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Poetic Prose

A poet for all seasons - and reasons


Acclaimed Scottish poet John Burnside, who is participating in the Jaipur Literature Festival, talks about wind turbines, sonnets, Chuck Jones and the politics of language

Wind turbines keep creeping into conversations with Scottish writer John Burnside, whether he's doing a workshop with aspiring poets at The British Council in Chennai, talking to students at Women's Christian College, or doing press interviews.

"I'm upset about wind turbines at the moment because they're killing a lot of birds in Fife where I live, so they're at the top of my head, " says Burnside who has published 14 collections of poetry and 10 works of fiction since he started writing in the mid-1990 s. "If someone asks me to write a poem on water or love, there'll probably be a wind turbine in it, " he says, chuckling.

Immersion seems to be Burnside's way of working. Just as wind turbines occupy his thoughts now, sonnets have absorbed him since he was around 15. Most of his simple, layered poems that stay with you long after you've read them tend towards the 14-line poetry form that usually contains two different ideas. "I've been reading sonnets since I was 14 or 15 so they're ingrained in me. You become spontaneous in a form if it becomes a part of you. But you should play with it, so that you don't kill the idea by being tied to the rules, " he says.

Burnside won the Whitbread Prize for Poetry in 2007, and last year, he scooped up three prizes for his latest poetry collection Black Cat Bone - the T S Eliot Prize for Poetry, the Forward Prize and the Petrarca-Preis. "Not many people know that last one but it's very big in Germany, " says the 57-year-old, who was on his way to the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Burnside writes novels, short stories, memoirs, regular columns, TV series, and even campaign slogans. "I'm deeply involved in environmental campaigns, " he says. He also teaches Creative Writing and Literature and Ecology at St Andrews University in Fife. "It's hard to switch between teaching and writing. I can easily switch from prose to poetry to articles in a day, but teaching is different. I love the dialogue with students, but the administration tasks are killing, " he says.

Before he settled into the life of a university don in 1999, Burnside, was a factory worker, a gardener and a computer systems engineer. "I studied literature and philosophy in college but drifted around doing odd jobs because I didn't want to be part of the system. I've always been quite politicised, " says Burnside. After 10 years of the 70s drugs-andalcohol lifestyle, he "got tired and wanted to be normal" and got a job in a computing firm. "Computing was fun back then. You could pretend to wave a magic wand and make things happen, and everyone made money. Then they introduced project managers who looked over your shoulder and expected you to log everything, " he says. He quit in 1995 to write a novel that had been "building up in his head".

Burnside draws inspiration from his many lives for his novels and short stories, while his poetry is a response to what is happening around him. His novels reflect his politics and ideas but he says poetry can be as political. "Every precise use of language is political. As long as poets and songwriters use language to talk about real love and friendship or praise and celebrate the species of a place, they are making a statement, " he says. For instance, a corporate may describe a lake as a natural resource to be exploited, but poetry reminds us that lakes are more than items on a spreadsheet. "When a dictatorship tortures its citizens, people write poems because the rhythms and the way they use language to celebrate, rather than abuse, is akin to the rhythms of justice, " he says.

Burnside is a rather relaxed writer, composing poetry in his head and "on the lips" and then writing it down. He's more organised with prose but can write anywhere, even while waiting in an airport or on the road. "I can't stand noise, so if someone starts coughing next to me, I feel trapped, " he says.

He makes no distinction between his different forms of writing. "Prose is as important to me as poetry, but when you win awards in one form, people start associating you with that. I find the balance in my writing for myself. " Burnside quotes Chuck Jones, the creator of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and other Looney Tunes cartoon characters, to explain how he finds this balance: "He said the two things that count are the love you have for what you do, and the work you put into it. When it's finished only the love should show;if the work shows, you're in trouble. I hope the love is showing in mine. "

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