David Whyte on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Margo Berdeshevsky by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).

[download audio]

Biographical Information—David Whyte

Poet David Whyte grew up with a strong, imaginative influence from his Irish mother among the hills and valleys of his father’s Yorkshire. He now makes his home in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

The author of nine books of poetry and four books of prose, David Whyte holds a degree in Marine Zoology, honorary degrees from Neumann College and Royal Roads University, and has traveled extensively, including living and working as a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands and leading anthropological and natural history expeditions in the Andes, Amazon and Himalaya. He brings this wealth of experience to his poetry, lectures and workshops.

His life as a poet has created a readership and listenership in three normally mutually exclusive areas: the literate world of readings that most poets inhabit, the psychological and theological worlds of philosophical enquiry and the world of vocation, work and organizational leadership.

An Associate Fellow at Said Business School at the University of Oxford, he is one of the few poets to take his perspectives on creativity into the field of organizational development, where he works with many European, American and international companies.

In organizational settings, using poetry and thoughtful commentary, he illustrates how we can foster qualities of courage and engagement; qualities needed if we are to respond to today’s call for increased creativity and adaptability in the workplace. He brings a unique and important contribution to our understanding of the nature of individual and organizational change, particularly through his unique perspectives on Conversational Leadership.


The Bell and the Blackbird

The sound
of a bell
still reverberating,

or a blackbird
from a corner
of a

Asking you
to wake
into this life
or inviting you
to one that waits.

Either way
takes courage,
either way wants you
to be nothing
but that self that
is no self at all,
wants you to walk
to the place
where you find
you already know
how to give
every last thing

The approach
that is also
the meeting itself,
without any
at all.

That radiance
you have always
carried with you
as you walk
both alone
and completely
in friendship
by every corner
of the world

Available on Amazon Preorder




Lois P. Jones:                     From the studios of KPFK Los Angeles Pacifica Radio, this is host Lois P. Jones. Welcome to Poets Café. Internationally acclaimed poet, David Whyte, makes his home in the Pacific Northwest where rain and changeable skies remind him of the other more distant homes from which he comes, Yorkshire, Wales, and Ireland. He travels and lectures throughout the world, bringing his own and other’s poetry to large audiences. David holds a degree in marine zoology, honorary degrees from Newman University in Pennsylvania and Royal Roads University in Victoria British Columbia and is an Associate Fellow of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. He is the author of eight volumes of poetry and four books of prose as well as a collection of audio recordings. Welcome, David Whyte.

David Whyte:                     [RECITES “THE BELL AND THE BLACKBIRD”.]

Lois P. Jones:                     Thank you, David. Beautiful. This is the title poem from your latest book, The Bell and the Blackbird and I’ve been thinking about the duality of the bell and the blackbird being myself in a situation where I have to make a major decision. And I love this idea that both ways are possible and both ways take courage. And that you don’t really have necessarily a wrong path …

David Whyte:                     Yes.

Lois P. Jones:                     … as you go. Choices often involve leaving things behind that are very comfortable to you.  You’ve said that the only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance. And so, for me, that ties into the split path of the bell and the blackbird and how you can go one way or the other and that you just need to be vulnerable and willing to experience that.

David Whyte:                     Yes. It’s an evocation of a meme in Irish poetry actually of a monk standing on the edge of the monastic precinct and hearing the call to prayer, the bell calling. And of course, this is a very ancient human dynamic to go deeper. But at the same time he hears the call of the blackbird from outside of the monastic walls and he says to himself and that’s also the most beautiful sound in the world. And you’re left there with this image of this monk in the old Irish church, the pre-Catholic Irish church, listening to both at the same time. And I was writing at my writing desk, actually, and my wife came behind me and rang a bell for who knows what reason. Perhaps trying to get my attention while I was writing.

Lois P. Jones:                     Right, dinner time.

