On Poetry, Buddhism, and Gardening toward Enlightenment: A Conversation with Chase Twichell
As a longtime admirer of Chase Twichell’s powerfully spare poetry that combines the wisdom of her Zen practice with her sharp perspicacity for ordinary things, I have wanted to engage in a conversation with her for years about the seamless connections she makes between her insights and her memorable expression, between her focus on immense particulars and the sublime she divines in what she calls “things as it is.” How does she make her insights look so easy when, in fact, they are so hard won—revelations that resonate with as much humor as they do profundity? I was delighted when Chase agreed to respond to several of my questions about the poems in her latest book, Things as It Is (Copper Canyon, 2018), as well as her double but complementary discipline of writing poetry and practicing Zen.
Chard deNiord: In the last poem of your most recent book, Things as It Is, you write in a poem titled “Fast Stars” that you’ll “camp here in the hinterland / just outside of Nirvana. // The deer will dig snow beds, the otters will not fish.” This heuristic campsite connotes both a metaphorical and real setting of your meditational launch pad where you both observe the natural world and create it at the same time, acknowledging very humanly that you “repeatedly forget that I’m god of this place.” As both a practitioner of Zen Buddhism and poet, how have you increasingly found poetry as the right literary vehicle for communicating Buddhist mysteries, koans, and everyday observations that resonate ironically if deceptively as both poetry and Buddhist truths?
Chase Twichell: That’s a complex question! To answer it, I have to go back twenty-five years to when I first became a Zen student. I’d always been drawn to the stripped-down language of Buddhist poetry and was intrigued by what I’d read about Zen in particular, especially the notion that enlightenment (I had no idea what that meant) was something each person has to come to alone, through direct experience, like writing a poem. What has most surprised me over the years is how the experience of practicing zazen (seated meditation) explicates poetry, and not the other way around. It has also caused big trouble.
That’s probably why so many people think poetry is “difficult”—it asks us to use a part of the mind, clearly alive and well in children, that atrophies if not nurtured.
Take metaphor, for example, which is of course part of the bedrock of Western poetry. We place great value on the ability to see one thing in terms of another. That imaginative leap, which happens outside of (or in spite of) the literal mind, allows a kind of perception we tend to overlook or ignore in daily life. We’re more at home with the logical, literal kind of language that explains things and doesn’t ask us to venture out onto the thin ice of what can’t be paraphrased. That’s probably why so many people think poetry is “difficult”—it asks us to use a part of the mind, clearly alive and well in children, that atrophies if not nurtured. Zen asks us to see things directly, as they are, without associational baggage or comparison to other things. Doesn’t that make metaphor an obstacle to clear-seeing? Take these lines by John Clare:
The haughty thistle o’er all dangers towers,
In every place the very wasp of flowers.
The metaphor isolates what two otherwise unlike things have in common: the sting of both thistle and wasp. But looked at through a Zen lens, the pleasure of perceiving that likeness is suspect because it distracts us from seeing either the flower or the insect exactly as it is. It creates a sort of insect-flower hybrid, which actually takes our attention away from the thusness of each. Compare Clare’s lines to Basho’s famous haiku, which has been translated ten thousand different ways, but here’s the gist:
frog jumps in
No metaphor. No space for associational attachments. Just the setting and an action that produces a sound. For years I’ve worked to reconcile the two ways of perceiving the world in poems, and I must say that Zen has taught me more about poetry than poetry has taught me about Zen.
deNiord: You waited eight years after publishing Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New and Selected Poems to write Things as It Is. In a poem titled “How Zen Ruins Poets,” you write:
Then a question arose in me:
What language does the mind
speak before thinking,
before thinking gives birth to words?
I tried to write without embellishment,
to tell no lies while keeping death in mind.
To write what was still unthought about.
Stripped to their thinnest selves
words turn transparent, to windows
through which sometimes I glimpse
what’s just beyond them.
There, a tiny flash—did you see it?
There it is again!
These lines remind me of the same transcendent clarity in transparency that Philip Larkin captures in the last lines of his famous poem “High Windows”:
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
But there is actually something your reader sees in your poem—something that even reappears, if even briefly. Is that something “the things as it is” and if so, how difficult, if you don’t mind me asking, was it to find new “words stripped to their thinnest selves” for your last book?
Twichell: Well, thank you for the comparison to Larkin, whose poems I love. I hope that the reader gets a glimpse of “things as it is” (which, by the way, is a phrase Shunryu Suzuki used to point at the interconnectedness of all things as well as to remind us to direct our attention toward what’s right in front of us). When I write a poem, I try to banish anything that obscures a clear view of “things as it is,” thus giving a reader access to it, too.
Much of those eight years between books was spent pondering the notion of transparency of language, which meant banishing anything that caused friction, or obfuscation, or anything else that interfered with the reader’s direct encounter with the poem. That would include words that are essentially decorative, for example a metaphor that’s clever or seductive but that doesn’t point us directly toward the poem’s destination, whatever it turns out to be.
Working in this way resulted in very skinny poems, almost skeletons. I came to see poetry as another way of working toward enlightenment, which, as I understand it, is an ongoing effort without a point of destination. It’s a way of being in the world, of seeking to deepen our understanding of what it means to have human consciousness.
I came to see poetry as another way of working toward enlightenment. It’s a way of being in the world.
deNiord: You exercise remarkably close observation of “things” in your poems, divining surprising meanings and ideas in them. This is especially true of your poems in Things as It Is. Whether you’re writing about your father’s projector, your mother’s “playthings,” “a strange little animal,” or “falling leaves,” you examine your subjects with the implicit belief that there are indeed “no ideas but in things,” as William Carlos Williams so famously maintained.
You divine ontological significance in “things” as more than mere subject matter but as touchstones for personal discoveries that cross over also to your reader. The poet Francis Ponge wrote that objects “yearn to express themselves, and they mutely await the coming of the word so that they may reveal the hidden depths of their being.”
Do you know when this transactional awareness about things as “loaded” subject matter struck you as a natural dénouement of your earlier writing, much of which is wonderfully sensual, particularly your poems in Perdido, and your more recent poems that focus so incisively on “things”?
Twichell: Dogen (Japanese, ca. 13th century) said, If you want to see things just as they are, then you yourself must practice just as you are. That would include, if I understand him correctly, keeping oneself aware of the human inclination to project our minds onto the screens of the world. As one sutra says, This very moment arises from mind. This very moment is not separate from mind. Ponge, on the other hand, is interested less in the relationship between things and mind, and more in the relationship between things and language. It’s words he claims will reveal the secret lives of things. These views are of course directly opposed, which creates an interesting quandary for a poet. I grew up believing that language was the most direct conduit to the mysteries—love and death (the parents of everything). Poetry opened to me a realm in which words could pick the locks of the literal and go absolutely anywhere, and its most powerful vehicle was metaphor.
Poetry opened to me a realm in which words could pick the locks of the literal and go absolutely anywhere, and its most powerful vehicle was metaphor.
To make a bouillon cube out of a long story: in midlife I became interested in Zen Buddhism, visited a monastery out of curiosity, and have been returning to it ever since. For twenty-five years I’ve been trying to resolve the ontological conflict between seeing things just as they are, without adornment or human spin, and the profoundly seductive power of language to open windows into a kind of consciousness rich in association and music and memory. The poems I’m working on now wrestle with this. It’s an ongoing inquiry. I no longer make a distinction between practice and poetry. Whatever I’m doing has become practice. Poetry is practice. For me, it’s the most rigorous part.
