Meet Poet Wayne Burke

Wayne Burke. Photo by Michael Jermyn

by Nat Frothingham

BARRE — Little about Wayne Burke’s early life suggested that one day he would seize upon writing and poetry with the discipline and passion he brings to that craft today.

In an interview with The Bridge, Burke — now 63 — who lives in Barre — described his present commitment to poetry: “I write every day now and for the past five years I’ve written four poetry books with another on the way.” In addition to his four books, Burke has also published as many as 200 poems in small magazines.

Burke related the story of his transformational life journey from a broken family in a rough, depleted mill-town in the northwest corner of Massachusetts to his life today as a working writer and poet.

“Not once” – wrote Burke in an Author’s Note that’s part of his second book of poems called “Dickhead” — “Not once as a kid growing up in a small mill-town in the hills of North Berkshire County did I think of becoming a poet.”

Instead his youthful ambition was to become a sports star. “I wanted to become a Major League baseball player, and if I could have hit a curveball with more facility than I showed, I might have become one. Or maybe not: I had a lot of other things beside baseball on my mind in adolescence.”

Wayne Burke was born and grew up in Adams, Massachusetts, once a thriving textile manufacturing town whose population peaked in 1910 at 13,026. Then over time as the mills shut down, the population of Adams declined to 8,485 in 2010.

As to his family — both of Burke’s parents died before he was three years old and young Burke was raised by his grandparents, Edward V. Burke and Rose T. Burke.

Edward Burke was proprietor of Burke’s Inn down the street from the family house. By the time Wayne came along the inn was starting to go downhill and eventually became a neighborhood drinking place.When Burke was 10, his grandfather died, leaving his widow, Wayne’s grandmother, his other three siblings, and his father brother — his uncle.

“My uncle lived with us,” Burke said. “He was violent. He gave us the belt.” You couldn’t follow any of his rules because his rules changed depending on his moods.

Burke’s grandmother tried to stop the beatings. “But there was little she could do outside of pleading,” Burke said. “They’re just children,” she would say, “Leave them alone.”

If you were to pick up a copy of “Dickhead,” Burke’s second book of poems, you would soon figure out who Dickhead was.  Dickhead was the young Wayne Burke, at home, at school, in the streets, getting into trouble, getting shamed, judged, punished with the belt, and feeling lost, confused, belittled and wanting payback and revenge.

Some of the smoldering anger Burke felt as a child and youth gets expressed in the first, short poem in “Dickhead.”

A guy on the street

who looks like me

I clench my fists

In case he tries to

get tough.

Variants of this voice pervade Burke’s poems — a voice that is both in combination and by turns — wary, defiant, raw, often ironic, profane and almost always – combat-ready.

Remembering what school was like, Burke said, “Academically, I was out of place – socially, as well.”

As a kid whose father had died, Burke felt like a nobody. “When you’re a fatherless child,” he said, “you just get pushed along. Nobody pays much attention to you.”

But if young Burke knew what is was like to be shunned, he hung onto memories of not being shunned as well.

He got attention for playing football, basketball and baseball in high school.

Even today, he has a very strong memory of a high school teacher who praised his writing.

And if he had a belt-wielding uncle who was a sadist, he had another uncle – his mother’s brother — who was a town selectman. “He was the one that got us jobs. He was in the pipefitters union. He got Burke a job in the highway department one summer. Years later, Burke dedicated his second book of poetry, “Knuckle Sandwiches” to “Uncle Earl for his unconditional and unwavering support.”

After graduating from high school, Burke made a number of attempts at higher education. He was admitted to UMass at Amherst and played football without a scholarship. “I got lost in the shuffle,” he said about his experience at UMass, a university with 30,000 students. But it was not all negative. Burke had started writing and got some encouragement from a grad student and a professor.

Burke took another stab at higher education when he attended Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas. He had been recruited by Ottawa to play football there when still in high school. But he was no longer a football player, he said. Instead, he wanted to be a writer. “That was in my head,” and he met another student at Ottawa who appreciated his writing.

After UMass and Ottawa, Burke’s next stop was Framingham State College in Framingham, Mass. that he described as a “commuter school” with 5,000 to 10,000 students.

