Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Bear Star Interview with Rick Bursky

I love your new book, Death Obscura (Sarabande), but as usual I never know how much faith to place in the information you so casually disperse throughout the poems — the bit about the spoons in "The History of Traitors," for instance, "coated ... with a chemical that turned orange under ultraviolet light" if the soldiers who used them were, presumably, treacherous. Or, in your title poem, the 'fact' (?) that "in 1900, seventy-two colleges offered courses in writing obituaries." I'd ask whether these things are factual, but I suspect you'd point me to "the story about the man who caught a Bengal tiger / with a butterfly net ... / It doesn't matter if it's true." Instead, let me ask where you get most of your ideas for poems. Dreams? History books? Ripley's?

Poetry occupies an interesting place in literature. Poetry, in the minds of many people is confessional writing — it must be true. If it’s not, you would have written it as fiction. Someone recently commented that some of my prose poems had a journalistic quality to them. I never thought of journalism as a word I would use anywhere near my poems, but I write them to have the veneer of reality. While I’m writing them I think of them as real events. In that way the poems have a certain amount of honesty. I don’t control them. I want them to be as true as possible to what really happened, even if it never did. I wonder if this makes any sense? Truth is so overrated. The possibility of truth is what interests me more. By the way, take “The History of Traitors”: do you really think the government hasn’t tried many weird methods to detect traitors? Now I’m not saying true or not true either way, but you don’t have to look at the world too long or hard to see what a bizarre place it really is. I don’t know about heaven or hell, but this world is a great place for a poet.

The second part of your question, where do the poems start, wow, I really don’t know. What’s that old cliché: God gives us the first line and we sweat for the rest. Sometimes I just try to think of an odd line, like “a man caught a Bengal tiger / with a butterfly net …” and see where it goes. I’m constantly scribbling in my notebook. My undergrad degree is in photography. I love images, especially in poems. I might see something out of place, for instance, an apple in a flower pot with tulips. Hmmm, how did that get there? I try to answer that question in a poem.

In the title poem of Death Obscura, you mention a location that is also the site of one of my favorite poems in your first book, The Soup of Something Missing: "The Seaport Diner, Point Jefferson Station." Will you say a little bit about Point Jefferson Station? What is it about the place that inspires such arresting poems?

I don’t really believe in inspiration. You decide to be a poet so you have to write poems. If I waited for inspiration I’d hardly get anything written. You — I — have to go out and look for poems. I do that by opening my notebook and beginning to scribble lines, images, whatever. Sometimes I find my way into a poem. There’s that old cliché: you juggle at the altar of the muse and sometimes she rewards you. On occasion a poem comes to us. “The Seaport Diner, Point Jefferson Station" was one of those poems. It’s completely, absolutely, word-for-word true. On New Year’s Day my mom called to tell me they took Dad, his ashes, to his favorite diner for New Year’s Eve. You can’t make this stuff up. I said, “Mom, therapy might be good.” And then I wrote the poem. That said, I believe a poet has to live an inspired life. You have to be fully engaged in life, love and art. Be part of the world, not a passive voyeur.

Hmmm, I don’t think I really answered your question so let me add that I never lived in Port Jefferson Station. But lots of my family did and still do. My grandparents lived there on a street named after my grandfather. I have many memories of going to visit them and staying for weekends and holidays. It was a little on the rural side at the time and I remember the forest behind their house. My father also died in that town. Too many memories to avoid. And to tell you the truth, I don’t even try to avoid them.

You’re from Far Rockaway, as is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and I don’t recall you ever writing about the place. Are you consciously avoiding writing about it?

You know, I never thought about it until you asked the question. Now it strikes me as strange that Far Rockaway has never shown up in a poem. The name is even poetic; it sounds like a place I would write about. I haven’t consciously avoided it, but now that you bring it up I do want to include those words, Far Rockaway, in a poem. It’s a thin strip of land you fly over when you’re getting ready to land at Kennedy Airport if you approach from the Atlantic Ocean. When I was a little kid there was boardwalk with lots of amusement and food places on it. People used to rent bungalows for the summer. I was last there about ten years ago. Most of what I remembered was burnt down or abandoned. On one block there were only three houses left. One was the house I lived in when I was seven. I stood on the sidewalk and tried to imagine myself as a little boy sitting on the porch.

How does your work in advertising inform your poems? The language of ads and of poetry would seem to be in total opposition, but you've been a poet and ad man for many years now.

A great headline could be poetry, I mean in the literal sense. A handful of words that move the reader to action or an emotion — wouldn’t that be true of both a line of poetry and a headline? If I’m busy at the office, writing a lot of ads, the poetry suffers. It feels too “written,” and often too clever. The attributes of the ad sneak into my poems and that’s not a good thing. I’m constantly on guard for that. Though being an ad writer means you have to be disciplined. You have to have ideas on demand every day. That’s helped me as a poet. The discipline required to write poetry every day, or least most days, is easy for me. If I don’t write something on any given day it doesn’t feel natural. Also, being an ad writer means churning out lots of writing that never sees the light of day. I make few demands on the poetry I scribble out every day. The vast majority of it never leaves my notebook, but in constantly writing, every now and then I get something that has potential and if I’m lucky I manage to turn that into a finished poem. Oh, I’m in the process of writing a book-length poem about advertising called “The Vampire of Madison Avenue.” It has nothing to do with vampires but sort of sums up the feeling of being an ad writer in a large agency.

What ad have you worked on that makes you proudest in terms of artistry?

I wrote a commercial for Ameriquest Mortgage that appeared on TV during the Super Bowl. It won advertising awards all over the world and is in a museum. You can see the spot on my website at It’s pretty funny. I don’t want to say too much about the spot and give away the punch line. I’ve also done a campaign for a lingerie company that’s pretty risqué. On the left side of the page is a photo of a naked woman with the headline “the gift.” On the opposite page is the same photo except the woman is wearing lingerie and the headline is “the wrapping.” On the other side of the spectrum, I wrote a newspaper ad for Wells Fargo Bank, about a charity they supported, probably the most beautiful ad copy I’ve ever written. It’s all on my website: There are a few poems there, too. But it’s mostly advertising. The poetry is on my blog, In all fairness, artistry is a tough word with advertising. Writers and art directors in advertising have to keep reminding ourselves that we’re not creating art, we’re creating communications that serve very specific client needs.

There's a wonderful question in "The Hypnology": "Isn't this the best use of night, / to make us afraid, make us uncomfortable, / make us stare at the ceiling until morning. / Is sleep a skill or a prize?" Do you try to answer such questions, or do you, like Rilke, think more is to be gained by living them?

I’ll split the difference with Rilke. I believe there’s more to be gained by living in the questions. Poetry is a wonderful place for introspection, as long as it doesn’t come off as introspection. How do you make art out of questions? Not with answers, that’s for sure. I love Neruda’s Book of Questions. Though I never try to answer them. I don’t think he intended them to be answered. One of the things I love about poetry is the way our own poems have the ability to amaze us and teach us things about ourselves. Sometimes I write a poem and wonder, Where’d that come from? “Is sleep a skill or a prize?” is for those who read the poem to answer for themselves. If you twist my arm right now I’d say it’s a prize. Tomorrow my answer might be different.

The women in your poems are endlessly mysterious. In The Soup of Something Missing, I thought they seemed mythic, but in Death Obscura I noticed their legs and painted toenails.

The women in The Soup of Something Missing are mythic, in the sense that they aren’t specific. All the women in Death Obscura are real ex-girlfriends, in some cases named, in most not. In some cases, they’re probably pissed about the poems. In other cases, they’re flattered. I think of myself as a surrealistic, romantic poet. And when I’m not thinking of myself as that I consider myself an Eastern European Duendest. I dated a lawyer who used to say literary journals should have a rebuttal column for the poet’s significant other.

On the back jacket, your publisher calls your work "California Gothic." Can you say a little about that?

It’s difficult to escape our environment. It sneaks into our poems without asking. When Los Angeles, or California, sneak into my poems there are no palm trees or movie stars, no Hollywood, no glitter. My version of Los Angeles is darker and grittier. California Gothic, hopefully, hints that my version of the city isn’t the popular version.

When did you begin writing poems? Do you recall reading (or writing) a poem that made you realize this was the path you wanted to follow?

