Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Wider Reading | Interview With Mark Burnhope

With the world on tenterhooks over the imminent re-launch of Silkworms Ink, I thought it might ease some of the tension to have a good old-fashioned interview. And by old-fashioned I mean conducted online whilst using another window to choose appropriate images to Photoshop. Ah, the good old days.

This weekend we’re fortunate to be joined by the poetry pamphleteer, blogger and all-round decent bloke, Mark Burnhope, to talk about putting together his debut for the Salt Modern Voices series, as well as touching on literature’s loners, theology and Wallace Stevens.

Phil Brown: Afternoon Mark, and thank you for joining Silkworms Ink for the interview. To start things off could I ask you to introduce yourself to our readers?

Mark Burnhope: It's a pleasure to be here, thanks for inviting me. Hello readers. I write poetry and reviews. I'm an occasional painter and illustrator; and recently, I've probably been using the word 'kaleidoscopic' too much.

Phil Brown: The Salt Modern Voices series has some astoundingly talented new writing in it (yourself included). How did your place in the series come about?

Mark Burnhope: That’s a good question. I had my first poems published in Magma 48, just last year. Soon after that, I messaged Chris Hamilton-Emery on Facebook, just to say thanks for the books; they're collector's items, my shelves are creaking under their weight, and they'd really helped me along. In the next months, I was published in a few online magazines, I jumped on a lot of thought-provoking poetry discussions on Facebook, and he must have spotted my work somewhere. We got talking, and he asked if I wanted to put a pamphlet together. I'm thrilled, and very proud to have been chosen for the series, considering how long (or not) I've been published.

Phil Brown: What were the biggest challenges in putting together your own pamphlet?

Mark Burnhope: All I'd done before was to put together submissions; so, four or five go together in an email, and you might put what you think is the best at the top. That's pretty simple. But finding firstly what you think are your best poems, and then trying to bring together thematic strands on a larger scale, was a challenge I hadn't taken up before. I knew I couldn't have two poems doing 'the same thing', however few I thought were good enough. So, having enough good poems, then making them all do their own job in context, as well as being muscular enough on their own. Yeah, that was a new thing. I hope I got it right, to some extent.

Phil Brown: In your debut appearance in Magma, you have two poems, ‘Twelve steps towards better despair’ and ‘Deliverance’. Could you briefly take us through the thought process that lead you to picking one of those poems for your pamphlet, but not the other.

Mark Burnhope: Actually, 'To My Familiar, Queequeg' was in Magma as well. But as for why I didn't choose ‘Deliverance’: I'd written it from an impulse to respond personally to Andrew Philip's 'The Ambulance Box', as a poem but also as a collection. In a sense, I shared the experience of the loss of a child (miscarried, in my case) and the grief that goes along with that, and I wanted to try to address it, for myself as well as part of a process of learning to write something expressive as well as readable. I was very glad that it was deemed good enough to publish; I'm aware of the hazards of writing slightly personal stuff, because someone's got to read it. In terms of the pamphlet, I felt that it would have done too much of the thematic work by itself. I wanted these poems to be in conversation with each other, and together to add up to that emotional impulse. ‘Deliverance’ was probably doing more crudely what The Snowboy does as a whole pamphlet, I think. The Snowboy is central to the collection, and he sort of melts into all the subject-matter and themes surrounding him.

Phil Brown: The art of making poems in a collection converse with each other whilst speaking for themselves can be one of the most delicate equations...

Mark Burnhope: Indeed, and let's just say I haven't found a painkiller strong enough to get me through that process in a first collection yet.

Phil Brown: One of the thematic strands that runs through your pamphlet is an affinity with literature's outsider figures - Quasimodo, Queequeg, The Little Black Boy, Pinnochio. What is it that draws you to these particular figures in your writing?

