Hank Lazer has published twenty-eight books of poetry, including Brush Mind: Second Hand (2018), Evidence of Being Here: Beginning in Havana (N27) (2018), Thinking in Jewish (N20) (2017), Poems Hidden in Plain View (2016, in English and in French), Brush Mind: At Hand (2016), N24 (2014) and N18 (2012), Portions (2009), and The New Spirit (2005). Forthcoming in early 2019: Slowly Becoming Awake (N32) and Poems that Look Just Like Poems (in English and in French). In 2015, Lazer received Alabama’s most prestigious literary prize, the Harper Lee Award, for lifetime achievement in literature. His books of criticism include Opposing Poetries (1996) and Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008 (2008). Lazer retired from the University of Alabama in January 2014 where he is Emeritus Associate Provost for Academic Affairs and Professor of English. He continues to teach courses in Zen Buddhism and Radical Approaches to the Arts.
Mothership (MS): Hi Hank, it’s lovely to have you here and good to think of you back from sesshin on behalf all of us caught in our busyness. Sitting down now to consider questions about your work, I realize that I’ve not been interviewing poets on spacecraft, but rather exploring the work of painters and pranksters, drummers and dancers. These past years I seem to prefer not to think too much about poetry (ok, well, despite a weakness for reading about Japanese poetics) but rather to just move into it as a mode of thinking, a kind of mind, an extension of meditation.
This approach to poem-making as a refining of perception, a form of “mind-training,” if you will, feels like a fitting description of your work. So in this rhizomic spirit, I think of how you may be sitting in sesshin as I sit here with your work today, a perfect day on the front porch: 29 degrees, no wind, and a keen yet milk-soft winter light. On the table, a pot of quickly cooling tea and a colder computer, and some of your new forthcoming manuscripts, and some of your older books, one of which is that beautiful thing—Lyric & Spirit—our collection of essays on “American poetic practice” as Charles Bernstein calls it. We’ll come back to questions of practice later, of course, and a word on Lyric & Spirit in a moment. But first, in the spirit of the mind moving through the materials of the moment: Where are you today? What is at hand and in mind for you at this moment?
Hank: I’m at home (Tuscaloosa, Alabama), paying attention to the weather, looking for the best couple of days to go with my wife & dogs to the farm (Duncan Farm – 200 acres – an hour’s drive away from our home), preparing here to replenish the many bird feeders, returning to a couple of notebook pages (in N35) to reinscribe from the draft notebook into the formal six-color notebook. All this after early morning meditation. At hand is this interview…
MS: You mention elsewhere sitting and writing in the morning, so to open early with a poem, here’s a little aubade (previously published in Mantis #16) from your book Slowly Becoming Awake, a forthcoming book we’ll hear about in a moment. poem dated 9.17.16 from slowly becoming awake I have here three new manuscripts of yours, which show a range of your projects. I’ll keep the focus on these works here. And as these are in three different forms you have been working in for a bit now, you may have answered similar questions elsewhere, but as you sift through the gists of them, it feels you’ll find new words/new ways that open your work up further as you think aloud here… Before we go further, would you tell us the titles and publication dates of your forthcoming books, so that we can look out for them? With that quote in mind, could you share a little bit about each of these books? Their processes and forms? Here, with that latter question, I’ll weave in a note from your enriching intro to Another South: Experimental Writing in the South, where you observe “Our task as writers is to be contemporary, to that is, to find adequate modes of expressing what consciousness is now.”
Hank: There’s Brush Mind 2: Second Hand (published recently by Russell Helms’ GreencupBooks); next will be Slowly Becoming Awake (N32) (due out in January 2019, from Robert & Elizabeth Murphy’s Dos Madres Press); and then Poems That Look Just Like Poems (due out in February/March 2019, in France, in Christophe Lamiot’s “TO” series, PURH: Press universitaires de Rouen et du Havre – one volume in English, one in French, translated by Anne-Laure Tissut). [the books will be available from Amazon and/or Small Press Distribution] Brush Mind 2: Second Hand is part of an ongoing series of simple, inexpensive, hand-written books.
The Brush Mind title is an homage to the amazing artist, calligrapher, peace activist, translator, Zen Master Kazuaki Tanahashi (who has a beautiful book by the same title). I had been exclusively engaged in the shape-writing Notebooks, but during a visit with Kathie & Norman Fischer, Norman gave me a soft brush pen and said he didn’t know what I’d do with it, but he’d be curious to see. What has resulted is the Brush Mind books. Simple sayings or small sets of words written on standard 8 ½ x 11 white paper, and the books themselves are in the same format. I joke, somewhat seriously, that the pages are what Jenny Holzer would write if she were a devout Zen Buddhist. Working with my writer-publisher friend Russell Helms, and in the spirit of Two Buck Chuck wine at Trader Joe’s and the $1 coloring books available at Dollar General, we asked ourselves how cheap a book of poetry could be made. The answer turns out to be a unit of cost of just under $5. My Brush Mind books then have been turned into video installations (10 minutes in duration), with original musical compositions by Andrew Raffo Dewar, Holland Hopson, and Michael Harp. Because there has been such little demand for the first Brush Mind, I have now prepared four or five sequels.
