Interview: John Burgess on “A History of Guns in the Family”

November 12, 2008

By Tina V. Cabrera


TC:  John, you related how “A History of Guns in the Family” is a very personal collection about your own family, but also extends to the larger violence in America, particularly under the Bush regime.  Did you set out to write this collection with these themes in mind, or did the connections between the poems kind of develop organically?


JB:  I set out to write about my family.  So first I had the “Johnny” poems, probably the      

second oldest poems in there.  And they were about growing up bored in a small

town, sort of like I did in upstate New York. I really wanted to extend it out and talk about my family.  So the collection really started as a family.  At the same time I had these ballads starting to work.  I wanted to somehow respond in a Woody Guthrie way to the Bush regime.  I had these kinds of poems going in and I chose the ballad form to do them in.  When I was ready to collect the manuscript I really wanted these ballads in there and really felt that it was important with the timing in the book to make a statement about the times we live in.  So I kind of convinced myself – rightly or not – that it would  fit if I extended that metaphor for a history of guns in the family, if I extended it out across America, our war mentality and fascination with gun violence.  Does that make sense?


TC:  Yes, because I saw those themes in there after reading it.  So it seems like most of the poems are prose.  What went into your decision to work in that kind of space?  What did it allow you that more traditional forms wouldn’t allow you?


JB:  So the “Gardener River Incident” could be called prose form and "Upon Being Hunted by Big Foot." I like the prose form and I wanted to try it.  Prose has been in the poet's vocabulary since Rimbaud, I think. I really like people who can tell stories – a good novel writer or a poet who tells a story. And so I tried to find something that would work.  I don’t think I’m a good storyteller, but I wanted to tell a 'West' story.  There’s this other writer, Norman Lock, and he’s on Ravenna Press.  He does these little short prose pieces, and he’s able to create a whole world with these prose pieces; they stand alone, but they become connected and characters and incidents flow through them.  So I totally got into his work and I just wanted to try it.  I had this kind of experience in Montana where there were two or three stories; I thought maybe if I could combine them, I can make one story out of them.  I chose to do it in little prose passages that were hopefully connected.   


TC:  By the way, have you ever written fiction? 


JB:  No, no.


TC:  Okay, just curious. 


JB:  Well, some of the poems are fiction, or fictionalized right?  It seems an easy choice to write a lot of prose poems, but it’s really very difficult.  It’s very hard.  With "Gardiner River Incident" I really wrestled with punctuation, and I was really trying hard to do them in two sentences each, some of them are still two sentences, but I was having a hard time conveying the meaning, and the other restriction I put on myself was that I would only use the period.  So I kind of put these arbitrary restrictions on.  So originally it was – I can only use a period, and they all have to be two sentences.  That’s what I wanted, but I didn’t get there obviously.  It’s kind of an experiment for me, from my point of view, the way I try and make the form work for me.  In the end, it’s really important for me to communicate, and so I felt that I had to have more periods and to break some of the sentences up into these fragments. 


TC:  You realized you couldn’t stick strictly to your own self-made rules. 


JB:  Right, that’s right. 


TC:  I’ve done that before.


JB:  Have you done that too?


TC:  Oh yeah.  Trying to figure out what I want it to look like.  Here’s another question.  You’ve said that the sense of place is very important to you; could I just ask what your favorite place is?  If you have one?  If there is a favorite, or several. 


JB:  I’m very connected to place, and I think it’s very important for a poet to be in the place that they are.  I don’t like poets if I can sense that they’re not authentic, and if I can sense that they haven’t been to that place.  It’s like at the open mikes – if there’s a poet that does a poem about the homeless, but you know that they’ve never been homeless. I don’t think that’s coming from a genuine place.  So it can be a place like that.  And also my life has been defined by place – growing up in upstate New York, and when I got to Montana that was a big ‘wow’ for me – some of the coolest landscape I had ever seen.  That was just a very cool space to be in, and I really enjoyed that, and then getting to the coast, right?  Experiencing the ocean and the coastal mountains.  And then Washington and the rain associated with that.  All of that is very, very important.  Making the decision to move the family to Japan for almost three years – I felt I could write about that in an authentic kind of way because it is part of my experience.  So landscape for me is an interior kind of thing.  Have you been in that space?  Have you had that experience?  I think my poetry comes from that – those experiences I’ve had.  And then the other is the physical space that the poet is in; it’s important to me that it be genuine and that I actually be in that space.  I think that’s part of being in the moment, in the space that you’re in.  I’m influenced by it so why do anything else?  Use it somehow.  And so I try to represent the spaces I’ve been in, at least in my first two books. I have my Montana poem, I’ve got my Japan poem…


