Interview with Markie Burnhope, Part II

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. Click here to read Part I of this interview.

The two poets mentioned in this collection--Wallace Stevens and Zbignew Herbert--are both poets of rich imagination and lyrical intensity. The former generally relates to more abstract thoughts and feelings, whereas the latter treats difficult personal topics such as the Nazi occupation of Poland. What do you see as the role of personally difficult subject matter in your own work? How does this inhibit or fuel your creative power?

That's a fantastic observation, that thoughts and feelings / topics and issues paradox. I am interested in what happens when thoughts and feelings, beliefs and doctrines (which are abstract and elusive, however much we argue about it) bump into authentic, concrete experience; how faith or religion helps and hinders social change, and how the desire for change sometimes necessitate a revision of personal belief systems.

To take one hot potato for example, homosexuality and homophobia: there was a point when I decided, “Stuff all this in-fighting, I'm tired of being part of a religion which fails to recognise and offer love wherever it finds it. God doesn’t exclude, he welcomes.” I've always identified with the ways the LGBT community has been maligned in the Church, because a lot of disabled people experience the same thing; for me, it finds its crux in talk of 'healing the sick'. A lot of people want to heal us, believing that God made us this way by accident, or that we're the handiwork of Satan. Even in completely secular contexts, there are feelings of pity and the desire to see us fit a more able-bodied norm in order to be accepted. Inclusiveness and equality are essential values to my faith, and that finds its way into my poems.

It's a chicken and egg thing. I'm hoping I depersonalise it, make some of these received notions less romantic (and Romantic, even though I quite like the Romantics).

I quite like the Romantics, too. Who are some of the poets who influenced you early on? Who are a few more recent favourites?

Early on, I’d read and enjoyed things by Keats and Coleridge. I was fourteen when Wordsworth and Blake grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. It’s difficult to remember what I thought of them then, but Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” is something that all of us who wrote poetry as teenagers know too well (and which “Romanticism” has sadly been reduced to, sometimes). Wordsworth qualified it by saying that poets should think long and hard to ‘earn’ the right to pour out feelings. I liked that, and wanted to have a go at it. Blake attracted me because he was full of irony. The Romantics revelled in irony. Even their name is ironic, because, far from being fluffy, they had balls: a social and public vision. They wanted revolution. But they knew that revolution begins in the heart, and the pen. Songs of Innocence and of Experience was children’s nursery rhymes for grown-ups. That musicality and magic was offset by harsh social criticism, anger, and corrective satire.

Most of my reading-for-pleasure has probably fallen into the metaphysical or ‘religious’ (whatever that might mean), pastoral / landscape / nature, the ‘anti-poetries’ which are either slightly experimental, or deal with difficult personal and public subjects, satire. I’m generally quite flummoxed by the separation of ‘mainstream’ from anything else. So, I love Ted Hughes, Heaney, McCaig, the Thomases. Recently, I’ve been inspired by Mick Imlah, Peter Didsbury, Alice Oswald, Andrew Philip, Luke Kennard, Lisa Jarnot, Tony Williams, A.B. Jackson, Angela Topping, Michael Symmons Roberts. Experimental writers such as Tim Atkins and Ira Lightman, and various things coming out of The Knives Forks and Spoons Press: Steven Nelson, Bobby Parker, Joshua Jones. Disability seems quiet in contemporary poetry, and I’ve found few poets writing from it. But Laurie Clements Lambeth’s brilliant Veil and Burn encouraged me that it’s out there.

Lastly, he’s not exactly contemporary, but Larry Eigner, a Black Mountain poet, is a recent discovery. He had Cerebral Palsy, and although his poems rarely mentioned it, they were filled with his particular physicality in the way they were shaped and formed. That’s exciting, to me.

You mentioned Confessional poetry. What are some of the challenges of this mode, and how do you navigate them?

