When I opened You Think It Strange, poet Dan Burt’s memoir of his journey from the gritty environs of South Philadelphia to the hallowed halls of Cambridge University, I casually assumed that it would be a feel-good, up-from-the-streets account of talent and determination overcoming childhood adversity.
Burt’s early life was indeed a triumph of wit and will. He managed to escape a world filled with violence and a culture that valued street smarts over book smarts, all the while knowing that just about everyone around him thought little of his prospects. That he made it out at all is extraordinary. That he became a successful lawyer and writer is virtually unimaginable.
After reading the book, I just couldn’t let his story go. How did a bred-in-the-bone South Philly guy navigate Cambridge and English society? What brought Burt back to the United States to attend law school, and how did his legal and writing career evolve? Why did he finally decide to renounce his U.S. citizenship, the final act of which is courageously described in his poem “Traitor”? I had the opportunity to connect with Dan recently, and he graciously agreed to share his post-Philadelphia story with Commonweal.
Jim Hannan: One of the things I found most compelling about your memoir is its voice. Why did you choose to tell your story without the sentiment?
Dan Burt: The last thing I ever intended to do was write anything about myself other than what’s in my poetry. I started the memoir, the first section of which was published by Carcanet in my second chapbook, at the behest of Michael Schmidt, Carcanet’s editorial and managing director. He encouraged me try my hand at prose; he thought it would be a useful discipline for the poetry. I’ve tended to shrink from the limelight after experiences I had in the United States running a public policy law firm and litigating public cases. And I was always worried about the dishonesty and meretriciousness that often accompanies ego. So I tried to make it as factual and accurate and as unemotional as I could, and let readers make their own judgments on what happened. And, in fact, that’s how I write poetry. I’m trying to present the reader with the experience itself, not with my commentary on it. So I adopted a style that I’d hoped would let me accomplish that.
JH: You Think It Strange ends on a very poignant—and hopeful—note. You’d returned to Philadelphia after rehab following a serious car accident, and your mother called to say you’d received a letter from St. John’s College, Cambridge, offering you a place to read for your B.A. in English. How did you react to the news and what did you do in the six months prior to the trip to England?
DB: I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven! I couldn’t have been happier. I’d come to understand a little bit about the way America works, the way the world works. And I understood that if I wanted to accomplish anything, if I wanted success ( forgive me, that’s what I wanted), I needed a stamp of approval. And I believed that Cambridge would give it to me. But I hadn’t thought it was even conceivable. I’d forgotten I’d sent those letters out.
I spent a lot of the next six months trying to regain my strength. I was wrapped in a metal-and-leather brace from my hips up to my chin; I had to wear it whenever I got up from bed. I started walking, and within a few months was able to walk quite some distance. I also began to teach myself French because to graduate I would have to take a French exam in Part II of the Tripos. So, I basically walked and studied French and just continued reading, thought about things, made notes, kept diaries, listened to a lot of poetry. And off I went.
JH: What do you think when you first set eyes on Cambridge?
DB: It was one of those great moments in my life: the Great Gate, the Backs, huge green lawns, New Court with its early neo-Gothic tower and cloister, the Bridge of Sighs. There was nothing in my experience to prepare me for it. This wasn’t something I dreamed about doing, it was inconceivable. And then it happened.
JH: And your studies?
DB: Eight students came up every year to read English at John’s, one of whom, by policy, was a “wild card,” someone that you would never expect to be admitted to Cambridge. The director of studies at John’s, Hugh Sykes Davies, chose me as his wild card.
I wanted to do my degree in two years as an affiliated student. At the time, there were five affiliated universities: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Stanford. LaSalle College wasn’t in that league. So they were going to watch me for a term. I went to my first supervision with my twenty-page essay on symbolism, and based on Davies’s comments, I knew I had not gotten it right. He said to me: “What exactly is symbol?” And my bowels liquefied, because that question had never occurred to me. Well, I’m very quick on my feet, and I answered, and it was a pretty good answer. But he knew and I knew that I had never thought about that. The experience taught me that the essence of a Cambridge education centers on two questions: What does it mean? How do you know?
So I go along working through that term, and I come in for the first supervision of the second term. And Hugh’s sitting there, puffing on his pipe, and he said, “Well, you know, we’ve looked at you now for a term, and I’m delighted to tell you that the council of the senate have decided that there shall now be six affiliated universities: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and LaSalle College.” Then he said, “You work very hard, don’t you? Well, you know, you didn’t come here to learn anything; you came here to get an education. Why don’t you take it a bit easy? Do you like the cinema?” And as soon as he said it, I realized he was correct. I’d come to get an education, not to learn anything. I could do that with books. And that was the beginning of life at Cambridge.
JH: Why did you return to the U.S.?
DB: First, American acculturation is a very powerful form of brainwashing. I know more about it now, but it’s very difficult to move away from a world that you’ve been told was the greatest country on earth. Secondly, I wanted to go back to America to show the putz vatic [loosely translated as “smart-asses”] they were wrong and I was right. That pissing on me when I was an undergraduate, when I was a boy in Philadelphia, was not right. That I could beat them, I could compete and win. So I went back to avenge myself in part.
JH: And what made you decide to become a lawyer?
DB: I needed some kind of profession, and since I couldn’t stand the sight of blood, going to med school was out the question. I had no idea what law meant; I just didn’t know anything else to do. I didn’t know there were such things as investment banks or M&A firms. If I had, I almost certainly would’ve been an investment banker straight off.
When I left law school, I wanted to go into the government, into the tax policy area. I had come back from Cambridge with a fairly left-wing philosophy and with a passion for making the world a better place. But there was no place in the Nixon administration for some liberal Yalie. So, I went back to Philadelphia and began working for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a very well-connected Republican firm with ties to Pennsylvania Senator Hugh Scott, who at the time was Senate majority leader.
