The Argotist Online
Norman Fischer Interview
Fischer is a poet
and Zen Buddhist priest. For many years he has taught at the San Francisco Zen
Center, the oldest and largest of the new Buddhist organizations in the West,
where he served as Co-abbot from 1995-2000. He is presently a Senior Dharma
Teacher there as well as the founder and spiritual director of the Everyday Zen
Foundation, an organization dedicated to adapting Zen Buddhist teachings to
was a member of a lively group of Bay Area poets in the 70's and 80's, and
participated widely in readings, publications, and poetry performances during
those years. He's collaborated with musicians and dancers to create at Green
Gulch pageants for Buddha's Birthday and Parinirvana Day (Buddha's death day),
annual events that have become San Francisco Bay Area institutions. He has often
participated with the Beat Generation poets, especially Phil Whalen, Gary Snyder
and Michael McClure, close friends and mentors of his.
His collections of poetry include Questions/Places/Voices/Seasons, Slowly But Dearly, I Was Blown Back, Like a Walk Through a Park, On Whether or Not To Believe in Your Mind, The Devices, Turn Left in Order to Go Right, The Narrow Roads of Japan (and Success,
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.
HL: I’d like to hear, Norman, about your experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, particularly your friendships with various Bay Area Language Poets. What I’d like to explore is the story of your early involvement in poetry, from your schooling at the University of Iowa’s MFA program, to early Language days in the Bay Area, to your turn toward intense training in Zen Buddhist practice. Did the training in Zen take you away from the Bay Area poetry writing community for a period of time? Did you continue writing poetry during your early training in Zen?
NF: Good question. This would be a 500 page memoir about my life and the lives of my friends in San Francisco in the early 1970’s (see Grand Piano). But I could never write that memoir because most of this stuff I hardly remember, it is mixed up in my mind. I seem not to have much of a sense of history, personal or otherwise, though I am very interested in history, and the past, as a proposition. 1970’s: Those were the days of tremendous freedom and so tremendous change. We did not know what we were doing, and the possibilities, and the various necessities, were almost endless. People coming and going all the time so that I think now it is nearly impossible to keep track.
I graduated from college in 1968 and went immediately to Iowa City where I was a student in the Writers’ Workshop. I had written prose in college, poetry was not that interesting to me, I found it difficult to understand, and it struck me as over-elaborate. I did not come from an educated background, I had a very common-sense view of reality. So poetry was odd, but prose made sense and that is what I wrote, under the influence of my undergraduate writing teacher Frederick Busch, who was a good young writer at the time, and continued to write well, until he died a few years ago. I always appreciated Fred and stayed in touch with him for a while. I had a lot of theories about writing and Fred would always say, forget the theories, just write something. I found out, just this year, that Fred had died a few years ago. I was reading something and it referred to “the late Frederick Busch,” so it was a bit of a shock to me, realizing I had never got around to reconnecting with him and that now I never would.
Howard Fineman, who is always on television (he is a political pundit for MSNBC and senior Washington Editor of Newsweek) was also, as I recall, writing prose in those days, and was one of the small circle of us around Fred. Anyway, all this explains why I went to Iowa City and was a fiction student. But it didn’t work out very well. I came to Iowa City with the idea of participating in a community of serious writers who were interested in language, in experimentation, in meaning, in thinking, and so on. But no one there seemed to be interested in any of that. They were almost all older than I was, and what they were interested in was finding agents and making connections. From my present perspective this doesn’t seem so bad or so surprising. It makes sense. But at the time I was completely bewildered by it. To me a party was a party, you went there to see your friends. At Iowa there were a lot of parties whose purpose was not to see your friends but rather to network and so on, to get someplace. People were very experienced with all this, very worldly; I was a small town kid, very ignorant, out of my element and my depth. I was baffled by it all and never got the hang of it.
