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.
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