Interview with George H.S. Singer
Patrick Donnelly, director of The Frost Place Poetry Seminar, interviews former Seminar attendee George H.S. Singer, whose book Ergon is forthcoming from WordTech Ltd. in 2016.
Patrick Donnelly: George, we at The Frost Place were thrilled when you told us that your first book of poems had been accepted for publication. Tell us about your relationship to The Frost Place over the years.
George HS Singer: The Frost Place as an institution and the people who have enlivened it have been central to my endeavors to write poetry and so I am delighted to be interviewed by you. I most want to say how grateful I am that dedicated people invigorate and continue to renew The Frost Place, keeping the creative vitality of the place over decades. I first went to a weeklong Festival at The Frost Place when I was 40 years old and was beginning to write again after a hiatus of twenty years. I was taken by the place and its people. I think the evening readings in Robert Frost’s barn with its wall of photos of Frost Place Fellows, the informality of folding chairs in front of what resembles a Buddhist founder’s shrine, the resident mouse who appears infallibly as the faculty poets and the famous guests read, and the generosity of the directors and faculty make an honored space where there is room for the heart to speak and be heard.
In Buddhist monasteries, the original abbot or abbess is honored in a founder’s shrine where, in modern times, photos or paintings are centrally placed on an altar to honor the originator and her subsequent descendents who make up an honored lineage. Robert Frost’s restored old barn creates some of the same kind of dedicated space where in this instance the animating spirit is the shared love of an art. What touched me the most about that first time attending the Festival was the tone set by Don Sheehan who directed the Festival for many years. He was a long-bearded, devoted Russian Orthodox Christian who clearly was engaged in the difficult life’s work of spiritual training. I returned to the Festival several years running and listened as Don always said the same words to set the tone of the place. One of my favorites that I pass on to my own students was something he always said on the first day in referring to the workshops where the attendees critique one another’s poems. I paraphrase: “If you have to choose between intelligence and kindness when you make your comments, choose kindness—we already know you are intelligent or you wouldn’t be here, so choose to use your bright minds in a kindly way.”
I recognized in Don a fellow spiritual striver who found resonance with his inner life in the vast and wonderful art of poetry. Don’s introductions to the poetry readings each evening were marvels of lucid generosity that pointed to the essential qualities of each poet’s writings. I attended the Festival several years running before moving to California. When I returned to The Frost Place after being away for five years, I was grief stricken to learn Don had died. I could see that the new director, Patrick Donnelley spoke and interacted with us in much the same spirit. And when Maudelle Driscoll was introduced as the new Executive Director, who took up residence nearby to devote herself to the organization, I could again see the passing of the original spirit of the place to like-minded and like-hearted people. As I age and have witnessed the continuous horrors and sorrows that humans in groups can inflict on each other, I look for sources of hope. One of the great accomplishments we are capable of achieving is the creation of benevolent institutions which house, preserve, and evolve a space where the best in us can come out. Though towers and stately buildings sometimes mark these places, an old barn and little wooden house, a small group of attentive listeners smelling of DEET, and a single deliberate authorial voice resonating in a barn barely big enough for a few cows, can also mark such hope-giving and humanity-sustaining social creations.
My guess is that most of the hundreds of aspiring poets who have been touched by the place have viewed the chance to read their own work there on the last night of the weeklong retreats as a memorable and inspiring gift. Not a few of us are fueled to keep writing in the secret hope maybe we will become good enough to be asked to give a full reading in that old barn. I am touched by your invitation to answer your questions in light of how much The Frost Place has meant to me.
PD: Can you tell us about the poems in the book, how long you’ve been working on them, and what kind of revision and submission processes brought you to this goal?