Slowly Becoming Awake (N32) is the latest installment from my ongoing Notebooks (shape-writing) project which now spans more than twelve years of exploration. One big difference: the publisher, Robert Murphy (as best I can tell, a rather saintly being!), asked very nicely if I might consider providing accompanying typed transcription for the shape-writing. Initially, I resisted the suggestion – thinking: the “whole point” of shape-writing is to alter the reading process, to make it slower & more physical – but after not replying and spending a week sewing the rakusu at the Berkeley Zen Center, I returned very intrigued by the idea. Once I began the transcriptions, it was, like the sewing, a great joy. A kind of new performance or translation of each page – akin to what David Antin must have done when he transcribed his talk-poems. This book, including the transcriptions, is in six-colors.
Also a first for the Notebooks (which, to my surprise, continue to morph with their possibilities for performance, medium, reproduction). And then there is Poems That Look Just Like Poems (a title that gave fits to the French translator and publisher). In the Notebooks, approximately in Notebook 26 or 27, poems began to come to me in a way that I thought that I had abandoned long ago: left-margin justified, plain-spoken. Somewhat the way I wrote poems in the 1970s and early-mid 1980s. These poems embarrassed me. They seemed so retro and not-me, but I could not turn aside their occurrence. Christophe Lamiot Enos, who had published my Poems Hidden in Plain View (from the first ten Notebooks), asked me for another book, and I got curious about how many of these skinny poems (they tend to have very few words per line) I had written. It turned out to be nearly 200 pages, which allowed me to throw many out to make the book (which, to a large degree, maintains the chronology of their composition).
Many of these poems are the most explicit exploration of my deepening Zen practice, and thus also often an ars poetica as well. Let me also add my gratitude for your turning to Another South: Experimental Writing in the South. I continue to think that that collection is an important one, in spite of the fact that in the fifteen years of its life, it has never had a single review! (We must have hit a nerve with that book and the challenge that it represents to “Southern writing” in its prevalent modes.)
MS: Perhaps you could also offer a few words on how they interact? And follow different paths? (More on your marvelous shape-writing later…)
Hank: Well, I used to think that these were three very different strands of writing. Now, I can see: all the same ball of wax… It surprises and amuses me that when I begin to write, I immediately know which kind of poem is occurring. (I’ve written almost zero more of the skinny poems, but the Notebooks shape-writing and the Brush Mind poems continue apace.)
MS: The mind-in-the-midst feel of Poems That Look Just Like Poems fits our contemporary culture and consciousness and reminds me of your busy schedule as a university leader for many years, a busyness that did not hamper your productivity as a writer. As budget cuts increase workloads in all industries, writing in the gaps is something many of us practice. (In fact, I just wrote about this for a forthcoming anthology of essays edited by Abayomi Animashaun.) You worked in a full-time administrator role, balanced with some teaching, with course course design and class planning that also requires a lot of creative thought-time. Did you find yourself jotting lines during the workdays? Did you use an audio recorder? When did most of your sitting-down-to-write happen? I ask it that way because the writing could include your weekly reading, as your poems weave in others’ words. Do you find yourself allowing a phrase you’ve read resonate through the days before you sit down with it? What is your process?
Hank: Oddly, I’d have to say that my administrative career (twenty years, from Assistant Dean for Humanities & Fine Arts, to Associate Provost for Academic Affairs & Executive Director of Creative Campus) was much more congenial and supportive for my writing efforts than life in an English Department. My experience in an English Department was often combative and draining – very inward looking, whereas upper level administration provided me with a much broader view of the entire university. My last ten years took place during an amazing time of growth and prosperity at the University of Alabama – money for raises, new hires, new projects. When I began administrative work, I did not expect that it would actually prove to be a stimulus to my writing/travel life.
My own experience confirms my advice to most poets: find some other way (than that hoped for creative writing professorship) to support yourself. Find a career/work activity that provides an adequate income and that leaves you with a freshness for approaching reading and writing. I don’t think that work that immerses one in perpetual writing workshops and the constant evaluating of the writing of others is the way to go… As for how and when I wrote during those years – which were years of demanding work days, at least 8-5 every day of the week – I used to joke that the secret to remaining productive was to have no social life. Almost true. I did most of my writing/reading in the evenings and on weekends. The reading that gets quoted in my writing comes from one facet of my ongoing reading. In the Notebooks, each series of notebooks (1-10; 11-20; 21-30; 31-present) has a specific reading endeavor which feeds the quotations for each page. I mark interesting passages/sentences as I read, and I add the quotes to pages in the sequence in which the highlighted passages appeared. That way, I’m not cherry-picking – not selecting quotes that “fit” a page. Rather, the passages become their own vector of thinking that participates in the shape and activity of each page.
MS: To return to Lyric & Spirit for a moment, when I read it a couple of years ago, it felt as if I’d been wandering in the desert for years without knowing it could be otherwise. And even felt at home in your talk of a “tenuous community of isolates”—have carried a comforting touchstone akin to this in an observation Lyn Hejinian made about even solitary hermits in caves knowing they had a community out there of other solitary hermits in caves. (Which felt quite funny, as I was living in rather solitary circumstances in India at the time.) Yes, this wise and beautiful book feels like yellow-lit windows in the night welcoming a walker in. It’s a book rooted in a “love of insight and consciousness” (155), your remark about Zukofsky and Oppen, which reflects your own work so well.
There so much in Lyric & Spirit that it could be all we talk of here, and so I will only allow myself to pull a quote or two from it. It’s filled with passages of beauty-clarity—and we need a word for this fusion, and that word would be everywhere in describing your poems! You mention in Lyric & Spirit poems as “intervals of consciousness” and in your forthcoming book (here in manuscript) Poems That Look Just Like Poems, these lucid moments float up in the space of the page—short (often one-word) lines, tracking, in language, sound of the thinking body moving through the world. Everything can happen in an interval—a moment’s glance away, a moment’s turning back, a door opening, a walk, a whole life.
