[TCP]: Quoting Harold Bloom, Leon Stokesbury, editor of the University of Arkansas Press poetry anthology The Made Thing (in which you’re included), suggests that many “southern” poets center on the natural world in their writing. Has nature—whether as a central theme or a source from which motifs are drawn—played an important role in your work, and how so?
[JB]: Yes. I don’t make the distinction between nature and the doings of humans, however. As far as I’m concerned, we’re a part of nature, we come from nature, and whatever we do is something nature is doing. That said, I think we risk the premature death of our species by refusing to acknowledge our dependency, by engaging in the hubris of imagining ourselves separate. We fail to imagine how big nature is, how small we are compared to it. Is the universe nature? If it isn’t, what would you call it? Nature has concocted a galaxy in which our sun is one of some 250 billion suns. That is, there are more than forty times as many stars in our galaxy alone as there are humans on the Earth. The number of galaxies in the universe is comparable to the number of stars in our galaxy.
For hundreds of thousands of years, we lived adapted to the wilderness. Only in the last fifty years have there been more humans in cities than in the countryside. Cities are so huge it is easy to forget how vulnerable they are, how dependent, and how many have vanished forever.
But nowadays many take urban life as the norm, the only conceivable environment. I like it too. I like coffeeshops and book stores and art and ideas and yoga. Without cities, probably no writing, no poetry.
Still. Cities come from the wilderness, not the other way around. When I’m in a redwood forest or on a high mountain or at the sea or sometimes just face-down in the grass of the yard looking at an ant, I feel centered, placed. I just feel good. Like I’m where I’m supposed to be. I feel the influx of benevolent energy. I sense the presence of even the most ancient time.
I think this feeling comes because I was born to be a part of the Earth, not because I am a romantic. To the contrary, whatever romanticism I have comes from experiencing such moments and being convinced they were real.
So nature is not my theme by design and is my source only in the sense that all of life is a source. The “source” is larger than the poetry. Nature comes up often because I am in awe of it, and have a bedrock conviction my life depends utterly on it. I talk about nature because I talk about living.
It’s true I grew up in a time when it was easier to get off in the woods by yourself, when there were not so many people and no cell-phones at all. So perhaps my appreciation of the wild is fostered by more intimate acquaintance with it when I was young. I took the lessons I learned from plants and animals, and even water and landscape and air, as of course applying to humans. It seemed to me early on that people are extrapolations of animals, not exceptions. Our play has gotten so much more complicated than that of other mammals that we often do not recognize how basic the impulses of our play are.
I’m not inclined to gloominess about the prospect, though. Maybe for my children, who have to put up with so many more humans than I did, who have to be so much more determined in order to experience the wild. But in the long run, things change. That’s the one thing we can be sure of—whatever you’re used to now, it’s going to change. Today it’s possible for many people to share thought and spirit, no matter how widely separated they might be. Assuming the internet becomes self-sustaining—and I don’t see why it should not be, just as our nervous systems are—in such a world, cities are no longer so necessary. Humans may aggregate for company and mutual defense, but propinquity will no longer be a requirement for cultural cross-fertilization such as that which has resulted in most of the advances of civilization—soap, pianos, libraries. It seems as sensible to me to imagine that humans will return to the pleasures of the wild as it does to imagine, as some science-fiction writers do, that the technological will eventually consume the universe and reshape it to its own uses.
[TCP]: More broadly speaking, do you agree with this tendency to associate southern poets with the natural world, given that many poets in different parts of the United States focus on this theme?
[JB]: The south is more rural than most of the rest of the U. S. Sort of. More inhabited rural. Not many people live in the desert, or in ten-thousand-acre cornfields. This means more rednecks, more trees, and more “nature” poets. There are advantages and disadvantages. It would be a mistake, though, to assume the existence of a typical southern poet, and then expect all southern poets to conform to the stereotype. I was raised mostly outdoors, mostly in Mississippi. What about a poet who has lived all his or her life in a suburb of say, Atlanta? Are we both southerners? What do I have in common with Turner Cassity?
I think the rural-ness of the south is fast disappearing, in the fractal way that a patch of wetness dries on a hot skillet. I regret the loss of so much untrammeled country but I hope southern poets don’t make things worse by trying to country up their act long past its good-by date.
It’s nice though to get together with people you don’t have to explain things to, people who grew up like you did, who understand how you feel about cornbread and buttermilk. It as close to going home as you can get.
