Interviews by Chris Mansel

This blog contains interviews with extraordinary writers, artists, and activists.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Interview/Conversation with Jake Berry & Chris Mansel

A new interview/conversation between Jake Berry and Chris Mansel.

Chris: Do you believe that the truth cannot be known it must be felt.

Jake: Forgive me if this seems rude, but before we address that question I think it might be a good idea to see if we can come to an agreement about what truth is and also try to clarify the distinction between knowing and feeling. If we take a step back and examine these terms together we might be able to get at something beyond the general assumptions. I hope this doesn't put a drag on the discussion.

Chris: Not at all. The question was asked and answered. I feel you cannot judge truth through knowing. You can't know the truth through perceptions or your five senses. Reality is not what you find it to be. The truth is only what you perceive it to be. The blue sky you see isn't blue at all. Much in the same way the ocean closes in on the center of a bowl and finds two things. It's running out of space and there is no way to separate the center. How could an artist approach this in a way that would not contradict his work or how his perception perceived it?

Jake: Maybe an artist should contradict his or her work and challenge his or her perceptions. As you say, "The blue sky isn't blue at all." That is the way most humans would perceive a cloudless sky, but even inside that statement there will be a difference in what the sky is, what blue is. Each person will feel and think about it in different ways. And in a radically different culture, or in a altered state of mind the sky might not even appear to be sky and it might have another color or an array of colors or all of it might vanish. So then, maybe the artist should allow for all these possibilities and many more. Paul Celan said, "Isn't poetry always a progression toward the Real, working amid what surrounds and seizes us?" Perhaps we constantly discover the Real in our work when we are surrounded and seized by it.

If we come to the work with preconception and the whole nest of assumptions about the world we carry around with us all the time all we are going to do is perpetuate the same consensus perspective. For most people the great joy in art comes when it confirms something
they already believe or assume. I understand that. I have that experience frequently. It's comforting to know that you are not alone in your experience. We all need that. But more fundamentally, we need to have experiences that challenge our assumptions, that shake everything loose and force us to experience without the mediation of our well trained perceptual apparatus. Our minds, even our senses, need to be washed clean fairly often so that we don't lapse so deeply into our assumptions that we mistake them for what is actually there, what is actually happening. One way to do this is to allow it to happen in our work. Another way is to seek out poetry, or any other art or experience that strips us of our assumptions. We constantly have to be reminded to wake up.

Chris: John Locke writes, "As nothing teaches, so nothing delights more than history." But is there nothing more fueling than the present? Or as David Hume said, The most perfect character
is supposed to lie between those extremes.

Jake: Hume's approach is possibly the wisest because his character would have to remain open and adaptable. Still, you are absolutely right, the present is the fuel we burn. We live in it like it or not. Locke was important for helping to develop an approach that removed the authority from religion to rationalism and detached inquiry. After the domination of religion and superstition in the west for so long an adjustment was required, inevitable even. To respond more specifically, time is always problematic - how we perceive it, how it effects our lives, how it enters our work. Most of what we understand as time is, like history, a human invention. This does not make it a bad thing at all, but we have to remember that it lies within the range of our capabilities and by no means is the ultimate expression of them. Time as an absolute is very questionable. We know we have the present because we are here, but when we connect the markers of the present that is now past we invent stories from the bits and we are back inside history again. Physics makes a good case for time across vast distances or within quantum connectivity. But there we run into a problem of measurement. The most reliable perspective may lie outside one's skin, which, contrary to popular belief, is neither difficult or fatal, but in order to so we must embrace the unexpected and the unknown. In other words, we must abandon the compulsion to control.

Chris: You have stretched language, creating your own words to fit your poetry. Along with your very original art there's a panoramic complexity to your work you don't usually find in poetry. Since the first book of Brambu Drezi was published has the reactions to the series surprised your were they expected? Are you still expecting a response you imagined?

Jake: It was so long ago that I started Brambu (1986) that I'm not sure how reliable my memory is. I had been publishing various kinds of short poems that resembled the work that would later appear in Brambu. The response to that had generally been good from the magazines and publishers who were interested in experimental work. The larger establishment publishers were lost somewhere in the late 50s or early 60s so what I was doing was completely off the board to them. I think I expected a favorable reaction from the experimental people, and either a negative reaction or nothing from everyone else. What I did not anticipate was the negative reaction I received to work to the second and third books from poets associated with Language poetry. There was also some positive reaction from others in the same camp. Some of the negative response was couched in the terminology of postmodern criticism. Most of the criticism that embraces that term seems alien to me. The term postmodern itself seems dead on arrival. Even Derrida thought of his work as a development of modernism. So it was hard for me to take the criticism seriously. But I don't really expect any particular kind of reaction. I hope that people will respond, but I can't anticipate what that response might be. If I were trying to produce work for a particular audience, or for anyone specifically, I might be able to provoke a desired response, but poetry isn't marketing.

