James Clarke Burbank | Interview

Kenneth P. Gurney. Tells us how you started in poetry? What age?

James Clarke Burbank. At the age of fifteen in the early sixties, I started hanging with poets, renegades, artists, and misfits. We beatniks had a garage clubhouse. The roof leaked, but there was a potbellied stove that didn’t work and that was filled with Ballantine Ale purchased by the brother of the kid whose banker father owned the garage. We read translations of the Chinese poet Han Shan, and we wrote his poems on the garage wall. I remember one of them:”A man’s life is/ but a few years,/ yet he is saddled/with a thousand/year’s woe.” That was the kind of soulful, adolescent, gendered stuff we liked back then as we swilled our ilicit suds, growling and shuffling around trying to look disposessed. In those days, I would constantly go to Boulder  from boring and stifling Denver where I was forced to live with my ignorant and terrible family. I habitually climbed up to the ridges near Mt. Sanitas. I sat up there, wrote my own poems, and put them under rocks along the ridge tops. I’m sure if you looked up there today, you might find some of those old poems as well as the remnants of my teenage angst.

KPG. What is your favorite breakfast?

JCB. Haggis.

KPG. How much influence does your university degree(s) has on your writing of poetry and how?

JCB. I was once in the class of a quite famous Irish Lit scholar who had actually known Yeats. I asked this illustrious Professor to read some of my poetry and to give me his critical appraisal.

“Well, what do you think?” I asked after he raised his eyes from the manuscript.

“You’ll never be a poet,” he pronounced.

KPG. Is there any endeavor that you are passionate about outside of poetry? How does it enrich you?

JCB. Photography, the blend of photography and poetry and other kinds of writing that possesses me. Any art that you practice must possess you otherwise you should just go off and make money selling dogfood and various kinds of insurance to strangers.

KPG. Tell us about one of your favorite poetry experiences.

JCB. It was a party in George and Susan Quasha’s Boulder apartment in the summer of 1974 with Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Diane Di Prima, a very drunk Gregory Corso and a group of Japanese monks who looked in their black robes for all the world like bats and who laughed at me because I tried to crawl into a silverwear drawer. I kept making the mistake of attempting to lead with my feet instead of my head.

KPG. Do you have a connection to the American Civil War? Relative who served? Visited a battlefield and have a story?

JCB. The photography of Matthew Brady. My elementary school had a thick book full of Brady photographs, these haunting images I can never forget. It’s one of the things that drew me to photography.

KPG. If you could wave a magic wand and place a poetry book into every high school english classroom as required reading, which one would it be and why?

JCB. I would more go for just waving the magic wand whether it had any effect or not. I don’t think there is one such book for me, and if there were, I wouldn’t want to make all the kids read it. Not every kid will read or like poetry, or dithyrambs, or yelling at the moon. For those who do, it may be more slam-oriented than what moved me to dig poetry in the sixties. For me poetry is a practice, a way of approaching things that makes life keener, more deep, a mode of thinking in and about the issue of being human, breathing, living, dying. It’s the song of that.

KPG. Where was your last selfie taken?  With anyone?

JCB. I don’t really do selfies for some reason unless I am in Truth or Consequences.

KPG. Recommend a poetry (or literary) website that you frequent.

JCB. Big Bridge

KPG. What is your favorite National Park? Why?

JCB. Rocky Mountain—I have a few first ascents on Long’s Peak and other nearby peaks and spires done back in the early days of rock climbing. I learned to watch marmots in RMNP and to walk across vast boulder fields and to follow the clouds and to avoid lightning.

KPG. Do you have a dream that you work toward achieving at this time? If so, please tell us about it.

JCB. The dream is now and it is achieving all the time. The doing. The being. The making.

KPG. If there is a little known poet you think everyone should read, who is that poet and which book of theirs should we seek?

JCB. George Oppen, The Materials.

KPG. If you could be present at any moment in history as a safe observer or unsafe participant, what event would you visit and why?

JCB. All times are potential in any one moment. We place limitors, governors  on our perception, so we see time as linear, but all times happen at once. The experience of all time in a single moment might well fry the nervous system, so it’s better just to see cause and effect as a continuum instead of a revealed moment. The real challenge: how do you tell when this moment begins and then how to tell when this moment ends. And what about sidereal universes? If you buy me breakfast at the Frontier Restaurant, I will pretend to know all about the endless tape loop that is just a big damn bother.

KPG. What reoccurring themes have you noticed in your poetry over the years?  Is there a point of personal experience you revisit often?

JBC. Place, where you are, where you stand, that’s the center. You can make a song from there. You can sing like an owl or a coyote or a curve bill thrasher. If you discover your human voice, look out.

KPG. Green, Red or Christmas when you order Huevos Rancheros?

JCB. Both, of course:

the sharp bite of the green that says to your tongue, “This is desert, amigo.”

the red gravy richness of the red that rounds out the eggs and cheese, the beans steaming over there on the side and the comforting papas, a cup of strong coffee, ohhhhhh why choose red or green when they both drive one mad.

2 thoughts on “James Clarke Burbank | Interview

  1. Hi Jim. I miss you, man, but this interview brought back some memories (red and green). I never tried (really hard) to stick my head in a drawer, but once did the baseboard and bathroom tour of a wine merchant’s home.


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