May 3, 2016


New York, New York
January 30th, 1999

Daniel Berrigan at Holy Cross College, September 28, 2005. Photo by Kevin Ksen. {{cc-by-sa-2.5}} -- Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license. Originally appeared at

Daniel Berrigan‘s first book of poetry, Time Without Number, earned the Lamont Poetry Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a nomination for the 1957 National Book Award. Berrigan, a Jesuit Priest, has published fourteen volumes of poetry in the last forty years. In spite of this, Berrigan is perhaps better known for his fierce commitment to the cause of peace. He and his brother, Philip, have both served time in prison, and Philip was incarcerated for an antinuclear demonstration in Maine at the time of this interview. The name “Berrigan” evokes images of pacifist protest. His most recent book of poetry, And the Risen Bread, was published in 1998. Daniel Berrigan died on Saturday, April 30th, 2016.


FOX: Why did you start writing poetry?


BERRIGAN: Well, that’s quite a question to start with. I think it had a lot to do with our father who, for years, was turning out awful stuff but who had great ambitions and who was very well read but was stuck, I would say, in the romantics of the 19th century and he never got out of it. He was a big Shelley man, a Keats man, etc., though he knew a lot of Shakespeare, too. Anyway, I was typing a lot of his stuff, under duress [Fox laughs] and much against the grain. We had this old, old manual typewriter, and I was always getting it wrong, because he was meticulous about all this punctuation. I didn’t like the stuff to start with, so it was really kind of a bondage. But I guess in a kind of curious way it got me very interested in poetry and eventually, as a very young person in high school, writing poetry. Then, of course, in the order we had a vigorous regime of poetry in Latin and Greek and English, and later in French. So I sort of swam with the tide at that point. I was publishing when I was 20, 21. And it really never stopped.


FOX: And you’ve published, what, fourteen books?


BERRIGAN: I think someone said eighteen.


FOX: You seem to command a rich use of language …


BERRIGAN: Well, it’s the Irish gift of gab. [Fox laughs] And you have to be at least part ham. My father had very little formal education. For a while he was a railroad engineer on the old locomotives where the proud guy sat way up there and the thing chugged away across the plains and he would have Shakespeare in that cockpit and he would be memorizing Shakespeare. And when he came back, he liked to tell the kids stories, he was wonderfully inventive. “Pa, tell us a story.” And we’d all gather round. And it was just a feast for a little boy’s imagination. And we wanted to hear his stories about the railroad which he could make up on the spot. It was really quite a start.


FOX: How were his stories different from his poetry which you didn’t like?


BERRIGAN: Well, that’s very interesting. He was on a different plane when he was talking to the kids. He wasn’t trying to be literary. There wasn’t any varnish to it. He was just being a dad, a dad with his kids.


FOX: How has your work changed over the years?


BERRIGAN: Well, I think I was always sort of reflecting where I was and my sense of surroundings and ecology, urban or country, or foreign, living in Europe, very affected by all of that. It’s also reflective of a young person’s religion or faith in that it’s highly charged with sacramental imagery and with country imagery, because I was in the seminary for so many years in the country. I was quite bucolic for a beginning [laughs] until life caught up with me. [Fox laughs] And then everything changed and, let’s see, I got into the civil rights movement with my brother and then that became very electrifying, trying to interpret that, trying to set down some emotional response. And then, of course, the war in Vietnam certainly changed radically my view of the world and of the world of literature.


FOX: In your writing do you sometimes try to get out a message, or affect the course of events?


BERRIGAN: I don’t think so. I just felt that I wanted to write poetry even if it stayed in a drawer somewhere. Though, of course, no poet wants that, but I was trying to interpret my life and make sense of it. Also, of course, I always had access either to a classroom or to the public through poetry readings so that there was always the other end of this to be considered. That is to say, is it going to make sense to others or is it going to affect people emotionally or am I at a dead end? I did want to test it out in a certain way, and did, all the time.


FOX: How are you affected by the reaction of others to what you write?


BERRIGAN: I always have a sense that it’s a modest gain, and that for a lot of complex reasons I would never be a front runner, and wasn’t particularly affected by that. But I did want to deal with young people and with people at large in a way that would offer something.


FOX: Offer something like a path?


BERRIGAN: Maybe a vision, maybe another view of what we were all going through at the time, because all of us were walking the same tormented earth, and let’s see if we can make something of it or even enjoy certain aspects of it, like friendship and children and nature, and let us all also attempt to grieve together over losses.


FOX: What relationship do you find between poetry and life?


BERRIGAN: Well, it’s very close. I would say it’s almost a mirror image, convex to concave. And everybody goes through very dry periods, but I would think that if something remains so opaque or so labyrinthine or so impossible of entrance, then I better look at it again. I mean, if I can’t write about it, is it really there? And not merely a poem, but I’ve been doing these biblical studies for years now, and if I can’t bring a critical sense to the page and find some kind of congruence there, I’m puzzled and I’m stalemated and I’m not very happy.


FOX: Has your writing helped you to make sense of what you go through, what you learn?


BERRIGAN: Yes, at least in a minimal sense, because a lot of life is certainly beyond me. I think it’s beyond all of us these days. I mean the depth of, the depth of the death urge, I think, and the extent of it day after day in the world is just simply, I don’t know, appalling, it stops one short. It’s very hard to make sense of, let’s say, a traditional understanding of the human being when you see this kind of behavior. You wonder if those of us who don’t believe in killing others are simply residual or if we’re just sort of biological sports.


FOX: How did the civil rights movement affect you or your work?


BERRIGAN: Well, as I look back it seems to me that was pretty much the beginning or the opening of a whole kind of gamut of planetary travel. I was seeing the world from a radical uprooting in my own life by going south and by taking part in Selma and elsewhere, and then later [it] became a direct linkage with my work in South Africa in the late ’60s. And I was able to join those points across the world in my own understanding and in the way I was talking to people in South Africa or here. It was like landing among people one knew nothing about, and seeing suddenly we have a common burden, we have a common hope, and let’s walk with it. And that was very liberating and very beautiful for me, but it was very painful at the same time.


FOX: Painful in what way?


BERRIGAN: Well, it was painful because I saw their pain.


FOX: Ah, yes.


BERRIGAN: And because I could do so little about it. But at least I could be with them and I could walk with them and worship with them and learn from them, and I tried all that.


FOX: Do you feel you’ve had the impact that you wanted to have?


BERRIGAN: I don’t think I ever wanted any impact. I just didn’t know what the word meant. I just wanted to be in certain situations that I felt called to, and that I felt maybe I could even be helpful in and that I could learn from, and see where it went.


FOX: What authors have influenced you?


BERRIGAN: Well, I guess a lot of these great people. I carried an all dog-eared copy of Yeats’ complete poems for maybe 20 years, and kept marking them up and noting them. Hopkins, of course, was a great inspiration, and, oh, within the last five years, I kept coming back to him. In fact, I did a whole book of poetry on his life and his poetry, as a tribute to his centenary. Others are staples, like Frost and Eliot and Pound. Then I try to keep a weather eye open for young poets and new poets, new to me. The ancients and the moderns both appeal to me from different ways, very different ways.


FOX: Are you still writing?


BERRIGAN: I kind of eased away from it once that book came out and started doing well and getting some very fine reviews. I’m mainly in scripture studies right now.


FOX: It sounds like you’ve always kept learning.


BERRIGAN: Yes, and of course, these writings all get tested constantly because I’m before people on these retreats across the country, and so I’m just working mainly through the prophets offering what they have to offer today. And it finally coalesces in a book. Now that also, of course, includes especially in Isaiah and Jeremiah a great effort to be faithful to their poetry. And I’m not interested in another translation from the Hebrew; I’m interested in the resonance of those great human spirits in life today. And I had a very hard time with publishers, especially with Protestant publishers, explaining all that, that I was not translating these, I was not going verse by verse, I was trying to say what would they say today. And that was very puzzling, but it worked. I mean, they eventually reach people.


FOX: What do you think they would have to say today?


BERRIGAN: Oh, my, [laughs] where will we start?


FOX: Two hours or less.


BERRIGAN: Well, let me summarize it this way. It seems to me that I see a clear path from, let’s say this fifth to the eighth millennium, of the Common Era Before Christ and Christ. The continuity of ancestry and progeny in a spiritual sense to me is quite evident because they are all talking about the God who stands at the bottom with the victims and with the “widows and orphans” and stands with them, witnesses with them in the world, and from that terrifying vantage point which is like the bottom of the dry well that Jeremiah was thrown in, from that vantage point, well, first of all, defines the crime and sin, and from the point of view of the victim indicts the unjust, the oppressor, the killer, the war-maker. And the message is very clear, and it’s a very clear indictment of every superpower from Babylon to Washington.


FOX: How do you reconcile what seems to be the fact that human beings can be both so evil and so good? Do you find that to be true?


BERRIGAN: Well, I find it true beginning with myself [laughs]. So that’s, it seems to me, a good point, of learning to start with, where are you in all this, where am I in all this, and so on. And then look on the world with a certain kind of compassion. So, drawing from the prophets again, with a very strong bias in favor of the victim and a very strong sense of judgment of evil structures and those who run them.


FOX: That seems to have been true throughout all of human history. What do you have to say to people who don’t like poetry?


BERRIGAN: Well, there’s not much to be done about Disneyland of the mind, and if people want to go to Disneyland, that’s their option. And, of course, Disneyland is right in our living room through the tube, so that kind of moves matters up a little closer. But I like to talk to people. I’m teaching at Fordham this semester and dealing in poetry with a lot of young people who are very new to it. I wouldn’t say they dislike it, but it’s terra incognita. And I try to give them a sense without being insulting that they’re missing something. And I think it takes. I think generally they end the semester very differently.


FOX: What change do you see in them?


BERRIGAN: Well, they’ve gotten onto the moon and they find they can breathe there, against all odds. And they find that their dislike or their second thoughts or their kind of prejudice has kind of melted in the sun. And I would say the vast majority of them write thoughtfully about this or that poem that struck home.


FOX: How do you teach? What’s your style, your approach?


BERRIGAN: Well, let me tell you what we’re doing this term. It’s called poets in torment and we’re starting with poets of this millennium, just finishing this century, who have suffered atrociously for their writing around the world, who have been in gulags, who have been tortured, who have been exiled, who have been disappeared, and it’s a very, very tough course. I tread lightly with it because these young people are not emotionally prepared for something this rough. But I think it’s very important that they be shown it. It’s their world, and the world that they’re being shoved into, the world that we’re leaving them. And these are the noblest spirits of this century, and this is what happened to them and what are we going to make of it? And what are we to make of their legacy and what kind of resources do young people think are available to be able to celebrate such suffering, and leave those notes in the bottles for us to read? So it’s, it’s challenging. I say to them, try to remind them again and again that you can best cope with material like this, about human degradation and human glory, you can best cope, with that kind of, electricity, if you are serving others yourselves, but if the campus is your world, this is very dangerous ground for you, and it gives a little ictus, and maybe even an impetus, to grow up to middle-class kids who are very privileged and who are very slow to arrive.


FOX: Do you find your students think mostly of themselves?


BERRIGAN: Well, there’s everyone in there. And I think they self-select. Most of them, maybe through their parents, or through other teachers, will know who I am, and some of them will be urged to take that course. I can go to other classes and have a very difficult time just as a visitor because attitudes are so entrenched and so racist or so this or so that, but with the students that are with me week after week it’s a very different game. I can start with a kind of sense of common understanding about what a human being is.


FOX: What is that?


BERRIGAN: Well, we have examples of them in these great poets. And it’s a very tough definition that emerges by way of, let’s say, ricocheting off one’s own life and one’s own privilege and one’s relative unconsciousness of the fate of the majority of people.


FOX: Can you describe the satisfaction that you derive from teaching?


BERRIGAN: Well, I’m very privileged. I’ll begin with that admission. I’m amazingly blessed from many angles to have those students. Let me just say, practically speaking, I try to keep a very open classroom. Anybody is welcome. After a while they want to bring their parents if they’re visiting town. They want to bring their friends. Last year I was in touch again, while I was teaching, with an ex-prisoner who had been in prison with me, a guy who had been a kind of classical Times Square trickster. He hit bottom and was in jail for endless years. He was an addict, an alcoholic, was just at the bottom of life. He eventually joined a group that Philip and I had formed to do some studying and discussion, and he got his life together when he came out. And he heard about this class. He was now in his middle 50’s, a little black guy with a gimp leg and on a cane. And he says, “I come to that class?” I said, “Sure, come along.” Very alive intellectually, always, even in prison. So he came to the class. Well, this was really quite a thing because eventually he told his story and told our story and all these kids are going, you know, it’s up here, [laughs] and then he died. He died. He was diagnosed in his last weeks as latent AIDS that had really eaten him alive and he died. And a whole group of us went to the funeral. Anyway, it was really quite a saga in the middle of that class, that kind of life and death, and that kind of impact on these students, like, boy, that was another slice of life. Why’d I bring that up? Well, it was all about the variety that can occur because one is open to what might happen.


FOX: You were in Danbury Prison for over a year?


BERRIGAN: Two years.


FOX: How did that affect you?


BERRIGAN: Well, I wrote a book of poems [both laugh], to indulge in a stereotype. It was interesting, too, because there was a little tinge of this atmosphere around us and the officials standing about, “watch their writings, watch their writings.” It was almost a little bit of Russia in a sense, a poet taken seriously? We’re watching his writings? Anyway, they were, and even later they were preparing for a conspiracy trial, another trial. So we had great difficulty, I had great difficulty getting poems out and I had to use a lot of enterprise because they wanted those poems. And I would put them in my shoe. A kind of Quaker prayer group came in and we were allowed to embrace the women visitors once on leaving, and I could pass these poems to her, she was willing to take them. Now why do I bring that up? Well, it was kind of a back-handed compliment, that they were very interested in my poems [laughs] and that they were considered rather dangerous.


FOX: Why do you think the authorities considered your work to be dangerous?


BERRIGAN: Well, they were on a fishing expedition at that point. They wanted some evidence of criminal intent. But in a larger sense in the world, let’s say, from Black Africa to the Soviet Union, poets have acted as the lost conscience of the regime and in very powerful ways have indicted what was going on. Well! And then when you have enormous audiences for poetry as in Russia, you know, this gets to be quite a movement.


FOX: Why do you think there is so much more interest in poetry in Russia than in the United States?


BERRIGAN: I’ve traveled in Russia but I haven’t lived there, so I can’t contrast these kinds of psyches very well. I don’t know. Poetry has never taken on a major kind of stature here. I guess we have other interests. Disneyland, maybe.


FOX: [laughs] Well, Disneyland is very popular. What is your view on the prisoners that you met while you were at Danbury?


BERRIGAN: Well, in a sense I think Philip and I were, we were demythologizing prison. We were peeling the onion and saying, in a very prosaic way, we certainly have a lot of work to do here just as we have had a lot of work to do on the street. The war was still on and now it took the form of these prisoners. And they needed a lot of attention and counseling and at times, if they were being brutalized, we could get outside attention. They needed worthwhile diversion or to watch something above slimy movies that were being shoved at them so we got literally thousands of books in. And the federal law doesn’t allow any convicted felon to practice his or her profession while in prison.


FOX: Really?


BERRIGAN: Yeah, but they didn’t know what priests do [both laugh], so the only thing they could think of, because the warden was a Catholic, he said, “Well, they’re priests, they can’t celebrate Mass.” Well, that was fine with us, we went to Mass with the prisoners … as a prisoner, and that was just fine. But they didn’t know that we were both very experienced teachers, and so before they could frame a new rule, we were holding classes [laughs] and we had all these books; they brought in carloads of paperbacks, a lot of them very good. The prisoners chose what they wanted to discuss and read.


FOX: Did you find the prisoners different than other groups you’ve come into contact with?