When I taught at The College of Santa Fe, there was a secretary in the Humanities department from Alabama. She was black, and I’m white, and the south is justifiably notorious for racial bitterness, but that wasn’t what we saw in each other. It cheered us up each day just to say hello, just for a moment to feel we southerners knew each other among all these strangers.
That sort of mutual appreciation is great, so long as one doesn’t mistake the familiar for the necessary. I can read and enjoy northern urban poets and western mountain poets and San Francisco poets just fine.
[TCP]:Your poem “Preserves” celebrates an unmistakably pastoral and family-centered past, arguably southern preoccupations.
As you have lived much of your life in other parts of the United States, has “southernness” remained a part of your writing identity or has it waned in a natural progression toward cosmopolitanism? How so?
[JB]: Thank you for mentioning that poem for my mother, a personal favorite. Well, I grew up pastoral and family-centered. Someone might argue that was because I was a southerner, but I don’t think causality works that way. Most families implode or explode given time, but so does every other living creature. I can’t imagine growing up without a strong family connection. People do it, but how? Where do you get your models?
That’s one of the reasons I identify so readily with urban Jewish fiction. The setting is different, the religion, the history, but the families I recognize.
I’ve lived in Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, southeast Texas, New Mexico, northeastern Oklahoma, Arizona, and now live in northern California, behind what they call The Redwood Curtain. I find people are pretty much the same everywhere. How country or urban they are tends to be more relevant than what region of the country they’re from.
It does help if the laws are sane. People are kinder if they aren’t pinched by unfair laws. There is such a thing as a regional ethos.
I can tell I’m a southerner and so can my neighbors.
The question is how.
In an essay in The Future of Southern Letters, edited by Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe, I say that the south has been implicitly defined by five common experiences: family, place, race, a way of talking, and the Bible. You don’t have to have all five experiences to be a southerner, but in any large grouping of southerners, these will be the five most common experiences. Nothing else will be even close.
As it happens, I grew up mostly in the south (didn’t start moving west till I was almost fifty), and had long and early exposure to all. That sort of thing will confirm a few tendencies in a person, and I’m not surprised the tendencies remain to this day. Some experiences force you into choice. You can’t remain unaware. I like fried food though I know better. I despise racism and ignorance.
Probably my “southern-ness” has waned somewhat. I probably wouldn’t feel so southern if I still lived in Mississippi among other southerners. But the main sense of development has been not the waning of the southernness, but the appreciation of a lot of other ways, the appreciation that there are other ways. To me that makes life richer. There’s no way to turn away from truths of those other lives, but no need to deny my upbringing either.
A price I pay, and that I imagine is paid by most displaced southerners—an increasingly larger population—is a sense of homelessness, of being a permanent expatriate. It isn’t possible to return to the life I had forty and fifty years and sixty years ago, and I wouldn’t want to anyway.
But sometimes I miss it and get blue.
[TCP]: Since West of Hollywood: Poems from a Hermitage and The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman, how has your poetry developed?
[JB]: Hmm. Good one. To me, development has always been inevitable. You grow, you develop, you age, so does your poetry. I’ve always thought of my poetry as associated with where I lived. That’s how I keep it in my computer files, according to the places I’ve lived. Sometimes more than one file to a place, but never a home with no collection of poems composed while I was there.
So to me poetry has always been autobiographical. Not just with regard to subject matter. I think, “Fayetteville, Arkansas is where I learned tetrameter couplets. Jasper, Texas, is where I invented that stanza form. Santa Fe is where I wrote such-and-such.” You expect to become capable of more as you go along, and would be disappointed if you weren’t.
Actually those two published books do not track my development. I usually collected all the poems from one place in a book of my own making, finding that they had common themes and approaches. But I was never able to publish my private collections as books. The two published books were sort of like greatest hits, a combination of my favorites and my most impressive publications, each given a form to highlight some of the themes of the book.
Here’s the real chronological order:
All the poems in the first of the four sections of The Kid were written in Fayetteville or before except the last one, which chronicles a move to Jasper, Texas. I wrote two collections in Jasper, and the second section of The Kid is a selection from those. Then you skip back to West of Hollywood, which was my first published book, but includes mostly poetry written after the poetry in the first two sections of The Kid: poems from Jasper and from the next two places I lived—Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and a handbuilt cabin out in western Arkansas.
The third section of The Kid overlaps West of Hollywood temporally, but includes mostly different poems, and goes on to feature work written later, when I moved back to Fayetteville. The fourth section is mostly poems written and published in the first three years after I moved to Little Rock.
