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Chase Twichell talks about Zen and writing poetry in the world as it actually is

No Imaginary Fences

by and Chapter16.org

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Chase Twichell applies her study of Buddhism to deliver well-chiseled, unsentimental poems that explore terrain not normally associated with Buddhist thought. Whether addressing hothouse irises, Dumpsters, or Chanel No. 5, her poems ponder questions that matter. For instance: What is the self, and why do we suffer? As a consequence, Twichell has been awarded many prestigious prizes, including the 2011 Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Award, which carries a $100,000 stipend, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Artists Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

The author of seven books of poems, Twichell is also an accomplished professor and the co-editor of the influential The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach, but she left academia to start a nonprofit poetry press, Ausable, which was later acquired by Copper Canyon Press. With her husband, the novelist Russell Banks, she divides her time between Miami and upstate New York. Twichell recently answered questions via email about seeing "things-as-it-is" and the way that concept influences not only her poetry but also her sense of what language and nature are, and what is required to quiet the rambling mind.

Much has been written about your study of Zen Buddhism and its influences on your poetry. Sometimes, as in the collection The Snow Watcher, the poems' topics focus on your apprenticeship with Zen Buddhism. But certain poetic techniques — such as your sparse language and focused pacing — also suggest a sense of meditation, or what is called zazen. How do you see the two practices as working together?

At first, zazen and the writing of poetry might seem to come from different planets, since one is language-less and the other expressive. But in fact, both are primarily concerned with the quality of attention one pays to the world. In zazen, we sit without moving and study, without judgment, what the mind does. The mind is very, very busy! It dislikes silence and stillness. It thinks, and thinking gets in the way of seeing things as they actually are, free of all of our associations and distractions. To me, writing poems requires the same kind of concentration, and the same patience, to let the noise of thinking subside.

Of course there are poets who are great intellectual adventurers, but I'm not one of them. I'm much more interested in how language can direct our attention toward what Suzuki-Roshi used to call "things-as-it-is." That is, perception so stripped of our imaginative and associative detritus that it eludes words. Isn't that a wonderful irony?

Are there ever times when you have trouble merging the two?

The practice of Zen and the practice of poetry are both, if taken seriously, ongoing and never-ending. In my experience of writing, the mind becomes a sort of scanner, always on the alert for things that might be seeds or ingredients for poems. I always carry paper and a pen. When I'm sitting zazen, though, of course I can't write anything down. I can't even follow the trail of whatever it was that struck me as possibly valuable. So the trouble isn't with merging the two — it's with temporarily turning off the poetry channel. If something really urgent is happening, like a suddenly-opening window into a stuck poem, I do sometimes (rarely) let myself "write" until I've fixed the perception solidly enough to be sure I can recall it later. Then I go back to zazen, simply observing my antic mind's ongoing and never-ending attempts to distract itself.

Many readers, when they first hear that a poet practices Zen Buddhism, will assume the poet writes primarily about nature. Your poems, however, inhabit multiple worlds — you write about nature, but also about people, memories and urban landscapes. What are some topics you are currently writing about?

Traditionally, Zen monks lived in isolated areas conducive to solitary meditation. In China and Japan, monasteries were usually situated in remote mountainous regions, so naturally the imagery reflects that. Some contemporary Zen poet-practitioners have adopted the imagery and tone of the ancient works; there's no harm in that. But I think if we're ready to fully take on what my teacher has called "the whole catastrophe," we must locate ourselves in our current place and time. It seems to me far more interesting, not to mention challenging, to see the world we live in as the "natural" world, since we're all part of the same immense ecosystem. That means no imaginary fences between nature and the trash and pollution and general despoiling we humans do. In other words, things-as-it-is, which is another name for the truth.

Last year, my husband and I bought an apartment in Miami and now spend half the year here. The other half, we're in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, about 100 miles south of Montreal. Northern sticks and urban tropics. Miami is still very alien to me: the climate, architecture, ocean and mix of people. Whites are the minority, and Spanish the predominant language. It fascinates me, but I have no genuine intimacy with it yet. People push dogs around in baby carriages, women wear 5-inch platforms, there appears to be no speed limit on the highways, and people do yoga on surfboards in the middle of the bay over which we look. Jet-skis zoom around, kayaks glide, big yachts come and go. I might as well be on Neptune. Every tide brings new garbage to the shore, bottles and Styrofoam packing peanuts, condoms, flip-flops, packing tape. All of these things have begun to appear in the poems.

To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

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