Category: Buddhism

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: John Brandi, Poet, Artist, Traveler, interviewed by David Garyan

John Brandi

October 9th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

John Brandi, Poet, Artist, Traveler

interviewed by David Garyan


John Brandi’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

DG: I’d like to begin with your most recent book, A Luminous Uplift, Landscape & Memory, a project which spotlights forty years of your writing career. Included in the collection are also new writings. The work is set to be released on October 31st, 2023. Can you give readers a sneak peek? Are the pieces arranged chronologically? How did you choose what to include, what to leave out? In addition, did the compilation/writing of this book cause you to see your experiences in a new light, or perhaps make you remember something you’d long forgotten?

JB: A Luminous Uplift is subtitled Landscape and Memory. Recollection is where it begins. Books, maps, human and physical geography, the idea of walking into a landscape and recording something about it were all part of my early upbringing. The book proceeds into how that background affected my creative focus as an adult. My parents came to Southern California in the early 1930s as Michigan transplants. My father found work as an accountant at the Los Angeles Examiner. Photography was his hobby. His favored camera was a large-format press camera. He and my mother were enthusiastic about their new environment of mountain, desert, and seashore—dad with his camera and wooden tripod, mom as a supportive partner. I was the back-seat kid traveling with them on their road trips. It was they who gave me pencil and paper and asked me to draw whatever impressed me, and to write a line about it: a bear invading our camp, Indian pictographs on a rock, an ocean wave that knocked me down. When the drawings and writings accumulated, my parents gathered them up. “Now you have some pages, all you need is a cover and a title.” So I would do that and they would staple the pages and cover together, and hand them back to me. “Now you have a book.”

Thinking about the many times I told this story when students asked how books became part of my life, I decided I was ready to collect some memories. Luminous Uplift begins with my mother reading from A Child’s Garden of Verses and Treasure Island, the Scribner’s edition illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. Later I was gifted books on natural history, geography, and famous paintings. Often we would peruse scrapbooks of my father’s photos and notes taken while serving as an army private in the India-Burma Theater. Thatched villages, stone temples, saddhus, street markets. In his darkroom I watched magic images—the Taj Mahal, minarets of a mosque, a multi-armed goddess appear as he swirled the paper in a tray of solution. As a teenager I discovered John Muir and Steinbeck after hiking the Sierras and driving the Baja coast. Early college years I was interested in oddball Indian saints, Ramakrishna, and Tagore. A bit later: Watts, Suzuki, Japanese haiku masters, Spanish poets, the American Beats, notebooks of Paul Klee, and all sorts of lost-in-the-shadows renegades who published their poems in mimeographed editions. In South America I read James Agee, Orwell, Baldwin, Graham Greene, Conrad, Gide, Barbara Tuchman, and others packed into a foot-locker the Peace Corps provided to keep you sane in your bamboo hut. Books! No little handheld screen to keep you occupied.

The core of A Luminous Uplift consists of published and unpublished prose. Landscapes that affected me as a poet-painter. A section called “Somewhere in the East” is devoted to haibun sketches, essays published in small mags, excerpts from limited-edition books. The Himalayas, India, Ghalib’s house, Khajuraho, Sikkim, a Balinese trance dance. A second section focuses on the American Southwest: Hopi sky villages, Río Grande Pueblos, Nanao Sakaki, details from homelife in northern New Mexico, my evolving haiku practice.

DG: You were friends with the notable Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki. As a walking, wandering writer, there are many stories about him—even that he once walked from California to New York and back. Can you talk about his influence on you, and conversely, to what extent you think the American West influenced his own perception of the Far Eastern culture from which he came?

JB: Nanao was the archetypal planet pilgrim. His address book had no A to Z order of last names. It went by regions, starting with friends in Japan, then Australia, Indonesia, Alaska, Seattle. And so on. Great Basin, Rocky Mountains, New York City, Western Europe, Caucasus, China. Nanao settled in an old school bus below Taos Mountain for awhile, a good base. Once, as I was leaving the bus, he stuck his head out the window: “Come back,” he laughed, “You forgot your footprint!” Nanao was a planetary citizen, but in the unique style of the old Japanese outrider poets Saigyo, Ikkyu, Ryōkan. Creative rule-breakers whose priorities were to get down low, see the world through the eyes of common people. You’d find Nanao talking to a purple gentian on a rocky slope, or singing a Japanese folk song on a New York sidewalk  or along a prehistoric trail in Chaco Canyon. His reputation grew not through a promotional website, clever bio, or a fat list of published books, but by meeting people face to face. No Instagram, Linked In, Facebook. He created dialogue with the likes of bears, humans, dragonflies, and maidenhair ferns. He stood up for threatened landscapes, especially the Okinawa coral reefs.

