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The Interview : Will Burns

(Rachna Singh in conversation with Will Burns)

The Wise Owl talks to Will Burns, poet, musician and novelist who lives in Buckinghamshire and is currently Poet-In-Residence at Caught By The River. He was named as one of the 4 Faber & Faber New Poets for 2014 with his debut pamphlet praised in The Guardian for its ‘quiet intelligence and subtle ways of seeing’, in the series published in October 2014. In 2019 he released ‘Chalk Hill Blue’, a collaborative album made with the composer Hannah Peel, which set his poems to her music. The pair toured extensively, finishing the run with a sold-out night at the Barbican, which also featured a contribution from the esteemed sound artist Chris Watson. Will’s first full collection, ‘Country Music’, was published in 2020, and his debut novel, ‘The Paper Lantern’, was published in July 2021 for which he was named as one of The Observer’s Top 10 Debut Novelists of 2021.

Thanks a lot, Will, for speaking to The Wise Owl.

RS: I believe you left college to become a musician but later veered towards poetry. Our readers would like to know what attracted you to poetry and also why a talented musician like you did not think to pursue music as a profession. 

WB: I suppose I’ve always been interested in poetry, perhaps even before ‘music’, though of course the two are in some ways inseparable. The first adult book I remember owning, for instance, though I think my Mum bought it for me, was a book of Robert Graves poems, but I think in my teens, music just seemed to have everything going for it - all that glamour and the bonhomie of playing in a band with your friends, the excitement of playing live, and of course when you write songs you’re exercising some of that poetic muscle too. The trouble is, bands, unsuccessful ones especially, tend to have a shelf-life and when people start having kids and doing well in their jobs its harder and harder to keep it going. That sort of happened to us, and I started writing more and more just for myself on the page. I also met a woman who was defiantly unimpressed by bands and musicians and that sort of carry on, but who seemed to like the fact I wrote poems. So I wrote more of them to impress her, and they just sort of seemed to go down well, got published here and there and that’s that… now here I am.

RS: ‘Germ Songs’, your collaborative work with illustrator Jess White, takes shape from your interest in the natural world. How did you develop this interest in nature?

WB: Again, that goes right back to my childhood. I had one of those grandparents who seem to so often be the ones who get kids into fishing, birdwatching, gardening, that kind of thing. Mine was my Dad’s father, who grew up in India and cultivated his own love of the natural world there and sort of impressed it upon me, though I was more than open to it. The birds especially stuck with me, and though I probably didn’t spend as much time in my early twenties as I do now outdoors, actively looking for them, I’ve always noticed the species around me, always been excited by the world.

RS: ‘Chalk Hill Blue’ is beautiful poetry set to lovely music by Hannah Peel. There is a thread of sadness that runs through every verse (sometimes a dirge-like quality), whether it is the ‘you aren’t the man you appear to be’ of ‘Summer Blues’ or ‘time I had no hold on’ of ‘Afterwards’ or ‘veracity of recollections vanished’ of ‘Moth Book’ or ‘you die the day you forget the working system of your throat’ in ‘Swallowing.’  Your collection ‘Country Music’ also talks about things eroding, about people trying to make sense of fragments. Do you feel that the world is in a state of irretrievable disarray and is this the reason for the sense of sadness that echoes in your poetry?

WB: Well that’s a big, big question… I suppose in one sense it’s true that all life is a kind of inevitable descent into decay, but I also think that inevitability, that certainty, is what gives life its transcendent moments. That’s how I feel when confronted by things which seem to communicate supreme emotional power - a beautiful morning in a wood, seeing some incredible bird - or sometimes a very common one. Or falling in love, sex, family, grief. These things seem to me to be all the more poignant because of the knowledge that the world is, firstly and most importantly, impermanent, and secondly, and this is what seems to matter right now, under all sorts of pressures thanks to human behaviour. And of course, all these behaviors and things are experienced as fragments, it seems to me. Moments, days, periods of our lives, seasons, epochs. The good, the bad, the indifferent. And the human and the non-human aspects of the world are all fragmentary pieces of a whole too. An incredible, exhilarating, strange whole destined for destruction - as the poet Fiona Benson has it - ‘inch by ruined inch’.

RS: Your book ‘The Paper Lantern’ has been a great success. Please tell us about what inspired you to write this book (other than the pandemic of course). What made you turn from poetry to prose?

WB: Well I don’t know about that but it’s very kind of you to say. I’ve always been interested in writing prose, and have written short stories, essays and the like. Aborted a couple of novels… I suppose it was always just a bit ‘behind’ the poems, if that makes sense. When Country Music was published though, perhaps partly because it was right at the beginning of the lockdown and it all just felt so limp and unfulfilling, I definitely knew I was going to dedicate the next year or so to prose. I felt pretty much done with poetry at that point. And then The Paper Lantern itself started out as a series of sort of journal entries I wrote for a friend and my eventual editor who were putting together a website during the pandemic that tried, somehow, to emulate the energy and culture, I suppose, of a bar that we all loved that had closed. It featured new writing and music and art and I started writing these weekly pieces which eventually became the book. I was incredibly glad to have had the opportunity to do it, and the enforced discipline of having to deliver every week was a huge help. Focused the mind no end…

RS: In ‘The Paper Lantern’ you ruminate about the possibility of a ‘different way of being’ and then dismiss it as ‘nonsensical.’ You are right in that people have mostly gone back to the pre-covid humdrum and drudgery. Do you think there were any salutary lessons learnt from the pandemic?