As a postscript, I should add that as a kid I endowed most objects with emotional lives. It seemed to me perfectly obvious that they were, or at least might be, sentient.
deNiord: I was talking to my friend Bruce Smith the other day about Buddhism and poetry and told him I was interviewing you. I asked him what question he would ask you about zazen and poetry, and he responded: “How would you say your practice of Buddhism translates specifically into your art, the question is one of the idea of tensions or opposites or the Blake-like energies of 'without contraries, no progression.’” How do you progress if you work to eliminate duality, contraries? Or is this a naïve and wrongheaded assumption about Buddhism?
Twichell: Good question. For me, the apparently infinite tensions, contraries, and opposites in the world are all fuel for the fire of poems. They don’t disappear, and I certainly don’t banish them. Rather, I’m aware of them in a different way—as duality in action, I suppose. My understanding is that duality is essentially separation. For example, I do not perceive my body and my mind as a single entity, which, according to Zen, they are. It also seems obvious that I am a creature separate from my environment. Mistake in thinking, says Zen.
In poems, that mistake in thinking appears all the time, just as it does in all of life, at least for those of us who remain unenlightened, who continue to create for ourselves very ingenious obstacles to seeing (whatever name you care to give it) the truth. Don’t poems do exactly that work? What I call the first draft is the first one with proof of life. The poem begins to talk back to me. To get to that point, I’ve already jettisoned the usual and obvious false steps and vanities, and have located the opaque spots and the holes. Then begins the harder work: figuring out how the thing works and what it’s for. Looking on the bright side, these opposites and tensions and contraries provide never-ending opportunities to fall again into delusion, which means that I must continue to practice, and that means I must continue to write poems.
deNiord: Many of your poems in Things as It Is make profound leaps in your last lines. I’m thinking of such poems as “Bermuda Sand” that ends with these lines about your mother’s toilet: After her bath and her lotions, / she’ll swipe clean the clouded mirror, / dip a tiny brush in the bottle. // She’s whitening the teeth in her skull.” Or these lines at the end of “Zazen”: “Once in a while I catch myself / undistracted even by myself. // It’s hard to explain / even in such featherweight / words as these.” You imply here that even “featherweight words,” which presumably comprise the most efficacious poetry, can’t describe the transcendence you achieve in zazen. And yet you continue to write poetry with the awareness that even the best words evanesce. This poem reminds me of lines by the Christian poet T. S. Eliot, who sounded unwittingly Buddhist at times, especially in these lines from Four Quartets: “But perhaps neither gain nor loss. / For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” What function and purpose do you feel your impetus to keep writing poetry now plays in your life?
It’s not that transcendence (still on my bucket list) is indescribable but that language can point at things in other ways.
Twichell: The poem “Zazen” plays with the inadequacy of words to describe it. It’s not that transcendence (still on my bucket list) is indescribable but that language can point at things in other ways. The thing that can’t be replicated in words, in this case a moment in which I “catch myself undistracted even by myself,” can nevertheless be singled out. Why can’t a poem consist only of bars, yet still hold something living?
I always loved those Eliot lines bemoaning the difficulty of this crazy thing poets do, and you’re right, he does sound Buddhist when he says “For us, there is only the trying.” “The path is the goal,” as Chögyam Trungpa put it. Which again is why, for me, poetry is practice.
deNiord: I also love your poem “The Eyes Behind the Eyes,” which made me think of another question for you. You end this poem with the observation that you’ve “always been plural.” Walt Whitman famously claimed that he “contained multitudes,” and Elizabeth Bishop confesses in her poem “In the Waiting Room”: “I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them. / Why should you be one, too?” This awareness of these poets’ transpersonal selves allows them to cross over to the “other” with, as you write, “one ‘consciousness that thinks’ and ‘another’ that ‘observes it thinking.’” Does your muse inspire equally in both these states of consciousness, and does self-consciousness ever interrupt your two ways of thinking that embodies what Philip Larkin described in his poem “Talking in Bed” as “a unique distance from isolation” in which it “becomes still more difficult to find / Words at once true and kind, / Or not untrue and not unkind?”