Confessionalism is rife with hazards, so I’m careful to make it one of several streams I draw from, rather than a focus. Disability and faith are big themes in this pamphlet. Both are potentially fraught with personal therapy and soul-searching, or political soap-boxing, and that’s all well and good, but poetry fails if it’s only that. Plath has inspired diary-scribbling teenagers everywhere, and I love that. I want to deal with suffering and difficult feeling – poetry which avoids suffering can be less than human – but this is poetry; it has to draw me in and keep me because it inspires reflection, needs mulling over, not because it forces an agenda down my throat.

If I flirt with confession or argument, I might temper it with irony and humour. The most emotionally honest poems might be ‘The Snowboy’ and ‘Shinglehenge’. Even they have their own ways of restraining their feelings. Some say that irony removes emotion, but actually it can serve it, I think. It’s true in life, isn’t it; making light of things is comforting for us. And if we make jokes, others can feel we’re hiding things, but that can be when our pain seems most palpable. I once read this advice, on writing fiction, but I think it’s still relevant: ‘If your character cries, your reader doesn’t have to.’ I’ve always been mindful of that.

There is a massive tendency to see Confession as autobiography. It’s a fallacy that Confessional poetry is necessarily about the poet, though, even if it explores the self. Plath and Sexton often situated themselves in landscapes, imagined and real; made mythical figures of themselves, or others. Lowell felt free to draw from experiences not his own in order to get to the emotional truth of the matter. Ai, who you might call Confessional, spoke with invented characters’ voices to create angry, painfully difficult poems. So when I use material from life, it’s often fabricated, exaggerated, made mythical in a slightly irreverent way. One or two poems are based on dreams. I’m not shy about my disability but use it inadvertently, because it ‘just is’, it’s not ammo for an agenda. Similarly, if religious poetry only cuts the mustard for religious readers, it hasn’t worked.

Why poetry? Of the myriad ways one could express oneself, why this one? What drew you to it? What keeps you coming back?

I always did various other creative things: painting and drawing, playing drums in bands. I was with a rock band for ten years or so. But I seem to have settled on poetry as the major preoccupation. It’s got multi-sensory effect: imagery, sound. Poems are made things, and I love their sculptural quality. They’re an almost three-dimensional ‘landscape’ the reader can live in for a while, eventually getting to those feelings, thoughts and ideas between the cracks, underneath the layers. There are rudiments, techniques, a need to have subtlety and tightness in a similar way to drumming. Poets are in control of several creative activities at the same time. They’re one man bands, sound technicians.

I’ve never fully trusted prose, or my ability to write it. I like R.S. Thomas’ ideas of poetry as sacrament, vessel for incarnation, because words fail me. I can’t fully expect them to ‘express’ anything, and I find the concept of poetry as self-expression fairly problematic for that reason; it seems rather arrogant to think that I can imagine it, and get it down exactly. So I like the idea of language as pliable; that words can be manipulated, set next to and against one another, juxtaposed. They can contradict and disagree.

I’m not a big novel reader. A poetry collection gives depth, but allows me to view a kaleidoscope of themes and ideas. I’m not confined to a definite number of threads. Poems are as absorbing as songs. I still remember my favourite poems from years ago, and still visit them time and again. Two or three collections are beside my bed because I’m still reading them, years later. They allow skim-reading, but also beg to be given sustained attention.

Personally though, poetry has been central to my emotional life, intellectual and spiritual life. I’ve lived in it. I have one of your books here, Robert, and in it you say that poetry has been your ‘lifeline’ in everything you have been through. I completely relate to that; poetry has centred me, kept me sane, even at times when I couldn’t stomach religious faith, it was too painful. So I want to try and pay that forward in poems or critical writing about poetry. I hope to overcome my reluctance with prose, one day.

Markie, this exchange has been a pleasure. Any parting thoughts?

Thank you for having me on the blog, the pleasure was all mine; and thanks for your interest in The Snowboy. I should have a wise or pithy comment to leave you with here, but I don’t, so I’m going to use this old chestnut, which possibly touches on a few things we’ve spoken about: “Before you criticise someone, try to walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticise them you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll be wearing their shoes.”

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