Visiting with Michael Burkard
by Claire Guyton, Art + Life Editor
Editor’s Note – The images below are scans of drawings by Michael Burkard.
What’s your best “That’s how I got the idea for that poem” story?
Poems often come to me haphazardly. One case in point, I was telling a “true life” story to my poet friend Phillip Shabazz about a dream I had had years before, I think about 21 years previous to this telling. The dream involved my brother making a mistake in a wedding toast for me, and I had related the incident a few years after it occurred to a psychiatrist I was seeing in 1971. And the psychiatrist blew me away with his explanation of the dream. Too many details to head into here, but I had told the story of this a handful of times over the years. And when I told Phil, he said to me, “You have got to write that down—as is—as a poem.” So later that night I wrote the poem as close to the telling as seemed possible. “My Brother Makes a Toast but by Mistake Uses His Own Name” was the title for the poem. A small press in Louisville later published the poem as a very short pamphlet / chapbook.
Once a poem was very much given to me by poet and friend Michael Waters. He had returned from Greece—this was 1982—and he was telling me that on the Island of Eos stray dogs try to “adopt” a kindly tourist. There was one dog that seemed to want Michael’s attention and help (food, maybe shelter). Michael was very touched by all this and told me the story better than I’m telling it here. But the story had a sad ending. At the close of the heavy tourist season, the townspeople herd all the stray dogs off the cliffs. I was so struck by Michael’s story that I asked him why he didn’t write about it. He didn’t have a reason. I asked him if he would mind if I did. I wrote a poem based on his narrative which I entitled “The Dogs on the Cliffs.” It appeared in APR and in my book The Fires They Kept, and was reprinted in my book Envelope of Night.
Tell us about your usual writing process.
I write often. After years of much revision, I stopped revising for a long time—from 1982 to 2008. I have been trying to return to some revision the past few years, with mixed results. The revisions are usually quite small. I have many pages that I suspect might be prose masquerading as poetry, in terms of verse lines and format, and I will probably try to rewrite some of those to some extent this summer. Sometimes I keep notebooks to write in, and I frequently wind up writing in books I’m reading. I often forget where the attempts at poems are, and come across them months later. I don’t mind having that distance in time on an attempt at a poem, although there are exceptions to that, when I want to decide much sooner if something works. I have been writing songs since I was eleven years old, and the process is often the same, except my only way of “writing” a song is to record it, since I don’t write music. Traveling by train has been conducive to my poetry writing at times, and traveling by car has been conducive to my song writing.
Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote? What was it about?
The first time I ever tried to write a poem I still remember well. I was in my junior year in high school, the teacher was Robert Lux, and we were doing a poetry unit. I wrote a “poem” with this opening line: “Come back, track upon dream.” I received much encouragement from Robert Lux. The first time I wrote anything like a successful poem—a real poem, if there is such a thing—was in the fall of 1966. I was having my usual difficult time studying in college and was in the library looking through U.S. Camera magazine collections, looking at photographs, and I also had Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems with me. There was a line in one of the poems that went something like “Bah, I have sung of three cities….” I was immediately inspired to write, and also wrote / talked to one of the photographs I was looking at—the poems felt like they were being dictated to me. First drafts. I wrote seven short poems, two or three of which got collected in Envelope of Night (Nightboat Books).
Is there a “writing rule” you never break? One you love to break?
There is no writing rule I try to break or follow. It isn’t that every single piece of my writing has a different agenda, but there always seem to be original roads taken in just about anything I write. That by itself is no guarantee that the poem works. Sometimes I have to look at and consider a piece of writing for a long time before I decide whether it works.
*Contact Claire with any questions or suggestions for Hunger Mountain’s Art + Life section at firstname.lastname@example.org.