GHSS: I started writing the poems in the book in the 1980s when I first hoped I could speak about my inner spiritual life in poems that someone else might find meaningful. People who try to keep a prayer in their heart or loving kindness in their minds tend to be quiet and rarely let on about what this effort entails and how the world looks while so engaged. These often-difficult matters are so easily glossed over or bastardized in the New Age nostrums that are prominent in our culture. I also hoped I might communicate with others as a way to dispel a certain loneliness that comes with the territory. I discovered in the process that writing can be part of a spiritual life. To go deep into the mind where the good poems seem to swim takes attention, regular effort, and a willingness to get the mind’s smoke screens out of the way. It also requires banishing self-doubt and self-hate so a genuine voice as can take the floor. And the poems become an opportunity to see ways that more growth is needed. Sometimes this comes as a rude awakening as when a fine editor (who happens to be interviewing me now) pointed out that several of the poems seemed to be designed to call attention to my admirable qualities and unique experiences, and further some of them risked sounding preachy or superficially pretty to boot. Thank heavens for honest feedback. The self of course has to motivate the writing but the poem itself must be able to stand alone aside from self. It took me a good six months of reevaluating my writing and the way I projected self into it before I did a thorough rewrite of the manuscript. The work of getting beyond this kind of vanity to the deeper currents will likely go on as long as I write.
At one of my first visits to The Frost Place Festival I met the wonderful poet Molly Peacock. I entered into what has been a decades-long mentor/mentee relationship with her. Molly has a wonderful ear and has been consistently deliberate in getting behind what I hope to accomplish in a poem. For the first five or so years working intermittently by phone with Molly I heard her use the phrase “It’s over the top” so often that I conceived the idea of having a rubber stamp made for her with those words carved on it to save her some trouble. And I am still quite capable of writing an over-the-top poem without recognizing it on any given day. So too, I am planning to have a stamp made for Patrick that reads “Generic Lyric Poetry-Speak” after his insightful and most frequent comment on my early drafts. Most all of my poems have gone through anywhere from two to ten revisions always with feedback from Molly Peacock and/or Patrick Donnelly, or they have been workshopped with poets from The Frost Place.
I have had about 25 poems published in poetry journals. I dislike rejection notes and the clerical work of sending them out and keeping track of which journal accepts and rejects which poem, but I am sure this is true of most poets. So I do it intermittently, usually looking for journals that aim high.
Once I had accumulated a manuscript of about 50 pages I asked Molly Peacock to help edit it. Later I asked Patrick to also review it to get another point of view. Every poem in the manuscript has been rewritten, usually several times, and the manuscript as a whole has undergone several revisions. The book is called Ergon, and will be published by WordTech Press in June of 2016. I’m starting now on what I hope will become my second book.
PD: What is your “other life” like, your work and family life? Over the years, how has this integrated—or not—with your poetry writing life?
GHSS: I am a professor in the field of disabilities and publish regularly in academic journals. I love that my career is in a field that attempts to directly serve children and families with significant challenges in their lives. I’m grateful that my poetry allows me the freedom to write from my heart, rather than the strict structures of academic writing. My wife and I raised three children and all of a sudden I am the grandfather of six new ones. Family life was a continuous tumult until the kids left home, and being a father had a hold on my heart unlike anything else in my life. I think I took up writing poetry when my last child was about to go off to college. After so many years, I had some time on the weekends for writing. The writing helped assuage the grief of the loss of that stage of fatherhood or at least give it an outlet. It is an ongoing struggle to get time to write. Intermittent contact with Molly and Patrick and attendance at The Frost Place have been essential to keeping me motivated to write. Much of what I write about has been how family life seems to me in the light of Zen training about the memories I have of events and people at Shasta Abbey, a Zen Buddhist monastery where I lived on and off for a decade.
PD: I know that you’re a longtime Buddhist practitioner, in fact a Zen priest, and that many of your poems concern people, stories, and insights from that part of your life. In your experience, do poetry writing and spiritual practice have aspects in common? Are there any aspects that seem contradictory?