Nanao was a quintessential drop out. He quit the Japanese mainstream after World War II, organized the Bum Academy, took up communal life on a remote Japanese island with farmers and fisherfolk. When he came to New Mexico, it wasn’t just the unusual topography—mesas, high desert, craggy peaks—that called him. It was the indigenous cultures, their song, poetry, and ritual-drama. Also, the pioneering spirit of the evolving counter-culture that took root in the Sixties. Independent thinkers, especially artists, who had come to live in the rugged mountain valleys. Nanao was at home with the anarchist spirit of northern New Mexico, Indians and Hispanos with a history of standing up to protect their land, water, language, and lifestyles.

DG: You’ve been impressively prolific in the haiku genre, having published almost an equivalent number of books as your poetry collections. Is it an effortless transition, or is poetry all poetry in the end for you?

JB: Poetry, in whatever form the experience, the place, the emotional pitchpoint demands—haiku, prose poem, haibun, enlightened fragments, solitary experience, social experience—is the beginning and the end. An out-of-frame, out-of-time vibration sounded into words. As a poet-painter I have a work space split into an easel room and a desk room. On some days what I can’t write I paint; on others, what I can’t paint I write. Right now I have an exhibit up in Santa Fe, “Wind, Water & Temblor: Geologic Ruminations.” At the opening I’ll do a reading from a just-released haiku collection, The Rain Sweeps Through. Small book, small poems, small adobe gallery that steps down into a little garden. My favorite kind of venue.

DG: Apart from poetry, prose, and translation, you’re also an artist. You’ve held exhibitions in places like the Magpie Gallery in Taos. The work you do is heavily influenced by themes of nature, but the depictions have magical elements to them, especially the collages. Can you speak about the beginning of your artistic journey, your influences, and whether you see art and literature as very much connected, or distinctly separate, specifically in your creative approach?

JB: I’ve already covered some of this, but I could add that I had an early fascination with Wyeth’s illustrations, Ryder’s paintings, Paul Klee’s magically configured kingdoms, old geography books. I loved the contours on topographic maps, following squiggles, copying them, expanding them as an adult, blending the earth’s seismic activity with my own psychic contours. Recently my wife asked me what all the dots and graphite flecks in my drawings were about. First thing that came to mind: “They are particles of air and enthusiasm.”

DG: In your early days, activism was very much at the heart of both your personal and poetic activities. Abroad, you worked with disenfranchised populations, and at home you were well integrated in the counter-culture movement, working with individuals we now consider household names. Do you think those times have anything to teach us about the world we live in today? In other words, would a cultural rediscovery of those ideals, in your view, be beneficial in changing the current world, or do you think we need a new activism—with a new philosophy, or perhaps a hybrid approach?

JB: The Sixties were wide open, a time of loosening, reckoning, opening up, throwing off the old, making new. Michael McClure said it was the very energy that defines poetry. A shifting merge of dream and waking into new structures of verse; new music, new publishing, new ways of living. There’s lots to not just remember, but to reawaken: simple lifestyle; no sell-out to overblown consumerism and corporate sales pitch; absolute resistance to tyrant political rap. A friend active in the drive to register Black voters in Mississippi in 1964 reminds me our struggle is even harder now. So-called public debate is infused with mythology like that of the dark ages; politics filled with even more hate and conflict than we faced in the Sixties.

You can step to the side, hide out somewhere. But times have changed. The electronic eyeballs are on us. Wherever we go, we are visible. Better to grow roots in one place, keep things small, base yourself in a circle of progressive individuals, plant a tomato, give away some peaches, maintain a positive attitude. As for the evil voices out there, Lew Welch said you’ve got to have “charms against their rage. If nobody tried to live this way, all the work in the world would be in vain.” He also said “Guard the Mysteries! Constantly reveal Them!”