What about you? I have read and heard a wide variety of reactions to your work. Did you expect any of that, whether positive or negative, or were you simply working and thinking about the reaction afterward?

Chris: At the moment when I am writing I am just struggling to get the words down on the page. I know what I write is unlike a lot of what is out there so any reaction is going to be extreme either way. Especially my fiction. I appreciate any response whether it be positive or negative. At least they took they time to read it. They might not have understood my intention, or the poem's meaning but they did take the time. Any writer wants to be read. I'm getting to a point where I am less concerned with being read, which has changed from years before. I am now focusing now on just being able to write. Without going into it, my health has prevented me from being as productive as I once was. I no longer read five or six books a week.

Do you believe the old line that goes something like, You write what you read? I know you read a wide assortment of material, especially early texts, does what you read influence your writing? How much comes directly from within?

Jake: First, I want to agree with you about the moment of writing. When you're actually doing it, you're just trying to get it down. There is no thought about anyone out there, or even anyone "in here." The process is open, but complete.

What we read has to effect what we write, whether we intend it or not. Writers have told me that the way they get the process of writing started is by reading. That approach obviously works. When I am reading I might jot a note in the book in response to what I am reading, but I rarely move away from it and write an original work. The influence comes later, often without my being aware of it. Everything we experience shapes what we will do in the future, so everything that happens, whether it be reading, talking to someone, going for a walk, whatever, it plays into what happens when those first sounds rise and strike you as part of a poem or any other type of composition. That sound is at first a sound only. It has not yet become a word or a note. Usually several sounds happen in sequence and that begins the process. The sounds can come from inside, but also from outside. It might be something you hear in the physical world or a sound that seems to be outside, but has no outside source. All of this happens so quickly that the process is well underway before there is time to pause and take notice of what is happening.

Let me turn the question back to you. Even if you aren't able to read as much as you used to you still probably read much more than most. You have also mentioned before how listening to music helps you write. How does it happen for you? What is it like when the process begins and where does it originate?

Chris: The writing doesn't set the mood it follows the material. Music is freeing. It can help stir up emotions, some music should come in prescription form. Like you I have have an intensely varied listening tastes and I explore it often. It doesn't matter what I am listening to, or sometimes it does. The work seems to come easier when this way. I will begin listening to music and after a short while the words will come and it pours out and I have to try and get it down as best I can. Other times I sit with my face in my hands with the light of the computer screen illuminating the room.

I have epilepsy so when I shake it slows the writing down but the inspiration is there. I find that when I am writing truly inspired I shake more. The hands fall back down to where they were and go right back to the work. I think it originates from somewhere in my unconscious. Because when it comes it comes fully formed. It scares me sometimes the way it is. I don't think I have explained this very well.

Is it true that if you write for an audience you will always find yourself alone on the stage waiting for them to arrive?

Jake: (laughing) Yes, or you will get there after they have left. If you try to write for an audience you will always be looking at the past. What is appealing to an audience today will be old news tomorrow. You can waste your life trying to anticipate what an audience may want to read or hear, and that is part of the job of publishers, but you will find that even publishers prefer to go with something reliable. Why take a chance on a new author when you can bring out a new piece by a proven seller? New authors tend to rise through the small presses. Occasionally one will become popular enough to land a deal with a big publisher. It really has nothing to do with quality or originality. If it draws dollars it goes to press.

What you are describing when you talk abut your hands shaking is the intensity of the moment. For some it is a very cool, almost calculated, experience. They work at a distance. For others, like yourself, the entire being is so involved that it is possible to overheat. Holderlin seems to have been that way and Kerouac was obviously on fire when he wrote.

You are right, it is difficult to explain what happens. That's one of the many things that is often misunderstood, even by poets. The reason poetry exists is because no other mode of being is sufficient. Poetry allows things to happen that would not happen otherwise.
Do you find that the intensity of the process has changed for you over the years? Have you been able to adapt the elements of your life so that you don't have to struggle so much just to do the work?

Chris: It has changed over the years. Very much so in fact. One thing I didn't mention previously about music. I will quite often choose one song or one piece of music to write to and listen to it over and over for an hour or two at a time. This builds intensity in and of itself. It's funny but I took inspiration for this from Albert Einstein. The story was that Einstein's closet was full of the same type of clothing so he never had to decide what to wear. I thought if I found something to listen to that inspired me I wouldn't have to worry about the music changing and interrupting the flow.

