Few poets would agree that "words have no meaning," but David Budbill isn't put off by the enigmatic slogan of Montréal's Zen Poetry Festival. In fact, the Wolcott wordsmith is a headliner at the first-ever event, which takes place this weekend. Friday night Budbill will read his "spirited and carefree mountain verse," accompanied by members of Montréal avant-garde jazzers the Murray Street Band. (His usual improv peeps, multi-instrumentalist William Parker and percussionist Hamid Drake, have a gig in Rome.) Other participants are coming from across North America and Japan.
The motive behind the fest, Budbill explains, is to raise money to move the Zen Center from singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen's house, where it's been for 15 years, into new quarters. Apparently Cohen wants his home back.
So what exactly is Zen poetry? "There needs to be some kind of Buddhist orientation or world view," Budbill offers. But "I'm no Buddhist, I'm a Taoist," he demurs. "I keep telling everybody I'm a Methodist from Ohio."
Maybe so, but he's made a reputation with a kind of plainspoken-but-elegant, nature-oriented verse that dates back to ancient China. And though he modestly refutes it, Budbill has gotten pretty good on the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. Buddhist or no, this Vermont poet is clearly in touch with his inner Asian.
In contrast, Budbill is also known for penning Judevine, a play about the hardscrabble denizens of a small town in rural Vermont; its 1991 run here featured Rusty Dewees as the crusty Antoine, a role that launched his "Logger" persona. The work has since been performed all around the U.S. "I've been frustrated in recent years that the play is everywhere else in the country but not here in its hometown, so to speak," Budbill says. "It hasn't been in northern Vermont in 16 years."
Until now: This month Judevine was staged at Dorset Theater, and Lost Nation Theatre brings it to Montpelier April 19 - May 13. Burlington actor Ben Ashe will play Antoine. "I really believe he'll make everyone forget about Rusty," predicts Budbill. Besides, he points out, "There are all these people who've never seen Judevine - new people, younger people - and for them there's no Rusty memory."
Even as his old work is revived, though, Budbill is digging even deeper into the past for a new one: a play about a father and son - the working title is Papa. His papa? The playwright equivocates. "These things start out autobiographical," he says, "and then they go somewhere else."
The Montréal Zen Poetry Festival, March 16-18, multiple times and venues. Visit http://www.montrealzenpoetryfestival.ca or http://www.davidbudbill.com for more info.