The Argotist Online
(This interview also appears in Hanks Lazer’s Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008, and at Interviews by Chris Mansel, and is here reproduced with permission by Hank and Chris)
Lazer has published 15 books of poetry, most recently Portions
(Lavender Ink, 2009), The New Spirit (Singing Horse, 2005), Elegies
& Vacations (Salt, 2004), and Days (Lavender Ink, 2002). He edits
the Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series for the University of Alabama Press.
His poems and essays appear in American Poetry Review, Boston Review
and Virginia Quarterly Review (which awarded him the Balch Prize in
The New Spirit was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; Elegies & Vacations was nominated for the Forward Prize. Lazer has given readings and talks throughout the US and in China, the Canary Islands, Spain, Canada, Mexico, and France. Audio and video recordings--including readings from Portions and an interview for Art International Radio – can be found at Lazer’s PennSound website here.
the past four years, he has been working on a handwritten shape-writing project
called the Notebooks (of Being & Time). Lazer has collaborated
with jazz musicians Tom Wolfe and Chris Kozak on some jazz and poetry
improvisations, with outsider artist Pak on a series of poem-paintings, and with
animation artist Janeann Dill on a poetry-video installation project. Currently,
Lazer is working with book-artist Steve Miller and several Cuban book artists on
a fine press bilingual selection from his Notebooks project.
is Associate Provost for Academic Affairs and the Executive Director of the
Creative Campus initiative at the University of Alabama.
a writer, filmmaker, epileptic, musician, photographer and a permanent outsider
for some reason. He is the author of While in Exile: The Savage Tale
of Walter Seems, Soddoma: The Cantos of Ulysses, Ashes of Thoreau,
Interviews and two books of photography entitled, No Burden and Ahisma.
Along with Jake Berry, he formed the band Impermanence who have released one
album, Arito. He releases music under the name Dilation Impromptu who
have released four albums and have just released a new CD, The Strange White
Odor of Octaves Becoming Animals. His writing has been published on the web
in many sources..
What is the earliest tender moment you experienced, and how did it change you?
The problem, of course, is with what we remember, or, what, to serve present
purposes, we claim to remember. I can’t say that I have some particular
intense first memory of tenderness. No doubt, like other infants, I must have
early moments of tenderness – eating, caressing, fondling, eliminating,
sucking, making eye contact, etc. The earliest kinds of tenderness that I
experienced that in some way might have been idiosyncratic or somehow personally
defining would be associated with my grandparents. I grew up living close –
often on the same block, sometimes within a few blocks – to all four of my
grandparents. They were not quintessentially “sweet” grandparents –
particularly my mother’s parents, who were rather depressed, critical, and
moderately paranoid. But they did spend a good bit of time with me; they
indulged me; and, most importantly, since English was not their first language,
I acquired some of their fascination with language. I learned, somewhat, to see
and hear English through them. I remember them telling jokes – often turning
on a simple pun. I remember their accents – their first languages were Russian
and Yiddish. I remember their delight in humor – a complex quality of language
acquisition. Especially from both sides of the family, I felt a deep respect of
learning, of thinking, even a love of seemingly esoteric learning (for its own
sake). I remember their pride in reading. Eventually, they became the first
important subject for my poetry – rather conventional brief or extended
narratives telling elements of their history. These early poems can be found in
the first half, Book One: Facts and Figures of Doublespace: Poems 1971-1989 (New
York: Segue, 1992). Having this desire to tell their stories proved to be very
important, since from the outset my poetry was not particularly located in
I remember from the first poetry writing course I took in graduate school (at University of Virginia, taught by a Robert Lowell disciple), we were nearly all students in our early to mid-twenties. One student had, at age 21, published poems in Poetry magazine, and the teacher seemed to worship this student. A few years later, this person was no longer writing poetry. I think back to that class of fifteen students. Who writes today has nothing to do with the quality of writing done then (thirty some years ago). I’m not even sure that the cliché is true: if you enjoy it, you’ll continue. Or that the severe version of the cliché is true: when asked by a young poet, “should I continue to write poetry?” Auden supposedly replied, “if you can quit, do. ”It’s not as simple or clear-cut as either of these extremes suggest.
Personally, I am enamored of poets who have some stubborn, self-taught, non-institutional streak. But persistence – especially for those who receive little or no recognition for many years – is a tricky thing. An enemy of persistence: self-pity, a quality that often seizes the poet (as a kind of prolonged adolescent agony for recognition or approval). For me – and I did not publish a first book of poetry until I was 42 years old – the persistence comes from the fact that when I write certain poems, I am able to enter a space (like Robert Duncan’s “Often I am permitted to return to a meadow”) that has a palpable intensification to it, an emotional and intellectual power (simultaneously) that is addictive, that is a supreme pleasure, that feels like a temporary participation in something quite splendid (even if painful). I feel it as a full and best use of my being, so I continue to seek out that place, as a writer, but also most definitely as a reader too.
