Converstation: Mark Strand
Mark Strand’s credits look like an aspiring writer’s dreamor maybe multiple dreamscome true. He is a Former Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, recipient of several Guggenheim fellowships and the McArthur fellowship. I found Strand to be open, self-effacing, funny and deeply concerned about the state of human perception. To listen to him speak is to experience how his depth is not just a function of his writing. Behind the sound of his voice, with its spontaneously acquired poise, is a stability that comes from understanding inconsistency (see: chaos theory) and its relation to the nature of being real. Strand stands alone on the literary mountains he’s climbed in full view of those who value poetry as an important and necessary art form. From the looks of things he’ll be around much longer, blowing our minds, and setting a standard in modern poetry that has no match. His latest book of poems is Man and Camel (Knopf, 2006). Michael O’Keefe
Michael O’Keefe: I’m curious if there has been any kind of influence from Zen practice or Buddhism in your work and personal philosophy?
Mark Strand: Well, not formally. I mean, the closest I’ve ever come is from reading Sufi tales. I never practiced Zen or Sufism. People have told me that I am a kind of a natural Buddhist. But I don’t know what that means.
MO: Well, it seems to me Zen is not necessarily constrained to the province of Buddhism and that neither insight nor truth are. There is a sense that I get from reading your work that you have the ability to abandon self or forget the self so that you can get into whatever it is you’re creating on the page.
MS: I think you have to forget self when you write. I call it “The Other Strand.” When writing you are in a place where all those things that seem to define life aren’t operating. It’s more or less a feeling that you are just writing. You are in the world of your writing and that’s not necessarily the world in which you live. There is an excitement that attends to being in that world that makes it all worthwhile. It’s not that you are going to show it to somebody or that it’s going to be published but just to be in it and have it there everyday to work on. That is, to enter that world again and again is kind of thrilling.
MO: I want to quote a famous Zen expression from Dogen Zenji who lived in the 13th Century. He wrote, “To study the Buddha way is to study oneself. To study oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to be enlightened by the myriad dharmas.” What he is getting at is that when you really sit down and examine yourself, the more you do the less you find, the less you find the more there is.
MS: Yeah, I said something like that in one of my early poems.
MO: Sometimes I get the sense in your work that “self” is a kind of sickness.
MO: And that this forgetting of the self is a kind of antidote.
MS: Yeah, I think so.
MO: That’s why I got into Zen. It is really a school of forgetting.
MS: Oh? Why do you need a school?
MO: I need training because my natural state, which is profound laziness, usually leads me to rely on something illusory, or I get caught up in my own egocentricity. If I commit to a practice I tend to challenge the depth of my commitment and it keeps me away from the idea that I have arrived.
MS: Nobody wants to arrive because that’s the end. One wants to have openings constantly before him so there are places to go.
MO: Do you believe that sometimes words can get in the way when you write?
MS:Words do get in the way when you have heard them used in a particular manner before. When you write all you’ve got are words but they both get in the way and serve as a salvation.
MO: Do you avoid using any kind of combinations of words that you could remember easily?
MS: Yeah, I mistrust them because it means that they existed in that way before. The idea is to use a modifier-noun combination that may never have been used before. Otherwise you may be just quoting others or quoting yourself. The excitement comes when you have done something that was unthinkable before.
MO: That brings to mind Ogden Nash who said that everything he writes has been written before. Only he does it worse and he is able to support his family by doing it.
MS: Funny guy and unique one. I don’t think it's been done before because he is his own voice.
MO: This also reminds me of a line from your poem “The Story of Our Lives.” “It was words that created divisions in the first place.”
MS: People talk to each other and they try to say what they feel. When people are not good at representing their feelings that creates an awkward situation and quite possibly anger because one or both parties feel they are being misunderstood. It’s all about words.
MO: In Zen practice we have the five skandhas, the five heaps, which make up an ego. The first one is form, and that gets down to separating between you and me. As soon as that distinction is made problems begin.
MS: Yet, if there weren’t differences it would be horrible, wouldn’t it?
MO: Yes. In Zen you can’t have unity without differences. That’s one of the things about Zen practice that's compelling to me. You are establishing and then transcending those concepts all the time.
MS: Yeah, I can see that.