BERRIGAN: Well, you know the sociology that governs life outside, let’s say in the class system, was working up close there. That was a lot to learn. They had rich crooks that had the neat front-office jobs and had creased pants and had the best clothing and had access to food and probably drugs, and then you had the minority people that were working the prison factory for slave wages. And as we discovered at one point, they were making parts of fuses of bombs that were being dropped on Vietnam. This is part of the big prison industry.


FOX: Really.


BERRIGAN: So, we had a strike that we engineered in the prison industries, and that was very interesting. One of the prisoners made me this cross on a string. It was made by soldering two screws that were used in the prison factory to make those bombs and he made me that lovely cross.


FOX: That’s very meaningful.


BERRIGAN: That’s kind of turning things around, isn’t it.


FOX: Yes. Have you maintained contact with people you met there?


BERRIGAN: Well, it was very funny. For a number of years I would be walking on Broadway or I would be walking on 125th street from the subway in Harlem, and someone would dash out of a pub or a betting joint or a numbers joint and yell, “Dan, remember me?” And it was one of the guys from Danbury. I think they’re pretty well scattered by now.


FOX: How has being famous impacted your life?


BERRIGAN: Oh, I don’t know, it never really got to me.


FOX: Has it made much difference?


BERRIGAN: No, I don’t even know what it means.


FOX: People who want to be famous probably become movie actors.


BERRIGAN: Yeah. I’ve been there, too.


FOX: Tell me about that.


BERRIGAN: Well, I’ve been in several films including documentaries, but the big blockbuster, I was hired as advisor to the actors, I was trying to make Jesuits out of them. That was called The Mission with DeNiro and Jeremy Irons and others. So, I was on the set, the jungle set, for about five months, trying to, and it was quite a job because these people were not particular Christians and they, anyway, it was fun. [both laugh]


FOX: Did you feel you succeeded?


BERRIGAN: I think so. I liked the film as it turned out, and I was very interested ever since to note that it became kind a cult film among young people. I go to colleges where they’re showing it and ask them, have you seen this before, and they say four and five times. It’s very affecting to them, a very tough film. It’s in video. It’s very interesting, and the music is magnificent. So then they thought maybe I was getting bored down there in the jungle so they said, “Well, why don’t you take a few scenes?” so I ended up in the film. As someone said, “If you can’t be a Jesuit, go off and play one.” Oh, my. That was great.


FOX: Can you describe your relationship between your beliefs and your poetry?


BERRIGAN: Well, it’s so much a part of me. I guess it’s right in the blood stream, and the family and ancestry that it would be unthinkable that it wouldn’t get into the poetry. I think in the beginning it was kind of sacramental, and transparently so. But then it got to be more indirect and I was concentrating more upon the human suffering because it was beginning with myself, and therefore the poetry took on a darker hue.


FOX: For many poets, their poetry has a darker hue. Why do you think that is?


BERRIGAN: It seems to me it’s inevitable given the world, unless one can create some kind of nirvana which wouldn’t be very interesting.


FOX: What would you like your work to be remembered for?


BERRIGAN: I’m not sure I even want it remembered.


FOX: Say more about that.


BERRIGAN: Well, I like the little story they told about Gandhi who said that he wanted his ashes to flow down the Ganges and that was quite a symbol for him. Let it go, let it go, let it go. And I feel very much like that.


FOX: Do you feel that people can lead a more meaningful life if they are not concerned with their own ego?


BERRIGAN: I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t want to generalize. I live with some very marvelous Jesuits here and I think there would be a very diverse response to a question like that. And you would find a number of these very admirable priests who are doing great work, longing to be remembered. The Jesuits I know who have died and all their lives were great teachers, they’re the least remembered people. The students go on and they scatter and then you see this great priest after 50, 55 years of teaching, and there might be 25 people at his funeral. They’re all gone. You just let it go. And I take that as a very powerful kind of instruction from on high. Let it go, and don’t, I’m talking about myself, don’t ever seek that stuff about celebrity or anything like it.


FOX: Would that interfere?


BERRIGAN: I’m sort of a very interesting outsider / insider in the order. I never met a Jesuit before I applied for the order. I read a great deal about the order and with my best friend came in. Then I was surrounded by these Jesuit hotshots who’d all been through classic schools in New York here. They were way ahead of me on background and languages and everything, and it gave a particular coloration to my love of the order because I always felt I had the right to be a loving critic of what was going on. I was not an inside player. Now, why did I get on all that?


FOX: It was ego, and—


BERRIGAN: See, at least in principle, Jesuits are supposed to be people who do good work without any thought of the outcome. They do good work and they let the outcome go. And it gives a great integrity and substance as far as I’m concerned. Because success is such a weasel word anyway, it’s such a horribly American word, and it’s such a vamp and, I think it’s a death trap. It defines the war industry or something like that. You have to know the outcome before you do the good. You have to know that this thing is going to work before you work on it.


FOX: Your focus is on the work itself.


BERRIGAN: When I studied Buddhism I was living in a Buddhist community in Paris and I was going to the lectures of my dear friend, the venerable Thick Nhat Hanh, at the Sorbonne, and I was finding over those months as we studied together and prayed together and lived together, that there was this terrific congruence between that understanding and Christianity and in Buddhism. Their way of putting it was something like “the good is to be done because it is good, not because it goes somewhere.” And their conviction is that if it is done with that kind of purity it will go somewhere. I believe that with all my heart, but I’m not responsible for its going somewhere. Gandhi would say, I think, pretty much the same thing in another way, that the means are the end, the means are in the end, the end is in the means. One day I remember, he wrote something about, “If the British yoke were still on the neck of my people and I died tonight, I would die content, because the whole day has been congruous with means and end.” And in true sense, he says, “The end is already achieved.”


FOX: Say more about that.


BERRIGAN: Maybe I’m talking out of school, but it seems to me that his spirituality was so profound that he was relatively unaffected by this kind of mesmerizing outcome of things. And yet at the same time he’s endlessly fascinating because he was such a brilliant tactician. He wasn’t putting tactics to the four winds. He was just, I think, insisting that soul, soul force is what he called it, was the main issue. Spirituality was the main issue. Connection with God was the main issue. And if that were the main issue, the issue of tactics would fall in place. I don’t know what more to say. I mean, we’re all going to die in a world that is worse than when we entered it. That’s true of my great friends who have died. I don’t know if you know about Dorothy Day, but she founded a Catholic Worker here and now these houses among the poor are in every city, but when she died at age 84, after 55 years on the Lower East Side, the city was filled with much more misery than when she started, and yet that was never the point. The outcome didn’t catch her and trouble her, because she kept at work that she knew was pro human and was in accord with her beliefs and the outcome wasn’t in her hands.


FOX: You do what’s right because it’s right, that’s the purpose in and of itself.


BERRIGAN: Yes, and then that letting go I think is so, so beautiful, so freeing.


FOX: It’s so difficult sometimes.


BERRIGAN: Oh, indeed, not easy, not easy. We’d all like to see the fruit of our labors, but biblically speaking I’d almost say that there’s some kind of a mysterious law operating in this way that the more serious the work to be done the less one will see of the outcome.


FOX: Yes.


BERRIGAN: I really believe that. And so you have a very interesting measuring stick about serious work. And that’s very hard. I mean this business about peacemaking, it’s tough, unfinished, blood-ridden, everything is worse now than when I started, and I’m at peace. I don’t have to prove my life. I just have to live.


FOX: If you don’t need that outside validation, then it is freeing, by definition.


BERRIGAN: Absolutely, true.


FOX: And then much more can be accomplished.


BERRIGAN: I think of the example of all this that I have in my own family. I think of my brother just out of prison again. He will have spent 10 years of the last 30 in prison. The arms race is worse than it ever was, the dumping of creation down a military rat hole is worse than it ever was, the wars across the earth are worse than they ever were. He’s completely at peace. And he radiates that in his family, the children are just so admirable and the joy of my life. One of them, the boy is just back from Iraq with medical supplies and is off joining the Catholic Worker in Minnesota to work among the poor. And it goes on like that with the two girls. And they have a very close bond and it’s worked. And he has nothing to show for his years in prison except that, except that.


FOX: It’s the difference between the superficiality of Disneyland and integrity.


BERRIGAN: Yes, a great help. We have one of our priests in prison right now, Steve Kelly, for his antiwar actions, and three of us in the community are forbidden to visit him because we’re all convicted felons. And so they have us on their computers. Well, this is a little bit tough. We all love him very much and just can’t see him. But he’s very much like my brother. He has a sense of his vocation as being in and out of prison for nonviolent activity against war. And his health is standing up to it and he’s going to be back in when he gets out. Now his effect upon our community is just very deep. It just sends us all off to our work more thoughtfully, because of what he has chosen.


from Rattle #11, Summer 1999

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February 12, 2016


Photo by Deborah Lennon

Lester Graves Lennon was born and raised in New Rochelle, New York. He is an investment banker, who, during his nearly 40-year public finance career, has been involved in the issuance of more than $250 billion of municipal debt. His first book of poetry, The Upward Curve of Earth and Heavens, was published by Story Line Press in 2002. It currently can be found in 70 public and university libraries including the Los Angeles Public Library, Yale, Oxford, and the University of Wisconsin, where he received his B.A. in English. His second book of poetry, My Father Was a Poet, was published by WordTech Communications in 2013. Mr. Lennon sits on the boards of directors of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and Red Hen Press. He serves on the advisory boards of the West Chester University Poetry Center and the English Department of the University of Wisconsin. He is a member of the Los Angeles mayor’s Poet Laureate Advisory Committee and the selection committee for the 2016 Poets’ Prize. Lennon lives with his wife and daughter in the Los Angeles megalopolis.


Note: The following is excerpted from an 14-page interview.

Fox: It’s doing different work, exactly, which is interesting in and of itself. Tell me about Squaw Valley, what’s your experience there?


Lennon: Well, you notice in my latest book, I give acknowledgment to Squaw Valley and what it’s meant, because I would say at least half of those poems started at Squaw Valley. It’s just something about … my wife and I went up before starting out at the conference. She wanted to go for a week, somebody was letting us use their cabin, and I’m dragging. But then going up the long way, 395 from LA—and that was when the Truckee River was full and mesmerizing—it was just the nicest, invigorating, renewing, refreshing kind of place. And then I saw there was this Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and they did a poets workshop—and the lineup. If I remember the first one correctly, it was Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Brenda Hillman, Galway Kinnell, and Cornelius Eady. It was just extraordinary. That must have been 1999, and I’ve gone every-other year since, on the odd years. So this year was my ninth and quite possibly my most productive time. Now I sit on the board of directors, and feel privileged to be able to do that. I find the place extraordinary, and that Lake Tahoe is just supreme. 


Fox: Yes, we used to have a house up at Lake Tahoe. Beautiful, beautiful place. How do you feel your writing is affected by being with other poets and teachers at Squaw Valley?


Lennon: It’s one of the few times that I am around other poets. So much of what I do is alone. Not talking to other folks about writing, I’m just doing it. But I can remember what certain people say. Lucille Clifton said something one day that just stayed with me. I had some kind of ragged line—I mean ragged in terms of angry and cutting without purpose. And she said, “Don’t add to the chaos.” That’s always stayed with me. It was like, well, was what I was putting on paper adding to the chaos, or was it in some way helping to shape it or channel it or quell it, or redirect it into something more positive? 


In another workshop—workshops can get pretty intense. But what I like about Squaw Valley, there’s no, “You really shouldn’t have said this here, that’s just not working for me.” At Squaw Valley you concentrate on what’s working. You say, “I like this. This really moved me.” If there’s something you didn’t like, you don’t talk about it in the group.  You’d save it for a personal talk if the poet was willing to hear you at a later time. So there’s a safety there. And it’s encouraged by those who lead the workshops. One day a woman was reading a poem in Lucille Clifton’s workshop, and she broke down, because of the material with which she was dealing—and no one really did anything. And Lucille said, “In my workshops we do not leave each other alone.” And you know, folks started to show their concern and encouragement. That’s Squaw Valley, we don’t leave each other alone; we reach out. 


Fox: How would you differentiate the community at Squaw Valley, for example, with your regular business world? 


Lennon: Well, I’ve been able to incorporate poetry into my business world more than I thought was possible. I’m an investment banker. I am out there trying to differentiate my firm from other firms. In doing that you want to differentiate yourself from other bankers. The thing about being creative is it’s just energy—not just—but it is energy. And it can be used anywhere. It can be used to help you craft the line; it can be used to help you craft a presentation; it can be used to help you write, because you want to think of something a little different, that other folks might not have considered. In poetry you need to listen. You need to listen to what other poets are saying. You need to listen to the feedback you’re getting from an audience. You need to listen to yourself. And when you go out and give a presentation, you need to listen to what the client is saying, even if he or she isn’t saying it verbally, but giving unmistakable nonverbal clues. And you need to figure out ways of making what you’re doing stand out from what you suspect other folks are going to do. 


I’ll give you a perfect example. We were competing for business from a client, and I had a little bit of history with the client. In summing up, I had a senior VP with me, a friend who I hired, and we’re in the room and we had other folks with our team on the phone. I started talking about having history going back twenty years, and I recalled the first black president of the board, and brought up his name, and then I started talking about going to South Africa. I said, “So I travelled to South Africa, and went to Robben Island, sat in Mandela’s cell, went out to the rock quarry where he worked, got two pieces of the limestone, and I kept one, and I gave one to the president of the board.” All the sudden there’s this connection no one else is going to get, and when decision time came, we’re one of only two firms that were selected. So the senior VP’s sitting next to me and he said, “Man, I didn’t know what you were doing. I didn’t know if you’d had a stroke …” [Fox laughs] “I didn’t know where you were going with this.” And the senior folks on the phone were saying, “We didn’t know if we should hide under the table. You started out in South Africa and you brought it around.” And that’s what a good poem does. You know where it is, and all the sudden it gets to a point where it’s like, “Damn, I didn’t know it was going there.” That’s what you want, you want that surprise in a poem (sometimes), and you want that surprise in a positive way in reactions by clients. 


Another way poetry helps me: I can guarantee you there’s not another investment banker in California who walks into a meeting and can leave their poetry book on the table. [Fox laughs] All the sudden you have immediate differentiation. “Oh that’s the poet.” Hopefully they don’t read it [both laugh], but it works. 


Fox: So are you saying there’s more to investment banking than basis points?


Lennon: Indeed. Because everyone knows basis points. 


Fox: [laughing] That’s true. I heard that you had a hand in establishing the poet laureate of Los Angeles position. How did that come about? 


Lennon: Actually, it was my idea. I heard Luis Rodriguez read at Vroman’s in Pasadena about eleven years ago, and thought the man should be poet laureate of Los Angeles. I’d known Antonio Villaraigosa for a long time and actually volunteered on his campaign when he first ran for the State Assembly. About a month after he was first elected mayor I sent him a letter saying he should be the mayor to appoint the first poet laureate for the city, together with a list of cities and states that already had one and three suggestions for him to consider. I also volunteered to sit on a committee if he appointed one. The next time I sat down with him I brought it up. Every time I saw him I mentioned it. This went on for seven years through his re-election. Finally, as he approached his last year in office, I brought it up again. He said, “You’re right, and I’m going to get a good one.” And he did. I was honored to be a part of his Poet Laureate Task Force, and we provided him three candidates. From that selection he made the excellent choice of Eloise Klein Healy. When he introduced Eloise at the Central Library I was gratified that he acknowledged me as the person who gave him the idea. And to show how interestingly circles can close while still expanding, the next Poet Laureate Advisory Committee, on which I also served, gave Mayor Garcetti four names to consider for LA’s next poet laureate. He selected Luis Rodriguez.



Fox: What part of poetry do you enjoy the most—the writing, the reading, leaving your book to surprise people? 


