Poetry, Transmission of the Unsayable: Chase Twichell

Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been

Horses Where the Answers
Should Have Been:
New and Selected Poems

BY Chase Twichell
(Copper Canyon Press, 2010)

From the Publisher:

Publishers Weekly called Twichell ‘a major voice in contemporary poetry,’ and this long over-due retrospective supports the claim. Selected from six award-winning books, this volume collects the best of Twichell’s meditative and startling poems. A longtime student of Zen Buddhism, Twichell probes how the ‘self’ changes over time, and how the perception of self affects the history and meaning of our lives. Her poems exhibit a deep and urgent love of the natural world amidst ecological decimation, while also delving into childhood memories and the surprise and nourishment that come from radical shifts in perception, be it from the death of loved ones or spiritual epiphany.”

A Zen practitioner for many years, you’ve been quoted as saying “Zen goes where language can’t go,” which brings to mind a wonderful poem from your latest book, Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been, “How Zen Ruins Poets.” Could you expand on this statement and on the poem? Is it possible to further describe how perception functions beyond language?

I’ve long been interested in the way poetry can seem to inhabit the spaces between words, how its resonance and meaning sometimes come through almost in spite of words. Poetry that doesn’t verge on the unsayable plays for stakes too low to be exciting, let alone dangerous. As I get older, I feel increasing urgency about keeping my attention on the most important things, and increasing impatience with poems that don’t yet know that we’re going to die. Zen is said to be a “mind-to-mind transmission.” The best poems are exactly that: they leap from one mind to another without stopping to explain exactly how they did it. Poetry cannot be paraphrased because it can’t be apprehended by a purely literal mind. I think this is why so many people are afraid of it, or think they dislike it. In our culture, out of necessity, we’re used to living in a mostly-literal mind, and poetry demands that we enter it with another kind of mind. I believe we all have this other mind, but that it atrophies if nothing stimulates or calls upon it on a regular basis. “How Zen Ruins Poets” attempts to sneak up on that realization.

In an earlier interview, you said “Poetry goes where prose can’t go.” Some would say that prose simply takes the longer way. What does poetry do in terms of creative expression that prose can’t?

I believe that poetry asks us to enter a mind unlike the one in which we mostly live our lives. This mind is closer to painting than it is to prose. Talking to painters is fascinating to me because I find they encounter the same kinds of problems and questions that I do in poems. Poetry lives in the connotations of words as much as it does in the denotations, whereas prose, even “poetic” prose, tends to have a more intellectually coherent and linear under-organization. Poems can go sideways and backwards, which to me is like looking at something in 3-D rather than 2-D.

Should poetry strictly stick to the truth? In other words, is it okay for a poet to fictionalize her or his work (as a fiction writer does)?

It’s odd to me that people assume that the speaker in a poem is the poet, but assume, in a story or novel, that the ‘I’ is a fictional character. That’s probably because of the common misconception that poetry is an expression of “feelings” that are “personal;” that is, specifically and identifiably individual. To me, the speaker in a poem can be a stand-in for the poet or a voice from outer space, or anything in between. The voice has to identify itself; that’s part of the work of the poem. Who’s speaking? To whom does he or she (or it) speak? Besides, how well do you trust your memory? Anyone who’s ever kept an honest journal knows that we misremember things all the time, and vividly, with certainty! So of course poets “lie.” If they don’t, they’re locked in a tiny playpen. If you have an epiphany about something while washing dishes, does the poem that explores it have to be set in a kitchen?

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