John Burnside Interview
Somedays. Maybe a little toward the end of winter, just on the turn of the corner into spring, there comes a barely palpable upswing of mood. What brings this on, who knows, maybe a kind word from a neighbour, a good tune on the radio, a hot coffee that just hits the spot, the flight of birds in a clear sky, an unexpected kiss from a child.
The catalyst doesn't really matter - but the end result, a kind of high that lasts right through the day is a kind of treasure, giving a rare smooth mood and general hopefulness that things are going to work out well that day and maybe even for all the days to come. Today, life is good.
I met John Burnside on a such a gilded day in the Lake District where he was to attend a poetry prize competition he'd judged and where he was to award the final Prize.
Finding the place was tricky. The twisting A591 offered multiple views of at least six northern fells and a fantastically scenic run down the side of Bassenthwaite caught my eye too many times. I missed the sign, was a little late for the event and felt the gilded day tarnishing a little.
But I found the venue, a 13C cruck barn with an enviable view of the Lake, sneaked in the door and saw that the real business of the day had not quite begun; people were milling around cup in hand, beginning to take their seats for the event and a hum of chat was still echoing round the high rafters.
Perfect timing! The initial instinct was right, it was a gilded day.
As I took a seat I had that sense of being looked at and turned to see a large man standing with a few others at the front of the barn where a rudimentary dais had been constructed.
He was openly staring my way, but seeing me catching him looking, turned away.
I didn't recognize him immediately but as the group on the dais took their places it became pretty clear that this was John Burnside.
Soon the readings began and again I noticed him staring at me every so often. Gilded day or not, I was unsettled. There was something weighty in his look, somehow wordy yet silent, imploring yet distant. His look seemed portenteous in terms of a carried burden - the gaze of a man heaving something with him which he despises, yet requires. A Beckettean burden of pebbles, stones and boulders; a hard-earned load accumulated on the roads he had chosen, or life had led him down, laden with existential and spiritual meaning.
Why the gathering & toteing such things was unclear... was it a way to differentiate himself from the life of a normal Joe or some kind of imperative of the spirit?
At the end of the event I spent time talking to friends, hugging and being hugged, sharing views on the poems. Again I could feel the big man staring and on a gilded day whim I decided I would ask him for an interview.
The organisers said he was just in from a US tour, was sure to be jetlagged and hardly in a state to give an interview.
But I didn't care, waited until the crowd thinned and pushed my way forward.
Would he do an interview? Yes. He suggested after the reading he was giving at 4. As I was completely unprepared for the interview, I didn't like the idea that we would have unlimited time after the reading. Could he fit in a short interview just prior to the reading? Yes he could. Yes he would.
I had also read enough about him from his own memoirs to know that he liked to drink and he liked women.
More importantly a limited timeframe would mean I had fewer questions to prepare.
We made an appointment to meet in the Theatre by the Lake cafe for a 40 minute interview as he made a great show of pulling up his chinos declaring he needed to buy a belt to keep his pants up and had to buy presents for Mother's Day from his children. The interview, he admitted, would fit in perfectly with this.
This show of apparent 'normality' - a state Burnside openly admits he has tried and found to be lacking took me aback. "Who wants to be safe, who wants to be sane, who wants to be normal?" (p.216 Waking up in Toytown.)
I recalled that this was the man who spent most of the 1980s and much of the 1990s brewing tinctures of henbane in his kitchen, nearly killing himself in the process, a man so steeped in narcotics and so often drunk that all binges elided into each other and whole days were lost in vain attempts to 'simply vanish'.
To prepare for the interview would need work, would need quiet so I drove off up the Eskthwaite valley and spent the next 2 hours in a virtually deserted art gallery hidden up the side of Crosthwaite fell. I had to devise the kind of questions to interest a poetry reading audience and keeping off the personal detail he'd already given out in his confessional memoirs. Unless of course he was to paddle the canoe into those deeper waters himself.
Theoretically, there would be no time to explore his apophenic episodes; to rake up the painfully scorched earth around Adele, explore the time at Candlestick Park watching baseball as just another Silicon Valley IT nerd or revisiting those years at Cowdenbeath or Corby, Surbiton or Blackpool.
Anodyne it may have been, but the knitting habit, the poetry, the most recent volume was surely the safest approach. On another day perhaps, I could offer up those memoirs of my own that strangely abutted his. My own discalculic based autism - (I am part of a research programme at Cambridge University), the years I spent living with a dealer of fine narcotics at University (those Thai sticks were historic yet you never see them now), my time with IBM in Madrid, Rome, the visits made to elderly aunts in Cowdenbeath, the drabness of my own childhood, the lost loves and those sour faced nuns at school.
So we would talk about poetry and the craft of writing and maybe his need for bouts of solitude.
The big guy was early for the meeting, hunkered over the book swap table and diffident when I introduced myself, found a table, dragged it over to the window so that he could have the lake view.
I got him a black coffee and scone and wheeled out my questions which he answered without any sense at all of irony, irritation or curtness, for which I was grateful.
John Burnside lectures now at St Andrews University and if the interview is anything to go by his lectures must be fantastically vibrant and engaging. He warmed to my simple questions and was tractable and open about his complex writing life.
