In Conversation with
AMERICAN POET DAVID B. AUSTELL
1. Prof. Deborah Landau of New York University has described you as ‘a new poet with seasoned soul… has a gift for narrative…” How do you respond to this? Where do you think this gift comes from?
Ultimately, the creative process is a mystery. Much can be made of the various filters through which a poet produces his work (cultural, literary, religious, political), but at the final moment when the creation of the poem begins, when the words are arranged on the page, when a narrative takes off, then a mystery is present, something almost holy and strange, which makes the poem seem to appear ex nihilo, out of nothingness. Where does this mystery come from? My own experience is that this comes as a direct result of a poet’s communing with God, with the numinous.
2. Your new book, Little Creek has the Vietnam War and other wars as the backdrop. How close were you to these wars? How did they affect your life and your writing?
The war in Viet Nam was a very divisive conflict for Americans, especially for those growing up in the 1960s. I was too young to be drafted into the military and deployed to Viet Nam, but many of my friends who were several years older did in fact serve during the conflict. My own brother-in-law was a combat soldier during the Tet Offensive. Little Creek focuses on a group of young men who were deployed to Viet Nam and who died there. The poem is a way of honoring them.
3. Can you describe the genesis of your ambitious ongoing poem, Olympus Mons? What made you imagine the NASA conquest of Mons? What is your point in doing so? Why do you keep adding chapters to it every year?
I’ve been fascinated with the exploration of space since I was a child, and Mars (both as a destination for scientific research, and as a source of anxiety regarding first contact with alien life) has been a huge preoccupation of popular culture in the United States going back to the 1930s. “The Final Pitch on Olympus Mons” started out as a narrative about astronauts walking to the summit of this enormous volcano, but then quickly transformed into something else as the back-story began to emerge. For example, the concept of “final pitch” became more than a baseball “pitch” by which the astronauts retained their familiar home-connections with Earth, as well as their sanity. Pitch (or tone) also referred to the “beacon” heard by the astronauts on the Martian surface; and finally the mountaineering “pitch,” a specific distance over which the climbers ascended before stopping to rest as a group.
4. There is strong influence of your early life, especially childhood, on your work and great deal of your biographical detail forms the bedrock of your poetry in Little Creek. Can you elaborate on this?
I grew up in the southern part of the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, and the small-town culture of the South that I knew is rapidly fading away as the high-tide of globalization sweeps into every corner of the planet. In part, my writings about childhood are an attempt to capture something of that more innocent time, before it disappears altogether.
5. Why do you write?
I work in order to relax. In other words, the very precious hours I have during the week to work on the poems are calming and strengthening.
6. How does your new role as a poet impinge on your vocation as an administrator and educationist?
My professional life in the university provides amazing experiences which often serve as launch platforms for poems, for example my work in Belize which made its way into “Palm Sunday in Dangriga Town.” The greatest challenge is finding a balance point between professional life and artistic life. I simply don’t have as many hours to write during the week as I wish I did!
7. There is a strong element of Asia, especially Hindu mythology, evident in your forthcoming pillow book, Garuda & Other Poems? Do you have any special Asian connection in your upbringing?
Growing up in the South, I did not have international opportunities when I was young. When I left for university in 1972, I began meeting students from all over the world. Later I was able to teach international students in class, and then work for the students as an adviser to international students. My fascination with Asian culture stems both from my work in International Education, and from my travels in Asia. Also I’m enthralled with the antiquity of Hinduism and the similarities that exist between Hinduism and Christianity.
8. Poet Yuyutsu Sharma has portrayed you as a poet with ‘a world belong heights.’ Recently, you also did a reading with him in New York City, entitled, Poetry and Heights. How does the issue of Heights connect both of you?
Yuyu Sharma’s poetry is rooted in religious philosophy (which permeates his work) and the powerful sense of place, mystical and physical, that exists in the Himalayas. This has had a huge resonance in my own writing. I spent a great deal of time in the mountains of North Carolina (which compared to the Himalayas are hillocks!), and this instilled in me a sense of heights which is full of longing and mystery. C.S. Lewis described going “further up and further in” to a greater reality of life beyond that which we currently live. This stirs something very deep, like the skirl of the bagpipes far up in the highlands of North Carolina; and it filters through, as for example in “A Ghost Among Ghosts.”
9. How do you look at contemporary poetry scene in the United States? Is there any tradition in American literature that you think you belong to? Any other writers from the rest of the world you wd like to mention?
In a general sense, the poetry scene in the United States is self-absorbed and inwardly focused. At its best, it is amazingly insightful and moving (as in Mark Strand’s wonderful verse). What often seems lacking in American poetry is an awareness of the world, of cultures beyond those represented in a particular region of the United States. Americans need to think more in terms of interacting in the world (something which has been difficult for people in the United States), and in terms of what it means to interact in the world in a non-harmful way. I would love to read more poets who are struggling with globalization, with culture-collision, with international coexistence in a static and fragile ecosystem.
10. As mentioned in your profile to Little Creek, your mother sent poetry to you all through your college with her letters and your father read Shakespeare and Coleridge to you as a child? How did this influence your writing patterns? Moreover, how do you view today’s reading and writing scene in a world of cyberspace where electronic devices like Kindle and IPod loom large over future of printed books?
My parents, especially my father, instilled in me a deep respect for literature. Certain writings were sacrosanct: the Holy Bible; the plays of William Shakespeare; the writings of the Romantic Poets. My mother taught me that a Southern gentleman must read three things: the Bible, Shakespeare, and The Pilgrim’s Progress (by John Bunyan). I learned early on that the study of literature does not require speed-reading. In fact, it requires the opposite: a willingness to invest time, imagination, thoughtfulness in the printed word. Technology is changing and accelerating knowledge transfer to the point that gist becomes more important that a thing in its totality (for example an outline of David Copperfield as opposed to deep familiarity with the lengthy work in its entirety). To be specific, modern students spend a great deal of time in very fast knowledge acquisition, and less and less extended time with specific complete texts. As you can imagine, this does not bode well for the reading and re-reading required by poetry. Also in the future, readers may be so used to Kindle that they are never exposed to the feel, the smell, the weight of a printed book. What a loss!
11. Your poetry book has just appeared in the Nirala Series. How do you see this, your work finding a publisher and read so far away from your homeland?
Two things come to mind. The first is that Little Creek being published by a company in India is nothing less than a miracle! Secondly, however, it seems perfectly in keeping with globalization, that our world’s cultures and people are drawing closer together than ever in history, and that the arts are benefitting hugely from the interactions and interconnections occurring from globalization.
12. What are you writing now?
I have two projects which I’m currently working on. The first is a chapbook (pillow book) that Nirala Press will publish in 2012. Nirala has asked me to focus further on the concept of heights, and this has become a very interesting project, and one which I hope readers will enjoy. The other project is an extended series of poems focusing on the enigmatic character of St. Joseph of Arimathea.
13. What advice do you have for younger poets?
My advice to younger poets is the same as I’ve given to my students and to my own daughters: Never stop reading books!
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