Zen and Poetry
A poet and Zen student, Chase Twichell is a recipient of awards from the Artists Foundation (Boston), the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has written five volumes of poetry, the latest of which are The Snow Watcher and The Ghost of Eden. Twichell has taught widely, most recently at Princeton University. In 1999 she left Princeton to found Ausable Press, which publishes poetry and poetry-related prose that “investigates and expresses human consciousness in language that goes where prose cannot.” She lives in upstate New York. Poet Joel Whitney, winner of the 2003 Discovery Prize, awarded by The Nation, conducted this interview as an e-mail correspondence during the summer of 2000.
Zazen, Wired & Tired
by Chase Twichell
It’s like thrashing out past the breakers
into the opaque green swells,
the alien salt a thrill. The beach
is lightbulb-white, and sears
whoever lies down on it to rest.
An animal chooses this place
for its den and winters here,
sleeping month after month
in the musk of its own absence
so it can awaken more fully human.
Sitting zazen is like trying to be a tree.
I’m bad at it, impatient. I want the way
into the sap and wood to be violent, athletic,
so I keep my mind chopping at it, asking
how can I become the tree, if I am the tree?
"Zazen, Wired & Tired," originally published in The Snow Watcher, © 1998 by Chase Twichell.
Reprinted with permission of Ontario Review Press.
What led you to Zen? I came to Zen through a back door. That is, I didn’t go looking for it, but found it anyway. I studied Buddhism in college, but it wasn’t until I was in my forties that I got serious about it. I’ve been disturbed by the fate of our planet since I was a kid, and I had finally taken on this grief and distress in a series of poems that try to address the end of nature as we’ve known it; these became The Ghost of Eden. It had been a long and painful writing process, and when I was finished, I felt strangely calm, distanced from my subject, and this bothered me.
At first I thought I was just burned out, but the feeling persisted. I simply wasn’t as upset as I had been before, nor as angry. The sensation was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but it was a marked change, and reminded me of the way I’d felt when I first tried meditating back in the sixties—slightly dissociated. It had scared me, and was one of the reasons I didn’t continue. Wondering about this, I started reading about Buddhism again and suddenly began to realize that the work I’d done in writing The Ghost of Eden was not unlike the work required in zazen: It involved both a concentration of mind and a letting go of thought. I read for about a year, began sitting, and finally went looking for a teacher.
Did you continue to feel “dissociated” after sitting once you began more formal Zen training? The dissociation gradually lessened in severity, but I’ve never again felt the old rage and grief over our species’ abuse of the earth. Disgust, sadness, anger, impatience, of course, but not in the same way. Writing The Ghost of Eden changed something in me, though I still didn’t know what. I got on the Internet and started poking around without having any idea who was out there. I kept hearing about Zen Mountain Monastery, and about John Daido Loori, the abbot there. They offered an introductory weekend, and it was only a three-hour drive, so I went. From the moment I set foot inside, I knew it was going to change my life. Or rather, that I was going to change my life. It was partly a case of right place, right time. I’m sure you know the old Zen adage that when the student is ready, the teacher appears, but I was also extremely lucky to find an extraordinary teacher and an extraordinary place. I went as often as I could for two years and then formally became a student in 1997.
Your Zen practice and your writing practice seem to have become intertwined. Do you allow poetry to enter your mind when you’re sitting zazen? Poetry is not a spigot I can turn on and off. It dribbles all the time. In zazen, usually I try to note the little fragments that appear, and then I let them float on by. Most of them don’t amount to much; they’re just language playing by itself, and not worth chasing.
But sometimes something important comes up. This happens a lot with the creative process when the mind is otherwise occupied, as in sleep, or during manual labor, or while listening to music. When something I recognize as significant enters my mind, perhaps an image or phrasing that’s so loaded with unresolved meaning that I know it’s going to haunt me, I turn my attention to it until it’s fixed in memory. Then I go back to the breath. But sometimes something much bigger and more distracting happens, as when I suddenly see the solution to a major structural problem I’ve been working on, or when I realize that a poem is on a wrong track, and I get a glimpse of the right track. These moments are so fragile that I know I’ll lose them if I don’t pursue them. When I’m at home, I just get up and go to my desk and return to zazen later, when I’m calmer. But when this happens in the monastery, if it’s something I need to follow, I follow it. That means I might sit an entire period of zazen secretly writing. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does I try to treat it the way I’d treat a pressing emotional matter. If I’m sitting and realize that I’m upset, I try to give it my full attention until I can put it to rest or can consciously set it aside for later. With a poem, though, there are times when I can’t delay the work because my memory won’t hold those fleeting glimpses. So I acknowledge that I’m no longer sitting (though I don’t move, of course) and take the time I need to commit enough to memory to reconstruct it later. Then I return my attention to the breath. In the end, the work is much the same: Zazen and poetry are both studies of the mind. I find the internal pressure exerted by emotion and by a koan to be similar in surprising and unpredictable ways. Zen is a wonderful sieve through which to pour a poem. It strains out whatever’s inessential.