Paying Attention.

Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno Discusses His New Book of Poems, The Mussoorie-Montague Miscellany.*  

by Rob Couteau.

Rob Couteau: You’ve recently published a powerful poetry book called Mussoorie-Montague Miscellany. Tell us about its gestation, the problems you pose for yourself, and how you attempt to resolve them.

Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno: You never know what you’re doing when you’re writing poetry. In 2007, I had the tremendous good fortune to be invited to the first Mussoorie International Writer’s Festival in Mussoorie, India. I’d always been enormously intrigued by India, by its traditions, its culture, its food: just about everything. And so, it was a tremendous experience for me to be able to go there. Mussoorie’s up in the north, at the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful place. You walk outside, you look up, and your can see Nanda Devi. Everest is not far off. Mallory’s base camp was in Mussoorie.

Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno

So anyway, what are you going to do when you’re at a writer’s festival? I met so many writers I never knew existed, because we don’t get a lot of those folks over here. And suddenly I’m finding all these people that are doing this wonderful work from all these different places in the world. It was remarkably stimulating, and the place itself was pretty fantastic. There are paths that cut through the forest and go down to the town eventually, or don’t, and lots of dead ends. And so, I just wandered around. And of course, coming off of the stimulus of listening to all this wonderful language – in several languages, by the way – just kind of got me going.

The festival was about a week long, and then I stayed on for a while, after that. I thought, well, I’ll write some poems about this particular place, because it was fairly overwhelming. Originally, I thought I’d write a sequence that would be a record of Mussoorie itself and of that part of India. But it didn’t turn out like that.

After I returned to Montague, Massachusetts, the poems wouldn’t go away; the book wouldn’t go away; the experience wouldn’t go away. And yet, everything began to change as well, because I was no longer looking at the Himalayas. Now, I was looking at the Connecticut River. I was taking my little dog there for walks, and wandering around in this very beautiful part of the world that is Western Massachusetts. So there were a lot of the same sort of things going on, but now I was transplanted back home. My original thought was to create a “Mussoorie Notebook,” but it soon became a kind of back and forth. I was still writing poems about India, but it became a “you get taken over by where you are, and the concerns of what’s going on in your own life.” Eventually, it became “Mussoorie-Montague”: a nice alliteration. And then “Miscellany,” because I felt I was throwing all sorts of stuff in there that really didn’t have a whole lot to do with any discernable record of events in the course of a single day.

Thomas Bernhard

RC: It’s a wonderful potpourri, and I noticed many literary and spiritual traditions lingering in the background, some of which you pay homage to, or look at obliquely. One that first came to mind was that of the great Austrian novelist and poet, Thomas Bernhard. Tell me about you and Bernhard. I know he’s a writer you admire.

CSL: Bernhard is absolutely infuriating.

RC: A great adjective with which to describe him!

CSL: You read Bernhard, and you go: “Why am I spending my time doing this? I’ve spent now, the last eighty pages, walking across a room. Recording every little detail about this and that: every little thought that’s come into his head as he’s crossing that room.” And then, all of a sudden, it just works. It’s amazing. It’s about paying attention.

I absolutely adore him. I could say he’s infuriating, but I had the same reaction when I watched Fassbinder movies, back in the Sixties and Seventies. I’d watch those films and go: “Oh, my God.” But then, afterward, I never could forget them. And it took me a while to realize why I kept going back to see the newest Fassbinder film, who was, at that time in Paris, enormously popular, and so you went to see Fassbinder because it was the cool thing to do. Which is why I went initially. But then, I began to have the same kind of feeling: This man is paying attention. And Bernhard, above all, knows how to pace his language. Knows how to observe what’s going on. Knows the interconnection between what’s in front of his face, or in front of his protagonist’s face, if you will, and a whole mental set of calculations that goes on. It’s fascinating when you begin to realize what Bernhard is really up to. As a stylist, he’s remarkable, but also as an incredibly deep thinker. He’s always provoking you to go beyond what’s there in the text, what’s there in front of you at that very minute, and begin to take in a larger reality that, to me, is continually an opening. I mean, you could reread Bernhard and you would get something different each time you look at him. It’s no coincidence that he was a great fan of Wittgenstein. In fact, he even wrote a novel …

RC: Wittgenstein’s Nephew.