Hank: Very kind of you to offer this perspective on the value of Lyric & Spirit for you. Other than saying thanks – which I mean wholeheartedly, as I have little sense as to whether or not the book has been helpful to others – I’d point out that for me, the writing of essays (which I often find very difficult, often agonizing to begin) and the writing of poems are all part of a single process of thinking. Sometimes the essay-thinking gets there first, sometimes the poems… It’s all part of a heuristic process – a writing that proceeds with at best a partial fore-knowledge of where it’s going. As Creeley once put it, you’re driving at night, the headlights are on, but it’s only through the driving itself that you begin to figure out where you’re going.
MS: It was just before we set out into the “second line” for Marthe Reed at the New Orleans Poetry Festival last year that you asked about the spacecraft interviews. Though ignorant and foolish, I’ve sincerely attended ritual ceremonies, and a large part of my interest in poems is their potential for that kind of heightened zone of attention and perception. And yet, I was amazed by what a perfect poem, perfect life-rich ritual that second line was. The sunlight sound of the brass felt like everything was alive at once—and it was a funeral procession. “A dirge and a dance,” someone somewhere said of a second line. Thinking of that walk, brings to mind your closing lines from “BRIMMING” in your new book, Poems That Look Just Like Poems:
ardent in their
it does not matter
whether the teacher
to say so
impossible to say
in that first
so we are
I focused on this poem not only because this poem ends on a walk, which as everything does, when attended to fully, overflows; it is that this poem does what (for me) the best poems do: Not only is it a tensile web that holds a moment, but it also is a form of honed thought, an unfolding of consciousness that “traces the inner lines of things” (to offer Francois Cheng’s remarks on Chinese ink and brush painting). We see bees, their labors, the brimming of it all, the richness of lavender, the coming hard-earned honey that is bee’s lifetime (“instance and instrument” and interval), we see what is said and impossible to say, and your turns and turns again: “what is/a moment/the body,” shifting then to “[the body]/eager/to dissolve” and a turn again, hinging on “so”: “so we are walking”—yes, because including all means contradiction, all being all, after all.
I think here of another bit in Another South: “As writers we must make manifest the feelings, textures, the nuances, the contradictions, the many simultaneities, the complexities, and cross-currents of current consciousness and temporality.” The interwovenness of each thing, the brimming world in each minute…And the weave of your ways of seeing and being that infuse your poems—Hank, might be nice to put a glimpse here of the weave of your own unique lifeform (ha, if you will) and personal lenses that infuse the poems…Please put this in your own words: California upbringing, Jewish traditions, Buddhist practice, jazz-loving, 40 year Alabamian…maybe we make these nouns, the things that animate your voice?
HL: well, Gillian, you put it quite nicely. Perhaps I’d add family man & father, with three dogs & a cat; owner of a farm in a very isolated part of west Alabama; sports enthusiast (golfer, swimmer, and ardent Alabama football fan); bird-watcher, deer-watcher, simple photographer…
MS: The poem, “BRIMMING” hints at walking meditation. And in a poem dated 6/1/16 in Slowly Becoming Awake, we see a hint of sitting meditation in a “clearing” found through the breath, a clearing that the next line notes (indeed, sings!) “has nothing of the narrative about it.” Experience the shape-writing poem here: poem dated 6.1.16 from slowly becoming awake Can you share a bit of how your practice of sitting meditation informs/interacts with your poem-making?
Hank: Most days and most writings, meditation precedes the writing (though not always). I begin each day with zazen and usually some small amount of reading (Zen texts, philosophy, the news, poetry). For a good while – years – I thought that meditation and writing poetry were two different activities. Now, I see how closely related they are – perhaps twins but not identical twins? As in meditation, in writing poetry, who knows what will appear. As in meditation, I think of myself as a location, a door way – not a self deciding, willing, directing what will take place. Just as I can’t revise or modify or recreate a period of meditation, I don’t (for the most part – very rare minor exceptions) revise my poems. They are of their moment. They are intervals of consciousness making themselves manifest in particular shapes and words. It certainly doesn’t mean that they are (or that I think they are) all “good” and “worthy.” Even their variability interests me. I return to them later with some element of surprise and interest. I could never write the same poem again.
MS: Your lines often give us these aphoristic moments that feel fresh and wise. Such as this one, an aspiration for a life, in “WHEN,” unfolding in the slow-stepping lines of Poems That Look Like Poems:
And that does seem to be the work of each moment…if we could be so open to its fullness… It always feels like the writing can be extensions of sitting meditation, what we do off the cushion—as you note in “BY THE SOUND” in Poems That Look Just Like Poems:
or the way
and this practice of watching the mind move in words, can of course be strengthened by a practice of sitting meditation, which can produce habits of awareness that can be seen in the next lines of the poem:
And this question also brings me to questions of poem-making as a way of waking up the senses.
