Courageous Conversations: An Interview with David Whyte
Author David Whyte on words, spirituality, and his idea of a "conversation."
The voice of David Whyte changed my life in 1994. Since then I have met hundreds who had similar epiphanies upon hearing his message. His work spans literary, psychological, theological and vocational worlds. Some encounter him at a lecture or workshop or corporate event. Many meet him through his voice on CDs such as What to Remember When Waking or Midlife and the Great Unknown. Others find him on the page: his book The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America topped the business bestseller list. A few lucky ones get to walk with him in the mountains of Connemara and the wild coastline of Galway Bay, in Ireland.
KIM: When did you first experience the kind of revelations that come through your work?
DAVID: Looking back I think that my mind has always worked that way. I felt it in my infancy and first started articulating it in my early teens, but I actually thought that everyone thought like this. So it was quite a surprise when people would be taken aback by the insights in my thoughts or my poetry. Poetry for me has been a long pilgrimage, a journey and a growing relationship with the unknown.
KIM: Is this true about both writing and speaking poetry?
DAVID: Yes. In reading to audiences, it’s an elaboration of the original art form, almost a secondary emanation of the original writing. Forcing your self, in effect, to overhear yourself say things in a room full of people. That’s one of the central art forms of poetry on the lonely page also: overhearing yourself say things, in the silence, you didn’t know you knew.
KIM: Is that experience expanded when you speak it out loud?
DAVID: Yes. You’re not just delivering a talk. That’s the most tedious thing in the world. The art form has to do with the mystery and the hidden invitation that’s in the room. And that’s when the magic happens, that’s when the deep silence emerges to the surprise of all the attentively listening ears. In a way, you’re following that silence. You go where the silence is deepest. You could say that it’s an external representation of an internal symmetry. You’re also trying to do that when you sit at your desk, outwardly alone, inwardly joining something quite extraordinary.
KIM: Do you prepare what you’re going to say?
DAVID: It depends on the invitation. If it’s a general talk on a theme that I’ve been working with for a while, I will just think of the first image or the first poem. But sometimes I’m halfway across the stage and I’ve already changed the poem. I seem to have an in-built timer that works the whole theme and the revelations for the hour, or the three hours, or whatever it is. It’s like the internally sprung cycle in how a season matures, in the cellular architecture of a tree or a blossom. It’s a cyclical visitation, a tide coming in and then going out again.
So the preparation is never line by line, never a set talk. Because, in a more open approach, if people sense that you are risking yourself, they will also risk themselves in their listening. If they sense you don’t know exactly what’s about to happen, they will allow themselves not to know exactly what’s about to happen.
KIM: In recent years, your work has really taken off around the world. Do you find that you get enough time to attend to your own writing?
DAVID: If I don’t have time for the writing, it’s because I’m not making that time. It’s really just a question of whether you want to or not, whether you feel you deserve to write or not. I had a revelation in Paris that changed my whole relationship to when and where I write. I had booked myself a reservation at a hard-to-get-into restaurant and I planned to go back to my hotel and get a book to read at the table as I would be eating alone. I didn’t have time to get that book, so I decided to take my own advice, as they say in Ireland, and just have a good old conversation with myself. The first step in a conversation is always giving up the conversation you’ve been having. So I sat down and said, “Okay, what’s the conversation you need to let go of?” Quite often this is a conversation that might have been really good for you at one time, but isn’t anymore. What came up for me was my old idea that I always needed a quiet, silent place in order to write. So now I said, “What if that wasn’t true anymore? What if I didn’t need it? What if I could write wherever I was?” I asked the waiter for some notepaper and started writing right there and then at the table. From then on I was able to write anywhere, and I do write everywhere now, on boats, planes, trains, mountain-sides. Pilgrim (Whyte’s most recent book of poems) was written almost completely on the road, which is really appropriate for its theme. That book was an explosion of poetry over a year. It was really an Annus Mirabilis.
KIM: Do your teachings and poems arrive out of your own experience, moment by moment?
DAVID: They do. You can’t write with any immediacy if it’s not real for you and if it’s not a discovered and surprising physical reality. I like to work with the great questions, rather than being an all-knowing guru around them. I have worked very hard not to cultivate any kind of guru personality. I hope I have been successful in that. I really feel like a fellow seeker and I might say, a fellow sinner, who might be asking the questions in a way that’s helpful to others.
KIM: What is your spiritual lineage?
DAVID: I’m an instinctively Irish-Catholic-Buddhist! But I try not to have any names. I love the best of all the traditions. My discipline is the take-no-prisoners language of good poetry, but a language that actually frees us from prejudice, no matter what religion or political persuasion they are. I try to create a river-like discourse. The river is not political, it’s not on your side or against you. It’s an invitation into the onward flow.
We need that language today. I try to speak to qualities that have always fallen under the aegis of theology, but I use an everyday language to allow people to experience them intimately and physically.
