“Hi. It’s Me, Death” with Dana Levin

Ana Garcia: What is your usual process for getting an idea for a poem, and then how is it for you to write it down?

Dana Levin: Ideas come primarily in two ways. One is from outside my head, like reading an article or seeing something in life, the news, or visual images. The first poem in Sky Burial describes something that happened to me: I came home and there was this hawk on the hedge, right there, and I was really surprised. Then I thought “Oh, this means something. It’s an omen!” I went up and I took a look at the symbol book, so that actually happened. With that experience and looking up what “hawk” meant, and how it started merging my internal experience with my parents and my sister being dead, it’s an example of the poem being externally inspired but ultimately coming back to what is internally on my mind. Another way that poems come to me is through the unconscious, like dream images.

The poem “Mentor” comes from a dream I had: ghosts that need reminding. Those three prose poems in the middle of Sky Burial come from dreams which seem very lofty… and I just felt like they had to stay in prose. When you read prose, there’s an expectation of reading for information of some kind, which doesn’t exactly happen when you see a poem format, it’s a different experience. It felt like I had to keep those in a prose format to be intentional with the fact that they came from just the weirdness of dreams. It was one of the things that helped me to write those.


Hannah Malik: What other religions and cultures did you research in your process of writing?

DL: The two main cultures I focused on were the Aztec and Tibetan Buddhism- and it’s a weird combo, because the Buddhism is very detached; everything is from the mind, nothing is completely real. They’re death-focused, but in such a way to teach us about impermanence. Nothing lasts. They do a lot of shamanic work, such as meditation to the point of imagining you cutting off your head, scooping out your brains to study the poison inside, then turning it into a golden elixir. Another imagines you chopping up your body and feeding it to your demons, it’s totally violent, but it’s all at the level of your mind… the Aztecs are completely different. They’re like a complete blood-cult and seem to me the most literal people I’ve encountered. For instance, they take captives from war, kill them, skin them and dye the skin golden. The chieftains would wear them for several days- while they’re rotting- and afterwards take off the skins and be new people; spring has arrived. To me, that’s a really literal interpretation. Blood sacrifice was practiced every twenty days to bring in the new months. I also studied things that didn’t necessarily make it into the book, for instance I studied the weird kinds of bugs found in Egyptian tombs for a while, but that didn’t end up in a poem. I read about really weird burial practices, but the only one that really came forward was the “sky burial”.


AG: You continuously mention websites and popular culture icons, along with more spiritual ideas such as the “sky burial”. What was your purpose in combining these two kinds of elements?

DL: I wanted to mix those details for a lot of reasons. One: that was my experience. On one hand I’m doing all of this meditation on Tibetan Buddhism and reading all of this very philosophical writing about Tibetan Buddhism approaches to death, and all of a sudden I’m on Wikipedia looking for what happens when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. I was trying to show the fact that I was having a transcendental experience but I was also having a very ordinary experience. I used to be the kind of poet who would get angry if people mentioned things in their poems such as Dr. Pepper or chips, it broke the spell for me. Now I’m more aware of how huge our digital world is, how it is part of what we are now experiencing, and how I would like to document my engagement with it. Somebody was writing about my work, saying, “I love how she talks about Tibetan Buddhism but then mentions junk food” and I liked that. But when I was younger, it would have driven me insane, because I would have wanted to break the spell of the poem. I wanted to stay true to my experience, to witness my journey on this grief. What I found very interesting about investigating for example about body’s decay, what happens to the body after it dies, forensic anthropology, is how found it very calming.


HM: On top of being a recalibration for yourself, is there a message you would like to convey to your readers?

DL: Yes, it isn’t really in the book, but in a nutshell what the Tibetan Buddhism says is ‘we’re all going to die, so why not be nice to each other?’ and that really resonated with me. We’re always being mean to one another in bigger or smaller ways. I don’t think that comes through the book, but I feel they should make the confrontation with death. Don’t shy away from it- it’s profound! It’s hugely transformative, and we’re a total death-denying country. We’re constantly trying to keep it at bay, from plastic surgery to freaking-out about the food we put in our bodies. We put all our death on TV, too, and I think that’s to help us pretend it’s not happening in the world.

