Poet, essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman is the author of twenty books about nature and human nature, including A Natural History of the Senses (Random House, 1991) and the forthcoming An Alchemy of Mind (Scribner’s, June 2004). Barbara Gates and Mirka Knaster conducted a “cyber” interview with her this spring.
In vibrant moments, we vibrate together,
Perfect a frame and it frees.
Only great strength
could make it seem so effortless
to unpuzzle the heart, untrain the eye,
draw a slow string of breaths,
become the aim, let fly.
Inquiring Mind: Can you articulate ways one might tune the senses so that in our own lives the archer “becomes the aim”?
Diane Ackerman: The aimer and the aim are always one reality. But one can become more attuned by feeling affectionate curiosity and becoming rapt (rapture begins by paying close attention); by noticing the other person’s words, gaze, gestures, breathing and silences, and how they change from moment to moment; and also by noticing how each person is subtly influencing the other, and the effect of that on both of them.
IM: When you meditate, is there an emphasis on awareness of bodily sensations?
DA: When I take a walk or go cross-country skiing, I focus for a while on the changing light and shadows; the feel of the wind and cold and earth; the movement of clouds, tree limbs, leaves, animals; the shape of tracks in the snow or dirt; the sounds of nature and human doings. But I also like to lie in my bay window for a quiet spell, close my eyes, and concentrate on breathing. I enjoy listening to guided visualization tapes, too.
IM: Do you think people can learn to enliven their senses? What role can meditation practice have in training a person to become more sense-acute?
DA: Focus on one sense and tune out the rest of the world, and that sense will come alive and grow dimensions. Meditation is a way of paying attention, and savoring one sense at a time is an excellent way to do that.
IM: How do you think you first became so sensually oriented and enlivened?
DA: I was born like this.
IM: While vision is often emphasized in Western culture, your writing about smell and touch has such visceral power. Are you predominantly drawn to one particular sense?
DA: Like most people, I’m drawn to the visual, the sheer spectacle of being alive on such a bustling, fidgeting, fascinating planet. I have a poor memory for what somebody said or what happened when, but I have a generous visual memory. When I look at something, I’m instantly reminded of similar shapes, motions, colors.
IM: In your prose and in your poetry you communicate an amazement with the power of sense experiences. You often talk about being “transported” by the senses. In Buddhism, many sages warn of the dangers in being swept up by or drunk on the senses. What counterbalances the risks?
DA: I think a greater danger lies in living too narrowly, in depriving oneself of life’s textures and processes. Does this mean occasionally overdoing it? Sure. But it’s possible to balance enthusiasm and caution. Life without passion would be safer, but it would be drained of its vital juices, and not any truer.
IM: You call consciousness “the gorgeous fever,” while some Buddhist poets might compare consciousness to a cool mountain stream.
DA: A cool mountain stream, if looked at closely enough, contains countless eddies and vortices, cool and warm patches, areas of gentle commotion, lots of blending, pulling apart and reshaping. Its details may not be visible to the human eye (and looking at it one might even feel quite calm), but actually many processes are combining and holding each other in equilibrium.
IM: Your writing is infused with sensuality. Has this always been true, even in your childhood writings?
DA: It’s not something I try to achieve; it’s simply my flavor of mind. This caused problems when I was little in school, drawing trees with chewy bark in lots of colors instead of green. I learned early on that I saw the world differently, apparently in more detail than my playmates, and, although I certainly didn’t know the word then, I was a synesthete. For many years I hid my terrible secret. It was only much later as a college student that I discovered some people enjoyed looking through the lens of my sensibility, that some welcomed what I was so ashamed of in childhood.
IM: Do you sense your poetry in your body? Would you say that you are particularly drawn towards words that “sound” right to the ear or “look” right on the page? Do they have to “feel” right in the gut?
DA: I love the sounds of language and the hidden histories of words. I love using words as notes in an emotional chord, and the way words can build enticing rhythms. I experience those things as both sensation and idea. A poem doesn’t have to “conclude” or “mean,” but it does have to settle, the way an Afghan hound has to turn just the right number of circles before it can finally fold its long legs and lie down.
IM: Can someone learn to write sensually?
DA: Yes. Pay close, loving attention to nature. Be willing to abandon your sense of self. Imagine being inside a hawk looking out, or the feel of being reptilian. Allow your senses to record the feel, tastes, sounds, sights and flavors of being alive on this particular planet. Don’t fight the lovely part of our animal nature, the part that relishes curling up in a pool of sunlight on a cold winter day.