I lived in Little Rock for four more years, then moved to Conway, Arkansas, for five years, then to Santa Fe for eleven, then to Oklahoma for less than two, then Arizona for less than three.
In all of those places I produced distinctive writing, but none of the collections were ever published, and I had begun publishing novels in Little Rock, so gradually quit trying to keep up with the publishing of poetry.
A long preface to your question, in order to say, There have been a lot of changes, and I’m not sure I’m the best one to analyze them. On the whole I would say that I have steadily gotten more interested in a variety of forms and expressions. It’s good to have a lot of variability. Keeps you stimulated. You can always try something you never tried before. My formal work got simpler and plainer in some poems, more Stevensian in others. I wrote story poems. I wrote dithyrambs. I tried hard things, like a nine-page ottava rima poem about Solomon and Sheba, or extended terza rima. I did all manner of crazy-ass juking with form and narration. I wrote hermetic pain-stricken gnomic stuff. I wrote country and western songs. In Santa Fe I rediscovered an old favorite, the Yeatsian refrain, repeated lines with haunting but off-the-wall musical effects.
In short, most of my poetry has been written since those first two books came out, and I feel I have been more prolific and more accomplished than I was as a youth. I would hate it if readers thought those two early books—the most recent one twenty-five years old now, its poems written between the ages of twenty-four and forty—represented the essence of my work.
I think I’ve gotten more factual, rational, and spiritual. More hardnosed as I’ve gotten more mystical. It’s plain silly to think the two can’t go together. I haven’t, as I once imagined doing, withered to theory. I’m just as horny as ever. It’s just that a lot more things attract my interest now, including thought, so I get distracted, and I hurt more so tend to be less physical.
Just as sensual, less physical?
[TCP]: The Encyclopedia of History and Culture notes that your “work is often sexually charged and humorous”—do you agree with this assessment or does it mark only a “period” of your output?
[JB]: I didn’t know I was mentioned there, but they have it right. Applies to all my work in every period of my life. By far the majority of multicellular species are sexual, so sex must be at least as important as my urges tell me it is. In a poem called “The Old One,” called that because in the act of making love once I felt an overwhelming sense of the presence of an ancient and timeless spirit, God for all intents and purposes, I wrote “There is a desire that has made desire.” I think of sexuality as one of the forms that desire takes, not as desire itself.
As for funny—well, life is funny and I like to laugh. Sometimes life is just funny. Sometimes it’s black or painful but funny anyway. If it’s too painful to be funny it’s too big for me. When I can choose, I prefer humor to despair. There’s no royalty in humor, no elite, no unpoppable importance. Plus humor is hopeful. If something has gone badly, it’s a response. You’re making something positive and healing from an event that perhaps would otherwise be a setback.
I distinguish humor from mockery, by the way. Humor is the big one. Mockery is the snarky little subcategory you tire of quickly.
Just want to point out that one interpretation of that quote from The Encyclopedia of History and Culture is that I’m sexy and funny.
[TCP]:Who are your major poetic influences? Why?
[JB]: I’ll answer “Why?” first because the answer is short. Because they lit my fire. It’s that simple. My heroes are the ones who set my mind ringing.
I have trouble with the word “influence.” May I rephrase the question? Which poets do I admire the most, which poets are the members of my host, which are the ones whose words I keep with me always?
In the seventies and maybe early eighties, Harold Bloom pontificated on “the anxiety of influence.” Whole galaxies of writers were said to have each performed a “clinamen” around the works of predecessors. Apparently we were all “influenced” by previous writers and therefore desperate not to sound as if we were. This strikes me as a bogus model of the way the muse works.
I copied Frost on purpose for a couple of years when I was twenty-seven and twenty-eight. There were things I wanted to learn. I’ve picked up a few moves from Yeats and Wallace Stevens and others. I’ve said it a million times, we learn by imitation. But by the time you’re forty, sheer experience has so differentiated you that you couldn’t sound like somebody else if you tried to.
If you have any talent, I mean. If you don’t have talent, you’re likely to sound just like everybody else who doesn’t have talent.