Adapting the elements of my life is quite a task just to make it through the day much less writing. The work is a struggle, always. The words come so fast and often is disjointed ways. Often tumbling through and over one another in such a way that its a wonder I am able to capture any of it. But I do. I don't seem able to write poems of any great length anymore like I used to. It is difficult to maintain the attention to detail I once could. If that is the correct way of expressing that. To take your writing seriously I believe you have to be desperate. Desperate to hold onto the things around you and to your sanity if you want to take it to an extreme. I have no time or sympathy for those that approach writing as a hobby.

As you continue work on Brambu Drezi, as the epic continues, do you feel the work itself pulling you onward? Each volume seems to pull the title from its origin and allow the reader a look within. Will the final installment reveal all?

Jake: Answering the first question: Yes, the work pulls me onward, or pulls itself onward. Whatever I am, persona, ego, concept, is one of many contributors and any use of personal pronouns is more likely to be some other self, either a fictional one or one that presents itself through some other medium. The whole thing is a process that I allowed to happen or maybe opened the door on something that was already happening. I try to get out of the way and allow it happen. I am the one putting it all down so there is a sense of collaboration and argument, but the sources are elsewhere.

There used to be a lot of discussion about the inward life of writing, or the outer life, Hemingway for instance, running around the world for experiences he could use in his fiction. That dichotomy, inner and outer, probably has more to do with analysis of writing than actual writing. I don't know where those boundaries are. The pull seems to be outward. The outside calls us into being, into doing. We have a sense of being inside our bodies or minds, but that is just a sense of self preservation. One has to find shelter. One has to project outward in order to kill or plant or harvest to keep the body alive, but everything that I call myself was once outside and I am constantly, right now even, moving outward toward you. Reality seems to be less about some solid, singular self than about change, relation, impression and response. Perhaps there are no nouns, only activities that have a particular shape often enough for us to give them a name that will work temporarily.

The final installment of Brambu Drezi will be wherever I am with it when I die. That was the idea, to step into it and allow the shape be determined by forces beyond my control. And before anyone leaps up and says 'surrealism' or 'the unconscious' I would ask them to remember that surrealism became a self-conscious movement almost immediately and has particular stylistic qualities. The unconscious is a concept. It is a useful one, but it is just a tool we use to get at what lies beyond obvious consciousness. And like so many good concepts it has been so co-opted by pseudo philosophies, charlatans and the market that it can stand in the way of genuinely approaching what it was originally intended to describe.

I hope Brambu reveals, but I hope it reveals openly, not all or everything, but opens toward infinity - which is only a way of saying we are always moving into the something we cannot hold or name. That is one of the things poetry can do - the opposite of the way language is conventionally used. It can make the world available without giving it absolutes or closing it into individuated spaces.

Does all of this make sense to you? Your own work, whether poetry or prose, seems to always leave things unresolved. There may be final events in it - a character may die or transform into something else - but the door never seems to close. I don't get the sense that we are ever arriving at some final truth or a point where we know everything about what is happening in the work or in the world generally. Are you seeking something absolute? Will we arrive at some end point, like a unified field theory, within which everything can be understood?

Chris: Yes, it makes perfect sense. Our boundaries, those we project and those we will only see in the work, the suppression's that we miscalculate, the different levels we manage to extract are at best only temporarily held at bay. The tessellation of these things commit to occur whether we are in control or not. The destructive influence of our identity is what sometimes holds us back. You mention that language can grant individuated spaces, I agree. By breaking apart the space, the language you move into the areas every writer was meant to travel to. You become an expatriate. William Burroughs was right. Writing is dangerous work.

I think we are always seeking to resolve the unresolvable. I've always felt like an exile. I've always felt that I was going about my work in a way different from every one else. I think in some way perhaps I unconsciously left things unresolved so that they would continue. You make a good point, that is in my work. One definition of absolute is free from restriction. That I have always sought. I can't imagine anyone not seeking this. I don't know if we will reach a point where everything will be understood. Ezra Pound said, "The body is inside the soul." Perhaps the work, the finished work will be discovered and understood when we're dead. But I doubt it in my case. I don't think I'll be read after my death. I didn't come to this earth to be read I came here to write.

Arthur Rimbaud said, “The first study for a man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, complete.” If we as writers are to know ourselves complete is there any sense in pursuing writing once you have gained this wisdom?

Jake: If we define the absolute in those terms - free from restriction - then we are working toward the same experience, each in his own way. And I would agree with Pound as well. We don't have a soul. Humans aren't that smart. A soul (or souls) has us. There is also the idea of making or building a soul, as in Michael McClure's poetry. That is what is happening. That is the making a poet does.

Following in the context of the absolute as free from restriction we could interpret Rimbaud's "complete" in the same way. If the knowledge of himself was to free himself from restriction then it is certainly reflected in his poetry, and in his life. I'm not sure if he ever acquired that level of knowledge. One gets the sense from reading his letters and bits of his history from other sources that he abandoned poetry out of exasperation. He opted for a rough, direct experience that apparently did not inspire or require poetry.

