DF: And does poetry have a role in all of this?
JB: There’s a deep connection between our spiritual selves and our creative selves, I think they’re one and the same thing. In many ways poetry has been my spiritual path. I remember making a clear decision when I was twenty-one. I said to myself ‘I am going forth into poetry’ in the way a Buddhist might say ‘I’m going forth into the Sangha’. In other words a clear decision to devote myself to an artistic pursuit come whatever may. Of course I had no idea what I was getting myself into, or what it would actually take. You have to go through a lot of processes that are uncomfortable and demanding and frustrating. I am not a natural writer. I have always found writing difficult and so I had to learn it from scratch, but I feel very grateful that I have had a passion in my life. It has kept me grounded, focused and has brought me many great friendships. You meet some really wonderful, engaging and imaginative people in artistic circles.
DF: How important do you think it is to have those kinds of artistic friendships or communities?
JB: Writing can be such a lonely occupation and only some people are suited to it. Fortunately I like being by myself, but I’m very grateful to have other people around me who also value the writing life. Poetry is marginalised in our culture and it’s easy to feel as though you’re spending so much time doing something no one cares about, so having friends who are also poets makes me feel part of something larger. What distresses me more than anything is the way that poetry is devalued, or considered an irrelevant or elitist art form here. I don’t think it is quite as bad elsewhere.
DF: Why do you think that poetry is devalued, particularly here in Australia, at least outside the circles of poets themselves?
JB: I think it may have to do with a general distrust of the mind and the emotions in Australia. Our culture seems to be very oriented towards achievement and triumph, we’re horribly materialistic, but poetry is not about that at all. It has a different set of values. Writing is often to do with failing, it’s an activity that is rarely straightforward and is a process rather than a program and so it involves the unknown and the uncertain. People resist poetry because they assume they won’t understand it and so will feel uncomfortable, therefore they avoid it. It’s a great pity because so many poems are accessible and add great richness to one’s life. However, there will always be those people who love it and you have to keep those people in your life and keep them close. We live in a distrustful age in which we close down more than we open up, but poetry opens you.
DF: Earlier you mentioned Buddhism, and some of your work has been informed by it. Buddhism is so rich philosophically and metaphysically, so how do you navigate the tension in being influenced by that and yet not losing your own poetic voice in the realm of ideas?
JB: Christianity never sat well with me, instead I found that Eastern interpretations chimed more with how I experienced and felt about the world. I never liked the Christian insistence on hierarchies, especially the notion that animals exist for our exploitation, the idea of original sin always felt wrong to me. I felt kinship with Buddhism’s view of interconnectedness, that everything in existence has value and that we are all living in this interwoven system which if undone causes great damage. I don’t find a tension between being influenced by Buddhist ideas and losing my voice. Buddhism has enhanced my poetry greatly, and indeed one of my books, Devadatta’s Poems, takes a character from Buddha’s time, and develops his psychological / historical profile. I’ve always felt that focused and concentrated writing activity has the same effect as meditation – you lose yourself, time and space drop away, you become the activity and you witness the rising and passing of thoughts.
DF: Many of your poems include a narrative strain and I’d appreciate knowing what is it that attracts you to narrative verse as a form?
JB: I like the drama in narrative, though I wouldn’t describe myself as a narrative poet, I think I’m a dramatic and lyric poet. I’m more interested in character and psychological imperatives, though I have written poetic sequences. Using already established historical characters in poetry can give you the advantage of having a narrative structure to slot into. I took quite a lot of imaginative leaps when writing Devadatta’s Poems, but I still had the specifics of a pre-existing time, place and historical moment to work with. Not a great deal is known about Devadatta, but there was enough information for me to work with, but not so much that my imagination was stymied.
DF: A number of the new poems in your latest collection Sun Music explore our relationship to the environment: poems such as: ‘Ode to Ambergris’, ‘Clouds’, ‘A Panegyric for Toads’, ‘Camel’, ‘To My Neighbours Hens’. What attracts you to these themes? Jonathan Bate in The Song of the Earth suggests that poetry has a long lineage and innate role in restoring readerships awareness to issues of ecocide. How do you feel about the relationship between poetry and the environment?
JB: A large part of my poetry has always been about landscape/nature and our relationship to it. I believe that if we don’t see our world with wonder and delight then we are not going to want to save it, or stop the destruction that is occurring so alarmingly. I see this as part of my role as a poet, to bring the natural world alive, to highlight its ravishing beauty and richness and to comment on human insensitivities and destructive behavior. All arts have a role to play in bringing our attention to ecocide, but poetry, because it is a short and intense expression can highlight these issues quickly and immediately, and also memorably.
DF: In ‘Clouds’ you make a distinction throughout the poem between ‘endless highfalutin blue skies’ and clouds which are ‘common’, which will ‘precipitate the deepest source of our moral passion, our principal wisdom’. What moved you into writing this poem and the dichotomy you are describing?
JB: Usually my poems start with something small, an image rather than an idea. Before I started ‘Clouds’ I was reading the Irish poet Michael Longley’s Collected Poems. There must have been something in one of his poems that triggered a response and I started jotting down a few things. It was summer, it was hot and I began to think of climate change and how we are experiencing so many more hot, blue skies because of it. I thought that we would probably begin soon to long for cloudy days, because of the damage that so much hot weather can do. My approach to climate change is a little slant in the poem, and it may not be all that obvious that this is what it is about.
DF: What was the impulse behind creating your recent collection Sun Music? In looking back over your career as a poet thus far, what guided your decisions regarding what to include?
JB: As my earlier books were out of print, I thought that a book containing older poems as well as new poems would be advantageous. As I’m now in my early sixties, I also thought it was time to take stock of what I had done over the decades. As I expressed in my Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, I did not include any poems from my 2014 book Devadatta’s Poems, nor any poems from the sequence ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’ published in Wolf Notes (2003). I’m currently writing a further sequence, and in the future I hope to publish a selection of my poems that deal with the life of the Buddha. The poems I included in Sun Music are those for which I personally have a fondness, poems that I think best represent my themes and concerns.
DF: From your practice of writing poetry after so many years, I’d be really interested in knowing your opinion of where a poem might go ‘wrong’ as you write it. What are the signs?
JB: My poems go wrong constantly as I’m writing them, this is part of the process, but I really like the opportunity of rescue, of finding how to put a poem back on track. Partly this happens because I don’t usually start with an idea for a poem. I start with a sound or an image, so the work lies in discovering what the core of the poem is going to be, how it is all going to cohere around a theme or subject. I have hundreds of failures, poems where I’ve never been able to find that essential X-factor. This is the frustration you learn to deal with, and I wouldn’t enjoy writing if every poem I wrote was not challenging in some way, or if I knew beforehand that it was all going to work out. This makes writing exciting, the uncertainty of success or failure. Sometimes it is a matter of putting a poem away for a while. I’ve had things sitting in a drawer for ten years, but as with anything the more you do it the better you get at it and you come to rely on your skills rather than just guess work.