Photo: ©Melissa Kwasny
The author of The Nine Senses answers The Magazine of Yoga’s Five Questions for Poets
BY THE MAGAZINE OF YOGA STAFF
Website Milkweed Editions
Doing and being
Do you have a writing ritual?
The poet Pablo Neruda said, “Everything is ceremony in the wild garden of childhood.” For me, and I imagine for many poets, everything is a writing ritual in the forests and gardens of my life.
Walking has to do with it, long walks in the mountains and dry lands of western Montana, where I live. I light braids of sweet grass every morning, a practice I learned from my Indian friends here, praying for balance with the other forms of life that want to live. I have a number of meditational and observational practices, whose aim is to initiate and strengthen my relationship with the trees, plants, animals, and rocks by facilitating an inner and outer dialectic with them.
And, of course, I read widely.
On a more mundane level, I wake early, make tea and take it back to bed with me. I write in a notebook, by hand, for two or three hours. Writing by hand connects me to my body and urges words from it that don’t seem to come unless I pick up the pen and place it on paper. I can understand the ancient appeal of calligraphy and its connection to spiritual practice.
The Syrian poet Adonis, in a book called Sufism and Surrealism, writes,
When the letter is transformed calligraphically it enters a geographical infinity: it bends and undulates, intertwines with itself and meets itself face to face, becomes circular and elongates, clothes movement in all its dimensions and stores up all the signs. From this perspective, the creator, whether [s]he is working with words, calligraphy or colour, is interested only in what [s]he sees insofar as it is a step to what [s]he does not see.
Afternoons are when I approach the computer and begin the craft.
What says no when your work isn’t right? What says yes when it is?
It’s not that it ever isn’t right. It is that it hasn’t fulfilled its promise. It hasn’t come completely into being. Head says no, not yet. Body says no. Most importantly, the ear says no. It sounds wrong.
Or there is silence. Nothing is talking to me. But the silence is crucial. Sometimes I have to keep working past the un-readiness in order to get to the ready. I try to honor the silence, live with it as part of the process. I try to cultivate what I call a faith-in-progress, not faith in progress, a faith that I am practicing, building, growing in the absolute rightness of the creative imagination.
To be patient and not strive. Most poets know that striving doesn’t work.
Choosing a way
Cartographers orient by North South East and West. As a poet, what compass points do you travel by?
I recently read an article about people who, no matter if they are plunked down blindfolded in the middle of a field at night, can tell which direction they are facing. That surely would count as one more of the human senses.
My compass points are seasonal: gardening in summer, wood-getting in the fall, the ebb and flow of light in the canyon where I live, how high the creek is, what is its sound, when the chokecherries are ripened by frost and worth picking, what birds are at the feeder.
I had an Ojibway friend, now deceased, named Eddie Barbeau, who taught me some of his traditional crafts and skills. He was always saying it was time for this and time for that—time to cut the red willow for the backrests, time to pick the service berries, time to learn to tan a hide. I would procrastinate, which I love to do, and two days later, the berries would be gone or the red willow too filled with sap or the weather too hot and windy and the hide would dry out.
I try to make lists every day of what I’ve seen or heard or smelled. They form a matrix within which I try to read both my work and my life.
As the Islamic scholar, Henry Corbin, says, “The world of dreams and what we commonly call the waking world are equally in need of hermeneutics.”
Who is the public figure, infamous character or personal acquaintance to whom you would most like to give a book of poetry? What poet or book? Why?
But could we, by some magical directive, make them read it, to take it (marvelous phrase) to heart?
My first thought is to give some of the most hate-mongering figures something to soften their hearts and elevate their spirits. So, I think of giving poetry to Dick Cheney or Karl Rove, who both recently reiterated their stance that torture is justified. I would give them a copy of the anthology that M.L. Smoker and I edited, entitled I Go To the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights, have them read Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Surge” with its challenge and promise:
There’s always that / one naked soul / who’ll stand up, shuffle his feet a little, & then look the auspicious, / would-be gods / in the eyes, & say, Enough! I won’t give another good guess or black / thumbnail / to this mad dream of yours.
Or Li Young Lee warning,
If your name suggests a country where bells / might have been used for entertainment / or to announce the entrances and exits of the seasons / or the birthdays of gods and demons, / it’s probably best to dress in plain clothes / when you arrive in the United States, / and try not to talk too loud.
On the other hand, I would like to give poetry to everyone.
Honoring and gratitude
You are awarding The Magazine of Yoga Cultural Currency Award to your choice of an artist – any artist, not necessarily a poet – who is bringing the conversation forward in some way. That may be by enlarging the audience (i.e. translating a writer whom we’ve not had access to), enlarging what can be considered in artistic practice (new forms, new collaborations) or evolving their art in a way that moves you/ instigates a progression you feel is important.
There are so many people who are forces for good–bringing forward the conversation about art, as you say, but also using art to help us lead better lives—but because I am a poet and poets so rarely get credit for this, I would give it to the poet C.D. Wright.
Although I love her formal experimentation, which began in Deep Step Come Shining—she is a master collagist, juxtaposing dialogue, image, literary, historical and pop culture fragment—her last two books strike out into territory I haven’t often seen people tread in America.
She crosses race lines and class lines in such a deeply humble and natural way that it makes any reluctance to do so look closed and segregated and ignorant.
Her book One Big Self is a collaboration with photographer Debra Luster, wherein they visited three prisons in the Louisiana Penitentiary System over a year and a half, taking photographs and hearing stories of those incarcerated.
Her most recent book One with Others is a tribute to her now deceased, older friend Vi but more importantly a portrait of the civil rights movement in rural Arkansas, the state where Wright is from.
What I love about her work is that she is not afraid to address issues whose potential for artistic misstep is great, whether that be fear of pedantry or failure of nerve, and that she believes poetry is a place for this, and hence, for healing.
Website Poets.Org bio of C. D. Wright
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.