GHSS: When I was a young man I dropped out of college in considerable anguish about the Vietnam War and my own emotional struggles to move into adulthood. I went to California to study Zen Buddhism and had the wonderful good fortune of meeting a genuine, brilliant and peasant-like Buddhist monk who became my teacher until she died thirty years later. As her student, I became a monk and then an active priest along with my wife, Joanne. We started and ran two meditation centers. After ten years, it became clear that Joanne and I needed to do something else in order to raise a family, and we chose to become lay trainees. The move back into the normal and difficult life of a householder has posed daily challenges to keep my Zen training alive in very different places than its birthing ground. I wanted to write about this struggle. I also wanted to write about how the beauty of the world leaves me speechless for at least a few seconds every day, how impossible I find it to face the horrors of the daily news, and how much I have cherished my life mate.
I find the act of writing, when I can get into a deeper state of mind, hews pretty closely to meditative practice. Ultimately, spiritual experience simply cannot be put into words. The best one can do is give a flavor of it, maybe point in the right direction. I agree with Frost in that I find that words do violence to experience and poetry is made up of words that do the least such violence. Spiritual life is the part of experience most vulnerable to the violence that words unavoidably do. On the other hand, we are thoroughly and inevitably social animals, and the desire to communicate about what most matters is very strong. When one of us manages to get it right, such words reverberate, and, I believe, in some small way must matter in the larger workings of things.
PD: In 2011 you attended the Poetry Seminar at The Frost Place, working with faculty member Adrian Blevins, and had a breakthrough moment—poetically and perhaps in other ways—in relationship to an elegy you wrote for your uncle David Singer (“Ergon,” later published in the New Haven Review). Can you tell us about your experience working on that poem during the Seminar?
GHSS: Like all of us I come from a family of origin that had its ups and downs. One of the rougher parts of my own biography has been the fact of mental illness in my family. Some of it was painfully and openly manifest, while some lurked in silences that made up family secrets. I learned a family secret when I was 40 that my father had a brother and sister who were schizophrenic and institutionalized in a state mental hospital for life, and that they were lobotomized and left unvisited until their deaths. Though a secret, it haunted my childhood as one of the many sources of the silences in our household. I tried several times to write a poem about my aunt and uncle and my experience with secrecy with little success. I just could not get it right. I was finally able to write about my aunt and uncle after a class at The Frost Place in which we studied syntax, a side of poems that had been obscure to me. Adrian Blevins—get all of her books and read them right away!!—suggested writing a poem by trying to imitate the syntax of a favorite poem. The attention to form at various levels in the poem somehow galvanized my energy and on the last afternoon of a week at The Frost Place I sat down, finally with the right tone of voice, and was able to let tumble out a long poem. I remembered an idea from Aristotle about a virtue that arises when a tool or a person is used or uses themselves for the exact purpose for which they were made—the Greek word is ergon. I played rather bitterly against this idea in describing my aunt and uncle’s sad fates in which their ergons for reasons of nature and inhumanity were not realized. A friend who I met at that Frost Place retreat, the award-winning poet Charles Douthat (get his book too) invited me to submit it to the New Haven Review, where it was awarded a prize. My upcoming book is named Ergon.
PD: Here is a link to the poem “Ergon,” with permission of the New Haven Review:
GHSS: If anyone reading this interview would like to obtain a discounted copy of the book, contact me at <firstname.lastname@example.org> and I will let you know when it comes out, and how to purchase it from me. I’ll give a special deal to people who attend or donate to The Frost Place.
Thanks for the opportunity to answer your questions.
George H.S. Singer is Professor of Special Education at the University of California Santa Barbara, where he teaches and mentors doctoral students and conducts research on families of children with severe disabilities. Educated at Yale, Southern Oregon State University, and the University of Oregon, he was an ordained Zen Buddhist monk for many years, and a parish priest. His poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Tar River Poetry, Nimrod, and the New Haven Review, among others. His first book Ergon will be published by Word Tech Press in June of 2016.