Alan Botsford’s most recent book, Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore, was released in 2010 by Sage Hill Press. Alan lives in Kamakura, Japan with his wife, and is the senior editor of Poetry Kanto.
The interview was conducted on the campus of Whitworth University in September 2010.
Thom Caraway: You’re eight years removed from having published your first collection, mamaist: learning a new language now, so maybe ten years removed from the writing of those poems. Looking back on that first collection, how do you think about it now?
Alan Botsford: Its inception was in New York City, and it grew out of, in a word, love – how can I say? – it grew out of my relationship with my wife. It felt like a collaborative work in many ways. And I think that ‘mamaist’ has taken on many different meanings in the ensuing years, so as an origin, it was in New York, my wife was pregnant with our only child and ‘mamaist’ came up. It was a “why not?” kind of title, presenting itself in a creative fashion, and it was an important turning point in my life. There were many things happening in that year, including getting married, having a child, leaving Hunter College and NYU, and moving to Japan. So it is a profound expression and celebration of that time of my life. So that’s why I used the word “love” and I never really used that word before, but in a nutshell.
TC: There was no intentional nod to the Dadaists?
AB: I had read them, of course, as much I suppose as the next guy, Dadaists, surrealists–I loved French surrealist poets for years, and had even translated some in early years. I could name many different writers, but I wasn’t trying to go up against the Dadaists; I wasn’t trying to make a statement. I liked the humor of it and I wanted to explore where it would take me as a word. Later I discovered that the very syllable itself, ‘ma,’ interestingly, can be found in most languages. The etymology of the word is ‘food,’ because the mother is the source of food for the child. When I found that out, it seemed fitting, because it was very much a beginning for me and my wife, and our life together. It speaks to the many creative and personal dimensions at that particular point in my life. But I have not stopped writing mamaist poems, and I intend to publish mamaist books in the future. I like to think of it as a lifelong journey.
TC: So you’ll have half a dozen books by the same title.
AB: With different subtitles. The first book’s subtitle is “learning a new language.”
TC: “learning a new language.” Now, those were written in or before 1989?
AB: The poem “nothing,” if I’m not mistaken, was written in New York. So the poem that begins that volume, was written while I was in America. But I went on to write more of that kind of poem in Japan, and it evolved into what I call “generic” poems. And what that is, as opposed to brand-name poems, is that you can play with language or you can ring the changes on turns of phrases and idioms that are fairly commonplace in such a way that they have not only new context, but they provide you with a two-way mirror, of an experience of how life itself—existence— is structured, that is, temporally, there’s always a before. What precedes the sentence and what comes after the sentence is going to determine the meaning of that sentence. And that very much comes into play with those generic poems.
TC: This idea of language, the meanings of the very syllables that make up the words we use is in many ways central to a lot of things that you do. You have an essay in the new Whitman book that examines the words ‘leaves’ and ‘of’ and ‘grass.’ So there’s an entire section on the word ‘of.’ You left nothing unturned in terms of examining all of the various implications and connotations and denotations. Is that something that comes out of linguistic training, or just a particular interest you have in sound?
AB: I think it’s related to sound and music. I don’t have any real linguistic training; I mean I have taken a linguistics class here and there, but my training and interests grows out of music. At that time, syllables were the building blocks, naturally, of words, so I seemed to find words and phrases, and I would construct a lexicon. I would makes lists. I was very much immersed in language. And that immersion was just one discovery after another. I mean, for me, if you gave me a word I would go to an etymological dictionary and try to find what the origin was. And I would never tire of that.
TC: And there’s a lot of play with that in the poetry; I think specifically of fragments of lines that I remember from the manuscript. “Inward, indeed, in word, in deed.” And those things put with each other, and calling attention to the sounds that we make and the meaning we attach to those sounds, which, when you put them next to each other, that’s six words that have somewhat arbitrarily been assigned to these different meanings. And I like that oftentimes in the poems it seems like you’re playing with that idea. The idea of play is important to many of your poems. Where does that, in a sense, come from? Is it a love of sound, and a love of language and your immersion in it, or do you want to address that?
AB: I think, like anyone writing or drawn to poems, that you’re drawn to rhyme. I think childhood is a place where you discover that joy in language. And I wanted that to live in my work as much as possible. To not shy away from that experience of joy, which is different from pleasure, a deep sense, you know, even how C.S. Lewis used the word ‘joy.’ And so I think it’s a bridge to different parts of my life that I would not otherwise be able to access or maybe there are too many taboos so that in an artistic way you can explore language without the restrictions of those taboos.
TC: Turning to Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore, there is, in the examination of Whitman and of taboos, that’s seems like one of the big things that he did. He broke down a lot of barriers in terms of social norms and ‘it’s okay to talk about these things in poetry now,’ and maybe part of that is his gift to us, and so your preservation and representation of that makes a lot of sense.
AB: “Resist much, obey little.” That’s quintessential Whitman. I think maybe breaking down is maybe one step but the next step would be breaking through, or liberating—that word is associated with Whitman. He was able to find what I like to think of as when you reach dead ends in creative explorations or even in your own personal life, you have to find ways of breaking through, and he did that in a profound way. In probably an unparalleled way, in the history of not only American literature but probably world literature. That influx of energy is and the poetic production of free verse is, for me, what Whitman represents. What I wanted to say was taking that metaphor of the dead end— and we all have experienced that, in every dimension—and moving it into the open road. That dead end that opens out into what clearly was, for him, groundbreaking. But he had to live with the consequences of that.
In other words, once you make that breakthrough you have to recalibrate your relationship to the muse, to daily life. So that also presents for me, in Whitman’s case, an exemplary figure in literature, because he transcends literature. His struggle in many ways is not just his struggle as a man of letters. It’s a struggle of a man of faith. I think that runs though his life and work.
TC: Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore was written over a number of years. You seem to, when you begin a project, become very immersed in it. How did you come to Whitman? Because it’s such an interesting combination of original poetry, the dialogues, and the essays, which are at the same time scholarly and researched and lyric and poetic.
AB: Very practically speaking, I had to write prose. That is, I wanted to write poetry and really made poetry my priority from the early years in New York. But I needed something to back it up. In other words, in the world we live in, you need to show the backdrop for those poems in a way that doesn’t diminish their mystery.
As a professor, I was just setting out. I’d been teaching part time and if I was going to take the next step to full time, I needed to produce critical essays. So on a practical level, that was needed, that was necessary. I had to turn my focus to what in a way was very helpful, and useful, and important, it turns out. I remember—and my wife will joke with me—because I turned to her, and I said, “What could I possibly write about Whitman that would be new? It’s been said 100 times.” What could I say? But I took that leap of faith, and looking back I have a different answer, and that answer would be it’s grown from the soil of Japan. Japanese nurturing of the spirit of roots, that plays such an important role for me. The book took on a life of its own. I found myself needing to write in dialogue form because it allowed play for my imagination, and my moral compass necessarily required that give-and-take response. And also, it seemed to me so prominent in Whitman’s own work, that he was always addressing the reader.
TC: There’s so much mythology. One of my favorite paragraphs in the entire book is the last paragraph of “Thinking Outside the Cave,” just for the barrage of cultural references. It’s not really another book about Whitman; it’s all these other things as well. “Time for us to be putting on our thinking caps and start thinking outside the cave. Remember, Mahatma Gandhi toppled the once- invincible British Empire by spinning at his loom and stripping to a loincloth. Meanwhile, as the myth of Amaterasu would remind us, Benjamin Andre of the hip-hop group Outkast sings, ‘When you feel you’ve done the best you can, motherfuck the wagon, come join the band.’” Gandhi, the British Empire, Amaterasu and Outkast: that’s as unlikely a grouping as you can imagine, but it works. So, maybe Urashimataro, and then pairing that with Atlantis, there are so many strings of influence going on in the book. Does Whitman just lend himself to myth across cultural boundaries?
AB: The undergirding of Whitman’s thought could arguably be found in the mythic traditions of both East and West. In other words, he arrived on the scene in the 19th century when many spiritual epics from the East were being translated. So he not only was influenced from the transcendental side, but also from his own readings of the eastern epics. So I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say by sheer chance I landed in Japan. I had always a longstanding interest in transcendental writers, in Melville especially, and in Whitman. So that all of it just came together in a way that allowed me to not be confined by the scholarly essay. Hundreds of centuries had established tradition that I am fine with. But I see this book not as a tree with roots, but as a vine around the tree moving in new directions, and opening up possibilities for others to explore literature in those ways. So they don’t have to follow the norm. That critical scholarship, as important as it is, is not going to change—that is a tradition— but there can be other ways of approaching and appreciating and responding to literature, and engaging with the past.
If you want to understand Whitman, Whitman’s cultural and historical contexts, there is much that my book does not address per se. My book is more of a creative engagement and a response to the possibilities of Whitman’s language and use of language and how that can continue to inspire writers, as of course Whitman has inspired the whole tradition of free verse since the 19th century. So I’m one of many to have written these so-called “Walt poems.” And I knew that there was a long legacy of poems written in response to Whitman, to, as we say, “Uncle Walt,” or “Father Walt.” I knew that, and yet I wanted to take it further.
TC: I think the quintessential example of that is the last poem in the book, “Singing with the Dead,” which is an 83-part poem, with various versions of Walt and engagements with him
AB: It’s subtitled “In Search of a Living Lore.” In search of Whitman’s contemporaneity, in search of his voice in the 21st century, which might speak to us in new ways, both as readers and as potential “poets to come.” He creates, almost single-handedly, the myth of the American voice, the myth of the American, even today helping define what it is to be American at our best. He’s such a treasure, to me an honor, that I wanted to take it further not as kind of a joke— though I’m now responding to Uncle Walt— but on a much deeper level, hopefully meeting him at those mythic roots where all kinds of archetypes come to life.
It’s a path that is a labor of great struggle and love. The evolution of the book is also owed to collaborations with Japanese culture, Japanese colleagues, all the readings that I did, and not least fortuitously, even your contribution was an important part of the journey of this book, and as an editor you— and I’m speaking now of Thom Caraway—I think played a role also, meaning that I’d like to think that the book has roots in a communal existence, not just celebrating, “Oh, this is Alan Botsford speaking back to Walt Whitman.” I hope that Whitman would continue to have that effect, and other writers, too.
TC: And I think that that’s one of the things that I love about the book is that it doesn’t seem like a book; it seems like a conversation. And at points in the book it is a conversation, negotiating with Walt, and the dialogue – all these different traditions and characters and myths that the book and the context of Whitman engages with, an experience sort of book. It will never be the book you expect, in many of the same ways Whitman is never the same. When you read “Leaves of Grass,” it’s a different experience each time.
AB: I would hope that presence is something that Whitman offers in language in a unique way. He celebrated presence; that is what he finally realized many years later, after years and years of struggle with finding an audience. In later years he openly acknowledged the arrogance, the flaw, the shortcomings of the man. This is what makes him so human; this is what makes him more than a poet; it makes him a moral force. It makes him a man, some say, who may not have evolved as much as he could have, given the restrictions of the poems. But I think it’s fair to say that he made his poetry his lifework and it became a spiritual journey for him. That’s how I read Whitman – as a spiritual mentor or guide, so those poems in that last section of my book—“Singing with the Dead”—are partly in Whitman’s voice, partly in my voice, partly in Whitman speaking to me, partly in me imagining myself as Whitman. There are so many different permutations, and I never predicted or planned how they would appear.
Kate Schmedake: You talked earlier about the development of language, especially how you’ve seen your son’s development of language through his childhood. Have you grown to learn to love language more as your child learned to speak?
AB: He was raised bilingually, my son Sage, and it was an effort on his part to be willing to learn the second language at home with his father, because with his mother he would learn Japanese, his native language, which is inherently the mother tongue—that’s why we say that. But nevertheless his father is American and speaks in order to give him that second language. And so it was a series of negotiations and compromises, because he had his willfulness and I had my hopes, so raising him with both languages necessitated learning something new for both of us every day. It was also a joy for me. He’s now fully grown, he’s 21, but looking back on those days, there was a lot of joy as a parent as much learning as what would be good for him growing up and navigating the world in two languages and I’m not ashamed to admit also learning as a father what would be nurturing and nourishing as a human being, because the son is the father of the man, I could believe that. So there was a learning process that I think I am particularly attuned to and I wanted to convey that in my book on Whitman, not only the learning process—the early mamaist is called “learning a new language”—but also learning is a creative process. So I hope that in all my work I can communicate that joy of learning, which never stops.
TC: Conceptually, the dialogues seem at times like negotiating with Walt, so each one has two voices, and one of them Walt Whitman. Odysseus is the character in another one.
AB: That’s one of the characters, it goes through many—
TC: Right, permutations of self. In the first one in the book, “Crossing the Threshold,” at times seems to be the speaker engaged with himself.
