John Burnside: The poet opens up about his father's cruelty, the hurtfulness of language – and why he walked away from love

 

I always wanted to be a painter I loved painting. I went on three different art courses but had no talent whatsoever. On the third one, the teacher said to me, "I hear you're a poet?" I said yes, and he said, "I think you should stick to it; put it this way, you're never going to be Cézanne."

I often write books to explore questions I don't know the answers to With [my new memoir] I Put a Spell on You, it's about love – and detachment. In one case I was in my twenties and I met this woman, Christina, and there was such a strong, instant bond between us. I would enjoy thinking from afar, if only we could be alone… But when suddenly she came and challenged me about my feelings, I pretended I didn't feel anything and I walked away from what I most wanted. Why did I refuse?

I love long sentences My big heroes of fiction writing are Henry James and Proust – people who recognise that life doesn't consist of declarative statements, but rather modifications, qualifications and feelings.

I don't appreciate how working-class people are portrayed as gritty and unintelligent My uncles, all miners, were not thudding great men, but light on their feet, funny, witty and even a bit surreal at times, able to express themselves.

For my father, cruelty was an ideology His own life had been hard, so there was a logic to him wanting to kill off my finer – and so, weaker – self. When I had my own children, I was determined to do things differently, but I've made my own mistakes with them, as I'm too soft; my youngest son has me wrapped around his finger. When he asks me for something, I say, "Go ask your mother," and he replies, "I'm not asking her, she won't give it to me – I'm only asking you as you're soft as butter."

The older I get, the happier my childhood becomes When someone asked me in my late twenties what my childhood was like, I could only remember how angry and unhappy I was, how little money we had, my father drinking half of it. But now I can remember the good stuff: my mum teaching me how to bake, and listening to old love songs on the radio together.

I know how hurtful language can be I'm strict with my kids about it. One of my sons once said something was a bit gay, and I tore into him; I said, "I don't care what your schoolfriends say but you will not use that as a belittling statement." I suppose the soft butter turned into a monster, but both my children appreciate the nuances of language now.

For 10 years I gave away my possessions every year and moved on to a new place It was naïve and silly but I didn't want to be part of an economic and social system that ground down the people I loved: my mum died at 47, from [the] disappointment [of an impoverished life]; my father died from not just work but its compensatory activities that made it bearable – smoking and drinking.

I have a destructive appetite for food and drink My father was a man who wanted to enjoy life to excess, but couldn't afford to eat well. Growing up, I learnt to think, let's make it a big night tonight as you never know what's going to happen next. So now I have enough, I take too much; when I get the chance to have a fine dinner, I will. And it's had an effect on my health.

John Burnside, 59, is a TS Eliot Prize-winning author of 14 poetry collections and a novelist. His new memoir, 'I Put a Spell on You' (£16.99, Jonathan Cape), is out now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines