Interview with a poet: Yamabuki Zhou

Interview with a Poet

Today, poet Yamabuki Zhou talks about his blog, Full Moon Tea, poetry, spirituality and creativity, and being open to the universe.

 Your blog is rich in poetry and images, but offers almost no info about you, the poet. Why have you chosen to remain relatively anonymous?

In my exploration of the nature of consciousness I have tentatively chosen to view it as arising from the unconscious. Yet not an unconscious that has no meaning or reality. For it seems to me that the depths of the unconscious hold great mysteries. I view them as the well-spring of our mind and consciousness. Thus I also believe that my creative work arises from this same unconscious realm. Since my poetry feels like it comes from the realms of the unconscious, I do not feel that I can take credit for my words. I also feel that this person that I am is really a kind of fiction. Sure I can bring up words that echo memories, but that feels like putting a dream into words. It may hint at the dream, but never really shows us the dream’s reality. To a certain extent my poems themselves are glimpses into my soul and thus are truer to who I really am than some brief biographical portrait.

Your poems often include allusions to literature. What poets and writers have most influenced you?
What are you reading now?

Early in my life I was drawn to the beat poets. My favorites were Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. On the whole though I mostly read novels. My favorite writers include Martin Cruz Smith, Tim Powers, William Gibson, Haruki Murakami, And Neil Gaiman. I have read a great many books on Jungian Psychology, Mythology, and Metaphysics, but over time I have found them to be less interesting, so mainly I read fiction and fantasy.

Which books of poetry would you take with you if you were going to be stranded on a spaceship?

Probably I would take the collected poems of Anna Akhmatova, Alan Ginsberg, Victor Hugo, ee Cummings, Thich Nhat Hanh, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Rumi. All of them write rather mystical poetry that resonates with my soul.

Joyce Carol Oates once said “If you are a writer you locate yourself behind a wall of silence and no matter what you are doing, driving a car or walking or doing housework you can still be writing, because you have that space.” Do you find you’re always writing in your head when you’re doing other things, or do you have to sit down and concentrate, for the ideas to come? Can you describe your writing process?

Yes there is quietness
Present in my soul
This space within
Informs my poetry.
When a poem comes
into my head
and wants to be expressed.
I have no choice
But to write…
But I do not seek out poems.
I mostly do not sit down to write poems.
I do sit down to edit my poems,
but mostly my writing is spontaneous.
Usually something sparks a poem.
It could be another poem,
an image, or a song.
Lately I have been writing
many of my poems
in response to images
that I find on Google+.
Each day I check for
interesting images.
But it’s not just
interesting images,
for there are many
interesting images on Google+.
Once in a while
one of the images speak to me
and then a poem springs forth
to add dimension to the image.
So in that respect
you could say that for the moment
that is my process for writing poems.

Do you have a special place where you write? Music or silence?

I used to write with pen and note pad. Usually in a quiet comfortable place. Now I mostly write on my laptop at my writing table. Mostly I write in silence. Sometimes I listen to music, but not often.

How would you define your poetic style?

My style is difficult to define since I write so unconsciously. Perhaps a combination of Surreal, Symbolist, and Mystical. I don’t really worry about that though. I try to feel into what words want to be expressed. Like coaxing a cat to come over to sit in my lap. While I do have poetic preferences, when I am writing I try to be open to the words that want to form the poem.

I like the Zen story of the student who came to the Zen teacher for instruction. The teacher asked the student to take tea with him. The teacher started pouring tea into the student’s cup. When the cup was full the teacher kept pouring and the student called out “stop, the cup is full,” and the teacher said “Yes, so is your mind.”

So I try to be like the fool who’s head is empty. Empty and open to what wants to come in. When I am in that space I find it easiest to write poetry.

Do you also write prose? Fiction?

No I do not write fiction. I enjoy reading fiction very much. I am usually in the process of reading at least a couple of novels at the same time. This is made easier now that much of my library is in e-book form.

So I usually have about half of my library of books in my pocket. At this point I read from either my iTouch or from my laptop. Some of my books are not available in e-book form, so I still read flesh and bones books. I can understand how many people hate to give up books as their primary mode of reading, but I would gladly have all my books in e-book form.

I do write some prose
Though often end up
Breaking it apart
As I have done here
With some of my answers.

Your work often seems strongly influenced by art—some of your poetry accompanies images on your blog. Do you write the poem, then search for a piece to go with it, or do you write around the image? Can you talk a little about your relationship with art?

