The content of this simulated interview was born from an article and interview I read in a journal called The Harvard Advocate(Fall 2004). The person interviewed was writer Maurice Manning, a native of Kentucky who was awarded the 2001 Yale Younger Poet’s prize, arguably the highest honour an American can receive for a first book of poetry, for his first collection, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions. In 2004 Manning taught writing and literature at the University of Indiana.
The piece in The Harvard Advocate began with a quotation from Daniel Boone and a short analysis of some of Boone’s life. I will begin my own interview here with this same quotation from Daniel Boone and some of the story of Boone’s life. –Ron Price with thanks to The Harvard Advocate, Fall 2004.
Curiosity is natural to the soul of man and interesting objects have a powerful influence on our affections. Their influencing power actuates, by the permission or disposal of Providence, from selfish or social views; yet in time the mysterious will of Heaven is unfolded and we behold our conduct, from whatsoever motives excited, operating to answer the important designs of Heaven. --Daniel Boone, The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone, Formerly a Hunter,” 1793(1784).
In 1769 Daniel Boone, thirty-five years old and already well-worn by two decades of frontier living, embarked on the journey that was to secure his place in American myth. To any sober-minded contemporary, his departure for the Mississippi River could hardly have seemed the most important of current events. In the same month, May 1769, the Virginia House of Burgesses would sign its “Resolves,” challenging the right of British Parliament to meddle in her colony’s affairs. The states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia followed suit. Some distance east, Maria Bonaparte of Corsica was seven months pregnant with a certain future general; west, a group of Spanish missionaries had pressed through to the Pacific and, though besieged by locals, the group nonetheless set up the first Christian settlements on the Pacific.
It is unlikely that Boone was aware of these things in any explicit sense. He could not possibly have known how deeply the disquietude of the Virginia local assemblies would resound, the revolutionary rupture they would initiate. Still less could he have anticipated the influence the Corsican infant would have on European history, or the discord that democratic sensibilities like his own would inspire in France, before that infant should rise to claim it. Yet, at the heart of these axes or, if you would prefer, as one link of this extraordinary constellation, he pressed on through thick woods toward the Mississippi River.
Though it might seem strange to speak in sidereal terms of a man who these days is commemorated chiefly with plastic rifles and novelty mugs, his journey had profound implications. It was, for one, an act of political defiance: Boone set off in violation of England’s 1763 Proclamation, prohibiting settlement beyond the Appalachians, at the fore of the westward migrations that would have such profound effects on the development of his country. Further still, whether deliberately or not, Boone was a pioneer of pioneering—arguably the paradigmatic American mode of self-invention. With all the wonderment and pleasure of an actual return to nature, Boone would persist against hardship, a model of the self-sufficiency so praised by the philosophes of the European Enlightenment. If Thomas Jefferson pronounced the moral sense more powerful in a ploughman than a professor, because the former was less likely to have been “led astray by artificial rules,” Boone was the man plunging determinedly ahead into the unmapped wilderness without precept or precedent. It is precisely his seeming inconsequence—or, at least, his marginality—on the scene of truly cataclysmic developments, that makes him exemplary of a particularly American heroism: individual, grassroots, democratic, or practical—call it what one will. Especially today, in a political climate begging for self-reflection and introspection about our origins, about the character and duty of our country to its own professed ideals and to a global community its founders could not have imagined—Boone appears as the prototype of the reflective adventurer, of a national character to which we often allude.
I: What is the relevance of this Daniel Boone story to your own story as a Baha’i pioneer?
P: There are several points of comparison and contrast, but two stand out. One is the climate of self-reflection and introspection about origins, character, duty, ideals and global community. My entire poetic opus is a tribute to these aspects of the Boone story. The second point I want to emphasize is the “truly cataclysmic developments” in both Boone’s world and mine. There is certainly a “seeming inconsequence” and a “marginality” to my life and that of the Baha’i community from the point of view of the wider society I have been a part of for half a century. Like Boone I, too, plunge determinedly into the unmapped wilderness.” There is some precedent and precept in the writings of my Faith; I enjoy guides that Boone did not possess. He was a type of pioneer who had to invent and reinvent himself. I find him an inspiration in a way. He published his autobiography in 1784, 200 years before I started mine in 1984.
