The Argotist Online
Hank 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 poetry).
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.
For 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.
Lazer is Associate Provost for Academic Affairs and the Executive Director of the Creative Campus initiative at the University of Alabama.
has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg
Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A
Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s
Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket,
Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St.
Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.
He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.
His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.
JS:In your essay ‘Reflections on The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry’ you note Andrew Schelling’s observation (in his book The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry) that the influence of Buddhist writing is discernible among contemporary poets in their use of (as he phrases it) 'meaningless or non-sensical […] linguistic techniques brought to bear on the poetry'. This indeterminacy you see as having some sort of spiritual dimension. You elaborate on this by quoting John D. Caputo when he says of Derrida's use of the term “deconstruction” that it 'is a certain way of putting something that is also religious, but over which the religions do not have exclusive rights or hegemonic power, a way of freeing something religious from the religions'. You then see this as applying to the American poetic lineage from Emerson through Thoreau and Whitman onwards. Do you see any parallels to this Buddhistic influence outside of American poetics?
Yes, definitely. The range of
remarks that you link—Schelling's, my own, and Caputo/Derrida's—have
applicability to more than American poetics. I think that at a fundamental level
we are talking about ways of thinking and living that remain open, that are not
so much fixated on answers as on process. In
the case of Buddhism, I suspect that it is its non-dogmatic (or non-totalizable)
nature that many American poets (particularly those of an innovative or
experimental affinity) have found so appealing. A shift in attention toward process would also mean that
questioning and an ongoing activity of (perpetual) interpretation would not be
seen as undermining something but as in fact itself the location of an
energizing and profoundly human doing and making.
In your essay, ‘The People’s Poetry’ you say: ‘The more complicated and
intriguing issue about the evolution of Language poetry is not its relation to
the academy but rather the increasing diversity of literary production by the
major figures of Language writing. It has become virtually impossible to provide
any sort of coherent or axiomatic description of Language writing that
adequately represents the present’. Given this, is the term “Language
Poetry” still a meaningful label?
term Language poetry remains a meaningful label but mainly as a historical
marker that refers to a particular time of oppositional, community-based writing
in the 1970s and 1980s. As your question suggests, Jeffrey, I think that a present
tense use of the term Language poetry does not have much specific meaning.
As I hear many younger writers use the term—as in, "that poem
looks like Language poetry"—it becomes
a kind of caricatured term, a
In the same essay you mention the renewed interest that has arisen in innovative
American poetry for
‘autobiographical writing, the examination of new modes of lyricism,
and the re-investigation of a poetry of “spirit”’. In
each of these areas you note that, ‘poets—both those associated with
Language writing and others who have taken innovative paths not particularly
associated with the Language-writing communities—have established important
new modes of investigation’. You mention Robert Duncan and Jerome Rothenberg
and say that, ‘a closer examination of their poetry and poetics immediately
places us within writing traditions that are openly mystical, romantic, and, in
the case of Rothenberg, shamanic and magical—all qualities that are disturbing
to most innovative contemporary poets, many of whom have developed a poetics
more obviously reliant on tenets of cultural materialism and an anti-romantic
metaphysics’. Do you see any signs of a future synthesis of these two poetic
No, I don’t exactly foresee a conclusive synthesis of these poetics poles. Rather, I see the poles as providing a productive tension.
And actually there are quite a few very interesting poets now who are
quite innovative and engaged (perhaps in a skeptical or questioning or
investigatory mode) with issues of spirit.
An incomplete list (as any reader’s list must be?) would include recent
work by US poets Jake Berry, Lissa Wolsak, Donald Revell, Norman Finkelstein,
Peter O’Leary, Fanny Howe, Harryette Mullen, Norman Fischer, Andrew Schelling,
Dave Brinks, Rodger Kamenetz, Paul Naylor, John Taggart, Pam Rehm…
And then among European poets, one might begin with Edmond Jabès, or
Paul Celan… In mentioning Andrew
Schelling, I am reminded of his superb anthology, The
Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry (2005), a wonderful place
to begin to read the range of approaches (by way of Buddhism) to contemporary
engagements with spirit.
inherent romanticism or transcendental qualities of such writing will inevitably
be disturbing to more materially, culturally, and historically-based
experimental poets. These tensions
are hardly new. I think that
Charles Olson and Robert Duncan had a number of difficult times in the
friendship over these very differences.
there may not (and perhaps should not) be a way to reconcile or synthesize these
polarities, I think that there are modes of spiritual investigation that are
sufficiently heuristic and open-ended to be completely compatible with a
commitment to experimental writing. Perhaps
that linkage has been more fully explored by a range of western European
philosophical writers—Jacques Derrida, certainly, but also Franz Rosenzeig,
Emmanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. An absolutely superb book on this topic is Susan
Handelman’s The Slayers of Moses: The
Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory.
my own investigations, I begin to feel a confluence of mystical Jewish writing
(and rabbinic interpretation/hermeneutics), Zen Buddhism, Derridean philosophy,
and experimental poetry—the common thread being a deep-seated resistance to
doctrine (and to certainty generally), a commitment to an ongoing process of
change (in writing, in thinking, in interpreting), and an active opposition to
totalizable thinking. In my own
writing, particularly in the poetry, I am after a phenomenology of spiritual
experience—a writing that engages momentary experience and that embodies
particular intervals of consciousness.
those who are interested, you might wish to look at The New Spirit (Singing Horse Press, 2005) and a lengthy essay, ‘Returns:
Innovative Poetry and Questions of 'Spirit’,Facture 2 (2001):
though, I’m not at all pressing for a synthesis of the polarities you
describe, Jeffrey. What intrigued
me initially in exploring this topic is the way that many experimental writers
would laud the work of predecessors (such as Duncan and Rothenberg) while in
their own poetry completely avoiding any consideration of the kinds of magical
or romantic and spiritual concerns that provide much energy and depth to the
work of their admired predecessors.
