Wild Idleness: Writing is a Social Act
richard lopez: you begin your book this time-bound toy again  with a quote by the great u.s.american poet lew welch, ‘What strange pleasure they’d get who’d / wipe whole worlds out / ANYTHING, / to end our lives, our / wild idleness? / But we must have charms against their rage- / must go on saying, “Look, / if nobody tried to live this way, / all the work of the world would be in vain.“ / And now and then a son, a daughter, hears it. / Now and then a son, a daughter / gets away.’ you say you discovered welch at age 16 and that his work and his example became a guide for your own life. i too share your view that lew welch is a too-long neglected poet. can you describe how you discovered welch, and poetry, and what a life in poetry means to you.
Stefan Hyner: I wudnt say that i discovered poetry, but that poetry discovered me. Already as a child i was thrilled by the mere act of writing. There was a certain kind of notebook that was a common x-mas gift from local businesses and i always made sure i wud get one or two when those were sent to my grandfather. I carried them with me at all times and scribbled down anything that struck my fancy, in fact, calligraphy, then still being taught at school, was the only lesson that ever really thrilled me. These early childhood years were marked by some major medical surgery all initiated by ether which evoked some visions i can still recall and that were the origin of a certain nightmare that remained with me thru my adolescent years, in which i was always trying to burrow my way out of a narrow space with a low checkered ceiling that extended into infinity. At the age of ten i had a close encounter with death when i got a serious case of meningitis and during that time at the hospital i wrote my first poems, that were then published in the daily newspaper of Heidelberg. The disease had become an epidemic spread via the public swimming pools and these poems were meant to show the populace that it wasn't as deadly as people thot it was. I never stopped writing poetry after that.
My grandmother had written some poetry in her early years and there was poetry in my family's library, preferably those with a social commitment, like Heinrich Heine, Georg Büchner, Kurt Tucholsky, and Bert Brecht and the east German poet Jens Gerlach was an long time friend of my mother, but with the exception of Christian Morgenstern none of this really provided what i was looking for. I began my own investigation into poetry reading the German 'modernists', Trakl, Celan, Benn, but that wasn't what i was looking for either, tho i tried writing in 'their voice'. Not until my godmother gave me an edition of the Odyssey, did i realize what it was; as Lew Welch put it: Not inside there, burrowing around, for a change.
As it is with so many other instances in life, it was my karmic fortune that led me onto the way. I had a brother, six years older than me, who gave me a copy of Jack Kerouacs 'On The Road', then the favorite book among his friends. Yet it was another of Kerouac's books, with the somewhat funny German title 'Bums, Zen and High Mountains' (Dharma Bums) that made me realize what had been 'calling' me all this time. After that I began reading Chinese poetry, mostly in the translation of my later teacher Günther Debon, Ezra Pound's 'Cantos' and when i found out who Japhy Ryder really was, i started ordering Snyder's books. I got a copy of 'Mountains and Rivers without End' and there at the beginning of the poem 'Night Highway Ninety-nine' came across that quote from, as i learned later, a letter by Lew Welch, which states: "but it turns out you only have to hop a few feet, to one side, and the whole huge machinery rolls by, not seeing you at all". I'd say that this is to this day what a life in poetry means to me; let the machinery roll by and focus yr concern on living beings.
rl: you have a poem that distills your concern, i think, to all living beings, 'secret mantra of the red partisan buddha' [10000 journeys: selected poems 1977 - 2003; skanky possum, 2005]
May all Governments
Of all Nations
your work is strongly influenced by social commitment. your poetry is also universal too. by that i mean you are strongly influenced by classical chinese poets, buddhist writers, beat poets, etc. unless i am mistaken you translate your own work from german, and you compose poems in your own idiomatic Inglish. writing poems is, i think, a way of being present in this world. can you talk about what you think the role of the poet is in our world.
SH: Well, that poem carries a mistake, it shud say 'states' instead of 'governments'. The human social body is government, in its ideal form one that allows all members to equally participate in steering its direction and doesn't bind the individual to its decisions against his free will in the worst case by force of an arbitrary set of laws based on a divine command. 'State' on the other hand is a phenomenon that is in incompatible contradiction to the social body turning it into an anonymous mass that no longer comprehends the uniqueness of each individual composing that body. I believe that there is a close relationship between poetry and government. The function of poetry is to voice sentiments and if these sentiments are authentic and the expression spontaneous then poetry becomes a concrete and distinct manifestation of the people's sentiment toward their government.
My poetics are much influenced by 'Ts'ang Lang's Talks on Poetry', an essay by the Sung Dynasty poet Yen Yü (around +1200) [a partial translation was published by James Koller in <Coyote's Journal '11, 1987] that states: there is one utmost point for poetry to result in called: to enter the mysteries, and 'constantly reveal them, as Lew Welch said. The greatest of these mysteries to me is the insight that 'emptiness' is the nature of all phenomena and their consequent equality. This understanding i consider the precondition of revolutionary reason, cuz otherwise -as most all previous so called revolution proved- we will always fall in the trap of habit energy, or as the 'Diamond Sutra' puts it: "being attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul", and all the crap that goes with it.
