Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Peter Burrows

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

The Cotton Grass

Peter Burrows

is a librarian in the North West of England. Poems have appeared most recently in Northwords Now, Dream Catcher, Marble Poetry, Words for the Wild and Coast to Coast to Coast. His poem Tracey Lithgow was shortlisted for the Hedgehog Press 2019 Cupid’s Arrow Poetry Prize.  

@Peter_Burrows74

peterburrowspoetry.wordpress.com

The Interview

  1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

Beyond silly rhymes in birthday cards, I started writing about 15 / 16 and this was part of my development as a young-for-my-age teenager and triggered by that need for self-expression. The usual woe is me stuff, unrequited love, naïve views of the world . I was also writing lyrics – which were very much inspired by The Smiths – for songs myself and a friend wrote. I’d always made comics so creating little titled booklets of poems was very appealing and I was obsessed with the running order of the perfect album so all this fed in first, rather than from any literary influence. Other than the war poets at school song lyrics were my first influence.

  1. Who introduced you to poetry?

I stumbled into poetry myself. I tuned in to the war poets at school, and that awakened something, and then again, it was through lyrics: The Smiths (rather than solo Morrissey which became caricatured), Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello. They were writing in a way that made me listen differently, and influenced my own scribbles. The Smiths Louder than Bombs US import had 24 tracks and I pored over the lyrics booklet which had a gorgeous font and was laid out like a poetry collection.

It wasn’t until I’d started reading properly myself at 18 and discovering Literature at my local library that my mind exploded and I saw it as a form in itself. Firstly, I’d say it was through poetic fiction such as Wuthering Heights or the novels of Thomas Hardy, and then Hardy and the Bronte’s poetry. Most of it was going over my head but I just had to spend time with it and it influenced me superficially as I had little or no critical reading skills. I then did my A-Levels at 19 and my Literature teacher who was Irish and a Seamus Heaney disciple introduced me to him, giving me stuff to read around him, and about the same time I got into Philip Larkin. I could then feel proper foundations were put down.

  1. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

I was aware of the canon and in my immature mindset would swing between thinking – because I didn’t know anyone else who wrote who had these inclinations – that I must be blessed, and other times that it had all been said before, and what’s the point of trying. Later, when I was new to Literature and then studying a Lit. degree and had no responsibilities and all the time to read, it felt like walking through the gates of a theme park and not knowing which author to rush towards first. I just felt that all of this would influence me and feed into my development. Much later, when in my mid-20s I stopped writing – and by this time from about 16 I must’ve written 800 odd poems – I felt like I wasn’t up to it. In terms of form, at that point, I was still writing ‘lighter’ verse. Still prolonged adolescence matters, and I outgrew it, but had nothing in place to continue with. I was still reading my favourites, but I was only writing scraps of things and was overawed thinking that I wasn’t up to it and when I read writers I could feel the chasm between them and me. When I started writing again – or, for the first year, warming up working through the scraps – about 5 years ago, I was conscious of my early favourites, Heaney and Larkin, who were writing from the 50s/60s onwards, and that these forms were still about – but I didn’t want to be investing my efforts looking backwards or writing homages. Although I liked Hardy’s poetical subject matter, his forms are too archaic and often contrived for me. So, I began subscribing to magazines and buying pamphlets and collections, following folks online and immersing myself to eavesdrop the conversations of now. But I do believe that all forms can co-exist simultaneously in the same way we change register to whatever generation we are speaking with. Heaney once said that he thought Larkin would be remembered in the future for a dated elegant style of poetry in the same way as Thomas Gray (as in Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard). Then, some forms I read are very experimental. Yet, I feel most poetry ends up falling back into a slowly progressive form of what has been predominantly the form of the age, with various outriders pushing off in all directions. I feel there’s some comfort there which is universally recognised, if not cherish.

