Interviews by Chris Mansel

This blog contains interviews with extraordinary writers, artists, and activists.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Interview With Hank Lazer

What is the earliest tender moment you experienced, and how did it change you?

Hank Lazar: 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 self-expression.

Chogyam Trungpa said, “Buddhism will come to the West as a psychology.” Do you think this is the case or has the true feeling of selflessness actually occurred in our culture?

Hank Lazer: Perhaps Buddhism will come – or has come – to the West as a psychology, or as a philosophy, or as poetry, or as a meditation discipline, or as a new hybrid sort of religion (as it has entered and met with our cultural conditions). The categories themselves blur. The particularities, the singularities of experience, come and go. That true feeling of selflessness itself comes and goes. As for the feeling of selflessness becoming a key value and revered accomplishment in our culture? Obviously not. The current war (in Iraq) shows how far away we are as a culture from anything like selflessness. It is a war based on arrogance – based on a narrow sense of “our” righteousness. Think how far the war expenditures could have gone toward ameliorating hunger, or poverty, or lousy education – here, in the US, or throughout the world. We have not – as a culture – learned how to give freely. Clearly, though, Buddhism has arrived in the US – particularly in the western US (including Hawaii). Purists may debate whether or not it is a “true” or “rigorous” Buddhism. So, again, the labels may be part of the problem. Something has arrived and developed – some collision and collusion, some generative interaction of Buddhism and elements of western culture. In the area of poetry, of course, there are many examples of the importance of Buddhist thinking in our writing – Gary Snyder, Norman Fischer, Jake Berry, Armand Schwerner, and many others. The writing of poetry itself can become a means – a site, a portal – for accessing and dwelling in (temporarily) that locale of selflessness. Certainly the language and its pre-existing specificities as well as the many traditions of writing are well beyond the doings of an individual “self.” Consider too the wonderful (and at times frustrating) way that the best writing often is not a matter of will but of receptivity, of knowing when and what to listen to, of learning when and how to follow the suggestions of a few words that are given to one…

What do you feel is the anatomy of a poet? What makes some write, and others not?

Hank Lazer: I don’t think there really is such a thing as “the anatomy of a poet” other than the fairly obvious notion that a poet is someone with a particular fascination with words, someone who has experienced the peculiar depth and mystery of language (and its intimate relationship to human consciousness). As for what makes some write and others not – I think that it must remain a mystery. I tell myself – I try to learn it – that from appearances – say, looking at a line of people in a restaurant or at a sporting event – I know nothing about them. Poets may tend toward a certain seeming casualness (or understated melancholy) of dress, but then there might be a Wallace Stevens, or an Emily Dickinson, or there goes Dr. Williams. Or, there goes John Coltrane, playing amazing sax in his coat and tie. Plenty of people do dabble in poetry – and I think that’s a good thing. Why shouldn’t art-making be an accessible activity? But the more perplexing mystery is trying to determine who might persist at the activity (and why). 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).I 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).

Where do you suppose the self-destructiveness trait comes from that occurs in so many writers?

Hank Lazer: From frustration, as a consequence of marginalization, and from succumbing toa dangerous set of culturally romanticized stereotypes. First, the frustration and maginalization routes. A writer, particularly a poet, places himself in an odd position in relation to dominant cultural value. A poet decides to value certain kinds of somewhat aimless, impractical, non-money-making activities, and he decides to make room and time in his life for these activities. Furthermore, he’s apt to be pursuing a rather elusive mode of language – not necessarily the direct, communicative, “useful,” commercially manipulative kind of language skill that society readily appreciates and rewards (in advertising, in journalism, and in other modes of persuasive and/or manipulative writing). So, what he’s doing with his time is aberrant – hard to explain. And yet, if he is really engaged in a serious and profound relationship to poetry, he does have certain sporadic validating experiences – a sense of connection to a longstanding human enterprise of considerable wisdom, joy, and pleasure. The self-destructiveness may arise as a gesture of anger and frustration, arising from a sense that one’s primary life activity is not appreciated or understood or respected. The self-destructiveness becomes an act oddly complicit with that ignoring and marginalizing by the society at large, while it is also a somewhat desperate call for attention and significance. 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.

If it is true that human beings are the only beings that can hate, then why are we the only species that feels a need for spirituality?

Hank Lazer: Perhaps to atone for our experience of hate? Perhaps, though, spirituality can be thought of as something intrinsic to us – not something “added” that we must seek. In the sense that Hebrew has no word for “religion” – since the experience of “religion” or of being “religious” is so integral to the (Biblical / Jewish) experience of being alive, that a separate word or concept does not occur. We begin by having some sort of consciousness. That consciousness is already a powerful, palpable, but utterly invisible element of our existence. Why wouldn’t we want to extend the realm of the invisible into something called “spirituality”? Why not develop concepts and modes of interaction with the spiritual?

What to you is required reading?

Hank Lazer: Increasingly, I find myself thinking about this – i.e., what is essential or crucial reading – in a couple of ways: when you go on a trip, and you can only take a few books with you, which ones do you pack? Or, honestly, which books/authors do you really return to again and again over the years? For me, the list includes: George Oppen, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan. I also think of listening to music as a kind of reading. Hence: John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. Of course, there are many others – as the need and as circumstances dictate. And over the years, there have been many other writers I’ve learned from and who have been of great value to me. And I would give a different list if I were asked to recommend a basic reading list for someone else – and the list would depend on the person’s needs and circumstances. But for the time I have, and for my current needs, the list above is fine.

3 Comments:

At 3:59 PM, Anonymous David Gitin said...

Well said, Hank, and I agree with your perspective, even your favorites!

 
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