Today we're talking with Glen A. Mazis, author of The River Bends in Time
FQ: You teach philosophy. Will you speak about the intersection between philosophy and poetry?
For thousands of years, since Plato spoke of the “quarrel between philosophy and poetry” and exiled poets from his ideal Republic proceeding all the way to Heidegger speaking of poets and philosophers as “neighbors closest together and furthest apart,” there has been this tension between the two endeavors. For me, however, there an interdependence and flowering between the two. What philosophy asks about, it can’t answer—no one can. No one can tell us what love is or what friendship is or what is the meaning of death, or any of the great philosophical questions. Philosophy can clear away all those silly answers that block true understanding and point us in the direction of where our key experiences of these dimensions are to be found. At this key moment, in that sacred place, the poet can twist language into new shapes, make new connections through metaphor, that bring us into the depth of our experienced sense of things, but only indirectly. Truth and deep meaning can’t be stated directly, only indirectly evoked, alluded to and shown in their shining. For me poetry and philosophy need each other or otherwise they both lack the depth and vitality they can have together.
FQ: Where do philosophy and poetry diverge?
Any poetry teacher starts their first instructions to their students with the exhortation to “show me with your words, don’t tell me.” On the other hand, the starting place in philosophy is to take any statement and ask “why?” and go deeper for what lies behind the obvious. Poetry shows us the face of things, the way they smile or frown or dance a pirouette. Philosophy tries to understand what motivated the dance or the frown, and where it might lead us. Reasons are uncovered by philosophy as blueprints to understand the underlying structure of what is happening and where we might want to go from here, but poetry paints the world to make us see all its hues, feel its rhythms, and notice the small details.
FQ: Who are the philosophers who have most influenced you?
My guiding inspiration for my whole career in philosophy has been the French philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He was the first and only Western philosopher to see that the true subject, the deepest Self, was the body, and its access to reality was through perception, not intellection. His idea of the body was that it was merged with the environment around it, not stopping at our skin boundaries, and that the sensual engagement with the world that gave us a sense of place and interconnection with other people and all the myriad things around us was also streaked with the imaginal, the dreamlike, the emotional, and the memorial deeper than mental recollection. He also saw how deeply we were embedded in nature and interwoven with the life of animals. His writing was the most poetic of any philosopher, because he knew only this use of language would indirectly evoke “the whisperings among things.” Other philosophers, who have been my teachers are Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard and Gaston Bachelard. I like some of the more recent philosophers like Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Levinas.
FQ: Who are your favorite poets?
My favorites tend to shift, but most recently I have been quite taken with Robert Hass, and the way he weaves memory, philosophy and metaphor. His lines weave in and out as if moving among differing levels of consciousness in a way I find fascinating. When I need to feel some quick uplift, I turn to Mary Oliver, for her love of the natural world and her ability to give it voice, as well for how she can use the simplest language and yet wring from it a depth that is often surprising. If I need to feel the power of the passion of love and the lilt of sensual joy, James Tipton has a way of sensuously flowing from the caress onto the page as if they were one gesture. I find hope in his writing and warmth. Stephen Dunn is a poet who makes me think and wonder. Li-Young Lee takes me to the edge of what I can understand discursively and then takes another step beyond that horizon. His words’ momentum take me with them to fathom something new. When I was an adolescent and younger adult, my three constant guides as poets were Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden and W. B. Yeats. It is hard to stop, but I will.
FQ: This collection seems to span a number of years in your life. Did you write some of these poems years ago, or are they all recent work?
Actually, most of these poems are not my most recent work. I tend to keep my most recent poems sitting around for a while, since I find poetry writing is all about rewriting and no matter how good I think a recent poem is, I will find ways to make it better, if I wait for a while and keep it with me. After that, the poem will have to undergo a period of being sent out to journals. I have found that journal editors, despite being swamped with thousands of submissions, will often make a comment about a line or an aspect of the poem that could be better that I might not have realized on my own. Then, I go back to work and somehow the energy from the editor’s regard gets added to my own energy and the poem begins to move in a certain direction that it wouldn’t have without this extra push. The poems in this collection have mostly been published before in good literary journals, which means they have gone through that process. There are even a few poems that are several decades old and were worked and reworked, waiting for the muse to alight and add some more magic to them. That is exciting to me, for I have many other poems that are waiting to get out into the world and find their reader friends.