Mark Burnhope: I know that the ‘outsider figure’ is a literary idea, but I’m not sure I was consciously thinking about that. I am interested in outsider poetries simply because they acknowledge that sometimes things can’t be said in the ways they have been. Language needs reformation all the time, even melding with visual art, in order to fully reflect and speak for, or about, anything in an increasingly complicated culture. I’m interested in ‘anti-poetries’, in a way, which aren’t trying to be obscure (even if they are), just trying to be honest. It doesn’t take effort to think about outside status for me, I just do. I try to deal with separate shards of living as an outsider though, and to bring them together in my writing. There’s a sense in which disabled people are ‘in the world, not of it’ – to bastardise a Bible phrase – that we’re inherently part of society, but pushed into the margins at various levels. I try to confront that, even if just on the level of language. Maybe that says something about my desire for social equality, I’m not sure. The pamphlet sprung from two contexts, really: disability and religion. 

When those clash together, you tend to get a tidal wave of prejudice. These outsider characters allowed me to draw together and explore these strands, because they, or their stories, touched on metaphoric aspects around belief – stereotype, xenophobia, sexuality, disability. These characters became vessels to embody these things. (I’m interested in words and poems as vessels for embodiment rather than just tools for description.) 'The Little White Poem', with an epigraph from 'The Little Black Boy', is kind of a satirical admittance to just how much of our tradition is white (whiteness is a motif in a few of the poems), and just how much our reflections on that -- poetic or not -- are wholly inadequate to address the real problems. Who am I to speak about these things? These are just poems, and ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, according to father Auden. It’s almost an apology for that.

Phil Brown: By interrogating so many famous loners and outsiders from the world of literature, are you subscribing to the idea that poets, by the very nature of what they do, have to be 'outsider' figures?

Mark Burnhope: Not really. To my mind, poets can be whatever they like, as long as the poems are effective in some way. I have a wide taste, and I value the mainstream: it's what got most of us into poetry, what stirred us to originally dive in, isn't it? So that's extremely valuable. But then, as I said, I also like avant-garde, strange stuff occasionally, not just because it’s strange, but because it honours complexity: a poet should be able, if he / she wishes, to deal with difficult subjects in an appropriately difficult way. So no, I don't feel the need to identify with the 'persona' of outside poet, but I do want to write honestly. Of course, that means that if a poem is extremely ‘clever’ but has forgotten to feel anything, I probably won’t take it much further, or I’ll change direction: ‘The Ideal Bed’ was going to be different, before I suddenly realized that for all its language play, it didn’t have any heart as it was. It’s very much more emotionally honest now, even if still a bit strange and suggestive.

Phil Brown: You open the pamphlet with a quotation from Wallace Stevens, who certainly had a fraught relationship with the poetry 'establishment' of his time. To what extent have Stevens and the modernists been influential on your work?

Mark Burnhope: I chose that quotation because it represented the title poem, but also addressed the reader, captured spirituality, and grief. So the line seemed all-encompassing for the whole book’s context. I love Stevens’ often over-the-top musicality: loads of assonance, alliteration. That stuff makes his poems serious (and this one’s pretty serious), but vibrant and hilarious as well. I love that he often deals with faith material, but he’s anarchic and witty in the way he challenges received religious certainty (all real faith should embrace a little agnosticism, or even a lot). 'Anecdote of the Jar' is just a Still Life poem about reflection(s), in one way; but in another, it describes a massive, *almost* magical realism transformation, where this object envelops the landscape. I've tried to take all that stuff into these poems, I think. One of the first things I absorbed when I first started workshopping seriously was the importance of the image, thanks to Pound and the Imagists, and Carlos Williams’ 'no ideas but in things'.

As far as Modernism in general goes, I spend a lot of time on the Internet, so a lot of my reading is sporadic. I tend to flick from poem to poem, poet to poet, rather than fully absorbing these massive movements (though I’ve been trying to rectify that for a while). So I’m not sure how helpful it is to make generalizations about Modernism or American poetry. Modernism is a couple of hundred years of poets, and America is a big place. So I take from Elizabeth Bishop, Eliot, Stevens, but then I scoot across to Confessionalism: Plath, Sexton, Lowell. At the beginning, that came out of the music I listened to, a lot of Seattle Grunge and Metal. Then I got a bit older, and learned the hazards of such writing, especially if one wants to be read. But I hope that honest frustration and difficult feeling is bubbling under the surface in my work. I hope that I've got what I like about Confessionalism through, in a gritted-teeth way, because I also try to be funny and joyful. Incidentally, just to go back to Lowell: I remember reading that he didn’t think he was Confessional at all. He was interested in strong, outspoken confession, but he wasn’t always using his own life material, and he was very prepared to fabricate and invent stories in order to get at emotional truth. I’m a bit like that myself, I think. So was Plath, contrary to popular opinion (myth, the land, fictional character, all served her). So confession is just another tool. If a poem is any good, it’s not self-indulgent gimmickry but a valid plea for some bloody honesty in the world.

