Sacred Artist Interview: David Ash

I met David through my dear friend and teaching partner Betsey Beckman. My husband and I went to the teahouse where her husband and son were performing music that night and we ended up sitting next to David.  He and his wife have been long-time friends with Betsey through their role as musicians.  We spent the evening listening to great music and enjoying David’s sense of humor as he told us about his new publishing adventure.  I was entranced by the way he has dedicated himself to this new work so singularly and passionately.  So with this week’s edition of the Sacred Artist Interview, I break away from focusing only on visual artists and bring you a musician and poet who also happens to be a very funny guy.

David Ash and his wife Laura have written and recorded three albums of original liturgical music. But after 17 years as a church choir director, composer, and liturgy coordinator, David turned his creative energies to poems of 17 syllables. He formed the company Basho Press to publish a series of humorous gift books of haiku. Each book is targeted at a particular interest or occupation. Ash describes Haiku for Catholics, his first book, as “a bridge from one vocation to another”. But he has followed it up with Haiku for Baseball Lovers, Haiku for Poker Players, Haiku for Coffee Lovers, and Haiku for Chocolate Lovers. His first five books can be ordered through Barnes & Noble and are also available at www.bn.com and www.Amazon.com. His sixth book, Haiku for Dog Lovers, should be out in time for his next book signings at the Northgate Barnes & Noble in Seattle on Friday, April 25 and Park Place Books in Kirkland on Wednesday, May 7.

Are you rooted in a particular faith tradition?

I grew up Congregationalist and spent many years as an agnostic, but now Catholic is the short answer. Though there’s an early Robin Williams sketch involving a Reverend Earnest Angry and his Discount Temple of Comedy where he proclaims that God’s “got to have a sense of humor: look around you!” Given my current line of work, it seems to fit me pretty well too.

What is your primary art medium?

That depends on how you define primary! Over my lifetime, I have spent more time and made more money in directing or making music, both vocally and instrumentally. I still dabble in it, and I sing in my wife Laura’s choir at St. Patrick church in Seattle. Right now, publishing haiku books is my full-time job. The creative writing of the haiku is a pretty small part of the job, though. Like most artistic endeavors, practice, promotion and production usually outweigh performance. Plus, I don’t pass my haiku off as literary art. These poems are aimed at the funny bone. Comedy is definitely an art form; I’m just not the most skilled practitioner!

How do you experience the connection between spirituality and creativity?

To create something involves change, and in our image of a triune God, that involves the Holy Spirit. I don’t think most people think of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity during prayers of petition, though. “Lord, hear our prayer” usually conjures up an image of Father or Son. But the Spirit has to blow through someone for change to happen! I think if we’re honest, we can be afraid of the Spirit sometimes and don’t want it to blow through ourselves or others. Who knows what awe-full thing might result? For me, being open to a breath of something new can be the hardest part of the creative journey. But once I’m open to the possibilities, it’s amazing how much I can think of! Whether I can actually do it depends on how hard the wind is blowing.

What role does spiritual practice have in your art-making?

Haiku for Catholics was in many ways the easiest book to write. I just had to recall 17 years of working in the Church. There are 100 haiku in each book and I wrote the first 100 during eight hours of flying across country. I can’t quite say that I wrote the book in a day, but “practicing” my faith certainly made it quick and simple! The other books have a decidedly more secular focus. In fact, I decided to postpone Haiku for Christmas until 2008 just so I wouldn’t be branded as a “religious poet”. And yet, to say that spirituality has nothing to do with my line of work, or any other “real world” job, would buy in to the notion that only people who work for the Church are doing God’s work. Not true! We are the world and of the world: God’s world. Just because I’m not setting prayers to music doesn’t mean that prayer isn’t involved. Anyone with writer’s block can tell you that! “Oh God, please….”

What sparked your spiritual journey?

There wasn’t a single “whammo” moment, at least not one I can remember. There are still a lot of twists and turns in it: this ain’t I-5! My family was part of the “back up band” for a recent St. Louis Jesuits concert in Seattle. I liked what Dan Schutte said to introduce a song about faith. He said that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt: it’s certainty; when you’re certain, you don’t need faith. There aren’t many things about life that are certain for me, except perhaps death and taxes. Faith helps me with the rest.

What sparked your artistic journey?

I once heard someone say that if you ask a group of kindergartners how many of them are creative, 90% of them will raise their hands. If you ask a group of 40-year-olds, only 10% of them will. Year by year, we compare ourselves to others and gradually stop thinking that what we do is creative. Sometimes, “creative” is actually used as a negative word, such as “creative accounting”! I think birth sparks the artistic journey for everyone. The real question is how often do we change the spark plugs?

Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your creative work?

First, I swallow a spark plug…. Seriously, creative work is a lot like repetitive, boring work. You try and try, and change the try, and change the change until you say enough already! Edison said success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration and he was an inventor, which is pretty creative stuff. My challenge is having the discipline to use any consistent process. Publishing is as multitasking a job as I’ve ever had. When you’re promoting book four, launching book five, printing book six, editing book seven, writing book eight, designing book nine, and choosing the subject for book ten, it’s a lot of plates to keep spinning. I’m still breaking some china!

How does your art-making shape your image of God?

Humor often seems to be at odds with religion. If you do a word search in an online Bible, you’ll find that laughter is mostly synonymous with derision: “All who see me laugh at me, they mock me” and so on. Neither God nor Jesus laughs in the Bible, and aren’t we supposed to be Christ-like? And yet, there are a few moments when “our mouths were filled with laughter; on our lips there was song”. I’d like to think God wants us to make more of those moments possible for ourselves and others. 

And I know the Creator is supposed to be all-knowing and all-powerful, but I can’t help wonder if there isn’t some truth to the old joke that when God made man, it was a rough draft: then She created woman. Did God ever say, “Well, it isn’t exactly what I’d like, but it’ll have to do for now”? And who does God sue when the design is flawed? We’re still not performing to spec! I seem to get more done when there’s a deadline looming, which may be the only rational reason for creating a world in six days.  

But even if it’s largely an ego thing, we sometimes fall in love with our creations, and sometimes they seem to love us back. It certainly keeps us from eating our young and maybe keeps them from killing us in our sleep. Maybe calling ourselves children of God is the reason we say God is love. What else is a parent of imperfect children going to do?

bread and wine make a
solemn appetizer to
coffee and doughnuts

 the exhausted priest
weeps outside the patient’s door,
wishing he could cure

if Adam and Eve
had liked oranges instead,
would we have navels?

******************

Thanks so much to David for taking the time to share his insights here.  As usual, I gained some new perspectives and insights of my own into the intersection of the creative process and the spiritual journey. I especially appreciate the words about discipline and perspiration in the creative processs, I find that to be so true. I also recognize in light of my comments yesterday about Amazon, that they do provide a valuable service to independent writers and publishers, giving an equal opportunity market for their work.

Make sure to visit David’s website Basho Press and order some Haiku for Life books!

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