Lennon: I like what I do the least, which is reading. I don’t do a lot of readings, and I’d like to do more, to get that immediate connection with people. 


Fox: That’s important. You’ve talked about writing a revenge poem, which you haven’t published. 


Lennon: Well, it’s about not adding to the chaos. There was a guy that pissed me off, and I wrote a poem that really savaged him. It was in business, and I didn’t like the way he did business. I just went after him hard. I thought about publishing it, talked to a friend in the business, and he said, “No, don’t do it. You can never take it back.” I’ve had a history of doing that. I used to work for Berkeley Unified School District, and I had been very fortunate to have a very good supervisor, one of the best I’ve ever known. And he was replaced by an insecure person who was threatened by other peoples’ competence levels, and what she wanted to do was to get you in boxes that she could understand. We were in a meeting one day and she said, “What we need to do here”—and she meant to say salvage—“what we need to do here is savage the department.” [Fox laughs] I just had to leave. I wrote a letter, and the secretary came to me literally shaking, and she said, “Do … do … am I … do you want me to type this?” And I said yes. Some of my officemates looked at it and said, “Please don’t give this to her, because it will just make it worse for us who have to stay behind.” So I didn’t. And in that sense, that poem … let it go. 


Fox: I know a poet who tells his wife to be careful because I’m the poet and people are going to think of you the way I write about you, the way I think about you, and not the way you really are. 


Lennon: Well, if you have readers. [both laugh]


Fox: The cover of your recent book, My Father Was a Poet, is a photo of your father. Tell me about that. 


Lennon: Well he’s standing there and he and this guy are having a conversation, and the first thought was, because the heart of the book is this conversation between the father and the son, was to Photoshop me in. But it just didn’t come out right. Just didn’t look right. But we didn’t want the other guy in there, because we didn’t want folks to think, “Well, who’s the father?” So we took that out. Sometimes that’s what poetry is. Sometimes you’re talking to someone, but maybe you don’t see that person. Or, with an audience, you don’t see the audience before the poem is written, but you’re writing to an audience. So you’re having that conversation. 


Fox: Did you share your poetry with your father?


Lennon: No.


Fox: How would you characterize your relationship with him?


Lennon: Difficult. I had two fathers. I had one who before he went blind was as good a father as you could think of having. And then I had one after who saw his life (no pun intended) just fall apart. He was a dean of a small college in Mississippi, he was in line to be president, went blind, had to come home, had to redesign his life. He had to cut back on what his dreams for his life were going to be, and he became a difficult person. 


Fox: That’s a big change. 


Lennon: Yeah. 


Fox: When do you write poetry, do you write every day, when you’re inspired? Mostly at Squaw Valley?


Lennon: If I were to wait for when I was inspired, it’d be sparse work. There are times when I don’t write. I got back from Squaw Valley in June, and I don’t think I started writing again until late July. There’ve been times when I’d go six months, a year, and didn’t write, and I would feel near-suicidal. It’s almost cliché, but it’s true: Write or die. So I choose to write. You’re gonna die anyway, but I choose to write now. 


Fox: Tell me about being published, when were you first published, other than elementary school? 


Lennon: Now I go back to my wife, 1995, 1997, something like that. I came in one day and showed her a book and said, “Can you believe it? Can you believe this person is published and I’m not?” And maybe I said it one time too many, because I felt it a lot, and what she said, in a nice way, was, “Quit your bitching and treat getting published the way you do getting business. You go to conferences to meet clients—go to conferences, meet poets, put yourself out there.” So the first conference I went to, which I believe was ’97, was in New Mexico, at a small college whose name escapes me. But what won’t escape me is that I went to a breakfast. There was a seat next to me that was empty. And all of a sudden this big Irishman comes in, sits down—it’s Robert McDowell, who was then the publisher of Storyline Press, and five years later he published my first book. 


Fox: Wow. I think that’s true for any writer. There’s so much more to it than writing, you have to promote your work. 


Lennon: Yeah, yeah. 


Fox: And how about being published in poetry journals?


Lennon: I don’t send out a lot of poetry, aside from the New Yorker, which now and again over the last twenty years or so I’ll send something to them out of sheer obstinance and get the inevitable rejection without comment. Once I got a “Good luck” scrawled across the top of the page and that was a good day. Sometimes folks will say, “Well, can we publish …?” And I’ll say okay. But do I usually send things out? No, and I probably should …


from Rattle #50, Winter2015

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October 22, 2015


Jan Heller Levi

Peter Munro was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1957. He was raised in small fishing towns, including Sitka, Alaska, which left him permanently afflicted with a love of fishing. Currently, he lives near Seattle, one of the world’s great fishing ports, with his wife and two sons. By day, he conducts research fishing in the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands, using the data to help estimate annual harvest levels of commercially important demersal fishes. When not at sea, he’s chained to a computer, analyzing data and failing to write papers. By night he makes and says poems. (website)


Note: The following is excerpted from an 21-page interview.

GREEN: You grew up in Alaska, right?


MUNRO: A combination of Alaska and Washington—


GREEN: And is that what led you to being interested in the ocean and fish? 


MUNRO: I think I would have had that anyway—


GREEN: Even in Kansas?


MUNRO: Well, maybe, yeah, from the first time I even went trout fishing in a lake, I was intrigued. Actually, I don’t know, because my development as a child was always in the presence of water and maritime systems. In kindergarten through the 5th grade I lived in a town in Washington in the San Juan Islands called Anacortes. When I was five, they took us on a field trip to a low tide. They couldn’t pull me away from the beach; I was just fascinated by everything that was under the rocks and in the tide pools. My folks noticed my fascination, so we would do family outings that were built around the tide tables—so if there was a minus tide we’d go for a picnic on the beach, and I’d spend the day poking around tide pools. 


GREEN: Were they interested in that, too, or only for you?


MUNRO: I think they found it interesting to see me engaged, and they ended up learning some things about the intertidal zone, but mostly it was just being parents to me. They might have been there more for the barbeque further up the beach. [laughs]


GREEN: Did you think you were going to do this line of work from that point on?


MUNRO: Well, yes and no. I didn’t really know what fisheries was, but I was always fascinated, like many kids, by small animals. My particular fascination was reptiles and amphibians. Even though I’ve never lived in a place that’s famous for having a lot of either of those, I was taken with snakes and lizards and frogs. I remember in 1st or 2nd grade, starting to familiarize myself with the public library, checking out all the snake books, thinking my plan was to be a missionary in some tropical place, which would allow me to do my real passion, which was herpetology. And the missionary part is because my dad was a preacher and it was all I saw, professionally.


GREEN: So when did poetry enter this picture?


MUNRO: That’s kind of a more difficult discussion because it involves a certain amount of religiosity. I was a passionate believer in the standard Protestant Christian doctrine, and I still am, in fact. I don’t want to get all sectarian on you, but I was raised to believe, and I still believe, in having a calling. But I didn’t know what mine was. I grew up trained to listen for God’s calling. I believed I’d been given this life; I believed I’d been given a purpose. I needed to listen for what that purpose was, and then I needed to act on it. But I couldn’t hear God’s calling. I couldn’t recognize it.


Every week I’d go to church, and I’d sing hymns and be exposed to a certain kind of poetic sensibility in the words of the hymns, and I would hear the Bible read out loud. And then I’d hear my dad preach—his poetic sensibility wasn’t quite as thrilling as those others [both laugh], but I enjoyed the basic message that God loves me. So I listened to even my dad preaching. Because these exposures to wordcraft and word art were so everyday for me, I didn’t perceive them as art or beautiful or glorifying to God. I did not perceive words as a calling. Words were just air; they were just there. 


I also failed to recognize that my interest in sciences wasn’t interest in science itself. I was interested in the world. The beauty of the world. Loving frogs and snakes and lizards was a fascination with God’s creation. Despite this love, I still couldn’t recognize my calling. That was a source of a great deal of pain. I went through various difficulties in my life in which I basically gave up trying to listen. That decision felt like a death.


I was laboring joylessly in the sciences because my father, in addition to preaching the gospel, also preached pragmatism. The arts aren’t pragmatic, and he’s a good Scottish Presbyterian, and so you better do something that brings a paycheck or produces something in the world. So I went into the sciences. I had some ability, and I had a measure of genuine love for marine ecology. I remember thinking, in my late teens, then again, going into college, then again, going into graduate school, “Okay, I’ll do this until I finally hear what my real calling is.” That was what I thought when I shifted from grad school into the work I’m doing now, almost 30 years later.


I ended up in fisheries science because I finished my growing up in a fishing town, and I came of age watching people harvest fish, and deeply loved it. But I loved it for its engagement with the world. My love of reptiles and amphibians, my love of tide pools and the intertidal zone, had matured and expanded and fishing had come to be fulfilling in the same way. Sport fishing was how I got involved, as hooked by it as I’d been with my first encounter with a sculpin in a tide pool. However, I became just as smitten with professional fishing on all scales. Fishing was, in fact, what my heart was calling me to do in my late teens and early twenties. But in Southeast Alaska, in the late ’70s, fishing was a good way to lose your shirt. Nobody told me it was no big deal to lose your shirt at age eighteen.


I went into fisheries science instead, a profession that allowed me to stay close to fishing. My love for the field allowed me to receive a degree of nourishment from it. But it wasn’t enough in the long run. I got sadder and sadder and more and more immobilized by not being able to know what it was God really wanted me to do. Things got worse and worse, and I was in some big emotional trouble; I felt like I was dying and I was living self-destructively enough that that wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion. 


Then my mother died, which is central to this story in a very dysfunctional way. I had a very harmful relationship with her. And I think her death allowed me to consider living. Really living. 


GREEN: Wow. How so? If you don’t want to talk about it we can move on …


MUNRO: No … [long pause] Looking back now, my heart had been telling me my calling all through my life but I had refused to hear it. From infancy on, I’d made war on my heart and had tried to ignore my calling. Not-hearing was necessary to survive childhood with a suicidally depressed mother. My mother needed me for her own survival. My true self, an individuated being, threatened her dependency. She coerced me to subsume myself to her. She withheld her love and even seemed to take pleasure in my suffering. As a child, the threat that I would lose her to suicide was always with me. I knew none of this consciously, and certainly not in the beginning. But the weight of her lost self and the weight of my responsibility for her death or survival have been pressed upon me since infancy. 


Anything uniquely mine, whether joy or grief, triggered one of two responses from her: Either she felt threatened and punished me by withholding love, or she coveted what I had and would attempt to suck it from me. I learned to hide my truth from her. She was acutely, psychically attuned, though, as the broken-hearted often are. She seemed to know exactly what was in my head or heart. To be safe I had to hide my truth from myself because if I knew, so would she. I learned to live covertly, without even knowing that’s what I was doing. I learned to catch glimpses of myself in a tide pool. I thank my Maker for making tide pools. I thank my Maker for guiding the feet of me as a kindergartner down to those small waters. I am not sure I would have survived my mother’s darkness otherwise.


So salvation was a shoreline. Barnacles skinning the knees of a child in prayer, not knowing he was praying at the edge of a mussel bed. My calling had always been with me, but I was too sick and hurt to allow myself to hear it, much less answer it. My mother’s death broke me further. Into that lull slipped something I could not not-hear. 


GREEN: And how did you discover that was poetry? 


MUNRO: I’d been listening to National Public Radio, All Things Considered—Noah Adams used to host, and he’d interview poets, and they would read some of their poetry, and every time I heard a poet on the radio, I kind of liked it. And I thought, “That might even be fun to do …” I wasn’t thinking in terms of God’s calling.


GREEN: How long ago was this, when are we talking about?


MUNRO: 1983. My mom died around Thanksgiving of 1983. My first wife and I were sitting in the airport the Christmas after she died. We were going back up to Sitka to spend Christmas with our families. I was in a world of hurt. We had a couple of hours to wait. I don’t know why, but I thought, “Well, I’ll just try to write a poem. What could it hurt?” It took about fifteen minutes to write a five-line stanza—I wouldn’t want to share it with anybody now, but I could tell in doing it that I really was able to do this. The light went on in that fifteen minutes; I realized this is my calling. 


I knew that if I would pursue it my life would change, and in ways that were scary to me. So I paused for a minute—I never doubted that I would go on with it—but I paused for a minute to acknowledge that my life was going to change. And then I plunged on, and wrote the next verse, which … sucked. [both laugh] I mean, the first verse was embarrassing in its sentimentality and its earnestness, but it actually has some wordcraft in it that is pretty sophisticated. The second verse was just horrible in every possible way, and I knew it. And actually being able to recognize it wasn’t working, I wasn’t trashing myself, it was just, “Holy cow, there are a whole bunch of problems here that have to be solved”—actually that told me more about being able to do this, that this was my calling. I could see that the second verse reeked and I still loved the making of it. I was excited about how to fix its problems (which turned out to be unfixable). I didn’t yet know how to do this particular thing, I had to figure it out, but by golly, I could see the problems. So in a way the awful second verse was as revealing as the first fifteen minutes, and it changed my life tremendously. 


GREEN: You said that it changed in scary ways. How were they scary? 


MUNRO: Because if I embraced poetry, I would have to be a growing person, oriented toward being alive in God’s Creation. The structures of my life would not be able to take my own growth, they would break, and I sensed that from the moment I discerned poetry as my calling. I finished that first stanza and savored the joy of it and immediately had the realization that my marriage would not survive. That was very scary. I was in a marriage that required me to stunt myself. I sensed that already-breaking union would break all the way, which is what eventually happened. The prospect of divorce was frightening to the first born son of a Presbyterian preacher; in that culture, death was preferable to divorce. There were numerous other structures in my life that I thought I needed for survival, structures and myths. The things I used to cope with the spiritual sickness I’d contracted from my mother. I sensed those structures were on the line. The decision to take up my calling felt like I was putting myself at existential risk. Scary.


I think I understood that pursuing poetry would force me to be more honest than I had been, in a deep-down way. I was using a lot of false myths to keep myself going, glorifications of aspects of my family and upbringing that I had contorted or fabricated to convince myself that I was loveable. At the time I encountered the poem inside me, I was dying of the labor of sustaining these myths. But I also thought I would die without them. None of this was a conscious realization, only analysis after the fact. At the time, right along with the joy of discovering my calling, I felt fear. A lot of fear.


I wanted to write beautiful poems that glorified the Creator, and I couldn’t do that from a place of dishonesty. And still to this day—how many years, 32 years later?—my biggest problems are still dishonesty. The bullshit meter in making a poem is more unforgiving than any other area of my life. The poem just won’t work if I’m not being honest. And I won’t even recognize the dishonesty problem for a while, I just know that I’m really wrestling with this line or this image or this rhyme, this form. A lot of times when that happens, I’m trying to coerce the poem down a different path than the one on which I have to face myself, face some truth I’ve struggled to hide from myself.


GREEN: Do you think that’s what poetry is, that the central aspect is bringing truth out? Would you put it that way? 


MUNRO: I don’t know about that; I think anything can be marshalled toward that purpose. At least anything in which humans communicate with each other or form relationships with each other, whether it’s through the arts or something else. Poetry has served that purpose for me, though. In my case, poetry happens to be the tool. That doesn’t mean it’s the only tool or the right tool. 


GREEN: I was going to ask about growing up with a preacher as a father, and if that comes into conflict with science in any way. Because you wrote that you were “broken by Darwin’s wisdom.” Is there a negotiation between faith and science? 


MUNRO: I think there are many functional ways of looking at the world. Seeing it as the consequence of Creation is one of those ways. I’m happy with that view, personally. And I don’t care beyond that. [laughs] I’m culturally Presbyterian, but if you want to actually label a Christian doctrine that I adhere to, it would be Protestant Reform, in the lineage of John Calvin—so salvation by grace, just purely that God loves you, and you don’t have to know any more than that. God loves you, and that’s the point. But it’s pretty mainline.


