August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Interview with Maitreyabandhu by Ashlee Morris

Author Page — Poetry Business.

1. What was the first poem you read? How did it affect you?

I don’t remember the first poem I read. I come from a fairly uncultured background: poems, and literature generally, didn’t really feature. On top of that, I did poorly at school. I must have grown up feeling that poetry was beyond me. I did read TS Eliot quite intensively when I was an art student, but the important moment was in my early 30’s when a friend read me the first five verses of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy. Even then I didn’t write poetry seriously until my 6 month sabbatical in 2005.

2. Has Buddhism had a strong influence on your poetry?

I hope that all of my poems are expressions of my Buddhist practice. There are those poems that are explicitly Buddhist or inspired by Buddhism, and those that aren’t. The first group contains quite a few poems about meditation – quite often using parable-like forms – as well as a few poems explicitly about the Buddha. I am still writing a long dramatic monologue about the first people to meet the Buddha after his Enlightenment.  The second group of poems contains quite a few poems about my childhood and youth, which seemed to want to be written. I hope nevertheless that they all (whether overtly Buddhist or not) express human qualities – such as awareness, sympathy, intelligence, honesty and so forth.

3. What can you express in poetry that you can’t in another literary or art form?

The great power of poetry is in its resonance. Poems resonate out from the words used, into some deeper and richer meaning. So when Robert Frost finishes his famous poem ‘Stopping by Wood on a Snowy Evening’ with the repeated ‘And miles to go before I sleep’, we know that the first time means ‘I’ve a long way to go before I get to bed’ and the second time that something universal is being expressed about what it is to be alive – it’s inner lived reality that can never adequately be communicated in words. His poem resonates: you feel some larger reality being apprehended, even though you cannot say exactly what it is.

4. How did you bring together the different ideas and inspirations in your poem, ‘The Small Boy and the Mouse’?

The poem came directly out of a meditation experience. I remember it well – the egg for instance. At the same time I needed to find a way of expressing it that didn’t begin with ‘Well, I was sitting in meditation…’ At the time I was watching We’re Going on a Bear Hunt with my 3 year-old niece. She wanted to watch it again and again. The structure of the poem comes from that. It’s a basic fairy story/ children’s story structure. But then all this stuff about my own childhood poured into the poem – that was the first time my own childhood came in. So the meditation experience was the catalyst, but then it took off in its own direction, as poems must.

5. Does it irritate you when someone misinterprets your work?

No, not really. Some mis-readings are creative in themselves it seems to me. Poetry is by nature ambiguous – that’s its strength – it can mean many things, even apparently opposing things at the same time.

6. Speaking of interpretations, what is the purpose/function of the wolf in ‘The Viewing’?

This is a poem about the death of my grandmother when I was a child. She was very important to me. I wanted to write the poem – if possible – from the point of view of the child I was then. So the wolf is from Red Riding Hood – where the wolf dresses himself up as the grandma at the end. But it also stands for something other, something mysterious. As if my grandmother had become a completely new being. For me, her death provoked vital questions about death and meaning.

7. What is the significance of the repetition of “Whatever else there is, there’s this as well” in your poem, ‘This‘?

It’s partly inspired by Robert Frost. It’s a ‘refrain line’ and fairly common in lyric poetry in as much as it gets very close to song. The This is ostensibly the song of the thrush, but it stands for the whole positive side of life. The poem is trying to justice to both the negative and positive aspects of life. Partly it is a protest against ‘miserablism’ – where the darker side of life is assumed to be in some way more real, more genuine, which of course as a Buddhist I don’t agree with.

8. How do you create poems that touch the heart, without being sentimental?

Sentimentality is emotion on the cheap. It is false emotion. We don’t really mean it. Often ‘sentimental emotion’ is to do with being admired…with having emotions we hope will be admired by others. This is why we can have sentimental love, or pity, or even indignation, but not sentimental spite or resentment. At the same time real emotion, genuine feeling is very important, and for me it is the heart of poetry (or at least an aspect of that heart). I want to be moved by a poem. The way to avoid sentimentality in poetry is to work hard at telling the truth. At the same time, we shouldn’t be so afraid of sentimentality that it stops us expressing any emotion in poetry at all!

9. How would you describe your contribution to 21st century British poetry?

I think I have something new to say, or at least a fresh perspective to bring – one informed by twenty-five years of meditation practice and twenty-one years as a Buddhist teacher. Buddhism is still fairly new to the West. Although it has influenced western poetry indirectly – from TS Eliot to John Burnside – it is still a relatively new voice in western culture. It’s spiritual vision, free from a creator God or religious dogma and yet refuting the assumptions of materialism, offers a way of being that many people feel drawn to.


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