David Whyte:                     But at the same time I heard the red winged blackbird outside in the garden. It was Easter time and springtime. And the red winged blackbird is the harbinger of spring in the Pacific Northwest. And I immediately was in those monastic shoes from that image and that’s how I wrote the poem. And of course, the real choice is what in the Zen tradition is called the middle way, the Buddhist way. Which sounds really bland actually. It’s an unpoetic description of a very fiery kind of conversational identity that you occupy. Because the dynamic that every human being finds themselves in, the dilemma we all find ourselves in is should I go deeper? Should I broaden myself? Should I educate myself more? Should I practice? Should I rehearse? Should I learn another language? Should I wait until I seek –

Lois P. Jones:                     Should I get married? Should I move? All of these major decisions that sometimes take you out of …

David Whyte:                     and that’s the call to depth. It’s the … I mean looking at it most generously it’s the call to depth that every human being feels yes. But at the same time you have this call from the outside of the precinct which is the blackbird announcing the world just as it is, yes. Just as you are and just as it is. And the understanding in this poem and in the inherited image out of the Irish tradition is that we don’t get to choose actually. We’re at our most courageous when we’re the conversation between not being ready and being ready. We’re never fully ready and you have to be ready at the same time. So yes, you have to educate yourself. Yes, you have to deepen your understanding and you’re called by the world right now and you don’t get to choose between the two. So it’s what I would call a more conversational identity.

David Whyte:                     And I do think that we’re constantly trying to choose too early in most maturing sets of circumstances. That we don’t let things mature enough or grow enough until the solution announces itself. We’re constantly saying no, I’m going for black instead of white. No, I’m going left instead of right.

Lois P. Jones:                     That’s very real to me.

David Whyte:                     And we actually have to take that radical path that holds both together. Yes.

Lois P. Jones:                     And we’re so distracted by all of these things which don’t allow them to come into fruition sometimes in normal life. And so, you can’t really have that undercurrent to process those big decisions.

David Whyte:                     The poetry is one way of stepping down onto that ground, onto that foundation.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     To start close in, very close in the physical body. I mean, poetry is written in and from the breath in the body on the ground, yes. And it’s an invitation to actually what’s called in the old theological traditions to incarnate in this world. And one of the reasons we don’t incarnate is because this world is mediated through conversations one half of which are through loss and disappearance. Half of any real conversation is mediated through loss and disappearance. And so we say please God, there must be another alternative life. I don’t want loss. I don’t want disappearance. I don’t want hurt. I don’t want vulnerability. So we’re constantly abstracting ourselves, our bodies, and our language in order to create an ersatz second life, you know?

Lois P. Jones:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative)

David Whyte:                     And so I do feel poetry is the invitation back into the body, back into the conversation with something other than yourself also.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     That body in conversation with the body of the world or with another person.

Lois P. Jones:                     There’s another aspect of the poem which seemed part of the Zen tradition to me. The idea of the kind of nothing that goes in either direction. So it’s the spirit in their essence. So they will go whichever choice they make, the ideal is to be who they truly are in that journey.

David Whyte:                     Yes, it’s a tricky understanding in the Zen tradition. That nothing is actually the real something.

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

David Whyte:                     I remember being in a horse manger at 10,000 feet in an obscure part of the Himalayas once dying from amoebic dysentery and I was three days in this horse manger because the family didn’t know where to put me, covered in straw, hallucinating. But I had this incredible experience on the third day of actually feeling that I was about to die. And I could feel my whole physical system atomizing and parting and starting to flow on. I was sure I was going to go. And I had this astonishing experience of being a part of the whole moving tidal ecosystem of water around me. Like the clouds up in the Himalayan sky, the snow falling on the mountains, on Annapurna and Dhawalagiri above me. The glaciers, the tributaries into the river, and then the river itself. And then, the river going off into the Ganges below. And then the sea beyond. And I was the whole cycle. And I realized that this name, this David Whyte, was really just like the name that we’d given to the river. It was the Marshyangdi River in that valley. But you’re looking at something that’s already gone past in a way.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     And I was just like that river. I was this set of elements that had come together and they were about to go out into the great Ganges and the great ocean and separate. And I just suddenly had this amazing moment of hilarity about this whole David Whyte project, that took enormous amounts of energy of keeping this show on the road and actually that you are part of this astonishing coming together and then parting again. I sat up and let out this gunshot of a laugh, a kind of temporary moment of enlightenment. And the whole family ran out of the house to see what was going on. And there I was raving and laughing covered in straw.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     But Murphy’s Law, that was the moment I started to get better again.

