WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You say in one interview: “Poetry ended up saving my life.” That’s a pretty striking statement. How do you mean it? And what was your life like that it needed saving — before the lighthouse of a career and a passion for poetry showed up on the horizon line?
JOHN BURROUGHS: I feel that poetry has saved me several times in several ways. But I suppose the first time is the most important, a gift that continues to give. Beginning in elementary school I was bullied mercilessly. It got worse as I got older. By 10th grade, I was failing several subjects including English, in large part because I hated going to school. I had endless belly aches, was always looking for an excuse to get out of class or (if I could get away with it) not go at all because I was miserable. When I did attend, I didn’t pay attention or do homework. I was at a high risk of not graduating.
But late that year our English teacher was replaced by someone new, Mrs. Donnelly, who was young and vibrant and tried to get me involved. She coaxed me into finally completing an assignment, a descriptive essay, and she gave me an ‘A’ on it, exclaiming, “This is poetry! Do you have any other poems?” Because I was so hungry for approval and wanted to impress her, I said, “I have lots of them,” even though I didn’t. So, then I had to start writing. I ended up with an ‘A’ for the final grading period and thus avoided having to repeat the year. And now I had something to like school for. By 11th and 12th grades I was an honor roll student, features editor for our school newspaper and served as an editor for our literary journal.
Eventually, that led me to college, which opened my mind, broke down walls of indoctrination and changed my life. I evolved from being a Reagan voter at 18, to the much saner leftie you see today. If not for that ‘Road to Damascus’ moment involving poetry and a nurturing teacher in 10th grade, who knows where I’d be? Probably a drop-out, a right-winger. Or maybe I would’ve ended my life because there had seemed to be so little light in it. Poetry was a beacon. It gave me a reason to exist, showed me I could be part of something and contribute to the world. It still does.
WVVILLE: You’re a former Ohio Beat Poet Laureate (2019-2021) and were recently given the status of National Beat Poet Laureate, awarded by the National Beat Poetry Foundation. What do you you find in the Beat poets and writers that influenced your own writing career in such a significant fashion — and who, specifically, among the Beats do you consider icons and direct influences?
JOHN BURROUGHS: The first Beats I really latched onto were Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Even after decades, the latter’s “Populist Manifesto #1” remains one of the poems that inspires me most: “Poets, come out of your closets!” Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” too. Though I’m not sure he would consider himself Beat (he was associated), discovering the late Cleveland legend d.a. levy’s work was also very important to my development, both as a poet and as a small press publisher. Later, I discovered the Beat poets I now probably most admire: Bob Kaufman, Gary Snyder, Diane Di Prima, Amiri Baraka, and Anne Waldman. Shout out to Hettie Jones, D.R. Wagner, Kent Taylor, Al Winans, Steven B. Smith, and Alex Gildzen, as well. For me “Beat poetry,” to paraphrase Whitman, is large and contains multitudes.
WVVILLE: Allen Ginsberg once said of poetic intuition: “First thought, best thought.” I think he was referring to not despoiling your initial inspiration with too much second-guessing. What, then, is your own poetic process and how much rewriting do you do? You once said: “I tune out the inner critic — the voice that corrects and edits, and I get into the flow of thoughts and words.” And that you have learned to “go back, re-approach it, craft it” — but that the process begins with the rhythm and flow of language. Can you elaborate?
JOHN BURROUGHS: I think I took that “First Thought, Best Thought” business way too far when I was young. I was prolific, but did very little revising or editing. I had a mystical idea of poetry as something that spoke through me and thought the best I could do was get myself out of its way. Now, I look through my boxes of early writings and cringe. I had a lot to learn, a lot of evolving to do. I probably still do. But now I can see my works’ weaknesses in a way that younger me couldn’t. Thank goodness, I believed my writing was good back then, or I might not have stuck with it and gotten better.
Then for a while I was more into what I’d heard was Hemingway’s advice: “Write drunk, edit sober.” Turns out he didn’t really say that. But in the past couple of years I’ve moved on, preferring to both write and edit sober, though I still try to turn off my inner editor when I’m writing my first draft and just let the words flow, often not knowing where they’re going until they get there. Then I sleep on what I’ve written and return later to pare away the dross and craft the piece into something I can stand behind and share publicly. It took a while, but I think I’m finally beginning to find a decent balance between inspiration and work. I believe most successful poems require both.
John Burroughs reads “Alarm Blocks”
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WVVILLE: You were born in Richwood, WV, and have family in the state currently. One interview described you as an “urban Appalachian” and that you “learned to be somewhat ashamed of my Appalachian background — getting teased and bullied for my accent.” Can you talk about this conflicted relationship with your West Virginia/Appalachian roots. And, as you note in that interview: “I have returned to appreciating where I am from.”
JOHN BURROUGHS: As I mentioned earlier, I was bullied terribly for much of my childhood. There were a lot of reasons for that. I was a year younger than everyone in my class and the shortest boy (until a growth spurt around 11th grade). I was sickly and unathletic. But a big part of it was that I had a pronounced speech impediment combined with a strong West Virginia accent. The other children were relentless in their picking on and even often physically assaulting me. I thought if I could just sound like everyone else, then I wouldn’t stick out like a wart and people might like me. By 11th grade, I had lost my accent and speech impediment, and classmates seemed to start liking me, which only reinforced my feeling that I needed to hide my roots. Today, I’m ashamed that I felt that way. Every year, I grow more and more proud of and connected to my Appalachian background. I just wish I would’ve been able to appreciate it more as a youngster.
In an America drunk on superficial social media memes and CGI-overwhelmed, billion-dollar superhero franchises, the thought of a West Virginia native staying busy — and making a living? — as a national touring poet in the year 2022 is quite … well, remarkable. Describe your life these days. You travel and perform poetry a lot, while you are also the founding editor of Crisis Chronicles Press while based in Cleveland. So, poetry is your 24/7 ride? There can’t be too many poets who can say that these days …
JOHN BURROUGHS: Well, it’s not always easy. For years, I did assorted odd jobs like bartending, landscaping, and mold remediation to help pay the bills and support my poetry habit. Now, I’m pretty much doing poetry and publishing full time, though I also sell used books (that I’ve bought cheap elsewhere) online. And apart from my press, I have people hire me to help them self-publish their books. I live modestly for the most part and am fortunate that my house is paid off, so I don’t have rent. Also, last year my partner and I moved in together, which cut most of my bills in half (you know what they say about “a burden shared”). So, a combination of factors make it possible for me to do what I do.
WVVILLE: Ask yourself a question you wish someone would ask you or concerning something you’d like to say. And answer it …..
JOHN BURROUGHS: When’s your next poetry event in West Virginia? ANSWER: I thought you’d never ask! Well, I have nothing scheduled at the moment besides visiting family, though I’ll be nearby in Frostburg, MD, on Sept. 30-31, and in Cincinnati on October 4. For a while I was resisting scheduling too far in advance due to uncertainty about the pandemic. But now that I’m hitting the road again I would love to schedule more readings in my home state in the coming year. There are so many great West Virginia poets and I’d love to do a statewide tour and team up with some of them. If you or your readers know of anyone who might be interested in hosting me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Poetry Sampler from John Burroughs: September 1, 2022: “John Cage Engaged and Uncaged,” “Redux Isn’t Pronounced Ray Do, But That Hasn’t Stopped Me,” and “Dog Day” by John Burroughs
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