On the other hand, though, the poets at Iowa made sense to me. They were doing much more what I was trying to do. So even though I was officially a fiction student I mostly hung around with the poetry gang. It was the time when Ted Berrigan and Anselm Hollo were both at Iowa and there was a marvelous scene around them that I became part of. I met Barrett Watten and we became good friends. I met Alice Notley then, when she was first getting together with Ted, and I was close also to Sandy Berrigan, Ted’s first wife. I know all these people still, though I don’t see them as much as I wish I did. They are family friends. (Well Ted of course died long ago, and I only run into Anselm when I go to Naropa; Alice is in Paris but I always see her when I am there). Bob Harris was a great star at Iowa then. He was Ron Padgett’s cousin, and, like Ted and Ron, had to do with Tulsa Oklahoma, and the very hip New York school. I had heard of none of this stuff before coming to Iowa, so I was fascinated and amazed. Barry was up to something very different and I really admired his work and his intelligence, though I am not sure I understood it. Bob Perelman was there too, but to tell you the truth I can’t remember if I knew him then, maybe I met him later. In any case, he and I remain close and see each other with some frequency.
So I learned a lot in Iowa City but not what I expected to learn. I figured I would write novels and win prizes (how this would come about was very vague in my mind) but it turned out that I actually was not made to do this. Instead, a whole new world opened up, baffling, but baffling in a positive way. The one prose writer there with whom I resonated was Gina Berriault. She was a wonderful person, quiet and deeply sincere. We became quite close. I was finishing up at Iowa and another hot summer was coming and I didn’t know what to do, because I hated the hot summer and I figured there was no escape. As far as I knew, all places on the planet are too hot in the summer. I was used to being miserable in the summer. But Gina was from the Bay Area and she told me that it never gets hot there in the summer. San Francisco is never hot. I found this an astounding fact. So for this reason, and because I heard you could study Zen meditation there, and because it was 1970, and because I had no idea how I was going to become a famous writer, I moved to San Francisco. Maybe I knew that Barry and Bob were there, maybe not, but they were there, and I made contact with them, and pretty soon their friends became mine, and it was a tremendous group of people, as everyone now knows, Barry, Bob, Leslie Scalapino (a very close friend, who just died, sadly with so much more great work to do), Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Steve Benson, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, Erica Hunt, Tom Mandel, Rae Armantrout, Norma Cole, Jean Day, Laura Moriarity, Jerry Estrin, Alan Bernheimer, Bob Grenier, and many more, it was really something. All kinds of writing and experimenting, events, readings, an explosion of it.
As usual, I was dazzled and bewildered. I always felt as if I was on the margins of all this. For one thing, I was married and had children, very unusual at the time. (Lyn had had children). For another, I was seriously involved in practicing Zen, and, probably most importantly, I felt (and still feel) as if all these people were much smarter and more knowledgeable than I was certainly about writing and poetry and the arts in general, but also about everything else. They read Wittgenstein, Saussure and so on. I learned about all that stuff through them, and came to read a lot of it myself because it seemed to be really interesting and important. I was drinking it in, washing my mind in it. Whereas they were actually able to explain it and make use of it and even to criticize it. I say “they” as if they all shared a point of view. That’s of course too simple. But there was some shared ethos. We were self consciously another generation--we were not the New York poets (because we were from San Francisco, and that must be different) and we were not the Beats. We were not going to be the heroes of our own Romantic picaresque novels and poems, and we were not going to drink, beat our wives (or be beaten), and run naked in the streets. Thanks to the Beats who did that for us. No we were going to think about things and read and write--also we were going to be ethical and political, thinking about society and culture in a serious way.
I’ve referred to my study of Zen; maybe I should say a little more about it. Zen was an important part of the intellectual scene then, late 1950’s on. D.T. Suzuki had been in New York and had had a profound influence on the arts scene there, Cunningham, Cage, Kline, many others. The whole idea of performance art, of improvisation (which was at the heart also of the be-bop jazz players’ work) of immediacy, which was seen as anti-traditional, anti-conventional, was related to Zen. So Zen was in the air. It was read as more or less existentialism without the angst. It was natural for me as an undergraduate then to find Zen interesting. There was the arts angle, but also (as I later came to realize) the religious angle. As a boy I had been obsessed with death, and all religion is about death. So I was pretty religious as a kid. I grew up as an observant Jew, I prayed regularly, I led prayer, I was a kind of child prodigy in this. Though I always valued it, and never rejected it, as soon as I left home I was on to other things. But it turned out that these other things led me back to religion. So when I found that you could actually study Zen in San Francisco, there was a meditation practice, I instinctively wanted to do this.