Wait a minute. Are you asking about evolution vs. creationism, and those types of conflicting doctrines? 


GREEN: Yeah, because there are a lot of conflicting doctrines, right? 


MUNRO: Totally. I love that shit. Conflicting understandings are where the Creator lives, if you ask me. I think about this a lot. As far as there being a life of faith, without naming a particular dogma or doctrine, I think all human beings are stuck with living by faith. And after that we sort out what it is that we have faith in. I love evolutionary psychology. I love advances that people are making in terms of behavior, animal behavior and especially the human species, and the fitness value of, for example, loving each other. How love glues a group together, and that’s essential for survival, because the individual won’t survive without a small group to be part of. Not a huge group, but a family, a defined group of, say, ten people. Our instincts and our emotions are intertwined, and they conspire without us consciously trying to have to bind ourselves together. And we happen to survive more when we do that. Totally Darwinian.


But fitness value is always at the individual level, so it’s my genes that I want to have replicated, it’s not the group genes. So there’s this conflict between the individual need for individual genetic replication and the need of the individual for the group to survive, because if I don’t survive, my genes aren’t going to replicate. So I like it when Richard Dawkins talks about the gene machine, that the whole genetic self-replicating chemical reaction is what’s the deal, and we happen to be servants to it. I love all that; I really love all that. But that doesn’t put me in conflict with the idea that we’re created. That genetic chemical reaction is all rooted on probability processes, and I can easily see a Creator saying, “Yeah, atoms are going to knock together and molecules are going to knock together according to these principles”—all the noise after that is just me fretting about how can this work; a fretting which doesn’t really matter. 


Created? Survival of the fittest? It doesn’t matter because everybody still has to live by faith. That’s the piece that interests me. Every scientist has to live by faith—maybe scientists more than anybody else, because the one thing that we’re certain of in the sciences is that we don’t know. We’re constantly positing models as explanations of how things work, and we’re saying, “This is our current best guess. This theorem is what we’re going to lay our money on. There may be observations coming as our instrumentation improves, or as the body of knowledge grows; we may be able to assemble a new theory to replace the one we’re currently betting on, but for now, this is where we lay our bets.” Nobody gets to know things with certainty; what we do is bet. Everything’s a bet; everything’s by faith. The good scientist is intimate with this awareness.


But doctrine? Systems of belief? Religiosity? These are subsets of faith. I love them too. I have inside of me, in my heart, an experience that I am moved to explain. Not just how, as large primates, we depend on the group to survive and therefore we generate emotional connections with each other—I also feel something in my heart, something like joy. And sure, maybe it’s just instinct, and maybe the physics of joy are no more than subroutines of a self-replicating chemical reaction.  Yet my experience of joy feels like it encompasses that chemistry and goes beyond. I expect that infinite understanding of the endocrine system would still not serve to explain away joy or a Bach partita. When I give the name “God” to the font of this joy, and live as faithfully to it as I can, that joy seems to propagate in the core of me. I do not prescribe this practice to other children of this planet, but neither has Dawkins dissuaded me from my passion for the Maker.


GREEN: You compare faith to a bet, do you think it’s really like a bet—isn’t a faith something that you know? 


MUNRO: Everything’s just a bet. …


from Rattle #49, Fall 2015
Tribute to Scientists

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August 19, 2015


Jan Heller Levi

Jan Heller Levi grew up in Baltimore in the days of the peaceful atom, and returned to New York City in the mid-’70s. She landed at Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied poetry with Jane Cooper, Jean Valentine, and Thomas Lux. She did not go on to graduate school, but worked in publishing, and then became Muriel Rukeyser’s personal assistant from 1978 until Rukeyser’s death in 1980. She continued writing poetry through jobs in public relations, publishing, and advertising sales (at the New York Times), and edited A Muriel Rukeyser Reader (W.W. Norton, 1994). In 1998, she won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets for her first book of poems, Once I Gazed at You in Wonder. Since then, she’s published two more books of poetry: Skyspeak (Louisiana State University Press, 2005) and Orphan (Alice James Books, 2014) co-edited with Sara Miles, Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Copper Canyon), and co-written, with Christoph Keller, the introduction to New Direction’s re-issue of Rukeyser’s suite of poems, Elegies, originally published in 1949. She is currently writing, with the Swiss-born novelist and playwright Keller, who is also her husband, a biography of Rukeyser, and working on a new collection of poems. She teaches at Hunter College of the City University of New York.


Note: The following is excerpted from an 18-page interview.

Fox: Where do you derive your inspiration for poems?


Levi: I think now from everywhere. Something else that struck me as very true that Muriel Rukeyser said—while I was working for her as her assistant and she was having difficulty writing I asked if I could take the poems in dictation, and she said, “No, the poems come down the arm.” And even in this age of computers, I really feel that, and I understood that; it comes somehow down the arm. And so I’m going to say that inspiration somehow comes down my arm from something that I’m not always aware of. But there are other things that I am aware of, have jotted down in my notebook, like a dry cleaners on our street. All the dry cleaners these days claim they’re “green” cleaners, so there’s one on my block with a sign in their window that says, “No planets were harmed here in the cleaning of your clothes,” and I’m wondering—how do they know? A poem might come out of that, or a line. And the other thing is, Rilke said you always have your childhood and so I continually find—inspiration’s a funny word to apply to that, but I find that I return to childhood; it’s a great mystery to me so I’m always returning. 


Fox: Your childhood itself, or its influence on you now?


Levi: Both.


Fox: What are some of the themes from your childhood that you really return to?


Levi: Partly it is the actual … I’m going to say about ten things. One, I’m going to say again the mystery of childhood. When we get older, it’s hard to know whether our memories are accurate or not, and so there’s that great mystery. Two, there’s the mystery of our parents’ lives and what they tell us about their lives and ours, and what their myths are of what they tell us. You totally—or I feel like I did totally as a child—accept that. And now I think families are the biggest mysteries—they’re the beginning of the NSA; they’re the National Secrecy Association. [Fox laughs] They’re small pockets of people collecting secrets and taking your secrets and twisting them and twisting theirs. The secrets in my family and even the revelations were not so profound, but I find myself returning to them. I’m second generation adopted, not orphaned, although that’s a kind of being orphaned. My mother was adopted by her aunt and uncle. Her parents died in the flu epidemic of 1918–19, when she was sixteen months old. And then my mother and father adopted both my brother and me, when we were infants. And I have stories about her family, and I would hear non-stories about my family because I was adopted in a different generation than my mother, and in the ’50s, the other family, the biological family, didn’t exist. They were erased. So there was that mystery. And then later I learned that my parents had adopted another child between my older brother and me. I didn’t know that until I was 24 and my mother was dying, and she told me there had been another child—but there was something wrong with the child and they gave him back. 


Fox: Whoa.


Levi: I never knew that. The child was adopted before I was, and I don’t think I would have been adopted by them if Jimmy had stayed. One of the mythologies about adoption that was really current in the ’50s was “I love you like my own child.” It’s rare, if you love your own child, that you give that child back. When you’re an adopted kid, once you learn it, you say things like, “If I’m bad, are you going to give me back?” I didn’t know I was touching a chord. So all these things fascinate me, and I guess it’s a way of saying that what’s true and what’s not fascinated me from a really young age.


Fox: Do you find that you made certain decisions as a child that got buried and then as an adult they start rearing their heads?


Levi: I guess so. I think we do things as a child and as a teenager and as a young person that we don’t even think of as decisions. It’s just, “This is what I’m doing, this is what I’m becoming, this is who I am.” And later on we do see it as a decision that was formative in some way. It’s hard for me to answer that question any further, so let’s go somewhere else and maybe we can come back to it.


Fox: Well, I realized when I was in my early twenties that I had made a decision in my teenage years to not be as smart as I am because I thought people didn’t like me because I was too smart. What I finally realized was that they didn’t like me because I was too much of a smart aleck. 


Levi: I see what you’re saying.


Fox: But I made a decision, you know, I just didn’t act too smart.


Levi: Right. And that was a question of your survival, because survival includes a need to be liked.


Fox: Yes.


Levi: Well, yes, I think I did that, like everybody. And some of them rightly and some of them wrongly and then they come back and you say to yourself, “Why have I been doing that for 40 years? Why have I been losing things for 40 years, why can’t I keep track of my papers, why can’t I keep track of the scissors?” And, in my case, it’s probably because my family was incredibly organized and that was my rebellion.


Fox: Ah!


Levi: So still I would say I spend half my life looking for things. 


Fox: That’s a good one. I’ll have to think about that, because my desk is always messy. Years ago I cleaned it up once, I kept it clean for nine months …


Levi: How did you keep it clean?


Fox: Force of will.


Levi: You mean you cleaned it at the end of the day?


Fox: Yes. And one day I left three papers on it, and I said, “Alan, this is the beginning of the end. Either take these three papers and put them away, or your desk will be back to the way it was,” and I said, “I’m not going to put those papers away.” [both laugh] I still haven’t really thought about what’s underneath that. 


When did you know you were a poet?


Levi: Lots of people say this, I’m sure, that they were always writing poems, poems and stories, but as to when I knew I was poet—I don’t think that concept was really even available to me until I went to college. I went to school in Wisconsin first, and then I dropped out because that’s what people did then, or that’s what I did then, and when I went back to school I went to Sarah Lawrence, which had this incredible creative writing program at the time; it was I think equivalent in some ways to what graduate programs are now. And there if you started taking poetry workshops other people would say, “Oh, you’re a poet,” like people who were taking dance classes were dancers, so the word got attached to me. Jean Valentine, who was one of my teachers, says she never called herself a poet, she just said she writes poems, and I feel a little bit of that too, you know—it’s an activity, it’s not a title.


Fox: How did you get the job with Muriel Rukeyser? 


Levi: I graduated from Sarah Lawrence, and I had beautiful teachers there, I was so lucky—Grace Paley was my advisor, Jean Valentine was my teacher; Jane Cooper was my teacher. One day, I was reading Field magazine, and I ran into Jane’s office and said, “Oh I just read these great poems by this guy Tom Lux.” She said, “Oh, he’s coming to teach here next semester.” And Tom became my teacher too. So there were fabulous people there. 


Jane Cooper was very good friends with Muriel—I call her Muriel now, I called her Mrs. Rukeyser most of the time I knew her. Right after graduating, I went off to work in publishing. Soon after that my mother died and I was working for one of those publishers that did bodice-rippers, so I said, “Life is too short for me to do this.” I’ve since realized that’s not really the issue, life is just very, very wide. I quit my job and Jane said to me, “Jan, Muriel needs an assistant. She’s been sick …” and of course she’d had a very severe stroke many years before. “She’s had a couple strokes, and she’s had eye surgery, and she needs an assistant.” I said to her, “If she’s too sick, Jane, I can’t,” because my mother had died maybe two weeks before. So Jane said, “Well, just go meet her.” 


I went to the door where she was living, and she opened the door—I’ve written about this—there was this sort of Sphinx-like monumental person with these very thin legs wearing a red bathrobe, sucking on a Rothman cigarette, and I looked at her, and I knew she was dying, and I knew I was going to work for her.


Fox: Wow.


Levi: So that’s how I met her. And I did work for her until her death.


Fox: I’m thinking that you go on your instinct a lot.


Levi: [laughs] Yes, I think so.


Fox: What good things have happened from doing that?


Levi: That. Both of my marriages. I’m still friends with my ex-husband and he’s a wonderful guy. In fact, he owns the restaurant where I’m having my book party tomorrow. And in fact, also, right after my mother died—Ken and I had been together for several years—the day after my mother died I called him and said, “Let’s get married,” and we did. I met Christoph, I’m embarrassed to say, at a writer’s colony—that’s the cliché, but I swear, never before had I ever, and I’d done my share of writer’s colonies. [Fox laughs] I just knew at a relatively early point that he and I were meant for each other, and once I knew I just knew, and there was no way around it. My poems I think, in the way I described, they’re written on instinct. I’m not so much a project poet, you know, as it’s developed in the last few years. What else have I done on instinct? Quit jobs, taken jobs, quit those jobs, tried drugs, given up drugs, smoked, stopped smoking. There are lots of other decisions in life—gone somewhere, taken a trip somewhere. One of the times I quit my job it was to—I looked in the bank account and saw how much money I had—it’s a very pitiful figure when I think about it right now but I said, “Well, I’m quitting my job and I’m going to travel, live in Italy for a year.” I didn’t quite do that, but spent nine months travelling around Italy and Spain.


Fox: It sounds like all that really was a way for you to expand your horizons as a person and be exposed to a variety of cultures.


Levi: I think so, but that sounds like I’m very brave, which I don’t necessarily think I am. I think I teach on instinct too, I mean, I always have a plan but the plan … I think I’m doing this interview on instinct. [laughs] 


Fox: Well, they say life is what happens while you’re making other plans. What was your working relationship with Muriel Rukeyser like, and how long was that?


Levi: It was eighteen months, and it was everything from taking letters and dictation to sometimes accompanying her to a reading, sometimes accompanying her to Grand Central Station because she was going to get on a train and go to a reading—it was unbelievable that she could get herself to a reading at that point in her life, her health was so compromised and yet she was so powerful at the same time. I would read mail to her. I remember at that time here we had something called CAPS grants, I think, which stood for Creative Artist Public Service, and I read those manuscripts to her. Her eyes were bad then, and so I would also take her poems when she was giving a reading to this place where they would be enlarged so that she could read them. And then some more intimate things when she got ill, and when she was having a bad patch. 


Fox: It sounds like you really care about people …


Levi: Of course. Of course. You go to be somebody’s assistant and you know their work—although I wasn’t the biggest fan of her work at the start; I liked some things and I didn’t like others. But she was a very kind person. She was very generous and very powerful, and also very much in need. I think anybody would want to help that person. 


Fox: It’s unusual for someone who’s powerful to also be in need. Was it difficult for her to accept help?


Levi: Well, yes, and she had a temper, too. I used to say, if her health hadn’t been so poor she would have killed me. She could be impatient; she could snap at me because maybe I was treating her as if she were old. And she wasn’t old; she died at 66—that’s young. I remember once I was working for her when Three Mile Island melted down. It was really scary, and there was also a meltdown in Harrisburg, or some leakage, and she was looking up the window of the apartment on 50th Street, and she kept saying she was in Pennsylvania, she was in Pennsylvania. She had moments of incredible lucidity and other moments when she, I think, answered to a higher authority. And I said, “Oh, Mrs. Rukeyser, why do you feel this is Pennsylvania?” And she said, “It’s not that I feel that it’s Pennsylvania, Jan, it is Pennsylvania, don’t use psychology on me.” [both laugh]


Fox: When and how did you come to really enjoy or respect her work as much as you do? 


Levi: While I was working for her, her Collected Poems came out—I just rediscovered this conversation recently in something I wrote when she died—I read the Collected beginning to end, and I was just amazed by it. She’s kind of like Ginsberg in her brilliance. There are individual brilliant poems, but there are little bits of brilliance in everything, all the way through. That was a big revelation for me. I came in to work and I said, “Mrs. Rukeyser, I read your whole book over the last few days, and it’s just amazing.” Her early work was really not read then. People were reading The Speed of Darkness and everything after the ’60s, but not so much her earlier work, and it was just amazing. So I told her that and she said, “Read them next year; they’ll be better.” And as I’ve been writing about her now I see, well, that’s true. 


Fox: How important is it for a poet to be recognized and appreciated when they write? 


Levi: In one way I don’t think it’s important at all. In one way I think that if we’re writing, that’s the thing we do, we have to do it, and you can’t let our sense of the value of that come from how it’s responded to by the press or by awards. In some ways I think it’s not important at all. Not as simply as we used to think of it, but in a complicated way, Emily Dickinson is an example of that. I truly believe that I don’t worry about whether I’m known or not. Because also in writing a biography of Rukeyser, which is what I’ve been doing for a long time, I can name a lot of poets who were very big in their time, and nobody reads them now, at least not to the extent that they used to. And these were times when nobody was looking at Rukeyser. So you never know what’s going to happen; you never know where your poems will go, especially in the age of the internet. You never know how your poems might end up in front of someone who finds them meaningful. And you never know how they’ll extend into the future. 


