Creativity Interview with Peter Levitt, poet and Buddhist teacher

PeterKaspa writes: I’m delighted to introduce Peter Levitt to readers of Writing Our Way Home.

Peter is a brilliant poet and Buddhist teacher. His nine poetry books include Within Within, One Hundred Butterflies and Bright Root, Dark Root, and in 1989 he received the prestigious Lannan Foundation Award in Poetry.

He is the founder and guiding teacher of the Salt Spring Zen Circle on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia where he resides with his family

This interview is part of our much missed (by me) series of Creativity Interviews. Look out for another one this time next week. There are some really great answers from Peter here, and of course he picked up on the false dichotomy between creative life and the rest of life in one of our questions… on with the interview:

What drives your creative work?

A very dear friend of mine, now gone, was US poet Robert Creeley. At some point he wrote this lovely phrase ie “I’m given to writing poems.” It’s the same for me. Either I was born without the ambition gene, or very much of it, or my nature comes with a more primary disposition to spend a lot of time just wandering around, taking place with the world in a sort of mutual and intimate engagement. It’s this ‘taking place’ that brings the work forward, and it’s always been that way. Hopefully, since no engagement is planned, nor could be with all the particulars intact, something of the spontaneous nature of the experience makes its way into the poems.

How does your Buddhist practice affect your writing and the rest of your life? (If you were a writer before you were a Buddhist, did you notice your writing change?)

Zen practice helps to keep me more available, receptive, alive in the engagement I just mentioned, and the same is true during what might be called ‘the act of composition’ when I’m actually writing a poem or piece of prose. I did write before my practice began in the late sixties, and the disposition toward the world I began with was nourished by Zen practice, with the ability to be even more intimate with what was right before me a noticeable side benefit of practice. Practice also tends to soften and inform the heart, so to speak, so clearly this has had a great effect in every aspect of my life.

withinHave you ever found a conflict between your Buddhist practice and your creativity?

Quite the reverse. It’s a marriage of the most profound kind.

What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time and meet yourself at the beginning of your creative career?

Continue to know nothing. Keep the edge. Don’t lose this beginner’s mind.

How do you keep creating when things get difficult?

As I see it, there’s no conflict between life’s difficulty and the ability to create. In some way, the worse it is, up to a point, the better, because of what it takes from a person in order for them to get through life’s rigour. I don’t subscribe to the idea that great art needs suffering in order to be wrung from the artist, so I don’t suggest that if people find themselves just too happy they go on a suffering hunt, but given that we’re talking about writing and Buddhist practice in the same conversation, I’m reminded of what Suzuki Roshi said: A big block of ice makes a lot of water.  And then, of course, there’s the convenient imagery and fact that the lotus itself cannot grow unless its roots are planted in mud. Practice can be found right here, too. When things get tough, if we just take care of what is right in front of us, we find the creative means jump forward.

How does your creative work affect the rest of your life?

For better or worse, as I experience it, there is no ‘creative work’ vs. ‘the rest of [my] life.’  This sort of division is not really a accurate statement of my situation or, if I may be allowed to say so, anyone else’s. We’re just not divided up in this way, though if we think we are, we create an almost unbridgeable gap where none exists.

Once we realize that we are whole, and always have been from the beginning, we can start to find ways for this wholeness to function and be expressed, which tends to heal the unnecessary cutting up of this one life into what seem to be irreconcilable parts. I’m sure you’ve seen it yourself ie we don’t have one heart and mind, being and life, when we write, and another when we do something else. If we think we do, we might do well to look again, or more deeply, at what we are. We are an enormous resource of energy and creativity, and it is just waiting to be used in every way it can. So, finding how self flows through self to self in all its various expressions becomes an important part of living as a whole person, no matter the nature of the activity. Practice helps with this. Writing helps with this. Making love and even making breakfast help with this as well.

What was the best advice anyone gave to you?

Well, and I mean this: the Buddhist eightfold path is a good start. It certainly points the way for a wonderful, useful life that helps the wholeness of life I just spoke of to emerge. It also helps to nourish this wholeness in life wherever we meet it. Often, people think of precepts or discipline or vows in a somewhat negative light, but really these are just ways to love the world as it deserves.

What is your favourite part of your Buddhist Practice? 

Zazen. And, during our more formal retreats, the Zen form of eating called oyroki, which is often translated as ‘just the right amount.’ That phrase, and the practice to which it refers, really says it beautifully for writing and for practice. I like to think of it as Buddha in a bowl.

Thanks Peter – deep bow to you _/\_ You can find more of Peter at www.peterlevitt.com

Comments & replies

6 thoughts on “Creativity Interview with Peter Levitt, poet and Buddhist teacher

  1. Ellecee

    I really enjoyed this interview. I am a follower of Buddhist teachings and yet I sometimes forget these simple truths about life and creativity. It is so good to be reminded again,,,thanks so much for posting this interview,,,

  2. Rosanna

    I bought Peter Levitt’s book, “Fingerpainting on the Moon.” It’s been a slow-read, and half-way through the book, I stopped all together and went back to read through from the beginning. It is such a wonderful book, packed with so much wisdom. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to delve deep within and bring out the creative muse.

  3. Anna Meryt

    Twitter @ameryt
    Thanks for your comments Peter. They were not glib answers but thoughtful.
    I started off as a Zen buddhist then moved to Triratna. I agree with you about the Eightfold Path. My teacher wrote a beautiful book that elucidates it so well called The Inconceivable Emancipation. If you haven’t read it I recommend it. The chapter on Perfect Speech I return to often. I often read passages from it to people, both practitioners and beginners. I’m also a poet and a performer (you can Google me if you want to read some of my poetry).

    Love and metta
    Anna Meryt

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