Twichell: I never read the Larkin poem in that light! He zeroes in on the very particular experience of feeling alone when not alone, then turns it inside out with the line “At this unique distance from isolation . . .” He’s not measuring the distance between himself and his beloved but between himself and solitude. Sneaky. Mean. I love the poem.
As for the eyes behind my eyes, the observer consciousness likes to eavesdrop on itself talking to itself. Self and consciousness are not two, but they’re also not one, like the foot before and the foot behind in walking. Two feet, one walking. In a poem, why can’t the voice observe the world and itself observing the world simultaneously? That seems natural to me; it replicates my experience of consciousness, which is always a play between light and shade.
In a poem, why can’t the voice observe the world and itself observing the world simultaneously?
At this point in our conversation, I’d like to say something about Zen and me. Although I’ve been a student for twenty-five years, I’m a very poor one. I’m not being coy. My formal practice is pretty undisciplined. Zazen is considered to be ground zero for the work of waking up, but I’ve always struggled with it. I’ve never had the kind of experience so many others describe, of “body and mind falling away.” I’m dutiful but seem to arrive at whatever understanding I have in other ways, mainly by following poems where they take me, which is rarely where I think I’m going. When asked about it, I used to say that I’m a poet who practices Zen, as opposed to a Zen practitioner who writes poems. Now that distinction seems meaningless to me.
deNiord: This reminds me of Robert Frost’s famous line from his poem “A Lesson for Today,” which he chose for his epitaph: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” But instead of a lover’s quarrel with the world, you seem to be saying that, as a poet, you’ve had a lover’s quarrel with Zen, which perhaps distracted you initially from your Zen practice. I wonder if you could give an example of one or two of your poems that have helped you find a kind of contrapuntal harmony between your practice and poetry?
Twichell: A lover’s quarrel with Zen, that about sums it up! For a long time poetry distracted me from practice because it argued with it. Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who brought the dharma from India to China, wrote: “If you use a trap to catch a fish, once you succeed you can forget the trap. And if you use language to find meaning, once you find it you can forget the language.” Forget the language?!?! A problem for poets. But it’s true, of course, that language, particularly the language of poetry, allows the mind to perceive things that are otherwise invisible.
But poems are not houses for “meaning.” As Archibald MacLeish put it, “A poem should not mean but be.” But be what? For me, the answer is that poetry can be a window, or a lens. I’ve become increasingly interested in how language can become transparent, how it can give us access to whatever it points to, which (one hopes) is something permanent and profound, some kind of truth about reality, by which I simply mean things as they actually are, without the interference of human judgment or interpretation. Sometimes that entails writing directly about that interference, as in “Cages for Unknown Animals”:
That’s what I build, trapping only
shadows of their mystery, in traps I abandon
since shadows also escape them.
I study the places where darkness collects—
always cageless, always camouflaged—
to see what goes there to drink.
Poems should be made of nothing
but truth and mystery, but either
truth or mystery usually escapes.
I greatly admire the old Chinese and Japanese poets’ ability to touch on profound matters with only a few words, and ordinary words at that. Here’s Robert Hass’s translation of one of my favorite Issa poems:
The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
with a radish
What “reality” does this invoke? The simple act of pointing is fused with the work at hand (harvesting radishes). The gesture itself is wordless, but we recognize it as uniquely human, and it sticks in the mind because it’s purely visual. Poetry gives us access to a world beyond our conceptual understanding.
deNiord: I love your poems about your parents and family. They’re filled with such an abundance of colorful details and images that resonate as “emotional and intellectual complexes in an instant of time,” as Ezra Pound would say. Czesław Miłosz wrote in his poem “Capri” that he hears “the “immense call of the Particular.” And so, too, do you. Your “particulars” remind me of the kind of “things” that might pop into one’s head unconsciously when one is gardening or washing the dishes. They resound with a spare verbal resonance and memorable imagery. You focus on many “particulars” throughout Things as It Is, especially a section called “Always Elsewhere.” You trust these poems to deliver surprising news that’s both personal and universal, both quotidian and ontological. In your poem “Mom’s Party,” for instance, you write, “No one left without having had / a word with Ann, silver mermaid // shawled in the last gleaming / sea of her element, / both presence and absence.” Could you talk about what inspired this spare, penetrating style, as well as the inspiration that family, and especially the “particulars” of family, played in inspiring the poems in Things as It Is?
