Language and emptiness: John Wright interviews Norman Fischer

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 L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 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 L=A=N=G=U= A=G=E 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 L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. You were saying that you see a
conjunction between what you've been doing as a Buddhist poet and what some
of these L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 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 L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 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 LA=N=G=U=A=G=E 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 L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets.

NF: A lot of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. But I think a lot of the
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 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 L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets that
I know, at least from out here, are very interested in meditation. I have
strong friendships with maybe a dozen L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 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.

JW: How did you get to know these poets?

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 L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 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

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 L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 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

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.

John Wright, "Language and emptiness: An interview with Norman Fischer," Chicago Review, Vol. 39 No. 3-4 (1993), pp.67-73.