An artist can disregard social-political commitment and get on with his work. Or regard such commitment as part of his work. In the Sixties I worked with a group of Americans and Ecuadorians to help connect indigenous people who were organizing to take legal action to retrieve their stolen lands. They were Quechua serfs scratching out a living in a visually stunning landscape under the snows of 20,000-foot Chimborazo. Between interviews I began writing poems from notes scribbled in a pocket pad. Some were political rants that ended in the wastebasket. Others brought to the forefront voices of the underdogs, people the media usually kept in the background. Some poems found their way into little mags back home. It was a boost. And I would have missed it had I stayed home like some of my college teachers advised. They said I needed to raise my visibility as an artist, establish an audience. Worthy advice, but I tossed it aside as practical and limiting.

Speaking of small circles, a recent New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert reported on a circle of scientists studying the language of sperm whales, threatened, like most creatures, by climate change. One marine biologist, when asked why research, replied “Inspiration is the key. If we could communicate with animals, ask them questions and receive answers–no matter how simple those questions and answers might turn out to be–the world might soon be moved enough to at least start the process of halting our runaway destruction of life.”

DG: I’d like to speak about your travels in relation to the guiding activities you’ve undertaken with the students you’ve taught. Which fond memories or particularly special experiences do you most treasure?

JB: I loved the outback schools in Alaska where a classroom was more like a living room full of shoes-off students lying about the floor. An extended family. One winter I was bush-piloted into a Yupik village. The fourth graders were out ice fishing along the river. When we got back into the classroom the kids were fresh with the experience of drilling holes, dropping their lines, waiting in the cold, pulling out pike. I had a haiku project in mind. We read wilderness poems of ancient China, then launched into writing haiku while the cafeteria was busy frying up the catch. After we read our poems we had a feast. It was a memorable time!

I got to another Yupik village one weekend, and the men immediately invited me to sweat. Jokes were made about how I was going to be cooked. “You bring d’salt Freddie?” It was a test  to see if I had a sense of humor, a must if you want to hang with Native Americans. When we exited the steam room for the antechamber where we left our clothes, I found my bundle missing. The men smiled and helped me look around. “Don’ see ‘em anywhere, d’you Alex?” I ended hobbling through the snow–a towel around my waist—right into a kitchen where the women and girls were waiting to sweat. Everybody giggled as I stood there dripping. Then one of the men pointed to a kettle of salmon chowder and freshly-baked rolls on the counter. Next to them were my clothes. The laughter was communal. I dressed and sat down to eat with the men while the ladies left to sweat. On Monday morning the same girls who saw me near-naked in the kitchen were still giggling as they entered the classroom for my poetry session.

DG: On your website, you make some of your travel journal available to read for free. One of the many interesting observations you make is about is about the Hindu tradition of Theyyam, best described perhaps, as a mix of ritual, theater, and religion. As you write: “Theyyam performances are remote from the West’s notion of theater on a raised stage. Here, the earth is the platform. Characters roam helterskelter in a courtyard, disappear into the trees, return through the crowd, vanish into mist. As in a Javanese shadow-puppet play, the audience is free to roam. There is no fixed place where one must be …. And that is what lies beneath all Theyyam rituals: unpredictability.” Apart from perhaps the indigenous populations, would you say that there are parallels between Theyyam and any of our artistic traditions, or do you feel that the West, especially, today—with its obsessive need to categorize and rationalize—is much too uncomfortable with unpredictability?

JB: Unpredictability is uncomfortable for all of us. Especially in travel. To get  lost is to become vulnerable. So many of us want it all sorted out before we leave home. No risks. The mythic journey is sabotaged for the rational linear route. In the old days of travel one left home and was gone. No email connect. Hardly a working phone to be found in Mongolia. No web surfing to bring up the next destination. No seeing before going. No checking out rooms online. Travel was a bumpy ride full of conflicts and resolutions. You got lost, had to ask real questions to real people. You floundered and fumbled. Your head got turned around, you came back somebody new. You do the same in poetry. Get lost, fumble, reawaken, find yourself in new territory. Unpredictability drives the poem.

I don’t think I answered your question about parallels between the Theyyam ritual and artistic traditions in the West. In New Mexico the same sacred and profane juxtaposition in the Theyyams—bawdy clowning, serious propitiation of the gods, oracular advice—you find in the Pueblo rituals. During the plaza ceremonies dancers are choreographed into intricate weaves, the women robed and crowned with wooden headdresses, the men in kilts and skins, shaking gourd rattles to call the rain. All the while impersonators of deer, eagle, antelope prance about to a chorus of singers and drummers. Then come the clowns—in breechcloths, bodies earth smeared—hooting, yelling, mirroring bad-mannered humans joking and pointing, refusing to become part of the dance. But soon the clowns begin to see that life is more than fooling around. That is their message for us. They begin to sing with the chorus and learn how to dance from the dancers. And they show compassion. Now and then one will stop to adjust a little boy’s animal skin, or refasten a girl’s headdress.

