Poetry, Transmission of the Unsayable: Chase Twichell

Chase Twichell
BY Emma Dodge Hanson

CHASE TWICHELL has published seven books of poetry: Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), which won the 2011 Kingsley Tufts Award from Claremont Graduate University, Dog Language (Copper Canyon Press, 2005), The Snow Watcher (Ontario Review Press, 1998), The Ghost of Eden (Ontario Review Press, 1998), Perdido (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992), The Odds (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986), and Northern Spy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981). She is also the translator, with Tony K. Stewart, of The Lover of God by Rabindranath Tagore, and co-editor of The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach.

Her work has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Artists Foundation, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1997 she won the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America for The Snow Watcher. She was awarded a Smart Family Foundation Award in 2004 for poems published in the Yale Review. In 2010 Twichell was awarded an honorary doctorate from St. Lawrence University. After teaching for many years (Warren Wilson College, The University of Alabama, Goddard College, Hampshire College, and Princeton University), she left academia to start Ausable Press, a nonprofit publisher of poetry which was acquired by Copper Canyon Press in 2009. A student in the Mountains and Rivers Order at Zen Mountain Monastery, she lives in Upstate New York and Miami with her husband, the novelist Russell Banks.

You are originally from New Haven, Connecticut. What drew you to settle in Keene and the Adirondacks? Do you do much hiking or mountain climbing?

I went to school in New Haven until I was fourteen, but we spent summers, vacations, and many weekends in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. My father was a high school teacher, so he worked on an academic schedule. The time spent in the last significant wilderness east of the Rockies was the single most profound influence on my life and work. Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I bought a house there, and it’s been our full or half-time home ever since. I do more hiking than climbing these days but spend much of my time in the woods, which endlessly fascinate me and where I feel most at home in the world.

Do you agree with some poets that poetry concerns the subconscious and delves deeper than the conscious mind?

Each poem has to
bring back something previously unknown or unarticulated. That’s why an ‘idea’ for a poem rarely results in the kind of surprise we hope for: a discovery or sudden insight that seems to come from somewhere outside or beyond us.

Poetry lives on the frontier between the two. I think of the painter Paul Klee saying, “If I paint what I know, I bore myself. If I paint what you know, I bore you. Therefore I paint what I don’t know.” Each poem has to bring back something previously unknown or unarticulated. That’s why an “idea” for a poem rarely results in the kind of surprise we hope for: a discovery or sudden insight that seems to come from somewhere outside or beyond us. When a poet merely expresses emotion or follows logic to a conclusion, or describes something, however beautifully or dramatically or precisely, what does he learn? That’s just craft. But when a poet is willing to risk not-knowing, that’s when something might happen. I think this is what Mandelshtam meant when he said that the poem should be an event on the page.

You have stated that you are interested in writing “little poems that are acute glimpses of things.” Are there poets who write this type of intensely concise poem you admire? Could you say that this type of poem is reminiscent of haiku though without that form’s traditional constraints?

I seem to be going through a sort of minimalist phase, and for several years have been reading mostly ancient Chinese and Japanese work: Han Shan, Du Fu, Ryokan, Basho, Issa, Wang Wei, Su T’ung Po, Buson, etc. and lots of anonymous work by monks and Zen teachers. I’m less interested in them formally than I am in their delicacy of perception, head-on frontality, and lack of decoration. Because Japanese, for example, is a language in which we hear pitch and intonation rather than stress, as in English, counting syllables in English makes no sense to my ear. When there’s no stress, we hear the syllable count. When there is, we hear beats. My first introduction to short vivid takes on human consciousness was the early work of Merwin, Bly, Snyder, James Wright, some of Levertov, and Creeley. Among contemporary poets, I particularly admire Joseph Stroud for his purely American take on the qualities I mentioned above; though many of his poems are longer, they have about them a lucidity and directness that I find powerful. Also, he never shows off!

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