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‘Everything, for me, is translation’: An Interview With John High

By Uche Nduka
Photo by Guo Feng

Photo by Guo Feng

John High—poet and prose stylist—writes because he feels driven to do so. American and foreign landscapes and voices populate his poems. A contemporary visionary, it is hard to forget any poem of his once you read it. His works have appeared in publications in the United States, Russia, France. He is the author of The Sasha Poems, Ceremonies, The Lives of Thomas, Here, a book of unknowing, The Desire Notebooks, Bloodlines, Talking God’s Radio Show, and the forthcoming (April, 2016) vanishing acts. Below are his knowledgeable takes on poetry, living, silence, traveling, writing, spirituality. Point is, his love for creativity is always on display.

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1) How does your most recent book (vanishing acts) compare to your previous three books in this series of collections?

The whole thing began with a long poem to my brother, a great friend and hero of mine. One afternoon I was sitting in the Zendo at home and got a call from the coroner’s office that he had overdosed.  So first I cried, then I sat zazen a bit, then I called my good friend, poet and editor, Ed Foster, at Talisman House. I said I had to write a book for Bill. He said, Ok. (Who would guess they still make editors like that?) Over the next year I wrote here, and in the writing some old friends came back: the one-eyed boy, a handless monk, the ghostwoman, and a host of characters from previous books. When I finished writing here and it was published, at some point I knew there was more to be done. So the next work, a book of unknowing, came about with all of these characters tagging along and the emergence of the mute girl—who had been there all along—wanting a place of being as well as non-being. It was a merry recognition of a passage that included the ancient past, the sojourns, the loss of her and the one-eyed boy’s parents in the ravage of war, and a connection to love—though they were quite young and damaged, the others helped them through a post-apocalyptic landscape where they met dead soldiers, priests, vampires, more ghosts, and a group of monks who helped out.

I gave this second manuscript, a book of unknowing, to Ed (four years had gone by), and in early production realized that the two sections of the book were still not enough. So I stopped the production and I wrote a third section to the poems over the next year, and the book was done: a book of unknowing. Done and gone. I thought I was done—fin!

Around that time I found myself deep into the mountains of China on a pilgrimage to the ancient monasteries of the Chan (Zen) ancestors. An extraordinary time of great adventure and learning. That went on for a year—up to Bodhidharma’s cave and on to Turkey and Rumi’s grave in Anatolia—and this peculiar language—which I felt was done & gone as I said—kept coming back: the mute girl and one-eyed boy—they kept appearing along the road, in the monasteries and mosques and tekkes and cafes and caves and all about. So that language and those characters turned into what I thought would be the last of the “so-called series,” a third book, a “trilogy” of sorts, titled, you are everything you are not. It’s a long meditation: language as meditation itself.  And it’s a continuing love story of sorts.

But then, these things are never quite what they seem. Dead and gone? Not really.

Back in America, coming & going in travels, it all just kept arriving. Off somewhere, then settling into teaching, writing, watching time pass. Then we were in Istanbul, again visiting with Sufis and it became clearer: the one-eyed boy & mute girl had to continue. They hadn’t left me.

I had not finished, even after a decade. I had thought this work an homage to the dead, but that was only part of it.

It is an homage to the living.

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The current work, vanishing acts, however, did not really find its place until we were in Tibet. Tragic and beautiful place. As I said, over a decade had passed since my brother left this world. He was still here in the writing though: alive. And now, the one-eyed boy and mute girl had to go through the bardo, the realm of the dead in Tibetan Buddhism and mythology, which consists of the forty-nine-day journey after death and the sky burial. And these two persistent, determined and rambunctious beings had good company: by then they had joined a traveling circus with a fine bunch of carnival and theater actors and a film crew to document the journey.

Along the way the boy and girl found a manuscript in a cave where they were meditating—& hiding out with friends they made along the way—and they began to translate these ancient cave texts. The theater troupe performed the fragments of translation every night as they traveled deeper into the unknown. In this way they gradually came to realize they were translating their own past lives. The text they found actually exists as a historical and literary document and is known as The Book of Serenity, which is a compilation of koans about monks primarily from the Tang Dynasty (roughly 6th-9th century) era in China. Those are koans (little stories, or puzzles) that are also included in vanishing acts.

2) You write poetry and fiction. What are your working processes like for both genres?

Cross-genres, fictional autobiographies, translations, poems, commentaries, filmstrips, stories—I guess from above you can see that I’m not so concerned about genres, or schools of poetry or designations of writing of any kind. Naturally though, there is the world of naming. That’s fine. It is curious to me, however, that the one-eyed boy first appeared in The Desire Notebooks, a trilogy of novellas I wrote while living in the Soviet Union as it collapsed and became Russia. I was there for a few years, teaching at the university and writing. I had been on the Trans-Siberian railroad when I first saw the boy walking with a group of curious monks who travelled through time to places of destruction. He was with a human-sized crow that liked to piss in the snow to mark their trail—tell tales of life & death.