After a year-and-a-half, ML&B managed to get me the job that I wanted in the International Tax Council’s office in Treasury. I arrived determined to change the world. But I discovered very quickly that the world couldn’t care less. And I couldn’t stomach the lying and stealing that I witnessed. I realized that the only difference between my mother’s family and the senators and administrators that I was working with was that the latter wore suits and ties.
So eighteen months later I left to teach at Boston University, with the hope that teaching would give me the time to write. And I kept trying to write, but never got down to it seriously enough because I was afraid. I thought: Suppose I can’t do this? I will have to admit that I am a failure, a fundamental failure. That’s how I see it, and that’s how I’ve always seen it. And I write that way every day.
JH: Eventually you went back to law and became president of the Capital Legal Foundation, a public policy law firm, and represented Gen. William C. Westmoreland in his $120 million libel suit against CBS. The Capital Legal Foundation, with its $1.5 million budget for the case, went up against the prominent firm of Cravath, Swain & Moore and its lead attorney David Boies. What motivated you to take on the case?
DB: After reading a TV guide article excoriating the broadcast, I met Westmoreland, and he told me that there was no truth to the claims made by CBS in its documentary, ‘‘The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” that the American command in Vietnam had deliberately underreported enemy troop strength in 1967-68. And for various reasons I believed him. What’s more, looking at it from the defendant’s point of view, I couldn’t imagine CBS wanting to drag this thing out in public in the courts. I was going to try the case in the press. That’s what public interest law firms do.
But basically, I was arrogant. And it was a mistake that nearly finished me. I did a lot of damage to CBS, and they did some damage to me. But it is not something that I am proud of. On balance, I shouldn’t have done it because Westmoreland was not worthy of it. I was vain and I was entranced by the idea of having my name in lights. Had I been told the truth, it might have ended differently. As it was, CBS settled the case, which they had never done; Boies was dead-set against it. Still, it was a mistake on my part. It was a failure of character analysis, a failure of judgment.
JH: What was it about English society and culture that motivated you to move back there in 1994 and to become a British citizen in 2001?
DB: In the end, I expect to be judged, and want to be judged, by what I do. And what I’ve found in Britain, always, is that they will judge me on the basis of what I do. Now, that doesn’t mean I’ll be invited into the right club, although I have been and haven’t joined. Or be offered honors, though I have been and declined. It means that I get a fair shot. In America, I didn’t have that experience. On the contrary, you needed to be part of an approved group. You wouldn’t be judged just on your performance. In Britain, I represented and did deals for the largest British companies. And I was essentially a sole practitioner. In America, you would have to be a part of a major firm or be in a remarkably small niche to have that kind of practice.
JH: What ultimately led you to renounce your U.S. citizenship in 2005?
DB: George Bush got elected to a second term. I still was an American, but when they elected him a second time, I gave up my citizenship a few months later. You could argue that the 2000 election wasn’t a real election. The second time, there was no doubt. So I walked. And I met someone (a woman who has two famous names that I won’t mention) about three months ago who’d done exactly the same thing at exactly the same time for exactly the same reason.
JH: You’ve had a varied career as a lawyer and entrepreneur. You started Burt & Taylor in 1975 (which the New York Times described at the time as “a small but sophisticated Massachusetts law firm”), with offices in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and sold your interest in it in 1979. You founded another firm and a software company.
DB: About nine years ago, I got out of the service business and started building a software company, Compliance Technologies International. I sold it to Markit about two years ago. It’s still the leader in identity compliance software, helping financial institutions and multinationals comply with tax laws and cross-border payments. And last September, I sold my law firm, Burt, Staples & Maner to Ernst & Young. Now E&Y is the leader in identity tax advice; John Staples heads up this practice at E&Y, and I'm a consultant, but I don't have much to do with it—that was what they wanted, and they seem to be quite happy with it.
JH: As busy as you were with a career, how did you find time to write?
DB: Well, from LaSalle on I was always making notes and writing drafts. And I don’t sleep a lot—maybe five or six hours a night. And then about eight or nine years ago, I decided to really commit myself. But I get terribly depressed when I work on new stuff, because I’m never sure it’s going to be any good. You worry day in, day out. And if you don’t, you probably aren’t producing your best work. You get to be very famous like Yeats, maybe you don’t worry anymore. But I will worry all the time.
JH: What moved you to write “Traitor”?
DB: It’s what I believed. I’m an old man, and I want to lay out what I think I understand. With poems like “Traitor,” I’m examining my feelings, my convictions, my understanding of the world, and testing whether they’re really true. So that when you hang your holster up, you can make a judgment on whether you have any integrity at all. That’s what I care about. That’s why I wrote it. If I can’t write that poem, then I’ve got it wrong somehow.
JH: What are you working on these days?
DB: I’ve just completed a four-poem series on cancer, prompted by its manifestation in one of its worst forms–stage IV colon–in the woman who was the Lower Merion girl in You Think It Strange. As for prose, I’m about to start drafting the next instalment of the memoir. My U.K. publisher wants to include at least a portion of it in my next poetry collection, scheduled for early 2018.
JH: Although you’ve been a Londoner for all these years, to my eyes and ears you still have the mien and speech patterns of a South Philly guy. [Readers can judge for themselves here.] In fact, you could pass for a cousin of two of my closest friends, brothers who lived at 23rd and Wolf. The “house of childhood” seems still to exert a powerful influence on your being-in-the-world.
DB: You’re quite right; I still sound South Philly, and 23rd and Wolf would be in my accent’s catchment area. I don’t believe the past ever lets you loose, if you’re square with yourself. The more I examine my decisions, the clearer the hold of early experience and physiology seems.