic visionary, punk, social justice warrior, anti-poverty activist, theologian, occultist, esoteric spiritualist! You name it. If poetry could be so apparently contradictory, I used to think, and bring together so many aspects, I wanted to do that. I think life is probably always a set of contradictions to some extent, but art so often tries to iron them out and neutralise them. On what basis, I don't know.
As I got deeper into learning poetry I felt a pressure to adhere to specific schools, nations, techniques and aesthetics, modernism/post-modernism (binary alert). An anxiety of influence, maybe. Seemingly everyone wants you to sign on a dotted line of some sort. Poets can champion their own directions as 'the right way forward', devaluing and pushing down others in the process. I have my opinions about what's 'greater' and 'lesser' regarding my practise, but it's all about what I want to say and explore, and how I can do it best at different times, in different contexts. Various poets from various traditions and schools, and none, have assisted me in figuring that out, and I still keep finding them. What makes that approach hopefully more coherent than it sounds is that I try hard to stay conscious of what I want to say. 
The poetries that stick, as it were, are the ones I carry with me for any length of time. Early on it was the Romantics (mostly Blake, easily my favourite Romantic), Confessional poets (particularly Plath and Sexton), 'religious' poets (Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Metaphysicals, especially John Donne, and contemporary poets like Gillian Allnutt), the apocalyptic (Dylan Thomas), landscape and nature (Heaney and Hughes). In the last few years it's been more political activist poetries, Eastern European poetry (I love several Polish poets), poetries of social exile and disenfranchisement through non-normativity. Surrealism, conceptualism and visual poetries, Disability / crip and Survivor Poetics, queer and feminist poetries, poetries of colour and race (particularly activist-poets like Audre Lourde, who so amazingly drew together black, queer and feminist threads). Basically, you name it, I'll tell you if I want it.

I particularly enjoyed the Abnominations section - could you tell us a bit more about this form (Abnominals) and how you came to write them?
Abnominals are a fantastic form invented by Scottish poet Andrew Philip. When he introduced me to the form I went away and wrote loads of them. Andrew describes the abnominal in his second collection The North End of the Possible: 'The abnominal is a form I have developed using only the letters of the dedicatee's name, each of which must appear at least once per stanza. The poem, which is 20 lines long, should begin and end by addressing the dedicatee in some way. The title must also be an anagram of their name.' 
The abnominal allowed me to directly address various personalities who felt like representatives of the themes throughout the book, including David Cameron, David Attenborough, Maurice Sendak (Where The Wild Things Are). There are one or two more personal abnominals, one addressed to my wife Sarah, another to our miscarried child, named Evie-Lyn, who was only ever born in our imaginations. It seemed like I couldn't explore 'otherness' across a book without looking at death as another kind of existence, the possibility of a next life, and what happens when we have to imagine a life that never literally was as we would have liked. Maybe anthropomorphising animals, exploring animal gender, is similar to imagining a child you never met, or even the self you would like to become. I don't know.
I also loved the abnominal's imposed constraints. It's easy to be drawn to a default clarity of line and syntax time and time again. The abnominal forced me to be more inventive with how everything was expressed. They frequently devolve into a kind of non-sense which can send the brain off in all sorts of associative directions, but which can also encompass characters just through sheer sound and vocabulary play. The abnominal stretched me: If I couldn't use a word because it had the letter 'L' in it (a real problem letter for me; it kept popping up where it didn't belong), I had to find a 'legal' word, or write the whole line again. It kept me on my toes, so to speak. I'm very grateful to Andrew for not only approving my use of the form, but reading, enjoying and encouraging me to include the number of abnominals I did.

And the inevitable closing question - what next? Do you have other projects in the pipeline?
 I have a novel, which has fairly recently become a verse novel, that I've drafted I don't know how many times over the last nearly-a-decade. I want to finish that, but it needs more... something (one or two secondary characters need more colour and purpose in the plot, an end game, that sort of thing). So I'm going to go back to it. You might see it one day. I have a few new poems in early stages, and possibly a concept, or set of concepts, for another collection. For now I'm going to just sit back and enjoy what feels like an 'end game' for me of sorts, at least to the first act. I've written the book I wanted to write. What I do next is anyone's guess. I'm excited by that. Maybe I need a hiatus so that I'm still around but the pressure's off.

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