I'm really not sure what Rimbaud meant by that statement. He's also writing about deranging the senses. Are those two things part of the same process? I think it was for him and I think it has been for many poets after him. Perhaps in order to know oneself one must escape oneself - losing one's mind in order to find it. Poetry feels that way to me as it happens. In some sense I am not myself or any particular self. I am not in my mind, not contained by the identity or persona I might call myself otherwise. Can we ever reach that point where the process is complete? If I want to know myself as a person, an ego, that won't take long since the ego is always provisional and reactionary. It's merely an interface. But if we step beyond ourselves, inside or out or both, and it may amount to the same thing, then what we can experience has no boundaries, there is no end. Ultimately, I'm not trying to know anything by means of writing, I'm allowing something to happen that can never be completely defined or known. It's a movement into the open beyond the pain of being a self.

Regarding whether or not we are read now or after we are dead. I feel like what is happening is that the our area of experience is expanding by way of the work and in that way we are making some small contribution to the development of our species and maybe to awareness generally. Do you feel the same way or do you think of your work as being the expression of the self, of making a personal mark?

Chris: From the very beginning I have always described my writing as literally attempting to empty my head. The thoughts that hounded me and would not go away I tried to get down on paper. Along with this are the bits of words flashing about. To me its a troubling process. It is I suppose an expression of self. A never-ending sculpture that you can walk around in and explore. No matter how horrific it may be.

The first poem I ever wrote was of a dream I had just experienced. In the dream I am watching myself kill myself. I woke up and wrote down the dream in the form of a poem. To me this was more journalism than poetry. Whether or not this aid in the development of the species, my suffering or the contents of my head being emptied out for others to read I don't know. You can learn as much from the scene of the crime as you can the condition of the body.

In the film Examined Life, Cornel West calls himself a blues man in the life of the mind, a jazz man in the world of ideas. How would you describe your place in the world?

Jake: Those are good descriptions of Cornel West. He is definitely riffing and improvising, and lays down some serious lines.

My place in the world? Do I have one? If we are defined by what we do then I am a poet, some of those poems are sung more abstractly than others, including visual poetry. I also play musical instruments - the guitar first, but also piano, banjo, mandolin and a little flute. I write the occasional review and bits of prose that might be called philosophical. I draw and paint, work with clay and wood. I have had books and CDs published. I don't know if this places me in the world. I don't know if any of it has had any impact. I try to be a reliable companion to my wife, a reliable human to the cats in our home and tend house - all in what most people would consider a very eccentric fashion. I also try to be a good friend and usually fail by anyone's standards, including my own. Where does all this place one in relation to the world?

There are a couple of things others have said that come to mind. My brother Jeff and I were together at his house a few days ago. We were playing guitar and stumbled into writing a song, as these things often happen. He said, "Some people fish, some people hunt or golf. I write songs." Also because we saw a Steely Dan concert that evening I remembered some lines by Donald Fagan from his song "What I Do" in which he dreams Ray Charles tells him, referring to his music, "It's not a game I play. It's in my DNA. It's what I do." That's a fair assessment of it as far as I'm concerned. All this poetry and music is what I do. It's as natural to me as leaves are to trees and singing is to birds. That's the world I am certain I have a place in. The world of human ideas, aspirations, etc. I don't know if it comes to much. I suppose it's what humans do and matters no more or less than what other species do.

Friday, May 07, 2010

A Dialogue with Jake Berry, 2008

Any conversation for me with my friend Jake Berry is a learning experience and a gift I do not take lightly. I was again fortunate to ask Jake questions for the third time and the answers speak for themselves.

Chris Mansel: If the Buddha were standing out in the rain would you invite him in, or go outside and stand with him?

Jake Berry: I'd invite him in to help me tear the roof off my house.

Chris Mansel: If your creativity is the medicine you are prescribed, then is the diagnosis running parallel or controlling the ship on troubled seas?

Jake Berry: You know how to load a question. I think of how they found Nietzsche mumbling to himself over his papers. He never said much after that though he lived many years in silence. Or Holderlin pacing in circles all night, jotting down notes, some of them brilliant fragments, and playing violin, or was it flute, that according to some who heard it was quite beautiful. Yet it is obvious from people who spent long periods in his company that he was suffering greatly, quite mad, relative to the times anyway. He lived another 40 years deteriorating.

I know that working more or less every day at one creative pursuit or another keeps me from going to Wal-Mart, buying a shotgun and shells and having a go at the place with both barrels until the cops and media arrive and spoil my fun. Some of us are afflicted with this thing. The nerves are calmed for a moment after you write or speak/sing a poem, write a song, play a musical instrument, paint, draw. It has been this way since I was a child. Artaud said no one ever did any of these things except to get out of hell. He would know. He spent enough time there.