In another way, though, I think it’s very hard. It’s very hard for people to dedicate their lives to poetry, to have difficult careers and to be sidelined and marginalized. I don’t want to negate the psychological ramifications of that. In a way it was worse before than it is now, because in the world of poetry there are so many ways to reach people. There are so many ways to build a community now, of writers that read you, and there are so many schools—I think everybody has a better chance of finding an audience. 


Fox: It seems to me that one large purpose of poetry is to connect with human beings on a deeper level than in normal life. 


Levi: I absolutely agree with that. 


from Rattle #48, Summer 2015
Tribute to New Yorkers

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May 29, 2015


Richard Gilbert

While at Naropa University, Richard Gilbert studied with beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, and others, and became a Tibetan Buddhist meditator. He has performed in and produced conceptual art multidisciplinary presentations as a poet, videographer, and electric guitarist. After completing an undergraduate thesis on Japanese classical haiku in 1982, and Tibetan Buddhist seminary training in 1984, he worked as a clinical adult outpatient psychotherapist. In 1990, Gilbert completed a PhD at The Union Institute & University in Poetics and Depth Psychology. He moved to Kumamoto, Japan, in 1997, teaching at university and publishing academic articles on Japanese and English-language haiku, while designing EFL educational software. He received tenure from Kumamoto University in 2002. Gilbert is co-judge of the Kusamakura International Haiku Competition, founder and director of the Kon Nichi Haiku Translation Group at Kumamoto University, and founding associate member of The Haiku Foundation. His book The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A New Approach to English-Language Haiku, discussing some 275 haiku (Red Moon Press, 2013), was awarded The Haiku Foundation 2013 Touchstone Distinguished Book Award. Gilbert has edited and/or translated five other books relating to haiku, and constructed the gendaihaiku website, which presents subtitled video interviews with notable modern Japanese haiku poets. (website)


Note: The following is excerpted from a 26-page interview.

GREEN: What is haiku? Let’s start there. 


GILBERT: I’d like to quote a fellow named Hiroaki Sato, “A haiku is anything the author says it is.” [Green laughs] And you might think he’s saying it in a leading way, but it’s because, for one, in Japan, when you go to the daijiten, the big encyclopedic dictionary and look up haiku, there’s no definition. There’s no 5–7–5, there is no haiku is this and not that. What you see is connotation: Haiku began with Basho in the seventeenth century, and he wrote these things, and then there are other well-known haijin (-jin is “person,” meaning people who write haiku) who wrote like this. And it’s mentioned that in modern times Masaoka Shiki gave us the word “haiku,” which didn’t exist before him—it was called hokku, and the hokku was part of a linked form poem. People basically drink together. So the haiku drinking party, the kukai, is the basis of haiku in Japan, and still is today—and it’s not always drinking, anymore, but haiku come out of a collaborative, communal experience that is really fun. 


There’s a famous quote by Basho, “haiku jiyu,” which means, “haiku is for freedom.” And I’d like to explain that. In a strongly hierarchical, class-based society, which feudal Japan was—you’ve got the farmers and the samurai, and there are class-degrees of samurai families—a lot of intense structure. And it’s known that if a samurai wanted to test his sword and happened to hack down a farmer who was walking along the road, that was not a crime. That’s hierarchy, right? How interesting, then, that when you join a haiku group, the first thing that you do is create a haigo, what we would call a nom de plume or a pen name—


GREEN: For the whole group, or for yourself?


GILBERT: For yourself. And someone would often give you that name as a joke—some of the names are like “Twisted Guts,” crazy names—and you can have more than one. Shiki famously had over 100. And each one was a persona. Name change is an interesting thing, anyway, in Japanese culture. For instance, if you achieve a certain rank in a martial art or ikebana (flower arranging) you might be given a special name by your teacher. But the name and the persona is really a new self. The idea of “I am me and I am like this throughout my life” is a bit different in Asian culture compared to our own, generally. 


So this idea of haigo has a very interesting socio-political side, because if you’re a farmer you can’t talk to a samurai, unless you’re addressed by them, and then you would have to talk in a very cultivated, formal language called teinei-go. And what if you insulted them? They might hack you to bits! And even among the samurai classes there exist complex language conventions. There’s no way a group could form freely among different classes. But when you have a haigo you are that person, and there is no longer any class. It’s complete equality. And so that’s why Basho said, “haiku jiyu.” It’s one of the many intense paradoxes within Japanese culture, that within the haiku drinking party everyone’s an equal. 


Kaneko Tohta is now 94, and is practically a national treasure in Japan. He talks about growing up in the village of Chichibu, way up in the mountains north of Tokyo. His father was a doctor and built a clinic there, so he was from an elite family, but at the same time grew up in this small village, and felt very protective of village culture, and writes a lot about rural themes. He pioneered the movement called shakaisei haiku, which means haiku of social consciousness—he was one of the main leaders of this post-war late-1940s group that first asked the question, “Well, should we write haiku anymore because look what happened, the war, we couldn’t stop anything, and haiku symbolizes this traditional ‘Japaneseness’—this is not good, maybe we should just stop.” As a result of this questioning and debate, he revolutionized the genre, creating many theories about how to think about yourself and connect with your physical embodied being, and at the same time critique your culture intellectually. 

genbaku yurusu maji kani katsukatsu to gareki ayumu
never, atomic bomb never—
a crab crawls click, click
over rubble
—Kaneko Tohta 

He has many coinages of terms, and one of them that I really like is translated as “intellectual wildness.” I don’t want to get carried away with this, but I studied with the Beats at Naropa, and when you think of anti-establishment poets, you know, Gary Snyder eventually became a professor emeritus at UC Davis, and Allen Ginsberg founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and you could say that in their later lives they integrated back into their culture—in other words this idea of “anti-” became much more synthetic. Naropa remains an alternative school, and Gary Snyder has become a leading ecological activist, so it’s not as if the integration is like suddenly watching Fox News or whatever—


GREEN: Change from within, rather than change from without, right? 


GILBERT: Right, they found a place within institutional structures. And I wanted to meet the poets who were working, I didn’t want to study poetry academically. I was very confused, and I still am, and that poetic instinct, as you might call it, was strong in my life. I wanted to meet people who felt the same thing—I wanted, not to be a disciple, but to have some mentoring. So I went to Naropa. And when I went to Japan I had that same feeling—at first I was interested in the classical stuff, because I knew about that from studies with Ginsberg and Patricia Donegan, but after I got there I realized that there was this tremendous tradition that happened after WWII that had virtually never been translated into English—at least not with commentary so that you could learn about what these poets were thinking, and not just read the poems, which often translate very minimally in terms of the culture. And when I did begin meeting these poets I found they were absolutely brilliant and eccentric, with a lot to say. 


So someone like Kaneko offers what we might think of as a paradox, where he was one of the most radical and pioneering of the post-war haiku poets, and his job was that he worked for the Bank of Japan, throughout his whole career. How can these two things go together? Yagi Mikajo recently passed away—she was the first woman in Japan to graduate from a medical college and found her own ophthalmology clinic. She was a brilliant doctor, and I would call her an eco-feminist radical poet—before the term existed. She was writing these amazing, very erotic, and also what we would call ecological, haiku. But she was as well a doctor; she had a day job. So anti-establishment, in the Japanese sense, has to do with community and your mind, your intellect—it doesn’t mean you have to quit your job and form a new –ism. In fact, Kaneko said he hates –isms and is not too interested in continental “theory” philosophizing; he’s more of a rooted person, it’s more human-to-human.

mankai no mori no inbu no era kokyû
full bloom
in the forest’s genitals
respiration of gills
—Yagi Mikajo
So to finish the thought here, what is haiku—one of the lovely things that I found studying in Japan is that haiku is community. Haiku is groups getting together filling in their own poems. It’s not the lonely pilgrim finding enlightenment—that’s part of Basho’s life, but the main part is that he was this very ambitious guy who sought fame early with his first book, which had a lot of obscene poetry in it, actually. And by the way, he was also primarily gay—he was bisexual, but the great love of his life was Tokoku (also known as Mankikumaru), who was exiled, due to his criminal activity, by the Shogunate. 
GREEN: I never knew that. 
GILBERT: Scholars have known all through history, but within the institutions they’ve been shy of tarnishing the “Basho the Saint” image. There’s a recent book by Arashiyama, which in translation is Rogue Basho—he basically surrounded himself with criminals and violent people—Basho was closer to a Beat than a mendicant monk. A very complicated fellow, and a genius. 
So this idea of the haiku drinking party, or kukai, is the core, and does it relate to the international arena? Is it true that haiku is the only international genre of poetry? Free verse is not really a single genre, but haiku must have certain formal aspects that connote it as haiku. Another paradox of haiku is that these little tiny poems that seem incomplete apparently draw people together who want to talk about them. That is, haiku seem to create community. Don Baird uses the term “haiku DNA,” which I think is an interesting Western idea: There is some sense of a code, a lineage aspect that is a bit mysterious, and yet there’s something about this form that seems to overleap language and culture. Every year over 60 countries send haiku in English to our Kusamakura Haiku Competition in Kumamoto, Japan, where I live. The Balkans are very strong in haiku, France, Germany, India …
So in my role, I judge a contest, I write some theory and publish haiku—and I’m old now, I just turned 60, and didn’t start out wanting to do this; I wasn’t an academic until I got to Japan, really, but suddenly in the last few years, especially with social networking, I’ve developed new friendships. Do you know how hard it is to make a friend when you’re over 50? I mean to really connect? But by meeting others into haiku I’ve met some amazing people. So “haiku is for freedom” has a lot of resonance for me, and it’s also about community. 
GREEN: There is this sense of community that no other genre has—it’s sort of separate from mainstream poetry, but there’s a vibrancy that you can see, with these large conferences like you mentioned—
GILBERT: Yeah, the Haiku North America Conference occurs every two years, it’s international and well-attended …
GREEN: And there are no international sonnet conferences. So what do you think it is about haiku that draws people together? Is it the mystery, the brevity? 
GILBERT: That’s a question that I can’t really answer very well. Except the obvious, that there are enough people who like it and who are attracted—
GREEN: But why are they attracted? I mean, my grandmother [Gilbert laughs] who did nothing else with literature, she loved haiku. She had a subscription to Frogpond, and every time she would write me a letter she would include a haiku at the end. She didn’t even read Rattle, really. And there was a little community in her neighborhood that shared haiku. I noticed in your background that you have a PhD in Poetics and Depth Psychology, and I don’t know what that is, but it sounds fascinating—does that relate? 
GILBERT: Well, it relates to Jung, and I studied with James Hillman, who had some issues with Jungian theories and created his own field called Archetypal Psychology. And it does connect with some of his ideas about who we are as people—multiplicity in self—and that goes back to haigo, right; if Shiki had 100 personas he was really playing with the idea that you can be a horse and write a haiku.
There’s a poet, Tsubouchi Nenten, who writes a lot of funny haiku about hippopotami—he famously wrote: 
cherry blossoms fall—
you too must become
a hippo
—Tsubouchi Nenten
So when you ask, what is haiku, that’s a haiku. Senryū is a term that often means witticism or witty, but in modern haiku we’re not really making that division anymore—
ushirokara mizu no oto shite fu ga kitari
from behind
comes the sound of water
comes news of death
—Ônishi Yasuyo
If the poem has impact and has depth, it doesn’t matter if it has wit or not, it doesn’t matter if it has a human topic. In Japan it’s a little different, because there’s a long tradition of senryū that goes back hundreds of years, and the definition is more clear because senryū poets don’t treat season words (kigo) as special, they just treat them as words, ordinary language. But in English, from a Japanese point of view there is no haiku, because there’s no kigo, no dictionaries of season words that go back for centuries, which is really the vertical depth that makes kigo powerful. 
GREEN: Explain that, what are kigo?
GILBERT: Unfortunately for us in translation, the literal translation is “season word.” There’s a literal side, a realism, like for example, “spring moon”—and “moon” itself, by the way, is a kigo; it would always be the moon-viewing moon of the autumn harvest. Kigo are strange, in that they’re not based on naturalism or realism, and many are ancient, so they’re coming from a sense of human imagination and culture that isn’t confined by scientific understanding. So when we say “moon” it could be any season, but in Japanese, when we say “moon” in haiku, it’s always the moon-viewing moon, and people are there in a group, looking at the moon. Often there’s also a sense of impermanent beauty, mono no aware; it’s beauty in its passing, traditionally related with the cherry blossoms falling like snow, or a beautiful woman in her prime, you would say, also feeling the passing of that beauty—of all phenomena. But if a moon is not just a moon, if a moon is actually a moon related to the environment, people going out on a night in the early autumn to view the moon and write poetry, and to maybe drink together, and have a quietly festive time sharing a sense of heart—that’s all included in the kigo. So that’s one level, that kigo are environments, it’s not just the literal moon. In Japan there are some fourteen kinds of cicada, and they all have different periods of time that they appear. So if I say higurashi, which is a kind of cicada that I hear where I live, they come in late summer, as kigo it carries this sense of returning to school, the sense of summer ending, and evokes a feeling of maybe kids playing jump rope in the neighborhood in their free time:
nawatobi no wa ni higurashi ga haittekuru
into the jump rope’s spinning ring a cicada jumps in
—Hoshinaga Fumio

