May – June 2013
In early 2012, I conducted an interview for Open Book Toronto with poet Alice Burdick about Holler (Mansfield Press), her third full-length book of poetry. Since then, I have continued to study Burdick’s poetry, focusing on her micro-press publications during the 1990s and the overall trajectory of her poetic practice. As a result, I recently asked Alice to field follow-up questions that would extend, organically, from our earlier conversation but also speak to my particular research interests in her work beyond Holler. Alice graciously agreed, providing the generous and thoughtful answers that follow below.
Alex Porco (AP): You’ve mentioned the practice of notebook writing “to keep track of ideas or things I hear and see.” But the notebook includes “drawings” and “doodles” as well. Your artwork has sometimes been included in your poetry publications: for example, the cover of Voice of Interpreter (Eternal Network, 1991) as well as the collaged author photo of the same collection. Also, the biographical note to a time (Proper Tales, 1995) explains that your paintings appeared in an exhibit titled “The Language Show” in 1994. What is the relationship between the visual arts and your poetic practice?
Alice Burdick (AB): I find that there’s a sort of creeping vine action to the brain (or my brain anyway!) and so ideas and connections can be made concrete in lateral ways. So things coming from my pen might choose to be drawings or notes or, primarily, lines that arrange themselves in that familiar poem-y way. So, practically speaking, I find visual expression in both the writing and the drawing, and go with whatever the impulse may be. I find I can focus better on just getting down to work with the poetry, though— because that’s been most central to me for longest. The drawings and paintings take a back seat when I foreground the poetry—I’m more confident with the words at this point than with the other glyphs. I wouldn’t call myself a visual artist, but it’s an element of my expression. They are part of the same continuum. And even though I don’t really do much in the realm of concrete or visual poetry, I like to think of the fact of the written word and letter as visual markings. When people started to write, to use those symbols, the A the inversion of a steer’s head, we were using our human pleasure and understanding of the visual to pass on information. I mean, I wasn’t there or anything, that’s just a guess. But one of the reasons I find it funny when there’s an absolute insistence on the purity of one poetic form over another— or the oral tradition vs. the written. It’s all pretty old, and fulfills different desires within the same spectrum.
AP: Your mother, the visual artist Mary Paisley, introduced you early on, in an immediate way, to the artworld (including poetry). That’s a unique and compelling circumstance, with pros and cons, I imagine. What was it like to “grow up” in the home of an artist? And, more generally, could you speak to the value of the mother–daughter relationship in terms of having access to a female model for living a life invested in the creative arts?
AB: Yes, she was a primary influence for me in a variety of ways. My father was and is a poet too, and so his writing (the fact of his poetry and translations) is important to me. My mother, with her constant production— her compulsion to create and share art— was an example of a woman thoroughly invested in her art. It was a necessity and a given in our house, where her paintings and batiks and prints covered the walls, shared with shelves and shelves of books of all sorts. She also taught art to children, as an artist in the schools, and also in smaller art schools and through independent classes, and I sat in on many of these classes, and participated. I got to melt beeswax in electric skillets and made batiks on t-shirts and scarves and as wall hangings, and then let the wax harden around my fingers— what a great smell of honey! I painted and did lino cuts and woodcuts and drawings and sculptures, and sometimes modeled for my mom’s classes (and her, at home). I don’t recall her ever having a studio outside of the home, but I may be (and am probably!) wrong— a child’s memory is usually of those shared presences—all the rest is outside young understanding (beyond suspicion or imagination). She took classes at OCAD in the 80s and early 90s before her death, so did a lot of work there. But a lot of work was done at home— in the basement for the batiks and some printmaking— and in whatever space worked best. In the late ‘80s she got a letterpress and placed it in our front room—Paisley Press! These are all practical details.
What this meant to me as a young arty person—would I have been interested in surgery if she was a doctor? Who knows!— was that I got to see, on a daily basis, a woman, my mother, doing what she needed to do. She needed to make art. She was never really recognized by the Toronto art community—her art was perhaps too personal (too female?) for what was fashionable at the time. I know that this bothered her, as it furthered her feeling of isolation, despite her artistic, political, and general community participation. So I also got to see her working hard on things that only occasionally were recognized or embraced by her peers. She worked in a strong diaristic mode, and that made her work very powerful and disturbing. She showed in a travelling exhibition called The Diary Exhibition (through Memorial University)— work from a book she did called The Book of Mary/The Book of John, about her experience as an “unwed mother” in the early 1960s, and the forced adoption of her baby son. She was a real-deal feminist, by which I mean she was heavily and personally involved in activism, which included telling her story. She was not an overly happy person— she had lifelong depression (what used to be called manic depression, now named bipolar disorder)— and would be very angry and sad when she couldn’t work on her art, or totally absorbed in it when she was working. She took care of my brother and me as best she could— but I know she found it hard being a mother, the full-time responsibility of that, and also working on her art. I took care of meals a lot of the time, and cleaning, at a certain age. In the early years, when we had more of a community (literally a commune!) around us, people helped take care of each others’ kids and were able to focus on their work and interests, but later on that wasn’t the case. And then I too, as a teenager, found that difficult, and though I always admired her commitment to her art, and I loved the art itself, we had a pretty tumultuous relationship.
