Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Mark Burnhope speaks to Andy Spragg

Mark Burnhope was born in 1982, and currently lives and writes in Bournemouth, Dorset. He studied at London School of Theology before completing an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University. His poems and reviews have appeared in print and online publications including Magma, Nth Position, Horizon Review, Stride and The Best British Poetry 2011. His debut pamphlet, The Snowboy, is available from Salt Publishing.

When did you start writing? Was it poetry in particular? 

I remember being about fourteen, discovering Wordsworth and Blake, and writing little Romantic poems which I once put together with illustrations in a handmade book, because Blake did, sort of. I have a vague memory of reading ‘Daffodils’, noticing that Wordsworth described this field of daffodils as a ‘host’. I wrote a poem about a field of angels, thinking I was cleverly working with that idea. I wasn’t. I was actually undoing, sucking the life out of, a brilliant metaphor. I laugh about that now. But I started writing poems seriously during GCSE English. I wrote a poem for an assignment. My teacher, Mr. Matthews, had a contagious passion and excitement for poetry, and his enjoyment of Dylan Thomas, William Blake, Sylvia Plath and others rubbed off on me. That assignment was to write a Gothic Horror story. I told my teacher that I didn’t feel very confident in fiction, and asked if I could write a horrific poem instead. I also didn’t want to do horror, but the crucifixion was kind of bad, wasn’t it, so can I write about that? He let me off, and then gave me an A. I didn’t need much encouragement to get serious. That reluctance with fiction though has never really gone away, and although I’ve attempted a novel, it’s been stashed away in a drawer, two thirds finished, for years now. So yes, I’ve had a voracious, almost exclusive appetite for poetry all these years.

Which particular writers would you say have been an influence?

Lots, I read all over the place. I’m not a massive reader of prose, but C.S. Lewis, for his children’s stuff as well as for his satire, like The Screwtape Letters. Bunyan: I’m interested in allegory and symbol, probably over and above metaphor. Indra Sinha, D.B.C Pierre, Ali Smith. In terms of poetry, the Metaphysicals, particularly John Donne and Andrew Marvell. The metaphysicals have fallen in and out of favour in contemporary poetry for obvious reasons; we live in a society where, gladly, no belief is given more airtime than another. Readers can be put off by the mere mention of religious belief, and for good reason; but it can be to their detriment if they miss the linguistic leaps these writers were taking. I’ve tried to absorb and utilise elements from Wallace Stevens, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Yeats, Hopkins, R.S. Thomas. These writers created a religious tradition which is multi-faceted, innovative, and far from embarrassing. I’m interested in the pastoral, nature/landscape, Romantic traditions: from Blake, John Clare, Robert Frost, to Norman MacCaig, Seamus Heany, Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughes. Lastly, I’m interested in satirical, anti-poetic treatment of difficult social and political subject-matter. Zibniew Herbert has been a big one there. Current poets like Andrew Philip, Tony Williams, Michael Symmons Roberts, Andy Brown, John Burnside, Sian Hughes, Angela Topping, A.B. Jackson, Tim Atkins, Ira Lightman, Bobby Parker and Steven Nelson have added something or other to my thinking about the part I might play. Oh, and Luke Kennard, who reminds me with linguistic skill and a good sprig of anarchy, never to take things too seriously, even when they are serious. Seriously; life is too short to read too many poems which don’t make you laugh.

In The Snowboy there seems to be a tension between a contemporary landscape and a more mythic or imaginative landscape, from the “parish town” of 'To My Restored Example, Pinnochio' to the mention of Ikea of “The Ideal Bed”. How aware were you of having these contrasts when collecting the poems together?