CSL: Exactly, yes. Because that was what Wittgenstein was doing. I mean, Bernhard understood, as Wittgenstein used to try to get across to us, that the meaning of words is best understood in the kind of a game that you play. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein talks about that whole way in which language loops back on itself. And yet, it’s always in a kind of box. You think it’s a referent to a larger reality in the world, but what’s really happening is, it’s looping back on itself. And Bernhard consistently does that in his work. And it’s really amazing.

RC: It’s fascinating that you say that, because, as a writer, he’s such a remarkable, pyromaniacal stylist; and there’s just so much going on that you could just stop there and be amazed. But your analysis takes it to a deeper level. And, just like Céline, Bernhard’s humor is so dark that you’re either overwhelmed by it or forced to laugh convulsively at it.

CSL: Yeah, right!

RC: You could almost divide the world into two types of people. One type which is so pessimistic that they’ll read Bernhard and say, “Ah, he understands,” and then get even more depressed. And the other, more euphoric perhaps, who read him and laugh. Because, as bad as life might seem to you, it’s never quite a bad as the way he describes it.

CSL: No, exactly! [Laughs] And you know, the thing you love about Bernhard is that half of his conundrums are self-made, and they’re absolutely delightful, because you finally go, “Argh!” No, he’s hilarious. And I think there are a lot of writers … I mean, Beckett is one of the funniest writers around. Bernhard is enormously humorous. Céline. And people miss that! Burroughs is another example of one of the great original humorists.

RC: A dry, Midwestern carnival-type humor.

CSL: Exactly! Burroughs has nothing to lose over those guys. It’s a different sort of humor, but it’s very much a part of the human comedy, if you will.

RC: But again, you can say that, or I can say that, because we’re both a bit more on the euphoric side of the equation. But to a really depressed nihilistic existentialist, it could possibly push him completely over the edge.

CSL: Oh, yeah; that’s true, yes. [Laughs] At the same time, it’s totally misery, spleen.

RC: How did Octavio Paz’s poem “Blanco,” with its vertical division of the page, each side playing off the other – which is a very mysterious process to enact – influence or inspire your work?

Octavio Paz

CSL: Paz has been a great hero of mine for a really long time. “Blanco” particularly means a lot to me personally. I heard him read it in Mexico City in 1968, at a really tough time in Mexican history. And the words just kind of hung out there in the air in the midst of everything going on. It was this extraordinary moment where Paz was asserting that art matters. And of course, later on, I read it in all sorts of different ways. But I’ve always been intrigued by that notion of the way the words sit on a page. I’d originally thought I would use that kind of “double vertical” with Mussoorie-Montague, but it didn’t work.

RC: It might have removed some of the free-flowing quality and made it more rigid.

CSL: Yes, it would have. What I did take away from Paz though, and from a whole lot of other writers – Mallarmé, to begin with, but Cummings certainly, Apollinaire, Michaux, Paz –  is this notion of the importance of how you lay out a word on a page: what the spacing is. Paz has this notion of garabato, which basically means a scrawl or a doodle, just translated directly. But Paz talks about language itself as a kind of garabato. And poetry as a hieroglyph. He really translates garabato … not that he translates, but, when he’s talking about it, he uses the notion of a hieroglyph. Which is essentially a sign, for Paz at least, that’s only translatable to the extent that it’s not literal. It carries its own response within itself. In “Blanco,” he’s playing with that whole notion of the glyph, which comes right out of the Mexican culture.

You know, we think of glyphs as Egyptian. Well, they are, but they’re also Mayan; they’re also Aztec. And so, he’s playing with that notion of the word sitting alone on the page. I once wrote a piece about Paz being Mallarmé’s true Spanish disciple, because I think he really is. He brings into Spanish a lot of what Mallarmé was trying to do – and did – a century before. If I remember correctly, one of the epigrams in “Blanco” is a quote by Mallarmé. I mean, he’s always aware of that sense of how language lies on the page, the sense of nothingness, the sense of white space, of absence itself having a kind of existence. It’s enormously important. So, for me, I think I took away from Paz – not just from that poem, but from a lot of them – this whole notion that, essentially, the illusory nature of reality is reality itself. Which is what Paz is always trying to get at.

And of course, Paz spent time in India, so he kind of worked himself into Mussoorie-Montague all over the place. You know, when I was writing this, I wasn’t thinking necessarily about any of these people. But they were always hanging around in my head. And so, they came popping in from time to time.

RC: I’m glad you said that, because I don’t mean to imply that these were direct inspirations to the poem.

CSL: No, but I can’t outgrow my learning, either.

RC: It’s just interesting to compare your work to other people’s work, even when there is no direct influence.

