a quiet beauty in these simple poems that brings me back to them
again and again. Part of why the Ben Zen poems work, it seems to me, is
their setting. Here is a vaguely Chinese character
who speaks like a Zen master and is transplanted to the upper middle
west. The references to his surroundings never cease to surprise.
His Zen-like - or at least foreign - point of view seems to highlight
the holy and wise in what we consider common or dull.
What we have is all we have. If you see it as common or dull, I
think Ben would find that the dullness is within you, not within
the world as it is. We are a collection of atoms held together by
desire more than anything; when we forget this, we lose our sense
of awe. Without awe, without wonder, yes, the world might be common
and dull. Ben is blessed, or cursed, with curiosity. With curiosity,
nothing is dull; yet conversely curiosity has an intensity that
tends to tire us. In our weariness we pay less attention. The paradox
is resolved by one's commitment to return to wonder again and again
and again. Yeah, sure, the world is dull both when you don't understand
it and when you think you do, or let me put it: the world is dull
in ignorance and in certainty.
seen aphorisms and koans reduced to verse, but rarely with the sensitivity
to the placement of each word these poems exhibit. You credit Ben
with the poems' words, but may we credit you with the words' arrangement
within the poem?
If the words seem well-placed, I did it. And if they're poorly put,
those would be Ben's. But I tease. Actually, some of the poems are
things I said in conversation, with a sudden recognition, "Oh,
that's Ben." Some of them, yes, I had to work them pretty hard
so they'd make the sweetest sounding sense they could. And a third
category of these poems I don't have a clue about - Ben gave them
to me; I don't know what they mean; you, the reader, will have to
struggle with them as I do. An example of the first is: "Why
should I pay extra/For what I don't want?" An example of the
second is: "You can't come out of/The ocean, Ben says, if you're/Holding
onto rocks" which started as something considerably more complicated
and less clear. An example of the third is the poem is: "Your
metaphor,/Ben says,//Is more/Than what you're//Here for." I
don't have a clue what that means. I try to figure it out and lose
myself in complication.
seem to capture the connection between Ben Zen and the middle west
when you suggest that the middle western farmer and the Buddhist
monk would each "understand the other's silences." How
did the connection occur to you?
The connection lies in the heart. Both the monk and the farmer are
charmed by the world. Both plug into the world directly. Both see
its essential simplicity - either it rains or it doesn't rain; and,
as my farmer father said, "I'll be a hell of a long dry spell
if it don't." Both the monk and the farmer are parsimonious
with their words, and neither would use a word as big as parsimonious.
My father might say "Don't spend what you don't have."
The terseness of both monk and farmer sometimes makes them appear
Both the monk and the farmer understand they are part of something
larger than themselves. The farmer sees the seasons cycling like
a four-cylinder engine, hears the tromp tromp of the generations,
knows that cornstalks become rubble to nourish the earth, and that
we do too - dust to dust.
Both the monk and the farmer have a sense of investment in the world,
of ownership, and yet at the same time they recognize they are not
in control; both know that control is an illusion. That "Nothing
matters/& everything matters," as Ben says.
Ben reminds me of how you describe yourself
in "Poet in a Business Suit," an essay in Kissing Poetry's
Sister. Ben relates well to the world around him, but he still stands
out. Sort of "in the world but not of it." Do you see
parts of yourself in Ben?
The short answer is Yes. I think there is a little Ben in all of
us - each time we wonder at the paradox of love's letting go and
holding on; each time we turn a rock over to examine the underside;
each time we swallow our fear and behave like gods rather than animals;
each time we surprise ourselves with our own true greatness.
You have defined
a poet as anyone who spends his life "grappling with pattern
and similarity and emblem." Using that definition, is Ben something
of a poet himself?
Ah, yes, Ben is a poet. In fact, thirty-three pieces in Big Ben
are marked "Ben's Poems." Ben sees pattern and similarity
and emblem; which means he also sees that which is random and different
and invested in emptiness.
Dylan Thomas once
said, ". . . a poet is a poet for such a very tiny bit of his
life; for the rest, he is a human being, one of whose responsibilities
is to know and to feel, as much as he can, all that is moving around
and within him, so that his poetry, when he comes to write it, can
be his attempt at an expression of the summit of man's experience
. . ." You, on the other hand, suggest that a poet is always
a poet, whether he writes poetry or not. Despite appearances, somehow
I think you and Mr. Thomas are saying the same thing.
I think being a poet is like being pregnant - either you are or
you're not. There's no part-time vs. full-time in poetry. Being
a poet is how you approach the world.
