The Poet Philosopher, Michael White, on the Subject of Death, Religion and the Future of Poetry

I met poet and philosopher, Michael White, when I was conducting research for my critical thesis on the author, William Gay. I discovered the archive’s website and was put into contact with Michael. He’s the lead archivist and is a fount of information on all matters William Gay. I consider Michael to be a friend now. He’s been supportive of my writing and pulled me into the editorial process with William’s work which is a great honor, but aside from his connection to William I discovered that underneath this soft-spoken, mild-mannered, philosophizing, hippie poet type there’s a wild child whose waters run deep. This a man who has documented his exploration of ancient sites and festivals of indigenous peoples around the world and was friends with the Beat poets. He’s just really a cool cat. I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael and reading three poems he wrote and contributed on his behalf for this week’s Deathproof show on melodically challenged–a poetry themed radio show, produced by K.B. Kincer, on WRAS-Album 88.5, Georgia State University College’s Radio Station-Atlanta. Deathproof pays homage to death, funerals, animal slaughter, the dead and undead. It’s heavy, but hell, 2020 has been pretty heavy. AND, it’s Halloween so the music is super creepy. Michael’s poems are both contemplative and humorous and you’ll get to hear me put on the poet hat because I got to read them.

Tune in Sunday, October 25th at 7 PM EST. For local listeners turn your radio dial to WRAS88.5 FM. To Tune in Online visit link: WRAS-Album 88

Why are poets fascinated with death?

Ah yes, the unknown country, the final destination, the border land, our ultimate destiny for which there is no escape. I had the opportunity to get to know William Burroughs back in the 80s and if he was in a group of people and the conversation began to falter he would start talking about death, everyone is fascinated by it, that is, if you have the courage to face it. I thought very highly of Burroughs, he was the genius of geniuses in the Beat cadre and once I asked him, “Everyone recognizes the relationship between birth and death, all things that are born must die, but what about the other way, what is the relationship between death and birth?” He replied that death was just the mechanism for getting the old people out of the way, if we continued hanging around the place would fill up, we had to die so the rest of the people could carry on with life. 

You contributed three poems to the melodically challenged poetry radio show on the subject of death. Is death different for a Buddhist compared to other religions? Is is easier? Harder? 

All religions are con games, there was a time in human evolution when, like the animals, we didn’t know we were going to die, then as consciousness evolved and we gained greater cognitive abilities and were able to hold memories in store it dawned on humanity that all things that are born must die. That was the birth of death, as a reflex it was also the birth of religion as a scam to avoid death. They have been devising immortality schemes ever since, heaven and hell, life with the ancestors in the stars, rebirth and reincarnation, all bullshit. Each different religion has come up with a slightly different take on the old immortality scam, Buddhism came up with the Bardos and the six realms, all built around the idea of a karmic accounting system where good deeds get you a better rebirth and bad deeds do the opposite and there are 3 higher realms and 3 lower realms and you definitely want to stay out of the lower realms. This is opposed the Christian/Muslim idea of faith in God where true believers get to spend eternity in heaven and those who are non-believers are condemned to hell fire. How crazy can you get? And people actually believe this?

Did your poetry lead you to Buddhism or did Buddhism lead you to poetry?

In ancient times all literature was poetry, whatever you wanted to write was done in verse and could be sung. We live in a degenerative age, first we devolved to prose and now we are down to tweets. Buddhism has a great history of poetry and even now if the Buddhist want to write something important it is done in verse with a syllable count for each line and an internal rhyme structure. For me, it was just destiny, writing, prose or poetry is a calling, it has to be your destiny, it calls you, you don’t call it. The relationship between Buddhism and poetry for me, is that Buddhist meditation is a technique for moving the center of gravity of awareness out of your individuality into a deeper more common stratum of our humanity, to hit into our basic human nature, and poetry, all art, is the expression of this common ground in humanity, if what you are saying is not speaking to humanity as a whole it is just journalism, just a passing fancy.

What is the future for the modern poet?

It’s bleak, to say the least! Try to make a living as a poet, impossible. You have to teach or have a day job of some sort. But it will continue as a counter-culture, as an underground movement, and will be sustained by people like Emily Dickinson, sitting at her desk, cutting language to the bone, getting to the essence, and expressing it with no expectation of readership or fame or reward, it is its own reward and poets are the legislators of reality, the arbiters of taste and the expression of what is most noble in our human nature.

MORE ABOUT MICHAEL WHITE:

 J.M. White did graduate study in Phenomenology at Duquesne University and holds an M.A. in philosophy from Vanderbilt.  His short stories, poems, interviews, essays and book reviews have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Sewanee Review, Janus Head, Parabola and The Mirror as well as in magazines and journals in Canada, England, Italy, Japan, New Zealand and India.  

He founded Anomolaic Press and publishes his own work along with the novels and short stories of William Gay.

Publications:

Future Nothingness Already, 2005 – A novel set in the hills of rural Tennessee.

The Beyond Within, 2008 – A wide ranging collection of poetry.

The Latch, 2012 – A poetry collection written in the non-linear style of “ring composition” where the conclusion comes in the middle  and the ending latches back to the beginning, it includes three chapters of prose providing background on the technique of writing in circles.

Naropa Journals: William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Revolution, 2015 – A memoir of my years studying with Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso and the whole Beat contingent.

The Birth of Death: A Guidebook to Paleolithic Art in the Caves of France, 2016 – A guidebook to the caves and an exploration of why the artwork in the caves was created.

Ports of Entry: Tibet, Peru, Mexico: Journals 1999-2011, 2017 – Journal accounts of a literary pilgrimage to visit the monasteries of Tibet and the ancient sites in Peru and Mexico.

Pulling Down the Sun: The Pueblos, the Great Houses and the Cliff Dwelling, 2018 – Includes accounts from the festivals at Zuni, Hopi and Taos and visits to the ruins at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon offering a glimpse into the indigenous past still alive in the deserts of Southwestern United States. 

Confidential Advice for the Unconventional, 2017 – A bi-lingual collection of poetry with English/Romanian translations published in Romania.

Shoot Out at the Poetry Factory, J. M. White and John Tischer, 2018 – A bi-lingual poetry collaboration published in English/Romania with poems by Tischer and White, matched thematically, on facing pages.

Works by William Gay:

Wittgenstein’s Lolita and The Iceman: Short Stories by William Gay, 2006

Time Done Been Won’t Be No More: Collected Prose, 2010

Stoneburner: A Novel, 2018

Works compiled and edited by J. M. White

The Buddhist Path by Khenpo Palden Sherab Rinpoche, Snow Lion Press, 2006

Safe in Heaven Dead: Interviews with Jack Kerouac, Hanuman Press, 1994

TO CONTACT:

J. M. (Michael) White

91 Vantrease Road Brush Creek, TN 38547 USA

Cellphone (615) 684-2711

Email michaelwhite@dtccom.net

Live the story you want to write!

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