Twichell: Ah, family. I grew up in one that looked golden from the outside but was poisonous inside. My two sisters and I never lacked for anything, but my parents carried on a permanent covert war that was psychologically brutal on the kids. I left home at fourteen (boarding school), and that was the end of childhood. Only much later in life did I reconcile with my mother and father, who finally divorced when I was forty. So I wouldn’t call family a source of inspiration. It was more like an illness. I loved both my parents, but it was tough being their kid.
As for the particulars of the world, they speak for themselves all the time if I listen. For me, this is especially true of the natural world. As a kid I identified more with animals than with humans. I guess I saw humans as dangerous and animals, trees, rocks as benign or at least neutral. They were my solace and my company. I’ve always been uncomfortable in cities; they scare me. So most of the particulars in the poems either come directly out of nature, or are in some way directly related to it, or to the loss of it. It’s the loss of it that has, for years, fueled many poems.
deNiord: It’s true. There is a deeply elegiac quality in many of your poems. Your comment that “it’s the loss of it [nature] that has, for years, fueled many poems” reminds me of the inherently elegiac quality of language itself. Robert Hass observes this so succinctly in his poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” in which he declares “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” So, your poetry is replete with compounded elegy—that which language intones by virtue of simply naming and that which expressly mourns the “loss” of nature. When you feel language has failed you in achieving poetry’s most elusive goal of approaching the unsayable, do you end up feeling more or less moved to keep writing?
Twichell: There are times when I think of giving up poetry altogether, both reading it and writing it, because it seems so flimsy in our current world, existing far outside of the average person’s life. What can a poem do about the recently discovered barrels of DDT buried in the seafloor off the coast of California? “At least 27,000” barrels, says the New York Times. The seals are plagued by cancer because of it, and of course humans eat the fish that come from there. The destruction of our world is now appearing at a cellular level, a tragedy on a scale that far exceeds my ability to express my outrage in words (or any other way).
Nevertheless, for me, writing poems is not a choice. A teacher once told me, “If you don’t have to write poems, don’t write poems.” Good advice. Too bad I can’t follow it, because although I often feel like giving up, the unwritten poems exert an internal pressure that demands to be relieved. I can only hope that they might add a tiny weight on the side of waking up to our self-inflicted predicament. So I guess the answer is that I feel both more and less moved to keep at it.
I can only hope that [my poems] might add a tiny weight on the side of waking up to our self-inflicted predicament.
deNiord: Several of your poems address the subject of loss and its concomitant consequence of complete disappearance directly, perhaps nowhere more hauntingly and economically than in your poem “Animals, Not Initials”:
A name on a stone. How soon
no one remembers the person.
Watering her flowers, Mom left
sepia footprints on the slates.
Painters of caves left handprints
the colors of charcoal, pulverized rock.
Also legs and horns outlines of lives—
antelope, bison, and bear.
Come to me, crude animals.
Tell me where you are now.
The answer to your request in your last line resonates with the most ancient human wonder and curiosity. It captures grief’s intense longing with the implicit knowledge that no response other than silence and absence can possibly reply to your request, and yet they provide no ultimately satisfying answer at all. Do you find silence, disappearance, remnants, and absence effective tropes in writing about life on this side of the void? Or perhaps more as ironic sounding boards for overhearing yourself in your grief asking impossible but ancient questions that lie at the heart of every religion?