DG: You’ve amassed a great deal of experiences (both through travel and art). A great deal of experiences, likewise, is yet to be had. Years on the road and words on the page have brought you to the great state of New Mexico, where you’ve settled. Can you talk about the foundation and reasons which made it irresistible for you to choose this road?

JB: Ha, I’d like to get out of answering the question by referring you to the book itself. The final chapter of Luminous Uplift, titled “Finding New Mexico,” was inspired during a phone conversation with Gary Snyder where I found myself complaining that my grandkids had never asked how I got to New Mexico. “Well sometimes you just have to begin telling the story,” he advised. The story begins in 1971 when a friend gave me his pickup and set me on the road. But it really goes back to the first travels with my parents, early discoveries of outriders like Hale Tharpe, a hermit who lived in a fallen redwood. Or meeting poet Eric Barker who had a cabin in the cliffs of the Big Sur. Or Johnny Lovewisdom in the Andes, a writer-philosopher dropout who lived in a stone hut and showed me how to mimeograph my own poems.

DG: In all your travels, what’s the tastiest dish you’ve tried and which New Mexican one would you recommend to a guest from abroad?

JB: I’m trying to come up with something far away and exotic, maybe a jerk chicken on a Jamaican beach; a pulao spiced with pistachios, dried fruit, and saffron at a Kashmiri wedding; a lamb souvlaki in Thessaloniki; or a red curry in the Chiang Rai night market. But my favorite eating experience—one I’d recommend to any world traveler—is right here in New Mexico in the pueblo of Kewa, also known as Santo Domingo. On August 4, the big feast day of dance and ceremony, the villagers open their homes to the public. A communal table is set with food for guests who are called in from a living room decorated with blankets, baskets, pottery, and family photos. At the table you share talk with a dozen strangers between servings of the best slow-cooked red chile with pork, and green chile with beef you’ll ever taste. On the table you also help yourself to bread baked in outdoor adobe ovens, bowls of posole, pinto beans, tamales steamed in corn husks, cheese enchiladas, cold slaw, sautéed squash and corn, melon, strawberry Jell-O topped with Kool Whip, plum pie, and anise cookies called biscochitos.

DG: Apart from getting ready to release your newest book, are you reading or working on anything else at the moment?

JB: Frankly, I need a bit of a break. I’d like to return to Canyon de Chelly for some sketching. There’s also New York, the Nicolas Roerich Museum. And maybe another Aegean island. But with two books out this fall, there is promotion. Plus an archive commitment with UC Berkeley. Let alone the woodpile, planting of garlic, and putting away the garden tools. The first frost happened yesterday, and today’s the annular solar eclipse. So much going on!

14 October 23
Río Arriba, New Mexico

Author Bio:

John Brandi was born in Los Angeles, 1943. Early travels in the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave, and along the Big Sur coast proved to be unshakable experiences from which his world travels grew. After receiving a B.A. from San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State Northridge), he worked in the Peace Corps with Quechua farmers in the Andean land rights struggle. In South America he began publishing his poems, became an active war protester during the Vietnam era, returned to North America to live in Alaska and Mexico, built a cabin in a remote Southwest canyon, received a National Endowment Poetry Fellowship in 1979, and worked as an itinerant poet in schools, prisons, backland ranching communities, Pueblo and Diné tribal centers, and as a lecturer for students in Mexico, Indonesia, and India. He gave keynote addresses for haiku conferences in Canada and the Punjab, and was awarded a Touchstone Distinguished Books Award for A House by Itself: Selected Haiku Masaoka Shiki. In 2015 a limited edition of his haibun, Into the Dream Maze, was issued by the Press at the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, followed by Planet Pilgrim, his paean to Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki. Two books of poetry and travels appeared in 2019 and 2020: The Great Unrest (White Pine) and The Way to Thorong La (Empty Bowl). As a visual artist, he’s been honored with solo exhibits in San Francisco, Taos, Santa Fe, Houston, and Milwaukee. His papers are at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Gary Young, Poet, Editor, Printer, and Translator, interviewed by David Ga...

