Lo­cal writer a fi­nal­ist for na­tional po­etry award

The Prince George Citizen - - Extra - Cit­i­zen staff fpee­[email protected]­i­t­i­zen.ca

Frank PEE­BLES An­drew Bur­ton has al­ways had a gritty pen. The Prince Ge­orge writer has writ­ten plays, short sto­ries and po­etry, most pre­dom­i­nantly, and even though he hits veins of com­edy and poignancy, the foun­da­tion has al­ways been raw re­al­ity.

He has won in­ter­na­tional awards for his theatre work (he is the founder of Street Spir­its Theatre Com­pany, among other stage ven­tures) and crit­i­cal ac­claim for his verse has also been wide­spread.

The lat­est hon­our is in the form of na­tional broad­cast­ing at­ten­tion. Bur­ton was named, this week, as one of the Top 30 fi­nal­ists for the CBC Po­etry Prize. His poem Where You From? made the na­tion­wide long-list and in true Bur­to­nian fash­ion it scrab­bles in the grime and chill of the Canadian gut­ters and al­leys.

“Some of it came from my youth,” Bur­ton told The Cit­i­zen. “I did have a pe­riod when I was about 15 to about 18 when I was liv­ing on the street in Win­nipeg, and then later on I got into the help­ing pro­fes­sions and was back on the street work­ing in that dif­fer­ent way. The poem comes from that com­bi­na­tion of ex­pe­ri­ences.”

Bur­ton now works for North­ern Health as a coun­sel­lor and advocate in realms like ad­dic­tions, abuse, street risk, and all those nu­anced levers that need to be pulled and pushed when your ti­tle is So­cial Worker.

“I’ve writ­ten a lot about street life, over many years – dif­fer­ent as­pects of coun­ter­cul­ture,” he said. “I think a big part of my po­etry has been ob­ser­va­tional stuff and some­times very di­rect and some­times not.”

Win­nipegers, he said, will rec­og­nize their city in this poem. When he was a youth, he lived in a con­demned apart­ment above a street-level pros­thetic limb fac­tory. The apart­ments were dis­al­lowed by city in­spec­tors be­cause there was no al­ter­nate fire es­cape route. The land­lord of­fered the apart­ments up for off-the-books res­i­dents, and Bur­ton was one among the “sketchy coun­ter­cul­ture crowd” who didn’t mind tak­ing the risk for a cheap room. He said no­body was wor­ried be­cause there were ways of get­ting out of a po­ten­tial fire any­way.

Ref­er­ences to dif­fer­ent points of known Win­nipeg ge­og­ra­phy and cul­ture were also en­joined with as­pects of Prince Ge­orge.

“It’s a bit of a mashup,” he said. The con­crete canyon be­tween the Art Gallery and The Bay is out of Win­nipeg, but “there’s a ref­er­ence to the soup bus, and that is about the one that used to be a sta­ple in Prince Ge­orge’s down­town.”

He’s been writ­ing po­etry for decades, us­ing it as a means of per­sonal ex­pres­sion, cathar­sis, ar­range­ment of thought, and fun. A lot was for his own sake but he also knew he could move oth­ers with his words.

The first time his scribery came to the at­ten­tion of the na­tional broad­caster was when he was liv­ing in Thomp­son, Man­i­toba prior to mov­ing to Prince Ge­orge. He would fre­quently drive to Win­nipeg, a dis­tance about equiv­a­lent to Vancouver from this city. His con­stant com­pan­ion was the ra­dio, and the only sta­tion that spanned the dis­tance was CBC. As he rolled along one day in the 80s he heard an ad for a post­card poem – a fully formed piece that was both short and em­blem­atic of the Canadian ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I pulled over and sat at a diner in Ash­ern, lis­tened in on con­ver­sa­tions there, wrote what came to me at the ta­ble, sub­mit­ted it, and I guess it struck a chord be­cause I won,” he said.

It was a sparked fuse after that. The prairie edi­tion of the CBC would hold quar­terly po­etry com­pe­ti­tions and Bur­ton sub­mit­ted fre­quently, and would some­times win.

An­other in­ter­ac­tion be­tween he and the CBC oc­curred when their World Ser­vice branch took one of his po­ems and ar­ranged for an ac­tor to read it over the air to the world. It was a Christ­mas piece for fam­ily lis­ten­ing.

That was hon­our enough, Bur­ton said, but it was heard in Eng­land by a pub­lisher who con­tacted him about sup­ply­ing a reg­u­lar se­ries of fam­ily-friendly po­ems to their mag­a­zine.

He hap­pened to also be pub­lish­ing a se­ries of mur­der sto­ries to Ellery Queen’s Mys­tery Mag­a­zine. “It was re­ally dark stuff,” he said, “then I had to switch my mind over to chil­dren’s po­ems for Par­ent Con­nec­tion.”

His writ­ing has ebbed and flowed over the years, but his pen has al­ways been near at hand. He was part of the Mur­der Of Crows writ­ing group that ganged up to pub­lish some chap­books of po­etry, and he also pro­duced two chap­books as a soloist.

Storm Sea­son and Word Games can both be found at Books & Com­pany now, and they will be joined on Nov. 14 by Day­mares, the new vol­ume of po­etry Bur­ton will per­son­ally un­veil at a book launch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. that day.

The CBC Po­etry Prize will have its Top 30 whit­tled down to a short­list with the ul­ti­mate win­ner an­nounced on Nov. 14.

The longlist was cho­sen by a panel of po­ets and ed­i­tors from across Canada be­fore go­ing to a jury com­prised of Jor­dan Abel, Kai Cheng Thom and Ruth B who will de­cide the fi­nal­ists and win­ner.

Where You From?

by An­drew Bur­ton

I am a castoff child of the city

I am from the back al­leys haunted by thread­bare rats scrap­ping over the re­mains of soup bus sand­wiches vom­ited up by junkies too long in the nee­dle to care

I am from the twi­light time be­fore the sun creeps up all stealth and anger hun­gry to chase the last husks of home­less souls from the shad­owy places I am from denim clad zom­bies rolling from bar to bar to all night diner sit­ting where they can see the door where no one can get be­hind them

I am from faded run­aways hid­ing track marks with dol­lar store makeup trad­ing sex for co­caine in the woods along the banks of the Assini­boine

I am from ghost rid­ers too dumb to know they’re dead watch­ing for the an­gles for that one clean cut that one tight score to brag about on the floor of a crack house in the Vil­lage I am from the rum­ble of traf­fic after mid­night

echo­ing back and forth in the con­crete canyon be­tween the Art Gallery and The Bay

I am from strangers with no last names shar­ing a con­demned apart­ment over a fac­tory

fur­nished with car seats and scav­enged ply­wood.

I am from smil­ing and high fiv­ing old friends speak­ing the rit­u­als the magic words to con­nect a we are besties smile with one hand rest­ing on a shiv in the back pocket.

I am from Old English in a brown paper bag drunk by the foun­tain on Broad­way know­ing the cops have us in their sights not giv­ing a shit

I am from the night


An­drew Bur­ton, founder of Street Spir­its Theatre Com­pany, is a fi­nal­ist for a na­tional po­etry prize.

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