Monday, April 1, 2019

Wayne F. Burke responds

WFB: I was once a kid. A happy kid, I believe. With two grandparents who loved me and three siblings I was not so sure about. My elder brother, five years older, and my sister, four years older, were strangers to me. My younger brother and I were friends, except when punching each other in fistfights... I was a kid in grammar school, then a teenager in Junior and Senior High School. What did I learn in these schools? I learned how to take tests and how to lie and cheat, if necessary to get ahead. My High School football coach -- I was a jock -- got me into the University of Massachusetts where I went into some kind of culture shock before dropping-out. Three more college joints followed. At one I began trying to write a poem. I was nineteen at the time, and clueless. What was poetry? What made certain words, arranged in a certain way, poetry? I thought I had to crack a code to understand it. Like deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Much trial and error ensued. Progress painfully slow. By age twenty-five, and newly graduated college (Goddard College) I had written what I considered -- and a few others considered -- a poem. Enough of them, in fact, for a chapbook. Yhay. I put the poems aside and went to work. Years melted together and disappeared like water over a dam. Poetry got lost somewhat in the shuffle. Whenever I did write -- and not very often -- I worked at prose: short stories, essays, book reviews, some of which were published. Mostly though I just worked. As in working at a job. A job job. Cook, clerk, bartender, laborer, security guard, moving man, janitor, gas station attendant, machinist... A lot of lousy stinkin' jobs. Some less lousy and stinkin', others more so... I also worked at getting high through drinking and drugging (no, not through better living). In my early thirties I was court-ordered into Detox and Rehab. None of this "work," I know, has anything to do with writing poetry, but these experiences became, for me, fodder for poetry when I did, finally -- in my mid-fifties -- return to writing verse. I am now age sixty-four. In the past seven years I have published five poetry collections and two chapbooks. If the creek don't rise I will have another collection out next year. When I do write -- which is often, usually daily -- I work at poetry and only occasionally at prose. I realize I have glommed-over huge stretches of time in this autobiographical "sketch." I cannot remember some things; other things I do not want to remember... Forgive me for going on and on about myself. I hate talking about myself, but see I have done plenty of it... I will quit here.

DV: As you say, writing poetry is not an easy task (though it beats moving furniture!). So what drives you to do it?

WFB: I am not driven to it. What I am driven to is success -- of any kind, however measured. It is success that helps me feel better about life in general. The success, however limited, I have had with poetry, publishing and writing, is what moves me to continue. Had I had similar "success" as a prose writer, I suppose I would now be as involved in that genre, and in as exclusive a manner, as I currently am in poetry. (Or would I? I suck at self-analysis.) In the early years I wrote with no or little success at publishing, but I did continue (though I went months, years even, doing little or no writing). So, maybe I am driven. I dunno (is there a doctor in the house?). Maybe the "success" of those early years was simply in self-expression, the act of... Nah, I do not buy that. (I am now walking out of this cul de sac I have written myself into... So long). I disagree with the implication that furniture moving is harder than writing poetry. No work I have done is harder than writing good poetry. To get a poem "right" is oftentimes a tortuous process for me. The writing itself is sometimes easy; what comes afterward is difficult. I am not talking about doing numerous drafts (after half-a-dozen, if the thing still does not work, I shit-can it). I am talking about discovering or uncovering what the poem is about -- sort of unmasking it, and bringing it to existence, from "piece of writing" to poem. I mean, what I had in mind to write is never the same as what I have written. Thought and language are like oil and water: they do not naturally mix... There is also the mechanics of the work: tightening screws, nuts, bolts; pruning, clipping, back-filling... All the labor to get the piece "right," which, to me, means creating a rhythm, a flow -- through the use of language, and form (line breaks, grammatical correctness) -- essential to the narrative poem.

DV: Though never a professional mover, I've carried enough sofas and refrigerators up and down stairs to give me a pretty good idea of what it's like. Fortunately, though I've done hard labor and didn't like it, I mostly managed to make a living doing "soft" work (mainly teaching), which of course has its own challenges too. But I infinitely preferred those challenges to the painful physical ones. Writing poetry right, as you say, is also difficult, but it's a different kind of hardness. It's a lot of reaching blind into unknown areas, with ear AND mind and eventually eye too, trying to make sense of things, finding a "suitable" expression, revising, proofreading, and, in many cases, giving up in frustration after the creative intent is spent. But at other times, it just falls into place, almost perfect. Ah! But those are the rare moments. These days, when you're not playing Poet, what are you doing to feed yourself? How do you manage to work fulltime and also write with the energy and passion necessary to produce good work?

WFB: Good question. I never made much money. Because of so often quitting jobs to go and do my own thing. The chief reason I worked in construction was so I could get laid-off in Winter, collect unenjoyment checks for however many months the lay-off lasted, and devote myself to my art. Have never been able to do much more than work, eat, and sleep while doing manual labor or some other repetitive-based mind-numbing occupation (factory-worker, inventory-counter, machinist). The question, for me, while working these gigs, always being: how to keep my mind functioning? And the answer: reading. Steal time from the job, if possible, to read (why I worked lonely security guard gigs). Read during whatever weekends I had to myself. Read to stay alive, mentally; not become an automaton incapable of creative thinking or even thinking sequentially. A real desperate struggle some of the time... I see that I have strayed from the question (if I was ever on it). I will try and return... During years I made only a pittance I relied on the forbearance of others for sustenance. Those others, of course -- even my saintly grandmother -- did not remain eternally forbearing but rebelled, eventually, at being used. My mooching I justified. Since I was going to be an artist, and hence, important to the world -- where did I get that notion? -- those I sponged-off should be glad, not mad, that I choose them, and not some other, to use as schmuck! Ha! (Henry Miller run amuck!) Artist-Schmartist. I went to work as staff in a mental hell crisis center (I mean "health" not hell). Then I became an LNA in a nursing home -- a hard, sometimes brutal, job. Then I became, and presently work at, LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse), a job which has propelled me toward middle-class stability and allowed me finally to follow Gustave Flaubert's advice to artists: "live like a bourgeois." Outside of the nights I return from work feeling like a used dish rag, and that final day of my work week (moving like a zombie), I am able to write, at least take a stab at it, regularly.

DV: I know what you mean. The best job I ever had (except for being a lifeguard, for very different reasons) was being night keeper of a toolroom. I would be real busy the first hour on the job, and the last fifteen minutes, but the rest of the time I was rarely bothered and could read or write whatever I wanted. Do you often write about your work experiences, or are you mostly inspired by other things?

WFB: I have mined most of my work experiences for poems. Poems not always about the job itself, the actual work, but about the experience of working at those jobs. Settings in which the "I" of the poem -- which is and is not "me" -- exists. A few of my poems do describe the mechanics of the labor involved (working on an oil rig, "Roughneck," as hospital attendant "Transporter," as orange picker, "A Man's Work"), other work-related pieces are about those met on the job, co-workers and bosses, who often are the most interesting aspect, to me, of my work experiences... My four or five poems about working as security guard constitute almost a sub-genre of my poetry.

DV: Could you share some of your occupational poetry with us?

WFB:  Sure, I would be glad to.


went to work on a rig
in the patch
slapping steel
outside Wamsutter
the Red Desert of Wyoming
I was the "worm"
the new guy
I stood on a steel mesh floor
at the foot of a 100-foot high tower
and looked out at the snow and
and thought of the song "Home On the Range"
we sang in 3rd grade
"wake up!" the operator shouted
and a 50-foot long pipe came at me
that I caught
in my gloved hands
and walked across the floor
and positioned the end of it
over the "hole"
where it was screwed into the
previous pipe placed
and sent down the shaft
it was not a job to daydream
while at
the steel did not give a shit
for flesh
a pipe came fluttering
like a knuckle ball
in the wind
I caught it in the crook of my arm
and the thing dragged me
across the floor
and clanged against the pipe stub
sticking out of the hole
my little finger in between
split open like a crushed grape
the boss of the rig, the "pusher"
looked at the finger
and threw it from him
and I got a ride back to town
to the doctor
who sewed me up
and I was glad
I still had
ten fingers.



my Uncle got me into the laborer's union
local number whatever
and I went to work for the pipe-fitter's
building a dam
in the boondocks
of forests
and hills
my cousin Tommy
who wanted to become a State Trooper,
and me
stood around holding onto our shovels
like our dicks
and shooting the shit
until we were sick of each other;
back at the shop
I rifled through stacks of
Playboy magazines
like a sex fiend
and in the shack
where we ate 
everyone shut-up whenever
Joe spoke
because Joe was a funny bastard
who's stories made us laugh;
lunch was the best time of the day
besides quitting time
when my Uncle would stop the car at the store
and a six-pack would be bought
and Mike the Welder
who rode shotgun
would buy 3 nips
and finish them all
plus a beer
or two
before we dropped him off.


Moving Man

I worked a day laborer job
as moving man
and carried box after box
of books
out of a professor's house
and into a truck
parked on a tree-lined street
in Ann Arbor, Michigan;
the guy working with me
took it easy
and carried out about half of what
I did
and at one point I told the guy to
get a move-on
and he looked at me like I was
and maybe I was
and late in the afternoon
the truck driver gave me some shit
for slowing down
and I went off on him,
a screaming fit,
and he blanched
and said that he knew
what my problem was
and he handed me an extra ten
lack of money was not
my real problem--
the world was.


DV: Very evocative, I think. The last one, in particular, reminds me of why I hated having to do that kind of work. But at least you got extra money for it! I never did. (Don't get me wrong -- I have good friends who enjoy the physicality of it and the feeling of satisfaction at finishing a task well. And some of them also write and read voraciously. But they could never be content in an office or classroom.) Do you ever do any public readings?

WFB: No, I do not do readings as a general rule, though I did read at a bookstore about a year ago, a bookstore that promoted me and sold my work. Did it as a favor for the owner... I used to read publicly a lot: when I was in college and started this poetry jazz. Enjoyed doing it too, but sort of lost the audience when I graduated then left the area and never really found another audience... Did not enjoy the anxiety I felt leading up to my last reading. But once there, at the podium, hey, it was like riding a bike, something you do not forget how to do. Maybe giving readings is something I will pursue when I have more time and energy (when will that be?). I am not eager. Most readings are small, sometimes shabby, affairs. Mostly other writers in the audience. Not more than one or two who buy your book. Little or no payment. Though there is the exposure, can't deny that, and because of that, maybe something I will be forced into to get my stuff out there -- getting myself known to get more of my stuff out...

DV: Do you have regular publisher?
WFB: Yes. Bareback Press. I have published four full-length collections with them, 2013-17. My most recently published book, my 5th collection, 2018, was with Alien Buddha Press.

DV: How did you establish contact with them? On a (perhaps) related note, what brought you back to being a poet after all those years?

WFB: I submitted work to Bareback Magazine, run by Bareback Press. I was "Poet of the Month" in one of the magazine's issues, and then Peter Jelen, who runs the press, asked if I had a manuscript ready for publication. I said yes (though had about half a manuscript). As I said earlier, I had strayed from poetry into prose. Did not see a future in poetry. Then did not see a future in prose either. And put both aside in my mid-fifties to concentrated on drawing -- visual art -- which I had worked on and off at -- mostly off -- since after I graduated college. Drawing all day long on my days off work; really into it for a couple years or more until I started to slow down and then, one day -- cannot remember the circumstances -- I started going through my boxes of papers, reading my old efforts, finding some good in about 30 poems -- which I started submitting, and which became the core of my first published collection. I also, around this time, started writing again... Writing, and submitting, with a fierce determination; much fiercer than any of my previous efforts... And then -- and then -- (Dreiserian pause) -- I had a heart attack, or what I thought a heart attack but was diagnosed as "arterial heart disease," which put me into the hospital for a triple bypass (was shooting for the quintuple). Arterial heart disease is what killed my father (he was 33), so my eating healthy and exercising, both of which I was sort of doing, could no longer forestall the progression of the disease, leading to inevitable consequences. This "event"-- during which I got to look mortality in the face -- added some urgency to my efforts at publication and writing (and still does, though my health is reasonably well these days)... So: I have, it occurs to me, sort of tip-toed around your question. I think the reading of my old work and my realization of how good some of the stuff was -- too good to stay confined in a box, I thought; good enough to maybe be published somewhere... I gave a sort of "one-more-shot" deal, do or die type action with the material... I have those early publications, those editors, that accepted and published my work, to thank for providing the impetus to continue (later publications, later editors -- including yourself, Duane--to also thank.).

DV: You're welcome. But actually I thank you for writing in the first place. Without a source the well dries up. You say you write every day. Do you look at the process as akin to a work schedule with a prescribed routine -- start and finish at precisely certain times, compose X number of words, have a special "office" or workspace for the task, use specific tools, play certain music, light an incense candle  -- or is it a more relaxed, less ritualistic affair?
WFB: No, no set times, no office hours, nothing like that. I carry a notebook, 7X5 (so fits in the pocket), and write in it throughout the day. Later reread what I wrote. Then rework, do more drafts (2 or 3) of pieces that show promise. These I type up. Add the newly typed pieces to a pile on my table of previous typed entries. Edit the pieces whenever moved to do so. Retype them. Keep trying to make pieces work. The ones that do "work" get sent out. Ones that do not work are added to a scrap pile (I will later rake). When all poems in the pile have been sent or scrapped -- means I have stopped writing or else nothing in the notebook of promise -- I know it is time to make further efforts; maybe need to get more serious about my writing -- stop the half-ass goofing (which fills notebooks but produces no poems) ... I fear I am making this poetry writing sound like a big sweaty process, like lifting weights. It isn't (though a sort of mental weight-lifting is involved); but is a matter of conscientiousness and effort, real effort -- getting down and dirty with one's self.

DV: What themes/subjects seem to preoccupy your poet self, that recur most often or that
"complete themselves" more frequently?

