John Burnside made his first contribution to Granta in issue 94: On the Road Again. One of the most prolific writers of his generation, he has, since 1988, published thirteen collections of poetry, including The Asylum Dance, one collection of short stories and eight novels, including Glister. He is the winner of the Whitbread Poetry award (for The Asylum Dance) and has twice been short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize. He talks to Rachael Allen about the presence of nature in his poetry, the role of myth in his latest novel (A Summer of Drowning) and learning to live with a feeling of nothingness.

RA: In your poems, nature and humanity often appear to swap roles. Are you trying to show us the tangled relationship between the two?

JB: I think I do take solace in the natural world – though I hope that’s not an easy solace. I do hope that I come up against the harsh, the bloody, the seemingly cruel in what we think of as nature – including human nature. And I hope I preserve a sense of the mystery of that cruelty. Sometimes it’s a very beautiful cruelty – it’s not cruel, per se, of course, it only seems so to us, because we are attached to our own interests – and, on occasion, a sense of that beauty lifts one above one’s attachments. So that line between ‘the human’ and ‘nature’, the ragged edge of culture, so to speak, is still a source of fascination to me and a challenge. A challenge in the sense that an annunciation is a challenge – it calls us to possibilities that we hadn’t imagined, and perhaps wouldn’t have chosen, in what we think of as an ideal world. Maybe there’s a suspicion, alongside this, that the ideal world is sort of there, if we can only meet it halfway. Poetry is, I think, an attempt to pre-empt the kind of speech that closes down the possibility of such a meeting, an attempt to keep oneself open linguistically and sensually and imaginatively to the world as it is, rather than using it as a movie screen for received ideas and second-rate wishes. Marx said the forest only echoes back what you shout into it – and this is very often true, perhaps more often than not, but I think the poet’s task is to suggest that it needn’t be.

Do you attempt to bring about some kind of environmental awareness in your poetry?

Well, I’m not sure how I feel about this now. When I started writing poetry I had some naïve ideas about it, but that’s changed somewhat – partly because there is so much ‘environmental’ poetry about these days and some of it is marvellous and challenging, but some of it feels a bit New-Labour-Focus-Groupish in its orthodoxy. I still succumb to an old temptation to think poetry can make a specific point – the last very obvious environmental poem I wrote was a bemused gasp of horror at the simplistic view of the pro-wind lobby, so-called ‘greens’ who haven’t given the issue a moment’s real thought (or done much research), with the result that they are merely helping fat cats get (huge to massive) subsidies to erect gigantic commercial turbines that will have no effect on our carbon footprint, but will make a lot of the wrong people even richer, with further disastrous consequences for social justice and the environment. They are being played, in short. Frieda Hughes wrote very eloquently about this recently – but she was wise enough to do so in prose. And I think this is important: poetry sacrifices something when it starts campaigning for the environment, it has to work more subtly on how we imagine ourselves, and we could do with imagining ourselves as fuller, more sensual, more responsive – wilder, in the fullest sense of that term – than we are. If we could become authentically wild in our way of being, then we might save – in a wu wei sense of saving by not needing to save – ‘what’s left of the planet’ (by which, I mean not physical fabric as much as imaginative space).

You have been publishing poetry collections since 1988 and have brought out either a novel or collection just about every year. That’s a pretty prolific output by most standards. How do you manage to produce so much material so regularly?

There’s probably something reflexive in this, but I don’t actually think of myself as prolific. And I have to confess that I find my lack of a writing schedule fairly frustrating. I have a very full-time job and two incredible, captivating and endlessly challenging sons – and I do protest that fitting in the writing I’d like to do (both in terms of ambition and quality) is fairly difficult. That may sound odd, for someone who publishes so often, but the other side of my life is that I never stop thinking about my writing, or almost never. When I worked in the computing industry, I would compose poems at work – I’ve always composed in my head, or ‘on the lips’, as Mandelstam says – rolling the lines around at the back of my head while in business meetings or driving to see clients or whatever. I work in similar ways now – which means I can seem distracted, occasionally lacking in the social graces, or just plain rude at times. I do write a good deal at night – insomnia may well be the defining malaise of my life. But really, I very rarely have the luxury of a writing schedule – in the past I have spent time away on residencies or retreats, and I got huge amounts of actual writing down on paper then. But the thinking, the working out, the imagining – that happens pretty much as and when.

Your new novel mixes myth and legend with what is actually true. What was the inspiration behind the novel?

It all started when I first visited the Arctic Circle, (which I now realise was back in 1996). I was invited to the University of Tromsø to take part in a symposium. As soon as I got there I fell in love with the place – especially with the island of Kvaløya, to which my friend Dag Andersson introduced me on that first trip, and to which I returned several times over the next few years (as well as travelling in Finnmark and northern Finland at various times). During one of those visits, I heard the story of the huldra. She is usually associated with places further south (if you go on the little tourist train at Flåm, you can actually see her – the company pays a local beauty to dance around in a red dress through the summer months, hard by the railway line), but some further research suggested that she was a more or less universal figure. Briefly, she is a troll who appears as a beautiful woman to beguile a young man, drawing him away from his safe world and into danger, usually leading to his death. What interested me about the core story is the detail that, if the young man can look behind her, if he can look past the illusion for a moment, he sees through it – in the Norwegian version, by noticing that this lovely woman has a cow’s tail, and in the Swedish version, by discovering a kind of Sartrean nothingness at her back, and so understanding that there’s a sort of flaw in the fabric of the universe there. This is what caught my attention initially – this sense that the story said something about the illusions that inform our social and sexual lives – and what happens to someone who sees that gap in the fabric of the world and has to accommodate it in order to carry on. For me, this is a central concern, even an obsession: Sartre says ‘nothingness haunts being’ – and I cannot help but feel that living in the wild demands that we learn to live with that nothingness.

The Summer of Drowning is published by Jonathan Cape.

Photograph © Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Memory and Invention