AG: You have mentioned that you are not a fiction writer. Apart from the format, for you what’s the essential difference between poetry and fiction?

Dana: I guess that most fiction writers think in terms of character and plot, that’s how they get inspired. For me, poets are often inspired by not situations but are interested in emotional perception: the way the light might look on the wall, seeing a hawk and wondering about it. So I think the way they want to engage the reader is very different in terms of what might inspire them. I also think that you could think of poets as people who want to drop down deep, and prose writers wanting sort of fill up and expand. It’s not exactly vertical versus horizontal, but in a way it kind of is. It’s just a different way of holding inspiration and figuring out how you want to work it out.


HM: Is there a specific way in which you sequence your poems?

DL: Yes, I pay very very very close attention to the way I sequenced the book. Originally, I had wanted it to be circular, but I don’t know how to do that effectively. My mentor originally sequenced the book very strangely: we had agreed from the start the book would start with Auger and end with Spring, but she had sequenced very dark poems with short, unrelated ones. Her reasoning for this was to keep waking the reader up and keep them interested, and that was truly innovative for me. I didn’t quite like how the second half of the book was put together, so I sequenced that part myself, but the book as a whole is still cyclical in nature.


AG: You mentioned during another interview that writing this book was not part of a mourning process, it was a “recalibration.” How do you interpret that?

DL: When that many people who are close to you die in such a short period of time, I thought I was really supposed to get death. This isn’t about my personal loss and feelings, this is about “Hi, it’s me, Death. Again. Taking someone you love from you right now,” and I just thought I had to make the confrontation with death, to really see into our nature. And also just grief was an amazing experience, because I became convinced that we are born with a set of emotions: I think we are born with the grief as an emotion but it doesn’t get activated until someone close to you dies. Once of the reasons grief can be so disorienting is because most of us don’t experience the dead of a close loved one until we are older, and at that point we know what it is to be sad, and we know how it is to be happy, and the physiological experiences that go with those feelings. However grief comes with its own set of physiological experiences like exhaustion, insomnia, it’s a whole other thing, a physical feeling. Especially if you are an adult because you felt like you understood the emotional palette, and then this one gets activated and you just can’t believe it, it’s very overwhelming. I was interested in trying to look at those experiences with a more analytical eye and I think that is what I did not drown in the feelings that I was also having. Recalibration means that I have to integrate death into my life, and it has actually made me a person I like, I like what death has done to me. I’m more tempered in the ways I deal with the world, I’m a little more fatalistic, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I’m less anxious about living. I feel like before these experiences I was a hot sword that you’re making and you put it into cold water to temper it, and now I feel like I was a very hot sword and then death came and it was very shocking but now I’m stronger, sharper.


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John Albert: Stranger than Fiction

John Albert has played drums in the band Bad Religion and written articles for magazines like LA Weekly, Hustler and BlackBook. Albert’s memoir of his personal struggle with drugs and finding his salvation in baseball, Wrecking Crew: The Really Bad News Griffith Park Pirates, was derived from an LA Weekly article that won the Best of the West Journalism Best Sports Writing Award in 2000. It was published in 2005 to great acclaim. John currently resides in Los Angeles.

Wrecking Crew was your debut book. What compelled you to write it in the first place?

I was actually compelled because I was offered a publishing deal to write it. It started out as a cover story for the LA Weekly. The story was optioned by Paramount Pictures at the time, and my new movie agent made a deal to do a book. I thought there was no way there would be enough material for an entire book, but it was an opportunity so I took it contrary to my doubts.

I know that when you’re publishing a novel you’re forced to rewrite the rewrites and edit and rearrange the rearrangements. It’s a long and arduous process. Do you think this process differs when publishing a memoir?

I am not sure what it’s like with everybody. One of the things I did, which I can’t recommend enough, is that I joined a writers group. So before I turned in chapters I would have already read and discussed them with other people. I think my reading chapters about sex and drugs to these dear old ladies really made the work with my editor a whole lot easier.