Gary Young (photo credit: Jim MacKenzie)

December 11th, 2021

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Gary Young, Poet, Editor, Printer, and Translator

interviewed by David Garyan


Gary Young’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature


DG: In 2018, the Santa Cruz Sentinel ran an article about you, and the first sentence of it was “Gary Young may be one man, but he is several artists.” Indeed, you’re very well known as a poet and editor, but your work as an essayist, translator, and visual artist has received less attention. Can you talk about some of the projects you’ve done in this capacity, and how visual art, translation, and non-fiction ultimately affect the writing of your poetry?

GY: I was almost fifty when I first started teaching full time. Before that, I made my living as a visual artist selling prints and artist’s books and enjoying the occasional poetry prize or fellowship. My work is represented in collections around the country and throughout the world: The Museum of Modern Art, The Getty Museum, The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, the The Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques-Doucet in Paris to name just a few. For years, most institutions and private collectors interested in my print work were completely disinterested in my efforts as a poet, and the same can be said of those interested in my poetry: most were indifferent to my work as an artist. It may seem to outsiders that my creative life has been bifurcated, but in truth my work as an artist has informed my work as a poet, and my poetry drives my efforts to create books, broadsides, and other typographic efforts that synthesize these two sides of my artistic practice. The Geography of Home, an early artist’s book of relief prints inspired me to adopt the prose poem as my primary form when I printed a poetic essay in a single line for almost 100 pages on the backs of the prints. My edition of D. J. Waldie’s translation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice made me acutely aware of the need for silence around my poems. This list could go on; I don’t think that I’ve printed a single book that didn’t influence my poems in one way or another.

I have published many essays over the years—investigations of fine printing and book arts, essays on prose poetry, and innumerable essays and reviews of books of poetry and essays on various poets. My translation work grew out of my own poetry practice, my interest in Zen Buddhism, and in the poetry of China and Japan. They’re all of a piece.

DG: One of your biggest inspirations is the San Francisco Renaissance poet William Everson, who, aside from being a poet, was also a literary critic and small press printer; indeed, he saw the latter skill as the ultimate realization of what it means to be poet—in the most complete sense. Everson wrote the following in The Poem as Icon—Reflections on Printing as a Fine Art: “My whole attempt in a pluralistic age is to give the book a sacral, holistic character, to recover time with it.” Along with a discussion of how Everson influenced your work, how do you see the future of printmaking in an increasingly digital age, and how, in your view, will this affect the creative psyche of poets?

GY: I arrived at UC Santa Cruz as a student in 1969, and Bill Everson showed up around a year later and served as poet-in-residence at Kresge College. Bill started up his Lime Kiln Press in the University Library, and he taught a remarkable class titled «Birth of a Poet.» Bill stalked the stage, lecturing extemporaneously, occasionally bellowing exhortations, and often falling into uneasy and prolonged silences. The class dealt with poetic vocation, and it had a profound influence on me. It’s interesting in retrospect that I did not study with Bill at the press but came to printing in my own circuitous way. I had started a literary magazine while a graduate student at UC Irvine, and I took a night class at the high school to learn how to print when I returned to Santa Cruz after receiving my degree. I quickly learned the ins-and-outs of offset printing, then I started playing with an old Chandler and Price platen press. Fifty years later I’m still printing letterpress, and teaching others to print as well. My students are drawn to printmaking and to letterpress printing in part because it is a haptic enterprise as opposed to a virtual, digital experience. It’s impossible to ignore digital production (I’ve designed dozens of books on the computer), but the smell of ink and solvent, and the touch of metal type or a carved woodblock rings bells in the psyches of young artists that virtual production can’t hope to duplicate.

I didn’t consciously use Bill as a model, but we became good friends, and I’ve somehow taken on his role as printer and poet at UCSC. I feel his spirit always in my work. Twenty-five years ago, I published an essay, «The Books That Should Be Written,» that addresses in detail my debt to Everson. Here are two paragraphs that give a taste:

«Everson believed that a poem is fundamentally for the ear, and that fine printing creates a poetry for the eye. As an aesthetic creation, the printed poem does sing on the page like a poem in recitation, but it is the body of the poem that concerns me. Incarnation is my true design. Each time I set a poem in type and feel the weight of it in my hand, I realize a consubstantiation, the word made flesh.

As a poet and a printer, I am challenged to integrate contemplation and action. My efforts have been no more than a search for equivalence—poetic utterance and printed page, image and text, body and soul. I approach each book as I would a poem, a sublime articulation.» (Quarry West 32, 1995.)

