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. Author of Opposing Poetries (Northwestern, criticism), his poems & 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. In 2008, Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays, 1996-2008 was published by Omnidawn. Lazer has given readings and talks throughout the US and in China, the Canary Islands, Spain, Canada, and France. Audio and video recordings – including readings from the new book Portions and an interview for Art International Radio – can be found at Lazer’s PennSound website: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Lazer.html.
Lazer’s poems and essays have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Serbian, and Chinese. His poetry has been reviewed and written about by a wide range of poets and critics including Donald Revell, Rachel Back, Marjorie Perloff, Romana Huk, Norman Fischer, Elizabeth Robinson, and Cynthia Hogue. Over the past few years, Lazer has collaborated with jazz musicians Tom Wolfe and Chris Kozak on some jazz & poetry improvisations and with outsider artist Pak on a series of poem-paintings. He is currently working with animation artist Janeann Dill on a poetry-video installation project.
Hank Lazer is a Professor of English at the University of Alabama where he is also an administrator serving as the Associate Provost for Academic Affairs and the Executive Director of the Creative Campus initiative.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’ve had an odd publishing history (as perhaps every poet has?). I published a fine press chapbook in 1976, when I was 26, and did not publish a first “real” book of poetry until 1992, when I published a chapbook, INTER(IR)RUPTIONS (a series of ten collage poems, photocopied, stapled; Generator Press), and a big book, Doublespace: Poems 1971-1989 (Segue; 192 pages). My response to your question really focuses on Doublespace. It did change things, or at least I thought it did. The book did receive some significant reviews, including a long review in Poetry Flash, and the book made it much easier for me to get some readings and to have a public existence as a poet.
My most recent work has an affinity with Doublespace in the sense that throughout my writing life poetry has been a heuristic process: a deliberately changing approach to how to write, what is a poem, etc. My current work – the Notebooks – is handwritten, shaped-poems, each page different from the next, each page in partnership with the dimensions of the particular notebook. I’m nearly 1,000 pages (and 15 notebooks) into the project.
As to how the writing feels different – I guess that after forty plus years of writing poetry, I’m no longer wondering whether it’s an activity that I will continue. I’m still, though, a restless writer who continues to think about other ways to approach the activity. That restlessness was fairly obvious in Doublespace – a book that opens from two different directions and has deliberately conflicting modes of writing back-to-back. Book Two of Doublespace, Made from Concentrate, consists of three radically different poem-cycles, from the collage-found Law-Poems (incorporating verbatim sections of the Alabama Legal Code) to the numbers-driven Compositions to the more lyrical Placements.
So, though the writing from my first book to my most recent is recognizably different, that restlessness, experimentation, and the need to call into question what a poem might be and how best to proceed make the first book and my most recent writing all of a piece.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
In many ways, it surprises me that I came to poetry at all. English was my weakest subject through high school. I was a somewhat avid reader, but I did not really pick up poetry until my senior year in high school. My cousin Ben, a year younger than I, had me reading Allen Ginsberg’s early work, and it did engage me. My early interests were in mathematics and the sciences, and in college I began as a math major and drifted through pre-med before ending up in English. I did not take a poetry workshop until I was about to exit college. That workshop was with Thom Gunn, and it was a wonderful experience, though, as in my first years of graduate school, my writing was pretty bad.
As for why poetry: it suits my desire for intensity (which perhaps is linked to brevity?). I’ve tried fiction on occasion, and my attention span and work habits are not suited to that genre. I do write non-fiction, if that’s a label you’ll accept for essay-writing. I’ve always experienced critical writing – essays – as overlapping and continuous with the activity of writing poetry.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
For nearly twenty-five years, I’ve been working in a process I’ve termed “serial heuristics.” (See also “Q & A Poetics,” especially pages 172-176, in Lyric & Spirit.) That is, I develop some new way to proceed – an invented rather than received form? – and work in that format for some pre-determined period (either of time or a number of poems). For example, Portions (Lavender Ink, 2009) represented work done in an invented 54-word form; I wrote in this format (exclusively) for approximately six years. Currently, I’m working on a Notebooks series that involves a radically new shape to each successive handwritten page/poem.