Lois P. Jones:                     And here you are.

David Whyte:                     And I took on the whole David Whyte project again.

Lois P. Jones:                     That reminds me. I don’t know if you’ve read it or not but there’s a beautiful poem on Ars Poetica by Borges where he talks about how our faces become water, how we disappear again.

David Whyte:                     Gorgeous.

Lois P. Jones:                     Oh, it’s just beautiful. I’ll send it to you. But I love this idea of being present in the world and then the desire to not be in the world in some ways. And that comes up also in your collection. There’s a particular poem called Cleave if you’d like to read that.

David Whyte:                     Yes I do.  I feel that one of the invitations into the body, into this life, is into every part of it including the parts that we normally look at in negative and pejorative of ways such as we’re constantly disliking our fears and our reluctances and yet, we’re half reluctance, you know? And this poem looks at the way we don’t want to have the conversation because it’s actually part of our birthright experience. When a child is first born, it’s an absolute trauma for it to breath. Until it came out into the air, it was taken care of fully by its mother.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     It was given shelter. It was given warmth. It was given oxygen through being absolutely connected to the mother. So birth is an absolute trauma for the child. And was for every one of us. So this looks at the way that that is actually part of our birthright experience and that self knowledge is not only finding out what your powers and virtues are in the world but also where you don’t want to have the conversation.

Lois P. Jones:                     Lovely.

David Whyte:                     Where you’re afraid of it all. Yes.

David Whyte:                     Cleave. Oh, and the word cleave, I’ve always loved because it means both to split apart and to bring together in the old medieval Christian marriage ceremony in England, the couple was said to cleave together.

David Whyte:                     [RECITES “CLEAVE”.]

Lois P. Jones:                     Gorgeous. If you’ve just tuned in, you’re listening to Poets Café. We’re with our esteemed guest, David Whyte. So happy to have him in the café. And we’re talking about his beautiful book, The Bell and the Blackbird. That’s David Whyte, W-H-Y-T-E.

Lois P. Jones:                     Your life is so rich through your interactions with people all over the world. You bring your knowledge, your poetry, your understanding to others in the corporate world and also just the idea that you can be a poet in the world is a phenomenal thing for all the poets that are listening. It’s hard to commit to that and say this is my life and this is my purpose. Of course, Rilke did it. And there’s very few that have and can and make the kind of impact you have on the world.

David Whyte:                     Yes although we’re all made so differently. I’m sure there’s many a poet now writing in a garret somewhere who none of us have heard of who centuries from now will be one of the iconic figures of our age. And there are some poets who are shy of social interaction. I just happened to be made and it’s probably my Yorkshire practical, down to earth, inheritance combined with the lyricism of my Irish mother. And I grew up in Yorkshire of an Irish mother with two linguistic rivers joining together, tributaries joining in that house in the hills of Yorkshire. And they were completely different linguistic inheritances and completely different ways of looking at the world. But I remember quite early on thinking that I wasn’t supposed to choose between them. And that I was supposed to hold both. I’m made to travel. My physical body recovers really quickly. I’m made to speak. I have a voice with which I can speak. Not all poets have a good reading voice. Some poets, it’s better if other people read them. You know?  So I don’t know if this life is one that every poet should try to have. But certainly there’s more possibility than most poets know in taking your work into the world. If you can build and deepen the narrative around your poetry. For me, it’s really illustrating the conversational thresholds that people stand on on a daily basis. My poetry, in a way, when I’m in the organizational world, I’m looking at the way you deepen the narrative around working together. When I’m in the theological world, I’m looking at the way you deepen the narrative with the mystery of the divine, what lies over the horizon and what lies inside you at the same time.

When I’m in the literal world, if I’m at a poetry festival in Wales or in Oxford, then I’m looking at our inheritance. The inheritance of poetry. I love literary biography. I love the lives of poets. I have lots of other poets memorized from times past.

Lois P. Jones:                     That’s fantastic. What do you think about committing that to memory? Is is something that takes on its own life once it’s in you? It’s different when it’s something you’re reading on the page.

