By Evan Wood
Richard Burgin was born in Brookline, Massachusettes, and now lives in Missouri. In the years in between his birth and our brief conversation inside his home in Clayton, he has won five Pushcart Prizes, published sixteen books, and founded three magazines; one of them, Boulevard, is in its thirtieth year of publication. His most recent book, Hide Island, is a collection of short stories and a novella.
ML: Can you talk about the background of your first book, which is a series of conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, a very famous Spanish-language poet?
Burgin: I was introduced to Borges’ work as a freshman in college at Brandeis. Later on, I found out that he was going to be at Harvard, which was maybe fifteen minutes from where I went to school. Anyway, I was friends with this young woman, a classmate from Brazil, who had read Borges in Spanish. And she was kind of a Borges freak, too, and she said, “Well, I’ll him call up because I can speak Spanish.”
It was such a different world, you know. People were in the phone book. People answered their phone. So, he was obviously very open and generous about his time and about meeting us. We were just two fans. And to my delight or amazement, he asked us to come back again. So, I asked if I could tape record a conversation. And he said, “Sure. Just don’t make me too aware of it.” That was it. I had the most innocent of motivations and just sort of walked into something.
ML: It’s interesting that you were able to turn that desire to meet one of your idols into a book.
Burgin: I think the world was just beginning to discover him. I mean he was never a best-selling author. He’s a household name in universities but not in the general reading public. He had only emerged from total obscurity like six years before. He won some international publisher’s prize. He shared the award with another writer, pretty well-known, named Samuel Beckett. And that was one of the more intelligent years, as awards go.
ML: How do you feel like the book was received?
Burgin: It was received really well. I think part of it was that I was so young. It came out during the height of the protest era, and I remember one person wrote that I was an example of an unalienated youth doing something positive. Everything kind of broke right for me, as it never did for any other professional endeavor in the rest of my life. This was just sort of destined to work out for me, especially when you consider that when I went in there all I wanted to do was meet him.
ML: You still edit Boulevard, a literary magazine you founded. Why start a literary magazine?
Burgin: Right. I saw that one coming. Well, I can only answer for myself, although I suspect my reasons might overlap with some of others. To answer you with full candor, I never got a PhD. I was at Columbia Graduate School, and I just couldn’t cut it. Yet, I had to support myself. I had to publish more than most of my peers because I didn't have the degrees that people with tenure typically have. So, basically that was part of my plan to be able to get tenure. The ultimate impetus was for my career. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it, but that wasn’t my biggest reason for doing it.
I enjoy making things, though. While editing a magazine is a far cry from writing a novel in terms of creativity, it’s still the idea of putting something together and making something. That has pretty much been the central activity of my life. I was just having this conversation with my son yesterday. I was trying to stress the importance of loving what you do. I told him I never really loved teaching, whereas I always loved writing. The reason I can tell is that I wouldn’t teach for free, but I would write for free. I would write whether I was paid or not.
ML: Before Boulevard, you’d founded two other magazines. Do you think you were trying to do something different than before with Boulevard? Or was it the same magazine just with more experience under your belt?
Burgin: It was definitely different.
New York Arts Journal, the second magazine I founded, was more of a commercial thing in a way. It was a tabloid. We had an interview with Jack Nicholson, Noam Chomsky, and this was our very first issue. We had advertising, I sold ads to art galleries in New York. Barnes & Noble advertised with us. Then I decided to go for a more traditional literary magazine format. And I also wanted the permanence, or the illusion of permanence, since everything is destined to be forgotten anyway. It’s the idea of having harder covers as opposed to a newspaper.
For a while there, New York Arts Journal was pretty well-known in New York, but I didn’t have my act together enough to capitalize on it. I had a meeting with someone from Village Voice about incorporating us. I had all these opportunities. I met someone from Condé Nast, and I was just a nervous, frightened, substance-abusing kid. I was in over my head. So, that never became what it could have. It only lasted six years.
ML: The volume of short fiction as opposed to novels you’ve published is relatively high. What’s the reason for that?
Burgin: There ought to be an amendment, in addition to the Fifth Amendment, where you can plead naiveté.
I actually began as a novelist. I wrote novels as a teenager and in my early twenties. But they didn’t get published, deservedly so. But I thought, “In the time it took me to write this novel for which I get nothing, I could have written maybe ten stories. And even if they didn’t get accepted as a book, some of them at least could have gotten accepted individually and published in literary magazines.”
And I had more success as a story writer. My stories typically have more character development, take place over a period of time, show changes in character—a lot of the qualities you’d see in a novel. My challenge was to make things more concise because I wasn’t really a natural short story writer. What I should have done after publishing the first or second book of stories was go back to novels right away, but out of my own insecurities, I continued doing what I had found a certain level of acceptance in. By the time I tried to write and send out novels, I was already typecast as a short story writer.