I’m also into bits and pieces of the postmodern, avant-garde, most recently the Black Mountain movement, and their idea of page as field. I love Larry Eigner's take on that particularly, not just because he was disabled, but because his disability was an inherent part of his aesthetics and craft. It was a tool, just like the others. That fascinates me and I’m planning on pursuing it further, thinking about how one might apply it to other poetries which spring from disability.

Phil Brown: ‘The Snowboy’, as a poem, could be seen as quite confessional.

Mark Burnhope: Yes, partly, although it’s deliberately distanced by third-person. Stevens’ poem 'The Snow Man' developed my thinking about it. One of my family (I can’t remember who exactly) built this snowboy during the Christmas my partner had a miscarriage a couple of years ago. I remember staring at this structure one morning, by the time the sun had warmed the air, and the figure was deteriorating. It struck me as this perfect symbol for the silent but seething grief I felt, for a life which was never 'living', but was still a real, concrete, made thing. My partner’s pregnancy had been fairly miraculous, considering what doctors had said were my chances of fathering a child (virtually nil). I was suddenly conscious that miscarriage seems often undermined as something that ‘just happens’, instead of the tragedy that it is. 

There’s this flippant ‘Don’t worry, you can just try again’ attitude, which, like a religious doctrine, isn’t a one-size-fits-all truth. That seemed to be something nobody wanted to talk about. Snowmen seemed similar, in my strange head. You can’t write a poem about a snowman! Cliché! ‘The Snow Man’ has been done before. There was Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’ There’s also Raymond Briggs' 'The Snowman', which is beautiful, but it’s kids’ stuff. But the melancholy in Stevens' 'mind of winter', and even the ‘kids stuff’, was ironically very appropriate, so I knew the poem had to be written. I was drawn to solve this problem, that despite the danger of triteness, I had to get on this snowman bandwagon. ‘The Snowboy’ couldn’t be made ‘clever’, either. It had to be exactly what it was: a monument to death. If I couldn’t capture this thing without affectation, I wouldn’t bother.

Phil Brown: As well as snow and literary loners, 'the sea' becomes an important recurring theme in the pamphlet. Where does the sea fit into the thematic schema of 'The Snowboy'?

Mark Burnhope: Well, the clever-clever answer is that I'm interested in the problem of unhelpful dualities: mind, body; physical, spiritual; able, not able. Duality crops up in rhetoric and thinking around both disability and religion. Town and sea are one of these imagistic dualities that I dot around. The simple answer, though, is that I just love sea literature: Herman Melville, Hemingway, right through to Philip Gross, and everyone else writing sea poems now. People talk about ‘saturating the market’ with this, that or the other, but no; there could never be too many sea poems. Personally, I find almost perfect peace by the sea. I've lived in Bournemouth for a couple of years now, having moved there from Coventry, after having lived in London. The space and tranquility compared to the rush of the city is staggeringly cathartic. Also, it's exciting to be a part of somewhere with a literary history, particularly with Thomas Hardy and 'Wessex' in its centre. That makes place another thing I can't help but respond to. Of course, London has an incredible literary history as well -- Blake, for one -- but my move to Bournemouth happened around the same time as a massive increase in my desire to write and read very seriously, with an intention to be published.

Phil Brown: In 'Dream Invertebration' and 'The Serpentine Verses', the poetic 'I' shares an affinity with Scorpions and Snakes. Is this Ovidian branch to your writing a result of your theological background?

Mark Burnhope: Possibly, yes. I'm interested in animals, firstly. I love animals and I love animal poems. It's often been a frustration (I don't think that's too strong a word) that animals, when featured in poems, are often used crassly as metaphors for apparently more important 'human stuff'. I'm all for their use as symbols, especially in Biblical literature. But symbols are more encompassing than metaphor, and less of a straightjacket. Rather than narrowly implying that animal stands for human, I want them also to be completely themselves. Drawing on animals as mythological figures can occasionally be problematic; it can undermine their inherent 'animalness'. Why can't an animal just be an animal? Does this say something about our felt dominance over them (dominion being a big idea in traditional Christianity)? This leads me, I suppose, to be interested in knocking animals from their mythic soapboxes, just letting them crawl around on the floor and be animals.