Interviewer(I): Ron, I’ve read in other interviews and articles that you grew up in southern Ontario Canada in a psychological landscape that was not unlike what people experience growing up elsewhere. It was an ordinary, a common, sort of place, not especially unique. Is that the case?
Price(P): As a child I had no sense, no awareness, that there was something unique about growing up beside Lake Ontario. It seemed about as ordinary then as it seems now looking back. It was free of violence and trauma, as far as I knew; it was a simple enough spot. Now, of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know there was more below the surface than what I saw. The most accurate way I can characterize the negative aspects of my early life my is to say it was a kind of polarized social, familial and cultural experience. Two opposing extremes always seemed to be visible and palpable. By that I mean that I grew up in a situation where I felt exposed to poverty, at least a little poverty and much privilege, great intelligence and sensitivity on the one hand and great ignorance and prejudice on the other. The extremes were not painful, probably because there were many people in the middle and that was where I was. I could say more about these polarities, but I think that is sufficient--and I don’t want to get into a social scientific analysis of the late 1940s to the early 1960s, my childhood and adolescent years.
I: Could you describe the impact of your childhood on your work, more specifically, your writing?
P: What’s most powerful is that these kinds of polarities that I mentioned existed side by side, in very close proximity to each other. I think in any small town and in many rural communities this is especially true. The rich and the poor, the sophisticated and the uncultivated, the educated and uneducated, people see each other and have to interact with each other everyday in some way. And in my experience those were the extremes which ran the gamut from issues related to economics, religion and education. Many of us have a bittersweet relationship with home, with the whole process of growing up. It often becomes that way as we look back. I think part of that experience is that you’re aware of the things you love about your home on the one hand, but you are reluctant to admit sometimes that there are terrible things associated with the place you love on the other. It puts you in a grey area much of the time. I think I grew up in that grey area much of the time; I accepted its reality and for the most part was not disturbed by it.
Polarities continue into early, middle and late adulthood as well as old age, some of these polarities are the same and some different. There are many effects on my work and writing that come from this early experience. One becomes accustomed to the gradations of emotional experience, to the bittersweet realities of life, so that they are not as much of a shock when they hit you in early adulthood, say, 20 to 40. This is not to say, of course, that you don’t feel hurt. This is quite a complex question to deal with here. When grey changes to bright colours they seem even brighter.
I: Did you grow up writing or reading a lot of anything in particular?
P: There’s no way I could be considered a child prodigy or anything like that, but I grew up being aware of language and surrounded by books. This was largely my mother’s influence and her father’s influence to a lesser extent. My father and grandfather exercised their influences in different ways with respect to language. I was exposed to the play with words, although I was not particularly fascinated by words as some writers are. My mother played with the sound of words and I could not help being exposed to this playfulness, to the way it felt to say certain words. I kind of had a physical understanding of language and that’s one of the strange benefits of coming from the home I did at the time in history that I did, after WW11. But that is a separate story.
Within the larger Canadian context it was largely an oral culture and certainly various branches of my family had that focus on oral literature. So I grew up hearing stories and being read stories. But the stories I heard were all the more interesting because they involved family members and ancestors, familiar things as well as the more strange and exotic. And I think I felt part of those stories. They insinuated themselves into my psyche. Language, I think, is just naturally musical and naturally figurative. Even the most humble uneducated people will use language in amazingly expressive ways. My father was an example of this. He had a powerful way with words. Metaphor and simile find their way into everyday talk and they find their way unconsciously. Because so much of my life was an oral culture, especially with TV and radio, with record players, in both the family and at school, I found means to compensate for my own quietness in this world of oral reality.