It was at Framingham where Burke met the celebrated poet, Alan Dugan, who showed up at a guest lecture series. Dugan, who was a winner of the National Book Award among other honors became a poet-in-residence at Framingham State and he and Burke became friends and drinking buddies. Dugan wrote this appreciation of Burke’s poetry:

Burke is a tough young poet, who like all the rest of us, has learned some lessons from William Carlos Williams but without imitating Williams. Burke writes the language of where he came from with respect for it, and more power to him.

UMass, Ottawa, Framingham — Burke never felt that he “fit into” any of these colleges. When asked why he left Framingham, he said, “Academically it was an extension of high school. I wasn’t really interested in going to classes.”

His college career might have ended when almost by accident he discovered Goddard College.

One night Burke ran into a cousin he described as “the original hippie.” It was this cousin who “sold him” on the idea of going to Goddard College. “I was attracted to the place,” Burke said, “because there were no tests, no exams. You structured your own curriculum. That fit me, I thought.”

Burke felt that the academic side of Goddard wasn’t all that different from other colleges. But “socially” Goddard was,” in Burke’s words, “An education I couldn’t have gotten in many other places.”

At Goddard, Burke came to know one or two college teachers who criticized his poetry, even perhaps shook him up a little.

College teacher and poet Michael Ryan told Burke his poems were “all on the surface.” According to Burke, Ryan said, “I needed to submerge — I needed to go deeper.”

And Burke remembers another teacher — writer Jack Pulaski. “When you did merit his praise, that was a high point.” That built up your confidence. “But when he came down hard,” Burke said, “Yes, it hurt.”

Burke graduated from Goddard with a bachelor’s degree in 1979.

During all the years that Burke was trying to get traction at college and afterwards, he was working both in New England and away from New England.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Burke was a fry cook, machine shop operator, store clerk. In Wyoming, he was a roughneck on an oil rig. He picked oranges in Florida. In Boston, he was a janitor, cook and security guard.

Back in Vermont, Burke worked as a laborer and truck driver. He also tried substitute teaching. For nine years he was on the staff at a crisis house for people who were mentally ill with such disabilities as schizophrenia, depression and various bipolar disorders. He lived at the crisis house and said bluntly about the experience: “I liked some of it. Plenty of it, I didn’t like.” Eventually he left. “I was really burned out,” he said.

At age 57, Burke found out he had arterial heart disease. That led to a triple bypass operation from which he has recovered.

In recent years, Burke has essentially divided his time between working in a nursing home as a licensed practical nurse and his writing and poetry.

Burke writes about what he sees and has seen, lived through and experienced. He can call up the darkness. He discusses sex. He can bring a smile to your face with three lines about a dog.

What kind of greeting

Is that

The cold tongue of a dog

He can weigh the seriousness of serious things.

At the dinner table

my sister threatens suicide:

pot roast again

He can cause us to wonder about the future.

I’m the Lone Ranger

after Tonto died

after Silver ran off

after the mills shut down

and the welfare state came around

and chain stores and malls moved in

and Mom and Pops’ moved out

and nobody knew their neighbors anymore

and heroin became the new

pot…

“I’m not writing for any particular audience,” Burke says about his poetry. And about his use of frank language, he offers no apologies. The language he uses – he uses because it’s the most appropriate to the subject he is writing about.

Showdown

As I lifted weights in the cellar

I listened to the floor boards overhead

creak

from the weight of my Uncle’s feet

I thought of my fist

landing SPLAT in the middle

of his fat face.

His days as boss man

Were past

and he knew it too;

and one morning, in the kitchen

as I combed my hair,

which I had let grow long

he asked when

I was going to get a haircut

and I said “never”

and he flinched

like he’d been slapped

and stared

black-eyed

with the glare that used to

pin me to the floor like a rabbit

but this time I glared back

and we stood

with the sun burning the roof above

and the years piled up between

us;

and then he turned his head

and with a sick smile

fled

out the door

as gutlessly

as every other bully

whoever ran.

Wayne Burke’s Books of Poetry

“Words that Burn” (2013); “Dickhead” (2015); Knuckle Sandwiches (2016); “A Lark Up the Nose of Time” (2017)

These books by Wayne Burke are available from Phoenix Bookshop, 191 Bank Street, Burlington, (802) 448-3350.  Or from Bareback Press, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8G-4W3 – or barebackpress@gmail.com.

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