Interview with Mark Burnhope
In my endorsement for the book I wrote that “Mark Burnhope’s work is concerned with the physical – how a town is a physical place, how we live in a world of machines, our bodies among them. Many of the poems address disability, not only in the narrow sense our culture understands it but also in the wider sense that our physicality acts as a pathetic curb on the life of the spirit.” They are strange, challenging poems.
I asked Mark about poetry and writing via email.
Tell me about a poem you love from the twentieth century.
I’m cheating. This one was written in 1877, but not published until 1918, and it’s pretty Modernist in lots of ways. It’s hardly a hidden gem, but it’s one of my favourite poems ever, and the first one that springs to mind: ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I love it because it has a whiff of ‘Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself’ decades before Wallace Stevens wrote that and Pound and the Imagists trademarked the idea. I can’t remember when I first read it, but it was years ago, and I’ve kept rediscovering ever since. It’s a praise psalm which doesn’t preach: ‘God’ is in the details. There’s an entire creative philosophy, theology and social commentary in it. The idea of God uncovered via the natural world has been around since the Psalms, and permeated Celtic Christianity as it emerged from within Paganism. In this poem, that nature stuff clashes against technology, industry, ‘tackle and trade’, those things which humans progress in and work hard at. It’s all woven together so that there’s no obvious above / below dualism. The poem simply praises design, with all its flaws. The ‘brinded cow’ and the ‘rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim’ speak of the beauty of imperfection. That seems to have moral shades as well, where Hopkins seems to say that good and bad, dark and light, right and wrong, are all blended together in this complex, beautiful world. Everything is ‘good’, even though the imagery acknowledges the darker side of industrial progress. And the poem just sings. It’s incredible to read aloud. The sprung rhythm, compound words, the liberal use of assonance, alliteration and sound recurrence. It’s a ‘squashed sonnet’, has the usual volta / turn, but the octet and sestet are shortened to a sestet and a quintet. Hopkins often reinvented forms like that. All those things contribute to the whole; the medium is really the message.
Tell me about a poem you love from any century before the twentieth.
I’ve been asked about influences before, and I’ve never mentioned Matthew Arnold. Now I’m kicking myself, because ‘Dover Beach’ is another favourite. It’s Victorian, but don’t let that put you off. It’s hardly a perfect poem, it’s quite flawed; don’t let that put you off either. Its melancholic sadness is crippling, and really helped by the sounds. ‘Bring / the eternal note of sadness in’ is one of my favourite poetic lines, which is strange considering that it consists entirely of abstractions. People bang on about onomatopoeic poetry, how these consonants or those vowels really aid this and that conceit. Sometimes it all sounds like esoteric knowledge, I don’t get it. But these sounds really do support this poem’s feeling of sadness which literally comes in inevitable waves. The lines’ rhythms, stretched vowels, all those ‘S’ sounds, do mimic the slow ebb and flow of the night seashore. But right from that moment where the speaker (possibly Arnold himself; the poem was written during his honeymoon) invites his wife to the window to ‘hear the grating roar’, there’s an implied context – a wedding night, a story of embarking on a new life – which adds all this humanity, uncertainty, threat, to the poem. That desperate bid for hope, when all faith has been lost, is so life-affirming. I’m always tempted to skip the clever-clever second stanza, where Arnold tries to shoehorn in all this mythological, historical jargon which clashes with the multi-sensory effects of the first and last strophes. That context is important; it elegises his present Victorian age, and yearns for an earlier time. But I wish it was woven into the fabric of the rest instead of being on its own, sticking out like a jellyfish-stung toe. Anyway, it’s a classic, regardless.
I’d like to know about your writing process:
What do you start with – idea, sound, form, a single phrase?
What’s the process of getting that to a finished poem? How long does it take? At what point does it make the transition from mind to page? Pen and paper or computer?
What are your writing routines, if any? When and where do you write?
It varies. I’ve learned the hard way that starting with an idea is a bad… um, idea. Whenever I’ve said ‘I’m going to write about X’, the result was awful. Now I have to have a phrase, or better, a line. If I get two lines, sometimes that’s good, other times it’s really not. If two lines fit too neatly together in my head, it’s probably because they’re a trite little couplet not worth using. So, I’ll occasionally write the line down and play with it. But more often, that doesn’t get me very far; the poem is still nowhere to be seen. So I won’t draft the poem until another line, phrase, image suggests a way to go forward. Hopefully a set of images will emerge, with similarities and differences (having things clash and disagree is important) which might hint at a theme, or several themes. All this time I’ll be mucking around with linebreaks, because it’s fun, and also because they’re essential to finding out what a poem’s about, for me. They have to communicate themselves, especially if the poem’s language is more elusive.
