A Conversation with David Budbill
What follows is a transcript of a conversation between David and David French, a longtime friend, in April 2016. David French’s questions and comments are in italics. Unless otherwise indicated, all the poems are David Budbill’s.
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David, I can’t help starting with one of my absolute favorites of your poems:
The first goal is to see the thing in itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.
No symbolism, please.
The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.
In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.
The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals,
to see the universal and the particular,
Regarding this one, call me when you get it.
Your writing has always been pointing us toward things in themselves (especially things in the natural world) and toward their unified nature, with clarity and humor. Thank you for this.
But let’s talk about what’s happening in your life right now.
The major thing that I’m dealing with is my Parkinson’s disease, my rare form of Parkinson’s disease. It has incapacitated me and made me incapable of all the things I used to love to do: I would cut wood and garden and mow, and I can’t do any of those anymore. So I’ve had to revise my life completely. So far I haven’t revised my life; I’ve just cancelled it, dropped out.
Now that’s not entirely true, because before I dropped out, I was able to finish a novel and a short story and a collection of poems, and they’re all coming out in the next year. So I did that before I cancelled my life.
The last time I was here, you said all this happened a year ago, when you moved to Montpelier.
Up until then, you’d still been working on your novel and your stories and your poem.
I suppose, yeah.
There recently was a song cycle of your poems at the Elley-Long Music Center. One song was about doing things for the last time. It was beautiful, but with an ache to it. You must have done a lot of that leaving Wolcott, walking around, looking around, knowing that was the last time you’d cut this wood or stack it or put it in the stove.
It was. Yeah, it was heartbreaking, because that was my identity, and now it’s no longer that. Which is no doubt one of the reasons I’m in limbo now.
So you’re not writing now.
No, I’m not.
You’re not making music.
Let me read you one of your other poems. I guess it’s really about your life when – as you might put it – you had a life:
There: below me in the wet brushy place
year after year, generation after generation,
the woodcock whistle and snout.
And there: on only slightly higher ground
the veeries warble and sing their liquid
descending glissando, year after year.
And here: almost beside me, the shy junco
scurries, flits across the ground singing
again this spring only: tick, tick, tick, tick.
And I too in this orchestra, I too. No more,
no less than they, making again my own song
with these marks, this paper, these words.
Each in our own place, each in our own time,
each calling distinctly, all calling together.
Sublime and earthy. This chorus of voices.
In concert together making this song.
Well, I suppose you want to know whether I’m still doing that.
Something like that, yeah.
Well, I just said I wasn’t.
What happens to the concert?
I guess I’d better start making a song. It’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer to it.
What happens to the orchestra when a voice drops out?
Well, all the more reason not to drop out.
So how would you make your song again at this point?
I don’t know; that’s one of my problems. It’s going to have to be a different song. And I’m still thrashing around trying to figure out what that song is going to be.
When we talked last time, the word you used to describe your attitude toward all this was that you were “sanguine.” Would you still say that?
“Sanguine.” I guess so, I guess I would. Meaning “nonchalant”?
Yeah, basically – just accepting it and not worrying too much about it.
It’s not like – I don’t feel that I’m done. I know I’m not. It’s that this is a period of time in which I have to wait to hear the call again. And so far I haven’t heard it.
You made a huge move from what you used to call Judevine Mountain, where you’d lived for more than 40 years, to a condo in Montpelier. I can’t help thinking of what you’ve written about what “home” consists of:
When I was young I dreamed of home and in my dream
I saw a place remote and in the mountains.
Now I’m in that place and call it home,
yet home is still nowhere I can find.
It must be nowhere is the right place,
and when I get there I’ll be home.
I guess that’s my version of Erewhon, or nowhere.
So are you less at home here than you were on Judevine Mountain?
So far I am, yes.
Because even writing from Judevine Mountain, you were saying that home is nowhere you can find. It’s an interesting idea, because you seemed so much at home there.
Well, I was trying to say that even though it seemed like home, it really wasn’t, although it’s as much of a home as I’ve ever had.
And so what would a home consist of as you imagine it: “…nowhere is the right place, and when I get there I’ll be home”? What would it be like to be nowhere?
Well, it might be hyperbole. I do think that nowhere is the right place to be.
Can you say more about what it means to be nowhere?
Well, when you’re nowhere, you’re home because you’re – oh, my – it’s tough.
There’s a poem by Jane Hirshfield called “Why Bodhidharma Went to Motel 6”:
“Where is your home?” the interviewer asked him.
“No, no,” the interviewer said, thinking it a problem of translation,
“When you are where you actually live?”
Now it was his turn to think, Perhaps the translation?
For Bodhidharma, it’s as if home is wherever he is. It’s not a location; it’s a sense of inner grounding. Does that sound something like what you’re talking about?
Yeah, it does. I’d agree with that.
In re-reading some of your poetry, I found at least one theme that goes way back. There’s a poem that came up in your book “Barking Dog,” which was published in 1968. You must have been about 28
when you wrote this. It ends:
…The evening stands between
The sun: and the moon.
We will die soon.
That must have been in my enigmatic period.
But then in “Moment to Moment,” which was published 30 years later, there’s still a lot of poetry where you’re writing about death:
…My face is falling off
so that my other face,
the face within, can show
that final, eyeless fellow
with the toothy grin.
The more recent book, the one that’s coming out this fall, will be even more that way.
It makes sense: the older any of us get, the closer we are to death. But this has been a theme for you at least since 1968.
That’s the poet in me, I guess.
