Norman Fischer

Michael Palmer's 'Recursus to Porta' (performed 1990)

We at PennSound are beginning to analyze quantities and types of downloads from our archive. From time to time we will have something to say about what we discern in such analysis. For now, this fascinating and not-quite-explainable factoid: since January 1, 2014, one of the five most-oft downloaded MP3 recording from PennSound has been a poem by Michael Palmer, performed at Buffalo in 1990: “Recursus to Porta” (3:34): MP3. And the poet whose PennSound recordings were most frequently downloaded during this time has been Norman Fischer.

Norman Fischer's The Strugglers: new from Singing Horse Press

"Is there anyone out there?"

Kaona / koan: Jamaica Osorio and Norman Fischer voice the conflicts

Photo: Courtesy of the White House by Chuck Kennedy

The students in my graduate poetry course on documentary poetry worry about voices. Some of them are writing about persons at risk: a homeless woman who loves to dance, inmates sent to prisons in other states — or locked up here at home. They're also writing about themselves and what they’ve lost, be it a grandfather or a culture or the tangled combination of both. Whose voices can they use? How do they cite what they quote of these voices? Are they potentially causing harm to those whose voices they use? Should they use names? Specify places? Beneath all these questions are worries about themselves, the possibility for self-harm involved in act of speaking out. Surely to put someone else’s words to paper is to implicate yourself.  So the question is, how to write voices without superintending them; how to be author without presuming an authority that puts others in psychic or physical danger.

Norman Fischer on Attack of the Difficult Poems

  "attack of the difficult poems" … is a great book!  you must read this book!  it will provide you with an education about what is happening, has been happening, in the world of post modern poetry and why it is important for everyone to pay attention to it, important socially, personally, religiously.  also very funny (the book is funny) and brilliant and a pleasure to read.  i was sad when i finished it, but well, isn't this always what happens. …

If nothing ever ended (PoemTalk #38)

Norman Fischer, "I'd Like to See It"

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Norman FischerLinh Dinh, Julia Bloch, and Frank Sherlock joined Al to talk about a poem published in Norman Fischer’s book Turn Left in Order to Turn Right (O Books, 1989). The poem is “I’d Like to See It” (text; audio). When Fischer was interviewed by Charles Bernstein for a Close Listening program in 2006, he read six poems from that 1989 book, including our poem. These six readings, and a great many more, are available on Fischer’s PennSound author page. His own website also includes other recordings of poetry, and also talks.

Fischer is the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and is the founder of and a teacher for the Everyday Zen Foundation, a network of communities and projects. He began publishing poetry in the late 1970s and in those early years especially his writing was associated with that of the Bay Area Language Poets.

Fischer wrote the following prefatory statement to Turn Left in Order to Go Right: “Occasionally when people ask me about Zen practice I say it’s not the usual kind of activity in that you can’t really try to do it. If you try to move toward it it always seems to be somewhere else. The harder you try the worse it gets. But you can’t not make any effort either; in fact you have to make a mighty effort, but in another direction. It’s a little like turning left in order to go right.”

This sense of quasi-nonintentional misdirection, our Talkers felt, is a key to understanding the way Fischer in “I’d Like to See It” deploys the refrain “I’d like to see it that way.” Does it demand or expect the seer to see a certain way? Does it express desire? And how variously? Does it imply a program for a better future? Ah, but — as Linh Dinh points out — it seeks an end to war but wonders if wanting war to end would ever end it: “[W]ould my wanting / To end it ever end if nothing ever ended / I’d like to see it that way.” Julia Bloch observes that the refrain both “swerves away from the intention” going on in any line preceding it “and also modifies it.” At one point, grappling with the poem’s refrain, Al puts it this way: “What I have now is not the way I’d like to see it. Or it could mean: the way I’m seeing it is the way I’d like the world to be, which happens to be the way it is because I observed it. One way or other, there is a difference between the way the world is and the way the world is if he is able to see it the way he’d like ”

Frank Sherlock reminds us that Zen practice and jazz, cognate fields and modes of (non)thought especially in the US, produce a series of variations that focus our attention on modes of thought rather than on the subject matter of the poem (war, air pressure, one’s “daily objects,” a chimney). Frank reminds us of Fischer’s “To be without content, but full of ” where light equals (in this case) compositional process, the proceedings of a thought variously through unanticipated contexts.

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