Mode of Thinking in American Contemporary Innovative Poetry (interview by Liu Fuli)

Sponsored by China Scholarship Council, Prof. Liu Fuli went to the University of Alabama to study Hank Lazer’s poetry. She was a visiting scholar in the first half of the year 2012.

Liu Fuli: In China, the widely acknowledged description of your identity is as a language poet. So we will begin with language poetry. Do you agree to be called a language poet?

Hank Lazer: No, not really. While it is true that my writing does have many affinities with poets who are (or were) called Language poets, I really did not know about Language poetry during its formative period (1978-1981, when L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine was being published). In 1984 I met Marjorie Perloff, and through Marjorie met Charles Bernstein. When I was putting together the “What Is a Poet? Conference” at the University of Alabama, Charles and I became friends immediately, he took part in the conference1, we’ve become co-editors for the Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series2, and we remain good friends. The principal element of my affinity with the Language poets was that I, too, was an enthusiastic reader of philosophy and critical theory, and I, too, did not subscribe to the assumption that such writing was detrimental to so-called “creative” writing. I also shared in the radical investigation and redefinition of what poetry might be and how it might be written. In my essays, I have written about various Language poets – Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, etc. – but I have also written about plenty of poets who would not fit this label. I guess that I view the term “language poet” as a historical term that refers to a group of writers, principally on the East and West Coasts who, through a series of publications and talks, were in conversation in the late 1970s and 1980s and who offered a provocative critique of official verse culture in the U.S.

Liu Fuli: What is language poetry then? To understand this genre, we have several tough aspects to deal with, such as the basic features, its origin and development, or why did it appear and how is it now in America? Who do you think are the major representatives of language poetry?

Hank Lazer: I think that it will not be possible to give definitive answers to these questions. Language poetry itself (as an umbrella-term) encompasses today a broad range of writing practices. Its appearance – in the late 1970s – is linked to the limiting versions of poetry arising in the rapidly expanding Creative Writing programs. In American literary culture (of the 1970s and 1980s), there was a considerable split and tension over the value of critical theory and philosophical writing. The institutionalization of poetry in the many new Creative Writing programs was linked to an anti-intellectual approach to poetry which emphasized “finding your voice” and writing in a plain, accessible style. Plenty of literary critics have already written this history – Marjorie Perloff and Charles Altieri are a couple of the very best. As for the major representatives of language poetry, simply look at the contents for the first two major anthologies of Language poetry: Douglas Messerli’s “Language” Poetries: An Anthology (New York: New Directions, 1987) and Ron Silliman’s In the American Tree, Orono (Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 1986), or look at the issues of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E(1978-1981).3

While obviously as a poet and as a critic I have misgivings about answering your question directly, I do want to be of some use in providing an introduction to key principles and practices, particularly to Chinese readers who may, at present, have little or no familiarity with language poetry. In 1988, I wrote a review-essay, “Radical Collage,” which appeared in The Nation. (At the time of its publication, it was only the second time that anyone had written about language poetry for a major journal.) That essay has been reprinted a couple of times, in my Opposing Poetries – Volume Two: Readings (Northwestern University Press, 1996, under the title “Outlaw to Classic: The Poetry of Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman,” pp. 6-18), and also in Selected Language Poems (Chengdu: Sichuan Literature and Art Publishing House, 1993; translation by Yunte Huang; pp.92-104, under the title “From Outlaw to Classic”). I think that several of the observations made in that essay might be of value to your readers. I argued that “The greatest virtue of Language Writing is its reintegration of poetry into a fuller cultural and intellectual context, providing us with a poetry and poetics once again immersed in politics, history, and the broad range of debates in the human sciences” (6, Opposing Poetries). I also suggested that this movement “presents us with a body of writing and thought that could prove to be the most significant in American poetry since the modernists” (6). As I reflect now (twenty-four years later), I affirm these claims. Implicit in these judgments is something that I did not quite realize so clearly twenty-four years ago: language poetry represents an affirmation of and continuity with the fundamentally innovative and heuristic elements of modernism (and certainly not simply American poetry’s modernist impulses, but a broader range of European literary, philosophical, anthropological, artistic, and musical investigations). Perhaps the most cogent elucidation of this viewpoint – of late twentieth-century avant garde practice as fundamentally a continuation of early twentieth-century modes of experimentalism – is Marjorie Perloff’s 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics(Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2002). Thus, in hindsight, language writing constitutes an important reconnection with modernism (and thus it develops in sharp contrast with the American creative writing establishment’s aversion to the so-called “abstractions,” ambitious large-scale projects, and inventiveness of modernist poetry).

