Interview and Review of John Burgess
by Christopher J. Jarmick

Could I love her more if she wore dark glasses &
A scarf like Jackie O—if she chain-smoked, spit &
Swore, shot back whiskey, bucked like a bronco—
--John Burgess; Punk Poems

John Burgess’ brand new collection of poetry, PUNK POEMS is hot off the presses of Ravenna Press (August 1st, 2005). At first glance his non-academic poetry may remind you of a hybrid mixture of William Carlos Williams, and Jack Keruak. After reading the proofs of his book I wanted to know more about John and where the poetry he writes comes from. I’ve indulged my inquisitive nature in the past by interviewing writers, film-makers and others—so why not John?

John Burgess was born at the east end of Lake Ontario in Watertown New York on April 17th, 1958. He’s a middle child, book-ended by two sisters –one younger, one older. When he was 5-years-old he moved to a 100 acre farm outside Port Gibson, New York. His father fixed up the farmhouse and they rented out the 40 acres that were tillable. His dad was a hunter, ran a small gun-shop out of a back room in the house and had a shooting range out back. There were plenty of woods and an orchard on the property too. Unfortunately when John was 10, his 33-year-old father died of a heart attack at home. His great aunts paid off the farm mortgage and his mom raised her three children as a single parent before it was common or fashionable to do so.

Eventually John got a two-year journalism degree from State University of New York (SUNY) at Morrisville. He had the desire to get paid for writing and Journalism seemed to be the best way to do that. His Uncle Ron (father’s brother) invited John to spend the summer in Montana.

Chris Jarmick (C.J.): A summer job?

JOHN BURGESS (J.B.) Yes, Uncle Ron owned a survey company in Bozeman, Montana and he would put me to work on a crew. I was ready for an adventure.

C.J.: From upstate New York to Montana quite a change, yes?

J.B.: I was totally wowed by Montana. The mountains, the landscapes, all that wide open space. Upstate New York is a one small town after another with maybe 3 to 5 miles in-between. Montana is a small town every 30 to 50 miles or so. Uncle Ron gave me a Ford pick-up to drive for the summer and every weekend after work I went somewhere—Yellowstone, Glacier, rodeos –and I was drinking beer and smoking dope with the other guys on my uncle’s crew.

It takes physics
To set a trap
To place a rib in a plastic bag
--John Burgess; Punk Poems

C.J.: So when did this country and western song come to an end?

J.B.: I went back to New York in the fall, I was enrolled at Brockport State in N.Y. to get my four-year degree in English, but I quit school and worked as a bag boy at the Star Market until Uncle Ron got me a spot on the survey crew in the spring. I moved back to Montana in March 1979, my aunt had cancer and died that fall and I went to college at Montana State University in Bozeman. I took some graphic arts courses and switched to English Lit. I became editor of the student newspaper, The Exponent the last two years I was at MSU and graduated with my B.A. in English Lit in December 1982.

C.J.: So how much trouble did you cause while editing the newspaper?

J.B.: I was reprimanded officially twice by the University Administration. Once, because I ran an editorial cartoon that showed a bottomless pit with a sign that read: “Welcome to the Shaft” and big time for running a full frontal shot of a male streaker at a CAT football game. The streaker photo made the AP wire.

C.J.: Tell me about how you met your wife Patsy.

J.B: My uncle had a housekeeper that was a born-again Baptist and she kinda’ drove him crazy. When my uncle and his friends when on a fishing trip up in Canada about halfway to Alaska, Patsy was the housekeeper for the place where they stayed and my uncle asked her to be his housekeeper and a nanny to my cousin. Patsy wasn’t sure at first, but a little later on she agreed to come to the Montana and it worked out. I started dating her a few months later and we were married in 1981.

C.J.: Did you imagine you would get married?

J.B.: You can’t do anything but be in love. You throw out logic, it’s kinda’ corny, but I was stupidly in love and I was really surprised she said, yes. I’m so fortunate it happened.

C.J.: Married in 1981, graduated in 1982, did you get a job as a reporter when you got out of college?

J.B. I had a job while still at MSU working in the circulation department of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. We pulled press, ran the insert machine and dropped bundles of papers to paper boys. My first post college job was with a small weekly newspaper out of Belgrade Montana called the High Country Independent Press. I reported, took photos, helped with the layout and even filled the news racks. There were two reporters, a layout person and the editor.

C.J.: And a few years later you were in the Northwest.

J.B.: Our son, Jack was born in Bozeman in November of 1983. We wanted to make more money and Patsy was feeling very landlocked in Montana so I took a trip out to the West Coast to look for work, and she visited her dad in Vancouver, Canada. I wound up getting a job at the Island Sounder on Orcas Island and we moved to Orcas for a while. I got a better job working for Fishing and Hunting News in Seattle. My daughter Aya was born in May of 1985.

C.J.: And in 1987 you were in Japan. Connect those dots.

J.B.: After a few years working with Fishing and Hunting News in Seattle I was burned out and I saw a want ad in the Seattle Times that said: “Teach in Japan.” I applied but didn’t get the job. My wife Patsy is Japanese though born in Canada and one of our neighbors who had kids the same age as ours had taught in a private English school in Japan. He wrote a letter of recommendation for me and sent it to the principal in Matsuyama. She hired me for the next available teaching opening that was in 1987.

C.J.: So you packed up your family and moved yourself to Japan. What was that like?

J.B. The experience in Japan made us a really tight family unit. The kids weren't in school yet (Jack was 3, Aya was 2 when we left for Japan). Patsy, had relatives in Japan and can speak the language fluently. I was basically illiterate. We came to depend on each other a lot. Living in a foreign country is good. I totally understand how someone can function without being able to read or write. I taught Monday through Friday afternoons, Patsy taught on the weekends. We spent our breaks visiting family and sightseeing in Japan. We didn’t get rich and came home with no money, but we had some cool experiences, saw a lot of things.

Family & summer humidity
Get in your face—
This explains why Japanese chose
Typhoon weather to honor
Ancestral spirits—why they believe
Dead family members return the eighth
Month—why they build bonfires &
Sweep graves during the muggy season—
--John Burgess; Punk Poems

C.J.: And along the way you became interested in the art of Japanese calligraphy, right?

J.B.: We were visiting a family friend in Kobe on one of our school breaks. As a present, Mrs. Yanai gave me a calligraphy set -- a brush, an inkstone, and ink stick. I was learning basic Japanese hiragana (the phonetic syllabary) at the time and so I tried writing it with the brush as practice. One of the Japanese teachers at the school saw my practice and said it was good. I taught a seniors' class and one of those students, Mrs. Morikawa, arranged for calligraphy lessons for me with the high school calligraphy teacher, Kikugawa-sensei. I started studying with him once a week at the high school in 1988.
I totally fell in love with Japanese calligraphy. I like the idea of words as art. Kikugawa-sensei arranged two one-man shows of my calligraphy while in Japan. When we left Japan in July of 1990, I joined the Ehime Prefecture calligraphy society that Kikugawa-sensei was a member of. It ranks you by degrees (kyu and dan) in much the same way karate does with the belt system. I participate by mail correspondence. Kikugawa-sensei sends the assignment each month and I send my practice. Around here, I used to show my work with the Puget Sound Sumi Artists.
I haven't missed a month of sending my practice to Japan since September 1990 and have moved through the ranks. I'm now "shihan" or instructor, which is next to the highest rank, "dojin" or person of the same rank as master.

He often thinks in brush strokes
& although it’s linear
It doesn’t travel between 2 points
In a straight line—
Instead it spreads
Folds in on itself—other times
It continues off the paper
Toward something undefined
& never heads
In the direction he expects.
-- John Burgess; Punk Poems

C.J. So when did the poetry bug first bite you?

J.B.: I've written poetry since I was a teenager. The early poems were the type we call "emotional puking" today at my house. It was a way to get through all those feelings, I guess, but it's certainly not poetry you'd want to subject anyone else to. I hear it quite often from beginning poets when emceeing open mics. Poets have to go through this stage, I guess. I've kept a notebook since Montana, probably starting in 1979 or so. Not too many poems survive from then. I wrote in a stream of consciousness vein that I thought was inspired by Kerouac and Ginsberg, but really was insipid.
The first poems I considered sharing with anyone were written in Japan and just post-Japan. I wrote a lot of haiku and short sketches. I put together small books of haiku for friends. I still use the notebooks I kept in Japan as inspiration now, more than 15 years later.

C.J.: Who were the first poets and writers that made a strong impression on you?

J.B.: Good New England boy that I was, the first poets I remember being turned on by were Emerson and Dickinson. Lines like: "I love a prophet of the soul" --Emerson and his essays and "To fill a Gap / Insert the thing that caused it--" --Dickinson. Among my dad's books was a copy of the complete Emerson. Death led me to Dickinson's intellect. I still reread both quite often.

In high school my English teacher turned me onto Samuel Becket "Waiting for Godot" and Edward Albee "The Zoo Story" which gave me a different way to think about things. It was the first time I saw the power and art inherent in words.

Second wave of influence came in college when I started reading Kerouac and Ginsberg, which led me to the other beat poets -- Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Gregory Corso -- and to City Light poets -- O'Hara, Lamantia, Waldman, DiPrima, Bob Kaufman. Perhaps backwards, Ginsberg led me to Whitman, who I still reread regularly too.

C.J.: What poets are you reading now?

J.B.: I'm reading the Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth and the collected poems of Richard Hugo right now. Trying to be a good Northwest boy. This past winter I got turned on to Kay Ryan from San Francisco. She explores a shorter form and rhymes that interest me right now.

C.J.: When did you decide to come out of the closet as a poet and start reading your poems in public?

J.B.: When we got back to Seattle in 1990, we got busy with the kids and their school and PTA. The notebooks have family vacation sketches and interesting clips from the paper in them and haiku that we often wrote together. When the kids were bigger I had a bit more time and the writing confidence to try sharing some poems. In the mid-90s the open mic scene was starting to boom in Seattle. I wrote a couple of long poems to fit the format that was popular at the time at open mics, and with the encouragement of a buddy signed up for an open mic at a coffeeshop on Queen Anne. That was 1997. The next year I read at the Greenwood Art Walk and started to regularly attend the open mic at Wit's End put on by PoetsWest.

C.J.: Were you hesistant to expose yourself? Did you have stage fright?

J.B.: I don't think I was hesitant to expose myself, it was more finding the confidence that maybe I had something worth sharing. It took a little time to transform the poetry in my notebook to a more finished form. The first poems I read publicly were an homage to what I was hearing at open mics that I admired -- witty personal statements. The scene relit my political fire, too, which has been subdued since my editor days at the student newspaper.

I've read publicly now for about eight years, but I still get nervous before a reading. I tell myself it gives me an edge.

C.J.: Musical influences are in your poetry and seems to have played a big part in your life—do you play anything?

J.B.: I took piano lessons when I was a kid for 7 years. I had a guitar for a while. Can still strum a few chords. But nothing serious. When I was a teenager a few of us wrote folk songs, but not since then. Musically, I consider myself a great fan. Love to go to concerts and almost always have music on at home.

C.J.: What were the 5 great albums or songs in your formative years (and please don't say the ARCHIES).

J.B.: The first 45 I remember is The Beatles "Get Back." I played it until I warped it. The first LP I bought was Neil Young's "Harvest" in 1972. I got my first component stereo for high school graduation in 1976 -- amp, receiver, Advent speakers and turntable. I was listening to Bob Dylan and went through two copies of "Blonde on Blonde." Springsteen's "Born to Run" was also big. At college I was nicknamed "Hippie" because of my musical taste -- Dylan and Beatles mostly my first semester at Morrisville -- (and pot smoking). Christmas break 78 everything changed for me. I heard punk -- Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, Ramones. None of this stuff was on the radio then. I bought all those albums at the House of Guitars in Rochester -- one of the best record shops I've ever been to. Patti Smith played at the all-girls school nearby and I saw the Talking Heads that summer in Rochester. The Clash came next for me -- "London Calling" is the second LP I ever needed a second copy of because I wore it out. By the time I was at Montana State I had a stack of punk LPs. I also got turned on to West Coast punks by the folks at Cactus Records in Bozeman. I bought X and Dead Kennedys. I still have over 500 vinyl LPs and still have my turntable wired in.

