By Mike Templeton
There are two crucial moments that defined my interests in literature. The first was reading Thoreau and Emerson as a teenager. The next was stumbling onto the Beats. I was never the same after these discoveries, and I am still intent on living in a shack and reading about “the mad ones.” So, the chance to talk with the incoming National Beat Poet Laureate, John Burroughs, has the feel of destiny for me. Burroughs has also just finished his tenure as Ohio Beat Poet Laureate for 2019-2021, and, as it turns out, John Burroughs is also an urban Appalachian with roots in West Virginia. After readings in Portsmouth, Ohio and here in Cincinnati, John Burroughs finally got some time to talk to me for a while.
Born in Richwood, West Virginia, Burroughs explained that his family moved to the Loraine, Ohio when he was quite young: “When I was about three or four, my father decided he didn’t want to work in the coal mines and moved the family to Loraine for a job at the Ford Plant.” This seems to be the quintessential urban Appalachian experience. Burroughs said he did not give much thought to his Appalachian heritage as a child until people started making fun of his accent, and this made him recoil and hide it all. This too is part of the urban Appalachian experience for many people. Being somewhat withdrawn through school, it was not until 10th grade when, as he said, “I was failing English,” that he got a young English teacher who changed things forever.
Burroughs described this turning point as he remembered a “young, enthusiastic, and attractive English teacher” who responded to one of his written assignments by telling him it was poetry. “She asked me if I had written more poetry, and I lied and said yes. But then I started writing.” This moment set him on the path of becoming a poet, and with the discovery of the rhythm and flow of the Beats, he was set in a specific direction. Burroughs told me, “Poetry ended up saving my life.”
John Burroughs explained that it was the music, both in poetry and the love of music itself, that drew him to the Beats. “I was not a particularly good musician, so words became my instrument,” he told me. Explaining his writing process, he said that it begins with the stream of consciousness we associate with Beat poetry: “I tune out the inner critic—the voice that corrects and edits, and I get into the flow of thoughts and words.” With the maturity of an experienced poet, he said he has learned to “go back, re-approach it, craft it,” but the process begins with the rhythm and flow of language.
We can read the music of Burroughs’s poetry in a poem like “Magnetic Repulsion” in which the images and alliteration vibrate with a sonic texture from the outset: “I build liquid sound bruises/ from a blue book stagger/ slice love song summers/ into dirty skin showers.” It is possible to read this in the strict 4/4 of Coltrane, and it is equally possible to break it at alliterative stops for something more like Eric Dolphy. It also has the urgency of rap.
The poems collected in his book Rattle and Numb also reveal why John Burroughs earns his designation as Beat Poet Laureate. The collection presents us with “Scribbling/ Scrambling/ Random ramblings,” names Orlovsky, Ginsburg, and Ferlinghetti, and provides a center and calm with lotus flowers. And this is only the most superficial summary of what happens in the poetry of John Burroughs. Yet, it is the music driving the language that really situates his work in the tradition of the Beats. However much the Beats may have wandered through meditation, politics, and being on the road, music has always been the spirit that makes Beat poetry what it is. Whether we are locked into a traditional rhythm or cut loose with improvisation, the music is always present for the Beats, and Burroughs’s poetry joins this refrain.
The National Beat Poetry Foundation bestows the honor of Beat Poet Laureate. They have been naming poets laureate for about ten years now. John Burroughs told me he has been extremely busy doing workshops, readings, and things like moderating a literary blog in Cleveland. Burroughs recently visited Cincinnati and read at Word of Mouth Cincinnati, sharing the mic with Core member Pauletta Hansel, among others. He has been traveling around Ohio doing readings all over the state.
As for his Appalachian roots, Burroughs said he “learned to be somewhat ashamed of my Appalachian background—getting teased and bullied for my accent.” But in adulthood he said, “I have returned to appreciating where I am from. My dad returned to West Virginia after he retired, and we regularly visit.” Maybe we can read a little of his return to where he comes from in “John Cage Engaged” in which the poem begins, “Sunken funkin’ telepumpkin/ Tell a country bumpkin who I am.” This same poem appears to complete the circle of experience and poetry as it ends by showing us “there is no disharmony/ Only harmonies to which our ears/ And our fears/ Are unaccustomed.” There is no disharmony, only harmony waiting to be registered by the senses. The disharmony of a boy out of place finds its harmony in the voice of a mature poet.
John Burroughs will be returning to Cincinnati on October 4 at 7 pm for a reading at Sitwell’s Coffee House Act II. Until then, he is traveling as National Beat Poet Laureate. You can follow his work and activities at his website which is provided below. It should not come as a surprise that we count a Beat poet among urban Appalachians. One of the reasons the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition works to further Appalachian culture is to emphasize the fact that we are involved in just about everything that makes up the culture of the 21st century city. You may well catch a few of us on a banjo, and you are just as likely to hear at least one of us reading poetry in a bar somewhere around Ohio.
John Burroughs’s website with a list of his books activities, and other events can be found at this link: http://www.crisischronicles.com/.
You can watch John Burroughs read at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_P4axedQ_u8.
For information on the National Beat Poetry Foundation, click here: https://nationalbeatpoetryfoundation.org/.
Mentioned in this article: Rattle & Numb: Selected and New Poems 1992-2019. Published by Venetian Spider Press.
Cover photo by Nick Barrows
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.