|photo: Brian Bankston
Poet, teacher and storyteller Mark Nepo has taught poetry and spirituality for 40 years. He has published 14 books and recorded eight audio projects, including Seven Thousand Ways to Listen (which won a 2012 Books for a Better Life Award) and The Book of Awakening. Nepo's new book is the poetry collection Reduced to Joy (Viva Editions, October 1, 2013).
On your nightstand now:
I always read many things at once, as it feels like being in a conversation across time. Right now, my companions are The Art of Haiku by Stephen Addiss, a comprehensive history of the haiku sensibility; The Collected Poems of Czesław Miłosz, an amazingly clear and incandescent poet; and I'm rereading The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzo's great classic about the tea ceremony, which is a compelling metaphor for life.
Favorite book when you were a child:
My ninth grade English teacher, sensing an untethered depth in me, pulled me aside one day and gave me her copy of Ayn Rand's small parable Anthem. I had no understanding of Ayn Rand or any of her self-reliant philosophies, but her powerful tale about a futuristic society in which the word "I" had been banished forever opened me to the mystery and necessity of having a foundational self from which to relate to everything beyond the self.
Passages from Five of Your Favorite Poets:
You didn't come into this house so I might tear off
a piece of your life. Perhaps when you leave
you'll take something of mine: chestnuts,
roses or a surety of roots.
--Pablo Neruda, from "Wine"
I am alone but not alone enough
to make every moment holy.
--Rilke, from The Book of Hours
In all ten directions of the Universe,
there is only one truth.
When we see clearly, the great teachings are the same.
What can ever be lost? What can be attained?
If we attain something, it was there from the beginning of time.
If we lose something, it is hiding somewhere near us.
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray...
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
--Stanley Kunitz, from "The Layers"
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth...
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
--Naomi Shihab Nye, from "Kindness"
Book you've faked reading:
When in high school, I never made it through Dante's Divine Comedy. Many years later, I was blessed to have the Jungian analyst Helen Luke as a mentor. She had written an amazing book called Dark Wood to White Rose: The Journey of Transformation in Dante's Divine Comedy. She asked me if I'd read it, not because she wrote it, but because the stumbling points in my life at that time were archetypal and well-discussed in her inquiry. I sheepishly said, "No." She firmly encouraged me, "You need to read it." I took her counsel but didn't get around to reading it till after she had died. I felt some regret at not reading it sooner, but realized I was meant to read this after meeting her, after working with her, after she was gone, when I would be on my own. I finally read The Divine Comedy in my 50s with an eye and ear and heart ready for its teachings.
Book you find indispensable and that changed your life:
For me, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse is a quintessential parable that grips me every time I read it. I've read this small classic every eight or 10 years and because of how life has shaped me, it speaks and mirrors life differently each time I read it, like a deep well that reflects back who I am more fully each time I go it. It's a gem of a book that I highly recommend to anyone committed to the unpredictable journey of being here.
Book you've bought for the cover:
The Illuminated Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks and illustrated by Michael Green.
Favorite line from a book:
"What is to give light must endure burning."--from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's modern classic Man's Search for Meaning.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Anything by Walt Whitman or Pablo Neruda.