Thanks for those insights. The problem of Cartesian dualism is a big deal to me, where mind and matter is separated in so much discourse. In religion, they’ve been pitted against one another and called ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Cartesian dualism has also helped define disabled people against an archetypal, ‘normal’ (or normative) able body. The naming of disabilities and conditions is useful for hospitals and surgeries, but it has the effect in society of supporting stereotype. In contrast, there’s the Social Model, which is inherently inclusive. It says that it’s society which disables individuals; regardless of physical condition, we all share experiences of ignorance, discrimination, lack of access to buildings, jobs, public services, and relationships in some cases. All that stuff creates our cultural ‘landscape’. I hope my poetry conjures a real sense of specific place, and my home town features. I’m grounded here; it’s my emotional centre. But on an exploratory level, some of my poems paint imaginative landscapes through which I can explore various issues in a less personalised way. Some of them are confused, doing both at the same time. The geography in ‘The Letting Tree’ is partly true, but most of it’s wrong. Urban Reef isn’t on Sea Road (its sister restaurant, Urban Beach, is). There’s a tree outside, lots actually, but they’re further away, not right outside (or are they?). My Hydrocephalus possibly comes into play here: short-term memory problems mean that I can travel somewhere a million times, and still not know how to direct someone there. I can find my own way to places if it’s been a habit, but there’s a complete mental block where specific detail is concerned. I can’t visualise it in my head to describe it to other people. I could have gone to Sea Road, wrote down details, but I didn’t, since this was my way of making disability part of the poem’s construction. To take the lines you’ve quoted: I do live in a Parish town, but I don’t go to church at the moment. I don’t know how many toyshops we have. ‘The Ideal Bed’ has IKEA in it, but also other fabricated details about the breakdown of my marriage. What begins as fairly straight retelling of memories turns into this almost ridiculous list of metaphorical ideas around the marriage bed. It’s helped along by the concept of ‘bedness’ from Plato’s Republic, which became a basis for ekphrastic poetry. Donne lends a hand too, with his bed as universe conceit. Like in ‘The Letting Tree’, I’m hoping that the fact I just can’t remember certain concrete details about time and space comes across, and that it almost drives the emotion in the poem. There is pain in not being able to remember, but desperately wanting to. Where I can’t, metaphor, metaphysics and sexual innuendo take over to inadvertently express stuff which the literal retelling could never do, however much I tried. After all that’s worked through, there are laughs, and a little insincerity. We’re insincere because pain is hard to admit, which is an admission in itself.

There seem to be several moments of self-identification with the subjects of certain poems, explicitly here, the opening lines and mirror titles of “To My Familiar, Queequeg” and “To My Best-kept, Quasimodo”. I wonder if you could comment further on this.

Those poems were written a while back, when I began thinking more seriously about how to incorporate the inevitable fact of my disability into my poems. I knew that I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, make them narrowly confessional. I’m attracted to confessional poetry, for its caustic lack of regard for emotional subtlety (due in part to my similar leanings in music, and all the Seattle grunge and Metal that I’ve listened to over the years) but I don’t want the reader to feel like a voyeur into my personal baggage. They have to feel like they’re living it themselves, not that the writer is assuming the role of wise teacher, or Jeremy Kyle guest. So I had this idea of writing epistles to a set of fictional characters, since there were already a set of them I knew about whose stories deal with prejudice, exclusion, healing, the body; and those themes are embodied by them. Others didn’t make the cut this time, but these three – Pinocchio, Queequeg and Quasimodo – did. In all of their stories, I found symbolic material to do with prejudice, stereotype, the physical body and the social aspects which disable it. Moby Dick is a story in which, through their blossoming intimate friendship (possibly more, considering Ishmael’s expressed joy in holding Queequeg in bed), Ishmael’s prejudices gradually drop like flies. At first, he views Queequeg as a monster and a heathen; but eventually he reflects and reconfigures his morals, his beliefs, his sexuality, his love for his wife, his views about the body and its wild ‘geography’. It’s slowly transformed in his friendship with this tattooed savage. Aside from my distaste for whale hunting, the final defeat of that ‘white monster’ is a powerful end to Ishmael’s supremacy over what used to be, for him, the weaker race. In writing a letter to Queequeg, I suppose I’m acknowledging hurt, mistreatment, but also celebrating the dropping of differences. I identify with Queequeg (‘I too am tattooed’ is the one fact of the poem), but also Ishmael. Quasimodo, in a way, is a love poem. It begins by addressing the hunchback, but then gets shaky, starts talking about the woman, this ‘gypsy’ we are both in love with; so again, it’s wanting to talk to them both. The Disney film has always really angered me, in a funny way. Rather than being this beautifully tragic love story, Quasimodo ends up in the ‘Friend Zone’ with Esmaralda, with the frustration of being locked in a tower, unable to get his frigging fingers on her. He’s merely a helping hand to get to that inevitable ending, where she gets the perfectly able-bodied handsome Prince. That’s always pissed me off, and I see it time and again in life, literature and film. The body as a locked tower, the feeling that just because bones are mangled and you can’t imagine them having sex, it doesn’t mean a person is asexual. But I hope it celebrates love too, the cheeky ‘once-wasted bone’ pun mirroring the ‘ivory tower’ of Song of Songs, where the lover’s body as a ‘tower’ seems to be a, um, mistranslation (it’s a phallus).