David Whyte:                     Yes, so when you’re looking people in the eyes on stage or in a gathering, it makes all the difference. And you’re more keyed into exactly where you should repeat a line. And I do believe in repetition because that’s how we actually read poetry on the page especially the first time. You never read a poem first time from top to bottom. You always circle and say oh my God, what was that? If it’s a good poem that is. If it’s a bad poem, you just go straight to the bottom and say thank you very much. But a good poem, you say I didn’t quite understand that and you go back and you say oh my God. And then, you’re ready to take a step deeper.

David Whyte:                     But it’s just a microcosm of the way that we actually speak when we’re on our emotional edge with others. If you’re delivering poignant news to someone, the news of someone of a close friend’s death or a loved one’s death, you always repeat yourself. You always say the same things in three different ways. You always leave silence. And you wait to see if the other person has heard you. That’s the silence, really. And only then do you say the next thing. So this is all facilitated by memorization.

Lois P. Jones:                     I want to speak a moment to silence because one of the wonderful moments of the experience at your event was how you held silence. You could recite a poem or talk about a particular subject and then you’d be quiet. And everybody in the audience was with you in that silence. It felt very rich. And I just appreciate that you can navigate that silence and feel comfortable with it.

David Whyte:                     Yes. And I would put a lot more silence into the reading here on air except everyone driving along would switch off the radio. So it doesn’t quite work on air. But no, that’s where I feel everything is happening really in the room.

Lois P. Jones:                     Everything is happening.

David Whyte:                     Because I work extemporaneously. It’s where the audience is actually inviting you to go next where the silence is deepest, that’s where you follow.

Lois P. Jones:                     Perfect.

David Whyte:                     It’s what people are saying.

Lois P. Jones:                     It’s one of the central draws that I had to you, that is the ways in which you perceive and take take things in and that is also your connection with Rilke. And there’s a particular poem that I found you’d translated which speaks to this interstices, this place between the light and this other darkness which isn’t a bad darkness. We’re drawn to it somehow. So it’s the one you darkness from which I come.

David Whyte:                     Du Dunkelheit, aus der ich stamme, ich liebe dich mehr als die Flamme.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes, yes.

David Whyte:                     The rhythm is just incredible. It’s this invitational rhythm inviting you into the darkness. And Rilke, in that poem, is saying you know, you can be out in the wilderness on a moonless night when it’s completely pitch black looking at this immensity but if there’s even one pinpoint of light, you will take the reference of the whole sky from that single pinpoint. So Rilke invites you into this beautiful question. What would it be like if you didn’t take your reference from that point of light, from that star or from that campfire? What if you actually took your reference from this immensity of darkness around you and you, darkness from which I come, I love you more than all the fires that fence out the world.

Lois P. Jones:                     For the fire makes a circle for everyone so that no one sees you anymore. Yes.

David Whyte:                     Yes. And then it’s really powerful that the darkness holds it all. The fire and the flame and the images of animals and everything. And then, the German is really difficult to translate because in German he says Und es kann sein: eine große Kraft rührt sich in meiner Nachbarschaft.  Ich glaube an Nächte. He says, and it could be that a great power is breaking into my neighborhood, is the German. And that just doesn’t translate. But it’s … What he’s looking at is this fiercely physical sense of community, in German communities, where everyone is looking at what everyone’s doing and everyone’s following the rules.

Lois P. Jones:                     Oh wow, oh interesting.

David Whyte:                     So it’s this body. This physical body. I was in Germany for a while and you do feel a part of the physical body of the neighborhood. And everyone is policing everyone else in a very subtle way. So this breaking into the neighborhood is like someone is breaking into the immune system of your body.

Lois P. Jones:                     No wonder why he wanted to be alone.

David Whyte:                     And so, I translated that as literally as and it is possible that a great power is breaking into my body. I have faith in the night.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     Yes. But the German is very, very powerful and almost impossible to translate at the end, what he says, Und es kann sein: eine große Kraft rührt sich in meiner Nachbarschaft.  Ich glaube an Nächte. And I believe in nights. Yes, I believe in nights.

Lois P. Jones:                     And I think that navigating the night is something that we can be drawn to as spiritual beings. I find myself at night looking at the silhouette of the mountain or the filigree of the trees or birds against the darkness, and there’s some part of me that lives there too.

