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Zazen Poetics

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Chase Twichell
  • Chase Twichell

 

As a poet, Chase Twichell tells the plain truth and tries to surprise herself. Even after publishing seven award-winning books of poetry and translation since 1981, including Dog Language, in 2005, and co-editing an influential teaching text, The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, she still likes to dissect the quirky process of making poems: “The act of using memory, intelligence, musical sense, the element of surprise—trying to ambush myself into saying something I hadn’t thought before—that’s what fascinates me.”

As founder of Ausable Press, which has quickly become one of the premier independent poetry publishers in America, Twichell’s not at all evasive about what she prefers. “I want poets that really deal with the disintegration of language and culture and environment, and who address the chaos and speed with which we’re assaulted by all kinds of media,” she says. It’s a theme she addressed in her poem “Vestibule,” from Dog Language:

What holds us back

from saying things outright?

We’ve killed the earth.

Yet we speak of other things.

Our words should cauterize

all wounds to the truth.

 

“An awful lot of published poetry is egg-heady,” the poet insists. “It’s for academics and for people who understand the fine points of various formalities, but it seems far removed from the world we actually live in. The future of literary culture in this country is pretty much dependent upon the independent literary press. If we don’t do it, who’s going to? I’m a proselytizer for poetry. I’m passionate about it.”

The public will have the chance to share that passion when Twichell and her husband, the novelist Russell Banks, read from their work on July 24 at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Their reading is part of a series of public readings the prestigious summer conference sponsors, offered by faculty members and visiting writers. The free readings, which this year include those of Francine Prose, Charles Simac, and Jamaica Kincaid, will be presented each weekday evening July 2 through 27 on the Skidmore campus.

Twichell has been reading in Saratoga, New York, and occasionally teaching there, since 1986. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a lifelong student of Zen Buddhism, she marries the techniques of sitting zazen with her poetic process. “It’s a non-judgmental, non-self-critical openness to what may come forward. That’s important when you’re trying to write poems, because there’s an internal censor that’s always saying, ‘That sucks. That’s a bad line. That’s a cliche. Why don’t you go play tennis? Go garden. Do anything but this.’”

Luckily for her readers, Twichell successfully ignores this internal censor, and continues to ambush herself.

The New York State Summer Writers Institute runs from July 2-27 on the campus of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. (518) 580-5590; www.albany.edu/writers-inst/nysswi.html.


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