Interview with Buff Whitman-Bradley
Buff Whitman-Bradley is the author of three other books of poetry, b. eagle, poet, The Honey Philosophies, and Realpolitik: Poems of Protest, Outrage and Resistance; and the chapbook, Everything Wakes Up! His poems have appeared in many print and online journals. He is also the author of two non-fiction books for young readers, Endings: A Book About Death, and Where Do I Belong: A Kids’ Guide to Step Families; and a book for teachers, Growing from Word Play Into Poetry. In addition, he is co-editor, with Cynthia Whitman-Bradley and Sarah Lazare, of the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. He has worked in film as well, co-producing/directing, with Cynthia, the award-winning death-row documentary, Outside In; and, with the MIRC Film Collective, a documentary about undocumented migrants, Por Que Venimos.
SCP: Thank you so much for Buff for taking the time to speak with us. Can you start by telling us about the motivation behind your work? The inspiration?
Buff: I told someone recently who asked about my poetry that I simply wanted to shed a little of my own light on what it is to be human. That’s what I hope to do, try to do, in my poems. Years ago I developed a little mantra to explain to/remind myself what kind of poems I wanted to write – simple, direct, quiet, and true.
SCP: As a poet you have written extensively about protest and political change. Will you tell us about your thoughts on poetry as a political tool and/or catalyst? What kind of substantial change (if any) can poetry bring about? Do you find that writing and activism are part of a symbiotic relationship, or does one more directly generate the other?
Buff: I have written many political poems – sometimes I call them “free verse op-eds.” They’re mostly simple and straightforward, true I hope, but definitely not quiet. I don’t know if those poems are good poetry, or poetry at all for that matter. I think many people would say that they are not, that they lack subtlety and nuance, that they have no mystery or surprise in them, no intriguing interiors. I’m not really worried about that, because when I write these kinds of poems I am usually outraged or hurt and I want to shout, to wail, to howl, to scold, to protest, to point a finger, to demand, to condemn, to name names, to dramatize, to tell anybody who will listen about an injustice and my human response to it.
I often write about not only particular issues but also about how, with others, I take action in response. I do, and have done, lots of activism, have been arrested a couple of dozen times for acts civil disobedience, so that’s a big part of my life and I think it’s important to include those episodes it in my poems. To say, “I’m not just complaining about this, I’m standing up, speaking out, sitting down in the streets.
SCP: Besides your focus on political issues you have also written some really wonderful nature poems. Quiet works full of contemplation, wild horses, and the shift of seasons.
What purpose does nature serve in your life and work, and do you have any trouble holding these seemingly opposite tensions in place i.e. the fierce and seemingly urban identity of an activist versus the softer, more passive role of nature poet?
Buff: My relationship with the natural world lubricates my spirit, keeps me supple, flexible, alert, alive. Without generous amounts of time in the hills, in the woods, listening to what creeks and woodpeckers and jays have to say, watching sunlight make its way among the trees, I would dry up and blow away. So of course I must write about the beauty I encounter there – but beauty is not quite the right word because it objectifies
nature, something out there rather than an intimate part of my being. What I’m saying, I guess, is that nature isn’t beautiful, nature and I are indistinguishable from each other. That’s a clumsy way to say it, but that’s what I’m trying to convey, really, in all my “nature poems” – nature is me/us, we are each other. So I go out into nature to check up on myself, learn all over again who I am, how I’m doing, whether or not I’m headed down the right path. In order to go out into the streets, I need to go out into nature.
SCP: Switching gears a bit, what do you think is the future of independent poetry publishing? There are so many new technologies out there, and so many innovative publishers, do you see poetry taking on a more prominent role in our popular literature?
Buff: I love it that there are these new ways of publishing poetry – websites and blogs as well as traditional print journals. I’m a print guy -- I love placing work in print journals – but I’m guessing that the poems I’ve placed in online journals have been read by many more people than have read my poems on the printed page. I hope print journals are not on their way out. I like how they feel in the hand, how they look, how they smell. But the web has expanded exponentially the potential audience for poetry. I don’t know how many people wrote and published poems in the pre-internet days, but when I look around at all these poetry sites brimming over with poems, it seems to me that there must be a real explosion of creative writing going on these days.
SCP: And what about your own publishing/submissions process? You have had numerous books and chapbooks in all sorts of different formats put out. How often do you usually send work out? Do you dapple a lot with self-publishing?
Buff: Years ago I had two books of poems published by two different presses not my own. (I also wrote some nonfiction books published by other publishers.) My last two poetry books I published myself. I swallowed hard before doing it. Having a manuscript accepted by a poetry press says, to me, “Someone besides me thinks these poems are good enough to be read by others.” It affirms the work, legitimizes the published volume, in ways that self-publishing doesn’t/cant. Never mind that Whitman, Thoreau, Joyce, Pound and any number of other great writers self-published, when people ask you who published our new book, most of us cringe a little as we admit that we did it ourselves. How I’ve made myself feel OK about it is to publish in book form poems that have been previously published in journals. I think all but one of the poems in Realpolitik were first published in various print and online journals first; the same with fifty of the fifty-six poems in When Compasses Grow Old. Over the past four-five years I’ve had pieces accepted in about 40 journals, I think. I’m sending work out all the time.
SCP: Any other thoughts you would like to share with the world?
Buff: Off the top of my head, here are some poems I really love (and many more by these wonderful poets):
James Wright – “Autumn begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio”
Stephen Dunn – “The metaphysicians of South Jersey”
Jim Harrison -- “Horses”
Mary Oliver – “Wild geese”
Emily Dickinson – “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”
William Butler Yeats – “The song of wandering Aengus”
Ted Kooser – “Flying at night”
Robert Herrick – “Whenas in silks my Julia goes”
Wendell Berry – “The peace of wild things”
Pablo Neruda – “Ode to my socks”
SCP: Thank you so much for your time!