How does that work? How does the poet get concerned with that?
I think poets are all thinking they’re going to die soon. That’s sort of the negative view of the poet.
You say in one of the other poems in “Moment to Moment” that:
The cycle of the seasons is to teach us to prepare for our own deaths
We get to practice every year, especially in the fall
I’ve had fifty-eight practice sessions now.
But I’m not getting anywhere.
I can’t seem to get it.
The more I practice, the older I get,
the less I want to die.
Is that still the way you would put it?
Yeah, it is. I’m closer to death now than I’ve ever been, and I’m more interested in staying alive
If only I would never reach the end!
If I could always be only on the Way.
Of course, a Buddhist would say that the end is simply part of the Way, but you don’t buy that?
Well, who am I to deny what they have to say?
Well, you can assert what you have to say. What you have to say is “If I could always be only on the way, never reach the end.” And death is at the end?
Yeah, I suppose.
Elsewhere, you’ve written:
…See how all of us,
at our own and different speeds,
return to the Tao.
Oh, let us all
sing praises now for all of us,
so briefly here.
And then we return to the Tao?
Yeah. We appear, take a form, and disappear back into the Tao.
And then what happens?
It sometimes sounds as if you’re saying that when we die, not only are we nothing anymore, but nothing of us is left behind:
…Now my hair is falling out, and I know
nothing I have done amounts to anything.
My life is like the bird’s path across the sky.
It will leave no trail.
Is that also the way you feel?
Yeah, it is.
[Holding up a book of David’s poetry:] This is not a trail? The things and people you’ve left behind, the ways you’ve changed the world, are not a trail?
We’ve had this conversation before. I suppose it is. I don’t think of it that way.
Well, I don’t know; false modesty?
The kind of example I’ve used before is that when I go home tonight, I go home to a partner I met at a reading you gave ten years ago. I would never have met her if it hadn’t been for you.
That’s true, you wouldn’t.
And the world is full of people whose lives are different, not only because of your writings but just because you’ve been David moving along doing your thing, and that’s changed the world.
Well, I can’t deny that, and maybe that’s what the trail is. But if it is, then that poem’s a lie. Maybe I do leave a trail.
You have a daughter, Nadine; you have a granddaughter, Riley.
Yeah, they’re huge parts of my life now.
They might be part of your trail, no?
Yeah, that’s true; I’m leaving a path. You’re pointing out all the inconsistencies in my poetry.
Another theme that keeps coming up in your poetry, sometimes in very funny ways, is the lament over not having been a major voice in the poetry world. You wrote about the life of “genteel poverty and meditation” you lead:
…which gives me lots of time
to gnash my teeth and worry over
how I want to be known and read
by everyone and have admirers
everywhere and lots of money!
Is that something you would still write a poem about at this point, or is that an old theme that isn’t something you think about anymore?
I certainly think about it.
You still do?
You would like to be higher on whatever the poetry best-seller list is?
And have more money from it, recognition.
Yeah. Of course, who wouldn’t?
When I came to Judevine Mountain
all my troubles would cease,
but I brought… my ambition –
so now, still,
all I know is grief.
Well, that’s true. I have this thing about ambition. I can’t live with it, and I can’t live without it.
Tell me a little about music. You had an interview somewhere where you said you like “the non-verbal nature of music, which is what I’m aiming for – that non-verbal-ness – with my poetry.” And you talk about how “Poetry is music with words instead of notes.”
Yeah, it’s all true.
And you played the trumpet, you played the shakuhachi…
…and saxophones. The thing I like about musicians is, they communicate with the world in a non-verbal way. I wish I could do that, and I think I do at my best, although I’m not sure.
What’s your relationship with people like William Parker, who has provided the musical accompaniment for many readings of your poetry?
When we get together, we just do music. And I’m always interested in what William sees in my poetry. I never ask him.
You just hear him doing it; whatever he sees in your poetry you hear in his music.
Yeah, so this last album that we did – “What I Saw This Morning,” I think it’s called – is his response to these poems.
You said you have a novel coming out this year. It’s called “Broken Wing”?
Can you say a little about what it’s about?
Yeah, I can. It’s the story of a bird with a broken wing who can’t fly south for the winter and has to spend the winter in the north where it can’t survive, and in fact he doesn’t.
I know we’re not supposed to think of art as being necessarily biographical, but do you think of yourself as a bird with a broken wing right now?
Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. It sounds like a reasonable idea, although it never occurred to me until this minute. That’s no doubt part of the problem, that I am a bird with a broken wing.
And all the signals nature is sending out you can’t respond to.
Well, that’s true too. I never thought of that, that I’m a bird with a broken wing, but possibly that’s true. That’s interesting.
What becomes of a bird with a broken wing? How does it get a sense of air under its wings? What is the brightness in the life of a bird with a broken wing?
I don’t know.
Do you have brightness in your life right now?
I suppose I do, but I’m not aware of it.
All you can do is wait?
It’s a waiting, but I have been amazingly silent in my soul. I wait and wait and wait, and nothing comes.
Rilke has a wonderful letter to a young poet in which he says to be patient with whatever is unsolved in your heart. Don’t search for answers, he says; just love the questions. Perhaps, someday, you will gradually live your way into the answer.
Or perhaps you’re in the place now you’ve always been searching for. One of your loveliest recent poems is surely this:
Pare Everything Down to Almost Nothing
then cut the rest,
and you’ve got
I’m trying to write.
That’s beautiful, and maybe you’ve finally written that poem.
I guess so.