DG: What’s one achievement you’re particularly proud of as a printer, and one as a poet?

GY: It’s hard to know how to answer your question; pride is an emotion that rarely visits me. I do experience great satisfaction when I’ve created something that I think is working well, or better yet, something that surprises me. The greatest pleasure for me as an artist is when I look at an image that I’ve made, or read a poem that I’ve written, and I ask myself, where did that come from? Who did that? Ego is useful for remembering to put on our pants before leaving the house in the morning, but I think it’s generally a trap for any artist.

The printed book that I’m most fond of is The Geography of Home, which I’ve already mentioned. As for my books of poetry, Days is the one that will always be my favorite. It was my third book, but my first book of prose poems. Most significantly, it was the first book I’d written that felt totally mine; a book that no one else could have written, for better or worse. For that, I feel more gratitude than pride.

DG: You’re well-versed in writers and poets of the Western Canon: Philip Levine, Czesław Miłosz, Elizabeth Bishop, Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Crane, Arthur Rimbaud, and so on; the work of these poets is special and wildly diverging, but nevertheless uniquely Western. At the same time, you also have an affinity for Japanese and Chinese writers. In 2017, Ninja Press published your collection In Japan, written, according to this UC Santa Cruz article, when you were “working on a book of translations of the calligraphy of the Zen priest Kobun Chino Otogawa.” With Yanwen Xu, you’ve also translated Chinese poets of the Song and Tang dynasties that were published in The American Journal of Poetry. In this respect, how do the sensibilities and structure of Eastern poetry fundamentally differ from those of the West, but also how are they similar, and what can each respective culture learn from being exposed to each other’s poetry?

GY: Perhaps naïvely, I think that the impulse to poetry is universal, and though every age, every language, and every culture spices the soup according to their particular tastes, we’re all sipping from the same cup.

For me, the biggest distinction between the sensibilities of Eastern and Western poetry involves the relative position of the self in relation to the world and to others. Beginning with Homer and manifested later in early English poems such as Beowolf and Gawain and the Green Knight, the individual is paramount. We see this later in the Romantics and again with the Beats. In the East, the individual takes a back seat to society and family, to the landscape, and to history. These different sensibilities are surely a reflection of the differences between Christianity in the West, and Buddhism and Daoism in the East. These distinctions may be breaking down a bit as cultures mix and merge in our own times, but I think they are still manifested in the way that poets position themselves in their poems.

Structurally, the poetry of the East and the West are only superficially different. The West has the sonnet; the Chinese have the shih; the Japanese the haiku and tanka. Each culture has its urtexts and preferred forms, but each tries to capture in language what most moves them.

DG: Chinese and Japanese poets have an affinity for nature and their descriptions of it are poignant, subtle, and powerful. As a California writer living in Santa Cruz, can you talk about one Chinese writer, for example, whose sensibilities you feel would’ve been particularly well suited to the landscape and character of California?

GY: As someone who’s lived for over forty years in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I often think of the Chinese poets who retreated to the mountains to live and to write. Han Shan is probably the most well-known to Americans, but Yang Wanli wrote wonderful poems that celebrate nature and landscape, and no doubt he would have felt at home here. Li Bai certainly would have enjoyed the laid-back Californian attitude (to say nothing of the wineries and brew pubs), but I think the Tang poet Du Mu would have found life here most convivial. Du wrote shih, but also sensual fu—poetic prose—, and though his poems are tinged with melancholy, I think he would have fit in quite well:

Traveling Through the Mountains

by Du Mu

Climbing a cold, stone path in the mountains,
Houses can be seen faintly through the clouds.
Late in the evening, I stop my cart to look at the maples,
More brilliant than any flower in spring.

(from Taken to Heart—70 Poems from the Chinese, White Pine Press, 2022.)

DG: Which poem about California would you say has affected you most profoundly, both personally and creatively, and why?

GY: There are so many wonderful poems about California—picking just one would be like picking my favorite child, so I’ll give you two. ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ by Robert Hass captures beautifully the physical glories of California, but it also taps into the philosophical and eschatological pressure that comes from living at the edge of a continent, the edge of the world. The other poem that has always affected me greatly is ‘Carmel Point’ by Robinson Jeffers. He also extols the wild beauty of California, then reflects on our human intrusion and suggests that “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; / We must unhumanize our views a little. . .” Jeffers allows for our participation in the beauty of our environment, but he puts us in our place.