What often comes slowly is this transition from one writing project to the next. For example, it took me nearly 18 months to develop the form for The New Spirit. Typically, once I find a form or methodology that is engaging, the writing comes quickly. The other morning, for example, I wrote five pages/poems in the Notebooks.
First drafts thus are identical to final versions (most of the time). I write much more than will end up in any book or chapbook version of a project, so the fundamental act of revision is a “yes” or “no” that happens once I’ve begun to think more specifically of the dimensions of a book-gathering. I’m under no illusion that because I wrote it that it’s good or that the poem should be included in a magazine or book. Plenty gets said “no” to later in the process, but initially I do not want to interfere with what might be possible. Very much a composition process that is akin to improvisation. I don’t know what I’m writing until it’s written (and even then, not necessarily). I try to bring to bear all of my practice, learning, and concentration in each instance of writing.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Generally, a poem begins for me with a word or series of words that I find engaging, often simply for the sound of the words, with little sense as to where these words might lead. More recently, rather than the acoustical dimension of words as sounds, I’ve had poems begin through a kind of pre-vision of what the page will look like – the shape of the writing, the relationship of writing to the whiteness of the page – with little sense as to what the words might be. I then write the page to become the shape I’ve seen.
I’m actually doing both: writing short pieces and writing a “book,” though I have only a somewhat vague sense as to what that book will be. All of the short pieces are part of that book, part of that book’s becoming the book.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy giving readings, and they have become part of my process of asking what poetry is and what poetry might be. Particularly with the recent Notebook writings – with their varied shapes and overlapping and intersecting writings – I’ve begun to explore ways to do readings that involve honouring the shape of the poem and the possibility of multiple voices (including audience participation in the turning of the poem into an out loud thing). I’ve also worked with jazz musicians to explore ways of re-casting the poems – principally from The New Spirit and Portions – as semi-improvised jazz suites. We’ve done several such concerts/performances, and I continue to learn from these explorations.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Lots and lots. I experience poetry and theoretical concerns as one and the same. I’m always trying to find out what a poem might be, what modes of meaning-making are possible, what is our relationship to language, how might poetry be a means of embodying our various experiences of being and time, etc. I think that one of the most pressing questions today is where will poetry be located. That is, as we enter into a second Gutenberg revolution, a time when the traditional container of the book is perhaps being replaced by digital modes of containment and representation, how will poetry change and be changed?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
First, I don’t think that there is a fixed “role of the writer” – certainly not a version of what a writer should be. A writer’s range of possible roles will, to a significant extent, be determined by cultural, historical, and local conditions.
Personally, and in my own circumstances – living in Alabama, in the US, etc. – I think that as a poet I have an opportunity and an ethical imperative to explore and to advocate for non-utilitarian engagements with language. Poets have an opportunity to critique prevailing cultural assumptions and habits, including those of the various overlapping and separate poetry communities. Poetry, as an activity in a capitalist and consumer society, has the capacity to be a rare form of non-alienated labor. The poet’s role thus becomes an example of choosing work/play/labor that, for the most part, is done for its own sake. In the larger culture, the presence of such persons is a challenge and a provocation, as well as a reminder.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
For my books and essays of critical prose, I find the feedback of editors quite helpful and essential. I seek out advice and help in improving my writing of critical prose. For poetry, though, I have never wanted such input from an editor. I have a very definite sense of what I’m doing in my poems. I do seek the help of editor/publishers in the construction of the book itself – page size, layout and design (though I do select and design the covers for my books).
