Interview with Markie Burnhope, Part I

Markie Burnhope studied at London School of Theology before completing an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University. Markie's debut short collection, The Snowboy, was recently published by Salt. I had the pleasure of interviewing Markie about poetry, disability, theology, and much more.

How does theology inform your poetry, and vice-versa (if at all)?

It definitely does. But rather than speaking about theological subjects in abstract, theoretical terms, I try to ground them in my experience – as a disabled person in an admittedly broken religion, or more metaphorically, in imagined and fabricated settings where splinters of my life might be buried in the words, somewhere. One thing I'm interested in is how much biblical language doesn't sit right in a contemporary disabled context: words like 'sick', and the well-meaning but ignorant obsession with physical healing. It means well, but it's totally antithetical to how disabled people tend to see ourselves, as differently but definitely fully formed. (Isn’t everyone different? What is ‘normal’ anyway?)

So, my faith leads me to identify with other groups marginalised by the Church / the world (That's another thing I like / don't like: unhelpful dualities. Religion and disability rhetoric is full of them). Other poems are about love, marriage: 'The Ideal Bed' and 'Christogamy / The Centre' for example, are kind of companion poems. One of them touches on how certain Christian ideas and doctrines -- saving oneself for marriage in order to later enjoy inevitably perfect heterosexual sex, and have perfect children, for example -- can be totally deflated and undermined in real life. There is no sense of ‘one size fits all’ in doctrine or disability. The other tries to situate a theological idea, which one of our lecturers liked to remind us of, in a landscape.

'The Snowboy' is the central poem because it touches on that experience which doesn’t meet such hopes. I’m drawn to and inspired by quite a bit of confessional poetry, even if the anger in my poems is often offset with an ironic joy and humour. Having a joke is sometimes the best way of debunking ideas.

The poem "The House, the Church and Fisherman's Walk" begins with the arresting line "The non-discriminatory town accepts me," and later invokes the colloquialism "lame." How have attitudes toward disability shaped your life and work?

There are the obvious clichés: disabled people either exist to inspire everyone towards 'triumph over adversity', or to make them rethink their dark nights of the soul and remember that well, it could be worse, you could be crippled. I've heard people say 'Wow, I'm not sure I could cope if I was in the position you're in.' Of course they would. What's the alternative?

Those extreme positions so rampant in literature (Wilfred Owen's 'Disabled' is so well-meaning, yet reads as clumsy now) have disintegrated, I think, but now we seem to have a bigger problem. Society seems so bored of social commentary, confession, and especially the suggestion that you or I might be prejudiced, that we don't want to talk about it; we find it very hard to stomach in art. We believe that everything's been said. All the work was done during all those civil rights movements, we think. The issues are still there, but our polite and politically correct language-play, which doesn't want to offend anyone, has just got better at making excuses for those issues, or brushing them off.

I can't change these problems, but they get into my poetry, however true it is that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. If I can make something happen for one reader, that’s alright.

So many of these poems invoke Biblical figures: Jonah, Joseph and his brothers, Job, Saul on the road to Damascus, the tax collector Zacchaeus, and the Serpent. How do biblical stories, and particularly your modern retelling of them, enter in to your personal or artistic ontology? How do they function?

It’s difficult to generalise. I’ve tried to call them out of the mythic contexts I’ve encountered them in; to invite them into my, and the reader’s, experience of the poem. Our Jonah appears as a nutcase tourist, ‘our’ being an affectionate way of identifying a relation, especially, but hardly exclusively, in Northern England (‘our kid’). I read this story on a Boscombe Pier plaque, of a tourist walking along a beached whale’s back, around the middle of last century. In the poem, the man desires some mythic, religious experience; he’s a plain old bloke wanting to step into Jonah’s shoes.

I’m very glad you noticed Joseph’s brothers. They appear in a poem I wrote during a high fever and depression. It’s a straight retelling of a fever dream, so was jotted on paper quickly and without much tinkering (dreams will always have their own interpretation and logic, no need to fiddle). It’s still allusive to me now, though I have this feeling that the images are cohesive; but generally, I was grieving my partner’s miscarriage. The well is an old symbol for the self; lots of poems have been written about staring into wells, meditating on the self.

