Derick Burleson teaches English at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and creative writing in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. He completed his PhD at the University of Houston and holds an MFA from the University
of Montana-Missoula as well as an MA from Kansas State University. His second book Never Night is available from Marick Press (2008).
Jessie Carty: Derick, can you tell us a little bit about Never Night.
Derick Burleson: I think of Never Night as a voyage from childhood back to childhood, from a home in the South to one in the North. The book begins with poems out of first memories and ends in a child's first attempts at language. Elizabeth Bishop is one of the books tutelary spirits. Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?" a traveler writes in a notebook at the end of Elizabeth Bishop's "Questions of Travel." The poems in Never Night ask the same question as they travel textual geographies from wheat farm to boreal forest, from a cave become fallout shelter to a spy satellite's view of a wrecked oil tanker, from a gold mine's tailings to a child burying a dead guinea pig. Whether investigating a derailed train, a two-headed moose fetus or a melting glacier, these poems reveal wounded earth giving birth to shimmering form, death held at bay without artifice in the meditations of a child's new words.
from title poem Never Night
You’d like it here where
it’s never night, where the sun
circles, rather, until it ends
up where it started from,
east or west, rises, sinks
but doesn’t ever set […]
Never Night explores language and the development of language. What do you remember of your own development as a reader?
I remember learning to read in first grade very clearly. The book was Fun with Dick and Jane. That wasn't the astounding part. What amazed me was that suddenly those symbols everybody had been talking about all this time went together and made sense. Told a story! I was immediately hooked on reading, and haven't stopped since. My daughter's first word was "book." She's grown up surrounded by them. And seeing her make the connection between the thing and the sound, and take tremendous joy in this discovery, was just as powerful. Learning to speak and read are two of the most powerful things we can do as humans, and I wanted to play with that in poetry.
Do you recall when you first started writing poetry?
I remember when I first started reading poetry. I was a sophomore in High School and the homework assignment was to read John Keats "Ode on a Grecian Urn." I didn't realize anything had happened until the teacher asked the next day what did we think of Keats' poem. Then I had an out-of-body experience during which I babbled about the power and beauty of the ode. When I came back to myself the teacher and all the kids I'd gone to kindergarten with and would graduate with in our small Oklahoma town were staring at me open-mouthed. Some power had touched me, and me alone, in a room full of people. I didn’t know how or why, but I knew then that someday I wanted to try to make something as powerful as Keats’ poem. I had discovered how poetry changes lives. And it was a secret only I understood. I began trying to write poetry after that, and haven't stopped since.
Glad you survived that episode! As you began to write more poetry, what poets and/or writers inspired you to work on your craft?
In Never Night, I especially had Elizabeth Bishop in mind. She's an important poet for me: her unique way of seeing the world, the care she took over many drafts to sound perfectly off-handed. There are too many important poets for me to mention here including, for example, Shakespeare, but I definitely try to be in conversation with dead poets and the tradition of poetry in my own poems.
I notice you don’t just speak to the tradition of poetry but you also look to pop culture and other modern references in your work. Do you think that helps you relate to a wider audience?
I think one of the things poetry does is to provide a time capsule of the moment the poet was alive. We can learn a lot about Milton's world and time as he experienced it by reading Milton. Since Star Trek and other cultural phenomenon are part of my world, I think they should find their ways into my poems. People are surprised when they encounter "Enterprise" in Never Night, a sonnet about Star Trek. But they're even more surprised when they learn I've stolen the first line of that sonnet from Shakespeare, and the last from Milton.
Did you always think you would work in academics?
No. I had no idea, at least not in the beginning. I grew up in a farming family in a small town, and while I knew that I liked writing, I wasn't at all sure what to do about that. My first degree was in journalism, and while I'd always written poetry, I was planning a career in newspaper reporting. The opportunity came up to go for graduate work in creative writing and literature came as a surprise, but once I had a taste of being in academics, I quickly discovered I loved it, and was lucky enough to be able to continue.
Outside of teaching and your own writing (as if that isn’t enough!), how else are you involved in the larger poetry community?
I've worked as a preliminary judge for the Tufts Prizes in Poetry for the last six years and have had the chance to read many of the poetry collections published during that time, and that's been an amazing opportunity for me to keep up with what's been happening in American poetry. Closer to home, our writing community in Alaska in both close-knit and far flung. Alaska is a big state. The universities and conferences bring wonderful visiting writers to the state, and we delight in talking about writing while sharing the place we live and write with others.
What advice would you give to other poets?
Read as much poetry as you can, old and new, from all over the world. Then reflect on your world and time and life and write. Repeat until dead.
That is great advice and phrased very well. I might just have to borrow it! Is there anything else you would like to add? Perhaps a favorite quote?
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching will be naught.
- WB Yeats
Interview by Jessie Carty.
Poets’ Quarterly | October 2009.