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


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: 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.


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


To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd. — Wendell Berry

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In This Issue:


ISSUES OF CHOICE: Thinking Outside the Aisles
by Diana McCall


by T. Hunter Wilson

by Todd Fleming Davis

by Valerie Linet


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It’s been more than a year since the first Food issue of the JME. Finally here’s the second one. I thought this issue would be the last one on Food, but I’ve gotten so much material on the subject that I’ve divided it into three parts. Therefore, JME #51 will be about Food also.

At the heart of this issue of the JME, and the next, is the question: How much of our money are we willing to use to pay for our food? We are so used to spending so little for cheap food–which is cheap in more ways than one–that it’s hard for all us to get Food into its proper position in our budgets.

The four contributors to JME #50 come at this issue from different directions.

Between their essays are quotations from the Big Daddy of this issue, Wendell Berry. All of the quotations in this issue are from Wendell’s BRINGING IT TO THE TABLE, Counterpoint, 2009.

In JME #51, the last of the Food issues, I’ll offer a little review of BRINGING IT TO THE TABLE. Stay tuned.

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For a long time now we have understood ourselves as traveling toward some sort of industrial paradise, some new Eden conceived and constructed entirely by human ingenuity. And we have thought ourselves free to use and abuse nature in any way that might further this enterprise. Now we face overwhelming evidence that we are not smart enough to recover Eden by assault, and that nature does not tolerate or excuse our abuses.

Wendell Berry, Bringing It to the Table, p. 9


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Thinking Outside the Aisles


Diana McCall

We may complain that we don’t have money to afford organic lettuce and local goat cheese, but in the end like all complaints these are issues of choice. For example, if I say I don’t have time to get to the gym, make a meal from scratch, or learn a new skill, I am being a victim of my unstated priorities. I am overlooking how I choose to spend my time.

And so it is with my food choices. How I spend my money on my food is as much a matter of conscious choices, priorities and perhaps most significantly habit and culture, as it is a matter of how much money I actually have to spend.

In my life here in North Carolina, money has often been short. But I have never let that stop me from having the best local, lovingly prepared food on my table. Food for my family is a social event and for me in particular an expression of my values, my aesthetics and my spirit.

I keep food affordable by growing a good deal of it at my community garden. I grow for my own family. I also supervise and educate volunteers from area elementary schools, high schools and colleges about how to grow food for our greater community. This food–over 3,000 pounds grown and harvested year round–is donated to a local food pantry and to a meal site that serves nearly 200 people every week.

I look for free food in our community. Fruit trees in particular are a great source of free food. In the fall I often knock on doors and ask permission to harvest fruit from backyard trees. I also barter for food, and I use my skills as a home chef to barter for luxuries like pottery, music lessons and school photos of my children.

To keep food central to the spirit of the home, I have to think outside the aisles of the chain grocery store. I do this literally as well as figuratively. I rarely step inside the main aisles of my box grocery store. Packaged food is low in nutrition and high in long-term cost. I am concerned about my family’s and the planet’s health. Instead I shop the perimeter of the store, focusing on high quality yet affordable dairy and fresh produce. The money I save there allows me to support my local, family-owned health food stores where I purchase flours, grains, legumes and oils in bulk. Each week I choose a few specialty items that are more expensive, such as local goat cheese or local sausage, but still within our budget. These items are the highlights of the week’s snacks and meals and are greatly enjoyed, as food should be. They nourish our bodies and our souls, making the investment of a few extra dollars well worth it.

I educate myself on storage and preservation techniques and how to prepare food from scratch. This all takes time, but you are either in control of time, or time is in control of you.

And so it is with our food choices. Do we allow marketing and a feeling of scarcity in our pocketbooks to dictate what we put on our tables? Or do we choose to consciously put quality food before our families that gives us a connection to our bodies, our place, the people we live with and our community?

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Because industrial cycles are never complete–because there is no return–there are two characteristic results of industrial enterprise: exhaustion and contamination.

Wendell Berry, Bringing It to the Table, p. 23



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Thoughts on Early Adopters,

Class, Local Food, Anti-Lock Brakes, DVD Players, Photovoltaics

and Shipping Costs


T. Hunter Wilson

The matters of class you raise are important, [in JME #49, at: http://www.vpr.net/episode/46665/  (3:06)]  to be sure, but complicated too. Class and the decision to buy local food are not merely a matter of money. Whatever our generation of back-to-the-landers may be able to afford now, many of us came with those values at a time when we could not have afforded Farmers’ Market prices if Farmers’ Market had even existed. A lot of us grew food partly because you could save money by doing so, but mostly because we thought we’d get better food, and learn more about our land and our climate and ourselves if we did.

