An Interview With Hank Lazer

(For her monthly column, Lisa Russ Spaar offers a Q&A with an innovator in both verse and career path. Then, on Tuesday, Spaar will present two new poems from Lazer.)

By Lisa Russ Spaar

Since 1977, Hank Lazer has taught English at the University of Alabama, where he has also served as assistant dean for humanities and fine arts, assistant vice president for undergraduate programs and services, associate provost for academic affairs, and director of the Creative Campus initiative. He has published 16 books of poetry and several books of essays. With Charles Bernstein, he edits the Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series for the University of Alabama Press.

Lazer set out on October 8, 2006, to fill as many notebooks as could be completed during the time it took him to read Heidegger’s Being & Time. Working by hand in what might be called a concrete mode, Lazer took two and a half years to complete the first phase of the Notebook project, which led him through 10 notebooks of varying sizes and materiality.  After completing Heidegger’s book, Lazer didn’t feel ready to abandon his “shape-writing,” and so he embarked on phase two, linked to a reading of works by Heidegger’s student Emmanuel Levinas. Lazer expects to complete the entire Notebook project this year or next. More about the Notebooks project and Lazer’s praxis in general, can be found here:

LRS:  The poems from your first book, Mouth to Mouth (1977), look like many poems being written in the 1970s—narrative, strophic, with fairly short and often enjambed lines. Yet in this early work are signs, to me, of the poet who would emerge in 1992 in INTER(IR)RUPTIONS (Generator Press) and especially in the comprehensive Doublespace: Poems 1971-1989 (Segue): experimental, innovative, intertextual, concrete, bearing, as Charles Wright would put it, some of the “cockleburs” of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. In Mouth to Mouth, for instance, a butcher’s hands are signed with blood; an ode to Denise Levertov riffs on the vowels O and U; in “Point Sur” we have numerals and signage:  “LA 300→.”   What did you read, encounter, realize, confront—aesthetically, professionally, spiritually—between 1977 and 1992 that stirred this striking shift from those early more traditionally recognizable poems into your forays into a more experimental poetics, your “lyric laboratory”?

HL: Yes, that is the odd chronology of my publishing career. After the chapbook Mouth to Mouth it took another 15 years for the next publication, and thus when my first big book of poems, Doublespace, came out in 1992, I was already 42 years old.  It’s often hard for younger writers (and ourselves as younger writers) to understand, but poetry ain’t a sprint …

As for what happened between 1977 and 1992, there was no single Hollywood moment of realization. From the very beginning of my endeavors as a poet, I’ve written both poetry and essays, and I’ve always read both poetry and essays (or philosophy—not as a student or a professional, but as an amateur—i.e., for the love of it), and I’ve always felt the two modes of writing as part of a single ongoing activity of thinking and conversing. So, I never ingested the academic separation of creative and critical writing (which was most acute in the 1970s and 1980s as M.F.A. programs were rapidly expanding and gaining in numbers and resources).

When I came to Alabama in 1977, I was stonewalled out of any involvement with the creative-writing program, and for a couple of somewhat lonely and confusing years, in terms of any kind of public existence as a poet, I was forced back onto my own resources. (In fact, I was not able to give a reading on my own campus for a period of 15 years.) I was, however, able to develop through snail mail and campus visits an important network of poet-friends. One key moment in that process: In the late 1970s, I met David Ignatow. For a year or two, I had been writing poetry that deliberately broke with what you’ve called the fairly typical writing of the 1970s—plainspoken, narrative, epiphanic. Why did I do that or feel that it was necessary?  Because that reigning self-expressive singular voice mode of writing ruled too much out. I felt that too many of the questions that interested me, too many areas of thought (and emotion) were not possible in such a mode of writing. So, I began an overtly philosophical mode of writing, exploring the abstractions that had been at the top of the DON’T list for the emerging workshop ideology. I showed these poems to David, and, like a good doctor, he gave me a prescription: Read (George) Oppen. I began to do so immediately, and to this day Oppen matters to me as much as any poet.

Perhaps it is my lack of affiliation with creative writing that made it plausible for me to explore some radically different ways of writing poetry. While at first the lack of a public platform and the lack of an institutional identity as a poet proved difficult, ultimately it freed me to take different kinds of chances and to develop my writing (and its publication) at a pace totally unrelated to job, salary, and professional advancement considerations.

