David Budbill has been a freelance writer for five decades. The recipient of awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, he has written seven books of poems, eight plays, a novel, a collection of short stories, a picture book for children, and dozens of essays.
In a series of three books of poems—Moment to Moment, While We’ve Still Got Feet, and Happy Life—Budbill draws connections between his own life and the lives of ancient Chinese and Japanese poets he admires. A new book, tentatively called “Tumbling Toward the End,” is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press. His work has been featured many times on Garrison Keillor’s National Public Radio program The Writer’s Almanac.
I met Budbill at his home in the remote mountains of northern Vermont on a warm, gray afternoon in early January. After lunch and tea with his wife, Lois, we retired to a book-cluttered office and took seats beside a window. Throughout our conversation we could hear slabs of snow sliding off the metal roof. Budbill spoke slowly, paused often, and broke out laughing on more than one occasion.
When did you move to Vermont? In 1968 my wife and I were teaching in an all-black college in Pennsylvania, Lincoln University. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated that year. We’d already lost Malcolm X, and Lois had a student who was shot and killed during his Christmas vacation on the streets of Trenton, New Jersey, just for standing there. I had the feeling that America was collapsing and things were only going to get worse. We were at a loss as to what to do. The problems were so great that you couldn’t even figure out what question to ask, let alone hope for an answer. So we moved up north in the summer of ’69 and built this house ourselves in the summer of ’71. Life seemed more manageable in a small town. Our plan was to construct a space to store our books, then go traveling. That was 44 years ago. Here we are, still getting ready to go. [Laughs.]
Were you aware at the time of the ancient Chinese poets’ tradition of retreating to quiet, natural places to live and work? In the early ’60s I purchased two books—Edward Herbert’s A Taoist Notebook and D. T. Suzuki’s The Essentials of Zen Buddhism—so I’d had some introduction to Eastern spirituality and literature before I came here. It wasn’t until we settled in Vermont, though, that I got serious about reading the Chinese poets. The first book I read was an anthology of poems translated by Witter Bynner called The Jade Mountain. It was ironic to me that I had moved to the Green Mountains at the same time that I read this anthology called The Jade Mountain. Ever since, I’ve been spending my days and nights with the ancient Chinese poets.
Could you sketch out what that poetic tradition looks like, or at least the parts you immediately felt a resonance with? For starters, these guys left so-called civilization, in particular the life of politics and government, and went off into the wilderness to live a more reclusive life—to meditate and garden and watch the moon. I was participating in that kind of thing when I came here, although at the time I didn’t know there was a long tradition behind me. Also, there is a simplicity and a directness to the poetry that has always appealed to me. I am a very simpleminded person. I write in a very plain way. I want to write poems that can be understood by just about anybody.
Stand beside the woodstove,
hands on butt, palms turned out.
Face the window to the east.
What’s left of my tea in its
capped cup stays warm on
the stove behind me.
Stare out through the window:
at sunrise, snowfall, cloudy day,
branches of the apple tree,
birds moving to and fro
from the dooryard feeder.
Watch the day.
Unpublished. Printed courtesy of the author.
The ancient Chinese poets often use the phrase “the red dust of civilization.” What does that mean? I’ve used that phrase many times in my own poems. I understand it to mean the world you’ve left behind. It’s a metaphor, but it starts with the physical space. I think you have to retreat to a new physical space—like this house in the woods—before you can get the metaphor.
Can you say more about this space? What does a day or a year look like here? Normally I get up around 5:30 or 6:00 and go right to my desk. I work until noon, then go out and work in the woods in the afternoon, then come back here and work some more if I’m not too tired. Then I go to bed. I have a couple poems in which I talk about how boring and wonderful the days are. [Laughs.] Each is the same, and that’s exactly what I’m after. It’s a wonderful repetition—the same thing every day.
The year is a little different. It has its own pattern. My favorite time of year is winter because I get to write all the time. I don’t have to mow. I don’t have to cut wood. I don’t have to garden. I’m so busy outside in the summer and the fall and the spring, but the winter is quieter. It’s simpler. I’m inside at this desk beside the window.
In many of your poems you refer to yourself as Judevine Mountain. Why take that name as your own? There are a number of poets from ancient China who took the name of a local mountain for their pen name or for their real name, maybe for both at once. “Han-shan” means Cold Mountain, and that’s where he lived. After a while out there in the wilderness the boundaries begin to blur.
