The Centrifugal Eye
May 2008 - Interview - Fisher
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"Paul Fisher"
Artwork by E.A. Hanninen, Photo by Linda Fisher - 2008

  with Paul Fisher

Eve Anthony Hanninen,
artist, poet, writer and editor
of The Centrifugal Eye
mediates between
Paul Fisher,
poet and artist,
and the poetic spirit-world.

                                              "To Be, or Not . . ."
        The On Spring Creation, Resurrection, Reincarnation & Nihilism Issue

EAH: Hail to a fellow Pacific Northwest native. We’ve both migrated elsewhere — you, eastward; I, north. PNW “climates” certainly influence my writing. How about yours?

PF: Oh yes, it’s probably impossible for people to escape the ghosts of their formative years. Place, culture, and family history are so deeply embedded in our psyches, they’re bound to manifest in some form. My grandfather came west from Chicago in 1904, intending to reach the gold fields of Alaska, but ran out of money in Seattle. I’ve had family in the region ever since, and met my wife while we were students at the University of Washington — her father was comptroller of the architectural / engineering firm that built the Space Needle; one of my half-brothers was a Kitsap County Judge.

The regional landscape from northern California through British Columbia — which poet Gary Snyder refers to as “Cascadia,” and the Puget Sound / Georgia Strait area as “the province of Ish” (after Native American terminology) — is hauntingly beautiful. But I must say I have great fears for the region. So many people are moving into the area, I’m afraid it’s going the way of southern California, with suburbs creeping ever upward into the mountains, former farmlands and forest. The 1962 World’s Fair was both blessing and curse for the Seattle area. It popularized the city, and began its evolution from out-of-the-way, middle-sized city with a friendly, small-town atmosphere, to its present state of congestion, smugness, and sometimes insufferable hipness.

EAH: I’m afraid I share your sentiments.

PF: It’s so true that “you can’t go home again.”

The last time I visited — (my wife’s high-school reunion) — I didn’t recognize my old haunts. My ambivalence toward the Northwest has less to do with landscape than with what people have done to it. These feelings may be similar to what the poet, James Wright, felt about his native Ohio.

EAH: In this light, I’m prompted to ask— are the metaphors within your poem, Sasquatch Speaks, semi-autobiographical?

PF: I guess they are. I’ve used the Sasquatch image in a couple poems, but never as a persona. I’m in an online writing group where we used a seed idea about mermaids as the basis for a poem; as I was the only male member of the group, I decided to try my hand at a different persona. I’d recently read Wislawa Szymborska’s “Notes From A Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition,” in which she talks to the Yeti; I first thought of writing in its voice, but I had a similar “creature” in my own backyard to speak through. I only realized the extent of the autobiographical references after completing the first draft.

I suppose, like Sasquatch, I’m rather shy and clumsy and like to avoid the spotlight. I do have big feet, and have moved around the country quite a bit. The second line of “Sasquatch Speaks,” “in a grove the chainsaw missed,” is a twist on Theodore Roethke’s “At the field’s end, in the corner missed by the mower,” from his poem, “The Far Field,” a line which refers to the Northwest in general and to the Olympic Peninsula in particular. “Sasquatch” was one of few where my rough draft took shape rapidly, but after that, the usual revisions and “sweat work” were required to bring it to its present state. I’m a chronic reviser, and glad to know I’m not alone in this. I have a copy of Galway Kinnell’s A New Selected Poems, in which I’ve found several revisions since the previous edition.

EAH: The topics, “writing” and “revision,” head my list of interests— care to share your personal approach?

PF: Very few of my poems arrive full-blown. Most start as seeds which I then worry into growth. A seed might be an image, a metaphor, a comment I’ve overheard, or something I’ve read that triggers a memory or strong emotion. I think of the process as being akin to an oyster building concretions around an irritating grain of sand. Even though I hope a pearl will eventually take shape, that doesn’t always happen.

I hate to give up, however. I have poems I’ve worked on for years that are still in a formative stage. When revising, I occasionally have more than one poem going at the same time. When I’m stuck, instead of staring at one page in desperation, I put it aside to “cool,” and approach another with, hopefully, new insight. I learned that from my visual arts training — sometimes one simply needs to turn the canvas toward the wall, if only to let the paint dry awhile.

I think the seed of my poem, “Tyger Burning,” was planted in the mixture of sorrow and anger I felt after reading an article a few years ago about the illegal, international trade of tigers’ body parts for traditional Chinese medicines. I wanted to write a poem worthy of those magnificent and endangered animals, a poem also worthy of William Blake, whose own poems and illustrations I’ve admired since my years as an art student. James Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals” may likewise have subconsciously influenced me. My poem evolved through many stages, but the title and dedication only snapped into place after the recent, tragic, and widely-televised incident resulting in the deaths of a young man and a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo. Right now, the Sundarbans ecosystem in India and Bangladesh is threatened by erosion and rising sea levels. If it’s lost, tigers in the wild may be a thing of the past.

In the introduction to his Collected Poems, Stanley Kunitz makes a statement regarding “incantation and sense,” which has helped define and guide my current thinking about poetry in general, and writing poems, in particular. Speaking of the “song lying under the surface of [his] poems,” he says, “The struggle is between incantation and sense. Incantation wants to take over. It really doesn’t need a language: all it needs is sounds. The sense has to struggle to assert itself, to mount the rhythm and become inseparable from it.” To me, “sense” is meaning, and “incantation” is whatever combination of sound-effects and magic the poet can weave into a spell. The balance between the two is the tightrope a poet has to walk. On one side is incoherence, on the other, prose. To walk the rope is a difficult feat, not always successful, but one worth attempting.

EAH: Can you name a few favorite poems that you feel effectively walk “incantation and sense?”

PF: Since my essay addresses Isabella Gardner’s “When a Warlock Dies,” I must say that poem is an excellent example of a poet casting her spell. And Kunitz’ “Halley’s Comet” has been a favorite since I first read it in The New Yorker in 1995. He manages to combine a poignant narrative with the energy of a comet, and send both tumbling down the page together. The poems I like all seem to balance, in one way or another, between incantation and sense. Some lean this way, some that. Theodore Roethke and Mary Oliver are two favorite poets I often revisit. Oliver’s Twelve Moons, one of her earlier and, I think, strongest, most beautifully- organized books comes to mind, as does Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End. I love the way he can, in a split-second, change focus from the panoramic to the microscopic while keeping the music going. I was delighted to read he’s just won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

EAH: I imagine writing and reading aren’t your only activities?

PF: I’m revising a chapbook and in the rougher stages of organizing a full-length book manuscript, thus writing takes up a considerable amount of time. But my wife, Linda, has a more-than-full-time job as executive director of an assisted-living center in our neighboring town of Kill Devil Hills, NC, so I try to keep the house in order, and our dogs and cats happy. I enjoy taking the dogs out to explore the dunes and estuaries near our house — we live a few hundred yards from the largest sand dunes on the east coast. When time allows, Linda and I drive our jeep up miles of roadless beach near the Virginia border to photograph wild horses, collect shells, or meditate on the pelicans, dolphins, ospreys and other wildlife.

I plan to organize a space in the house as an art studio, but not until I figure out how to split myself in half and be in two places at the same time. Maybe I should ask a physicist how photons manage to do that.

EAH: You mentioned you were trained as a visual artist— where and when?

PF: Yes, I was an art major as an undergraduate. And in 1975, while teaching in St. Louis, I received an MA in Art and Education from Washington University. This was years before I pulled myself together as a poet or thought about pursuing an MFA program, which I eventually completed in 2005 at New England College in New Hampshire. I occasionally exhibited my work wherever I was living, in places such as the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, the Craft Alliance Gallery in St. Louis, and the Lyme Art Association in Connecticut.

EAH: You exhibited at the Frye— I’m impressed! That’s a museum well-known for classy exhibits. Why did you go into teaching?

PF: I na´vely thought teaching would be the ideal job for an artist, that it would free my summers for travel, study and painting. I soon found that as a husband and the father of two growing boys, I needed to supplement my ridiculously low teacher’s income with summer — and sometimes evening — employment.

One interesting job I had was as chauffeur for the Eugene O’Neill Playwright’s Conference in Waterford, CT. I shuttled actors and playwrights arriving from New York to and from the airport, train station, restaurants, dormitories, etc.. Some, who were relatively unknown then, are big names now. If I’d only known, I’d have posed for more photographs. And I’m one of few people who can honestly say he watched the first moon-landing on a TV in the O’Neill’s living room.

EAH: Another job you had was as llama wrangler for a ranch!

PF: Yes, although the llama job was short-lived and born out of necessity. Llamas are related to camels and have the vilest spit on the face of the earth. We had to file their toenails in teams of two — one of us holding a large square of plywood to protect the other from well-aimed saliva. The owner would rent a few llamas out for packing trips in the Cascades, and once took one to the summit of Mt. Adams just to show it could be done.

EAH: How has concern for wildlife and environment manifested in your life?

PF: Going way back, one of my favorite things to do as a child growing up in Seattle was to visit the zoo. In those days, both it and the Seattle Art Museum were free to enter. My favorite books were about animals, such as Dr. Doolittle and Horton Hatches the Egg. In the 70s and 80s, as the environmental movement grew, I felt naturally drawn to organizations such as Greenpeace (founded in B.C.), whose concerns included nature, and not just humans. That’s probably why I’m a fan of Robinson Jeffers’ poetry. Far ahead of his time, he realized what a small splash mankind makes in the ocean of the universe.

The event that drew me to work with Greenpeace was the Exxon Valdez disaster on March 24, 1989. People were galvanized into protest, fundraising, lobbying and other types of activism that held some promise of success. That event, plus the Japanese driftnet campaigns and the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985, were still making news — soon my wife and I were employed in Seattle, then Arizona, and finally in Washington, D.C., where she became national canvas manager.

EAH: Moving from life manifestations to afterlife manifestations— what's your personal philosophy?

PF: I do believe life continues, though in changed forms, after what we mistake for death. I’m reading M.C. Richards’ classic, Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person, in which she speaks to that point. Great thinkers through the ages — from physicists to philosophers — have intuited this. However, I can’t swallow the old ideas of instant paradise or eternal damnation. Who’d know how to deal with either? I also have difficulty with the notion that the controlling power behind the universe would reincarnate a person as an infant, again. What kind of progress is that? I’ve been potty-trained once already. I like to think of our present life as a chapter in a book — once we’ve completed it, we don’t start over, but continue on where we left off. And if the universe is really thirteen-plus billion years old, then perhaps all of us were dead (unconscious) for a long time before we ever popped up on Earth.

These topics make their way into my writing, but not from overt effort or intention, and sometimes only as subtext. I like to let language lead me, to follow where the words want to go. What topic bubbles to the surface is often a surprise to me — an added bonus.

EAH: Okay, but what if you discovered reincarnation was the reality — would you choose, if you could, to be a writer, again, or to explore a different path?

PF: I didn’t choose to be a writer. I resisted the notion for a long time, and only gave in when I had to — I think it chose me. So yes, I would be a poet, again. But I don’t think that writing poetry, although it can consume one’s life, is really a profession. One contemporary poet, whose name eludes me, said that calling someone a professional poet is actually an insult, like calling someone a professional lover.

EAH: Some professional writers might find that idea a bit esoteric. It does place poetry in the romantic realm.

PF: You might say so; but as far as exploring undeveloped talents or new career paths, I would love to do something that involved working with animals — no surprise — in the wild, in zoos, with endangered species, whatever. I often try to give them a voice in my poems. I truly believe that “speciesism” is the gravest threat to our planet, and that it will replace racism and sexism as the political issue of the future, especially if or when life is discovered in other parts of the universe.

EAH: You said you “resisted the notion of writing.” Why?

PF: The answer to that is complex. I’m still trying to completely understand it. My father died when I was eighteen months old, and I was raised by my mother and grandmother in a blue-collar environment where the sole purpose of education was to enable one to “get a job.” As a youth, it never dawned on me that anyone could “become” a writer. They were almost mythological beings, known as authors. Other than religious texts, there were almost no books in our house. I had difficulty learning to read — I’m still a slow reader, but think that may be an advantage when it comes to poetry.

I’ve always been creative — in grammar school I was known as the “class artist,” and studied the violin throughout my high school years. I loved books, but traditional English classes turned me off — they took all the fun out of my hard-won reading skills. One day, while I was an undergraduate art student, I accidentally pulled a book of Theodore Roethke’s poems from a library shelf, and was instantly mesmerized by his work. I enrolled in a writing course, and, to my amazement, won the college’s creative-writing award two years in a row. You would think that would have turned me around, but it only frightened me. This was the early 60s, before poets and poetry programs were sprouting like forests around the country, and I was still burdened by the notion that anything one did for pleasure was not real work.

Although I took a few postgraduate courses in poetry and writing while getting my teaching certificate in visual arts, it took a real “belly of the whale” experience at the age of forty to make me realize that my real passion was poetry. While grappling with a profound crisis-of-faith, it was the only “medicine” that worked for me — my spiritual lifeline.

EAH: Recent writing “accomplishments?”

PF: Most recent? Getting a poem right that had been in and out of my scrapheap for several years. When a line or an image or some other aspect of a poem snaps into focus, and I know I’ve got it right, it’s an incredible feeling — especially if it’s something that’s eluded me for a long time.

Awards and grants, even publications, are great, but I look at them more as gifts than accomplishments, since they’re determined by people other than me. That said, when I was one of two poets awarded a 1999 Individual Artist’s Fellowship in Poetry from the Oregon State Arts Commission, I was certainly grateful. The money came at a time when it was needed, and my work received local exposure through readings at Powell’s Bookstore and elsewhere. So, especially for poets, who almost always toil for free, those kinds of things are useful.

EAH: Indeed.

Final question, Paul: Say it was possible— if you could resurrect one dead poet, who would it be, and why?

PF: I guess it would be Homer. So little, perhaps nothing, is known about him. Was he an actual person? I’ve always been fascinated by ancient and prehistory — I’d love to be able to talk to anyone from that period of time. And if you were to ask me what artist I would like to have a conversation with, it would be one of the Paleolithic cave painters of southern France. When Picasso first saw their work, he said that we’ve learned nothing since then.

Medieval Device, ca. 1400s

Paul Fisher is this issue's Featured Poet.
Read more about Paul on his Poems page and enjoy his Essay.

“Death is the veil which those who live call life;
They sleep, and it is lifted.”

                                        ~Percy Bysshe Shelley


Contemporary Poetry with an Eye Towards Resistance

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