David Whyte:                     Yes. And the invitation is also into your fears of the dark. We have natural inherited evolutionary needs to be afraid of the dark. So when we love the dark, we actually have to admit all the ways that we’re afraid of it at the same time. And so, I think Rilke’s looking at the night as a way that brings you fully into your body because vulnerability is not a choice for any human being whether you’re only awake in the daylight hours or not.

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

David Whyte:                     Vulnerability is not a choice. We’re open to the world in ways that we find quite disturbing and quite difficult. Caring for a child who’s sick. Caring for your parent who’s dying. Caring for your friends who are exhibiting behaviors which are self destructive which you can do nothing about. So these are constant vulnerabilities that we have. And you’re healthy until the day you’re not no matter how healthy you are. So to live fully and to see vulnerability not as a weakness but as actually a faculty for understanding what’s about to happen and who you’re about to become.

Lois P. Jones:                     And that’s well conveyed in your book, The Bell and the Blackbird. If you’ve just tuned in, we’re listening to our wonderful guest, David Whyte. I’m host, Lois P. Jones, and we’re on Poets Café. And there’s a lot here that makes me want to be courageous. Yes. And to be decisive too in some ways even though sometimes that’s difficult. I think that people need more courage now than ever because the world can feel oppressive. You’re giving people tools through poetry. And poetry has a permeating power for change as well.

Lois P. Jones:                     David, it’s been such a pleasure to have you on the show. I wonder if you would take us out with Stone.

David Whyte:                     Stone. This is about a carved face on a mountainside in County Clare overlooking Galway Bay. A face I had a conversation with for many, many years which was an invitation into vulnerability in a way.

David Whyte:                     Stone. It’s an ancient carved face. A woman’s face. [RECITES “STONE”.]

Lois P. Jones:                     Beautiful. This is host, Lois P. Jones and our guest has been David Whyte. The music you hear is “The Bell and the Blackbird” by Owen & Moley Ó Súilleabháin from their CD Fields of Grace. Thanks to our producer, Marlena Bond. Look for us on the Poets Café fan page on Facebook. You’ve been listening to Poets Café on Pacifica Radio for all of Southern California and beyond.


Margo Berdeshevsky on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Margo Berdeshevsky by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).

[download audio]

Biographical Information—Margo Berdeshevsky

Margo Berdeshevsky, born in New York city, often writes and lives in Paris. Before The Drought, her newest collection of poems, is from Glass Lyre Press, September 2017. (In an early version, it was finalist for the National Poetry Series.) Berdeshevsky is author as well of Between Soul & Stone, and But a Passage in Wilderness, (Sheep Meadow Press.) Her book of illustrated stories, Beautiful Soon Enough, received the first Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Award for Fiction Collective Two (University of Alabama Press.) Other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, a portfolio of her poems in the Aeolian Harp Anthology #1 (Glass Lyre Press,) the & Now Anthology of the Best of Innovative Writing, and numerous Pushcart Prize nominations. Her works appear in the American journals: Poetry International, New Letters, Kenyon Review, Plume, The Collagist, Tupelo Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Southern Humanities Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, The American Journal of Poetry, Jacar Press—One, among many others. In Europe her works have been seen in The Poetry Review (UK) The Wolf, Europe, Siècle 21, & Confluences Poétiques. A multi genre novel, Vagrant, and a hybrid of poems, Square Black Key, wait at the gate. She may be found reading from her books in London, Paris, New York City, Los Angeles, or somewhere new in the world. Her Letters from Paris may be found in Poetry International, here. For more info kindly see margoberdeshevsky.com