It’s been seven years since Wrecking Crew was published. Do you think putting out such a personal story has changed the way people interact with you?

Maybe initially they were aware that everything said and observed was material for story. I have done it again periodically with short stories that detail the lives of friends. But I think people love that, they really want to be talked about. We offered to take things out of Wrecking Crew and or change people’s names. Nobody wanted that no matter how depraved their activities were.

When writing fiction I know that you’re free to take creative liberties with the story and descriptions. How faithful do you feel you have to be when you’re writing nonfiction?

This is a great question. I know quite a few people who have written high profile memoirs and confessed that they seriously embellished events. I did not. Even when it was suggested by people in my writer’s group, I stayed very true to the events. I think that came from working as a journalist. Lucky for me the truth was – to quote your dad [Brett Gurewitz], “Stranger than fiction.”

Do you think you’ll ever delve into fiction?

I have two short fiction works being published in the next month. So the answer is yes. I found the process to be freeing and requiring less homework.

I heard they might possibly making a Wrecking Crew movie? True or False? If so, would you be up for a starring role?

They are continually trying to make it into a movie. This is the fourth time. Right now the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman owns the rights. And no, I would want a big movie star to play me because I want the film to be both successful and good. I have no talent or draw as an actor.

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Strange Routes with David Shook

Visual art by Samuel Lee

[box]David Shook is a poet, translator and Idyllwild Arts Academy alum from 2004. His work has been published in Oxford MagazinePoetryPN ReviewWorld Literature Today, and others. He has translated many authors works into English, including Víctor Terán, Oswald de Andrade, Roberto Bolaño, and Mario Bellatin. Shook currently lives in Los Angeles, where he edits Molossushis online journal of international literature, and publishes Phoneme Books. Here he sits down in Birchard Writing Center to talk with Becky Hirsch, a junior at Idyllwild Arts Academy. [/box]

BH: As a translator, someone who’s had experience at Idyllwild and at Oxford University, and has lived in other countries, do you see any particular differences in poems from different languages? Do you think any language is better at expressing a certain kind of poem? And do you have a language in which you prefer to read?

DS: I believe in a basic universality of expression across all languages. I don’t support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language is entirely responsible for shaping thought. I think there’s a murkier relationship there. I do think, of course, that some languages have a greater facility of expression. It might be easier to write a poem in Zapotec about a traditional palm wine, but that’s mostly a matter of practicality. They happen to have a word for “palm wine” and every time I’m talking about it in a poem I have to say “palm wine,” which doesn’t sound very nice. In terms of reading, I love English language poetry. I think it’s the best in the world. That said, I’m not sure the best poets in the world write in English.

BH: English has a history of just being a conglomerate of languages, kind of thrown together with a thousand synonyms for every word. Is that what helps it write “the best poetry in the world”?

DS: Most languages absorb ideas, absorb words, absorb descriptive bits, even structural bits from other languages. Partially, it’s a socioeconomic thing. English is spread around the world. It was and still is a great language of empire, and [there’s a lot to be said] about that, there’s a whole political argument to be made. [That imperial history of the language has] produced art and enriched the English language. You’ve got Singaporean English (Singlish), where you incorporate Chinese grammatical markers into English and it works. It makes sense. It’s its own effective system of communication.

BH: You’re mind seems to jump around countries really easily. I know you’ve spent time in Mexico, spent time in Africa, and spent a good chunk of time in California.

DS: And I’m from Texas.

BH: That’s a whole other country.

DS: It is. It’s its own world.

BH: So how do you feel that all that movement, and all that personal experience with other countries and other areas and other kinds of peoples, writers, and writing has affected your world view?

DS: That’s a big question.

BH: Yeah, but you do seem as if you have a handle on it.

