Mark Burnhope and I know each other in the dorkiest of ways: from the internet.
Sharing a passion for debating the minutiae of early-90s flannel stalwarts Pearl Jam, we bonded on an internet message board and developed a rapport which quickly translated to the General Discussion portion of the forum and eventually, Facebook. We’ve never met in real life and yet we have something fairly close to a “friendship”, based on the music we listen to (although I often mock him for his love of funk-rock) and a shared affinity for the ridiculous and the absurd.
Mark is a poet, and recently published a collection entitled “The Snowboy”. When he came up with the idea to do a promotional blog tour, I was happy to be among the selected, but also a little confused. Not only is this decidedly not a poetry blog (nor is it an anything blog, really, other than the onanistic palaver of a poseur dilettante), but I also know remarkably little about poetry. Regardless, I picked up his collection and was very much impressed. The Snowboy is rife with rich imagery, caustic wit and crushing humanity; his poems wistful, sharply humorous and self-effacing in the same measure. The Snowboy is a vividly entertaining, fascinating read, and I was happy to do my small part in helping to promote it.
Of course, the conversation quickly turns to Batman. I’m sorry. I had to go there. Below is my interview with Mark.
Hey man. Describe the room you’re in. What’s around you?
There’s a black dog in front of me. A real one I mean, that’s no code for depression. I have a dog, you see; a greyhound. To my left, The X-Files is on television: one of the later ones, slightly farcical but still the best TV out there. There is an armchair and two three-seater sofas. There is a white plastic bag on the floor. I’m not sure why, or what’s in it. I might have to investigate after answering these questions.
Edit: since writing that answer, that plastic bag has been replaced by a large brown envelope, and The X-Files has changed to Curious George.
You and I have “known” each other for a while now– we got to know each other among shticky posts in a niche internet message board. Do you post on many boards?
I’m a regular poster at two internet message boards: an unofficial website dedicated to my all-time favourite band Pearl Jam (you might know that one), and RFUK, a forum for reptile and exotics keepers, slightly offensive banter and tomfoolery. I also occasionally pop into PFFA, the best and most hardcore poetry workshops on the Internet. The amount of good advice and criticism I’ve received there has been priceless, and they have an amazing library of poetry-learning resources.
Would you agree with me that there’s a special kind of interaction that goes on in online message boards, where all societal conventions of tact, politeness and civility are thrown out the window in exchange for nastiness and snark? And is it a bad thing?
Where the PJ board is concerned, yes, that seems to be the general cultural landscape. It’s only banter, and in general, as long as everyone understands that “shticks” are being adopted by everyone, it can inspire some laughs. There are problems, though, when people occasionally drop their “shticks” and become something resembling friends. Sometimes those friends can wonder off-piste completely and go off to discuss things like poetry on their own blogs. We are good examples of this. That can be both brilliant and problematic. I hope we’re OK after this, Jorge.
We’re fine. Let’s talk about “The Snowboy”. When did you start writing these poems?
I don’t really keep track of drafts, but the oldest poems are something like three years old, even if they look nothing like they did then. They tend to go through several different stages of undress before they’re ready to streak. ‘The Snowboy’ is my first small collection, a pamphlet / chapbook of twenty one poems. It’s published by Salt Publishing, a favourite small press of mine, so I’m thrilled, excited and humbled to be on their list. It has a lot of subjects – disability, prejudice, stereotype, love, marriage, faith, fairytale and myth, nature and landscape, buildings, beds, stones and snowmen. I draw from Wallace Stephens, William Blake, Zbigniew Herbert, Thomas Hardy, The Levellers and The Three Amigos. The poems are funny, serious, sad, angry, vibrant, peaceful, cynical and whimsical, and sometimes all at the same time.
Reading your poetry, there’s a good amount of religious content, either explicit or otherwise. I could relate, on some level, being raised Catholic. Are you a religious person? How does this inform your approach to poetry writing?