The role of the poet in our world to contribute to this timeless body of poetry against all odds and for no other reason then the fact that one has to out of necessity and never really knowing why.
rl: the popular notion nowadays of people, and their art, as being not of, and against, government, especially in the u.s. is, i think, blown away by your reasoning of poetry being closely related to government. i don't think many artists think of government like that at all. i am intrigued by your definitions of 'state' vs. 'government'. if i understand you government = people. we are social creatures thus we can't help but be government. this is, i believe, a profound truth. why then, do you think, that we, social creatures, -- and i'm thinking of much popular sentiments here in the u.s. -- despise government? do you think poetry can change these sentiments?
SH: For one people nowadays think of government as politics and politics are state-related activities that solely serve the interest of organized money. Politics serve to create a certain relationship among the people and enforce the perpetuation of that relationship, commonly termed ‘classes’. We are this state as long as we relate accordingly, we leave it behind as soon as we begin to relate differently to each other and make arrangements for a real communion of all living beings that is not subjected to any kind of ideology. It is also no thing of a distant future that needs to await the arrival of a particular precondition.
I think in the US. this is aggravated by that ludicrous myth of the free and independent individual hopping thru the wilderness pursuing his happiness. History shows just how far the individual was indeed allowed to hop; exactly as far as he didn't interfere with the interests of the ruling class. On the other hand there is a definite interest in keeping up that myth because it maintains the anonymity and isolation of a person's living conditions and prevents an understanding of social individuality in the context of a community. I've never come across a native people whose ideal it was to atomize its social body and see its privileged members move ever deeper into the wilderness, thereby destroying it. A great example of what it really means to live as a single individual in the wilderness without all the luxuries people nowadays take along with them are 'The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse' (now included in 'The Zen Works of Stonehouse' translated by Red Pine), it's a bloody hard effort.
Whether poetry can change these sentiments is to me a question of what poets decide to concern themselves with, do they continue -as Charles Olson put it- to write the private soul on every public wall or will they concern themselves with the event that's there. At this moment i see a withdrawal into the 'private' caused by the contempt for government and even more by a feeling of helplessness in relation to it obtained from the conviction that its machinery is too complicated to be fully understood, when indeed we just need to let it roll by. Poetry can point to a different relationship among living beings if it stops making compromises, which is the nature of politics, and clearly expresses that the political system we live in is not diseased but is the disease. Presently I see too many poets making compromises with the system for economical reasons as they strive for a position within its various institutions and in this way reinforcing its position. The way out is out!
rl: stonehouse, in his old age hut, writes that there is 'no right or wrong no profit or loss/ walking sitting sleeping no ties / sometimes I pick up my white deer whisk / sometimes I finger black wooden beads / sometimes I feel like dancing / sometimes I feel like a dunce' #170 [the zen works of stonehouse, tr. by red pine; counterpoint, 1999]. i especially admire that last line about feeling like a dunce. i feel that old hermit! you have a poem titled 'buddhism' that says it is the highest form of paranoia because it considers everything is connected. can you talk about your own practice and how that might relate to your writing vivid political poems?
SH: Stonehouse is quite the dunce, isn't he? I was living with Red Pine at the time he first translated these poems. It was the summer of 1982, we lived 1100 meters above the city of Taipei that wud lay there at night like some jewel from a bizarre fairy tale. Daytime we spent in a small gorge a couple hundred meters below the house along a clear brook that had washed basins into the volcanic rock big enuf to swim in. Red Pine has been one of my teachers to whom i'm much indebted to.
In 1971 i bought my first book on Buddhism, the 碧嚴録, Bi Yan Lu (The Blue Cliff Record), in the German translation of Wilhelm Gundert, who was the teacher of Günther Debon. I did not understand in the least what was happening here, this was a nut that required a different hammer to crack than my education cud provide and for some time i tried a lot of different tools. Finally these years spent in Taiwan living in a social milieu where Buddhism was common place helped clear things up a lot, here Buddhism reached deep into the social strata of the society concerning itself with the daily affairs. But i came upon my final practice in a rather unexpected place. In the summer of 1987 i was staying at Joanne Kyger's house in Bolinas and she had me teach a workshop on the 大悲咒, The Dharani of Great Compassion of the Bodhisattva Kuan Shih Yin. Whether this was her intention or not, i've been a 'partisan' of Kuan Yin ever since and only a few months later i went on a pilgrimage thru China and Tibet, visiting all the sides connected with the Bodhisattva.
In a T'ang Dynasty commentary to 'The Dharani of Great Compassion' i came across a line that became most important to me; 無為心內起大悲心 'from the mind of non-action the mind of great empathy arises'. There have been books written about 無為 'Non-action' and what it means, i personally prefer the definition by Joseph Needham who says 'to abstain from any action against natural course of things'. So from this mind arises empathy, which not only the behavioral biologists are now beginning to understand as the real force behind all life rather then the homo homini lupus, that still pretty much determines the political reality. Here's where my practice reaches into my writing. Claude Levi-Strauss said, "thru an bold act Buddhism reduces the metaphysical problem to one of human behavior" and points out that the schism in Buddhism occurred on a social level, the question if individual salvation depends on the salvation of all or not. If you look at the eight components of the 'Eightfold Path' you'll see that most of them are of ethical nature in respect to human behavior. I'm aware that a lot of people will disagree when i say that Buddhism and State are irreconcilable, but even at the time of Ashoka laws were passed to regulate the membership in the Sangha, and in China starting with Hui Yuan's famous essay 'Why a follower of Buddhism doesn't bow to the Emperor' and Pai Chang's insistence on the self-sufficiency of the Sangha, Buddhism more than once posed a serious threat to the very existence of the state.
rl: as you know buddhism and buddhist practices have exploded in popularity, particularly in the u.s., especially among poets. poets worry that 'poetry makes nothing happen.' do you think buddhism, and buddhist poetry, in our 21st century can pose a serious threat to the state?