WB: It’s very interesting this, isn’t it? How incredibly revolutionary it felt for a moment - and this is obviously only one aspect of what was going on too, and I’m not in any way trying to diminish the trauma or fear the pandemic led to as well - for people to think, hold on, what might it feel like to really experience what we might call a glut of time. To re-think how we might have to live in the future, to wonder if our work was satisfying or only a means to a financial end, to pay our bills, or to ask if our work was even necessary - or was it in fact a means to a financial end in a different sense? Did we all just labour our time away to support this strange system that now seems to require people to return to their offices and shop-work just so sandwiches and coffees get paid for and keep the money sloshing around like it needs to. But I do think, on an individual level, people interacted with their environment in a new way, which perhaps can only be a good thing.

RS: Your book ‘The Paper Lantern’ is structured and written like an open Diary with the narrator recording his musings on paper. Did you consciously pick this genre as being best suited to a pandemic tale or did the narrative come to you naturally?

WB: The style, I suppose, came quite naturally. I started to write the thing, as I’ve already mentioned, as this series of almost journalistic pieces, and the voice, once I struck it, sort of kept itself going, it seemed to have its own energy, its own life. All that stuff can sound a bit nebulous and far-fetched sometimes, can’t it, but it’s absolutely true. I suppose that’s very much how my poems come about too, so perhaps it’s an extension of that - the voice, the language, coming ahead of any other consideration.

RS: Some critics have called your book a self-deprecating self-critique, referring to your lines: ‘But what did I do about any of this, anyway? Wrote my own shabbiness into mediocre poems and stood in silence behind the bar while the old men raged, incoherent, at the changes they perceived.’ Our readers would like to know if your book autobiographical.

WB: It certainly has autobiographical elements that’s for sure - but I think essentially it’s fictional. What I really wanted to do, I think, is to create a fictional voice, a fictional speaker, who would then relate to the reader a ‘true’ place. So lots of the history is true, the stories are often real - they actually happened, but those self-deprecating, self-loathing almost, instincts the speaker has are far more exaggerated than they appear in my real-life self. They are present though…

RS: Your book echoes the feelings that beset most people during the pandemic; the initial sense that life was one ‘long bank holiday’, that sense of ‘listless guilt’, the feeling that the virus was ‘everywhere and nowhere.’ And yet it goes beyond it and seamlessly melds with the larger social, political, climactic questions making it perhaps a tale of an ‘afflicted’ civilization. Was that your vision when you started writing this book?

WB: I certainly think a lot about our environmental problems, and of course it seemed like a perfect time and place, to me at least, to discuss those things in light of what was happening with the pandemic. People starting to think about the amount they travel, how they work, where they actually live and how that might affect them. I think if you have a deep love for a place, and more broadly, for the world as a whole and all the other organisms within it, then it’s impossible not to think slightly elegiacally about the loss of species and habitat and everything else that is, as you say, ‘afflicting’ what we call civilization. And there’s also this huge cognitive dissonance in the way we think about lots of this stuff. Britain loves to see itself as a nation of environmentalists, bird watchers and gardeners and the rest of it, but at the same time there’s a huge apathy for systemic disasters like the amount of sewage constantly pumped into our rivers. That could be fairly simply prevented if the water companies weren’t run to profit shareholders, but instead to - radical as it sounds - ensure our water systems were run right.

RS: Are there any poets or writers you admire. If so. why?

WB: Lots of them, of course. The Paper Lantern is actually named in honour of one of my favourites, Malcolm Lowry, whose book 'Under the Volcano' features a bar called The Farolito, which was sometimes mis-translated as the lantern, or the paper lantern. All his work is incredible. I also had Thomas Bernhard in mind a lot when I was writing this book, his humour, his misanthropy which actually sometimes just obscures his tenderness. And I love the poetry of Michael Hofmann, too. He has a brilliant knack for making unforgettable phrases out of what seems the most ordinary language (but of course it rarely is), among lots of other qualities of course. His is the translation of Durs Grunbein that the speaker in The Paper Lantern bemoans coming across and finding that someone has already written what they would like to. That’s my little homage to Hofmann - he makes me put my own pen down and go for a pint instead.

RS: Is there any advice you would like to give budding poets or writers?

WB: Probably the biggest help in material terms that I have is a couple of very trusted early readers. My wife, and a very good friend who’s also a poet. We read each other’s stuff and point out any glaring errors or potential missteps. If you can find something like that, I think it can ease what can sometimes feel like a burden of loneliness when you start out. It’s not a team sport, after all, ultimately, and that can be so tough when you’re trying to find a place for yourself. Obviously, that doesn’t work for some people, but it’s my own pressure valve, for sure.

RS: Our readers would be eager to know if you are working on a new book. When will we see it in the bookshops?

WB: I’m tentatively working on something yes. Early days and all that. But I think possibly another book of poems might be almost finished… When either of these appear, though, is slightly out of my hands. Too much work on both to be done before I could say with any certainty!

RS: In today’s digital world, with the Gen Z’s penchant for shortcuts in language usage and a move away from the written word, do you think genres like poetry and novel have a future?

WB: I think funnily enough, poetry particularly seems to be having a high old time - I think the performance elements of literature are what might well sustain it. I watch people like Max Porter give wonderful readings, poets Like Alice Oswald who are incredibly compelling to watch as well as read, or someone like Salena Godden who can just take an audience along with her wherever she wants for an hour - in verse or prose, almost like a  stage show, and it seems to me that’s something the digital experience can never quite replicate, though of course it has its own qualities. 

RS: Thanks a lot Will for taking the time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in your creative pursuits. We hope to see more of your poetry rendered to music. We also hope to see more books that echo your world view and resonate widely.

WB: Thank you for the questions, it was my pleasure…

Works of Will Burns

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The Paper Lantern


Country Music

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Chalk Hill Blues

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