C.J. What’s the last 3 Albums/CDs you bought

J.B.: Mike Doughtey (from Soul Coughing) "Haughty Melodic" / Bob Dylan "Bootleg Series No. 6, Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall" / Sleater-Kinney "The Woods"

He copies the words to “Heroin”
From the liner notes on the sleeve
Of the Velvet Underground LP—
Signs his name in pencil—
Leaves the lyrics on the kitchen table
With a note
Erases that he loves her he’s always loved her—
In the pantry shakes
The last pennies from her
Peanut-butter jar.
---John Burgess; Punk Poems

C.J.: Punk Poems is the name of the collection of poetry that will be out on August 1st from Ravenna Press. How did it come about?

J.B.: I almost published a book of poems on my own, but decided I didn’t need to spend the money. I was sending things to Kathryn Rantala who has published several poems in Snow Monkey. She said she’d look at a manuscript of poems. I didn’t hear anything for a long time and I decided to contact her and see what was going on. She told me that the board was seriously considering publishing my poems into a book. I was very excited about this.
All the poems in Punk Poems were written between 1999 and late 2004. I wanted to force myself to write shorter poems than the open-mic pieces I had been writing for the two or three years before that. I had success with a shorter poem I wrote in 1998 and entered in the Poetry on the Buses contest. So I knew it was possible. I chose 10 lines in response to all the Y2K hype at work and the end of the century hype in the media. In 2003 I wrote an explanation of the 10-liners as an introduction to the ones that appeared in Snow Monkey that seems a little bullshitty now, but here it is for better or worse:
I came to 10 through the binary idea of 1 and 0 being able to code incredible complexities. It also allows for a lot of different groupings of lines (4-4-2, 3-2-3-2, 2-2-2-2-2, etc.). The 10-liner has allowed me to combine rhyme, line break and couplets with a strong sense (from my punk days) that you should spit out what you've got to say and get off stage. Like most open-mikers, the poems I first performed were long-winded -- so I've come to this only through experimentation at the expense of others. In short, the 10-line format has helped me focus on the one idea I want to communicate--get in and get out.
The idea for the title comes from how short the poems are -- like punk songs -- and that they come from a poet that works outside of academia -- like a punk that taught himself to play guitar.
C.J.: I love how some phrases in one poem are used in a later poem which creates a connection between the various poems and sections in the book. Was this intentional?

J.B. I love Jack Kerouac's blues poems. The way the poems in, say Mexico City Blues, move between what he calls choruses with the same phrases or a continuation of the reportage. In a lot of regards, I see "Punk Poems" as one poem -- a meditation on desire -- against the background of punk albums, Montana bars, Lewis & Clark and Japan. "17 Views of Mount Fuji" gave me a chance to draw a stronger connection between a series of poems and explore my Japan experience a little deeper. "Incident at Yellowstone" was problematic for me. It originally was 17 10-line poems with an additional rhymed couplet at the end of each 10-liner. It had to do with form -- why we insist on putting things together in a way that made sense. It suffered from repetitious and unneeded detail. With the help of Kathryn Rantala at Ravenna Press, my editor/publisher, we cut it to the essence of what I was saying. I took what was left and put together 10 pieces, which actually works well given the topic of a grizzly attack. Then I used the first sonnets I had written to summarize and revisit the same themes -- punks, Montana/Northwest, Japan -- and consider the next steps -- forgiveness, forgetting, what it means to live off the land. They were originally Shakespearean 14-line sonnets with the end rhymes and ending couplet. They weren't that good as sonnets, so when we starting getting serious about publishing a book of 10-liners, I cut them down using the lesson I learned with "Incident" and to fit the 10-line format.

C.J.: What appealed to you about this and drove you to do this other than the poetry groupies of course..?

J.B.: I thought I could write about whatever caught my attention or whatever I was interested in and still have some coherency to my work. No matter what I wrote about, it would be 10 lines. Which would fit with the poems that came before it and those that would come after it.

