[This interview, conducted by Susan Freeman, host of “The Poetry Show” KUSP 88.9 FM Central Coast Public Radio in Santa Cruz, California, took place on Sept. 12, 2010.]
Susan Freeman: I’m here tonight with a very wonderful guest Alan Botsford, and we’re going to be spending the next hour with you talking about Alan’s poetry and his work in “mamaist” and focusing primarily on the work that he has done in a wonderful book called Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore…So we hope that you will stay tuned and join us tonight for what is going to be a very interesting conversation. …Alan Botsford is visiting California from Japan and we want to welcome you, Alan. It’s good to have you here in Santa Cruz.
Alan Botsford: Thank you, Susan.
SF: Alan, who is the author of a number of books, most recently Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore, published this year by Sage Hill Press, was born in Connecticut and raised in the Washington, D.C. area. He holds degrees from Wesleyan University and Columbia, and he is currently associate professor at Kanto Gakuin University in Japan, where he edits Poetry Kanto, a “bilingual journal concerned with the interplay of voices East, West and beyond.” And we’ll be hearing more about Poetry Kanto in a little bit. His two previous collections of poetry are A Book of Shadows, Katydid Books in 2003, and mamaist: learning a new language, which was published in 2002, about which The Japan Times said, “…like the Dadaists his title borrows and departs from, Botsford throws out convention to create a new art…, it’s a revitalization of old forms…[that] breathes new life into words by the sheer brilliance of his constructions.” Alan, shall we jump into one of those constructions right now, hear one of your poems to start.
SF: Okay, thank you.
AB: [reads poem entitled “Nothing” from mamaist : learning a new language (2002)]
SF: [chuckling] Thank you for inviting us into that Zen space with that wonderful poem. Alan, you say in your Whitman book, I believe, “where we lack words to express our common experience, that experience becomes lost to us.” And it seems that many of the poems in mamaist, the poem you just shared, walks a road that is common to many people in terms of language. And I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about the “generic poems” that you’ve created in your work mamaist.
AB: Well, it shares something perhaps of Whitman’s spirit in that it plays with catalogues and lists in new contexts, that is, old phrases and idioms that we use in common everyday speech, and as a teacher that appeals to me and so those what I call “generic poems” are not “brand name poems” per se, they’re generic, we use the language all the time, and I wanted to explore new contexts for those phrases and idioms.
SF: You’re playing with turns of phrase and kind of standing words and phrases that are so commonplace on their heads, and completely taking us into almost a different plane with them.
AB: Well, I think Whitman does that sort of, if you will, soul work too in language, at least that’s my take on Whitman in the book Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore. “Cosmic folklore” for me is a world turned inside out. I think poets, artists, healers explore that territory in search of meeting-places, crossroads of the inner and outer worlds, and that’s a point of departure for me.
SF: It’s a kind of liminal space where you never know what’s coming at you but you have to bring everything you have to bear on it in order to create something new.
AB: Yes, that’s I think the process of discovery that any artist and even craftsman shares.
SF: You’ve been mentioning Whitman, and we’ll get into the book on Whitman in more depth as we move along. But I know Whitman has been a very strong force in your work and in your life. And I’m curious about what it is in Whitman and particularly in his use of language that you carry into your own work.
AB: I think he works as a poet to create an environment in which what he says can do its work. It’s very much a participatory journey. The reader is part of that experience. And without that participation, there would be no journey. I think Whitman is the consummate modern poet, maybe Dantesque in his way, but in very modern terms, of the pilgrimage with the reader.
SF: And so that participatory quality leads us into the democracy of his poems and the common strength in yours.
AB: That’s interesting. I would hope so. I would hope that I found inspiration with my engagement with Whitman and his power and his strength infused my own quest or journey through language.
SF: Well, I want to take a look for a minute at the fact that you walk between two worlds. You are American, you live in Japan, you were talking at dinner tonight about raising your son in two languages. He grew up speaking Japanese he’s now a student at [University of] Wisconsin. And both the idea of being bi-lingual and bi-cultural, living in a persona that can move through both worlds, is something that again I think you really bring forward by publishing or editing a journal, which is bi-lingual, which brings into English Japanese writers who otherwise we here in America might never know, and which also features writing by American writers.