DS: I can’t say how it has affected my worldview but I know that it definitely has. All of these experiences, just in terms of basic subject matter in my work, come up again and again. I think that more than anything, and this sort of comes from my background in linguistics too, I’m sort of interested in the multiplicity of voices that surround us on a global scale but also on a much smaller scale, you know, the multiplicity of voices in Idyllwild, California. There are all sorts of people here, a radical mix of people, not just among the student body but the people in town. I was talking to someone in town this morning who buys forty pounds of peanuts each week to feed the squirrels, like an old squirrel lady, instead of an old bird lady. I guess there’s that same interest, ultimately, that I’ve been fortunate through circumstances, work and life, to get to experience and explore a lot of different places.

BH: Do you see a difference in the kind of people you’ve experienced in Idyllwild versus the kind of people you’ve met in other parts of the world?

DS: I would hesitate to say that I think specifically here there’s a great, respectful and supportive community for young artists, for the curiosity that’s required of the artist. There’s a sort of nurturing that creative people need and the freedom and the leeway that they need to experiment and explore, which is unique and admirable but certainly this isn’t the only place in the world that has that.

BH: You call it a nurturing and respectful place for young artists. How do you feel about your time personally at Idyllwild Arts?

DS: I reflect on it fondly. I haven’t been here in quite a while. I think I was last here in 2005. My time here was unusual. I was only here one year. It was a strange year for me but … I think a lot of my lifelong friendships, at this point in my life, were made here at Idyllwild. On my street in L.A. there are four alums and we all still dialogue about our art, about what we’re doing and it’s been neat to see everyone come into their own as artists post-Idyllwild, and not everyone has become an artist by profession but you can see the artistic growth in all the people I met at Idyllwild.

BH: How did you come to Idyllwild? What was your road to get here?

DS: It was my last year of high school and I’d been serious about writing poetry since the summer after my sophomore year of high school. I’d studied at Stanford with the Wallace Stegner fellows, with Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Matthew Dougherty, two great poets. Now Gaby’s actually in L.A. I see her all the time. But I’d been writing poetry, at that point, my junior year of high school, I was in Texas, really unhappy and I basically just begged my parents to let me come study writing. I was very much a student that wanted to be here, someone who was very invested in it. It wasn’t always easy. I feel like I did have some frustrating experiences. I felt like even coming here, I was very focused on poetry and I very much new what I wanted to do and the forced experimentation in other genres and in other things, although I now see it as very healthy and even then I recognized that as much as I might have grumbled and complained about it.

BH: It’s a difficult experience, coming here as a one year senior. I think it takes a while until the faculty are really convinced that your focus really is your focus.

DS: And rightfully so.

BH: How do you think the school has changed since you left? Do you feel any difference in the place being back here now?

DS: There’s been turnover in faculty, especially in creative writing faculty. I think you guys have a really good director [Kim Henderson], I think Katherine [Factor, the poetry teacher] is a really great poet, I really admire her work. She tells me about you students all the time, about what greats poets you are. Even having been a student here and aware of the quality of our writing, I was very impressed, especially this afternoon when we were doing our book blurbs and just talking about book reviews. It just continues to impress me, as familiar as I am with it. The biggest thing that hasn’t changed is that spirit of community and curiosity and creativity. It’s still here and I hope it will be for a long time.

BH: Do you have a favorite Idyllwild story from your time here as a student?

DS: I have a lot of good stories. I had a car. I was a boarding student but I had a secret car, because Idyllwild’s just too small, I couldn’t stay here on the weekends. So I had a car and I’d hide it in town and I’d leave. I’d go to L.A. or even all the way up to Santa Barbara, so there were a lot of good times. There’s once we almost got arrested in Hemet. We decided to come back up to the school during the day, which is a little riskier. We’d normally try to do it right at dusk so people couldn’t recognize us on the drive up the hill. So for some reason we got the idea that, to disguise ourselves, we should dress up in black face. And we got pulled over by the cops, in black face, at the train track in Hemet. And immediately we were surrounded by six cop cars and they called out on their speakers to turn the car off and put the keys on the roof. It was pretty scary. More than anything I was scared they would call the school to validate our story and then it’d come out that I had this illegal car. But it didn’t happen. We sort of talked our way of it.