In “Outlaw to Classic,” my most direct listing of the principles of language writing is presented in a manner that affirms this linkage to modernist practice (as well as presents these principles as a form of oppositional literary practice):

Rather than consider poetry as a staging ground for the creation and expression of an “authentic” voice and personality, Language poetry affirms the radical formal experimentation of modernism, arises out of an “exploded self,” blurs genre boundaries (not only the boundary between poetry and prose, but also the functional boundary between poet and critic, between poetry and criticism), and seeks actively collaborative relationships between reader and writer, thus foregrounding the political dimension of literary activity. Language writing assumes that language is experience-engendering, rather than that the writer’s task is to find language to represent experiences that somehow exist outside of or prior to language. (7)

What my remarks from years ago suggest is that what was at stake as language writing came onto the scene was the very scope, range, and depth of poetic activity itself. Language writing developed in conjunction with a range of explorations in the arts, literature, music, and philosophy; as with modernism, language writing placed the poet in an intellectually and aesthetically and politically engaged, forward-looking role of experimentation, research, and investigation into the possibilities for humanity’s complex collaborative relationship with language itself.

In that essay of 1988, I described Charles Bernstein’s work as “a form of radical collage” (13), and I concluded that for “Bernstein new forms of written expression enact an oppositional politics and affirm our common birthright as language users, able to question and make the meanings and truths by which we situate and construct ourselves in this world” (15). While today, twenty-four years later, I find my earlier claims to be a bit hyperbolic – because I do not believe that as language users we have the kind of control or full intentionality that my remarks suggest – I reaffirm the sense that language writing presented us with an inspiring incitement to explore new possibilities for our residence in language.

As for how it is now: the writings of language poets are tremendously varied, though you would still find an aversion to the plain-style, brief epiphanic poem that, to some degree, still characterizes the majority of poems written in the US.

Liu Fuli: Will you please introduce some experimental modes of meaning-making in the writings of the language poets, and tell the difference between the innovativeness made in the language poetry and other avant-garde or (and) contemporary innovative poetic genres?

Hank Lazer: No. I’m not really prepared to make hard and fast distinctions between one kind of innovative practice and another. It might be true to claim that some very recent innovative poetry has been more focused on re-cycling pre-existing writing – what Marjorie Perloff has called “unoriginal genius,” citing works such as Kenny Goldsmith’s transcription of a day of The New York Times or a transcription of a day’s weather reports. Although one might just as easily apply the term that I used for Charles Bernstein’s writing of the 1980s, radical collage, to describe such writing. It might be more useful to think about language poetry in relation to other art genres – abstract painting; free or improvisational jazz; experimental film; performance art; modern dance.

Liu Fuli: Will you please generalize the above and make a definition of language poetry?

Hank Lazer: I’m not sure that I can do any better than the list of characteristics (quoted from my 1988 essay) in answer to your second question. Your insistence that I provide definitions, characteristics, and generalizations makes me uneasy, but along with that uneasiness comes a productive self-inquiry so that I better understand the nature of my own misgivings. Really, what you are asking are questions of taxonomy or periodization, and I distrust the seeming stability and definitiveness of those activities. Also, such a definition or list tends to dehistoricize what is truly a very fluid and ongoing activity. Or, perhaps language writing should be thought of as a verb (an action verb?) rather than as a noun?

Liu Fuli: Dr. Lazer, thank you for the insightful and thought-provoking answer to the tough question. The following question is tougher, maybe: Why is language poetry so short-lived? How do you describe it in the tradition of American poetry?

Hank Lazer: It has not been short-lived. I think that language poetry represents an affirmation of the most radical impulses of modernism. As such, there is a rich, ongoing continuity of experimentation (which now spans at least one hundred years of American poetry beginning with poets such as Dickinson and Whitman).

To engage your question more fully, I returned to the first issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine itself.4 Of the seventeen writers for this first issue, I am struck by how many – in fact, all – have had significant, productive writing lives. Clearly, the journal itself, from the very first issue to the present, built a network and community for an active discussion of poetry, poetics, and the visual arts.

In that first issue, in “Writing and Free Association,” Nick Piombino begins, “The method of self-disclosure called ‘free association’ wherein one writes or speaks all one’s thoughts in consecutive order (also sometimes called ‘automatic writing’ in literary criticism) is comparable to serious attempts to read, write and understand poetry that directs attention to the totality of the thinking process.” It seems to me, in retrospect, that Piombino points to a fundamentally important feature of language writing: it provides a multifaceted set of approaches by which, over the past thirty-five years, a range of poets have explored the complex relationship between thinking and writing, and thus they have shed light on the mutually developmental relationship between language and human consciousness (or, between language and what it means to be human).

As for those poets today who would suggest that the techniques of language writing have now been fully assimilated (by creative writing programs and by the so-called mainstream) – and such a claim often goes by the name of hybridity, with the accompanying sense that today poets learning how to write have equal access to all poetic techniques and styles and are free to experiment, practice, and choose – such a claim dehistoricizes and decontextualizes the understanding of stylistic praxis and the ethics and risk of such decisions. In the current “risk-free” environment of a myopic freedom to write however one wishes, gone is any sense of the risk, integrity, and oppositionality of those choices and actions in the late 1970s and 1980s. The question isn’t whether one is free to try on a caricatured version of language writing (seen through a thirty-five year cloudy lens), but what might be similarly oppositional, highly charged, and disturbingly innovative practices today.

Liu Fuli: You, just like other innovative poets, including those who write language poetry, are writing poetry by means of opposing traditional poetry. When you are foregrounding language in your writings, the self-evident effect is to produce a haunting mode of lyricism as well as activate the interaction between the reader and the text. But meanwhile, how do you make your poetry refer to reality, or your political or spiritual intentions beyond the text, that is, meaning-making, in general?

Hank Lazer: I think that this question brings with it assumptions about binary oppositions – traditional poetry vs. innovative poetry; textuality (or a seemingly self-referential writing) vs. reality (or “realism” or writing descriptive of external “reality”). For my own writing, and for that of most language poets, I would suggest that there is a more fluid relationship (or dialectical relationship – a push-pull relationship) between these fundamental terms. So-called innovative poetry does not arise in a vacuum; it too will affirm its own traditions and literary and artistic predecessors. At most, it may involve a re-writing or re-thinking of what from the past, from past traditions, is of current value or use. In my case, that involves all sorts of writing, from Emily Dickinson to the pre-Socratics; from classical Chinese poetry (Li Po, Tu Fu) to the work of John Cage; from Henry David Thoreau to the music of John Coltrane. Though in poetry I choose not to write in what I think of as received forms, the activity itself of inventing new forms for writing poetry is itself part of an ongoing tradition (perhaps with a now rather old slogan, “make it new”).

I thank you for the description “a haunting mode of lyricism.” I consider that a true compliment. As for the issue of reference to reality, first, I would point out that the reader (and the reader’s consciousness) is a reality, as is the text itself (and how it gets produced, and who produces it, and how it gets circulated), as is the experience we have of time in the course of reading (and writing). For me, “reality” is not simply constituted by the description of pre-existing objects in the world (for that assumption would limit “realism” itself to a mimetic act of mere description). The poem itself, for example, and each word in it, and each word’s exact placement on the page all have a reality and a thing-like nature to them. But I would also point out that I am not at all opposed to traditional acts of description or image-making. Rather, I am after a more complex, variable, and hybrid version of “realism” that involves many different kinds of language acts (often set in relation to one another in the same page, poem, or book of poems).

