The BTS Interview: Michael R. Burch
Vera: How do you view the marginalization of formal forms and rhyme in modern poetry?
Michael: I think it has been very unfortunate. The marginalization of formal poetry created a lot of understandable bitterness on the part of poets who continued to work in meter and rhyme. They were denied publication in most of the so-called "major" journals for many years. They were denied awards and honors. It was, in my opinion, discrimination. I think things have improved in recent years, and the rise of the Internet has made things more democratic, as readers can find the kind of poems they prefer without going through discriminatory journals, if they still discriminate.
Vera: What purpose do you believe poetry serves? What purpose could and should it serve in our modern culture?
Michael: I think poetry can serve many purposes. I think it is true that art can be merely for the sake of art. Poetry is an art and it doesn't have to serve any other purpose, except to please readers. But in the right hands, poetry certainly can do other things. For instance, Robert Burns and William Blake spoke eloquently about social injustices, calling for real equality and justice for commoners at a time when the rich ruled everything. On the eve of the French Revolution, Burns was already writing about the rights of women. Blake was the first artist, to my knowledge, to graphically depict the horrible cruelties of the slave trade. Walt Whitman wrote about, and perhaps helped create, a more tolerant America where everyone could be embraced, whether black or white, male or female, gay or straight. Those poets had tremendous influence on songwriters like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen. They were, in my opinion, the first wave of tolerance. We have been catching their wave ever since, or we should be catching the wave! Poets and songwriters have also been powerful voices for peace, and against war. Wilfred Owen was one of the first major poets to argue against the idea that the battlefield was a place of "honor" and "glory." Sappho, the first great lyric poet that we know by name, wrote a poem many centuries ago in which she called for love, not war. She may have been the first "flower child" and she remains one of the most compelling voices for love, compassion and tolerance. Another ancient poet that I really admire in this regard is the Archpoet. He may have been the first "rogue scholar," and he wrote a blistering "Confession" in which he skewered the hypocritical priests of his day. Hell, the ancient Hebrew prophets who gave us large portions of the Bible were reform-minded poets! I think poetry can and has done a lot, in the arena of social change.
for the children of the Holocaust and the Nakba
Something inescapable is lost—
lost like a pale vapor curling up into shafts of moonlight,
vanishing in a gust of wind toward an expanse of stars
immeasurable and void.
Something uncapturable is gone—
gone with the spent leaves and illuminations of autumn,
scattered into a haze with the faint rustle of parched grass
Something unforgettable is past—
blown from a glimmer into nothingness, or less,
and finality has swept into a corner where it lies
in dust and cobwebs and silence.
Michael Burch: This is the first poem I wrote which didn’t rhyme, and the only one for quite some time. It has been published by There is Something in the Autumn (Anthology), The Eclectic Muse, FreeXpression (an Australian writers’ magazine where I was the featured International Poet in the March 2013 issue), and Life and Legend.
Michael Burch with William Sykes Harris, his wife's grandfather
Vera: Are you working on any new poetry projects at present?
Michael: I have been writing a lot of poetry and prose that is pro-tolerance and anti-Trump these days. I never planned on being a political poet, but some of my political poems, puns and jokes have "gone viral." If Trump is defeated, as I hope and believe he will be, I may have a few years to work on other projects, until the next scourge appears!
Vera: As traditional publishing declines, do you envision new ways in which poetry, and its aficionados, could interact, connect, and grow?
Michael: Yes, I think the Internet has really changed things, and in many ways for the better. Poetry is no longer controlled by a few professor-poets sitting in ivory towers, favoring their peers. It is up to poets to figure out how to write poetry that other people will enjoy reading, and they must also figure out how to make their poems accessible to readers. I think I am something of a trailblazer in this regard, as my literary website, The HyperTexts (www.thehypertexts.com), is considered very "relevant" by Google, and we are currently getting around two million page views per year, a figure that keeps going up. Google is a lot more democratic than the ivory-tower sitters, so I no longer have to worry about what they are saying and doing.
Vera: How large a role does The HyperTexts play in your life?
Michael: I have devoted a lot of my free time to The HyperTexts over the last twenty years. I'm a writer and I want to be read. Having millions of readers is a blessing. It makes me feel that I've accomplished a lot, as a poet, editor and publisher. Hopefully, I have entertained readers, and at times I may have opened their eyes to new and better ideas. If so, I have followed in the footsteps of poets I admire, such as Sappho, the Archpoet, Blake, Burns and Whitman. It has also been my honor and pleasure to publish poets with important things to say, who said it well, such as Jack Butler, Jared Carter, the Estonian Holocaust survivor Anita Dorn, Janet Kenny, the Jewish Holocaust survivor Yala Korwin, Tom Merrill, Richard Moore, Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), Miklós Radnóti (who unfortunately did not survive the Holocaust), Harvey Stanbrough, and Luis Omar Salinas.
Here the hills are old, and rolling
carefully in their old age;
on the horizon youthful mountains
bathe themselves in windblown fountains . . .
By dying leaves and falling raindrops,
I have traced time's starts and stops,
and I have known the years to pass
almost unnoticed, whispering through treetops . . .
For here the valleys fill with sunlight
to the brim, then empty again,
and it seems that only I notice
how the years flood out, and in . . .
Michael Burch: I wrote this poem as a teenager. I was working at McDonald’s at the time, and wrote it in the break room. It was the first poem that made me feel like a “real poet,” so I will always treasure it. The poem was published as “Reckoning” by Arkansas Tech University in Nebo: A Literary Journal, then by Tucumcari Literary Review. After being revised and renamed “Observance,” it was selected as a top 100 poem in the 1999 Writer’s Digest rhyming poetry contest, out of over 13,000 overall contest entries. It also won 4th place in another large poetry contest by Iliad Press. It was subsequently published in Piedmont Literary Review, Verses, Romantics Quarterly, Poetry Life & Times and the anthology There is Something in the Autumn. Not too shabby for a teenage poet!
Have you tasted the bitterness of tears of despair?
Have you watched the sun sink through such pale, balmless air
that your soul sought its shell like a crab on a beach,
then scuttled inside to be safe, out of reach?
Might I lift you tonight from earth’s wreckage and damage
on these waves gently rising to pay the moon homage?
Or better, perhaps, let me say that I, too,
have dreamed of infinity . . . windswept and blue.
Michael Burch: This is the other poem that made me feel like a "real poet" in the early days of my career. It has been published by Penny Dreadful, the Net Poetry and Art Competition, Songs of Innocence and Poetry Life & Times.
About the Ads you see for Kelly Writers House and Poem Talk: Two years ago I took a free class on Coursera called Modern Poetry from the University of Pennsylvania's Al Filries. Since then, I have been a Community TA. I credit Al and ModPo with recreating my need to publish again. When we first started, I thought it would look better with a few advertisements, so I asked Al if I could run a couple of free ads and he said yes. Anthony Watkins