BH: What were they arresting you for?

DS: Apparently that week there’d been a string of convenience store robberies in Hemet, perpetrated by men in black face. Incredible coincidence. But that’s a fond memory that took place just slightly off the hill. But more than events, I think a lot of the conversations that I had at Idyllwild still linger in my memory. And just laughing a lot, having a good time, enjoying the company of fellow writers and even our teachers.

BH: It seems like you have been able to make a fairly decent living in your art, which, you can tell from the experiences of other alumni, isn’t always the case. You can’t always make it in your art form. Whether it’s book reviewing or poetry, at least you are connected to writing.

DS: Certainly. I’ve also worked a day job in community-based development but I think I’ve always been fortunate in my ability to work and hold jobs that don’t inhibit my writing life. If anything they feed it, they teach me things, they allow me to keep curious. And tonight at the reading I’ll be reading an excerpt from an essay about dancing with the president of Burundi, and you know if I hadn’t had a day job I wouldn’t have been able to dance with the president of Burundi, so I think there are ways, as difficult as it is to sometimes admit to yourself, especially in an economically unfeasible field like poetry, there are ways to stay sane and to keep writing and to still make a living. But you’re not going to do it selling poems. I think it’s important to be realistic about that.

BH: And think outside of that straightforward path.

DS: Exactly. I think one of the biggest things I wish I had known as a student at Idyllwild is how important it is to be entrepreneurial and pursue all sorts of ideas. Most of them won’t pan out but every once in a while they do and I have silly stories, like writing my moustache wax sponsor and trading poems for haircuts, but there’s also more serious ideas. Presenting yourself as a talented poet or writer can land you a job writing copy for an ad agency, and making money for it. Just the idea that, as a writer, you’ve got to be an entrepreneur, a self-promoter, so that you can continue to do what you want to do is really important.

BH: From the work I’ve seen on your websites like Molossus and MANIFESTOH! and just going out and finding book reviewing as career path, it does seem like you have worked really hard to keep yourself in the writing business.

DS: I’m also very skeptical of the writing “business.” I avoid the writing mega-conferences. I’m somewhat repelled by the occasional, or more than occasional, provincialism of writers. While that’s great and it’s really important to support your work, I think we need to get outside of that and break the boundaries open. Why stay within any sorts of boundaries?

BH: Do you mean genre?

DS: I guess I mean more in terms of life experience. I mean don’t let being a poet or being a fiction writer limit. If anything, it should open up your life experience and possibility. It should open up your imagination not just on the page but in the way you live your life.

BH: I think for all writers, any job you get influences your work and it’s all educational.

DS: And I think it’s important to maintain that attitude.

BH: That sort of entrepreneurial spirit.

DS: Also just that the things that you’re doing that aren’t writing can feed into your writing. That they’re not necessarily contradictory.

BH: So what kind of other occupations have you had?

DS: I’ve mostly worked in community-based development, in East Central Africa and indigenous Latin America, but also in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Southern Mexico, which is also where I translate poetry, also in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa. That’s most of it. Most of my professional experience is in that development field. I’ve had other shitty jobs, of course. In college I’d evaluate graduate students from abroad, I’d evaluate their English to see if they qualified to be TA’s, which was a lot fun. But I’ve had all sorts of terrible, tiny jobs too.

BH: You had something of an unusual route through college to finally graduating from Oxford with an MFA. How did that come about?

DS: At Idyllwild I was an exemplary college applicant. I probably applied to fifteen schools, had a bunch of scholarships, and just kind of burnt out and decided to reject all of them. And I moved to Costa Rica and worked at an orphanage for about six months. But then through family and through my girlfriend at the time I wound up at the University of Oklahoma, which six months before I would have found laughable. But it turned out to be a great place. If I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have been able to intern at World Literature Today and start publishing in major literary magazines as an undergraduate, which is basically how I built up my resume for Oxford and also my early, large-scale publishing experience, beyond editing Parallax, was there. So it was a little strange, but it was great. And I think state schools are a great choice for writers. They’re so much cheaper and there’s a lot of great writers often in these regional institutions that we kind of overlook in applying to schools. Just the opportunity as an undergraduate to be conceptualizing issues of a magazine, to be in contact with Pulitzer winning writers was huge for me and it wouldn’t have happened if I had gone to a more brand name school.

