Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series – Ian Burgham

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Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series – Ian Burgham

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Ian Burgham was born in New Zealand and raised in Canada, and has lived in both the UK and the South Pacific for extended periods of time. He attended Queen’s University. While attending the University of Edinburgh he read William Blake and focussed on the subject of poetic process and theories of imagination. He has worked in the UK and Canadian publishing industries as a sales rep, editor and publisher.

In 2004 he won the Queen’s University Well-Versed Poetry Award. He has three collections of poetry: A Confession of Birds, published in the UK in 2003; The Stone Skippers, which was published in 2007 in UK, Australia and Canada; and The Grammar of Distance, published in April, 2010 by Tightrope Books. The Stone Skippers was nominated for the 2008 ReLit Award for poetry.

His work has been published in many Canadian literary journals including Prairie Fire, Queen’s Quarterly, the Literary Review of Canada, the New Quarterly and dANDelion. His current work, A Weight of Bees, will be published in Canada and the UK in May 2012.

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TTQ- Do you remember the first poem you had published, and how would that poem stack up in your opinion to the kind of poetry you are writing today?

IB- The first poem I had published was a poem that won an award in a contest devised by Queen’s University. The poem, “On a Day of Storms”, was published in Queen’s Quarterly. The poem was unbalanced in a way and far too “poetic” compared to what I write now. The language and the lines weren’t tight enough. And of course I always have trouble tying the products of poetic flight and imagination to the hard ground of the kitchen sink that in the 21st century some poetry audiences and critics so often demand — to ground it in “the sordidly realistic,” the “intractably apnoeic” as T.S. Eliot put it.

But the poem arose out of pure landscape of emotion. What you cannot avoid in the process of making poetry is the necessity of honesty. If poetry doesn’t speak of the hard steel truth of its source then it shouldn’t be written at all. I wrote the poem about my father and seeing the divide between his life and his eventual death and my own response to those states of him in me. That part of my poetry, or I should say, poetic process, doesn’t alter. That’s the part of poetry that demands courage. If a poem then is well produced it will engage the reader in an arresting way and it will have guided the poet by poetic process to the appropriate choices of poetic language and the conclusions, through poetic logic, the poet seeks.

TTQ- You have been described as an intellectual, a thinker, a philosophical poet, a restless soul who asks the big questions. Do you feel that's an apt description of your writing style? Tell us about some of the big questions you ask in The Grammar of Distance (Tightrope Books, 2010).

IB- Yes. I guess so. But I never think of myself as an intellectual. Writing poetry is more like building dry stone walls. It is a kind of manual labour. It is up to others to describe my poems as asking the big questions. To me, poetry is life and death. I am simply trying to puzzle through this world and find meaning in being. It seems to me that there are three fundamental states — before birth, life and living, and death. To me nothing makes sense about life or birth without considering everything in terms of death. Existence implies non-existence.

It is the juxtaposition of states that interests me. So my poems tend to look at all three states, sometimes through antithetical themes and a considered absence of mention, and sometimes head on. And it seems to me that love, and by that I don’t just mean romantic love, but love in its many forms, and the exercise of love in the form of forgiveness and charity, etc., though incredibly difficult, is the only legitimate action that allows us to find any comfort or meaning in the act of living. I often have feelings and inklings and oddments of thought within me that I want to understand or get rid of. They are very uncomfortable if not addressed. Mostly they have to do with all these themes and questions.

So I am preoccupied with love and death. But then, I am not alone in human history in thinking about those two subjects. And I do think poetry, or rather art, and perhaps theoretical mathematics and physics, are the only ways in which we can investigate meaning beyond what the merely rational mind can provide. All these disciplines can move us past a life of false imaginings as Dante said.

TTQ- What was it like working with Catherine Graham, who edited The Grammar of Distance, and was her advice and support vital to the success of the book?

IB- - Catherine Graham is a wonderful and very fine poet, one of Canada’s best. The nature of her poems is very different from mine in the choice of language, her themes, her voice and expression. And she enjoys a fine talent for form.

As an editor she was patient, but most of all honest. The best part was that she had no hesitation in suggesting cuts — of saving me from my own errors. She could balance a poem and save me from verbiage, “on-rampitis” and emotional tirades that had nothing to do with the art of poetry. And yet, though my work is so very different from her own, she could find value in my work and appreciate what I was doing or attempting to do. I enjoy working with her very much indeed and continue to do so.

TTQ- What are your opinions on the current state of poetry in Toronto and across Canada? Who are some of the young and promising Canadian poets to watch out for?

IB- It has been great to meet so many young and emerging poets. The writing world offers many venues for new poets to air their work. And the world of journals and poetry magazines offers such a wonderful service encouraging and directing young poets. The quality of work is generally high. I also am surprised that so many young poets seem to understand the degree of work involved in the business of writing. There are so many ways emerging poets can gain access to tutors and mentors. The poetry world in Canada is generally supportive and leaves little room for the pretentious, the arrogant and the simply competitive. Mostly we all want to be “wowed” by the work of others. My own development owes so much to many both here and in the U.K.

TTQ- Do you feel that reading one's poetry in front of a live audience is an important part of the writing process, and do you personally enjoy reading at poetry events?

IB- Reading one’s poetry is absolutely important. Poetry is not only written for the page but for the ear. It has as much to do with music in terms of its meaning and impact as it does with thought and feeling. When reading you can hear the hisses, the bumps, the failure of notes and rests, and the failure of logic. You also know when it is working. I listen differently when I read in front of an audience and often only want to take out a pen and start making the changes.

I do like reading some of the time. But I don’t like to read too often. I find that my mind clicks into performance mode, looking for audience reaction, etc. All I really want to do is write to get better at it and to voyage into those worlds that seem off limits unless I am writing. The day-to-day mind doesn’t allow one to go where the poetic imagination and the act of writing will allow us to go. In fact, the act of writing when inspiration has kicked in doesn’t allow me to make intellectual rational decisions about thoughts and directions; rather it is the power of feeling and thought that will take me with it.

So readings are useful as part of the process of making work better but beyond that I am not that keen; preferring to jump back into the flames to find comfort in expiation as Dante noted. However, I am sometimes very moved by people’s reactions in terms of seeing that a poem or two is meaningful to them. That is a very nice feeling.

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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