With regards to your work and more general processes of identification, have you aligned yourself with particular schools of thought or aesthetics? How big an engagement do you have with contemporary poetry? Other than the actual making of it...

This pamphlet draws together separate streams: Confessional, religious, satirical, pastoral/nature/landscape. Rather than align myself with a single one, I’d rather put them out on the table, and collate them into something resembling a picture which reflects the way things are now. So, I’ve got Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Ai to thank for the seething, gritted-teeth frustration / regret / grief / anger bubbling beneath the surface. I’ve got Blake, Stevens, Hopkins, Donne, Yeats and Edna St. Vincent Millay (among others) to thank for a kaleidoscopic take on religious faith. I have John Clare and Zbigniew Herbert, as well as all of the above, to thank for their caustic wit and social criticism. I also love Heaney, Norman McCaig, Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughes. Poets like Donald Davie and R.S. Thomas fall into both camps: the religious and the pastoral / landscape. None of these are contemporary, sorry! But I’ve loved recent collections which take these traditions and work with them, more or less: off the top of my head (and I know I’ve forgotten some) I can think of A.B. Jackson’s Fire Stations, Tom Chivers’ How To Build A City, Andy Brown and John Burnside’s Goose Music, Luke Kennard’s Migraine Hotel, Tony Williams’ The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street, and, for their tender and honest look at the grief in the loss of a child (which three poems in my pamphlet touch on, ‘The Snowboy’ most clearly) Sian Hughes’ The Missing, and Andrew Philip’s The Ambulance Box. But in my years of reading poetry closely, what’s missing in poetics, I’ve found, is the voice – or voices – of disability. I hope that I bring that. I’m hardly the only one doing it, and there are a few poets with disabilities – mostly in America – who’ve identified in the last twenty years or so with a ‘crip poetry’ movement. One of their aims is to shift disability poetry from the realms of ‘therapeutic writing’ to more serious engagement; to let it sit among other poetries, and throw off reactions of ‘Ah, that’s nice dear’. Some are more political than others, but all seek to take back, redefine and decriminalise language (‘Crip’ is an obvious abbreviation of ‘Cripple’ but, in the disabled context, more often than not, has become a term of endearment rather than abuse). I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. Larry Eigner – a Black Mountain poet who had Cerebral Palsy – got that treatment, where a headline once read something like (I’m paraphrasing): ‘Poet Writes From His Wheelchair’. That’s patronising, but more, it’s useless, banal information that says nothing about his poetry and everything about the journalist’s discomfort with the idea of a disabled person making poetry. On the other hand, these crip poets tend to love Larry Eigner for the same reasons I do; and my disability is an unavoidable fact, fuels some of my poems, so I see no reason why I shouldn’t stick my hand up and say yes, I’m a crip and I write poems. I’m a crip poet.

How wary were you of engaging with the religious within your poetry, given that we seem to currently live in a time that appears highly sceptical of any form of faith? Did you find yourself censoring the more religious aspects of your poems?

I’m not interested in ‘censoring’ language. If it’s well-crafted, it shouldn’t need censoring. I’m in good company as far as poetic religious tradition goes (and in terms of writers who have, more or less, written from or around it: Geoffrey Hill, J.H. Prynne, and now Michael Symmonds Roberts, Andrew Philip, Lisa Jarnot, Ira Lightman… ). But I try to come at religion from the right angle. I don’t think ‘I’m going to write a heartfelt and sincere poem,’ and then end up, by some logical conclusion, with a religious one. But I do see faith as a lens as good as any through which to see what I love, have to try and be content with, or hate. My faith is deeply ingrained, as well as often the last thing I want, the most unnatural and uncomfortable thing in the world. I try to be honest about that. If I stand back and look at religion – not God, but our little warring factions which try, and fail, to pin him down – I see the same good and evil that I’ve been told splits Christians from ‘the world’ (that Biblical term meaning outside the faith, ironically). I’m not interested in writing Contemporary Christian Worship, or preaching. ‘Censoring’ doesn’t come into it because poetry isn’t for that; there is a correlation between poetry and prayer, but they are different. I try not to patronise, belittle or undermine readers’ thoughts, beliefs and experiences. But that’s just because to do so would be awful, poetically, morally and ethically. That isn’t censorship; it’s related to accessibility and caring about the reader. Faith, ‘religion’ if you want, is just a tool in the box, and seemed like the right one for this pamphlet. Maybe not next time, who knows?

1 comment:

  1. Awesome interview! you actually did a great job with this stuff!