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Hank Lazer Interview

Hank Lazer has published 15 books of poetry, most recently Portions (Lavender Ink, 2009), The New Spirit (Singing Horse, 2005), Elegies & Vacations (Salt, 2004), and Days (Lavender Ink, 2002). He edits the Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series for the University of Alabama Press. His poems and essays appear in American Poetry Review, Boston Review and Virginia Quarterly Review (which awarded him the Balch Prize in poetry). 

The New Spirit was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; Elegies & Vacations was nominated for the Forward Prize. Lazer has given readings and talks throughout the US and in China, the Canary Islands, Spain, Canada, Mexico, and France. Audio and video recordings-- including readings from Portions and an interview for Art International Radio – can be found at Lazer’s PennSound website here


For the past four years, he has been working on a handwritten shape-writing project called the Notebooks (of Being & Time). Lazer has collaborated with jazz musicians Tom Wolfe and Chris Kozak on some jazz and poetry improvisations, with outsider artist Pak on a series of poem-paintings, and with animation artist Janeann Dill on a poetry-video installation project. Currently, Lazer is working with book-artist Steve Miller and several Cuban book artists on a fine press bilingual selection from his Notebooks project.  


Lazer is Associate Provost for Academic Affairs and the Executive Director of the Creative Campus initiative at the University of Alabama. 



Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.


He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.


His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.




JS: In your essay ‘Reflections on The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry’ you note Andrew Schelling’s observation (in his book The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry) that the influence of Buddhist writing is discernible among contemporary poets in their use of (as he phrases it) 'meaningless or non-sensical […] linguistic techniques brought to bear on the poetry'. This indeterminacy you see as having some sort of spiritual dimension. You elaborate on this by quoting John D. Caputo when he says of Derrida's use of the term “deconstruction” that it 'is a certain way of putting something that is also religious, but over which the religions do not have exclusive rights or hegemonic power, a way of freeing something religious from the religions'. You then see this as applying to the American poetic lineage from Emerson through Thoreau and Whitman onwards. Do you see any parallels to this Buddhistic influence outside of American poetics?

HL: Yes, definitely.  The range of remarks that you link—Schelling's, my own, and Caputo/Derrida's—have applicability to more than American poetics. I think that at a fundamental level we are talking about ways of thinking and living that remain open, that are not so much fixated on answers as on process.  In the case of Buddhism, I suspect that it is its non-dogmatic (or non-totalizable) nature that many American poets (particularly those of an innovative or experimental affinity) have found so appealing.  A shift in attention toward process would also mean that questioning and an ongoing activity of (perpetual) interpretation would not be seen as undermining something but as in fact itself the location of an energizing and profoundly human doing and making.

JS: In your essay, ‘The People’s Poetry’ you say: ‘The more complicated and intriguing issue about the evolution of Language poetry is not its relation to the academy but rather the increasing diversity of literary production by the major figures of Language writing. It has become virtually impossible to provide any sort of coherent or axiomatic description of Language writing that adequately represents the present’. Given this, is the term “Language Poetry” still a meaningful label?

HL: Perhaps the term Language poetry remains a meaningful label but mainly as a historical marker that refers to a particular time of oppositional, community-based writing in the 1970s and 1980s.  As your question suggests, Jeffrey, I think that a present tense use of the term Language poetry does not have much specific meaning.  As I hear many younger writers use the term—as in, "that poem looks like Language poetry"—it  becomes a kind of caricatured term, a description for something that appears to be rather fragmented.  But the specifics of an oppositional activity—a poetry and poetics critical of an entrenched and limiting personally expressive rather plain-spoken voice-based poetry establishment—gets lost in most contemporary uses of the term Language poetry.

JS: In the same essay you mention the renewed interest that has arisen in innovative American poetry  for  ‘autobiographical writing, the examination of new modes of lyricism, and the re-investigation of a poetry of “spirit”’.  In each of these areas you note that, ‘poets—both those associated with Language writing and others who have taken innovative paths not particularly associated with the Language-writing communities—have established important new modes of investigation’. You mention Robert Duncan and Jerome Rothenberg and say that, ‘a closer examination of their poetry and poetics immediately places us within writing traditions that are openly mystical, romantic, and, in the case of Rothenberg, shamanic and magical—all qualities that are disturbing to most innovative contemporary poets, many of whom have developed a poetics more obviously reliant on tenets of cultural materialism and an anti-romantic metaphysics’. Do you see any signs of a future synthesis of these two poetic poles?

HL: No, I don’t exactly foresee a conclusive synthesis of these poetics poles. Rather, I see the poles as providing a productive tension.  And actually there are quite a few very interesting poets now who are quite innovative and engaged (perhaps in a skeptical or questioning or investigatory mode) with issues of spirit.  An incomplete list (as any reader’s list must be?) would include recent work by US poets Jake Berry, Lissa Wolsak, Donald Revell, Norman Finkelstein, Peter O’Leary, Fanny Howe, Harryette Mullen, Norman Fischer, Andrew Schelling, Dave Brinks, Rodger Kamenetz, Paul Naylor, John Taggart, Pam Rehm…  And then among European poets, one might begin with Edmond Jabès, or Paul Celan…  In mentioning Andrew Schelling, I am reminded of his superb anthology, The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry (2005), a wonderful place to begin to read the range of approaches (by way of Buddhism) to contemporary engagements with spirit.

The inherent romanticism or transcendental qualities of such writing will inevitably be disturbing to more materially, culturally, and historically-based experimental poets.  These tensions are hardly new.  I think that Charles Olson and Robert Duncan had a number of difficult times in the friendship over these very differences.  