TC:  Kind of that road trip going…


JB:  Right. Road trips are really important to me. That westward movement.


TC:  It could have come out to be stereotyped and cheesy, but the way you did it was really good.


JB:  That westward movement was really important in that I chose to talk about a trip backwards.  It was a trip that we took from Montana back to upstate New York – (my wife) Patsy and I.  I deliberately chose to tell the reverse of how it happened.  Maybe a reader wouldn’t know that, but to me it was really important that I do that east to west, and to me that put the focus back on family, which is what the book was about.  So I made that work for me, and it was kind of weird how it finally works. 


TC:  What made you decide to end on that poem, and was it an easy decision? 


JB:  That was in the last position; Kathryn Rantala at Ravenna Press, my editor, she’s very good at ordering – putting poems in order.  I had that in the last position and she left it in the last position, so that was good.  I had a different opening, and she made a really smart decision to put the sonnets up front.  I think it echoes the last poem. We book-ended it, with love poems – the sonnet that is a traditional love poem at the start and the road trip with Patsy at the end.


TC:  How much of your love for music influenced this collection?


JB:  Music played a big part in this book for me.  It came to me pretty early that this would be my country music book.  While I was writing it I started to run into Jed (Myers) at open mics.  He would play guitar and harmonica behind performers.  I worked out a lot of the ballads with him just at open mics.  When I wanted to make a CD to go along with the book, Jed came into the studio with me and came up with these great country-roots-blues tunes to go with the poems.


TC:  Ah, nice.  I listened to the CD you gave me and especially loved listening to the "Ballads Under the New Regime."  Now, I noted throughout the collection your use of language such as glib, misspelled, illiterate, mislocated, the power of silence as in “rock knows enough to stay quiet.”  Would you say that misinformation, miscommunication, and ignorance leading to violence is another theme, whether intended or not?


JB:  I didn’t talk until I was 5.  I went to a speech therapist so I could go to school.  A lot of those words come right from her report on me that I have a copy of.  It has to do with keeping things in it, be it talking or emotions.  Lack of being communicative about any of that can lead to war, I think, and a kind of violence against another even if you don’t say a thing whether intended or not.


TC: What would you say is the difference between your first and second book?


JB:  I think the biggest difference is “Punk Poems” was all about form for me.  I wrote about all kinds of things from obituaries to Chinese poets being arrested to a bus trip around Mt. Fuji – but I formed them all into 10 liners.  “A History of Guns in the Family” has a narrow focus of topics – my family and place – but no restriction on form.  There are 10 liners, fragments, prose poems, ballads.


TC:  So moving on to your next book, you said you like to have an incident in each book.  Will you spill the beans on your next incident? 


JB:  Actually, I’m editing it now. It’s a re-telling of the life of Li-Po, the Chinese poet from 600 A.D. China, and it’s called “Incident at Ch’ang-an Court.” It’s about Li-Po the poet getting caught up in court intrigue and being exiled. He was one of the wandering exiled poets in China. I wanted to finish the first draft before Election Day this year, the last days of the Bush regime. I decided to tell the story in reverse.  The incident this time starts with Li-Po’s death and then moves back to ten parts.


TC:  Oh, you like the number ten.


JB:  Yes. With "Incident at Ch’ang-an Court” I again gave myself arbitrary rules.  I have a friend who lives in eastern Washington and he’s been writing these 50-word poems, and he’s been bugging me to send him 50 words, a short 50-word prose piece.  When this project came up, I was re-reading Li-Po and re-reading his bio, and so I had all this source material coming at me. So each of the ten parts is 50 words.  And the only punctuation I use is the dash. 


