Daniel Higgs & Fountainsun: “the soul the seed the spark the word the divine transforming flame”

Old building in Japan.

O for a muse of divine transforming flame. Such is the collection of memory, poetry, and deep feeling that make up the eclectic work of the poet, recording artist, language archeologist, avant-guard performance preacher, and self-styled tattoo artist Daniel Higgs. Along with his partner, Fumie Ishii, Daniel performs in these shadow days as Fountainsun. The band appeared for one brief, early show at The Business, the record shop in Anacortes that forms the hub for many of us fellow travelers, wanders, and dreamers. It’s a place of daily miracles.

Think about it, what it takes for recording artists to make their livings in this smoldering wreckage that is America 2019. If it’s happening at all, it’s happening in places like The Business, on small islands, literally and figuratively, while the greed and the sociopathy burn themselves out all around us.

For little over an hour, time was suspended between the ripening sheaves of another late summer, and the garden gate of right relationship. Friends met friends. Convivial talk softened into Daniel’s poetry and Fumie’s guitar and flute. “O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts,” wrote John Keats. An appearance of Fountainsun gives life to both. The music is an exploration of sensations.

Then, the following morning, I met with Daniel to briefly explore some thoughts as well. We set aside all notions of Lungfish — many have come and gone before The Palace, deftly and expertly documenting that part of Daniel’s story. No, this was a “tiny” interview, a chance to spend a few fleeting moments early on the cool morning of Daniel’s departure from Anacortes (he was heading deeper into the surrounding islands, deeper into the word).

As our little town awoke to its island business, gulls overhead riding a rising breeze calling down, Daniel shared some porch thoughts about the passage of time, the fleeting nature of music scenes, and the importance of the word, the seed, and the spark along his creative, crooked path.

Drop everything for a moment now
& allow your heart to participate in it.
Because, as a fellow passenger once said to me:
‘Anything other than the present moment is a form of slavery.’

from The Fools Sermon, Lamps of Friendom Press, 2016
Fountainsun performing at The Business, August 2019

This is going to be the “tiny interview.” Everyone’s interviewed you about everything. You’ve traveled through a lot of musical ages. You’ve seen the “latest thing” become the “forgotten thing.” You’ve seen a lot of scenes come and go. And the age we’re living in now seems particularly abandoned in terms of scenes. Do you think the “scene” is over? In terms of being part of a connected group?

I would say, in my case, the scene I feel I’m participating in now, is not specific and it’s not even entirely present. It’s like a broader scene through the ages. This is really how I feel. I’m participating in…I’m a link in a larger chain. The specific scenes that I’ve been a part of I’ve seen actually disappear, some of them. The music, it’s easy to think it’s going to keep going because the influences scatter seeds and it starts again elsewhere.

But when you’re talking about the people who make up the scenes, you know, I’ve seen most of the scenes I’ve been a part of — that in retrospect it turned out I was part of — they definitely no longer exist. But I compose poems and I recite them, and I make music to recite them to. I think of that as my work, and this is work that somebody has been bothering to do for thousands and thousands of years. So that’s my scene. The thousands-of-years scene. And I’m a minuscule, tiny atom in that scene.

That’s how I think about it these days.

Does that feel lonely, not being in a scene?

Not to me! No! No. Not at all. I take such great delight in what I do. There’s really nothing negative at this point. I never wished for fame. Not that I was ever suited for it or was making something that could bring fame to me. Because this was never a desire. I think this is what crushes a lot of artists and musicians, is they don’t get enough attention, or they want the praise and the honors, things like that.

In my case, rather than praise and honor, the reward for me is to communicate with the audience. And it’s a two-way street. It’s not something I’m doing to the audience. It’s not something I’ve giving to the audience. It’s something that occurs between me and the people who form the audience. And so for me, it’s always its own reward.

So, loneliness — not that there’s anything wrong with loneliness — I don’t feel lonely, or that I’m laboring in vain, or that I’ve been banished, I don’t really feel like that. Solitude is necessary to make a lot of the things, to make the poems, and I paint as well, these are things you do in solitude. You practice your instrument in solitude. And then you perform in public. There’s a lot of introverted activity, and then sometimes it culminates in extroverted activity.

