“I have no desire to write poems that no one can understand.”

This is another in a series of interviews with English-language writers and other  artists living in Thailand.

Joe Shakarchi is an American who has been living in Bangkok for the past five years. For most of that time he has resided in Banglampoo, Bangkok’s answer to San Francisco’s North Beach or New York’s Greenwich Village. Joe is a co-founder of the Zen Club, which is affiliated with the Little Bangkok Sangha (  Joe is one of Bangkok’s more interesting foreign residents. In this interview, Joe explains his path to poetry and to Thailand.

In the last section of the interview, Joe offers some advice on writing that applies to all wordsmiths, be they poets, fiction writers, playwrights or screenwriters.

Tell us a little about your background and your path to being a poet.

I earned my Bachelors and Masters degrees at the City University of New York. My degrees were in philosophy and literature. My first teaching job was in Colorado and after 1982 I spent the next thirty years in San Francisco teaching writing and literature in universities and community colleges. I started publishing my poems in newspapers and magazines, mostly local, and then moved on to other media. I wrote a column for San Francisco’s Poetry Flash and hosted a radio interview show for the University of California for a few years. Living in San Francisco enabled me to meet and interview noted poets like Robert Bly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jane Hirshfield and Robert Haas. I participated in many poetry readings and for many years helped organize readings and musical events at the San Francisco Zen Center.

I was in my fifties when I finally published a book of poetry titled Sunrise in the West. Over the years I had become friends with some outstanding musicians and invited three of them to play on a CD companion to the book. The musicians were John Densmore, drummer for the legendary Hall of Fame rock group the Doors; Manose, a brilliant Nepalese flute player; and Stephen Kent, an Englishman who plays the didgeridoo (a long wind instrument developed by the Aboriginal people of Australia.) The book and CD can be found on my website, along with many other of my poems and a few videos.

I don’t really consider myself a “professional” poet. I was once on my way to a reading and asked myself, “How many careers are there where you don’t think about how much money you will make? You think about how much it’s going to cost you.” Before I published my book and CD at the age of fifty-five, I think I had earned a total of about $150 as a poet. Most poets, like me, need another profession and I was fortunate that I chose teaching.

How did you begin writing poetry?

When I was at Brooklyn College, one of the City University campuses, I registered for a literature class. It was almost by accident, as I had very little interest in poetry at that time. I did have a great interest in song lyrics  by artists like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, so I think I was ready. The professor was a brilliant teacher who taught us how to understand and appreciate poetry. We read the romantic poets like William Blake and Lord Byron, and I fell in love with the genre. I thought,  “Hey, maybe I can do this too.” I started to write, and took a creative writing class where the teacher encouraged me to keep it up. I’ve now been writing poetry for almost fifty years. I believe anyone can write in one form or another if they try hard enough.

How would you describe the kind of poetry you write?

I can never give an answer when asked this question. I write in different styles and have been influenced by a variety of poets from Ted Hughes to Mary Oliver. The only characteristic most of my poems share is that they are usually short and lyrical. Poets like Robert Bly and Coleman Barks, both of whom translated Rumi, influenced me to write in a clear, direct style. I have no desire to write poems that no one can understand. The content and style of my poetry has also been influenced greatly by my travels throughout Asia and the Middle East. I like the simplicity of traditional Chinese and Japanese poetry, as well as the Sufi poetry of Rumi and Kabir. There are spiritual themes throughout my poetry, but I write about everything, from nature poems to love poems.

How did you wind up in Thailand?

I began traveling in Asia in 1988, mostly because of my growing interest in Buddhism and in Chinese and Japanese poetry and culture. Everyone I met said, “You have to go to Thailand. Thailand is the best place to visit in Asia.” I fell in love with the country immediately, as many people do, and kept coming back for visits every few years. I eventually decided that it was the best place for me to retire, as it is one of the world’s best places to study Buddhism. I met other writers, artists and musicians here. I now live in a neighborhood called Banglampoo, the oldest part of Bangkok. It’s like Greenwich Village or North Beach, so it draws quite a few artistic types. The neighborhood contains many old temples, which draws many spiritual people. I discovered that Thai people are warm and friendly, and the lifestyle here is very relaxing, especially compared to America. Living here has turned out to be a wonderful, life changing experience.

How is being a poet in Thailand different than being one in America?

It is much more difficult being a poet in Thailand, especially when compared to New York or San Francisco. Poetry is not very popular among the Thai people. It is not a very literary society. I have met some Thai people who don’t even know what the word “poetry” means! I met two very fine, well-respected Thai poets who gave up writing, as hardly anyone read their work. Poetry readings and open mics occur only sporadically and sometimes I have to organize them myself. There seems to be a pretty active scene for fiction writers though.

How has living in Thailand influenced your poetry?

My poems are usually about my experiences wherever I am. Here in Thailand I am likely to write about cultural experiences I could not have in the West, like attending a Thai funeral or an experience at a Buddhist temple. Instead of describing a redwood forest in California, I find myself using images of mango and coconut trees. My poetry is definitely influenced by my environment.

I am also inspired by my travels to other countries in Asia. I’ll write a lot of poetry when visiting a place like Angkor Wat in Cambodia or someplace exotic like Kathmandu or Bali. I’ll have new experiences there, and everything seems mysterious and wonderful, like attending a Hindu ceremony in a Balinese temple, or even seeing an old man’s tattoos and earrings in Nepal.

What advice would you give to someone starting to write poetry, in Thailand or elsewhere?

If I were to give advice to someone starting to write poetry in Thailand, I would tell them to experience new things here and elsewhere in Asia, and to write about those experiences in poetic form. It is all too easy to stay in your little world of work, restaurants, bars and maybe your temple or meditation center. There are so many new experiences awaiting you in China or India, in Japan or Indonesia, if you open yourself up to these possibilities. Opening yourself up to new cultures is a great experience and it has had a big impact on my own writing. Reading the great poets of other cultures is also important: Rumi, Li Bai, Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsberg, the great Japanese haiku poets. Of course it’s also essential to see what your contemporaries are writing, whether it’s Nobel Prize winners, Poetry Slam champions, or Instagram writers.

In any case, my advice to all writers is to write what is in your heart, to write from your genuine feelings and experiences, and not just to follow literary trends or fashions, or think only about what will sell. Writing, or any art, be it music, dance, painting or theater, is one of the greatest gifts we have as human beings. It is a way that we can get in touch with our creativity and innermost selves, and then connect with others on the same wavelength.

The last piece of advice I would give is not to judge yourself too harshly, or not to judge your writing at all, especially at first. Poets especially start off being too critical of themselves. I think it’s because poetry is such a personal form of expression. Most poets start off thinking they are writing the worst garbage in the world, but it’s almost always better than they think. Go ahead and share it with other people. Ultimately, writing poetry is a precious gift that you are giving to yourself. And it’s free. All you need is a pen and paper.

Read Joe Shakarchi’s poems and travel stories, listen to his CD and see his videos at:

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