A line in Slowly Becoming Awake from a poem dated 9/7/16: “practicing vision.” In Lyric and Spirit, speaking of Taggart’s marvelous Pastorelles, you say his poems are a “place to fine tune one’s listening and seeing”—a practice of perception that fits your own work. Often in your work we see this refining and deepening of the senses, turning inward and outward and perhaps towards something beyond them, but first by entering fully into them, as you do in “FACE” in Poems That Look Just Like Poems:
& the eyes
And writing itself sometimes feels like sense, and the page a magic place for the senses (and time) to cross, allowing a blending of the senses that poems afford us—sound becoming a kind of sight, as you track in “BELL” in Poems That Look Just Like Poems:
the sound of the bell
is the light of the day
Would you mind thinking aloud a bit here about poem-making as school for the senses? And perhaps beyond the senses–or our usual ways of using our senses? How the senses can help us wake up… To stay here for a moment more: And moving out of your own limited eye/I into the eyes of your dogs, as you do in your poem marked 10/30 in Slowly Becoming Awake: “put on your pants and shoes take the dogs walking the hills the long shadows the morning dew the gravel road the pasture to see what they see for a moment to know where we are” See the shape-writing poem here: put on your pants poem dated 10.30.16 from slowly becoming awake
Hank: Not sure I have much to say on this school for the senses that will be elucidating… Meditation begins with the breath and the body. My writing, which for some time has often followed my meditation practice, enters some space combining words (sound and appearance on the page, which perhaps is the body of the word?), shape (I begin to see the initial motion and shape for the page), the connecting (as in the Jewish ritual of putting on the tefillin) of head, heart, and hand. I read a range of texts that help me with the schooling of the senses. (But I would also say that yoga, physical therapy, massage therapy, weight-lifting, swimming, walking, golf, basketball, ping pong have all also been a schooling of the senses.) Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception is a great one! But I would also say – simultaneously, inseparably – that the poem-making is also a schooling of the soul, of one’s inner life, of that invisibility that is thinking and consciousness. A process that is at once immediate (as I practice it), and available for later re-entry and reflection. I should also add staring at the night sky (particularly at the farm, where there is almost no interfering light) adds perspective. And yes – I’ve learned plenty from the dogs – currently three Boykin Spaniels: Walt and Emmie, brother and sister aged eleven, and Nate, sixteen months.
MS: Related to this openness and responsiveness to seeing with other eyes comes into play in your poems speaking in other tongues. Your poems are porous to other voices, forms of deep dialogue with other thinkers who help to illuminate your days. Would you share a bit about this dialogic, collagist aspect of your work?
Hank: My poems are in collusion with other voices. I admit it: there was & is COLLUSION. And collision. I recently got in touch with Ron Clapper, a Thoreau scholar, who taught me (in the fall of 1971!) in my first year of graduate school. In renewing that friendship, I thought some about the master’s thesis I wrote (in 1973), called The Cricket’s Chant. I had become deeply involved in reading Thoreau’s Journal, and my thesis consisted of taking Thoreau’s writing and turning it into a series of poems (along with some of my photographs). I had a great laugh realizing (forty-five years after the fact) that at conservative University of Virginia I had managed to get a thesis accepted that consisted of no words of my own! Beyond the humor, though, of this realization: throughout my writing life, and it’s especially evident in my first large collections, Doublespace (1992) and 3 of 10 (1996), quotation has always been present. In the Notebooks – the current group (30-the present 35th…) – quotations are from the 13th-century Zen master/philosopher Dogen (founder of the Soto Zen school, which is my own lineage as well). The other voices (notebooks 11-20 are in conversation with Levinas; 21-30 with Merleau-Ponty) are there as other voices – neither there as (decorative, witty) parsley on the plate, nor as affirmations of what “my” words on the page are saying. The quotations have their own random mode of appearance (based on the chronology of my reading of the texts being incorporated), and thus they become unpredictable vectors of thinking, challenging my thinking, colliding with it, altering the overall sense of the given page.
MS: You write too of slowness, and that is always my first thought of why I turn to poetry, how it helps me to see by helping me stop to see, to slow enough to listen inside whilst listening outside. (And somewhere in between live the words.) So part of this slowing towards deeper knowing can happen through reading, but not in my usual way of reading, but rather in this way of making poems slows down the reading, pulling out a quote to allow it to simmer in the mind. This feels to be how you are working…
Hank: Yes, one consequence (intended) of shape-writing is that it definitely slows down the reading process, makes reading more physical and intentional, because the reader has to turn the page around, has to make decisions about what goes with what (and what sequence for a given reading). Strangely, the writing itself, though, happens quite rapidly. It’s when I return as a reader – often, having forgotten or only dimly remembered what “I” had written – that I must slow down, like any other reader. I absolutely delight in this return to the page as an other, as one only partially familiar with what I see & read.
MS: Let’s weavE in another shape-writing, this one a nod to books and scholars, death and deathlessness: poem dated 1.9.17 from slowly becoming awake In thinking of your work the past few weeks, (and, notably, this was before reading your new manuscripts in which you have a line about the “radiant word,” quoted below)—I pulled down an old book from my shelf from my undergraduate years: Tracing Back the Radiance. I didn’t recall much of it, just recalled something a professor in my undergraduate years said of a Korean Son (Zen) master Chinul, and I’m going from memory, not the Buswell book, so memory may be mistaken, but what was said was that Chinul was a master that found his way by way of words, “slowly becoming awake,” to draw in your book title, a Dogen phrase, I think, through sutras. So again, I thought of your work, of what we spoke of earlier, this interaction with quotes, with other minds making a new mind on the fresh page… Could you share how you view/approach this practice of interacting with others’ words? (You have philo for recent Western philosophy, whereas I tend “read like a caveman” crunching the berries of words, to quote a modest Norman Fischer who spoke of reading like a caveman.) Could you share what this kind of reading is for you, as a process beyond the poem? Perhaps the poem, which is an end in itself at the same time may be part of a large process that extends beyond itself….(?)
