As far as I can tell, Rick Bursky has done just about everything. No, really. This is a man who has almost as many scuba dives to his name as he does published poems (that would be 190 scuba dives versus 231 published poems, at last count). In case you’re feeling unaccomplished by comparison, don’t worry—he’s only been a national game show contestant five times, and he’s still only produced a single off-Broadway play.
His fourth book of poetry, I’m No Longer Troubled by the Extravagance (BOA Editions 2015), is pensive, haunting, and just a little bit disturbing. It’s funny just when you think there’s no room left for laughter. It questions the dark recesses of human consciousness, and leaves me with a burning desire to find out more about artichokes, as it appears Bursky would have me believe I’ve been underestimating this particular vegetable all along.
Recently, I reached out to Bursky to request an interview. In a brilliant move, I managed to make a typo in my own email address when providing my contact information. Despite this, he still went out of his way to connect with me through the magic of social media, where he was gracious and did not once call me an imbecile. We chatted through email (triple-checked on my part) about his latest book, the myth of natural talent, the nature of Truth, and the mating habits of vegetables.
It seems like you’ve done everything. You’re a poet, a photographer, a director, a producer, a playwright. Is there one specific genre or medium you’ve always dreamed of working in that you haven’t yet touched?
Years ago, I wrote a play, Prayers for the Invisible Men. It was performed in an off-off-Broadway theater. Once was enough for that. And the truth is, it was a poem that really go out of hand. There was also a time, years back, when I thought of writing a screenplay. Hey, I live in Los Angeles. But I came to my senses. Los Angeles doesn’t need another screenwriter.
I sometimes play with the idea of writing creative nonfiction about poetry. I have a manuscript titled Ironmongery. In that book, I explain everything in the world. For instance, I have a short piece about fog. Most people will tell you fog is a cloud touching the ground. But I tell the truth about fog—it’s unresolved poetic thought. Yeah, I better stick to poetry.
I should mention that I do figure drawing as a hobby. One day, I’m going to ask a model to pose for a poem. I have many other hobbies, though not as creative.
I love this. It’s about time someone told the truth about fog. This explains why it’s often heaviest early in the mornings—all of that unresolved poetic thought leaking out of our dreams all night long, plus the ideas you have in the middle of the night, but you don’t want to turn the light on, so you let them escape instead of writing them down. My primary genre in my M.F.A. program is poetry, but I recently realized that creative nonfiction is probably the next closest thing to poetry. This surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have.
I always thought the term “creative nonfiction” was a strange term. It should just be “nonfiction.” We don’t have “creative fiction” or “creative poetry.” There’s simply nonfiction, and some is more interesting and better written than others.
With all of these different projects, jobs, and types of creative work that you’ve done, do you consider yourself to be a poet, first and foremost? If so, has that always been the case?
I am, first and foremost, a poet. Love to read it. Love to write it. I don’t want to take time away from that; everything else is simply a distraction. Before I became a poet, I was a photographer and thought of myself as a poet who never wrote. Instead of writing poems, I photographed them. When I started writing poetry, I just about stopped taking photos. But I began to think of myself as a photographer too lazy to go out and photograph things, so instead I wrote my photographs as poems.
Your website says you’ve read 876 books. How certain are you on that number?
That number is out of date. It should be larger. I like to read. I just bought another biography of George Custer and I can’t wait to start it. Though I’m really loving Dean Young’s new book right now.
I started tracking every book I read about a year ago, when I (belatedly) discovered there are now websites that make that sort of thing super easy. If you tell me you’ve somehow been tracking this since the first book you read as a child, I will both not entirely believe you, I’d be incredibly envious of you.
No, I didn’t start counting the number of books when I learned to read, though I wish I did. Here’s how I got that number: I read about two book each month when I was in the army, for a total of 96 books. I also had an estimate from college and my M.F.A. program. Then I estimated 20 books a year of general reading, mostly fiction and history; lately, more history. You can guess how old I am. Oh, that number doesn’t include books of poetry, which tend to be about 80 or 90 pages.
You have 98 fountain pens. Is that all at once, or over the course of your lifetime of fountain pen ownership?
I have gotten rid of, lost, and given away fountain pens over the years. I think I have 103 fountain pens right now. They are the instrument of choice when it comes to writing poems. I don’t like to write fast and the fountain pen slows me down. I write everything longhand in a notebook. I later type my poems into the computer. Sometimes I write the same line over and over again and enjoy watching the ink dry. It gives me a chance to think about the line. I currently love stub nibs, but that changes. Sometimes I’m into super-flex. A fountain pen, cigar, and glass of good wine (or bourbon)—now that’s the way to write a poem.
The next best thing to writing with a fountain pen would be to write with a manual typewriter. While I love my Apple, computers have no souls.
You’ve taught writing for years. What has been the hardest thing to teach students about writing, and about being writers?
I’ve taught copywriting for years, both at Art Center College of Design and at USC. The first thing I try to do is dispel the idea of talent. Copywriting, writing, even poetry, is something that is learned. You study it. You read it. You write it. You learn it. I’m not a big believer in talent. I believe in passion and hard work.
I imagine it could get tricky to dispel the idea of talent, particularly where larger egos are concerned. Do you ever have people fight you on that?
Yes, many people believe in talent and want to argue the point. But they are wrong. We all come into the world the same. Obviously, no one is going to teach you how to be a great poet or a great painter, but you could be taught the craft. How passionate you are, how hard you work at it will make the difference. The primary job of a writing teacher is to inspire. Oh, there are some rules to point out, but the job is about inspiration. Students teach themselves. If we’re lucky, we’re along for the ride.
