A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Norman Fischer has been publishing poetry since 1979. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a masters from the Graduate Theological Union at the University of California at Berkeley. Norman has been a Zen Buddhist priest for nearly 30 years, serving as abbot for the San Francisco Zen Center from 1995-2000. Founder and teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation, he is one of the most highly respected Zen teachers in America, regularly leading Zen Buddhist retreats and events.
Norman is loosely associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets of the seventies and eighties, and maintains close creative and personal relationships with many writers from that movement. He spent five years living at Tassajara Zen Monastery in monastic Buddhist practice where poets Jane Hirshfield and Phillip Whalen were fellow students. He enjoyed a particularly close relationship to Phillip Whalen whom Norman describes in the dedication of his book Slowly But Dearly as a fellow “poet, Zen priest, teacher, friend.” Norman is Philip Whalen’s literary executor.
Norman frequently leads conferences that integrate Buddhist contemplative practices in business, law, for caregivers of the dying, software engineers, Jewish meditators and conflict resolution specialists. More recently, he worked for the US Army teaching mindfulness practices to chaplains and was one of the creators of the course on mindfulness, Search Inside Yourself, taught at Google in their innovative program for employees. He periodically leads creative writing workshops and gives poetry readings. He has taught at Harvard, Yale, Brown and Stanford universities and recently gave the baccalaureate address at Stanford University.
As is the case with most engaged writers who have published much over many years, Norman’s work has changed over time and defies easy definitions. He rejects the idea of his poetry as an expression or confession emanating from a unified and knowing self. “There’s no self or person, just what arises...writing is words, how they sound, how they look lying on the page.” Norman’s poetry traces a consciousness well aware, albeit often enough puzzled, by the ever changing conditions of self/ other/ environment/ language. His writing reminds us of the idea that language is at once an avenue of imprisonment and liberation, and we may never be altogether certain which. There is a consistent mood of uncertainty, wonder and playfulness to his work, a heuristic quality as noted in his poem “I’ve Changed”: “This word/ I wanted to fondle / That I threw out into the world / That never had a meaning or referent / Except to stand for all I do not know and fear / Now I can feel what it wanted to tell me.”
In the introduction to his collection I Was Blown Back, Norman writes of feeling for a long time that his poetry and religious practice were quite separate, but how after a while he noticed that he was unintentionally writing about intimate religious experience. Perhaps it is the religious influence that accounts for the great warmth, even kindness of tone, within a body of writing that never disavows sharp intelligence, inquiry and direct critique. As one of the most prominent voices in Zen Buddhism today, as well as a theoretically informed and accomplished poet in contemporary letters, Norman’s work offers a rich terrain for investigation into the meeting of post-post-modern and Buddhist/religious poetics.
Norman has published seventeen books of poetry and six books on Zen. His poetry has been anthologized in The Wisdom Anthology of North American Poetry, Basta Azzez enough, and many literary magazines including Jacket, Talisman, Facture, Tin Fish, Periodics, Mag City, Your Stuff, Bezoar, Rocky Ledge, Hills, Raddle Moon, Nocturnes(Re)view, Bombay Gin, Gallery Works, Antenym, and Crayon, among others. He was a primary contributor to Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict, edited by Patrick Henry (Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, 2001).
In addition, Norman frequently publishes essays in Buddhadharma, Tricycle and Shambala Sun. His essays have appeared in such notable collections as Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture (University of Alabama Press, 2010) and are frequently included in Best Buddhist Writing (Shambala).
Norman is the father of grown twin sons and has three grandchildren. His son Noah is a well-respected conceptual artist and political activist whose painting “Glam not War ” provides the cover image for Norman’s collection I Was Blown Back. His son Aron is an attorney. Norman lives and sometimes leads retreats with his wife, Kathie, a Buddhist priest, science instructor, and expert diver. They reside in a sunny house with a vegetable garden on a cliff overlooking the Pacific in Muir Beach, California.
— Monica Heredia, Summer 2009, revised 2015
Aryanil Mukherjee, “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E POETRY - A Retrospective: An interview with Charles Bernstein (2006-2007).” KAURAB Online (n.d.).
Andrew Schelling, editor, Preface and Introduction, The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry, (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005).