I’ve had the pleasure and blessing of knowing poet Dennis Camire for nearly 20 years. When we met, he was very active in the Southern Maine spoken word scene and I was just beginning to attend readings. Through the years I’ve come to know Dennis as a dear friend and to benefit from his deep, quiet wisdom as well as his soulful, exultant poems. Dennis kindly agreed to be the interview subject for this first issue of Cardinal Flower Journal. –NH
Dennis, in starting out, can you please describe your home, gardens, and lifestyle in rural Maine?
Almost two years ago I purchased an a-frame in West Paris which was in foreclosure. Because I made a cash offer with the life savings I’d stowed away from living in a 500 square foot cottage in Kennebunk for 14 years, I have minimal expenses and am currently seeking a more “European” lifestyle whereby I work less and spend more time pursuing my writing, gardening, spiritual pursuits and personal life. One local at the Center for Ecology Cased Economy in Norway calls me a “coastal refugee”–meaning, currently, it is very difficult to own a home in Southern Maine without indenturing yourself to 50 hours work weeks in perpetuity. I guess, then, my move to central/western Maine was inspired by my desire to gain more freedom.
Concerning the gardens, I’m in my second year of gardening here and have expanded my three gardens to a combined 930 square feet. It looks like I’ll probably grow close to 70% of the vegetables I need for a year. In the future I’m hoping to grow a higher percentage and, with the addition of a greenhouse, maybe even begin selling a little kale, carrots, and squash to pay the property taxes and whatnot. In addition to the garden providing me with plenty of veggies, I’m finding myself more and more drawn to write about gardening, farming and the natural world. Indeed, every day there’s something interesting and new happening in one of the gardens and, currently, I’m in the middle of about seven or eight new poems.
Dennis, in the (this seems impossible) nearly twenty years for which I’ve known you, you’ve had such a gift for nurturing growing things, living simply, and eschewing the “rat race” that so often traps people and bleeds them of creativity and peace. What influences/experiences in your early life or education helped you become so firmly grounded in your truth and passion as a young man? When I look at the life you are living now, I have a sense that you have been patiently, quietly moving towards this goal for all these years. Is that true?
The major influence in me “eschewing the rat race” and insisting on time for creativity and peace of mind is my upbringing in rural Biddeford, Me where I lived across from a hippie couple, the Rhames, who owned around 2,000 acres of forested land. In short, my father took me deer hunting in those woods when I was just around 9 or 10 and that led to me soon trekking off into the woods every day after school with my b.b. gun and,sometimes, my other Grizzly Adams admiring friend Danny O’Rourke. After exploring almost every square inch of those 2,000 acres and shooting everything with fur or feather, the adrenalin rush of firing a weapon stopping something in its tracks or flight wore off and the quiet of the forest began seeping inside of me more deeply. Indeed, when I hunted with my father, we would “post”–sit still for hours in the frigid cold–and I see now how, as I was forced to remain mute and observant in that near silence, I was engaging in a fairly sophisticated form of meditation where I became acutely aware of so many other things pre-teens and teenagers overlook: the symphony one can hear as the variable afternoon breeze moves through pines; the way my mind seeks stimuli almost constantly; …In short, the silence I was exposed to and which, as noted, turned out not to be so silent, opened me up to what might be found in places where we hitherto had thought not much resided. Perhaps I was being transported into the unconscious more or was opening to the vastness of mother nature or our creator.
But learning to listen for and look for things which I did not expect was a great way to initiate me into the life of the writer who does much the same thing when entering the landscapes or poems. I also, too, obviously, came to see what bounty might be received from creating a somewhat quiet life so that I might experience this abundance and sense of sacred connection more and more. So, as I’ve joked in the past, though Whitman and Dickinson and Kinnell and Levine were very influential, I really became a poet because of all those days I spent in the woods observing flora and fauna and my own sometimes wild and elusive thoughts.
Would you like to say anything about your relationship to solitude, and how this might inform your work?
