April 18, 2011

My sister gave me a coffee mug for Christmas (which, incidentally, is only used for tea) inscribed with one of my favorite lines of poetry:

What good is my humility, when I am stuck in this obscurity?

It comes from a short poem I discovered several years ago called “Dilemma,” written by David Budbill. I’ve always thought it witty and intelligent, with a kind of smirk-like quality that lends itself well to creative types, as well as this age of reality TV gone crazy.

So, when given the opportunity to interview the man behind the stanza, I first made sure I wouldn’t be sued for the aforementioned mug (Thank you, David!), and then got a list of questions ready for this accomplished poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, and sometimes controversial mountain recluse with a bio too long to list. (Click here, for a more extensive biography.)


Amanda: Can you remember the first poem you wrote, or the time when you first considered yourself a poet? 

David: I was a late bloomer by contemporary standards and the first poem I wrote was when I was a senior in high school. I was deep in the Methodist church in Ohio at that time, 1958, and all the poems I wrote were religious verse. I can’t remember any of them except for the end of one that was about a man walking down a dusty road in Palestine somewhere and it ended with:

And I could see his feet were sandal shod

And then I knew that he was God.

And then I knew that he was God.

Well, everybody’s got to start somewhere. My absolute favorite poet at this time was William Cullen Bryant.

I can’t remember when I began thinking of myself as a poet. Maybe I still don’t think of myself that way! But I think it must have been sometime while I was in college and my friends started referring to me as a poet and strangers began thinking of me in that way. All this would have been a few years after I began writing poetry on a regular basis say about 1960. I was 20 in 1960.

In about 1959 I discovered Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND and that was it for William Cullen Bryant! I took off into the 20th century and never looked back.

Amanda: When do you think the shift from writing religious to more mainstream verse occurred? And, why?

David: I think the shift away from religious verse came during my freshman and sophomore years in college, certainly by the time I discovered Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or maybe it was because of Ferlinghetti. I can’t tell you how influential, how mind-blowing that book was for me. I went on to read other beats also, Gregory Corso, Alan Ginsberg, and so forth, but it was always Ferlinghetti who was, and still is, most influential. I also liked Ferlinghetti because he was clearly a working class guy and he used common language in his poems.

Amanda: Your poetry collections (8?) have spanned 40 years of significant historical change and growth…

David: If you count fancy art books too I’ve published 9 collections of poetry so far, including the one coming out this September. And you’re right they do span actually more than 40 years, more like 45, although I wrote a lot of poetry when I was living in New York City and none of that has been collected, so I guess the real answer is about 50 years.

Amanda: How did your experience with the goings-on of the world influence your poetry? Or did it? 

David Budbill

David: My poetry is alwaysinfluenced by “the goings-on of the world.” In my first book, BARKING DOG, (1968), there were poems about strip-mining and the damage it does to the world and a long poem about a closeted homosexual friend who committed suicide. This was the early 1960s and homosexuals were all in the closet. The Stonewall riots in New York weren’t until June of 1969.

My move to Vermont in 1969 was a direct result of the events of 1968, and I know a lot of other people who “left America” at the same time I did. By the end of 1968, for many of us, the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy followed by the riots at the Chicago Convention had meant the end of the America we had hoped for it, and we left. I to northern Vermont, a friend to northern California, another guy I know to northern Iowa and so on.

I also had become convinced from two years of teaching in an all Black college, Lincoln University in southeastern Pennsylvania, and living in an all Black world, that we white people had to address our own racism. At this time, the late 1960s, the idea of Black and white together was over; this was the time of Black Power and Black separatism.

I fled America to this remote spot in northern Vermont, because I couldn’t quite bring myself to move just 30 miles further north and into Canada. I still loved my country. And I still do, or at least I love what I think my country could be. When I came to northern Vermont, I brought my political and social ideas with me. I wrote an essay once called HIDIN’ OUT IN HONKY HEAVEN, about why I came to Vermont and about how moving here does and does not deal with American racism.

The first poems I published after coming to Vermont were the beginnings of what would become my big book of collected narrative poems, JUDEVINE. That book is informed by my commitment to political radicalism and what my father always admonished me to do which was: “Stick up for the little guy, Bud.” The portraits in JUDEVINE paint a picture of a place of great natural beauty and great personal poverty and suffering, as I’ve often said, “a third world country inside the boundaries of the United States.”

My more recent work, MOMENT TO MOMENT and WHILE WE’VE STILL GOT FEET, and the forthcoming HAPPY LIFE–all works heavily influenced by ancient Chinese and Japanese poets–are less obviously left-wing, although there are plenty of poems to the contrary in both books. Those books are more personal. But I am still committed to rebelling against tyrannical governments and dictatorial rulers and I’m still committed to “sticking up for the little guy.”

I’m blogging, by the way, about how HAPPY LIFE got put together. So far I’ve written about how my editor and I got from 200 poems down to just a little over 100, about dealing with the copy-edited manuscript, and about how the cover art came about. You can see the chapters of this blog, to which I’ll add more as time passes, at:

…We’ll talk more about HAPPY LIFE, inspiration, and getting through the rough patches of writing in Part II of this interview, which will run next Monday.  Please feel free to leave any thoughts or questions for David in the comments section below.


David Budbill was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1940 to a streetcar driver and a minister’s daughter. He is an award-winning poet and author, and (among many other accomplishments) was for a time a commentator on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. You can learn more about David and his published works on his website, and (much to the dismay of some of his fans), you can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.

*Photo of David by Lois Eby