I had a real drive and passion for it. It was much more than a passing interest. I had a lot of suffering that needed to be addressed--even though I had no actual reasons to suffer. I was a romantic though, and also very vague in my thinking, so I had no plan to go to a Zen Center and become a student. I thought I’d learn how to meditate and do that on my own until I became enlightened, just like in the books. I didn’t like gurus and Zen masters. I didn’t imagine that I needed them. So that’s what I did, living as a hermit in Northern California for a few years, meditating intensely and regularly, going on hikes, backpacking in the mountains, writing, working as little as possible, being alone a lot. But after a while I got tired of doing odd jobs to earn a living and decided I should use the rest of my Danforth Fellowship (that had paid for my Iowa MFA) studying Buddhism in Berkeley. It was then that I became active in the Zen Center there and later went to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. I never wanted to become a Zen priest (God forbid!) or a Zen professional but I somehow got forced into it.
Many of the other poets in that time and place were also influenced by Zen--maybe all of them. Leslie Scalapino was a serious Zen person who practiced and based much of her thinking on Zen; Steve Benson and Kit Robinson practice now; Bob Perelman did for a while; Barry’s cousin Martin was a major Buddhist, and a close friend of mine. But I was the only one who took Zen on thoroughly, and this made me different from the others; I think it diminished the effort I put into poetry, though I was always writing. (My teacher would tell me not to write, and I would say certainly, but then I would always write, though not so much, because the monastic schedule is very demanding). So I had a double focus. I was writing, and I was also not writing, I was silent. One of my favorite writers, since Iowa, was Philip Whalen. So I was astonished one day when I went to the Zen Center in San Francisco to have the door opened for me by him. I recognized him right away from his picture on book covers. Phil and I became very close from then on until the end of his life in 2003. I am his literary executor. We lived near each other both in San Francisco and at Tassajara. He was enormously important to me, giving me permission, as a poet, to become a Zen priest.
So all this Zen stuff was going on but I was also always staying connected to the writers. My connection to writing and those writers in particular, whom I love still, saved me from Zen, which could have been deadly. And my practicing Zen saved me from what might have happened if I had pursued poetry only (because I am sure my romanticism and stubbornness would have made a life of poetry ruinous for me). So I am extremely lucky to have survived more or less intact.
HL: I’m curious about your sense of the relationship between meditation and writing poetry. Has your sense of their relationship been an evolving, changing understanding?
NF: In the 1980’s I organized two very different conferences on this topic, one at Green Gulch Zen Temple in California (where I was director) and one in New York, when I was living at the Zen Community there. The one in California was a big public event, with an extravagant performance at the end (I remember Gary Snyder was there, Anne Waldman, many others). (An issue of Andrew Schelling’s magazine Jimmy and Lucy’s House of K memorialized this event, an important document). But in New York we had a private convocation. People delivered papers and gave talks. My friends from San Francisco must have given me the names of people to connect with because we had quite a remarkable group that included Charles Bernstein (this is how I first met Charles, whose talk included a statement about why he would never meditate). Armand Schwerner was there, as was Jackson MacLow.
I remember Jackson arguing that there was no connection between meditation and writing, they were like apples and oranges, and that is was dangerous to mix them up. He used the word “chary,” which to me is a great word. That he was “chary” of bringing the two practices together. I think this is because meditation is associated with authority, with religion, and the writing he was interested in (and we were all interested in) violated authority and always aspired to be wide open. Jackson was so sincere and intense! I loved him dearly, he was a great man.