A while back I read a great book on solitude which confirmed how I’ve come to create a semi-quiet life as unencumbered as possible with money, fame, keeping up, etc..(sorry the author’s name escapes me). Anyway, I agree with Neruda who says “one needs to balance solitude and solidarity.” Indeed, it seems to me like one cannot connect deeply with another unless one, on a regular basis. reconnects with themself via solitude. To that end, I write best when I know I have long periods of solitude(acres of space as Elisa Narin VanCourt says) and when I also know I have some sort of intimate audience interfacing with my life: my small writers’ group, an upcoming reading or publication, etc. I try, then, to balance, like a shaman, between these two worlds.
I pick up on an intoxicating wonder at the natural world in so many of your poems–be it the celebration of the strangeness of the moose, the dazzling phenomenon of bioluminescence, or the mystical connection between human and animal. Can you discuss this theme–the roots of it, how your sense of connection with/relation to nature has developed over time? Where this comes from? There seems to be such a sense of the sacred in your poems of nature.
My connection with nature comes, as noted, from spending so much time in the woods and from my obsession with gardening. Indeed, gardening is dominating my work now and I’m fascinated by how nurturing something which, in turn, nurtures you is really what we also do as we write poems. When I mulch potatoes or weed beans, then, I feel I’m doing some of the same things which will ensue as I sit to write later that day. The processes to me as the same. Writing and gardening, too, both force me to work in consort with what I feel to be some higher power; there is a similar communion which must ensue to produce both a good zucchini and a good poem. I am thankful, then, that I have two means, in solitude, to connect with this force. Through friends, family and love, there are also three more ways the other half of Neruda’s solitude and solidarity equation) to nurture this connection so we are fortunate.
Concerning the delight and wonder of many of my poems, that comes from a firm conviction that, as some ancient Greek said, “the wise seek beauty and harmony.” In short, it strikes me that the highest truths in the world reveal themselves through beauty, harmony and love and so I figure why not focus as much as possible on the sacred and sublime that I see.
Do you feel a kinship to other rural writers–those you might personally know and also those you have read/ been influenced by?
About 20 years ago Wendell Berry really influenced me and the last decade or so I’ve come to admire Bernd Hect. As a college student Emerson’s essay were immensely life changing; indeed, I try to reread him every four or five years. Also, Thoreau’s example has been encouraging and his poetic journals might trump the best you find in Walden. Finally, I often sit on my porch and feel a kinship with the ancient Chinese poets who seem, in many ways, so much like what I, at my best, aspire to be like.
Dennis, where else in the country have you lived outside of New England? I know your degree is from Wichita State. Was your writing different in certain ways when writing elsewhere? Does New England have a special resonance for you as an artist?
I lived in Kansas for three years when I was in graduate school and, though it does have much to love in terms of the landscape
and the outdoors, in comparison to New England it seemed to lack diversity. In short, I’d often tell my graduate school friends how, in Maine, I could swim in the ocean in the morning then hike a mountain in the afternoon and, in between pick blueberries and photograph whitetail deer. My tenure in Kansas, then, made me realize even more what bounty Maine and New England has to offer for one who loves the outdoors and who, too, finds much inspiration from its varied landscapes and creatures. Returning here soon seemed necessary, too, in order to give my muse roots and write, I hope, full-fledged indigenous poems.
In addition to Kansas, I lived in Germany for six months and, because I was in the very large city of Ludwigshaven, I did feel some sense of disconnection with the natural world. Weekends, though, we’d go castle hoping in the countryside and I was pleased to see how rural Germany, in many respects, resembles rural small towns in Maine.
How does New England effect my writing? Because I’m very visual and love engaging in deep, lush imagery the landscape, obviously, is a resource for me. Because, too, there’s always some plant, tree, or creature new to me, the resource seems more than sustainable so that I’ll likely have much to be inspired by and write about throughout my life. New England, too, has such a rich literary history that simply being here physically seems to infuse your work more force if you just make a little effort to keep reminding yourself of the tradition you are literally standing in–how you are gazing into the same mountains as Thoreau, looking into the same lakes as Emerson, naming some of the same creatures Dickinson and Oliver.
I know throughout the years you have done many things to support the efforts of other poets. Do you think in terms of what legacy–artistic, spiritual, interpersonal–you would like to leave? Do you have plans for the future in terms of fostering creative community? Is there anything you want to say, in closing, about yourself or your work?
