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The Poetry Kit Interviews Ted Burford

Tell me abut your background - your beginnings as a poet.

I was born and brought up in Hunslet, a mostly slum district of Leeds in Yorkshire. My bit was six short back-to-back streets surrounded by a railway works, a steel foundry, and a derelict mill with broken, bricked-up windows. This last was ghostly with clogs and shawls. Most houses had no gardens, though several had small sterile rectangles instead.

I thought then that our garden was big. It grew marigolds, dahlias, flowerless irises, Himalayan Balsam, and Japanese knotweed. The knotweed, to my, joy was infested every summer with big brown-haired caterpillars. Unusual insects, presumably lost, would descend on our garden, possibly the only green patch they could clearly discern through the industrial haze of South Leeds.

For me this "island" background links with literature, especially poetry; the increase in intensity as one sets foot on the concentration, takes up the book, the poem. Like walking from the centre of Leeds past grey industry, crossing wastelands; moving towards home; to the place that mattered. The house contents contributed - the books left behind by my grown-up brother - "Lay of the Last Minstrel", "Gulliver's Travels", "Mill on the Floss", inkstained and dusty in whitewashed niches. Sunday School prizes were stacked flat in our little cupboards, "Eric, or Little by Little" "Captain Hatteras at the South Pole". Fragments, distinct from the life around, ready to be dived into.

So we weren't a literary family. My mother read Annie S Swan and similar. My father read "Love on the Dole", "Ragged Trousered Philanthropists"; he was Labour and they spoke to him. He read "Tom Brown's Schooldays" because he had been and maybe at heart still was, a Lad. He read "Mayor of Casterbridge" years later when he was dying of cancer. It was kind of appropriate.

One evening, when I was about ten, I began to write pages and pages of doggerel that rhymed in the easiest possible way at every line. I was driven to pull out one line after another; horses, policemen, burglars, soldiers ........ a kind of delirium. I can't really believe that anything came of this, but you never know. My first "real" poems were a couple written for a love affair when I was twenty-seven. I could find them now but don't want to.

I'd read literature, including poetry, since I was seventeen or so. What got me writing my own poetry was a contemporary poetry class at the City Lit in Holborn when I was thirty-seven. The tutor was Derek Stanford - I'll always be grateful to him. At the end of one evening - it could have been on Frost, Lowell, Hughes, or Plath - he announced that he wanted a poem from everybody next session. I instantly knew that I wanted to write poetry. I had only lacked Permission! So I wrote a poem about the sadness of surplus elephants, and went on to do burning rainforests, heartless colonials in Africa, the surrealism of an Alsatian dog in a Soviet space capsule falling into the Sun. Free verse, always free verse, but always trying to concentrate the language, to make it unusual, rather than casual and demotic. Nowadays, I try to discourage this habit to some extent, to make less of a production out of a poem, to avoid theatricality.

And then I went to poetry workshops usually as a student, but sometimes as tutor, all over London, went on Arvon courses year after year, ran a magazine called Limestone for about eight years with Geoffrey Adkins.

Limestone' reappeared on the internet recently. How has the move changed the way you see the magazine, the way you act as editor?,

I feel much more responsive, more willing to give a poem a chance - partly because I don't get anywhere near as much material as Geoffrey Adkins and I did with our printed Limestone but also because I can quickly decide for a poem and then take it out if I hate it. (Except that I have, possibly rather rashly, said in the editorial that poems will appear for at least a month!).

The magazine can be much less "responsible". There's no London Arts and its grants to worry about. Flexibility and Freedom! Sounds depressingly Thatcherite, but nobody's being screwed. There's not the same hassle about getting details absolutely perfect first go - why, if I misspell an author's name or botch a poem I correct in three minutes. (Not that I make many mistakes). Previously he/she/it had to wait three months for a shamefaced apology while possibly lots of people were misled.

People who haven't run small magazines have no idea how painstaking one has to be. Supervising the progress of the mag through jobbing printers took hours. They would introduce all kinds of changes: paper grades, sizes, fonts, colours, if we didn't look out - not to speak of mislaying camera-ready copy, half-tone negatives, or usually, our instructions.

