Norman Fischer, former Abbot of Zen Center, San Francisco, and now founding teacher for the Everyday Zen Foundation, was interviewed by Robert Front, English Department, NationalCentral University, Taiwan. The interview was conducted in the Green Gulch Farm library on the morning of January 3, 1996.
RF (Robert Front): So Norman, in terms of your spiritual practice and your poetry, how do they mesh, how do they seem to interact?
NF (Norman Fischer): Well, I was writing before I was practicing, and the writing became unsatisfactory because the idea of writing about experience that already happened, rehashing old experiences, seemed too intellectual and too artificial. So I wanted a writing that would be a discovery in the present world, not knowing what I was thinking necessarily, not knowing what was pre-existing. In other words, I found that writing about life that happened before was bad for life and bad for writing; it made the writing intellectualized and predetermined, and it made the living also intellectualized and predeterminedlooking at your life and picking over all the material in your life to see what's good material for writing made it so that you were not actually living your life as if you were really alive in it, but somehow warming it over for writing.
RF: Warming it over?
NF: Yeah, rewarming or rehashing as a life, and I think that this in fact happens to writers a lot. Writers often have miserable lives because they view their life as material for their art, which is an absolute, and the ethics and presence of the actual life becomes secondary to that. So you have many stories of artists who are miserable, unfair to the people around them, and so on and so forth.
And I just couldn't sustain that, and also I came to feel it not only was not that suitable for me, but I also felt as if the time in which artists could do that was past. That the art that was produced out of that sort of attitude and that sort of life was really no longer possible and no longer worthwhile. So at one time the starving, romantic figure of the artist, perhaps at one time was viable but I just felt... that was pre-sixties, the world was changing, it was a different period and that historical period, an heroic artist period, had really come to an end. I certainly, in trying to live that out, found that it was a dead end, and I couldn't carry it out. Not only was it making me unhealthy, and feeling creepy somehow, but also I wasn't producing work that I felt good about. Yeah, I was producing lots of work, tremendous amounts of work, but I didn't feel that it was really valuable, or that it was the work I wanted to produce, that I was given to produce. So I didn't feel...I would throw away everything that I produced, so at the time this was for me a literary as well as a spiritual crisis.
RF: When was that?
NF: This was late 60's early 70'sI had been writing for a number of years, since I was a boy I had been writing. I was in writing school from 68 to 70 and I didn't do anything else but write in those years, and it was at that time that I got interested in Dharma and took up Dharma study and began struggling with a way to write differently, and saw Dharma study was a way to reach that. So that's when I began my explorations in writing, focusing on writing in the present moment and writing from the standpoint...you could describe it as improvising, you know, improvising, not to say there is no rewriting or there's no thoughtfulness about it, but shape and form come out in the present moment and then afterward one can reconsider that, and that is another present moment, the same attitude and the same feeling, one revises with the same, hopefully with the same sense of liveliness and freshness. And so then I developed that through various stages during the 70's and I'm still developing it, you know, I think I hit a stride with it probably in the late 70's early 80's that...no probably later then that, not till the mid 80's where I felt I had found an approach that really suited me and that I wasn't completely in the dark anymore, although part of the essence of this kind of way of writing to me, every poem, every work that you begin is a new form, is a new discovery, so you're figuring it out all over again, you have to go back to beginning writing, although there's some continuity. But you sense when you're repeating yourself and you throw that one out.
RF: Funny, because I remember Suzuki Roshi [Founder of Zen Center] always telling the same stories about his trying to clean the bathroom, hiding in the bathroom wanting to clean it up,
and he'd tell the story...and we'd heard it a hundred times, and he was telling the story as if he had never told it before, we'd never heard it before, and he'd laugh and we would laugh, not because the story was funny anymore, but
because he was laughing as if it was new, that kind of feeling...beginner's mind.
NF: Yeah, that's right, that's very true. Yeah, you can do the same kind of thing but it has to have that same freshness to it. It's true in music too. A musician has to rediscover a piece every time it's performed, even though they might have performed the same piece a hundred times. In writing, I think you literally write the same poem over and over again but...yeah, there has to be that sense of discovery and freshness. There can't be the sense that, well, this is what I want to tell them, now how will I tell them this. It's more like, this is a moment of writing, what will I discover now. So that sense of it. And so, certainly practicing has made me live my life more in that way, living life in the present moment, as much as possible without preconceptions, without desire other then to be here attentively. Now this doesn't mean that material from the past is censored, but when these kinds of materials come up, you're clear, this is material arising in the mind in the present moment. It may be referencing something in the past, but it isn't in the past; it's right now, as it relates to something that's happening right now. So, there are many models for this writing. People who influence me a lot in defining this way of working were Gertrude Stein... .
