Dawlish based poet
Graham Burchell was born in Canterbury and now lives in Dawlish, Devon. He has lived in a host of places in between including Zambia, Saudi Arabia, Tenerife, Mexico, France, Chile and the United States. He has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. His collection 'Vermeer's Corner' was published in the USA by Foothills Publishing in 2008. He frequently gives readings and runs poetry workshops in the West Country and further afield. You can find out more at his website: http://www.gburchell.com.
You can attend Graham's South West Book Launch as part of the Exeter Poetry Festival 2012 in Exeter Central Library on Saturday 6th October at 2pm. Entrance is free.
Literature Works caught up with Graham to talk about his writing process.
Tell us a bit about The Chongololo Club.
Back in 2004/5 when I was trying to write reflectively about my life, about the many places in which I had lived, I was reminded of the story of the child at school in Zambia where I was a teacher, who had never been visited by Santa Claus. A poem came out of this called 'Still Waiting'. I entered it for a poetry competition and won the £1000 first prize. My need to write about my many other experiences in Zambia; about how I responded to that which seemed
so alien to me, was held in abeyance, however, until I started to write poems for the M.A. In Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. I remember I was encouraged to write a poem that had some shock element. My poem 'Chililabombwe' seemed to do the trick. My tutor Tim Liardet, often referred to the last two couplets:
A minibus slammed a hippo at night
on the Chingola road.
Both were dead weight. Both were filleted
and for sale somewhere by dawn.
I began to see a theme emerging for a possible collection. I only lived in Zambia for two years, but thirty years after the event, that short stay offered up fifty four poems. I was fortunate to have all of these poems tossed around, not only by a local editing group, but also by my fellow post-graduates and my university tutors, Tim Liardet and Carrie Etter. Later, after winning a place on the Literature Works free read scheme, the first two thirds of the collection was also helpfully scrutinised by Peter Forbes (former editor of Poetry Review).
How does your poetry happen, how do ideas for your poems come to you?
Like the 'big bang' I usually start from a pinprick of light in the darkness, and from that something surprising often emerges, taking twists and turns that I don't expect. If I am in a particular place, I do have to switch on my poet head, go searching, which really means to tune in my senses to what I see, hear around me with the intention of finding something interesting to write about. I like the idea of being hooked by something small and seemingly insignificant that becomes a motif for more expansive ideas. Sometimes the serendipity of such moments of discovery/awakening is the second best part of writing a poem. The best part is wrestling it to the ground and knocking it into shape. I often refer to a prose poem 'A Snail at Assisi' by the American poet, James Wright as a wonderful example of how I like to start a poem if the opportunity affords. In this prose poem, James Wright begins with an observation of a tiny snail on a wall at the top of a hill above Assisi; a snail that becomes a motif for life's uphill struggle, and a much larger landscape is opened up for us.
When you are working on refining poems into a collection, how do you go about that, and do you have a working routine at that stage?
What I write here are not recommendations, but the tendencies that have largely become the norm for me. I have doubtless picked up a lot of bad habits along the way. I would like to say that I have the first draft of a poem completed before I start to make any changes, but I don't because I rarely complete a first draft in one sitting. American poet Billy Collins can get quite puritanical about this, and he says that once a poem is under way, he won't leave it until that first draft is done; until he knows how it is going to end. I have to leave it. Get up, make a cup of tea, cogitate, and when I come back to it, ten minutes, an hour, a day later, I inevitably start pulling it around, changing a word here, deleting a whole stanza there, before continuing. One thing that seems to be universal among poets, however, is the need to let a poem rest for a time like a fine wine. Coming back to it with fresh eyes and thoughts seems to be more
than beneficial, but absolutely vital. With something like The Chongololo Club where there is a distinct theme running through the collection, I am looking for links so that there is something approaching a seamlessness between one poem and another, but also breathing spaces so that one aspect/trend does not become overloaded. I look for something fresh and new with each turn of the page. It's quite an art in its own right, ordering poems in a collection, and for me it has often resulted in further changes to the poems themselves - sometimes quite distinct changes.
Do you have any ‘top tips’ for poets who are just starting out?
Be persistent. Think of the experience of writing a poem as an opportunity for taking time to observe the world around you more closely. Keep it simple. Look at each word and ask yourself if the poem could survive, would be better without it. Indeed look at whole stanzas, particularly first stanzas. Sometimes they don't really add anything to the thrust of the poem. I reiterate – keep it simple. Don't try to cram too many ideas into one poem. Sometimes
these ideas are the material for an entirely new poem. And I say again, keep it simple. Don't try to puff up a poem with flowery or antiquated poetic language. Don't be clichéd. Look at the verbs you have used. Can they be replaced by more interesting ones? Get your poetry looked over by others and be open to helpful criticism. Take part in poetry workshops. Join local groups such as the Moor Poets.
Do you feel that poetry in the UK is thriving, or do you find it doesn’t have enough coverage?
This is a question that crops up time and time again. How do you interpret thriving? I am totally immersed in the business of poetry, and for me it is thriving. I write. I read. I have an endless amount of material for both. I attend workshops and poetry festivals. I network and have many poet friends across the country and beyond. I understand, however, that I am tosome extent living in a bubble. You can't make people like poetry, this one thin slice of a
school subject that is probably taught rather badly. As a past teacher, I was certainly guilty of that, having not really known what poetry was about back then. Poetry seems to get a fair shout on the radio, but on television it is pretty much side-lined. A series a few years ago featuring close examinations of some British poets and their poetry was very good. It clearly helped to give poetry in this country a bit of a lift. It would be very worthwhile to have other series like this. But, go to a poetry event and expect an average of fifteen attendees. That's what you learn soon after getting involved in the poet's world. Go to a book shop and expect to find just a shelf or three of poetry books in a dark corner. I would like it to be different, but it's what it is. I accept it, sigh and get on with it.
Is there a particular poet whose work has inspired you?
I am very often inspired by the poetry of the poet that I am currently reading. At this point in time I am reading Poet in New York by Federico Garcia Lorca. I love to read his poetry both in English and Spanish, and I am entranced by his use of rich metaphors. In a New York poem entitled, 'Back from a Walk' he writes...
With the limbless tree that cannot sing
and the boy with the white egg face.
With the broken-headed animals
and the ragged water of dry feet.
Early on in my poetry writing I was under the spell of Billy Collins. I am still very influenced by what he has to say about poetry. Other poets who have had and still do have a particular impact on me are Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, W.S. Merwin, Czeslaw Milosz, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and as mentioned above, most significantly, James Wright.