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Exclusive: John Burgess talks about inspirations for Lewis and Clark poetry book

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Seattle poet John Burgess describes himself as a “Lewis and Clark geek” and Friday he’s coming to Great Falls, one of the key stops for the Corps of Discovery, to read his poems inspired by the famed explorers. Burgess’ reading and visual presentation from “by Land,” takes place at Cassiopeia Books at 6:30 p.m. and is free to attend.

John Burgess
John Burgess

Burgess said the idea for the book came after realized that there were more and more Lewis and Clark-inspired poems showing up in his repertoire. He said that, together with the fact that he’s been visiting the famous historical sites from the trail, led to the book being made.

“About 10 years ago I was working on my first book and I had these little Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea poems, and then for my third book I noticed I had a collection of five or six of them, so I pulled them out and I expanded it into their own book,” he said. “Then, I grew up in Upstate New York and I made the westward journey from New York to Bozeman when I came out with my uncle to work on the land survey crew, so I first intersected the Lewis and Clark Trail in 1978 and it grew from there.”

Burgess said the book is broken down in three parts, the first part which includes sections inspired by the trail in Montana, then the trail along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and finally the lower trail from St. Louis up to Fort Mandan.

Burgess said he doesn’t expect everyone to read the book chronologically, adding that there are no page numbers because he wanted to encourage people to read it however they’d like.

“It’s like finding your own way,” he said. “You can open the book and go through it in any way you want to. Mine is arbitrary and is the order I intersected with the trail, but you may have a different order you may want to read it in. I just didn’t want to restrict it to just how I did it.”

The book is a collage of sonnets, concrete poems, handwritten lists, a memoir broken up into fragments, drawings of Burgess’ visits to historical sites and markers.

Burgess said over the years he’s become disciplined in his writing, adding that he tries writing, or drawing, every morning.

By Land“I’m pretty dedicated,” he said. “I write every morning whether I finish something or not. Lately it’s been a lot of drawing cartoons … or I’ll draw or do maps, but I write every morning and that’s been my routine. Plus, I’ve kept a journal since I got to Montana State University in 1979, I guess, and then I’ve been writing poetry since high school.”

Before making is way to Seattle in 1985, where he lives now, Burgess earned a degree in English Literture in 1982 from MSU. He’s been a featured poet at bookstores, festivals, coffee shops, and other venues all across the Northwest.

His first book, “Punk Poems,” came out in 2005, followed by “A History of Guns in the Family” (2008), and “Graffito” (2011.)

He said he’s looking forward to coming to Great Falls to read his work due to the historical significance the area had for the explorers.

“I started reading in bookstores in Seattle and then started spreading out a bit, we went to Bellingham, went to the east side of Washington, but I really wanted to read this book in Montana,” he said. “This is where I came to the trail first … Coming to Great Falls is exciting to me to read there because it’s a big deal to a Lewis and Clark geek like myself.”

He also said he’ll have a projector screen to show some of the visual items the book contains, also.

“I’ll have a slideshow type thing because my wife, she was smart enough to go to Goodwill and find an old screen that collapses so I’m dragging all the stuff around with me across Montana because it’s important to have the visuals to go with the text, too.”

Burgess said people have told him it’s his “most accessible” poetry to date, something he was initially a little surprised about but has been pleased to hear nonetheless.

After Great Falls, Burgess will be at Montana Book & Toy Co. in Helena on Saturday, and at Shakespeare & Co. in Missoula on Monday.

For more information, or to order “by Land,” visit the Ravenna Press website here.


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