I grew up in northern California, and the region where I lived is noted for some extraordinary black-and-white nature photography, including the work of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. I am very fond of such work – its precision of seeing and of scenic composition. In my own poetry, there are plenty of examples of such efforts of perception and description – perhaps very much akin to the setting aside of the ego and engagement in perception of the natural world found in much classical Chinese poetry.

The concluding part of your question – about how the text engages in pointing beyond itself and in making meaning – is very complicated. I would simply say that the poem itself may well be an embodying of or inquiry into that very question. The meaning of meaning must itself be an ongoing, developing consideration. Perhaps the nature of the meaning of meaning changes as human consciousness changes in time, and thus each era or generation of writing (or art generally) must reinvestigate and re-make what it means to be human?
7. Liu Fuli: In a recent review by Jake Marmer5 of your N18 (complete) a term which may interest the readers is “vectored thinking”, which offers a thoroughly new dimension of presenting the brain’s working “inside”. The hypotheses of the processing of thoughts in the black-box-like brain tease many people out of thoughts. In your handwritten notebook of “shape-poems” such as N18 (complete), how do you make the nontraditional layout represent your flow of thoughts? You know, Hank, this is something like a specific case of the question above.
lazer-poemHank Lazer: For a long time I have been interested in having my poems bear some relationship to the way thinking (or consciousness itself) involves motion, often in unpredictable though often graceful or interesting ways. I’ve not been seeking a particular repeatable style (such as the so-called “stream of consciousness,”) as much as I’ve wanted to learn to write a poetry that has the same fluidity and movement as the mind’s thinking. In an earlier book of poems, Days (New Orleans: Lavender Ink, 2002), the kind of movement-in-thinking that I was approaching had to do with rapid shifts in direction, as when in clear water one views a school of fish suddenly shift direction (or a similarly coordinated though unexpected shift of direction as when a flock of birds makes a quick change of direction, or a skilled athlete – in basketball or soccer or in dance – changes direction, or the way a skilled jazz musician in the midst of an improvisation will change modalities). In Days and the subsequent book of poems, The New Spirit (San Diego: Singing Horse Press, 2005), I found that my engagement with these movements in consciousness were triggered by the music (i.e. the sounds) of the words, and thus I began to call this phase of my writing “thinking singing.

The writing in the Notebooks, though, is not triggered so much by the sound of the words as the shape or appearance of the words on the page. The concept of “vectored thinking” (which I discuss in the afterword to N18 (complete)) is really a concept borrowed from physics. A vector suggests a certain quality of force. For the pages of the Notebooks, “vectored thinking” suggests that a range of competing and perhaps incompatible thoughts/thinking are put into play within the same page, and the shape of the writing bears some relationship to the voice, the viewpoint, and the force of the statement or the phrase itself. A single page, then, may contain multiple voices and multiple viewpoints, much as our own consciousness is not singular in its logic, our consciousness being like the page: a site for many phrases and voices and perspectives to take part.

If, perhaps, we look together at one sample page from the Notebooks – this example is a very recent page from N23, written while I have been writing this interview – I can present some specific observations about what “vectored thinking” might mean for a reader.