TC:  Speaking of the dash, you like Emily Dickinson don’t you? 


JB:  Yeah, and I love the long dash.  Kerouac used the long dash.  I love Emily Dickinson, the way she punctuated.  At first they took it out, but then they restored it.  Her punctuation is to die for. 


TC:  Right, she’s the queen. 


JB:  It amazes me, every time I read.  I think – why did she put that dash there?  I’m like wow, to be able to punctuate like that; it’s incredible.  I worship her.


TC:  Do you have a personal deadline to finish the third book? 


JB:  No I don’t.  It took me about three years to get enough poems for the second book.  And I had some older stuff in there, so probably in two or three years.


TC:  Talk about novel writing, it takes forever. 


JB:  Well, with a family around and a full-time job, poetry really made sense for me. I could work on a whole piece and finish it.


TC:  Speaking of poets, who is your favorite poet?


JB:  Jack Kerouac.  He’s better known for his novels, but I think it’s his poetry that really shows how good a writer he is.  It’s a good time to be a Kerouac fan.  They’ve been publishing a lot of his poetry – "Book of Blues," "Book of Haikus," "Book of Sketches" are all available now.  And I don’t know how many times I’ve read "Mexico City Blues."


TC: How do you feel about being a poet outside of the academic environment?  How do you stay in touch with the poetry community?


JB:  There’s a long outsider tradition of poetry, you know, in America. For me, it starts with the Beats – I admire their spontaneous writing, how they incorporated Asian poetry and Buddhism in their work, how they wrote outside of Academia. I don’t teach.  I’m a corporate communications manager for an insurance company.  And it’s a nine to five kind of normalcy, the structure I need.  I can go to work, I know what that is and that part of my life I don’t have to think about. I really don’t have to prepare other than going to work.  And so, for me that works.  I have my writing time, I go to work and then I have my evening time – it might be going to a poetry reading, it might be engaging with the poetry community in Seattle in some way.  Talking to your class and the undergrads Monday for workshop, I had to lecture at the university level.  That was the first time I ever lectured.  It was a good experience for me, but I don’t think I’d want to do that every week.  How do I keep up with what’s going on?  I read all the time.


TC: You really have to read to be a successful writer. 


JB:  I think especially if you're outside academia, you have to read and some people skip that and don’t do that.  I learn a lot more from a close reading of other poets than I do from any class or workshop. 


TC: Absolutely.  Can I ask what books you’re reading right now?


JB:  I just reread Ted Berrigan’s “The Sonnets.”  I like the way lines will reoccur.  I’m reading Red Pine’s translation of “The Diamond Sutra.”  It was the only text Kerouac had with him when he spent the summer on Desolation fire lookout.  Let’s see, I’m also about two-thirds the way through “The Maximus Poems” by Charles Olson.


TC:  Do you have any favorite prose writers? 


JB:  I mentioned Norman Lock already; check out his “History of the Imagination." I just got turned on to Donald Barthelme and his "Sixty Stories." And last winter I read Felix Feneon "Novels in Three Lines." 


TC:  Can you tell me about your experience of being poetry editor at Ravenna Press?  What’s that like?


JB: Now I’m editing Snow Monkey, the online journal, finding new poets. You read a lot of stuff.  I’m not too bad at getting back with people. I like flash fiction.  We have longer stuff we’re still publishing.  If we can get it down to a little prose poetry, flash fiction, that kind of stuff.  So that’s what I’m doing, reading all kinds of submissions.


TC:  Are you finding any diamonds in the rough?


JB:  Yeah, some.  I read a lot of poems to find one or two I like enough to run in Snow Monkey.  I like writers that use words in a way I might not expect.  I go for short verse a lot but then I’m a sucker for a long poem that has enough hooks to pull me through.


TC:  So Ravenna is obviously print.  Or do you have an online version too?


JB:  Well, Ravenna Press, Snow Monkey is their lit magazine and now it’s online.  As far as books, Kathryn prints five or six titles a year.


TC:  I’m all for small press.