CSL: Yeah! And I’m honored to be in that company – Bernhard, Paz, et cetera! [Laughs]

RC: Another poet you pay homage to is John High and his book, Here. I see he’s one of the people that you dedicated your book to. In this collection of poems, you and John strike me as flaneurs of nature rather than flaneurs of the city. There’s also the related theme of exploration: “Better to pack your bags / and hop on the next train rattling / across the twin rails that traverse / the churning river.”

Nanda Devi

CSL: Right. I first began reading John back in 2003. His work was being published in Talisman magazine, and I liked what he was doing. Then we became acquainted over time. Here had just come out in 2006, and I got it right before I headed off to India. It was the only book I took with me. I figured, I’m going to be running into writers; I’ll have a lot to read out there, and I can always raid somebody’s bookshelf. So I just took Here. And somehow, it worked its way into my consciousness very quickly. It’s one of those great seminal pieces of work that begins to open up everything from feeling to being to language. Not too many books do that. Not too many writers are able to do that. And so, it was certainly there.

But yes, absolutely, flaneurs of nature. And it’s funny, because John lives in Brooklyn, but he does have a little garden attached to his apartment.

RC: The archetypal Brooklyn backyard.

CSL: Exactly!

RC: In many ways, I often think that us Brooklyn boys have a greater appreciation of nature, since we’re so utterly deprived of it for the first few decades of our lives.

CSL: Yes! But John is always going off to other places. And you know, before I moved to Western Massachusetts, I’d also been a city boy.

RC: In what cities?

CSL: All sorts of places. Mexico City, San Francisco, Tokyo, Boston, Cambridge. And then Paris. The great cities! [Laughs] I’d always thought of myself as a city boy. But then, in ’91, Patricia and I bought this house in Western Massachusetts. And we live overlooking the Connecticut River. It’s just extraordinary out here; it’s beautiful. After all these years of living here – twenty-four years – I still find it remarkable. Every day, when I walk down the stairs in the morning and look out the double doors at the river, it never fails to do something for me.

RC: Like a great work of art, nature is something we can continually return to, and never tire of, and always see new things.

CSL: Yes, exactly. And what’s funny is, I never particularly liked nature poetry; I was never into any of that stuff.

RC: You were a city snob!

CSL: I was! I mean, give me Baudelaire over Tennyson or Wordsworth or whatever. But all of a sudden, I find myself paying a lot of attention to nature. I still don’t think that I quite like nature poems, but I’m probably moving in that direction. By the time I’m, you know, ninety, I’ll just be writing about the way the trees look. [Laughs] But there’s also a sense of exploration. And one of the things I used to feel when I was younger … This is probably just what happens to most people as they get older: you realize that exploration can happen anywhere. I used to think I had to go somewhere exotic. And I love going to places that are exotic – I still do – to explore. But I also found that an awful lot of exploration can take place if you just look at what’s in front of you. To some extent, that whole book is really about paying attention. About looking.

RC: It reminds me of something that Albert Hofmann said in an interview in 1978. He was responding to the vast emigration in the Sixties of all the hippies to India, and Timothy Leary and so on. And Hofmann said, Why are they going all the way to India? Why aren’t they simply tending to the gardens in their own backyards?

CSL: Right. Boy, Hofmann had it.

RC: He says something like: You can hold the flower right where you’re standing, and see everything you need to see. That sort of thing.*

CSL: Particularly if you drop acid. [Laughs]

RC: Well, that’s the ultimate example of not having to move anywhere!

CSL: Right!

RC: Other literary presences that hover in your poem include Dogen and his Moon in a Dewdrop, the Upanishads, the Hindu Manusmriti, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and various Zen texts. 

CSL: I’ve been reading Zen texts for a really long time, and I guess Zen’s been a big part of helping me learn how to think. Or not think.

RC: That might be more appropriate, yes!

CSL: Dogen is difficult. For Dogen, it’s not about koans. He wasn’t a great fan of koans, actually. But he makes these statements that you have to kind of think about. And I’ve been thinking about Dogen for a long time.

RC: He felt that the practitioners were wasting so much time on koans when they should have been directly studying the sutras. He was a sutra man.

CSL: Yes, he was much more into all that. But in fact, what he presents to you, particularly in a book like Moon in a Dewdrop, is that the entire text, in a certain way, is a koan. He has this notion called Uji. It’s always been something that I rattle around against, and I don’t know what to do with it. But essentially, it’s that time itself is being, and all being is in time. I still don’t know what that means. I probably never will. But this poem is also about that. It doesn’t mean you have to know what you’re writing about to write. [Laughs]

RC: Dogen’s notion of time and being is one of the reasons that so many students of Western philosophy have been drawn to him.