My family always had many artistic images in our home. My father was quite knowledgeable and I learned to appreciate images as powerful expressions of reality. From an early age I was interested in photography. I still take photos and use Photoshop as well to manipulate my images in ways that express my feelings. In working with my poetry I noticed that pictures could complement the poems. In creating my poetry blog I quickly became aware of this. Many of the pictures I use with my poems come from other people’s images. I do try to use only those images that I have permission to use. I also use many of my own photos. I usually go by what feels right when choosing a picture for a poem. I also like to add in quotes from other poems that I find that seem to complement my poem.

Some of your poetry is woven with spiritual themes. You also feature some of the poems and artwork of El Collie, a respected writer on the subject of Kundalini awakening, on your blog. What is, for you, the relationship between poetry and the spirit?

I have been exploring spirituality all my life. Usually when I write poetry it reflects this. Deep spirituality and mysticism reflect the inner meaning of my soul. El Collie was also deeply spiritual. She always was exploring the depths of the soul. I learned a great deal about poetry and writing from her.

In your poem Fair Warning about these Poems , you mention that one of the reasons you started your blog was to have a place to keep your poems. What made you choose to do a blog rather than, say, a chapbook?

I thought about publishing in print, but it’s not difficult to see that my poems are not likely to be popular. Also it seems like print is so limited. There is so little likelihood of someone finding a printed poem. Poems on a blog can be found by people from almost anywhere on earth. I have had people visit my site from many different countries. Also my poems become part of the internet and are preserved for posterity by the different web archives that index the web. I have also posted some of my poems to The English version of China’s Peoples Daily, in their English language forum. I was surprised how popular they were. I suspect that some of my poems there are viewed by students studying English and possibly copied for their school assignments. If it helps them with school it’s fine with me. Maybe it will encourage a few Chinese poets.

In that same poem, you mention that your poems can “speak with the other poems”. Indeed, you often answer other people’s poems with one of your own. Poetic conversation is, for me, one of the earmarks of your poetry. Can you talk about this?

Since the blog brought my poems together, it seemed only natural, if somewhat whimsical, to say that they would talk to each other. Poems communicate, so why not with each other as well.

Poetic conversation seems a useful way to find inspiration. As I mentioned before, I now tend to write poetic comments about images rather than having poetic conversations. Probably my favorite poetic conversation was with a poem written by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, called “Double Happiness”  I was particularly pleased with my response poem Steps to the grave as it seemed to be rather stronger than many of my other poems. I generally don’t write in the style of ‘Steps to the grave’ but Tammy’s poem was so powerful, and I was so used to responding to her poems at that time, That I just opened up in response.

In What is Poetry?, you discuss one of the top questions people ask about poetry. You mention that “it depends on how you define poetry” and  “Art is, it just is”.
Do you think it’s impossible to pin down exactly what poetry is? Is it always a fluid concept?

I think that poetry, like art, dreams, and the unconscious is beyond the ability of words to truly pin down. This I think is what makes poetry so important, so valuable. Indeed it’s value is really beyond measure. The problem of ‘what is poetry?’, seems to me to be, that words and symbols seem to be knowable. But at best we only can see and understand a part of what they really are. This makes it difficult to say what poetry is. Yet we know poetry when we see it.

When I was young, I tried to figure out how to write poetry. I knew poetry when I heard it or read it, but could not figure out what made it different from prose. Sure there are poetic forms and rules, but those are the craft. A true poem to me goes beyond craft. The art of the poem has a kind of magic that exists beyond the craft. The magic is undeniable, yet indefinable as well. This is true of all art in my opinion. This is also why I have come to the conclusion that there are no good poems or bad poems, no good art or bad art. Good and bad in both cases really refers to how well the poem or art follows conventional rules. The magic of art and poetry lives outside the rules. I believe that true art and poetry either strike us the wrong way, and we don’t like them, or they feel so right we love them.

It took me a long time to figure out that I did not know what poetry was. I suspect this was partially due to the fact that I could easily tell if what I was reading was a poem. But since I have become more deeply involved in writing poetry, I have run into situations in which the line between prose and poetry was rather blurred. I once wrote a comment on a blog in what I thought was prose. Then because I was drawn to what I had written, I felt it needed to be broken up into short lines. I then realized that it was really a poem. So I became more curious about what is poetry. I searched the internet, but was unable to find an answer that satisfied me. Though I cannot define it, somehow I know it when I see it. Over time I have come to appreciate the fact that poetry defies definition. This makes it more open ended in a way that allows for deeper creativity.