3) With regard to your literary works: how does translation factor in?

Everything, for me, is translation: thought, feelings, sensations, ideas, the appearance of imagination and the self in the grand scheme of things we call life and death. Of course I have translated a fair amount of Russian poetry and continue to translate Osip Mandelstam’s poems from his Voronezh exile, which I began over twenty-five years ago. I’ve been working with Matvei Yankelevich on these in recent years. We talk about our lives, translate, eat and drink tea, glass of wine afterward, and even once played chess while doing this very slow work. Matvei’s an incredible eye & ear. But the way I think about it: all of language is translation, even now—I am translating the past and present and future in this interview. We all are doing this. We just aren’t aware of it all the time.

4) Does being a university professor aid or interfere with your calling as a literary artist?

Both. On the most profound level, we’re all the same. All of the old masters teach this.

The universities I’ve taught in from Moscow to Hangzhou to San Francisco, Istanbul and now New York always present obstacles & gifts to writing.

Institutions are institutions.

On the other hand, the students are true inspiration to the work.

Once in Moscow during the coup I arrived in class not sure if anyone would make it given the snipers. They did. I sat with my students and we read poems and stories while the bombs were exploding in the near distance. Of course we were frightened, but there’s a lot to be said for immersing in the literature and writing of the worlds. It gives a wave of courage. We went to Boris Pasternak’s grave. I lived near his dacha in Peredelkino for a winter while writing my novellas, The Desire Notebooks. Every day I’d walk by his house. Once, I finally knocked on the door. His old butler was still living there, and Zhivago was still illegal to possess. A wonderful afternoon. He told me Pasternak, who was quite healthy before his condemnation and public confession condemning his own work after writing Zhivago, turned white-haired the next day and died a few months later….

My current students at Long Island University in Brooklyn, many of whom experience a different kind of repression due to the color of their skin, their gender or sexuality, inspire me by their bold efforts to free language. The English language itself has built-in prejudices, afflictions, and confusion: its own conditioning. Seeing these students rise-up and often even transform this is so awesome.

These experiences, for me, are all moving parts teaching has allowed. And so many people are voiceless. When I can help even a bit in supporting them to find and express their own multiple voices, this encourages me to do the same.

5) Which writings/writers and visual artworks are important for your work?

It always changes, naturally. The artist Wifredo Lam has been in my thoughts, and I was grateful to see his opening at the Pompidou Center, a full recognition after all these years. He escaped with the Surrealists from Vichy France in WWII with the help of a ship from Eleanor Roosevelt, but because he was black he was often estranged from that movement and freedom. The quote that follows is from a poster his son, Eskil, a good friend of mine, found pasted on a lamp post on the Lower East Side in the eighties with this passage:

I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks. In this way I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.

That’s incredible, right?

Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian filmmaker, connects to this in a different way in his phenomenal Sculpting in Time (translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair):

What is art? (…) Like a declaration of love: the consciousness of our dependence on each other. A confession. An unconscious act that none the less reflects the true meaning of life—love and sacrifice.

And listen to him when speaking about the director’s life and effort:

The director’s task is to recreate life, its movement, its contradictions, its dynamic and conflicts. It is his duty to reveal every iota of the truth he has seen, even if not everyone finds that truth acceptable. Of course an artist can lose his way, but even his mistakes are interesting provided they are sincere. For they represent the reality of his inner life, of the peregrinations and struggle into which the external world has thrown him.

Osip Mandelstam, who of course is close to my life and one of my most profound teachers, writes (in this translation by Clarence Brown):

And if the song’s in search of the earth, and if the song’s
Ensouled, then everything vanishes
To void, and the stars by which it’s known,
And the voice that lets it all be and be gone.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Osip Mandelstam, Wifredo Lam, Simone Weil, Nina Simone, Emily Dickinson, Leonard Cohen, Jorge Borges, Hanshan, Rumi, Sappho, Paul Celan, James Baldwin, John Berger, and Sebastião Salgado—who really began his career by understanding that “Photographs are given, not taken”—and lately the women monks found in the collection of The Hidden Lamp, who suffered through the tyranny of chauvinism in Buddhism…, the poets from the Tang Dynasty.

But where do such lists end?

6) As a poet and Zen Priest, how is a typical day for you?

