Maitreyabandhu: Now I Pitched in and Painted

Maitreyabandhu (pictured for the ‘Indy on Sunday’ at London Buddhist Centre May 2006. Pics and copyright Nick Cunard all rights reserved)

Maitreyabandhu will be reading for the Fire River Poets on 5th September 2019 at the CIC in Taunton.

Maitreyabandhu was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1990, since when he has lived and worked at the London Buddhist Centre teaching Buddhism and meditation. In 2010, he founded Poetry East, a poetry venue exploring the relationship between spiritual life and poetry and attracting some of the finest poets writing today. His poetry has won numerous awards including the Keats-Shelley Prize, the Basil Bunting Award, the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and in 2010 he won the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition. His first book-length collection, The Crumb Road, was published by Bloodaxe in 2013 and is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His second collection, Yarn, followed in 2015. His third Bloodaxe title, After Cézanne, an illustrated meditation on the life and work of the painter, is due out in 2019.

I really enjoyed A Cézanne Haibun, the standalone volume to accompany your forthcoming After Cézanne. An account of your retreat in Sierra Aitana, Spain, it’s a biography of thoughts. I get a sense of impression upon impression, figure upon figure, shadow selves: you, Cézanne, your partner, your mother, Cézanne’s mother, Zola, Basho… To what extent is the haibun form depthless?

I seem to have an affinity with the haibun – it came very naturally to me, perhaps because of its Buddhist origins. A haibun wants to sound casual and everyday. It wants to sound like someone talking about their ordinary day – what they’re seeing and doing. But somehow, in the midst of that, the haibun needs to be suggestive: something unspoken (perhaps because it can’t be spoken) is being got at, something about Life (with a capital L). Its mixture of diary, anecdote and essay, its haiku-like poems striking off at a tangent to the prose passages, gives the haibun a sort of glimmery lyricism. The nearest form I can think of is the verse epistle, the letter-poem in which you talk intimately one moment, mention lunch the next, then conclude with what you’re reading or some grand statement. It’s not quite that. It’s more glimmery and flowing than that, a river-glimmer where thought, observation, feeling, dream, memory and reflection all flow together. Some deeper current under the sensory impressions is being suggested; some unity that underpins the glimmery, shifting haibun-surface.

For it to work, it needs to sound like casual observation and thought, but under the surface something is connecting everything, as if everything in life is interconnected, is inter-penetrating… and this of course is what Buddhism says about life. But it’s not something that can be demonstrated; it’s more a feel than a theory. In the case of A Cézanne Haibun there’s the double arc of the poem (it’s a single poem comprised of prose poem and lyric). The first arc is the arc of a Buddhist solitary retreat, the second is, of course, the life of Cézanne. And as the haibun develops these two arcs interpenetrate, interfuse, so that by the end Cézanne’s voice and my voice almost become one; Cézanne painting in the 1890’s and my retreat now blur and glimmer together. Well, that’s what I hope at least.

One surprise from the opening pages is your comment – both in relation to Cézanne’s experience and your own – ‘it’s the lateness that hurts.’ That you still find yourself ‘where all the ladders start.’ To the outsider you are both going great guns! Cézanne is quite a grumbling figure in this work, ‘curses and charm’, admitting ‘painful disappointments.’ How necessary is it to know the biography of a painter or writer? Is it something apart from the work, or a way of seeing a further layer, even a way in?

Nowadays too much is made of the difference (even discontinuity) between the artist and their work, just as in the past too much was made of the heroic unity. At the extreme end of post-modernism, the author disappears, becoming merely the mouthpiece of social and political forces. In the past the artist tended to be conceived as the heroic individual free from societal constraints. Both views have something in them, are getting at something, but both are partial. Knowing the biography of a writer or artist can be an introduction to that artist as well as a deepening of your understanding of them.

The point is to love the work, to have the work touch your life: wake up your intellect, open your heart, deepen your responsiveness. For the work to do that, you need to be receptive to it, you need to look at it for a long time (looking at paintings is really a kind of meditation), read about it, reflect on it. But you’re not reading about Cézanne for art-historical reasons, you’re reading about him so as to love the work and for the work to change you. If you read about Elizabeth Bishop, for instance, it deepens your love of her poems. It’s love of the work that leads you to want to know more about the artist or writer, to read critical studies and so forth. The reason you come to love the work is because it has come to matter to you.

One of the things I’ve tried to show in A Cézanne Haibun is how love of an artist’s work (sorry to keep using the ‘L’ word!) affects my thinking, my perception of pine trees and rocks, my being in the world. And I agree with Elizabeth Bishop, one should read poets not poetry. By reading poets she meant everything they had written! Cézanne has been an abiding presence in my life – looking at his paintings, reading his letters, reading art criticism. But it’s the love and the mattering that leads.

In its hybridity, A Cézanne Haibun falls into the tradition of American poet Mark Strand’s meditation on Edward Hopper. There are some fine moments of synaesthesia – ‘The rocks tell you everything you need to know about the articulation of light and how each angled facet is a piano chord struck against the darkness of the world.’

As you have mentioned, your appreciations of the landscape are also very painterly. At one point you describe how through altering a painting – moving a bush ever so slightly – ‘the whole painting clicked into place as if one good shove was all it needed.’ Elsewhere, you write, ‘Only in painting could Cézanne be entirely private and manifestly public at the same time.’ How similar is painting to poetry in this regard?