Moreover, don’t underestimate the value of “early adopters” in establishing a market. Everything from anti-lock brakes and DVD players to solar panels and organic milk started out as ridiculously expensive options only the wealthy could afford, but the prices drop as the market develops. The New Yorker, many years ago, had an article pointing out that if the US Government installed photovoltaics in every location where it was then cost-effective, where they were running generators or hauling batteries or whatever, that would drive down the price of photovoltaic systems, and if they kept doing that at each new, lower price point, photovoltaics would end up being vastly more cost efficient.

The principle holds, I would guess, with local food.

Also, on the opposite side of the cost equation, as shipping becomes a larger and larger proportion of the cost of food, as industrial fertilizers become more and more expensive (as they will if energy costs continue to rise), having an established foundation for local alternatives, even if they are more expensive than what we now pay for industrialized food, will be important for everyone.

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Editor’s Note: Regards supply and demand, read this article about the shortage of slaughter houses–at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/us/28slaughter.html?emc=eta1

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The industrial mind is a mind without compunction; it simply accepts that people, ultimately, will be treated as things and that things, ultimately, will be treated as garbage.

Wendell Berry, Bringing It to the Table, p. 37


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Todd Fleming Davis

I’ve been reading Wendell Berry and writers like him since I was an undergrad in the early 1980s.  His vision of community, of sustainable agriculture, of locally grown foods raised in a healthful and responsible way, has long been a desire of mine.  (My father was a veterinarian whose undergraduate degree was in Ag from the University of Kentucky. As you’d guess, many dinnertime discussions focused on how our food was raised, both animal and vegetable.)

Now as a professor of environmental studies, I often talk with my students about these very subjects.  Yet I’m plagued by the fact that the healthiest foods, the healthiest land to live on and raise that food on, is ruled by the almighty dollar.

I’m a case in point.  My first teaching job in 1989 paid $14,000, and my wife Shelly earned no money as a graduate student.  Our big night out every couple of weeks was a single cheese with everything at Wendy’s, which was at the end of our apartment complex.

Only recently—and I feel so very fortunate—have we been able to purchase organic foods on a regular basis, and one of the ways we’ve been able to do this is through friends who farm in a sustainable manner.

My promotion within the Penn State system has given us enough income to make better choices for eating and living.  In fact, the real reason we’ve been able to join coops and support folks who farm organically is because my employer has made it possible.

Before moving to Pennsylvania and getting promoted these choices weren’t available to my family.  (And we lived in a home of 1200 square feet with one car, no cell phones, no internet, etc.  We’re Mennonites, and if you haven’t been around Mennonites, we’re fairly frugal folks.)

While we’ve always tried to raise a garden, to can and freeze some of our food—something that I might add is not available at this point to everyone because of economic and geographical circumstances—in the early years of our marriage (and sadly even when we first had our children), I remember purchasing vegetables that I knew had been grown under the auspices of the agri-industrial model, laced with pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers of all sorts.

Yet our bodies needed vegetables and these were the ones we could afford.  And the milk.  And the eggs.  And the bread.  And the cheese.  Let’s be blunt:  I bought what I could afford, which compared to some of our friends was pretty good.  But why in a country blessed with such bounty should any of us have to make these choices?

I only pray that my students—who are smarter than I ever was and who have energy and drive—will figure out a way to make good foods available to everyone, regardless of the size of their wallet.

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To farm well requires an elaborate courtesy toward all creatures, animate and inanimate. It is sympathy that most appropriately enlarges the context of human work.

Wendell Berry, Bringing It to the Table, p. 96


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Valerie Linet

        My desire to farm is like a bizarre relative that doesn’t look like the rest of the family. I grew up in Brooklyn, where my first 20 years included lots of subway rides and other elements of urban life, but very little soil, and not even one tractor. Perhaps eating fresh figs from the tree in our city garden influenced me more than I could have imagined. Maybe seeing raspberry canes bearing fruit each summer got under my skin, even as I resisted my mother’s urgings to help weed the snow peas and chives out back.

        Over the past decade, I’ve gotten into the habit of growing food, and I’ve begun to feel nature’s shifts in my own bones. When I first began gardening, I spent a year working on an organic community-supported farm (CSA) in New Paltz, New York. In the CSA model of agriculture, community members buy “shares” in a local farm, which provides them with a box of fresh vegetables each week. Many members shift their focus over the course of a season or two, from simply getting fresh organic produce, to active community participation, advocating and supporting sustainable farming through any number of efforts. It seems that the more service a member does for the farm, the more the farm feeds them.