How long do they take? The poems in The Snowboy took anything from an hour (which rarely happens) to two or three years. I don’t keep track of drafts, but some of them have gone through so many different shapes and sizes it’s not even funny. ‘The Centre’ used to be fairly long; now it’s one of my shorter poems. I write every day. If for some reason I can’t, I don’t beat myself up over it, because I’m fairly obsessive the rest of the time. Writing is a compulsion that I find difficult to stop. Of course, the more you write the more junk you accumulate, and have to throw away because it’s unusable tosh. But that’s all part of the fun. It’s a gamble, and there’s nothing like writing a lot to teach you muscle memory; things start to become natural and more subconscious eventually, and that reward makes everything worth it.
I know you also write (or wrote?) prose fiction. Why did you move into poetry? What’s different about poetry – why does it suit you?
To say I also write fiction sounds more impressive than it is, I think. In the middle of last decade, I decided to do an MA, having no idea what kind of creative writing it would focus on but not really caring. The MA sparked a big ‘off’ period for my poetry though, because it focussed a lot on fiction, and I suddenly got it into my head that I would write a novel. That consumed me for the next couple of years. It consumed me enough to make the first three chapters into my dissertation, and then to almost finish it in the years following. But I was too indecisive, chopped and changed its plot, structure, points of view. I switched it from first to third-person a million times. Now I’m at the point where it’s still in a drawer, unfinished. I’m still convinced the story is worth telling, but how? That’s all up in the air. Part of the problem is that I’m not very good at reading novels. I often dip into them, love their use of language and ideas, but can’t finish them. There are a number of novels I’ve finished, but it’s definitely not a habit. So fiction reading, following and keeping to a plot structure and all its threads, it’s a blind-spot. I’m not confident that I can do it on that large a scale. I’ve recently got into short fiction (I’m really loving Pinckney Benedict’s Miracle Boy at the moment), and I’m flirting with the idea of trying to write some. I’ll go back to the novel, one day. But for now I’m a poet, I think, for a million reasons. If I exercise my prose muscles now, it’s usually for poetry reviews.
Tell me about your approach to lines and linebreaks.
I think of lines as like the strings on a guitar. They’re hardly the only thing which makes the guitar’s sound. You have the body, that chamber for the air to circulate round; the neck, fret-board; the shape of the whole guitar itself, which helps to define its sound. But the strings, the lines, are what will first hit the listener’s ear. I have no single approach to them, though. Each poem’s form tends to guide me on how the lines will work, what they do and how they do it. In The Snowboy, I have a kind of ‘try everything once’ approach to form. Each poem has its own needs in terms of imagery, sound, shape, linebreaks. In collating the poems, I was more concerned that images and motifs talked to each other than that shape and line were uniform. Having a variety of shapes which were able to shift and change almost at will, depending on what I wanted them to do, was important. It suited the theme of diversity and inclusion, that idea that ‘disability’ in a social sense can’t be boiled down to a set of physical problems, and even when it is, there’s a vast array of them. Disability is only one of the pamphlet’s themes, but as it emerged, it was glue for the whole thing.
I do have a few linebreak habits. An obvious use is to change sense, where a line which seems to mean one thing is suddenly enjambed, and the next line either adds something significant to the previous one in terms of sense, or disagrees with it, or rebuts it with a joke. It’s fun to deliberately break up the sense several times, across several lines. Prynne does that a lot. Another use is to break an established rhythm. In some poems that’s really important because the subject is the broken body, the breakdown of marriage, furniture, puppetry, the bits of a landscape. I remember your suggestion to give a section of ‘The Ideal Bed’ fuller lines with smoother linebreaks. The linebreaks were all deliberately jagged. Sometimes a word was moved down to punch the start of the next line, instead of the end of the previous line, as you might expect. But I took your suggestion because that section retold a pleasant memory, remembered exactly. When the memories become more difficult to tell, the voice becomes nervous and the details more elaborate and strange, the lines begin to fall apart and the breaks become more jagged and unpredictable. The same thing happens in ‘The House, the Church and Fisherman’s Walk’, where if I’m describing broken elements in the landscape, the words scatter themselves around a bit. Larry Eigner’s use of white space to show pause and laboured breath was another inspiration. I’ve learned from those nervous, fragmented utterances separated by white space, those lines scattered all over the page. And I’ve tried to adapt it for various poems, including ‘The Snowboy’ itself.
Lastly, Peter Didsbury sometimes switches from a looser metric into more deliberate blank verse for certain lines he wants to make more prominent for various reasons. I occasionally do that. And I sometimes finish a poem like that, where if I’ve found what I think is a perfect line, I might make it a blank verse one.