You’ve written: ‘We now view poetry through the lens of innovation—a lens
ground from specifications that perhaps amount to a caricature of Language
writing and may short-change what is important. Thus, profoundly innovative and
idiosyncratic writing, such as the work of John Taggart, Jack Foley, Theodore
Enslin, Will Alexander, Hannah Weiner, and Jake Berry, barely receives attention
because it evades the principal contemporary groupings and taxonomies’. Is
this caricature of Language writing the result innovation for innovation’s
No, not really a result of innovation for innovation’s sake. I’d point to
two main forces for installing the caricature. First, more mainstream writers (particularly the older
writers entrenched in the US Creative Writing/MFA industry) who reacted (and in
many cases, continue to react though more covertly) against the threat posed by
poetry and poetics of early Language writing. The caricature presents a highly
fragmented, intellectualized poetry accompanied by a highly theoretical poetics
(and an affinity for reading theory and philosophy). The caricature suggests
that all emotion and all personal expressiveness have fled the scene of Language
poetry. Of course, such caricatures relied either on total ignorance of the
varied terrain of Language poetry (and extremely limited or totally non-existent
reading experience) or on one or two carefully selected extreme examples.
And the need to caricature came from the threat that the Language poetry
critique presented to the limited and limiting poetics and the narrowly
xenophobic power structures of the MFA industry.
recently though, Language poets themselves may have contributed if not to the
caricature itself then to an equation of Language poetry with innovative
(American) poetry, thus making it more difficult to locate and hear and read a
range of post-Language innovative poetries. Or, by considering itself somehow to
have been the last coherent experimental movement in American poetry, Language
poets, in tending the history and importance of their own earlier activity, may
become an impediment to innovation or an oddly authoritative source for anxiety
about “nextness” or a credible innovative movement that might be built upon
certain premises of Language poetry.
my own two areas of investigation—lyricism/musicality and new modes of
writing “spirit”—lie at the boundaries (or just beyond) of what Language
poetry has staked out as “approved” topics and approaches, and may point
toward areas and activities from which important new writing practices may
for the notion of “innovation for
innovation’s sake”, I don’t see that as a sustaining activity. In other
words, I just don’t believe that it occurs much at all, except as perhaps a
momentary, frustrated gesture (typically by a relatively younger writer).
It’s simply not a motivation that can be sustained in one’s writing.
Yes, it matters to seek out new forms, new ways of proceeding—writing as a
heuristic activity, but the newness itself must have some consequence, must have
some force or tension to it, must have some discomforting or engaging
questioning in order to be a process that opens out onto a fruitful way of
writing (for the writer and for others). The fact of its newness per se is of
What is your idea of “the
lyric” in poetry?
of the lyric is a relatively simple one, though hard to pin down in any absolute
definition. For me, “lyric”
means highly attentive to the musicality of the poem. Typically, lyric also gets linked to brevity, intensity, and
concentration, though of course longer poems can have their lyrical moments and
passages. I do not mean a tradition
of specific address in the poem—and this clarification came up years ago in
correspondence with Rachel Blau DuPlessis (whose particular sense of the history
of the lyric does emphasize the conventions – and the breaking of the
conventions—of address). The
musicality that I have in mind does not equate to singable writing per se—that is, lyric as in lyrics is not what I mean.
musicality that I have in mind is not of a singular type.
Over the past ten or so years, I’ve written about many varieties of
lyric and lyrical poetry. Those
efforts have included attention to the sounds and rhythms of the work of poets
as varied as Charles Bernstein, Harryette Mullen, John Taggart, Theodore Enslin,
bp Nichol, Nathaniel Mackey, Robert Creeley, George Oppen, and Rae Armantrout. In each case, I guess it’s fair to say that I’m
drawn to a sound that I find beautiful, compelling, and of interest.
common denominator is an audible particularity of attention to the sounds of the
words in the poem—an emphasis on their sounds as sounds (rather than the
words being principally the dutiful carriers of meaning). Part of why I’ve
written about various poets whose work struck me as having a noteworthy
musicality is that the act of writing about it, of articulating what catches
one’s ear and attention, turns out to be quite difficult.
It has led me to believe that in fact we each hear somewhat differently—which makes it all the more important to try to articulate what we hear.
That explanation, in part, serves as a means of providing other
readers/listeners with the possibility of a similarly pleasurable experience of
the poetry—of tuning us in, of attuning us to the sound of the poem.
© Hank Lazer & Jeffrey Side