Yes, for ten years I’ve been the executive director of the non-profit I founded, Maine Poetry Central, which created and curates the Portland Poet Laureate Project, The Michael Macklin First Book Award(with Moon Pie Press), and The Minute with the Muse Poem-Video series. Back in 2000,too, Peter Manuel and myself also put together a cd of poetry comprised of folks who took part in the open mic scene in the late 90’s in Portland. Currently, I’m looking to lesson my influence with the non-profit so that I might have more time to focus on teaching and writing and other interests. Indeed, because this service to the poetry community, too, is unpaid and I’ve taken a major pay cut in order to live in the foothills of central/western Maine, presently I really just cannot afford to volunteer like I use to. Having said that, I am presently active with the “Mountain Poets” of western Maine and am curating a reading at the Denmark Arts Center on August 15th. I’m also active in a small poets’ group which meets at my place once and month. The three of us are all “cosmic, nature, metaphysical” poets so, unlike so many other groups I’ve been involved with, there is no attempt, each month, to try and “colonize” the poem into a first person, conversational,confessional narrative poem. Though I love the aforementioned mode of poetry, it’s been really hard, until now, to find a group where my lyric, meditative, metaphorical and metaphysical approach can be evaluated on its own merits. In short, my verse quite often simply sounds and looks different than most other verse and there often is some confusion over how to evaluate it. And though American poetry is presently patting itself on the back for purportedly being “so diverse,” 90% of what I read(though, again, I like it and love much of it) is first person conversational confessional narratives. And just because women,men, Latinos, gay, lesbian, Arab, Christian, Islamic, etc are all primarily writing in this mode does not mean our poetry is diverse. Indeed, I like to joke that if you think this is a celebration of diversity than you likely think that the Bureau of Indian Lands and Affairs, in the 18oo’s, was celebrating diversity when they recognized various native American tribes only after they gave up their native lands, moved to the reservation and adopted Christianity. I guess then, I’m hoping the poetry community grows to “diversify their definition of diversity” so that we see diversity in our poetry as primarily a function of one’s style, aesthetic and vision/philosophy.
Four Poems by Dennis Camire
Some Words on Birds and Borders
Let’s praise all the world’s birds
unconcerned with shots and passports
as they cross disputed borders
then refuse to seek permission to
touch down on the river’s moonlit landing strip.
And let’s sing of those crazy, Canadian geese
violating North American Trade agreements
as their bellies import unknown grains
and they don’t stop for the bomb
and pot sniffing dogs.
And see how a single winged being
is yet to heed a “no fly zone”
between this and that warring country
where one general notes
“soldiers turn into amateur birders
watching over no man’s land”
where grouse seek spouses
Along mine-laced gravel roads
And falcons let their young fly over
the steel trees of anti-aircraft artillery.
And Imagine, now,
the seeds of peace being sown
by the peacock caught
between the troops’ cross-fire
or by the mother cardinal nesting
in a tree overlooking the killing fields;
and you–birder of words–
unsure if you can fly into
the altitudes of this altruism
where flocks of hopeful thoughts
are flushed from the single thrush
admired through the sniper’s scope,
when did the b-52 of blue heron
ever fail to land, into the pond,
anything but beauty’s bomb?
As children we’d incarcerate
These blind miniature snakes
Inside the fist’s solitary confinement
Then marvel at their braille-
Reading nose always finding the escape-
Hole between pointer-finger and thumb. Later,
Our fascination with their five hearts
Inspired us to raise the squirming
Earrings of them to our ear lobes
In hopes of hearing a few notes
From the neck’s orchestra of organs….
Until, a grade or two further– learning
Of the amazing tail regeneration
After bird scissors it below midriff–
We saw how our awe for these earthy eels
Would, too, always regenerate to squirm
Through the brain’s gray matter
Despite all the packed asphalt of our learning
So that, maybe, we might trust
That continued urge to emerge
With flashlights rainy nights
To wander the gravel drive
And rescue these near-drowned beings
Into the ICU of compost pile—
Where, kneeling, now, as they burrow
Through eggs and coffee grounds,
We finally digest the miracle
Of a million of these slick,
Soil factories below each tilled acre
To replace two inches of dirt
Each growing season;
And with soil scabbing our knees
And our own fingers worming
Into dirt, feel a like blessedness–
A birth– in our own blind returning
To our beloved earth.
