Ian Burgham has lived in both the UK and the South Pacific for long periods of time. He has been engaged in publishing as an editor, sales rep and publisher working in Scotland for Canongate Publishing and Macdonald Publishers. He has degrees in literature from both Queen’s and the University of Edinburgh. The Grammar of Distance (Tightrope Books), was published in April of 2010. The publication follows two previous collections; A Confession of Birds, McLean Dubois, 2003 and The Stone Skippers, Tightrope, 2007. His work has been published in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and has appeared in many Canadian literary journals.
Catherine Graham interviewed Ian Burgham in January, 2011.
You lived in the UK for many years, in Edinburgh, Scotland, and during that time worked in the book industry (sales rep, editor and publisher). How did this experience shape your poetic sensibility? Do you find a distinction between poetry overseas and poetry here in Canada?
Scotland is a place in which poetry lives and thrives in all strata of soil and rock. The people are imbued with a poetic sensibility, or at least understand the role and the necessity of poetry and art in everyday life. Being a poet is as honoured a role and job as any other office or position in society. No one need apologise to the worker, the business man, the entrepreneur or anyone else for being a poet or artist. In fact, the reaction to a claim that one writes poetry is apt to be celebration, excitement or even envy. When I lived in a small cottage on an estate near Peebles, I had a coal delivery man from the Borders who thought the reading of poetry was “pure music to the mind”. This reverence comes from the ancient and time-honoured role and recognition of the poet in society. Who was the greater poet, Fergusson or Burns? I have seen fights break out of arguments in working man’s pubs related to that question. A truly literate society.
After 10 years away, spent mostly in Edinburgh, I was shocked when I returned to Canada. There was a literary priesthood here that still exists in part but it was populated by publishers, editors, agents and critics. They were the stars, not poets or writers. In order to shore up their claims to be members of the literary establishment, they kept the authors close to them and displayed them as trophies. One of my first events in Canadian publishing after returning from Scotland was to attend Jack McClelland’s “Night of a Hundred Authors” banquet. Each invited author sat at a table of publishers and those who had purchased tables, all of whom were from the CanLit scene, ate a meal and left — but not before each author, escorted by models and hosts, was walked onto the stage. As another author passed unrecognised by me, I whispered to a friend of mine, “Who is that? and “What are they expected to do on stage? Do they have a white board upon which they will suddenly write something?” It was, I felt, so celebrity-oriented. I had been living in a society where writers were not celebrities, just appreciated for what they did, as everyone else was in society!
The poets I knew and worked with at Canongate Publishing and Macdonald Publishers were fine writers recognised the world over and their work was fearless, emotionally fearless. I find the taste of many poets and critics in Canada is for the clever. Word play, shock value, and the domestic mundane street-and-kitchen-sink theme. The need to be unpoetic and unemotional, not emotionally brave. Only a small number of poets seem to be willing to face the deeply emotional. What also seems to be missing is the metaphysical, poems that embrace metaphysical themes. Odd that Scotland, a country known for its expressions of nationalism does not feel threatened by freedom of expression and theme, whereas Canada seems to be a country that is threatened by certain themes. I don’t think it is something we will grow out of but I do think it is something poets in Canada should ignore.
I have been charged with not being a Canadian poet. I don’t know what that means. I am Canadian (sounds like the beer ad!). I write poetry. I am a Canadian who writes poetry. Isn’t that enough definition for those that announce candidates and bestow on members the Order of the CanLit?
Science influences your forthcoming manuscript, A Weight of Bees. Can you explain the relationship of your poetry to science?
During the days when I made a study of the writings of Coleridge and others of that period it was obvious these poets were heavily influenced by science. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” works on many levels to do with magnetism, polarity and the discoveries of scientists such as Sir Humphrey Davy and James Faraday. Only recently have science and art been distanced from one another — really only after Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica began influencing Pound and Eliot and other poets of the early and mid twentieth century in the same manner as Aristotle’s Organon had in previous periods.
Science provides wonderful images, insights and metaphors, and scientific theories challenge our understanding. Great scientific hypotheses, demanding an intuitive leap and abstract thinking, are often best understood by newly invented language and aesthetic renderings. Science, particularly physics, often leads me into the consideration of the metaphysical and to philosophical questions.
Do you have an audience in mind when writing your poems?
I have no audience in mind when writing my poems. They are not performance pieces. I write poems because I need to, for my mental and emotional stability. And yet the odd thing is living the poetic life of the mind and giving over to the constant thoughts of the nature of poetic conception is itself an unbalancing act, it’s a tough and dangerous place to be. I write to gain order and understanding. And I have fun with the part that can’t be controlled.
For me, the act of performance often interferes with the act of writing. Having said that, when my poetry is published, I am indeed interested in the response it does or does not receive. It has left me and it is out there. I guess what I hope for is that someone will understand or see something or hear something I did not know was there. I also find it rewarding when readers get the embedded references. I hope it deepens their experience of the work, deepens the encounter.
I understand you’re working on a new project, a collaboration with the internationally renowned artist Uno Hoffman. What exactly is this collaboration?
As an artist, Uno Hoffmann is well-known throughout Europe, the USA and other parts of the world. He is not well known in Canada and likes it that way – staying out of sight and working in solitude. His paintings adorn the walls of many of the Museums of Modern Art throughout the world including Lisbon, Madrid, Bonn, New York and Antwerp. His paintings also hang in galleries in France and he has held major exhibitions in the USA.
Many of his paintings are summoned from the tradition of poet and painter collaborations like the alliances between the impressionists of France and the poets of that time such as Apollinaire and Derain, Breton and Picasso, or the relationships of Leonardo de Vinci or Michelangelo with poets such as Horace. For example the Mona Lisa contains visual references that overtly and deliberately summon up two poems by Petrarch and one by Horace to help to make meaning.
Hoffman has painted a series that literally and visually embody the poems of such poets as Auden, Neruda and e.e. cummings. He is a prodigious reader of poetry and has memorized many great works, from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Ginsberg’s Howl. He recently completed a unique series of paintings in a unique art work/book form on Christopher Logue’s War Music. It is currently touring galleries in Germany to great critical acclaim.
Uno Hoffmann and I both frequent the same coffee house, Mercurio’s L’Espresso. The owner of the establishment, a lover of the works of artists and writers, introduced us. We are collaborating on a work not unlike Uno’s rendition of Christopher Logue’s War Music. Needless to say I am deeply honoured.