I also try to rehabilitate a lot of words and qualities that might have pejorative sense about them. I’ve got a new series of essays coming out in the fall, called Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. There must be a place for everything in the human soul, including fear, jealously and regret. These are parts of us that are very ancient and very needed. They’ve been good servants to us and also, astonishing doorways to our vulnerabilities and fears. It’s just a question of where they are in the hierarchy of experience. You don’t want your jealously, your regret running the show, but if you have a personality that has no regret or no jealousy, you’ve most likely taken away the root qualities that give you tonality and color and presence and I might say, compassion for others. Everyone casts a shadow. Everyone has a relationship with the fearful unknown.
KIM: What are some of the other words you work with in your essays?
DAVID: One is honesty. “Honesty is reached through the doorway of grief and loss. Where we cannot go in our mind, our memory, or our body is where we cannot be straight with another, with the world, or with our self. The fear of loss, in one form or another, is the motivator behind all conscious and unconscious dishonesties.”
I turn intuitively towards words that I feel are being misused, such as the word withdrawal. It has a pejorative sense. And the word shyness too, especially in today’s outgoing world. Everyone’s supposed to be tap dancing through life impressing everyone else. But there’s a place for shyness. Shyness means you are in the hallway of a greater presence. You just don’t know how to take the conversation another step. It’s a lovely indication, really. We ought to practice shyness more. And yet all the people who are naturally inclined that way, feel there’s something wrong with them.
KIM: You wrote a poem called “The Truelove.” What does that phrase mean for you?
DAVID: You have a true love in your work. You have a true love in your life. You have a true love in a person. Not pre-fated or predestined, something you will help to create through hazarding yourself in the conversation. Once you recognize it, you need tremendous courage to actually make contact with it and to allow yourself to believe you can journey towards it and with it.
In another essay, I wrote about the problem of naming, as in Naming Love too Early. You never know what form a love is going to take, nor how long it will take that particular form. You’ll always love the person, if you’re sensible. But you get a lot of people, especially in divorces and separations, doing a lot of damage to themselves, because they can’t figure out that they actually still love this person, but not in their original way. A really mature approach might be to understand that love takes many different forms and has many seasons, including taking its final form at a distance. Look at Yeats falling in love with Maud Gonne. He proposed to her five or six times, but she always said ‘no’. She knew their relationship was about something else.
KIM: Do you fall back on your own teachings when you reach a gritty period in your life?
DAVID: I fall back on the underlying dynamics of existence, which I try to look at through my work. When I recite poems onstage, I put myself into the very personal struggle and it grants tremendous perspective. At the same time you get another perspective on the poem you’re reciting. A good poem has its own life. It’s like bringing a child into the world. You, the poet, birthed the child, but the child will surprise you continually. I think a work of art has its own aliveness, its own future. I find poetry, my own strangely, and other people’s, a tremendous help.
KIM: Do you find there’s a big difference in the way poetry is held in Ireland and England where you grew up and in America?
DAVID: Yes. Both America and England are logophillic societies, societies that love words and literature. In England especially, poetry’s woven into the background fabric of society. And in Ireland, it’s in the foreground. The place of the poet in Irish society is enormous. If you say you’re a poet in Ireland, you’d better know what you’re doing, because the standard and the expectations are incredibly high. Even the standard of conversation itself is high there, whether it’s wit and humor in Dublin, or enigma in Connemara, or lightness in County Clare. That’s the place I probably feel most at home in the world, with the language, the articulation, the every day linguistic discourse. And then there’s the ancient conversation between the ocean and the land, and then the ancient conversation between human beings and the ocean and the land, a cyclical exchange that has been unbroken for five thousand years.
KIM: When I hear you talk about the necessity of the poet in organizations and in society, I’m hearing a rejuvenation of the bardic presence, where the poet was the counselor to the chief in Celtic history.
DAVID: The workplace needs the poet’s gift. But the poet also needs to be educated about the workplace. You’re not just coming in to do your art, you’re actually making yourself vulnerable. You yourself are not God’s gift to truth. You have to hazard yourself in their world, especially because you’re inviting people to do the same. It’s all about become visible, becoming incarnate, becoming here and now and yet with our eyes on a future horizon; holding the conversation you were meant to hold.
KIM: What do you mean by the word conversation?
DAVID: The meeting between what you think is you and what you think is not you. It might be between you and a colleague, between you and the workplace, between you and a customer, between you and a lover, between you and whatever you were trying to design or produce or get out in the world. It's all the same invitational mystery. Work, like marriage, can feel like drudgery and imprisonment. That is an option for us in both cases. The poetry is an invitation to actually be courageous and step out of that imprisonment and start to shape your destiny again.
KIM: What’s your favorite conversation these days?
DAVID: My favorite conversation at the moment has to do with asking beautiful questions. I feel like I’m just in the middle of that exploration. What makes a question beautiful? How do you ask it and practice asking it? You don’t ask a beautiful question with your strategic mind. That’s needed, but the last place it gets articulated. You ask it with your body. You ask it with your longing. And you can ask a beautiful question in complete silence with no verbalization whatsoever, just in the way you’re paying attention.