Interviews by Chris Mansel

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

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Interview with Jake Berry, 2002

This was the first interview I conducted for this series. I began with jake Berry because of every writer I have known he has influenced me more and has been along with Hank Lazer a mentor to me. I asked the questions I wanted to know the answer to because first and foremost I am a fan.

How is your health?

Jake Berry: Physically, quite good, thank you. I've become a believer in exercise. Mentally, it varies; depression is a misnomer for a disease that seems to run in various kinds of cycles. But exercise is helpful there as well.

You told me once that if you thought someone would stage it you would
write a play? If this could come about what would your play be about?

Jake Berry: Recently Wayne Sides, hearing I was interested in writing a play, said if I'd write it he'd make sure it was performed. So I'll begin work on that in earnest soon. I think the play will begin as an adaptation of scenes and characters from a piece Jon, my brother, has been writing. I'd like to do something character and dialog driven.

You are a self-proclaimed hermit, how has this affected your

Jake Berry: For some reason unknown to me I have always been inclined toward a solitary existence. I regret this occasionally because it frustrates my friends. Still, one has to do what works best. Of course this means that I don't do that much collaborating. I'd never make it as a film maker. I have, however, written collaborative poems through the mail and e-mail and the Bare Knuckles recordings were very much a collaboration once we got into the studio, but this was in terms of production, the songs were already written. I also think that working alone might make one more inclined to go inward, and in my case the work became more visionary than it otherwise might have been.

At the Charles Olson festival in 1995 Vincent Ferrini stated that
Olson lived his body as a poem. Do you think you have done this?

Jake Berry: Well, one would like to reach a point where there is no longer any distinction between the poem and the poet. That would be the ultimate state of grace regardless of the emotional and mental complications. I'm not sure if I would say I live my body, perhaps my body lives me or that I am my body in this world, or that the word body could be a word that could be used to describe one's traceable existence in whatever world and whatever form. I'm not surprised that Vincent would say that about Olson, it makes sense given the way Olson wrote. It takes many years to get to the point where one vanishes into the work. I seem to be getting closer as I get older.

Speaking of Olson he has played quite a role in your writing, he
appeared to you in a dream once. How have your dreams been lately?

Jake Berry: Actually it wasn't a dream. I was not asleep. If you'd been in the room I could have heard anything you'd said though I might not have been able to respond. It's more one of those hypnogogic states. So Olson was actually there, that is to say, it was not an interior experience. Lately my dreams have been quite vivid and not always very pleasant. Nothing as profound as the Olson vision has happened recently, but poetry, at least in my case, so often proceeds from a condition that can not be said to be normal consciousness, whatever that might be.

When speaking of projective verse Charles Olson said, "One perception
must immediately and directly lead to a further perception", do you think
this can be said for any type of poetry?

Jake Berry
: Probably not, but that is the ideal condition. One room opens into another and into another and so on. Poetry is so many things to so many different kinds of poets that it would be impossible to make any kind of blanket statement. I think it is definitely true of projective verse. That one essay covers so much ground it's staggering. The first time I read it I was astonished that Olson had mapped it so well. I rarely mark in a book. I tend to copy quotes into a notebook, but I've got about half that essay highlighted.

What to you is essential reading?

