WHAT IS YOUR WORK ABOUT?
An on-going nostos—a homecoming—to the heart, I suppose. There’s an old image in folktales of people that bury their heart under a tree so they can acquire more power without the distraction of conscience. I don’t wish that for myself alone, or as a father, or for the wider culture at this point.
There is an inheritance, which the West has largely turned its back on, that I am very interested in. We glimpse it sometimes in fairy tales. Ironically, when it goes to sleep, I think the stories the West tells itself are little more than nightmares. Despite the evidence, I think the West’s self esteem is far lower than we think. So I look for stories that have the song-lines, the ghosted hint, of a time before we broke faith with the earth.
I teach myth. And more than that; I realise it is romanticism that I am most involved with. A myth well expressed is psychoactive, a waking dream, and contains as much night intelligence as it does day. A great deal of its potency is chthonic; the great stories shouldn’t be too slick round the edges, too allegorical—but trembling bells of association. They are fauves, wild beasts, even when they prowl through courts and castles. They can show us how to behave—but simple, they are not.
WHAT GOT YOU STARTED?
Wonder. That got me started. Living in a house without a car, phone, or television got me started. Parents that regarded language as a form of wealth got me started. Then, like most of us, as a teenager the milky amnesia of the world got its teeth into me and I started to forget all the things I most cherished. I lost what Joyce calls “aesthetic arrest”. In some grim way, my imagination got colonised. Then, through some typical disasters in my early twenties, so much was taken away from me that for my very survival I had to reconnect in a more constant manner to the things that truly nourished me. I had to go home. What Hillman calls “the return to Greece.” I’ve done a lot of translations of Lorca recently, so his poetry is present as we talk. He tells the story of an old woman who encounters Santiago—St. James—and receives a star from him. When kids ask her if the star has left her, gone away, she says:
No, my sons, the star still shines bright,
For I carry it nailed to my soul.
That’s how I feel. On good days and bad days. There’s nourishment in those lines, and a toughness, and a glimpse of how love can be carried well. That nail: sometimes people try to crucify you, not realising they are accidentally nailing the star of all you love directly into your soul. The opposite of what they want to have happen. The beauty that just won’t shift. You become magnificent because of your soul-star. Loyalty to your soul-star is the beginning of your nostos, your great voyage home.
So, as a young man broken open, I ended up in the wilds of Snowdonia, alone and without food for four days and nights. I had an encounter that was absolutely unlike anything I thought was possible. It’s fair to say that I entered the mystic, and for the next half decade turned my attention almost entirely in that direction. It was an entirely raw, unfiltered waking up.
I went on to spend four years living in a black tent on a succession of English hills, and slowly trying to find a way of communicating a little of what was unfolding. Myth became the great vehicle for that. I made many mistakes along the way, and was lonesome, but I received a gift.
I also read a tremendous amount: Kerouac, Taussig, Kerenyi, Deleuze and Guattari, Shakespeare, Bachelard, Neruda, Hughes, Colarusso, Bly, Woolf, Bringhurst, Yeats. I read and read and read. It’s a tremendous pleasure. The Baal Shem Tov, Hafez, The Inklings, these are holy names to me.
More recently came the work of Daniel Deardorff, David Abram, Ivan Illich. A colleague has introduced me to the writings of Roberto Calasso, whom I’ve really come to admire. So playful and erudite. And of course I absorb folklore and poetics constantly. I owe Daniel a particular debt for unfailing support and inspiration over the years.
DID YOU WRITE THEN?
No. Not really. But I knew the old Bardic model was to build real intellectual knowledge around prime experience, and I knew writing could be a useful discipline in that regard. Whilst beginning to teach and still spending plenty of time up on the wilds of Dartmoor, I began a PhD at the University of Plymouth. This was valuable because I had to continually bang up against philosophers I was not immediately drawn to: Derrida and Barthes for example. There was blood on the walls on more than one occasion.
But it began a ten year period of working on a trilogy of books: A Branch From The Lightning Tree, Snowy Tower, and now Scatterlings. These all relate to the mythology of a landscape, and the landscape of a mythology. They are the work of a pagan romantic, with all sorts of problems in them that I happily stand by. I wanted to keep the language lively, with watering holes to linger in and jungle birds swooping about. I wanted an art form that could swim down under dark water and be an ivory comb to untangle Sedna’s locks. Of course I often fail, but that is the attempt.
A PAGAN ROMANTIC?
Surely. My dad told me that was what I was when I was five, and he was right. I felt like I could walk in and out of other centuries. Romanticism is the primary experience of my life. That’s not implying I hang about in opium dens with Shelley. I’m not a libertine. I’m good with the school run and the dishes. It’s a way of seeing—of beholding, really—and placing the art of not just enjoying but also making beauty as a high priority in life.