All elements of this page are in conversation with one another with no clear sense as to what takes priority. Even the dates on the page – 9/19/12 and 5773 – offer two different ways of figuring or counting time: 5773 is the year in the Jewish calendar; this page was written on the third day of the Jewish New Year. But the page does not present a monolithic or singular spiritual or cultural viewpoint – and indeed the page, with its shape of the eye, asks us to think about what and how we see. The most prominent lines are from Lao Tzu’s dao de jing (lines 3-4 of the first poem, Thomas Meyer’s translation – one of three translations that I keep beside me as I continue my several year reading and re-reading of the dao de jing), and they speak to what can and cannot be named. In the interior of the eye-shape, “my” words also re-enforce the lines from the dao (though they focus attention on perception itself rather than the names for what we see). In the upward vertical direction, I quote from Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible (the book that I have been reading while writing Notebooks 21-23): “having seen them arise from our experience of brute being, which is as it were the umbilical cord of our knowledge and the source of meaning for us.” This passage too asks us to think about the relationship between what we see and what we know, suggesting that the seemingly simple act of perception itself is our umbilical cord to all knowing. But the lines that I have already discussed suggest something else: that of equal importance as what we see is what we do not see, and that perhaps the most important forces and presences may have no name at all and perhaps cannot be seen. (For example, the thoughts that you are having now as you read this sentence are invisible.) And in seeing and reading and deciphering this Notebook page, a reader, on a kind of meta-level, is involved in the very acts of perception, meaning-making, and consideration of what is not seen or known or named. And then there is the diagonal phrase (that almost appears to be a cancellation sign?) that crosses the eye-shape: “in blocks of color a vibrational plane”. My own sense of reading is that it is somewhat akin to chi gong; instead of our hands (not touching the body) passing over and along the body’s fields of energy, our reading-eyes pass over the energy or chi of the page and (when our reading experience becomes intensified or lyrical) we experience a kind of transfer of energy. The diagonal phrase on this page arises from an engagement with the blocks of color in Mark Rothko’s paintings, as well as a listening to the composer Morton Feldman’s composition “Rothko Chapel” (where the music itself has a subtle but deeply engaging vibratory quality). In one sense, that is what “vectored thinking” is – a vibrating or active relationship among disparate phrases and perceptions that occur on the page. As the “author” of this page, I do shape the presentation, but how the phrases interact with one another exceeds my control or intentionality. For example, it is only days after the composition that I became aware of the link between “mother” in the line from the dao de jing and the “umbilical cord” in the phrase from The Visible and the Invisible. After the page’s composition – for which I am a medium or a doorway – I too become a reader of it, and I too discover a range of possible readings and relationships among the page’s elements.

Liu Fuli: So Hank, in your poetic practice, you manipulate poetic form as an intellectual mode of thinking. In your article “Returns: Innovative Poetry and Questions of ‘Spirit’”,6 you demonstrated the essence of the 20th century American poetry by referring to an American poet, John Taggart’s argument about poetry: “The history of poetry in our century is only superficially the history of the struggle to make it new. More enduring is the struggle to regain the definition of poetry as spiritual ascesis.” It is praiseworthy for the poets, by means of poetry, to attempt to bear the historical mission voluntarily and ponder the fate of humans with their sincerity, courage, responsibility and endurance while confronted with various crises and spiritual corruptions in the current society. As an important force of the contemporary innovative poetry, what else do you do in the poetic form besides the untraditional layout in terms of the manipulation of language?

Hank Lazer: I very much appreciate your suggestion that through poetry we may “ponder the fate of humans.” That description is very accurate as to why I am an avid reader of science fiction, a mode of writing that perhaps resists the novel’s tendency to focus on individual psychological development in favor of a greater emphasis on thinking about the fate or future of the human species.

As for my own poetic practice, I don’t really think that I “manipulate poetic form as an intellectual mode of thinking” nor does my engagement with poetic form amount to a “manipulation of language.” If anything, I am at most partnering or collaborating with language; it [language] is certainly not something that I can manipulate. In the writing of the Notebooks, for example, I am deeply aware that the writing itself – the play of language – exceeds (significantly) my intentionality. In this sense, I am more of a medium – a portal, a doorway, or a gathering point – for various language activities. Yes, I do have some designs upon the page, and I do, to some extent, make choices about what words to use, but the process itself – which requires considerable preparation before the writing of each page – happens so rapidly and compresses so many impulses and possibilities (as in a jazz/musical improvisation or a quickly executed athletic activity) into a very brief span of time. The layout of my Notebook pages may be “untraditional” in relation to left-margin justified poetry, but it is not untraditional in relation to modern abstract art or free jazz playing (or perhaps even in relation to eastern calligraphy and painting traditions).