Jake Berry: Since we're talking about him, Olson's essay on Projective Verse, his Maximus and several of his shorter poems. "In Cold Hell, In Thicket" is a tremendous poem. One needs to go as far back as possible. I've read several translations of Gilgamesh, that's a vital work. Homer is fundamental. Also the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Of the Roman period Ovid is best, at least I enjoy him more than Virgil. For shorter poems Sappho is always great, and I like Catallus. The great spiritual books are important. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Mesopotamian songs to Inanna, the I Ching, the great Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist works. Among those I love the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tibetan Books of the Dead and Great Liberation, and nothing can take you to the threshold of oblivion better than the Diamond Sutra, Lao-Tzu is essential. There are tons of Chinese and Japanese poets I've been reading recently. Shinkichi Takahashi is extraordinary. I still read the Zohar quite often. Among more recent works I like Blake and Baudelaire, Dickinson, Rimbaud, Artaud, Apolinaire. Mallarmé is delicious. Stein is in a class by herself. Samuel Beckett is always good. Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Yeats. Of course there are the Beats, I'm especially fond of Kerouac and McClure. There are also people I'd call essential that I am also very fortunate to know. Among them is Jack Foley, Ivan Argüelles, Hank Lazer, yourself, Dan Raphael, and I mentioned the book my brother is working on that takes on continental theory and goes it one better. I also like the novels of Paul Auster and the fiction as well as theory of Blanchot, the philosophy of Levinas, Heraclitus, Heidegger. The ancient writings of the the alchemists. Well, it goes on forever obviously.

Do you think a school could be constructed today like Black Mountain

Jake Berry: Absolutely. Though perhaps with better management. There needs to be schools like that all over the world. Jefferson had the notion that one should attend school until one felt one was educated then leave. Also a kind of master-student apprenticeship form of education, especially in the arts would be much better than most of the art schools we now have.

Sigmund Freud stated that, "A dream is the fulfillment of a wish." Do
you think in your case this is true?

Jake Berry: I have no idea. Freud seems to vacillate between brilliance and blindness. Of course a dream and a wish can be the same thing. What I've read of James Hillman seems to be more on the right track concerning dreams. Hmm, that statement is a conundrum to me.

You wrote in a poem entitled, Essay Empire Poets, "What a pitiful
destiny, singing with your tongue cut out." That's an interesting line
coming from someone who is both a singer and poet.

Jake Berry: Yes, well, one comes up against the limitations of language very quickly, especially in poetry. And for that reason poetry is a very pitiful calling. Yet, one must make words do what they are not inclined to do by their own nature, or rather, one must restore words to their original nature which is an embodiment of phenomena or noumena by way of the tongue. And the tongue lives in the written character and makes the characters vital and sacred.

Harry Polkinhorn described you as the "preeminent experimentalist of
your generation." Hank Lazer called you "William Blake in Alabama." Also,
Bob Grumman put it best I think when he called you a "paleo-neurologist."
Are there words to describe your writing or is there any need at all?

Jake Berry: These words are quite accurate to what each of these writers were saying at the time. They make their point. And that is the use of terms like these. The problem arises when people take them too literally, as absolutes, or that these are goals that I have tried to acheive. That is the problem with categories, and Bob Grumman and I have argued about this through the years, that catagories are too rigid and too legalistic to have anything other than transitory use, especially when applied to the arts.

The more experimental music you have recorded has it roots in many
places. Have you been fascinated by some of the places it has taken you? Did
you gain the same satisfaction when you performed this music as you did
writing it?

Jake Berry: Answering the first question: yes, I am fascinated by where it leads, that's the beauty of it, the reason for it. Which leads to the second question: the music is written on the spot. We usually set a key or a scale but everything else is completely improvised. it's ironic, performing a fully written piece isn't very exciting. it's almost a chore because you have to conform to the song enough to at least resemble the original. yet, to perform while you compose, though it would seem to add pressure to the situation, I find it completely liberating. at any rate, it's the creative moment that drives me. there's not much joy in repeating yourself.

You mentioned that by working in a solitary work ethic you are
inclined to work inward, in my own writing I have tried to limit myself to
the human body, yet there is no limit there. There is enough room there to
move around and never explore it all. Have you ever considered publishing
your journal or more personal writings?

Jake Berry: You're right about the human body. And you're work is the best example
I know of that kind of infinity. John M. Bennett does it too, but in a
completely different way, so that's apples and oranges. and the fact that
the human body allows such breadth and depth is testimony to it's richness. But no, I don't think I'd care to publish my journals because they wouldn't add anything significant. The work I publish is more personal than my journals and notebooks, and I often take sections from my notebooks and modify it somewhat for publication. If by personal you mean things one might write in a diary, I've never been able to do that, though I've tried many times. I think there are places in my songs that I touch on those emotions enough to allow them voice. otherwise my personal life is of little consequence. After all, I am trying to live the poetry. There's art and there's love, everything else is just waiting.

One song of yours I especially wanted to ask about is Maggie's
Soldier/Tom Clark. This is in my opinion the most ambitious song you have
written. Where did you draw the influence?

Jake Berry: Tom Clark was a notorious outlaw in north Alabama and south central Tennessee during the late Civil War early reconstruction period. When we began to write material for the first Bare Knuckles CD I thought it made sense to have a song about him. I looked around for a while, thinking that surely there was an old folk song about him, but nothing. So, I had to write one. I drew the song from a book called Bugger Saga by Wade Pruitt. The things that happen in the song actually happened. Then I wrote another song, "Maggie's Soldier", from the point of view of a young soldier on the battlefield discovering the girl he loved had been killed by outlaws and placed it before "Tom Clark" to lend perspective to it.

Do the creative forces that drive you to create ever try and disable you to prevent you from writing something you should or shouldn't? Is there a filter?

Jake Berry: Oh yes, I argue with the muse all the time. Sometimes I don't want to write something she is telling me, but she insists. Later, I usually discover what she was doing. There is a filter. I mean that the work is a kind of collaboration. Of course the line between muse and poet vanishes as one goes along. I heard Jean Cocteau say something recently in a documentary, that the muse or the god devours the poet. I think he's right about that.

Gerard Depardieu was asked why he became an actor and he replied that
he had always had a need to communicate. Why did you become a writer, or did the writing become you?

Jake Berry: When I first wrote poems, I think I was fourteen, I felt for the first time that I'd found something that I could do. It felt completely natural to me. So the choice was made. Poetry found me and I submitted gladly. I don't think communication really entered into it because I had no concept at the time about publishing, or that anyone would see it. It was only much later, when I was twenty-one that someone asked me if I'd published and it seemed like something I should do. One wants to give the work away, to make the work available to anyone who might find something in it. One wants to contribute something to the world, something beautiful. Perhaps it is a very strange beauty, but given that mediocrity seems to be the rule, perhaps all genuine beauty is strange.

Interview with Jake Berry, 2006

For some time now you’ve been working on the third installment in the Brambu Drezzi trilogy. How is the work going and are you nearing the end?

Jake Berry: Actually I finished Book Three over a year and a half ago and about a year ago I sent a reformatted, revised file of all three books as one volume to Barrytown/Station Hill publishers. A number of people have contributed substantial amounts of money to fund the project. The holdup seems to be that the person who needs to examine the file for formatting problems before passing it on to the printer has been occupied with work for other presses. It is my understanding that once it goes to the printer it should be released very quickly, but I have no idea when that will be.

Has this edition taken you into new areas that the previous two did not?

Jake Berry: Yes and no. The third book begins in a form similar to the final pages of Book Two, though most of the visual elements were hand drawn and scanned instead of doing the work on a computer. The second section of the book has some sources in Chinese poetry, especially Tang dynasty and the Zen/Tao poets Stonehouse and Cold Mountain and a travel journal written by Lu Yu. I didn't imitate them so much as read their work and then let it work the cauldron where everything else was happening already. The final section is primarily long intuitive and scatological verses accompanied by pertinent visuals that happened either at the same time or that tie into the poem in other ways. To my mind and ear Book Three isn't as avant-garde or experimental, or whatever term you want to give it, as the first two books. This isn't because I was trying to avoid that, or retreat from it. I did the work that was there to be done just as I always have. Who knows, the next book of Brambu might be wildly experimental, utterly traditional, or a mix of everything and nothing.

You wrote, “Perhaps it is best in art (or any attempt to realize things as they actually are) not to place too much faith in time, space, particular sets of dimensions.” Does this mean that an artist should direct their work towards the eternal and not the present?