CSL: Yes. Heidegger has a slightly different take on the whole thing. For Heidegger, it’s a much more rational way of looking at things. Essentially, Dasein itself, being, is for those who rest in being. He brings it into a more logical tradition; he looks at it from the Greeks. Dogen doesn’t worry about that.

I turn this stuff over every once in a while, and I think it certainly hit me when I was there. As I say at the beginning of the thing, I’m sitting on a rock, and it was all kind of happening at once. I wasn’t specifically thinking of Dogen. But the first poem I wrote in Mussoorie was the absolute first poem in the book. Which is not the way I usually work. And I just wrote it down in this little notebook:

                                              For the time



                BEING in time

      but also in place.

      Being is singular and plural

      severally and in abundance.


That was the way this book started. The rest of it is not linear. I rewrote, and culled, and winnowed, and dumped, and everything else. But that first poem in there was actually the way this book started. And it was really the experience of sitting on a rock and attempting to figure out what I was doing. And I say, somewhere close to the beginning: “Which beings me to the clearing / and the rock. / I will sit here until / just before sunset / try not to give a name to where I am.” And so, naturally, I think Dogen is there somewhere. Again, I’m not sitting there with Dogen and writing something off of it; it’s just kind of hanging around.

Let’s see: Wittgenstein. Oh, well, Wittgenstein has been important to me for about forty-five years. I read him as a young person; I read him as a student. Then I taught Wittgenstein when I was at MIT, and I never quite got it all. But Wittgenstein is also one of the great Zen masters. Well, that would kill him if he heard that. But essentially, it’s the whole relationship between language and the world that he’s concerned about. That the limits of language really are the limits of philosophy. Which is not to say the limits of thinking, because we think beyond language. And he’s always trying to figure out that conundrum of how to say the unsayable. The only way we have to express what we know in an absolute direct fashion is in writing: is in the word itself. But is that word treacherous? Probably, it is. How do we know what we’re doing?

And so, that was a part of it. You know, I was a semiotician for a long time, and spent a lot of time exploring. But I was never a doctrinaire semiotician. I came more out of the philosophical side, I guess.

RC: The philosophical-surrealistic side, I would imagine.

CSL: Yes, absolutely.

RC: Because Wittgenstein often strikes me that way. He’s so hyperintellectual that he almost transforms into a surrealist before your eyes. 

CSL: Oh, yeah, sure! And, again, the Upanishads, because in the Sixties we were all supposed to …

RC: That was a necessary book to have in the backpack.

CSL: Yes. Recently I reread them, and now they’re really striking me as pretty amazing. And the Manusmriti. When I was an undergraduate, I took a class in the philosophy of religion and read Nietzsche. And Nietzsche says somewhere, I can’t remember what book it was, I think it’s probably in Ecce Homo where he says that the Hindu Manusmriti is a much better guide to life than the Bible.

RC: Leave it to Nietzsche to slip that in.

The Manusmriti

CSL: It’s Nietzsche! So, being the young eager-beaver undergraduate, I decided: “Oh, I’ve got to read that!” [Laughs] So I remember digging the Manusmriti out in ’68, or something like that. And being sort of like: “What the hell is this? Basically, it’s a book of instructions.” And it didn’t do much for me. I thought, “Well, OK, Nietzsche gave me a bum steer.” But when I was in India, I came across a 1912 translation of it; and, for some reason, I picked it up, and I made a few notes. And this time, it hit me as a whole different type of book.

RC: Possibly because of the translation?

CSL: No, because I was older and wiser. And when I first read it, I was expecting to have Zarathustra come walking out of the book. Initially, I was approaching it with that expectation.

RC: When we read things before a certain age, if there’s not an immediate “peak experience,” we’re gone; we’re out of there, right?

CSL: [Laughs] That’s right! Yet, we never really get over those books, although we may think that they’re lousy.

RC: Of course, with the Upanishads as well, there’s a lot of tedious, very linear instruction: morality and ethics, and how to wash your feet and so on. Thus, it could be easy to miss the gems. But maybe that’s why there is all that stuff. It’s only if you’re going to sit down, and if you have the fortitude, that you deserve to get to the gems.

