Earlier this year Will Burns was named as one of four Faber New Poets for 2013–14. Each recipient of the prize, sponsored by Faber & Faber and the Arts Council, will receive mentoring, pamphlet publication and financial support.
We published a number of Will’s poems back in issue six, and he joined our editorial team a year later. He is also a musician and songwriter – those of you who came to our issue eight launch will have heard him perform. Here’s a brief interview with Will about his poetry and the Faber prize.
Did the song-writing come before the poetry?
Well, I suppose the first things I ever wrote were poems. When I was a kid. And then as a teenager, when you get into bands and the idea of making music of your own, it was songs.
When did you start writing poems?
Aside from as a child, it was when I started to study again as a mature student, in my mid-twenties. The band then had a bit of a break when I broke up with a girl and moved away from London for a bit. Funnily enough that was also the end of my studies. But I got really into writing poems then, the songs started to take a back seat. And although we did make another record, I was beginning to realize I was getting more out of writing poems and stories than making music.
When did you first publish get your poetry published?
The first poems published in print were in Structo… and before that on the Caught by the River website, who have been incredibly supportive. I suppose the first one up there was five years ago or something like that.
Those poems we published in issue six were from Sideshow Stories. Can you say a little about the project?
That was a project driven by my wife really. She is friends with Jason Butler, the artist involved, and she had this idea of using these drawings he had done in an exhibition with some poetry or stories. It ended up being very fruitful for me, because it kind of forced me into some reading, research and writing ideas that were imposed rather than coming from my own obsessions. So I ended up writing this whole batch of poems that felt really different in the way they came about and I still feel really good about a few of them.
And Caught by the River?
It’s quite a hard thing to pin down exactly, Caught by the River… it’s a magazine, I suppose, but they have also published books of essays and non-fiction. They have a book coming out this year, and they organize events and curate festivals as well. A curious mix of things, really. But it’s a wonderful thing, whatever it is, and the three guys in charge, Jeff, Andrew and Robin, are just people who get excited about things, whether it be music, writing, art… so the website and books are imbued with that sense of excitement and enthusiasm. It’s a privilege to be involved with them.
And the way that happened kind of relates to your earlier question about how I started writing poetry, I suppose… I had just met Nina, who was to become my wife, and one of the first things we did together was go to Port Eliot Festival, where CbtR curate a stage of readings and music. Nina had already started to be encouraging about my writing (as well as painfully blunt about my musical aspirations, I might add!) and while we were away that weekend I wrote a couple of poems. She told me I should send them to Jeff (at CbtR) and see if he’s up for publishing them on the site. At the time I hadn’t sent any submissions off before, and when Jeff was positive about them, it meant a great deal.
Since then, I’ve become a regular contributor and it really is a great thing to be involved with, I’m incredibly grateful for Jeff’s support. He’s one of the best people on the planet in so many ways. Always interested in what you’re doing, instinctively good taste, obviously great fun if you’re out with him as well.
What was your approach to the Faber application?
Well, I had put together a very small self-published, hand-printed thing a couple of years ago to sell at festivals and readings when I started to get regular bookings, just to help pay for beer, really. So I started with those poems, and since then I had written four poems that I wanted to go in. They were recent poems that I felt good about. So it was a case of choosing the strongest poems I had for that, really. And I did think about the running order as well. The first poem, for example is a poem I always imagined as the first poem of a collection. I almost don’t think of it existing outside that, in a strange way… almost like it doesn’t have a full poetic life of its own outside of the poems that follow it. But basically it was a case of, ‘What are the strongest 15 poems I have?’.
How do you choose poems for a collection generally?
I’m a complete novice at it, I think… there’s only been that first thing, and the Faber pamphlet. I am working towards a first full collection, though, and feel it’s nearly there, so I am always thinking of the poems as a body or work, so I suppose the way 40–50 poems feel together is starting to be the way I think about them, rather than as these tiny little miracles of their own. It’s an interesting process, the sort of thing I really like, actually. I much prefer editing and collating than the hard work of getting the stuff down in its raw form.
What are your plans for the year, poetry-wise?
The Faber New Poets tour is in October and the pamphlet comes out then as well. I suppose that will be the big thing for me this year, but I’ll also be poet-in-residence at Festival No.6, and reading at Field Day for Caught by the River, maybe a couple more festivals as well. Of course I’ll have Structo reading to do as well, and there will be Branchage Festival which I’ll be involved with in some capacity… and trying to write a lot more than last year. Sounds damn busy, actually, now I see it written down.
Find out more about Will’s poetry at willburns.co.uk