MO: In your book, “The Monument,” which I read as a document for your translator in a distant future, there is a line that really captured me. “What I include of myself is unreal and distracting. Only this luminous moment has life, this instant in which we both write, this flash of the voice.” Can you speak to that “flash of voice” and how it gets on the page?
MS: When you are writing it is that flash of voice that has reality. If people read my poems after I die, which I doubt will happen, but if they do read me they won’t know me. I’m not a reality to them. It's possible they will learn something from the poem that is taken up into their life but there is no guarantee that that will happen.
MO: It seems to me that one theme in “The Monument” is about the kind of conspiracy between the author and the reader in order to make one thing happen, which is the poem.
MS: I’m really creating a space for myself in the future by addressing it. That’s what Whitman did in “Crossing The Brooklyn Ferry.” I’m both proposing myself and erasing myself at the same time. I am both dead and alive; the poem is, as you say, dedicated to my translator in the future. So, I’m dead, but I am alive in him if he translates. But I can’t be as alive as I would like to be.
MO: Is there anything that jump-started this perspective for you? Or is it that you see it as an accrued point of view?
MS: I just see it as natural.
MO: When I look at your poem “Keeping Things Whole” I see that perspective. You wrote, “In a field/ I am the absence of field./This is/ always the case./Wherever I am/I am what is missing.” I would imagine you were in your twenties when you wrote that. That’s a real Zen perspective and I think a Zen teacher would read that and say, “Very good my son. Move on to the next one.”
MS: Yeah, I was a student when I wrote that and people have mentioned that Zen connection to me and I say great, why not, it seems to be a theme in my poetry.
MO: There is another quote from Dark Harbor I want to address: It is a dreadful cry that rises up,/Hoping to be heard, that comes to you/ As you wake, so your day will be spent/ In the futile correction of a distant longing.”
MS: That dreadful cry is literally about the extermination camps in Germany. However, I wrote the poems without mentioning them directly to give it a broader application.
MO: It finishes, “And you have no choice but to follow their prompting,/ Saving something of that sound, urging the harsh syllables/Of disasters in the music.”
MS: Yeah, the task was to take a terrible thing and turn it into something beautiful. How does it end?
MO: “How do you turn pain/Into its own memorial, how do you write it down,/Turning it into itself as witnessed/Through pleasure, so it can be known, even loved/As it lives in what it could not be.”
MS: This is the problem with art, to make something terrible in a poem that can then be seen as beautiful. It’s the conversion process. The problem is how do you stay honest to the heart of the event.
MO: Moving to poetic theory, one of the pieces of yours I really enjoyed was from your book The Weather of Words entitled “Narrative Poetry.” I love the conceit of the piece being a conversation overheard by the author about narrative poetry taking place in a grocery store aisle. Then it’s picked up at home with the narrator’s sister and finally his Mom calls and they commiserate about narrative poetry and the necessity to explore the absence of narrative. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about this absent narrative.
MS: I think I make a joke of it but it’s actually a serious consideration for me because there is no beginning in an infinite universe. Therefore, a poem should neither begin nor end in such a place.
MO: What’s the result of that realization?
MS: I guess it’s to tell something about the middle. All the assumptions about narrative seem to be to academic assumptions. Narrative is simply putting one thing after another, after another, maintaining the reader’s interest. I don’t believe poems have to work that way. The poems can work under the assumption that although things follow one another in poems, they are all meant to exist at the same time. There is a dimension in poetry that is strictly spatial, in which you are not dealing with duration. You are dealing with expansion, you are dealing with a view, a vision that doesn’t really move in time, but it’s there for you to explore. Of course, exploring happens over time, but that which you explore doesn’t change. It’s there and you record it in such a way as to make the reader believe that all of your perceptions exist simultaneously.
MO: When I read “The Story of Our Lives,” I get a sense of absence of narrative in that. At the same time, it seems to me that it’s a poem that is chasing itself.
MS: That’s right. The people in that poem are finding themselves in the book they are reading about themselves. When two people are sitting on a couch, reading about themselves and they discover in the book what they are doing, it’s a kind of super passivity. It’s the book that’s alive and not them. It’s the poem that’s telling the story about them that’s alive, not them. We are the book and we are nothing else.
MS: So, they don’t exist outside the book. The book is their life. Now, that’s not a happy poem to say the least. I was going through a divorce at the time I wrote it.