ML: It seems like you take the form more seriously than most contemporary writers.
Burgin: I think that I write novelistic type stories—compressed novels. I’ve been trying to write more concisely, and sometimes I’m able to. But generally speaking, it’s because I didn’t know how to—because I began as a novelist.
ML: I’ve noticed that in many of your stories there’s an element of danger that the characters aren’t necessarily aware of. And then I read "Notes on Ms. Slaughter," in which the characters are afraid of something that may or may not be real.
Burgin: Fear is kind of an underrepresented emotion in literature. I’ve always been intrigued in terms of writing about anxiety in general: how people deal with it, how people deny it, how people sublimate it, and how, taken to its extreme level, people deal with it even as well as they do. This leads to the other ultimate mystery: no one on earth understands how the world came into being; never mind why because our minds are constructed in terms of cause and effect. If I raise my foot, I make a sound when I lower the foot. But when you try to apply the whole way we’re constructed and our whole mindset of cause and effect to the universe, it doesn’t work.
Just ask yourself one question: How could there ever have been nothing? And how could there always have been something? And if you meditate upon that simple line, I think you’re bound to feel mystery, awe, anxiety, fear. It amazes me how people persist in their lives in light of that. That’s why I have that line in Rivers Last Longer “Art is the last illusion.” Somebody says that to somebody at a cocktail party or something. Here, everybody is sacrificing everything because they think what? That their work will last forever? That their name will be known? Nobody’s will. Not Beethoven, not even Shakespeare. Not in a million years, not in a half million years. Probably not even in fifty-thousand years. Still, art is like a religion for people. They think they’re going to defeat death through their work, and they’re not. Nobody is. I know that isn’t what writers want to hear or want to believe, but I don’t think anything in life is simple enough to sum up with one viewpoint. Few things are.
Hemingway, who committed suicide, said in an interview: “I have enjoyed living.” I’m sure that’s true. Somehow in spite of all the horror that’s going on in our society, right here in Missouri, people enjoy living more than they don’t, or they wouldn’t struggle to live to the extent that they do.
ML: So how does a writer reckon with that fear of death?
Burgin: In a way, even in Rivers Last Longer, I think there’s an implied message that, if you’re after immortality, the better route is through family and children. That’s implied as the more important way to go, in that book anyway. And I do believe that immortality that it does exist, but in a more subtle way.
In most religions that I know of, people talk and think about their whole being—not their body, their soul, their mind—existing forever and reuniting with the minds and souls of other people. I don’t believe that, but I do believe that species immortality is real. It’s not the individual. This is hard for us to accept.
Nobody thinks much of killing an ant, but we wouldn’t want all ants to disappear from the earth. If we identified with our species, instead of striving so much for ourselves, and—if we stopped caring so much about cities and countries and state and boundaries and races, if we identified and cared about our species as a whole—then when we die it wouldn’t be so tragic. It wouldn’t be the end of the world as long as the species survived. If we truly learned to love other people, we wouldn’t care so much about our individual fate. The goal should be immortality of the species, not the person. That, I believe, is possible. Maybe, that’s the cosmic secret, and maybe it isn’t. That’s why there are always two conflicting impulses in people: keep up with the Joneses and surpass the Joneses. But we don’t want to succeed at the expense and torture of others, though that’s what almost every powerful country in the world does. It’s a bitter pill because we all want our individual minds to go on forever apparently. Maybe, the key is to assure the survival of the species by doing things like eliminating nuclear bombs, things that truly do threaten the survival of the species.
ML: Well, that’s kind of a transcendent realization because each of us has a genetic impulse to further the species, but it’s expressed in a very personal, selfish way—our families, and our communities.
Burgin: I’m all for families. My son is by far the most important thing to me in my life; he’s far more important than my so-called work. I just don’t see why we can’t broaden the concept of family, while taking care of our own little slither of it. If you take the reverse, if the species doesn’t survive, nobody’s work will. We know that much.
ML: But ultimately, you don’t believe your name will last forever?
Burgin: Well, it’s a human impulse. Of course, I’d love my work to be loved and last; I’m not going to lie and say that I wouldn’t. But I think that at the same time, while confessing that that’s an emotional truth, that the deepest level of my thinking realizes that it’s a total illusion. And it’s everybody’s illusion, not just mine.
ML: But it does create a sense of purpose for some people, and if it isn’t your sense of purpose, what is?
Burgin: It’s funny; I used to talk about this stuff with my father—he who gave me the line, “Art is the last illusion.” I didn’t know what he meant at the time. I’m flooded with a little nostalgia thinking about my father. But that’s kind of like saying, “In light of death, what is the point of doing anything? What is the point of falling in love? What is the point of having sex?”
Basically, I do it because I enjoy it. I get pleasure from it. Something doesn’t have to last forever to get pleasure from it.
An abridged version of this story ran in the February 2015 issue of Missouri Life. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life.