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An Interview with Peter Levitt
Peter Levitt's new book, Fingerpainting on the Moon: Writing and Creativity as a Path to Freedom, offers a unique and compelling approach that helps writers discover the bones beneath the bones of their own life and spirit so they may get to the insides of their writing, and write what is most authentic and real. In this interview, we learn some of the impetus behind the bookthe bones beneath the bones of how to start fingerpainting on the moon.
Kathryn: I remember hearing you comment on a photo of Pablo Neruda that showed him writing poems while wearing a three-piece suit. You said that this detail was important, that the fact of Neruda's suit told us something about Neruda as a man, Neruda as a poet, as well as Neruda's poems and worldview. This stuck with me, and it comes back to me as I read Fingerpainting on the Moon, because your approach is so person-centered. So, I'm curious: how did you come to write this spiritual book on writing?
Peter: Perhaps the quickest way to answer is to say that what are commonly called spirit and creative expression, or in this case, writing, are two of the impulses that have always been at the heart of my personal inquiry into the nature of what life is; the preoccupations, if you will, of my life as a man, a poet, a teacher, and all of the other ways in which I take my place in the world.
But I have to say Im not certain I consider Fingerpainting on the Moon a spiritual book on writing, exactly. I prefer to think of it as a book that draws readers toward an inherently powerful and creative source within each of us that gives rise to both spiritfor the moment lets think of that as the energizing force of life itselfand creative expression in all or any of its forms. This includes writing and all of the other arts, of course, but it also includes keeping passion alive in our daily lives, and just living intimately with all parts of our world.
Spirit and creativity really do seem to have a powerful relationship in most human activity. They are natural and mutually supportive partners. It might even be said that they bring each other to life. So, in part, it is that relationship, and how to maximize its expression, that I think this book really explores.
Kathryn: Given your dedication to these two impulses, then, was it just a matter of nature taking its course for you to become a poet? How did you come to be one?
Peter: I suppose nature taking its course is a good description of it, in the end, but nature sure took me for a wild ride before it let me in on what its course was going to be. I had no inclination whatsoever that I would be a poet until I was already grown. At some point, around the age of nineteen, I decided I wanted to be a writer, though there was nothing in evidence that made this a reasonable expectation. I loved to read and had written a few storiescertainly nothing competent by any stretch of the imaginationand for reasons that can only be called the pure love of putting down one word after another, I began to think, Gee, I think Id like to be a writer. Its like that lovely Ann Beattie story where after a reading a young woman asked, Ms. Beattie, do you think I could be a writer? and Ann Beattie replied, I dont know, dear. Do you like sentences?
I liked sentences. I liked reading them and I discovered that writing them downand I emphasize the physicality of writing when I say thatseemed to connect all the dots inside me, that, otherwise, seemed just a scatter. It was a very visceral thing.
Perhaps the seminal moment in my switch to poetry came in a conversation with the novelist and short story writer, Kay Boyle, my first writing mentor at SF State in 1967. Kay required us to write fifteen fictional stories in fifteen weeks and by the tenth week we were all exhausted. At about this point in the semester I handed in a piece I was very excited about, and which I considered a novel. The only thing is, it was only one page long. Very experimental novel, you understand. The kind an exhausted young student might try to pass off as complete.
I gave it to Kay and the next day she handed it back and said, This is very good, Peter. I dont understand what youre driving at, exactly, but you seem to have created a universe, given it a life, and destroyed it all on one page. I was thrilled because that was exactly what I had intended to do, and, clearly, it had come through.
But, Kay went on, what do you have planned for the second page?
We laughed together, but that may have been the very moment that the idea of my becoming a poet was born. The truth is, I was a jumpy kind of kidyou might say that my metabolism was very fastand I really did feel the need to find a form to carry my speed. I was even aware of feeling this as I wrote prose. There was always a feeling of intense pressure to make the language move, and I just couldnt make my prose run the way I was running inside. Even the shortest sentence seemed so long to this jumpy boy. I suppose this relates in some way to Nerudas suit and to what you refer to as the person-centered approach I take in this book.
In any case, shortly after Kays wry and very kind response to my "novel," I began to move toward poetry as a means to express my jumpy heart and mind. She turned me on to William Carlos Williams. I loved discovering how phrasing, line lengths, line breaks, spaces between words, typography and punctuation could make the worlds of my poems activate on the page. These were really exciting discoveries and I read and wrote incessantly, trying to learn how to use these discoveries to say something true, something real, in a way that carried my meaning all the way through the poem without losing the speed or energy of discovery. Of course, a good writer of fiction can do this, too, but I have to say I didnt know that, really, despite all the phenomenal fiction I was reading, and I was too anxious and impatient, too young, to wait until I could do it myself.
Kathryn: The ideas of oneness and wholeness appear throughout the book. At one point, you write, If you want to experience your own wholeness, give yourself completely to whatever you do. (195) In this senseand in much of the bookwriting seems to be the way to spiritual fulfillment. How do you find this happens in your writing practice? And how have you seen it in others?
Peter: First off, I think we do want wholeness. We want what Allen Ginsberg referred to when he wrote in his poem, Song, yes, yes/thats what/I wanted/I always wanted/ I always wanted/ to return/ to my body/ where I was born. Thats the body of wholeness, what the Buddhists call our true nature.
I think when we give ourselves fully to any activity, we accomplish this return and, in part, a kind of spiritual fulfillment is the result. For the moment, our quest is satisfied. But, oddly enough, since we are immersed in the activity itself, we may not be aware of this fulfillment in the precise moment it is taking place. Its that sort of wholehearted immersion in doing that allows us to experience our own wholeness.
Its curious, because we experience our wholeness by not being aware of ourselves as separate from our activity. There is no experience of "writer" and "writing" as distinct or separate entities, no subject and object. That duality collapses and there is the just the activity itself taking place. This is why when we are really in our work, so to speak, hours can seem to pass without our having any awareness of this fact at all. And then we emerge from our activity; many times, completely satisfied. It is always amazing and really quite thrilling when this happens, dont you think?
Kathryn: Yes I do. I want to ask about your vision of mother, because it is such a memorable aspect of the book. In the chapter on naming, theres the story of your mother giving you a name she hoped would always remind you of beauty, and, there was the way she told you stories of her own childhood beginnings as she put you to bed. These stories, you wrote, helped you to imagine what the world was like before you were born. Theres also the story of your wife giving birth to your son, Tai, along with the exercise that comes from Tibetan Buddhism about seeing everything in the world as your mother. Mothering and the birthing process, in general, seem connected to the process of creating and writingI wonder what similarities you see?
Peter: The ordinary similarities come to mind: conception, gestation, the carrying of what lies within us that we have not yet fully imagined or met. Then labor, expression, and the nurturing of these wonderful, curious creations so that they might find their own full expression in the world.
One element of both mothering and writing I find essential, speaking in a purely personal way, is the fact that in the beginning, when we still live within her body, mother is not only our connection to the world, she is our world. She is our earth, our sky, our sun, our rivers, our food. She is the air we breathe. As I write in the book, there are two bodies there, but, somehow, there is also only one.
Likewise, when I am fully and wholeheartedly engaged in the activity, writing does not only connect me to the world, it becomes my world. I find what my life is within the act, just as a babys life depends so entirely on the active life of its mother. Its a profound experience of self. As William Carlos Williams wrote, the poet thinks with the poem, and that, in itself, is the profundity.
Kathryn: You suggest the idea that taking risks is the way to authentic writing. You write, Any attempt to stay safe will never get you where you want to go.(22) This may be a risky question to ask, but how has this been true in your writing?
Peter: Every word is a riska dual riskthe risk of really getting down to discovering and saying for yourself, and for all the world to hear, the deepest truths of both your life and life as you find it, and the risk of walking away from the whole damn inquiry. I have made a commitment in my life to discover and to know what I am. But I dont do this with the idea that personal self-knowledge and expression is the point at all. In the thirteenth century, Eihei Dogen wrote that we study the self to forget the self, and that when we forget the self, we can live intimately with (he wrote be enlightened by) all things. I suppose this is the real nature of the risk required. The risk of intimacy.
