[This interview, conducted by J.P. Dancing Bear, took place on September 8, 2010 in San Jose, California. Bear is the author of nine collections of poetry and editor of American Poetry Journal and Dream Horse Press. Bear also hosts the weekly hour-long poetry show, “Out of Our Minds,” on public station KKUP, 91.5. FM, where this interview took place.]
[Alan Botsford first reads aloud two poems from Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore.]
J.P. Dancing Bear: Alright, and both of these were from “Singing with the Dead”, it’s a very long poetic sequence, of 83 poems. And just to be clear. This is not just a book of poetry—like I said at the beginning—please explain. I don’t think it does any true justice to just say dialogues, essays and poems. Explain what’s going on in this book.
AB: Okay, that’s a good place to talk about how the book evolved. I should say I never started out thinking I’d write a book like this. It took on the shape that it did over many years, organically grown, if you will, from my interaction and engagement with Walt Whitman and seeking a way for his poetic sensibility and imaginative universe to speak to me in a land far from my roots. Could he be an “angel of inspiration,” as Wendell Berry calls our literary predecessors. I believe Whitman served that function for me; he was a kind of angel of inspiration, and that’s where the book began. I wrote lyric essays and then over the years I wrote poems, and didn’t know until much later that they were of a piece, that it was a larger work with an arc, I wouldn’t say narrative arc but an imaginative arc that brought me closer to my American roots and my own understanding of poetry.
JP: It’s amazing, that’s why I wanted you to explain this. Because when I read this book, I was enamored of all of it. The essays were really good. I feel like this is a labor of love. I figure that that’s the way the book evolved, it must have evolved as “I didn’t even know this what I was doing when I started.” It has that feel to it without that rambling essence, like you went too far. I mean, it’s a sizable book, it’s almost 300 pages, but it doesn’t feel like 300 pages, it’s a very intimate read. Usually when you say “essays,” people’s eyes roll back into their head, and their thinking, “Oh, yeah, these are the things I read in college.” But these are really, really good. They spring off the page. You’re definitely engaged with the subject. I highly recommend this book, because I enjoyed reading it. I really did. I thought that you really covered a lot of ground, but it didn’t feel like you did.
AB: Thank you. I think that description would make Walt Whitman happy because I think the intimacy of mind that he created in Leaves of Grass was I feel his legacy to the future. My life in Japan has been an opportunity for me to have a fresh look at the American quintessential poetic bard. So I was inspired not only by my Japanese associations and cultural encounters, that’s where the essays spring from. Namely the Shinto myths of Amaterasu or the folktales of Urashimataro and others. They provided a kind of interface so I could discover new avenues of exploration into Whitman’s body of work. I found that there are roots as Eastern as they were Western in his Leaves of Grass. And I doesn’t surprise me, and it wasn’t what I sought, I didn’t search for that. It was simply a kind of ongoing surprise for me –that Whitman is probably the most Oriental of our poets, if you will.
JP: It’s funny, because just from my basic knowledge of Shintoism I was thinking the same thing while I was reading this book. But also you can’t read this book and not reflect on the reader’s own experience with Whitman. I never made that connection before, but I definitely did while I was reading this book. I felt the same way. Now I have to ask: How aware of Whitman are the Japanese?
AB: Well, they have a long history of and engagement with Whitman through translation at the beginning of the [20th] century and onwards since then. There’s a Whitman Society of Japan. So they have scholars. There are scholars active on the scene. I don’t know compared to other countries, but there are books out focused on east/west contexts for reading Whitman. I’m thinking now of Chinese scholarship. As scholars have pointed out, Whitman has a life outside of America, that he is America’s “world poet” and he does cultural work outside America which is a vast new territory for exploration in the 21st century.
JP: With just my knowledge of Lorca, I know Lorca was familiar with Whitman.and referenced him. I’ve always thought of Whitman as being more than just the quintessential American poet but more like a world poet, for exactly the same reasons. Over the ten years I’ve had poets in here, I would say by and large Whitman is one of those poets that everyone points to, we’ve all spent time with. And justifiably so. You know, there are a lot of other poets that are in quote unquote the canon that I don’t think are as worthy as Whitman is. Whitman seems to me to be a kind of quintessential American poet.