I think the difference in the way Dylan Thomas and I frame the question
is this: Thomas refers "being a poet" to the act of writing
the poem. I am talking about the habit of "seeing," which
is what makes poetry possible in the first place. Some people go
through life without asking what it means. Poets are asking all
the time; they are turning over rocks, looking behind walls, climbing
up on top of things to get a better view, sniffing the most god-awful
thing to see what it smells like. They are always asking themselves,
"How is this like that?" These are habits of mind, an
approach to the world, a way of being in the world - in other words,
a life, not an act.
You see yourself as a poet. What does that do for your work and
for how you look at things?
Unfortunately, being a poet, I think of everything as possible "material"
for a poem or essay. It means sometimes, maybe, that I appropriate
chunks of life that are not entirely mine to do with as I choose
- they belong to someone else, too, wife or daughter or a woman
who doesn't want her family's story told in public or a girl in
a far village on Reindeer Lake who believes that a writer should
talk to people in town if he is going to write about the town. It
means I always have a notebook in my pocket. It means I am never
un-self-conscious, for I am always reflecting on my experience.
I evaluate it even as I'm living it. This is a curse. It means I
am continually sorting and weighing, tossing and saving.
Being a poet means I am never satisfied. Excellence is almost enough,
which means I am often disappointed and essentially sad.
Being a poet means I am often alone even in a roomful of people.
It means I don't want to be like other people, and couldn't be if
I wanted to.
Being a poet means that no piece of work is ever finished, that
I set a poem or essay aside so I can go onto other things, but it's
not "done," it's only as good as it's going to get in
the time available. It means that all my works are only one work,
a single piece of cloth I'm weaving, whatever the title of the book,
whether it is a poem or an essay.
Being a poet means I wake up at 4:10 a.m. with my mind working already,
and I have to get up and get going to keep up.
Being a poet means sometimes I am observing when I should be acting,
that I am writing it when I should be living it. It means I cannot
be as direct and simple as the farmer and the monk, that I cannot
plug straight into the universe, that I have to process everything.
And, yes, sometimes being a poet means I'm tough to live with, though
that's a question you should take up with my patient wife if you've
got time for the long answer on just how tough it is. She's a wonderful
woman, to put up with me these many years. She is the blessing I've
been given, my solace in this world.
What does a typical
day of a full-time poet look like?
When I'm home, I rise between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. and post my
daily blog entry to The
Middlewesterner. I check the news at some e-news sites
from Pakistan to the BBC and CNN, then see if any folks on my blog
roll have posted for the day. Then I write (or re-write) until about
9:00 a.m. when I get the mail. I write again until lunch, respond
to e-mails, and start working on my next day's blog post. While
I'm eating lunch, I check my blog roll again.
When I "retired," the deal I made with my wife was that
I'd take over a lot of the chores she'd been doing while I worked
full-time and she worked part-time - laundry, cooking, shopping,
cleaning. These tasks I do in the afternoon while I try to get some
more writing done, answer e-mail, and finish the next day's blog
Mary can get home from work any time between 5-7 p.m. When she does,
we have supper - something freshly made that afternoon, or left-overs,
either. We both like left-overs, which frees us from the tyranny
of cooking every day.
If Mary arrives home early enough, we try to walk for an hour before
or after we eat. Afterwards, I try to write some more, then get
to bed between 9:00-9:30 p.m.
When I retired, I promised the printing company I'd worked for that
I'd come back and help them out in the bindery when they were especially
busy. When I go in for that, I work from 3-11 p.m. and get to bed
sometime after midnight. The next morning I like to sleep til between
6:00-7:00 a.m., yet sometimes I still wake at 5:00 a.m. or so and
get at it. These demons of mine are beastly.
When I am out visiting my Vagabond communities, which is one or
two weeks per month, I try to rise about 4:30 a.m. and write until
my first appointment, usually an interview about 9:00 a.m.; or until
I go downtown for breakfast or coffee and eavesdropping. Ideally,
I'll do only two interviews or tours per day when I'm out doing
my research, because I start to lose my focus when I do a third,
a fourth, or once even a fifth interview in a single day. Time between
interviews is spent writing up my notes and observations, creating
the "Vagabond Journals" from which a book is to be fashioned
five years from now.
I usually have a quick lunch by myself when I'm out in my focus
communities. Often I have supper with my host/hostess in the community.
If it has been an intense day, I'll retire as early as 7:30 or 8:00
p.m. If I have a presentation to do in the evening, it will be later
than that when I get to bed.
My most productive time of day is usually three or four hours starting
about 5:00 a.m.
Congratulations on having eleven of the poems from The Big Book
of Ben Zen included in the America Zen anthology from Bottom Dog
Press coming out this fall. When you consider the eleven poems they
chose, what do you think they were looking for?
I know they were looking for recent expression of the Zen spirit
in America, not only from true practitioners but also from Zen's
fellow-travelers here, like me. I'm listed in the same table of
contents with such luminaries as Diane Di Prima Tess Gallager, Sam
Hamill, Jane Hirschfield, David Ray, and Anne Waldman. Yet most
of us are lesser known, the David Budbills, not the Gary Snyders.
In terms of my poems specifically, they got work that snaps with
that haiku-like realization yet doesn't take itself too seriously.
They got work that recognizes the connection between the Zen monk
and the middle western farmer. They took poems from my Ben Zen series
and also some from my series called "Plain Poems: A Fairwater
Daybook." Until the book is published this fall and I actually
see it, I don't know if I can say more than that. I do think I may
use America Zen in workshops on how to write the short poem.
Do you have a favorite Ben Zen poem?
Oh, help me! Do you have a favorite child?
I point to this poem as representative of what Ben, and The Big
Book of Ben Zen is about:
You can't always go
To the cave of a thousand
Ben says, and you can
Come back the same.
These poems point to other facets of the endeavor:
I push the mountain,
Ben says, and push
The mountain and
Still the mountain
You are welcome,
The holy man said,
To all the wood I have.
I have no fish either.
The more I know
The more I know
I know nothing.
How like a poet, to die
Trying to embrace the
How does Ben fit
in with your other poetry, and with your work as a whole?
In one sense, Ben Zen is one voice among several voices in my work
- I have written series of poems in the voices of a Civil War soldier,
an Iowa farmer, and a woman widowed on the tall grass prairie about
1880. In that sense, then, Ben is just another voice.
I turned toward the short, zen-like expression earlier as well -
in the collections This Gathering Season and Between Zen
and Midwestern, and Ben's manner of expression informs my current
series, "Plain Poems: A Fairwater Daybook."
In another sense, however, the Ben Zen poems are a leap. They are
more playful than I have been. They seem sometimes more like aphorisms
than poems, and that's a legitimate charge against some of them.
In the other voices, I knew who was speaking, that is, I had a clear
picture of the persona pretty much at the outset. With Ben, the
portrait was continually being painted and re-painted; each new
piece added another detail and augmented my understanding of the
I think Ben Zen is of a piece with my other work, but it shows a
different facet, the way light changes when you turn the diamond.
As I say, Ben's mode of expression informs my "Plain Poems"
series; and - strange as it may seem - it informs my prose work
as well. Now in my essays I am sometimes given to summing up that
sounds not unlike Ben. It may be that Ben has taught me now important
every word is, even in prose. I like to think I've been a good student.
What are you doing now, and what are your
thoughts about your future work?
The poetry I am working on is a series called "Plain Poems:
A Fairwater Daybook." For five years I kept a journal of my
drive to work each day. The challenge was to write one good sentence
each day. I had no plans for it when I started it. Yet after I finished
2001's entries, I challenged myself to go back and find the poems
in those entries, one per day. Did I find poems? Oh, yeah. At this
point, I've drafted poems for the first half of the year. As I have
time, I'm continuing to work on the second half. What do these poems
share with Ben Zen? They aren't zen-nish poems, particularly, but
they are informed by knowing what Ben taught me. How could it be
My other project is prose, "Vagabond in the Middle," an
attempt to understand what makes us middle western. It grew out
of my memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm, Curlew: Home.
The strength and resilience of those people I knew at Curlew, was
that special to them, or did it belong to others in the middle west?
What are we made of? And how would I find out? I have selected twelve
focus communities, one in each of the middle western states; I'm
going to get to know these communities, the people in them, their
history, the current conditions and future prospects. I know it
sounds like sociology, but in reality it is almost like poetry when
these people speak. So far I have interviewed 160 people, I've visited
all of the towns once, many of them twice. I'm about a year and
a half into the five years I'll spend getting to know these places.
I've got about 150,000 words of journal entry, all those interviews,
and a pretty good sense that the project will succeed.
What does this have to do with Ben Zen? Certainly I am finding beauty
in the most ordinary places. The commitment to watch the ordinary
for these flashes - perhaps, again, that's something I learned from
Ben. The other thing is that I cannot go into a community with expectations.
I must be open to what comes to me, to whatever presents itself,
whether I think it's what I'm looking for, or not. As soon as you
set expectations, you close yourself to all sorts of wonderful surprises.
My biggest challenge in the project is staying out of my own way,
and to some degree Ben has taught me how to do that.
Have you had any
Ben sightings since your last published Ben poem?
Ben has gone off. He hasn't been seen since I put the Big Book together.
That's typical for me, I guess. Once the Civil War poems, my farmer
poems, and the "Married to Prairie" poems were published
in Middle Ground, those voices stopped speaking through me too.
[Visit Tom Montag's
web site at http://middlewesterner.typepad.com/]