from A CONVERSATION BETWEEN CHASE TWICHELL AND ALAN FOX, IN STUDIO CITY, CALIFORNIA, APRIL 30TH, 2011
[Note: The following excerpt is from a 20-page conversation, which appears in full in Rattle #36.]
FOX: When you talk about “not two,” that reminds me, I read Alan Watts years ago and he had the concept that everything in the universe is part of God and God is deliberately forgotten, so you and I and Daveen and the gumballs are all part of the same thing. And I went around for three weeks remembering that.
TWICHELL: That’s kind of the essence of Zen, in a way, what they call the Diamond Net of Indra, which is that everything is connected to everything as if we’re a giant web or net of mesh. So whatever I do affects everything else, maybe just in a tiny, tiny little way, or maybe in a way that reverberates for quite a while. I’ve also been thinking a lot about karma and what that really means. People—in fact I’m going to be studying it in a couple of months with one of the teachers at my monastery, Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, who is a wonderful teacher. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about what karma means, and I always grew up thinking it was a kind of fatalism—if you had bad karma that meant that in one of your past lives you did something bad and now you’re paying for it. And I think a lot of people misunderstand it in that same way, but I don’t see that now at all. I think of it more as a moment-to-moment kind of a thing, that everything you do creates karma, and therefore everything you do affects the future in ways you can’t even anticipate; it affects you, it affects those that you affect and it affects those that they affect, and it spreads out. And very often the karma that’s operating right now may be from something that’s historical in your own life, like being pissed off at your mother since you were one, whatever it is, that has built and you built on it and it’s become more and more fixed as part of your bedrock. Or it might be something like a momentary flicker of irritation, which is a form of anger, one of the three big no-nos. [laughs] And if you see it in that way, it’s a kind of continuous metaphor; it’s about taking responsibility for everything that’s brought you to this point right here right now and everything you do right here right now that affects everything that’s going to happen in the future. And so it’s basically the responsibility of being one cell in a multi-celled organism. What you do may not affect the thing that’s on the other side of the room in any way that you can perceive at the moment but in some subtle way it does affect it. And you also are being affected by everybody else’s karma.
FOX: Absolutely. I agree with that. To me, the one thing in Buddhism which really appeals to me is letting go of an investment in outcome.
FOX: And paying attention to process, because what is life but process?
TWICHELL: Yeah, exactly. One of the things my teacher said—so many things my teacher—who is Konrad Ryushin Marchaj; he’s the Abbott of Zen Mountain Monastery, and Shugen Sensei is the other Abbott—more on the history of that in a minute if you want to hear it—but some of the things he says seem to me so obvious when he says them but I’ve never articulated them for myself before. And one of them is the whole idea about what it means to be wholly present, to be fully awake. He basically said “You can’t live in the past.” That’s obvious, of course, but most of us try to do exactly that. I mean, you can pretend to and reenact it by going back into memory and spending time there, berating yourself for things you should have done, pumping yourself up for things you did that you’re glad you did. And you can’t live in the future either because that’s still Fantasy Land; it’s not here yet. So the only chance we actually have—the only life we actually have that we can reach and be present in is the present. And so whatever time we spend in the past or the future, we are not spending in the only place where we can actually be fully awake, and that’s why it’s so important to be fully awake right now.
FOX: You bet.
TWICHELL: But most people distract themselves all the time. If you’ve ever sat, as you clearly have, and done any form of meditation, the idea of bringing your attention back to your breath all the time—you see how difficult it is to do that, to simply place your concentration on what’s happening in your chest, in your body, the immediate sensations. I’ve been sitting fairly seriously for 15 years and I still sit down and, “Oops, I’m making the shopping list,” “Oops, I’m still mad about something my sister said yesterday on the phone, back to the breath.” And constantly the mind just wants to get away, wants to go off in another direction, and to keep pulling it back is a way of developing what we call in Zen, joriki, which is a kind of profound, concentrated attention. It’s all about learning to concentrate your attention so you can place it where you want instead of just having it be diffracted all over the place like having six radio stations on. So that has taught me a huge amount just about how my own consciousness works, which is something that poets of course have to think about, in a very practical way.
FOX: How do you use that in your writing?
