Which Silk Shirt: Exploring Poetry and Other Fine Writing

Poet David Budbill’s happy life is not all happiness. When the trees leaf out in spring, he is bothered at the loss of the winter’s barrenness. What a refreshing twist!

His poetry is clear, but not simple, and real, but not melancholy. His new book,Happy Life (Copper Canyon Press), has a calm logic that settles me. He is fallible — and he admits this. The world around him is sometimes imperfect — and he looks into that. The poems, set mostly in the Vermont mountains and seasons where he makes his home, follow his senses and awarenesses.

I’ll be reading this one on “Audio Saucepan” tomorrow evening:

Tomatoes in September
by David Budbill

Every surface in the house covered
with tomatoes, a vat
of boiling water on the stove,
drop them in and wait to see

cracks in their skin, into cold water, out,
cut away the bad spots,
cut out stem end and blossom end,
peel away the skin,

chop them up, drain them in a colander,
dump them into the other
pot in which a mountain of garlic
has been simmering in olive oil:

Brandywine, Juliet, Cosmonaut,
Rosa deBern, all go in,
salt and pepper, then
let them bubble

while you
go smell the house.

 

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 April 21, 2010:  general conversation with Jane Lindholm of Vermont Public Radio concerning all of Budbill’s work.

Listen here:

http://www.vpr.net/episode/48417/conversation-david-budbill/

 

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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…

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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.”

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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

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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.)

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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: http://davidbudbill.tumblr.com/.

…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.

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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

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April, 21, 2010: A Conversation With David Budbill

 

Wolcott writer David Budbill’s art has taken many forms.  Among the plays he’s written, Judevine is probably the best known.  Since it opened in the 1980s, the play, which portrays life in a fictitious Northeast Kingdom town, has been produced dozens of times in 22 states.  His new play, A Song For My Father, opens this week at Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier.

As a poet, Budbill often medidates on the complexity of living simply. His newest book of poems, Happy Life, is due out next year.

As a performer, reciting his work to the accompaniment of music, Budbill can be provocative and political. Listen

 

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