Exclusive interview with Tom Montag, author of the Big Book of Ben Zen

There’s a quiet beauty in these simple poems that brings me back to them again and again. Part of why the Ben Zen poems work, it seems to me, is their setting. Here is a vaguely Chinese character who speaks like a Zen master and is transplanted to the upper middle west. The references to his surroundings never cease to surprise. His Zen-like – or at least foreign – point of view seems to highlight the holy and wise in what we consider common or dull.

What we have is all we have. If you see it as common or dull, I think Ben would find that the dullness is within you, not within the world as it is. We are a collection of atoms held together by desire more than anything; when we forget this, we lose our sense of awe. Without awe, without wonder, yes, the world might be common and dull. Ben is blessed, or cursed, with curiosity. With curiosity, nothing is dull; yet conversely curiosity has an intensity that tends to tire us. In our weariness we pay less attention. The paradox is resolved by one’s commitment to return to wonder again and again and again. Yeah, sure, the world is dull both when you don’t understand it and when you think you do, or let me put it: the world is dull in ignorance and in certainty.

I’ve seen aphorisms and koans reduced to verse, but rarely with the sensitivity to the placement of each word these poems exhibit. You credit Ben with the poems’ words, but may we credit you with the words’ arrangement within the poem?

If the words seem well-placed, I did it. And if they’re poorly put, those would be Ben’s. But I tease. Actually, some of the poems are things I said in conversation, with a sudden recognition, “Oh, that’s Ben.” Some of them, yes, I had to work them pretty hard so they’d make the sweetest sounding sense they could. And a third category of these poems I don’t have a clue about – Ben gave them to me; I don’t know what they mean; you, the reader, will have to struggle with them as I do. An example of the first is: “Why should I pay extra/For what I don’t want?” An example of the second is: “You can’t come out of/The ocean, Ben says, if you’re/Holding onto rocks” which started as something considerably more complicated and less clear. An example of the third is the poem is: “Your metaphor,/Ben says,//Is more/Than what you’re//Here for.” I don’t have a clue what that means. I try to figure it out and lose myself in complication.

You seem to capture the connection between Ben Zen and the middle west when you suggest that the middle western farmer and the Buddhist monk would each “understand the other’s silences.” How did the connection occur to you?

The connection lies in the heart. Both the monk and the farmer are charmed by the world. Both plug into the world directly. Both see its essential simplicity – either it rains or it doesn’t rain; and, as my farmer father said, “I’ll be a hell of a long dry spell if it don’t.” Both the monk and the farmer are parsimonious with their words, and neither would use a word as big as parsimonious. My father might say “Don’t spend what you don’t have.” The terseness of both monk and farmer sometimes makes them appear inscrutable.

Both the monk and the farmer understand they are part of something larger than themselves. The farmer sees the seasons cycling like a four-cylinder engine, hears the tromp tromp of the generations, knows that cornstalks become rubble to nourish the earth, and that we do too – dust to dust.

Both the monk and the farmer have a sense of investment in the world, of ownership, and yet at the same time they recognize they are not in control; both know that control is an illusion. That “Nothing matters/& everything matters,” as Ben says.

Ben reminds me of how you describe yourself in “Poet in a Business Suit,” an essay in Kissing Poetry’s Sister. Ben relates well to the world around him, but he still stands out. Sort of “in the world but not of it.” Do you see parts of yourself in Ben?

The short answer is Yes. I think there is a little Ben in all of us – each time we wonder at the paradox of love’s letting go and holding on; each time we turn a rock over to examine the underside; each time we swallow our fear and behave like gods rather than animals; each time we surprise ourselves with our own true greatness.

You have defined a poet as anyone who spends his life “grappling with pattern and similarity and emblem.” Using that definition, is Ben something of a poet himself?

Ah, yes, Ben is a poet. In fact, thirty-three pieces in Big Ben are marked “Ben’s Poems.” Ben sees pattern and similarity and emblem; which means he also sees that which is random and different and invested in emptiness.

Dylan Thomas once said, “. . . a poet is a poet for such a very tiny bit of his life; for the rest, he is a human being, one of whose responsibilities is to know and to feel, as much as he can, all that is moving around and within him, so that his poetry, when he comes to write it, can be his attempt at an expression of the summit of man’s experience . . .” You, on the other hand, suggest that a poet is always a poet, whether he writes poetry or not. Despite appearances, somehow I think you and Mr. Thomas are saying the same thing.

I think being a poet is like being pregnant – either you are or you’re not. There’s no part-time vs. full-time in poetry. Being a poet is how you approach the world.