So I walked a mile backwards
before I stood in line to wait
My turn & wonder might I… hesitate
to step into the shadow
Passing through the laughing door?

from The Fools Sermon, Lamps of Friendom Press, 2016
Daniel Higgs performing as Fountainsun
Fountainsun performing at The Business, August 2019

Do you think of yourself as an introvert?

I don’t think of myself as either because I know that I’m both. I don’t think I’m either — I think I can pose as both. Like a mezovert, or something. Like, I don’t know what you’d call that. But I have tendencies of both. I think a lot of performers do. I think a lot of people who don’t perform assume that performers are extroverted people who want all the attention.

I don’t really want the attention. That’s not why I’m doing this. I’ve been doing this long enough I know that’s not why I do it. You know, when I was young, I didn’t know why — I still don’t know exactly why I’m doing it. But I know a lot of reasons why I’m not doing it. Or, a lot of reasons why I’m not doing it for.

Because when you’re young and giving a concert, and there’s a hundred people there, two hundred people there, and they clap after a song or after the show, they tell you that it was great. This stuff can be hard to manage, unless you just don’t manage it. But if you try to manage it, or even reviews of records! I stopped reading reviews fairly early on. Because it would really smart to get a negative review about your album that you worked so hard on.

But I started to sense that worse than the bad reviews were the good reviews. They would kind of stunt you somehow. So, I stopped reading them altogether. Because you’re always searching for the good reviews, you know. Now, because they’re always talking about things like hormones and neurotransmitters — is it serotonin, they say, when you like something — on Facebook, or something gets liked, it’s probably something like that.

The cover of "The Fools Sermon"
The Fools Sermon, Lamps of Friendom Press, 2016 (The Palace Collection)

This is such a difficult time we’re living through. Do you think this is a time of beginnings or endings, especially for art? People aren’t buying art. They’re not supporting artists with their dollars. Or do you not like to think of it that way?

I never did think about it that way. I mean, I could, but I never really did. I don’t really think about art at large that much lately. I just think about what I’m doing. I’m trying to eke out a living. And I’m one of the only artists I know that does. The alternative ways of being an artist are to not make a living at it. Or make a huge living at it, maybe for a short time, maybe for a longer time. Or you can make corporate art! You know, if you have corporate sponsorship, and I’ve met a couple of people like that. And they’re not famous! The people who make paintings for large marble bank lobbies, aren’t always famous artists. I don’t know how they get their paintings in bank lobbies and financial districts. But that’s like another whole sub-world of art.

So, it’s make a great living, or no living at all — support yourself otherwise, and make your art. Or, to eke out a living, and I eke out a living at it and I don’t know anyone else who does. I know people whose art, their music, perhaps supplements their income. That’s kind of what’s happened with me at this point. All of my work in art supplements each other. I know I don’t have to have another job to supplement that.

And I don’t have time, now, to have a job and make art. This time in my life, if I had to take a job, I would stop, I think. I’m sure I would sneak in a poem here and there, but I don’t have the energy or the focus. It takes a lot of time for me now to prepare myself to make something. I can’t just jump in, especially with the paintings. Sometimes it takes many days of thinking about making it, in the studio! I’m not even talking about sketching. About getting into a state.

Writing poetry, for me, has always been a case of just being patient, and eventually the verses will come. So, there’s no scheduling problem there. You just have to have a notebook and a pen handy because you never know when it will strike. That’s how I’ve always done it. So sometimes you don’t get a verse for years. That’s happened to me before. But because you’re patient, it’s not a block, and there’s no problem. You just write when you’re called to write. I’ve known writers who write every day. I’ve never been that kind of a writer.

So, is it beginnings or endings, I really don’t know. I think that a lot of people, I think in recent centuries, it’s sounded like as romantic vocation and a romantic calling. You know, if you wanted to be an artist, even when I was a youth, you would get so much friction from everybody around you — that was a stupid choice. It was not a good idea. That was not wise, you know.