BH: Since college and since graduating from Idyllwild, you’ve joined some pretty prominent literary groups like the National Book Critics Circle, you’ve been published in Oxford Magazine, involved with World Literature Today, and those are all pretty big name institutions. What would you say was your most valuable experience?

DS: I think most of my most valuable personal experiences have all come through translating. There’s a really deep bond that’s formed when you translate someone’s work and some of my sweetest and deepest friendships are with poets whose work I’ve translated. Especially people like Víctor Terán who writes in Zapotec, a poet who’s been marginalized most of his career because of his language, to be able to translate him and to make his work more widely available beyond the prejudices of the contemporary Mexican poetry community. It’s been really valuable. My friendship with Marcelo Ensema Nsang, the Guinean poet who was tortured in the 70s, is another really special friendship that’s come out of that. I think those are, if not my favorite or most meaningful literary experiences, definitely some of the most meaningful ones.

BH: You just mentioned the documentary you just made [about Marcelo Ensema Nsang].

DS: In Equatorial Guinea in West Africa. Yeah, we made that in March. Hopefully we’ll have a first cut at the end of November and then submit to festivals next year.

BH: So is that what’s up next?

DS: I guess there’s a lot of stuff up next. That’s definitely on the docket. Also, I have a new non-profit publishing house that’ll publish books in translation, from Mario Bellatin to Stalin. We’re doing Stalin’s poetry that he wrote as a teenager, translated from the Georgian, the first literary translation. Then I’ve also got a new series of manifestos that I’ve been translating. Most of them are from the 20s to the 60s, more or less, but some later, 70s and 80s. The manifesto, it’s one of the most fun literary genres there is but because it’s kind of a strange genre it’s most often translated by academics with no real sense of poetry. So that’s been a really fun project and in November, I do a really big reading in L.A. And of course I’m still trying to place my own poems. I have a new book-length translation project as well and a new book I’m working on of travel essays. So, a lot.

BH: Your story is  excellent for someone looking to someday find a way into writing professionally and I just want to thank you so much for your time.

DS: Of course.

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Life and Poetry with Chase Twichell

[box]Chase Twichell was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1950 and earned an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1976. Her books of poetry include Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2010), Dog Language (2005), The Snow Watcher (1998), The Ghost of Eden (1995), Perdido (1991), The Odds (1986), and Northern Spy (1981). She lives in Keene, New York, with her husband, the novelist Russell Banks.[/box]

What writers most inspire you? What writers do you think your work is most like?

I’m most moved by writers whose expression of the truth is as straightforward as possible (as Einstein put it, “as simple as possible but no simpler.”) There’s a big difference between language that’s complex and language that’s complicated. I have increasingly little patience for complication. Human life is crazy enough as it is! For quite a few years now I’ve been reading the ancient Chinese and Japanese poets (in no particular order): Han Shan, Du Fu, Li Po, Basho, Issa, Ryokan . . . I love the way their voices feel intimate and confiding, yet could come from any century at all. That’s immortality! I’ve learned a lot from them about how much you can leave out, and how to keep the focus outside of the self and its private dramas. As for more modern and contemporary poets, I’m a huge fan of Robinson Jeffers for his ecological prescience, Elizabeth Bishop for her imaginative daring, and early Merwin, particularly The Lice and The Carrier of Ladders for lessons on how to write absolutely clearly.

No matter how much or how little autobiographical your poetry really is, your collection Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been reads like an autobiography at some points. How do you describe your work to friends or family who know the part your life that you have written about? Do you ever feel the need to explain yourself or your work to them?