So in a way, the brothers force me back into my own birth, which had its problems. I survived, but I’m contrasting that with my child that never lived, who we saw as a ‘miracle child’ (I’d been told I was unable to have children). The brothers throw ‘me’, the begrudging survivor, ‘miracle child’, back into the dark. It’s confusing, but it’s a fever dream, so I like that.

‘Saul returned to Paul’ was a helpful image for understanding the post-healing journey of ‘Parochio’. I haven’t covered all of your characters, but I hope that’s helpful.

Other figures, such as Queequeg and Pinocchio, feature large. What drew you to these figures?

These epistles, directly addressing a set of fictional characters, provided a way to explore a range of issues, generally revolving around discrimination, prejudice and stereotype.

I wrote them when I was starting to think about how to respond to my disability, and those related things, in a way which wasn’t directly or uncomfortably confessional, and didn’t just appear to the reader like dirty laundry. I wanted to invite them into my questioning and experience, not tell them about stuff, which might have inspired curiosity, but when it comes to disability, curiosity is something we don’t need more of. I deal with them in different ways.

My version of Pinocchio is too shy to say that actually, he doesn’t want to be a ‘real boy’, mythical miracle fodder. But he’s healed, and consequently goes and does a whole bunch of things that the church wouldn’t approve of. Those things are mostly left to the reader to imagine, but I’ve mentioned that he goes and loses his virginity out of wedlock. He has a new-found freedom, of a kind that no one round him is going to like. I’m questioning what the obsession with physical healing really accomplishes for the church itself, without implicating anyone real in my doubt.

The stories of Queequeg and Quasimodo, again, encompass so much of these things. Moby Dick is a story in which, through his extremely intimate friendship with Queequeg, Ishmael is eventually able to confront his doubts about this once-ugly, tattooed savage (‘I too am tattooed’ is the one fact in the poem). His friendship leads him to consider his feelings on difference, whether they be on faith – Christian vs. Heathen – xenophobia, white supremacy, or love and sexuality. His full loving acceptance of this ‘monster’ involves a total U-turn in his thinking. The eventual (politically incorrect) defeat of the White Whale is richly symbolic of Ishmael’s transformation. In my poem, I try to develop and live for a while in this kind of relationship with Queequeg myself. I become Ishmael, really.

In "Twelve Steps toward Better Despair" you invoke the slippage, "Tried dying--sorry, died trying." How do vernacular idioms and language-play enter into your creative process?

I'm conscious that a lot of poetry I’ve loved and want to work with is traditional and already well-represented. I certainly love a lot of poets and poems which have been anthologised all over the place, and thrown into the bookshops. I want to honour those poetries which first fired me up. But I’ve had to temper my interest in that ‘traditional stuff’ with who I am: I'm relatively young. I have no desire to be 'trendy', 'edgy' or whatever, but I like a good laugh and irreverent tomfoolery, and I want to freely use slang – as I would in conversation – even in my efforts to be sincere and poignant.

So those language slip-ups are a way to take a poem potentially full of pathos and ‘instruction’, and admit my hesitation to deliver a message (couple that with the title, which I hope incorporates some of that doubt in a comedic way; despair is a serious thing, and who am I to properly address it for every reader, or instruct them on how to wade through it? The tone is ironic, like in the song ‘Everybody’s Free [To Wear Sunscreen]’ by Baz Luhrmann).

I like to play with a reluctance to put forward ideas, the humility to admit that I might be wrong (Wallace Stevens was so good at the hilarious questioning of received knowledge, or poetic truth). Maybe there is a disability element there as well. I have Spina bifida and Hydrocephalus. The latter means that short-term memory is a small problem, as well as a tendency to lose my train of thought, or get a word wrong here or there, and have to correct myself. Sometimes I use that to construct poems: an aesthetic of confusion, maybe.

Click here to read Part II of this interview.

§ § §