David Budbill is a poet, playwright, essayist, speaker, musician, gardener and publisher of a cyberzine is titled The Judevine Mountain Emailite. Quite a list of accomplishments for a man who over thirty years ago moved to a remote area of northern Vermont to live as a hermit. He has performed his poetry on two CDs, most recently Songs for a Suffering World (Boxholder Records), and a new book of his poetry, While We’ve Still Got Feet, will be published next year by Copper Canyon Press. His website is www.davidbudbill.com.
Inquiring Mind: When you retreated to the Vermont woods in 1969 did you have a romantic notion of what it would be like to be a hermit?
David Budbill: Oh, for sure. I had visited Vermont before I moved here, and I’d fallen in love with the mountains. But more than that, I was looking for peace of mind, relief from an unjust world. I was teaching at an all-Black college in southeastern Pennsylvania and was up to my neck in civil rights and anti–Vietnam War activities. The events of 1968—all the political assassinations and the riots at the Chicago Democratic convention—were more than I could take. I wanted to start over. I wanted to leave America, and yet I didn’t want to leave America. I almost left by moving here to Judevine Mountain, where I’m only thirty miles from the Canadian border. So I got as close to leaving as I could. This northeastern part of Vermont is still remote. It’s almost thirty-five miles in any direction from my house to a traffic light.
IM: Your poetry seems to express an inner tension between a part of you that wants to be a hermit and leave the world behind and another part that is drawn to social activism and seeks artistic recognition.
DB: Well, you know, it’s one thing one minute and another thing the next. [Laughter] I can’t seem to give up either side of myself. Obviously, I’m some combination of both. Yin and yang. To some degree, I’m following in the footsteps of those famous Buddhist poets Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and Ryokan, who went off to the woods in order to be free and write their verses.
There were many others like them who never became known, and maybe that’s because they didn’t care at all for recognition. They didn’t come out of the woods for readings and performances. I’m obviously not one who’s going to just disappear. Maybe some of that tension was captured in one of my recent poems in which the old master Han Shan visits me and I introduce him to cell phones, chainsaws and the like.
IM: When you are writing poetry about those conflicts within yourself, do you feel you are reconciling the tensions by turning them into art?
DB: Yes. Momentarily, at least. I think you could see the sum total of my poems as the effort to reconcile polarities. That is also true for my life as a playwright and my work in the theater. Theater is very much a communal experience. Sometimes it’s the most wonderful communal experience you can imagine, and sometimes it’s just awful. You’re working with directors and actors and set designers and so forth, whereas the poet is always sitting alone working on something. Often when I’m in that communal theater situation I want to get back to my desk and be by myself, and when I’m at my desk by myself I often wish I were out working in a community. Go figure. But if you make me choose, I’ll choose being alone, up here in the mountains. That’s the place I most want to be.
IM: Are you deliberately trying to be simple and accessible in your poetry, or is that just the way you are?
DB: I’m just a simple, accessible guy. [Laughter] Seriously, I work hard at being accessible and direct, but I also think it’s something that comes naturally. I was doing a workshop with some schoolteachers this past week and talking about my eleven rules for good writing. They’re all about directness and using the simplest form of the verb and the simplest sentence structure possible. One of my rules is: “Never be deliberately obscure. Life is difficult enough. Don’t add to the confusion.”
People often come up to me and say, “I hate poetry, but I like your stuff,” which in most literary circles would be taken to mean that I must not be a very good poet. I take that as a compliment. I want to be understood. Neither one of my parents graduated from high school. I think in some sense I’m writing for my parents, or at least for ordinary people who are not intellectuals or facile with words. I myself have some learning disabilities and reading has always been difficult for me. I think one reason I became a poet was because there are fewer words to read on the page. I want my poetry to be clearer and easier to read than prose.
IM: Were you a big fan of the Chan and Zen hermit poets before you went to Vermont?
DB: My interest in the Zen poets and in Taoism and Buddhism started back in the early 1960s when I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Among the books I was reading then were D. T. Suzuki’s Essentials of Zen Buddhism and a little book by Edward Herbert called A Taoist Notebook. I was especially attracted to the Taoist poets because of the melancholy beauty of their poems. They don’t believe in reincarnation, and therefore they so often express a sadness about this fleeting, ephemeral world.
IM: Have you ever done any formal Buddhist practice?
DB: I’ve never been on a meditation retreat, ever. I do sit in meditation, although I don’t know whether I’m doing it right. [Laughter] I’m going to be in a book of American Zen poems that’s coming out next year from a little publisher in Ohio, and they asked me to make a statement. I said that I regularly sit quietly in a sort of cross-legged posture on a cushion in front of my little homemade altar and breathe evenly, sometimes for as long as it takes a stick of incense to burn down. I don’t know whether that’s zazen, and I don’t call myself a Buddhist.
IM: When you sit do you just pay attention to your breath, or do you let yourself think of poetry?
DB: I try not to think of poetry. However, I play the shakuhachi a lot, and often I will just sit and play long tones as a kind of meditation technique. I feel as though I’m being very efficient—practicing my instrument and meditating at the same time. The shakuhachi originally was considered a focusing device, similar to a gong or bell or wooden clapper. It wasn’t even thought of as a musical instrument.
IM: In your poem “Weather Report” you say that your home on Judevine Mountain is a fairly miserable place to live.
DB: In reality, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world as far as I’m concerned, and that poem might be my attempt to keep people away from here, although it doesn’t work very well. Vermont is the second wettest place in America next to the Pacific Northwest, and the extremes of temperature are just crazy. We had an unbelievably cold winter last year, with temperatures below zero for week after week, and lots of snow. I enjoy that kind of thing, but it’s definitely not a relaxed and easy place to live.
IM: Do you ever regret that you didn’t stick around in New York, thinking maybe you would have become a more famous poet or a cultural heavyweight?
DB: Only about three or four times a day. [Laughter] Yeah, my wife and I talk about that constantly, especially in March and April when we’ve had six months of winter. But I go back to New York quite a bit now, and in a way I have the best of all possible worlds. Next week I’m going to New York for ten days to perform with some jazz musician friends and to be on a panel about peace activism among artists and so on. I get back to the city about half a dozen times a year. I get to enjoy the huge, multiethnic crush and all that crazy, cacophonous energy, and then I get to come back up here to my mountain.
IM: We seem to be living through an ominously dark time, a critical moment in history. As a semi-hermit poet, do you feel you now serve the cause of peace and justice?
DB: I feel like I’m as active now as I was in the 1960s, but just in different ways. For instance, on my website I post a cyberzine. The most recent issue included an essay connecting the torture in Abu Ghraib prison to the history of lynching in America. I’m also active in antiwar readings, and I give talks at protest demonstrations and so forth. I’m not marching down the street with thousands of people the way I was in the ’60s, but the whole peace movement is different now.
It’s interesting that during the buildup to the war in Iraq, when I was out a lot at antiwar readings and demonstrations, I had the feeling that my little poems about birds and vegetables, sunrises and sunsets were irrelevant. They just didn’t seem important. However, the very second the bombing started I knew for certain that all those little poems about birds and vegetables, sunrises and sunsets were vitally important. Those poems are for humanity, for life, for love. That’s why they are so important. To be a poet who is attentive to human life and the way it progresses, the cycle of life and death, is important. It’s necessary to maintain a sense of our humanity in dark times, and that is the work of the poet.