AB: Yes, I feel very fortunate as an editor of Poetry Kanto in the last five or six years, to play a role in that cross-cultural mission as well as literary exploration. I think cultural identity and that struggle, for many people across the globe, the struggle of cultural identity per se and also between cultures, speaks to what Poetry Kanto tries to offer. As an editor I envision Poetry Kanto as a transformative space where poetry’s insights are made available for, and can engage the entire range of cultures, not just getting into the cultural mix but adding to it, enriching it, fermenting it, beyond our ideas of Japaneseness and Americanness. And I’ve had writers from other continents as well.
SF: Do you find, living in Japan, that the question of balancing identities, has affected your work as poet?
AB: Well, I think profoundly. I think it’s inevitable when you are living in a different culture that your identity will be shaped as the ‘other.’ And as we talked earlier, how one can feel at home as the ‘other’ is uppermost [challenge] in everyday life. So one is always reminded of one’s otherness. And in a way I almost forget that I am an American, and that I am Western, because I am living in a non-Western culture, the experiences that I have, what is nurtured in me, is much more unseen and unheard, I see it as the roots that have given birth to the Western world but we in the Western world lose sight of because we’re always…
SF: We’re in it.
AB: Yeah. We’re in it, exactly.
SF: And that otherness, that sense of belonging and not belonging, being one of and being outside of, is also something I see in Whitman’s work, very much, again, of walking the boundary of a familiar landscape while having one foot in and one foot out.
SF: So in a way, with your experience of being in Japan for 20 years, being very much in that society, but as a teacher of English, both in the sense of teaching English literature and in the sense of teaching English as a second language, like Whitman you find yourself on
the inside and the outside at the same moment, and how that translates into poetry is an interesting phenomenon.
AB: That is interesting. I’m sure I’m still exploring ways in which that affects my poetic practice, but it does remind me of the fact that Whitman’s choice of the title of his lifework, Leaves of Grass, tells you a lot. It doesn’t say “Leaves and Grass,” it says Leaves of Grass. It’s of, it’s sort of an interpenetrating world, a world where he is in search of forms and expression both inner and outer that inspires me, and that has reconnected me to my own roots.
SF: Right. Well I’m wondering if we can begin to head down Whitman’s road here. I want to just let everyone know that Alan was here in Santa Cruz, he did a reading on Friday night at the Felix Kulpa Gallery. And I really like the name of that gallery. The sense of lost and found in that, in the gallery and in the name as well.
AB: That’s funny, I have an essay [in the book] titled “Lost and Found on the Open Road.”
SF: [Laughter] Okay. And you’re going to be moving on from here, you’re going up to Chico in the next couple of days, and then you’ll be heading up to Davis
AB: To Davis. And then on to Portland.
SF: And then you’re going to carem off to Texas for a little bit, to Texas A & M
[University]. And then back up to Spokane [Washington]. And Spokane is the home of your publisher.
AB: Yes, Thom Caraway, publisher at Sage Hill Press, a wonderful small literary press, to whom I owe so much gratitude and for his excellence in editing and I think bringing out a
really beautiful edition, in my view, I hope others feel the same way.
SF: Well, let’s introduce our listeners to Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore– dialogues, essays and poems. This wonderful volume of ideas and thinking about Walt Whitman as both a spiritual guide and a namer of democracy, someone who mirrors back to us our understanding of ourselves, our better selves. And maybe just, if you could talk a little bit about the structure of the book, and what you were trying to do with it. And then we’ll try one of the dialogues.
AB: Sure. Well, Stanley Kunitz said that all poets, living or dead, are one’s contemporaries. I think that’s where the book is centered, in that search for Whitman’s contemporaneity. How he can speak to us, how we can address the issues of self and democracy and spiritual democracy that is just beginning to be explored as we move into what we call the global 21st century. He transcends his Americanness, he’s a poet for all those who need to hear what he has to say, And yet he’s the consummate American. And Leaves of Grass could never have been written by anyone other than an American, interestingly. So my quest, my effort in this book is to come at Whitman from different modes of literary discourse, from lyric essay to poetic dialogue to poetry. And poetry, of course, can express what prose cannot. I’m exploring different literary terrains and engaging Whitman, sometimes in channeling Whitman…
SF: [Chuckles.] Speaking of channeling Whitman, we had a great little conversation yesterday at a private home in Santa Cruz. A few of us gathered, some poets, and some
lovers of poetry, with Alan, and we had a great conversation about Whitman and the role that Whitman might play in our time in giving us some guidance, some sense of direction, some notion of how to live in a democracy at the beginning of the 21st century. And as we were having this conversation and invoking Walt’s name, suddenly the front door flew wide open, with no one helping it at all. And there was this blast of cool wind. And we all looked
and I think everyone of us had some sense of who opened that door.
