Click the link below for the text of David’s interview with the Sun Magazine.

DB in The Sun

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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.

* * * * * * *

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,

simultaneously.

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 whats 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.

True.

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.

No.

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.
“Here.” 
“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.

Two whippoorwills.

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

 

than ever.

You’ve written:

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?

Nothing.

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.

Why not?

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?

Yeah.

You would like to be higher on whatever the poetry best-seller list is?

Yeah.

And have more money from it, recognition.

Yeah. Of course, who wouldn’t?

You’ve written:

When I came to Judevine Mountain

I thought

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”?

It is.

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.

I agree.

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

the poem

I’m trying to write.

That’s beautiful, and maybe you’ve finally written that poem.

I guess so.

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MARISSA BELL TOFFOLI

David Budbill

An introduction to David Budbill, author of the book Park Songs: a Poem/Play(Exterminating Angel Press, 2012). Happy Life, his most recent book of poems, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2011. Two other Budbill books have also been published by Copper Canyon Press, While We’ve Still Got Feet and Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse. His latest play, A Song for My Father, premiered at Lost Nation Theatre in Montpelier, Vermont, in the spring of 2010 and will be produced again in Salinas, California, at The Western Stage in 2013. Budbill’s prizes and honors include The Vermont Arts Council’s Walter Cerf Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, a National Endowment for the Arts Play Writing Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, and The Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award for Fiction. When asked about the role of humor in Park Songs, Budbill said, “All I know is, I can’t live my life without humor and neither can my characters.”

Quick Facts on David Budbill

  • David Budbill’s website
  • Home:
  • The southwest corner of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, five miles from blacktop and 35 miles from a traffic light in any direction of the compass.
  • What’s your comfort food:
  • Spaghetti and red sauce with a couple of glasses of red wine.
  • Top reads:
  • Ryokan, Han Shan, Wang Wei, Po Chu-i, and Wendell Berry
  • Current reads:
  • Two books by Ryokan, in translation.

What are you working on at the moment?

More poems for my next book of poems from Copper Canyon Press.

Where did the idea come from for Park Songs?

It started with a play years ago called “Little Acts of Kindness” that ran in Montpelier, VT, in 1993. I’ve generally changed things from that original production, added some characters, rewritten others—the usual tinkering and rewriting that any writer does. And before the play they were monologues spoken by characters in my imagination.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that people, readers or theatregoers, take away a sense of these characters, their lives and the situations they are in in the world. I am always interested in the down-and-out, the forgotten people, the disenfranchised. I want readers or theatregoers to rememberthese characters.

Whom do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

Anybody who has some compassion and sympathy.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

Here at my desk in my room upstairs in my house here at home.

Where would you most want to live and write?

Right here where I am right now. I love it here and I don’t want to work anywhere else.

Do you listen to anything while you write?

No. When I listen to music, I listen. And I don’t talk while the music is playing. I talk afterthe music stops. Music is a conversation in another language; it is someone speaking directly to you, and, as your mother must have told you, it is impolite to talk while someone else is speaking.

How does blues music fit in with Park Songs?

I’ve been a jazz and blues fan since I was 12, that’s exactly 50 years ago. Blues seems like the natural music of the people in Park Songs, and not only because the Blues is sometimes sad—such as the lyrics to the blues tune I wrote called “The Life Hurts Blues”—but also because the blues can bring you up as well as down. The blues can release in you powerful feelings of sadness, foreboding and grief, and in the process, it can make you feel better, refreshed, lighter, even happier.

Do you have a philosophy for, or an approach to, how and why you write?

No. I just listen to the voices both inside of me and outside of me and try my damnedest to write down what they say.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

Getting down right what I want to say. I think there is a kind of platter circulating in myself somewhere, maybe it’s my head, maybe not. And on that platter are all the poems and characters that appear to me. They are constantly circulating inside of me. I’ve got to catch them when they come around. If I miss them, well, too bad for me, I just wasn’t quick enough or skilled enough or something to catch them. And when they come around again they might not be the same thing or be saying the same thing.

When you’re having trouble getting started on a poem, where do you look for inspiration?

I go for a walk in the woods, or I play some music to take my mind entirely off what I was trying to do.

How have your goals as a writer changed over time?

I have no idea. I never think about such things. Do I have goals? If I do, they are probably the same ones I had 30 or 40 years ago, and I’ve spent the last 30 or 40 years trying to get to those goals.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?

Here’s one I made up: “Don’t think. Listen.”

And my all-time favorite quote is from Ornette Coleman: “Most whites tend to think that it’s below their dignity to just show suffering and just show any other meaning that has to do with feeling and not with technique or analysis or whatever you call it.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Write something every day, even if it’s a grocery list. Use the language every day.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Don’t think. Listen.           

Is there a question you find surprising that people ask you about your work?

Yeah. They ask me where it comes from. It comes from out of nowhere, from my imagination, from the voices I hear, from somewhere. In short, I don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t care.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

Cut wood, garden, play music, ride my mountain bike, watch TV.

About David Budbill

David Budbill has worked as a carpenter’s apprentice, short order cook, Christmas tree farm day laborer, mental hospital attendant, church pastor, teacher, and occasional commentator on NPR’s All Thing Considered. He is also the award-winning author of twelve books of poems, six plays, a novel, a collection of short stories, an opera libretto, and a picture book for children. His books include the bestselling Happy Life (Copper Canyon Press) and Judevine, a collection of narrative poems that forms the basis for Judevine: The Play, which has been performed in 22 states. Budbill was born in Cleveland, Ohio and now lives in the mountains of northern Vermont. David Budbill’s newest book of poems is Park Songs: a Poem/Play published by Exterminating Angel Press (2012).

Buy Park Songs, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer David Budbill.” Words With Writers (October 7, 2012), http://wordswithwriters.com/2012/10/7/david-budbill/.]

Park Songs cover

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October 28, 2011: Interview with Peter Biello on Vermont Public Radio, Morning Edition, (8:15), listen at: http://www.vpr.net/news_detail/92372/

 

David Budbill’s new collection of poetry, Happy Life, is a meditation on the passage of time, life, death, love and a life well-spent in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. A reflection of forty years of living simply, Happy Life takes inspiration from the work of ancient Chinese poets.

He speaks with VPR’s Peter Biello about his life and work.

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