Liu Fuli: In the same article, you said in the past fifty years, innovative poetry is and perhaps retrospectively will be seen as principally giving us tremendously rich new work in the areas of “lyricism” and “spirit”. How do you define these two terms, which will also assist people to understand your highly-praised work Lyric & Spirit?7

Hank Lazer: “Lyricism,” for me, suggests music, musicality, rhythm, and the sound of the words themselves. I think that my most lyrical writing occurs in Days and in The New Spirit, though these two works contain somewhat different kinds of musical emphases. Days attends more insistently to the musicality of the individual word, while The New Spirit comes to take on a symphonic organization of musicality as certain phrases recur throughout the book. I recently read a remark in Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible which is very much in accord with my understanding of “lyricism”: “And, in a sense, to understand a phrase is nothing else than to fully welcome it in its sonorous being, or, as we put it so well, to hear what it says (l’entendre). The meaning is not on the phrase like the butter on the bread, like a second layer of ‘psychic reality’ spread over the sound: it is the totality of what is said, the integral of all the differentiations of the verbal chain; it is given with the words for those who have ears to hear” (155).

“Spirit,” linked to words such as inspire, respiration, breath, suggests an engagement with the invisible. In my poetry, The New Spirit, written in my forty-ninth year, begins an ongoing attempt to find new ways of writing about spiritual experience (including its erratic or inconstant nature, thus attempting a kind of “realism” or phenomenology of spiritual experience.

Liu Fuli: In your published collections of poetry, Days and The New Spirit are mostly noticed for their investigations into the mysterious source of “spirit”. The reading of Days reminds readers of a “daybook” or “commonplace book”, a notebook for observations, quotes, accounts, recipes, newspapers and magazine clippings. For poets, it is a tradition, dating back to Whitman for example, to record drafts of poems this way. In Days, you record the commonplace things, for which you invented a terse ten-line poetic form. By the innovation of a poetic form, you’ve foregrounded the language, and made the tangible objects match the philosophical temperament. Do you thus on one hand honor the theory that poetry is a matter of emotion aroused from the natural dailiness of life, but at the same time dissociate lyric emotion from the immediacy of personal experience? Do you intentionally make the physical reflection of the factual “transiency and relativity” embody the metaphysical pursuit of “constancy and absoluteness”?

Hank Lazer: Yes, the poem itself, in its instance of composition, arises out of dailiness, and I have always deliberately attempted to write a poetry that is inclusive (of mundane and daily occurrences, as well as more extraordinary moments and perceptions). In making the selection of which poems to include in Days (since I had written three times as many poems of this ten-line composition as appear in the final book version), I deliberately did not choose to include only “the best” or the most intense or the most lyrical poems. The overall book itself became a way of charting or recording fluctuations of creativity, inspiration, and intensified consciousness (and thus, implicitly, as in many traditional daybooks and journals, becomes a kind of spiritual record as well). I chose to include certain poems that had a flatness or a commonplace dailiness to them. Thus, I don’t really have a desire to dissociate my writing from the immediacy of personal experience. I would note that the moment of composition itself is an important instance of “the immediacy of personal experience” too.

Liu Fuli: Do you thereby make the secular existence become a philosophical and poetic space where “thoughts move” as Jake Marmer said in his review of your N18?

Hank Lazer: Let me answer this question – which truly deserves a more thorough discursive response – by presenting “House,” the concluding poem from Portions:

HOUSE8

pad pod site
preparing a place
a launching pad

a landing site
small birds chickadees
finches sparrows ride

out arctic wind
bobbing on suspended
bird houses hung

from pine branches
small words as
on an ever

moving sea we
live & breathe
riding upon this

language house a
moving place that
feeds & carries

Yes, the poem (or the page) itself might be thought of as a secular space that opens up in language a realm for philosophical and poetic thinking. Similarly, as the poem engages with daily or secular experience, it is also a place for the sacred or the spiritual to appear. The poem “House” is written very much from the perspective of Heidegger’s concept (in his later essays) of language itself as the house of being. That is, language itself in its complexity, infinite malleability, and its ever-changing realm of possibility becomes the place where humans are deeply human and engage the very nature of our being. “House” also suggests that this sustaining relationship with language is also, in both senses of the word, “a/ moving place” – a site that, like the suspended birdhouses, is in motion (in time and space, changing slowly as human consciousness itself changes) and also in the emotional sense a place where we are moved.