SH: It wud be rather foolhardy on my part to think that. Snyder has a poem titled "Revolution in the Revolution in the Revolution" i can agree with in so far as it points out that we have to consider more than one aspect if we hope to do away with nation states. Yet, as i've stated before, i do believe the insight into the nature of all things as one and empty the prerequisite for revolutionary reason and Buddhism for one provides a technique for achieving this insight, but this is not self-perpetuating. Along with it has to go an intensive study of 'going back as far as one possibly can' to understand where things went wrong and how, since it is the habit-energy that emerged over time from these transactions that stirs the direction we are heading in. Walter Benjamin has a great image he called 'the angel of history', who stands with his back against the wind of history and watches the shit pile ever higher. It takes a lot of guts to turn around and face that wind.
rl: i want to back up a bit. you stated that too many poets make compromises with the system and its institutions for economic gain which in turn prop up the political system; that 'the way out is out.' i have a vested interest in the way out too. one of those institutions is the university, and teaching in the university. i don't mean to demean the university, and teachers in the least. but if i can narrow down one of these compromises as it pertains to a profession then i think if we develop an economy of just one job appropriate for poets-- university level teaching -- we are diminishing the rich varieties this universe provides for us. often the bio notes found in poetry books reads like the dry summation of a resume. how can you avoid to make compromises with the system?
SH: It goes without saying that i can only speak for myself and of the German condition, which has its particularities not necessarily transferable onto the US-American condition.
At the beginning of the 70th the establishment in Europe 'flooded' the cultural institutions with money to settle down the protest movement of the late 60th and to counteract the underground leftist movement that was indeed violently threatening the very foundation of that establishment. (An interesting biography in this context is that of the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who published several of Franco Beltrametti's books. It's a real lesson in the politics of party cadres.) But things were different for my generation, people who were around twenty years old then. There was no more blueprint for the future, instead of hanging on to the dogma that one had to conquer the state first and then change it, individuals now began to revolutionize themselves and examined the changes in relation to their daily life and actual conditions. For some time this process became reality in various institutions; factories, schools, church communities, youth centers. Many people involved in that process underwent a cultural (Nanni Balestrini calls it 'anthropological') change that was impossible to reverse without giving up one's dignity. So when the reaction hit full force by the mid-90th (due to her history of class struggle and the resulting social systems it took much longer in Europe for the superstructure to regain control of the communities then it did in the US, as Ed Dorn's 'Abhorrences' vouch for) many of my generation took refuge in drugs, the worst of them readily available at every street corner, or compromised their ideals and dignity readjusting to the newly set conditions. A few took Lew Welch at heart and 'got away'.
I occupied myself with the condition of the artist early on in my Chinese studies. Throughout Chinese history there's a clear cut between two kinds of artists, on one hand the state employed artist who has an 'iron rice bowl' but is in all respects subjected to the expectations of the state and on the other hand the so-called 'gentleman-artist', who lives outside the pale and turns his back to the state and its iron rice bowls. There's a tendency in the West to romanticize this condition, though the examples where this becomes literally a life-threatening situation are numerous; Ch'ü Yüan committed suicide right away, T'ao Yüan-ming leaves no doubt in his poetry that he pays for his independence with utter poverty, Tu Fu is witness to his own children starving. "You can't buy poetry grocery, no, you have to buy grocery grocery" Franco Beltrametti writes in his autobiography and i wud never blame anybody for making compromises with the system, but in my thinking there's no room in poetry for internal contradictions of such nature. Writing is not an individual but a social act and any kind of dependency will distort yr sentiments or at least force you to codify them in a manner inaccessible to the community.
rl: poetry, i think, when it is taught in the classroom, must be presented to students as a vehicle of social expression. it is not -- or not just only -- self expression. still, one must eat. if i might ask a fairly dense question: how does one earn a living in our society without compromises with the system?
SH: I was expecting this question to come up sooner or later. So if there is still any doubt led me spill it out clearly, i am an idealist in the tradition of Hölderlin or to remain in the US-American context, Lew Welch as he unfolds in 'How to Give Yourself Away': "We turn forever from those flickering images cast upon that blackened wall." So i'll answer this question from an idealist position as being simply one of the condition of the mind. I personally always looked at the system that surrounds me (and never ever asked me if i want to be a member of it or not) like a native looking at an occupying power, whose laws, especially those concerning the 'commons' keep me from self-sufficiency and force me into some kind of a barter. This mind set was 'helped' by the presence of the occupying forces of the US-Army in my home town that taught me to differentiate between the cause and the effect and made me look with great skepticism at any 'given reality'. This helped shape the ‘economy’ of my daily life; i've built my own home and all the furniture in it, what i cudn't do myself came from the garbage from stuff other people threw away. I cut my own firewood and have a garden, what doesn't grow in it i buy from local farmers. I wear my father's old clothes, which luckily fit me just perfect, this way trying to cut down the cash flow as much as i possibly can, but, in the words of the man, "I haven't reached simplicity yet."
rl: if i might be so bold and say, that is a brilliant answer! i too am reaching for simplicity and so far have failed. but let me ask a question about writing and the process of writing poetry. how do you approach the act and the art of writing poetry?
