Koshin Paley Ellison, who assembled the new Village Zendo Benefit Reading Series, talks about writing and Zen, his own literary background, and the goals and schedule of this fundraising effort.
Q: What were your objectives for starting this series?
A: The Village Zendo has started a capital campaign to find a secure home for itself so that practioners present and in the future will have a place to practice. We are having large and small fundraisers. The idea behind the Village Zendo Benefit Reading Series was to both bring a wider audience and community to the Zendo to hear great writers and poets read, and to raise funds towards the capital campaign.
Q: But why poetry? How does that relate to Zen and practice?
A: Great writing is about paying attention in a 360–degree kind of way. This is similar to the quality of attention that we cultivate sitting in zazen. It also fits especially well with two of the Five Expressions of Zen Practice that Roshi has communicated to us: To Express and To Act. It's also an opportunity for new people who love poets and writers to come to the Zendo, and learn meditation and experience the space we have created to facilitate the practice. Sometimes, I think just seeing a place allows us to wet our feet before wading or even jumping in.
Q: You have a personal background in poetry, correct? Can you talk about that a bit—when you started reading and writing poetry, and how it speaks to you, as opposed to other literary forms?
A: I started loving reading as a young kid who found new worlds in each book. It allowed me to have a larger sense of the world. It was Susan Cooper's novel "The Dark is Rising" and Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" that opened my mind to an expanded sense of possibility. It all flowed out from there. As a college student, I traveled out to Naropa to study with Allen Ginsberg. It was there that I met Daido Roshi and he taught me about zazen under a big tree under the flatirons. It was there that I realized that practicing Buddhism and writing were about being fully alive. One of the philosophies of the school was that you should go deep into writing, a contemplative practice and be engaged in a third interest/passion. Now I have found my third to be both chaplaincy and Jungian psychoanalysis and how they intertwine. Although I went to school at Sarah Lawrence to get my MFA, I actually went there to study with two poets that I love: Marie Howe and Gerald Stern. I am not confined to poetry in my interests. I am a lover of alive words: essays, novels and poetry.
Q: Talk a bit about your professional background in writing and editing.
A: After graduating with my bachelor's in Women's Studies in 1992, I was at a folk festival and met this guy who said he just finished interning at this new magazine, Tricyle. That sounded good to me. I gave them a call, and interned there for several years. One of the best aspects of this was I got the chance to meet many teachers. All the while, I would go over to "Pat's Place" to sit in the mornings because that's what a few of us from the magazine did. One day, in Cape Cod, I ran into Roshi and Sensei on our bikes, and I knew that she was my teacher. After Tricyle, I worked at a bunch of magazines, mostly in the art and photography departments: Ms., Vogue, and others. I left magazine work because I wanted to focus on my own writing. I got a fellowship to live at an art colony in the South of Spain, and I never went back to magazines after that trip.
After my MFA program, I published some poems in journals and in two books, and I began to teach poetry to emotionally disturbed kids as part of a Poet–in–Residence program with the New York City schools. These kids taught me the power of expression. I worked primarily in an elementary school in Brooklyn that was situated beneath the roaring trucks of the BQE. It was like entering a hell realm. And inside this school were these little flowers of children forgotten by most of society. One eight–year–old boy named Angel Juan took to poetry as a means of freedom—creating his own inner landscape. On the weekends, he would beg for money to buy a hot dog to sustain him for the weekend. On Mondays, he had his notebook out and proudly showed the poems he wrote over the weekend. "What will we learn today, Mr. Poetry?!" Angel Juan taught me that through the darkest times, we can find light if there is attention. Another girl, Katia, was ten years old and survived the atrocities in Bosnia, and wrote: "Inside the bottom left part of my heart, when the heart clenches, there is an ice field of great vastness with a single daisy that grows there." Katia taught me about how life is fragile and blooms even in ice and clenching. These kids taught me the love of language, and, when we can articulate it, there is freshness. This reminds me so much of where I tend to direct my Zen practice.
