Sunday, September 15, 2013

Robert Bly / By the Book

Robert Bly
Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

Robert Bly: By the Book

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
Coleman Barks’s translations of Rumi are always wonderful, especially “A Year With Rumi: Daily Readings.” The poem for Jan. 10 for instance, “A Piece of Wood”: 
I reach for a piece of wood. It turns into a lute.
I do some meanness. It turns out helpful.
I say one must not travel during the holy month.
Then I start out, and wonderful things happen.
Oh, and here’s an even better one. Sept. 20:
Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer
and find myself chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others
And fall in.
I should be suspicious
of what I want.
When and where do you like to read?
All the time, and in my red chair with my feet stretched out the length of it. Of course I like to read in bed. Then I can sink back into the words.
Are you a rereader?
Of poetry. I’ve read all of Yeats 1,400 times. “The Winding Stair” confronts the desire to destroy the noble or excellent, and it tells us to “cast out remorse,” tells us how necessary that is:
I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
And I always reread James Wright, and R. H. Blyth’s haiku books, as well as Hafez and Ghalib. All my favorites I read again and again.
Who are your favorite poets of all time?
W. B. Yeats, Rumi, Kabir, Robert Frost, Mirabai, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Antonio Machado, James Wright, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Pablo Neruda, Tomas Tran-strömer, William Stafford, and then there’s Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke and Tu Fu. I’m also fond of Coleman Barks’s poems and some of Li-Young Lee’s books. Wallace Stevens should be among the first on the list. I’ve said somewhere about “Harmonium”: 
I’ve loved this blue book of poems for
forty years.
A man wrote it, but his mother is in
it. She’s
Present in that wisp of feeling that
rises, all at once —
Those frail instants that hard-pressed
men ignore.
What’s your favorite literary genre?
Poetry. Always has been.
Some poems do give plebeian sweets
Tastier than the chocolates French diners
Eat at evening, and old pleasures abundant
As Turkish pears picked in the garden in August. 
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
Leonard Lewisohn’s “Beyond Faith and Infidelity: The Sufi Poetry and Teachings of Mahmud Shabistari” and Haki Madhubuti’s “HeartLove: Wedding and Love Poems.” I’m liking to read Peter Hessler’s “River Town” in small bits. And I very much enjoyed Louis Begley’s “About Schmidt.”
Where do you get books? Do you have a favorite bookstore?
The best is Birchbark Books, owned by Louise Erdrich, and run by a great staff that sometimes includes her family members. The store is near us, and we can walk there. There is always something excellent to take home. Just down the street we have some good used-book stores. Magers & Quinn is one. They have had a fine reading series off and on.
Which books have had the most impact on you as a writer?
One was “The Present Age,” by Kierke-gaard. He predicts the rise of savagery. It is all around us now as we’re becoming more and more a sibling society.
What are the particular books that made you want to write?
“Gitanjali,” by Rabindranath Tagore. Those God poems are so fresh, different from John Donne’s, who is a favorite too. He says, “Oh, make thyself with holy mourning black, / And red with blushing, as thou art with sin.” Where Tagore says: “Drunk with the joy of singing I forget myself and call you friend who are my lord.” A friend of Yeats’s said of Tagore that he was a saint who didn’t refuse to live. That’s right. 
And of course I love William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” the stormy, excessive, tiger-like energy: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, / Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” That made me realize how boring it is to have poems without opinions. And early on there was William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and old T. S. Eliot too.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“News of the Universe,” a collection I edited in 1980. The poems, written by poets from around the world, try to reopen the channels between human beings and nature, to see her without fear, hatred or distance. Right now we can see what happens when those channels are closed.
What are the best books about -Minnesota?
Vilhelm Moberg’s “The Emigrants” is one. James Wright’s Minnesota poems, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” And Louis Jenkins up by Duluth is a master of the prose poem. We published “An Almost Human Gesture” in Sixties Press. He and Mark Rylance have a play made up of his poems. It’s just coming out at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Fred Manfred’s “Lord Grizzly” is a good one too. He actually crawled over a large stretch of southern Minnesota landscape to give authenticity to the ordeal it describes.
What were your favorite books as a child? Do you have a favorite character from those books?
“Treasure Island,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, was one. I loved Howard Pyle’s Arthurian books, Shakespeare and translations of “Beowulf.” Favorite characters: Grendel from “Beowulf,” Charlemagne and everything around him. King Lear.
What’s your favorite myth or fairy tale, and why?
I can’t have one favorite fairy tale. There are so many good ones. I love fairy tales about bears, especially “The White Bear King Valemon.” I’ve written some commentary about that one. And about “Iron John.” All of the wild-man stories.
What does your personal book collection look like?
Every book by Yeats. Dozens by my contemporaries: Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, C. K. Williams, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford.
What books about manhood would you recommend to parents of a young boy?
“The Flying Boy,” by John Lee, about the so-called “ungrounded” young man, of which we have so many. “Society Without the Father,” by Alexander Mitscherlich. He wrote that the son used to see the father both by day and night, but now when the father is working away from home, as so many do, the son might imagine that the remote father is the evil father.  
And then there is the “Odyssey,” the son, Telemachus, waiting for his father to return and to deal with the suitors courting his mother. It is terrible. And they are eating up his inheritance. But Odysseus is away. The boy has to find his way to becoming a young man. He has to have mentors. The myth gives us an awareness of all that.
What books did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?
“Paradise Lost.” Milton is a big stone that teachers put around a student’s neck. I can’t remember what else I don’t like.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be?
What would you want to know?
“Have a seat. What would you like to drink?”
(Chekhov says, “Fine red wine. … ”)
If you could meet any character from literature, who would it be?
Hamlet on one of his good days. Or Hermes.
What do you plan to read next?
The next book of Chekhov.

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