SH: There is a German proverb concerning art, "Kunst kommt von <Können>" (roughly: Art derives from <capability>) that Jean Arp changed thus: "Kunst kommt nicht von <Können>, sondern von <müssen>." (even rougher "Art doesn't derive from <capability> but from <necessity>.") Arp's point being that you cant help it, you have to even tho you’ll never know why.
I say, you give in to something bigger than yrself, become a medium for poetry to flow thru. You are haunted by the muse and cant refuse her. It was a great relief once i realized this, it rendered all preconceptions useless, you give up this life boat (these preconceptions of what art should be) and simply trust the water. In the words of the Chinese painter Shih T'ao: "The method consists in not having a method," and not led concepts stand in the way.
Concerning the act of writing, its technique, i.e. its action rather than its system of regulations, there are ways that can be practiced (and maybe to a certain degree even taught) but eventually you can only judge for yrself which one will best work for you. I found keeping a journal most helpful. I get up every morning between 4 and 5 a.m. and spend about two hours journal writing. This is first of all an act of calligraphy from which may emerge an 'image' or lets say a 'painting' that, once disposed of everything not instructional and informative, makes the poem. Rarely it is right away clear if that poem can move away from its particularity. In other words, what sounds like a revelation today mite turn out to be mediocre drivel tomorrow. That's when i call on the muse again.
rl: you are an international poet. you have friends in the art that span cultures and languages. you compose in Inglish, german, chinese et al. i have used the word 'universal' earlier in describing your art. you, to my mind, embody the best of hybridity: many cultures in one person. you are a catholic writer, if you will, meaning all-embracing, universal. your muse speaks in many tongues. this is one of the many reasons why i am attracted to your poetry. can you speak about what universality might mean to you?
SH: One world, one mind, 84,000 Dharma doors. A perpetual skepticism in respect to reinforced realities. Charles Olson said: "Never less than the whole damned thing." William Carlos Williams: "The local is the only access to the universal." Each place provides this access in its own 'language'. The most lasting impression still, that Buddhist nun in the mountains outside Taipei. It was my first weekend there and i went with two fellow students, women, to visit a famous old nunnery. In the main hall the two were approached by a nun if they wanted to offer some incense to Buddha to which they replied: "We are no Buddhists." The nun gave them a most lovely smile and said: "Never mind, better one too many than one too little." Instant revelation that defies all arbitrary borders, nationalism, and dogmatic insistence of only one 'truth'. Universality means to me the right of all individuals to decide for themselves which path to follow.
rl: with respect to the current troubles in the world do you think we might be in danger of backing away from the creation of universal culture[s]?
SH: Culchur cant be but universal, cuz culchur is a relic of pre-historical time reaching even back before the arrival of Homo Super Shit. Culchur is local, remember Williams, very seldom it manifests in 'nation' -like it did in the 'Five Nations' for instance which inspired Friedrich Engels to his finest book "The Origin of Family, State, and Property". It never manifests in 'nationalism'. Culchur has no concept of 'State', this idea of a status quo where nuthing changes and the same bunch is in control of all things forever and a day. By its very nature culchur is the opponent of 'State', if there's any doubt look at the condition of culchur at the present. That <culture> 'State' keeps as its pet is called 'civilization'.
But who exactly is this <we> that instantly entails a <they>? I can only speak for myself, i can go along with 'Franco's Tribe of Poets' or what is being offered for example in the anthology work of Jerome Rothenberg, both certainly universal phenomena. What matters to me is the 'day-by-day', food and labor, Pai-Chang Hui-hai's "A day without work, is a day without food." "For everybody who doesn't take part in the labor needed to maintain the community," Shen Nung said, after taking one look at the Chinese aristocrazy -prolly of Indo-European origin- "somebody has to go hungry." This is the basis of all economy even 5,000 years later.
Many civilizations have gone to hell since then, so now it's time for that of international trade economy to join them and if you look at the current business conducted in the world of finances you can see that all signs point in that direction. In the past the Chinese were smart enuf not to allow the merchant-class a position that enabled them to determine the course of the social body. What happens if, the present situation in Greece is but one of many examples.
rl: you have hit a subject that i've been thinking about lately. the state and its economy. the near and far future looks rather bleak. do you think that creative people, poets, painters, musicians, filmmakers etc., can create viable alternative ways of living in our late-capitalist world?
SH: I think you are hitting upon the conflict between idealism and historical materialism, the question whether the social reality determines the consciousness or consciousness the social reality. Marx accurately analyzed the capitalism of the 19th century and the course it was taking at that time. His mistake and that of all subsequent Marxist theoreticians was to force all of history under that dogma thereby neglecting the interrelationship of consciousness and social reality as well as the adaptability of capitalism to adjust its course to his theory. Without going into further detail of the reality of the Soviet-system it is a fact that as long as it existed the capitalist system gave in to social issues pertaining to the working class. They 'reinvested' a portion of their profits into the system creating a middle class that was convinced it had all reason to be afraid that the Russians wud come and take their two-door garages away from them. Hand in hand with the decline of the Soviet system went that of the middle class and consequently the working class is willing to defend capitalism under slave conditions. This willingness is in my opinion not the result of a social reality but solely one of the consciousness effected by a tightly controlled system of education, from kindergarten all the way into the academy. This is were i see the responsibility of poets, painters, musicians etc. to create an 'education' that opposes the inevitability of the capitalistic economy, which is still looked upon by many as the 'natural' result of evolution, thereby raising the consciousness that the eco-social reality can only be local and has to include people from all walks of life.
