Mel Mathews: Having recently published one of your collections of poetry, The Song Less/on (il piccolo editions), undoubtedly I am a big fan of your work. However, today I’d like to learn more about your just published Phantom Buddha (Alba Books). Why the title: Phantom Buddha?
Alvaro Cardona-Hine: Phantom Buddha is an autobiographical novel dealing with the time in my Forties when, after reading extensively about Zen Buddhism, I began actual practice under a Japanese Zen Master who turned out to be a womanizer. The woman I was with was lured away from me. It was a painful experience that took me several decades to translate into a novel. There is a blend of reality and dreams I had during those days that accentuates the condition of a man in the most dire of circumstances. My friend Pierre Delattre, author of Tales of a Dalai Lama, consider this work of mine to be a breakthrough into a new kind of literature.
MM: How long has Phantom Buddha been in the making?
ACH: I began to write Phantom Buddha decades ago but, for one thing, the painful nature of the experience made postponing and rewriting a matter of many years. The fact that my wife, Barbara McCauley Cardona and I, have started our own publishing firm, made me abandon any doubts and complete the work.
MM: What impetus fueled the writing of Phantom Buddha?
ACH: Phantom Buddha is essentially an expose of a man who has recently been exposed in the Buddhist community and by the New York Times for the moral fraud that he is. Zen is the clearest, most demanding, and most subtle paths to personal liberation that exists, and there is absolutely no room in it for scoundrels such as Joshu Sasaki who takes advantage of the cupidity of female students.
I was able to overcome my initial disappointment and went on to study with Prabhassa Dharma Roshi, who some 14 years ago, before she died, named me a sensei, or teacher.
MM: It is quite obvious that for you, words are a delicacy. When I read your work, I can taste it! How do you do this? If this is a mystery, fine, but if there is something more to this love making of language, I’d like to learn.
ACH: You compliment me. There is no mystery to how one uses language, that open book. But care and love for language in me could be a generically social affair since I come from a family of writers. My grandfather, Jenaro Cardona, was one of the pioneers of the Costa Rican novel; my uncle Rafael won a Central American poetry contest at age 18, my half-brother Alfredo is a well-known poet throughout Latin America; my father wrote a book in his last days entitled Hombres y Máquinas (Men and Machines) about his youthful days as a train engineer.
I should add that poetic insight has everything to do with the kind of personal vision one has gained over the years. The three sources that have shaped my life are: the Seth material as presented by Jane Roberts in a series of books; Castañeda’s writings on don Juan, the Mexican sorcerer; and Rinzai Zen Buddhism..
My parents brought me to the U.S. at age 12, just after I had graduated from a sixth grade class that was unique for the bunch of guys that comprised it and the loving teacher we had (Rosita Font lived to be over a hundred years old and was acknowledged by the president of the republic and interviewed on television.) Five lonely years followed in Los Angeles as I struggled to learn English and found American schooling to be utterly boring. By and by, I discovered Walt Whitman, went to college and met my first wife, with whom I had four children.
MM: As an outsider, for lack of a better word, what was it like to observe the masses living out the so-called ‘American Dream’ ?
ACH: The American Dream is as real as you wish to make it. I see it as based on the riches of a land with a good climate and navigable rivers, plus an initial settlement by human beings borne out of the nascent capitalist system (as opposed to a Latin America of extreme weather and rugged terrain, settled by feudal-minded folk and a reactionary Catholic church.) That Dream, of course, is made a mockery by reactionary tendencies that allow minorities an exclusive right to have, not dreams but nightmares.
MM: How could you retain the vital essence of who you were/are without getting drawn in to the drudgery of Americana?
ACH: I left school before I got a degree, in order to raise a family. Consequently, and for many years, I endured what you call the “drudgery of Americana.” Jobs that paid little and would have crushed my spirit had it not been for the poetry that I was writing, some of it clandestinely, and some late into the night.
MM: There must have been sacrifices made along the way, in order to live the authentic life you lead. Would you like to comment on any of these sacrifices?
ACH: My health suffered, my marriage faltered and failed, I made horrific mistakes… How I got to an old age full of joy is due in large part to my wife Barbara.
MM: You are a widely read author with several poetry collections in print. Would you like to comment on any of your other publications?
ACH: The 26 books I have published are my other children, among whom I have my favorites. One such is The half-Eaten Angel, based on childhood memories of a paradise that included tragedy; in poetry, a little book entitled Words on Paper; in the haibun form, When I Was a Father, in prose poem form, A History of Light: and presently, my novel Phantom Buddha.
MM: Tell us about any other projects you are working on, perhaps a musical piece?
ACH: I am putting the finishing touches on another novel, to be called Brute Rainbow. Immediately after I finish that, I will concentrate on a violin concerto that keeps boiling
over, very demandingly. After that, if I live long enough, I want to go back to a half-finished opera based on the play Flight, by the Russian author of The Master and Margarita.
MM: What and/or who inspires you? What is the driving force behind your prolific and creatively abundant life?
ACH: I am driven by an unrecognizable force to sing naturally, like a bird who has no reason to sing. Also by the fact that at one point in my life I understood deeply that a normal human being can do anything he or she sets out to do. I find it sad that so many people function under the belief that they are incapable and/or unworthy of achieving anything worthwhile.
MM: Who are your favorite authors, and why?
ACH: My favorite poets are: Vallejo, Whitman, Lorca, Rilke, Blake, the ancient Chinese, Baudelaire, Rimbaud. My favorite novelists and essayists: Mann, Kafka, Proust, Marquez, Borges, the Russians, a novel like Moby Dick. This is off the top of my head. But those I have listed all said important things cleanly, some magically.
MM: Where can readers find you on the Internet, and where can they buy your books?
ACH: My novel Phantom Buddha may be purchased through Amazon in print or kindle. My latest book of poetry is with you, Fisher King Press. Other work is with albabookspress.com which my wife and I have started.
MM: Would you like to share an excerpt of Phantom Buddha? Or perhaps a poem?
ACH: From The Song Less/on
WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
out of love
while I was
washing my heart
that went by
I walk out of my brain
in pursuit of money
where can my hands go?
they look under the skirts
of the imagination
each day it’s
a yellow rose
MM: Alvaro, you are such an inspiration – your life, your work, your soul! Thank you for taking the time to be interviewed. Dear readers, to learn more about Alvaro Cardona-Hine, I encourage you to order a copy of Phantom Buddha, as well as his many other publications. If you are ever near Santa Fe, New Mexico, be sure to visit the Cardona-Hine Gallery in Truchas, on the High road to Taos.
Alvaro Cardona-Hine was born in Costa Rica in 1926 and was brought to the United States by his parents in 1939. By 1945 he was writing poetry then went on to translate Cesar Vallejo, write novels, make a living as a painter, and compose music which has been performed in various parts of the country. He is the recipient of an NEA grant, a Bush Foundation Fellowship and a Minnesota State Arts Board grant. He lives with his wife, the poet and painter Barbara McCauley Cardona, in the small village of Truchas, in New Mexico, where the two manage their own gallery.
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