I’m not a priest. It’s true I studied to be a priest for many, many years and after still sewing an okesa (priest robe) for twelve years, I thought the expiration date had passed for me on that one! Then out of the blue my teacher said time to ordain. Funny how these things happen. I had become accustomed to being what in Zen is called a “monk in the marketplace,” but deep down I suspect I wanted approval of some kind, a recognition or promotion, ha! But in Mexico during a long meditation with my friend and teacher, poet Norman Fischer, I saw the elephant walking through the walls of the cave and somehow it became obvious. My work is as a poet, a teacher, a wanderer—and family man—who adores living with my wife and daughter, Andrea and Sasha. They are my truest teachers.

And directing the MFA program at LIU I feel a deep commitment to helping those writers who struggle with finding their way, many of whom, as noted before, have often been denied their voices and often because of their race, sexuality and gender, writers who do not necessarily come from any privilege whatsoever and no money or formal training. To make a space available for them to write without censorship, to work, study, and create their own books—it’s exciting stuff. We’ve had students from around the world—Turkey, Norway, Taiwan, from the West Coast to New York City—all doing incredible work. I’m continually learning from students.  They are also my teachers. It feels good. It’s like Zen—the classroom is like a world.

Layman P’ang in the Zen tradition inspires me. He lived with his wife and daughter as a farmer and poet and still spent much time in monasteries, came and went freely, argued, drank tea or plum wine and played with the great Zen masters of his time, who were his good friends. I’m lucky to have many Zen masters as good, true friends, and in a significant way that’s what true Zen practice is about: friendship. Making friends with ourselves and the world, which are not separate. But who knows, tomorrow I may become a priest. You just never can tell with these things. Best not to worry about it too much. Whose approval do you need to live and die and be free?

O, my day? On a good day I like to meditate, paint ensos, do a little tai chi, and then a walk in the park with Andrea in the mornings, teach in the afternoons. I write by evening. Otherwise I enjoy traveling this big wide world.

I pretty much do the same on not-so-good-days.

7) What’s the place of the poet with regard to the larger culture?

Same as anyone. The one washing clothes, the one ruling the nation, the one sweeping the street. Not really special and certainly nothing to gain, and no shame or blame either.

Norman got this on the money in his essay “Do You Want to Make Something Out of It? Zen Meditation and the Artistic Impulse” from his stunning lifetime of work in prose, Experience.  He’s riffing off a poem of his old friend, Philip Whalen, when he writes:

For me this sense of making poetry or art as a heroic and grandiose undertaking whose cost and goal are everything sounds about right—providing you don’t get too excited about it, seeing it as anything more or less than any human being is doing, or would do, if he or she reflected for a few minutes about what is a worthwhile and reasonable way to spend a human life. So: (1) art isn’t just another job, its an endless exploration, and as with any exploration there are proliferating avenues of pursuit and no final successes, and (2) art is a necessity for humans, and we all need to find a way to participate in it.

8) Can you tell me about the architecture of vanishing acts?

They discover the great death, the deathless. The mute girl speaks. Time is timelessness. Maybe better to hear from the source:

The ghostwoman to the juggler before the second act, entering the bardo—

As the mute girl and one-eyed boy began to translate the manuscript they found in the cave, the theatre troupe performed their translations from the scrawled notes the boy left them each morning. In this way the girl gradually began to understand the manuscript they were translating told the stories of their own past lives.

What is this bardo we are entering?

The illusion of death—or the deathless death. You have to choose.

9) Do you think of yourself as reclaiming mystical and mythical territories often ignored in most contemporary writings?

I don’t think there is really anything to claim, or reclaim, and if there were, I’d rather not. On the other hand, why would we deny mystery or myth—shamans, angels, wild beasts, or singers like Antonio Carlos John and Luis Bonfa when they sing in the sound track for Black Orpheus, a tribute to death and renewal? That is part of language, part of translation and part of living. It’s good stuff. Listen to Gabrielle Roth—makes sense, right?

In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person, complaining of being disheartened, dispirited or depressed, they would ask one of four questions.

When did you stop dancing?

When did you stop singing?

When did you stop being enchanted by stories?

When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?

10) This one-eyed boy and a girl roam the pages of your four books. Can you address the overlapping motifs they embody from book to book?

Again, maybe best to let the girl speak. She really is good at these things:

Die in the joy of no death.

Die in peace


Die in no regrets

Die with no fear


Die in joy of no death

Time passing into Timelessness

Choose the
illusion of birth/death—

Or:

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Coming home

(From the mute girl’s imaginary preface to vanishing acts for the film crew.)

She wrote an Afterword, too. I’ve always been lucky with good friends.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Tuesday, March 15th, 2016 by Uche Nduka.