rl: i remember hearing a biologist say, and i'm paraphrasing of course, that if you hear a politician talk about the economy over the ecology you are listening to an idiot because the economy is totally dependent upon the ecology. we are at a tipping point. climate change is probably the greatest threat we face as a species. yet, the public by and large bury their heads in the sand when it comes to confronting climate change. capitalist economies are predicated upon consumption. consumption destroys large portions of the world's ecologies. the future looks grim, indeed. you tackle these subjects in your work and yet your poems are rather buoyant. friendship, also, is a driving theme in your work. however do you account for your, for lack of a better phrase, love of life?
SH: There's no need to survive. Albert Saijo, whose work shud be mandatory teaching material in elementary schools, has a wonderful line in a text called <Bodhisattva Vows>: SO NOW LET US BE CHEERFUL AS WE SINK – OUR SPIRIT EVER BUOYANT AS WE SINK. It doesn't much help to lament about the course of things, does it? One of the biggest problems i had with modernist German poetry growing up was that ubiquitous 'depression'. I tried it thinking this was a premise for writing poetry but no matter how hard i tried more than a couple hours weren't in it for me before i realized that this was totally against my nature. I don't know what i did in my past life to deserve this good fortune but you'll certainly not find me complaining about it, tho it's prolly the reason why some people consider my poetry 'profane'.
"Life is suffering", Buddha said in his First Sermon. "Caused by turning from the essential to the trivial," Bodhidharma explained and presently the 'trivialists' are running the show. Ignorance is the order of the day and that's nuthing new either. But "Suffering can be overcome", Buddha went on and then expounded the method to achieve this thru the practice of the Eight-Folded Path. Somewhere the Buddhist scholar Edward Conze writes, that the deep-seated aversion of industrial civilization toward the Mahayana comes as no surprise, yet its calm dignity can satisfy people's longing to escape the horrors of this civilization. For some people this tastes of escapism, especially those who consider 'economy' the all decisive factor, but let me repeat that line from the 'Dharani of Great Compassion', 'from the non-active mind rises the mind of empathy' and empathy to me is what you call 'love of life'. "Every creature is basically the same," a Sung Dynasty commentary of the Diamond Sutra sez, "if you say you don't know it's just because it's so clear". Or as Marcel Duchamp put it: "There are no solutions, because there are no problems."
rl: beautiful! duchamp reminds me of something a contemporary buddhist teacher said, the world ain't broke; what is your problem. let me switch gears a bit and ask you something a bit more personal. what are you reading right now?
SH: Just finished the autobiography of Peter Freuchen, a Danish adventurer who went to Greenland about 100 years ago. It tells you a lot about the consequences of the conquest of Greenland, but what fascinated me was the 'time window' it provided that allowed me a look upon the daily life of the people during the last ice age.
Now i'm rereading John Le Carré's "The Secret Pilgrim" and also Merete Demand Jakobson's fairly recent book on Shamanism in Greenland. I like Le Carré for his English and in describing the entanglement of politics, secret services, arms dealers and the entire entourage of criminals who are not so secretly running a big part of this planet.
I also just got a copy of the newly published German translation of Daniel Defoe's "Libertalia" in the mail and am much looking forward to reading that.
And i'm reading Franco Beltrametti poetry again, since i'm preparing an edition of his collected Inglish Poems, that Blackberry Books in Maine will publish in the spring of 2016.
rl: i know franco beltrametti was a complete world citizen. he travelled the world, wrote in several languages, made friends. you mentioned editing his collected poems in inglish. i am looking forward to that book. can you speak a little about your friendship with beltrametti?
SH: I met Franco for the first time at the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam 1978. I'll never forget that afternoon i stepped into the office of 'de Kosmos' where the festival was taking place; Franco greeted me like we knew each other since our time together at the home of Lady Murasaki, and we did. His generosity was immense, but always straight forward w/out any trace of sentimentality. I guess we shared more than a similar sense of aesthetics. Amsterdam, Zurich, Chicago, Heidelberg, Georgetown Island, Milano, Bolinas, Riva S.V., Rohrhof, he taught me the measures of 'my own world', her cardinal points all occupied by people i came to know then; James Koller at the center, Joanne Kyger in the West, Nanao Sakaki in the East, the Swedish poet Reidar Ekner up North and Franco in the South.
Franco's death came so sudden, unexpected. I'd talked to him the night before cuz we were going to see him the next day and he described the way to Mugena to me, where he was then living with the potter Antonella Tomaino, who was pregnant with his child, as he'd happily announced a few months earlier when they arrived at our house. Marianne, Ting and I left home early the next morning and i still remember the exact spot on the highway south where the speedometer of the car all of a sudden broke down the very hour he died. We arrived early and didn't worry not finding him home. Later somebody showed up and told us. We spent the night at the house in Mugena, all thru that night 'the wind' banged the shutters angrily against the house. The next day we went to Riva and in the afternoon one of those big rocks weighing down the roof of the building came crushing down into the courtyard. He still visits me in my dreams from time to time. I will never be able to repay his kindness.
rl: thank you, stefan, for that lovely remembrance of a wonderful human being. you and beltrametti have traveled quite a bit. many of your poems are also written in Inglish. you mentioned earlier how modernist german poetry was too depressing for you. you tried to compose in that vein but to no avail. how have your travels influenced your poetry? how did you develop your own Inglish?