Everyday speech is expressive and is capable of communicating lots of things at once, in a way that literature is. And so I feel that in my family and through jobs I had growing up, through meeting all kinds of local characters and just being sort of afloat in all of this kind of stuff, I absorbed a lot of it, unknowingly. I think this was one reason that the quiet child and adolescent that I was became a talker, a verbal person unobtrusively, insensibly.
I: How do you think of your poetic projects as related to this oral tradition in which you grew up? To put this question a little differently, how would you characterize the relation between the kinds of diction, imagery and syntax that show up in your work, and the aspects of spoken language you noticed as a child?
P: I think I’m always aware of everyday language as being a starting point, a grounding point, in my writing. It’s a major thread in the language that’s in my head all the time. I certainly want my work to honour, to be based in, that kind of language. But I don’t want this quotidian speech of everyman to limit my work. And so I like to think that I’m taking the energy, the potential, of that language and extending it, spreading it widely in a richer, a more sophisticated, context.
I: So, back to the question of influence. What other voices are in your head all the time?
P: That’s a challenging question for me to answer. The first category of voices are those from my early life. Growing up beside Lake Ontario in the particular home that I did provided me with a literature available in this language of everyman mainly through the newspaper and some books, but I don’t recall ever being strongly attracted to these forms of print. My mother had educated and somewhat populist reading tastes in literature, poetry, philosophy and religion. I think that my current reading interests derive from certain thematic or stylistic similarities to my local language and in the more serious idioms of my mother’s reading. Some of the poets whose work I go back to now are the folks my mother read, although not entirely. When I was growing up music and poetry were in the background even though I paid it little heed. So, these sounds and these words, I’d place in category one. There are two or three other categories of voices, though, I could discuss here but enough is enough.
I: Just to go back to that Daniel Boone narrative for a question or two: a great deal was happening around Boone in the last decades of the 18th century, in other parts of the USA and throughout the world about which he had absolutely no awareness. What parallel do you see for you and your life in the 20th and 21st centuries?
P: There is no question that at all times a great deal goes on which the writer, indeed, anyone can’t possibly be aware of. This is the parallel with Daniel Boone. But in our world, we get a daily diet of images and information which we may not understand and simply can’t digest, but at least we have a general idea of what’s happening. The comparisons and contrasts are many and I could say much more, but this will suffice.
I: You see yourself as a pioneer; your autobiography is called Pioneering Over Four Epochs. Could you say one or two more things about the example of Daniel Boone as pioneer?
P: I remember watching Daniel Boone on TV occasionally in the 1960s. I did not have a TV then, but from time to time I’d watch Fess Parker at someone’s house. I did not know at the time that the real Boone did not wear a coonskin hat. I had little idea of the historical context of the eighteenth century Daniel Boone. Even now, I find the comparison and contrast surprises me. Without going into a detailed analysis here, I think that only the future will place the reality of my experience as a pioneer in a true light. My generation and myself as a pioneer—we are all too close to the experience to really understand its significance.
In the 1770s Daniel Boone was trailblazing, fighting Indians and hunting. In the 1780s he was a member of the state legislature of West Virginia. He did a lot of roaring and fighting. There is no question that my work as a Baha’i has been as a trailblazer. The analogy is only partial, but it’s fun to play with the idea, with the language.
I: Tell us about your reading, your academic, background.
P: My university years, 1963-1967, wetted my appetite but, as I look back, I never really got a bite of the reading habit even there. I had to fight the first episodes of my bi-polar disorder or mild schizo-affective state as a psychiatrist called it then. Libidinal urges also unhinged me somewhat, depression and the Baha’i Faith stirred my emotions in different directions. By my fourth year at university I had acquired serious plans to live among the Inuit and this made settling into print difficult. I barely got through by academic studies, a couple of Bs and two Cs in the four years.
I: So when did reading really kick in?