WFB: For whatever reason, my childhood preoccupies me and has been fertile ground for me in my work. The rest of my life, my life experiences, I also use as subject/theme but am not as preoccupied by them as I am by the childhood stuff. My "story," being distinct to me, is really all that I have that is solely mine. The trick, in poetry, in literature, is to make my story relevant or meaningful to others. This is not done through autobiographical content, but through emotional content. The emotions, feelings, are a universal language, and the heart and guts of a good poem. The stronger the emotional expression the more powerful the poem. So: my starting point may be my life -- sometimes the imagined life of an other (I mean, "I" is not always I) -- but the real subject/theme is the emotion: shame, guilt, fear, love, sadness... What have you. I do not mean to imply, in case I have, that there is a formula for writing good poetry. Art is not science. There are many different writers writing in many different styles. There are mysteries too; intangibles, unknowns coming from unconscious processes that Carl Jung only began to fathom... Jung? I see that I have somehow wandered into aesthetic theory... Do not want to go there... Won't... Feel a slight throbbing somewhere in the cortex of my frontal lobe...

DV: Jung (and Jacques Derrida et al) aside, do you see the writing process as being particularly therapeutic for you? Do you think that is part of the reason you returned to the art after such a long time?

WFB: Yes, the process is therapeutic for me. Unsure what the therapy consists of though. Something satisfying about keeping track of myself day to day through my writing (same way journaling is satisfying, I'd guess). I find some comfort in the work; solace, consolation even; plus it is something for me to do, a way to occupy my time... There is also that high when I make something good, a good poem. A surge of good feeling I carry around with me all day -- kind of like when I was a baseball player and had hit a home run. I remember replaying the hit over and over inside my head, same thing I do with the lines of a good poem I've written... Yeah, it is possible I returned to writing poems through need, but, as I've said earlier, I never really stopped writing, I just did not practice the craft with much diligence. I was indolent; a dilettante who liked talking and thinking about art but not the work involved in making any. 

DV: Do you think you will continue to just be a lyric poet (no belittlement intended, most great poets fit in that category), or do you envision doing some larger project, such as an epic or a long poem cycle?

WFB: Lyric in the sense of writing lyrically? I hope to continue being something like that. No, no planned epics, though sometimes I group poems together in series. In my latest book I have a series of poems that uses an American soldier (Vietnam) as narrator. Half a dozen pieces loosely connected by the same narrative voice. I can envision doing a long poem thematically joined. Hope I get to it someday.

DV: Life is long and time endless, right? By lyric poet I meant in the sense of writing short verses that are independent of one another (basically all poets, at least for much of their output) rather than someone like John Milton ("Paradise Lost") or Lord Byron ("Don Juan," "Childe Harold") or Ted Hughes ("Crow") who construct long, poetic narratives. You are sort of a special case among poets, in that you have been writing for a long time and yet are really a new poet. How has this simultaneous maturity/freshness affected your approach to the task?

WFB: I see myself as a case of arrested development. Meaning, I matured slowly and late. Stunted first by my upbringing then by my drinking, begun at age 14 or thereabouts. At the age of 3, after my mother died, I was put into a crib in an upstairs bedroom of my grandparents’ home. And remained there for years. My brother, one year younger, was kept in a similar pen on the opposite side of the room. Once each blue moon I was brought downstairs and passed hand to hand by the relatives who, generally, made themselves scarce as hen's teeth. I was further isolated -- in my mind anyway -- through indoctrination, by my grandmother, to her religion which featured a cop-God and eternal damnation. Thus kept in the dark -- in supposed innocence -- I grew up clueless and with a view of the world which had no reality (however you define that word) to anything existent. I remained a child, even well into High School when I first found alcohol and began a love affair with it that lasted fifteen years -- reaching a point of saturation when I had to decide to continue with it on to some kind of bitter end, or else quit. I was thirty-one years old, but emotionally around 14, the age I discovered booze (discovered that booze could change the way I felt) which stunted my emotional development (any alcohol counselor can confirm this fact). My way of dealing with life's problems was to escape them, via the bottle. So... I have had thirty-plus years since to advance into some kind of maturity. The pain of that growth has been great. At 64, am I now a mature adult? Who knows. I support myself, try and meet life's challenges instead of run from them... Does this make me adult? Possibly... But who wants to be adult, anyway? I think some kid-tendencies are essential for creating art. I mean, who but a kid could believe poetry important, even essential? Yet, that gullibility and kind of magical thinking must be brought to the act of creation to make the art meaningful, full of any life-giving attributes... A thought that has, once again, brought me to the realm of aesthetics. Which I have no intention of pursuing. None. I will now escape via the door. (ps. "life is short and art is long" -- Conrad.)

DV: That seems like a fitting segue to the end of this interview. I have enjoyed your candor and insights, and I look forward to reading many more of your poems. And maybe some short stories?

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