Jacob Burda on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Jacob Burda by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


Biographical Information—Jacob Burda

Jacob Burda comes from a European family business in media. He is the cofounder of The Alpine Fellowship, which he founded in 2012, an annual symposium centered around aesthetics and ideas that supports, commissions, and showcases artists, writers, academics, and playwrights. Jacob earned his PhD at the University of Oxford, writing his doctoral thesis on the conception of infinity in early German Romanticism. At age 28 he was a professor of philosophy at UCLA where he lectured on German literature and philosophy. He is the co-founder of a conscious community app which he is currently building and spearheads an innovative project in the education space.


JACOB BURDA:   If you want to build a ship, call your people together, not to draw the construction, divide the work, fetch the tools, or fell the timber. Call them together to teach them the yearning for the endless expanse of the sea.     ~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry

LOIS P. JONES: From the studios of KPFK Los Angeles Pacifica Radio, this is host Lois P. Jones. Welcome to Poets Cafe. Today’s guest is Jacob Burda, who comes from a European family business in media. He is co-founder of the Alpine Fellowship, which he founded in 2012. An annual symposium centered around aesthetics and ideas that supports, commissions and showcases artists, writers, academics, and playwrights.

Jacob earned his PhD at the University of Oxford, writing his doctoral thesis on the conception of infinity and early German romanticism. At age 28 he was a professor of philosophy at UCLA where he lectured on German literature and philosophy. He is the co-founder of a conscious community app which he is currently building and spearheads an innovative project in the education space.

Welcome, Jacob.

JACOB BURDA: It’s great to speak with you.

LOIS P. JONES: Aristotle said that every art and every inquiry and similarly every action and choice is thought to aim at some good. And for this reason, the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. I think of the fellowship you and Alan co founded as a fabulous example of art taking action in the world and the good toward which things aim.

So, the fellowship is now in its 10th year. What is the Alpine Fellowship and how has it evolved since its beginnings?

JACOB BURDA: Yeah, it’s a very good question. And you know, my co founder and I, we  joke a little bit about the, the difficulty to explain exactly what the fellowship is. It’s not entirely clear how to… how to define it, how to conceptualize it, how to do justice through language. And actually, as I just, I was reading your poem again, in preparation for a conversation, which you read at the Alpine this year, you had this wonderful line in there, which was, we long for what we can’t explain.

And I was like, this is the spirit. This is the spirit of the Alpine Fellowship. But you know, I guess to, to back up a little, so it’s 2012 and I am at the time doing my master’s at NYU in New York. And there’d been a theme already throughout my philosophical studies, which started with undergrad in 2008 in London, that the kind of thing that I went into philosophy for wasn’t what I encountered in philosophy departments, you know, and I didn’t really know how to tell people what I was looking for, but all I knew is that it wasn’t there in academic philosophy. It was this much more innocent, naive, you could say, wonder about, you know, the basic sense of, of what are we doing here? How should we live? You know, you just mentioned the good. What is good? What is the good? What is right? And I, and I was really hoping to get an approach and a kind of way to comment on these questions, and I wasn’t quite fully getting it in academic philosophy. And so at the time, I was talking to Alan Lawson, my co-founder of the fellowship, who’s a visual artist. And so he’s a painter in the Florentine tradition. He’s an incredibly gifted, real life painter. And he encountered something similar in the visual arts, where a lot of the modern art movement was not what he felt he went into arts for. It was very conceptual, or it was very much market driven, and it wasn’t about the kind of the thing, the silence, the stillness, the gaze that he was in the visual arts for.

And so there was this sense that we both were missing something, actually, a little bit. We were missing, I was missing the spirit of philosophy, and he was missing this, this particular quality of art. And, and so we got together and we said, why don’t we just draft up this imaginary community of people that we always hoped we would encounter in our endeavors but somehow hadn’t yet.

And that was kind of how the fellowship was born. It was born out of this sense of a lot of longing for community, of a kind of imaginary community of poets, of writers, of artists, of philosophers, of historians. And to your question around how they did evolve it’s been very much a reflection of where we both were at that particular time, you know, 2012, I was, I would say I was much more academic than I am now, you know, 10 years, 11 years later. So the fellowship initially was quite an academic encounter, it was people in tweed jackets and ties, reading kind of quite lengthy, complicated papers, the way you might imagine from an academic conference and then, everyone was a little bit trying not to get called out for flaws in their arguments and had a little bit more of that quality.

LOIS P. JONES: Kind of the opposite of what you had envisioned, actually, in the very beginning, because you were starting somewhere.

JACOB BURDA: Exactly. But, but it was also, it was the truth in a way. It was also where I was, it was  how far my imagination could travel at that time, you know, is what I was able to imagine and I think what you’ve been through this year is the kind of reflection of  a journey of softening, in a way, for the Alpine Fellowship, a journey of, of really a different kind of quality of person that we are really trying to give the stage to, you know, and I think this is, in a way what you’ve been feeling.

What we’ve been feeling this year is this, this real intimacy that’s grown. And it’s definitely stepped away from academia a bit and it’s, we’ve opened it to a kind of much wider kind of person to step in.

LOIS P. JONES: And I think that is a part of the actual fellowship itself that experience of kind of feeling your way through. I mean, obviously it’s planned, but there is this element of spontaneity, even for the participants, right, who are arriving. They don’t know who anybody is. There are no bios, which I really love. So you’re not getting locked into identities. They don’t know what the program is. So that sense of evolution is, it’s very alive, right? It’s like a living organism that’s discovering what is going to happen in that moment.

JACOB BURDA: I think so. And I think that’s the, again, we’ve had to really come there, you know because I think it’s the challenge with this is that you always run the risk of, of people being like, what’s happening here? Why is no one seeing this, you know, like, what’s going down? What, what is this thing? But you have to in a way trust, you have to trust in the kind of the integrity and the kind of independence and the best possible sense of people, you know to also find their way into the conference and to maybe to hold them by the hand, but also not entirely, you know, not to, to tell them exactly who they should talk to or to put a program in their face that’s going to be kind of structuring every minute, but it’s really, also trying to wake up that quality in the people who come, you know, just kind of explore and dare to meet.

LOIS P. JONES: There’s definitely an awakening that happens. I mean, initially, you have this theme. So all of your fellowships are themed, which is absolutely marvelous. And so you start thinking about the theme, which this year was flourishing. Early on, in my case. I sent in a poem and then when the poem was chosen, I thought, wow, that’s very interesting to see how that fits into the flourishing thing.  So you’re already sort of preparing yourself mentally. And then when you get there, and you see the layout, and you see the different workshops that are set up, you start to think about that more, I think it sort of coheres, it coheres as a palpable, emotional theme, but it’s so alive on different levels.

I think, if you want to just talk a little bit, you don’t have to say if you don’t want to, if you want to kind of keep the mystery there, but are the themes developed way in advance or do you just sort of get together and say this is the emotional or political climate that we have right now. Let’s work on this.

JACOB BURDA: Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, I think it’s, what we’re trying to do is, you know, we obviously have a have a core group of people who, are coming continuously, you know, who are leading our different departments. We have a theater department, we have a writing department, we have a poetry department, we have a visual arts department, we have an academic writing department and all of these, you know, as you know, give out prizes and just to mention that, you know, usually it’s about 5,000 people from, you know, around 80 countries and so very well done to you, you know for being chosen in the poetry section and then the people are invited, to come the winners are invited to come as you were this year.

But back to your question the theme. It’s really, I would say a kind of what is the life at the end of the fellowship. So there’s always this interesting moment when something ends, right? And everyone goes back to their – people leave and then, and then usually the emails come in, you know, and someone spotted this and someone said, wow, this was so rich for me or this term or this question, or I cannot stop thinking about that.

And then we’re trying to listen. We’re just trying to listen in a way, like what’s, what did people pick up on? What’s been that, that’s still, in people’s minds and hearts as they’ve left. And usually it’s like that. It’s a kind of listening to, to that, which is a life after the event has ended and then there’s a kind of, you know, someone suggests, hey, this seems really interesting.

And then we go back and think about it together. And then someone writes an abstract and we see if it would work. And it’s, it’s a little bit like that. I mean, of course, it’s also personal, themes coming for Alan and I. You know,  we just seem to like these existential themes, it’s very philosophical, very wide ranging.

So I’m always very excited if I can talk about the nature of time or freedom or landscape or, you know, landscape was Alan’s like, Oh yeah, like landscape painting, what does it mean to capture a landscape? So then it’s a little bit like that, I would say, yeah, but at heart, it’s a listening to, to what’s alive.

LOIS P. JONES: Yeah, that’s perfect. And, lends itself so beautifully to the different metaphor in living and in the arts too, of how you can expand the idea of flourishing, which of course you incorporate into your workshops from philosophical points of view, artistic, sometimes scientific. Points of view. So it’s, it’s absolutely enriching experience.

One of the things I love, so for me, I, you know, I traveled there in the floods of the south of Norway, and I made it to this little airport in Roros not too far from the fellowship. And I arrived a day early, so I had the opportunity to spend a little time with you on the bus. And one of the actors asked me, well, how’d you get into poetry, and I quoted a line from Neruda. And then you proceeded to just recite a portion of this poem right there in the bus and I said, Okay, I’m with my tribe here, Jacob is part of the tribe. Would you like to share it?

