Ars Poetica: Rick Bursky, author of The Soup of Something Missing
Since the moment I picked up and started reading Rick Bursky’s brilliant debut of poetry, The Soup of Something Missing (Bear Star Press 2004), I knew that I had surreptitiously stumbled upon an exciting, elegant, and innovative voice of the poetic arts. I read the entire book on a first sitting and still have not been able to set the book down. The depth of mastery and meaning kept expanding on subsequent readings and repeatedly amplified my initial enjoyment of the book. The following are just a few of the hundreds of questions I wanted to ask this stimulating and stirring new Los Angeles based poet.
AUP: As an introduction to our readers, could you tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in writing poetry?
RB: I was always insecure as a copywriter, my undergraduate degree is in art. I read a book about writing, by James Kilpatrick, The Writer’s Art, somewhere in the book he said the best writers were poets, when they wrote prose. No one pays attention to words or sentences like a poet. I never paid attention to poetry but always remembered that. A few years later a famous poet died, I forget who, and they read some of his stuff on the radio. Wow, I was amazed, nothing about love or flowers, it just seemed to be powerful short stories. So, I went to UCLA at night to torture myself in a poetry class, not to be a poet but to learn to write better ad copy. The teacher was Austin Strauss. The first night he read us The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Jarrell and Hard Rock Returns to the Prison for the Criminally Insane (I’m not sure of the title) by Knight. That was poetry? Where was that hiding? Why didn’t anyone ever teach me about that stuff? My life changed. I think that was sixteen years ago.
AUP: Who are some of your other writing influences?
RB: Wow, there are so many, I’ll just name the top of the list. Yannis Ritsos sits at the top. I return to his work over and over. I read Ritsos for pleasure and to learn. Other poets whose work is important to me are Charles Simic, David Young, Stephen Dobyns, Roger Fanning, Richard Garcia, Ed Hirsch, Laura Kasischke, Nin Andrews, and Frederico Garcia Lorca. Of course, I can go on and on: Dean Young, David Wagoner, Z. Herbert, etc, etc, etc. Like most poets, I also love reading the stuff. What a great way to spend a life, reading and writing poetry!
AUP: Is this your first book? How long has this book been in the making?
RB: Yep, the first book, two more are in various stages. Soup spans about ten years worth of writing.
AUP: How did you come about in getting the book published?
RB: I won a contest, the 2004 Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize from Bear Star Press. I did what many poets do and enter many contests, especially first book contests, though the Brunsman Poetry Prize is open to all poets no matter if they have published books before. The Soup of Something Missing was a finalist in about five contests and won two. The day my copies of the book arrived I got an email saying the book won the Pine Press Contest. Of course, I couldn’t take the prize since the book was already published. The press was a little annoyed at me for not withdrawing once I won at Bear Star. What are the chances of winning two contests? I was surprised. The final judge at White Pine was Nin Andrews sent me a beautiful email. I was thrilled to have been chosen by her, I have all of her books and admired her work.
Bear Star has done a great job with the book. They’re a terrific press.
AUP: Why the title, Soup of Something Missing?
RB: The woman who designed the cover, Robin Evens, asked me the same question. I said it’s one of the poems in the book. She said "no, it’s not." Oops, I accidentally removed it and didn’t realize it was gone, rather, it was missing. Oh, Roger Fanning actually named the book for me. He was my supervisor in my last semester at Warren Wilson, where I got my MFA.
AUP: Your book is divided into four sections. Could you talk about your organizing concept for the book?
RB: Originally, the book was organized a little differently. It was in two sections. Beth Spencer at Bear Star suggested the current form. I think it works better.
AUP: You have an excellent introductory poem, "The Necessity of Beginning", that is not included in any of the sections. At what point in the development of the book did you feel you needed an introductory poem and what is the poem's full importance?
RB: This is the newest poem in the book. Beth asked if I was writing anything interesting since submitting the book. I sent her a couple of things. "The Necessity of Beginning" was among them. She thought it would be a good opening for the book. The poem is sort of written for my friend Ian Randall Wilson. In addition to being a terrific writer he is the muckity-muck in charge of on screen credits at MGM. He’s had the job for some seventeen years, just about as long as we’ve been friends. I’ve been trying to get him to slip my name into the credits somewhere. He refuses. What’s up with that, Ian?
AUP: The war and army poems in the first section are very striking. How much is imagination and how much is first hand experience?
RB: I joined the army when I was seventeen. Spent fours years as paratrooper, infantry. I went to college after the army. To help pay for college I then joined the National Guard. It was interesting, being a platoon sergeant of an infantry platoon and a student at an art college at the same time. Every now and then I dabble with army themes. I enjoyed the army. I think it’s a great organization. I even wrote a one act play about soldiering, Prayers for the Invisible Men. It was performed by the Theater Studio in 2003.
AUP: Could you tell us more about the voice in "Advice for Soldiers?”
RB: "Advice for Soldiers" was written for my roommate from my last army post, Patrick Ballogg. Pat stayed in the army and retired as Command Sergeant Major in Special Forces just last year. We’re still great friends. I think his green beret buddies might find it funny for him to be the subject of a poem. That poem started as an attempt to actually turn parts of an army field manual into poetry. It was done at the urging of Dean Young, who was very helpful with the shaping of the piece.
AUP: Can you give us more insight on the four "Glass Boat" poems in the second section?
