Cocktails with Li Po & Frank O’Hara

This week, we hear from Dr. Raymond Wachter, my friend and colleague of 14 years. In this interview, we discuss journaling, the writing process, and the essence of  Zen poetry. Enjoy! 

You and I have discussed the helpfulness and the pleasure of keeping a journal. What role has journaling played in your own writing process? 

A huge role! Ha ha! I can think of nothing that’s been more central to my life–not just as a writer and teacher of writing, but as far as how I’ve constructed (and de-constructed!) my own identity.

The idea of keeping a journal was foreign to me, until it just sort of happened, organically. A day or two after my 26th birthday, I was at a low point in my life: I was living in Iowa City, bartending and feeling scattered. I was only about a year away from graduating from the University of Iowa, but I was extremely undisciplined about going to classes or even completing basic tasks like paying my university tuition on time.

At that point, in that rather dark phase of my life, I started writing my thoughts in a little notebook. The thoughts turned into entries, and, over the course of a few months, I began to develop a little bit of self-discipline in my personal life. Eventually, I re-enrolled at Iowa and soon after that found myself in a nonfiction writing course. The professor allowed us to choose our own textbook for the course, and I  randomly chose Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, although I knew nothing about it. Both for the book by Cameron, and as a requirement for the nonfiction class, I was required to write several pages a day; I wrote mostly stream-of-consciousness, in a journal, and have been hooked ever since.

Although you earned your Ph.D. in creative writing (poetry specifically) you have written mostly nonfiction in the past several years. How did this genre crossover occur? Has it changed your perspective on poetry or on writing in general?

Well, I’ve never stopped writing poetry, but after I received my PhD and came to Tuscaloosa, I felt very free as a writer, like I could do anything, be whoever I wanted to be as a writer. At first, I revised a (very bad!) novel that I’d written on a one-year break between my master’s and doctoral programs. After I revised the novel (in 2007), I worked hard to shop it around to agents in NYC. None of them ever bit, and they mostly responded in the same way, claiming that my main character was completely unlikeable. It sounds tragic, but I see it as funny now. Besides, with nearly a decade having passed, I can see now that they were on the mark. (The novel is still stored on my hard drive and a redundant jump drive, though I doubt it will ever get published.)

After the thorough rejection by literary agents, I was preparing to write another novel. I  felt it was some sort of badge of honor to keep moving forward. But I still remember quite clearly the way my girlfriend (at the time) scoffed at me, for wanting to continue writing in the same genre. Perhaps because it felt like more of a risk, or more of a jump into the unknown, I pretty much abandoned fiction at that moment. Now, I’m only interested in writing nonfiction & poetry.

What are you currently writing?

Currently, I’m writing a nonfiction book, but it’s not a memoir, and it’s not even “literary nonfiction.” It’s a book about the mind/body connection and how to make choices in your life that bring you happiness.

About seven years ago, the Department of English, here at The University of Alabama, began an initiative where the instructors would teach “themed” courses in First-year Writing. (I believe you and I were both part of that pilot program.) Out of the five themes offered, the one I chose was called “Advancing Mind & Body.” Teaching that course was really wonderful for me, professionally & personally. I began reading a number of authors and sharing them with my students, writers like Bruce Lipton & Larry Dossey, who both have rigorous academic backgrounds, but whose work might be considered “New Science” or “Mind-Body-Spirit” (as far as their publishing labels).  My initial teaching assignment, and the new authors I began reading, definitely changed the course of my writing projects.

So the book I’m currently writing, about the mind/body connection, is an explanation for New Thought concepts about Self-Awareness and the crucial importance of understanding your own inner monologue. I really can’t imagine wanting to write fiction ever again, or even “literary” nonfiction, now that I’m writing this book.

I know that you  have often favored Zen poetry. How has your view of this type of poetry changed over the years? What keeps you coming back to it?

I suppose I was always interested in poets who describe a moment of heightened awareness, which is probably what Zen is, once you strip away all the trappings of Buddhist theology. There’s this poem of Jorie Graham’s that I loved as an undergraduate, called “The Dream of the Unified Field.” Now, Graham is the last person in the world who would call herself a Zen writer, but the poem moves in and out of different moments in Graham’s life–as a mother bringing a leotard to her daughter’s overnight party, to  historical moments, including an entry from Christopher Columbus’s diary.

It’s a gorgeous poem, especially as it’s fairly long and (seemingly) meandering. I didn’t have a clue as to why I liked it two decades ago, but now I can see that I was attracted to Graham, and other poets as diverse as Frank O’Hara and Emily Dickinson, because they are all interested in moments of heightened awareness. Whether it’s a moment in their lives (Frank seeing Billie Holiday’s name on a daily newspaper, or Jorie walking through the snow in her neighborhood) or whether it’s a moment in their writing lives (Emily’s “slant of light,” “Winter Afternoons”), it seems to me that great poetry is an accurate rendering of  heightened consciousness. Then, as a reader, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Li Po poem from over 1,200 years ago, or a Sappho poem twice that age, you are able to momentarily enter into that state of heightened awareness that they left for us. Also, as I consider the diverse poets that I just mentioned in this answer, it’s clear too, that the best Zen poets don’t necessarily see themselves as Zen.

Well, if Frank O’Hara and Li Po were somehow able to read or hear this answer, I hope they wouldn’t be mad at me. Actually, if we were all somehow together on the physical plane, you and I and those two poets would probably love to have a cocktail right about now! I’d venture to say that drinks with those two, and a chat about poetry, would probably be the best dinner party one could imagine! 🙂

ray-at-bama

Ray Wachter grew up on a farm in rural, southwest Iowa. After serving two years in the U.S. Coast Guard, he attended the University of Iowa where he received a B.A. in English. He studied American Literature & Creative Writing at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he received his M.A. and PhD. For the past ten years, he’s been a faculty member in the English Department at The University of Alabama.

 

Featured image of man typing, by Joel Robison: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/04/06/joel-robinson-joy-of-reading/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+brainpickings/rss+(Brain+Pickings)&utm_content=Google+Reader

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