Anyway, to me there was some relationship between meditation and writing. Not necessarily theoretically but in my life. There was an anthology that came out in the 1980’s called Beneath a Single Moon that included writers who were Buddhists, and everyone made a poetics statement, mine was about meditation practice I think. The gist of it was that meditation practice was wild, it cleared the mind of preconceptions and opened the mind up. Then you could be more ready to write. Certainly this was and is true for me. Before I was practicing meditation I had a hard time grappling with my mind in writing. I kept getting in my own way. It was pretty frustrating, I didn’t have so much joy in writing. I suffered a lot. But meditation practice freed me up from myself and made it much easier and much more joyful to write. It helped me to release my grip on myself. I could be a lot more spontaneous and expansive. And fearless. Jackson, by the way, meditated almost every day of his life. And his whole project as an artist was to free himself from himself.
HL: How and when do you go about writing poetry? If we take your most recent book as an example, you have a strong commitment (as I do) to exploring ways of writing poetry that differ considerably from one another. How do you go about deciding how to proceed?
NF: I write when I can. It used to be daily, but in recent years my schedule has become more demanding, and now I can only write in the margins. This isn’t good, isn’t sustainable for me, so I am going to have to figure something out. Like probably all poets my writing comes out of reading, and reading may be a form of writing and vice versa. So I am reading something important to me and then at some point in reading I am drawn to writing. It is a nearly physical sensation that I have come to be very sensitive to. And along with it comes a shape, a sense of form, which doesn’t so much “come along” with it as much as it is it, so that the writing begins with a shape or a form, which constellates a sound and a subject matter, so to speak, if my writing does have a subject matter--anyway a tone, a tone of voice.
It all seems to be there already, to have grown out of the unconscious (let’s call it that, though I am doubtful of that term, as if the mind were a container, with unconscious at the bottom, whereas I doubt the mind is contained) and I begin to write it. Sometimes I do have a vague sort of plan that goes along with all this, augments it. For instance, the idea of filling a particular notebook (you know this one, Hank); or of writing long prose sentences, or short lines, or using certain kinds of words, or not using certain kinds of words, and so on. My plans tend to be very simple-minded. Whatever I do, when I begin there is always a sense of exhilaration to it and a joy. It is not difficult at all. This is not to say that I am a “first thought best thought” guy. Not at all. I do lots of rewriting and shaping. And even more throwing stuff away that doesn’t work--that was just a bridge to get me to the next thing that would work.
And I am always trying to think about how to write. As if starting over again. So that I am using different modes all the time and seem to resist doing what I know how to do, resist using modes I may think I have gotten good at. In some visceral way, my feeling is that everything I have written is unsuccessful, and that now, today, as I write, I might find out how to do it right, in a completely different way. Of course I know I never will. Still, I have that feeling--that writing is essentially inexpressible and mysterious, and one is always trying to figure out how to do it and never quite getting there. That there is something absolutely essential to be expressed but one can’t ever quite express it. So it always feels like finding a new way to write, starting completely over again on a new tack.
It reminds me of the first Zen bodhisattva’s vow “sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” First, they don’t need to be saved. Second, if they are “numberless” how could I save them all? So with writing. First, no one needs me to write, there are enough great writers already. Second, I must do this, and will always fail, yet this doesn’t matter. I will continue to believe that I will get it right the next time and this belief will keep me going. It strikes me that writing (at least writing as I view it, experimental--if that is the word, though I am sure it is not--writing) is a faith. An irrational faith. Really, it is a religion for writers, writing. Writing, you feel whole. Not writing, you feel sinful, unholy, incomplete, guilty, not right. Even if no one is paying money or attention, and you are not getting anywhere at all, you have to do it. I was thinking this the other day, talking to the many good friends, poets, who were at Leslie Scalapino’s funeral, a full on Zen Buddhist funeral at which I was officiating: that religion is essentially an imaginative practice. As writing is. It’s not “real” in the sense we commonly use that word. Writing is also not real. And yet it is essential.
