An Interview with James Roderick Burns

An Interview with James Roderick Burns

An Interview with James Roderick Burns

James Roderick Burns: I was born in the north east of England in 1972, studied for a PhD in English in the US between 1994 and 1999, and on returning to the UK joined the British civil service. I currently serve as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland overseeing the national system of birth, death and marriage registration.

An Interview with James Roderick Burns

In conversation with Karunesh Kumar Agarwal, Managing Editor,, James Roderick Burns  tells us about his success as an international author.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: Tell us about you and your background.

James Roderick Burns:  I was born in the north east of England in 1972, studied for a PhD in English in the US between 1994 and 1999, and on returning to the UK joined the British civil service.  I currently serve as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland overseeing the national system of birth, death and marriage registration.

In America I got the opportunity to edit a college literary magazine, and kept up that interest once I was back in England: joining the editorial board of Other Poetry in 2000, becoming its managing editor in 2012 – the journal is currently on hiatus, having run into severe funding difficulties due to imposed austerity a year later – and am now writing around a compressed-hours work schedule in which I work Tuesday through Friday.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: What inspires you to write haiku?

James Roderick Burns:  I chanced into writing haiku back in February of 2000.  In between job applications, I was standing by a window watching snow fall through sagging telegraph wires.  It occurred to me that the image was similar to sheet music, but with white notes on a black background rather than black notes on white, and that such an image would fit neatly into a few lines.  I remembered haiku, looked up some contemporary examples, and wrote my first one that day.  I then spent the following six months writing haiku on trips up and down to Newcastle, where I’d volunteered to help out Evangeline Paterson (the managing editor and one of the founders of the magazine) with odd-jobs for Other Poetry.  I haven’t stopped writing short-form poems of one kind or another since.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: Do you write every single day?

James Roderick Burns:  Yes – either short-form poetry (haiku, tanka, sedoka); fiction (flash fiction, short stories, novels); or book reviews, usually poetry.  At the moment I am reviewing for London Grip and am excited to have the chance to review Kevin Densley’s excellent Orpheus in the Undershirt for Wayne State University Press’s Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian and New Zealand Literature this autumn.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: What is the measure of success as a poet?

James Roderick Burns:  For me, perfectly matching form to content; finding a voice that belongs to no one else; and successfully engaging both the mind and heart of the reader.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: Which is easier to write, fiction or non-fiction?

James Roderick Burns:  Neither.  They’re different, but both are about discipline and a relentless concentration on language.  (Fiction perhaps demands more stamina.)  My wife had a professor in law school who seemed to think that as he had good ideas, he didn’t need to think about language at all – as if language was an objective, crystalline structure through which existing ideas were simply transmitted.  Without language there are no ideas.  I had a tutor on my MSt creative writing course who insisted ideas were the ‘engines of fiction’, but I disagree.  If a poet or writer of fiction is not attending to every syllable – its order, heft, rhythm and sound – the resulting work will feel hollow and unsatisfying.  I think this holds just as much for popular fiction and academic writing as it does for poetry.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: Your experience of writing the book THE WORKSONGS OF THE WORMS. Any specific reason for choosing title  of book THE WORKSONGS OF THE WORMS.

James Roderick Burns:  The book developed over about a year and a half as I walked up and down Leith Walk (the main thoroughfare connecting the south of Edinburgh to the north of the city) down to our new flat, and before that, our previous house near Leith Links.  People think of Trainspotting, drug-taking and general dissolution when they think of Leith, but it is just as much home to small moments of experience, interesting buildings and churches, and interactions with nature – particularly birds, squirrels, dogs and other assorted beasts on the links – as anywhere else.

Over the last few years, following a diagnosis of type II diabetes in 2008, I have been trying to improve my health, and am mindful much of the time of the frailty of our bodies and the limited span of time we’re given to achieve anything.  Haiku is the perfect form for melding immediate lived experience – such as daily walks through an urban landscape of ever-changing detail – with thoughts about impermanence, our place in the world, the changing climate and so on.  The title of the book reflects this process, as well as the miserable life of the poet Issa, in one of whose haiku the phrase is found.  He discovered moments of wry humour and enlightenment in even the most extreme and harrowing of personal experiences, and I chose the title in honour of that achievement.  I also wrote the ‘title poem’ (if a book of haiku can have such a thing) to honour his defiant spirit – “As the worms/clear their throats,/the old man dances”.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: Which contemporary poets do you personally believe will be remembered in the coming years and why? 

James Roderick Burns:  For contemporary poets it’s very hard to say.  I read and review numbers of books, pamphlets and anthologies, some of which are excellent and some not.  But until someone has found their voice and had the time to develop overall interests, themes and experience it’s difficult to judge.  I would say the breadth and diversity of current poetry in English – as well as sheer number of magazines and presses across the world – bodes well for producing the next wave of great work.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?

James Roderick Burns:  No – only my sense of falling short of what great poets have been able to do.  I know someone like Larkin or Hopkins did not produce masterpieces without great effort, but their work reads as though every word is perfect and could not possibly have been replaced by any other word, in any other order.  Achieving such an effect is all but impossible for the rest of us.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: Your poems are based on your personal experience or other things such as facts? 

James Roderick Burns:  They come out of moments of everyday lived experience and things distilled from those moments.  In my previous collection ‘Greetings from Luna Park’, I researched turn-of-the-century Coney Island in New York to ensure the narrative sequences were rooted in the proper detail of the times, but I suspect (as with everyone) what emerges in the end is my own interests and obsessions, and those come directly from experience.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: Your experience of writing Haiku.

James Roderick Burns:  Challenging, rewarding, frustrating, delightful – depending on how it’s going!


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: Do you have any advice for other writers?

James Roderick Burns:  Keep at it, every day.  Revise constantly.  After you can no longer see the words on the page, set it aside and come back to it a few weeks later.  Don’t be satisfied with anything less than the absolute best you can produce.  Then send it out and forget it.  That seems to be the only way to make progress with the psychologically-gruelling process of submission.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: What is your motivation for writing more?

James Roderick Burns:  I have two novels at the completed first-draft stage (almost 250,000 words between them) and lots of work to do to get them into shape, but miss creating new work when I’m editing.  I feel every day that goes by without actually creating new things, even portions of new things, is less satisfying than it should be.  People often bemoan the number of new books published every year, but there’s a limitless need for good books in the world.  I want to help meet that need.


Karunesh Kumar Agarwal: Thank you very much. 

James Roderick Burns:  Thank you.


James Roderick Burns is the author of a tanka collection, The Salesman's Shoes, and a book of narrative sedoka sequences, Greetings from Luna Park, which explores love and commerce in turn of the century Coney Island.

He has edited a volume of ghost stories, A Gathering Darkness: Thirteen Classic English Ghost Stories, and two poetry anthologies: Still Standen: A Celebration of the Poet's Life and Miracle and Clockwork: The Best of Other Poetry Series Two.

Following a PhD in English at the State University of New York, he returned to the United Kingdom and joined the civil service. He graduated with distinction from Oxford University's MSt in Creative Writing programme and currently serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.