Ode to Scarlet Runner Beans Rising Up the Eight Foot Trellis As the ten-foot row of pole beans approaches the tip of the six-foot, stringed trellis, I glean a great, green sail being raised by a crew of nectar-drunk bees scrambling over the slick, rocking deck of squash leaves below. And when the lithe dragonflies gymnastic over the scaffolding of stems while hummingbirds alight the blossoms’ crows-nests, I imagine I’m captain of this ship where sweet beets, radishes, and turnips are valuable as any spice, dark rum, and molasses stowed away in a hold. Note, too, how I risk life and limb scrambling over the deck through rain and hurricane gales in order to shore up the masts of the trellis. Note, too, how I’ll pace the rows each dusk to keep whitetails from pirating lettuce then speeding away their bodies’ dories with their legs’ four, long, limber oars. But, like most voyages to the Spice Islands my growing season, I admit, is pretty routine as my crew of insects and worms performs without the slightest sign of mutiny despite how I walk all over them through the droughts, floods, and cold. Any wonder, come August, I leave my second-mate scarecrow at the wheel while I pen the garden log’s daily entries. Any wonder, by Labor Day, I’m nipping a dram of rum and reading by the radio– though, before sleep, walking the deck briefly and, even when I see whole rows of beets and squash hollowed by mice and moles, still feel the journey is still worth it for the way– in clear fall air– I can gaze at spirit spouts of trees spraying their green, and meteors porpoising the Milky Way’s Sea while the ballooning harvest moon is so beautiful that the heart, too, realizes ripeness and into its dim lit harbor does berth…
Two Birds Trapped in the Screened in Porch Forgetting their torn-screen portal-like entry They panic from lantern to hanging ski limb And fear a giant, marauding hawk wing Unfolding when I slowly open the door. Unwilling to scare them to their soft suicides After watching eight ounce bodies, in retreat, Ricochet off the coop-like screen whose wire Plunks them of vital plumage, I feel like A parrot trapped inside my cottage cage As my own frustrating trills now echo…. For a while, too, my eyes beak about the room For a broom long enough to reach between the two doors And trip the handle for both our getaways. For a while, too, my mind is a rare bird of paradise Thinking of calling my neighbor for coffee Where, after she opens the door, I’ll feign A like amazement over the two birds That did fireworks from the front porch. Finally, though, I “Great Escape” out my own Bedroom window, ferret to their coop, And– after opening their escape way So they can restock their chickadee flock– Find that I’ve kept the damn cottage locked. Now, with bedroom window too high to reach, My arms wing over the locked kitchen window And my bird-beady eyes stare through the pane To lament my lost native landscape Where lush bananas hang and books safely nest Above the desk. Strange, though– after snaking Through the cracked, unlocked bathroom window And arriving inside with a back crick Returned to cricket its fused discs– How I flap my arms in celebration and skip From room to room like they from limb to limb Until that cardinal of a heart inside the rib cage Sings me awake for the second time today.
Encounter with Roofer
When he drops his hammer for a noon sandwich
He’s like a Buddha atop a grand stuppa
As bare feet set over the eaves while he reads
Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Peace is Every Step.”
And Thinking his earlier noise bad karma
For making my morning writing an uphill rhyme
I sherpa into the sacred space of his lunch break
And discover he’s read the whole of Kornfield
And, like me, practices that walking meditation
where he imagines the soles of his feet
Massaging the vertebrae of mother earth’s
tectonic plates. Now, sharing cool aid
And khoans, we’re like Tu fu and Li Po high
Atop some remote mountain peak shading
a river below eroding time and stone.
Later that afternoon, in the silence
which announces the end of his work day,
I’ll climb a second time with the gift of a Hahn line
decreeing “rainwater is the master bodhisattva.”
He’ll reply “those who say they know, don’t know;
Those who say they don’t know, know.”
And though we won’t exchange emails
To meet for a tea ceremony
Or to play our Tibetan bowls
As I help him throw the remaining shingles
into the backed up truck below
Then gladly tie down the sliding ladder,
I know the leak of a future sadness has been sealed.