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From the Universe, to the #26 Bus, and Back Again
The overwhelming evidence from the universe is that we all come to nothing. Yet, in each of us is a small voice, quiet but indignant, that believes but this cannot be so.
It is the spirit of this voice that Christopher Buckley invokes in his latest collection of poetry, And the Sea (2006), a book that queries physics and the elements themselves — the sea, the sky, the earth — as to the nature and consequence of our existence.
Buckley moves deftly within the foam and the clouds to contextualize the mundane, yet significant details of life — from the spearing of a fish, to the #26 bus that delivers tired souls home from work, to the merest blood-spot on an egg. With cinematic panoramas that zoom in to the level of molecular examination, Christopher Buckley returns to the Central Valley to share some of his recent work at Reedley College this Thursday.
Buckley is the author of fourteen books of poetry, and he is the editor of numerous anthologies and books of critical scholarship dedicated to the works of regional writers as well. A prolific writer to say the least, his work has garnered four Pushcart Prizes, two awards from the Poetry Society of America, two NEA grants for poetry, and a Fulbright Award in Creative Writing, in addition to countless other recognitions.
Buckley currently teaches in the MFA program at University of California, Riverside. In the interview that follows, he took a few moments to share some thoughts with community journalist Angela Armstrong on the subjects of poetry of place, authenticity, and the literary hotbed we call Fresno.
How Much Earth is a treasured anthology for many Fresno writers, in that it is poetry born of a familiar landscape and written by a continuum of luminaries associated with Fresno. When it comes time for the next generation Fresno poetry anthology, what is the advice you would offer to the editor(s)?
Well, I think that time might be a long way off. How Much Earth was the third anthology of Fresno poets and we (my co-editors David Oliveira and Marty Williams) tried to include everybody who came through Fresno and worked with the poets here. The first anthology was Down at the Santa Fe Depot published in or around l970. Then in the 1980s, Gary Soto, Jon Veinberg and Ernesto Trejo got together and published Piecework, which included more of the poets of their generation, nineteen in all, I think. How Much Earth has fifty-some poets, not all of whom worked with Philip Levine and/or Peter Everwine, or even Chuck Hanzlicek. The first thing I would advise is to be sure you can work with poets like these - great poets and great teachers as well. If you get a nexus of talent and genius such as that, good writers will be the result. The other piece of advice is to be sure that you can land a publisher before you do all the work. More and more, presses are abandoning the publishing of poetry. Hey Day Books, who published How Much Earth for example, has quit publishing all poetry and How Much Earth is now out of print.
Landscape carries such significance in your work, both in your own poems and in numerous anthology projects centered on specific geographic areas. How have your travels, specifically your Fulbright studies in Yugoslavia, expanded your concept of place?
Landscape has always been important to my own poetry and to my poetry projects, but that is not so original; think of the T'ang Dynasty poet, for example. But it is one way to know yourself by knowing where you are from. In one analysis, the earth is all we have. One part of poetry is understanding the exterior landscape to better reveal or understand the interior landscape. Gary Young and I are embarking on a new project of California prose poems and I have taken the title from the end of one of Larry Levis's best essays, "Eden and My Generation," in which he says that when he was young he felt he lived in the Bear Flag Republic with the Sierras an hour to the east and the oceans a few hours to the west and all that was in between was his, was him.
Traveling to Yugoslavia and Slovenia did not affect my sense of landscape in poetry as it was such a different experience. The Fulbright there in 1989 (Larry Levis had been there on a Fulbright a year or two before me) did, however, make me aware of the importance of poetry in other countries. I met Slovene poets who had been put in jail by the Serbs for writing poetry. I met Ibrahim Ragusa, leader of the Albanian poets at the PEN conference in Slovenia (and who later would be the political leader of the
Albanians) and he knew Whitman and William Carlos Williams. Poetry was much more a part of the social and cultural fabric of those countries than it is in the U.S.
Which poems and/or books have most influenced your style or widened your concept of what poetry can do?
