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A Chat with Dr. Kenneth Simpson


Author of the Colin Baxter publication

ROBERT BURNS

Interview By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA
email: jurascot@earthlink.net

Q: How long have you been teaching courses and lecturing on Robert Burns?
A: Twenty years, man and boy.

Q: What are your favorite research books on Burns? If you could have only three or four books on Burns, which books would you pick?
A: Thomas Crawford, Burns: A Study of the Poems and Songs; J. DeLancey Ferguson, The Pride and the Passion; and J. DeLancey Ferguson and G. Ross Roy, The Letters of Robert Burns

Q: Does this apply for the person just starting out with Burns?
A: Yes, but the books by Donald Low, Carol McGuirk, Liam McIvanney, David Diaches, and – forthcoming – Gerald Carruthers are all useful.

Q: As a child, who was the first to teach you about Robert Burns? What is your favorite poem by Burns? Your favorite song by Burns?

A: I heard my grandparents singing Burns songs; and a teacher in grade 3 was a Burns enthusiast. Favorite poem has to be a dead-heat between “Holy Willie’s Prayer” and “Tam O’Shanter”, but given the richness and wide range, it’s a difficult choice. Favorite song - equally difficult - is probably “Ae Fond Kiss” with a “Red, Red Rose” and “Auld Lang Syne” following close.

Q: Who are some of the people who have influenced you with their works on Robert Burns? Please list why.
A: Thomas Crawford’s work is unsurpassed. Carol McGuirk’s book came out at the same time as mine, but it has greatly influenced me; and G. Ross Roy has been inspirational and strongly supportive.

Q: When did you decide to devote your life to teaching Burns on the University level?
A: I took over the teaching of Scottish Literature at the University of Strathclyde in 1986 when Douglas Gifford moved to Glasgow University. Previously I had taught eighteenth-century literature and the novel as genre.

Q: Burns has been dead since 1796. What do you attribute the continuing interest in Burns around the world after all these years?
A: He speaks clearly, movingly, entertainingly of universal human experience. I’ve just been teaching Scottish Literature at the University of Connecticut. One of the high spots of my career was when my students said the language of Ramsey, Ferguson, and Burns was no barrier because they were writing of universal experience – music to my ears.

Q: From beginning until the end, how long was this Simpson/Baxter book in the works before it was published? Who’s idea was it?
A: About a year. I was approached by Mike Rensner of Colin Baxter Photography. He was responsible for the illustrations, and I’m delighted with them.

Q: In your book, C. M. Hardie’s painting, “Burns’s First Meeting with Walter Scott”, begs the question, when did they meet again?
A: I think there is a reference somewhere to Scott as an adolescent spying Burns in an Edinburgh street.

Q: The residence of “Clarinda” is shown in your book. However, the address is not listed. Can you supply the address and some landmarks to find it for those of us interested in looking it up on our next trip to Edinburgh?
A: The house that is shown is her later residence, 14 Calton Hill. It has been refurbished and is now private residences. When Burns met Clarinda she was living in General’s Entry, Potterrow.

Q: This past academic year you spent several months teaching at the University of Connecticut. What subjects did you teach? Where else have you been a guest professor since your retirement from the University of Strathclyde?
A: I was back at University of Connecticut as Neag Distinguished Visiting Professor of British Literature (I had served in this capacity back in ’99). I taught a graduate class in The Novel (12 students) and an undergraduate class (21 students) entitled The Scottish Literary Tradition. I’ve twice been privileged to be W. Ormiston Roy International Research Fellow in Poetry at the University of South Carolina.

Q: How do you help people who are turned off by Burns’s extramarital affairs transcend those indiscretions and see Burns the poet and songwriter?
A: By reminding them that we are all human; by recommending that they read “Address to the Unco’ Guid”; and by enthusing about his achievements as a poet and songwriter.

Q: If Burns was alive and you could ask him one question, what would it be?
A: How do you do it?

Q: Thank you for your courtesies concerning this book review and “chat” article. Is there a parting word you would like to leave with our readers?
A: I hope they will get great enjoyment from their reading of Burns. (FRS: 8-22-05)


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