GILBERT: So kigo are really whole environments, and that’s the first thing that we miss in English. Here’s another contemporary use of kigo by Uda Kiyoko—she’s the president of the Modern Haiku Association of Japan:
mugi yo shi wa ki isshoku to omoikomu
realizing death as one color
Here, the summer kigo is wheat—eternity, a paradox, the singular “gold” of life and death expressed in just a few words, the wheatfield of an image. 
Just to mention, kigo in modern haiku is not mandatory—I had a group of students research this a few years ago, we looked through several hundred modern haiku and found that about 70% contained kigo
Another aspect of kigo is a little stranger still, there’s a vertical dimension that really makes kigo powerful, which is that, when you open a saijiki, which is this compendium of kigo—this is a highly redacted, edited compendium, and there might be many hundreds, even thousands of kigo in it. And for each kigo, there are poems using that kigo, or that season word, that go back in time. Let’s say I look up “moon,” which is autumn—I might be able to find, in that case, it’s such a popular and important kigo, I could find hundreds of poems going back through time, layers and layers of history. So what you get, as a haiku professional, is that you look in the saijiki for the kigo, and you really have to understand all those other poets, not just the poem, but who were they, when did they live, what was their era, how does the poem relate to their situation? If they said something like, “The moon tonight/ another cicada calls”—but then you find out that “another cicada” really refers to their patron. So there are often hidden messages, symbolic and literary references, if you study more deeply. 
I think of it like a geology, imagine the Grand Canyon: You’re going back through strata of eras, and all of these poets that use that same season word are in a sense developing a multi-generational dialogue. As you go through time those later poets were aware of the earlier poets, and so it keeps going like that, to this day. And I asked some of the poets I was interviewing, “You’ve written plays and essays, modern poetry, why do you want to be known as a haiku poet, why restrict yourself?” My friend and colleague Hoshinaga Fumio said, “One word can create an environment; one word can create this sense of history and lineage. So why reject it?” But at the same time, I’ll give you another example of a poem of his: 
athlete’s foot itches
still can’t become
“Athlete’s foot” is a kigo. We perhaps wouldn’t think of that as a season word, but there are all sorts of kigo—that’s summer, of course. But with “athlete’s foot” he’s deformed that kigo into something much more modern, as Uda also has done, with “wheat,” and the content is really socially conscious and contemporary. He has another that I like:
spring tree
I climb until I can
see the war
So “spring tree” is a kigo, and by using it, he echoes back to all the haiku before, but it was also a warlord culture, and he was a child of war. He’s 77 now, and Hoshinaga describes how he was a nationalist child until the war ended and he realized he’d been lied to his whole life. There is this generation that are now in their 70s, who were children during the war, who became these, I would say, radicalized post-war gendaijin—meaning modern, contemporary writers—who really didn’t believe anything. If you’ve studied about the fire-bombing of Japan, there are historians who say this was a crime against humanity, fire-bombing civilian cities—the houses were all made of wood, so they just burned. Kumamoto, where I live, was 90% burned to the ground, I think. There are photographs of just few little concrete ruins sticking up. 
Kigo in English, then—Gary Snyder, in a recent talk said something that surprised me, he said that haiku, the term, should be reserved for only the Japanese genre, and that what we’re doing in English is not haiku, it’s a short poem that has certain rules. And you can really make that case, on a scholarly level. I do, though, disagree with Snyder on this point about terminology.
GREEN: Is there an analogous way that English could be used, maybe through etymologies …?
GILBERT: There really isn’t—there are people who have tried to create season-word dictionaries, William Higginson has a book, Haiku Seasons, that does that, but no one uses it. Because this is not coming from a tradition in which you can just make it up, in a scientific world. It’s not naturalism; it’s not realism. 
Kaneko Tohta wrote the introduction to the Modern Haiku Association Saijiki (gendaihaikukyokai saijiki), it took them like fifteen years to produce it, and the fifth volume is muki, that is “no-kigo kigo”—which is a great paradox. There are a lot of things you can’t have as kigo, like a dog. Things and beings that are close to us. Sparrows in Japan live in the eaves of the houses and are with us through all the seasons, so they can’t be kigo. So that’s one solution, this muki haiku, no-kigo, yet-kigo haiku. When you get into this topic, though, when you get into the modern era of Japanese haiku, what you start to find out, it’s a lot like English-language haiku. There’s an expansion of the kigo concept, and also a free verse haiku style that’s not 5–7–5; they’re experimenting. 
And by the way, Japanese 5–7–5 has nothing to do with syllables, in any way. Linguistically, these languages, English and Japanese, do not meet at all on the level of the syllable; they meet on the level of the metrical phrase. So if I say, “spring tree/ I climb until I can/ see the war,” you can feel the three in it, right? Doesn’t it feel like short-long-short? In English I can pause, but in Japanese you can’t. Japanese is a sound-syllable-timed language, called moraic language. In English I can use our accentual-syllabic language to stretch and pull and shorten and lengthen in ways that are really interesting. Like I composed this haiku:
as an and you and you and you alone in the sea
Here I’m using a repetitional language feature of English to replicate the feeling of bobbing up and down in the sea, well to me—but it’s also this sense of how you come back to self-awareness and how it disappears, so it’s this feeling of coming into yourself and losing it. I don’t want to interpret my own work too much, but you might call it Language poetry, or playing with language in a way. 
Here’s a poem by John Stevenson, a newer haiku:
pretty sure my red is your red
Is that a haiku? Or is it just sort of a cool strange thing? Where is the short-long-short? Now we’re getting back into the question of what is a haiku. In the modern tradition in Japan there’s an awful lot of flexibility. And probably a modern Japanese poet, if we translated that into Japanese, would say, “Yeah, of course, that’s haiku,” and they’d see it. So then instead of saying what is the limit of haiku, let’s say what makes a haiku a haiku. The key feature in language—this has to do with reader consciousness—is the same in Japanese as in English. In Japan the word is kire, which means “cutting” or “to cut.” What this means is that the haiku has to be cut in space and time in some way. This sense of cutting can be indicated by a mark, an actual grammatical mark in Japanese, and it has an emotional charge. In English this has commonly been translated as a dash, or a colon, semi-colon, sometimes ellipsis, but you can also just apply lineation. 
All these methods mentioned have a sense of cutting, but I want to get a little more specific. I want to take the most famous haiku, from Basho:
old pond—
frog jumps in
the sound of water
One thing is, historically, we know how that poem was created, because one of his main disciples, Kyorai, wrote it down.
GREEN: Oh really?
GILBERT: Basically, the guys were drinking in the Basho-an, which is the Basho hut, and they’re drinking sake, which was a nice thing to do, and it was kukai, the haiku drinking party—not a wild party, but you sip sake, and hang out, and collaboratively create poems. So a lot of times haiku—or hokku, at the time—were part of a collaborative poem called haikai no renga. They had certain kinds of rules of how you’d link the stanzas; they had the kigo at the beginning stanza, which the master, in this case Basho, would have created. And after that they link together, and it’s very playful. Sometimes it’s really jokey, and even obscene, and sometimes it’s more serious. And Basho is known as combining the more humorous style with this very deep level of insight and some would say enlightenment or depth of humanity. 
GREEN: Would these be generated quickly and spontaneously, going around the room, or would it be slow and contemplative? 
GILBERT: I think that it was whatever the mood was at the time; I think it’s a very human thing. I think it’s not very different than who we are in some way. There’s no TV; you can’t check your iPhone or whatever. There’s not a lot of distraction when you’re sitting in this little hut, and this is what you do if you have the time for it. And like I said, you have a haigo, so everyone has a pen name. By the way, Basho means “banana tree”—someone gave him a banana tree, and he planted it next to his hut, and that’s how he got the name. 
So there they are in the Basho hut, and as they’re drinking, sipping from their small cups, maybe someone’s serving them a little food, and they’re composing and talking, and as they’re doing it, occasionally there’s a sound outside. Maybe there’s a stream somewhere not so far away. And the frog—Allen Ginsberg famously translated that poem’s last line as “Kerplunk!” with an exclamation point. I really related to that, growing up in Connecticut; the wetlands of Connecticut have bullfrogs and they do kerplunk! And Allen’s from New Jersey and they kerplunk there, but in Japan they don’t kerplunk. And the reason why goes back to the kigo; the frog is a kigo, and there are poetic frogs and non-poetic frogs. It’s not about naturalism, right? So what are poetic frogs? Well, they’re the size of your thumbnail and they’re really cute, with big eyes, and they sing; they’re like peepers. Tiny frogs, sometimes you see them in the yard in the late spring or early summer, and those are the singing frogs of Japan. 
This means that the sound of the frog was heard from inside the hut of Basho, occasionally, as they were drinking—and you can’t tell plural, so either a frog or frogs—were making a tiny sound. And we know from the historical record, Basho gave the last part of the haiku first, “frog jumps-in the sound of water.” He did the 7–5, but the first 5– was missing. One of his friends said yamabuki ya, which is a mountain flower—and this would have been a radical thing to say, for reasons we won’t get into, but this would have been the anti-establishment move, to mention this flower with the frogs; it was against the traditions of renga at the time. It was kind of a cool idea, but it would have been like, “Yeah, take that aristocratic tradition!” [Green laughs] We’d have to imagine that a mention of a flower was a radical act, but it was. And Basho rejected that after a while, and finally, after some discussion, he came up with furuike ya, “old pond,” with that cut, the “ya.” 
What’s all this mean, why is this important? Well, it’s important because we can look to Basho as the originator of the depth of the tradition, and we know that the poem was his groundbreaking, signature poem, but what we tend to think is it’s a poem of realism. It’s not a poem of realism. We think it’s this Zen-like moment of awake mind—well, not really. It’s not really like that. And by the way, in Japan, too, there were people who went hunting for the pond. Was it his patron’s pond, where were they, there has to be an old pond somewhere? Over some 300 years of searching they never found it. Hasegawa Kai recently wrote a book called Did the Frog Jump into the Old Pond? It’s a 320-page book, and the short answer is, no. The frog did not jump into the old pond. How could he say that, after 320 pages? The poem says the frog jumped in—any rational person would have to disagree. 
So he must have some really tight logic on it—and he does. What makes this not a haiku of realism, what makes it distinctive, why this poem caused a revolution in creating haiku as a high art—meaning an art that wasn’t just a way of playing with language in a pleasurable and witty way, but actually made it into something that could deepen us or create a contemplation—has to do with the kire, the cutting. It has to do with “ya.” When we say, “cut in time and space,” it is completely cut. So when there’s a cut, or a “ya” in this case, meaning the keriji (cutting word): It creates these two broken parts that don’t go together. So what “old pond” has to do with “jumped into the sound of water” is completely open to question. It’s like there’s this old pond, and then there’s a black hole, a singularity, and then a frog jumps into sound of water. So in the formal structure of a haiku, in Basho’s idea, there’s no connection—but then at the same time, even though there’s no connection, the reader has to forge coherence out of these non-connected fragments. How do you do that? How do you put it together? The answer is called toriawase—the haiku is existing on two levels of reality. If I put it into prose: “Hearing occasionally the sound of frogs jumping in water, an old pond arises in mind.” The old pond couldn’t be found because it doesn’t exist: There is no pond. 
So the sense of the haiku cosmos is this: The use of disjunction is a technical feature of haiku, and is the key feature of why it’s not an epithet, and why this famous haiku is not realism, but it’s also why Basho named his school shofū, which means “eye-opening.” It’s the eye-opening school. I think this got carried way too far with Zen. Zen Buddhism took his haiku and said there were stages of enlightenment, but that’s not part of the haiku tradition at all. Aitken Roshi wrote A Zen Wave, which I think is sadly a very misleading book, in terms of the central tradition of haiku in Japan. Zen ideas are not very much a part of the literary tradition of haiku, that I can find. It’s just not central to the discussion. There is a tradition of using haiku in Zen, in Rinzai koan practice, and they’re used in a very specialized and specific way, and Aitken Roshi in his book was referring to that method, but he seems uninformed as to the main tradition of haiku. 
That’s kind of a side-light, although it’s interesting in terms of Western perceptions. R.H. Blyth was a British expat who loved Japan, was very well-read and very “modern” in his era—he ends up in Japan, ironically in a POW camp, and his library was bombed and burned. But the POW camp was a good place for him to work on his first book of haiku, because there were a lot of Japanese people there, too, for various reasons. And his first book, Haiku Vol. 1: Eastern Culture, came out in 1947. But what Blyth did was mistranslate the tradition—in a very interesting way, in a very impassioned Zen Buddhist way, and so that’s why we tend to associate this idea of haiku as having a “haiku moment” and that they should be spontaneous. A lot of that is just coming from Blyth, and he had a very interesting, idiosyncratic understanding of Buddhism that was very beautiful, and he’s a very good writer, and there are many people who are in Japanese studies to this day who read Blyth when they were younger and just wanted to go to Japan. So on the one hand he is quite powerful and passionate, and on the other hand, if you ask people in Japan studies, they’ll just say, I have quotes, “Oh, if only those books could be removed from the library.” In his translations, there are some things he’s really not understanding in the social context—many of his interpretations were not Japanese interpretations; they were his ideas. 
But that’s what comes down to us, so we’re getting to an interesting discussion: What happens when one cultural tradition plops into modern poetry? In Japan they have kigo and they go back and there are some ancient ones into China, and there are all these sajiki, these collections, and then it pops into our lives as Ezra Pound, creating arguably the first really modern poem, “In a Station of the Metro.” That poem is these days largely considered to be a decent, if unusual, haiku. And he describes how he came to it, you know, first he started with this 30-line thing, and then he cut it to 50 words, and then 14. He talks about how concision becomes fragment, and he talks about this cut. It’s hard to say whether he innovated here, because he had a Japanese friend who spoke English and gave him some haiku ideas; he was weirdly mistranslating Japanese and Chinese in his own way, on purpose. But he’s a great innovator, and he’s looking for this idea of modernity. So as a result, this idea of disjunction, of very strong cutting, has come to us as an Imagist fundamental of modern poetry. 
The idea of cutting in haiku gets more nuanced than the idea of a mark or of a sound. And this is called ma. And this gets more into what I’m interested in, which is reader phenomenology. If haiku are incomplete and fragmentary and broken within their very being, their DNA, let’s say, that’s just part of what makes a haiku different than a tanka, or different than any modern poem. It has to have a very strong experience of cutting. Japanese has these cutting words, these kireji—ya, kana, kire, etc., but Basho himself said, “When you use words as kireji, every word becomes kireji. When you do not use words as kireji, there are no words which are kireji … From this point, grasp the very depth of the nature of kireji on your own.” He’s talking about reader phenomenology. He’s saying that both as an author in your intention and as a reader in your experience, there are some really interesting things that can happen between the text itself and our experience. We can have author intention to create an experience in the reader, and yet it also takes a skilled reader to experience that intention. If we have a cut like “a frog jumps into water sound,” that’s kind of strange—it’s not a cut like ya, a cutting word, which would be really strong, but it’s merging together, by forcing together the verbal part and the object. This is an irruptive experience; it’s not a strong cut and yet it creates this feeling of what I call psychological in-betweenness. This is also disjunctive. There’s a word for this in Japanese, ma, which is very hard to translate, but it really means a psychological “in-betweenness” caused by disjunction. 


Note: For citations to haiku included in this conversation, and links to further reading, visit Richard Gilbert’s page on our website.

from Rattle #47, Spring 2015
Tribute to Japanese Forms

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March 20, 2015

from A CONVERSATION WITH Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a recipient of the 2014 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from AWP, the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, and the 2008 American Book Award for her booAll That Lies Between Usk,. She is the founder/executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey, and editor of the Paterson Literary Review. She is also director of the Binghamton Center for Writers and the creative writing program, and professor of English at Binghamton University-SUNY. She has published twenty books, including Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories and What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009. With her daughter Jennifer, she is co-editor of four anthologies. (website)


Note: The following is excerpted from a 26-page interview.

GREEN: You talk a lot about being shy—

GILLAN: I’m still shy.

GREEN: Well, I don’t believe it. 

GILLAN: I am, I am. Watch me at a party. I sit on the sofa, I sit in the corner, and I’m afraid to get up. I’m afraid to go get my food. I can’t leave that corner. [both laugh]

GREEN: But you’re so not shy one-on-one, or in front of a crowd. 

GILLAN: Not in front of crowd, but in a social situation that little girl comes back. I hope I’m gonna lose her, but I don’t think I’m ever gonna lose her; she’s always there. She’s always ready to pop her head out and say, “Here I am, I’m still shy!” 

GREEN: I was going to ask if that’s what you meant by “writing to save your life” in the book. 

GILLAN: Yeah, that’s part of what I mean; writing did save my life. One thing is it made it possible for me to speak. I couldn’t speak one-on-one, but I could speak through my poems. It’s what I try to get students to do, to find that voice, to believe that they have something to write about. Because for a long time I thought if I didn’t write about daffodils or Greek gods, or threw all this other stuff in, people were going to think I was this little ghetto kid from a lower-class family who still has the accent in her voice. I had to throw in Greek gods and all the other references to prove how smart I was. And when my first book came out, a graduate school professor said to me, “It’s in this one poem about your father that you find this story that you have to tell.” And it was like a gigantic light went on and I thought, “Maybe somebody will be interested in this story of someone who didn’t speak English when she went to school, of a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter. Somebody who grew up poor. Maybe I don’t have to be Longfellow. Maybe I don’t have to be Keats or Shelley. Maybe I can just be me and people will be interested.” And what I found is that the more I wrote stories and narrative poems based on my life, the more people wrote to me from all over the place. It was wild. That somebody on top of a mountain in Montana would be interested in what I had to say. It was so wonderful, actually. And that gave me more courage. But I still get—I love giving readings, I’m a ham, you know, I love going places and meeting people, but still the little girl is there. That voice. And that’s what I think the crow is. Making you doubt yourself. I think to do anything, I don’t care what it is, to edit a magazine, start programs, you have to knock the crow off your shoulder or you won’t be able to do anything. 

