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.
Have you ever shown any of your poems to Daido? At one point I sent him a couple of poems, and I sent him a copy of The Snow Watcher when it came out. I didn’t expect him to respond, and he didn’t. He’s a very wise man!
How so? Daido has hundreds of students. I felt shy about sending him poems to begin with, as most of his students work at some art practice or other; it’s nothing special. But works of art express the consciousness that made them, express understanding. The poems I sent him touched on matters we’d discussed, so I meant them as a thank-you, and I assume he took them as such. No response was called for. If he had acknowledged them, it would have complicated the exchange, made it personal. It wasn’t personal. It was only a student thanking a teacher. The poems were just a bow.
How was the “Imaginary Dokusan” series born? When I was just starting out as a student, dokusan [a private interview with a Zen teacher] used to terrify me. It can still rattle me, as it should, but I used to try hard to figure out what I wanted to say, instead of just letting what was happening in the moment show. So I used to try to summarize whatever it was I was working on, and then realize that all my analysis was beside the point. I’d get stuck in a tape loop of practiced responses, which precluded my hearing and responding openly. I wrote the “Imaginary Dokusan” poems as a way of practicing how to simply present what was in my mind, even if the poems went in circles, or stopped on a question, which most of them did. I was trying to let go of my need to categorize what I was experiencing. All those poems address things I actually thought of bringing to dokusan, and then didn’t.
Can you talk a little more about how the idea of “letting go”—which helped you approach dokusan—helps you with poetry? The poet Elizabeth Bishop once remarked that “a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” was what was needed for the creation of art. Isn’t this a great description of zazen? Because each poem is a new mystery, the writer has to let go of any preconception about it in order to let it reveal itself. Otherwise, the poet’s self-regard fills the mirror. This can happen in many ways. For one thing, we’re conscious of the imaginary reader, whom we want to admire us. So the ego exhorts us: Sound smart, sound fascinating, sound sensitive and deep. This gets in the way of letting the language itself speak, which it will if we can get out of the way and just listen. That’s when we can surprise ourselves into saying things we didn’t know we knew. I think this is close to what happens in zazen. When the mind finally stops filling the space around it with its own noise, it can hear everything else that occupies the silence.
How was writing The Ghost of Eden different from later writing The Snow Watcher, which was written during the first few years of Zen practice? In The Ghost of Eden, I was aware from early on of the book’s “subject”—“subject” is in quotes because of course one never really knows where one is going (or shouldn’t). But at the same time, I knew that until then I had been avoiding poems that touched on the matter of our poor stewardship of our planet. Ecology poems were everywhere, and I thought most of them were covertly sentimental, and I also feared my own anger, which was significant. It made me reconsider Robinson Jeffers, who I think is a great poet. His extremity seems to me entirely appropriate to his passion. Of course he upsets people; they think he hates the human race (which he did say was “a botched experiment that ought to be stopped”). I shared his outrage and distress, and knew that my own poems would probably carry some of the same freight.
As I worked, though, I came to see the primary force of the book as one of grief, not anger. The anger was a shield. In retrospect, this is obvious, but I had to write the book to figure it out. The lesson, then, was not in detachment (which feeds anger, I think) but in passing through the emotion and out the other side. It turned out that “the ghost of Eden,” which I’d initially intended to be a description of our ruined paradise, was in fact me. I was the permeable specter, the inconstant thing. The world was just the world. This discovery was the beginning of my study of Zen.
At least a year passed before I wrote another poem. By then, I was visiting the monastery whenever I could. Practice completely derailed my old ways of working. For one thing, I couldn’t use the first person pronoun without hesitation. Who was talking, anyway? I struggled with this for months, reading mostly old Japanese and Chinese poetry: Han-shan, T’ao Ch’ien, Ikkyu, Hakuin, Su Tung-P’o, Ryokan, Li Po, Tu Fu, and of course the great haiku poets: Buson, Issa, Basho. Also the ancient, anonymous stuff and lots of poetry by Zen monks. Finally, I realized that I would have to abandon any sense of poetic authority and let that first person pronoun float, writing instead as a novice (both spiritually and poetically), full of ignorance and questions. At this point, the poems started to come again. As I got deeper and deeper into the work, I saw that all the poems were asking the same question that Zen asks: What is the self? Not who, but what. The Snow Watcher is the beginning of my struggle to answer that question.