It Is Still Beautiful to Hear the Heart Beat

It’s 3 AM. The crows on one leg or none are already starving for infant nests. A few leaves hang on still. A prayer of godwits enters the dream from the upper left quadrant. No, I tell the dream-maker,

no, make it a lamentation of swans. The times demand it. Instead, I’m given an affliction of starlings tearing the leaves that remain as they fly, and the dream is ruined. What’s real is in bed with me,

mounts me, slides in like a husband entering with the unquestioned privilege of his sexual entitlement. Drowsy, I open my thighs to him, to it, to the day. To my habit of saying “Accept it, I’ll

die tonight,” each night when I pull the quilts for sleep, so that I can practice belief. The next day is new. Always. Fair or fetid, bring with me only what I dare to remember. Opening new eyes, there is

the baby in her crib, her shape nothing I wanted. Waking is waking. What’s real is the child with her badly sculpted brain, her damaged possibility of dream. What’s real is our day in a diseased year and

the baby has come out wrong. Blame it on the chemicals. Blame it on the sting of the genus Aedes aegypti, white stripes on her legs, a marking in the form of a lyre on her upper thorax. Say that she

comes at dawn. What’s real is I was another one of the harmed, the infant, more so, but less harmed than the worse harmed than we.

Awake, it is still beautiful to hear the heart beat, I repeat. A prayer of godwits hovers at my door.
I am so deeply awake.

* from After A Death—Tomas Transtomer

Yun Wang on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Yun Wang by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).

[download audio]

Biographical Information—Yun Wang

Yun Wang is the author of two poetry books (The Book of Totality, Salmon Poetry Press, 2015, and The Book of Jade, Winner of the 15th Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, Story Line Press, 2002), two poetry chapbooks (Horse by the Mountain Stream, Word Palace Press, 2016; The Carp, Bull Thistle Press, 1994), and a book of poetry translations (Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms: Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po, White Pine Press, forthcoming 2019). Her poems have been published in numerous literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Cimarron Review, Salamander Magazine, Green Mountains Review, and International Quarterly. Her translations of classical Chinese poetry have been published in The Kenyon Review Online, Salamander Magazine, Poetry Canada Review, Willow Springs, Connotation Press, and elsewhere.

Wang grew up in rural southwest China and began writing poetry when she was 12. Her father was a political dissident who was brutally persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. He convinced her to become a scientist to escape political persecution. Wang majored in physics at Tsinghua University when she was 16. She came to the U.S. for graduate school in physics in 1985, and got a Ph.D. in physics from Carnegie Mellon University in 1991. She was a professor of physics and astronomy at University of Oklahoma from 2000 to 2017. She is currently a Senior Research Scientist at California Institute of Technology. She is the author of the cosmology graduate textbook, Dark Energy (Wiley-VCH, 2010). Her research focuses on exploring the nature of dark energy, the mysterious cause for the accelerated expansion of our universe. She was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2012.


The Carp

My father was the school principal. The day I was born, he caught a twenty pound carp. He gave it to the school kitchen. All the teachers and boarding students tasted it.

Waves of mountains surrounded us. I grew up yearning for the ocean. Smoke arose from green mountains to form clouds each morning. My father named me Cloud.

When a son was born to Confucius, the king of Lu sent over a carp as present. Confucius named his son Carp.

The wise say a carp leaping over the dragon gate is a very lucky sign. My father says he named me Cloud because I was born in the year of the dragon: there are always clouds following a dragon. Confucius’ son died an early death. My father has only three daughters.

When I was three, I wandered all over the campus. A stray cat in a haunted town. My mother says I passed the room where my father was imprisoned. He whispered to me, hid a message in my little pocket. It was his will that I should grow up a strong woman, and find justice for him.

They caught me. My father was beaten to near death. Some of them were students, whose parents were peasants. Some of them were teachers, who used to be his best friends. They had tasted the carp.

It has been recorded that Confucius could not tell the difference between millet and wheat, and was thus mocked by a peasant. This peasant became a big hero, representing the wisdom of the people, thousands of years after Confucius’ death.

My father still goes fishing, the only thing that seems to calm him. The mountains are sleeping waves. My father catches very small fish. My mother eats them. My friends laugh at me, when I tell them that once upon a time, my father caught a carp weighing twenty pounds.

—from The Book of Jade (Storyline Press, 2002) by Yun Wang

Douglas Manuel on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Douglas Manuel by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).

[download audio]

Biographical Information—

Douglas Manuel was born in Anderson, Indiana. He received a BA in creative writing from Arizona State University and a MFA from Butler University where he was the managing editor of Booth: A Journal. He is currently a Middleton and Dornsife Fellow at the University of Southern California where he is pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing. He has served as the poetry editor of Gold Line Press as well as was one of the managing editors of Ricochet Editions. His work is featured on Poetry Foundation’s website and has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, Rhino, North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, New Orleans Review, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere. His first full length collection of poems, Testify, was released by Red Hen Press in the spring of 2017.