You said that same thing in a video for a series that offers advice on different aspects of writing—poetry is the art of language, and poems don’t need to have a narrative. Along those same lines, your new book is described as “a stage for language to do the unexpected.” But there’s a lot of heavy subject matter in these poems—death, fear, pervasive heartbreak—and lots of brief glimpses of people dealing with these things. Would you say that the language is still the most important part of this particular book, or do the stories of people, like the woman who winds up dating the person she tries to rob at gunpoint (“The Intimacies”), outweigh the art of language as the most important part?
The toughest specific thing about teaching poetry is that poetry is the art of language. Telling a story is the art of fiction. The two are different. If you have stories to tell, you should be writing fiction.
With that said, yes, you can tell stories in poetry. Homer did a pretty good job of that. But the story isn’t the point. Of course, we have to do something with the language in our poems. Words mean something, so a narrative often emerges in a poem.
When Monet started painting haystacks, I suspect it wasn’t out of a newly found love for haystacks. He was using them as a shill for exploring light, weather, atmosphere and perspective—painting. So in my poems, things like love, shoelaces, clouds, etc., are shills for language. I don’t start with a subject. I just start to write. How’s the old cliché go? God gives us the first line and we sweat for the rest.
I guess I write surrealist love poems. But the truth is, I’m an Eastern European Duendest. So I’m obligated to have death and strange stuff in my poems. The poet can’t escape who he or she is; something of us is going to manifest itself in the language. For the sake of conversation, let’s call that narrative. But that’s not the point. I write my poems one line at a time. I write one line, and try to think of something interesting that might follow that line. If I can’t think of anything, I sometimes go to the dictionary and find a word that I haven’t used in a while, or ever, and make that the star of the next line—and the poem gets built, written, step by step, line by line.
It seems like your poems as a whole, not just the new book, tend to be set on a background of death. It’s accurate to say death is one of the big themes in all of your books. I know you have a number of years in the military in your past, but the death in your poems usually seems much more generalized—not something that could be categorized as “war poems.” Do you consider this to be related?
No, my poems are not war poems, or related to my time in the army—though my army years shaped me quite a bit. I really liked being in the army and I’m still great friends with guys I served with. Of course, there are a couple of army poems in the books.
Someone once said there are only two things to write about: love and death—and love is simply the way we negotiate with death. I don’t choose my subject matter; it chooses me. When I try to control my subject matter too much, it turns into something else; what you would call creative nonfiction, or a play. Writing is the journey the poem takes the poet on. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
I never meant for the poems to be related, but there’s no avoiding it. All the poems are related to the poet. Perhaps we could say that people have themes, or people are themes?
You said in a recent interview that you like to make up facts and include them in your poems, and then people often believe them without checking to see if they’re true. Has there ever been a time you decided to leave out one of these “facts” because it was just too unbelievable? Is there even such a thing as too unbelievable?
Nothing is too unbelievable.
People are too caught up with truth. We’re not writing non-fiction, we’re not writing memoirs, or even fiction; we’re writing poetry. It exists in a gray area. I like the fact that people expect poems to be true. It gives poets tremendous power.
But since we’re on the subject, let me say, for the record, that everything in my poems is true. There are two types of truth. The first deals with the facts of a situation, what happened, etc. The second truth is the emotional truth. Why did it happen? What did it feel like? The emotional truth is the more honest truth. There are three sides to every story: what you said happened, what I said happened, and what really happened. Language is honest, even when it lies.
I’m glad we settled the truth issue.
Me, too. What’s the most unbelievable thing you’ve written about that was true as far as the first type of truth is concerned—the “facts of the situation/what really happened” type of truth?
I was attacked by vampire bats while walking through some hills in Italy at night. I fought them off with an M-16—went through an entire magazine in the fight. I came close to becoming the living dead, condemned to walk the earth for eternity. The army and the Italian police didn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation. It was a harrowing experience. It’s the basis for part of the poem, “Death Obscura.”
Also, while walking through the woods in Germany, I was attacked by a rabbit. It leapt at me, bit into my left hand—it was a bloody mess. Had to get stitches. Fortunately, we were able to catch the rabbit. Cut its head off and sent it to a lab to check for rabies, which it didn’t have. It was just mean. I’ve never written about that. One day I will.
Why are artichokes the only vegetable that mates for life (“Rituals”)? I’ve dropped that delightful tidbit into a few random conversations since reading it. Mostly, people give some sort of vague confirmation and then change the subject.
I have no idea why that is. I guess I could look it up. By the way, I was disappointed to learn that strawberries are not in the least bit monogamous. They look so faithful!
Perhaps it has something to do with artichokes having hearts. Are they the only ones with hearts? Regardless, it remains a mystery.
When I read Extravagance, I didn’t get the impression of a unifying setting that runs between poems, and many of the poems feel as if the speaker doesn’t have to be the same person from one to the next. This gives a sense of universality—the speaker could just as easily be my next-door neighbor, my brother, myself. But that makes me wonder how you decided that these particular poems go together in this particular book. What makes them a book in your mind, and not just a bunch of poems?
Your next-door neighbor, your brother and even you are all speakers in the poem. You don’t just read the poem; you experience it and become it. Poems should be universal. Great writing should bring a poem to life, and great language moves a poem into art. Not that I’ve accomplished great anything at this point, but there’s always tomorrow.
I don’t recall how I arrived at the order. I think I ordered them by voice, or something like that. Of course, I had lots of help from the people at BOA, and not just with order; some keen editorial comments as well.
I group the poems in Extravagance in three categories: surrealist love poem (I’m a romantic at heart); short, flat-footed surreal something-or-other; and the semi-journalistic, fact-based prose poem. I think everything in the book falls into one of those camps. If you find a fourth category in the book, please name it and let me know. The next time someone asks, I’ll say I group everything in four categories.
—interview by Allison Paster-Torres