Language and emptiness: An interview with Norman Fischer
by John Wright, Chicago Review
Vol. 39 No. 3-4, 1993 Pp.67-73
© by Chicago Review
In his various guises as poet, Zen priest, and Resident Teacher at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, California, Norman Fischer has been exploring the conjunctions of language and spiritual practice for over twenty years. Born in Pennsylvania, he was educated at Colgate University, the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the Graduate Theological Union, and he's been associated with many of the LANGUAGE poets on both coasts. He has lived and taught at Green Gulch Farm since 1981 and has written a number of books of poetry, including Whether or Not to Believe in Your Mind and Turn Left in Order to Go Right. This year, Chax Press and 0 Books published his new collection, Precisely the Point Being Made.
One afternoon in late August 1990, we met for lunch at Green Gulch and began discussing the relationships among language poetics, critical theory, and Buddhist thought and practice; at the poet's home the following morning we expanded upon that conversation.
John Wright: Yesterday, when we first met, you told me that your poetic practices come from writing as a Buddhist poet but that you also happen to know some of the LANGUAGE poets. You were saying that you see a conjunction between what you've been doing as a Buddhist poet and what some of these LANGUAGE people are doing in a couple of areas, and I was wondering if you could explain that a bit further.
Norman Fischer: Well, the two areas that I was talking about were, first of all, the self — the notion of what is the self in writing. And the other one was the status of the physical world in relation to the world of consciousness. And I'm a little less clear about the second one, so I don't have it down as pat. It's hard to talk about. About the first one, I was saying that in the modernist period, all the great writers of the previous generation, I think, had essentially a heroic-Romantic viewpoint, regardless of what their ideology was. They may have had a communal or tribal ideology, like Olson had, but actually, Olson was very much seeing himself as a figure in the creation of this and writing out of himself, his own consciousness as the field for all of this to be taking place in.
JW: Duncan certainly did. The Orphic voice coming through.
NF: Yes. Duncan did too, certainly. So they all, without exception, I think, had this viewpoint of the heroic self making language and tapping into the universal roots.
JW: The language behind language, perhaps, as Duncan would put it.
NF: Right. And I think that a great important theme in Buddhism, as it is in a lot of what the LANGUAGE writers have written, coming from their sources in post-structuralism and so on, has to do with a de-emphasis on the self and more of an emphasis on the language itself, as it arises from here and there. So there's quotation and borrowing and manipulation of various procedures that would tend to set up a structure that the self does not create, that's arbitrarily set up in advance, conditioning the work — that sort of thing is real strong in the language work.
JW: The field, to use Duncan's and Olson's term.
NF: The field — that's it. Their term.
JW: And so they were trying to get that sense of object-ism: the self as an object in the field.
NF: It's certainly the case that the writers in this generation are building on that. It's not as if we reject that kind of viewpoint. Because they were actually setting the groundwork for all of this. But I think, looking back on their life and their work, one would say that they didn't fully bring that to fruition.
JW: Because concurrent with that, they had a Romantic-heroic ideal.
NF: And I think, along with that, what I think is really important, actually — and nobody talks about this, but to me it's the most important thing — is that there was a feeling, a notion, an assumption underlying the work of that previous generation, which was that the work is important; never mind about your life.
JW: Which again is rather Romantic.
NF: Yes, which is ultimately Romantic. Burn your life up, and never mind about that. Sacrifice it for your work. And it just became obvious to my generation that this was no longer an option. That if you were sincere and serious about what you were doing as an artist, you couldn't go that way. So you saw that, okay, I cannot derange myself, and I cannot find a way any longer to take myself and hypostatize it on the altar of Art — I can't do that. Because not only will I ruin my life — I'm willing to ruin my life — but I also won't make any poetry that's worthwhile, because it's not the moment for that. I think we all realize that. And that's sort of the personal basis for how it is that all this theorizing came about — because we saw that we had to have a different basis for doing it. So in this sense, I think there's a great connection between these theoretical things and Buddhism. Because we're all looking for a way of establishing our lives and our art on another basis, and Buddhism offers that. And I think that pretty much every poet I know has got a real strong ethical, and we could almost say spiritual, basis out of which his or her aesthetic comes. And for many it's political.
JW: Especially for a lot of the LANGUAGE poets.
NF: A lot of the LANGUAGE poets. But I think a lot of the LANGUAGE poets — I mean, don't quote me, you know — I think a lot of them really have a spiritual basis for what they're doing, because in my dialogues with them, there's a lot of respect for the Buddhist side of what I do. At this point in my life I talk to a lot of poets. about their lives and their practice and what they're doing spiritually, even though they're not explicitly practicing Buddhism. A lot of the LANGUAGE poets that I know, at least from out here, are very interested in meditation. I have strong friendships with maybe a dozen LANGUAGE poets, people who are actually my closest friends, and the basis of our friendship is writing as a spiritual path. I don't know that they'd call it that, but that's how it seems to me.
JW: So a lot of closet meditators.
NF: Not closet. But they don't advertise it. Steve Benson, for instance, is a meditator, and comes to do these retreats with me, and Leslie Scalapino sits, and I have a close relationship with Nick Piambimo, and the basis of that relationship is how it is that we both are engaged in the job of helping people through compassionate dialogue — because he's a therapist and a social worker in the schools — and of how writing relates to that enterprise. And Alan Davies has done many years of Zen practice — you don't know about it, but he's done that — and he's serious about his life as a path, and we talk about this together.
