it is natural to think
that you are the centre of things
the fixed point
around which worlds orbit
but you are not the only scrap of the divine
on an earth, bland and unenlightened,
rather you are a buddha
being circled by buddhas
the mantra of birdsong
the mantra of wind in leaves
the mantra of alarm clock,
the beautiful and uncertain mantra
of one still searching for the way
TSTmpj: Have you travelled to the East? Is there much of an Eastern influence in contemporary Scottish poetry, or do you consider you are writing a way away from the current Scottish mainstream?
B.T. Joy: I travelled East on a shoestring when I was nineteen years old and after busing through New Zealand, from Cape Reinga to Queenstown, I spent some time in Thailand. Visiting Wat Pho temple in Bangkok, seeing Buddha’s footprint in Chiang Mai and climbing the ruins of the old city in Ayutthaya were, it’s true, a positive nourishment for the soul that I still feel viscerally. However, it must be said that I try to avoid considering the wisdom and the sensibilities which we most commonly refer to as ‘Eastern’ as simply a matter of geographical location. Rather I view these insights as universal to the human condition; as self-sufficient truths that are available to all of us all of the time, wherever we are. My own poetry centres around this inner-inquiry; the essence of which draws on external sources for the enrichment of its expression. My poems have been influenced in this way by ancient Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and Christian texts; as well as a wide variety of material that may identify as secular. And, yes, some of this material does have its origins in the Scottish mainstream which I consider to be touched, as are many of the poetic traditions of the modern world, by the beauty and the wisdom which we, for convenience, refer to as ‘Eastern thought.’ In particular I would say the work of the Dunfermline-born poet John Burnside and the Dundee-born poet Don Paterson most typify this sensibility in the Scottish mainstream. In fact, it was when I first read the latter of these, Paterson, that I realised the underlying bodhisattva-nature, that centres on compassion for everything, and which, I believe to this day, makes up part of the collective consciousness of the Scottish people. Paterson explains this perfectly when he writes: “Late winter thaw. The poor Earth and its cheap green coat, its thin brown shirt and shivering heart... Ach! What a talent the Scots have. We could pity the universe.”
TSTmpj: I've asked a similar question to another poet recently, but I'll ask you too: given your palpable mastery of technique, what advice might you offer to a less experienced poet?
B.T. Joy: I have the great advantage of having written poetry in one way or the other since my mid-teens. The advantage, of course, is two-fold in nature. In the first instance, I have the benefit of some experience which affords each poem the privilege of seeing a little further down the road by climbing on the backs of its compatriots. Also, in the second instance, I have a bank of several hundred pieces which missed the poetic mark in about every way which it is possible. With this in mind, if I can answer your question at all, if I have anything at all to say to a less experienced poet, it will be mostly through the virtue of what Leonard Cohen phrased so excellently: “Well, I've been where you're hanging, I think I can see how you're pinned.” Of course, Michael, such an approach requires a person-by-person approach to advice-giving and doesn’t fit too well with the format of your interview. Fortunately I can give a more general account of my approach to poetic practice in a few well-mulled-over words: Lifestyle, Love, Experimentation, Simplicity. These first two elements, for instance, I believe to be pre-requisites to writing good poetry. This is true if you consider that we never write a poem only with our minds and in the relatively short period in which it is physically composed on the page. Rather our entire lifestyle conspires with every moment to write the poem. If you spend the majority of your day in nervous stress, for instance, any poem you write that day will be imbued by that; and it is an unattractive aesthetic for poetry. The lifestyle in which I best perform personally requires some silence, some solitude and, crucially, enough openness and willingness to hear; without necessarily writing down everything I hear immediately. I’m reminded here of W.B. Yeats who heard the words, as though they were auditory, “that is no country for old men,” years before he found a place for them as the opening lines of Sailing To Byzantium. Such a process, to my mind, requires that your whole lifestyle, and not just your ‘writing time’, be dedicated in some way to poetry. As I have said, love of poetry is also a prerequisite and, as you are living your poetic lifestyle, it doesn’t hurt to love the poetry of others so much that you hate the poet in question for having come up with the lines first. There are poems which I myself will never write and which I will go to my grave wishing I had; and a hopelessly unachievable ambition such as that is rocket-fuel for creativity. With lifestyle and love then, experimentation and simplicity are the prime poetry tools I would suggest to any of my contemporaries. Experimentation is important as it breaks with the false idea that every composition must be perfect on inception. This, to me, is nonsense. The bad poetry is inside of you just like impurities are inside of clear water. They must be burned off through experimentation and, as the years go on, and the distillation becomes more complete, perhaps you’ll find your poetry improving as a consequence. Experimentation then means writing as much as you can and whatever you can; even if you fall short of Ezra Pound’s prescribed seventy-five lines a day. Finally, as I mentioned, and I realise this may be the most prescriptive of my little quartet of guidelines, but I do believe simplicity is central to good poetry. Try to say things as clearly as they occur to you internally. Include only those words which enhance the poem. Strip away as much of the affectation as you can. Try not to follow conventions simply because they exist.
TSTmpj: Your images of mantras parallel the natural with the human-made world. In the world of many of us of alarm clocks and trains, so to speak, how do you suggest we centre, and seek?
B.T. Joy: The 13th-century mystic poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a man whom I hold in the highest esteem, once wrote: “your depression is connected to your insolence, and refusal to praise.” This single line has a greater impact upon me than a thousand verses could ever have because of the beautifully simple truth to which it points. It tells me that the pain of being which surrounds us all, the Dukkha which Gautama Buddha referred to in his first sermon, is not an external force applying itself upon me but rather an internal force applying itself upon the world. My depression is connected to my insolence; my refusal to praise. This insolence takes the form of the metal complaining I attach to forms which have no implicitly negative nature and my grouping of forms together into desirable and undesirable structures to which they don’t necessarily belong. In my poem therefore the parallel you discern between the natural and the human-made is, it’s true, intended to split the reader’s mind between those two polarities. However this is only done in order that, through practicing it actively, the reader can fully discern the fallacy in which they have participated. In the poem ‘birdsong’ is ‘alarm-clock’, ‘wind-in-leaves’ is ‘train-roar’, they are all mantras chanted by a buddha, that can only be the One Buddha, and the only distinction between these phenomena are fabricated in the mind which perceives them. In reality the natural and the human-made world have no independent existence; they’re phantasms created and given credibility exclusively by the human mind. The centring therefore is only achieved when we drop our interminable opinions on everything, our insolence, our tendency to second guess the universe. In this space, this spaciousness, we sit in the office that frustrated us with its banality and feel, yes, centred is a good word, because we have lost that inner labelling which is the frustration, which is the banality. Now all that remains is an office; so many desks, so many seats, so many stacks of forms to fill in. Everything has become only an expression; presented in thought in the same way people are dressed in clothes, but, underneath, entirely naked, entirely silent and spacious. The poem, really, is only a single lucid moment in which the seeker has stopped trying to figure out whether the buddha is the Self or the Other; perhaps because of the sudden realisation that the answer is both, and at the same time.
B.T. Joy is a Scottish poet with a passion for Chinese Tang dynasty, Japanese Edo period and Sufi mystical poetry.