He talked of Mandelstam's composing 'on the lips', the importance of hearing the music in your head, playing it over and over till it sounds right.
Music is clearly a kind of leitmotif running through his work. We talked mainly of the volume " A Hunt in the Forest" which I was fresh from reviewing.
He was emphatic that poetry must emerge from the place it first showed itself - not from a textbook on form. That place of emergence could be on a walk - a regular method of his for inciting incidence of creativity, hearing the call of a bird, watching others going around their daily round.
I learned that he has a particular distaste for 'library writers', those 'who compose accepted or expected lines', whom he believes restrict their creative freedom to within the artificial structure of literary form.
"Poetry" he said "should renew language. Writing should be a political act, an inventive act and a radical act".
I took issue with his rejection of writing to form as a truly creative act and suggested that to some poets writing is a craft and the discipline of writing within the bounds of form can be useful in honing a writer's craft.
Maybe I suggested, he is fortunate to have found a modus operandus that allows him direct access into... well where? Somewhere "where everything is stripped away to pure essence' he says. A place he comes to tangentially perhaps, and certainly, at times, through conscious contact with the visceral world.
To illustrate this we discussed his poem "Fetch" from a fairly recent volume of poem, " A Hunt in the Forest".
The Fetch, the taking of the coffin to the church for the burial, the strong image of the odour of death and its accoutrements, the 'sugar and malt' smell of the body, the flesh there, the person no longer there. The strangeness of the intense presence of the non-present, of that which has been taken. The metaphor of the Fetch. The 'nothing but'.. everything gone; the body the coffin, the emptiness of the room after the fetch. The empty body.
The metaphor of the empty/full coffin reminded me another great Scottish poet, Norman McCaig, whom I once heard replying to a question with "Metaphor? Metaphor? All is metaphor!"
We may all require metaphor to understand the world we find ourselves in; certainly I was experiencing the enigma of the man sat before me. He is perhaps a metaphor of his own work. A man with the squint eye of the poet looking in at the world through a cracked window.
Certainly Burnside has a kind of self-containment which is not the same as loneliness or social exclusion; though of course he did experience this when he voluntarily entered psychiatric hospitals in the 80s. More a sense of 'my getting away, walking - well, this is what I need to do what I do'. This works for me'..
I asked him to describe what got him going when he first started to write as a boy. It turns out to have been a visual spur, the highly romantic image of the writer he wanted to be from the film Doctor Zhivago. The poet, being inspired in a small room. A latter day Mallerstam, maybe.
So, this is a complex man riven with anomaly. He offers up a 'fantasy of withdrawal' from the world, yet insists that this co-exists with the view that "I'm not solitary, I'm a family man". He has young children, but finds living with people difficult and struggles with how to live the quotidien life he has created.
That sometimes means he leaves the family home during the night for a while, goes out into the road near his house on the Fife Neuk, looking into the cold dark sea while his family sleep.
He evidenced this need for solitude, by quoting Coleridge and Thomas Merton, the 20thC Trappist monk and theologian.
Merton's modern proverbs include 'Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.' In "Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing" Merton preaches against the monastic life of withdrawal.
It is clear that Burnside, raised in Catholicism, finds this a compelling text, and when I asked him about the influence of Merton on him as a writer he summarised the argument as "If you want to escape life, don't go away as it will only face you with yourself."
This brought me in mind of the work of St Teresa of Avila and her idea of 'Recollection'. In her work, "The Way of Perfection" she says: 'You must understand that the state of Recollection is not a supernatural state, but depends on our will, and that, by God's favour, we can enter it of our own accord...For this is not a silence of the faculties; it is an enclosing of the faculties within itself by the soul.'
I thought of this as we talked about the series of poems in The Hunt in the Forest "An Essay Concerning Light" in which he draws on Tibetan Buddhist concepts. The piece is written in 6 parts which conform to the 6 stages in the dying process - the 'bardos' through which the individual loses faculties and life force bit by bit until the emptiness described in 'Fetch' is achieved. Life, living and death - the big questions of life constantly seem to concern Burnside - evidenced in his fiction too.
We ended the interview somewhat surprisingly with his talk of writing more poems on love - the kind of love that lives on in long term relationships, the calmer love of the more settled.
Certainly for a man whose life in the '80's and 90's consisted of monumental benders and a taste for the dark side, it seemed to me that he is now in a calmer place.
Thomas Merton writes, 'Peace demands the most heroic labour and the most difficult sacrifice.'
Well, Burnside has certainly put the work in and seems to have come to terms with his personality, perhaps personifying Kerouac's sutra from the Scripture of the Golden Eternity that "Roaring dreams take place in a perfectly silent mind".
Driving home I realised that talking to John Burnside is an exhilarating but slightly depressing experience. He's a sharp minded polymath and a stunningly good writer but I get the sense of a man constantly grappling with a fluctuating mental state, a drive to find the essence of things through writing and a deep need for solitude.
Happily, there is the sense that now he has come to a more peaceful place and his work will continue to explore the deep recesses, challenges, horrors and vissitudes of the human spirit.
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