NF: Well, just from writing, reading here and there. And I spent a year in New York '84-'85 and had a wonderful time getting to know these folks.
JW: So that's when you met a lot of these people.
NF: Yes. Barrett Watten is an old friend of mine. And who else? Kit Robinson is an old friend. Kit's started sitting now, at the Zen Center. And Lynn Hejinian and Carla Harriman and all these people are good friends of mind, and there's real strong connection there, which has to do not only with writing on a theoretical level, but our lives and our hopes and dreams together. There's a real sense of how we're in this together, for a long, long time, for the whole life through, and how can we help each other? There's a really deep sense of sharing there. And I think every single one of those people would say, in one way or another, that writing is my spiritual practice. Writing is the way that I get in touch with what's most fundamental in my life — that I don't even understand. Stuff that I'm not even aware of, and I don't even understand how I get down there. How I see what that is, and how I get in touch with myself is by writing. What I'm saying is that I think that they all have a deeply ethical and spiritual perspective. And its interesting, because LANGUAGE poets are not perceived this way. People get angry with them and see them as being aggressive and not at all this way, but I think that it's not so. I mean, these are people that I know really well, and I know their work, and I see the connection between the life and the work.
JW: It's interesting that much of what you're saying really does seem like different expressions of that notion of field we were discussing earlier.
NF: Right. I think that's a good concept — field and the position of self as being encompassed by the field.
JW: Hence the reason that you don't drink yourself under the table or accept the notion that that's separable from the work. It's not separable from the work.
NF: Exactly. Now, that was all on the first point. The other point has to do with the physical world — so-called "outside reality"— and one's inner reality. And I think that, here again, there seemed to be a big separation, in the modern period, between these two realms. One was either a Jackson Pollack going headlong into inner development and not even noticing what was going on outside or somebody like Pound who thought that, forget psychology, let's just solve the world's problems with social credit.
JW: All those epistemological dilemmas — objectivism versus the Romantic: are you being impressed upon from the outside or projecting from the inside?
NF: Exactly. Well, I think when you focus on language, this doesn't become a problem. When you focus on language, you begin to realize that it's all language; in a sense, my fear or my confusion or my joy is as much as an object in the world, to me, as a chair is. Of course, it's somewhat different — there's a difference in degree — but fundamentally, when you get right down to where language in degree — but fundamentally, when you get rid down to where language is, I am describing joy to myself — that's my experience of joy — the same way I'm describing a room to myself when I walk into it. And when you're working on the level of language, there's a great equality between inside and outside. And I think that this is something that comes very naturally out of LANGUAGE poetry. And you can imagine that this really changes around the whole furniture of what you think you're doing in poetry, and then the whole level at which you're writing is completely different, when you see this. In my work, certainly, I'm always expressing this. There's no difference between . . . one minute it's a chair or a sunset, the next minute it's a feeling arising in me; it's all different expressions of the same thing. This is just a human experience, moment after moment after moment, and there is no distinction; there's just something that's arising and passing away, and sometimes it's this and sometimes it's that. But it's not so different, you know? So anyway, those two points, I think, are areas in which Buddhism and the critical theory of the moment really dovetail. And I think that they can certainly help each other, because I think that Buddhism, as a religious system — just like any other religious system — has its own superstition and all kinds of power struggles and such. But on a deep level, as a cultural influence, as a way of contacting yourself, there's much in it that's of value. See? So, in a way, Buddhism gets changed by critical theory, in that it gets stripped away from its superstitious basis and its authoritarian basis — from a lot of the problems in the Buddhism that we inherit. So it gets purified of that. And on the other hand, the critical theory gets some practical ways of working from the tradition.
JW: I hadn't quite thought about it this way before, but you're suggesting that the insights of critical theory can be an important or useful part of the process of bringing Buddhism into America. I've been looking into the history of Buddhism in America, where the koan, so to speak, arises regarding what's cultural and what is not cultural. Which in turn leads to the question of whether there is an essence involved. And as you think about essence, you begin to wonder if you're getting into essentialism, which is of course rather problematic from the point of view of post-structuralism.
NF: But of course, that's exactly the same issue in Buddhism, right? I mean, in Buddhism, the most important thing to understand is that there is no essence. There is nothing there. Because as soon as there is an essence, there's immediately authority, attachment, power, and so on.
JW: And mis-identification.
NF: Yes, exactly. One identifies then, as "I am nothing but this essential point of Buddhism; I am a teacher, and I am so on."
JW: There you are. Reification. [Laughing.]
NF: But as prasangika-madhyamika Buddhism clearly shows, the whole teaching of prajnaparamita and shanyata is all about how there is no such essential essence. But of course, just like in critical theory, essence creeps in. Human beings want something. In Buddhism also. You have to constantly be making sure that you're not falling into the trap of thinking that you have something, that there is something to possess in the teaching.
JW: Or that what you've got is the right take on how it's not essential. Even that, right? [Laughing.]
NF: Right, exactly. Even that. That view is another form of essence. So one can't hold any fixed views, either.
JW: Now, these relationships are interesting.
NF: They're very important, I think, yes.
JW: It's dicey to make comparisons, but perhaps Gary Snyder was right when he said to me, "Well, I think these critical theorists could have a lot to learn from madhyamika emptiness philosophy."
NF: Yes. They could learn to be sweeter, and simpler, and more relaxed.