At the same time it can be extremely hard work - grueling, obsessive day after day. Insomnia from dwelling on a piece so intensely it won't leave you rest. Knowing that even your most inspired effort is probably doomed to failure, even by, perhaps especially by, your own standards. I know you suffer from migraines, seizures and so forth that seem connected to your work, But then once you really commit to this thing everything is connected to it.

What I try to do, with actually a small degree of success, is keep my ego out of it. Out of my feelings about the work, out of how others react to it, and out of dominating the work as the central voice.

Most creation tales begin in chaos, the void, or some similar unknown. So it is. We stumble around in the dark. Those who practice any of the arts and believes they know what they are doing are utter fools. If I have learned anything, it's how to recognize a fool. I have a great deal of experience in the art of foolishness, where practice does not make perfect, but only makes one more foolish.

Chris Mansel: If destructiveness is in the chemical makeup, does it come from the same component as creativity, or do they operate individually off of one another further down the line?

Jake Berry: I don't see how they cannot be interwoven. Creation and destruction seem to be part of the same process of change. Since nothing is permanent we can see the change as either the destruction of what has disappeared or the creation of something new. When we bring intent into consideration we can discuss whether creation is the result of intention to make something new or destroy something previously present. Further than this we can discuss particular instances of creation and destruction.

Jake Berry: Let me answer then with a question to you. Are your films a destruction of the images from which they originally drive or are pure creations in which the original image is merely the ore, the raw substance to be shaped in a particular way? To what extent is the end result predetermined or left to chance?

Chris Mansel: The images are deconstructed in such a way as to bring out the image beneath the surface. What you refer to as pure creations is left to modifying or using the software in such a way as to bring about a new surface of the canvas, a painting over if you will. Everything was left to chance until I saw the image and I would then go back and correct it or take the muddy approach and let the muck fly where it lay. When I started working with your Brambu recording I began a whole new process of working towards the text and an evolution began that as you often say, “Developed delightfully stranger and newer life forms.” In other words I did things that I didn’t know I could do until I did them. My latest film The Dead Illume is a perfect example of this.

Chris Mansel: Your blog Notes, Quotes, Ideas, Speculations hasn’t been posted on in three years and this is a fascinating piece of work. I wonder if you have any plans to expand it into a book length project in the future.

Jake Berry: There was a train of thought I was working with there and I still want to develop it, but I have been distracted by other projects. I intended the site as a place to post more or less random philosophical bits and pieces. So perhaps I will return to it that way then pursue the longer piece by weaving it in and out of the rest.

Jake Berry: You say above, "I did things I didn't know I could do until I did them." That seems to be the most appropriate way to work. In my experience if I understand where a piece of whatever kind is going before I start it doesn't remain interesting for very long. The whole point of this kind of practice is discovery. The thing that surprised me the most was the quality of the work you were doing with a computer camera and free software. There are directors working with budgets of millions of dollars who devour hours of our time and do not give us anything. You on the other hand open entire worlds of imagination with no budget and asking only two-five minutes of our time. Do you intend to continue working with this approach or would you like to eventually use professional cameras and software?

Chris Mansel: Of course I would like to use more sophisticated equipment and turn it on its side in the same manner.

But I don’t forsee it happening. One reason is funding. I just don’t see any way I would have access to the kind of equipment you are talking about. Another reason I don’t think it will happen is because it would be the natural progression of things and that just hasn’t been the way my life has worked out.

Chris Mansel: In Arthur Janov's book, Primal Scream, he writes, "E. H. Hess, investigating pupillary contraction and dilation in response to certain stimuli, found that the pupil dilates when the stimulus is pleasant and contracts when it is unpleasant." If this is true would not a nation be so seized in its view to generally accept any thing that was thrown at them?

Jake Berry: I suppose that's true if what was thrown at them was pleasant. At least that portion that was paying attention. I think the manipulation of a populace has to go further than the autonomic response. It has to strike at that level, but it also must engage the intellect in some way. And of course pleasure is only one response that can be manipulated. We have seen how populations respond to fear, and how fear can be used to coerce populations into believing things into believing things that would otherwise seem unreasonable. It's part of the way those in power

convince the majority to conform. The real power always lies with the majority. If the great majority of a population truly does not wish to do something, then it does not have to, but this requires a kind of solidarity we rarely see in large populations. Usually the struggle for resources and other divisions like ethnicity, religion, race, and so forth prevent solidarity, and that is exactly the way the most powerful individuals in any society would like to keep it. Only a few can be rich, otherwise having wealth would be pointless. In a capitalist society, wealth is power and those in power do not wish to lose it. So the manipulation begins.