AB: I think so.
SF: [laughter] So, maybe just briefly, the idea of that the book Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore is actually is written in three parts, and balanced between poems which you have written, dialogues—I’ll let you talk a little more about the dialogues in a minute– that are partly in Whitman’s voice and partly in Alan’s voice, and then essays that you’ve written, looking at from many different angles the work of Whitman.
AB: Right. It begins with a poem called “The Doorway,” and it’s an invocation of the doorways of our lives, and allowing or hoping that Whitman will walk through it. So, interestingly, yesterday was a nice synchronicity. So then the first section is called “The Vision of the Dance,” and there’s a series of poetic dialogues, followed by a section of essays called “Filled by the Spirit.” And those essays draw from Western and Eastern traditions, I use Shinto myth, Greek myth, Amaterasu, Urashimataro, so the Japanese traditional cultural myths inform those essays as I explore Whitman. Also the Oxherding myth, the Oxherding Pictures from ancient China, Zen Buddhist tradition is an inspiration for one essay.
SF: Right. And another essay, a very interesting essay that evokes the European folk tradition of the King with Donkey Ears.
AB: Right. And then it finally ends with the section called “The Cosmic Flow,” and that is an 83-poem sequence called “Singing with the Dead.”
SF: So, Negotiating with Walt” is one of those dialogues, a serio-comic dialogue as it says. What is the thinking behind the dialogues, so we have a sense of how to frame what we’re
about to hear.
AB: Well, I’ll let the title explain. It’s called “Negotiating with Walt.” I think every working poet has to come to terms with a poet like Whitman. And you feel you’re negotiating with the poet as you feel the influence and impact of his language. So I think that in this poetic dialogue that’s what I’m doing. In a way, that can stand for what I’m doing in the entire book.
SF: Okay. So the voices you’re about to hear are Walt Whitman’s first, and then Alan’s.
AB: [reads “Negotiating with Walt”]
SF: I’m Susan Freeman. And it’s very nice to be back here at The Poetry Show. I’m welcoming tonight poet and essayist Alan Botsford. And we just walked our way into Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore with that dialogue between Whitman and Alan himself. And we’re going to move through the book section by section. Alan if you would lead us into the next piece, which is a different genre than what we just heard.
AB: Yes, of course. I’ll read an excerpt from one of the essays, inspired by the Zen Buddhist tradition of the Ten Oxherding Pictures, and in that tradition it’s the young man or boy searching for the ox, and in my essay it’s searching for the bard. So I’ll just read a few
paragraphs from that first section, the first picture, if you will, called “Searching for the Bard”: [reads excerpt]
SF: Alan, you have referred to Walt Whitman as a “poet of renewal.” And I’m thinking of several different ways in which that might be true. In our time, at the crossroads we find
ourselves right now at the 21st century in this global or globalized world, the meaning of who we are, in America, as a society, as a body politic, as a group of individuals trying to realize ourselves as a society, it seems that Walt Whitman has many things to say to us at this point. You invoke some of that in this essay in Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore, the kind of center of the book. And I’m wondering if we can talk a little bit about this idea, this set of crossroads, if you will, that he represents, both in language, the way in which he reshaped the language of poetry into the modern, and the concept of who we were as a people, in all our diversity and hoped-for unity.
AB: Well I could answer that from an historical context, as we talked about earlier, that the U.S. was on a threshold prior to the Civil War when it faced factionalism and disunion. And obviously Whitman single-handedly tried through an unprecedented influx of creative energy to give voice to the direction that he hoped America would move, which was of course maintaining or keeping its unity in the face of possible civil war, and later on, when that failed to keep the union together he had to adapt, he had to put his vision to the test, as it were, and he did valiantly as a civil war nurse, where those ideas of community, of comradeship, of egalitarianism were tested and were found not wanting, but were found in his own personal life to have broken new ground for him. He had to pay a price for it, of course, and later he suffered strokes and so on. But again that’s an historical context. Maybe what I am searching for in this book is the living lore that his legacy of language left us, or gives us.