TWICHELL: Well, for one thing I’m less and less interested in narrative. Not that I was ever a narrative poet but when I read poems now that want to tell a story I get impatient with them because it seems to me that a story in something that takes place in time. It’s linear, it has to do with a sequence of things, it has to do with cause and effect, so in that way it has to do with karma. A poem that tells a story seems to be an organization imposed on the material by the mind in a way that tidies it up and makes sense of it in a way that takes me away from the immediacy of noticing first one thing and noticing another and trusting what you might call—I don’t know how to describe it but the imagination or the capacity that we have to make a leap from Point A to Point B without a literal explanation for it. And it seems to me that narrative sometimes makes a fence and says, “Don’t look over there, just hold my hand and I’m going to take you through it.” And your mind no longer has to make those sidelong movements in order to experience the whole thing. So I’ve always been much more drawn to lyric poetry than to narrative, but on the other hand I’m really interested in meditation, poems that are meditations, because it seems to me that what meditation does is track the way the mind moves and if a meditation is really genuine it allows in a poem for moments when you say, “Oh, no, wait, that’s not quite right, it’s really more like this.” And I’m much more interested in a poem that has that kind of motion in it, that kind of, “Oh, wait, that could be an error, let me try this path instead,” because it shows how the mind moves, not just from logical point to logical point to logical point but in a kind of three dimensional world in which things are held together by different kinds of glue than just logic. And so a meditation that sets out to convince me of something I’m much less likely to be moved by than one that thinks its way along and makes a discovery. And the point of the poem, or the point of arrival of a poem, is a discovery that gets made almost by mistake—somebody left a door open and an animal came in. Wow, that’s exciting when that happens in a poem.
FOX: Is what you’re talking about essence, rather than peripheral stuff?
TWICHELL: I think it is dealing with essence, but how do you get to essence? I mean, how do you write essence? You have to use language, which is the only thing that we poets have—of course, music, we have to include music, and timing, and all that stuff; that’s all part of language. But I think— I was at Claremont Graduate University the other day and Robert Pinsky was talking about poetry, and in a way he was talking about what makes poems immortal and how a lot of what we read is not immortal but somehow there’s a way you recognize it. When you come across something that’s a great poem, you recognize it, and it’s not because it has a tag on its ear that says, “I’m a great poem.” There’s something we recognize. So I was thinking about that and thinking about, what is it that we recognize? And I would call it essence, or something like that, that is identifiable across the centuries, so that when you read a poem that was written on a cave wall, let’s say, or see an antelope with a spear in its side that was on a cave wall, you recognize that as something that is essentially human; it’s of the essence of being human. And the same thing can happen nowadays, in a world that has space travel and nuclear reactors and all this crazy stuff—there will be art that comes directly out of our time where we also recognize that. And it’s not because that thing, that place…if I could make the metaphor that the essence is a kind of space or place, it’s not that it persists and is immortal; it’s that humans can visit that place and revisit it and revisit it across centuries that makes it immortal. It’s not the human being that’s immortal, it’s the human experience that is.
FOX: Yes. When I studied poetry writing with Jack Grapes—local poet, very fine teacher—he insisted that simple language was important—not the 15 syllable words.
TWICHELL: I agree with him—
FOX: —and I questioned him; I said, “Well, come on, the poetry written a thousand years ago that we still read, is it simple?” He said, “Absolutely.”
TWICHELL: It is. It is. The poems that, to me, are the most important—I love the ancient Chinese and Japanese work. Those poems are so lean and with nothing extraneous about them. They’re like arrows; there’s nothing attached to them to get in the way of their flight. One of the things I’ve had to deal with in my own work is my early love of language and all the flourishes and beauties of description. It was very seductive to spend five lines describing the snowy woods because I thought they were so beautiful and if I could just get that right in the poem…and I look at those poems now and I think, “Okay, there’s a dozen beautiful lines of description, but what are they there for? What are they doing in the poem?” And sometimes they are doing something other than just being window dressing but sometimes they’re not. And so I have a very low tolerance for decoration in poems. And some people love it; they want to read pages and pages of how the everglades look in a storm and so on and so forth. But I increasingly am of the school or the belief that we don’t have very much time and poems should do their work fast and get out.
—from Rattle #36, Winter 2011