SH: When i left Europe in 1981 to live in Asia, i took two books with me, one of them, Jaime de Angulo's 'Indian Tales', i gave to a homesick kid from California on my first night in Taipei, the other, Nanao Sakaki's 'Real Play' contains some advice still very dear to me: In a Strange country/if you want to know the land/Learn the weeds./If you want to know the culture/Check the craft./If you want to know the future of the land/Listen to the folk music. If you want to know the people/Know yourself. Living in other culchurs taught me to question my own beliefs, it provided me with the great gift of doubt and eventually showed me that our common ground as humans is our diversity, it killed all nationalism dead for good. Each place a different poem, none better than the other.
As a adolescent i travelled a lot mostly in the northern parts of Europe; Benelux, Scandinavia and Britain, as you move about you realize that the spoken languages change in accordance to the landscape and not to arbitrary borders. Somebody from Aachen, Germany, has a much smaller, if any, problem understanding somebody from Kerkrade, Holland, then he wud have understanding me, given we all talked our native, that is local language. When i was little the local languages varied from village to village, within less than a mile or two people were using different words for the same phenomena, so from early on the high or standard German as it was taught in school was a foreign language to me. Its creation goes hand in hand with the centralization of power and the formation of the German national state. My standard German is worse than my Inglish, in fact i much rather talk Inglish to a non-native German speaker than try for high German.
I remember the very first Inglish sentence i learned. "My daddy is a boiler man". I was nine years old and had a friend whose dad was indeed a boiler man at the local US military base and that line did suffice to get us into the barracks where his dad wud buy us big portions of ice cream we ate while watching the GIs play baseball. Later i wud go there almost every day to play basketball, this was before paranoia became the order of the day and the base was surrounded by a 10,000 feet high barbed wire fence and patrolled by guards brandishing machine guns. There was a great sign on the fence surrounding Mark Twain Village in Heidelberg that read: Welcome to Heidelberg. Deadly force is authorized. During the Vietnam War there were lots of GIs in my hometown that had dodged the draft by volunteering for the European theatre (sic) and hung around the local youth center and in the late 70th i spent two summers on a farm in Cornwall. So i had a fairly decent basis when i came to Taiwan where Inglish was the common language among the foreign community.
rl: do you think the practice of poetry, yours in Inglish, can banish borders, break down nationalism[s]?
SH: I do believe so, that is trust in poetry to go that way, poetry talks about a world apart from greed, hate and ignorance, poetry comes natural to humans and I think it's only natural to have no boundary, no nation, no citizenship. These are indeed very recent phenomena, the invention of national states goes back to the French Revolution when the European aristocracy -that is a few families most of them connected by marriage that controlled the entire continent, most of them not even speaking the local language, the 'language' of the Austrian court for instance was Latin- scared of losing its benefice inspired a sense of 'nationalism' previously unknown to the people with the help of the mass media. Or look at the USA, in the Constitution it sez 'We the people', no word about a nation, or take China, the national borders it now claims are based on the imperialistic expansion of the Ching Dynasty, itself an occupying power. Nations are, as Benedict Anderson calls them, 'imagined communities' and for the poets it is to imagine other communities, like Blake did.
rl: when you look upon our new century what do you see?
SH: I see pretty much the same i saw in the old century and most likely the one before and the one before etc. Chou En-lai once being asked about the consequences of the French Revolution answered, "it's too early to tell". I always liked that story, it shows a very different attitude toward history, not these day-glow news, here today - gone tomorrow, where each tiny fart is termed a historical moment. Marx calls the privatization of the commons the 'primary accumulation', we are still in the process of it, other commons (most of them hard won results of labor disputes like minimum wages, health insurance, defined work hours, medical care, public transportation etc.) are now being privatized. The Roman law of private property rules supreme since the beginning of the 16.century, secret services are the continuation of the Inquisition acting unrestrained against the human rights. The tax burden of Chinese farmers today is exactly the same as it has been during the Han Dynasty (-206 – +220). We exploit the natural resources with the same dastardliness the Greek and Roman empires deforested the Mediterranean Coast, wipe out animal populations with the same casualness the first Americans killed off the continent's big fauna and discriminate strangers like we've done with the Neanderthals. We do everything we can to prove to Mother Nature that we are major mistral and in our 'homocentricity' ignore the fact that she usually does away with those.
And i see the great beauty of this planet in which humans only have a minor part, i see the generosity of nature in all her forms, in a partially rotten piece of firewood i discovered eight slate-blue metallic beetles i'd never seen before.
Wolf Biermann once sang: "This way or that, the world will be red". Now that this way has failed due to bourgeois mediocrity and common greed, we better brace ourselves for that way and stay buoyant while we can.
rl: your travels have taken you to many different places -- the west and the east. i should say that you are a citizen of the world. you date your poems by month and year but also mark them by the city in which they were written. given that you are at home in the world how important is place in your writing?
SH: Place informs you as to who you are, thru its ancestors one goes back to our mother Earth. This particular place i grew up in has formed the way my mind works; the castle gardens with its mosque where Voltaire wrote Candide, its greater surroundings a bio-geographical 'paradise' with the river at it center, with its mild climate and an abundance of food, home to many human species starting way back with the Homo Heidelbergensis over half a million years ago, the central role it played in various German revolutions from the Peasant revolt of the 16. century to the Revolution of 1849, all of this feeds directly into my poetry. It taught me to consider the entire 'story' of a place, as far back as one possibly can, its history; its myths and the stories directly written into the landscape. This (naturally?) raised the question of 'who owns the place and why' revealing the misery of private property, profiteering and exploitation all topics of that poetry.
As for my present sense of <place> let me cite Olson again, his 'nothing less than the whole damned thing' is at the same time a request and a challenge. A request in the sense that empathy/compassion is only possible toward the whole not any selected parts of it and a challenge that one doesn't retreat into the convenience of complacency or even worse the glorification of laissez-faire capitalism. Human life -at least that of Homo S.S.- has been a global affair from the beginning. There's so much talk about globalization nowadays which to me is merely a reflection of the academic bias that until very recently looked at self-contained cultural spheres, like Europa, Asia, Indic, etc. each one developing their own particular way incompatible with the other, thereby creating demarcation lines merely meant to create animosities among the populace. The merchants never cared about those lines; the Fuggers profited from the slave trade in the Indic, Krupp sold his canons to both France and Germany during the First World War, US-American banks financed Hitler. But it shud be obvious that this is only one side of that globalization, it wasn't all about profit and exploitation, tho these are the aspects that presently leap out at us. Yet all that has really changed in 'our' days is the speed with which it all happens.
We need, as it says in a Tlingit poem, 'a place to come up through', this is not necessarily the place we are born at as life is a continuous journey but if we don't understand the place we are living in, how can we then be so presumptuous to speak for all of it. And that's how poetry moves, from the particular to the general, from the local to the universal.
I really dig Nanao's sense of place: a circle ten billion light years large...
rl: considering the speed of global commerce and information what do you think of our current global information technologies like the internet? do you think the internet can expand the reach and, perhaps even, the power of poetry?
SH: In the mid 1970s i subscribed to Co-Evolution Quarterly - there were some really great issues like Journal for the Protection of all Beings, but when under the direction of Steward Brand the magazine got increasingly involved in technological stuff and started propagating world peace under the protectorate of that technology i was downright horrified. Today i am sure that Brand worked knowingly toward the all out control via technology and the so called social medias that we are presently seeing. It makes Ray Bradbury smile in disbelief because like me he doesn't buy into the tall story that these guys didn't know what this technology entailed. Whosoever needs a Mr. Snowdon to realize that people who kidnap innocent citizens and abduct them to secret dungeons where they are being tortured 'inquisition' style, will shy away from reading their email or listening in on their telephone conversations seems rather naive. During the heydays of the Bush administration we wud regularly hear those planes fly over our house at night.
Military Airplanes Flying Past My Window
What do they carry east
in their impenetrable steel torso? Toys
for the torturers in newly build
dungeons, abducted and
then vanish forever
like a new scoring of
Don’t cry for me Argentina?
Out of shame
Mother Earth pulls
a blanket of snow over her head.
I am a Luddite i guess, i always like Chuang Tzu saying, "for him who can scoop water with his hands, a spoon's already too much." I've seen what all that technology does to the quality and elegance of our lives. The loss of both of them in the products from when i began working as a carpenter some 30 years ago until now is too painful to describe. It's the fundamental catastrophe of 'progress'.
I believe with technology you are either 'in' or 'out', what i mean is, if you write yr poetry on a computer and publish it on the net/web [not in public, on paper, bark or fabric] then that's what you do and exactly where you are. There's a mutuality between content and form and the form of technology is uniform. It's a very limited creativity and to me it always comes across as something of a lie, and i don't agree with Plato that lies are necessary and therefore call them 'noble' (like the self declared nobility that lies to the people about pretty much everything, like who all this 'belongs' to etc.) Because of this lies are the nature of politics and the last thing we need is the possibility of total control by. Anybody. I think computers, internet, etc. will not last very long, maybe another 50 or 100 years. A decentralized world certainly doesn't need them.
rl: your poems, and your example of living, are an antidote to the speed, confusion and lies of contemporary techno cultures. you remind me, in the very best way, of a 21st century chinese hermit much like the example set by stonehouse. and yet you do not retreat to your cave and abandon courts and markets. you engage them with a staggering vigor and courage. given that the world is perpetually mad what keeps you awake at night?
SH: Not being afraid of the paradox, just like King Ubu or secretion by means of communion, which takes me back to Franco Beltrametti's use of the term <tribe>. ("This is not my tribe!") These guys think they run the world, when indeed they only run factories, banks, armies, police forces and prisons. True, it's a sizeable part of this world but not all of it and tho these guys are dreaming about taking that show on the road to yet another planet, they are still very much dependent on this one and its wilderness from where they have to get all the ingredients even for their high-tech-crap. Their black magic ain't worth shit and anybody in their right mind wants nuthing to do with them. Why shud their world keep you awake at night?
It's a mere deception meant to scare the hell out of the people using terrorism that is indeed their very own invention to force the states into protecting their property. While they supply the newest weapons technology to those terrorists in exchange for the destruction of the last relics of culchur, because culchur stands in the way of their business. They ensure that entire worlds get wiped out in the meantime collecting their artifacts like war trophies with which they decorate those mansions on the hill. But life is so much greater than these guys, so why shud their world keep one awake at night?
Now one rightfully asks what is to be done against this shit pile of history piling up ever so much higher in front of us. Nuthing -no action, active refusal- a few steps aside and complete reliance on the 'other power', the empathy that is the true heart of all nature. It's the beauty of the parody that makes poetry real - and the joy of hard physical labor that less me sleep well at night.
rl: what are your thoughts and/or concerns about poetry today?
Hope dies last (but it dies) tho she is presently chained to Procrustes' bed being cut down to the size necessary to adjust to the present insanity that surrounds us and that is being sold as civilization. I still hope for poetry and/or art in general that it will remember that its purpose is neither fame nor fortune but simply to enter the mysteries and that everybody involved will come to realize that the virtual reality is no fucking mystery but a very bloody business that turns people into information junkies stoned to stupidity. In the Lankavatara Sutra Buddha makes clear that what is needed is a total revulsion of the habit energy, so let's get to it.
Twelve Poems by Stefan Hyner
for Uli Becker, who’s so much better at this
Only the desperate
get to the bottom of things;
like a lake for instance.
Every undertaking to adjust chaos
to the delusion of order makes us
the undertaker of the primal condition
All our well-meaning efforts
are necessarily a major disaster
Version Of The Holy Mantra
Of The Prajna Paramita Heart-Sutra
For A Five-Piece Mariachi Band
Todo mucho nada,
for Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Bobby Byrd
(He only meant to take the dog)
He only meant to take the dog
on a short walk
when he got past the
there she stood
just as Jaime
He went with her.
The others thot of him dead,
In memorandum of Arthur Okamura
Monkey Business: POETICS
A presence of words and
sounds, the breath
going out. In my dream the master of ceremony
makes too much fuzz
about that poet’s discursive
abilities. No such poetics only
five laws, nine qualities, two adjustments and
to enter the mysteries
via poetry is completeness. Robert Duncan
sat at home (Stinson Beach, California) and thot about this
“It’s simply a matter of being concerned
with the event that’s there.”
And the poets searching their hearts
(Nasadiyasukta) found the bond of existence
and the gods
(Brhadaranyaka were not pleased at the prospect
Upanisad) of men coming to understand this
Apples and peaches,
they want all for themselves
so no one else
may enter the mysteries
Philosophy turned Politics
Plato was making lies
by calling them noble,
he didn’t consider
that this turned all his nobility
into a lie
O, Sister of Mercy
and Matsu take memory
as kids we caught leeches
in the moat of the castle garden,
sold them at the hospital
to buy toy cars
for a world we’d built
in the corner of a dead end road
then they dragged us out of there
and buried it
under a blanket of bubbling tar.
The Kimchi Princess
She floated down on the early morning breeze
like a ginkgo leave from the barren hills
surrounding winterly Seoul –
a memory from another life
where the night was ruled by
the seven-fold constellation
and we ate fresh eel the proprietor
roasted over an open fire
in the narrow alley outside.
The potholes along the way were covered by ice
and there was no heat inside but for that
little oven on which the soup was cooking.
She brought with her an even older memory,
songs of shamans and the nonsense
of some crazy Buddhist hobo:
“Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?“
she asked as we climbed into a taxi.
I rolled down the window, the ice cold air blew
right thru my ears
“Inside the non-active mind
rises the compassionate mind
all by itself,“ i answered
(Prenatal dream state, com’on Honey)
Prenatal dream state, com’on Honey,
turn those lights off,
we’ll go where we don’t need ’em.
Float down Peach Blossom River
past Primordial Mom’s Gate
turn left at the Happy Hunting Grounds
they’ll be waiting for us, hanging out
in the Treasure House
of Unconditioned Realities
Too Many Well Meaning White Men
to Janet Montgomery McGovern
I’m not guided by this funny
that considers head-hunting barbaric
but figures it quite alright
to cut the working man’s wages
to save its benefice
while those head hunters
dangle from the gallows
outside their court house
to James Koller
I wanted to see
a high point
of human civilization,
so I asked him
to drive me to
Leaving The Capital Behind
I never could keep my mouth shut
it only brought me trouble, with old age
it’s gettin’ worse; the mouth and the trouble.
To be without bias is for those too lazy to think
and the capital is under control of the yes-man.
There’s a cloud of plum blossoms in my garden
set to the music of a myriad bees. I dig
for Jerusalem artichokes, cut nettles for supper.
The capital is of no interest to any of us.
Stefan Hyner has published over 30 books of poetry in German, English, Italian, French and Swedish. He is the editor of THE COLLECTED POEMS OF JAIME DE ANGULO (2006) and the literary executor of the estate of the late Swiss poet and painter Franco Beltrametti.
He has exhibited his art work in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the USA in many group and single exhibition and took part at the Biennale in Venice, Italy, in 2001. Stefan Hyner has also translated many books from English and Chinese into German, among them poets like Joanne Kyger, Edward Dorn, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, Jerome Rothenberg, and Lo Ch’ing.
richard lopez was born in the summer of love in a hospital where the late poet/short story writer raymond carver worked as a janitor. current projects include a collaboration with the poet lars palm and co-editing an anthology of demotic haiku with this partner in rhyme jonathan hayes. he published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in, among others, cordite, jacket and dwang.