C.J.: When you were choosing the poems and the order of the poems for the book did you work closely with your editor (Kathryn Rantala)?

J.B.: Yes. Finishing the manuscript was definitely a learning experience for me as a writer. We started with 100 10-line poems and finished with 75 plus the 10 pieces from "Incident in Yellowstone". It was done in three rounds of editing over about four months. I learned a lot about writing/editing from her during the process.

I had put together the original sequencing of the poems in chronological order. I had read an article about how Lou Reed had selected the order for his album "New York" by the order the tracks were recorded, so I applied it to what my collection of poems which I was calling "Metes & Bounds" at the time. Kathryn is incredibly strong at sequencing and saw connections that I hadn't made. She was good at pairing poems that shared lines or thoughts in a kind of coupleting. Which hints at the couplets in the imperfect sonnets. Some of the runs of poems are from me, some are from her.

She also pushed back on the title of the collection. Basically sent me off to think of a different title -- one with more edge. The book's dimensions honors the City Lights pocket poet series, which I admire. The title "Punk Poems" to me echoes books from City Lights like "Lunch Poems" and "Clean Asshole Poems."

C.J.: What are your 3 favorite poems that in PUNK POEMS?

J.B.: "Could I love her more if she wore dark glasses" (Imperfect Sonnet 01); "He believed he was preparing his body" (Punk Poem 29); "Look--" (17 Views of Mount Fuji 01).

C.J.: Why poetry?

J.B.: It's short enough to finish. I work a regular 40-hour-a-week job, volunteer in the community, own a house and have a family. So writing time is at a premium. I used to want to write a Kerouac tome, but don't think I have it in me anymore. I'm addicted to seeing how much I can express in a few words.

You can’t be a buddha by reading a book—
You can’t know Mount Fuji from ukiyoe prints
Or travel brochures—
It’s not as you imagine—not snow-capped
Pine-framed meditative but sudden
Ashen & low—a kabuki actor
Without make-up—not obvious despite
All the views—you won’t know it at first—
Only a break in the clouds.
---John Burgess; Punk Poems

C.J.: Take two: Why poetry?

J.B.: Similar to my interest in shodo (Japanese calligraphy), I like the idea of words as art.

C.J.: What has been the most challenging part of poetry for you?

J.B: Once I started reading my poetry publicly, I've had to face some tough questions: Why do you need to read and publish your poems? Who's your audience? What's your voice? I don't have good answers for any of those.

C.J.: Make something up right now that you would never actually say about your writing or collection of poems?

J.B: It's all true.

C.J.: How do you picture people reading your book?

J.B. I hope that at some point they try reading some of the poems outloud. I think it would be cool to hear other people read my poems and change them enough to be their own.

You too punk will age—too soon
Blemishes which neon conceals
Will glare at noon—like stares
A man in heels gets, just try
To hide desires dragged out
Midday—you too will suit up
Dress for day jobs, grow way
Too fat, too entrenched, too taxed
Way too satisfied
Fit to be tied.
---John Burgess; Punk Poems

C.J.: You see yourself writing more in the future? J.B. Yes I certainly think so. I think about Punk Poems. I wrote in ten lines. What unified everything was the ten lines—it’s used as a conceit and I become obsessed. Ten is kind of fun. I had to fit my words and thoughts to the form. I went two and a half years where just about everything I wrote had to be a ten line poem. Then with Incident in Yellowstone I guess I deconstructed that a bit.

C.J. : What do you think you’ll feel about Punk Poems a year from now?

J.B. Well, I know it's the best of the stuff that I have written in the last 5 or 6 years.. I hope a year from now I'm a better writer than I am now. I’m proud of Punk Poems--- every idea I've had in other poems is there. no theme I've gone through is missing from the collection.

C.J.: Thanks for putting up with this process, John. It’s been a pleasure learning more about you.

J.B.: Thank you.

I don’t remember when I stopped sleeping
When I started simply keeping busy &
Going to bed when it was still light out
But not sleeping even with the lights out
Dreaming something about a bear
---John Burgess; Punk Poems

* * *

(Ravenna Press 2005)

My friend John
is finally getting a book of his poems published.
Punk Poems (Ravenna Press 2005) might be described
as a collection of eclectic poems
flowing through a quirky, slightly twisted
though still wholesome, optimistic world view.
A bit of sophomoric humor slips into the mix
in a few places—perhaps not often enough.

