Poet Philip Burnham, Jr.: A Poet of surfaces and depth
Philip Burnham, Jr. is a poet who can describe the sizzle as well as the steak. A lake's surface may glitter in the sun, but beneath it are dark, murky depths. Burnham's poetry is a denizen of both settings--the light--the darkness- and everything in between.
Philip E. Burnham, Jr. lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was born in Rochester, New York, and grew up in New England. He attended Groton School, the University of Edinburgh, and Harvard College. A former member of the United States Foreign Service, he served as American Vice Consul in Marseille, France, from 1962 through 1964. For the next 35 years he taught history in both public and private secondary schools and colleges in the Boston area. He holds a PhD in Medieval History from Tufts University. He has traveled extensively in Europe and spent two sabbatical years abroad, one at Cambridge University and another in Paris. He was married to Louise Hassel for 42 years and has three children and four grandchildren, all of whom live in California. Burnham has been published widely, and his latest poetry collection is " Shore Lines" (Ibbetson Street Press.)
I had the pleasure to speak to him on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.
Doug Holder: You are a longtime member of the Somerville, Mass Literary group The Bagel Bards. How important is literary community to you?
Philip Burnham: I think it is very important. I think the Bagel Bards is a great place to come to get ideas--maybe to decompress a bit--and to meet other people who do parallel things. Folks are often involved with readings, working on a book, etc...When you hear about the accomplishments of others it spurs you on to want to do it yourself. I really enjoy listening to other people. Tino Villanueva, who is a Bagel Bard member had a wonderful reading of his poetry collection " So Spoke Penelope" at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge. He took Penelope's perspective as she pined for Odysseus over 20 years. At the reading he spoke about it in Homeric tones--this is the kind of experience you have with the Bagel Bards.
DH: You have a PhD in Medieval History--how did your interest in poetry arise?
PB: Well... I was always into poetry Two things influenced my love of poetry. One was my mother reading poems to me as a kid. We belonged to the Episcopal Church and their hymns were rhymed, metered and set to music. I grew up with those in my head. My father was an English teacher and he knew some poets. In fact he knew Robert Frost. So I was familiar with the poems of poets he knew.
DH: Did you ever meet Frost?
PB: I did actually. I did know Frost. Once I was in Washington, D.C. and he was reading at the Library of Congress, and we went up to talk to him. I was working at the State Department at the time and he looked me straight in the eye and said: "Don't you think working for the State Department is betraying your country?" This was right after the McCarthy Era. He was a man who talked a lot, and he liked to be the center of attention. I saw him in his native habitat of Vermont near the end of his life. It was a very rural life and his connection to the land was profound. He saw the landscape--life in the countryside as very dignified and very tragic. I think he saw the isolation of people--it was a lonely life. He was lonely in many ways.
DH: We met years ago at a poetry workshop that I lead at Newton Community Education. You had recently lost your wife. Was poetry therapeutic?
PB: It was extremely therapeutic for me. My first book that you published Sailing From Boston dealt with my loss among other things. After my wife died, I sat down and wrote about 3 or 4 poems a month for about a year that were explorations of grief and remembrance.It was a way of working through things. It was a way of putting on paper of what I remembered about her. And I started to write poetry every morning. Even when she was ill I began to formulate what I was going to say about her. I didn't dare to be a poet when I was young. I had a family and I couldn't see me being a poet would support a family. It wasn't until I retired and lost my wife did I start taking poetry seriously.
DH: The noted critic Dennis Daly wrote in a review for the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene wrote that your poems are like the Impressionistic painting of say Monet. Do you agree with this and do you you go beyond the surface of shimmering light--so to speak?
PB: I think in some ways my work is Impressionistic. I hope it goes below the shimmering light of the surface as Daly puts it. If you talk about Impressionistic painting--yes, there is that superficial application of the paint to the canvas. But then there is also the sense that we come back to the poem and the painting again and again because somehow it reaffirms us. It reinforces our sense of our daily life.
DH: You wrote a poem about baseball titled "Assignment 1: Write a Poem about Baseball," that was on the "Writer's Almanac" on NPR, and other places. What is it about Baseball that attracts so many writers?
PB : It always attracted people who were intellectuals. Think about John Updike's fascination with baseball. I think it might be that there are so many possibilities of what can happen at any given moment.
DH: But isn't this true true of football, or basketball?
PB: Well--it is but the action that goes on before goes so quickly that you can't follow everyone. In baseball there are a lot of people involved, but at one moment only a few people are involved. It has a sort of grace to it--it is an interesting sport. A lot of people have grown up with moments of baseball in their lives. It is a game of failure and I think that is poetic. In baseball if you hit 3 out of 10 then you are dong well--but you missed 7 times--that's failure--but not in baseball.
DH: You were a finalist for the Loft Prize.
PB: Yes the Prize is based in Providence, R.I. You had to submit a poem based on a painting from a New England museum. I chose an Impressionistic painting titled: "New York Blizzard" by Childe Hassam.
PB: " Shore Lines" your new poetry collection from the Ibbetson Street Press, has an Impressionistic painting of a beach on the front cover.
PB: Yes. It reminds me of a beach I go to in New Hampshire between Hampton and Rye beaches. I started going there when I was very young. Ogden Nash use to vacation there. One day in early September we were all sitting on the beach. It was hurricane season, and they told everyone to get off the beach. Nash said" I think we better get off the beach or we are going to be misspelled in The Boston Herald.
A Little Boat, My HeartA little boat, my heart,
Curved gothic to its bow
From starboard and from port,
To plow an ocean’s row,
To turn the slightest waves
Brief furrows, to expose
The undersea, a spray
Of foam, a path to lose
Across the sea astern,
A dip and sweep of oars,
Cut circles that become
Skin smooth and disappear.
My heart, a little boat
Set on your waves of skin
That on my voyage out
I cross to cross again
A sea of passages
To India, a rise
And fall of tides. It is
Moon driven. From your eyes
Glances like quick fishes
Leaping, circles that part
Still water round, kisses,
A little boat, my heart.
Shore Lines, 2012