“In his breathtaking debut, Testify, Douglas Manuel charts the raw emotional complexities and the impossible daily reckonings that confront a young black man coming of age today in America. Faced at every turn with condescending, fixed assumptions about his ‘proper’ role in his community and culture, the speaker faces each indictment with a stunning and searing intelligence. Each powerful testimony in this collection stands as evidence of an eloquent and dramatic new voice in American poetry.”
—David St. John

“In Douglas Manuel’s Testify the act of witnessing is by turns burdensome and bittersweet, narrative and lyrical, ecstatic and irreverent. Here the holy words are the ones that offer no easy epiphanies yet grant us dazzling, off-kilter compassion and a strange, surprising grace. These potent poems testify to those ambivalent moments that might rend or right us, as when an interracial couple drive past a truck with a Confederate flag painted on its back windshield and from which a little boy turns to smile and wave: his ‘blond hair // split down the middle like a Bible / left open to the Book of Psalms.'”
—Anna Journey, author of The Atheist Wore Goat Silk



I swear on the melody of trumpet vines,
ants feasting through animal crackers, Burt’s Bees,
Tyler Perry movies, my daddy’s .38 slug, footie-socks
inside high-top Jordans, disidentification, drag
queens, blond dreadlocks, headstones
salt-and-peppering the grass, vanilla wafers
in banana pudding, Zeus-swan chasing,
blunt-guts, sharp thumbnails, keloid scars,
cash-only bars, R&B songs, on what the pot
called the kettle. I put that on my mama’s good
hair, on playing solitaire with a phantom
limb, the white woman I go home to,
my auntie’s face when she says: You know
he always loved them pink toes. I put that on
everything, on the signifiers I gobble up,
candlesticks blown out by whistling lips.
I put that on dervishing records scratched
on down-beats, empty beehives,
fresh-fade head-slaps, hand claps, bamboo shoots,
liminality, mestizos, the purple-black crook
of my arm, split sternums, on You can’t save
him now. I put that on skinny jeans, get rich
quick schemes—Gotta get that C.R.E.A.M. Know what
I mean?—freckled black faces, leafless trees
throwing up gang signs, phlegm hocked
onto streets. I swear I catch more stones
than catfish. I lose more collard greens than sleep. I think
nothing is here but us darkies, high yellows, red bones,
cocoa butters. Someone, no, everyone has jungle fever.
Don’t touch my forehead. Blond
as moonshine, mute trombone choking.
I put that on Instagram. Post me to the endless chain
of signifiers. Strawberry gashes on kneecaps, Let me
get some dap, Newports, Kool’s, and folding
chairs instead of barstools, that white drool
caked on your face. Mommy please wipe away
the veil. I thought I was passing into the eye
of the streetlamp. I swear. I promise on frondless
palm trees, long pinkie nails, sixteen years, serve eight,
and Miss Addie’s red beans and rice, Ol’ Dirty Bastard
and the brother on the Cream of Wheat box. It don’t mean
a thing if it don’t buckle your knees. Open your hands.
I’ll give you a song, give you the Holy Ghost
from a preacher’s greasy palm—When he hit me, I didn’t
fall, felt eyes jabbing me, tagging me. Oh no he didn’t!—
give you the om from the small of her back.
I put that on double consciousness, multiple jeopardy,
and performativity. Please make sure my fetters
and manacles are tight. Yea baby, I like bottomless
bullet chambers. I swear on the creation of Uncle Tom—
some white woman’s gospel. She got blue eyes? I love
me some—on Josiah Henson, the real Uncle Tom, on us still
believing in Uncle Tom. Lord, have mercy!
Put that on the black man standing on my shoulders holding
his balls. Put that on the black man I am—I am not—on
the black man I wish I was.

Douglas Manuel, “Testify” from Testify. Copyright © 2017 by Douglas Manuel. Reprinted by permission of Red Hen Press.

