Welcome back to Lyric Essentials, where we invite authors to share the work of their favorite poets. This month, Catherine Rockwood has joined us to discuss the work of Joshua Burton and confessional poetry. As always, we hope you enjoy as much as we did.
Ryleigh Wann: When was the first time you read Joshua Burton’s work? Why did it stand out to you then?
Catherine Rockwood: My first encounter with Joshua Burton’s poetry was June/July of this summer, when my copy of Fracture Anthology arrived. What stood out to me at once was both the intimacy and the ambition of the project – to write poems with one’s own mother, about both her life and your own, and achieve so much formal and emotional success in the process? Amazing. Almost uncanny, really. The degree of determination involved, and the ethical precision, and the risk-taking, and the skill.
RW: Why did you choose to read these poems specifically?
CR: I knew I had to include “Nomenclature” in the recordings, because it was the poem that first made me sit down and go “ohhh” when I was reading the chapbook. And I don’t honestly think that reflects in great ways on me as a reader: I think I should have been able to get there much faster, based on what precedes “Nomenclature” in the manuscript. But as it was, I needed an entry-point to an assembled work that was amenable to what I already knew, and for me this poem was that – the moment of naming, of choosing a name that a new life will be known by, has tremendous literary resonance that operated in ways I was familiar with, and then all of a sudden I could sort of retroactively get a wider look at what was so powerful about the entire project.
“A Painting of a Pressed Flower” I just find so haunting. I am not sure I fully understand the complex layering of memory/art/trauma in this poem, the way it all works together to create what feels like an entirely unique symbolic vocabulary, but I can feel it working, I think in that direction. And I cannot shake the lines “the residue bleeds through pages/ five through eleven”: so specific, so material, so literal, and yet what those lines are saying is, some events absolutely layer themselves permanently into parts of our lives, and what are you going to do with that? To what extent can you bring yourself to accept unintentional, vivid, personal-historical “residues” while also saying something like “this effect, this fact, is accidental – it evades claims of design – and yet, I assert its meaning.”?
“History” is a tour de force in other ways. It deliberately maintains the strangeness, the unfamiliar-to-the-reader quality, of the protective or negotiative systems the “I”-speaker of the poem (who is the poet’s mother) has developed to help herself deal with a clearly hostile world. And that’s a hard choice to make, as a writer – or, anyway, when I think about it I get nervous, I feel worried – to decide “no, the difficulty is part of the point, I want this to be something readers have to work to try to understand, because otherwise I’m not honoring the individual narrated life in the poem, I’m not doing it justice.” Making that choice, and following through on it formally, takes incredible determination (which is a word I seem to be repeating) and craft.
RW: Burton’s chapbook, Fracture Anthology, began with poems written about the speaker’s mother. What do you think are the challenges (or benefits) of writing poems about living people the writer might be close to?
CR: Oh my goodness. This work is so hard. I have only peripherally played around with it in my own writing, and the one time I wrote directly about family members it was a huge, uncomfortable thing to tell them before the poem was published. Because you realize you have to take responsibility for your own “take” on someone else’s life, and they may not agree with your view of it. In the end, when you write and publish about living people who are in your life, you’re either saying “well good so we agree,” or “well okay, we have worked out an agreement that I have the right to relate this part of things in this way,” or “well, you hate that I’ve written about this in this way but too fucking bad.” Fracture Anthology…it’s definitely, DEFINITELY not the last thing. To me, from the outside, it looks actually more like a fourth thing, some kind of consent-driven work of biographical/autobiographical art in which both the poet and his mother really have their own voices but these voices sometimes blend in ways that are almost transcendent. I guess you would say the challenge and the benefit there are pretty contiguous.
RW: What have you been up to lately (life, work, anything!)? Got any news to share?
CR: Hm. I’ve been editing for the first time – Reckoning Magazine, the magazine of creative writing and environmental justice I’m on staff for, is putting out a special issue on bodily autonomy and the environment in October. And I’m lead editor for that. We got really, really angry after the Dobbs v. Jackson decision came down at the Supreme Court in June, and decided to put out a themed submission call, and authors have answered it very thoroughly. I’m excited about the work we’ll be showcasing, and my colleagues at Reckoning have been super supportive and patient (and informative!) as I work through the new-to-me process.
Joshua Burton is a poet and educator from Houston, TX and received his MFA in poetry at Syracuse University. His work can be found in Mississippi Review, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. His debut poetry collection is forthcoming in the spring of 2023 with the University of Wisconsin Press. Find his website here. Purchase his collection, Fracture Anthology here.
Catherine Rockwood reads and edits for Reckoning Magazine, and reviews books for Strange Horizons. Her poetry chapbook, Endeavors to Obtain Perpetual Motion, is available from the Ethel Zine Press. You can find her on Twitter at @martin65, and elsewhere on the internet at www.catherinerockwood.com/about
Ryleigh Wann earned her MFA from UNC Wilmington where she taught poetry and served as the comics editor for Ecotone. Her writing can be found in Longleaf Review, Rejection Letters, Flypaper Lit, and elsewhere. Ryleigh currently lives in Brooklyn. Learn more at ryleighwann.com