AB: Indeed he is. I think the line that I like to point to that for me is perhaps one dimension of his work that all cultures and languages and other poets working in other traditions might identify with—the line in the first section of “Song of Myself”– “I permit to speak at every hazard/ Nature without check/ with original energy.” That line is a declaration of liberating the creative life force through nature, at whatever cost and wherever it would lead. And that means poets from whatever language, and whatever the tradition, coming to meet Whitman, will find inspiration and pathways into poetry and into imaginative discourse that will speak to them and to their own traditions. So it’s not like you have to meet him halfway as an American. Of course, his historical identity is obviously uppermost in scholarship and in our encounter with a nineteenth century America that was gaining its identity on the world stage and liberating itself from outdated European models. That was in the 1850s, when Whitman arrived. And he was the right man at the right place at the right time. He was unmistakably the man of his time. At the same time, as he grew as a poet, the work Leaves of Grass went to nine editions and reflecting his own growth and development as a poet and reflecting the limitations that he had to face, where America and its promise and its democratic ideals would fall short. So he would then turn to the future and address in his optative voice the expression of a wish, of desire, to future readers. So we connect as future readers to that voice.
JP: Do you think that’s what makes him so enduring, is his ability to have addressed the future?
AB: Well, I think maybe that the short answer would be I think his ability to connect not with everyone but with “you,” that the you that we read [shows] we’re with him on the journey, we’re part of the growth and search, and we are equals, if we are willing to be. That is a great call. And anyone who answers that call is in for an incredible voyage.
[A.B. reads with J.P. Dancing Bear a dialogue from the book called “Crossing the Threshold”]
JP: Very cool… Wow, that went a long time. Alright, we have to take a break. [laughs] Just to remind everybody that you’re listening to a public radio station—like I had to remind you, because this kind of stuff happens all the time in the top 40 radio stations, we all know that.
[J.P. talks about public radio. then there is a break.]
JP: I would be remiss if I don’t have you talk just for a quick couple of minutes about Poetry Kanto, primarily because I think it is a fascinating journal. You have both English—or American—poets and you have Japanese poets side by side in this journal. Talk a little bit about the process, and the readership would be fascinating too.
AB: Yes, it’s a unique journal because it’s a dialogue going on between cultures and languages, but that may not be unique in itself but what Poetry Kanto does in Japan is tune into voices around the world, not just American, but we’ve had New Zealand poets, Australian, Hong Kong , and we have an opportunity to create an ensemble of voices that speaks to cultural identity and even transcends cultural identity, or maybe explores the gaps between them.
I have been editor for the last five years and now entering the sixth issue, and we have Japanese poets, contemporary poets & modernist poets in translation, and that’s always the challenge, of finding top-notch translations in English. So we’re always on the look-out for more.
JP: Okay. And the only reason why I point that out is because a copy of that magazine was sent to me when Ilya Kaminsky [acclaimed younger Russian-American poet] who’s a friend of mine, was featured in there. I was just fascinated by it. I thought it was a really interesting concept. The pages are really clean. And the presentation is impeccable. It’s unusual. You don’t see that in a lot of magazines. It’s usually a different kind of presentation. And this is nice, you get to know a poet, basically, from their work. You do a very, very good job with that. I highly recommend the magazine.
AB: Thank you.
JP: …So, I do want to get you maybe to read, let’s get you to read one poem now, and then we’ll talk a little more about the book.
AB: Well, as you may have sensed from some of the poems I’ve already read, it is a kind of dialogue taken up with Walt in different guises. And in a way, letting Walt Whitman live in me, in this book, gave me a chance to find my “inner” Walt Whitman, so to speak. As a result I was able to channel that into poems.
[The interview concludes after another twenty minutes reading & talking.]