Your hand holds the pen that writes the poem, but maybe something bigger, like the mountain, is holding you? Yes, I think that’s it. When I first started writing these poems that deal with my life here, I actually signed my name Judevine Mountain, after a nearby peak. Magazine editors would say, “You mean you don’t want credit for this?” I’d say, “No, just give the credit to Judevine Mountain.” But then I came up against this difficult question of how to copyright something in the name of Judevine Mountain. After struggling with that for a while, I gave up. I would still like to have attributed those books of poems to Judevine Mountain, though.
So you attribute the poem to a mountain, which is also a human, which is really. . . A mountain. And don’t you forget it! [Laughs.]
In a Nutshell
it’s not me.
I won’t be.
Unpublished. Printed courtesy of the author.
At the start of one of your books you write of “harmonizing” with poets from the past. What does that mean? Harmonization, in terms of ancient Chinese poetry, refers to one poet writing a poem that is similar to, or takes off from, another poet’s work. I do that a lot. I find in these guys’ poems so many parallels with my own life that I’m moved to write. It’s like a call and response.
What do we modern Americans need to learn that the ancient poets can teach us? For me it’s really the directness and simplicity with which they communicate their feelings and experiences. To say something plainly and honestly and with deep emotion can be tremendously powerful. Modern American poetry has become obscure and unnecessarily difficult. I don’t know where that came from, but for some reason it’s here, and it’s a shame.
Do you have a meditative practice, and if so, does it overlap with the work of creating poems and gardening and chopping wood and all the rest? No, I don’t think it overlaps. Thich Nhat Hanh’s saying comes to mind: When you are doing the dishes, you should be doing the dishes. Likewise, when you’re cutting wood, you should be cutting wood—if you get distracted and start doing something else, you’re likely to cut yourself with the chain saw. The same thing goes for gardening and for mowing and for writing poetry. I don’t see any necessary connection between all of these different activities. If there’s any overlap, it’s in your approach: You’re focusing only on the task at hand, whatever that task may be. Anything else will mess it up.
Is there a specific activity that you do consider your formal meditation? I meditate some. I have a cushion. I sit in front of my bowls and ring them and listen. Beyond that, I don’t think I want to talk too much about it. I’m just meditating.
In ancient China, poets living in huts in the mountains were often revered, and the emperor would sometimes seek their counsel. Do we have anything like that in our society today—a voice from the outside speaking to the movers and shakers in the centers of power? Unfortunately, I think that whole connection has been broken. I’d really like to get it back, but I don’t know how.
It’s true that the emperors and governors did seek out the counsel of the recluse. There’s this story about Han-shan and his friend Pickup [Shi-de], back in the 9th century. They were working as cooks at a monastery in the mountains, and the prefecture of that district got wind of it and came to visit. He entered the kitchen and prostrated himself on the floor. When Han-shan and Pickup saw this guy bowing and kowtowing to them, they ran away screaming into the woods. That’s an interesting story. It says that even if you do seek out the recluse, he might run away from you. Why did Han-shan and Pickup run away? Well, that’s for you to find out. [Laughs.]
David Budbill’s home in northern Vermont, which he built together with his wife.
Why would anybody seek out the recluse’s perspective in the first place? I think that those people who are living outside the parameters of society know something about society that others don’t. What, specifically, the recluse knows, what he sees from his vantage on the outside—that’s another question, and it’s a tough one. The recluse appears to be useless. He’s off in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing. And yet what he’s able to see because of his doing nothing is important for everyone. It would be nice if the shakers and the movers were able to see what the recluse sees, now and then. That said, if you’re a shaker and a mover, I’m not sure you’re ever able to do that.
It could be argued that if the recluse’s quiet life doesn’t somehow feed back into society and contribute in some positive way, then it’s just selfish. Maybe it is selfish. I don’t think it is, and I know lots of people who don’t, but who knows? It’s incredibly difficult to find out what this uselessness is all about, and then to be able to use it in some way. Maybe when you use uselessness you’ve destroyed it—sounds like a koan, doesn’t it?
I have the sense that mainstream American culture thinks of reclusive people as weirdos and misanthropes, if not worse. Why do you think there’s a resistance to people hanging out in the woods living detached lives? We live in a pragmatic society, right? Therefore anybody who’s not practical in the conventional sense is deemed useless. I’m not sure what you do with that uselessness in this society. I’m not sure you do anything with it. Maybe the fact that people don’t know what to do with that uselessness is what makes them turn against it.