JACOB BURDA:  Sure. I think what you’re referring to is the one that starts with And it was at that age… Poetry arrived / in search of me.


JACOB BURDA: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite poems. And would you like me to read it now?

LOIS P. JONES: Yes, please.


And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

LOIS P. JONES: Beautiful.

JACOB BURDA: Yeah, it really did.

LOIS P. JONES: So how did poetry touch you? Did it arrive – was it part of your upbringing? You often quote poetry in your Alpine talks.

JACOB BURDA: Yeah. It’s an interesting question. And, you know, very curiously, I would actually say that until I was in my mid-twenties, And I’m now 33 until I was in my mid-twenties – I remember Alan was, was sometimes reading poems to me that he loved. This is the co-founder of the Alpine Fellowship. And I would kind of say to him, this is early twenties. I’m like, this is nice, but I’m not sure I fully get it. Like, what’s the point? What are they trying to answer? Like, what’s, what’s going on here?

This is a bit random. And it’s kind of really reflective of who I was and where I was, you know, it was very kind of scientific, very kind of stringentically philosophical, like kind of very conceptually oriented. And I hadn’t yet acquired this taste for the realm that poetry is about, you know, and it was very mysterious how it came in.

It came in slowly throughout my 20s and I started to find myself reciting certain lines of poems or they would just come in in certain moments, like almost to myself, you know, German or English. And I was like, this is interesting, but this line just is with me throughout the day, throughout the week.

But then it was really when I started, so one of the trainings craniosacral therapist I’ve trained with, just a wonderful body work, form of body work. And it was at one of these trainings where the person who was leading these trainings would start the morning circle with just a few poems.

And it was something about the space and the way he delivered it and the sense of the shared, you know, we would sit in a circle together and the shared silence and then all of a sudden out of the silence came these poems. And there I was starting to just to be like, wow, like he is articulating the core of something that I am about and, I don’t know how this is happening or why and it makes no sense, but it was, it was hitting the spot of something very, very deep inside of me, very, very deep inside of me.

And then, and then it sort of started to gradually grow and I, and I kind of walked with these poems around and I walked through the woods with these poems and it had this real quality of enchantment and now it’s gotten to the point where as soon as I find myself in a, in a conversation like this, in a kind of imaginative, expansive conversation, I just have these poems come to me, lines come to me, and I almost have to stop myself making references all the time, you know, because it gets annoying to interrupt people and say, ah, this is this poem, but it’s really like this now.

It’s really like, whenever there’s a connection to something a little bit, yeah, like something rich, substantial, I just, I find myself entranced by poems. And yeah, so it’s, it’s been full circle, actually.

LOIS P. JONES: And Rilke has been a part of this journey as well, I know, for you, as he has been for me. And continues to speak to you, I think, and you mentioned that one of your favorite works was his Love Poems to God. And I can’t recall what the German title of that is, but – ,

JACOB BURDA:  Das Stunden-Buch, yeah?

LOIS P. JONES: Yes, exactly. And so, I know you studied early German Romanticism, right?

JACOB BURDA: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.

LOIS P. JONES: Right. And so, Rilke doesn’t really fit into that early Romanticism, but it kind of comes later on the chain, right? And he’s sort of a blend of modern and he’s definitely romantic and mystic. How, does that feel to you? I mean, where does he fit in that kind of chronology?

JACOB BURDA: Yeah, so, so Rilke I would say Rilke, the spark of Rilke started from me in Los Angeles, actually when I was teaching at UCLA and I would sort of teach in the mornings and then in the afternoons I had private sessions with this wonderful rabbi who actually had a synagogue Ohr Hatorah in Mar Vista. And I would go to the synagogue, and we would read the Book of Hours together. And, it was that old tradition. You, have it also in the Jesuit tradition, in Christianity, for example, of that meditation, just over a few lines. You know, we would just, we were just almost like hitting a few notes and then just sitting in the reverberations of the sound. And I remember we were both, and we still are – whenever we see each other, we just have the sense, well, we both went to a place together, you know, and, and it was Rilke that really took us there. And Rilke opened up the space for him and I to encounter each other. And, so ever since then I was like, you know, I obviously went much deeper into Rilke, so the Book of Hours began it. But then I was, I was teaching Rilke at UCLA. I was teaching the Letters to a Young Poet.

LOIS P. JONES: Ah, yes. The first book people need to get into.

