Q&A with Rick Bursky
Written By: Lori Davis
(originally published September 17, 2011)
After reading and falling in love with the poem “The Woman Not Wearing A Hat,” by Rick Bursky in the American Poetry Review (2004), I tracked him down and invited him to read in the poetry series I was hosting at the time. That night after his reading, he wrote down on a cocktail napkin every poetry book I must read immediately—a list that covered both sides of the napkin! Seven years later, he is still a great personal resource, not to mention a generous supporter of poetry and a talented practitioner. His first book, The Soup of Something Missing,was published by Bear Star Press, 2004. His second book, Death Obscurawas recently published by Sarabande Books. His poems have appeared damn near everywhere: including American Poetry Review, Iowa Review, Southern Review, Field, Harvard Review, Prairie Schooner, Black Warrior Review, Shenandoah, andNew Letters. He works in advertising and teaches poetry at UCLA Extension.rickbursky.com
Which literary journals do you subscribe to?
Wow, I read many journals on a regular basis. It’s a great way to discover new poets, at least poets who are new to me. The journals I always subscribe to are Field, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Georgia Review, New Ohio Review. andHotel Amerika. Those are the ones whose subscriptions I would never let expire. Then there are other journals I rotate through. At any given time I subscribe to at least five from this group: Poetry, Conduit, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, Nimrod, Iowa Review, Crazyhorse. Alaska Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Antioch Review, The Pinch, New Orleans Review, Washington Square, Mid-West Quarterly, Mid-America Review, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Verse, TriQuarterly, Bat City Review, Kenyon Review, Paris Review, Faultline, Tampa Review, Laurel Review, New England Review, Poetry Southeast, ACM, Agni and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few.
What online journals are you following and submitting your work to?
There’s so much great poetry online, now. The Pedestal Magazine.com really has some nice stuff. Then there’s Diagram, Agni Online, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review. There are other great ones; I apologize to them for being forgetful.
Your first book was published by Bear Star Press. Your second book, Death Obscura, was recently released by Saraband Books. Now you’ve experienced working with both large and small presses. Pros and cons of each?
Yes, Bear Star Press published my first book, The Soup of Something Missing, and they were just great, they are just great. I once offered to kick in some money for ads and they turned me down. Beth Spencer said, “… it’s our job to sell the book, it’s your job to write the poems.” Whatever Beth and her team lack in resources they more than make up for with a love for poetry and a real desire to get the books out into the world. I had a chapbook published by Hollyridge Press, another small but committed press who was wonderful to work with. And then there’s Sarabande. I can’t tell you how lucky I am to that they published my book. They are everything a writer wants in a publisher and epitomize professionalism and dedication. But I don’t think I answered your question. It is too simple to say bigger is better. To a certain extent, the prestige of a publisher rubs off on you. So prestigious is better. If you’re looking for a publisher the best approach is to find one whose books you admire.
Where, when and how do you think you do your best writing?
I write constantly, so it’s hard to say when or where I write best. I always write in a bound notebook. I can’t write on a computer; I type on a computer. I like to write slowly, one line at a time. Sometimes I write the same line over and over, just watching the ink dry. I enjoy writing, I mean scribbling line after line, it’s fun and interesting. I try to do it as often as possible. I generally start a poem, at least it seems I do, on the weekend. Begin scribbling something in my notebook on Saturday. I rewrite it about four or five times. Late Sunday afternoon, I type it out on the computer and carry that draft around for a week or so, constantly revising it. By the end of the week I’m not afraid to show it to friends, other poets. Often I take my notebook to lunch with me and scribble while I eat. At night I occasionally write at bars, quiet bars, of course. On Saturday and Sunday, I go to Starbucks before heading to the gym. I’ll either read a couple of poems or scribble some lines while I’m there.
How does a poem start for you?
Always with an image, often a surreal or strange image. After the first line it seems I’m just along for the ride. Other times I just have a phrase. For instance, for days I’ve been trying to do something with “the purpose of being dead.” So far it’s a no-go, but one day it’ll be part of a poem.
