interview: Daniel Bowman
when you picture someone reading your poetry, how do you see them? what do they think about, wear, and do? or, maybe a better way to say it: who do you write for? and how do you see your writing nourishing others?
I have always written for myself, and for a small imaginary group made up of García Lorca, Robert Bly, and William Judson Decker (a professor and mentor of mine at Roberts Wesleyan), along with a few others who stand by to rotate in as I need them. I figure that no matter who does or doesn’t like my poems, who does or doesn’t publish them, if I write in such a way that those guys might like them, then I can be pleased. Imagining them reading my work helps me stay true to my vision. I was always taught that if you write what you care about—not trying to guess what any “target demographic” would like or buy—there will be readers who will care, too—that others will, in fact, be nourished by your words. Also using the metaphor of eating, the poet Marilyn Nelson challenged me in Santa Fe a few years ago, saying, “There are people out there who are hungry for what only you can give them.” I believe that, though I can only begin to guess who these people are. I have met a few of them along the way, and I hope to meet more, just as I hope to meet more of the people whose words have nourished me.
how do you use poetry as a practice for spiritual exploration, discipline, or growth? can you offer any practical advice or sure-fire practices for folks interested in allowing writing to inform their spiritual discipline?
This is a difficult question, because I’m only just learning to articulate the connection between literature and spiritual growth in my life. It’s always been there but I haven’t always understood it except intuitively, as I understood the magic of playing alone in the woods of upstate New York when I was a boy. Christian Wiman said in “Love Bade Me Welcome” that “poetry is how religious feeling survived in [him].” This has been true for me, too, at different times in my life. I interpret his statement to mean that even when one isn’t sensing God or a stable faith through traditional avenues like church and prayer, that literature—story, art—invites compassion, mystery, and deeply human truth (“religious feeling”) that is unavailable elsewhere. Fr. Richard Rohr has said the church often teaches us that we are human beings who need to become spiritual when in fact we are spiritual beings who need to learn to become human. I can think of no better way to become human, to transform our pain, than by reading and writing. In his essay “Faith and Fiction,” Ron Hansen says we look to great writing for “self-understanding, analogies of encounter, discovery, and decision that will help us contemplate and change our lives.”
The only practical advice I can give is to persist. Don’t stop reading and writing the works that make you a better person—even when it hurts—and you will grow spiritually. Bask in the company of others who are also on the path of growth. Love “everything that increases you,” as Raymond Carver says in his poem “Where Water Comes Together with Other Water,” and you just might end up “loving it all the way back to its source.”
when you approach your desk, journal, computer—where ever it is you tend to create—what are some of the processes you use? what’s going through your mind? tell us about your habits of writing, no matter how quirky, mundane, strange, or small. also, how do you go about revising your work?
I have books open in front of me quite often when I sit down to write, especially if I’m writing new poetry. Reading and even imitating poems you admire can get the engines warmed up.
I still write first drafts of almost everything by hand. I have to have really nice notebooks—not moleskins or arts and crafts/stationery things, but just the name brand (Mead and so forth) wire-bound you can find at CVS. I think they’re 7 x 5 ½. I go to the word processor only when I’ve revised the handwritten material extensively. Bringing it into type is, for me, a substantial step in the revision process, as I inevitably see it differently then. I usually print out a copy and mark that up, too, then go into the document and make the changes electronically.
Also, I am a great believer in hearing material read aloud. I have a cheapo microphone and freeware audio program that I use. I record myself reading everything I write (when it’s nearing a completed final draft). Then I play back the audio as I’m looking at the text on the page or screen, and make changes that way. I did this for 245 pages of my novel Beggars in Heaven—read into that mic like I was professional voice talent, like I really meant it, just to see what I could learn—and it helped more than almost any other revision strategy. Our ears hear what our eyes can’t see.
what’s the best advice you can give to a person just beginning to write, struggling to write, or feeling stuck? what’s something you wish someone had told you starting out?
I recently answered this question (for another interview) with a simple but profound Latin phrase which is the motto of my alma mater, Roberts Wesleyan College: Ora et Labora—pray and work. It is associated with St. Benedict, who was born in the 5th century, and has been used widely for over 1500 years. Its simple power is still available to us. The maxim sounds dull in our contemporary world, but I actually believe it is exciting, challenging, and fulfilling. The combination of acting and contemplating is the essence of the reflective life, and the writing life is an extension of the reflective life, I think…a way of working it out.