CSL: Yeah, you have to work through it. The Upanishads are incredibly beautiful. One of the fellows at the writer’s festival was a Sanskrit scholar. And to hear the Upanishads – or any Sanskrit work, including the Manusmriti – intoned is an amazing experience. You have no idea what the words mean, but it doesn’t matter.

RC: And we miss all that music in the translation.

CSL: All that music was there, and it was really quite something.

RC: The word Zen is rooted to the notion of “quiet consideration” or “quiet and consideration” as well as “tranquil contemplation.” Although this is also disputed, according to Cicero, the word religion is rooted to the word relegere: “to treat carefully, or give careful consideration to.” In his “On the Nature of the Gods,” he writes: “Those who carefully took in hand all things pertaining to the gods were called religiosi, from relegere.”

CSL: Ah, interesting!

RC: In this sense, your treatise is certainly Zen-like. On page sixty-five, you even say, “Pay attention,” which you mentioned before when you were discussing Thomas Bernhard. Now, isn’t that a wonderful literary tie-in that we just made?

CSL: I do, huh? Oh, that’s right: “Tread softly, pay attention. Find the way back home.” [Laughs]

RC: But anyway, bearing all this in mind, it struck me that it’s a sort of zen text.

CSL: It is; I wouldn’t deny that for a moment. And it’s interesting, because a couple of the more doctrinaire Zen people who have read it find it far from that.

RC: Because they’re too doctrinaire.

CSL: Yes. John High, on the other hand, who is a Buddhist priest, is enormously fond of the book. And that’s what matters to me, because he’s not only a Zen priest, but he’s also …

RC: He’s got good taste, which you can trust.

CSL: Exactly.

RC: I wasn’t going to bring this up, but it’s perhaps of interest in this context. I believe you begin the first part with a quote from the Upanishads, and the second part with a quote from Gertrude Stein.

CSL: Yes. [Laughs]

RC: Which immediately impressed me, because there’s a wonderful quote by Joseph Campbell – and now, I wish I had it in front of me – who says that, in the future, the message will no longer come from the traditional religious institutions; it will come directly from the artist, the poet, the painter.*

CSL: Yes, that’s right. I can vaguely remember that.

RC: Therefore, it’s no wonder that the traditional religious people would not get it, but John High would.

CSL: That’s right. Exactly.

RC: Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of comparative religion, once coined the term hierophany: a rupture in three-dimensional space and time, a “breakthrough of the sacred into the world,” which was often triggered by a natural element. In your poem, rocks, rivers, and monkeys are quite important, grounding the ethereal meditations with solid nature underfoot. The nature that reveals our own nature, but that also anchors and nourishes it.

CSL: Eliade was right. It’s interesting because Dogen also came close to a kind of animist notion of being: being in everything. Rocks, trees, stones, pebbles. The snowfall. You know, I have a sense of constant wonder at the way the world manages to renew itself, no matter what we seem to do to it. How long this will go on, I have no idea. But I’m always astonished by what can happen. There’s a certain predictability in the natural world that is comforting.

RC: A cyclical aspect.

CSL: Yes. You know the tree will put out its leaves this year … you’re confronted with that whole notion of cyclical motions in time, and all that, as time marches through space. To me, it’s a continual source of inspiration – and sometimes even exultation. Yes.

RC: We’re also reminded of the constant edgy presence of death in your work: “Embarkations are hard: / disembarkations harder.” Sometimes, you accomplish this with just a simple phrase, such as “only dead leaves stirring.”

CSL: Yes. I mean, you know, death is real. At the time I was writing this, people that I knew were dying. And have died. My mother was in bad shape. My brother-in-law died before the book came out; my mother did, too. I wasn’t necessarily pondering my own death; but, if you don’t ponder your own death, there’s probably something wrong with you. So, yeah, I was very aware of the temporality of it all. And how do you hang onto it? Well, you hang onto it by being there at that particular moment and giving it your all. And letting that “all” give something back to you. But there’s definitely that dark side there. Which I don’t even know, is maybe … We have that way of looking at it, “the dark side.” There’s an awareness of our fleeting existence on the earth that’s very much a part of that book. And the whole notion of cycle. In nature, there’s death and regeneration. And in our own existence, there’s death, and who knows about the regeneration? But at least there’s death. We can say that. [Laughs]

RC: Chögyam Trungpa once said, “Life is a good thing, but death can be a good thing, too.”

CSL: Oh, yeah, exactly.

