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

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

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

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker