It seems that with witnessing there is a kind of responsibility.
Yes, except, I never volunteered to witness. I know I’m a writer, and I understand I’m a poet, but I’m not sure in any way did I volunteer to witness like, say, someone from the New York Times or NBC who is now in the Sudan, where there’s so much disease and famine—such horrible things happening. Those people are there, and they’re witnessing it. They live under all kinds of restraints; they suffer revelations that I couldn’t imagine being presented with except through the force of the imagination. There’s always some sense, when it comes to the force of the imagination, that it’s not real after all.
Any writer, any artist, can fall into a kind of mannerist writing in which you’re almost caricaturing your own work or satirizing your own work.
And yet when I read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage as a kid, and I knew that he was in no position to write about the Civil War—he just talked to some men in the Bowery who were destroyed veterans of that war and put together this fantastic novel. Then shortly afterward he went off on exotic assignments as a journalist and literally did witness things and wrote about them. It’s painful to compare the writing, because what he imagined is so much more powerful than what he literally saw. Realizing that, at such a young age, I gave myself permission, as you can tell, to write about a good deal more than what’s under my nose.
Do you feel that practicing Tibetan Buddhism has changed your writing?
There’s no way you have any success with a sitting, there’s no way that you can actually begin a sitting and somehow tolerate it and not be changed utterly in so many ways. More than anything else, it makes you aware of your own bullshit. It’s, again, a matter of witnessing. The obligations in terms of witnessing the self cannot be counted, and lead to very painful moments and the most beautiful, tranquil moments as well.
Would you talk about your ten-year silence?
Any writer, any artist, can fall into a kind of mannerist writing in which you’re almost caricaturing your own work or satirizing your own work. I felt I was at the point of doing that. I gave a few poems to Jorie Graham for, I think, the Colorado Review, and everything I wrote after that for about six months made me very nervous in those terms. So I said, “Well, hell, I’m going to stop writing for a while. Maybe a year, maybe two.” This was the time when I had fallen into this interest in Buddhism. It and the teaching completely absorbed me.
It wasn’t like Robert Duncan, I wasn’t protesting the war in Vietnam—and, unlike Duncan, I lived beyond my silence, knock on wood. But I have to say truthfully that nothing ever entered my life with such force as the simple sitting practice and the energy, the states of mind that were involved, the states of mind that were filled with a kind of self-criticism I’d never really enjoyed before. It was all very depressing and scary and lovely. It will touch every cell in your body, this practice. I don’t know, the notion that I’d not only found a religion but one that was animate—if it is indeed a religion—well, it was good news. And it was probably time for me to rest. I had done probably too much work.
When I was plagued by my friends into making a collected, I got drunk one night with a friend named Marianne, and we typed up a table of contents. I chain-smoked and put half of my work on the floor and decided to keep half of it. I was beginning to write again, so I had a new section. I showed it to Louisiana State University Press, and they rejected it. Then I was asked to show it to Copper Canyon, a press I’d respected for the longest time. They have a staggering catalogue, they’re nonprofit, and the people there are some of the best editors in the country.
Did you submit the actual manuscript to Copper Canyon?
I did, a huge manuscript that I had prepared for Norton but really presented to them in such a way that there was no way that they could take it. I wanted to leave Norton at that point. It wasn’t anything personal at all, not at all. It was simply that I wanted to go to a press where they weren’t forced to be thinking of money in the same way that trade publishers are. I just wanted in my old age to go somewhere where there was some very pure instruction working behind the publishing of poetry.
In New York there’s a lot of young poets writing out of the Language tradition. What do you think of that?
I think Language poetry is everywhere—I was in a workshop in 1970 with David Maurice and Barrett Watten. It’s a shame that we try to create barriers in this way.
I’ve always been fascinated with Language poetry. It was an extension, a very beautiful filtering of work that dates from mid-century. That there’s narrative lurking in syntax is something that I recognized early on in the writing of these people, so in a funny way they were doing that despised thing now: the lyric narrative, and even Ezra Pound’s “juxtaposition without cupola” is defined fiercely here by practice. I think I sometimes find narrative where other people don’t. I connect between the dots where other people don’t. But that’s probably because I go to reading poems almost as clear or empty-headed as I go to the writing of them. In any event, the predictable obstacles aren’t always there for me and when I’m surprised by a poem it is truly a good day.
Earlier we talked also about how sometimes poems arrive to you visually. Do you ever find that in translating them into language, that language is inept?