RF: Someone who I also really admire.
NF: Yeah, she's wonderful. She clearly wrote in this mode. William Carlos Williams, for whom a poem was often a quick snap shot of the present moment, Louis Zukovsky, these were the people.
RF: Same people who influenced me. Maybe something in common with Zen.
NF: These are the giants of the mid-20th century, an experience that was different in some ways from other
experiences, and that one had to be conscious of that as an experience and work with that as an experience rather then thinking: this is what I want to tell them, rather it's that the language itself is experience in making the language, and exploring that possibility became the obvious thing to do if you were concerned about the present moment of experience in the writing.
RF: The mind watching the hand writing. The handwriting sometimes by itself, or the mind working on something and mindfulness observing it...the mind working.
NF: Yeah. So this became, you know, really interesting, fascinating, a process that you focused on, so that the process of writing was really more important than any individual work. So then there was a lot more emphasis on the activity of the process of writing, less emphasis on individual works, so that you were no longer trying to say the last word and tell everybody what it was like, or what you were like, or what your experience was, but rather you were attempting to participate in the process of making language on a very intimate levelsomething that is an extremely human thing to do because that's what...people do that every day, people every day are using language. They may be more or less conscious of it, but the language making function is a human function, and one finds that if you're writing poetry from the standpoint of the present moment and the experience of language, then you're deeply involved in this most human of all experiences. And so we weren't trying to create, like I said, masterpieces or closure, or the eternal poem or something like that, but rather to be in there in the flow of language. And we created many works out of this, but it was almost as if we were all creating one work, you know, with many sections to it that was a whole lifetime of work, and so...this is how it goes. I'm still involved in this same way.
RF: So, how is this different from the people who are doing language poetry, Bernstein and those people?
NF: Well, it's different for me. But, yes, when I talk about my friends and so on, these were the ones, the language poets, these poets were friends of mine.
RF: These are the people who are most interesting to me right now, interesting because I've been so out of touch...I was in Taiwan for the past 16 years, so during that period I never heard about the language poets. So I was writing and all of a sudden I discovered them...lets see, 91 or 92, and came back to the States and bought some books.
NF: Yeah, it started in the late 70's, 80's.
RF: I was very interested because I was doing the same thing independently, in a vacuum. It seems to just happen naturally as you're meditating...then you're meditating on your hand, and your hand's writing letters, and then there's spaces, and then there's a page.
NF: Yeah, exactly. Right. Although from a Buddhist perspective...lots of times when I write essays, I'm writing about language writing and its relation to Buddhism, its doctrines and thoughts and key elements, and I think there is a point where they overlap. It is different, definitely, in a way I'm not really part of the language school and that's clear I think. So there are differences, but there are also similarities.
RF: The focus of the interest being language itself.
NF: The emphasis is on language. I experience the language making itself, which I think is where you come to get your focus on the present moment of writing.
RF: Then there's still a gap there if you're thinking and you're writing, as opposed to writing and watching and being there in the breathing.
RF: And your hand and then the letters coming out creating associations.
NF: Uh huh. Although I think you are speaking more specifically about the calligraphic process than I am. This concerns Phil Whalen's work, but for me, although I am aware of the physical experience of writing, it's not that that I get involved with.
RF: That's another step. It's in the language field still, but it's a step closer to the meditative approach. Gertrude Stein...in that tradition. Of course, she has a lot of experiments that maybe...I wouldn't say successful or unsuccessful...but they're experiments; she's experimenting and giving others the opportunity to experiment.
NF: That's right, yeah. The things she did are very much in this department, and virtually all language writing uses her as a source.
RF: Yeah, I feel so close to Gertrude Stein. It's funny or sad, because when I was at Columbia in the early 60's we never even read Stein. She was out; I mean, I never heard of her.
NF: Yeah, now they do, now they do.
RF: Well Norman, I'd like to invite you to come to Taiwan perhaps the year after next and lecture. I'd like to also invite Philip [Whalen] but he's not well. As far as I'm concerned, the two of you have immersed yourselves most deeply in Buddhism and so your meditative practice strongly influences your poetry practice. For some reason, I feel for you even more than for Philip.
NF: You see, the thing is that the Beat writers had a very strong point of view and were already writing...were developed writers already when they encountered Buddhism.
NF: But for me, doing this [Zen] practice was the development of my writing.
HOMBO NAKED PAGAN
THOSE WHO NEVER TURNED AWAY
THOSE WHO STOOD QUIETLY IN THE RAIN
LIFT THEIR HANDS
IN REVERENT AFFIRMATION
WE HAVE SURVIVED
WILL LIVE ON
LIKE SWEET WILD BERRIES
Robert Front may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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