I discovered Cézanne when I was still at Goldsmiths Art College in the late 1980’s. Damien Hirst was doing something with saucepans just down the corridor, Sarah Lucas was in the studio next door. I was painting small abstractions and feeling depressed. My tutor told me to go and look at Cézanne. I stood in front of one of his great still lifes at the Musée D’Orsay and had one of the most profound aesthetic experiences of my life. Interestingly, I discovered Buddhism at around the same time, so art practice and Buddhist practice have run pretty much in tandem for the last thirty years or so.

I find the experience of writing poems and making paintings fundamentally the same (from one perspective at least). Certainly it’s the paintings or poems I’ve worked hardest on that have worked best – A Cézanne Haibun got up to around 100 drafts, and took four years. There’s that same sense of following a hunch, of finding your way, of taking wrong turns and having to backtrack. There’s the same sense of discovery, the intimate strangeness of having made something which expresses you and yet goes beyond you at the same time. But I could never manage to find a way of integrating painting into my Buddhist life. I needed to work long hours in the studio (which meant having a studio!). I only started writing seriously in 2007 on a six-month sabbatical. Since then poetry has become my art work. I can fiddle with a poem on the train or in a bit of time snatched from worthy emails.

Your work often explores the past, but your titles The Crumb Road and Yarn (both ways to return the way you came) suggest this aspiration is, if not impossible, beset with jeopardy. ‘Time has been deleted,’ you write in A Cézanne Haibun. How far is reclamation possible in poetry, and in painting?

If someone has the temerity to write poetry – and poetry is that impossible thing: using words to get beyond words – then the question is how do we find depth in life? And how can we communicate that depth? But then the question becomes what do we mean by ‘depth’? Or to put it another way, and to sound a bit post-modern, what is the meaning of meaning? Following Nietzsche’s Death of God, life’s depth and meaning are no longer givens. But the idea that life is meaningless, an idea that has been gaining ground, is as much a belief as the idea that meaning is to be found in Divinity. On top of that, the belief in meaninglessness is disastrous because if we hold that belief, then it doesn’t matter how we act, how we behave; it leaves no room for (old-fashioned word warning:) moral effort. So for me one area of meaning is to do with deepening my understanding of the past, though I don’t mean in a psychological or confessional way (though it may include that). 

It seems to me that memory is very mysterious. In my sequence ‘Stephen’ from The Crumb Road, for instance, I couldn’t always tell what was memory or what was myth. Stephen seemed both a boy I had a prepubescent sort-of sexual relationship with, but also the archetype of the beloved (except that sounds too grand). He also seemed like a myth or a figure for first love, for forbidden love, for the first bite of the apple, and so on, with all those kinds of mythic reverberations. But then at the same time he was just a boy I knew when I was a boy, and I wanted to be true to him, to my ‘memory’ of him. I didn’t want to romance him or mythologise him, or make him part of my own psychodrama. That would make him less than human, not more than human.

So the poems often question memory because memory is so mixed up with narrative, with fiction, with myth (I’m not very keen on the word ‘myth’ but I can’t think of a better one). If you reflect on your life there always seems more to your life than the so-called facts – the boy from Henley-in-Arden, the High Street, the fields around it, and so on. It’s as if only poetry can talk about this deeper dimension, because poetry is what we mean by myth: i.e. that what looks mundane and commonplace (i.e. life) has some sort of resonance and deeper significance that we can feel but never fully articulate. I think this may be what Wallace Stevens meant by ‘Poetry is the subject of the poem’. The impossible, vital job of poetry is to articulate being-in-the-world even though being-in-the-world can never be satisfactorily articulated.

You refer to Meyer Schapiro’s intuition that Cézanne’s still lifes were an attempt to restore harmony to the family dinner table. Elsewhere you observe ‘there are no women with arms crossed. No theatres. No dances… And now I come to think about it, no birds… Nothing, in other words, that couldn’t be kept still.’ (An observation I now recognize as true, though hadn’t previously stopped to notice). I’m put in mind of that comment on Ted Hughes’s essay on T. S. Eliot ‘A Dancer to God,’ that Hughes sees everything through his own eyes. So Eliot becomes a shaman. How much did Cézanne first charm you because he accorded with your own desire for stillness; and how much is Cezanne’s work open to different interpretations – by Buddhists, shamans, painters and critics alike?

I hadn’t equated my own desire for stillness with Cézanne’s paintings, though I can see that now you mention it. I’m not sure if it was stillness I was looking for when I first went to the London Buddhist Centre. To the degree I was conscious of looking for anything at all, it was more like some way out of the suffering that I was experiencing: some sense of meaning that could make sense of suffering and begin to transform it. I had found a modicum of that in my attempts to make art. Creativity is a way of making sense of the apparent chaos and pain of life. You are trying to transform the mess of life into something beautiful. Cézanne perhaps became an image for that, a figure for the exemplary artist dedicated to his art: someone who works hard, who makes sacrifices, who never gives up or sells out, who won’t be complacent. I think Cézanne lives up to the high idea of the artist.

Copies of A Cezanne Haibun can be purchased at following link: http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/999/cezanne-haibun

Interviewer: Matt Bryden
See Matt’s profile here: http://www.fireriverpoets.org.uk/poets/matt-bryden/
(This is the tenth in a series of interviews with Guest Poets at our Poetry Reading Events conducted by FRP Members)