Getting to Know Wally Swist and His New Book, daodejing
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I think that persevering in the writing and the craft of poetry is much more important than how one initially encountered poetry; however, I first began writing poetry when I was 16. The results of those inchoate first poems were published in the local newspaper where I lived, The Meriden Record on their weekly poetry page, “Pennons of Pegasus.”
Persevering with the craft of poetry has run parallel with my quest in my spiritual life. Also, many of my poems deal with the natural world, so I often find spiritual breakthroughs in my observations and experience of nature itself. Thus the poetry becomes my spiritual path and, often enough, my experience on the trail up my favorite small mountain, Mount Toby, in Sunderland, Massachusetts.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I write at all times of the day and both at home and on a trail in the woods in a pocket notebook.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I find the numinous in the commonplace; and in this ability comes either an image or a sound which offers a transcendent experience which then becomes the transforming moment of both the music of the accompanying language of the poem and/or the song of the experience itself.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
As per my listing in Poets & Writers, the following are my favorite books and writers:
Favorite Books: The Complete Perfectionist: A Poetics of Work by Juan Ramon Jimenez, Edited and Translated by Christopher Maurer; The Pathwork of Self-Transformation by Eva Pierrakos; A Soul's Journey by Peter Richelieu
Favorite Authors: Emily Dickinson, Robert Francis, Jack Gilbert, Rolf Jacobsen, John Keats, Maxine Kumin, Bert Meyers, Lorine Niedecker, Pablo Neruda, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Spiess, Walt Whitman, Richard Wilbur, James Wright.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? Was it a project book?
I believe if I include my own preface to The Daodejing, it will answer all of these questions, quite nicely:
Introductory Thoughts Regarding the Rendering of Laozi’s Dao Dejing
My process in what I term rendering Laozi was initially reading the translation that Steve would present in the Google Docs program, which I would then copy into my hardcover journal whose sole purpose was a workbook for Dao Dejing. My approach was to place my self in the forefront of Steve’s translation with an amount of veneration, then, and this was always crucial, to find, and more appropriately discover, where the lyric core of the poem arose from. When I found that, then my own rendering flowed. However, it may have been one or two of the middle lines, perhaps an image at the end, and most usually, especially toward the conclusion of Dao Dejing, with the beginning lines, that I was able to locate the source of the flow of each particular verse.
My attempt was not only to render ‘our old teacher,’ Laozi, but to play off of Steve’s translation—much like how John Coltrane released the sweet torrent of sound from his saxophone in harmonizing with Johnny Hartman’s voice, and Johnny Hartman’s debonair baritone rising to meet that effusion of Coltrane’s grace notes—but also my purpose was to limn Steve’s meaning; to shadow a phrase, here and there; and to offer both clarity and a mirror to the perpetuity of the sage’s import and wisdom.
Steve’s invitation for me to participate in this interactive rendering of Dao, is a watershed event for me—one in which I have prepared for all of my writing life. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with both Steve Schroeder and David Breeden, who both provided the appropriate alchemy for my own lyrical contributions to the project. I first came across the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation of Laozi when I was twenty, over forty years ago in New Haven, when I was also reading every Eastern classic I could assimilate, as well as practicing Zazen with a small group of people in the basement of Yale Divinity School Chapel. Although I augmented my reading of Steve’s translations with the Fu and English version, and often enough chose to strike a balance between the two to actually and effectively fashion a new rendering, I have also treasured Ursula K. LeGuin’s translation, as well as Stephen Mitchell’s, who, on occasion, as I recall, was one of the other participants in sitting meditation in the basement at the Divinity School Chapel, when he was grad student at Yale.
So, my being invited to render Laozi has been completing an enormous circle for me, as Joseph Campbell, whose voluminous works of comparative religion and mythology I have studied, might point out as being the hero’s journey. In that time it is not only Campbell who I found both inspiration and guidance from, much after my discovery of Laozi, but also the psycho-spirituality of the modern mystic Carolyn Myss, and the high octane spirituality of The Guide Lectures, channeled by Eva Pierrakos, among many others, whose writing regarding higher consciousness have affected me, such as Pema Chodron, Katherine MacCoun, and Eckhart Tolle—all of whose insights, at least partially, I have integrated, and that have lent themselves to becoming some of the very philosophical underpinnings of my renderings of Dao Dejing.
It is with gratitude, and an active humility, that I thank everyone here that I have mentioned by name, including, of course, ‘our old teacher,’ and offer a deep appreciation for the verses themselves, as well as for Yinxi, the sentry at the western gate, who, aprocryphally or not, stopped Laozi, and asked him to record his wisdom before moving on, into the frontier, beyond, which as a result was Dao Dejing—for it is as if I have come to meet them both, stepping out of the western frontier of the future, to greet them in the eternal now of the present, in which we all have come together, with our hands placed firmly palm to palm, bowing to one another, in unison, not to affect benefit for ourselves, but for the positive intent and good will of every reader.
Sample poem from DaoDejing:
Walking the way is not the true walk
of the way.
When we speak the name of the way,
it is not the real name.
When everything began, it grew out of
and the name of the word is
the mother of the ten thousand things.
When we desire nothing, we see what is;
when we want more, we become blind.
What transpires, transpires, as a spring—
and the fountain runs, from the source.
However, there are two names for
what is but one; the one that is whole—
when these are found together,
we enter a realm of mystery.
This mystery opens
when we no longer see it as mystery—
again, on its threshold,
the door to self is no door at all.
And listen to "Scrub Meadow":