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
If you want to be a writer, write. If you’re having trouble writing, read. Blur the boundaries of reading and writing. If you can quit writing, do so.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’ve always experienced the two – writing poetry and critical prose – as one continuous thinking process. I think that certain academic practices – especially the rise of creative writing programs, particularly as they developed in the 1980s when many such programs staked out a position hostile to theory and so-called “abstract thought” – have led some writers to think that it is difficult or not advisable or “dangerous” to move from one to the other. I find the two activities mutually re-enforcing.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Honestly, most days I can’t count on any time to write. My administrative work during the week is fairly demanding, and it’s hard to carve out time to read/write. During the week, if I am able to write, it’s early in the morning or in the last part of evening. I am able to do more writing during the summer (when my work schedule lightens up a little bit), and on the weekends. My weekend ritual, especially on Saturday mornings, is to get up, make coffee, meditate, and begin reading and writing. Some days, I like to alternate between spells of yardwork and reading and writing.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I can sometimes get stalled between writing projects when I’ve not yet found a next way to proceed. When that happens, I continue to read, think, and I may turn more attention to writing essays. When I am in the midst of a writing project – as currently with the Notebooks – it’s somewhat rare to feel stalled.
13 - What do you really want?
If I knew, I would try to do it.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Yes, of course. I listen to a good bit of jazz. I went through several years of listening to lots of Coltrane and Monk. That listening can be seen, I hope, in Days and in The New Spirit. Yes, plenty of visual art, conceptual art, performance art, meditation, golf, swimming, walks.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
George Oppen, Gertrude Stein, John Cage, John Coltrane, Henry David Thoreau, family, golf, meditation, Buddhist texts, Adin Steinsaltz, Jacques Derrida, Emannuel Levinas, Martin Heidegger, dogs (particularly Walt and Emmie), cats (Sonny and Ricky), snorkelling, swimming, walks, yard work, university life, etc.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go to Israel, Australia, New Zealand. Work more steadily with some jazz musicians on developing a poetry/jazz improve fusion. Work on new media hybrids for poetry.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Each of the following career paths would have been appealing: electric guitarist, medical doctor, lawyer, sports writer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
In high school, English was always my worst subject. I was more interested in math and the sciences. I think that I ended up pursuing writing, in part, to do something that others in my family had not done. My uncle was a neurosurgeon; a cousin was a theoretical physicist. I felt drawn to do something different, and in mathematics it became clear to me (during an NSF summer program at Berkeley) that the world of mathematics was sort of like the world of gunslingers. I was good, but I was not the quickest on the draw, and, at some level, I thought it didn’t make sense to enter a field where I would not be the best. Poetry seemed to offer a kind of thinking and developing that had a wonderful imprecision to it, and possibly a lifetime path in that imprecision. Writing also seemed like a realm where a range of my interests – philosophical, spiritual, family history, humor, sports – could all come into play.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Taoteching (or Daodejing) by Lao-Tzu (either translation: Red Pine’s or Thomas Meyer’s – each excellent, each quite different). Koyaanisqatsi.
20 - What are you currently working on?
The Notebooks (of Being & Time). I’ve just begun the sixteenth notebook. The Notebooks are each quite different in page size (and page texture) so that each notebook involves a new collaboration with the physical nature of the book. I’ve tried to make each new page of the project different in appearance/shape from the prior page. The other principal partnership is with an ongoing reading activity. The first ten notebooks were written in conjunction with a reading of Heidegger’s Being & Time. With Notebook #11, after having completed Heidegger’s big work, I turned to the work of Heidegger’s student, Emmanuel Levinas, beginning with Totality & Infinity, and continuing with Otherwise than Being. Ostensibly, all of the notebooks thus involve an ongoing meditation on being and time. (First Draft, Fall 2009, has photos and an essay on the Notebooks project, as does the first issue of Jelly Bucket, 2009.)
I anticipate that the Notebooks project will continue through Notebook #20, and that the raw materials of the Notebooks will lead to multiple chapbook and book publications. I am beginning to see/hear what the next writing project might be. I have some old cassette recordings of my father’s parents recounting their life in Russia and journey to the US in the early twentieth-century. I’d like to transfer these recordings, listen to them, and begin to work with a few sorts of compositions using their specific vocabulary and perhaps their actual voices for a multi-voice composition. We’ll see…