None Of My Business: Jade Cuttle talks to Jo Burns
I reviewed Jo Burns' pamphlet, Circling for Gods, for Magma and found it so fascinating that I simply had to learn more. Born in Northern Ireland in 1976, Jo Burns won the McClure Poetry Prize at the Irish Writers Festival in Los Gatos, CA and the Magma Judges Prize Poetry Competition 2018. Her first collection White Horses will be published by Turas Press in November 2018.
Your debut pamphlet, Circling for Gods, skirts across the seas of Northern Ireland to Asia, South America to Africa. How have travels informed your poetic spirit?
I left Northern Ireland at the age of 17 to study in Scotland. I am now 42 and have lived in many different places since then. Travelling has helped me to gain outside perspectives on a rural upbringing in Ulster. In many ways it was insular and of course the troubles were always close.
My mother grew up in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa so there was always an element at home of a bigger wider world out there. Homes away from home, so to say. However I needed to experience them myself. Living away from Ulster taught me that many things I had perceived of as normal, really weren’t normal. However when I write, I keep coming back to that upbringing. The closest comparison I can think of is that of a child’s trampoline. I keep coming back to the net, albeit from different angles, directions and perspectives.
How did you find yourself exploring the path of poetry in the first place?
At primary school I recited a lot of poetry at local public speaking festivals. Also, in my family poetry was always revered. As Ulster descendants of the Scottish Burns family on my fathers side, we always liked to feel connected to the Bard. Whether any connection really exists or not is almost irrelevant. For my father, my uncle and myself pen and paper were always close to hand and important. Through living abroad for so long and spending my days speaking Spanish then German, I became more and more fascinated with language. I felt my native tongue was slipping away the more I conversed in foreign languages. I live now in Germany with my husband and three teenage children. They are all bilingual but we do speak more German than English. I started writing poetry again to counteract that. The search for the right word in the right place is the ultimate distillation of language and keeps me rooted to the language I grew up speaking. I guess it keeps me rooted to my own childhood.
Your pamphlet, at times, draws inspiration from the mysteries of mythology, such as the Celtic Raven Goddess in ‘The Word RabenMutter’. Is there a particular myth that has captivated your imagination and continues to inspire you?
As a mother, the myth of Persephone and Demeter. Fiona Benson’s poem Demeter is probably one of the reasons I started to write more seriously again. I was blown away by the power and fear in that poem, emotions I know too well with three children.
What is your relationship to the mind-bending wonder of religious belief that features in your pamphlet?
I was raised in a classical Presbyterian family. Over the years I have formed a slightly different path for myself. I have discovered so much wonder and beauty in Buddhisn, Hinduism, Islam, Humanism and nature that my religious safety net is more like a self made quilt. At the risk of sounding esoteric, I find peace (and peace is the closest thing I can name to God) in the forest or on mountains. I know many wouldn’t necessarily agree with that freedom that I take, but for me it works. Dogma and institutions don’t.
What can you tell us about your debut collection due to be published in November by Turas Press, Dublin?
White Horses started as an exploration of female voices. After a few years I realised that actually my theme was skirting around patriarchy and how it can be expressed; in religion, in art, in daily life, in myth. At that point the collection started to shape. I have always been fascinated by the women in Pablo Picasso’s life. Their voices form almost a third of the collection. He seemed like a good base to start with sculpting the collection. The closer my collection came to completion, the clearer I was in my head about wishing to publish with Turas Press. As a female led, emerging press it seemed like a wonderful combination for a female emerging poet.
Does the collection build on the themes and ideas explored in your pamphlet, Circling for Gods?
Yes and no. As my themes for the last three/five years have been based on faith/patriarchy White Horses is in some ways an extension of Circling for Gods. However it does delve more into female viewpoints which weren’t necessarily touched on in Circling for Gods.
How did releasing this pamphlet help you prepare for publishing a longer collection?
Good question. Firstly, it gave me confidence insofar that reviews have been largely positive. Publishing a pamphlet is a little like dipping a toe into water so it’s heartening to get warm receptions.
Secondly, publishing a pamphlet with a London based press showed me that I need to combine readings and promotion with getting home to Ireland. Flying back and forward to the UK doesn’t seem so practical when I don’t get to see family at the same time. So I decided to look for an Irish publisher for a first collection and came upon Turas (which is the Gaelic word for journey, which fit immediately). I’ve been very lucky over the years with both Eyewear and Turas to find editors willing to take chances with my work.
Thirdly, It taught me that the poems people react to are rarely the ones I would have singled out..
Lastly, It taught me that reviews are an entity of their own and that its actually none of my business at all how some of my poetry is interpreted. It’s a strange thing, but once a poem is published it almost ceases to belong to me. It’s there for anyone to read and interpret as they so choose. I am learning to let them go after working with them for years. And I am starting to think about the next book..