I think the difference in the way Dylan Thomas and I frame the question is this: Thomas refers “being a poet” to the act of writing the poem. I am talking about the habit of “seeing,” which is what makes poetry possible in the first place. Some people go through life without asking what it means. Poets are asking all the time; they are turning over rocks, looking behind walls, climbing up on top of things to get a better view, sniffing the most god-awful thing to see what it smells like. They are always asking themselves, “How is this like that?” These are habits of mind, an approach to the world, a way of being in the world – in other words, a life, not an act.

You see yourself as a poet. What does that do for your work and for how you look at things?

Unfortunately, being a poet, I think of everything as possible “material” for a poem or essay. It means sometimes, maybe, that I appropriate chunks of life that are not entirely mine to do with as I choose – they belong to someone else, too, wife or daughter or a woman who doesn’t want her family’s story told in public or a girl in a far village on Reindeer Lake who believes that a writer should talk to people in town if he is going to write about the town. It means I always have a notebook in my pocket. It means I am never un-self-conscious, for I am always reflecting on my experience. I evaluate it even as I’m living it. This is a curse. It means I am continually sorting and weighing, tossing and saving.

Being a poet means I am never satisfied. Excellence is almost enough, which means I am often disappointed and essentially sad.

Being a poet means I am often alone even in a roomful of people. It means I don’t want to be like other people, and couldn’t be if I wanted to.

Being a poet means that no piece of work is ever finished, that I set a poem or essay aside so I can go onto other things, but it’s not “done,” it’s only as good as it’s going to get in the time available. It means that all my works are only one work, a single piece of cloth I’m weaving, whatever the title of the book, whether it is a poem or an essay.

Being a poet means I wake up at 4:10 a.m. with my mind working already, and I have to get up and get going to keep up.

Being a poet means sometimes I am observing when I should be acting, that I am writing it when I should be living it. It means I cannot be as direct and simple as the farmer and the monk, that I cannot plug straight into the universe, that I have to process everything.

And, yes, sometimes being a poet means I’m tough to live with, though that’s a question you should take up with my patient wife if you’ve got time for the long answer on just how tough it is. She’s a wonderful woman, to put up with me these many years. She is the blessing I’ve been given, my solace in this world.

What does a typical day of a full-time poet look like?

When I’m home, I rise between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. and post my daily blog entry to The Middlewesterner. I check the news at some e-news sites from Pakistan to the BBC and CNN, then see if any folks on my blog roll have posted for the day. Then I write (or re-write) until about 9:00 a.m. when I get the mail. I write again until lunch, respond to e-mails, and start working on my next day’s blog post. While I’m eating lunch, I check my blog roll again.

When I “retired,” the deal I made with my wife was that I’d take over a lot of the chores she’d been doing while I worked full-time and she worked part-time – laundry, cooking, shopping, cleaning. These tasks I do in the afternoon while I try to get some more writing done, answer e-mail, and finish the next day’s blog posting.

Mary can get home from work any time between 5-7 p.m. When she does, we have supper – something freshly made that afternoon, or left-overs, either. We both like left-overs, which frees us from the tyranny of cooking every day.

If Mary arrives home early enough, we try to walk for an hour before or after we eat. Afterwards, I try to write some more, then get to bed between 9:00-9:30 p.m.

When I retired, I promised the printing company I’d worked for that I’d come back and help them out in the bindery when they were especially busy. When I go in for that, I work from 3-11 p.m. and get to bed sometime after midnight. The next morning I like to sleep til between 6:00-7:00 a.m., yet sometimes I still wake at 5:00 a.m. or so and get at it. These demons of mine are beastly.

When I am out visiting my Vagabond communities, which is one or two weeks per month, I try to rise about 4:30 a.m. and write until my first appointment, usually an interview about 9:00 a.m.; or until I go downtown for breakfast or coffee and eavesdropping. Ideally, I’ll do only two interviews or tours per day when I’m out doing my research, because I start to lose my focus when I do a third, a fourth, or once even a fifth interview in a single day. Time between interviews is spent writing up my notes and observations, creating the “Vagabond Journals” from which a book is to be fashioned five years from now.

I usually have a quick lunch by myself when I’m out in my focus communities. Often I have supper with my host/hostess in the community. If it has been an intense day, I’ll retire as early as 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. If I have a presentation to do in the evening, it will be later than that when I get to bed.

My most productive time of day is usually three or four hours starting about 5:00 a.m.

Congratulations on having eleven of the poems from The Big Book of Ben Zen included in the America Zen anthology from Bottom Dog Press coming out this fall. When you consider the eleven poems they chose, what do you think they were looking for?

