Q&A: Calligraphy Accompanied by the Mood of a Calm but Definitive Sauce

As a group, these poems are really interested in Chinese food—and also in various visual representations (for example, calligraphy and painting) associated with Asia. Could you talk about these interests and how they generated for you? 

Since high school and then my freshman year in college when I read F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West, I’ve been devoted to exploring and yoking Eastern and Western sensibilities. I read D.T. Suzuki, I met Alan Watts, I may have meditated my way in and out of a marble. At eighteen, under the spell of On the Road, I bummed around America in search of the Beats. All my life I’ve been attracted to Chinese art, particularly landscapes. And I’ve tried my hand at brushstroke paintings.

About five years ago, when I was looking at a take-out menu for Chinese food, I had one of those moments of epiphany. I suddenly realized the great similarity between many descriptions of Chinese food entrees and titles of Chinese landscape paintings (i.e., “Shaded Dwellings Among Streams and Mountains” and “Shredded Beef Dry Sauteed Szechuan Style”). Fusion occurred; drafts of The Chinese Menu Poems resulted. I began collecting menus from Chinese restaurants across America and visiting museums with good collections of Chinese paintings, as well as ransacking the Asian art books we have in our home library for titles. Receiving the poems was like painting and eating at the same time—moods, tastes, brushstrokes mixing. Sometimes a particular painting would set a scene, sometimes a particular Chinese menu item would bring a thought or feeling out of an aroma. Or the poem would occur and a title would follow. 

Now what’s entered my mind are lines from the first stanza of Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry”: “There is no happiness like mine./I have been eating poetry.” 

Would you say that this poem is participating in the tradition of the “instructions to a painter” genre that we see in Andrew Marvell and Richard Crashaw, for example?

Yes, although Marvell and Crashaw are more formal and provide more intellectual instructions—Marvell being more satirical and political and Crashaw more traditionally religious. Here, I’m joining actual calligraphy instructions and terms for calligraphy strokes—definitely poeticized—with something quite personal. That is, the instructions bid the novice, if she or he wants or needs to go beyond talent, to live. That involves listening to bluegrass, watching tv screen static (which generates from pulses that originated when the universe originated), playing video games. Isn’t it amazing how we may spend hours finding our way to the end of a video game and then, when we put down the joystick, realize that of all our work and play, of all the steps and missteps we took on our way to the goal, there remains nothing? It’s as if after writing a poem you destroyed every draft and have nothing to show but the end result. This very much bothers me, this question of whether we should or should not try to preserve steps that were actually only taken in thin air. 

Anyway, acceptance of what is seems to me the best advice anyone can be given. Chop wood. Carry water. Accept what is, yield to it, if you would go beyond technique and rendering into that other place. Acceptance isn’t resignation but a first home. In Zen, it’s mu (q: Has a dog Buddha nature or not? amu). A Zen Master would say that in calligraphy, in paintings, in poems, in life, it’s mu. Why do I hear rhythms from Grease’s “You’re the One That I Want” in that last sentence?

“Zen” poems are notoriously difficult to pull off, especially in the present day. What, if anything, makes this poem different from other poems you might know in this genre?

I’ve just been working on an essay concerning relationships between American Zen Buddhism and contemporary poetry. What I’ve found is that too many Zen poems in English are often just imitations of Chinese and Japanese Zen poems. The two main types of Zen poems, those that provide religious instruction and those that are primarily imagistic representations of enigmas or calm, often seem to me imposed upon English. I’ve been trying all my writing life to do something else. 

So this poem doesn’t really look or feel like most Zen works, not even the poems of Gary Snyder and Jane Hirshfield that I deeply admire. Snyder’s poems are more a rendering or description, exercises in seeing and mindfulness. Hirshfield’s, of course, come deeply from a brilliant woman’s sensibility. There is, in both their poetry, a consciousness and a sense of the universe I hope mine shares, however. I particularly agree with what Hirshfield said in the December 2010 issue of Poetry

I suppose some would say it’s terribly old-fashioned, or terribly arrogant, for a person to use “we” in a poem to speak of “us all,” but it’s a concept I still believe in—that certain experiences are universally and profoundly human, and that one of the possible tasks of poetry is to name or evoke them.

My “Calligraphy...” might even be more playful (I hope many of my poems come out of the “crazy Zen” school). It has imbedded in it the traditional forest silence and serene river, as well as contemporary trivia.

Would you be willing to tell us the name of the “calm but definitive sauce” in the title?

Most Chinese sauces are hot and spicy, like Hunan sauce and xo sauce, so a calm sauce is rare. Still, mapo tofu sauce might come close. Or even lobster sauce. I like the term “calm but definitive” even more than the sauce. If you can disregard the image of a snobbish art, food, or wine critic, nose in air, saying “calm but definitive,” the phrase feels like a description of what a good and accomplished person might be.

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This poem originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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