While there may not (and perhaps should not) be a way to reconcile or synthesize these polarities, I think that there are modes of spiritual investigation that are sufficiently heuristic and open-ended to be completely compatible with a commitment to experimental writing.  Perhaps that linkage has been more fully explored by a range of western European philosophical writersJacques Derrida, certainly, but also Franz Rosenzeig, Emmanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger.  An absolutely superb book on this topic is Susan Handelman’s The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory.

For my own investigations, I begin to feel a confluence of mystical Jewish writing (and rabbinic interpretation/hermeneutics), Zen Buddhism, Derridean philosophy, and experimental poetrythe common thread being a deep-seated resistance to doctrine (and to certainty generally), a commitment to an ongoing process of change (in writing, in thinking, in interpreting), and an active opposition to totalizable thinking.  In my own writing, particularly in the poetry, I am after a phenomenology of spiritual experiencea writing that engages momentary experience and that embodies particular intervals of consciousness.  

For those who are interested, you might wish to look at The New Spirit (Singing Horse Press, 2005) and a lengthy essay,  ‘Returns: Innovative Poetry and Questions of 'Spirit’,Facture 2 (2001): 125–152.

Again, though, I’m not at all pressing for a synthesis of the polarities you describe, Jeffrey.  What intrigued me initially in exploring this topic is the way that many experimental writers would laud the work of predecessors (such as Duncan and Rothenberg) while in their own poetry completely avoiding any consideration of the kinds of magical or romantic and spiritual concerns that provide much energy and depth to the work of their admired predecessors.

JS: You’ve written: ‘We now view poetry through the lens of innovation—a lens ground from specifications that perhaps amount to a caricature of Language writing and may short-change what is important. Thus, profoundly innovative and idiosyncratic writing, such as the work of John Taggart, Jack Foley, Theodore Enslin, Will Alexander, Hannah Weiner, and Jake Berry, barely receives attention because it evades the principal contemporary groupings and taxonomies’. Is this caricature of Language writing the result innovation for innovation’s sake?

HL: No, not really a result of innovation for innovation’s sake. I’d point to two main forces for installing the caricature.  First, more mainstream writers (particularly the older writers entrenched in the US Creative Writing/MFA industry) who reacted (and in many cases, continue to react though more covertly) against the threat posed by poetry and poetics of early Language writing. The caricature presents a highly fragmented, intellectualized poetry accompanied by a highly theoretical poetics (and an affinity for reading theory and philosophy). The caricature suggests that all emotion and all personal expressiveness have fled the scene of Language poetry. Of course, such caricatures relied either on total ignorance of the varied terrain of Language poetry (and extremely limited or totally non-existent reading experience) or on one or two carefully selected extreme examples.  And the need to caricature came from the threat that the Language poetry critique presented to the limited and limiting poetics and the narrowly xenophobic power structures of the MFA industry.  

More recently though, Language poets themselves may have contributed if not to the caricature itself then to an equation of Language poetry with innovative (American) poetry, thus making it more difficult to locate and hear and read a range of post-Language innovative poetries. Or, by considering itself somehow to have been the last coherent experimental movement in American poetry, Language poets, in tending the history and importance of their own earlier activity, may become an impediment to innovation or an oddly authoritative source for anxiety about “nextness” or a credible innovative movement that might be built upon certain premises of Language poetry.

Perhaps my own two areas of investigationlyricism/musicality and new modes of writing “spirit”lie at the boundaries (or just beyond) of what Language poetry has staked out as “approved” topics and approaches, and may point toward areas and activities from which important new writing practices may emerge.

As for the notion of  “innovation for innovation’s sake”, I don’t see that as a sustaining activity. In other words, I just don’t believe that it occurs much at all, except as perhaps a momentary, frustrated gesture (typically by a relatively younger writer).  It’s simply not a motivation that can be sustained in one’s writing. Yes, it matters to seek out new forms, new ways of proceedingwriting as a heuristic activity, but the newness itself must have some consequence, must have some force or tension to it, must have some discomforting or engaging questioning in order to be a process that opens out onto a fruitful way of writing (for the writer and for others). The fact of its newness per se is of limited importance.

JS:  What is your idea of  “the lyric” in poetry?

HL:  My idea of the lyric is a relatively simple one, though hard to pin down in any absolute definition.  For me, “lyric” means highly attentive to the musicality of the poem. Typically, lyric also gets linked to brevity, intensity, and concentration, though of course longer poems can have their lyrical moments and passages.  I do not mean a tradition of specific address in the poemand this clarification came up years ago in correspondence with Rachel Blau DuPlessis (whose particular sense of the history of the lyric does emphasize the conventions – and the breaking of the conventionsof address).  The musicality that I have in mind does not equate to singable writing per sethat is, lyric as in lyrics is not what I mean.  

The musicality that I have in mind is not of a singular type.  Over the past ten or so years, I’ve written about many varieties of lyric and lyrical poetry.  Those efforts have included attention to the sounds and rhythms of the work of poets as varied as Charles Bernstein, Harryette Mullen, John Taggart, Theodore Enslin, bp Nichol, Nathaniel Mackey, Robert Creeley, George Oppen, and Rae Armantrout.  In each case, I guess it’s fair to say that I’m drawn to a sound that I find beautiful, compelling, and of interest.

The common denominator is an audible particularity of attention to the sounds of the words in the poeman emphasis on their sounds as sounds (rather than the words being principally the dutiful carriers of meaning). Part of why I’ve written about various poets whose work struck me as having a noteworthy musicality is that the act of writing about it, of articulating what catches one’s ear and attention, turns out to be quite difficult.  It has led me to believe that in fact we each hear somewhat differentlywhich makes it all the more important to try to articulate what we hear. That explanation, in part, serves as a means of providing other readers/listeners with the possibility of a similarly pleasurable experience of the poetryof tuning us in, of attuning us to the sound of the poem.


 copyright © Hank Lazer & Jeffrey Side