Hank: I’m pretty sure that this one is covered elsewhere in our exchange. The only thing I’d add is that my readings in philosophy are the readings of an amateur – no professionalized training (academic or otherwise) in how to read philosophy (and its history). I read it for enjoyment. Sort of the way I imagine scuba diving in a kelpy region: moments of murkiness with little vision, then suddenly a clearing… And my readings in philosophy have tutored me in the practice (and joy) of reading what I do not understand. (A kind of negative capability?)
MS: This poem about your close uncle offers hints of your own work in language…
but i must
he could not
in the ancient
of the lesser
for the divine
& for a
in that most
in the slow
of the study
of the joy
Hank: Thanks for bringing this poem into the conversation. Absolutely – I identify very strongly with my Uncle Stan’s experience of working to engage the radiant word, though his point of access came about through his study of Torah – a retired neurosurgeon, he spent a number of years studying Biblical Hebrew to facilitate his study of Torah – my access points have come more through the reading of poetry, philosophy, science fiction – especially poetry and the necessity of slowly dwelling on & with the word itself or the phrase…
MS: Did you study Torah? Did Jewish tradition, and if so how did Jewish tradition influence your ways of reading?
Hank: My study of Torah is at best sporadic (and weak). I did have a Bar Mitzvah, for which I had to learn a Torah portion, and I learned some rudimentary aspects of reading Hebrew – really, more like sounding out Hebrew phonetically, and recognizing certain key words and phrases. But what I did absorb is more a Jewish relationship to textuality found in Talmud and Mishnah – that the process of reading and interpretation becomes an endlessly productive conversation (like the one we are having now, Gillian?). It’s an additive or accretive process – not an authoritarian sense of there being a right answer or even a definite conclusion. Rather, the joy lies in becoming part of the interpretive conversation. That sense of textuality is crucial, I think, to understanding why quotation figures so prominently in all of my poetry, especially the Notebooks. A long time ago, I wrote about text & commentary as beautifully entwined dance partners, the Fred & Ginger of writing.
MS: And what about your conceptions (in both senses of beholding and begetting) of language?
Hank: Increasingly, I’m on the side of beholding – being, & holding. I am more the location or door way for the writing to occur. I guess that I side with Robert Duncan’s joy in being un-original. After all, one writes in a mother tongue – a language received from another. Perhaps the particularity of one’s mode of play in language is a kind of begetting?
MS: Your approach to poem-making? (I realize the latter is a broad question…)
Hank: I think that I’ve been answering this question throughout the exchange. Also, anything that I would say would speak to how it’s happening now, and to how I recall it happening previously. In other words, poem-making, as I experience it, is another form of our impermanence. The ways of poem-making that have opened to me change, and the appearance of another way is a surprise – sometimes immediately pleasant (as when the way of writing the Brush Mind books appeared) and sometimes less so (as when the poems that constitute Poems That Look Just Like Poems began to appear). Even within the Notebooks, it really took the first ten notebooks (and three years?) for shape-writing itself to emerge as something to explore steadily.
MS: And this was tricky, as I had thought to approach your shape poems through space and gesture, but then I ran across an interesting link about Jewish word-magic of the Shiviti—this author calls the spiritual “concrete poetry”: [https://forward.com/schmooze/135510/concrete-poetry-or-shiviti-four-works-by-hank-laz/], and I am just wondering if this form was part of what inspired your shape poems?
Hank: No, not really. I didn’t know about this tradition and way of writing before I read Jake Marmer’s article. Jake is a good friend, a fine poet, and his perspectives are always illuminating and intriguing. As for the term “concrete poetry,” I reject it for my work. Most concrete poetry involves the creation of a poem that appears in the shape of a pre-existing object: a swan, an altar, a goblet, a tree, etc. My writing (with a very few exceptions – four goblets for Passover, for example) does not do that. The shapes are abstract, of the moment, perhaps having something to do with the sinuous grace and unpredictable nature of thinking, of consciousness, but the shapes do not strive toward an imitation of a pre-existing object.
MS: A word that comes up often in your work is teshuvah. It was in The New Spirit, it is in Slowly Becoming Awake I think more than once, once in a line that says “the healing term of teshuvah.” Could you share about this word? Not to hem you in or diminish a mystery but to hopefully open it up its dimensions as you think aloud here… To come back to space and gesture in your shape-poems: In my graduate time, I took more courses in performance studies and was more interested in dance than the wheel-rutted road that the English lit side of things to often tends towards. I was interested in the space of the page as a space of energy, of things coming into form. Had allegiance to space and silence. And kept trying to make my words/phrases/lines closer to the weight and fluidity and simplicity of gesture because it is preverbal and because we can make mental bricks out of words, forgetting how porous they are. And your shape-poems feel continuous with this thinking… This “space craft,” of your shape poems is fresh and exciting work.
And you know, what is interesting about N27 (something I noticed in the poems I posted on spacecraft a couple years ago) is that the lines are really beautiful, each one. The innovation of the form, the bold visual of the form, at first disguises the clear song of each line until you start reading it, and then the ears suddenly open and are caught in the strong sweet clarity of the sounds of the lines and your “singing thinking…” And given that the poems are so engaging visually, this could be overlooked; it was in fact a surprise and delight to me—that the lines are so exquisite in their music—that this is not all just visual dancing but sonic sure-footedness. (So I am glad that the publisher of your newest shape-poems book insisted on publishing a lineated transcription beside its dancing twin!) Feel free always to retort!
