It's a surprise to realize that David Budbill has never been poet laureate of Vermont. He might also have been named playwright laureate — for the iconic Judevine alone — if the state had such a thing. The four-decade Wolcott homesteader recently uprooted and moved to a condo in Montpelier with his wife, artist Lois Eby. Budbill, who turns 76 this week, has been prolific over those years.
As his website specifies, he's authored "seven books of poems, eight plays, a novel, a collection of short stories, a picture book for children, dozens of essays, introductions, speeches and book reviews, [and] the libretto for an opera." He's been a commentator on National Public Radio and a performance poet on a couple of CDs. Oh, and he's a musician: On those recordings, Budbill doesn't just recite poems; he plays a Japanese wooden flute called the shakuhachi alongside New York avant-garde bassist William Parker.
That tremendous output — never mind another couple of books coming out later this year — is enough to merit a tribute from Budbill's peers and fans. But there's another, tacit inspiration for the evening of readings scheduled for Monday, June 13, and hosted by Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier: Budbill has been diagnosed with a form of Parkinson's disease called progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP. And his friends are rallying around him.
In fact, Budbill handpicked the lineup of readers — "about half poets, half actors, so they represent those two facets of David's work," explained poet Jody Gladding. A co-organizer of Monday night's event, she said it came together after a recent reading Budbill did from his latest book, After the Haiku of Yosa Buson, at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier.
"It was packed, and at the end David [and daughter Nadine Budbill, who also read] got a standing ovation," Gladding recalled. "It was clear that so many people feel such gratitude for David's work, and an event to honor it and him was called for."
In an interview last week at his home, Budbill was candid about his physical challenges. His matter-of-fact observations about his life echoed the Taoist nature of his writing — as if the man had become one with his poems. A typical answer to questions was some variation on "I don't know why; it just is."
Though he doesn't have the tremors that the name of his condition would suggest, Budbill can't get around without help — usually from Eby and a walker. A long ramp extends from the parking area to the couple's deck in their pleasant hillside neighborhood.
Budbill's vision has declined, so he finds it hard to read. He watches television, he said, and so far has listened to one audiobook. Though his handwriting has become small and cramped, he can type. Budbill's occasional entries on his Facebook page — generally poems from his oeuvre — always get "likes" and appreciative comments.
On May 31, he posted his poem "When I Get Depressed" to Facebook. In it, Budbill describes how, after he stares at the wall for a while, he lies down to read the ancient masters, "who move me / to even greater / depths of melancholy / and then / refreshed, and knowing / I am not alone, / I get up / and join the world / again."
In another, earlier poem, titled "On the Way to Buddhahood" and posted in April, Budbill's words seem to presage — with characteristic humor — what he's going through now. "Ever plainer. Ever simpler. / Ever more ordinary. / My goal is to become a simpleton. / And from what everybody tells me / I am making real good progress."
The following is an excerpt of Budbill's interview with Seven Days:
SEVEN DAYS: When did you start having symptoms?
DAVID BUDBILL: Two years ago. The first time I noticed something, I was planting potatoes. I fell over and couldn't get up. I had to get Lois to help me.
SD: Did you have vertigo?
DB: No vertigo. I just fell forward.
SD: How is your vision?
DB: Terrible. I can't read at all. I can watch TV. I have double vision, but that's not all ... I've slowed down like crazy.
SD: [As he lifts a cup of coffee to drink] You're not shaking.
DB: Why it's called palsy I don't know.
SD: Are you on any meds?
DB: Some — but the medications for traditional Parkinson's don't work for me.
SD: On your website is an interview you did in April with your old friend David French. In it you said you weren't writing anymore. Is that still true?
SD: But you have a book of poetry coming out [Tumbling Toward the End, due in February from Copper Canyon Press]. Is it a retrospective, or are they new poems?
DB: They're new. And I have a new novel coming out in October [Broken Wing, from Green Writers Press] ... After that I'm going to write about Parkinson's.
SD: In preparation for this interview, I was revisiting your bio — I'd forgotten you went to seminary [Union Theological Seminary in New York City; he graduated in 1967]. How did you leave the path of Christianity for Buddhism?
DB: I have no idea; it's just the way it happened. It wasn't unusual at my school ... Taoism is so important to me.
SD: How do you spend your days?
DB: I watch TV. I sleep. I check my email.
SD: Are you bored?
DB: No, I don't get bored — yet. It seems like I'm about to, but I don't, yet.
SD: You're very philosophical. You seem to have merged with your poetry.
DB: Have I? Yes, maybe I have.
SD: Do you listen to music?
DB: Some. I came across these videotapes of jazz icons. I listen to those a lot — Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane...
SD: How do you feel about the upcoming tribute to you?
DB: I'm flattered and pleased. We've got 10 people reading. Two hundred people are coming, and more are signing up every day. The people organizing it are friends, so it should be lovely.
SD: Have you heard other people read your work before?
DB: I haven't, so that will be interesting, to see what they do. I haven't said anything to anyone about how to read. I know who is reading what, but nothing more than that. We have an all-star cast... [daughter Nadine, Edgar Davis, Rusty DeWees, Gladding, Geof Hewitt, David Hinton, Morgan Irons, Sydney Lea, Ellen McCulloch-Lovell and Robert Nuner; introduction by Tom Slayton and music by Erik Nielsen].
SD: How much of your work is autobiographical?
DB: I write about my own life, but I don't know how much of that is autobiographical.
SD: You mean it's more universal?
DB: Yeah. I hope so — that's what connects me to everyone else. And that's what's so amazing about the ancient Chinese poets: They were always writing about themselves, but it was really about everybody.
SD: Or about nature.
DB: Or about nature, yes.
SD: This is a dumb question, but I'm going to ask it anyway: Do you have any favorite poems — of your own, that is?
DB: I don't, really. But I have some that are most popular, so they become favorites of mine. [Recites "Bugs in a Bowl"; forgets the last line.]
SD: You've received a lot of awards. Are there any you're particularly proud of?
DB: In the moment, they're great. But they're temporary, like all things are. [Pauses.] I've never been poet laureate of Vermont.
SD: Would you have liked that?
DB: My ego would. I don't know if I would.
SD: Do you find it hard to be Taoist about getting older?
DB: It's hard. One minute you're Taoist, and the next minute you're not.
SD: It's hard to be frail and vulnerable.
DB: Yes, it is.
SD: Where does your daughter live?
DB: Nadine lives in Marshfield, on the Plainfield line. We moved here, in part, to be closer to her and Riley. [Eby displays photos of their now-vibrant 2-year-old granddaughter, who was born three months premature and spent that time in neonatal intensive care.] I have this theory that her birth and early childhood were so difficult, that's why she's now so plucky ... She came home on the day she was supposed to be born.
SD: She's a survivor.
DB: She is. She really is.
SD: What does she call you?
DB: Ba-pa. It changes from time to time.