Interview with David Bottoms

by Gregory Fraser

BPR 39 | 2012

An Instrument of Investigation: An Interview with David Bottoms

Excerpt (full interview available in Birmingham Poetry Review number 39)


I wonder how you understand the relationship between secularism and belief in your writing. In many ways, your poetry adopts a stance of Keatsian negative capability, never voicing a firm position either way with regard to faith or disbelief. What would you say accounts for this compositional and philosophical principle?


I think the best way to approach this question is to step to the side for a moment and say that I am a believer in the power and the necessity of myth. I count myself a yearner after significance, as Robert Penn Warren called himself. I've experienced that personal yearning for meaning — call it the divine, if you like — and I take that yearning to be evidence of the possibility of the existence of its object. Why should I yearn for something that isn't there? I believe pretty much what Huston Smith suggests in his book Why Religion Matters. This yearning for something greater, he says, is built into the human makeup and suggests the existence of its object — the way, say, the wings of birds point to the reality of air or the way sunflowers bend toward the light because light exists.

Organized religion is another matter. The biggest problem I've had with churches — in my case, Baptist and Episcopal — is their insistence on approaching scripture in a literal way. Even now in the twenty-first century, when science and scholarship have proven beyond a doubt any number of historical inaccuracies in the Bible, churches persist in basing the validity of Christian doctrine on historical fact. This is mind-boggling to me. Never have I heard anyone in any church I've attended speak of the Christ story as metaphor and how that story might enlighten our lives. I believe this is likely out of a fear that most people are simply too literal to understand scripture in any other way. This puts me in mind of "Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr" that great story by the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno. Here, you'll remember, the priest who has lost his faith continues to minister for the sake of his flock, which he fears will be unable to bear the truth he has discovered about life and death. We're speaking, of course, about literal truth, historical truth. And we're living in a time when the dangers of fundamentalism are readily apparent. I'm not just talking about Islam. There's an old song called "Broadminded" that the Louvin Brothers recorded in Nashville back in the early 1950s. The first line goes "That word 'broadminded' is spelled s-i-n." This is still what's being preached in a great number of Christian churches, perhaps even the majority. But there is another kind of truth, a figurative truth, a very useful mythology that may provide a path to enriched significance in our lives.

Your reference to negative capability is about as good a way as any to describe that state of yearning and unknowing that I live in. This reminds me of the great Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, a priest in the Church of Wales, who, if he never lost his faith, at least understood God in a much different way than his parishioners. Nevertheless, like Unamuno's Saint Emmanuel, he never strayed in his ministry from church orthodoxy. For Thomas, though, one could never experience the presence of God — only the absence. In his little poem "In Church," he talks about "testing his faith / on emptiness." And in a poem called "Moorland," he describes a harrier searching for prey as "hovering over the incipient / scream, here a moment, then / not here, like my belief in God." However, he believed strongly in the human condition of yearning, I think, and the suggestive state of God's absence. You might say that for Thomas one could only see where God had been, or you might say that the absence of God pointed to His existence.

The Christ story is a wonderful way to talk about God, but there are many ways. What's important to see is that each of these points toward something ultimate. I think my stance is one of hopeful questioning, and it's not really a studied literary stance but more the condition I find myself living in — a sort of hopeful holding-out for the possibility of the ultimate thing these stories, or myths, point toward.


What are your thoughts about the relationship between your work's philosophical meditations on the one hand and its explicit humor on the other? In "Vigilance," for instance, the speaker struggles to "make the Jesus of Mark / jibe with the Gospel of John" (a daunting task, to say the least). But then we find wry, playful passages such as the following from "Melville in the Bass Boat": "Three hours I drifted the black cove, throwing deep runners, live shiners, / rattle-bug and jigs, / a Vienna sausage, a pickle, / a mustard-soaked sardine…" Your poems, in short, frequently wear the theatrical masks of both comedy and tragedy. How do you understand this interplay?


I recently had a little poem, a very old poem, appear in an anthology called Seriously Funny, edited by David Kirby and his wife Barbara Hamby. They get right to the heart of this question in their introduction when they quote a comment by Lawrence Raab, who says that he enjoys poetry that is both serious and funny "when its essential seriousness emerges from its humor, rather than the humor being a kind of overlay or a set of asides." This is well said, I think, but it seems rare these days. I find that a lot of poets, younger ones especially, have jumped aboard a sort of comic poetry movement, but their poems are little more than witty comments on everyday occurrences, the sort of wry observation you might get in a stand-up comedy routine. Poetry, for me, is a more serious business. And humor is, at most, only one of many tools to communicate that seriousness.

Basically, our ultimate prospects on this planet are bleak. I often talk in my writing classes about Ernest Becker's landmark book The Denial of Death, in which he states that there is only one undeniable fact in our lives — each of us will die. Each of us will experience the bodily death, and there is nothing we can do to avoid it. In response to this, Becker says, every aspect of our psyche is geared to deny this, or to make us forget it, to put it aside. Otherwise, we'd just walk out in front of the first truck we saw on the interstate. He uses an onion as an apt metaphor for the psyche here. Cut an onion in half, he says, and this might represent your psyche. At the center you can see a small core, around it a great number of layers hiding that core. This core is our death fact, and the layers are the various layers of our psyche hiding that fact. Embedded in these layers are all of our ambitions, loves, attractions, interests, and so forth. Now for us, as poets, the point is this: out of the material embedded in these layers of our psyche comes the material for our poems. So we can say then that the death fact lies at the core of all poems. Even the funniest poem is only funny in relation to the death fact.

Humor, again, is simply a tool that illuminates some aspect of that fact and comments upon it, usually in a satirical or ironic way. There are a few American poets who use humor powerfully in just this fashion. I'm thinking of Tom Lux, Billy Collins, Dean Young, David Kirby, a few others. But in the hands of imitators and lesser talents, humor too often becomes the goal of the poem and not a means to illuminate something more significant. I'm not so good at it, and generally prefer a more serious and sincere tone. Occasionally, though, as you point out, the absurdity of the world breaks into a poem.


Your most recent book, We Almost Disappear, came out in 2011. Before we discuss this collection, though, I'd like to talk a little about your 2004 volume Waltzing through the Endtime. You begin this work with an epigraph from Whitman, and throughout the book you appear to ride his tidal surges. Seven of the fifteen poems in the collection would be considered long by today's standards, with all of them running for at least four pages, and all spraying language across the page. Two questions: What do you think Whitman has to offer contemporary poets who are writing more than 150 years after the first edition of Leaves of Grass? And what do you suppose accounts for your devotion to the long poem in this particular book?


Let's start with the second question. I don't really know why I became interested in the long poem, or the long line. There may be some truth to the old joke that poets come in like Emily and go out like Walt. Maybe I just wanted to see more ink on the page. It's more likely that I was at a stage in my life when I simply needed more space to talk, to let the poems breathe a little, to give the poems room to think. That urge started a few years earlier in Vagrant Grace, with that long poem "Country Store and Moment of Grace." Some of those long poems work nicely, I think, and I'm proud of them, but I don't think I'll ever write like that again.

The first question is really more interesting to me. And, of course, a lot of ink has been spilled over the great many ways Whitman changed poetry in English. I don't have anything to add to all the various insights about rhythm and line length, or how Whitman's style evolved. For me, Whitman's importance lies more in his stance. I think his most important message for this particular moment in American poetry is his sincerity and his authority of witness. This extends to his willingness to turn the poem inward, to use the poem as self-examination. It argues against, I think, the current vogue of wit, irony, and cynicism.