Introductions for Norman Fischer & Rae Armantrout – 3/17/10

Norman Fischer is a zen priest. He is a former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and the founder and teacher for the Everyday Zen Foundation His zen comrade and poetic daddy, Philip Whalen, compared his work to “a Baccarat crystal paperweight, a smooth clear ball of glass containing intricate designs in many brilliant colors.” A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Fischer has been associated with the Bay Area literary scene since the 1970s. Fischer has published over a dozen collections of poetry; the most recent are Slowly But Dearly (Chax Press, 2003), I Was Blown Back (Singing Horse Press, 2005) and Questions/Places/Voices/Seasons (Singing Horse press, 2009).

Norman Fisher begins the poem “Hereafter” with the line “Hereafter, or here, in the pace and in the rigor.” The poem comes early in his new book and was the line that grounded me in the book, clued me in on how to “be with the work”.  When Alan Davies reviewed I Was Blown Back he brought up pace as something that is key to Fischer’s work – “good poems can help to pace us (so that we don’t lose track of us)”. One way Fischer brings his vocation as a teacher of mindfulness to the page is by creating an environment where the distance between successive words is related to the distance between successive breaths and with acute awareness to how the reader’s eye will traverse the page. It is generous in its considerations of the human body and how we experience time, or how we can alter the way we experience ourselves. The shorter lines of the longest section of the book, “Seasons” invites endless retracings with the month of March forming its node.  There is a really great quote on Fischer’s Website that I will read in full to conclude this intro: “Meditation is when you sit down, let’s say that, and don’t do anything. Poetry is when you get up and do something. Somewhere we’ve developed the misconception that poetry is self-expression, and that meditation is going inward. Actually, poetry has nothing to do with self-expression, it is the way to be free, finally, of self-expression, to go much deeper than that. And meditation is not a form of thought or reflection, it is a looking at or an awareness of what is there, equally inside and outside, and then it doesn’t make sense anymore to mention inside or outside”. Please welcome Norman to the Poetry Project.

Rae Armantrout’s recent book, Versed (Wesleyan, 2009), was a National Book Awards finalist and just won The National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. Next Life (Wesleyan, 2007), was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of that year by The New York Times. Other recent books include Collected Prose (Singing Horse, 2007), Up to Speed (Wesleyan, 2004), The Pretext (Green Integer, 2001), and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Armantrout received an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. She is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, San Diego.

In a late 90’s interview with Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout says that she is “interested in the psychology of perception, and for me this interest is associated with the political. I keep asking what happens to the subject—the “cogito”—in a society where perceptions are commodities, already shrink-wrapped”.  Armantrout’s body of work presents a subject dignified by the eschewal of voyeuristic identification and its dark side that tempts us with power and then strips us of culture. In Versed, some of my favorite poems call attention to the agency that metaphor has to connect, yet at the same time is unable to sustain that connection. The voice in the poem “Like,” says “What’s it like / to be me.” And later, “How much of me / could be lost / while like remained?” What are the costs and pay-offs in making one more like another? Readers of Armantrout’s work will recognize how “various elements [are] hissing and spitting at each other” (RA). While the self is presented in positions of solitude and uncertainty these positions are offered to us as truly generous, generative and subversive. Please welcome Rae to the Poetry Project.