Okay, with the question redefined that way, here’s a partial list of the poets I live by: Chaucer—I learned Middle English just because his music moved me so strongly; a lot of anonymous ballads and a few anonymous poems, especially “Oh Western Wind, When Wilt Thou Blow”; Surrey; Wyatt; Shakespeare, Shakespeare above all, though to my taste many of the sonnets are more clever than great; Marvell; Herrick; Donne; Herbert; none of the Restoration or seventeenth-century poets—I enjoy Pope but for me there’s too much starch in his meter and too little color in his palette; later on I like a couple of Milton’s sonnets, but for all its pentametrical grandeur, Paradise Lost loses me; Blake; Wordsworth, Tennyson; Keats; Coleridge’s “Xanadu”; Browning; Dickinson; Whitman; Hardy; Houseman; Hopkins; Yeats; Frost; Eliot; St. Vincent Millay; Thomas; Stevens; Roethke; and Wilbur. There are plenty more but these feature strongly.
I liked poets like Poe and Vachel Lindsay a lot when I was in high school, but one should be forgiven the tastes of adolescence.
[TCP]: I note in poems like “The Changing of Vision with Time” and “The Constancy of Existence” a fixation on time’s passing and one’s history of identity. Stylistically, these poems end on repeated lines in each stanza, like incantations. These techniques strike me as particularly Eastern in effect. Has Chinese or Japanese culture played roles in your literary maturation?
[JB]: I would say yes, but more philosophically than stylistically. The way poetry is created in those languages is very different from the way it’s created in English, and though I read translations, I have never tried to import any of the formal characteristics of either Japanese or Chinese poetry, a la Ezra Pound. I write haiku-like poems, but they do not follow a meaningful system of seasonal and cultural references. Besides, since Japanese is syllabic and English isn’t, how could I create a comparable metrical effect?
But I study and practice zen and yoga, and have done so for years.
As I said above, I picked up the use of refrains from W. B. Yeats. First I had a seminar in Yeats, taught by the irreplaceable Ben Kimpel, and years later his poetry opened me like a Christmas present. But I picked up the use of refrains because of that seminar, when I was twenty-four. In the poems you mention, and others, I’m actually returning to an earlier love, giving them a new feeling with what strikes me as elegant but unexpected music.
I think Yeats studied Chinese and Japanese poetry, so maybe he learned refrains from them and then I learned them from him.
[TCP]: Are you engaged in any new poetry projects? Tell us about them.
[JB]: I would love to publish a collected, if anyone is listening.
All my current projects are prose. I’m revising a fifth novel, The Enlightenment of Elijah Lee Roswell, and I’m revising a book called Practicing Zen without a License to be published by Alec and Gabi Clayton. There’s also a couple or three nonfiction books I’m eager to get to.
For me, poetry has never been a project. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be, I’m just saying it hasn’t been. It’s as natural and inevitable as breathing. It makes a record because it’s personal. For me, in prose fiction the characters are what we used to call play-pretend. They aren’t versions of me. But in poetry, even if it’s narrative poetry, there’s more of a personal investment.
Here’s my approach: “Poems can be a fancy way of having a good laugh. They are a way of talking back to dead people. They can be prayers, though they very seldom are, since genuine prayer must be unselfconscious. They may be heart-felt curses. Or songs or riddles or jokes. They do not seem to bear up well as the vehicles of a continuing overwhelming seriousness . . .”
So I don’t have any poetic projects, per se, but I do get notions and try out new things, and there are a few books I’d like to write.
I’d like to do a book called One Man’s Canon, basically a hundred shorter poems from an extended list like the one I gave above, with full explications including analyses of the music, very straightforward, very specific, explaining how I know. Few know how to read a good poem, but it isn’t that hard to learn. It’s just that coherent examples are rare.
One thing such a book would show, I am convinced, is that the twentieth century featured the greatest upwelling of truly fine formal poetry in the history of the language. That upwelling was overlooked in all the hoopla about free verse, but it is there, unmistakable, a grand human accomplishment.
I’ve been thinking about and sometimes playing with an alternate meter, which I describe in the article, and I’ve been trying a few poems, I don’t know how to say it, in which the music is not so to speak localized in rhymes and meter but subsumed in the whole, but in which the poem nevertheless feels formal.
My main project is stated in the last line of “Youth Is a Passage, Age Is the Play”—to keep on singing as long as I can.
I have started a new poem, based on where I spend my time now, “The Gentleman in the Blue Attic.” It’s my first poem in California. It uses that radiating-with-subsumed-form approach I was just talking about. I write a few lines about what I’m thinking or describe something real around me and that’s a section. Perhaps readers will take the descriptions as metaphorical, and I suppose they are, but they are actual first. That’s the pleasure.