On poetry and the many themes that inform her writing
I first met CM in the spring semester of 2018 when I took her class, “Fetish, Sustainability, and The Self.” She began our first day together by reading the opening poem from her book, The Vital System. I knew then it would be a good semester, and that I had to read this collection of poems. Throughout my semester with CM Burroughs, I learned what poetry is. I created some of the work I am most proud of because of her skills and guidance as a professor. I found myself often wondering what more of her work was like. What would it look like if I took a close look at it?
After that semester, I bought The Vital System and devoured the collection within a matter of days. Each poem had a unique flavored, something I had never tasted before. CM Burroughs creates small worlds within her poems that I could not help but ask questions about. I was delighted when she agreed to speak with me about The Vital System, her process, and her inspirations.
CM Burroughs’s debut collection of poetry is The Vital System (Tupelo Press, 2012). She is an assistant professor of poetry at Columbia College Chicago, and she serves as senior editor for TupeloQuarterly and coeditor for Court Green. Burroughs has been awarded fellowships and grants from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave Canem Foundation, Callaloo Writers Workshop, and the University of Pittsburgh. She has received commissions from the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Warhol Museum to create poetry in response to art installations. A Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the 2009 Gift of Freedom Award, her poetry has appeared in journals including Callaloo, jubilat, Ploughshares, VOLT, Bat City Review, and Volta.
When does a poem begin for you? Do you find yourself taking up a routine when it comes to beginning a poem, or is the process different for every poem?
A poem begins with provocation and desire. I tend to fantasize about and mull over poems before I write them as a means of figuring out what they are about. And some poems come out of free-writing and pure chance upon an intersection of language and idea. I generally walk around with subjects in mind, and I work to find the right language to craft the subject into poems.
In The Vital System,the titles of each poem are found at the top of the page with a border line separating the title from the poem. This made me wonder, what does the title for a poem mean to you? Do your poems always have a title or is this a structure you like to play around with?
The title is the first moment I am able to take my reader by the hand. I look at every part of the poem as a cooperative space between the word and the imagination of the reader. And I have to admit that I prefer to work for the right title—the first thing a reader sees cannot be lazily-made.
In The Vital System, the structure of each poem is unique. How do you find the structure for your poems? Do you write each piece with an intended physical structure or do you piece it together once you have gotten all the words on the page?
A poem’s structure should be aesthetically provocative in some way. That is, if the piece is held away from the eye and the language rendered abstract then I prefer there be some desire toward the poem. The content of the poem also informs the structure—if the poem is tense then the structure might be short-lined and narrow. That said, I shift structure throughout my writing and revision process in order to satisfy how the content is changing until the poem is complete.
As I read this collection, there is continuously a strong sense of the human body in the work. How did the body find its way into these poems? What is it about the human that draws you in and keeps you coming back to write about it?
I was born 3 months premature, which is addressed by the first poem in The Vital System, “Dear Incubator.” The body that I was born into—the initial 1lb 12oz vulnerable thin-shelled gather of organs—that body, and now this healthy athletic body that I use today, informs everything I write. I think from the body; it belongs in my poems because I exist.
There is also a subtle sensuality within some of your poems, these were some of pieces that resonated with me personally. How did the female body influence this collection? Was it something you found in the poems as you wrote? Or was it a subject you intended to showcase even before beginning the idea of the collection?
Because I exist, I attempt to explore all expressions of the body, and this includes sensuality, romance, play, etc. Sexuality is one of the uses of the body that I’ve alway been interested in writing—curious about all the ways one may explore herself and another.
When you began writing the poems of The Vital System, did you know each poem would be a part of something bigger? What was the process of putting a book together like for you? Were there any poems that did not make it into the book?
The book is a revised version of my Master’s thesis. The intention was to create a full-length collection all along. I have an old photograph, I’ll dig it up for you, in which I am standing before a wall of poems. I used to live in Pittsburgh, PA in a Heinz carriage house with vast apartments throughout. I used one of the walls in my apartment to post all the poems of my book. That’s where I edited and rearranged them. That wall held my first book.
What are you currently working on in terms of writing? Do the themes of The Vital System continue to influence you?
The themes do continue to influence me. My new book Master Suffering (Tupelo Press, 2020) explores the female body through the long illness and death of my younger sister, the impotence of spirituality to appease grief, and the role of pleasure in providing haven from despair. I believe writers chase certain subjects throughout the life of their art, and my obsessions continue to demand poems of me.
Interview by: Jessica Powers