Yes, I remember the exact moment. It was in the basement of a church in Los Angles. I began my life as a poet some twenty years ago with a poetry class at UCLA Extension. I took the class hoping it would make me a better advertising copywriter. I always believed poets were great writers of prose and thought it would be useful to my advertising career. In the first class the instructor read us Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and Etheridge Knight’s “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminally Insane.” Right then and there my entire life changed. I found what I would dedicate the rest of my life to.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a book, Ironmongery, of short surrealistic essays about poetry. Some of them are on my blog, I also have two book-length poems that are just about finished — “The Myth of Photography,” which is my version of the history of photography, and “The Vampire of Madison Avenue.” I’ve also been writing a lot of prose poems lately. I try to write every day, try being the important word here.

To what extent do you feel your experience in the army encouraged your instinct toward poetry? Were you writing much before you joined up?

I was 17 when I joined the army, very much a kid, and they gave me an automatic weapon. What were they thinking!? Being a soldier provides wonderful grist for poetry. Even the words, their sounds — platoon, cartridge, infantry, sergeant — have resonance and depth. Some poets like to use the names of flower and nature-like words in their poems. I’ll take artillery over bougainvillea. Operation Homecoming, the program that provided creative writing classes for the military, was a great thing. I hope more of the recent veterans start writing. The first time I ever wrote anything was while I was in the army. I was assigned to the staff of an infantry battalion in Germany. The adjutant, Captain Caggiano, told me to write a about our basketball team for the battalion newsletter. I guess that was the start. Just by coincidence, when I went to AWP in Denver last year I had dinner with Captain Caggiano and his wife, Jean (also a writer). He’s now a retired colonel living in Colorado. I hadn’t seen him since I left Germany. It was a wonderful reunion. For the longest time I’ve wanted to write a book-length poem about boot camp. One day …

Do you have favorite poets, books that you return to?

I’m always rereading Yannis Ritsos. I’m pretty sure I have everything of his that’s been translated into English. There’s something about his poems that speak directly to my soul. I’ve even attempted to translate a few of his poems. That proved more difficult than I could have imagined. Charles Simic is another poet I love. Other poets I couldn’t live without include Nin Andrews, Laura Kasischke, David Young, Zbigniew Herbert and Lola Haskins. I have about 2,500 books of poetry and think that I’m pretty well-read, still I’m always thrilled to discover someone new, I mean new to me. Vern Rutsala, for instance, has been publishing books of poetry for some 25 years and I just found him. Some books that I’ve just read that really impressed me are Purr by Mary Ann Samyn, Tongues of War by Tony Barnstone, Tall If by Mark Irwin, Zero at the Bone by Stacie Cassarino, Come On All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder, and Alexis Orgera’s book that’s about to come out, How Like Foreign Objects.

Last question, Rick. I know you have a pen fetish. What pen do you use when you're "writing raw" in your notebook?

Yep, I collect fountain pens. I currently have about 90. Most of them are old, from the ’30s and ’40s, though I have a few modern fountain pens. I couldn’t imagine writing with anything else. I have some favorites — the 1939 Parker Oversized Vacumatic with a stub nib, for instance. But I rotate through them so they all get used in the course of two years. I once took a day off from work and spent it learning to make simple repairs from Fred Krinke of the Fountain Pen Store in Monrovia. Fred is a third generation fountain pen repairman. He can fix a fountain pen just by staring at it.

You can really feel the line being written on the paper with a fountain pen. It’s satisfying to watch the ink dry. Writing with fountain pens lets me sort of live with a line before moving on to the next one. Sometimes I write the same line over and over again. Writing with a fountain pen slows me down, and that’s good for a poem. There’s nothing poetic about a computer, though I do love my MacBook Pro.



My mother and a cousin decide to go to The Seaport Diner,
my father's favorite, for a cup of coffee on New Year's Eve.
Though he's been dead for six years, they take him along.
The black marble box that holds his ashes is placed
in a shopping bag, then on their table next to a window.
On another night the waitress might have asked about the box.
But tonight the diner is crowded, she doesn't notice
that two women asked for three cups of coffee.
There are many ways to suck the marrow out of time's bones.
This is my mother's. No one's seen the inside of the box,
though at times I've thought all of heaven was within.
By refusing to bury it my mother is unwittingly hiding
my father from the devil. At a small table in the center of the box,
my father sits. Ashes piled to his knees, he remembers
flames and fears he's in hell. If he walked forever
he would discover the wall and on the other side of the wall
my mother's hand holding the spoon she stirred coffee with.

(c) 2004, Rick Bursky, The Soup of Something Missing, Bear Star Press

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