In “To the Reader: If You Asked Me,” you conclude: “If you asked me what words / a voice like this one says in parting, / I’d say, I’m sweeping an empty factory / toward which I feel neither hostility nor nostalgia. / I’m just a broom, sweeping.” Where did this imagery come from?
I was thinking about the odd feeling that comes when a book is finished. There’s a detachment that sets in, as if your child had grown up and left home. I feel the same thing on a minor scale when a single poem is finished, but it’s stronger when it’s a whole book—four or five years of work. All those days in the factory, and suddenly I have no job!
Can you comment on the place of “self” in this poem—or in your poetry in general—and how it might mediate the anger you express over our “poor stewardship of the planet”? Yes, the self is nothing but a broom going about the business of the moment, which happens, after the work is done, to be cleaning up. I was trying to get at the surprising realization that the poems write themselves; they use the self—by which I mean the poet’s consciousness—as a door to the world. This sounds like hocus-pocus, I know, but if you think about it, who writes the poems? The self that’s constantly mutating? Did “I” write the poems that “I” wrote twenty years ago? I certainly couldn’t write them now. It took me a long time to get comfortable with the first-person pronoun in this context. From the conventional vantage point of the song lyric, it’s a tricky part of speech because it carries the assumption of one kind of intimacy, that of the personal confidence, or confession. I think that’s why so many people assume that poetry is personal expression; in our culture, the first-person pronoun invites that reading. But I was interested in quite another kind of intimacy. When the self in a poem is seen as a door and not as the room to which the door leads, the relation between self and world is radically changed. The “I” becomes like a leaf floating down a stream. It’s not a repository for the world, nor the source of its resonance or meaning. It’s just a leaf floating, just a broom sweeping.
As for my rage about the decimation of Eden: I used to see myself as a good guy fighting the bad guys (corporate greed, corrupt governments). But guess what? The bad guys turned out to be anger, ignorance, and greed, of which I am full. So whom was I fighting? All of humanity, including myself? One line I wrote, before I figured this out, was “If humanity’s the enemy, the enemy is me.” Well, duh! So my cells are part Eden and part destroyer, the whole shebang. Anger has a hard time getting a grip on that.
It’s said that there’s nothing to learn in zazen, and therefore nothing to teach. Does the same apply to writing and teaching poetry? As soon as one begins to categorize the experience of zazen, it slips out of the net. Zen says that we are already buddhas, we just don’t realize it. Realization is seeing what’s there rather than the innumerable scrims with which we overlay it. I try to pry poetry students loose from their notions of what a poem should be, and suggest instead that they regard each poem as a chance to trick themselves into a new perception. Students at Princeton, who can be very disciplined and goal oriented, are often uncomfortable at first with the intellectual and emotional lawlessness this notion presents. Yes, they say, but what do you want us to write about? And I say, what are you wondering about? What do you want to know that you don’t know? After a while, I actually have to take the opposite stance and try to rein them in a little, but at the beginning that’s what the work is about. I want them to be more interested in the process of writing than in its products. When Picasso was asked which of all his many works—paintings, sculptures, pottery, drawings—was his favorite, he said, “The next one.”
Imaginary Dokusan: Perfume
by Chase Twichell
Crushed lime halves in the sink,
a wood match's sweet-acrid strike...
I keep looking for things with a beauty
that's not incidental, but have found none.
Because of this, the difference between sensuality
and being fully awake in the moment
is often unclear to me, for example
the sun's smell of ripening
even in things still immature—
which of the two pleasure is that?
"Imaginary Dokusan: Perfume," originally published in The Snow Watcher, © 1998 by Chase Twichell.
Reprinted with permission of Ontario Review Press.
Images: © Emma Dodge Hanson