Jake Berry: Well, the present is already the past by the time you paint or write about it. I think the point I was trying to make was that description and narrative ultimately fail to do what we assume they are supposed to do, which is to relate a time or place to us so vividly as to make that time and place available to us in our present. What happens is the individual reading, hearing, seeing the work recreates the time and place subjectively. They re-imagine it. So the time and place is never restored only re-imagined. The idea of the eternal is still an idea about time. It is time that never ends. There is the old notion of eternal ideals and so forth, enlightenment, rationalist thinking. Life, liberty, fraternity, equality and so forth. These are held out to be eternal human values. They are certainly noble values, cherished values, but that doesn't mean they are ideas that have always and will always be held valuable. The same extends to the idea of eternal art. There have been many ideas of what was eternally valuable in art. We are most familiar with the Greek and Roman ideas of beauty and those ideas resurface with different nuance periodically, but there are many more ideas of beauty in the West alone, not to mention the rest of the world, from primitive cave art to the flat iconography of the middle ages to modern abstract art. Are any of these ideas of beauty eternal? Are all of them eternal? I'm not sure that it really matters. Ultimately, all we can do use all of our faculties when we perceive and/or create art. Art should not necessarily be involved in time or space at all other than the physical space of their presence. Hopefully any art made will have significance, value, or most importantly, create a unique experience for anyone that engages it. Art will always have subjective meaning, but it can never have a universal definition. I'm just repeating 20th century open aesthetics here, but what has happened in the past 200 years or so has allowed us to value many more kinds of art, to be receptive to multiple points of view from many different kinds of society and many different kinds of individual. Distinctions, boundaries and so forth are very useful. Time and space are valuable ways of breaking reality into discreet units so that we can image them as hours and days, protons and electrons, but their meaning is always provisional. Art should not disregard these dimensions, but it should not be limited by them either. There is always another, an elsewhere and an opening toward that which can only be experienced in art. With words like I am using now we can only say "opening toward." We can't say toward what because that is something that words like this cannot do because of the way they are designed to work. I can write coherently, but I cannot write coherently about something for which coherence is irrelevant.

Your work has an interesting way of blending theory, science, blues music and the simple desire to step a bit further ahead of yourself. Every writer is confronted daily with their own mortality, how do you combine all of your influences into the work you do with this in mind?

Jake Berry: Sometimes I wonder how often other people think about their own mortality. I just heard about someone in apparently good health dying suddenly. I didn't know her, but she was close to some of my friends. At any point during her last day did she think about her own death? Does it matter? Would it have helped her? You and I have spoken about this before, that death is always near and you always need to be aware of its presence. There must be a way to be comfortable with death without lying to yourself about it (believing literally in myths and so on), but it is so easy to get caught up in the things you are doing that you tend to postpone that confrontation. It leads to thinking on the order of, "I know I will die. But I won't die today, and I probably won't die for several, maybe many, years." When you are young or middle-aged you can think like that and the odds are in your favor. Still, last week alone, over 30 people died in Tennessee as the result of tornadoes. Most of them probably weren't thinking about dying until they heard the sirens, heard the storms. Perhaps they had no time to think about anything. It is important to bring this awareness into the work. I don't mean that I'm despondent about it, or fearful. Death is one of the realities from which we can't escape and it is reality that I want to engage. Death is one of the presences in what I do. There is also joy, humor (most people miss that), ek-stasis, intuition, and a million other levels of experience. All of it involves the im-mediate, the un-mediated experience of the world.

Years before the Internet you received letters from those who had read your work, now with the Internet your work is readily available. Were the letters you received before the accessibility that exists more inquisitive than those you receive now?