My friend John’s
book of poems
begins by considering connections;
physical, electronic, binary,
historic, emotional and spiritual.
Not earth shattering .
But in the context of a series of poems
it’s developed, maintained and referenced elsewhere
in this intriguing memorable poem collection.

Like this:

“Desire is deciduous, falls away
& buds again—sometimes a cowboy
Brandishes a handgun, French kisses
A Montana redneck with a thick grain-
Alcohol tongue….”

My friend John’s poems
are often untitled
and paint visual, impressionistic landscapes
of life interconnected in a deceptively loose,
but never completely random order.
He wonders what it was like
for Dale Evans to ride Roy Rogers,
bemoans the loss of Gregory Corso,
Ken Kesey, and stands pogoing in the
back to Joey Ramone. Robert Creeley,
Patti Smith, Richard Whalen, Lou Reed,
Joe Strummer, June Carter Cash and others
Appear in spotlights and shadows, mentioned
As influences on my friend John’s poetry.

Gregory Corso, 1930-2001

It’s time to go, Gregory Corso,
Leave America & its imperfections
Behind—die while there’s time

Ken Kesey, 1935-2001

Going further—veers left
Into a Lewis & Clark rest area—
Always goofing off
Always on the bus always
So damn merry.


“I see Robert Creeley say
“American poetry is I-dependent”
& without irony pull a handkerchief
From his sleeve remove his glasses
& wipe the socket of his missing
Left eye…”

Then after 51 pages,
There are 17 views of Mount Fuji
A trip taken nearly 20 years ago.
An album of poetic tourist snapshots
with personal observations and thoughts
connecting to those who’ve been to Fuji
or wish they could be there.

“Ashen & low—a kabuki actor
Without make-up—not obvious despite
All the views”


“Ukiyoe “floating world pictures”
Can be read “pictures of everyday life”—
Uki to rise or float to the surface—yo the world
Or generations—& e picture—ukiyo”

Burgess’ “Incident in Yellow Stone”
Are ten brush stroke poems,
some just one line long,
about a bear mauling a tourist.

“It takes physics
To set a trap
To place a rib in a plastic bag”

Where did it come from? How is it connected?
It’s sublime.

The next section in my friend John’s poetry collection
Is called 10 imperfect sonnets.

It begins like this:

“Could I love her more if she wore dark glasses &
A scarf like Jackie O—if she chain-smoked, spit &
Swore, shot back whiskey, bucked like a bronco—“

The connections have been built with a line here or a phrase there
And we glimpse what’s going on in this life that’s being
Shared with us through these poems.
Or perhaps I mean we understand less.

Here’s what I mean:

“I don’t remember when I stopped sleeping
When I started simply keeping busy &
Going to bed when it was still light out
But not sleeping even with the lights out
Dreaming something about a bear”

It’s closing with a looser collection of poems that snap crackle and pop references
themselves into your head. We’re getting someplace though,
not through the shortest distance between two places,
But through an emotional resonance that belongs
to someone else that reaches out to make a connection
with us, and surprisingly does it.

“You too punk will age—too soon
Blemishes which neon conceals
Will glare at noon—like stares
A man in heels gets, . . . “

My friend John’s poems are a bit
William Carlos Williams, you’ll mistake
some for plain vanilla, lull into overlooking
the heat just below the surface of the
deceptively naïve words.
A few try a little too hard,
some don’t seem to be trying hard enough.
Maybe there’s a bit too much repetition
a few too many words.
Only an occasional sharp edge appears.
That’s enough for what’s being served here.
Most of the 75 poems are ten lines.
My friend John was obsessed with writing
10 line poems for over 2 and a half years.
But for the series ‘Incident at Yellowstone’
the ten line form was deconstructed.
So it became a series of ten poems.

Bravo to
Punk Poems
a poetry collection by
John Burgess--
plugged in
and connected.

Gabba Gabba Hey.