Interview: Brendan Walsh
Brendan Walsh received an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Connecticut State University. Brendan is the author of two previous poetry collections: Make Anything Whole and Go. His poems have recently appeared in Glass Poetry, Wisconsin Review, Elsewhere, Coldnoon, and Mudfish. He currently resides in South Florida, where he can be found teaching poems and channeling his inner-bonobo. His chapbook, Buddha vs. Bonobo, will be released in September 2017.
Sutra Press: Several weeks ago, you traveled to Laos. Would you like to share any of your experiences? What were you working on while you were there?
Brendan Walsh: I tried to structure my most recent Laos journey with the intent of non-doing. It’s difficult for me, along with most (all?) Americans, to fill time without distractions. Our work is our most reliable distraction, and I have the habit of doing-doing-doing until I “earn” my downtime. This is partly the New England-Irish attitude I’ve inherited where you earn your right to a beer at the end of a long day. For the past month I wanted to accomplish three things: devote most of my time to reflective solitude, read books and write a short poem per day, and reconnect with my Lao friends, students, and the wonderful strangers that make Lao life so exceptional. I have done a fair bit of movement from province-to-province, but many days have been about drinking Lao coffee, watching the monsoon rains roll in and out, and going to the temple (Wat Mixayaram in downtown Vientiane) to hang out and talk with monks. In terms of accomplishing non-doing, I think I have done pretty well (pun somewhat intended). I am floored on a daily basis by kindness and generosity of spirit here, and I think I’ve managed to write some cool poems as well.
SP: Why do you write?
BW: I write because I am compelled to. I don’t think there is much beyond that. I have had this urge to write poems since second grade, and it’s been a compulsion ever since. It’s like eating or any other desire that, once satisfied, is only quenched for a short period of time. Writing makes me full. Creating words/worlds and playing with language is how I can deal with the emptiness that is everywhere and within everyone.
SP: What inspired you to write this chapbook, Buddha vs. Bonobo?
BW: I usually write in these monthlong frenzies where I work out a specific issue over the span of a chapbook-length work. During my BvB frenzy I was trying to come to terms with a spiritual crisis–I had to balance my inherent ape-self that hungers recklessly with my idealized version of Buddhism that repels carnal desire. How does one love and extract from two disparate philosophies? Buddhism says that all existence is suffering, yet bonobos appear to want, obtain, and remain relatively peaceful and happy–not to anthropomorphize too much. SO I started writing with this concept of the spiritual bonobo–what do they teach us about our continued failed quests for meaning? On top of that, I am just horrified of the human world right now, and how our desires have been bastardized in profoundly harmful ways. In writing BvB I found that the problem is in relentless seeking. What bonobos teach me is that mindfulness, joy, nirvana, whatever, are obtained through being. I think the Buddha teaches us that too. Evolution, physics, biology–these sciences tend to confirm the ideas of oneness, non-Self, compassion, even if they don’t show themselves so obviously. Seeking reveals what we already know, though the seeking is often essential.
SP: In 2013, you received a Fulbright award, allowing you to teach English to students in Laos. You aimed to do 50,000 push ups in a year while you there. How does this discipline carry over to your poetry?
BW: Push-ups! Discipline, for me, relates to the idea of being rather than doing, I think. I am intensely disciplined (which is weird because I don’t think of myself that way) because action allows me to enter the flow of being. The moments of connection that I yearn for are obtained through losing the Self in actions or other people. Training lets me connect with my body, I feel pain and pleasure and stress in really profound ways. I get out of my stupid brain! Writing does the same for me, as does reading, having hilarious conversations with people, and physical intimacy. Mindfulness and meditation is everywhere if we surrender to it. So I guess it isn’t as much discipline as it is sacrificing meandering thoughts for a more innate connection.
SP: Can you tell us more about your creative process? Do you practice any creative routines?
