Friday, December 23, 2011

Poetry & Ministry, Two Service Industries: An Interview with DAVID BREEDEN

KIRPAL GORDON: When I last saw you in the Texas Hill Country in the late 90s, you were teaching in the English Department at Schreiner University, your coming-of-age-in-the-70s novel, “Another Number,” had just come out with great fanfare and you were writing a column in the local press, Dr. Poetry. I now just learned that you are an ordained minister with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship which got me thinking about poetry being a service industry driven more by the power of witness than by celebrity and about the ministry being a service industry driven more by the power of metaphor than by dogma. 

DAVID BREEDEN: My self-definition, my label for myself, has long been “poet.” This has been true for me from my early twenties. The question has always been for me how to survive in a capitalist society that denigrates the artist. I was born into a farming family, but I could see that I wasn’t cut out for that. So, I went into college teaching. This seemed to make sense, especially after I received an MFA at Iowa’s Writers Workshop, where the talk was about teaching college. I enjoyed that life for twenty-five years. I like teaching. But the problem with college teaching is that it is a pink-cloud sort of world. Year after year, the teaching is the same. This did not feed my soul. I wasn’t giving enough back to the universe. And I wasn’t able to use my prophetic voice.
So, I left teaching to go into Unitarian Universalist parish ministry where, as I saw it, I could be both poet and prophet. Also, life as a minister is certainly more “real.” I go from deathbed to wedding to demonstration routinely. I’m up against the ultimate mysteries all the time.
  R.S. Thomas, who was a poet and Anglican priest, once said, “Christ was a poet, the New Testament is a metaphor, the Resurrection is a metaphor; and I feel perfectly within my rights in approaching my whole vocation as priest and preacher as one who is to present poetry, and when I preach poetry I am preaching Christianity, and when one discusses Christianity one is discussing poetry in its imaginative aspects. The core of both are imagination....”

KIRPAL GORDON: Sam Hamill, in a recent interview with Paul Nelson, described the office of poet much like taking a bodhisattva vow.  He said, “Poetry is the most compressed, considered and comprehensive use of language. It marries language to music. What is not said in a poem is often just as important as what IS said. And when we invest the energy and the listening, we can’t read poetry silently, you must listen to the language, you must let the rhythms enter your body. Poetry aspires to the condition of music, but also aspires to the conditions of philosophy. Poetry is a very large house and there are many kinds of poetry. There is something in there, beneath all of that, that lies at the very common core of human experience. And to follow those threads, to follow the thinking of poets over the centuries, one sees again and again, the poet speaking on behalf of suffering humanity. The poet trying to lift people out of their dolor; lift people out of their indifference. Poetry is a very valuable tool and it has been my honor and my privilege to devote my life to this cause.”  Would you comment?

DAVID BREEDEN: I certainly agree with Sam Hamil that an essence of poetry is the compression and music of language. I’m intrigued by the new media for just that reason—I love the challenge of honing a poem down until it will fit into the 140 character format of Twitter, for example. And, yes, the function of poet, priest, and prophet is exhortation to forsake the mundane for the sublime. But for me the deeper essence of poetry is metaphor. Everything we think; everything we believe; every conscious action we undertake is based in metaphor. We are handed metaphors by our cultural experience—how to act; how to think; what right and wrong action looks like. Like anything standard-issue, these metaphors will do. These will provide a cookie-cutter life. The poet and prophet however must get inside the metaphors; must learn other metaphors; and must learn how to manipulate, how to handle, the metaphors. That’s what I show Jesus doing in my latest book--–“News from the Kingdom of God: Meditations on the Gospel of Thomas.” I began translating the Gospel of Thomas as one of my spiritual practices. As I worked on the text, I realized that the Jesus portrayed there is like a Zen practitioner. I began responding to the sayings with similar sayings from other spiritual traditions. Then I began responding with my own poems. I realized for the first time that the “kingdom of God” is existence in the present moment, totally in control of the metaphors. This is heaven; this is nirvana; this is enlightenment. It is the instant of absolute creativity of both life and poetry. I don’t manage to live there all the time; but I get there whenever possible.
KIRPAL GORDON: Your “Meditations on the Gospel of Thomas” is itself a poem, a collage of meditations from many wisdom traditions. These non-canonical words of Jesus, like his riffs on the kingdom of heaven and the dance of the sacred, are startling by themselves but they’re given added dimension by your weaving in commentary from Kabbala as well as Buddhist and Christian mysticism. Would you share your Nargarjuna poem in response to Jesus’s opening remark, “Whoever hears these words will never die?”

DAVID BREEDEN: “Nargarjuna says, / Nothing comes into existence / and nothing disappears. / Nothing is eternal; / nothing ever ends. / Nothing is identical / and nothing is different. / Nothing moves here or there.”
Nargarjuna and Jesus were wily cusses. No doubt about that. 

KIRPAL GORDON: It’s a great Chapter One that says it all / or nothing!  Though I’ve studied these things for years, your “translations” brought new meanings to these non-dual ideas.

DAVID BREEDEN: I won’t deny being a slow learner. I’ve been studying the world and writing for a long time, yet I’m just now, twenty-some years later, actually hearing things that Allen Ginsberg taught me. I guess it’s a matter of “when the student is ready.” I thought I was ready. When we’re talkin’ understanding reality itself, though, I guess we’re never really ready. Or ready in only fits and starts. It’s tough. But the writing is always there. And the teachers.
KIRPAL GORDON: Regarding the social activism of your ministry, what do you make of the Arab spring and the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon?

DAVID BREEDEN: I have been watching the world-wide revolutions with some hope. And I have participated in local Occupy actions. What makes me most hopeful is that this has been a spontanious, leaderless movement, carried on the ripples of the social media. The new means of human communication have tremendious power and they will also I think prevent any one leader from emerging. Even on the Right, where march-stepping is assumed, the teaparty never became capitalized--never got branded by one focus. It’s a truism that when all speak no one listens, but leaders in politics and tastemakers in art are all scrambling back there in the dust now. That gives me hope that the cacaphony will produce a higher harmony.

KIRPAL GORDON: What else are you up to and how else can Giant Steps readers stay abreast of your doings and non-doings?
DAVID BREEDEN: I'm currently working through the Tao teh Ching. Anyone interested can follow along at
or on Twitter, @dbreeden.
By the way, I have an author’s page at Amazon, for anyone who would like to see what I’ve brought back from various “raids on the unconscious.”

1 comment:

  1. having met doctor breeden and kirpal gordon all those years ago, it's a delight to be in the audience, sharing in this conversation. seldom does anyone have the opportunity to see such well honed intellects and the way that they deal with real life issues that are tossed at them. now, i am even more impressed in the way that they have come through it all and have so much to offer to those who are just beginning their own quests.