Your reference to Mouth to Mouth piqued my interest, and I looked at it again.  In addition to the poems you point out, I’d note that the new directions in my writing are perhaps most foretold in the poem that begins on page 5: “in attention to sound/ is the wife to meaning/ made.  In prayer for/ the coming forth or/ that which is not yet known/ though to be hoped for/ in time.”

LRS: In an essay, “Poetry & Myth,” you write, with regard to Robert Duncan, “I recognize a general uneasiness of many contemporary innovative poets (particularly Language poets) with myth. Within current experimental poetries, Duncan, somewhat like Charles Olson, is a difficult figure. Often, contemporary innovative poetries exhibit a textualized coolness, an ironized distance instead of the intense emotional directness of Duncan’s poetry. … [T]he reception and continuation of Duncan’s writing is often accompanied by an evasion of his active emphasis on spirit, myth, emotional intensity, his affirmation of the heart and of love, and his generally romantic version of the artist/poet.” I’d like to suggest that something similar is also true of your own work, Hank. Your poems frankly address somatic ardor and appetite as well as a keen interest in “the quest” or the Way. Unless I’m mistaken, I sense a spiritual joy in your work, and in the Notebook project in particular. Can you talk about these poems as kind of spiritual “play” and/or as part of a devotional if not a religious practice or sojourning?

HL: You are absolutely right. (I describe myself as a Jewish Buddhist agnostic.)  Increasingly, my writing—again, both poetry and essays—has been devoted to an exploration of new modes of spiritual experience and expression, or, as I like to think of it, a phenomenology of spiritual experience. Thus, books like The New Spirit (poetry, 2005), Lyric and Spirit (essays, 2008), and Portions (poems, 2009, playing with the tradition of Torah-portions); in recent essays, I’ve been exploring a radical Jewish poetics. The Notebooks indeed do feel like a devotional or religious or spiritual activity.  I usually write the notebook pages in the early morning, often on weekends (as my administrative work has been full time for the past 20 years), so the thinking and the reading that go into them will often take place after my morning meditation (zazen).

For most of the pages, I have a kind of vision—a sense or seeing of what the shape of the writing will look like—though I have very little idea of what the words will be. Once I “see” the page, I begin writing. Many of the pages incorporate quotations from my reading. Thus, there is a channeling or dictation aspect to the writing (particularly since I do not write any drafts nor do I work from notes or sketches). Perhaps the notebook pages can be thought of as prayers or gestures or devotionals that seek to deepen my feel for being and time? And yes, play is part of it, including plenty of bad puns and lame jokes, as well as the somewhat childish or childlike activity of making a shape with words. I like, too, your suggestion of the page as a “sojourn,” with the root word for day, “jour,” embedded in that word.  The pages are each a day’s devotion, a way of beginning a day, of entering into and blessing that span of time and one’s jour-ney in it.

LRS: Finally, if there’s time and you’re so inclined, ask a question you’d like to answer for this interview, and then do so. With my utter thanks!

HL: What are you learning in the course of writing the Notebooks? What does this particular approach—shape-writing, handwritten pages, with a radical change of shape from page to page—make possible?

I’m learning about how intensely focusing an activity improvisation is—composition (one draft, no notes, no revision) in real time. I’m learning—rather unexpectedly—about an intriguing intersection that occurs in shape-writing, a meeting of a kind of naiveté and philosophical thinking—outsider artist amateurism (amor is the root word for amateur, a term which I do not use in a derogatory sense) colliding and colluding with high philosophy. The writing in shapes has also freed me to be more direct or flat with certain philosophical observations. I am also learning that the 20 notebooks (which involve well over 1,000 pages) will become and are becoming a source for multiple possible books.

I am also learning that this allegedly primitive technology—handwriting—has some capacities, subtleties, and complexities that cannot really be achieved in a digital environment. For example, one of the notebooks is an accordion notebook, and it is written on both sides to create a kind of Möbius strip or infinite loop. Similarly, as I read from or perform the notebook pages, the possibilities for audience participation and multi-voice creations are surprising and engaging. I have performed several notebook pages with jazz musicians, and I continue to learn from improvisatory or free jazz. I have some schemes in mind for ways of presenting the notebook pages in readings (including projection of the pages themselves, and voice layering). In ways that I had not anticipated, the poem/page becomes a launching off point for other modes of its existence. We’ll see what’s possible.

Tomorrow on Arts & Academe: Two of Lazer’s Notebook poems.

Lisa Russ Spaar, poetry editor for Arts & Academe, is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.

(Illustration by A&A derived from a video still and a detail of one of Hank Lazer’s Notebook poems)

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