I love events when authors signal that they’re not going to behave. When Stuart Kelly (the chair) told us that he had limited John Burnside to 3 mentions of windfarms in Scotland and John Burnside groaned “Don’t get me started”, I knew this was going to be an event to savour. It was. Whether that be Burnside’s reading of the first few pages of his latest novel “A Summer of Drowning”, a novel he called a homage to Henry James’s A Turn of the Screw (and one which subsequently landed on my must read pile), to his battle with his glasses – one pair for reading, another for looking at the audience, to his statements “The only forgiveness I seek is my own. I’m not going to forgive society for a very long time” or “I can live with any extreme. It’s moderation I can’t do!”.
Seeing as today is Blog More Poetry Day, let’s concentrate on his statements re poetry.
- Poetry is a political act because a) it rescues language from the abuse that government inflicts on it and b) it insists on valuing the everyday experience: tenderness, animals, the natural world.
- Poetry forces us against the hurriedness of life. It makes us slow down and take things in.
- A poem starts as a rhythm in his head.
- For that reason, he doesn’t rate his poem about the war in Iraq, Base, at all. (The word he used was cr*p.) Commissioned by the Guardian, he wrote it in 3 days and it is an example of the poet taking control of the form rather than the form and the words coming to the poet.
He didn’t dwell on his latest collection, Black Cat Bone. He did say that once his poems are in print, his relationship to them cools. Writing poetry is like working with metal. The poem is hot and malleable until it is dipped into the cold water of print and so rather than read from that collection, he read a sample of his new unpublished work. What a character – only John Burnside would refuse to herald his astounding successes. Black Cat Bone won both the T S Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Poetry.