Dr. Christopher Bursk has influenced and inspired poets for more than 45 years as a professor, mentor, and fellow poet traveler. Author of 14 books of poetry, his boundless energy and love for the genre astounds his grateful following. He generously agreed to answer a few questions.
RHR: Whose ghost hovers in the background when you write?
CB: Pamela Perkins-Frederick hovers near me as I write. For over four decades I met with her once a week; she was the only one to whom I dared show my poetry. Her spirit is with me still, even as I grieve her passing. However, the other ghosts that haunt my poetry are my parents --and my brother Timothy -- though Timothy is a fictional creation of my mind. And the ghosts of the man who smelled of forest fires on the Boston city bus and the football coach who taught us Sex Ed and the cops that put handcuffs on me and the girls who voted me best girl in fifth grade.
RHR: Tell us about your writing process.
CB: I do not wait for inspiration. I turn to the page the way I turned to my toy soldiers. I'd wait for the Arabs and Grenadiers, the outlaws and pirates to decide what we'd play today. The only rule was that the game had to be different from the game the day before. Some days I watch the page until a few words come -- and then I find myself inside the world they invite me into. Some days I come to the page with something pressing on my mind -- a longing, a grief, a puzzlement, and then get a line or two. Then I repeat the lines I have until I have the next few lines and that process continues. Then I type the poem up and wait for days to revisit it.
RHR: What rituals do you repeat prior to or during writing?
CB: I have no rituals --except if I am home and anyone else is in the house I put on Pachelbel and keep playing him over and over -- the same c.d. over and over until I am done.
RHR: Notebook or paper or computer? Pen or pencil?
CB: I write with precisely sharpened 6 or 7 #2 Ticonderoga pencils right next to me -- though once I get started I tend to stick with the same pencil and keep sharpening over and over. It's got have a fine point. The words want that and so I oblige them.
RHR: If you could bequeath a skill or attitude to your students, what would it be?
CB: I write because I can not write; I wish I could live without the need to write. I do not wish that on anyone. I do not consider anyone in the Spring poetry workshop my students; they are the generous companions who have agreed to go on a journey with me. As a kid I played alone most of the time. It's nice to have someone now -- in my advanced years -- to play with. I think the gift I have to offer is my faith in the journey -- in poetry itself, the risky play to which it invites us.
RHR: How do you know when a poem reaches its end?
CB: Ah, the poem tells you when it's done. And if it doesn't on the first draft, it does on the second or maybe the seventh.
RHR: Whose name do you invoke at your shrine to poetry?
CB: It's Pamela whose name I invoke -- and Beverly Foss Stoughton and Doug Hughes and Bob Fraser and Gloria DelVecchio and my beloved David Kime and my beloved Herb Perkins-Frederick. Much of my poetry is written out of the grief. The rest is written out of longing.