RC: You’ve also managed to take certain ancient traditions and explore the same concepts with a modern voice: “consciousness floating in a where / that isn’t here / unconsciousness closing in like a parenthesis.” And you explore a playful meditation on spirituality and words themselves: “a modifier dangles from the giant rhododendrons.” This seems to be one of the grand themes of the book.

CSL: Yes, absolutely. I love language, but there’s a point where you just can’t get too serious about it. Which is why I wasn’t a great semiotician. Because, at times, I used to sort of feel: “Eh! What a bunch of nonsense!”

RC: Fortunately, you betrayed the dogma.

CSL: All the time! And I’d write stuff that, one day, I would think was profound, and the next day go, “My, what is this?”

RC: I once met a retired linguist, an American professor in Paris, and I asked him what he thought of semiotics. He laughed and said, “I call it semi-idiotics.”

CSL: That’s right! [Laughs] Well, you know, that was the great war, featuring linguists and semioticians. For me, Roman Jakobson was the one who got me off on this; and I never got over it. But language has always been important to me, as is obvious from everything I’ve been saying. Bernhard, Paz, Heidegger, Wittgenstein: they’re playing with this whole notion of “What is language, and what can we do with it?” But at the same time, you can’t get too tied up in knots about it. You can have an awfully good time.

RC: Especially if you’re an artist, you can’t afford to do that: to get overwhelmed by the dogma.

CSL: Exactly.

RC: We also have your exploration of the limitations of words. You write:

Place this right angled Klein jar
in the left angled slot.
As in explain to squirrels and bluejays
hy they shouldn’t eat the seed
ut out for the wrens and sparrows and finches.
As in describe luminous motion.
as in mind crammed with monkeys.

There are the monkeys again!

CSL: That’s right!

RC: And I also like this line very much: “To name is to codify / also to destroy. I won’t name this feeling: / I do not wish to get to the heart of my mystery.” That’s very much in opposition to so much of the pointless intellectualizing that we’ve witnessed in the last two centuries. Western philosophy often strikes me as an elegant way of stating the obvious, or as a convoluted way of groping toward the ineffable. But with Wittgenstein, we at least have a definition of philosophy as something that results in the “clarification of prepositions,” or his attempt to do so.

CSL: Yes.

RC: In your book, however, you attempt one step better: into what I would call the poetic clarification of poetic prepositions.

CSL: Whoa! I’ll buy that one! Thank you very much, Mr. Couteau! [Laughs]

Ludwig Wittgenstein

RC: Of course, this is the result if a crash course in Wittgenstein over the last few days! But it struck me, going back and forth from Tractatus to your book, that there’s a kind of echo of that, somehow.

CSL: Yes, absolutely. Years and years ago, I tried writing something poetic off of Wittgenstein. It was a mess; it was terrible, so I gave up. But I knew he wouldn’t go away. Eventually, he would come back in the right form. So, it kind of worked it’s way onto this one.

RC: You mentioned feeling before, and this is another thing I wanted to ask in regard to your work. One of my problems with a lot of European philosophy is the eclipse or the usurpation of the feeling function …

CSL: Right.

RC: And the overreliance on hyperrational thought that we often find at the root of such inquiries. Yet, we can only value things properly with the assistance of our feeling. Your poem bridges these seemingly disparate sensibilities, because you honor logical thought, and you use it to your advantage, but you also make fun of it. Which perhaps is the role of the artist.

CSL: Yes. And I think that’s the most difficult thing to do, is to remember, as E. E. Cummings said: “Since feeling is first, who pays any attention to the syntax of things that will never wholly kiss you?” That’s from his poem, “since feeling is first.” [Recites poem] “For life is not a paragraph, and death, I think, is no parentheses.”

RC: You quoted the last line in your book.

CSL: It’s one of my very favorite Cummings poems. Whenever I get too “in my head,” I think about that poem. If you don’t, you don’t have much left. I mean, I spent so much time in academia with great minds, but empty shells, essentially.

RC: Wittgenstein portrays logic in an almost deified manner. He says logic is “a mirror-image of the world. Logic is transcendental.” And he adds that value can exist outside only the world, which I interpret to mean beyond his conscious grasp. This is another quote from Tractatus: “If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and in the case. For all that happens, and is the case, is accidental.” Now, I assume he means by this that something that we might term “acausal meaningful connection” cannot exist either cosmologically or on an interpersonal level. You, however, seem to differ from him in this way, because, in your poem, you assert and assume a value, an inherent value: in consciousness, in creativity, and in the heart.