Jake Berry: There are limitations on the web that can be frustrating. Every poet I post at the 9th St. Blog that has a poem that requires something other than left justified text finds his or her poetry published in a form different from what they intended. Books have similar limitations. I have had to reformat pages of Brambu for journals smaller than 8 1/2 x 11 inches several times and I had to reformat the combined edition of all three volumes of Brambu to a smaller size so that bookstores would be able to easily stock it on their shelves. So what people see of my work on the web is sometimes different than the way I originally designed it. The good thing is that the web can include color. With a book that is almost impossible for a book of poetry unless you have a large audience willing to pay $30 or more for a book of poetry and I know very few living poets in that situation. After all that complaining though, the answer to your question is: No, I don't think that the letters I received then are any different from the e-mail and letters I receive now. The difference is that now the pace of correspondence has increased dramatically. I have discussions with people over the course of a week that would have taken more than a month back then, or longer. That is an improvement as far as I'm concerned. The downside is that you can do nothing but spend all your time exchanging e-mail if you aren't careful. You have to pace yourself and weave the e-mail in with the time you spend working on poems or writing and recording songs and poems, painting, etc.

Religion, science, politics all of the problems of the world are a part of every artist’s work. Is it necessary to justify your work in a manner of a scientist and mathematician, a thesis if you will.

Jake Berry: The short answer is: No, absolutely not. I don't think art needs to justify itself, or that the artist is required to explain his or her work. However, if one is inclined to aesthetic discussion, then it can be very helpful to anyone approaching work that may appear difficult or inaccessible on the surface. Sometimes it helps people just to know that the difficulty of a work is primarily the result of what they have been taught to expect from words, a painting, a film…. The only requirement is to be patient with yourself and with the work, give it time and see what happens. I don't mind breaking a work down for someone that has questions, or even writing a thesis when one is requested. It is very enjoyable to exercise one's mind in that way, just as reading books of philosophy or science can be enjoyable. And when you are the reader you are in a position to only learn. A difficult book can be thoroughly entertaining because of what it requires of you mentally, the intense focus and perhaps the need to resort to other books to understand what you are reading. If I allowed myself to drift into it I'd be perfectly content to do nothing but read books that challenged me for the rest of my life. This is off the point a little, but I want to address it in the context of your question. I may be wrong about this, but it seems that the general idea of entertainment is something that you receive passively – it doesn't require anything more than your attention. If my day involved spending most of my hours engaged in work I didn't like doing in order to survive and then tending to chores around the house, pleasures would be few. Assuming that most parents enjoy spending time with their children or with their mates there would be some reward in that. When it came time for entertainment you would want to do as little as possible, you wouldn't want to have to work at it. So when we talk about art and words about art we are talking about something that most people don't have time for, don't understand and don't want to understand. We are (all that are reading this) on the margins of society simply because we find this kind of discussion interesting. That does not mean that I feel like we should try to create work that would be entertaining to people who find the arts, philosophy, or science boring, or alienating. What it does mean is that we shouldn't exaggerate the importance of what we do. It may be like the cliché of dropping a stone in a pool, but it probably takes a century of the combined efforts of all the arts and sciences to create one stone. So why get caught up in the minutiae of trying to explain every gesture? If someone asks, okay, or if you enjoy working in that way, okay, otherwise, just make art. Anyone that likes art will figure out a way to engage it or they'll ask questions. It isn't an obligation that comes with being an artist of whatever kind.

When I interviewed you in 2002 I didn’t ask you about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. As deeply troubling as it was many writers like your self responded by writing poetry. How has it changed your political views or how you express them creatively or personally?