Romanticism is not whimsy to me, it’s robust, nothing to do with indulgence, but rather: waking up. There is also something that the word is communicating to us right now. I think it could describe a deep naturalness. I don’t perceive the word as entirely enmeshed in nostalgia. I encourage you to get claimed by it.
You are beautiful, and only here for a short time. God has blessed you, so rise up. Find out what you love. Speak it. Be it. Steward it. Nothing else will quite fill your soul, or make such deep purchase in your heart. It will make you kind. It’s not the only way, but it has claimed me, and I will put my shoulder to its service while I’m here.
DOES THIS NOT MAKE ONE UTTERLY OUT OF STEP WITH THE TIMES?
Well, yeah, yeah, there is that. But only the most degraded aspect. There is plenty of wonderful stuff happening too. But it brings you back into the realm of the senses, the sensual, with a fierce network of connective tissue to the heart and psyche—the star and the soul as we heard Lorca say. Reverie should activate the conscience of the beholder, not make them passive. Romanticism is activism.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
Well, my school is flourishing, and I find myself thinking about how we can continue to deepen. I’d like to find a way to bring deep story into the lives of children—although many alternative systems introduce fairy tales at a young age, they often filter them out in favour of history, science, etc. as they go. I would simply suggest there is another way: to keep the stories alongside our youth, but grow more sophisticated in their communication through time. And that means a certain kind of intelligence is alive in the teacher. I could help there. As all parents know, the way you tell a story to a five year old is different than the way you tell it to an adolescent, but make no mistake, the teenager desperately needs to hear that story, as does an old woman. It’s a cloak around the shifting kingdom of their roaming soul. I’d like to contribute in some way to that development.
Thinking about the walk of a life leads me into the terrain of love—and the powerful stuff, the Provençal material. I’m interested in amor, not just eros—the one, not the harem—as something that is very peculiar and mighty to the human experience. So powerful that many become afraid of it, of its consequence. We psychologize it in an attempt to contain it. But it’s there to make us bigger, not smaller. It’s where we get our stories.
I don’t think amor is the problem. The problem is that often we don’t have the dance steps in place to welcome its arrival. We don’t have the substantial pathos developed to cope with its intensities. There’s no landing strip and so we go a little crazy. I admit it’s unwieldy. It’s meant to be. It tends to burn away falsehoods. We get hurt or overwhelmed or betrayed and possibly grow closed. We also get a few dry runs that can hurt like hell. But I believe a body tempered by beauty and joyous work can welcome that Olympian disorder quite wonderfully into their life. I believe that amor can move out of an adolescent, or tragic, mode, and into something really tremendous—vast, in fact. I do.
It’s also risky because it means being witnessed. I think that amor in its most intensely delicious form is absolutely about you and another. It’s not just about you and the transcendental, white light of the divine. I counsel against transcending most things. There’s a real, trembling, curious human being in front of you. Don’t skip them and go straight to the mantra! Otherwise, why were we born at all? Forget all that. I wonder if we have all got a little too self-sufficient. Think of the voltage, the nutritional value in the Song of Songs:
Come away, my lover,
and be like a gazelle
or like a young stag
on the spice-laden mountains
I know a man of ninety years who calls that out his backdoor every night, and I swear the stars shift closer to him.
In Russian tales they say that the firebird sweeps low through the forest listening for the ancient courting speech men and women used to give her. And her heart is lonely for its absence. I know that loneliness. I think we have fiery feathers in our blood, and an old-time courting that we long for. Done elegantly, it can last. So I’m braiding those feathers into my life and work because it seems to be a way to become a true human being. Again, it is good for our children to see us be alive to and able to sustain love, including romance. Not a half-life. Rilke says; “Where I am folded, there I am a lie”. Cosmos comes close when firebird language is spoken. And it’s not just the domain of Persia or Spain – the Celtic world is humming with speech too, like in this Hebridean story when a farm lad courts a princess:
Swan on the pool
a roving deer under God’s stars.
Voice that makes the bee-hives golden
dew lick the dark grass,
fire-spark at the anvil.
Grass does bend under such a foot.
She has budded slowly under the fur
of snowy winter, read by the yellow candle,
gathered sticks on the pagan hills.
Swum through a hundred acres of
I like that very much. Something wonderful flowers from the mead-hall of the jaw.
For me, I think life is calling towards listening to a specific stretch of land, collaborations with a few, loving, writing, making kids giggle, a little travel, getting out into the wild darkness and having a good story to tell by the hearth fire on the return. I think that’s what they call heaven.
I’ll leave you again with Lorca, and the way the nightingale courts the dawn. This is for anyone who is walking through the kingdom of suffering.
The serpent of my heart
has shed its skin.
I peer at it between my fingers,
It’s crammed with hurt and honey.
Where is all that thinking
that hid in your folds?
It’s just cheap wrapping
that has oppressed
a brilliant inner-star.
Maybe I should place you
on the high tips of the pine tree,
so you can know of the songs
gives to the dawn.