CSL: Absolutely. Yes, I do. You know, I fully appreciate all of what he’s doing there. It’s not by any means a small thing. Essentially, Tractatus, it’s seventy-five pages long, and he’s attempting to boil it down. The very first sentence is: “The world is everything, that is the case.” He takes seven propositions and attempts to create a whole notion of what logic is in relation to language. At the seventh proposition, after he’s gone through all this work – with propositions, propositions, true functions, et cetera – he finally ends up: “What we cannot speak about, we must be silent.” And so, ultimately, silence, as Beckett well knew, wins the game. So we have to throw away the ladder.

RC: But obviously, you still take good things from him nonetheless.

CSL: Oh, yeah, certainly. But yes, I do have issues. And I’m hardly a doctrinaire anything. I just kind of make my own way, and keep moving in my own direction. But yeah, very interesting. Very interesting.

RC: Heraclitus has an axiom, which I’m sure you know, which goes: “It is the opposite that is good for you.” Which suggests that we’re often drawn to our own unconscious polarity: one opposing our native temperament. Bearing this in mind, this is from a book called Wittgenstein: Conversations 1949-1951, by O. K. Bouwsma, who says:

Then we rode to the top of the hill near the library and looked over the town. The moon was in the sky. “If I had planned it[,” said Wittgenstein,] I should never have made the sun at all. See! How beautiful! The sun is too bright and too hot.” Later, he said, “And if there were only the moon[,] there would be no reading and writing.” 

Now, when I read this, I wondered if Wittgenstein was unwittingly projecting his feeling function and the values it bestows upon that ancient image. And I thought the excerpt itself almost reads like a passage from your poem!

CSL: Yes, it does! [Laughs] I do have that one Wittgenstein quote there, you know: “If the meaning of a word is the private exemplar of the object, then ‘I know what I mean by toothache.’”

RC: That’s a wonderful line, yes! “But no other person can know it.”

CSL: Exactly!

RC: It’s so interesting that you bring this up, because that’s an example of extreme feeling, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not just a sensation; the toothache triggers the emotions.

 CSL: Right. What happens with Wittgenstein, though, is that by the time you get to the Notebooks and Philosophical Investigations, he’s running back to feeling as being of significant consequence. You ultimately don’t know what to do with it. You know, Chomsky has the same problem. And, well, that’s a whole other discussion. We won’t get into that one today! [Laughs]

RC: Nietzsche is one of the few Western philosophers of modernity who not only attempts to incorporate feeling into the whole hierarchy of philosophical thought, but who also declares that it’s of equivalent value to thought.

CSL: Absolutely. Certainly Nietzsche, and then the whole of phenomenology itself cannot exclude feeling, as much as it wants to focus on mind. Heidegger maybe being the one exception, because he’s really centered on the whole notion of mind. And yet, he uses expressions like “clearing,” and “care,” and all of that, which are expressions of feeling. But Merleau-Ponty and Sartre were extremely aware of the human emotion as playing a part in anything we do.

RC: You write, “Belief is tested / when a jammed infinitive / makes a monkeyclature out of verbs. / So we lean on adjectives decked out / in their Sunday best / and passing nouns / out for their morning constitutional.”

CSL: Yeah, I had a good time with that. [Laughs] You know, there is a lot of monkey in that book. In Zen, when you’re having a hard time meditating, they talk about the “money mind.” And in India, watching all those monkeys everywhere – they were very present, very aggressive – I suddenly got what “monkey mind” really meant. Of course, it comes out of that tradition; that’s where Buddha started out. The origin of Buddhism is literally in that part of the world. But with all these monkeys, you suddenly get “monkey mind.” And so, I was sort of: “Oh! What a revelation!” On a terribly ridiculous level! [Laughs] And so, monkeys got in there because of the Zen monkey-mind business. And then, monkeyclature: I just couldn’t resist that.

RC: It’s a wonderful neologism. And monkey business is precisely what you’re getting at here.

CSL: Absolutely. You know, it’s about the whole failure of language.

RC: In Chinese astrology, the monkey is one of the bestial signs. There, the monkey’s role is to climb up on the highest bough, eat his banana, and throw the banana skins down and laugh while the other animals are slipping and tripping and falling over them. He’s a kind of harlequin figure, a trickster.

CSL: Exactly.