Hank: Quite a bit of ground to cover here in your remarks and questions and observations! I’ll start with teshuvah – a key word in the sense of a turn or return, thus closely related to what poetry (verse) is, with each line turning and returning to the initial margin. The New Spirit marked my own return, at age 49, to an overtly engaged phenomenology of spiritual experience. When you bring in the concept of healing, that points toward a different Hebrew word which I also often use (and incorporate in my own invented Sabbath morning meditation/prayers): tikkun. As Coltrane had hoped would be the case for his music, I too hope that my writing is a healing force. Yes, the first phrase that kicks off the page often does carry with it a musical (rhythmic and lyrical) direction or tendency. I think that each poet brings to the writing a different, particular, highly specific ear for sound, and the writing (as individual as a fingerprint or a face or DNA?) is the manifestation of what one hears, of what one attunes to. You cannot imagine how grateful I am for your noticing of how thinking-singing lives in these pages! I don’t mean for the visual to hide or distract from the musicality, but, alas, that seems to be the case for most readers! I’ll be very curious to see what happens once readers also have the typescript side-by-side with the shape-writing.
MS: So I wonder how this sonic beauty unfolds in the context of the shape poems. Do you write the lines first, then the shapes? Or do the shapes precede the lines? Or does it differ every time? Do you write most in your head so that it flows out flawless on the page? Or do you find yourself having to revise as you go?
So yes, you are doing the work of fresh forms with a rigor of the lyric line, a line that has integrity sonically. While I grok and admire conceptual poem projects stripped of song, I just am not electrified by poems that do not involve nodes of consciousness unfolding through sure-footed sound. And this feels quite rare, in the more experimental vein we work within. (I think of a favorite book, Bone Pagoda, Susan Tichy’s hard look at hard things rendered with a razor sharp ear for lyric, for rhyme, for the sounds we utter and stutter as reason fails and bodies break and words with them…)
All this to say that your ear is a treasure, Hank! And in an interview, you were asked about lyricism, as a thing to be a bit ashamed of, joking about being “thrown out of Language poetry” “a bad avant gardist,” and, as poets (and the art world) can be so lemming-ish, (Chris Drury once called it a “steamed up car” ha ha) I think there is that slight stigma still…And this is why I love your singing-thinking…It’s not one or the other…it’s integrated thinking…heart-head-throat in between…Any thoughts on this today…?
Hank: Damn right! Truly, and for this you have my gratitude, you are one of the first (Lissa Wolsak being another) who has attuned to the lyricism within the shape-writing. Of course, I expected that the shape-writing would draw attention – duh! – to the shapes themselves, to the poem/page as an unfolding movement in time, a dance of words & phrases becoming manifest. But absolutely – to my ear, no loss of lyricism. Those interview remarks about lyricism were from quite a few years ago. I suppose that was my thinking as I wrote two books – Days and The New Spirit – which were, as appears elsewhere in this exchange, led by sound. Decidedly lyrical works, written in the mid- and late-1990s. Yes, at that time, I felt that lyricism and spirituality were suspect terms within the (American) experimental writing communities. Clearly, that’s no longer the case. What I’ve been working toward is perhaps best put succinctly in the term thinking-singing (which is a title – Pensando Cantando – I’ve used for my selected poems in Italian and in Spanish).
MS: You’ve spoken elsewhere in essays and in the poems themselves, of sound leading, even here, on this lovely ars poetica in the last lines of your book The New Spirit:
sounding it out as you go
Would you share a bit what it is like for you, this letting the sound lead? Do you find phrases floating up, do you say them aloud, hear them, do beats come through your hands?
Hank: Well, being led by sound really is a phrase that I noted some while ago, mainly in relation to the book Days (written in 1994-95, published in 2002) and The New Spirit (written in 1999, published 2005). That writing would begin with a compelling musicality of a few words, and the subsequent writing would proceed rapidly following the directions in which those sounds led me. With The New Spirit, the musicality is more sustained, less immediately confined to the phrase, thus a larger kind of composition – more like a suite or symphony vs. a prelude or etude. I just hear them and write it down. Sort of a dictation or possession… Instead of me taking something up, I am taken up by a compelling music. Now, though, the writing in the Notebooks – while (hurray!) as you note, still lyrical, still quite engaged with sound – begins with the following of a shape that I see beginning to happen on the page, as well as an initial phrase that puts the improvisation into motion.
MS: It feels like poem-making allows us to approach the play of form and emptiness, glimpsed in the collection of marks on a page, in the fleshy fricatives and airy aspirations that forms a “this” or “that.” The pressure of this and that and the gaps between making song. This relative (a likeness, yet also coextensive with the ultimate) practice approach undivided mind is also seen in the integrative mode of mind that poetry can be—the blending of the senses, the speaking in other tongues, the flow of outer and inner…
Hank: I like what you say here, Gillian, and accept it as a sweet description of what happens in the shape-writing pages. Thanks!
