Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language, and Religion

Dec 20, 2015

Dec 20, 2015

By what narrow path is the ineffable silence of Zen cleft by the scratch of a pen? The distilled insights of forty years, Norman Fischer’s Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language, and Religion is a collection of essays by Zen master Fischer about experimental writing as a spiritual practice.
Raised in a Conservative Jewish family, Fischer embraced the twin practices of Zen Buddhism and innovative poetics in San Francisco in the early 1970s. His work includes original poetry, descriptions of Buddhist practice, translations of the Hebrew psalms, and eclectic writings on a range of topics from Homer to Heidegger to Kabbalah. Both Buddhist priest and participant in avant-garde poetry’s Language movement, Fischer has limned the fertile affinities and creative contradictions between Zen and writing, accumulating four decades of rich insights he shares in Experience.
Fischer’s work has been deeply enriched through his collaborations with leading rabbis, poets, artists, esteemed Zen Buddhist practitioners, Trappist monks, and renowned Buddhist leaders, among them the Dalai Lama. Alone and with others, he has carried on a deep and sustained investigation into the intersection of writing and consciousness as informed by meditation.
The essays in this artfully curated collection range across divers, fascinating topics such as time, the Heart Sutra, God in the Hebrew psalms, the supreme “uselessness” of art making, “late work” as a category of poetic appreciation, and the subtle and dubious notion of “religious experience.” From the theoretical to the revealingly personal, Fischer’s essays, interviews, and notes point toward a dramatic expansion of the sense of religious feeling in writing.
Readers who join Fischer on this path in Experience can discover how language is not a description of experience, but rather an experience itself: shifting, indefinite, and essential.

Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press (December 20, 2015)

Norman Fischer’s Experience is the fruit of a life’s work in Zen (and other religious practice) as well as in poetry. It is mature, syncretic, wide-ranging, and open-hearted. Fischer is able to find common ground between Judeo-Christian and Buddhist beliefs or between Zen and the writing life without eliding the differences and contradictions. When he says that, in a certain type of Zen meditation, ‘you allow the phrases to come forward to you as if they were alive,’ I (as a poet) know precisely what that means. In these essays, Fischer accomplishes it.
— Rae Armantrout, author of Versed, Just Saying, and Itself
If only I had practiced a Buddhist form of meditation during my lifetime,
then I might not need this book so badly.
If only I had been educated by Norman Fischer.
If only I understood before what I understand now,
after reading Experience.
If only I had studied Dogen.
If only I could have such calm as is provided in these pages.

If only, if only!

Now I can carry the book around with me.
And at least I can give it to young friends.
But really and truly, I wish I had had this book before.
— Fanny Howe, author of Second Childhood and The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation
It is a profound pleasure learning from Experience, Norman Fischer’s collection of writing from the last few decades. These essays, reviews, interviews, and poems range widely, but their focus is always singular: the present moment. Under Fischer’s scrutiny, that moment widens to encompass the avant-garde poetic tradition and a millennia-wide range of reading — St. Augustine, Dogen, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Paul Celan, Philip Whalen, Leslie Scalapino — and as well as a thorough grounding in the intricacies of Zen historical development. Fischer is an extraordinary poet and a deeply respected Zen religious teacher, and Experience contains a wealth of intricate, accurate teaching. But its best quality, to my mind, is its continuous demonstration of beginner’s mind: open, non-expert, vulnerable, buffeted by the storms of ordinary experience, sane.
— Bob Perelman, author of Iflife and The Future of Memory
Norman Fischer’s writing on writing inspires me to write. In the years since I first read them, the essays in this collection have led me to think and not think about writing. They’ve moved me to ponder words, language, literature, mind, emotion, experience. They’ve shown me how to live writing as my life. For better or for worse, I would not be the writer I am today without them.
— Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being
Experience is not so much criticism or polemic as it is a guide to living one’s life inside and outside of poetry, and of making that life consonant with one’s art.
— Susan M. Schultz, author of A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary Poetry and editor of The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry
Norman Fischer’s essays constitute a rare reminder that criticism should be inspiring. Reading them, I often feel the impulse to jump off the page I’m on and go to that other where where a poem is waiting for me to write it — a sign of how exciting Fischer’s prose can be. Then again, there is the reward in continually attending to Fischer’s thought, so clear, exacting, and pertinent as to bolster Wittgenstein’s assertion that the right expression for the miracle of existence is the miracle of language itself.
— Bill Berkson, author of Expect Delays and Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems
Reading Experience might be likened to sitting on a piano bench with Norman Fischer — beloved poet/sage — while listening in on his beguiling and most learned ontological array of personal abiding in the very action of insight. Told with uncommon intimacy, honesty and radical presence, here is an immensely moving and embodied richness of being probing our imputational natures, recreation and its silent spring. A prodigious work to be held close.
— Lissa Wolsak, author of Of Beings Alone: The Eigenface and Squeezed Light: Collected Poems 1994 - 2005

The University of Alabama Press is offering a nice discount on this important new book through the end of January. Visit the EXPERIENCE page at their website or call 800-621-2736, and use the offer code MCP16.

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