DG: In your 2012 collection, Even So: New and Selected Poems, there’s a powerful poem which starts in the following way: “This tumor is smaller than the last one, he said. I’m going to cut it out, and then do my best to stitch you back together.” The work is highly personal—indeed autobiographical—as you’ve stated in another interview. How did this near-death experience affect you creatively, and did your writing habits/sensibilities change as a result? Do you find, also, that in terms of volume, you wrote more, less, or just about the same afterwards?

GY: My appearance was altered quite a bit by the extensive surgery required to remove my first tumor and the surrounding muscle, skin, and flesh, so not only was I forced to confront my own mortality, but I also had to accept that I was not the person that I had been before the surgery. In Waiting for God, Simone Weil says, “A beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.” Without warning, I had become that ugly woman, and I was forced to discover and accept who I really was. It turned out to be a gift, one that I would have turned down if I’d had the opportunity, but a gift, nonetheless.

Naturally, this experience changed my perspective on life. I had to confront life’s brevity and its tenuousness, and I was also forced to make choices about how I would spend the little time I might have left. I decided to simply continue with the things that moved me most: writing poems, and printing books. I have never written on any set schedule, and in fact, I seem to work in spurts that have no real pattern. My wife says that I complain about not writing when I’m busy with a printing project, and that I complain that I’m not making art when I’m busy writing poems. That’s a character flaw, I confess, but a modest one.

DG: Your two sons, Jake and Cooper, have both published their own collections of poetry. In a Good Times article you say the following about their work: “They don’t have similar styles, except insofar as they both adhere to the belief that poems should not be puzzles, and that you should be able to understand a poem. I’m sure they’ve heard me rail against the ‘put it in a blender and throw it against the wall’ school of poetry their whole lives. So, they have that aesthetic in common.” Two questions: Along with discussing how they ultimately arrived at poetry, do you find yourself often seeking their advice on a poem, and, likewise, do they sometimes ask you to look at something now and then?

GY: My oldest son, Jake, has always been interested in writing. Even before he started school, he wrote and illustrated stories in my studio while I worked. He even published a book with Chronical Books when he was still in kindergarten. Later, he studied literature and philosophy in college, received an MFA in poetry, and completed his PhD in English and Poetry. He is an extraordinarily good poet and critic, and if I can take any credit for his talent, I’m happy to do so. He just published his third book of poems, All I Wanted. Jake’s younger brother, Cooper, is a mathematician, but he started getting curious about what Jake and I were up to when he was in high school, and so asked me for a few poetry books to read. I gave him books by Rexroth, Snyder, Dickinson, and others, and he got hooked. He received a certificate in poetry at Princeton where he majored in math, spent two months following Bashō’s route through Japan as described in Bashō’s Journey to the Deep North, and published the book he wrote on that trip, Sacred Grounds. He’s finished another manuscript and seems to have no problem combining his mathematics with his poetry.

We do look at each other’s work, and I’m always grateful when the boys give me the benefit of their wisdom.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

GY: I’m currently working on a new book of poems, American Analects. Loosely inspired by The Analects of Confucius, the book revolves around my dear friend and mentor, Gene Holtan, who died about five years ago. I’m preparing a book of translations, Taken to Heart—70 Poems from the Chinese, which White Pine Press will publish next year. I’m also at work printing a few broadsides, and I am putting the final touches on Brad Crenshaw’s Memphis Shoals, an epic poem that I’ll send off to the printers in just a few days.


About Gary Young

Gary Young is the author of several collections of poetry. His most recent books are That’s What I Thought, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Booksand Precious Mirror, translations from the Japanese. His books include Even So: New and Selected Poems; Pleasure; No Other Life, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award; Braver Deeds, winner of the Peregrine Smith Poetry PrizeThe Dream of a Moral Life which won the James D. Phelan Award; and Hands. He has received a Pushcart Prize, and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Vogelstein Foundation among others. In 2009 he received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He teaches creative writing and directs the Cowell Press at UC Santa Cruz.


Zazen y Generosidad por Soren Alejandra Martinez


Soren Alejandra Martinez


Zazen y Generosidad. 

Dos prácticas, infinitos beneficios.

Zazen, «shikantaza», que significa: simplemente estar sentado; es la práctica del Budismo Soto Zen transmitida de manera ininterrumpida, de maestro a estudiante desde Buda Shakyamuni, en India, hace aproximadamente 2600 años hasta la actualidad.