Phil Brown: But in the lines
My legs fuse to form a scorpion tail,
rainbow over my itchy, flaky scalp in a way 
they couldn’t of course, not even over a sofa.
I quiz her on further matters maybe less
conducive to this telling. Only, she’s trying 
to fiddle the door lock with a feather, I guess 
in the fear that I might otherwise sting her.
Surely you are playing with the mythic/semiotic qualities of a scorpion, rather than using it from a purely biological stand-point?

Mark BurnhopeOh yes, absolutely, but ‘playing’ is a good word, because sometimes I’m doing it ironically. In ‘The Serpentine Verses’, I’m removing the snake from its original biblical context, and bringing it into a mundane, everyday one; deflating a myth, and making it just normal. My serpent is just an observer, unable, or just not bothered, to speak. It’s doesn’t take on an allegorical role. It colours the poem, gives it shape and structure, but its presence is morally neutral. It’s just a ‘seer’, looking on this act of love – this mutual submission of man and man. You can read further intention into it if you want (I am affirming same-sex marriage, for one thing), but here’s what happens: it’s a normal night, on a normal street, in a normal house. In the Bible, the Garden of Eden represents the world as it existed; I’ve brought the outside in, and this ‘world’ is just a couple’s house. These men are about to fuck, and a snake crawls into the room unnoticed, and then slinks out again. That’s it. The scene is trying to be beautiful for its unremarkable plainness, as is, I guess, the disabled body.

In ‘Dream Invertebration’, I'm hoping the inherent ridiculousness of this kind of metamorphosis comes across. Laurie Clements-Lambeth, in her collection Veil and Burn and particularly in the 'Reluctant Pegasus' sequence, writes about how myths and fabrications can be made around the body to support our feelings about it: embarrassment, awkwardness, disgust. In her poem, she reflects on the labels which can be pinned to the disabled body, and which ones she won't, or might inevitably have to, accept as descriptors for herself. ‘Dream invertebration’ came out of a dream someone had of me once (I can’t remember who) in which I wasn't in my wheelchair. I'd just forgotten to take it with me, left it at home (How?). Instead, I was walking on my hands. My ex wife and I were laughing about that, and I said something like: 'It's funny that I was walking on my hands, rather than just sitting on a sofa.' You know, people often say 'Oh, you're in a wheelchair?' and I often jokingly say 'Well, only during waking hours.' So the poem is really about what others imagine a wheelchair-user doing when they're not being a wheelchair-user... whatever one of those is. It ends by me having a poem critiqued on the Internet, based on that dream, and my critters being more interested in my wheelchair (which didn’t happen either, by the way, so the poem might also be about my paranoia that it will). In the end, my openness about my disability has backfired. I’ve stung myself. 

Anyway, so yes: the ‘I’ is just a person. The scorpion is just a scorpion. It’s the whole ridiculous construct, the events of the poem, doing the work of meaning… if you wish them to, that’s up to you. The poem ‘Our Jonah of Boscombe Pier’ came from the apparently true story about some guy who walked over a beached whale’s back in the middle of last century, right on the beach where I live. But my whale is just a whale. I speculate that the reason this guy jubilantly walked over it was to have some kind of mythic, religious experience of identification with the old whale tales, literary and Biblical, but the importance of that idea is undercut right at the end by a sexual innuendo. ‘Queequeg’ is a poem where the whale is more than just a whale, but Melville did some of the legwork there. I just rode him, as it were.

Phil Brown: As a writer with a physical disability, do you feel obligated to deal with issues of disability in your poetry or is it something that organically finds its way into your work?

