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Chat's with Frank R. Shaw FSA Scot
A Chat With Thomas Keith

A Chat With Thomas Keith, Author of Robert Burns, Selected Poems & Songs

Q: Is this your first book? Can we look for yet another book on Burns from you in the future?

A: Robert Burns, Selected Poems & Songs is not my first book, but it is the first book for which I am solely responsible.  I am planning to put together a book on the statues and monuments to Burns which can be found all over the English-speaking world ─ hopefully it won’t be too many years down the road.

Q: What is the background of your book on Burns?

A: This book evolved over a couple of years because I was teaching a class on Burns for an Elder Hostel and wasn’t able to find a suitable text to use with the students.  The editions of Burns that I found were either too large, too small, too costly or not readily available in the U.S.  And none of them had the right-margin glossary, which I consider essential.  For a while I typed up the poems and wrote in the glossary words myself ─ once I eventually decided to put together a book, it took about a year to do all the research and transcribing.

Q: Is Robert Burns, Selected Poems & Songs a private publication? Please explain briefly how you went about this procedure. Your answer may help someone who wants to publish a book.

A. Yes, it is a private publication and currently only available from me, though I am applying to to carry it, so check in the future and you may see it on their website.  After pitching the book to a couple of appropriate publishers, all of whom insisted there is no market for such a book (and how wrong they were), initially I decided I would publish it myself and have at least enough copies made for teaching purposes and enough to sell to cover the printing costs.  I looked on the Internet for printing companies who specialize in short run (a relatively small number of copies) books and found that the Edwards Brothers in Michigan offered me the best price for the kind of book I wanted.

Q: What compelled you to include the list of definitions of Scottish words in the right margin?

A: Without the right-margin glossary (assuming there even is a glossary at the back of an edition of Burns), a reader is forced to flip back-and-forth from the poem they are reading to the glossary that makes the reading, the comprehension and the enjoyment of the poem rather difficult indeed.  Also, most editions of Burns edited by Scots don’t include all the Scots words in their glossaries, or even the antiquated English words or expressions that
an American wouldn’t readily recognize. So I tried to make the glossary as thorough as possible and found an immediate difference in the speed with which the students understood the poetry and how much more they enjoyed it. It is really the main factor that motivated me to publish the book.

Q: When did you first become a Burnsian? What or who influenced you to read Burns?

A: My interest in Burns really grew out of my curiosity as a book-collector. Around 1984, I found a very interesting old edition of Burns at an inexpensive price.  Once I started reading the poems, I was hooked and began looking for other editions and then books about Burns. Shortly after that I first heard Jean Redpath on the radio sing some of the songs of Burns with arrangements by Serge Hovey.  Well, you can’t get a better introduction to Burns’ songs, and after that I devoted much time and energy to studying Burns and learning the Scots words.

Q: You dedicated your book to Brother Benedict Littlefield, ohc and the monks of Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. Please tell us why.

A: Holy Cross Monastery hosts the Elder Hostel at which I teach the Burns class every year - the other classes in that group are on C.S. Lewis and Medieval & Gregorian Chant - and Brother Benedict is the monk in charge of the Elder Hostel program at Holy Cross which is an Episcopalian monastery.  I dedicated the book to Benedict and the brothers for a number reasons. First of all because it has been wonderful to spend time there once a year, and I am so grateful for their hospitality. Also because I think it would have been reasonable to cut the Burns class considering that it doesnąt really fit in neatly with the other religious themed Elder Hostels they hold throughout the year, but the participants responded positively and Brother Benedict chose to keep the class - it has given me the greatest opportunity I have ever had to put all my interest and passion for Burns work "to good use," you might say.  Also, by working with other people and sharing my interest I have learned more about Burns in the last five years than I did in the previous ten.  So, the dedication was a great chance to thank them and let them know how much I appreciate them.

Q: What are some other books you would recommend to a new reader of Robert Burns?

A: There is a bibliography in the back of my book that also happens to include the books I would most recommend for readers interested in knowing more about Burns.  Some of them are: more complete editions of Burns edited by James Kinsley, James Mackay and Carol McGuirk; biographies by James Mackay, Maurice Lindsay and Gavin Sprott; The Robert Burns Songbooks by Serge Hovey; several books of supporting material, especially Love & Liberty, edited by Kenneth Simpson; and a discography which is very important if you want to hear the songs and poems.

Q: Burns was a man who was unafraid to exhibit "warts and all" in his works. Tell us why he could write the most sublime poetry and, at the same time, the bawdiest of folksongs?

A: One of the important elements of Burns character was his remarkable candor that seemed to be as natural for him as breathing and which he could not separate from his literary inclinations. By that I mean to say that Burns committed himself 100% to any particular task, so if that task was a love poem, it was an intense love poem---if that task was a bawdy song, then you can be sure it was thoroughly bawdy.  And without putting too fine a point on it, I find bawdy a far cry from dirty or smutty. One of the themes that runs throughout Burns’ work is the worth of the individual with all his or her frailties and foibles, and so it is not surprising that Burns showed himself to be an example of a complex human being.

Q: You have visited the Burns Cottage in Atlanta. Please give us your impressions of that old building built in 1910. Is there anything like it in the world besides the original one in Alloway, Scotland?

A: The Atlanta Burns Cottage is one of the most substantial and unique tributes to Burns in the world.  The fact that the Cottage is still self-sufficient and that it still hosts an active Burns Club is quite impressive as well.  As you may or may not know, the Atlanta Burns Cottage is an exact replica of the poet’s birthplace in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland and it says a great deal about the creativity and ingenuity of the Scots and their descendants in Georgia who decided to make a permanent tribute to Burns in Atlanta. I got to visit the Atlanta cottage last summer for the first time and photographed every inch of it.

Q: Thank you for the courtesies extended to me during this all too brief interview. Do you have any other comments about yourself or Burns you would like to make for our readers?

A: Just to thank you for your kindness and your interest. This book was a labor of love and the more people find it useful or enjoyable, the more pleased I am.

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