Jake Berry: Where does art fall in all of this? We know that it can be used as a tool for manipulation, but we also see that people with no power at all the world over make art. If the populace in general becomes more concerned with aesthetics than with consumption, the facsimile of wealth, will that populace become less subject to manipulation?
What I mean is concerned with making art, not just passively observing or consuming art products.

Chris Mansel: Art be comes the transparency that can be lifted up and placed any where at will. Commercial art has taken upon itself to balance out the scales of madness to borrow a song title from you. Having no power you can still make commercial art, anything feeds the eye, it’s the pineal blues these days. The false Buddha is everywhere. It is more important now to be the bug than the botanist, to be the moth than the flame; to be seen is the new orgasm, the new sexual technique. Cesare Lombroso wrote in 1899, “The atavism of the criminal when he lacks absolutely every trace of shame and pity, may go back beyond the savage even to the brutes themselves.”

Chris Mansel: I would like to ask you about a song entitled, So Many Birds. This is a very dramatic recording. Could you talk about the song and the writing and why you placed it as the last track on your new album Liminal Blue?

Jake Berry: "So Many Birds" was I think the last song I wrote for the set. I think I wrote 15 songs during the period, 11 ended up on the album. I was about to change the tuning on the guitar when I hit a chord that felt like a door opening - one of those moments when you hear a whole song unfolding out of a single chord. The tuning is one I use often because it has so many possibilities. I never seem to fall into a rut with it. The low E string is tuned down to B and it goes on from there to F sharp, B, E, A, E. I found it a few years ago fooling around, looking for new tunings, then discovered later that Joni Mitchell had used it on several albums, including Turbulent Indigo, one of my favorites.

That's probably why it made sense to me. It's easy to get 13th and 11th chords in this tuning, so the harmonics are fairly broad. The first part of the song works out of an F sharp minor 13, so the melody is a minor modality, a darker, more dramatic feel. The second section of the song moves to A major, and F sharp minor is the relative minor to A, so you get what Leonard Cohen calls, in "Hallelujah", the "major lift." But it eventually resolves back to the minor. This was a case where the words flowed out of the music. They came to me as I was working out the chords and melody.

It happened fairly quickly. When I went to record it, all the parts seem to come quickly as well. There is one idea that I got from listening to the first Portishead album. I noticed in one of the songs the way they used vibrato on a guitar strumming the chord at the beginning of each measure. I liked the atmosphere that created, so I tried it with "So Many Birds" and it was very effective. The song doesn't sound anything like Portishead, but that's another reason to listen to all kinds of music, you get ideas you can bring into your own work to create something new. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were influenced by Ravel and Debussy, and Ravel was influenced by early blues. The reason it's the last song on the album is because it feels like a good way to finish it. It often happens that the album sequence is very close to the order in which the songs were written. There's also the last line - "ride on, until you disappear, even from yourself."

After that it felt like the story had been told.

Jake Berry: As your film/video style develops I see how you move from very recognizable images of nature to pure abstraction, which is just as organic since it is derived from the original images. This movement takes me in two directions. It seems to make the film more spiritual, intuitive, more open to the imagination. It also makes me think of the films of Stan Brakhage. This is not because it looks like Brakhage but because you seem to allow the work to take its own course and move into those open areas. How does this work from the inside as you are working on the piece?

Are you trying various techniques or experiments then going with what seems to work best or is it even more organic than that, does it seem to guide itself completely?

Chris Mansel: The difference in Brakhage and me is his images would rush by you and constantly you found yourself inside a community reflecting off one another. In my defense I am alone without the benefit of community and working in a limited medium and without editable film. The software I use is limited to its creation. Film is strength in a society of weakened eyes searching for anything. Brakhage was a genius but then again so was Greg Toland and he never directed one picture but you can’t mention Citizen Kane without discussing his work.

As I am working on each piece the image, the initial image suggests everything and until I add any abstraction, for lack of a better term, it says nothing at all unless you count the surface or what light has down to it in the original

photograph. Nietzsche’s last words were, “More light.” He also suggested we listen to music with our muscles. If that is true then perhaps we look at film with our brain, each individual eye developing or editing the image separate from one another. Burroughs was right; life is a cut-up. The process is organic. Short of literally showing you how I make a film I can explain that separate filters in the software capture and distort light in different ways. It is back dated

software to the year 2000 so there are more advanced processes out there on the market but I have been successful with what I have at hand. It is organic and it is a process of selecting the recipe per each individual image. There is no way to fully explore the depths of it because there are innumerable ways to take photographs and countless recipes.

Chris Mansel: Aaron Copland wrote, When I speak of the gifted listener I am thinking of the non-musician primarily, of the listener who intends to retain his amateur status. It is the thought of just such a listener that excites the composer in me.” Do you happen to agree with Copland or do you compose for whoever listens?