P: Like many things in life the story has many permutations and combinations, many nuances, much that is sensible and much that is insensible in delineating the story. Coming to Australia in the early 1970s at the age of 27, teaching high school and then in 3 universities, two colleges of advanced education and five Tafe colleges until I retired in 1999-this was a seminal factor, a critical influence. By the 1980s I was reading, skimming and scanning 5 to 20 books a week. When I retired at the age of 55, about all I wanted to do was read and write and did so for 8 hours a day on average. My reading tastes until the late 1980s were largely in the social sciences. In the 1990s and into the new millennium I became interested in the humanities, not fiction, but poetry, writing and the study of literature. I could put a microscope to this brief statement and say much more but this sketch will suffice.
I: And how did the Baha’i reading become part of this picture?
P: As I see it now, looking back to my first exposure in this new world religion in 1953, there were several developmental stages: 1953 to 1962, what I now call my pre-pioneering days when my first participation in the Baha’i community took place, when prayer and a slowly developing reading interest were acquired; 1962 to 1971, homefront pioneering which consolidated much of my knowledge and interest; 1971 to 1999, overseas pioneering, professional teaching, teaching the Baha’i Faith, working within and without the Baha’i community; and stage four 1999 to the present which I have devoted to serious writing and reading.
I: You once told me that you had a colleague in Ballarat at the CAE, now a university, who said he had withdrawn from the Baha’i Faith because it was “too poetic.” Is that true?
P: Yes! I never got to know the man personally. He said this to me over the phone when I was inviting him to some Baha’i activity back about 1978. No one else ever said this to me. But I have no doubt that this religion I have been associated with for more than half a century is poetic. I have developed an interest in poetry, I’m sure, partly because of this fact. The great historian Jacob Burkhardt once said, in his study of the Renaissance in Italy, that “the state can be a work of art.” Man’s creativity can come out in his institutions, in the community he creates and in his own role in the process. Of course, for others, the Baha’i Faith has a language with too many ‘Thees” and Thous;” for still others it is too theistic, its language is too wordy; they can’t connect with it. I have heard so many reasons for this season of discontent that has made teaching this Faith difficult—a very slow process.
I: Let’s return to poetry again. Have you been able to get the concentration you wanted on writing poetry since you retired from teaching?
P: Oh yes, first full-time teaching came to an end in 1999 and then part-time and volunteer teaching by 2005—and the various volunteer activities which I brought to a halt by April 2005. This has enabled me to concentrate on both writing and reading as never before. I should add ‘publishing,’ as an activity on the internet, posting literally millions of words, has kept me busy, although I stopped counting the words. I work about 8 hours a day on print out of the 16 that I am awake and out of bed. I think I did my first significant teaching in the 1960s, teaching in classrooms and teaching the Baha’i Faith; organizing deepenings and people in groups in all sorts of ways--and I finally pulled the plug on all this teaching in groups in 2005. Forty years dried me out, although there were other factors like my bipolar disorder and living in 37 houses and 22 towns that also contributed to this drying out process. I now do most of my teaching on the internet and I’ve got more than 6000 poems in my poetry booklets.
Writing poetry is very much a personal activity, but it also has a teaching and community focus and publishing poetry on the internet, among other forms of writing, is now at the core of my life. I get much more teaching value from this process on the internet than I have had working with individuals and groups in the community and so this is where I put my time, my focus.
I: The famous American poet John Ashbery was asked in an interview in 1977 if he found it easy to relate to people and he said: “Yes I do. I am a very gregarious person.” He said other things, too, in answering this question. What would you say?
P: In the several stages of my life from pre-school to late adulthood I have found relating to others alternatively difficult and then quite easy. There have been periods of aloneness, of course, due to illness, depression, fatigue, not knowing anyone, etc and periods of intense sociability. The main affect of this ease of relationship--and the difficulties--has been an exhaustion with people, a burn-out so that now in my early sixties I prefer my own company to the company of others.---March 7th 2006(edited 15/8/07)