Interview with Mark Burnhope and poem from The Snowboy

Mark Burnhope

Mark Burnhope’s debut pamphlet has just been released from Salt, as part of the Modern Voices series which has already published a number of fine writers. I first saw Mark’s poems on Dan Wyke’s excellent Other Lives blog, and was glad to discover he was making his bow with The Snowboy. To coincide with the launch Mark’s doing a little ‘tour’ of a few poetry blogs, and I’m delighted it’s starting today with Mark discussing some of the influences on the collection, followed by a poem taken from it.



A long-time favourite collection of poems:

In terms of the canon, the centuries, it might be William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I started writing poems seriously during GCSE, and this one made me bite the bullet, thanks to my inspirational teacher Mr. Matthews, who spoke about it and read it as if it was written yesterday; it seemed urgent, relevant, not old and stuffy. I was fascinated that the book was split into two halves, and dealt with ‘faith like a child’ and faith from an older, wiser, disaffected point-of-view. Not all of the poems fit neatly into their allocated halves; that was interesting too, since childhood doesn’t withhold ‘experience’, and ‘innocence’ can be found in adulthood (peace-of-mind, contentment, etc).

As an adolescent, going through all the obvious changes, it was irresistible to read not conclusions, not ‘messages’ (I had those coming out of my ears), but evolving thoughts, changes of mind, even thought-provoking contradictions, within the same book. I loved the irony of the fact that these poems were (mostly) inspired by nursery rhyme, with all that simple readability and music. But on re-reading, they were also dark, serious, satirical, caustic, and often seethed under the surface with pain, anger, a desire for social justice. Finally, I was an obsessive artist. Blake became my hero for illustrating his own poems then publishing them himself. Far from being an old dead guy, he had a punk aesthetic. He was quite mad, and a maverick. If poems could be that, I wanted to get involved.



A recent discovery:

I could write about something actually new, but I can’t, because I’ve fallen head over heels for Larry Eigner. He does have a new entire Collected, which I’m going to buy as soon as I can afford it. He’s associated with the Black Mountain movement, whose influence was felt by several schools later on, most notably the Beats and the L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E poets. Larry Eigner had Cerebral Palsy, and that piqued my interest straight away because there are so few poets writing from within a disabled context now. But any interest couldn’t stop there; so gladly, it turned out that Eigner didn’t really write about disability at all (in fact, we always trip up when we try to say a poem is about anything, in a prosaic sense, don’t we?). Rather, he used his experience of disability to define his aesthetics.

His poems are most often about nature and landscape, but in a haiku-like way, never about sweeping vistas, always about the small shift of focus that the eye makes from one image to the next, over tiny distances. He struggled physically to write poems onto a typewriter. His speech was laboured, and speaking his poems was also a struggle (but to him poetry was an oral/aural form, so he did it anyway, and a few of his performances are on Youtube). His poems demonstrate those physical struggles by having short, fragmented utterances; no capitalisation or punctuation, just white space where speech is broken, and a pause for breath needed. That, I think, is an exciting way of imbuing the writing with a disabled viewpoint without the need to say ‘I am disabled’. I have no problem with explicit identification – I’ve done it – but it’s all about the writing. From where I’m sitting, no one understood that better than Eigner. I’d like to think I have my foot – footrests – in the doors of both experimental and mainstream poetry. I consider both absolutely essential. Eigner’s aesthetic, and the possibility of applying similar to new ‘disability poetries’, is something I can’t help but pursue further.



An album:

I couldn’t possibly come up with a single favourite album, but I’m a long-time Pearl Jam obsessive, so it would have to be one of theirs: Vitalogy, No Code, Yield, Binaural, Riot Act. I don’t know. They only have two slightly imperfect albums, in my opinion: Self-Titled and Backspacer. But every one is listenable. Other album favourites would include any of Wintersleep’s first three albums, anything by Sigur Ros (except Von), and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, whose best album must be I See A Darkness, closely followed by his collaboration with The Cairo Gang, The Wonder Show of the World. It doesn’t get much better than those.