Liu Fuli: In the process of describing the dailiness of life, do you make efforts of preventing the words from expressing personal experiences? Or do you try to make poetry impersonal, in other words, to make a timeless spiritual retrospection replace the dailiness?

Hank Lazer: Perhaps I have already answered this question somewhat in #10? As a good friend says, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it,” meaning, when confronted with two choices, pick both. The poem is inevitably personal in its origin: I am writing it, and there are definitely certain idiosyncracies and personal peculiarities in the specific words that appeal to me, in the subjects and methodologies that interest me, in my family background and how it has shaped my relationship to language, etc. At the same time, I have little interest in my poetry becoming principally a mode of self-expression. There are far more interesting things in the world than my emotions, my voice, and my personality. I would go so far as to argue that American capitalist bourgeois consumer society fully inculcates us to believe that the “personal” is at the center of all that we do and are. The cornerstone of a consumer society is that I will buy products that reflect who I am. In this sense, as a corrective to this product-driven obsession with self-identity and self-expression, I am deeply drawn to classical Chinese poetry and to Zen Buddhist practice.

I would suggest, then, that the poetry I write is at once personal (alas, inevitably so, for I am a person, and there is an almost genetic specificity to how I think and write and hear) and impersonal (or trans-personal?). As for your suggestion about a timeless quality to the writing, perhaps every poet hopes that the writing has some enduring quality to it, but I would argue that in fact the writing is very much time-bound, very much a product of a highly specific relationship to time. In the Notebooks, the first twenty of which bear the full title The Notebooks (of Being and Time), I am deeply interested in raising to awareness our relationship to (or residence in) time. The composition of the poem itself constitutes an interval of consciousness – an extended and perhaps intensified but nonetheless momentary engagement with time by means of language. Each subsequent reading of the poem/page constitutes another time-bound relationship to that interval of consciousness, and as the nature of human consciousness changes over time, inevitably the reading experience itself will change as well. (In re-reading my responses to your question, it occurs to me that where I talk about “time,” someone else might use the word “history,” since, in fact, I’m proposing an ongoing changing relationship to time. But “history” has never been a favorite term of mine.)

Liu Fuli: It was reported that for each volume, you design a certain poetic pattern in advance, decide the number of poems to be contained and the deadline to conclude the volume. Why do you do so? It is guessed that, by the confinement of form, a certain thinking mode is set first, and a thinking process is thereby fulfilled. This method of poetic creation implicates the avoidance of the fossil thinking mode will be guaranteed by the constant attempts to “write something other than a formulaic poetry of Emersonian correspondence”.9 Is it true?

Hank Lazer: First, I am compelled to say that I am actually quite sympathetic to much of Emerson’s writing, especially the essays. So, this quotation is, for me, a somewhat rare critique of his thinking. Specifically, I am critical of an allegorical (or one-to-one) sense that physical objects are symbols for spiritual things (and that there is a one-to-one correspondence to be decoded).

As for the ever-changing form for each of my books and why I employ such a methodology, let me refer to answers in “Q & A Poetics”10 that I gave to similar questions. The term that I use for this process is “serial heuristics”:

Serial heuristics, to me, means the developing of a particular procedure or form or set of rules for a series of poems which become, either for a pre-determined number of poems or a pre-determined span of time, where and how I will live in poetry for that period. Once the habitation is over with, I develop another way of proceeding in poetry, and occupy that new methodology until its time is up. …

One might reasonably ask, why learn from a form, live with it, only to abandon it? To avoid mastery and to avoid self-imitation. I have been struck by how many poets, perhaps taking their cue from market forces in the world of the visual arts, develop a style or voice and stick with it for a boringly elaborated career. … My commitment is to the poem – as well as the series of poems – as a site of discovery. Through a different form, which I also think of as a different lens, I gradually learn what I might think, feel, experience, and know in that place, from such a perspective, and within such a methodology of writing. (172-173)

In practical terms, I worked exclusively in the invented ten-line form of Days for a year and a day. I wrote in the fifty-four word invented form of Portions for six years. My current writing project, the shape-writing of the Notebooks, though a highly variable form (with the insistence that each page differ in appearance from the prior page), is still underway after six years of exploration.