Twichell: While I understand the impulse behind them, poems that rely on blanks, missing pieces, empty parentheses, erasures, fragments, etc. drive me crazy. They’re conceptual, and I’m not interested in concepts. Those poems do not, for me, come close to grief, let alone enact it (or anything else). Sometimes, when there are literally “no words,” language must go silent, but those moments stop because they’re at a precipice, which the poem thus exposes. I think that’s a valid reason for words to “fail” in a poem.
As for the “impossible but ancient questions that lie at the heart of any religion,” I keep asking them. What am I? A self. What’s a self? A fiction that perpetuates itself. So who writes poems? No idea. Poets tend to want answers; we want to understand the mysteries of life, to realize the truth of what it means to be human. That’s why Zen is so challenging—it throws you back entirely on your own mind. Someone once asked Shunryu Suzuki Roshi why there was so much suffering in the world. Famine, illness, war, poverty—why? His answer: “No reason.” This is one reason I’m drawn to it—there are no imaginary powers explaining things and calling the shots.
When I was teaching, I used to lobby for adding a nonliterary requirement to the curriculum. I wanted students to take a course in marine biology, or string theory, or Mandarin, or welding, or economics, or ballet, or the history of baseball. Knowledge of something other than poetry gives you another lens through which to consider it. My study of Zen has meant that poetry has also become a study of the self, not Who am I? but What am I? I don’t know what the poems’ center of gravity would have been had I chosen to immerse myself in something else entirely, though I suspect I’d have arrived at the same inquiry one way or another since I was asking the same question as a child.
deNiord: Despite the struggle you say you have experienced in trying to reconcile your poetry writing with your Zen practice, your poems never seem burdened with an emotional or intellectual weight; what a friend of mine from divinity school used to call “a serious thinking problem.” Rather, just the opposite. I find a natural humor in your poems that emanates from a self-effacing attitude which submits to mystery, doubt, and unknowing. In your poem “Road Kill,” for instance, you write: “I want to look at death // with eyes like my own baby eyes, / not yet blinded by knowledge. // I told this to my friend the monk, / and he said, ‘Want want want.’” That’s funny.
Twichell: Yeah, I think it’s funny too! A monk really did say that to me when I was expressing what I thought was a deep desire to penetrate the mysteries. It was a form of greed: to acquire understanding, which is a form of getting something I didn’t have. His three words let me see that.
I love your friend’s phrase “a serious thinking problem.” So many poems, including my own, are afflicted by thinking, which gets in the way of just seeing. The intellect is a wonderful thing; it can solve all kinds of problems, but in poems, it can act as a smoke screen; it distracts us from what would otherwise have to speak for itself.
deNiord: You have become increasingly interested in patterns lately. What is it about patterns that fascinate you, and do you find them inspiring in any way as far as your poetry?
Twichell: You saved my favorite question for last! I’ve been a sewist (that’s the current word for it) since I was fourteen and discovered a sewing machine in my school’s basement. The idea that you could take a two-dimensional object (cloth) and turn it into a three-dimensional thing that moves in concert with a body fascinated me. Also the notion that it was possible to invent clothes that had never existed before—I could dream up anything I (or someone else) wanted and bring it into being. As a result, I’ve worn some pretty weird clothes over the years.
When the pandemic hit, I decided to take some online courses in pattern drafting and alteration, and now I have a much bigger playground. I wish I’d studied these things in depth years ago. Sewing is meditative. It involves hours and hours of what some would consider tedious work. I keep a notebook nearby and jot things down as they come to me. The mind of sewing is great for gathering stray lines, bits of linguistic music, images, etc.—the raw materials of poems. It also often allows me to solve problems I’ve encountered—stuck places in poems, a word that’s not right, false logic, premature endings, etc. As I play the poem in my head, the physical rhythms of cutting, pinning, stitching, ironing seem to open my imagination to possibilities I doubt I’d come up with otherwise.
Gardening works the same way. The dirt-smeared pages often contain useful surprises. Sewing is another entry point for writing poems. I guess, if you’re a poet, everything is.