El Maestro Saikawa Roshi dice: Zazen es la forma de convertirnos en nosotros mismos. Ser lo que de verdad somos más allá de la dualidad, desarrollando el potencial búdico que todos los seres humanos poseemos: joto, en japonés: (alcanzar el estado de iluminación).

Aliviar tensiones, aumentar la flexibilidad y disminuir el estrés causado por diferentes circunstancias de nuestra realidad relativa, son algunos de los beneficios que nos aporta en el ámbito cotidiano la práctica de zazen. La postura de zazen «reordena» favorablemente nuestra existencia equilibrando de manera natural nuestro cuerpo, respiración y mente = (cuerporespiraciónmente), como un todo en armonía, mejorando la calidad de vida y favoreciendo así aspectos positivos en nuestro día a día.

El punto de vista budista entiende la realidad relativa como una interconexión e interdependencia entre todos los seres, entonces, de acuerdo a esta comprensión cuando estamos en armonía también podemos beneficiar cualquier actividad que hagamos, y a su vez directa o indirectamente nuestro propio bienestar armoniza e incrementa beneficios en el entorno  que nos rodea.

En este tiempo de cuarentena, nuestro lugar de práctica de zazen, Jikaku Zendo, pasó a ser un Zendo virtual. De manera regular por medio de Instagram en Vivo y una vez al mes realizamos una práctica intensiva de zazen llamada Zazenkai a través de Facebook Live de la Fundación Hampatu, y, en enlace con ellos nos sumamos a la campaña #YoDonoUnPlatoDeComida; para llevarles un plato de comida caliente a las personas que viven en situación de calle en la Villa 31 y Retiro, de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires. 

Gracias a esta campaña tenemos la posibilidad de poner en acción de manera simultánea, la práctica de zazen y la práctica de la generosidad. Dentro de la enseñanza budista, una de las Seis Virtudes Trascendentales o Seis Paramitas que literalmente quiere decir «alcanzar la otra orilla»; es Dhana Paramita o el don o perfección de la generosidad. Esta capacidad que poseemos los seres humanos y que al desarrollarla podemos  profundizar nuestro entendimiento de la Vía, al mismo tiempo de mejorar nuestra vida y la de los demás. Al poner en acción esta cualidad, además de permitirnos dar nos libera de obstáculos que nos creamos erróneamente y el liberarnos de ciertos obstáculos nos aporta claridad a la comprensión de nuestro propio ser.

La acción de la generosidad desinteresada, con la intención de dar ayuda, brinda beneficio al que recibe el acto y al que lo realiza. Al aliviar el sufrimiento de ese otro estamos también aliviando nuestro propio sufrimiento, al compartir un don material para aliviar una situación determinada sin el fin de obtener nada a cambio estamos  comunicåndonos sin palabras con alguien desconocido que está en una situación de vulnerabilidad y recibe un pequeño respiro. Así se despierta un efecto dominó de situaciones positivas que transforman la realidad para el bien común, como la imagen de arrojar una pequeña piedra a un lago en calma, formando una expansión de círculos que se abren solo por el golpe de esa piedrita en el agua.

Zazen y generosidad potencian nuestra vida de una manera favorable. Son prácticas que todos podemos realizar, desarrollar y comprobar sus beneficios en nuestra propia vida de manera experiencial. Sin ir a ningún lugar y más allá de nuestra condición, debajo mismo de los propios pies se esconde el tesoro de despertar el potencial de la budeidad, y desarrollar la felicidad verdadera que puede cambiar nuestra vida de manera auspiciosa para siempre.

Si cuando tenemos un pensamiento, por ejemplo una intención de dar, la concretamos en la acción y nos sentimos contentos por haberlo hecho, se abre una puerta de oportunidades infinitas para al menos dos seres, que se multiplica como los círculos en el lago calmo cuando tiramos la piedrita al agua, para el beneficio de todos los seres innumerables. 


Soren Alejandra Martínez
Monja Budista Zen



Nació en Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Monja budista de la Escuela Soto Zen, ordenada por el Maestro Saikawa Roshi.

Se inició en el budismo con la práctica zazen en la década del 90. Estudió budismo con maestros tibetanos, viajó a India y otros países de Asia, Europa y Sudamérica realizando sesshines y retiros.

Vive en Buenos Aires. Practica ZaZen en Jikaku Zendo y concurre regularmente al Templo Busshinji en San Pablo, Brasil, principal Templo Soto Zen de América Latina y el Caribe.