Could grace ever be achieved through a sudden impulse as opposed to re-writes and revision? I think that grace can only be achieved through a sudden impulse – being and living within the intensified present of the moment of composition. Yes, a great deal of practice – writing, revising, reading, studying, thinking – may go into the developing of the skills and resources and concentration that maybe of use in that moment of composition, but the achievement (or, perhaps more accurately, the experience) of grace will inevitably occur suddenly. Such a conclusion, though, does not mean that all of our efforts in writing are wonderful. There is, of course, an absolute mode of revision – “yes” or “no” – that allows us to throw out poems that are not especially good. And I have had plenty of experience re-writing and revising poems, sometimes with beneficial results. But for the most part, I find it very difficult to re-enter the space or field of the poem after much time has elapsed. Eventually, the highly specific integrity of that moment – including the peculiar rhythms and sounds that one heard at that moment – gets lost. Perhaps over the span of several days, I am able to tinker with some individual word choices, make some deletions, and occasionally make some substantial changes. But for the most part, the poem itself is an embodiment of a highly specific (usually brief) duration of consciousness – its concentration, its intensification, its specific music (i.e., the music of that specific thinking).
was relieved a couple of months ago to hear Robert
Creeley, in an informal discussion, articulating a remarkably similar view. Such
a viewpoint aligns poetic composition with jazz improvisation – an informed
composition in the present. It does not necessarily mean that “first thought
best thought” always turns out to be the case, but it does mean that the
present – the specific duration of composition – will be honored to the
utmost, the poem, among other things, being a record of attentive dwelling in
that specific duration of time. Should there be a specific role that spirituality
should play in art? Not really. I’d hate to be prescriptive – in regard to
spirituality, or in regard to any important element in the making of poetry or
art. I suppose that what I have tried to do with my own exploration of poetry
(and spirituality) is to be phenomenal. That is, to be truthful to the
inconstant, shifting experience of spirituality – as a kind of force, or
vector, or pressure, or presence (and disappearance), or immanence, or
contiguous relationship. To be truthful to the phenomena of that relationship.
It seems to me that if one works at an adequately profound level of awareness of
what’s at stake in art-making, spirituality will already be adequately woven
into the fabric of the making. Over time, over many years of engaging in a mode
of art-making, I think it’s important to embody or represent the elusive and
inconstant nature of the spiritual. As I’ve experienced it, it simply isn’t
something that’s available on demand. That’s part of why I’m suspicious of
any kind of formulaic or axiomatic pronouncement about how spirituality
“should” be present in art. Also, the nature and intensity of its location
will be ever-changing. And like any other important or intense experience, the
rhetoric or vocabulary of the spiritual may harden and become a merely repeated
or second-hand, tired, received set of markers (that may actually stand in the
way of a renewing experience).
Society at large – at least here in the US – establishes an interestingly ambivalent role toward the poet/artist. Most of the time, it’s business as usual: scorn, neglect, derision, lack of value. But then there is the flip-side: a compensatory romantic larger-than-life version (preferably made for the movies) of The Artist. This Artist is one who is – big surprise – too sensitive and volatile for this world. It is, in my opinion, a very dangerous and seductive model, particularly dangerous for the artist/poet who buys into it. This intuitive, somewhat childish artist figure – who can’t help himself, who has to pursue the truth of his art at all costs (including family, personal health, etc.) – is exactly what the society at large needs to comfort itself. That is, some reassurance that being an artist is a big mistake, though a grand enough mistake – entertaining enough – that we can witness the story every couple of years in a big Hollywood production. And then we can return the rest of our days to ignoring such individuals in our midst.
For the artist/poet, the self-destructiveness can be conformation to this
cultural stereotype of the “crazy” artist. Since it’s already a bit crazy
(in practical, capitalist America) to use your intelligence to pursue something
like poetry, why not go all the way and become that “odd” figure as in the
cinematic cliché? The result is an infantilizing identity: the artist/poet as
intuitive creature severed from a penetrating cultural and practical
intelligence. Personally, I find it hard enough to work with the nature and
complexity of making poetry. No need to pursue additional clichéd personal
drama (and self-destructiveness) just to make the story conform to a movie
script. The real drama is one that can barely be seen: an internal drama, a
drama of consciousness, the drama of wrestling with the issues, questions, and
realizations of making the poem. You don’t see those moments dramatized in the
movies. You see the scenes of drunken abuse; you don’t see the scenes of
someone sitting in a chair, staring out the window, writing down three words.
© Hank Lazer & Chris Mansel