After a nine-year incubation, Burton Cummings has released his long-awaited book of poems, “The Writings Of B.L. Cummings”. One of Canada’s preeminent musicians, Cummings spent nine years working on this, and if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a copy, you’ll immediately understand why it took so long.
From the hand-embossed front cover that resembles worn leather, to the hand-signed inside page, this book is a rare treasure from a treasured artist. Rather than looking backward as most artists do after so many years, Cummings looks forward. He’s not the type to look back and he still has something to say.
During the final stages of preparation, I spent more than a few evenings with Burton and his close friend and confidant Ernie Cefalu, and watched while the two of them painstakingly went over the final preparations of the book, from the hand-binding and gold-leafing, to the printing of the books. No detail was left out of this book, right down to Burton wanting to have it printed locally, preferring quality over mass-production. Between signing copies of the book, I stole some of Burton’s time and asked him the following questions:
I’m not an expert on poetry, are you? Have you read a lot of it?
It was one of the things I never had to work at in school, literature and English. I guess we all have proclivities of whatever we lean to, and writing was always one of those things. I was writing stories and poems and silly little cartoons, starring the people in my home room. All of that stuff, very early, and I think my mother read me a lot of poetry when I was tiny. My mother taught me to read well before Kindergarten, so when I was about four years old, I was already reading, and I read a lot of the great poems by Kipling. I always loved Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stephenson, and some of the real classics by Keats. Today they’re all there at the touch of a few keys on the internet, you can read all the great stuff.
How is writing a poem different than writing a song?
It’s a different world completely. You write lyrics for a song and they have the armor and the battalion of sound, and music, and rhythm. And someone else is either singing or saying the words. When you write poems, it’s on a piece of paper and the words have to stand alone, and those words will always be only in the voice of whomever is reading those words. They will always hear it in their own voice. The poems are much harder to create than songs, because they have to stand on their own, and they have to stand up in the reader’s mind, in the reader’s his or her own voice. So it’s a much tougher thing.
I do actually detect Burton Cummings in a few of these poems. Your writings, whether in poetry or songs have a certain feel to them.
I think sometimes it’s not as serious as other times. It’s taken about seven or eight years to put the poetry book together, but I’ve never spent more than a couple of hours on any one poem. They are either done in that time, or I move on and trash it. I write songs the same way. I never spent too much time writing any songs. That’s just my view on writing; I like writing that just happens. If that’s naive, then so be it but it’s served me well for over thirty albums.
Did you not normally write lyrics before the songs were written?
A couple of times. There was one song called “Eye” I wrote years before I ever met Troiano and that ended up on the album “Flavours”. Once in a while I did, but not that much. I always loved it when the guitar players would feed me riffs and just say “sing over it”.
What are you trying to convey?
I don’t know, poetry is a bit of a dying art, it’s somewhat disappeared over the years and yet it seems through my work on the poetry book, a lot of my followers have been motivated to go out and learn more about the art. I want people to see pictures and feel something when they read the poems. I’m not doing it as much for them though as I am doing it for myself.
What compelled you to do this book of poems?
I had done a set of cards with my friend Ernie Cefalu, and there were 60 cards in the set. I had to transcribe all of the lyrics in 60 of my songs for these cards. And you know what? Most people have not written 60 songs, not a lot of artists anyway. So that helped me along. I’ve written about 240 songs over the years, and with the Internet now, I wanted to have them up on my site, and my friend Grayson who looks after all that said, “I need to have the lyrics to every song you’ve ever written. That was back in 2007, and when I finished doing it was when I thought to myself, “I should write a couple of poems tonight”. It all got serious in 2008 and I’ve written all these poems since then. There are 50 or so in the book. There are another 40 that are good enough for a second book, but we’ll see what happens.
You’ve mentioned that the scene in Oliver Stones’ movie “The Doors” was also an inspiration.
That scene in The Doors movie really stuck with me, where they’re at the kids’ birthday party and Jim is leaving for Paris, and they don’t know at that point that they’ll never see him again, he’s going to be dead soon. And Jim gives each member of the band a little book of poems. That was a big influence on shaping this book, on it’s look and feel. I wanted it to look like something you might find in a country church, one of those little old hymnbooks. We haven’t chosen the final type of paper for the pages yet; it’s got to have just the right vibe. I want it to be just as special as that scene in the movie. That’s how much this means to me and hopefully we’ll get there.
Do you put yourself into the poems?
I don’t know, I think that when you write you’re trying to make pictures. They aren’t autobiographical at all, they’re somewhat made up from fantasies.
What about the poem Besieged? It sounded to me like a commentary on your life as a performer.
It could be, I don’t know. There’s one called Unfriendly Fire, that one’s pretty scary for me. I remember things that scared me very deeply, like Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein. I was about 11 or 12 when I saw it, and when he ripped those bandages off of his face; I was scared for weeks, especially when the sun went down. So I learned at an early age about show business, and music, and what music coupled with a visual could do, I learned very young about all of that.
Do you think this will be your truest legacy?
I don’t know, do we have multiple legacies? To me it’s very special, I just wish my Mom had lived another two years so she could have seen the finished product.
How long did she live?
She made it to 90! That’s pretty good. She was very proud that I was working on a book of poems. I would print them out and bring them to her, printed in a large font that she could read. She loved that I was doing this book; she wanted me to be literary, or literate. She always corrected my grammar.
You can order copies of the books at http://burtoncummings.rockpapermerch.com