A non-poetry book:

I remember reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in my early teenage years (13? 14? I can’t really remember). I only barely understood the words, but I was straight away attracted to allegory: the naming of characters based on their traits, and their purpose for the narrative. It seemed to be somehow more realistic than life. We put so much stock in arbitrary names and labels, I remember thinking; it’s funny how people are defined by tags imposed upon them, rather than what they did, what they thought, the part they played in history. In terms of faith, it was the first time I was introduced to the concept of journey: that faith and trust was about negotiating a path through life, developing our thinking through relationships and conversations, not about bowing down to prescribed beliefs or ticking doctrinal boxes.



Another influence on the pamphlet:

The book which pushed me to deal openly and honestly with questions, myths and experiences around disability was Laurie Clements-Lambeth’s Veil and Burn. What excited me was that some poems delved into sex and intimacy through the lens of the physically disabled body, but in a straight-forward, totally non-aggressive way. At the time, I’d written a few very clumsy efforts, and was getting frustrated by just how difficult it was to do. No poem about love and intimacy is complete without the context of a real, lived-in life, difficulty and conflict; I knew that, and yet I struggled to deal with that without putting off the reader. If I expressed shyness, embarrassment or frustration, it looked like a journal entry written for my own catharsis (!), or an angry political soapbox rant, or – at best – it didn’t look like I enjoyed sex very much. But if I wrote an exuberant poem about a perfect rough-and-tumble, it was generic, and not in any way illuminating about particularities (a good poem is always built of particularities, not generalisations; especially love and erotic poetry – make a love poem generic, cliché, vague, abstract, pornographic, and there’s a good chance that your jotting is Dead On Arrival).

Clements-Lambeth’s book showed me that a poem from disability could be beautiful, gentle, yet refreshingly honest and seething at the same time. Human bodies aren’t perfect or imperfect, they exist in a spectrum, a kaleidoscope of broken colours; these poems were painted with their own colours. The other aspect of this poetry I took on was the aesthetic of transformation. There were mythical poems in which animals, particularly horses, were used as icons, embodiments of the strong yet vulnerable body. Other bodies changed and morphed, particularly in the marvellous ten-poem sequence ‘Reluctant Pegasus’. In this sequence, Clements-Lambeth uses the imagined idea of her metamorphosis into Pegasus to confront the issue of stereotypes, disability myths. She uses mythology in order to question which societal labels she may or may not be prepared to take on; she is a ‘reluctant’ Pegasus because society will, by its very nature, see her body as in some way mythical; that attraction is there, but it’s also dangerous – we are not ethereal myths but physical bodies. The sequence is soft and lyrical but also philosophical, full of debate and insecurity about the question of which ideas we accept about ourselves; which stereotypes we allow others to entertain. It worked in a similar way to the metaphysical conceit, an essay not disguised but brought to life, by necessity, as a poem.



Find more on Mark’s pamphlet The Snowboy and buy it from Salt’s site



The Ideal Bed

Double bed which shouldn’t look
like this: so skewiff but no one on,
I can’t even stand to smooth its sheet.
I try to circle round it, but my wheels
won’t fit down the right side, the one
which, incidentally, I try to imagine hides
who we were five years ago: you standing
heaving the bed to and fro, trying to catch
our south-facing garden’s light
(the bulbs were always blowing)
and me laughing; then afterwards
us, falling bed-long into this
self-same undividable iron maiden.
My nurse has just replaced our mattress
with a manmade, farcical memory-foam
thing: cures pressure sores faster.
You’d laugh if you could be here.
Remember shopping in IKEA,
wondering what kind of carpenter
constructed, folded, boxed and sold our bed?
Hardly an artist, probably couldn’t
have given an actual fuck, you said.
When we got home the bed refused to stand
up in the room we’d meant for it. In its form,
we saw the ideal parts to shed:
a little off this surface, that corner.
We grew hungry, desperately so
pushed it against the larder door
so neither of us could hoard
when the waves crashed hard. Its back
was flimsy chipboard and would give
out in the year’s most unnewsworthy
quake, if the front of the frame stayed.
So you sanded back for days, weeks,
months; pored over cookbooks,
catalogues and promotions; reclined
on the mattress like an ocean, faced
me and my canvas, and said, Draw!
(But the kitchen bulb was dying.)
Hardness the Lord made then tore:
the one you pushed aside to get past
the fact we never found
the perfect light to lie in.



See two more poems from the pamphlet at Peony Moon and visit Mark’s own blog, Naming The Beasts

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