How do you know when a poem is done?
Writing for me is more about the process rather than the finished product; though it’s inevitable you’ll have finished poems somewhere along the line. I like working through a poem more than I like having the poem finished. Also, I wonder is a poem ever really done? I think if I’m not embarrassed by it after seven or eight revisions it’s probably done. Though recently I’ve gone back and revised some poems I wrote 18 or so years ago.
Have you written in any other genres?
Not really, though I’ve written a play that was performed in an off-Broadway theater a few years back; and one short story. I write advertising for a living, does that count?
Yes, that counts, since you were the copywriter for one of the top rated Super Bowl commercials of all time! Here is a link: “That Killed Him”
Name a couple books you admire at the moment and why.
1) How Like Foreign Objects by Alexis Orgera, is a great book. Her language is alive and constantly changing. Her poems never quite let you get your footing. Just when you think you know what’s coming next she takes you by surprise. The book is filled with unique imagery, no, make that amazing imagery and poignant love poems that make me wish I was a better poet.
2) Space, In Chains by Laura Kasischke, a wonderful book. Her poems are artifacts that belong in the museum of emotions. The poems in this book drag her past, and the world, through a magical filter and they come out the other side. She creates surreal images in what seems to be believable personal narratives. Kasischke’s poems are metaphors for the deeper feelings of our lives. Read one and you’ll believe it’s your life she’s talking about; the beauty and pain are universal.
Some favorite poets?
Always a tough question: Nin Andrews, Charles Simic, David Young, Lola Haskins, Mark Irwin, Jeffrey Skinner, Richard Garcia, Claire Bateman, Kasischke and Orgera, oh, Mark Strand. Merwin, St. John. Darn, I forgot to talk about Jane Hirshfield’s new book, Come Thief, it’s great. David Keplinger, Tony Barnstone, Okay, I’ll go with those as favorites. No, no, let me add one more, Dean Young, you should readFalling Higher.
What? No mention of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos on that list? I know you are beyond obsessed with him. Please explain what draws you to his work.
Ritsos speaks to my soul in a way I can’t describe. On a craft level what I admire in his poetry is the surreal nature of his reality. Some of the poems are surreal by default, only because we don’t have another way to describe. The poems are spoken with such a straight face you have to take them literally. On an emotional level, the poetry is quiet. No fanfare, tricks, etc, but there is emotional power. The Ritsos poems I love best are the poems he builds around little events. These poems remind me that the subject of poetry is poetry. After years of reading and admiring his work I’m obsessed with writing poems in which nothing happens. One day I want to write a poem about a man standing on a street corner and nothing happens. Even though I read his poems through a translator’s voice his sound comes through. With the help of some Greek-speaking relatives I’ve translated a couple of his poems. The exercise gave me added respect for translators.
Five books (any genre) you would rather not live without…
I won’t answer unless you change the question to 116 books I couldn’t live without. Five is a like asking a parent which of your two children you like better. So, do you want the top 173?
How many books do you currently own? What program are you using to organize and catalogue all of them?
I use a program called Readerware to catalogue my books. Unfortunately, Readerware doesn’t work on an iPad, if they don’t fix that soon I’ll switch to another program. I have 2,871 books in the program right now, and about another hundred or so waiting to be entered. I also have an iPad/Kindie with a couple of hundred more. All the books on the iPad are also on my bookshelves.
What has been your rarest book find to date?
That’s a tough question; I really haven’t priced them. I have a rare limited edition Tom Lux book. I’m blanking on the name right now but only 26 were printed one for each letter of the alphabet. I found it in a used bookstore, paid $3 for it. I showed it to Tom who was really surprised. It’s worth much, much more. I just looked on Readerware and I have a Steve Orlen book worth $327. Then there’s the hardback of David St. John’s Hush. Hey, I was with you when I bought it. You found it and were going to buy it but I poked you in the eye with a fountain pen. While you were rolling on the ground screaming in pain I ran to the register and bought the book. It’s worth more than the $75 I paid for it. I hope you’re still not mad about that. By the way, your eye looks great now. I’d love to have an original of Mark Strand’s Sleeping With One Eye Open, but just can’t afford it.