  1. What is your daily writing routine?

I write most days, though it’s often only tinkering, and I write within the gaps in the day, which is why I think poetry suits me as my concentration span is too short. I work very slowly, and ineffectively. A poem will start with a hand-written scribble (dated), usually an idea or some lines, which are rarely definitive, more place-holders to an idea, and then after adding to this I type (in Perpetua) and print off on A5 – two pages on A4 – as the visual aspect of how any poem looks is aesthetically very important to me. I then edit onscreen, and each day print off a new draft annotating it, adding footnotes for what I’m inferring (so that I avoid cluttering up the text with prompts and pointers), then rewrite onscreen. I also number the lines to remind myself to be concise. Each draft is dated and most thrown away, though early on I kept everything. I write in the bath, at bed, have a couple of pages in my pocket to mull over and add bits to. Whereas when younger I dashed off complete drafts of light verse, things now come very slowly.  A poem can take anything from a month (that’s a quick one) to several years. One that I finished last week which I think is one of my better ones I first started in 2015 but kept putting it aside. I have a tendency to splurge and write lots, and then have to edit back. So I will most often put a poem aside and work on something else. At present I have about 40 poems on the go which are all contenders (and many others dormant) but I will usually have two or three as my main focus, with another half dozen on standby behind these. I wish I wrote differently (and it explains why I was so awful at exams) and was more efficient, but that’s how it is. I was heartened reading Larkin At Work which looks at his composition methods and saw a lot of similarities in how long he would take on a poem and have to switch.

When I’m closing in on a poem, like the one mentioned above, especially if I think it could be a good one (for me) then that poem does not leave my side (and by now I’ve taken away the numbering). I will have it with me in my pocket, in my work bag, on the passenger seat, and trying to land it the best way possible.

  1. What motivates you to write?

Early on it was to express or preserve. Now it’s more to working towards an idea and trying to understand it which I imagine is why it takes so much longer and so many redrafts. It used to come as a title or a line or two, and maybe that was the influence of lyrics, whereas now it’s an image or an idea and it takes longer to tease out the lines. I now dash out place-holder lines, and words as I can feel the shape of the thing I’m trying to work towards, but I don’t want to capture it too soon by pinning it down with words which may distort the meaning and will be hard to undo later.

It feels like archaeology – which is something I’m interested in and write about – in that you get a glimpse of something and must gently brush away to reveal the rest, and it may be that the rest of it is missing, or not in situ, so you have to decide on whether you guess the whole concept, or, like Keats’ negative capability, feel that it’s enough to be working in the right direction of what you’re trying to say and leave something unsaid.

Also, seeing a poem on a page gives such a deep sense of satisfaction. Its form. The white space. Any particular effect employed to convey meaning. Some little thing that was nudging at your consciousness has been realised and can be reanimated just by being read.

I started writing again 5 years ago, sending pieces off a year later just to gauge as I knew I was writing much better and differently from my younger years, and then a year later I got my first two poems published in The North and I was shaking, not so much from delight but from self-conscious exposure of the outside world, which surprised me. I hadn’t realised how much I’d been writing in my own little bubble. It is thrilling having poems accepted, and it’s fine when they’re not, and it does help focus my writing and help motivate, but the poems would be written anyway because I need to see them through, and there’s enough validation in that. Everything else is a bonus.

  1. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

With Larkin I was much influenced by his odes and their forms were an ingrained template when I started writing again (the big poems like The Whitsun Weddings or Aubade which still blow me away), but less his character or persona which I felt a touch affected, and behind a front. I much preferred poems when he let his guard down like the unpublished An April Sunday brings the snow about his father’s death. With the odes as they were fairly long, it gave me space to try out things, but it may also encourage me to ramble or repeat myself. I liked how they looked on the page, but I had to ensure that I could justify the time it would take for someone to read them. Whereas I’d have a big Larkin reread every year I’ve not the last 3 or 4 years but I’m sure I’ll catch up again with him.
With Heaney I find my appreciation deepens especially in terms of his range, and I love his personal poems. Then, I love his political, historical, mythical poems, and his development from man, to husband, father, grandfather and how poems in his own oeuvre are in dialogue with each other. If I’m stuck on a form for a topic I will scan Heaney to see how he worked through it. He is like a grandfather poet, and his poems are a touchstone to me and a month doesn’t go by that I’m not reading Heaney. His books are beside my bed.

Both Heaney and Larkin stay with me as I always consider the weight and length any collection I read (as I did with music albums). Any collection I read I will make a scribble on the contents page of how many poems or pages there are. With Larkin and Heaney a collection spans between 30-36 poems (High Windows when Larkin was drying up is just 24), and these have become my template for a balanced collection whereas many collections now can have between 40-50 pages, and feel like double albums to me. Larkin’s collections, from page to page have a different form of poem, which helps keeps things interesting and fresh (and you can see in the Complete Poems that he could have included perfectly good poems but decided against as he would be repeating himself).

7. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Bernard O’Donoghue and Kathleen Jamie I’ve discovered in the last 5 years or so, and subsequently bought all their collections. When I read them (along with Heaney) I get the stirrings to write and so will often read them in the bath before reaching for whatever draft I’m currently working on. O’Donoghue’s poetry might seem anecdotal and slight at first, but its magic works on you and you realise how great it is. I completely buy into his world. The Quiet Man is one of my favourite poems. I think it’s perfect. Jamie writes about nature and subtly national identity, and like with Heaney and O’Donoghue a sense of place is integral, and that is something that interests and inspires me greatly. Jamie and O’Donoghue are doing similar things in completely different styles.

Stephanie Conn’s Copeland’s Daughter I admired greatly, and kind of wrote her a fan letter when enquiring about her other work. Poets that you bump into by being in the same publication is a good way to be introduced, and so I keep an eye out for Paul Stephenson (and I like what he’s done with his interviews website) to see how he’s developing. I read somewhere that he came late to poetry, and he seems to be having so much fun writing and is obviously doing it very well. I’d like to see a full collection after 3 successful pamphlets. Recently I’ve also enjoyed collections by Jane Clarke, Liz Berry and Robin Houghton.

8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Be a writer by writing. Be a better writer by embracing rewriting. Stephen King said, ‘Write with the door closed, edit with the door open’. By all means write what you need to write but try not to fall into the trap of being precious over what you write so that you daren’t touch a word. You are communicating an idea to a reader other than yourself. I used to be very precious when I was younger, but when I started again – and this is in my late 30s, that had vanished and I love redrafting, and now appreciate that writing is mainly about cutting and editing. As long as you have a strong enough central image (Frost mentioned this) of what inspired the poem in the first place, the words around it are quite malleable, and you’re just working out how to present it in the best light.

Enjoy what you do and don’t put any unnecessary pressure on yourself. If you’re going to write the joy of composing is enough to get started and you don’t need to be unfavourably comparing yourself to others, which stops you before you’ve started, and there just isn’t enough time for that. Be constructive, and see where you can improve, but always see it as that, moving forward with your own development.

If you’re doing the best you can then you don’t have to justify your place. Whether you are playing Sunday League football or in a World Cup Final, on the pitch and in your training you are going through the same universal emotions and challenges, and whatever level you are at, that’s good enough to keep persevering.

Finally, don’t take rejection personally. On Twitter I see a lot of people posting about rejections as if it’s a personal slight and if their whole sense of being was in that submission. Only a small percentage of poems get accepted, and even if what you’ve sent maybe a stonker, and the best thing you ever wrote, there may be another poem in that submission which is too similar to yours and had just edged it out. Or you might be sending the wrong poems to the wrong journals. Read other writers, read other journals (both in print and online) and you will start getting a sense of where is home for different aspects of what you write. This year I had a poem that got accepted on it’s 20th attempt over several years. It was a small poem, but one I liked and would add to a collection (if ever fortunate enough), so I kept sending it out until it found its home. Other times you slowly realise, ‘Ah, that one doesn’t quite work’ and retire it.

Concentrate on the work, and you will instil it with qualities that are recognised by an editor (though they may still not pick it due to the above!). But that’s ok. You are writing, and when you’re writing you’re workings towards something new.

9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’ve been fortunate to be included in two forthcoming anthologies: The Hedgehog Press’ Cupid’s Arrow: A Selection of Love Poems, after my poem, Tracey Lithgow, was shortlisted. This will be available as a free download soon. And, The May Tree Press’ The Cotton Grass Appreciation Society which contains poetry about the South Pennines. https://maytreepress.co.uk/2019/07/08/the-cotton-grass-appreciation-society/

Since I started sending stuff out about 4 years ago I’ve had about 60+ poems published, and I’m probably a few years off seriously considering any pamphlet competitions. I do have a rolling number of themed poems in order that make up a collection, as I naturally think of poems belonging to collections as it’s something I’ve done ever since I was 16 compiling them into little jotters with a title. The poems, and preoccupations, of the last 5 years I can feel nearing its final phase, and then, even for my own enjoyment I will put them together in a little collection. It’s a good way of marking the end of something, and the start of the next journey.

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