Jake Berry: My definition of a listener might be different from Copland. I probably don't draw as clear a distinction between amateur and professional. We live in very different times. In Copland's day professional musicians played classical music, with club or cabaret musicians considered a distant cousin, even though Copland based much of his music on very unprofessional American folk music. I do think that a trained musician or a musician who makes a living by performing and recording music will hear very differently from the music fan who does not play, or the casual listener who enjoys whatever is on the radio. However, I wouldn't say I have a particular type of listener in mind.

Writing a song is more intuitive than intellectual. I am following the feel of the music, contributing to it, toward something that seems real, something that connects with my experience of the world, and something that remains interesting as I develop the progression and melodies and so forth. I hope that if a song is true to my experience, has an authentic feel, and remains interesting over the process of writing and recording, it will also connect with other people, though on their own terms. Most of the time when someone responds to me about one song or another they discover things I never imagined. That's an affirmation as far as I'm concerned because it means that person found something of their own in the song. As a fan, my favorite music always has that quality, so that's a measure of success for me.

Jake Berry: Wayne Sides pointed out the obvious to me one day when he said photography is light writing, writing with light. The great photographers, from Steiglietz to Weston to Minor White or Robert Frank all seem to have that in common. Just as drawing is a moving point, so photography is moving light. This is even more so with moving images with people like Toland or Sven Nykvist. You are a poet, novelist, songwriter, painter and sculptor/assemblage artist as well as a film maker. Do you see all these things as part of a whole, points along a continuum or do the demands of each discipline make them completely distinct from one another? If they are part of a whole how does each of the mediums in which you work inform your film and video work?

Chris Mansel: It's a continuum of course but then again it's not. To make a mistake in a film is like making a mistake in any of the other fields you named. You simply have to start over or have to rethink the process. I can't reed it because the software is unable to do so. If I had to pick a disclipine I would pick assemblage to mirror film making. I walk along the shore or though the woods or anywhere really and stop and look at a piece and wonder if I could make it work with something else. That takes a lot of thought. But as The Marquis De Sade wrote, "Any enjoyment is weakened when shared." But the Marquis was insane.

Chris Mansel: Your writing has always been visual, now that I have given video to the audio recordings of your text, where do you go now with your written word? Is there a way to transcend the traditional form of delivering to the reader or listener?

Jake Berry: Doing Brambu Drezi Book 4 with a moving image component has been my intention for a two years or so and the opening section of Brambu Book 4 was finished and posted at You Tube and the IFC Media Lab last fall.

Since then I've done the video and some of the audio for the second section of Book 4, but I'm still working on the words and the visuals on the page. There is a tendency to want to put the words in the video, and I will do some of that (you've done that beautifully with some of your own poetry in video by the way), but the ideal situation is to have the book in hand at the same time the DVD will be playing. The book itself is both a score for performance and visual art. The video as you have added to excerpts from Books 1-3, and as I will continue with Book 4 is just another element. I don't think there is any need to transcend the traditional forms of poetry, just add to them. There are many films that I think are poetry based purely on the visual alone. We spoke about Brakhage before, and I think your work does this. Also, a little closer to the feature film, directors like Godard, Antonioni, Terrence Malick, et. al. create a kind of visual poetry. Godard also drops words into his films sometimes, right in the middle of scenes, at first inexplicably, but gradually you recognize it as a kind of cut-up poetry.

Jake Berry: Most of your film/video work so far has drawn from landscape, do you envision a time where you'll want to work with the human form?

Chris Mansel: Yes I have thought of this but I would have to have a model who wouldn't mind the painful prostrations I would put her through. The shots I have in mind would also be in nature and in a studio setting. They would be called, Essays in the Passing Sciences. It would be a film about an hour long. I have already conceived some of it in my mind but I don't know if it will take place or not.

Jake Berry: I do what I can to support the work of others, but I never feel like I have done nearly enough. It would be nice to have the resources to start a publishing and recording company so that I could promote and distribute the work of all the artists of whatever kind who are now often ignored. I don't think it's a continuation of my art necessarily, but one wants to give something back, and give something to the world beyond your self. When you love the arts and you see great work not getting the recognition it deserves you want to do something about it. At the same time, whenever I get a few extra dollars I spend it getting my own work out there or buying instruments or equipment that will help me create and promote my own art as well as others. So I feel selfish as well.

Jake Berry: Essays in Passing Sciences sounds like a wonderful project. You might be surprised. There might be people willing to do the work because they are interested in being a part of a project beyond the ordinary film. Could you go into a little more detail about what you have in mind?

Chris Mansel: Specifically in nature, there would be those parts of the body I find interesting that would either coalesce with the environment or protrude. In a studio it would be more close-up. There are many things I find interesting about the human body. The idea is to photograph in both setting the form in a new and interesting way.