        The question of why I farm hit me full force in the middle of my first growing season. I felt the need to understand and express my desire to rise early and hoe arugula beds, so I turned to writing, as I often do. These are excerpts from my journal in the Summer of 2000:

                Why do this? Why work a hard, dirty job when I could do something nice and clean that pays the bills? What can I offer the world by hand weeding carrots?


                CSA farming satisfies some of the need I feel to heal and nourish the earth, myself, and others. Alongside the other farmers and members, we are taking part in the work of sustaining ourselves by connecting our hands and minds to the soil that provides for us. We are refusing to buy into the myth of the “perfect vegetable”(one without any insect holes or blemishes), and are interested in accepting a naturally grown tomato as it truly is. The farm is a place where we can look around and see our dependence upon one another and on this land for our very lives.


                It is no longer acceptable for me to play a passive role in the increasingly impersonal and degrading food system, where our culture clearly defines our place as consumers. We are encouraged to have insatiable cravings for food that is grown on the other side of the world, whether or not it is in season, or is processed beyond recognition.


                There is no room in that model for the consumer to see the plants grow, greet the farmer who tended them, or teach his/her children that the earth can feed them. Is it possible to describe the nourishment we receive from participating in the labor that food production requires of us? It is possible to establish a place dedicated to the exploration of nature’s cycles, discovery, creation, and growth? Our work is to continue discovering how to do this, and in the process, hopefully we’ll be helping to create a healthier, saner, more balanced world.

        Frost came early that Fall, so I spent two or three days preparing the main vegetable garden for its first big blow. I spread row covers tightly over vulnerable plants. I patched holes in green house plastic, protecting the crops inside, and picked all the less hardy vegetables in the field one last time.

        My experience surveying the fields the morning after the first frost illuminated the reality of impermanence for me in a way that nothing else had before. It’s easy to be intellectual about these things, but my heart dipped and turned when I saw how the Rosa Bianca eggplants—those round, pale, pinkish-purple jewels that had hung heavy on strong stems—had transformed into brown, wilted creatures. And no matter how much I had heard about it before, I suddenly felt bitten by the truth of taking something so short-lived for granted, and then being shocked and saddened by its departure. The seeds I had known, sown, and nurtured as they grew, had turned into barely recognizable remnants of life.

        Right there, though, in those moments, the practice of growing seemed to me a solid teacher of life and death. One which challenges me to look at the fact that one day something I love is a part of this living world, and the next day it is gone. Before, there had been no room in my summer mind to believe that winter would come.

        Farming beckons me to accept life as it is. Nature has its own powerful wisdom that I need to trust. Cold weather arrives in time for earth to rest and lie fallow, rejuvenating for fresh growth in the spring. Death makes space for new life. There are times that call for hibernation, reassessment, quiet, and subtle movement. For now, I will continue working with Nature’s own cycles through growing food—letting my trust in the process grow and allowing this wisdom to enter my life, moment by moment.

[Author’s Note: This piece was excerpted from a longer essay, originally printed in TURNING WHEEL, in 2001. For length, I have omitted passages here, which explore the relationship between my Zen Buddhist practice and the practice of growing food.


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Why use fossil fuel energy to bring food to grazing animals that are admirably designed to go get it themselves?

Wendell Berry, Bringing It to the Table, p. 64


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Wendell Berry is the well-known poet, novelist, short story writer and essayist. All of the quotations in this issue are from his BRINGING IT TO THE TABLE, Counterpoint, 2009.

Diana McCall is mother to three children, a goddess in the kitchen (her email is: diana@goddessinthekitchen.com) and a yoga instructor who lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

T. Hunter Wilson is a poet and teacher of Writing and Literature at Marlboro College, Vermont. He lives in Marlboro in a house he built himself and is active in local government.

Todd Davis is the author of four books of poems, most recently The Least of These (Michigan State University Press, 2010) and Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010).  He hunts and gardens in the village of Tipton, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two sons.

Valerie Linet is a Zen student, poet, freelance writer, gardener, and social worker. She lives in Upstate New York in the Catskills. She and her partner, Jeffery, have recently acquired four new chickens.

David Budbill is the creator and editor of The Judevine Mountain Emailite. Copper Canyon Press will publish his latest book of poems, HAPPY LIFE, in September of this year.

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Coming in JME #51:

Food: Part III

A review of Wendell Berry’s BRINGING IT TO THE TABLE

STEALING FROM GIANTS, 2010 by Ben Hewitt

WHAT PRICE FOOD? by Jeremiah Church