If nothing ever ended

PoemTalk #38: Norman Fischer's 'I’d Like to See It'

Photo of Norman Fischer (left) by Laura Trippi, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editorial note: The following conversation has been adapted and edited from episode 38 of PoemTalk, recorded December 9, 2010, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and transcribed by Michael Nardone. The episode discusses the poem “I’d Like to See It” from Norman Fischer’s Turn Left in Order to Turn Right (O Books, 1989). Fischer is associated with the Bay Area Language poets and is the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. For this episode, host Al Filreis was joined by Julia Bloch, Linh Dinh, and Frank Sherlock. Listen to the show here. — Amy Stidham


Al Filreis: I’m Al Filreis, and this is PoemTalk at the Writers House, where I have the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close, but not too close, reading of a poem. We’ll talk, maybe even disagree a bit, and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities — and, we hope, gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners. And I say listeners because PoemTalk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our PennSound archive.
Today, I am joined here in Philadelphia at the Kelly Writers House in our third-floor garret studio by Julia Bloch, veteran of Bay-Area independent, progressive publishing at Tycoon, Curve, and other places, a widely published poet, author of Post-Psychiatric Sonnets, whose wonderful reading with Dodie Bellamy in 2007 is featured prominently on her PennSound page, and who is the editor of Jacket2; and by Linh Dinh, Saigon-born Philadelphian, whose most recent book of poems is Some Kind of Cheese Orgy, published by Chax Press, and whose much-updated blog called State of the Union is full of, among other things, photographs perfectly capturing our economic mode; and by Frank Sherlock, among whose many recent doings are the books The City Real and Imagined, written with CAConrad, a psychogeographical Philadelphia poem, at least partly, and, from 2009, Over Here, published by Factory School, and whose PennSound author page I highly recommend. Welcome back all three of you to PoemTalk. Linh, hello.
Linh Dinh: How are you?
Filreis: I’m great. It’s good to see you. Frank and Julia, hello.
Julia Bloch: Hi, Al.
Frank Sherlock: Good to see you.
Filreis: Everybody good today?
Sherlock: Yes, yes.
Bloch: Yes.
Filreis: Good. Well, today our poem is Norman Fischer’s “I’d Like to See it,” which was published in Turn Left in Order to Go Right by O Books in 1989. Our PennSound recording of the poem dates from 2006, so here now is Norman Fischer reading “I’d Like to See It.”
[Recording of Fischer reading “I’d Like to See It.”]
Filreis: So, why don’t we start by talking about the refrain. How does the refrain work, what effect does it have? Is it deployed in different ways along the way? How does it sound to you? Linh, thoughts?
Dinh: Well, it happens pretty much every third line, so, and then he varies it. Frankly, it’s very funny in the beginning but it got to annoy me a little bit by the end because I was dreading to hear it again, but because he mixes it up you don’t know when it’s coming.
Filreis: Does it serve different meaning-functions? At the beginning, it seems to me “this is the way I’d like things to be,” but then it does other things. Frank, does it do other things?
Sherlock: I look at it the way that Norman Fischer talks about language and words as objects and, at the same time, ephemeral. So, you have this object that comes back time and time again, but in that way, that way that is repeated is a different way each time, so it makes that line at the same time an object and ephemeral.
Filreis: Can we anatomize that a little bit? So, let’s pick some instances of the refrain and say how it functions, how it means differently, any of them. Julia, do you have one?
Bloch: Several lines down, he writes, “Nor can you push at the door expecting satisfaction on the other side / I’d like to see it that way.” So, “Nor can you push at the door expecting satisfaction on the other side” is a pretty complicated line. It’s got a lot of different conditionals, and it’s sort of a line that’s imagining something. And then, “I’d like to see it that way,” I think, both swerves away from the intention going on in that line and also modifies it. It’s pushing the imagined situation further at the same time that it’s bringing it back to something else.
Filreis: How would you translate it right there?
Bloch: I’d like it to be the case that you can not push at the door expecting satisfaction, expecting to find something on the other side that’s better than what we have now.
Filreis: Great. Okay, so that’s one way it functions. Frank, can you think of another example?
Sherlock: Sure. We can compare the first three lines, “A compendium of words was stored here / Just underneath the chimney / I’d like to see it that way,” and, coming back to the idea of the word as an object, and yet, underneath the chimney, which means, for me, it’s ready for the fire, ready to become smoke, ready to take a new form, and then a little bit down further —
Filreis: Oh, so, I’m sorry, so that way means: I’d like to have that perspective on it.
Sherlock: Right.
Filreis: That way. As opposed to this way or another way.
Sherlock: Well, that’s how I’m seeing it. And then “that way” becomes different further down in the poem when he says “I was born on a day absolutely unique in world history / Birds grasp their path in air / I’d like to see it that way.” And I think there, he is using it as the authenticity of the moment. I think it’s serving a very different function.
[Recording of Fischer reading, starting from “Many’s the time …”]
Filreis: Linh, can you give us an example toward the end of an annoying version of the refrain.
Dinh: Well, just because he repeats it so many times, and I see this, I mean I like this poem —
Filreis: Is there — I know, I’m sure you do — is there a spot where it is a throwaway line and not necessary, would you say?
Dinh: It’s a very playful poem, and there are many lines that are kind of like little jokes, you know. “I was born on a day absolutely unique in world history” is kind of funny and I like that. I like what you mention, expecting satisfaction on the other side. I mean, it’s funny. So, I’d like to see the refrain itself as a little joke. It happens so many times that I kind of dread it returning towards the end is all that I’m saying. It’s good when he gives it a little bit more room, when he waits a few more lines for it to repeat itself. That’s all.
Filreis: I chose for us to talk about Norman Fischer in part because I admire his work as a whole, and I’m interested in the question of whether there is a Zen Buddhistic aesthetic, whether his Zen practice or his meditative practice, which, for him, he’s written about it and talked about it a lot, so it really is a way of changing at the time — I guess it’s the mid-’70s or late ’70s — changing the way he writes so that he is present-focused. Alright, so, we can talk about that more. So, I chose this poem thinking about it as an example of that, but hoping that we would accidentally be able to talk about whether there is a Zen aesthetic here. Assuming that there is, what would you say? Frank?
Sherlock: Well, I could say in terms of the repetition of that line, it can serve as a meditation.
Filreis: It is meditative.
Sherlock: In that you’re returning to that line but the moment is different each time you return to that line. And Fischer has talked about unintentionally having his religious practice coming through his work, his poetics, while at the same time viewing them as two very different practices over time, that he has noticed that on some level he needed to embrace that.
Filreis: But “I’d like to see it that way,” at least conventionally, Linh says, “what I have now is not the way I’d like to see it.” Or it could mean the way I’m seeing in those lines is the way I’d like the world to be, which happens to be the way it is because I happened to observe it. One way or other, it strikes me that there is a difference between the way the world is and the way the world is if he were able to see it the way he’d like to. That suggests a discomfort with the world rather than living in the present. Have I overinterpreted that?
Dinh: Okay, “Would war ever end or would my wanting / To end it ever end if nothing ever ended,” see the “nothing” is interesting to me because instead of saying if anything ever ended, nothing ever ended. So, in a sense, he answered the question: war will never end because nothing ever ended. 
Filreis: “I’d like to see it that way.” What is “it”? In the context of wanting war to end, what does it mean to say, “I’d like to see it that way?”
Dinh: But then he answers it, because nothing ever ended. So war will never end.
Filreis: As a problem.
Dinh: Right.
Sherlock: Yeah, that contradiction, he sees it as being very public with its admission as not being so confusing in his everyday. “It,” I would say “it,” because he has spoken about this line more than once to be without content but full of light. I’m seeing “it” as that light, that consciousness, and that is a toward, an unfulfilled.
Bloch: It’s almost like the “it” is being put into the form of the line, which I’ve also heard Norman Fischer talk about. That [in] poetry, each line puts the present moment into a form and immediately moves on to the next form. All these forms are ephemeral. And I really like thinking about how these lines are leading to each other, even as disjunctive as they might seem. I mean, every time this refrain comes in it is doing something different, and sometimes it follows more than it follows at other moments.
Filreis: It’s also causing him to stop and reorient.
Bloch: Right.
Filreis: So, it separates simple, present observations or thoughts. It calls himself up short. In that sense it becomes meditative and almost — Linh — doesn’t mean what it means. It’s almost more of a breathing in or a taking stock.
Bloch: Which is all about being present. I’d like to see it that way. I’d like to see that way. I’d like to see it that way. I’d like to see it that way.
Filreis: All those ways.
Dinh: Well, it’s like a mock of him that pivots away from what he just said, you know.
Filreis: Yeah.
Dinh: In a sense, this kind of paratactic strategy is fairly standard these days, right? We all do that now. Especially in our camp, or whatever. So, you can call it a kind of jazz aesthetic or Zen aesthetic, but it’s also like a television aesthetic.
Filreis: Woah, fighting words.
Dinh: I see it that way. It’s a commercial break so you can return to the program.
Filreis: Wow. Who is going to respond to that? I mean it is true that Norman Fischer, when he talks about when he was away from Taiwan for sixteen or seventeen years, he came back, and only then, he says, discovered that he had compadres in the Language poetry movement who weren’t doing, in terms of personal practice, what he’s doing. Like the conversation that he had with Charles Bernstein is hilarious because Bernstein is all about maintaining his anxieties in order to continue to produce and Norman is saying, he’s not proselytizing Buddhistic practice, he’s just saying I do something different but, in fact, Fischer would say, they end up with the same result. He found affinities with the so-called Language school. Which suggested to me: yippee, I don’t have to meditate in order to — [laughter] Frank, your thought?
Sherlock: In terms of the idea of Zen poetry, I’m thinking about Buddhist poetry. American Buddhist poetry is very different than traditional Buddhist poetry, which is very structured and —
Filreis: Traditional.
Sherlock: Traditional, yes. So, when you think of the tradition of American Buddhist poetry, it’s had that sort of avant-garde association —
Filreis: To jazz, for instance.
Sherlock: Particularly to postwar jazz. So, you can totally see that, but in terms of his affinity with the Language poets, I see it as that idea of words as objects but also in terms of Fischer’s own form — where Zen informs his form, I think, is in terms of being grounded in silence and that the use of language is profound when that silence is broken.
[Recording of Fischer reading, starting from “Life goes on ...”]
Filreis: I think improvisation is really important to him. He talks about that deriving from jazz, and he has found Zen practice to be a way of reminding himself always that what he is doing is only valuable, not as content, as you made the distinction before, or quoting him made the distinction, but as something that’s ephemeral, that’s present, that’s passing, and he says, I don’t know if this is true, but he says his hope is not to create a line that is memorable. His hope is to create instances of the present.
Sherlock: But he wouldn’t mind that, would he? 
Filreis: Maybe in his heart of hearts he wouldn’t mind coming up with something that’s memorable but that would theoretically defeat the purpose of improvisation. Well, let’s look at a comic moment, an antic moment: “I could relax, put on my enormous suit / And ring your doorbell holding my breath and flowers / I’d like to see it that way.” What’s he doing there? Is that just sentimentality?
Sherlock: I think that’s the point of breaking that silence with that sound of ringing the doorbell.
Filreis: Well, but isn’t it some kind of cliché romantic moment? It’s a bit of a Hallmark card, isn’t it? You’re playing right into Linh’s hands!
Bloch: We could read it as very self-deprecating: we return again and again, born into a womb, so I can make this gesture, I could take this romantic risk and show up in an enormous suit, and then that’s followed by ending war, so it’s a very — in the structure of the poem — a funny moment, not funny “ha ha,” but a little bit awkward.
Dinh: I think there are many funny moments in this one. “Imagine the red thing you’re alone at last,” that’s hilarious.
Filreis: When Fischer was interviewed by Robert Front, he was asked about his spiritual practice and his poetry and the connection, and he said — I’ll quote it and ask for your comments — he described his writing before he discovered his practice and that writing became unsatisfactory, he said, because the idea of writing about experience that had already happened, rehashing old experiences, seemed too intellectual and too artificial. So, he wanted a writing that would be a discovery in the present world. He found that writing about life that had happened before was bad for life and bad for writing. So, again, he focused his writing on the present moment and on improvisation. Does that distinction make sense to you? Is it attractive to you? Does it hold up?
Bloch: Well, except for the line “I was born on a day absolutely unique in world history.” The whole poem is about the present and the future. It’s all about what’s happening now, about what might happen and what could happen. It seems like there is that one moment that happens in the past, and then it gets immediately shifted to “Birds grasp their path in air.” It goes immediately to this very airy image in the sky.
Filreis: What if “I’d like to see it that way” was almost entirely ironic?
Sherlock: I don’t know, are you saying that the implication is that “I’d like to see it that way but I don’t”?
Filreis: No, I already do.
Sherlock: Oh, but I already do, okay.
Dinh: I think there’s a kind of wryness to his tone. I mean, he’s fairly resigned. I don’t think “I’d like to see it that way” has that much weight really. It’s a little, like I said, it’s a little joke, almost.
Filreis: Resigned.
Dinh: He doesn’t really mean it.
Filreis: Yeah, I agree that he doesn’t mean it, but resigned? I sense ease, lightness, peace. Not peace at the fact that he can’t end war and that war can’t be ended, but peace at some kind of recognition of the situation —
Dinh: Do you sense some detachment in him at all?
Filreis: I do.
Bloch: I’m wondering, Linh, were you as annoyed by the refrain when you heard the recording or was it more on the page?
Dinh: On the page.
Bloch: Because I’m wondering what you thought of the way he reads it, because he reads it so sonorously and really presently, actually, each time it repeats.
Dinh: And I’m assuming that he probably reads it differently each time because he slowed over some of these line breaks. He paused quite dramatically in the middle where the punctuation doesn’t call for it. So, he probably improvises each time he reads this poem. I was quite surprised because I didn’t hear the recording until just now.
[Recording of Fischer reading, starting from “I blow continuously ...”]
Filreis: It strikes me that when I read Norman Fischer’s poems, and when I listen to him talk about the poems or when I read him writing about it, that he is the opposite of proselytizing his process. He really doesn’t want to come on like somebody who has the way and you should find the way at all, which is what, for me, is, finally, so beautiful about the work.
Well, let’s go around and get final thoughts on the poem before we gather some paradise, make some recommendations. Final thoughts, something we haven’t said yet that you think needs saying. Frank Sherlock?
Sherlock: Well, talking about Norman Fischer, of course, I think of Philip Whalen. They had a close friendship, and Philip Whalen was a mentor to him of sorts. But in terms of that refrain, I also think of that famous Whalen quote, “the continuous nerve movie.” It just keeps coming back, but it’s a different image each time.
Filreis: Thank you. Julia Bloch, final thought?
Bloch: At the end of the poem, Norman Fischer writes, “But the problem is I put out my hand / And only clutch air wanting to understand,” and I’m really struck by those two lines. First of all, they rhyme.
Filreis: Yes.
Bloch: Which is very rare for this poem, and then there’s this problem, and I’m left wondering what the problem is. Is it the desire for understanding and for knowledge and for being able to analyze this moment, this moment of living? Or is it what we call sometimes in the classroom a “productive problem,” a problem that produces meaning and produces knowledge? I really like that image of clutching air.
Filreis: It seems to undo my reading of the refrain as ironic in this sense that desire is severed from its object. Wanting a solution or an object and then coming away from that reaching out of the hand and finding that it’s empty. It’s actually not empty, there’s air in it. But understanding still remains to be had. So, you can’t have or possess understanding. You simply want to reach out with desire and get an object and then, of course, you’re going to find out there’s no answer.
Bloch: It’s like that bird whose path is in the air. You can’t see the path.
Filreis: It is.
Bloch: It’s just the bird flying through the air.
Filreis: It is. And “I’d like to see it” — normally you would get there “I’d like to see it that way” meaning, I’d like to see this kind of practice be the practice of desire, where you still desire but don’t get anything in return that’s objective. And then it’s “I’d like to see it some way.”
Bloch: Right.
Filreis: It’s a slight — what — desperation? Some way, some way, any way. 
Bloch: Right.
Filreis: That’s quite nice. Linh Dinh, final thought.
Dinh: I’m just wondering a bit about the tone of this poem, which is —
Filreis: You said “resigned” before.
Dinh: It’s also ironic and fairly detached. It’s a fairly familiar approach these days, and I’m wondering why that is and whether you can infuse poetry with more hysterical emotions but retain the light. You know what I’m saying? And not get stupid and silly and indulgent and turn people off. Well, maybe you should turn people off. I’ll take that back, maybe that’s not so bad. But there’s something very civilized about this poem, right? And that’s the strength. Maybe it’s a question of temperament. I’m wishing for some stronger medicine here.
Filreis: We might say he makes a content/light distinction. Frank, what was the line, about content and light?
Sherlock: To be without content but full of light.
Filreis: So, content, no, light, yes. And the rejection of content, I think, you’re saying in a way, the rejection of content can be had without necessarily the light, which is a sort of floaty detachment. There are alternatives to the alternative to content. 
Dinh: More heat, more dirt, or something. I’m just questioning, and maybe I’m stating my own preference.
Filreis: Well, that could be your own mantra: no content, only dirt. [Laughter.] Well, we like to end PoemTalk with a minute or two of gathering paradise, which means we do the Dickinsonian thing of gathering in paradise with our narrow hands. But Frank doesn’t have narrow hands. He has big hands, so do you want tell us something about something in the poetry world you like?
Sherlock: Sure, I’d like to talk a little bit as a segue from Zen and poetry about a new book from Debrah Morkun called Projection Machine from BlazeVOX Books. She is a Naropa alumnus and living in Philadelphia and part of the New Philadelphia Poets and is a fantastic poet. So, check her out.
Filreis: Thank you, Frank. Julia.
Bloch: I’ve been really enjoying another psychogeographical Philadelphia poem, which is Kevin Varrone’s passyunk lost, which came out with Ugly Duckling Presse.
Filreis: Another Philadelphian.
Bloch: And it is getting me acquainted with a neighborhood that’s new to me, which is South Philadelphia, which is a great part of the city, and a very long and complicated street there.
Filreis: What is it about all these psychogeographical poems coming out of Philadelphia? Frank, can you explain this fashion?
Sherlock: Well, we live here, and we’re writing our way through the city.
Filreis: And you have a psyche and there is a geography.
Sherlock: There you go.
Filreis: Okay. Well that’s all the seeing it that way we have time for on PoemTalk today. PoemTalk at the Writers House is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania and the Poetry Foundation. Thanks to my guests, Frank Sherlock, Linh Dinh, and Julia Bloch, and to PoemTalk’s engineer today, Steve McLaughlin, and to our editor, as always, the selfsame Steve McLaughlin.
Next time on PoemTalk: Josephine Park, Herman Beavers, and Tracie Morris converge here to talk about Etheridge Knight’s poem reply to Gwendolyn Brooks.
This is Al Filreis and I hope you’ll join us for that or another PoemTalk.