Alan Botsford’s most recent book, Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore, was released in 2010 by Sage Hill Press. Alan lives in Kamakura, Japan with his wife, and is the senior editor of Poetry Kanto.
The interview was conducted on the campus of Whitworth University in September 2010.
Thom Caraway: You’re eight years removed from having published your first collection, mamaist: learning a new language now, so maybe ten years removed from the writing of those poems. Looking back on that first collection, how do you think about it now?
Alan Botsford: Its inception was in New York City, and it grew out of, in a word, love – how can I say? – it grew out of my relationship with my wife. It felt like a collaborative work in many ways. And I think that ‘mamaist’ has taken on many different meanings in the ensuing years, so as an origin, it was in New York, my wife was pregnant with our only child and ‘mamaist’ came up. It was a “why not?” kind of title, presenting itself in a creative fashion, and it was an important turning point in my life. There were many things happening in that year, including getting married, having a child, leaving Hunter College and NYU, and moving to Japan. So it is a profound expression and celebration of that time of my life. So that’s why I used the word “love” and I never really used that word before, but in a nutshell.
TC: There was no intentional nod to the Dadaists?
AB: I had read them, of course, as much I suppose as the next guy, Dadaists, surrealists–I loved French surrealist poets for years, and had even translated some in early years. I could name many different writers, but I wasn’t trying to go up against the Dadaists; I wasn’t trying to make a statement. I liked the humor of it and I wanted to explore where it would take me as a word. Later I discovered that the very syllable itself, ‘ma,’ interestingly, can be found in most languages. The etymology of the word is ‘food,’ because the mother is the source of food for the child. When I found that out, it seemed fitting, because it was very much a beginning for me and my wife, and our life together. It speaks to the many creative and personal dimensions at that particular point in my life. But I have not stopped writing mamaist poems, and I intend to publish mamaist books in the future. I like to think of it as a lifelong journey.
TC: So you’ll have half a dozen books by the same title.
AB: With different subtitles. The first book’s subtitle is “learning a new language.”
TC: “learning a new language.” Now, those were written in or before 1989?
AB: The poem “nothing,” if I’m not mistaken, was written in New York. So the poem that begins that volume, was written while I was in America. But I went on to write more of that kind of poem in Japan, and it evolved into what I call “generic” poems. And what that is, as opposed to brand-name poems, is that you can play with language or you can ring the changes on turns of phrases and idioms that are fairly commonplace in such a way that they have not only new context, but they provide you with a two-way mirror, of an experience of how life itself—existence— is structured, that is, temporally, there’s always a before. What precedes the sentence and what comes after the sentence is going to determine the meaning of that sentence. And that very much comes into play with those generic poems.
TC: This idea of language, the meanings of the very syllables that make up the words we use is in many ways central to a lot of things that you do. You have an essay in the new Whitman book that examines the words ‘leaves’ and ‘of’ and ‘grass.’ So there’s an entire section on the word ‘of.’ You left nothing unturned in terms of examining all of the various implications and connotations and denotations. Is that something that comes out of linguistic training, or just a particular interest you have in sound?
AB: I think it’s related to sound and music. I don’t have any real linguistic training; I mean I have taken a linguistics class here and there, but my training and interests grows out of music. At that time, syllables were the building blocks, naturally, of words, so I seemed to find words and phrases, and I would construct a lexicon. I would makes lists. I was very much immersed in language. And that immersion was just one discovery after another. I mean, for me, if you gave me a word I would go to an etymological dictionary and try to find what the origin was. And I would never tire of that.
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