GREEN: Explain that crow a little more, and the cave …

GILLAN: The crow for me is this creature who has in it the voice of every person who has ever been negative to you in your life—and that’s a lot of people for most of us. Teachers who put us in the bluebird row instead of the redbird row in math, a friend who says you’re not cool, or a man or a woman who treats you poorly, or your parents saying, “How could you be so dumb as to get in a car with that person?” All those voices are caught in the beak of the crow. And if you listen to it, because the crow whispers in your ear all the time, and if you let it, it will stop you. So I really believe you have to knock the crow away. And I think poems are in a very deep place inside yourself, the place I call the cave. It’s really here [in the stomach]. So you have to be willing to knock the crow off your shoulder and move down into yourself, and tell the truth. And if you can’t do that, then you aren’t communicating anything. I really hate the kind of poetry that is all language and no gut. No feeling, no willingness to take a risk. Go to the edge, for God’s sake. Take a little risk! And that’s what I try to get people to do in my workshops and classes. To see that they have something important to say, and that they don’t have to imitate other people. And there are all these young people now who are getting published and writing stuff that makes no sense at all. One of my students came in and she says, “I don’t know, all of these poets are getting published,” and I said, “I don’t care, don’t follow the latest trend. Find the thing you need to write about, and keep writing about it.” Look at Ruth Stone, stuck on that mountain in Vermont for twenty years, nobody paying an ounce of attention to her, in poverty, and she continued to do what she did. She kept writing until somebody paid attention. She didn’t change what she was doing. She just kept listening to her own voice and hearing that voice and recreating that voice in the poems. She’s original. The stuff is really original when you listen to it. She’s not worrying about what anyone else is writing. Isn’t that what we as editors look for, that voice of the person who has developed the confidence to believe that what they have to say, and the way they have to say it, is important. 

GREEN: Yeah, I always tell people to write for yourself and nobody else—

GILLAN: Nobody else!

GREEN: And if it works, great, and if not then at least you wrote something for yourself.

GILLAN: And so you put it away in a drawer. We all have 20,000 failed poems.

GREEN: Do you think there are people who like that poetry, though, that esoteric—

GILLAN: Yes, there are, but I don’t. I’m not one of them and I’m not gonna push it. I think it’s been poisonous, in a way. Because if we’re going to have an audience for poetry, I think it has to be comprehensible, and I think it has to touch people. It has to make them cry or laugh or make the hair on their arms stand up. And if it doesn’t do that, what’s the point? What’s the point of writing a poem that’s only going to appeal to five professors? 

GREEN: A lot of people blame that on being academic, right? But here we are sitting at a university—how do you reconcile that?

GILLAN: Oh, I tell them to go to hell. [both laugh] No, I really don’t care. When I was growing up that was what poisoned poetry for so many people. You know, Billy Collins’s very funny statement, to get a poem and tie it to a chair and beat a meaning out of it. When they taught us poetry, that’s what they taught us. 

My first book came out and my neighbor called me, she said, “I always hated poetry”—she’s this very jocky woman, very smart, but not particularly academic, and she said, “I always hated poetry, the way they taught it in high school, but I like your poetry, it’s not like poetry.” And I felt that was a big compliment. Because I want to reach the ordinary person. I’m not interested in writing poems that are only for very select audiences. It’s not that I’m not worried about my craft, I do work hard on my poems, but I work hard on making them clear, being willing to take risks emotionally. To be willing to make a fool of yourself. Why can’t we take that risk? And why isn’t that comforting to other people? I think poetry saved my life, because I could have been married at eighteen with five kids and worked in a factory. So in that sense it saved my life, because it made me see that there was another life. 

But poetry can also save moments of your past. And people that you’ve loved. Better than any photograph, I think, it can make them permanent. It’s a way of giving them to somebody else. Not only to your children and grandchildren, but to the world. When my father died, people wrote to me as though they knew him. I’ve written a lot of poetry about him. People wrote to me from all over the country; you’d think that they’d actually met the man. And they hadn’t. But somehow they felt they had, I mean, I think they were actually convinced that they knew him. [both laugh] So I felt that was a compliment to the poems, to their clarity and specificity. 

I have to say that a long time ago, around 1977 I sent a poem to Ruth Lisa Schechter, from the Croton Review, maybe five poems, and she sent me back a note and said, “I really would like to talk to you, would you come up and visit me?” And she lives on Croton-on-Hudson, New York, and at that point I was going to graduate school, but I was still very much the little Italian wife and mother, and I didn’t go that many places by myself. And she’s telling me to drive up and see her, but you know it was about poetry, so I was going to do it, even though I was terrified. So I went and she said to me, “You know, this is a wonderful poem, but the specificity—this could be anyone’s father you’re writing about. Where are the details that are only your father?” And she said, “I want you to go home and re-read ‘Kaddish.’” And I did that. I went home and re-read Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” and I thought, “Oh my God, I read this before and I didn’t realize how brilliant he was.” That detail, that specificity—how could you ever forget his mother? Ever? That image of his mother on the bus, when he took her to the madhouse, the shoes she wore—the descriptions are so amazing. So I worked on that poem for a long time, and that was the poem that the graduate professor said to me, “In this poem you find the story …” Ruth and I became good friends, I went back to visit her a lot, and really credit her with making me see that my poems were beautiful image-wise, but they weren’t really taking a risk. They weren’t willing to tell the truth. Ruth pushed me toward Ginsberg’s poem, and that made me see what I had to do to make the poem work. 

GREEN: You talked about the crow on your shoulder, and having knocked it off. How do you do that, what advice do you give? 

GILLAN: Well, one of the things I think, if you’re going to knock the crow off your shoulder, you have to just say, “I’m going to forge ahead, and no matter what anybody else thinks poetry is, or what anybody else thinks a good life is, I have to define that for myself. I have to define what poetry is for myself, I have to define what I want to write about, and I have to believe that I can do it.” And until you do that, until you say, “I am going to do this and nothing’s going to stop me,” I don’t think you get rid of the crow. 

GREEN: Mhmm.

GILLAN: And the crow comes back. It’s not like you get rid of him permanently. The crow is really my little girl, the little shy girl who shows up when I’m least expecting her—there she is, me hiding in a corner at a party, and the little girl won’t shut up. I can’t say anything, I’m wordless and the little girl is there in my ear. So I think you just have to make up your mind. What I try to do with my students is to give them the courage to make up their minds. That they’re going to do it. And what I tried to with Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, it’s sort of a pep talk book. It’s not a book about craft. Because there are a million books on craft, and I think the best way to learn craft is to read everything you can get your hands on. Let the language get into your skin. Read the poems out loud. Let it become a part of you. Memorize poems. Because then the music of poetry gets inside you. And then it comes out. I can tell reading your poems that you’ve read a lot of poems. Because the music is there, and you’ve absorbed it through the pores of your skin, and then it comes out when you write. So—did I get off the track there? [both laugh]

GREEN: We were talking about getting rid of the crow …

GILLAN: Getting rid of the crow … I think that you have to believe that you can get rid of it, and it’s not permanent. You can’t think, “I’m getting rid of the crow and now I can do whatever I want.” One of the things I’ve learned is that you have to be relentless. You never give up. You decide, I’m doing this, and you keep moving, one step in front of another. My mother went through the third grade. She was completely illiterate in English. And she would say, you know, you fell on the floor, you have a broken leg, “Oh get up, it’s all in your mind, you can overcome it. Just get up and keep walking!” And I always think of her. And in a way, that’s what you have to do if you’re going to do anything. I don’t care what it is, write a great novel, write poetry, be a great lawyer, be a great doctor, you have to say, “Oh get up,” and keep walking. “So you tripped, so you look like an idiot. Get up and try again.” 

What I noticed when I first started running the events at the Poetry Center was that there were a lot of reading series going on, there were a lot of magazines, there were a lot of people who, when I first started, were a lot better-known than I was, already publishing a great deal, who fell by the wayside because they didn’t immediately win the Pulitzer Prize. Hey, you can’t expect to win the Pulitzer Prize. If you win it, great, but you are writing for yourself, and you just have to keep going. I’m amazed at what you can accomplish if you don’t give up. Whether it’s about your writing, or creating programs. How do you create a program? How do you create a magazine that’s known throughout the country? You never give up. You just keep moving forward. That’s it. Right? Somebody could have said, “What gives you the idea that you could be the editor of a magazine, you’re a kid! You don’t have the right background, what gives you the idea?” But were you going to let anyone stop you? N. O.! 

GREEN: But that crow was there, though, for sure; I remember feeling very young, the last time I was here at SUNY Binghamton … [laughs]

GILLAN: You looked like a baby to me, darling—

GREEN: I felt like a baby—

GILLAN: But now don’t you feel confident? I mean, you should be confident, because of what you’ve done with the magazine. You can really feel good about that—but you’re not gonna stop with that! You have a lot of ideas—I always had a new idea a minute. And every time I’d think, “Oh, it isn’t that big of a deal, I’ll just do it.” And then it’d turn into this gigantic thing—we had 10,000 kids through this program last year. 

GREEN: Just in Paterson?

GILLAN: Yes, well, it’s a big city, Paterson. They don’t have anything else, so they’re grateful. But who would have thought, I wanted to replicate my experience with South Pacific for some of these kids, and I thought I’d do a couple theater programs. I didn’t expect to have an elaborate poets-and-writers-in-the-schools program. It was a little idea I had, and it became a big idea. And I think, in a way, everything—that’s what you’ve done, you’ve taken a smallish thing and made it a big thing, and it’s fun to do that! And no one is ever going to stop you from doing that. Nothing’s gonna stop me from doing this; I figure I’ll die behind my desk. I hope they don’t get too upset when they find me there [laughs], but I’m not going to give up, ever. I try to say to the students, “If you’re only here for publishing, if you’re only in this because you want fame, then you’re in the wrong field. If you’re in this because you want an academic job that’s secure, then just go ahead. Just do that. But don’t think that you’re going to write a poem or a novel or a story that’s going to have a lasting effect in any way on anybody.” And isn’t that what we want to do? We want to write poems that people remember. And when we’re editing, we want to edit a magazine that touches people, that changes them, because that’s what literature can do, it can change you. Just like when those lights went on in South Pacific—my life changed. I just didn’t realize how beautiful language could be. 

I have to say, Allen Ginsberg’s teacher was my teacher at East Side High School in Paterson, and I loved poetry. I just loved the way it sounded. I loved the music of it. And she did, too. She would call on me—I was in these Alpha classes, and all the kids with me were from these well-to-do families. There was a very wealthy section. The poorer kids were in commercial courses. They weren’t in the honors classes, that’s for sure. But I was in these honors classes, and I was so lucky to have her. Because she loved poetry as much as I loved poetry. And she knew I loved it. And she would call on me to read it. She didn’t call on these wealthy kids, she called on me. That was such a major thing for me. Because I loved it, and I read it like I loved it. I still love reading poetry out loud. I love it. I love the way it sounds. And I love all sorts of poetry read out loud. Except poetry that doesn’t make sense [laughs] to be honest, but I like to read poetry that has music to it. I love Dylan Thomas. I love Hopkins. I love T.S. Eliot. I often don’t understand T.S. Eliot, but I love the music of it. The music of it is so beautiful. I think when you write and when you edit that’s what you do. You fall in love with the way the language sounds. And if you’re only in it—there are so many careerists. Sometimes when I go to AWP it makes me sad, because they’re not really in love with literature. They’re not really in love with the language. They’re in love with getting a job where they can only teach two courses a semester. That doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t cut it in teaching either. You have to love being there. You have to want to change people’s lives. 

GREEN: Talk a little about that music. You mentioned that you don’t like poems that you don’t understand, but then you also said you love the music of T.S. Eliot so much that you don’t care that you don’t understand it.

GILLAN: Right, but his poems, while they’re not totally understandable, they’re always understandable on a certain level. I’m talking about the stuff that is incomprehensible, I don’t know what the hell it’s saying. [both laugh] Eliot’s is, “The women come and go talking of Michelangelo.” “Indeed there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” That does makes sense. 

GREEN: But what I’m wondering is if you think the music can be good enough that the meaning doesn’t matter at all. 

GILLAN: No. No, I actually don’t. I want it to mean something. And that poem has always meant something to me. Because I really understand the total alienation and loneliness that the poem was written out of. The total inability to be a complete person that the poem was written out of. So for example, Dylan Thomas doesn’t make the most sense sometimes. But “In my craft or sullen art/ Exercised in the still night/ When only the moon rages/ And the lovers lie abed/ With all their griefs in their arms,/ I labour by singing light …” It’s incredible. And he’s saying what I’m saying, in a much more beautiful way. What he’s saying is he’s writing for people, writing out of what it means to be human. And it’s not really the person who’s paying you to do it who’s important. It’s that you’re reaching out to a world with this. I went to Wales, I was invited to read there, and for a week I drove around in a car with Dylan Thomas’s daughter—this was like being in heaven for me. And she got us into his boyhood home, and all of a sudden I saw that “Poem in October” was so clear when you looked out his boyhood window, and the seabirds whirling, he’s at the top of the hill. I mean, the thing is really clear once you actually see the place! But I always loved it anyway.

That’s not the lack of clarity I’m talking about. Some of this new poetry that is being written is not even musically brilliant. It’s not anything, really. It doesn’t stay in your ear the way Dylan Thomas’s poems stay in your ear. And I feel like if it doesn’t do that, then it isn’t doing anything. It’s got to stay there, it’s got to be—as you say, when you read a poem you know whether there’s a voice in the poem. And what you’re saying, not only is there a voice, but that the person has captured a way of speaking in the poem that pulls you in. I think what we both want is to pull the reader into the poem and make him or her love the poetry as much as we do. I want people to love poetry. My mother gave away food; I give away poetry. I love giving poetry readings. I love sponsoring poetry readings. I love sponsoring poetry festivals. I love that getting together of people who are published in the anthology. It’s so wonderful a thing. It’s such a gift, and in a way it’s a balm for the people who do it, for the people arranging it it’s also a healing process. 

When my husband was so sick, I remember one of the women who was taking care of him calling me up, I was getting ready to start a poetry reading, and she spoke to me for about an hour, just ranting and raving on the phone, and I was so disturbed and upset—she wanted to tie him to a chair, and I was really upset. So finally I said, “Look, I have to start this program.” And I got up, I think it was the Allen Ginsberg readings, and the first poet went on, and then the second poet, and all of the sudden I could feel myself healing. It was so wonderful, and they were so happy to be reading their poems. And the poems were amazing and unique that by the end of it I felt better. This is a way of being saved. This is a way that means more to me than a lot of other things, other ways of being saved. Because in a way, that healed what was broken in me that day. And feeling their excitement at the poetry. And feeling them loving the poetry the way I loved the poetry was just mind-boggling to me. That this could go on in a place in Paterson, New Jersey, right? I mean, here we are in the middle of an inner city. And people have come from far away to read their poems. And they’re happy. And they’re loving it. And they’re talking to each other. And there’s excitement crackling in the air over it. I love that. 

from Rattle #46, Winter 2015

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January 8, 2015


Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson is a professor of English at Oregon State University, where he has taught literature and writing since 1986. He grew up in Spokane, graduated from Gonzaga University in 1977, and received his PhD in English from the University of Washington in 1982. He taught at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, before coming to Oregon. He is the author, co-author, or editor of fourteen books, including books of literary criticism, textbooks, a book of essays and a memoir, and two books of poetry. The Next Thing Always Belongs, his second book of poetry, was published in 2011 by Airlie Press, a writers’ collaborative, and he publishes poems widely in magazines and journals. Since 1997 he has also been an ordained Catholic deacon. He is active in parish and campus ministry, baptizing, presiding at funerals, witnessing weddings, preaching, leading retreats, and visiting the sick. He and his wife, Barb, the pastoral associate at St. Mary’s in Corvallis, have three grown children and two grandchildren. They live with their two dogs on the edge of the university research forest north of Corvallis. (website)


Note: The following is excerpted from a 26-page interview.