FQ: Can you describe your process for writing a poem?
It varies. I am a long distance runner, and sometimes a line or a number of lines will suddenly be whispered into my ear as I am running and I struggle to get home and not lose it. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a poem, a certain scene, or with a few lines or images. Then, I have to be careful to get up and write them down, or they will have fled with the morning light like many creatures of the night. Sometimes, I get an idea for a kernel of a poem and then I wait until I have the time to work on it. My wife is a poet, too, and sometimes, we have “poetry workshop,” as we call it, where we devote a block of time to letting those old ideas or a line find out what it is trying to say, and we each work on our own poems, but in the same room, letting the poetic energy circulate. For me, whenever I work on my poetry, it feels like “magic time,” in which the air gets thinner, the time gets very deep and doesn’t flow the same way, but is a pool to swim within, and there is an electric energy pulsing through my body and mind that unites them more tightly. I am always playing with the words in the poem as they have come to be on the page after the first writing or even the tenth writing, looking for a fresher and more sonorous way to say something.
FQ: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
Oh boy, I am not going to be able to be very original with my answer to this question, since all the old clichés are right. Read more poems. Rewrite, rewrite, and then rewrite. Look at the world. The poems are not about you, but are about the ten thousand things, as the Taoists say, the myriad beings of the world that depend on us to lend them their voices, so they can get their eloquent wisdom out among other beings. The poet is just the conduit and needs to get out of the way. Your feelings will be dragged into it anyway, but not as on display, but as expressed within the world’s dialogue with itself. Be thankful for all criticism, even though this is hard to do at first, but each bit of it is a gift that you will long for later in life. if you are thankful for the criticisms, they take on another aspect and instead of seeming to bark at you, they become shepherds leading you on.
FQ: Your poems “The Extinction of the Tall Tale” and “Cyberspace Theology” suggest your concern for the future of human communication. What do you believe we have lost as a culture in the age of the internet?
I am not a Luddite. I welcome all the advances that the internet has brought us, like how I am doing this interview right now sitting at Cape May overlooking the beautiful bay, finally getting a weekend to rest and celebrate my birthday, and then when I finish, I will hit a button and voila, you will have it! My concern is with our addictive tendencies. When we can’t do without the internet and it becomes the locus of life, instead of a way to push us out back into the world to encounter the natural world, political events, personal challenges of all sorts, and our face to face friends, loves, mates, children and neighbors. I get worried when people start to substitute the internet easiness for the hard work of the face to face relationship. A “friend” on Facebook or the internet is not a “friend,” since friendship is a long, committed, energy intensive creative process with another human being that emerges from up’s and down’s, trials and joys of a shared presence together. The internet can never have the depth of presence that is the magic of the flesh. We are in danger of becoming a culture of ghosts and phantoms.
FQ: As a teacher, what do you hope to communicate to your students?
One of the philosophers who inspired me, Heidegger, quotes a poem from Holderlin that ends with the line, “who has thought most deeply, loves what is most alive.” There is no way I can say that better. I want my students to slow down and then stop. Stop like Socrates at the entrance to the banquet in Plato’s Symposium where he is lost in thought, communing with his spirit, his daimon. I want them to think critically about the day to day aspects of their lives and discover there is so much more possible meaning in their daily acts than they have realized. I want their thought to be a spur to wake them up to the full reality of our shared problems and our shared possibilities. I want them to become present, to be fully here, instead of zombies who are making their way through the days without feeling the wonder of each instant. I want them to see how unique each of them is and how they can transform themselves and the world into a fully vital happening. I want them to love what is most alive, which as Camus says, is to be able to stake one’s life for the cause of beauty.