Jazz, Poetry, and Progress with Dr. Hank Lazer

Hank Lazer reading in wuhan china
Dr. Hank Lazer

Dr. Hank Lazer was an administrator here at The University of Alabama until his retirement on the first of January, 2014. Before retiring he had worked as a professor and in various departments of the administration since 1977, a total of 37 years. He is a published poet, currently with eighteen books of poetry, and he often travels around the country and to other countries performing live readings. An interesting aspect of this performance, which he began factoring into his readings about a decade ago is the addition of jazz musicians. Dr. Lazer reads his poetry while the musicians play along to create an interesting type of ‘spoken-word’ music. I was lucky enough to interview Dr. Lazer for The Scarlet Newsletter, and get some insight on his performances, his time spent here at the University as well as how UA has grown, and the sort of mindset he uses when writing poetry.

During the 37 years you’ve been here, what have been the biggest and perhaps, most important changes you’ve seen at The University of Alabama?

Many of the biggest changes have occurred in the past ten years–since the arrival of Robert Witt as President of UA: hugely increased enrollment; tremendously improved fiscal health of UA; huge increase in out-of-state student population; improved academic qualifications of incoming students; UA becoming a national (as opposed to state or regional) university; the hiring of Nick Saban; an astonishing building program (over 40 new buildings and over 40 additional building renovated); a general sense of optimism (no doubt due to UA’s fiscal health) about what we can be and what we can accomplish. Only now are we beginning to grapple with many of the difficulties (in addition to the benefits) that result from such rapid and significant growth.

In your interview conducted by Marjorie Perloff for Talisman, you said, that out of all the classes you’ve taught at UA, your favorite was a seminar focused on Thoreau, Cage, Dickinson, and Susan Howe.  Could you explain why this was your favorite class?  Was it simply because you were very interested in these authors at the time or were there other factors?

Yes, the four authors are personal favorites whom I still read and re-read. The class remains a favorite because of the unusual and highly productive pairings (Thoreau/Cage and Dickinson/Howe), the great reading material for the course, but most importantly because of the way the course work arose from Thoreau’s thinking in Walden. The students in the class (all grad students–a mix of MFA and MA/PhD students) were required to devise their own work in keeping with Thoreau’s consideration of what would constitute meaningful labor. The most inventive response, from Glenn Mott (now a VP with the Hearst Corporation and a fine poet and journalist), was to adopt Emily Dickinson’s primary mode of communication: letter writing. Glenn and I corresponded (largely about the seminar, and about the issues raised by the writing we were considering) privately throughout the semester. Much more work than grading a term paper! To this day, Glenn remains one of my closest friends. We’ve been able to travel together in China and Cuba, and he is one of my most valued readers. Other students in the class were certainly somewhat mystified by it all.

In 1984, you conducted a conference titled “What is a Poet?” here at UA.  From what I’ve understood, it was deemed “controversial” at the time.  What about this conference garnered such a label?

It was controversial and heated then, and it would be today too, (though to a lesser degree). In the mid-1980s, English Departments were embroiled in culture wars having to do with the value and importance of critical theory and continental philosophy. The split between creative writing and the critical side of the department was one (unlike today) of serious and open tension. My symposium was caught in that cross-fire. Also, then (and now) it was extremely rare to have a public gathering where poets and critics of widely differing viewpoints actually engaged one another in extended conversation.

You said (referring back to your original answer for question #4 in Talisman) that you “do not experience an opposition between thinking and emotion.”  Would you care to elaborate on that?

I didn’t really mean anything overly complicated by this observation, simply that thinking itself is and can be a highly emotional experience, and that our emotions often involve reflection, introspection, and complex efforts at articulation and expression. My experience has been that thinking and emotion are simultaneous activities that are inseparable from one another.

You were brought up in the Jewish faith, but you have also stated that Buddhism has had a large impact on your religious views and lifestyle.  Would you say that this conglomeration of religious outlooks has played a large role in the poetry you write?

Yes, of course. But I don’t experience Judaism and Buddhism as a “conglomeration of religious outlooks.” In fact, it’s such a frequent occurrence that American practitioners of Zen Buddhism are Jewish that the shorthand term is JewBu. Each strand of this spiritual practice involves questioning, mindfulness, and an ongoing interpretive conversation, as well as an ethical response to suffering.