MS: Could you share a bit about the kind of mind poem-making is for you? And I realize this could be different with every poem, each its own mind…
Hank: Yes, each poem/page, is somewhat its own mind, or, to put it slightly differently, each its own interval of consciousness. But, as I’ve begun to understand (and have written in the notebooks – learned by way of Dogen), this consciousness was here before you (me)… Those poem/page intervals of consciousness are virtually identical to my early morning consciousness. As the day goes on, it seems to evaporate or merge with the more mundane, busy doings of a typical day.
See shape-writing here (first published in Elderly #28): carrollton 1.11.17 from slowly becoming awake
MS: Am thinking a lot about contemplative pedagogy these days–what qualities has this practice of poem-making cultivated in you?
Hank: Contemplative learning could take us many pages to explore. Let me say (briefly) that at Alabama (the University of), there are several of us, faculty (in the Business school, in Psychology, in New College, and Honors College) who meet for extended conversations about how we are incorporating mindful and meditation practices into our courses. In my case, it’s pretty straightforward. I’ve been retired for five years, and I continue to teach an undergraduate seminar called Zen Buddhism and Radical Approaches to the Arts. We do zazen in the class every meeting, and the arts – John Cage, Andy Goldsworthy, Linda Montano, Norman Fischer, James Turrell, KazuakiTanahashi, Vija Celmins, John Coltrane, Anthony Braxton – also point toward contemplative learning. Slowing down. Putting aside judgment in favor of deepened attention (which is akin to beginner’s mind, or, from a more scientific path, radical empiricism).
MS: And to put it another way, can you share how your poem-making is part of this lifework (and how your life-making is part of the poem-work…) of “slowly becoming awake…”
Hank: For me, it is the life-work, continuous with my meditation practice and my slow learning in Zen and Daoist non-dualistic thinking. I have staked my life on poem-making as my lifework.
MS: And that also means not-knowing…and the way poem-making is part of that… what might i find cannot be foreseen as a life always in the cross-hairs You bring the open attention, the unfolding of moment to flowers in your backyard and to tough places, in Poems That Look Just Like Poems, you show a visit with your close uncle, still enjoying small things, as he slips into dementia in a hard place…
i loved him
twenty years ago
it is a perfectly
for more juice
& then ask
“is the game
down the hall
In your afterword of that book you share that the year of its writing was filled with facing our mortality—deaths of close family (old and very dear to you, young and shockingly unexpected). And in this year too you suffered a frightening plunge into a time of serious illness. You open a poem in Slowly Becoming Awake dated 7/23/16 with something signaling this time: “what I might find through an elaborate gateway of pain,”
Because your work is about “slowly becoming awake,” which means taking the days as your teacher, would you feel comfortable speaking about what your sickness a few years ago taught you? And if, and if so, how your meditation and practice of poetry helped you in that time(?)
Hank: In June-July 2016, I spent 26 days in the hospital. I had not been hospitalized since my birth. A nice streak of 65 years! Then, when I was preparing to go to Samish Island for sesshin, I began to feel stomach pains, which soon became diverticulitis, which burst, and made me go quite septic immediately. I had a wonderful surgeon who did not advocate surgery (especially while I was so infected), and after 21 days of living on ice chips, losing 35 lbs, and having my heart go out of rhythm (which resulted in two stays in ICU), I eventually recovered. It took many months afterward to regain my strength. Initially, when I was still clearly unaware of the seriousness and duration of what was happening, I emailed a good friend (Glenn Mott) to say that instead of the blank wall (of zazen and sesshin) that pain would be my new teacher. Turned out to be far too true. Pain, humility, suffering, fear…
Absolutely life-changing in terms of a tangible sense of my own mortality, a deeper identification with the suffering of others, gratitude for those who took care of me, and a deepened sense that the subsequent poetry would need to be essential, of absolute integrity, and not so shy about what I was learning… After my hospitalization and once I as on the mend, I wrote to a good friend (Susan Schultz) who had said she was curious to see how I would write about this experience. I told her I would not be able to write about it. Wrong. It took me quite some times to come to grips with what had happened, and to understand that all of my subsequent writing would be infused with that experience. Slowly Becoming Awake begins a short time prior to my illness, has a period of interruption/no writing, and resumes after the illness. It’s very odd to me that just prior to the illness, the last pre-illness writing, one full week prior to the diverticulitis attack, includes these lines: none escape the suffering destined to be with you it takes up residence within you its exact nature changing you from within.
MS: And I love to see this line, Dogen, you have in one of your poems, bright as that picture you sent, a blazing thing: “The power of continuous practice is itself rejoicing.” (Dogen, 347) And, taken as an instruction to keep waking up, this line of continuous practice as rejoicing feels not too different than saying: “as a life always in the cross-hairs”
Hank: Well, perhaps a little bit different… Cross-hairs still carries with it a sense of death as something perilous, the peril (every moment) of being alive, wherease Dogen’s beautiful sentence is a purely enlightened rejoicing. Clearly, I have a ways to go..!