Sometimes I think about how my poems are surely following the same word paths of earlier poets. But with the idea in mind, that it is the magic of the moment that calls out the poem, it no longer matters that the words are similar or the same. As long as what arrives in the poem is from the deeps within my unconscious mind, the poem has its own life based on the eternal now in which it arrived. Thus it is that Yamabuki is the poet, and yet not the source of the poem, which comes from something deeper than Yamabuki.

How do you feel about prose poetry?

I tend to prefer prose poetry. I feel it is more attuned to the natural rhythms of speaking. It’s true that other poetic forms can be quite powerful, I think that because of the nature of the English language, so full of words from so many different languages, so full of different accents and subtly different meanings, that many of the poetic forms grate on my ears. I came to this realization from reading novels. The novels I love the most flow so beautifully that I forget I am reading and become more deeply immersed in the book than if the book’s writing stumbles along due to the author’s and editor’s lesser skill. To me the best poetry is written so as to become so immersive that it disappears and allows us to experience the poem directly. For me this is more likely to happen with prose poetry. One example I can think of is Alan Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”

That said, I do sometimes find myself writing poems that are more rhythmic and even containing some rhyming as well. I was quite happy to read that Victor Hugo wrote in a similar fashion. English is such a limited language to rhyme in. So I generally rhyme by accident. Yet sometimes my poems want to rhyme and follow a certain rhythm. And some poems may incorporate different styles within the poem. I never really know what will arrive when I write.

Do you have any advice for someone that is just starting to write poetry? When did you first start writing poems?

I think it is a matter of deciding why you want to be a poet. If you wish to be a professional poet you need the poetic skills that are probably best learned in college courses. Still I would say learn English first. Not just written English. Learn to recite. One of the best skills I learned came from a speech class I took. A good poet needs to be able to use his or her voice to find out what the poem is really saying. When I am editing a poem I usually try speaking it out loud. I usually can hear better what works and what needs changing. It also helps to have someone else to listen when you speak your poem. And better still to listen when someone else speaks your poem. Also as is often mentioned to would be writers, read as much as possible. Reading is indispensable to becoming a good writer.

I first started writing poems while I was in college. I took two semesters of poetry. The class was rather informal as it was really a class on Poetry and Women. I was pretty much the only male in the class. The women students were pretty militant and pushed out the other men who tried to take the class, but for some reason tolerated me. As my poetry was still rather immature, I eventually threw it out. Still I continued writing poetry off and on over the years.

Would you like to share a poem which you feel best represents your work?

Hard to say which poem best represents my work. Still based on what feels right to me, I choose this poem that I call “Uncertainty” http://yamabuki9.blogspot.com/2010/01/uncertain-space-between-this-and-that.html

“Is time the wheel that turns,
or the track it leaves behind?”
— R. Hobb

What is this crack between the world
The space behind our eyes
This hidden place with no name
All our answers are but lies
Ask the moonlight to explain

The Tides of life come and go
All we know is doubt
The point of change is its knife
The Breath of life goes in and out
Blowing through our fragile life

What’s your name
Before you’re born
Or after you have died
What’s the secret of your soul
The color of its eyes?

When you start to lose your step
Unsure which way to go
Consult your dreams
For witches’ signs
Watch the waters flow.

The magic works in crazy ways
The moon light hides the night
Dying moans distract our ears
From darker sounds beyond our sight
And fills the sea with ancient tears

What sense is there
In fool caught time
What road will bring us peace
The way of death is hazardous
What other choice have we?

–Yamabuki

Thanks so much, Yamabuki, for your time, your poetry, and for your thoughtful responses. I am honoured to have you on my blog. Namaste.

You can also read Yamabuki’s poetry on your Kindle.

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About Chris

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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3 Responses to Interview with a poet: Yamabuki Zhou

  1. Thanks Chris and Yamabuki, a very interesting interview. I particularly like the idea that you are fictional. I often think how we present ourselves is a reflection of that moment or collection of moments – sometimes the moments represents our sense of self, sometimes not.

    Yamabuki, I also like how you use art or photography with your poems, like your complementing, I see art and photography as an extension of the words.

    Thank you again. Best wishes Andy

  2. What a thoughtful and intriguing interview, and lovely introduction to the poet. I love the imagery of coaxing words like a cat onto one’s lap.

  3. Thanks for this fascinating interview with Yamabuki Zhou, Chris. It’s interesting to hear about his process, and his poetry is infused with amazing imagery. Some favorite lines:

    “What is this crack between the world
    The space behind our eyes”

    “What’s the secret of your soul
    The color of its eyes?”

    I guess I have a thing for eyes!

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