Many people assume that the voice in poems is that of the actual poet. Funny how that same assumption is rarely made when it comes to novels. But poems are fictions too, and often get at their crucial truths by making things up. Lying, in other words! Although there are a few things in those poems that actually happened to me, most are either wholly or partially invented. Not in an effort to camouflage anything, but because there were better images, more direct paths to the mysteries I was exploring. Poetry is, after all, a form of exploring. We don’t write because “we have something to say” but rather to find out what it is we have to say. My mother once got quite upset about something she read in my poems. She said she’d had no idea I’d gone through X, Y, and Z. I said, But Mom, I make it all up! And she responded, O, I’m so relieved!

Have you ever written in another genre besides poetry? If not, what you imagine your fiction or dramatic writing would be like?

I tried to write stories in college. It was hopeless. My teacher said I began each one in the middle and ended it in the middle of the next story. He was completely flummoxed. My mind just doesn’t see the world as narrative, I guess.

With inspirational art teachers in your past and many years teaching experience yourself, what do you think is the role of teachers in a young person’s artistic development? What is your educational philosophy?

I don’t think it’s possible to teach someone to write good poems. It’s certainly possible to teach people to read, to be more sensitive to language, and to pay closer attention to their own. But the making of poems involves a weird kind of insatiable curiosity that’s very inconvenient, far too inconvenient for most people to pursue beyond the fantasy of being a poet. It’s a pretty strange thing to do, if you think about it: devoting one’s life to pondering minute distinctions between this phrasing and that. But a good teacher can speed up an apprenticeship, and streamline a young poet’s reading so that they don’t waste time reinventing the wheel. A teacher can also be an early audience, a reality check, a source of encouragement, which is hard to come by.

What was your scariest moment in writing?

My scariest moment in writing is (not was) every time I think I’ll never write another line, which is often.

Your work contains many memorable phrases – “horses where the answers should have been” and many others. In your writing process, do these phrases come first and jump start the poem or do you find them in the midst of writing the poem?

Both. Sometimes a poem begins with a rhythmic phrase, or a few words locked together for reasons still mysterious to me. Sometimes a poem is born of the sheer need to say something, though I may start with exactly zero in mind. I think everyone’s different. Most often, the right words will emerge after many false starts and wrong turns, but if I’m stubborn, they eventually make themselves known to me.

How did you meet your husband?

I was teaching in the graduate program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which was about as far from my New England background as you can get and still be on the planet. I was disoriented and unhappy,  though there were many things I also loved about it. It was a great job with great people. Russell (Banks) came to town as a visiting professor, another Yankee in alien territory. So we naturally found one another. It took me the entire semester to figure out I was in love with him. We were best friends first, so it was like an old-fashioned courtship. I feel lucky to have met him that way.

Do you feel as if discovering Zen Buddhism has made any important differences in your writing?

That’s the big question! I could write a book about this (and may have to). My study of Zen has put me through the poetry meat-grinder. It has called into question just about every assumption I’ve ever had about the self, memory, and the making of art. Zen holds (this is the bouillon cube version!) that what we regard as our “self” is a fiction that we spend a lifetime building and then maintaining. The only problem is, it’s a phantom. The work of Zen is to learn to see the world (including the self) for what it really is: constant flux. If we can relax into endless change, we can let go of what we cling to in order to feel permanent. Impermanence is scary, after all! For a number of years now I’ve grappled with this alternative view of “reality” (for lack of a better word) and have fought an internal battle between believing in the truth of Buddhist insight (which seems intellectually obvious to me) and failing to be able to directly perceive it that way. The poems went through a sort of carwash during this time: only the essential, no decoration, no dust, no distracting stories! But now I find myself beginning to reassert my oldest convictions about things (which don’t contradict what Zen teaches, but put a radically different spin on it): that we are a strange and self-destructive species, that the earth was Eden, that the mind is the inventor of our reality, that we know next to nothing about our universe, and that poetry is the path I was born to walk on. When I came to consciousness, it was under my feet. Why me? Who knows? It’s just one of the things I’m stuck with, like narrow feet and a crazy love of dogs.

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