So one thing growing up with an artist taught me (or at least, growing up with Mary Paisley!) was that artists are wonderful and occasionally frightening. Art is very powerful (or can be, hopefully) and it is not totally respected or respectable, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes for a lonely life some times. When you do something others may not understand, or may not like if they do, you’re kinda on your own. But you can always stop that and become as inoffensive as possible!
AP: In November 1994, you published Covered— a poem composed in response to your mother’s unexpected death:
I love who I love, and then each of us dies
and can’t say one more word.
One touch, a voice, no voice.
A sound, a life, no life, a love.
Covered is a remarkable elegy, with expressions of grief and anger that lead, ultimately, to a need to believe in “that great feeling, hope.” What do you recall of the experience of writing Covered? And how do you conceive of the relationship between writing and death?
AB: It was very hard. All I could do was write. Writing was helpful during this time, initially anyway. I took up smoking too. Covered came out almost fully formed on the pages of a sketchbook. I wrote it in the months following Mary’s death, while I was in Toronto living with my brother in the house he shared with her, and dealing with all she left behind, her artwork, books, clothes, everything. Anger was a big part of what I felt, and defensiveness too— of the way her death was received— or rather the manner of her death. Suicide is one of those forms of death that others sometimes describe as cowardly, for some reason. I felt such sadness at her death but I also felt (and still feel) that she had a lifetime of pain (including, after another previous suicide attempt, a damaged sciatic nerve that meant she wasn’t really mobile) and that she sought release almost her whole life. I also recognize now that yes, I did feel abandoned as well, and angry that my brother was left to fend for himself. There were complicated family issues, none of which were cleared up by her death, but most of which were illuminated and unavoidable. I read Covered (if I’m remembering this correctly) at a reading that I did with Colin Smith at Artspace in the month or two after her death. The wondrous Nicky Drumbolis made it into one of his twobitters that November.
In the following years, I mainly wrote without any eye to publishing. I worked on it here and there, but after that initial flurry of writing, it was sporadic. Looking back on that time I see that the mourning continued for several years, even though I didn’t know that was what I was doing. My focus became just living, enjoying the physical world, my lover and friends. After my partner Gary died in 1999, I started to write more again, and found that the spiritual, physical, and intellectual worlds combined in a way they hadn’t quite before. It felt right and necessary to write about it. Lots of those poems came out in Simple Master, which covers a lot of (time) ground. Sometimes I wonder if I write too much about death and decay, but it doesn’t feel gloomy to me, just an essential part of life as an animal on this planet. It can be sad, and yes, it is, but it is also kind of beautiful and great, this cycle.
AP: In our previous conversation, you stated, “Community has its difficulties.” One such difficulty related to the community’s perception of your involvement with poet Victor Coleman:
I got to experience the best and worst aspects of being the younger woman partner to an older, revered writer, though. I sometimes felt like a novelty act— and one writer drunkenly told me that he didn’t believe I wrote my own poetry (but that Victor did). I took that as a compliment and an insult at the same time!
There’s been a lot of talk recently— I am thinking, in particular, of the emergence of CWILA— about gender and representation in the Canadian literary arts. To locate the conversation in the realm of representation is superficial, and it fails to address the social and material ways in which gender, sexuality, and power play out on a daily basis. I think that’s what your quoted comment really gets at, and why it’s important. Obviously, this isn’t a gossip rag so you need not get into any salacious details. That said, I would like it if you could discuss the difficult dynamics of those particular years and, by extension, the gendered coding of “innovation.”
AB: Well, I think CWILA is helping the discussion along, and is meant to allow for a space where all these different aspects of gender get to be considered. I’ve been thinking of norms (not Norms!) for a while, and how, in any community, there’s a structure that establishes itself, even amongst those who consider themselves (ourselves) outliers or outside of the mainstream. Unfortunately that mainstream flows through us, and even if it’s framed as kicking against the pricks, it’s often actually more of the same. So there can be a reinforcement of the same old gender dynamics even within a space where other cultural norms are questioned.
I was 19 when I fell in love and got together with Victor. I’d taken an extra-curricular writing class with him when I was in high school (The Dream Class), and nothing happened there (in case anyone is wondering!). I was just starting out as a writer and I dove into the romance of being with a poet I so admired. I quit university (which I’d barely begun, but was annoyed with immediately) and worked a series of jobs and wrote poetry. Even in the very brief time that I was at university (York), I had a teacher who was a friend of Victor’s and I recall him asking me for specific details about our love life (in front of other students!). I didn’t answer and again felt that mixture of disbelief, annoyance, and humour at the situation.