AB: There’s a risk that you run in how much you can get away with. In any form in your experimenting, you have to run the risk of failing. So if the charge of solipsism is made, I would say Whitman is deviously solipsistic. “I celebrate myself.” “I sing myself.” “And what I assume, you shall assume,” which is more democratic; that’s more egalitarian, that next step. That first step, though, is that infant narcissistically in love with him or herself. And it’s a joy. So what I admire about Whitman is that risk that he takes.
He goes on in that first section to say, “I permit to speak, nature without check with original energy.” That to me is a profound statement for any poet to take to heart. I dare any poet to take that line to heart and make that energy available in one’s own work as a creative artist. That would take you in directions unforeseen and is possibly why he’s a spiritual inspiration, what Wendell Barry calls “an angel of inspiration” for many people. He’s one of many. If you look at those lines—“I sing myself,” “And what I assume you shall assume,” and “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”—those three lines, it seems to me, have a very nice progression from nativity to equality to democracy, just encapsulated in compressed form, those three lines, and of course he spends the rest of his life exploring those things.
TC: Do you think that in “Crossing the Threshold,” which explores the self and the dialogue with the self in a really productive way, the speaker, the italicized speaker, the conscious speaker, is waking up to itself?
AB: That’s nicely put.
TC: It seems like a lot of the language takes us there, because the conscious self is so ignorant of the self throughout this dialogue, which really struck me as interesting. He wants to know the answers to that first line of Whitman—“I celebrate myself”—“Why does this hurt me?” the speaker of “Crossing the Threshold” is saying. He wants the easy answers, and the subconscious keeps saying, “You’re not getting it, you’re not getting it.” What should one feeling lost and confused in this realm say to those who would ask him what he’s doing here, a simple “I’m here to refine my pain” will do,” the subconscious self says, which seems a very Buddhist sort of way to interact with the world, and then immediately following: “Alright, but is there some special password I should be using?” So the subconscious says, “You want a password? How’s ‘hell-bent, Heaven-sent?’ Now get going! You’ve places to go”—which is more Christian. So in a way, the concept of awakening and rebirth is present throughout this dialogue and some of the others as well.
If the self of the speaker is waking up to itself as a spiritual transformation—you’ve talked about the body of Whitman’s work, and of his life, a spiritual seeking. How do you see that—specifically with “Crossing the Threshold”—which ends, of course, with the temple—“keep it clean.” I wonder if you could talk about that in terms of the sort of journey of spiritual and renewal of faith that seem to be present in these, because it does seem to have that sort of trajectory, beginning in ignorance, essentially, and moving toward experience.
AB: Readers have said that Whitman represents a kind of radical innocence, and I would think the experience of the Civil War and the trial by fire of that brought about a crisis of faith, which he weathered and endured and came through. He continued writing and found the muse alive and well in new ways, in a new incarnation. What’s interesting about Whitman is that he does achieve new forms of expression, and he had to slough-off the old pointed persona of the first few editions and achieve a new relationship to his ideals and his faith in those ideals that America stood for, namely brotherhood, egalitarianism, and equality. And those were ideals that were obviously and profoundly and drastically and violently tested in the caldron of the Civil War. And significantly his role in the Civil War as a volunteer nurse in hospitals, not only buttresses his standing in the critical reception that would come later because he walked the walk. He was a man of his word, a man not of Christian faith per se but, of course, his background was Quaker; he had many different influences, but he was I think profoundly a man of faith. I think a man of faith in creation; I think a man who really had an abiding faith in the capacities for creative life in human beings that could be evolving, that could be—I’m not saying in any sense that you have to train yourself, that you have to have that “get it” sort of feeling which was prominent in the 19th century with cosmic consciousness.
This book is my own take on Whitman’s cosmic folklore. Folklore for me is the “everydayness” of life—customs, traditions, lullabies, songs, you name it—very human, very everyday; it’s the people’s path. It’s not a glorified spiritual awakening sort of path, as much as I respect Buddhism and I respect those traditions; that’s not my approach. My approach is we already have what we need. We have what we need and it’s a kind of ecology of culture and literary influence and it calls into question our ideas of originality, because if you have what you need, it’s just a matter of knowing how to make use of those materials in creative new ways. That, I think, could be one essential way to explain or introduce my book. It’s discovering creative uses of what’s already there—idioms or traditions or myths or folktales or cultural beliefs—and each person can be doing that in his or her creative life.