I see human beings as a self-regulating system that wants us to discover our own nature. Our imagination, our deep mind, so to speak, wants to help us to do this. In part, thats why it gives us the thoughts and feelings and associations it does. Thats why we dream what we dream and think up the imagery that comes to us. When we take all of this seriously, when we use it, that is, and are willing to risk releasing our tight grip on ourselves by writing what we dont yet know, to paraphrase Paul Klee, we demonstrate to our own imagination that we can be trusted with its gifts. Of course, our imagination likes this. It says, Hey. Shes serious. Lets give her more.
But when we turn our back on this powerful inclination toward completion, we risk losing contact with the gift-giving nature of the imagination. We risk damaging the relationship weve developed. Think of it as a relationship to "the muse," if you will. As the poet Stuart Perkoff wrote in regard to abusing the gifts of the muse, Be careful. Its hers. Shell take it back. Weve all seen work that skims the surface, or tries to dazzle. Often, this is just a writer doing a fancy dance while backing away from the more significant offerings of the imagination; ones that may challenge the status quo of their particular ego. At various times, most writers have allowed themselves to back away rather than answer the bell when it rings. But this is very risky, and it is the wrong risk to take. In some cases, it can lead to illness, or even bring life to a halt. And it certainly brings true expression to a halt, sometimes right in the middle of a line.
What it comes down to for me as I write, then, is remembering my commitment to living wholly and intimately with all things. And, fortunately, I find that when I give myself to the act of writing from this point of entry, things tend to go pretty well.
Kathryn: The chapter about hungry ghosts was an epiphany for me, and the inner critic is something that I know most, if not all, writerseven the most acclaimeddeal with repeatedly. How have hungry ghosts affected your writing? And when did you learn to deal with them so effectively?
Peter: The term hungry ghost comes from the Buddhist description of whats called the six realms of existence. Among these realms are beings with enormous, all-consuming appetites. Because of the size of their appetites, they have gigantic bellies to serve as storehouses for all they can possibly consume, but, unfortunately for them, they are also constructed with throats as narrow as a needle. This means that no matter how much they put into their mouths, they can never be satisfied. These are the hungry ghosts that compare so easily to our negative inner critics.
I like the term hungry ghost because it feels accurate to peoples experience, especially when we want to write from our deepest core, which may rock the boat for that frightened part of our psyches that has a large stake in things remaining just as they are. Hes the one who doesnt want to take the necessary risk, so he hires the hungry ghost to provide the kinds of obstacles that stop our creative risk-taking in its tracks.
The thing to know is that no matter how long you write, the hungry ghost may always appear, so we have to find a way to deal with these critters. As you know, they are extraordinarily creative little buggers who attempt to engage us so entirely in their distractions that they eat up all the energy, focus, concentration, desire, and intention that we need in order to do our work.
People often want to destroy these hungry ghosts, but, the energy and attention it would take to do such a thing is itself a trick of the hungry ghost. If it could get us involved in such a never-ending activity, we wouldnt have time to write a word. Besides, even if we could succeed, we would be destroying a part of ourselves. So, in the book, I encourage people to take a more creative and lighthearted approach, which helps them to see these ghosts for what they are and lets us get down to work. Really, they only have the powerthe foodwe give them. When one of them shows up and tries to block my path, I say hello, see it for what it is, give it no more than a moment of attention, which is all the nourishment its going to get from me for the rest of the day, and get back to what Im doing. It comes from a Zen ritual practice I learned many years ago.
Kathryn: Many of the exercises in the bookespecially the exercise in Bones Beneath the Bones and the Naming exercisewere more than writing starters. They gave me new realizations about my spiritual world and my personal life and how that fits into writing. Im curious about what made you first develop these exercises?