RB: The on-going theme in my work is that life is hard and fragile. A fisherman relies on his boat for work and the boat is made of glass. Pretty easy to meet an untimely end. This was also my first attempt at longer themes. I wanted to write something long. I got as far as four poems.
AUP: The fragile duopoly of a man's job versus a man's marriage seems to be a big theme in the book and particularly in the second section. Could you tell us more of your thoughts about this universal conflict?
RB: I’ve never been married so I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak on that topic, but "job," well, here I’m an expert. You get up each morning and go to work and take your lumps. That’s life. I try not to be too pessimistic but life isn’t supposed to be easy. Somewhere in the language of the poems, I hope, hints of futility, I mean about expecting anything better from the deal.
AUP: Who is the Butcher found in four poems in the third section? What exactly does he represent?
RB: When I was very young we lived above a tailor. I thought I was writing about that but changed it to a butcher for more resonance. After the book was published my mom said she was surprised I remembered the butcher. It turned out that we also lived above a butcher shop and my dad actually worked for the butcher. So much for making stuff up. My dad had a tough life, spent time in jail and stuff like that. I guess I was doing something with the idea of blood on the hands to support a family.
AUP: A nameless "Her" and "She" appears prominently in the fourth section. Is this section primarily about love?
RB: Hmmm, about love? I’m not sure. But they are grouped together because of the similar tone. Though I think the nameless "Her" and "She" in all the poems is every woman I’ve ever dated.
AUP: The pantoumish "The Physics of What Happens" and the great last poem "The End of the World" emphasize a theme of Love being cyclical. Is this a hopeful or a cynical view of Love and why?
RB: Good catch, "The Physics of What Happens," actually was a pantoum in the first two drafts. The view of love in my poems is cynical; in real life, off the page, I’m actually optimistic.
AUP: Could you talk to us a little bit more of the personification of animals and pets throughout the book? (Samson, the Monarch Butterfly is my favorite but you also have a talking dog, a sperm whale, various dead pigs....)
RB: I love dogs, they are God’s greatest of animals. They love unconditionally. I write about dogs out of admiration. I don’t have one now but wish I did. The other animals, well, we share the world with them so I share my poems with them. The animals in my poems are often stand-ins for emotions. An animal can represent sadness, fear, etc. Emotions are easier to bring to life through animals, when you use people it tends to get sentimental.
AUP: Only one poem in the whole book is over a page long. Could you tell us about your poetic notions of compression and brevity?
RB: All of my poems start longer, then I cut and cut and cut. It actually bugs me to no-end. As a way of protest, last year I began a book length poem, The Myth of Photography. I’m up to page forty-two. I hope to have a first draft finished in a couple of months. It’s sort of a history, made up, of photography. I used to be a professional photographer. My undergrad degree is in photography.
AUP: Some of your pieces are more like flash fiction but extremely lyrical. How did you manage to combine both?
RB: I love prose poems. Richard Garcia got me started writing them about ten years ago. I’m conscious of making them lyrical because I’m not a fiction writer, I’m a poet. I’ve sort of lost the prose poem. Ellen Bryant Voigt over at Warren Wilson took some of the steam out of my ability to write them in my first term over there. She said something like "you know how to write them, let’s look at things you don’t do so well." When I continued to show an interest in them she said something like "if I catch you writing prose poems while you’re my student. And don’t think I won’t slap you silly." Seriously, Ellen was great and really taught me about putting some music in my work.
AUP: Most of your poems are composed of longer and fuller lines as opposed to short emphatic 2 or 3 word lines. Why?
RB: The longer line resonates for me in the way it echoes Ritso’s sound. The languorous quality has more of an echo. Though the poems I’ve been writing this year have a much shorter line. They are meant to move faster.
AUP: I found this book to be the most elegant I've read in a long time. I also didn't feel like the use of vocabulary was inaccessible or academic in any way. Could you tell us about your art of finding the perfect and all-important elegant word? And following this thought, do you do much rewriting and editing?
RB: I edit and revise forever. Writing takes place in rewriting, everything else is just typing. I get a new word sent to me online from word-a-day. It’s great fun and I often try to use some in the poems. Then I come to my senses, what’s the point of sending someone to the dictionary; like anyone is really gonna bother. I often choose words by the sound. I want the lines to sound interesting and make noise. I prefer words with deeper sonic qualities.
AUP: What is next for you? What other projects do you have planned?
RB: I have a book about half-way done, The Invention of Fiction. And then there’s the book mentioned earlier, the book-length poem, The Myth of Photography, really getting close to being done. I work at the poems every day. Most of the time I’m just scribbling crap but every now and then a poem finds its way out of the stink. I collect fountain pens so I’m motivated to write every day as an excuse to play with my pens. I write everything long hand in a notebook. I even like the sound the nib makes scratching out a word on the paper. Watching ink dry can be poetic. I’m lucky, I like everything about being a poet. I’m very lucky.
Rick Bursky was born in New York City but moved to Los Angeles at the age of fifteen. He earned a BFA in Photography from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and a MFA from Warren Wilson College. His poetry has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly, The American Literary Review, American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Harvard Review, Hawaii Review, International Poetry Review, Iowa Review, Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Seattle Review, and the Tampa Review. The Soup of Something Missing is his first collection of poetry. He currently teaches writing at the Art Center and works fulltime at DDB, an advertising agency.