Professor John Burnside -prize-winning novelist and poet- welcomes me to his office, a room littered with books leaving only space for two seats and a desk, with a cheery hello. Burnside quickly emerges from behind a filing cabinet with a mug, an espresso cup and an outstretched hand. Jovial and energetic, he seems as pleased as me to be there.
Congratulations are in order; this has been an incredible year for an already decorated writer, becoming only the second poet to receive both the Forward and TS Eliot Prizes for the same collection, 2011’s Black Cat Bone. Burnside bats this away as “a nice and genuine surprise”, but says he measures success by his own happiness with the completed work. His most recent might be his best. Once “privileged…to be working mainly outside the ‘British Mainstream’”, I suggest maybe that isn’t so true now, but Burnside believes that his work remains more “at home” in an American context, if one exists. His poetical interests seem hugely influenced by the American continent: “we need one damn good British anthology of American poetry” to awaken British curiosity in this lesser-known field. Is Burnside, who lectures on this area, to be its champion in Britain? “I’d love to do it!”, but frustration with the time and cash consuming creation of an anthology is a clear turn-off, as is the concern of publishers for a market. The wait continues then, but he’s sure “the tide is turning”.
Moving closer to his own work and its environment, I ask for his perceptions of the festival circuit and the state of poetry readership (small) in the UK. At StAnza this year, only around ten tickets were available for his round-table event, selling out in minutes almost entirely to other poets, participants and academics. “I didn’t know about that”, he says with genuine surprise, and he seems a little perplexed that no students or local poetry enthusiasts would be able to attend. “What StAnza brings, for me, is poets from elsewhere that we wouldn’t normally get here”, describing his attempts to bring an unknown Spanish writer (Luis Muñoz) to the festival a few years ago, and emphasising the impressive internationalism of the event, which still encourages wider involvement through open mic nights and free events.
“I’m looking forward to Aye Write!” (Glasgow’s literary festival) at which Burnside will be participating in a panel discussion on Scotland’s future. “I’m not pro or against Independence”, he says, believing rather that the debate is being framed wrongly. “The concern of everybody should be social justice now, not what you call a zone where social justice is what you work for.” Clearly affected by the social campaigns of his youth, the Ecology movement for which he is a stringent advocate, and “the really keen disappointment”of their limited success, he believes there needs to be “a kind of revolution happening in society, which needs to be very carefully managed”. Aspects of this social conscience are to be explored in his next novel. He’ll also represent “the arts person” at the debate- “but I’ve kind of said all I ever want to say about whether or not the arts in Scotland should be funded or how. We should fund it, we should fund it really well. Unless you’re prepared to invest in new writers, you’re not going to get those phenomenons”, he says, referring to JK Rowling who was given a grant by the Scottish Arts Council to help write The Philosopher’s Stone.
Arts funding has been a controversial issue around Burnside of late. The TS Eliot prize was sponsored by the hedge fund investment group Aurum, to compensate for the loss created by government cuts to the Arts Council. This led nominees John Kinsella and Alice Oswald to withdraw from the contest, citing moral, political and artistic unease with Aurum. “The only thing I would say again is that Valerie Eliot (TS Eliot’s widow) gives the money for the prize”, he says wearily, even siphoning cash from West End productions to the poetry industry. Not only has she and her contribution been slighted in the furore, but Burnside indicates his support for outside help: “I think Aurum did a good job by stepping in and giving them money; I want to criticise people who don’t give money to the arts rather than people who do.” He remains unfazed by the controversy, comfortable that the investors’ business does not impinge on his sense of social rectitude.
Turning finally to his latest collection, I want to find out where the dark imagery of Black Cat Bone comes from. Influenced by fairy-tales, often violent and dream-like, there’s something peculiarly Scottish about many of the poems. “Well some of them are, for sure. For the ‘Black Cat Bone’ sequence I drew mostly from the [Mississippi] Delta Blues and the spirit of the Appalachian murder songs, which are often drawn from Scotland and the Border ballads.” His love of the Blues comes through in the discussion – “when you listen to Charley Patton you think ‘that man is a genius’” – and is worked in to the collection through quotation and allusion. The Black Cat Bone itself, a talisman for male sexual, financial and spiritual power, was important to Blues singers like Muddy Waters, but the poet is interested in the transition moment when the bone is taken by a woman, reversing this power, a quasi-feminist take on the myth. “The central theme of the sequence is the power of the male over the woman and her resistance to it. She’s cheating on him, so he has to kill her… I wanted to suggest the violent reaction to male power, and the dynamic of power within those kinds of heterosexual relationships”.
He hopes that these subtle Blues influences will encourage more people to look past the Disney and Hollywood aspect of American culture and explore the history of resistant and political art, poetry and music which exists to this day in the States. Something of a champion of real American culture, this Scottish poet is as enigmatic as his work is challenging; this year, both have been rightly rewarded with critical acclaim and recognition.