Writing for Health and Pleasure

Interview with Joel Weishaus by Tom Bell

Tom Bell: Joel, I read the interview August Highland (Muse Apprentice Guild, Winter 2004) did with you here in MAG with interest. I was struck by your comment that "We never had a commitment to health and wholeness". How would you see that applying to poetry? What strikes me is the interest that's so often generated by the idea of suicidal poets. Speaking personally, for example, I chose to write a poem rather than killing myself.

Joel Weishaus: My reply to August placed this in a socio-political context, but then pointed out that "Even in a monastery, spirituality is a lonely struggle." This is an Eastern deployment, as Western religions orient the person toward an entity outside themselves. In Judeo-Christianity, this misorientation may have been their most central and disastrous turn. It moves personal responsibility out from the person--"God forgives you"--while psychologically the person is still burdened with his or her acts. In other words, religion and how the psyche works--I almost wrote "the Freudian psyche"--are at odds. Religion and art have always had a close relationship. It extends back to the awe one must have felt after making a recognizable mark, which set up an inside/outside dichotomy. I, and I'm sure you, still feel that awe. "That couldn't have come from me. I don't have that much talent." Every artist feels that his or her talent is a gift. "He has a gift," society says. So that the individual artist has a commitment to wholeness, even though during the act of creating it functions unconsciously. As for suicidal poets. This notion is part of Modernism's Artist/Hero myth. I've read that dentists have the highest rate of suicide in this country. So that, while writing a poem may help you to stay the impulse toward suicide, as it empowers you, gives you a reason to live, for another person it may be working to support a family, or even walking the dog.

TB: This goes in some interesting directions, but I want to put two things you say together as they resonate for me that way: [wholeness] "functions unconsciously" and "making a recognizable mark". I don't want to put words into your mouth, but speaking as a psychologist this means for me that the 'unconscious' is in the action of mark-making and not where Freud thought it was at all. It's not hidden and secret but out there in the act of writing poetry?

JW: Functioning unconsciously and the unconscious are not concordant. One has to do with a level of awareness, the other with a theoretical "place." I was addressing the notion that, while in the act of creating, the artist, the poet is not self-conscious but intuitive, which is a mystery in itself. The unconscious, it seems to me, is like an inverse Black Hole from which everything flies out.

TB:: So that the act of writing healing poetry is like laying on hands with the emphasis on 'laying'. Psychologically this is the preconscious but this is casting us adrift, perhaps. I want to get back to how you apply wholeness in your poetry.

JW: I'm not sure what you mean by the laying on of hands, unless you're addressing the Mystery. As I live among people who are mainly older than I, I see how many people become "religious" as their death approaches. It reminds me of John Newlove's poem, "God Bless the Bear," which contains the lines, "I want to know / what my death looks like / no matter how fast it comes." Death, after all, is life's ultimate mystery, so the poet wants to know what it looks like. Maybe, however, it's the other way around; e.g. life is death's ultimate mystery. But this is, as a friend of mine likes to say, for another discussion. Wholeness begins with interconnectiveness. This is the notion that governs all my work. What began as a meditative moment, an "Ah", assumed a physical presence. When the Internet entered my home, it outwardly opened an insight. My first memory of this is when I got on-line in my home for the first time, and saw the university's-this was the University of New Mexico-library catalog, something to which I had to drive a few miles, suddenly appear. Some people in New Mexico see Jesus in a tortilla. I saw a library catalog sitting on my worktable, which for me had a similar awesome effect. Thus, when I sit down to write wholeness is there both psychologically-a feeling of belonging to a tradition that began even before the Paleolithic cave painters lit their lamps, and the responsibility that goes with this admission, along with the evidential presence of interconnectiveness on the screen in front of me. On the mundane level this is already old stuff. On a metaphysical level, it renews itself every time I log on, but only because a coeval meditation practice continues.

TB: I was using laying on of hands in a meditative sense. Would you characterize your writing poetry as meditation? Your mention of the library on your computer prompts me to ask if you've reflected on how the computer has affected your writing. I know there was a period when I would actually incorporate parts of something like a library catalog in a poem I was working on.

JW: There is an ancient and ongoing discussion in Zen circles about how a tradition whose practice is beyond words could have produced some of the greatest literature in East Asia. I think this happened because writing, like the other arts, is, when fully committed to as an art, not as vocation or commercial venture, enters a meditative state. The artist realizes that he or she has become a skillful means to express something larger than one's self. As for the computer, it completely changed my work, and thus me, although I had been moving in this direction for five or six years before I purchased my first machine. I concur with the futurists who say that someday computers won't exist, because they'll be fully integrated into the world. To take it another step, I suggest that the Internet will a trope for human consciousness.