Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #14
Inside issue #14:
An Interview with Chris Hoffman
Bob King: On your website (www.hoopandtree.org) you introduce yourself in a sentence as "an ecopsychologist, counselor, consultant in organization development, and a poet." I'm suspecting that all of these go together in a way that occupations and vocations sometimes don't always go for some people. Do you feel that connection between the various aspects of your work and how would you describe it?
Chris Hoffman: It has take me a while to integrate all these aspects. One of the clues for me along the way was something David Whyte wrote in The Heart Aroused: "In ancient Ireland there was a saying, 'Three equals: a king, a harper, and a poet.' The poet had been trained to step in a crucial times of difficulty and through extemporaneous speech bring a sense and clarity to the confusion of the moment, and through that give the people some sense of their beckoning collective future." "Bringing sense and clarity" is also the work of the consultant and the counselor. Working with stories and emotions as well as crossing the threshold into the deep psyche are also the work of the poet and the counselor.
BK: So let me get to your book, Cairns, published in 2005 by Windstorm Creative. There isn't a poem called "Cairns" in the book so you obviously want to have the title work and for me it works very simply: piles of rock (nature) that guide one on a journey." Was that the purpose of the title?
CH: As you know, wayfarers in the high mountains and across tundra fields, open grasslands, and rocky shorelines mark their trails with small heaps of stones, called cairns. Bigger heaps mark important trail junctions or mountain passes. Each of these poems is a marker of an experience along the trail of my life. Cairns is a Welsh word, so it's also a way of honoring the Celtic bards among my ancestors. In ancient Greece, cairns were called herms and were sacred to the god Hermes who, among other things, was the guide to the deep psyche that good poems enter and with whom I feel an affinity.
BK: The book's divided into four parts, "Earth and Sky," "Soul and Spirit,"
"Love and Work," and "Pebbles." So the first section deals with experiences in nature which have a different flavor than some 'nature poetry,' in my opinion. Take the ending of "River Trip to Bedrock": "As though awakening from a dream / you meet this place, called / here and now, / astonished." Or, for another poem: "After hiking so far alone
nowhere to be but here." These, to me, have a Zen-like touch. How do you view your interactions with nature as expressed in poems?
CH: Lu Chi, a poet from third century in China, says "The poet stands at the center / of a universe, / contemplating the enigma." (Lu Chi, Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, translated by Sam Hamill). I see my job as putting words together in a way that will evoke an experience of awakening in awe and gratitude for the enigma. An old tradition in Chinese poetry is for a poet to be inspired by something in nature, to retreat to his or her hut and write about it, and then return to the place in nature and recite the poem out loud as a way of giving thanks. If I can't say a poem out loud to a tree without feeling false or embarrassed, the poem hasn't succeeded.
BK: Let me say that a lot of your descriptive language is quite fresh and musical. I'm thinking about lines like "the candy gloss / of little stones under the lucent water" or "sequins of sunlight spangle and wink / on the rippling water" or "Out on the wrinkling, wallowing water / windrows of foam tumble and scud." Do you find this music relatively easy to attain—that it comes with the natural perception—or is this something you labor over?
CH: One of the qualities I love about good poetry, a quality I aspire to, is the music of the language itself. In my view, poetry is meant to be said aloud; the words on paper are the sheet music. I'm glad you hear the music in some of my lines. As to how the lines come, sometimes I'm blessed when the muse guides my pen. More often it's as Yeats said, "A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught." ("Adam's Curse.")
BK: As a psychologist and a student of healing practices in several traditions,
you must feel there's some healing connection between humans and the rest of the world. I'm thinking of the poem "San Rafael" but the question appears in others. Where does 'healing' come from, in your experience, and what has that to do with poetry?
CH: Indeed there is a healing connection. In my ecopsychology book The Hoop and the Tree, I show how all the great spiritual traditions from around the world and throughout history, as well as modern psychology and systems science, all point to the same underlying deep structure of health and wholeness. One of the dimensions of this deep structure has to do with relationship. A human being cannot be fully whole or healthy without a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the natural world. The other dimension of the deep structure has to do with deepening and ascending for spiritual growth. I'm sure everyone reading this interview has a favorite poem, or a few special lines from a poem, that has served as an opening to one or both of these two dimensions. We keep these lines in our hearts because remembering them heals us.
BK: Reg Saner says of Cairns, that every page "conveys the sacral" and Cass Adams has called you "a priest of desert and river." In some places this is made manifest with a line like "The earth is my body, / I shall not want." Where does religion or something "like" religion fit in with what we've been discussing?
CH: I am honored by the praise from these two men. I find that the poems I love all serve to awaken in me a deep sense of the beauty and mystery of the universe…poems such as Whitman's "Song of Myself", Jimenez' "I am not I", Rumi's quatrains, Rilke's work, Reg Saner's own "The Day the Air Was on Fire", Pattiann Rogers' "On The Existence of the Soul", etc. Rumi says, "Today, like every other day, we wake up empty / and frightened. Don't open the door to the study / and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer. // Let the beauty we love be what we do. / There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the earth." (Quatrain #82). To me, that's religion.
BK: The last section, "Pebbles," contains a number of haiku or haiku-like observations. I want to quote one of my favorites because I've had the same experience: "Late autumn, / two A.M. / I look out of my tent and think "Snow!" / but only an inch of moonlight has fallen." What's the attraction of these short poems for you?
CH: I like the short poems because they are easy to remember and because, when they succeed, the listener is amply rewarded for doing much of the work by bringing his or her life experience to the poem. Sometimes a few lines are all that is needed. Issa says: "insects on a bough / floating downriver / still singing".
BK: What are your current and forthcoming projects?]
CH: Over the past year or so I've been performing at house concerts with fabulous Colorado guitarist Jeff Wahl (www.jeffwahlguitar.com). People have been asking us to produce a CD. So I'd like to work on that. Also, I have a new manuscript, Realization Point, ready for a publisher. It continues the themes from Cairns—earth and her beauty, spirit and soul, parenthood and family and, of course, more "Pebbles". In my day job I continue working with organizations committed to sustainability and continue trying to raise awareness about our global situation (see my website www.earth-dashboard.org).