Pare Everything Down to Almost Nothing
then cut the rest,
and you’ve got
I’m trying to write.
From “bottle rockets: a collection of short verse,” #30. Published with permission of the author.
You write about Manhattan, the war in Iraq, race relations, and other pressing topics of the day. How does the rest of the world find its way up to Judevine Mountain? How could it not? How could you not react to the war in Iraq or Afghanistan or whatever war happens to be the current war? If you’re sensitive to what’s going on around you—sensitive to the weather, to your immediate environment—then you’re going to be sensitive to current events and everything else that enters your life.
Do you think there’s a tension between the quiet, reclusive life and the life of speech and action? Certainly, and yet I couldn’t possibly live my life without it. The tension exists—it exists all the time, everywhere we go—and so it’s real. I watch the news. I go to New York to visit friends. I live my life in the world. Therefore, I see things that create tension in me. I’m not interested in denying that tension in any way.
Your poems often return to a small, plain moment of peace and gratitude, even when they’re dealing with things like illness, poverty, and loss. What’s the interplay there? I wish I knew. Maybe all I can say is that articulating something helps make it real and therefore acceptable. If it’s real, it’s here for us to confront, and if we’re confronting it there’s always the possibility of being glad for the confrontation. This could be one reason for writing a poem—not that I think anybody needs a reason to write a poem.
You’ve said that your poems aren’t so much about craft as they are about compassion. That’s true. My favorite poet is a Canadian guy named Alden Nowlan. He said, “When you read / my poems / forget the words— / words mean nothing / to me— / What concerns me is / the unutterable / loneliness of the / human heart.” Can you imagine an American poet saying that? There’s too much emphasis on language—the use of language, the artifice—and not enough emphasis on the unutterable loneliness of the human heart.
What has living close to the seasons taught you about impermanence? When you pay attention, that’s all you find. Whatever is coming is also going—easy come, easy go. [Laughs.] Just look out the window. Season to season, day to day, all you see is change. If you’re wrapped up in that change, if you see it very clearly, you can’t possibly think about the permanence of anything anymore.
So this awareness transfers over to human relationships and human bodies and the human mind? Absolutely. Why wouldn’t it?
Always everything plain and simple
No fancy words, no allusions, no
No quirky phrases.
No allegories, no analogies, no symbols,
no anything standing for something
No analysis. No conclusions.
No grand anything.
Just the common and the ordinary
spoken in a common and ordinary way.
then the other.
From Nine Taoist Poems. Edited and published with permission of Bob Arnold at Longhouse/Vermont.
What’s your reaction then? Do you accept this change stoically? Is it sad to see things go? Is there some excitement to it? All of the above. You’d better get used to it, but you’d also better find a way to enjoy it, to see the beauty in the sadness and the sadness in the beauty. You’d better look every second you can because it’s going to change on you from moment to moment. Once it’s gone, it’s not coming back.
Do you think that people don’t look out the window these days, that they intentionally avert their gaze from change and loss? Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. You’d have to ask them. But if they do look out the window—at the falling leaves and the falling snow, the sunshine and rain—and they don’t see the change, well, what are you going to do with that? I don’t really think you can miss it if you actually look.
And you can also look inside the window, at your own body and mind—that’s another place where your awareness can come alive to the fact of change.Exactly. We can see it in ourselves.
Earlier you said that your goal is to do the same thing every day. I think that anybody who lives a reclusive life gets to this point where they want to do the same thing every day, though I don’t know quite what that means. I suppose it means that you’re not involved in novelty, but rather in something deeper. If you do the same thing every day you’ll discover in that sameness an enormous variety of stuff to deal with. In fact, you’ll discover such a variety it will make your head swim. The variety comes from what youdo with the sameness—how you engage with it. I don’t need any other types of variety anymore.
After a poetry reading somebody once asked Gary Snyder what we can do in the face of the world’s many tangled problems. His response was something along the lines of: Dress up and stay at home. What do you make of that? Well, I don’t know exactly what to make of it. I certainly agree with the stay at home part. For me, staying at home means doing the dishes when you’re doing the dishes. It means live your life wherever you are and it will be adequate to the moment at hand. I’m not so sure about the dressing up part. I’ve been avoiding dressing up for years. [Laughs.]
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