I know they were looking for recent expression of the Zen spirit in America, not only from true practitioners but also from Zen’s fellow-travelers here, like me. I’m listed in the same table of contents with such luminaries as Diane Di Prima Tess Gallager, Sam Hamill, Jane Hirschfield, David Ray, and Anne Waldman. Yet most of us are lesser known, the David Budbills, not the Gary Snyders. In terms of my poems specifically, they got work that snaps with that haiku-like realization yet doesn’t take itself too seriously. They got work that recognizes the connection between the Zen monk and the middle western farmer. They took poems from my Ben Zen series and also some from my series called “Plain Poems: A Fairwater Daybook.” Until the book is published this fall and I actually see it, I don’t know if I can say more than that. I do think I may use America Zen in workshops on how to write the short poem.

Do you have a favorite Ben Zen poem?

Oh, help me! Do you have a favorite child?

I point to this poem as representative of what Ben, and The Big Book of Ben Zen is about:

You can’t always go
To the cave of a thousand Buddhas,
Ben says, and you can never
Come back the same.

These poems point to other facets of the endeavor:

I push the mountain,
Ben says, and push

The mountain and
Still the mountain

Pushes back.

*

You are welcome,
The holy man said,
To all the wood I have.

I have no fish either.

*

The more I know
The more I know

I know nothing.

*

How like a poet, to die
Trying to embrace the moon.

How does Ben fit in with your other poetry, and with your work as a whole?

In one sense, Ben Zen is one voice among several voices in my work – I have written series of poems in the voices of a Civil War soldier, an Iowa farmer, and a woman widowed on the tall grass prairie about 1880. In that sense, then, Ben is just another voice.

I turned toward the short, zen-like expression earlier as well – in the collections This Gathering Season and Between Zen and Midwestern, and Ben’s manner of expression informs my current series, “Plain Poems: A Fairwater Daybook.”

In another sense, however, the Ben Zen poems are a leap. They are more playful than I have been. They seem sometimes more like aphorisms than poems, and that’s a legitimate charge against some of them. In the other voices, I knew who was speaking, that is, I had a clear picture of the persona pretty much at the outset. With Ben, the portrait was continually being painted and re-painted; each new piece added another detail and augmented my understanding of the fellow.

I think Ben Zen is of a piece with my other work, but it shows a different facet, the way light changes when you turn the diamond.

As I say, Ben’s mode of expression informs my “Plain Poems” series; and – strange as it may seem – it informs my prose work as well. Now in my essays I am sometimes given to summing up that sounds not unlike Ben. It may be that Ben has taught me now important every word is, even in prose. I like to think I’ve been a good student.

What are you doing now, and what are your thoughts about your future work?

The poetry I am working on is a series called “Plain Poems: A Fairwater Daybook.” For five years I kept a journal of my drive to work each day. The challenge was to write one good sentence each day. I had no plans for it when I started it. Yet after I finished 2001’s entries, I challenged myself to go back and find the poems in those entries, one per day. Did I find poems? Oh, yeah. At this point, I’ve drafted poems for the first half of the year. As I have time, I’m continuing to work on the second half. What do these poems share with Ben Zen? They aren’t zen-nish poems, particularly, but they are informed by knowing what Ben taught me. How could it be otherwise.

My other project is prose, “Vagabond in the Middle,” an attempt to understand what makes us middle western. It grew out of my memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm, Curlew: Home. The strength and resilience of those people I knew at Curlew, was that special to them, or did it belong to others in the middle west? What are we made of? And how would I find out? I have selected twelve focus communities, one in each of the middle western states; I’m going to get to know these communities, the people in them, their history, the current conditions and future prospects. I know it sounds like sociology, but in reality it is almost like poetry when these people speak. So far I have interviewed 160 people, I’ve visited all of the towns once, many of them twice. I’m about a year and a half into the five years I’ll spend getting to know these places. I’ve got about 150,000 words of journal entry, all those interviews, and a pretty good sense that the project will succeed.

What does this have to do with Ben Zen? Certainly I am finding beauty in the most ordinary places. The commitment to watch the ordinary for these flashes – perhaps, again, that’s something I learned from Ben. The other thing is that I cannot go into a community with expectations. I must be open to what comes to me, to whatever presents itself, whether I think it’s what I’m looking for, or not. As soon as you set expectations, you close yourself to all sorts of wonderful surprises. My biggest challenge in the project is staying out of my own way, and to some degree Ben has taught me how to do that.

Have you had any Ben sightings since your last published Ben poem?

Ben has gone off. He hasn’t been seen since I put the Big Book together. That’s typical for me, I guess. Once the Civil War poems, my farmer poems, and the “Married to Prairie” poems were published in Middle Ground, those voices stopped speaking through me too.