Mark Burnhope: I have Spina bifida and Hydrocephalus, yes. 'Obligated' isn't the word, though; writing poetry in the first place isn't an obligation. For me, disability is a context from which I write, a lens through which I see the world. I'm aware that as soon as you say, 'I write about disability', some people will assume you have an agenda, or are on a soapbox. So I try to write from, rather than ‘about’ disability. Really, all poetry, all language, is culture-bound. Nothing is written in a vacuum and we can't help that. So yes, it's natural. I don't make a conscious effort to write ‘disability poems’ (if that’s what they are), and certainly I went through other ideas before finding that disability was becoming a recurring theme in the ones I was collecting together. 

My disability is an inevitable, completely mundane fact that I see no reason to deny, if I can manage to avoid the pitfalls. It’s how I live experience. All of our senses are filtered through our bodies, and there’s no generic body. So disability is an inevitable part of my work, sometimes, even when that’s not explicit and there is no ‘I’ (who of course needn’t be me anyway). I sometimes write 'I wheeled' rather than 'I walked', not because I want to say 'Hey! I'm disabled, remember?' but because I hope to make the reader more comfortable with the idea, neutralise it really. (Same goes with ‘spacker’, ‘cripple’ or even ‘fuck’.) Maybe there’s an element of redressing tradition as well. There's a lot of poetry about walking, but I don't walk. I'm not going to say I walked when I didn't, and I see no reason to wish I had in my poems. Other disabled people have a different approach, preferring to use 'walked' as a generic way of saying 'travelled', but that's mine, unless there's a good reason to speak about walking, as in 'Dream Invertebration', where I'm hardly walking in a conventional way anyway.

Phil Brown: And there is definitely the sense that the art of poetry is often concerned with defamiliarisation... and it can be of great benefit to encourage people to compare their take on 'mundane' with others'.

Mark Burnhope: Exactly. One person's mundane is another's exciting, and vice versa. A lot of people are excited by difference. But I’m trying to be honest, not different.

It’s worth me saying that my thinking about disability doesn’t have a great deal to do with naming or describing impairments (hence why so many of my poems are about construction, built things, bodies other than mine, bodies of water and land). There is a difference, in disability discourse, between two ‘models’. There’s the traditional Medical Model of Disability, which categorises us by our conditions and impairments. That’s only useful, really, for the medical industry. I try to write from the Social Model – first given a name in the 80’s, I think – whereby it is our environment which disables us. The opposite of an enabling environment is a disabling one. Prejudice, ignorance; lack of access to jobs, services, buildings: if all those things didn’t exist, the word ‘disabled’ might become obsolete, and we’d all just be people. If that sounds like I’m talking about Utopia, that’s because I am. 

But talk to the majority of physically disabled people themselves (attitudes vary, in mental health or deaf community for example), and that social model reflects an overwhelming majority way of thinking about their lives. That idea – that however diverse in our bodies, we share a vast amount of common experience, and that’s what binds us – allows me to open the umbrella to talk about all prejudices I’m concerned with, including those religious hot potatoes. The Social Model provides a framework, a landscape, and the materials to build upon it.

Phil Brown: Your career as a poet has got off to a great start and your pamphlet is clearly the work of someone with a strong future in literature. Do you have plans for a full length collection in the future?

Mark Burnhope: Thank you, that’s very kind. Yes, eventually. At the moment, though, I'm happy to keep trying out the magazines, write reviews, read reams and reams. I have a lot to learn; too much poetry, not enough days in the year. As far as collections go, I've been playing around with a couple of other pamphlet ideas. I'm excited by the potential of the pamphlet, as an object and artefact, really; I'm excited that they can contain ideas which are organic and might change. They're snapshots sometimes, a working through of aesthetics maybe not fully-formed yet. I'm happy to stay in that territory for a good while before I bite the first collection bullet, I think.

Phil BrownIf somebody wanted to write a poem that was the exact opposite of the sort of poetry you write... what would they have to do?

Mark Burnhope: Something which was entirely skeptical -- nay, downright dismissive -- of feeling. The first poetry I loved was William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas: the impulse to speak about God, suffering, the land and our place in it. These days, there are so many barriers against delivering that kind of material effectively. I suppose, to be my antithesis, you'd have to give up trying, or just not be interested. You'd have to treat the poem entirely as an academic exercise. Speaking of which, I don't think I've used the word 'kaleidoscopic' once during this interview, have I? Sorry about that.

Mark Burnhope’s debut pamphlet, The Snowboy (Salt), is available to buy now.

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