JACOB BURDA: I think it’s a wonderful intro to Rilke. It’s very, very accessible and that’s why I was teaching it. And yeah, and ever since then, you know, it’s just I also, I’m not sure if you still have this, but someone sometimes still sends me a book and I was like, I think, well, I haven’t actually heard this, or I haven’t, I haven’t fully appreciated this.

LOIS P. JONES: Yes. You actually sent me one. You sent me one that I hadn’t read, which is really, yeah. For me, because, you know, that’s my passion in life. As you know, I talked a lot – every time we had a conversation, Rilke came up in the conversation. But anyway, yes, that is thrilling. And I love that you had this conversation with the rabbi.

I think that there is, as you say, an intimacy, but there’s such, it’s just like, it’s such a direct line to God. And it doesn’t have this conventional holiness or a type of  language that we expect. It’s very direct and he says at some point, You know You need me, right? You need me in order to be who You are. There’s, one that you shared with me. Would you like to read it? And then we could talk about it a little bit.


LOIS P. JONES: So the one I Believe in Everything of Believe in Everything. Yeah.

JACOB BURDA: Yeah. I believe in everything that I have not yet spoken. I want to free what waits within me, so that what I’ve never dared to wish for may for once spring clear without my contriving. If this is arrogant, God, forgive me, but this is what I need to say. May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children. And then, these swelling and ebbing currents, these deepening tides, moving out, returning. I will sing you, God, like no one ever has, streaming through widening channels into the open sea.

LOIS P. JONES: You know that line, may what I do feel free like a river, no forcing and no holding back the way it is with children. I think we all want that so much. But it also kind of reflects back to this idea of what you wanted when you started philosophy, right? This sense of awe and wonderment in the world. He just speaks to that so beautifully.

JACOB BURDA: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I think also for me, this poem is this wonderful sense, which is, also what I love about Rilke, which is this constant, gentle pointer towards potential, right?

This constant, gentle invitation to open to potential. So this is this first line for me. I believe in everything that I’ve not yet spoken. Such a wonderful thing to believe in something that you’ve actually never said. You know, so unusual again. So you’re struck. What does this mean? But it’s exactly, this is exactly the space that isn’t the space of the mind because it hasn’t been spoken.

It hasn’t been conceptualized. And I believe in exactly that which is such an unusual move. You could say, you know, in this day and age, I believe in everything I know and all the facts and that, but actually, no, I believe in everything I’ve not yet spoken. And this, this really, yeah, again, touched me so much because it was so, so true.

At the time, it was a few years ago, but it still is today about, yeah, about this, this love I have for growth, for expansion, for potential, like really, this is where I kind of want to plant my flag in a way.

LOIS P. JONES: And also he mentions the widening channels, right? And then another poem, I think where he talks about the widening circles. So, he’s constantly widening.

JACOB BURDA: The Book of Hours, right? I lived my life in widening circles. Yeah. Right. The very first poem of the Book of Hours.

LOIS P. JONES: And it’s hard to, I think, deepen and widen at the same time. You know, we want to reach out and we’re interested in other things but we also want time with those things that are really important to us. I think it’s really a balance. One of the talks at the fellowship sort of switching back to that again revolved around loss and how to flourish in the context of loss. And the winner of the academic prize, Maria Zanella, for her essay on sadness and flourishing, quoted C.S. Lewis as saying, to love at all is to be vulnerable.

As beings, we seek a sense of wholeness. I think I see that coming up in your talks in the mission for the fellowship, and even in your own poetry, which we’re going to get a chance to hear. I love this sense of, you know, the awareness of fragmentation and the desire to create wholeness from that. Would you like to read that piece?

JACOB BURDA: Yeah. Yeah. I, can. Yeah. And as I wrote to you I’m a bit shy about my poetry because it’s something I’ve, considered myself hugely more as a recipient of poetry, as a channeler, and now, yeah, it’s interesting to me to, to read my own, my own rambling.

So, yeah, so just the context of this is a little bit about you know, about this theme of loss, which you just touched upon. This was another great teaching of mine when I had a real heartbreak experience, very, very, very real falling apart on the big stage, you know, my first real heartbreak.

So it’s called For e, for later. [READS POEM].

LOIS P. JONES: Beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. So many amazing lines. I wish we had more time to talk, to speak about silence, to just be in silence. Of course, it’s a radio show. So I thank you so much, Jacob, for sharing your thoughts, and your work and your life’s work with us.

This is host Lois P. Jones, and our wonderful guest has been Jacob Burda. Look for us on the Poets Cafe fan page on Facebook. You’ve been listening to Poets Cafe on Pacifica Radio for all of Southern California and beyond.