In today’s Poets in Profile interview, Bruce Kauffman, also a Kingston writer and editor, explains how the movie Doctor Zhivago led him to become a poet and describes what he does when a poem isn’t coming together the way he wants it to. Whether it is tragedy and loss, or natural beauty, Bruce tells us how he finds inspiration in a variety of places.
The Texture of Days, in Leaf and Ash, Bruce Kauffman’s first full collection of poetry, was published by Hidden Brook Press in 2013. He is launching the book on February 23, 2013, along with authors Chris Faiers (Eel Pie Dharma: a memoir/haibun, Hidden Brook Press) and Jennifer Gibson (Compass, Black Opal Press), who will also be launching their new books. For more information about this event, please visit our Events page.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
I’m going to hedge a bit on this question. In general, even as a child on a farm, I realized a natural beauty in all living things, and melting within them — touched their essence beneath process.
To pinpoint that “specific” contributing event, this — a few days after completing a high school poetry writing assignment I went to see a movie. It was Doctor Zhivago. I fell in love with the movie — wanted to be Yuri Zhivago. I wanted to be a poet.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
I don’t remember a specific poem, but do remember the events around. In the same English class just mentioned, I remember being struck by how I discovered a breadth of voice and a vastness of style in the pieces presented that day when before, at that age, I naively felt poetry was all simply “structured” and quite the same.
As for a specific poem, several years later, it was perhaps in the first book of poetry I purchased — W. S. Merwin’s The Second Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1993). From that book (with still the original corners of pages folded and remarks within), it must have been the first of those — “Now and Again." This book remains among a number of Merwin’s books that still sit on my shelf, although now the one most cherished by me is The Rain in the Trees (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).
What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?
In one sense, there are countless poems, and with Merwin as my all-time favourite poet, obviously almost any one of them by him, or Rumi or Gibran. To pick a single poem here, though, it might be William Stafford’s “Being a Person.”
In another sense, though, and probably more true — I’d have to say “no poem.” Of course, as a poet, there is a profound joy when a good poem “comes” to you in both silence and voice as it gently bleeds through the air, but there is an incredible sense of gratitude and wonder in discovering a magnificent poem in someone else’s hand on a page.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
Although I’d suggest that any number of seemingly innocuous things in their own time, like a shadow, a breeze, a voice in the distance or even silence itself, become in another time an inspiration, my father’s death is a specific one.
Tragedy and loss become, for me, an ember that when fanned with time and silence and an open heart remembers flame — and then an attempt to give a fullness in word to the beauty that both is and once was.
What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?
If the poem isn’t working, it’s most likely one of two things. It was never really meant to be, or it was simply borne in its wrong “time.” I lean more toward the latter. I don’t discard much of anything and have poems in journals and notebooks that simply aren’t yet ready to be — and some perhaps never will be.
My poetry usually arrives through a “stream of consciousness” or “intuitive” writing process — that process explained, in part, in Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing which has at its core: to sit in silence, to passively observe, to not think, to then write. It is to this place that I retake those unfinished or unpolished poems.
I’ve also recently read, and have probably somewhat paraphrased here, but when you’re thinking about and struggling with words, you’re “trying to pull them.” When you stop thinking and struggling, you’re “being pulled by them.”
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
I have to list three here because they all “knocked my socks off,” and quite honestly I had a hard enough time paring the list to three.
They are Sandra Ridley’s Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press, 2011), GW Rasberry’s As Though it Could be Otherwise (Studio 22 Idea Manufactory, 2011) and Catherine Owen’s chapbook called Steve Kulash & other autopsies (Angel House Press, 2012).
What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?
Being a poet, to me, is simply a wonderful thing. In a somewhat Taoist way, I try not to spend much time thinking about “best” and “worst,” “good” and “bad.” Everything is simply and infinitely both what it was and what it is already becoming.
There is a beauty as a poem comes to you and then allows you to translate, inscribe it to page. There is a beauty in the silence, the hope, the wonder between poems, as well.
For me, there is also a calmness through the stillness in believing that I do not “own” my poetry and instead am simply the source, a focal point, allowing the “voices” to come through — and in that, I feel as if I am merely the conduit or the pen.
John Lennon once described this in what he called discovering “the music of the spheres,” and that he was simply the medium. I feel as he did when he said about those times “…and that is what I live for.”