FOX: You used the word “pure,” which it seems to me does reflect you and your poetry. Can you talk a little about that? 

ANDERSON: I don’t know, let me think about that for a minute. It’s obvious that I tend toward the plain style; the pure, simpler, more conversational style. I really don’t—well, in some cases I do—like “poetic” language. Most of the time I’ll start to read a book of poems and it just won’t engage me, and I don’t necessarily generalize that therefore that person is a bad poet, but I just read what I want to read. And I tend to be attracted to poets like Wendell Berry or Jack Gilbert. I mean, there’s a range of poets who will attract me … or Marie Howe, or Mary Oliver … who I don’t think are showing off, who are not just being “techniquey.”

FOX: Yes.

ANDERSON: They are not just machines who’ll—for Airlie Press, this collaborative press I was a part of, and in other cases where I’ve read manuscripts, I often will like the manuscripts that are rougher, simpler—I think you and I might have some of the same taste—so I’ll look at this and think, “Man, this is a good book but it leaves me cold, and this book is a little rougher but there’s something authentic about it.” So I’m able to write poems when I’m in that place too, and I trust my own simple impulses, my own joy, my own thanksgiving; when I’m not writing out of the need, however unconscious, to show what a good writer I am or how smart I am or—sometimes Christian poets struggle with this, too—how liberal I am: “I’m a Catholic, but I’m really liberal” or “I’m a Christian poet, but I’m a really good poet” [Fox and Daveen laugh]—when I just stop doing that and it comes out more simply. Often for me that leads to humor or a kind of jokiness; I don’t know if that’s a kind of purity. There are a lot of moods I have: I have a really bad temper, I’m actually quite skeptical, I really struggle with doubt, but usually my poems are not that way. The Next Thing Always Belongs—I love that title; it’s a kind of a Zen title, like “Oh, just let it flow into me,” and I’m not that way about 90 percent of the time, but that mood—and maybe that’s kind of a pure mood, a kind of simple, spontaneous, “things are what they are” kind of mood—is the mood that I have access to in my poetry. I don’t seem to be able to write about anger or violence in the same way that I’m able to write out of peace.

FOX: It seems to me that you come to simplicity in a relatively complex way. Would you agree with that or disagree? 

ANDERSON: Yeah. There’s a definition of parable that I like very much; it’s the root meaning of the word “parable” in Greek. I actually just found this the other day and thought of our interview. But the Greek meaning of parable is to put one thing next to something else. And I have a friend, a poet named Michael Malan in town, who’s very influenced by John Ashbery. And this was not my sort of style. I think I’m fundamentally a narrative poet—things happen to me and I write about them, like the poem in this issue of Rattle. These moments happen, the same kind of moments that I will write about when I’m preaching. But Michael introduced me to this “leaping style,” what Robert Bly calls a “leaping style,” and I just fell in love with that; it kind of broke me out of narrative, even though I’ve come back to narrative. 

The book, The Next Thing Always Belongs, that title from Richard Hugo sort of suggests this kind of leaping. But what I try to do is—right now I know that I have a poem to write—if there’s something here that I see and then there’s something that doesn’t seem related but somehow feels related, I put those two things together. I love birds and I’m taking a birding by ear and Audubon class, and we were yesterday listening to birds I’d never heard of—we have Virginia rails; what are those? We were in a marsh, and I was just stunned. It was a group of about a dozen of us, and the guides were pointing—we didn’t see them, we could just hear them. Barb and I just came back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and there were guides there and they would point to things just like the guides at this Audubon talk were pointing to things, and I thought, “Well, this is very similar.” So I thought, “Well, how do I get the birding class with the pilgrimage class?” And what popped into my head was that I knew that I wanted the last line to be “Jesus was here,” because that’s what would happen in the Holy Land—they would point to this rock and say, “Jesus was here,” and you’d have to imagine it. And I don’t know if this poem works or not, but in the birding class they would point and say, “Well, that’s a Cassin’s finch calling,” but you didn’t see it, you would just hear it. So what entices me—I want to write about that simply—“Jesus was here,” or the sound of a yellow warbler—“sweet sweet sweet,” I just like that language. Or the birding books say the marsh wren sounds like an impact sprinkler—well I just think that’s interesting. So somehow I want to put those two things together, and then the poem, when I put it together, it starts to mean something—I’m not quite sure what it is; I mean, what am I saying to myself here? I’m fascinated by people like Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver who can actually come out and say things—there’s wisdom and it’s stated, and how can you do that?

FOX: Yes.

ANDERSON: I mean, that’s partly what makes poetry work for people. I preached on the Ascension a few years ago and I used Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” and there are people in the congregation—we have 2,000 people on a weekend—who wouldn’t be caught dead at a poetry reading, and I had people you wouldn’t expect—janitors, others—come up to me and say, “I loved that poem by Mary Oliver.” And it’s because it’s beautiful. It’s deceptively simple. And she doesn’t—maybe one or two lines come out and actually express wisdom. 

I’ve experimented with writing psalms and they require simple language and a kind of parallelism, and I’ve read them at a few readings. But I just can’t quite do it, so for my poems to work there’s another voice where I approach the simple and I do try to say things, but I can’t say too much, and so it ends up being oblique. I have this poem in the book, “I have to admit that sometimes I don’t care about the historical Jesus,” and somehow in some way that’s connected to a Doris Day movie. Or in this poem I’m trying to write today—I was working on it today—“Jesus was here” is the last line and I need it to sneak up on you, but why can’t I just say it? If I were going to give a homily on that, I would start from “Jesus is everywhere” and I thought, “What would it be like to write poems for the congregation?” But I just can’t. 

There is an overlap, though. Like there’s a poem in the book called “Piper’s Dad,” and it’s just a narrative poem, where I came to read psalms to this dying man for a friend of ours named Piper, and he was a very bitter man—this is toward the end of the book—and after I left he came to consciousness and he looked at his daughter and he said, “You bitch.” That’s the poem, that’s “Piper’s Dad.” And I asked Piper if I had permission to read that. And I preached about this. 

… and he says two words to her,
in a faint croaking voice, “You bitch.”
Who knows what this man was thinking,
or what he was seeing. Maybe he wasn’t talking
to his daughter, maybe he was talking to Death,
but this is what he says, “You bitch,”
>and this is what his daughter does. She rises
from that chair, and she leans over that bed,
and she whispers in her father’s ear:
“Daddy I love you,” and that night he dies.


Now the big issue for me in the poem was, do I continue? Because I wrote these lines that I kept: 

Love is a great emptying out and losing.
Love is a rising from a chair, it is a leaning
over a bed, it is a whisper in a room and a word
in a room. The last thing this man
ever said was ugly and vulgar and mean.
But this wasn’t the last thing he ever heard.


And those lines are preachier and more explicit than I seem to be able to make work generally, but that’s almost exactly what I preached. So in that case the complexity was in the situation and then my obligation was to try to tell the story honestly, in as simple and plain a language as I could, and then to figure out the line breaks and the stanza breaks and so on. 

It’s that way in the poem “The Blessing,” in this issue, about blessing the bathtub—almost as soon as that happened I thought, “That’s a poem.” And so I wrote multiple versions of that. I just couldn’t get it right because I couldn’t explain, didn’t want to explain, what actually happened, where the little holy water bottle I used, the cap popped off—that’s not how it ended. And I was reading Raymond Carver, his short stories—I like Raymond Carver very much—and I thought, “Well, let me just try to explain exactly what happened at the end. Let me just tell it, like Raymond Carver.” And so I did, but even then I’m not—I mean, so this little cap and it’s like a Cracker Jack, like a prize in a box of Cracker Jacks, or it’s like the size of a dime … I don’t know, I still worry that that’s too ironic or too flat or I don’t come out and … it’s kind of the showing/telling thing, you know what I mean?

FOX: Yes.

ANDERSON: And so I think what makes my poetry complicated sometimes is when the situation is complicated, or it’s my own ambivalence about how Christian to be. We just had some friends over last night for dinner, some people from the English department we’d not had over before, and we don’t entertain very much. And about six months before that we had another couple over, a new colleague we hired and he’s in his 30s. So we sat down to dinner and Barb made the sign of the cross and said grace and I was absolutely mortified. And I’m a Catholic deacon and it’s a Catholic house. 

Barb: It was a Catholic dinner. [Fox and Daveen laugh]

ANDERSON: It was a Catholic dinner, and it’s our house. And so at dinner last night I made it quite a bit worse, because as we sat down to dinner I said, “Well, we decided not to say grace,” and then I told that story and Barb gave me this dirty look and I thought, “When am I going to get over this tension I have about being a deacon, this embarrassment about it?” And I think sometimes what makes the poetry complicated is my own embarrassment about it. But ultimately what makes the poetry complicated, if it’s complicated, is—some literary theorists call this “the uncanny”—you know, my dog Lucy running away in that poem is kind of an uncanny thing, or I went outside on the front porch and I thought I heard geese but it was the woman across the street baby-talking to her dog. You think it’s one thing but it’s really another thing, and that to me is spiritual; when all is said and done, that’s what attracts me, what interests me, and a poem does allow me to get to that in a way I can’t in a homily. There are things you can say in a homily and things you can’t say in a homily, and there are things you can say in a poem you can’t—you know, there’s overlap there, but there’s sort of permissions and limitations, or exclusions and inclusions, in both.

FOX: It seems to me that even the ambivalence or perhaps especially the ambivalence is sharing yourself and allowing your readers to know who you are—whether you’re proud of it or ashamed of it. And it seems to me that’s a very important, perhaps the most important, aspect of poetry.

ANDERSON: Yeah, I like that very much, and I think that’s true, very true. Even though in another way what I experience writing poetry is a kind of objectivity because of the compression that a poem requires and because it’s grounded in an image and you’re trying to make the language work and so on, I feel a self-forgetfulness when I write a poem. 

A few years ago I had an editor interested in publishing a collection of my homilies. And the more I worked with her the more uneasy I felt about it, and eventually it didn’t work out—partly because I don’t have enough of an online footprint; I have a blog but I don’t have a website and I don’t tweet, and she wanted me to do that and you have to, even in Christian publishing. And she got what I was doing, she knew I was writing these short homelitical prose poems, but she wanted me to market them in a certain way that would involve me traveling around and leading retreats. It was a trade press but it was a Catholic trade. Basically, the publishing is no longer the key thing. You’ve got to be a name, you’ve got to promote yourself online, you’ve got to get yourself out there, you’ve got to promote your brand, and you’ve already got to have a following. And I went along with this for a while until I realized that this was what my spiritual director called “the angel of darkness disguised as the angel of light,” and I realized I just didn’t want to do that. And part of it was that I didn’t want to keep putting myself out there. 

You do that in a poem, you absolutely do that in a poem, but you do it in a different way. It’s almost like I’m writing poetry because I don’t want to explain myself. I don’t want to debate religion; I don’t want to convince liberals that it’s okay to be religious; I don’t want to attack conservatives—I just don’t want to do it. And so I was really relieved when she finally turned me down—I didn’t turn her down—again, speaking of purity, I would have gone, because I have this drive to try to get out there at the same time, but it’s an unhealthy drive, and poetry’s kind of a way of freeing me from that. So you do share yourself in a poem, you absolutely do, and I’m intensely autobiographical, and in my teaching I divulge things—we’re doing Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground in one of my courses at OSU right now and somehow I just told the story about how I met Barb in the band and it was her yellow miniskirt and her long red hair, and I forget how that came up, and I was telling my students this story. But in another way, it’s not personal. I mean, I tell my students that I’m a deacon, too, so I’m kind of continually putting myself out there. But more and more I don’t want to do that. I feel hugely freed from not writing that book and trying to promote myself, and from accepting that I’m just a poet and that’s what I’m going to do. 

I had this experience in Rome—we were in Rome on a pilgrimage, and I walked from the Coliseum to the Protestant cemetery to go to Keats’ grave—Keats is buried in Rome in the Protestant cemetery. We got there and the grave is over in the corner and there was a man about my age wearing a leather hat and a leather outfit and he was sketching the grave. People make pilgrimages there. And he talked to me—he was from Australia, a drummer in a heavy metal band, and he said, “I’m known as something of a poet in Australia.” But Keats’ grave says, the inscription says, “Here lies a young English poet whose name is writ on water”—doesn’t even mention his name. Of course it’s ironic, too, because we’re all making pilgrimages there; I mean it’s Keats’s grave, for the love of God. So he said, “Well, what do you do?” and I said, “Well, I’m a poet in Oregon—whose name is writ on water.” [Fox and Daveen laugh] And in a way I love that, and in a way I fear that, and that’s the self-revelation, right? In a way, I couldn’t believe that you wanted to come and interview me, and in another way, it’s like getting an MRI: I do not want to do it. It’s both at the same time, and so maybe ultimately that’s sort of what’s underneath poetry for me. And it’s what’s underneath preaching, because when you’re preaching, it’s not about you. Even if I’m sharing the story, it’s very much—to be a deacon is to be a servant to something else, and so I’m serving something else, I’m pointing to something beyond me, I’m a conduit for something beyond me. In the parish I don’t think people even see me anymore—I’m transparent. And I really, really like that. A few times in Italy, we’d serve at masses on these pilgrimages, so I got to serve in a mass at the Basilica of St. Francis—I preached at St. Peters. But in some of these places the altars are set up so that your back is to the congregation, which is pre-Vatican II. But these are…

Barb: They’re pre-1968.

ANDERSON: Yeah, they’re pre-1568—or 1368! [all laugh] And so our backs are to the congregation, and I like that; I like all of us looking at something else. And it’s that way in teaching, too, as you’re pointing to something else. Part of what was unsatisfying about doing readings for me, for this book, although I loved doing readings, too—or going to readings—is that it’s hard for me sometimes to think that the focus just isn’t on the poet or the writer. Ultimately that’s not true—the best poets and fiction writers and so on have that same stance, where you’re looking through them at what they’re looking at. But still it seems just really self-centered in a way, or at least it is for me—you know, my music, the music of my lines, has to carry the day, whereas when I preach, it’s ten minutes that leads into the Eucharist, and you can have a valid mass without a homily, but you can’t have a valid homily without a mass. And so it’s not exactly humility, but it’s my struggle with humility, or struggle with ego, that both poetry and the diaconate help me manage, even though they are both involved with that struggle still—and don’t keep me from trying to get published [laughs] and don’t keep me from trying to get better.

FOX: In writing about yourself and your life, I’m wondering if you have a situation I have, which is that I’m very open but some friends and family are very private. 

ANDERSON: Yes, that is really important for me, and it’s been important as a preacher, because I feel that part of my job as a preacher—I’ll start with preaching—is to be the eyes and ears of the bishop and to listen to what people are saying. One of the things a deacon does in the mass is receive the gifts, the bread and wine, that are brought forward by the congregation, and then he brings them up to the altar, and then a priest consecrates them. And I feel like that’s what I’m doing with their stories. I’ll listen to people, like Piper’s story in “Piper’s Dad,” and then I will offer those stories. But you’ve got to respect people’s confidentiality, and there are whole stories I can’t tell, and not just because of terrible things—I mean, you find out things you wish you didn’t know about people’s lives—but also the wonderful things, because it would embarrass them. I mean, the heroism—I get so upset when people attack all the hypocrites in the church and so on, and of course the church is full of hypocrites, and there’s always room for one more, but it’s also full of people who are acting heroically, taking care of aging parents and foster children, and all these things behind the scenes. And I do talk about those things as much as I can in a general way, but I have to protect people’s privacy, and so the way I do it in a homily is sometimes I’ll just ask permission, “Can I use that?” And if they said no I won’t use it. …

from Rattle #45, Fall 2015

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