It seems to me that in the future more and more small magazines will turn to the Internet for publication. I eagerly look forward to this state of affairs! I have just subscribed to a paper mag and got the first issue today. Don't like the poems at all - they all strike me as somewhat spineless. Even, surprisingly, the one by Paul Muldoon. No more names!

To what extent do your "roots" influence your writing?

There's a lot of unfinished business back in Leeds, floating around the cleared streets and the local countryside stripped for coal in the seventies and then covered up; its hills, dales, hedges, fields, trees, streams either missing or altered out of recognition. This removal, theft if you like, has created a lot of nostalgia - my family terminated in various acute illnesses and sudden deaths - and my childhood house contributed because so much of it was leftovers from the past (my poem "The House" goes a bit deeper into this).

My most effective working method? To wait until things coalesce into a sufficient energy (dislike the analogy but the notion of critical mass in uranium comes to mind) and then write it down as a continuous "prose-poem" paragraph. This used to be when I was travelling to work on the Central Line. Nowadays, it's as soon as I get a settled period, in bed perhaps. I've discovered that if I ever sit at my computer or notebook with the intention of writing something from my preoccupations, worries, interests, without this critical massing, the result is always more or less lifeless. Nor can it be given a Frankenstein jolt.

Poetry workshops? I enjoy them and attend two at the moment; one run by Colin Falck in Hampstead and another run by Will Vaughan in Holborn. These are chalky and cheesy. The Hampstead one is slightly drunken and wary, reluctant, afraid it's got things wrong and worried and maybe resentful about this. The Holborn one is also - perhaps rather more - drunken, and is, perhaps, consequently, more relaxed about its findings, more amusing in its comments, more of a repair than assessment workshop. I must find them complementary, I suppose, since I've been going to both for about ten years. I also exchange comments on poems through the Internet, and through letters. None of this interaction changes a poem straightaway, except, - which I suppose justifies all of it - by identifying "first base" flaws, obscurities, misunderstandings I hadn't thought of, and ordinary clumsiness. Sometimes I'll see very quickly that the poem is a failure, is misconceived, or forced, and I then keep it in my Junkpoem directory and view it from time to time in the mistaken hope of a quickening interest - indefinitely!

I know when a poem is finished when it completes its curve - when it's expended its energy and descends and puts me back on terra firma. In other words, as another Poetrykit interviewee says, I just know.

I don't have any kind of audience in mind, except as a large mistiness of people I like, people whose poetry I love, women I could fall in love with. In a completely un-pinpointable way, it's a sort of generalised wooing - aligning myself with those, most of them utterly unknown or maybe non-existent - whose approval I'd like. But that seems much too self-aware, programmatic, and Uriah-Heepish. I don't mean it like that.

I can readily say that I admire Paul Muldoon beyond any other contemporary poets I know. I like plenty of individual poems by other people, say Don Paterson, Simon Armitage, Ian Duhig, C.K. Williams, Fleur Adcock, Ruth Fainlight, Peter Reading (particularly), George Szirtes, and many more. But Paul Muldoon seems to catch, in a graceful, odd, sometimes tenderly amusing way, some facets of that "terrible crystal" of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I can't say why, or how, except that at his best he really does seem to be "inspired" in an extremely enjoyable, non-intimidating way. I mean, who could comfortably empathise with say, Wordsworth, Shelley, Eliot, Auden...... Not accessible in the same sense.

Internet publishing? I think it's turning into an absolutely invaluable way for poets to make direct connections with each other - to discuss poetry, exchange poems, publish their own and each other's poetry, without the delays and discouragements and intermediaries of the commercial or semi-commercial world.

I've just almost finished three poems that came in the way I've described. One about an ammonite, one about the last illness of my father (unfinished business) a poem about a lovelorn, or rather sex-lorn vixen. (she's calling out to the darkness and emptiness). I've just started to rough out a short story - it's about time, it's a year since I wrote one.

© Ted Burford, Ted Slade 1998