RC: I thought we would end with a few things about Dogen, especially since he had such an impact on you. He was known for being an innovator both in terms of his approach to Zen as well as his use of poetic language. Like many of your own favorite stylists, he employed neologisms and word play in the great French tradition. This is his description of “Mind-only.” “Mind,” he says, “is the ‘skin-flesh-bones-marrow” and the “raising-a-flower-and-bursting-into-laughter.” All of which he hyphenates like a lengthy Germanic adjectival phrase. But like you, he doesn’t just jettison the mind. “Despite all this, it should not be abandoned…. it is the mind in which all things themselves are ultimate reality, and the mind which communicates between a Buddha and a Buddha.”

CSL: Yes. And this kind of sums up what my book’s about, if there’s anything that it’s about. But, yeah, I was pretty much working out of that. What a wonderful quote. Dogen was amazing. But my limitation with Dogen is that I have to rely on translations. And the 1912 French translation is nothing like the original. From what you read in the commentaries, he uses this incredibly refined, stylistic, poetic manner of expressing himself. Gary Snyder is probably finished his translation of Dogen by now, which I think might be quite good.

RC: This last quote has a wonderful tie in to what you’ve succeeded at doing in this poem. Dogen relates the story of a poet named Su Tung-p’o who awoke on a mountaintop and achieved enlightenment upon hearing the sound of a gurgling brook. Just before this occurred, he’d listened, baffled, to his master Chao-chio lecture on “the discourse of in-sentient beings” – as you said earlier, rocks, rivers, snowflakes – and how important this was for creativity. “I suspect,” Dogen says, “that Chao-chio’s talk […], still reverberating, may secretly be intermingled with the nightly sounds of streams.” “Ultimately speaking, is it the poet that is enlightened, or is it mountains and waters that are enlightened?”

As Eliade says, we often think of nature inspiring or transporting us, but this view is considerably larger. As you say in your book, “subject is object when object is subject.” And so, I get this same sense from your verse: that it’s not just a description of what’s going on in your mind, but it’s this very visceral attempt to remove all boundaries between the ego and what’s around it.

CSL: Yes, that was the big attempt. Whether I succeeded or not, I don’t know. [Laughs] This book took quite a while to write. I began in spring of 2007, and I kept working on it in bits and pieces. I also read from it on a number of occasions. And I finished in Istanbul, in 2012.

I finally felt that I just had to stop; I didn’t know what else to do with it. Then I sent it to Ed Foster, at Talisman House. Ed helped me to decide that, you know, it’s done. As I say in the last sentence, “Completion is a fiction.”

Picasso was absolutely right: A work of art is never finished, you simply stop working on it.


* * This interview was conducted on February 5, 2015 and was featured at on May 28, 2015.

* * “I’ve never been able to understand these people. What I got out of LSD, I carry about inside me. I have to stay in my own daily life. To see the flowers in my own garden is to see all the mystical wonder of existence, of creation. You don’t have to go to India to see it.” From “Interview: Albert Hofmann,” Omni magazine, July 1981, p. 72.

* * “And then we have William Blake: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.’ Thus we have the message in our own tradition, where it is known, however, as poetry, not religion, while our religion, actually … is being radically misinterpreted because it is read differently from a poem or enacted play.” Joseph Campbell, “The In­terpretation of Symbolic Forms,” The Mythic Dimension: Se­lected Essays, 1959-1987 (New York: Harper­Collins, 1997), pp. 166-167.

See also:

Read my essay, over a year in the making, on Marion Morehouse: The first supermodel, the Muse of the art photographer Edward Steichen, and the lifelong companion of the poet E. E. Cumming: On the Trail of the ‘Elusive’ Lillian and Marion Morehouse, by Rob Couteau (2015)

An interview with Professor Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, the renowned biographer of E. E. Cummings. The year 2022 marks the hundredth anniversary of Cummings’s avant-garde World War One memoir, Besides remaining enduringly modern, "The Enormous Room" continues to pose essential questions about free speech in a post-9/11 world: 'When Feeling is First.' A Conversation with Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno About E. E. Cummings's Prose Masterpiece, The Enormous Room,' by Rob Couteau (2015)

A review of Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno's The Continual Pilgrimage:American Writers in Paris, 1944-1960, by Rob Couteau (1993)

The Biographer of Paul Bowles Talks about Writing the Outsider’s Story. An Interview with Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, by Rob Couteau (1990)


Since: 28 May 2015 | Copyright © 2015 Rob Couteau
key words: Mussoorie Montague poems poetry E. E. Cummings Thomas Bernhard Eihei Dogen and his Moon in a Dewdrop the Upanishads the Hindu Manusmriti Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Zen texts Octavio Paz’s poem Blanco Mircea Eliade Joseph Campbell Heidegger Dasein