Your writing isn’t scared to be discursive – though you proceed via images, there’s usually a definite sense that you aren’t simply presenting a scene, it has some point or context that’s worth looking for and thinking about. How do you negotiate that difficult terrain?
As a reader, I love the feeling that there’s a context, a world in the periphery of a poem. I like to think that a poet had a reason to write it other than to fill a page; they were spurred on by something. That’s where Confessional poetry comes in, I suppose. Confession is buried under the surface in my stuff, not overt. I hope readers will supply their own contexts; I just invite them to. Everything they need to know is in the poem. ‘The Ideal Bed’ has a background of marital breakdown. I’m working with painful memories, some too painful to remember. So I use broken bits of narrative; imagery which is literal as well as strange, symbolic, metaphorical. I try to dunk you into experience rather than retell it and say ‘Now go and think about it.’ I couldn’t do that. My memory plays tricks on me. I hope the poem itself plays some of those tricks.
When I started seriously workshopping poems, a good rule of thumb to remember was that poetry isn’t the place for preaching or ‘making a point’, and the harshest subjects needed to have the lightest touch. That took a while to go in. I’d written poems with the deliberate intention of ‘telling’ the reader something, and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. I gradually came to see that ‘points’ are earned when everything else works. The ‘point’ had to be one of a range of things my poems did. But yes, you could say that there’s a didactic, discursive element to my work, sometimes. It might be because that old ‘Show, don’t tell’ rule is a bit inadequate to me. As a reader, I want you to tell me something. If it’s worth thinking about, I’ll enjoy thinking about it. I do stand by ‘no ideas but in things’, but ‘things’ aren’t the same as ideas. The idea of ‘pure poetry’ is a widespread cliché, I think, because it’s so unattainable. Everything communicates: imagery, rhetoric, and statement, but also vocabulary, form, sound, line, and rhythm as well. It all ‘tells’ you things.
I’m interested in that word ‘discursive’ because it implies a level of confidence in ‘the message’. I hardly have that confidence. Religion and disability are dangerous territory because their traditions are so full of forceful soap-boxing, therapy, and saccharine languages. I know that some readers will find messages that aren’t there simply because of the nature of the material. As soon as I say ‘I am disabled’, some people will think I’m making a ‘point’, a political statement. But if I said ‘My eyes are blue’, would they still think that? Both statements are the same kind of pure and simple fact, but the latter is more likely to make the reader think about suffering, pain, frustration. Why is that? I do think that readers can have an intention to go into some kinds of work, and read it in a certain way, and I like to play with that intention. If you think I’m farcically labouring a point, I probably am. Maybe the ‘point’ is that there is none. I might use OTT rhetorical devices, like puns, to undermine a message I’ve half-delivered. I hope the ironic slip from a serious tone might make readers laugh, wonder if I’m really soap-boxing at all. I am being serious some of the time. I’m very serious in places, but I’ll let you decide where and when you think I am.
Last thing: you mention ‘simply presenting a scene’. I wanted to pick up on that, because in ‘Milo Won’t Go in the Water’, that’s what I’m doing, really. I paint the Leisure Centre swimming pool as a water-filled brain. It could be an inner landscape more than a literal scene. Maybe Milo is refusing to embrace or address the real issues of his Hydrocephalus. Maybe Milo is me. I don’t know. In the end I tell you how he feels about the situation, but I don’t tell you how to feel, and you’re still asking ‘Who is Milo, anyway?’ I don’t ask you to sympathise with him. I’m not interested in sympathy; empathy is more realistic, and there’s nothing like laughing with someone to make us feel empathy towards them. I often play with the idea and validity of delivering a message, rather than delivering a finished one. That’s why ‘The Man Upstairs’ (God / Schopenhauer) delivers a message to the councils instead of me: because they have the required gravitas / arrogance, and I don’t. It’s also why it’s a ‘draft’, not a finished letter. Other poems are like that, where you can see a point if you want, or you can just enjoy whatever else the poem is doing. It’s up to you.
OK, the Apocalypse is upon us: natural disasters, alien invasions, milk shortages. The British Library is on fire. Which one page do you rip out of The Snowboy to keep in your pocket as you roam the lawless wastes, and why?
Well, I’m getting married next year. By the time the Apocalypse is at its worst, my fiancée, Sarah, will be my wife. You didn’t mention zombies, but assuming she hasn’t been eaten yet (and even if she has) I’d take ‘The Snowboy’. It’s the title poem, completely central to the collection, and everything else kind of revolves around it. It commemorates the miscarriage we grieved together, and still do. It’s strange, being a father to a child who never ‘lived’, but always goes with us as a concrete fact. So it’s important. Plus, that poem is all on one page, so I wouldn’t lose any by ripping it out. In the throes of a post-apocalyptic panic, that just makes sense.