BW: It has shifted remarkably over my adult life, but basically I write in mad spurts of creative energy. If I have a chapbook-length work to create, I’ll compose every day and revise for months afterwards. For a time I was able to write every morning, but I found that allowing that itch to develop into an intense thirst to be quenched in one massive gulp was more effective. I try to write in the afternoons now, possibly after coffee and a piece of nicotine gum. I need to write at the end of the day or the beginning–I prefer waxing or waning sunlight.
SP: Where did you write most of the chapbook?
BW: I wrote it all at my old job during “lunch breaks” with a few of my colleagues who happened to be writers as well. Since I was in charge of that section of my office, I would lock the door and we would write in silence for fifteen minutes and then share. It probably wasn’t the best use of office time, but it felt so right. Writing during that period represented community and individual power and shattered monotony. I’ve since moved back to teaching, which doesn’t afford me the time to write during the workday, which is probably better for everyone.
SP: A lot of your craft features your experiences while traveling, and your poetry is vivid with a sense of place. How does place affect your work?
BW: Place is everything to me, which is something I dislike but accept. I wish that I could transcend all place and be some ethereal being who is comfortable in any situation, but I am deeply affected by where I am (which is why I have continued to move around in search of the “right place”). I think poetry is much about memory of sensory experience and memory of emotion, and place changes all of that. I am hopelessly attached to my body, and depending on how a place smells, tastes, feels in my pores, I will react and write accordingly. We are all poets of place if the place is our body. Some places just make us feel more inside our own skin.
SP: As we face so much political unrest and conflict, how do you withdraw to the deep interior where you’re able to write?
BW: I think that our terrifying world is behind most of my writing. Political unrest and conflict can’t be withdrawn from. We internalize the massive world and carry it around with us. I don’t know if I withdraw as much as try to understand the individual experiences of political unrest, conflict, mass consumption, and all of the scary stuff that makes up the geopolitical climate.
SP: Was there a religious or spiritual background to your life? How has this changed? How has it influenced your writing?
BW: I was raised Catholic, but I realized I did not believe in a Christian God when I was twelve. I recall the moment distinctly in a Sunday School class when the idea of heaven seemed like such an easy out, and the sacrament of confession was not enough to absolve the greatest evils. So, as a young skeptic I searched for meaning, and it eventually resulted in existentialism (pretty standard fare for a young white American male). Of course, Buddhist philosophy spoke to me–we universally crave connection, freedom, tranquility, and I wanted these without the dogma that accompanied Christianity. I do not strictly adhere to Buddhism, but it influences my perception and therefore my writing. Spirituality is just a word applied to an ideal state of being. Fortunately for us, we can regularly achieve that ideal state through mindful existence. Push-ups can be spiritual, but so can prayer or hiking or drinking a Beerlao by the Mekong River.
SP: What’s your golden thread?
BW: Movement in all its forms.
SP: What’s your labyrinth?
BW: Navigating how to love myself unconditionally.
SP: Do you have a prediction for the future of poetry? What would you like to see? How do you view its current state of affairs?
BW: I’m scared to make any predictions! I think the new crop of young poets are crushing it–Hanif, Andrew, Khaveh Akbar, Ocean, Safia Elhillo, Eve Ewing. They create energetic and gorgeous poems! Poetry is one of the most accessible and useful mediums of literature, because it can be reached by anyone on any platform. Poetry can be shared and experienced in the same way that we share anything on social media. I remember when I was in college (and before, and shortly after) the number of articles about poetry being “dead” (whatever that means); those articles seem so off base right now. Perhaps some of the work of dead poets is dead (if that’s even possible!), but the work of our contemporary voices is more alive than it has ever been. Young people now love poetry more than generations before, because condensed language with a huge emotional pop is what we crave: poetry provides that. I would like to see more LOVE and less jealousy. More compassion and understanding and less animosity. The work being churned out right now speaks for itself and for others, so it isn’t about what poetry can do but rather how we can accommodate all of the poets and their work in a way that enlarges everyone’s world.