If I’m very consciously moving on the details that will be a source of bad or precious writing in my poetry, but if I trust the atmosphere of what I’m seeing, there’s all sort of surprising combinations in language, all sorts of surprising images, interesting musical things that happen. I’m not a journalist in this business of what I’m seeing and how it reaches the page. Though still I think the first handmaiden to all of this writing has something to do with elaborate choruses and not with cinema.
Is the act of writing sacred for you?
There’s probably some brain chemistry that I’m rewarded with when I sit down to write because I do go clear. In that sense there is something very centering about sitting to write, but yet sitting to write is not the same thing as sitting to meditate. No matter how often I go to that woolly centering in the writing, no matter how I often I went, it would never want me to be a better person, more imaginative about other people and the ways in which they’re confused or suffering. I did it for too long, and I know that I wasn’t changed or made a more decent person because of it. Meanwhile, this other thing that I do can make for little changes that are actually mind-boggling in a way, because it is so difficult for us to get free of whatever is nasty or habitual in our makeup. It’s so hard for us not to be fearful, and it’s so hard for us to really understand that someone who’s very angry with us could suddenly be very sweet if we just show [him] the smallest consideration.
Are you afraid of anything?
There is in Buddhist traditions heavy preparations, as the Dali Lama suggests, for the entry into the Bardo of death itself. There are practices in Buddhism that might seem very grim to other people. You can on a regular basis imagine just flying off your bones, then you can imagine the flesh feeds the carnivores and the meal of the bone feeds the earth.
What happens here is that as you do this practice your connection with the body lightens. It makes for less fear. Sometimes when I’m approaching the idea of death, which I often have traditionally through my poetry, I just start laughing because I see myself in some hospital room screaming at people that I don’t want to die and further more I want to be treated much better because this is the most expensive goddamned hotel that I’ve ever been in. And why can’t I have a cigarette! There are moments that are very powerful in my Chod practice that I can’t really say a hell of a lot about. Surely, there are moments that are quite lovely. They’re quiet. And when I’m done, I distrust them the most. [Laughs.] You know, it’s just brain chemistry dude! I’m giving myself a big dose of dose.
It’s about looking into the teeth of a whole lot of things: pain, suffering, death, disease, and I don’t know what. I believe in it. If for no other reason than in doing the practice on a daily basis I care more about how I treat the cat, how I treat my many students, or, say, some cashier at a drugstore. I really don’t think it necessarily prepares me for death. It prepares me for life. When it comes time, I think I probably will be screaming for morphine. And not more light. Just more! [Laughs.]
Why don’t you give readings?
Poetry has been a solitary thing for me. Not exactly the one candle at midnight. Besides that’s probably the scholar’s accoutrement. But that original privacy of mind that’s so special to all of us, poetry goes there without harming anything. We can visit there and make raids on memory and come back with fragments of language with which to make poems. It’s all a very mysterious and intense thing, and it relates more to silence than to noise. As a young man I was just really shy. I didn’t want to appear in front of audiences, but I had to do it in order to put food on the table. To get my daughter the yellow dress. The moment I didn’t have to do it anymore I stopped. Though, it’s odd, the last year and a half I’ve done five or six readings in town for folks, and I enjoyed them. So that seems to betray me as someone who maybe is okay about doing readings but doesn’t like to travel that much. Can’t imagine why.
You have said that you think this might be a golden age for American poetry. How so?
I just witness it. I think that there’s a privilege in our culture that will tolerate people writing poems, that will tolerate people teaching the writing of poems, that will allow poets to make a living. Some poets in this country now are making an obscene living doing the circuits, and not so much teaching as being academic paratroopers—visiting five or six universities in a year and making three times what most of [us] make. I have nothing against this. Barnstorming should go on, I suppose, in poetry, and has, clearly, since Frost and Dickey and others.
If we’re remembered as a nation, as a culture of people, an awful lot of poetry and writing in general will survive from this period. It’s a wonderful time to be reading. There’s so much good poetry being written now that there’s twice as much bad poetry being written.
Maybe the point I’m trying to make is obscured; maybe I’m a great maker of the fog myself. I wouldn’t know. None of us know how this will all be thrashed out. We’re always talking in our hats when we speak like this, but it’s just an instinct. I think we’re the most important nation on the earth right now, because, one: we have thermonuclear weapons, and two: because we have more talented poets than have ever existed on the face of the earth.
Mary Gannon is deputy editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.