At this point in time, the list is very, very long and listing any, I will leave out some that I love and are important to me. But the first and most important books for me as a young poet were Levine's They Feed They Lion and Everwine's Collecting the Animals. Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey also edited a great anthology in 1969 called Naked Poetry. All of Larry Levis's books and all of Charles Wright's books have been important to me. Early on, Lowell's Life Studies and books by Diane Wakoski and Bukowski helped me as well. Jerry Stern's Lucky Life and all of his books have been life-savers and a big source of inspiration. More recently, Milosz and Szymborska are poets I return to. Also, I will add to the list most poetry in Spanish in translation, especially that of the generation of '27, and South American poets such as Neruda, Vallejo, and Drummond de Andrade.
What do you think is the single most important element of a good poem?
That would be easy to answer if a poem had only one important element. But for me, an authentic human voice is the most important element. Without that, there is no meaning and it's all a bunch of skirmishes about the surface. We are all going to die and I think it is important to try to say something about what it might really mean to have been here.
What are the some of the strategies and principles of organization that you've used to order and group individual poems into a cohesive collection?
I guess you are talking about putting books together. In 26 years or so, I have published fourteen books of poems. With my first book, I did what most young poets do: I just put together all of the decent finished poems that I had, although after I did so, my good pal, the wonderful poet Jon Veinberg, pointed out that the poems were not so decent. So, I basically threw them away and took what I thought was my second manuscript and turned it into my first, and, as is often the case, it was a book about family, a book of elegies. It was narrative. That is what I had then and so it came out like that.
While I think I have always been dealing with a metaphysical argument as I find it in the tangible elements around me, other subjects have come in and helped to amplify that search. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I started reading cosmology, astrophysics, quantum physics and such - in the dumbed-down popular books written for people like me who are not scientists. That line of inquiry fit in perfectly to my overall interest and questions about my existence and place here. I seem pretty much to write books over a two-to-four year period and most of the poems have a thematic and stylistic connection during that period.
As a poet who must balance a significant teaching load with the demands of your own writing career, what measures do you take to make your writing a priority?
I do not have children. My wife is a visual artist and early on we realized we would not have the time either of us needed or wanted if we had children. I don' t know how some writers get it done, unless one partner is a house husband or house wife and takes care of that side of things. Otherwise, I do the work. There is no other way to say it. Get up early, sit down and work. Some things go by the board - though I put in a lot of gardening time this last summer, the yard and garden need lots of work. I don't watch much football. I think I wore myself down a bit the first twenty years, especially in Pennsylvania, teaching four classes every semester, running a reading series, sitting on a handful of committees, washing and waxing the President's car, selling popcorn on Saturday at the university football games. It was almost that bad. That and the stress of "colleagues" contributed to an irregular heartbeat. I have a better job now, but when you get older, the energy goes away, and a better job still seems like carrying the same weight.
What are your favorite haunts in Fresno?
One used to be the old Santa Fe Depot restaurant. But the Basque restaurant that replaced it is good. I lived in the Tower District and still like that area of town. There, I loved Piedmonte's, the great Italian deli on Olive street. I lived on Arthur Street, not far away and Veinberg and I used to be in there all the time, or whenever we had money, buying the usual suspects of cheese and salami, but also a wonderful local Carignan red wine and some hard flat biscuits, olives, etc. I loved my back yard there where on most weekends Soto, Ernesto Trejo, Salinas, Adame, Veinberg and I would sit out and eat whatever I could find to put on the Hibachi or had brought home from Piedmonte's. I like Van Ness Avenue very much, the houses and the trees along its entire length, beautiful. And down from the Tower District, I used to like to go walking while admiring the old big two-story houses.
You wrote a prose piece that appeared in Fugue entitled "Fame & Fortune, or, I am not Christopher Buckley," dealing with some of the confusions that arise when people mistake you for the political humorist by the same name. Fortunately, there is a sure-fire way to be certain that we are dealing with the right person, as only the REAL Christopher Buckley would know the answer to this question: If you were standing in line at the superpower distribution counter, which superpower would you be most likely to request?
You've got me there. I am not familiar with the superpower distribution counter. It sounds like I would be asking for something from Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, or George Bush the first, for whom the other CB was a speechwriter, twice.
Be sure to hop in your jalopy this Thursday, November 9th to see Christopher Buckley at Reedley College, 7pm, Forum Hall. Admission and parking is free.