Speaking of fountain pens… I know you are a collector. How many do you own and do you actually write with them?
I have 92 fountain pens, but hope to have 93 in a couple of weeks. I’ve been looking for a Sheaffer PFM IV in green, blue or red for a while now and Fred Krinke at the Fountain Pen Store has a lead on one for me. My favorite, at least right now, is a 1938 oversized Parker Vacumatic with the original stub nib. Do I write with them? Ionly write with fountain pens. By the way, Phil Levine and Jeffrey Skinner also collect them. And I suspect a few other poets do, too.
You are teaching poetry at UCLA Extension. What do you enjoy about teaching and what is your favorite writing exercise? (… just in case I never get to take your class.)
I love teaching this class. I’m always impressed with the level of commitment and talent among the students. I’m sure they inspire me a lot more than I them. And, the exercise: Take a walk around your neighborhood. Find something out of place and write how it might have gotten there. For instance, my poem “The Mandolin,” started after I saw a guitar in a garbage can. I made up a story of how it got there. Yes, then thought it would be more interesting if I made the instrument less common.
What originally compelled you to get your MFA in poetry? Where did you go? What do you think you got out of the program?
I got to a point where I had taken all the poetry workshops around town worth taking. I was sort of happy with what I was writing, but only sort of. I hate this phrase, but, I wanted to take it to the next level so I figured an MFA would be a good experience. And I was wrong, it was a great experience. I choose Warren Wilson because I had heard so many writers that I respected say that it was the best low residency program out there. I believe it took ten years off the learning curve for me. One of the wonderful things the program did was teach me how to be a better reader. My supervisors were Ellen Byant Voit, Dean Young, Matthea Harvey and Roger Fanning. Learned tons from each of them. I have no idea how I managed to get through the program. It was a lot of work and my regular job is pretty demanding. My thesis won a book publishing contest a few months after graduating. Another great thing about the program are the other students. I made many great writer friends who continue to support and inspire me to this day. I’m thinking of going back for a second MFA. I plan to apply under another name. Some of the faculty will say you look like a student we had years ago. I’ll say “Oh, Rick Bursky, I get that a lot though I’ve never met him.”
You are a regular at AWP. Do you think beginning writers should attend? What do you get out of going to the conference every year?
I love going to AWP. I feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store once I get into the book fair. And there’s a lot to be said for being in a room with thousands of other people who share the same passion for good writing. There are always inspiring panels. I wish they would consult me before making the final schedule so the three I really want to go to are not at the exact same time. Of course, AWP is great for seeing friends who I seldom get to see. Can’t wait for the next one. Am I beginning to sound like a nerd?
Does poetry matter?
I am trying hard to come up with a funny response, but can’t or I guess, won’t. It’s too easy to say that poetry doesn’t matter, and even easier to say that it does. Yeah, poetry seems to be marginalized, but that doesn’t diminish its importance. In times of need people often turn to poetry for inspiration. After 9/11 there was a television show as a tribute or remembrance. Lots of musicians and whatnot. But there were also actors who spoke for a minute or so. I recognized some of what was said as lines from poems. Poetry has a mythical place in our society, think of the expression “poetry in motion.” Did you ever hear anyone say “prose in motion”? Poetry is where language becomes art. Anyone who expresses themselves powerfully and beautifully is dallying with poetry. I wish more people would read poetry, and there’s that complaint that the only people who read poetry are people who write it, which I believe is neither fair nor true. Go to a major league baseball game and poll the audience, ask everyone there if they have ever played a game or two of baseball. I bet almost 90% would say they have. But you never hear anyone complain that the only people who watch baseball are people who have played it.