Literature Lives in Print

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on December 15, 2013, in the Inlandia Institute’s weekly column.

Last month San Antonio, Texas, opened Bibliotech, America’s first bookless public library, which allows patrons to borrow inexpensive e-readers and download electronic books from home. For us writers and lovers of literature, the mission before us was clear: Lament! My Facebook feed was full of posts forecasting the end of paper books: Would it be five years? Ten? “Technology doubles ever year, Moore’s Law!” the pessimists fretted. The more nostalgic among us simply shared their first encounters with books: the smell of the glue, the weight of the pages, the paper-cuts—all things our children will never have a chance to experience.

As a publisher of print literature, my career is on the line—I should be rending my garments as much as anyone. But I’m not worried. Paper books are here to stay, and every tablet and e-reader that’s sold only makes them a better home for writing that we truly value.

When I hear publishers complain about ebooks, I’m reminded of broadcasters predicting the demise of radio when television was introduced in the late 1940s. Their concerns were understandable: Why would anyone just listen to a program that they could also watch? And it is true that television brought an end to the Golden Age of Radio—but it’s also true the producers were able to adapt.

When an environment changes, creatures survive by learning to fill a new niche. There was no longer a need the serial dramas and quiz shows of the past—television could clearly do that better. But there were other formats that played to radio’s strengths. The high costs of television production meant that radio was more nimble, and it quickly became the superior format for up-to-the-minute news. This led to further development as a medium of discussion, with popular call-in shows that gave their audiences a new and broader soap box, and then the modern shock jocks and NPR story hours in counterpose.

Six decades after the introduction of television, there’s still a radio in every car—and the internet has brought it back into our homes, in a way, with the ubiquitous and often idiosyncratic “podcasts.” I don’t have access to television, but I listen to radio-like streams every day—interviews with authors and lengthy lectures on an array of topics that would have never been broadcast otherwise. What’s more, this content works better as audio, where complicated information can be presented without any excess visual distraction. The mind has room to muse. Podcasts, I think, have become the medium of the day-dreamer—and millions of listeners take advantage of that every week.

As we become increasingly plugged-in to the digital age, I’m sure paper books will find a similar fortune. Books provide something that technology tends to destroy: Let’s call it “sanctuary.” I don’t have to explain how this happens; everyone who has a smartphone knows the bitter-sweet buzz of a new message. Everyone’s read an article online and been distracted by the banner-ad at the side of the screen. This will only get worse. Google Glass. Cortical implants to project the web directly into the mind’s eye. If you think you feel distracted now, just wait ten years.

And in ten years, when you want a break from it all, you’ll pick up an old-fashioned, dog-eared, glue-smelling, paper-scraping book.

The tech companies want you to pick up an e-reader, but the problem is e-readers feel too much like what you’re longing to avoid. E-ink is nice—especially for those with vision problems who need to enlarge the text—but anything that has a screen and is the size of your phone looks like your phone. And you’ve already spent too many hours conditioning your brain to be distractible while using it. When I read an ebook, I can feel a tingling on the left side of my frontal lobe that’s telling me to toggle over to another program and check my email. It’s an itch that I’m wasting attention on by not scratching even when I don’t. My fingers are ready to X-out a pop-up ad. My auditory cortex is primed and waiting for the next beep of a tweet. Even though none of these things will be coming from my e-reader, my brain has been trained to expect them. It’s impossible to lose myself when I’m so self-aware.

Only when I open a real book can I finally relax and become immersed in what I’m reading.

In the future, we will return to paper as a sanctuary, as a place for quiet contemplation and introspection. We won’t bother reading tabloid magazines or informational texts in print—ebooks are better for that; we can give up that ground. But when we want to escape our world, when we want to explore complicated ideas, when we want to feel deeper emotions and come to truer understandings and use our imaginations at full capacity—when we want to experience literature, in other words—we’ll always turn to paper books.


p.s. This article was written almost five years ago. In the time since, Real Books Are Back: ebooks sales are down, print sales are up. You can also see our waning interest in ebooks by looking at the download totals of Rattle‘s ebooks, which are offered free to subscribers. Every issue sees fewer download than the last, despite the fact that print subscriptions are up 105% (more than double!) since 2013.