Liu Fuli: How many collections of poetry have you published? Is it possible to assort the publications according to some reference?

Hank Lazer: As of October 2012, I have published 17 books of poetry. They range in size from large collections – Doublespace is 192 pages – to much smaller chapbooks. The larger book-length collections are Doublespace:Poems 1971-1989 (New York: Segue Books, 1992), 3 of 10: H’s Journal, Negation, and Displayspace (Tucson: Chax Press, 1996), Days (New Orleans: Lavender Ink, 2002), Elegies & Vacations (Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2004), The New Spirit (San Diego: Singing Horse Press, 2005), Portions (New Orleans: Lavender Ink, 2009), and N18 (complete) (San Diego: Singing Horse Press, 2012).

Liu Fuli: Thank you for the information which gives the Chinese readers and scholars a complete profile of yours. As a poet, you are versatile, innovative and have a large coverage lyrically, spiritually and even in the format for the books that you have published. Do you think there are some akin poets in America? Can you make a generalization of the common features shared by you all?

Hank Lazer: Many thanks for the provocative interview questions. I look forward to the response to the forthcoming translation of my Selected Poems into Chinese. As for the question of what poets in America are kindred spirits – i.e., poets doing similar kinds of writing – I remain engaged in reading several poets who are no longer alive: Robert Creeley, Larry Eigner, and George Oppen are sustaining presences in my writing. Of my contemporaries, what moves me most is a sense of the integrity of the writing, combined with a quality of somewhat stubborn independence (though all of us who write poetry are dependent upon predecessors and upon a few writers and readers with whom we are in conversation). I am drawn to somewhat idiosyncratic poets – what the poet and critic and publisher Ed Foster has called “a company of one” – and in this group I would include writers such as Charles Bernstein, John Taggart, Glenn Mott, Lissa Wolsak, Susan Schultz, David Antin, Norman Fischer, Fanny Howe, Yunte Huang, Rachel Back, Paul Naylor, Harryette Mullen, Jonathan Stalling, and Jake Berry. Of the Chinese poets I met during my 1993 visit, the poet/artist Che Qianzi is someone whose work I admire and continue to follow. Of the Cuban poets I have met over the past year, Juan Carlos Flores is an inspirational writer and person. There are virtually no common features shared among these writers – except a profound dedication to a fresh way of writing poetry.


Notes

  1. For the full conference proceedings, including the provocative panel discussion, see What Is A Poet?, ed. Hank Lazer, Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1987. See also a recent post on Charles Bernstein’s blog at Jacket2 (posted 18 September 2012).
  2. To date (October 1, 2012), we have published 37 books in the Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series: – see the link for MCP Series.
  3. Available online.
  4. All issues of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, which was published from February 1978 through October 1981 and was edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, are available through the Eclipse website of the University of Utah. (My thanks to Craig Dworkin for developing the immensely useful Eclipse website.)
  5. Jake Marmer, “Thoughts That Move in Space” published June 20, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012. The Jewish Daily Forward.
  6. Hank Lazer, “Returns: Innovative Poetry and Questions of ‘Spirit’” Lyric and Spirit. Richmond: Omnidawn Publishing, 2008., PP209-263.
  7. Hank Lazer, Lyric and Spirit. Richmond: Omnidawn Publishing, 2008.
  8. Recordings of many of poems, including “House” (track #40 from a March 17, 2009 reading at Kelly Writers’ House) are available at my PennSound author page
  9. Hank Lazer, “Returns: Innovative Poetry and Questions of ‘Spirit’” Lyric & Spirit. Richmond: Omnidawn Publishing, 2008. PP209-263.
  10. “Q & A Poetics,” in Lyric & Spirit, pp. 171-183.