MS: Jazz infuses your work at times. Sometimes it appears as content, but in keeping with our focus on consciousness/insight, I expect you approach it more as a poetic form/mode of perception. Can you share about that here, specifically the kind of mind jazz cultivates? (Ah!–and just as I type the word “jazz,” the first V of winter-wayfaring geese goes honking by…)
Hank: I really began to develop a passionate interest in jazz in 1967. When I was a freshman in college, my hall senior advisor (Guy Eustice, who remains a good friend to this day), had a great record collection, and he began introducing me to a range of great jazz and blues artists. I became especially devoted to B. B. King, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. And Jimi Hendrix. A year or two later, I saw Miles live twice; this was at the time of Bitches Brew. Over the next 40 years, my taste in jazz has broadened somewhat. There was a span of two or three years when I listened over and over to everything I could find by Thelonious Monk. Listening to Monk deeply influenced the writing of Days (written 1994-95, published in 2002). A few short years ago, I taught an entire seminar on Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I have gradually developed a taste for free/improvisational jazz – in part, through my friendship and collaboration with soprano saxophonist / composer Andrew Dewar. Andrew brought Anthony Braxton to campus for a week of concerts, and getting to meet and hang out with Braxton was an honor and an inspiration. John Zorn – in his many manifestations and styles – has been another key influence. The short version: the adventurousness I find in jazz has inspired me and given me the confidence to explore new ways of writing, most especially the improvisatory nature of my shape-writing.
MS: An aside that may be useful or not…see what happens…: I understand that as a college student you tended towards mathematics; did this include playing music? Did you play, do you play?
Hank: As a child, I studied piano & music theory for about 10 years (mostly unwillingly, preferring to play sports; eventually, when I was in my teens, I broke a finger in each major sports season – football, basketball, baseball – and that ended my piano studies). As for math – yes, that’s what I was good at throughout high school, and I began college as a math major (English was my worst subject in high school), drifted through pre-med classes (including a course taken at the Medical School), and ended up an English major at Stanford. Only in my last quarter in school (1971) did I take a poetry writing class (from Thom Gunn, who was a great teacher). The continuity becomes clear when one thinks about the phrase “experimental poetry.” Same as in science – a testing out of what happens when one or more of the variables is changed…
MS: And you have mentioned new music too—minimalist music like Reich and Glass…which brings to mind John Taggart’s work too…What possibilities have these musicians opened up for you?
Hank: A flatter form of musicality that remains lyrical and beautiful through slight modulation which invokes deeper and deeper modes of attention? Careful attention to what at first seems like repetition, but the closer one listens, the more that slight difference and singularities emerge.
MS: You have been performing more—with a saxophonist(?) And with an installation artist who works with light(?) Can you tell us more about these different collaborations?
Hank: Truth is, for collaborative work, I have to be opportunistic and take advantage of what options present themselves. One of the most fruitful collaborations has been with soprano saxophonist / composer Andrew Raffo Dewar (who performs with various Anthony Braxton ensembles and studied with, among others, Steve Lacy). We perform improvisations of various Notebooks pages, and we have performed in Tuscaloosa (see photo below, from January 2012), in Havana, Cuba, and in Athens, Georgia.
There is no fixed way to perform the improvisations. It is a malleable, elastic relationship between the words and the saxophone. It definitely is not the case that we have the music illustrating and simply re-enforcing the words. Just as with the quotations on the page, the possibilities for the relationship to the text is infinitely malleable. We look over a page together, we rehearse, we talk and play through ways to play the page, and each performance and recording will be somewhat different (and somewhat the same). More recently, I’ve had the opportunity to rehearse and perform with legendary Birmingham guitarist Davey Williams. This past year, we played a couple of concerts in Tuscaloosa. I really hope that Davey and I can record some of our work together!
With Brush Mind: At Hand, I worked with multimedia installation artist Jane Cassidy to create a video version of the book, and I had three different composers (Michael Harp, pictured below in performance, October 2017; Holland Hopson; and Andrew Raffo Dewar) create 9:30 pieces to fit the video. I am currently working with Jane and Holland on the video/music version for Brush Mind 2: Second Hand.
MS: Can you share some perspectives about that process? Is it improvisational? Practiced beforehand? How collaborative—do you entwine existing words or make new work together on the spot?
Hank: Yes. All of the above. For each piece/improvisation of a given Notebook page, I prefer to project an image of the page so that the audience can see what we are working with. Most of the time, we have rehearsed and developed a tentative pathway through the page, though the place, audience, moment will lead to a different version each time. With Davey Williams, we would in our concerts perform (or, more accurately, rehearse publicly) pages that we had never played before. Certainly a good way to be alert and in the moment!
MS: Any new collaborations in the works?
Hank: Yes – collaborations for various iterations of Brush Mind; perhaps concerts with Davey Williams and Andrew Dewar and Holland Hopson; and a choral concert in April where the University of Alabama chorus, under the direction of Andrew Minear, may perform some pages from Slowly Becoming Awake (N32); possibly a performance with percussionist Justin Greene and flute player Nathaniel Trost.
MS: Rather than close, let’s open—what material, what questions (perhaps those even still wordless, still emerging) are forming for you for at midwinter?
Hank: I am thinking increasingly about the nature of time. Reading the work of quantum gravity physicist Carlo Rovelli (currently, I’m reading Reality Is Not What It Seems) has been quite provocative. I am also beginning to print canvases of various pages from the Notebooks – perhaps for sale or for gallery/museum shows. The first two canvases were printed by my hair dresser (Kim Kyzer), and we are currently planning a reading/conversation to take place in the hair salon. I continue to look for ways to change radically the nature of poetry readings, as the standard approach to readings makes little sense to me when it comes to the polyvocal indeterminate malleable nature of the Notebook pages. I’ll have an opportunity in February to explore some reading/performance possibilities when I go to the University of Kansas.
MS: Really love this revision of the poetry reading, how you’re finding new spaces for this kind of happening to unfold in, and of course opening it up into conversation not a monologue, making space for more voices. Well, Hank, will close with thanks–and with that “radiant gist” pic you sent after you left sesshin: