Five Questions: An Interview with Chase Twitchell

Born in 1950 in Connecticut, Chase Twichell is a practicing Buddhist poet. Her works include Northern Spy (1981), The Odds (1986), Perdido (1991), The Ghost of Eden (1995), The Snow Watcher (1998), Dog Language (2005), and Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New and Selected Poems (2010). Although currently retired, Twichell has taught at Princeton University, Hampshire College, Goddard College, the University of Alabama, and Warren Wilson College.

David Kristof: How did your peers first react when they saw the title of “Marijuana?” Did you receive any negative attention?

Chase Twichell: I published that poem about fifteen years ago, when most of my peers were in their fifties, so I don’t think anyone was shocked, if that’s what you mean. We were the original stoned generation—I was at Woodstock, 19 years old then! As I recall, the response was pretty positive. If anyone was upset, I didn’t hear about it. Mostly people were interested in the poem’s implications about how that time of being high appeared in hindsight, looking back from the distance of thirty-something years.

DK: “Marijuana” is written in first person and seems to encompass your life. Was their any particular event or moment that influenced in the writing of the poem?

CT: You know, many people, when they read poetry, make the assumption that the speaker is the poet. You’d never make that assumption about the character that tells the story in a novel, right? But really most of the time the speaker in a poem is a fiction too, or a stand-in, and not the poet him or herself. In “Marijuana” the voice is that of a person looking back. Sure it could be me, but in fact most of the details are made up. They come from experience and research (I never grew weed, and invented the secret farm in the woods). The poem explores how something that happened long ago can suddenly resurrect itself in memory.

DK: When you were younger, did you ever imagine yourself as a poet who has published work read daily?

CT: I knew I was a poet by the time I got out of high school. At that time, publishing was far in the future, and all I was really concerned about was the poems themselves. In college I published things in the school magazine, but didn’t get serious about it until I was in grad school. I didn’t publish my first book until I was 31. I’m very slow! But to answer your question more directly, it may have been arrogant of me, but I never doubted that my work would eventually get published.

DK: How has your practicing of Buddhism impacted your poetry?

CT: Zen holds that what we think of as our “self” is actually an idea we have about what we are. A “self”is a composite of our experiences, desires, aversions, and so forth. The trouble is, everything changes constantly, so none of the pieces that together give us the illusion of a “me” are permanent. The work of Zen is to perceive this directly, thus realizing that everything is interconnected and every action subtly affects everything else throughout space and time. I just reread that, and can only imagine what a Westerner hearing this stuff for the first time must think! Nevertheless, that’s the radical simplicity of Zen.
So how has delving into this stuff changed my work? In every way. For one thing, who’s talking, putting strings of words out into space (I think of the page as a vast space, or a cave wall)? I think it’ll take me the rest of my life to figure that out. And trying to say things plainly, which I value, means being suspicious of anything that’s just decorative, like a vivid image that really has no reason for being in the poem. So I’ve gotten much more ruthless about revision, and the poems tend to be leaner, even skeletal at times. They want to perceive and express what human consciousness is, and that’s hard work!

DK: I am personally am someone who is deeply concerned about the environment and want to do something with my life to address climate change and the increasing problems of humankind. Since I believe you share similar views about climate change, can you share any poetic words to help others understand how fragile our Earth is?

CT: Part of me thinks writing poems does nothing to help. I look out the window and see the birch leaves pocked by acid rain, and think, How can putting words on paper possibly make a difference? But it does, because it increases my awareness and asks my readers to increase theirs. Zen and poetry have both taught me that the quality of attention we pay to the world is crucial. If we really see what’s happening, we’ll naturally be moved to do something about it. It’s when we can look at a suffering person, or tree, or planet, and not really see them that trouble arises. Then we can say Oh, it’s not my problem, it doesn’t affect me, someone else will take care of it, etc. When we fail to see that we’re all connected, all in the same ecological boat, then we can destroy the very thing we need to survive. Of course there are many ways to make people see the damage we’ve done, and poetry is only one of them. But to me, it’s the arrow that most deeply pierces my consciousness.

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