Jake Berry: That's a broad question for someone who already answers questions too broadly. The events of that horrible day haven't changed my political views. I was shocked, but not because the U.S. was attacked by terrorists. The U.S. had been attacked before, though no one paid much attention to the previous attacks after the initial news cycle. The first attack on the World Trade Center was intended to bring it down. That should have been enough to wake us up. At the very least it should have been enough to alert the government, the intelligence community in particular, to any and all vulnerabilities. I think there was a substantial portion of the intelligence community that did wake up, and there were scholars of politics and history that had been warning about the U.S. vulnerability to terrorism since long before the end of the Cold War. Many people felt that since these people were thinking about terrorism, and talking about it publicly at every opportunity, that preparations had been made, that precautions had been taken. To some extent I was one of them. This country always seems to need an enemy, so I felt that given the absence of the Soviets, the possibility of Soviet nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, and the fact that the U.S. was attacked by terrorists repeatedly abroad, and at home in 1993, that the government would be aggressively pursuing this new enemy. That was why I was initially shocked by 9/11. I was naive. Even after Vietnam, Watergate, and scandal after scandal at some level I felt the government would do its job, at least where seeking out and destroying enemies was concerned. The U.S. never backed away from a fight and often went looking for one. However, corruption has become such an intrinsic element of the government that even people who are trying to do their job, even an overzealous job, are often muted by the weight of politics for its own ends – for the attainment and maintenance of power, nothing more. Get elected and stay in office. That's the rule. This is only beneficial when public opinion is so strongly shifted in one direction or another over an issue that the politicians respond in order to remain in office. Unfortunately, this is increasingly unlikely when we are bombarded with so many distractions that it is easier to shift your attention to something amusing than to worry about what the government is doing, or not doing. As you noted, I have written poems and songs that express opposition to this general state of affairs. I didn't really expect to have an impact, but I feel that one way to keep your freedom is to exercise it. So I exercise my freedom of speech and all the other freedoms granted citizens of this country in the constitution, as I deem necessary. I wish everyone in this country exercised their freedoms vigorously, openly and constantly. That would be a revolution in itself. The events of 9/11 didn't change my politics so much as the events that followed it. I think the actions taken by both parties that control the government have been irresponsible and reckless. As cynical as this sounds, I believe the only hope we have may be that the system as we now have it collapses. That series of events might be enough to trigger a response from the public that would result in reconstructing the government in such a way that it would at least attempt to live up to its constitutional and moral obligations.

I want to thank you for agreeing to speak with me again. Thus far I have interviewed you and Hank Lazer, both mentors of mine. I have learned so much from both of you. Who have you learned from in a similar situation? Who are your mentors?

Jake Berry: It's always my pleasure to speak to you regardless of the circumstances. I think we should perhaps have a conversation next time. One that I could post on the Conversari blog. I'm happy to answer your questions, but I'd rather have a call and response. A conversation where we both speak at length. The only person I ever remember interviewing straight on was Malok. As you know Malok is from another planet, literally. He says he is from Mars. So that was exhilarating, strange and illuminating. Everything you get from Malok's work. I have had long conversations by e-mail, letter and phone with a number of people. You, Jack Foley, Mike Miskowski, Jim Leftwich, Wayne Sides, Karl Young, Hank Lazer, Michael McClure, James Wisniewski, Jon Berry, Lissa Wolsak and many more. These conversations have always been educational experiences for me. Any time I have a conversation with someone who is devoted to his or her work it's a learning experience. It always takes hours, maybe days, to get my feet on the ground after conversations like that. As for mentors, I'd be honored to list any of the above. They have all been mentors, plus many people that were dead before I ever got here. But I have called Jack Foley a mentor in print, at the beginning of Brambu Drezi Book Two. That is still very much the case. We have been close friends for many years, but there has been, in a very informal way, a student-teacher relationship. I think that relationship has been based on mutual admiration for one another's work, but Jack is a few years older, far more intelligent than I am, deeply involved with a vital poetry scene in the Bay Area, and perhaps most importantly, writes poetry that turns me inside out. It's no surprise to anyone that I'd call him a mentor. Also, Michael McClure, even before I came to know him, exercised a powerful influence by way of his poetry. Once we corresponded a bit and spoke on the phone it only intensified that influence. And Ivan Argüelles has been a kind of mentor as well. We have exchanged letters, met, had intense phone conversations, but Ivan's influence has been almost totally by way of his work. Ivan has been categorized as a surrealist, and I think that's true enough, but NO ONE writes poetry like Ivan, regardless of the genre. I asked Ivan to write a blub for my first book The Pandemonium Spirit even though I didn't really know him then. I learned as much about my work from what he wrote as I had by doing the work. As I said, all of the above and many others have been mentors, but these three seem to have had the biggest impact.

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.