April 25, 2011

We’re talking with accomplished poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist, David Budbill. Check outPart I of this interview for a discussion on David’s poetic beginnings, as well as to hear about how his life experiences influenced his writing.

And now, Part II…


Amanda: Let’s talk about your upcoming collection, HAPPY LIFE. The title, at least, sounds like this is a work of positive emotions/experiences. True?

David Budbill

David: There is a good deal of my rebellious spirit in that title. I thought it would be interesting and fun to publish a book of poems called HAPPY LIFE because so many poets, and people who think about poetry, think poetry has always got to be dark dark dark, gloomy and pessimistic. One of my closest poet friends, Hayden Carruth, published a book once called DARK WORLD.

On the other hand, the title, HAPPY LIFE, is a bit ironic also. There are, I’m sure, far more poems about death and dying in HAPPY LIFE than there are in any of my previous books.

I always write poetry about what preoccupies my thoughts, and at the age of 71, I am more and more aware that time is running out for me, more and more aware every day that my time here on this earth is severely limited, thus my preoccupation with death and dying.

At the same time however my irrepressible good humor and wit, if I do say so myself, are, I hope, still there. I have always enjoyed being funny. In high school I was the school clown. I still like to be funny and I hope my new poems still reflect that.

Amanda: So, you believe there’s a stereotype that portrays “true poetry” as consisting of the wailing and gnashing of teeth, and that happy poems are not quite as “deep?”

David: Yes, I certainly do believe that there is a stereotype… I also think that most people believe that a happy, or in my case a funny, poem cannot be “deep.” I need to add here–because I don’t want to misrepresent myself or my poems–my poetry is not simply happy or funny. I’d say rather that my poems are sometimes funny, very funny, but that my work is a combination of light and dark, funny and sad. All my plays, for example, are in the end tragic, but they are also incredibly funny.

Amanda: Your last book of poetry was published in 2005. How did you know it was time for another one? Was it a matter of timing, of having enough new pieces, or had a theme begged to be presented?

David: I just thought it was time for another collection. HAPPY LIFE is the third, and may be the last, in a series of books of poems inspired in large part by the ancient Chinese and Japanese poets. I noticed–well after the fact, I need to add–that there had been six years between MOMENT TO MOMENT andWHILE WE’VE STILL GOT FEET and another six years between WHILE WE’VE STILL GOT FEET and HAPPY LIFE. Coincidence? I doubt it. But it was also certainly unconscious.

Amanda: Has there ever been a time where you stopped writing poetry completely, either because you didn’t feel compelled to write it, or because you ran out of ideas or inspiration? If so, what did you do to get back to writing? If not, how do you think you avoided an affliction that plagues most writers at one time or another?

David: I’ve had many times in my life when I stopped writing completely. In other words, I’ve had lots of dry spells, everybody does.

What did I do to get back to writing? Nothing. I waited. I once wrote an essay called “The Only Way Around Is Through.” It was for a collection of essays about depression. I really think, for me at least, the only way to get over a dry spell or a depression–maybe the two are the same thing–is to wait it out.

I once wrote a little series of poems about the Angel of Depression in which I said that the only way to deal with her is to let her take you over completely, let her have her way with you for as long as she wants. If you do that she will get whatever satisfaction from you she needs and will go away and leave you alone faster than if you fight her. I don’t think this is a very popular thing to say, but it’s what works for me.

So the answer to your question: what did you do to get back to writing? is: nothing.

You ask further, how can you avoid this affliction. The answer is, for me at least, you can’t. It goes with the territory. It goes with being a writer. Your life will be a series of highs and lows, of writing well and not writing at all. That’s just the way it is, and there is no point in fighting it.

I would add one more thing and that is that as I’ve grown older, my periods of depression, my times of not writing, have grown fewer and shorter. Or maybe it’s just that I am, after almost 50 years of writing, better able to accept the way thing are.

Amanda: Finally, since this interview will run on “Get Inspired Monday,” is there any favorite quote or piece of writing advice you would like to leave with my readers?

David: Well, I’m not very good at giving inspirational talks, primarily because I believe if you can avoid writing by all means do! As I’m fond of saying, “Don’t make it up. Write it down.” In other words, as William Carlos Williams said, “Practice. Practice. Practice, so you’ll be ready when inspiration comes.” And if you are not inspired, don’t write. Just keep on practicing. If you don’t hear the voices speaking to you from inside or from the other side or someplace, don’t write, just listen more carefully.

But to end on a more positive note, here’s my current favorite quote. This is from my friend John Haines, who was Alaska’s first Poet Laureate and who died on March 2nd. John said to me once in a letter, “Live your life and don’t be literary about it.”


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. His 9th book of poetry, HAPPY LIFE, will release in September, 2011.

*Photo by Lois Eby