MO: I have this other quote or yours I wanted to put up for discussion, which is also in that piece about narrative poetry. You wrote, “But Mom what we call narrative is simply submission to the predicate’s insufferable claims on the future; it furthers continuance, blooms into another predicate. Don’t you think that notions of closure rest on our longing for a barren predicate?”
MS: The predicate attaches itself to a verb. See? Action verbs produce movement, right? So, it has to do with the claims of the predicate. Whereas a noun or a subject is a thing so it doesn’t have to take action.
MO: I would imagine Wallace Stevens was a big influence on you
MS: Yeah, Stevens and Kafka as well.
MO: In Alone With America, Richard Howard likens your poem “The Tunnel” to Kafka’s “The Burrow.”
MS: I had not read “The Burrow” when I wrote “The Tunnel.” The narrator in “The Burrow” is driven wild by the idea that somebody may be coming to get him and he hears noises. He suffers from an excess of consciousness. In my poem, I dig a hole and come out, and I am the one who is in front of the yard at the end of the poem waiting for the me that dug the tunnel. So, there is circularity there.
MO: I was talking to the poet Jane Hirshfield recently about writing as a kind of transformative experience. She contends that if you sit down and spend 100 days trying to write the best poems you can then you are going to be somehow transformed in the process.
MS: I don’t know about that. When I’ve written a couple of poems I go back to eating the same kind of food, my friends recognize me, I listen to the same kind of music, I put on the old clothes I used to wear, and all the world knows I am exactly the same, totally unchanged. Yet, the passion of writing hasn’t become any easier for me. It’s remained as difficult as ever. The only thing I have done is added a few more poems to my opus. No, I am not sure that it is transformative; I mean it’s engaging, engrossing, and totally fascinating, but I am not sure that I am changed at all. I mean, I may be in ways that I don’t recognize, but certainly the world doesn’t see me changed. They rely on me for the same old shit they always have.
MO: Do you have any particular habits or rituals that you engage in at all when you sit down to write? Or is it more of a casual kind of thing?
MS: I’m more casual than not. I’ve always got a bunch of poems I am working on. Some aren’t very promising and I try to think of ways of planting dynamite in them, so that they shatter. Then, I can pick up the pieces and reconstitute the poem. Sometimes I get stuck on a poem for a month or two, I just have the first six lines and I can’t seem to make the jump, to edge to the conclusion. Other times the poem happens in a week, just like that. There is no predicting and if I could predict I’m sure I’d turn out a certain number of poems every year and they probably would be pretty much the same. These days I live in a general fog and my poems are little shards of light that seem to land on the page. It’s just luck, you know. I happen to be thinking of the right thing, at the right time. Let me assure you I have no great illusions about my poetry. I do it because it satisfies something in me. It’s the one thing I am addicted to. I just wouldn’t be happy if I weren’t writing because to a certain extent I define myself by what I write and by the activity of writing. When I go through these long periods not writing poetry I don’t feel properly myself. I seem to be filling in time. I seem to be a meaningless person, you know, just doing busy work.
MO: What would be a long period of not writing for you?
MS: Five years.
MO: That is a long time.
MS: During one of those dry spells I wrote a lot of journalism, stories, kids books, you know, and then, recently after Blizzard of One (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1999) I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It took me a couple of years to figure it out. I wanted to go back to writing again but it took an assignment. I had two commissions so I had to write.
MO: Is that a scary proposition to get through periods like that?
MS: Well, I don’t want to make it too big, I mean it’s not pleasant, but it’s certainly not scary. It’s a little like eating a delicious desert and seeing that it’s going to be finished soon. It's not scary that it’s coming to the end but you’d rather have it go on. I still have faith that I am going to write again. It’s just a question of energy, can I just devote that energy to sitting there over a desk beating my brains out writing poems. There are other things that I would like to do. I would like to write a little prose, I would like to oh I don’t know what I’d like to do, you know. I have no system, you know, and I don’t watch myself when I am writing. My credo is simply this: Astonishment and inevitability must come at exactly the same time. That is to say, what you write must seem very different and very right at once. As if no other possibility could exist with these two words but that they be together in this way. So, if you don’t have a good memory, better look out.
MO: Memory for what?
MS: Memory for other lines, other ways, other poems in which these words have been used.•
Michael O'Keefe is also an actor, director, and Zen Buddhist living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in BOMB magazine. For more information on his latest projects, check out his website at www.michaelokeefe.com.
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