Peter: Ive worked with writers and other artists for more than thirty years and I have to say that right from the get-go it was clear that most people sincerely wanted to touch the core of their lives and find a way to express it. They wanted that intimate, thorough knowledge we discussed earlier. I have always been deeply moved by the seriousness of this intent and I suppose these exercises were my response, my attempt to honor the need and desire of my students in a way that would help them get to the source of their livesor, who knows, given the reach of the imagination, maybe to the source of all of lifeand bring it back in a language that was unique, authentic, expressive and as true as they could make it.
Kathryn: Theres the clichéin western society, at leastof the angst-ridden, depressed, alcoholic writer who lives alone, who probably smokes a pack a day, and maybe bursts into tears every few hours, while the crumpled pieces of paper collect in the trash can. The common myth has been that this kind of self-abusing could in some ways be conducive to writing and art-making. Your book has a different orientation; its so life-affirming, so centered on healing and acceptanceits refreshing. Im wondering how youve seen awareness of the more spiritual side of writing affect writers and their writing?
Peter: Well, let me offer another cliché by saying that all humans suffer. Some people suffer very deeply, of course, and may even end their lives because of the pain. But, in my view, suffering in itself is not enough for the writing of a poem or the making of art. Its merely one of the possible doorways to the life of our deeper self, but it is not the only one. Yes, we know the stories of great writers and artists who have suffered terrible times, and, somehow, have created extraordinary beauty and told extraordinary truths, despite the rigors of their lives. But my sense is that it was not their capacity for suffering that created that beauty or told those truths, it was their capacity to experience beauty, to know truth, one might say, and to find the means to express it. This is what their art depends upon.
I have no use for the romanticizing of any artists despair. Human pain is simply one of the available doors that might open us to ourselves, but it is not the only one by any stretch. And, in the end, we still need these other capacities to know what to do with it so that we can transform that despair into something more. Once writers begin to explore these capacities in addition to some of the other doorways, which have been calling us, waiting to be discovered and known, their writing and their lives leap in the direction I like to call home.
Kathryn: The chapter, The Bones Beneath the Bones, and the drawing exercise, distilled exactly where Im at in life and in my writing. I was completely floored by how much it revealed for me. Maybe finding the bones beneath the bones is just where any writer needs to get to in her workwhether its getting at the bones beneath a character or the bones beneath life as a whole. I dont have any really specific question about this, but Im hoping you could talk a little about it?
Peter: Im glad you liked that chapter. I worked hard to try to say it in a way that would prove of use to other writers. But I think getting down to what lies beneath all of our human activities, to the foundation of our lives, as well as the lives of our characters, is what weve been talking about all along. Its what we want and its the path I hoped to map in Fingerpainting on the Moon. The only thing I want to emphasize is that there is often an enormous resource of joyreally, the energy of joy itself in the process by which we arrive at these bones, and, likewise, when we write from what really lives at the core of our lives. Its this joy, the joy of creating, of doing what we know before we know what we do, that I was pointing to with the word fingerpainting; the liberating joy of exploration, discovery and expression. And, then, to be able to do that on the moon well, thats just doing what seems impossible, no?
But we can do it. We were born to do it. Its our nature. Yes, it takes giving ourselves permission, taking risks, working with the obstacles thrown in our path by those hungry ghosts. It takes being willing to step past our usual way of seeing, thinking and knowing, and fully engaging whatever we come upon with intimacy so that we may get down to the bones beneath the bones there, too. But the good news is, it is within our capacity as human beings. We already know how.
Peter Levitt's books of poetry include Bright Root, Dark Root and One Hundred Butterflies. He has also published fiction, journalism, and translations from Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish. In 1989 he received the Lannan Foundation Literary Award in Poetry. A longtime student of Zen, Peter edited Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of Understanding and Jakusho Kwong's No Beginning, No End: The Intimate Heart of Zen. He has been leading workshops in writing, creativity, and spirituality in the United States and abroad for thirty years. For more information about Peter Levitt and his work, check out his website at www.peterlevitt.com
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