Today’s blog post is a stop on George HS Singer’s Poetry Tour run by Poetic Book Tours, which lasts throughout this month. I will also have a review of the book up, on September 30th, so make sure to check back in for that.
In her description of the blog tour, Serena Agusto-Cox, mentioned that George Singer is a former Buddhist monk and professor in his 60s, who has written his first poetry collection with the help of Molly Peacock. That immediately drew my attention, and I wanted to know more about George’s background.
I always find it fascinating to find out where poetry “comes from”.
How has being a monk and professor, and publishing a first poetry book later in life shaped you?
Becoming a Zen monk has shaped my life as much as any of the major influences most of us experience— the family we are born into, school, friendships, the encounter with history, and marriage. I became a monk as a young man of 20, took up the practice and the relationship with my Zen master with great enthusiasm and stayed with it for ten years. Although later in life I developed a bit of distance from the belief system, I have meditated everyday since in one form or another and my experience of it is central to my on-going experience of life. I was never very good at being a monk. I’m very spacey and so as an example of a mindful person I am an embarrassment. However, the tradition I was exposed to (Serene Reflection Meditation—Soto Zen) has offered me the experience of something fundamental that I think of as mercy. Early in my time as a monk one of my brother monks lost his sister to suicide. One of my poems in my book is about how my teacher helped him through his grief. There is a lot of silence in a Zen monastery and much is communicated through bells, clanging of mallets on wooden blocks, drums, and chimes:
…each ting of the little bell,
the inkin, rode time all the way
to the periphery, trailing off out
of reach of the ear— the same
with the in and out of breath.
The silence and the wordless signals came in time to say something to me about mercy. Here, from the same poem, is my imaging of how my friend gained some relief from his terrible loss:
He thought then that Jean, his little sister,
would somehow be alright and, if
there were to be rain, he would be
the downpour. And he was taken up
by something like mercy.
Regarding being a professor, mostly, I feel that academia has offered me a kind of safe harbor where I am able to exercise my strengths and where people are generally tolerant of my several weaknesses.
I found that the kind of writing and teaching that I do as an academic rarely allows for expression of the emotional and spiritual dimensions of my life that seem closest to my sense of who I am and how I belong (or not) in the world. Initially I thought that I might use poetry to honor my Zen teacher and our tradition. However, I soon branched out and also eventually realized that I was sounding preachy in my writing and needed to try to be less some kind of font of wisdom and more simply to express the voice of the mixed and necessarily limited person that I am. If I have a credo in my poetry it is the notion that nothing is unmixed—that life is inexpressibly wondrous and terribly painful and both arise together at the same time. I also know that the experience, which is most fundamental to me, is wordless and so there is an inevitable limitation in trying to write about what is most important. To me the tool kit available through the art of poetry allows the possibility of at least hovering over that which I wish could be said, if not to enter into it. I am forgetting who said that language does violence to experience but that poetry is the language that does the least of such violence.
Probably anyone who is reading this remembers a first experience as a child of reading a poem or a passage that really spoke to them. For me this happened in 6th grade after the death of my best friend. It seemed to me that everyone around acted as if death was not real or should not be talked about. A poem by Longfellow with the phrase “foot prints in the sand” struck me like lightening one day in class. I realized that I was not the only one who had thought about mortality. I started finding that literature was a balm for loneliness and that it offered a way to touch upon, if not enter into, other people’s minds and that there were extraordinary writers who offered this communion. So I hold onto the ambition that one of my poems might serve this purpose of dispelling isolation for someone else who might be in need of communion with another mind concerned about some of the basics.
What themes have you covered in the poems?
- The beauty, humor, and difficulty of living as a Zen monk.
- Coming to terms with a very mixed childhood and its insistent residue.
- My sense of gratitude for having found a soul mate in my wife.
- My sense of the unutterable wonder of existence and that there is enough of it that can be taken in and joined with to keep from staying down after inevitably and repeatedly falling down:
the stars across the axis of the sky,
light enough to walk without stumbling.
Have you always written poetry or only after “retiring” from the monastery?
I wanted to be a poet when I was in college. I fell in love with French literature and thought the musicality of the language got at something beyond the meaning of the words. I stopped writing after dropping out of Yale and becoming a monk and did not take it up again until I was 40. I entered into a wonderful mentoring relationship with the poet, Molly Peacock, who continues to help me with my writing over a quarter of a century later. I also have benefited greatly from the wonderful opportunities to learn at the Frost Place in Franconia, N.H., summers. I’ve been particularly appreciative of faculty there including Patrick Donnelly, David Baker, and Diane Seuss. Over the years I have developed an intense love of poetry as an art. It gives me great joy to encounter a new poet or to be given the gift by a fine writer of a new poem.
Thank you for your questions and the opportunity to address them.
Ergon is a mix of poems about George HS Singer’s life as a monk and in the monastery and about his life after when he left to marry and have a family. As he tries to balance his spiritual principles with every day life as a husband and father, these poems utilize nature as a backdrop for his quest.
Published by WordTech Editions, you can find George’s 86 pages long poetry book, Ergon, on Amazon and on BookDepository, as well as his other publications which range in a myriad of topics from education & teaching, parenting & social sciences, to medical books.
More about the author:
George HS Singer is a former Zen Buddhist monk and student of Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett, lives with his wife of forty-two years in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he works as a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. He was educated at Yale, Southern Oregon University, and the University of Oregon. He wrote poetry in college but took a twenty-year break before taking it up as a regular discipline. He has been a long term student of Molly Peacock and has had the opportunity to work with other marvelous poets through the Frost Place in Franconia, N.H. He writes about life in and out of a Zen monastery, trying to live mindfully in a busy and troubled world, his love of nature and of his wife. The arts have become more central to his life. Singer’s poems were published in the Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, and Tar River Poetry.