One more thing about re-writing. I do not have a theory or an intention about a work. As I said, it comes out of a feeling that is almost physical and some kind of vague or spontaneous plan. But once it comes out I have a sense of the integrity of the work. So I re-write to enhance the shape the work has taken of its own accord. I have learned to discern that shape and then I know how to improve it, knocking away extraneous bits (that usually come too much from my personality or my habitual stupid ideas) and adding fresh bits that will help. I write works in notebooks and then a lot of time goes by before I type them onto computer. I rewrite then. Then I set the work aside and rewrite again, probably several times. Refining. This could go on indefinitely. But at some point I stop.
I was lucky enough to have helped Philip put together some of his later books and I learned a lot from him about how to be picky and to refine and to cut and paste things together, as he always did. I have noticed though over the years--and this has come to me as a sort of surprise--that despite the radical non-intentionality of my works, and the fact that I have never been interested in expressing myself, or putting my personal stamp on what I write, naturally my works have my personality all over them, and my thoughts and feelings and so on. It is obvious that this would be so, and probably a good thing, since writing is not machine talking to machine, it is people talking to people about what people are concerned about. So of course although I have avoided writing about religion and meaning and death and language so on my writing is all about these things.
HL: If words for a poem arise during meditation, what do you do? Do you set the words aside?
NF: This almost never happens to me, maybe even never. I am not thinking about writing when I am sitting. In fact, I do not think about writing that much if I am not directly engaged in it. But if something did come into my mind I would just ignore it and keep on with my sitting. For me sitting is about abandoning everything and just being present. I trust that completely--and I trust that if a thought that is important crosses my mind it will come back to me when I need it. I don’t ever worry about preserving anything. What I need will come-- otherwise I guess I didn’t really need it. After all, my literary career isn’t much. No one is paying me or living and dying with my works. So I should have a good time writing them, and not worry about anything. I should be having fun, I should be joyful, in my writing, and I am more or less. And I hope that I am communicating that, cheering the reader up. Not by writing cheerfully about cheerful things but by writing with some sense of reality, and without any worry or fuss or angst about reality.
HL: What kinds of reading nourishes your poetry?
NF: I read poets that matter to me, and there are very many of these, and always more to discover. It impresses me that in a way, over all these years, I have read a lot, and yet actually I remain pretty ignorant, fairly unlettered, not so much different from the way I was when I got out of high school, having read almost nothing, and blinking my eyes looking out at the world, as if I had been in a cave for a long time. It feels the same now. Part of it may be because I seem to read like a caveman: I more or less eat what I am reading, I chew it up directly, for its sound and basic sense, I don’t seem to have much capacity to be critical, to understand how the work fits into the cultural conversation, what it means, what the point of it is, and so on. It’s as if I am completely mesmerized by what I read. And then I forget it almost completely, except for a general impression, which has indelibly changed me, but which I can’t explain.
I read contemporary poetry, all the writers who are my friends, and others; I read American and one or two European poets that I keep coming back to: Stein, Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Oppen, Creeley, Ashbery, Celan, Mandelstam, Nellie Sachs, Whalen. I read Dante and Shakespeare. I read Miyazawa Kenji. I read lots of Buddhist stuff and Western philosophy. I read in Judaism, Buber, Scholem, Sfat Emet. I keep coming back to Heidegger, who always stimulates me. I read contemporary theory. I read fiction sometimes, but not often. I like to read Dickens, Balzac, and the 19th Century Russian novelists. I like Saramago and Sebold and Murakami. At the moment for instance, I am reading Etel Adnan’s Paris, When It’s Naked; Leslie Scalapino’s Considering How Exaggerated Music Is; Charles Dickens’ The Mutual Friend; and Hegel’s Philosophy of History. (I usually read several things at the same time and mostly finish books I begin). Two things usually are going on in my reading: I am getting a sound and a sense of things, a shape, a flavor, a voice for things. And there are some ideas that are important to me.
copyright © Norman Fischer & Hank Lazer