A few years ago, I thought it would be a wonderful idea to gather together Buddhist teachers and writers into a journal. We called it ENSO. In it, you find teachers' stories about their teachers, poets and writers on their interpretations of Hakuin's Song of Zazen, and many other offerings. Andrew Egan from CoolGraySeven did the expansive design so that it is an experience, instead of just reading another journal. It makes you stop and look and pay attention. All the money raised goes to the Zendo.
Q: Who are the poets and writers that are speaking? Are they people you know?
A: For the inaugural year–long series, we have the pleasure to hear an incredible collection of poets and writers. We started the series this month with my old teacher, mentor, and friend Marie Howe. The late Stanley Kunitz, a friend of the Sangha, said, "Marie Howe's poetry is luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life. Her long, deep–breathing lines address the mysteries of flesh and spirit, in terms accessible only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred." In October, novelist Paul Lisicky with come to read from a new novel.
In November, we have the veteran poet Marie Ponsot reading with the poet, novelist, and friend of the Zendo, Kazim Ali. When asked why poetry matters, Ponsot replied: "There's a primitive need for language that works as an instrument of discovery and relief, that can make rich the cold places of our inner worlds with the memorable tunes and dreams poems hold for us." Of Kazim's poetry, the great poet Lucille Clifton says, "Kazim Ali has managed to render into the English language the universal inner voice. These poems talk to the reader from the realm in which we are all human. What a poet to be able to define spirit using the American vocabulary! What a gift!"
In December, Vermont poet Major Jackson will come down to read. The poet Aafa Weaver said: "Jackson knows the truth of black magic. It is a magic as simple as the belief in humanity that subverts racism, or the esoteric and mystical magic of making jazz, the music of hope and love."
In January, we will have the pleasure to hear from the poet Mark Wunderlich. The poet J.D. McClatchy says this of Mark's work: "The last time I was so struck as I am now reading Mark Wunderlich's poems, I was gazing at an immense Greek vase, on whose elegantly fired red and black surface were warriors, at once flaunting and shielding their nakedness, struggling with their fates, or crushed by them in eerily erotic attitudes."
In February, actor, performer and playwright Marty Moran will come to read. The New York Times says of his work, "The Tricky Part": "The title refers to accepting divine grace in unlikely, often ugly forms. It could just as easily have to do with the difficulty in finding patterns in moral and emotional conflict without oversimplifying. Mr. Moran may say he has yet to let go of the wounded child he was. But there is surely some redemption in rendering chaos with this kind of clarity."
In March, Coleman Barks, poet and celebrated translator of Rumi, will be visiting with us from Georgia. Robert Bly says this of Coleman: "One of the greatest pieces of good luck that has happened recently in American poetry is Coleman Barks' agreement to translate poem after poem of Rumi…Coleman's exquisite sensitivity to the flavor and turns of ordinary American speech has produced marvelous lines, full of flavor and Sufi humor, as well as the intimacy that is carried inside American speech at its best."
In April, we have two different poets reading together, Fanny Howe and Mark Doty. Zen practictioner, W.S. Merwin says, "A new book of poems—or of anything—by Mark Doty is good news in a dark time. The precision, daring, scope, elegance of his compassion and of the language in which he embodies it are a reassuring pleasure." The poet Michael Palmer says that Fanny "employs a sometimes fierce, always passionate, spareness in her lifelong parsing of the exchange between matter and spirit. Her work displays as well a political urgency, that is to say, a profound concern for social justice and for the soundness and fate of the polis, the "city on a hill".
We will close the year with the novelist Rick Moody (Garden State, Ice Storm and others). The Boston Globe gives this praise to Rick's work: "Funny, fierce, and generous, Moody's maximalist prose gives the writer leeway, and the reader pleasure. Sometimes swashbuckling, sometimes laserlike, he can spin out the absurdity of human behavior in giddy syntactic arabesques, or nail it with a single noun."
Q: Will the series continue beyond this year?
A: Yes, we already have a number of great poets and writers who we have lined up for next year's series. Stay tuned.
Q: What's the admission?
A: The suggested donation for everyone is $20, and like all Village Zendo events, no one is turned away. The idea is that we can all offer something, and in doing so we practice giving.