Author Christoper Bursk discusses writing, poetry, and his latest book ‘A Car Stops and A Door Opens‘.
Read Christopher Bursk’s full interview with Nin Andrews below.
Nin Andrews (NA): I so enjoyed reading A Car Stops and a Door Opens. How long did it take you to write this collection? Can you talk a little about the evolution of the book?
Chris Bursk (CB): I have been working on this book for a number of years. Some poems – the ekphrastic ones – date back several decades. The poems about parents go back at least a decade. The book decided it wanted the poem “A Car Stops And a Door Opens” to be the opening into the book – there are a number of doors in the book – doors in the body, doors in the mind, trapdoors too.
NA: I love the first section of the book, the poems about your childhood. I was wondering if we could start by posting the poem, “Come with Me, he says” — about your imaginary friend, Alwyn. Did you really name him Alwyn?
CB: This book is about a boy I created – a braver, more generous boy than I ever was. He created Alwyn.
NA: How does your brother feel about starring in some of your poems?
CB: I have no brother named Timothy. The boy I created, however, does have a Timothy in his life, a brother he adores and would do anything for. My own brother is quite worried about the brother I created and what he is capable of. I worry about Timothy too.
NA: I admire the humor and the religious imagery and references in your work. Even when your poems are painful, they contain wit and moments of celestial beauty, as in your long poem, “News from a foreign country came.” The poem begins with your professor propositioning you with this line:
1 As if my treasures and joys lay there
Why don’t you take off your shirt?
I’m learning how to be a masseur and yours
is the perfect body to practice on –
such an unexpected request to come from a man
with a chair endowed in his name.
Did you professor intend to give up Richard Crashaw
for back rubs, Sir John Suckling for latissimus dorsi,
Andrew Marvell for rhomboideus major and minor?
And ends with a section that begins:
8 … like a great ring of pure and endless light.
When the man ran his hands over my back as if measuring for wings,
I knew more would be asked of my body
than it had thought itself capable, my arms stretched
till I almost expected them to sprout feathers
and fly me, my legs content to abandon the earth.
Mounted, I hadn’t been pressed down, but exalted . . .
I was hoping you could say a few words about the process of composing that poem, and/or about the role of wit and religion in your work.
CB: Of course this is a controversial poem – one that sees the encounter between professor and student in a way that seeks to go beyond the obvious issue of abuse of power. I have always been fascinated by the metaphysical poets – and their longing for a world beyond this world – the invisible realms, the beauty inherent in the music of the spheres. Who can blame that kid for being seduced not just by his professor but by Richard Crashaw and Thomas Traherne. This is a poem about the longing for a beauty – that longing lies at the heart of my poetry. When I sit down to write, no matter what subject, I am seeking beauty. But this search – like the act of sex itself – is inherently humorous – we human beings are such silly creatures, what with our higher ambitions, our souls attached to such compromising bodies.
NA: Your poetry is very brave. I get the sense that you never steer clear of a topic.
CB: I live in fear – I have suffered from anxiety disorder all my life. Poetry is the one place I can try to be brave, the one place it is reasonably safe enough to take risks.
NA: In the third section of the book, you have several poems about teaching poetry. I laughed out loud when reading the poem, “Bringing The Virgin and The Child into the County Jail.” I love the line, “Ekphrasis. It sounds like some bad shit, says Tiny.” And I laughed again at the poem, “Roll Call.”
Do you think poetry can have a vital role in prisons?
CB: Poetry doesn’t make anyone less likely to change those patterns that led folks to jail. For three decades I worked in the correctional system as a volunteer decision-making counselor, creative writing teacher, and advisor to the inmate newspaper. I did not get into the jail to “save” or “change” anyone’s life. But in jail there were moments in the writing – that lovely silence when the room is quiet except for pens whispering to paper – that seemed sacred. Sometimes those I worked with were remarkably honest – and those times mattered.
NA: In the last section of the book, there is this poem, “Why I Don’t Want My Grandchildren to Read My Poetry.” I laughed again at the third stanza:
If I must write poems they’d better not be about her.
That’s my youngest granddaughter’s final word
on the subject. I wish I could obey.
I love the fact that you can’t obey. Do you feel compelled to write poems, and do you feel as if the subject matter is not up to you?
CB: I wrote a little chapbook about my grandchildren’s imaginary friends and the ones I invented because I was jealous of their imaginary friends. My youngest granddaughter skimmed the book – she was six at the time – and said to me, “Opa, my imaginary friends are in China now, and they are dead.” Last year – she’s ten now – she told me her friends were now in Paris but still dead.
NA: I am always interested in book titles. When did you know that this was the title for your book?
CB: I realized that the title poem needed to be the beginning, to place immediately at peril.
NA: When do you write? Do you have any writing rituals? Secrets?
CB: Every semester I have about 100 students so finding time to write is hard. In the Spring I have a poetry workshop of 50 remarkable poets – so it is hard to carve out time and yet I must. I write because it is the only place I find safe. I love my students, my family, my friends – but I am always afraid, even with them. In my poetry I am still afraid but the words give me courage.
NA: Who are your major literary influences? Are there poets who helped you write and edit this book?
CB: When I was in college I fell in love with Anne Sexton. Not just because of the risks she took in sharing the personal details of her life – my mother too had been institutionalized and had briefly the same psychiatrist as Robert Lowell had – but more because of her whole-hearted commitment to metaphor.
In my life I’ve been lucky to have two remarkable teachers, X.J. Kennedy and Betsy Sholl. X.J. gave me courage when I was nineteen; Betsy when I was in my sixties.
There are a number of poets whose work has shown me what is possible in poetry: Betsy, Cornelius Eady, Joan Aleshire, George Drew, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Jonathan Holden, Sandy Solomon, Loraine Henrie Lins, Luray Gross, Hayden Saunier, Lynn Levin, Katherine Falk…. so many of the valiant souls with whom I work in the poetry community here in Bucks County.
In my fifties I enrolled in the Warren Wilson MFA program; in my sixties I studied in the Vermont College MFA program: I am grateful to both.
But I would not still be writing if it weren’t for the poet Pamela Perkins-Frederick – for forty years we shared poems. She was the only one I showed my work too – outside of the folks I paid to read my poems. Her poetry inspired me. She gave me a safe place to bring my poetry. I am lost without her.
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