JB:  Well yeah, they're really important to me. Being with a small press is a reality for a lot of writers.


TC:  And going without an agent.  That goes to show it can be done. 


JB:  Right. You have to do your own marketing.  On some level, the nice thing about my day job is that I don’t have to worry about making money on my poetry.  I don’t have to worry about making money talking about poetry.  So to me, that really helps separate it in my head.  And something I can be passionate about – I can do what I want.  I feel freer.  I don’t feel constrained by academia.  I don’t feel constrained by trying to make money on it, because I don’t have to, I have a good job. 


TC:  That’s so important.  I’m glad you brought it up.  I’m in the academic world, and I have a lot of friends who are just burned out, like by adjunct teaching.  They start off loving teaching but then don’t have time for their own writing. 


JB:  So for me it’s worked.  One of my poet heroes is Wallace Stevens, because he was an insurance guy. 


TC:  Also William Carlos Williams – a doctor, and an amazing poet.


JB:  I like the idea that other people have done it too.  I write about an hour in the morning, and then I have to go to work.  Every now and then, I wish I had a block of time, when I’m editing, trying to arrange something, but mostly an hour of writing is good.


TC:  So your best advice to an up and coming poet is to write every day? 


JB:  Write every day, for sure.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a journal entry.  Sometimes I’m doing research and so I’m copying stuff into my journal.


TC:  That counts?


JB:  Sure, you’re writing stuff, it’s part of the process.  To me it’s the same.  So, writing every day.  On weekends, I do Snow Monkey.  I try not to touch it during the week because it would drive me insane.  So on the weekends, if I’m not writing, I’m reading other poems.


TC:  A full schedule, wow.


JB:  Yeah, it’s kind of crazy, but…


TC:  No, I admire that because I don’t even have all those responsibilities.


JB:  It is a discipline, but once it’s a routine…I hate those early morning meetings at work.


TC:  What time do you start?  At 8?


JB:  I usually start at 8:30.  I’m like one of the last people in.  I get there 8:30, quarter to 9.  Everyone’s there at like 7.  Sometimes they’ll have their meetings at 7:30, so I don’t have my writing hour, and I have to get up and go right to work.  I hate those days.  I tell everyone it’s too early in the morning, but it’s really because I’m missing my writing time.  It throws me off. 


TC:  You said that self-editing is important.  And that the longer you live with a poem, the more you cut.  So my question is, how do you know when to stop?


JB:  If I hadn’t published, I’d probably have no poems left.  I probably would have edited them down to nothing.  Isn’t that funny?  I kind of joke, but it’s true.  The oldest poem in “The History of Guns in the Family” is also the most fragmented and shortest – "Landscapes of the Four Seasons."  I lived with that a long time.  And so it just kept getting shorter and shorter.  With that one in particular I was really concerned with how few words can I use and still carry the meaning.  And I consciously had to think of that.  Can I get away with three words?  Four words?  I’m not even sure of the shortest fragment in there.  Okay, here’s number 3 – it’s only 6 words:  “Rock knows enough to stay quiet.”  Here’s one that’s 5 words:  “That sensation.  Leaving land behind.” 


TC:  But it works – it’s so concise.  It was originally like a paragraph?


JB:  All of these were longer.  This one comes in the middle of the piece, and so I thought, maybe by this point I didn’t want you to go too fast through it – I wanted to slow you down.  And so when I read this, when I get to this one, I slow down.  I stop here, and to me reading this is my kind of resting spot.  I really kind of almost over-emphasize it, and then I pick up the speed and hit a crescendo toward the end.  Here’s another 6-word one, “pine pines, boughs bow, get it.”  And so, I think you cut and you edit till you absolutely haven’t lost the meaning, but you don’t have anything that’s not needed.  And I also believe in the reader, that you as a reader bring an intelligence to the text – bring your own experience.


TC:  Trust the reader.


JB:  Right.  I don’t need to tell you the whole story.  I don’t need to give you every word.  The poem just gives you a direction.  I want to communicate, and I want to consider the intelligence of the reader, and I want to see how I can communicate with the fewest words.