Editor Kevin Craft interviews the prolific poet and visual artist from the far northwest.
Derick Burleson is the recipient of the 2010 Richard Hugo Prize for poems published in the Fall & Winter 2010-2011 issue (v5.n2) of Poetry Northwest. The Hugo Prize is awarded to recognize the best work published in Poetry Northwest each year. There is no application process; only poems published in the magazine are eligible for consideration. To read the work of last year’s recipient, visit here. For a list of past winners, visit here. Read “Certain Frequencies,” one of the winning poems, following the interview.
KC: How long have you lived in Alaska? How’s the writing life, far north style? In other words, in what ways does Alaska get into your poems?
DB: I’m just finishing my 10th winter in and around Fairbanks, Alaska, and I’m eager for spring to make its way north. Right now, though, I’m in Nome, teaching a weekend writing course at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest branch campus, sitting with nine other writers as we all work on projects, writing from our life experiences. The course is titled Writing Ourselves, and we’re a diverse group, in terms of age and in cultural background and the stories we’ve heard and shared this weekend range from going down to the swimming hole in the deep South, to how grandma used to prepare minced polar bear and serve it with walrus flipper. As we write, we can look out the window at the still-frozen Norton Sound and gaze into the distance where sky meets sea ice. All this to say that during the past decade Alaska has become a part of me molecule by molecule, literally, with every Copper River red salmon and moose roast and wild blueberry I’ve eaten. On the dinner menu tonight, musk ox steak and king crab. My third book, Melt, forthcoming this fall from Marick Press, is a book-length poem, a meditation on global warming. Things are changing fast here in the far North, and I’ve seen the dramatic effects of climate change in just the decade I’ve lived here. The book is part ode to the incredible beauty of this place, and part elegy for what is currently being transformed. I can’t imagine myself ever living anywhere else, and the poems I’m currently working on reflect the power of that feeling.
KC: You are also a visual artist. Which came first–poetry or visual art? In what ways do these parallel pursuits play off each other in your work as an artist?
DB: I began painting and writing poetry in my sophomore year of high school, and pursued each with equal passion. When I got to the university, I began to take drawing courses. My first semester was wonderful, but in the second, I ran into a teacher who convinced me that I had zero talent and should give it up. And I did, to my long-term regret, and focused my energies on the poetry. But three years back, when my now eight-year-old daughter and I were spending hours and hours with crayons and magic markers, I decided to get us some paints and canvases for a more permanent medium, and we’ve both been going great guns ever since, to my eternal delight. In the same way that I can lose myself during an intense writing session, the process of painting turns time to no time for me and hours can pass while I’m at the easel without my noticing. Now I go back and forth between poem and paint, and both continue to produce delightful sleepless nights since I’m a nocturnal beast. I’m glad I came back to painting after too many years of not, and I think it’s driving my poetry into places it hasn’t visited before.
KC: Who are you reading now? Who do you return to, dependably, for sustenance, inspiration, and pleasure?
DB: In my backpack right now are Sky Burial by Dana Levin, Lighthead by Terrance Hayes, Archicembalo by G.C. Waldrep, and The Burning House, a new novel by Paul Lisiciky, so these are the books I’m reading, and rereading now. But in the packet for the class I’m teaching are some writers I return to over and over for my own work and pleasure, and for sharing with my students: Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Levine, Richard Hugo, Sylvia Plath, Czeslaw Milosz, Ruth Stone, Mark Doty and Frank O’Hara. I also have sections of books by Ernestine Hayes, a Native Alaskan memoirist, Harriet Jacobs, Malcom X, and an essay by E.B. White. That’s just a partial list of the work of my elders that keeps me alive as a writer. I came to poetry when I read John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in my sophomore year in high school, and reading constantly is how I’ve kept writing poems ever since. I don’t imagine that process will stop any time in the near future.
My hands reached out and plucked
the blueberries from their tiny bushes
on the tundra we were on the tundra
picking blueberries my daughter and
me we picked and we picked while
the sun cut a sharper angle across south
now it was August. My hands reached
out my fingers twirled each blueberry
from its stem my hands filled and emptied
into my bucket and so did hers child
filling her own bucket now. The sun
broke through scattered shower raindrops
sliver and slow against storm cloud sun
shower and the tundra pulled me in
pulled me closer now beyond the berries
beaming now in shortwave frequencies
violet indigo cerulean azure the cloud
the whole tundra beamed back and pulled
me into it moss and lichen miniature
alder willow birch beaming back fall
in every frequency my eyes could see
and some they couldn’t crimson arterial
cream chameleon chartreuse sunshower
blueberries filling our hands our buckets
our tongues our mouths pulled me into
tundra smaller and smaller. I stood up to see
and the horizon whirled until the mountain
fixed it the glacier fixed it and I knew which
direction was which. My hands reached out
and lifted my daughter across the swampy
crossing lifted her across onto the tundra
our hands reached out our fingers we filled
our buckets we knelt on the tundra our hands
reached out filling and slept there that night
the wind blew the moon rose we slept full
and when she woke she told me she dreamed
of her mare there on the tundra with her.
Derick Burleson’s latest book of poems, Melt, is forthcoming from Marick Press this fall. His first two collections of poems: are Never Night (Marick Press, 2007), and Ejo: Poems, Rwanda 1991-94 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000). His poems have appeared in The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, The Southern Review and Poetry, among other journals. He directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and lives in Two Rivers.