Walking is an activity that combines both work and prayer. The human brain can’t think or process at the rate of speed at which our vehicles move. In other words, driving by a place does nothing to engage us with the people and the land, to bring about an awareness of the particular details we need for our writing, the wonderful idiosyncrasies we must observe in people in order to create characters. Walking, though, is an occasion for the brain and the body to work at the same speed or thereabouts.
We walk, we notice, we think, we contemplate. How many of the world’s greatest poets have been walkers? It’s a long tradition that young writers need to adopt.
In Mary Oliver’s poem “Ghosts,” the speaker asks not once but four times—each instance in italics—the question you must answer in the affirmative if you are to write: “Have you noticed?” Walking is the perfect opportunity to notice.
would you like to share a poem you’re working on or have recently finished and comment on how it was written in light of the comments above?
I hesitate to share this because it’s a brand new draft, but what the heck…
At the Upland Depot
in maple shade
an Indiana poem,
my first. In July heat
we left New York’s
for Hartford City.
There should have been
an eggplant or two, spaghetti
squash in long waiting.
There was dirt,
and unwieldy English Ivy
the whole, small plot.
Though in fairness
bloomed yellow, red,
and colors winter wind
blew from memory.
Now in late April
the purple clematis takes up
where lilacs left off,
and I awake to a single
bright orange poppy.
Tennyson saw his “flower
in the crannied wall,”
but he “plucked it
out” and thought about
“what God and man is.”
As for me, I’ll settle for
loving this beauty
in Hoosier soil,
its petals like delicate paper,
Hartford City poppy,
I had left the office yesterday to caffeinate at my local coffee shop. On the way back, I pulled into a small park in Upland, built around the historic train depot. I just sat there in silence staring at the trees, the squirrels, the birds. This has been a practice of mine for many years—sneaking away to a natural setting where I can be alone. I’d been thinking about the changing flora in my yard, how the crabapple and red buds and lilacs were past peak, but the clematis and other flowers were blooming and the rose bush was budding, and how the tiger lilies would come later. I remembered back to when we looked at the house as potential buyers and saw the lovely little garden they’d just planted. And how, after our offer was accepted, the seller had—unbeknownst to us—attempted to transplant everything in the garden to their new place before moving out—right in the middle of the summer! (I secretly hoped some of the vegetables wouldn’t survive.)
And I thought of my son’s bright eyes as he and my wife pointed out the dining room window early this morning to show me a heavenly gift sitting alone: one bright orange poppy against a moody Midwestern sky.
Since I moved to Indiana last summer, the place has been seeping into my soul, and I have begun to learn how to love it, begun to understand what kind of love Indiana requires, if you will. Reading Scott Russell Sanders helped me in this transition. I have wondered for a while now when I’d attempt my first Indiana poem. My poems are often rooted in place, and for most of my life that place has been New York.
So finally, it seemed, the noticing I’d been doing, the walking, the working and praying, was leading me back to the page to help me explore meaning.
Of course, our literary experience also informs our writing, and when I thought of the image of a lone flower, I couldn’t help but think of Tennyson’s “Flower in the Crannied Wall.” I knew that my family’s poppy would not be plucked. It would just be noticed and praised and loved. Perhaps it would “not mean/ but be,” as Archibald MacLeish says of poetry in his famous “Ars Poetic.” Or it would mean and be. That was my idea, my entry point into a new poem, a bright flower coming up unbidden.
The poem still needs work. The language is not there yet, and the ending is problematic for me still, as are some line breaks, though I’ve revised it a few times (first the handwritten version, then the typed). But it’s a start, and that’s all we can hope for when we generate something new on the page.
Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (VAC Poetry, 2012). Jeanne Murray Walker said of the book, “It captures brilliantly the strangeness of being human.”
His poems and essays have appeared in The Adirondack Review, American Poetry Journal, The Bitter Oleander, Books and Culture, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), Istanbul Literary Review (Turkey), The Midwest Quarterly, The Other Journal, Redactions: Poetry & Poetics, Rio Grande Review, Rock & Sling, Seneca Review, and others. He recently completed his first novel, Beggars in Heaven.
Born in Dover, Delaware and raised in Mohawk, New York, he holds degrees from Roberts Wesleyan College, the University of Cincinnati (MA, Comparative Literature), and Seattle Pacific University (MFA, Creative Writing). He lives in Indiana with his wife Beth and their two children, and teaches at Taylor University. Visit his website.