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 it 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 goping 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