SF: And looking at that living lore, you get the sense reading the book that we’ve got Walt Whitman the person, the man who walked the streets of Manhattan, who crossed Brooklyn Ferry, who took to the open road, the man who sat by the beds of dying soldiers during the civil war. And you’ve got Walt Whitman the legend, Walt Whitman who in some way assumed the whole persona of America and in a very physical, very sensual way, spoke back.
AB: Well maybe this would be a good opportunity to read the first poem in that sequence. I think reading that might lead to further discussion. It’s the first of 83 poems from the section called Singing with the Dead, In Search of a Living Lore. The title is “Greeting the Angel”: [reads poem]
SF: That really calls forth what Whitman could be to us, what I think he perceived himself to be. You know, it feels like we’re balancing between two forces when we read Whitman, and that you are invoking those two forces in the book as well. That on the one hand Whitman invites us to celebrate the diversity, the many-ness of who we are, and to do that in the fullness of our lives, the noise of it, the feel of it. And on the other hand, not necessarily juxtapose but in a way very different, he’s calling us to unity. Not to turn our backs on that diversity but instead to incorporate the diversity into that unity itself. And that’s his paradox, and as we were saying, that was Abraham Lincoln’s paradox as the head of state, it’s definitely the paradox of our time.
AB: Interestingly Whitman might have thought he was serving the function as a redeemer poet. Of course he had many roles, as a prophetic poet, a democratic poet. But redeemer poet has for me special significance as someone who works in a language where English is the second language. So I think that in Whitman’s lifetime his search for a redeeming voice, a voice that would bring that unity out of diversity and celebrate the diversity also is a compelling one, and one that I think will speak to us in many forms, and to poets in their
search for their voices.
SF: And that brings us back to something we were talking about earlier in the program tonight, that sense of being the other, the otherness, that you’re on the inside and the outside. So when you speak out of that authentic voice calling for unity, it’s not only calling outward, but you’re asking for your own inclusion, you’re asking to be part of the game yourself.
AB: I think… you hit the nail on the head.
SF: [laughter] One of the mysteries in this cosmos. …So the idea of “cosmic folklore” here is exactly that, isn’t it? That Walt Whitman can speak to us out of a place that is so much bigger than the boundaries of one society, so much bigger than the boundaries of the known world. He asks us to move into the unknown world with him and in that place to find ourselves anew, in a different way.
AB: Well, I think that speaks to his role also as a poet of renewal. He was a pioneer poet celebrating the frontiers of where poetic language could go, and the frontiers of American experience that were still in promise, it was still being shaped and formed and informed by new and common language of the immigrant experience, and young America. We’re not so young anymore and how can we tap into these imaginative resources that Whitman has given us, is I think the task.
SF: And like folklore itself, which generation after generation we turn to, for teaching, for wisdom, I mean these are teaching tales, these are stories we tell to our children so they‘ll grow up with an understanding of the world around them. So Whitman provides that folkloric wisdom to us if we only draw on it.
AB: I think that is his vision of democracy, that it is based in many ways in oral traditions, in the provisional meanings not absolute meanings, in how the shaping force of the imagination is something that each individual has to explore for himself or herself. And he just shows a way, and gives us doorways. And it’s our challenge, it’s our life spirit that comes to the fore or that we can connect with in those folktales and myths that inspire us today.
SF: Inspire us again with another poem, would you?
AB: Sure. It’s called “Musing of Young Walt”: [reads poem…]
SF: When you wrote this book, which took you ten years to write… And the book we’re talking about, the book we’ve been reading from is Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore: dialogues, essays, poems by Alan Botsford. It was published by Sage Hill Press this year, 2010, in Spokane, Washington. Is it available, people can find this at a bookshop?
AB: Sage Hill Press has a website, and it’s available online. It’s available at Amazon. And it’ll be getting into bookstores on the west coast. But it is online at Amazon.
SF: Okay. I didn’t mean to throw you a curve there. But I just wanted people to know where they could get the book. We’ve got time for one more poem.
AB: “Turning Point with Walt”: [announcing title, reads poem…]
SF: [“I’ll be back.”—last line of AB’s poem]…And we hope you will be. Alan Botsford, thank you so much. This has been a great evening, a great conversation. And we wish you well on your travels through the west coast and back to Japan. Please come and visit us again soon.
AB I hope I will. Thank you very much, Susan, for having me.
SF: You’re very welcome.