Yes, religion and faith are quite major themes running through the book. I have a Christian faith, but it’s not always easy to reconcile that with the intensely crazy, fundamentalist world we live in. My faith is an inherent part of me, but there are times when I begrudge it, would rather believe that nothing was out there; it would certainly be easier. So doubt, scepticism, reluctance to believe, it’s all in there, mingled with an undercurrent of genuine faith. Some poems deal with what happens when faith clashes with disability, the issue of healing, what it should mean in this life, and whether we’re sometimes a little too obsessed with it. The long poem at the end, ‘The House, the Church and Fisherman’s Walk’, is kind of a silly and serious extended essay, where I’m travelling through town, using the landscape to reflect on different ideas to do with all that. It’s a culmination of the entire pamphlet, really. The other thing is that good poetry is never just private: if it’s not written for the reader to enjoy, forget it. R.S. Thomas, a Welsh poet I really like, showed in his poetry this idea of words being sacramental signs pointing to something ‘other’. In his stuff, there was also a sense in which poems are incarnational; they embody themes, ideas, meaning, and a sense of ‘God’ (if you want to call him/her/it that). Those ideas are ‘religious’, you could say. But I don’t just write for Christians. If I can’t translate those religious ideas for people who just want a good read, I may as well forget it.
Your disability pops up a couple times in The Snowboy, yeah? Does it seep– consciously– into what you write?
My Spina bifida and Hydrocephalus influence the poems in various ways. But I try to use them as a lens to examine the world, subject-matter, ideas, rather than just talking about myself. Some of my poems use ‘I’, but I’ve fabricated and fiddled with ideas so that the poems really can’t be said to be about me anymore. I’m hoping that as soon as they’re read, they’re about the reader. I don’t really mention conditions and disabilities explicitly. ‘Wheelchair’ and ‘I wheeled’ are probably the most obvious references. I use ‘I wheeled’ because I use that in life, it’s normal, and it would feel really weird to use ‘I walked’ when I didn’t. I can’t speak for everyone, and I really try not to, but that’s just me.
About using disability as a lens: I think that becomes easier when you view “disability” as not just “having a condition”. It’s not just a physical thing in the way the Medical Model of Disability tends to see it; that’s useful, really, only where medical care and provisions are concerned. The Social Model is the prevailing way that disabled people tend to see themselves. That says that it’s societal factors which disable: ignorance, discrimination, stereotype, and lack of access to services, jobs, even relationships, not just buildings. The social model says that if all that was provided for, maybe disabled people could be seen as completely equal, and ‘disabled / handicapped’ could be an obsolete term. When I write about disability, that’s where I’ve tried to write from.
With those things in mind, I’m interested in looking at all kinds of prejudice and discrimination which I relate to – disablism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism – especially in light of religion’s mistakes in that regard. I try to situate myself in that context, amongst the waves, and reach some kind of inclusion. Some people will inevitably go in thinking ‘Wow, um, disabled and religious, huh?’ I get that, but I hope that by the end, they see that difference is a really moot point. “We’re all in this together,” as David Cameron has said.
My favorite poem in this collection is “Twelve Steps towards Better Despair”. Tell me about that poem.
Thanks, I’m glad you liked that poem. It just so happens to have made it into an anthology, The Best British Poetry 2011 edited by Roddy Lumsden. That’s available in September from Salt. So, you know, if you wanted to read it again in a different context, and in a different font…
That poem plays around with the kind of self-help language you might find in a Twelve Step program. That’s one of the driving forces in the poem’s construction. But it has to look like a poem, so this more formal, ‘instructive’ language gets mixed in with lyricism, rhythm, imagery, in a way you might expect from a poem. That clashing of language types lends it comedy, I hope. This poem is also one of those where I play around with the validity of instruction; whether I, the poet, or self-help writer, can really hope to influence someone’s thoughts through our language. ‘Despair’ is a serious thing: who am I to talk about it? Who is any poet to think that they might offer consolation or comfort in the reader’s pain and difficulty? So, there are slip-ups in the language, a couple of instances where I say one thing when I meant another. It’s funny, I hope, but along with everything else, I hope it amounts to something meaningful as well, even through that technique of trying not to assume importance or meaning. In context with other poems, some of which are much darker and more serious, I hope that it comes across as a moment of questioning, self-doubt, as well as the light relief readers might want by that stage, with everything else going on.
As you know, I’m pretty music-obsessed. Do you listen to any music when you write?
Never. My house is pretty much noisy enough as it is, and I have no office. I tend to get far too absorbed in music when it’s on, so that detracts from me getting properly absorbed in the words of the poems. It’s OK to write a first draft when you’ve got added distractions, but when you’re in the nitty-gritty of redrafting, it’s got to be as much silence as possible… Can you say that? As much silence as possible? Ah well, I just did. I will sometimes listen to a song or two on Youtube, between writing sessions. That tends to spur me on to the next thing.
Name three albums that you absolutely love and know inside and out.
The ‘and know inside out’ part of that question slightly narrows it down, but I can’t name just three albums that I ‘absolutely love’. So here’s some:
Wintersleep – ‘Untitled’, ‘Welcome to the Night Sky’
Pearl Jam – ‘Vitalogy’, ‘Riot Act’
Spin Doctors – ‘Pocket Full of Kryptonite’
That’s way more than three. You’re a terrible interviewee. Anyway, you’re evidently a fan of good music. And yet you claim to enjoy the Spin Doctors. How is this possible?
Well, Jorge, that’s an easier question to answer than you might think: because the Spin Doctors, to my mind, are worthy of being slotted into the ‘good music’ mailbox. Sure, they were stalwarts of a blend of bearded, white-man ‘funk rock’, at a time when everything hippy, green and social activist was big news. And no, they didn’t sing about any of that. But you looked at them, heard their sound, and you put them in that category because they sometimes wore tie-dyed shirts with peace signs on them, and because one of their albums had a large globe on the front cover. So you know, you could tell they were friends of the earth.
I was majorly into an English band at the time, The Levellers, who sounded very different; but they also liked the earth. I mean, I have no evidence of that other than the fact they used fiddles, mandolins, sported floppy hats and dreadlocks down to their bums. They probably had a VW camper van and didn’t wash. They sang about the earth, and started a fashion in England for didgeridoos, shakers and rain-sticks. They had a punk aesthetic. They’re still around now, still flogging their early 90’s work, and are still a guilty pleasure, as is that entire decade.
Anyway, the Spin Doctors’ musicianship was fantastic – superb rhythm section, you know how much I love rhythm, it’s the driving force of any band – and they mixed a clean pop sound, always pleasing, with a sometimes dirtier distorted guitar and more pounding drums. Occasionally they reached faux-grunge levels. Pocket Full of Kryptonite, is a very well put together album and a pleasure from start to finish. I have to say, though, it’s the only one of theirs I still listen to. I’ll finish by saying that overall, even though they only made three or four albums, they were always the band that Red Hot Chilli Peppers wanted to be and can’t, even now. That answer was far longer than I planned, and I really didn’t want to defend my love of the Spin Doctors to you again. So maybe, now that it’s down in official interview form, we can finally put this one to bed?
No. Hey, do you feel a special affinity for the first Batgirl, Barbara Gordon? You know, ’cause of the whole wheelchair thing.
I don’t feel an affinity for anyone associated with Batman, unfortunately. I think he’s a faux-super hero, with the whole ‘I don’t have any powers, I just stand around at night in my leathers looking edgy’ thing. He punches people, but anyone can do that. He throws ropes onto buildings and climbs them. I couldn’t do that, but you could. Nevertheless, let me Google that Barbara Gordon girl. Hang on a sec…
Wait, I’ve just seen some pictures where she’s in a wheelchair, and others where she’s clearly standing up. I know that I shouldn’t assume anything. I certainly wouldn’t steal her parking badge. But is she faking it? Those questions aside, yes, I can see that I could become a fan of Barbara Gordon is a superficial way. But the disabled super hero, the master of superheroes, who has completely permeated contemporary culture, and my heart, is Professor X. Now he’s a role model. And I can hear you laughing at that accidental pun, Jorge. Roll model. Stop it.
Wait a minute. I won’t let you say that. Batman doesn’t just punch people. Batman is a fucking ninja. Okay? He was trained in martial arts and fear by the League of Shadows. He is also the best detective on Earth. He’s a ninja detective, who is dressed as a bat, and yes, also punches people. I was reading this comic by Grant Morrisson in which the entire Justice League is tied up and debilitated by bad guys who are about to kill them, and Batman is the only one still free and roaming around their HQ, and the lead bad guy just shrugs him off. “Don’t worry about Batman. He is just a man.” And Superman just smiles to himself. Because he knows. He knows. Do me a favor. Read this.
Thanks for inviting me (or saying yes when I invited myself), it’s been a pleasure. And thanks for taking an interest in my writing. I might have to return the favour and start reading your blog, it looks pretty good. (I’m kidding of course. I’ve been reading it for ages.) Thanks also to anyone who’s been reading this, and if you decide to by my pamphlet (or ‘chapbook’ in US-English), I hope you enjoy it. I’ll see you on the forum, Jorge.
“The Snowboy” is currently available from Salt Publishing.