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PA Diary: The Poet, The Monk, The Knight — Taking A Tour Inside Myself

(31 July 2012) STATE COLLEGE, PA — Today is the day my first two-month Greyhound Discovery Pass expires. Although I already finished part one of the Jazz Or Bust Tour, there’s something about the expiration of the pass that makes it feel truly final.

Last night, I started booking part two of the tour, which begins Labor Day weekend at the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival. From there I’ll be heading through the Midwest, the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, down the West Coast, and probably into the Southwest. If you’d like to help me with a couch, an interview suggestion or a poetry reading suggestion in any of those places, I’d be very grateful.

Having a few weeks off the road (well, more or less — I’m still traveling and staying somewhere that isn’t home) has given me time to think about myself as a traveler. I wrote a poem last week called “while all the while searching” that attempted to describe at least part of my self-image as a poet or a monk or a knight. These are somewhat fanciful conceptions, but all are tied into a real search for identity. One that I’ve been engaged in my entire life with varying levels of success. Varying low levels.

The Poet: This is a persona with which I’ve only recently become comfortable. I love the idea of going from town to town sharing my poems with people, and writing new poems along the way. There aren’t that many people who make a living by reading poetry. In fact, I can think of only Michael Czarnecki, though there may be others. I certainly don’t make a living, either, though I did sell a decent number of books on the tour.

There’s a rich tradition in this country of traveling orators, singers, actors, etc. People who moved from place to place plying some sort of artistic tradecraft. Tombstone is one of my favorite movies, and I’ve always loved the two actor characters who come to Tombstone as part of a trek across the Great American West. They recite Shakespeare and put on a version of Faustus and draw in the rowdies who might not otherwise have access to this kind of culture. I just watched the 1949 film My Darling Clementine the other day. It’s also set in Tombstone, and it also features an actor in a prominent scene. And a few weeks ago I was in New York celebrating the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie, one of the great American troubadors.

I like to think of myself this way. My poetry is, for lack of a better word, accessible. I write in a narrative style, primarily about the things that happen in my life. I expose a lot of my life to my audiences and as a result tend to make friends at poetry readings with people who’ve experienced the same things. This is a great way for me to feel connected to the communities I visit. As you know if you’ve been following this tour diary, that’s been an issue for me.

The Monk: A friend once said he thought I was more suited to religion than anyone he’d ever met. This was someone who knew me very well and knew I was an atheist. I’ve turned that statement over in my mind many times and I think he wasn’t far wrong. I started life as a Catholic. One of my first adult friends was a Franciscan friar who was close to my mother’s sister. I wanted to be a priest when I was very young. Later in life, my family became Methodist and I grew very close to the two pastors at our church. I went so far as to audit seminary classes with one of them. And I wanted very much to be a minister.

At age 15, I realized I didn’t believe in God. So I became an atheist and gave up any thought of becoming a member of the clergy. In my late 20s, I discovered Buddhism and became very interested in the idea of a religion that wasn’t predicated on a belief in anything. But I still shied away from the religious trappings of the Zen centers in which I practiced. That said, I continued to be attracted to both monasticism and the idea of being at the center of an intentional loving community. I applied to Naropa to study to become a chaplain, but I couldn’t afford to go. I’ve thought in recent years about applying to divinity school. I’m still an atheist, and I’m not sure if I’d call myself a Buddhist, although my 9-year-old son seems to think I should, given all the Buddhist trappings I carry with me.

Matsuo Basho is one of the models of the poet/monk life. I first discovered his work in 1991, the first time I lived in Japan. Basho traveled throughout the main island of Japan, writing poetry and being keenly aware of his surroundings. I reread his work frequently. I’ve since added the writing of David Budbill and the Chinese mountain poets to the “monk poet” list in my brain. Throw in good old Walt Whitman and an idea of how to move in the world as a “present poet” begins to take shape.

This persona was very much on my mind during the tour. I brought a lot of Buddhist literature on my Kindle (including flugel horn player Dmitri Matheny’s suggestion — Dogen’s Extensive Record), along with other books inspired by Buddhism, such as On The Road and The Dharma Bums. I didn’t do a great job keeping up my sitting meditation practice, but I think I did a good job being present on the tour and observing the world around me and the world inside me. And lest you think I’m being overly dramatic or serious about this, I also brought along the first two seasons of Kung Fu with David Carradine on my laptop.

The Knight: I didn’t access this part of myself all that much on the tour. I gave a stern talking-to to a guy in Union Station in New Orleans after hearing him blame the 2005 flood on the sins of the city. Other than that, I didn’t take part in any protests or do all that much that I would consider “activist” activity. I strongly believe that making art is a revolutionary act, so to some degree both my poetry and my show are examples of that. But they’re not “put your body on the line” examples, by any means. I’ve had a lot of experience with that kind of activism, and it hits a different part of me than art does. I’d like to explore this more on the second leg of the tour.

I can’t say I’ve arrived at any conclusions from all this. I’m still very uncertain about my place in the world, but these three aspects of my personality represent a lot of who I want to be. I hope the next part of the tour will give me a chance to solidify some of this thinking and figure out some way to put it into practice when I’m not on the road.

Published in Jazz Or Bust Tour PA Diary


  1. Brooks Brooks

    Not certain of my place in the world either, although I’m skeptical of certainty. In my experience, anyway, certainty is a whoopee cushion.

    Apropos nothing, a nice quote by Ken Wilbur:

    “People think each stage of the spiritual path is marked by some sort of great accomplishment….but what actually happens is that you stay at a particular stage until you see the silliness of it.”

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