You do readings fairly often in which you collaborate with a jazz musician or multiple musicians to create a very interesting type of “spoken word” music.  Usually when you do these readings, you use poems from one of the collections you’ve written.  Do you ever write poetry thinking about how it will go along with jazz music, or do you wait until you are actually collaborating with a musician to decide how to blend the two together?

That’s an interesting question. Just recently, I found myself thinking that my performances with soprano saxophone player Andrew Dewar had begun to influence the composition of pages/poems in the notebooks (by beginning to think about how or whether they were adaptable to these performances). That realization helped me to set aside the concern so that the writing would resume its course without thinking about the musical performance. It turns out that some pages work better than others for jazz performances. As to what will be the nature of each particular improvisation, that’s something that is worked out collaboratively with the musician, and we each have input on how it will go. And then the performances themselves always have an element of surprise and spontaneity.

What gave you the idea or inspiration to start using jazz music in your readings?

Mainly, dissatisfaction. I think that as writers of poetry, in some sense we are writing poems that we want to read (and that do not yet exist to be read). We’re filling in for what’s not yet there. (Which, of course, is totally apart from “good” or “bad” writing.) For collaborative work with jazz musicians, I have listened to quite a few setting of poems to music–classical and jazz–and almost all of them turn the poetry into a kind of (to my ear) operatic singing, as if the poetry as spoken was not already musical. My experiments have been in the direction of jazz-poetry improvisations that make use of the poetry as spoken and that treats the notebook page as a kind of suggestive score for the music.

As an administrator, what is your opinion of the poetry scene here at the university?

As an administrator, I wouldn’t know. As a poet, I’d say that it’s a healthy, active, diverse scene. Plenty of undergraduates engage in reading and writing. Some superb instructors and faculty write and publish and give readings. I’m deeply impressed by the range of outreach activities (community engagement) by the MFA students and by instructors. Slash Pine, to cite but one example, is imaginative and exciting.

What are your thoughts generally on UA’s development in the area of the fine and performing arts?

While we have an extremely talented faculty and student population, UA has, in my opinion, been scandalously negligent in its ambition and support of appropriate facilities in the fine and performing arts. It has reached the point that Shelton State and some high schools have better theater and dance facilities than UA; Auburn has an art museum that puts our facilities to shame. While UA has made bold and significant investments in facilities in other areas: the sciences, athletics, the Greek system, residence halls–we have done inadequate “patch-work” in the areas of the arts. During this period of fiscal health, UA has (or had?) the opportunity to create a first-class arts presence that would mark our pre-eminence in the region. We have failed to do that. As the Bryce property is developed, we may see our last opportunity disappear to correct this glaring deficiency. UA needs to study several other peer universities–such UC-San Diego, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina–to understand what it takes to be a player in the fine and performing arts. In terms of facilities, we are far from being competitive. We remain disorganized and decentralized in the arts to the point that the institution isn’t even able to apply for many major grants to fund significant performances and projects.

Becoming published can sometimes be a myth in the minds of aspiring poets, especially within the student community.  What is it like being a respected figure in the world of poetry?  Is there any advice you could give to aspiring poets?

First, I’m not sure I am “a respected figure in the world of poetry.” Some people do like the work I am doing, and others do not. I have published 18 books of poetry, several books of essays, and I’ve co-edited nearly 50 books for the Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series at the UA Press. But poetry is not a traditional occupation; there’s little or no money in it, which is also wonderful–we do poetry for its own sake. Through poetry, I have made friendships worldwide that have absolutely enriched my life. I cannot imagine this life without the friendships I have made through poetry–in the US, Canada, Cuba, China, and elsewhere.

As for advice for aspiring poets: if you enjoy writing, keep writing. Reach out. Network. Seek out poets who are doing similar work, and get in contact with poets whose work you admire. Develop a good work ethic and thick skin. Be stubborn and persistent. Write what you want to write. Read a lot. Get to know work in many other art forms. Read widely. Travel. Learn at least one other language well. Keep asking where and what the present is, and seek out new art forms that are part of this newly emerging present.