Over the years I was with Victor, male writers in particular wanted to know all sorts of personal details about our relationship – it was like they all had a crush on him! Who could blame them? However I do think they (the ones who behaved this way) saw me as an insignificant person, outside of the fact that I was the “one who broke his heart.” That is a real quote: “Ah, you’re the one who broke Victor’s heart.”, accompanied by a glare. There was that kind of thing, and then there was the community of women and men who supported small press, and me, and didn’t assume that I was an idiot just because I was young and female.
Looking back, I can see how it might look to someone who had seen older men with younger women— the assumptions that could be made about our relationship. We had a very balanced relationship in many ways, but the differences in our age and relative power became significant.
As to gendered coding, it would be interesting to me to see a survey of small pressers and their responses to this question. There were many women writing and publishing in this scene in the early 90s, but it seemed to me that most of the people who were taken seriously by their male peers were men. Socially, I remember female partners (some of whom also wrote and published) of male writers and publishers being considered just that—partners rather than authentic participants. Like, even in this scene, there’s a basic disbelief that women write and publish interesting stuff.
AP: During the 1990s, you helped coordinate the Small Press Book Fair in Toronto and you made the decision to publish your chapbooks and literary ephemera (sometimes self-made) with micropresses such as Proper Tales, The Eternal Network, and Letter Press. Explain your commitment to this small press ethic and aesthetic. Does it reflect, in part, your desire to protect poetry— or creative practices in general— from what you call “the privilege of hobby”?
AB: I wonder if I might be considered a hobbyist now, since I don’t do much in this realm anymore, in terms of production. I write, and help others with their ideas on occasion, but I haven’t made much stuff lately. I miss that. There’s something deeply satisfying about the fact of a saddle-stitcher, putting words on paper and then making them into something whole. It’s a very important and central thing, this making. And all these micro-presses that honour and advocate for the word— and the words of others— not just one’s own words— mean that imagination flourishes. Small press activity is vital, and necessary, and it is also accessible, but in a way that only those insane enough to engage in this particular world can access. Others will find it of no importance whatsoever, but who gives a fuck?
I’ve been thinking of hobby and its place in my own geographic community. There’s a lot of affection for crafty stuff, the domestic arts if you will. I don’t dislike knitting, sewing, and canning— all of these could be considered survival skills in a certain sort of environment— and I recognize the enjoyment that folks, particularly women, feel doing these things. But at the same time there’s a deep suspicion of artists, the people doing the weird stuff, the stuff that can’t be considered wholesome somehow. This literal privileging of hobby over creative art seems to me a huge throwback, again particularly for women. It’s like, what’s an acceptable outlet for one’s creativity? It better be totally understandable, and familiar as woman’s work. And if the art you’re doing isn’t really cute in any way there’s further isolation in the community. It’s strange when what I’m doing is somehow offensive, just because it’s not trying really hard to be inoffensive and friendly— although I’m pretty used to it by now. I find it troubling though, this tension between the traditional crafts being embraced extant of their longer-term context (some would just call this reclaiming) and the silence that receives new, less traditional, “difficult” work. Like it has to be “useful”— ironic for a hobby.
AP: Our earlier conversation in interview discussed your more recent political poems, i.e., reactions to Stephen Harper. But this commitment to the idea of poetry as activism extends back to the first Gulf War, as you are included in the anthology A Discord of Flags: Canadian Poets Write about the Persian Gulf War (ed. Heighton et al). What do you recall about that particular publication? Have your feelings changed, at all, about the notion of committing your poems to a “cause”?
AB: A poem I’d had in Voice of Interpreter was used in A Discord of Flags, I believe. It was an anthology that was assembled quite swiftly, as I recall. I’ve always believed it important to say something, write something, in response to bad behavior. I competed in a public speaking contest back in Grade 7 where I spoke about my fears about nuclear brinkmanship. It was embarrassing, but I really meant it— and I know others did too. I mean I’ve always been invested in the world and ideas about hope and peace. I’m committed to life, even though it is often ridiculous and greedy people test hope all the time.
When I write, it’s not often with the idea of writing a polemic. When things come up that are political, it’s because that’s part of what I’m thinking about, the spectrum— so it’s an organic part of the sprawl. But I definitely have opinions! I really hate the gloss on bullshit, the language of oppression. I don’t usually enjoy poems that are “this is about this,” alone. Something else has to be going on, or else it’s a bit skillet on the noggin. That’s not to say that a polemical poem can’t work, but there really has to be some art going on to make it more than a point-form précis. Humour helps, anger helps, imagination helps. And all those things are useful as tools for change (beyond a poem here and there).
ALEX PORCO is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He specializes in twentieth-century poetry and poetics. He received his Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.