Now I think, the youth — I can’t speak for sure — but I meet a lot of youths, and it seems like what they’re doing, a lot them, you do everything temporarily. You start a band and you do a tour, then you make some art for a while. For people who are inclined toward the arts, it seems like it’s less available as a way to sustain yourself while participating in the world.

But anyone can do it now. Maybe everybody should do it now. Maybe it had gotten too specific in the recent decades for only, like, select people. Maybe everybody should be throwing pots instead. Yeah.

Fountainsun "Music Today" CD jewel case.
“Music Today” (CD release with book), Sweet Dreams Press & Gnome Life Records, 2015 (The Palace Collection)

There’s a line on one of your Fountainsun songs, “The world is ruled by gangsters.” When I think about that line, that’s a world of control, and those who are controlled. It seems to me that you’re making the point that the world today is divided between those who get to decide the big questions in their lives, and those who don’t.

Well, it’s hierarchical. There are degrees of control. And at the bottom you have the utterly controlled who have no control over who’s controlling them, or how they’re controlled. Actually, that line’s no longer in the poem. It doesn’t mean it’s not true. But in the final version that line is no longer in there.

But there was something I was thinking about at the time. Really, what the verse is more about, other than the immediate content that hits you, which is how we view things. The things we take for granted. Like a police officer. Is a police officer not a gangster? But it’s the top gang. Not the police departments, but our whole system. The world is ruled by gangsters. And I think of a gangster, especially the big gangsters, heads of state all of that, these are people who profit from human suffering. And this is the worst, the most vile evil, you can think of. And that’s what’s running all of our society, all human societies on this earth, except for maybe a couple.

And it’s easy to forget, if you’re the kind of person who’s making your rent, and you’re eating the food you like, and all of your general needs and some of your desires are met, then you can just forget about it. That we’re getting table scraps from the banquet of the beasts, you know — even as an American, not that we have any greater responsibility, or not, without getting into that.

I think the particular American variety of madness comes from a very deep and unacknowledged guilt that we all carry. Guilt for the bombings, and the dronings, of anonymous villages of people just going about their daily lives, that now we don’t even notice anymore because we hear about it so often. But I think some of us here do notice. A deeper part.

They say there’s a more primitive part of every human being, that every time we see an act of violence, that the primitive part of us recoils in fear and horror. The more chilling part is that we’re all accomplices, we’re forced to be, just to get along.

But I’ve not yet be able to think of an alternative. I do think when a person has the opportunity to experience true happiness, you should never miss that opportunity, especially in the face of all the suffering and the cruelty. But then the trick becomes what is truly happiness. Is it bellying up to the trough? Or channel surfing? What is it?

When the garden gate stands open
Cross the threshold none trespass
Enter into right relation
with the reflection in the glass

from The Fools Sermon, Lamps of Friendom Press, 2016
Fountainsun performing at The Business, August 2019

I think of you as a poet. Maybe even more than a musician and songwriter these days. Which poets have influenced your life and work, in your writing — writers you feel an affinity toward?

Well, that’s a good question, because I don’t really read a lot. In recent years I mostly read devotional poetry — mostly Christian and Muslim devotional poetry, and some non-affiliated devotional poetry. And a lot of that, you know, is in translation, so I’m enjoying the fruits of the translator’s efforts.

When I was young, I read what my mom read. She had a book of Yeats, so I read that. I read Dylan Thomas when I was a teenager, she had that. She was really into the French symbolists. She had Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmié in English. And she went on to learn French, so she could read them in French. I never did that. I have other friends who’ve since learned French, and they said once you read the stuff in French, don’t read it in English. Just don’t even bother, you know.

But I would not say any of the poets were extra meaningful to me. Then, the more meaningful thing was to be reading poetry. I was learning how to read a poem, you know. Learning how to take the time, to choose that book, instead of a comic book. Because at that time, there was some overlap. I was reading some of this stuff really young because my mom pushed me, and the books were on the shelf. I read Kafka when I was 13 or 14. To go for Kafka instead of a comic book, that in itself was an important choice. Because some of the comic books at the time had more readily available poetic notions. Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 1970s was some really far-out stuff, some really challenging ideas, I think, even still.

I started writing when I was a child. I started getting serious about it, started writing song lyrics, when I was 17. But then I started writing some things that weren’t for the band I was in at the time, when I was about 19 or 20. Getting really into that, again. Then, some other poets in Baltimore — the woman I was married to at the time, some of the poets came to our apartment to score weed, and I was writing one day at the kitchen table and one of these people came over and he asked what I was writing, and I said I was writing a poem, and he invited me to a poetry reading. I had never been to a poetry reading, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that there were any going on. I didn’t know about that part of it.

“Sweep the Temple” (Gnome Life Records, 2016) (The Palace Collection)

And so, I went to the poetry reading at a group house where a bunch of poets lived. They were older than me, but probably still young. I thought they were older, and they called the house “The Apathy Project.” So, I went to a reading at “The Apathy Project.” There was a fellow there named Damon, who was reciting a poem. They had a little podium they set up. Damon was reading a poem that, unbeknownst to me, he had read many, many times. He always read this poem. And another poet and artist, a guy named Keith Wertz, who was a huge influence on me at the time, he learned Damon’s poem word for word by heart, he’d heard it so many times, and he started to chant it along with Damon until they were reciting the poem in unison.

And Keith started to approach the podium, kind of stalking the podium, until they were almost nose to nose reciting the same poem. Keith transgressed into Damon’s space, and Damon took a swing at him and punched him in the face. There was this huge fist fight at my first poetry reading! And I thought, “Wow, what a scene! This is insane!”

That was a particularly wild bunch, those Baltimore poets at that time. There were some older poets that they knew — who were maybe more formal people at the time, who were maybe professors. Or, maybe met some of the more celebrated poets at that time. But these were more like bottom feeders.

And then I moved out to San Francisco, and there I met so many really committed, devoted, completely unknown anonymous poets I’m sure you’ve never heard of. And the so-called scene centered around a place called the Café Babar. The scene I participated in. There was a weekly open reading. That place, it was a like a psych ward in there! It was! It was crazy.

I went there for years and heard so many incredible poets. Some, it was the gravity of the words, others it was the elegance of their recitation and performance. Some of the poets only spoke spontaneously, which I always held in high regard — because the trust you have to have in yourself to do that — I think of that as a high order. There were people who recited from memory, which also then became an ideal for me, which took many years for me to accomplish. Now I pretty much only recite from memory. I’ve been doing that a lot, actually, recently. It’s a whole different thing when you’re not reading. You’re truly reciting!

People say, that’s why you call it a poetry reading, because most people are actually reading aloud. But a recitation, I would say, is a higher order of sharing the poem. Because the part of yourself — the energy, the focus, and attention that you have to devote to actually reading the characters and saying them aloud — you take that gesture away, you take the page away, and now you can regard the people you’re speaking to — there’s a lot more to the poem than the words. That’s the thing with the printed word versus speaking words aloud, there’s a lot more to the poem than the words. A lot more. There’s a lot more to music than notes and sounds!

The “lot more” I’m talking about occurs in between the person making the sound, or speaking the words, and the person hearing them and considering them as they’re happening. This is where the living part of it lives. This is what the words and the sounds are for. The words of a poem allow you to communicate an idea. The idea for the words is a vehicle for the communication. The communication of the words is a vehicle to share an idea. It doesn’t matter what’s communicated.

Far more important than what is communicated is that communication is occurring. The communicative state. Communication is of much higher importance that what is communicated.  But we’re raised the opposite. We want the data. You know, now we want the content.

The first step toward adventure
is by far it’s own reward
To bow in full repentance
Drinking deep the fountain source

from The Fools Sermon, Lamps of Friendom Press, 2016
Daniel Higgs at The Business, Anacortes.
Fountainsun performing at The Business, August 2019

photo credits
(where not otherwise credited)

“Old Japan” / photograph by Jordi C on Shutterstock