Say for instance the arm from the shoulder to the elbow against a broken limb both hanging from a tree and a broken limb on the ground. In a studio setting the arm would take on a different meaning when it was up against a light bulb that was turned off to signify the idea is there but it is nothing new.

Another idea is have the body submerged in leaves with only the hair emerging. These are essays and who is to say if is it science or not?

Chris Mansel: One thing your writing is known for, particularly your Brambu writings is the art. A book of your art, drawings, sculpture would be a monumental task but well worth the under taking. Do you think such a book would free you to create more art and distance you from what you have already created?

Jake Berry: I'm not sure what the result would be. But if there is a publisher willing to give me the opportunity I'd leap at it.

In the past when I've been confronted with similar situations I tended to add it to the things I did rather than subtract it from the activities in which I was already engaged. So I would probably assemble a collection of work that had not been associated with any previous project and spend a period of time obsessed with creating new work.

Jake Berry: Your written work, whether prose fiction, non-fiction political writing, or poetry is so diverse that it is almost impossible to imagine it as the product of a single mind. Do you have as many selves, as many souls, as you have approaches to work? Are we by nature singular or plural or both?

Chris Mansel: I have often wondered this myself. When I write, from start to finish, unless it is a long piece I usually finish it in just a few minutes. A poem will sometimes take two minutes or more. The words come out so quick I am lucky to get it down in a cohesive piece. Since I have seizures I can hardly write legible any more creatively. So like most these days I write at the computer.

As far as approaches to work I have a select library I pull from. I won’t try and list them but Dante plays a major role.

Non-fiction mostly, personal experience is where I glean. Pete Townshend quoted Elvis Costello once and said, “Each writer must be a thief and a magpie.” I adhere to that philosophy a great deal.

We are by nature singular though most might disagree. I have said many times your creativity is the medicine you are prescribed. You are prescribed not anyone else. You are the one writing even if someone else is editing. You are the one faced with the blank screen or piece of paper, you and you alone. I can’t think of a better place to be, though I have felt different many times. This evening alone I had a seizure and spent five hours in the emergency room. It was my seizure and it was my pain. I had my wife and daughter with me but it was my instance that brought me there. We are a singular being adrift in a tidal pool. Back and forth we go through life but you can never get away from the fact that we are alone.

Chris Mansel: Do you foresee a day when the writing of Charles Olson will be taught alongside Mark Twain and Washington Irving in our education system?

Jake Berry: The thought of Charles Olson being taught in our education system troubles my sleep. I can foresee a time when Olson will be taught at various levels of secondary education and that time is now. He just isn't being taught very widely. There's also a backlash in some quarters against modernism right now. Part of this is justified because in some places modernism and post-modernism (whatever the fuck that is) eclipsed everything else for a while. It makes sense that we keep modernism in perspective. It's only a small part of the story. On the other hand there are those that want to toss it completely in favor of a return to some imagined period when poetry was held in high esteem and was relatively easy to understand. That was before audio recordings, certainly before audio recordings and films became so popular. Even without new formalism or other poetries that shun the apparent difficulties of modernism there are still forms of poetry that are easy to understand and are extremely popular. It just hides under the name 'popular music.'

While much in that area is pure product, candy - there is still great poetry sneaking out as pop music because that's the medium in which it is performed. It's a long list and everyone that really loves popular music and devotes time to listening to it will know immediately what I'm talking about. When I use the term popular music, I mean all the music that has been popular in terms of a large audience (compared to other forms like classical, avant-garde, art song and so forth) over the last century as recording technology has made music available to everyone.

There's no small amount of modernism in pop music either. But you rarely hear people complain about the difficulty of a Radiohead lyric for instance, or the obscurity of Beck's references. People talk about the words. They recognize them as being more abstract, but that isn't a problem. There are millions of people walking around singing lyrics that are open to as many interpretations as there are listeners and few have a problem with this.

Does the fact that you can sing an obscure bit of poetry make it better somehow than reading it in a book? Maybe it does. Maybe someone should set The Maximus Poems to a nice backbeat, mix in a heavy bass line and some nice guitar licks. I bet if a successful artist did that and didn't call any attention to the fact, beyond the essential permission notice buried in the credits, we'd have people all over the world singing Olson.

Jake Berry: The troubled sleep was a paraphrasing of Ezra Pound who said the same thing about the classics being taught.

I have certainly had my share of troubled sleep, but I am as likely to have it troubled by something I am working on as anything else. I'll be so intensely focused on a poem or song that some part of me can't let it go long enough to rest. I wish I was romanticizing this, and I never used to have this problem, but it definitely happens now. Also, I have often found sleep to be a source of creativity. I was trying to catch up on missed sleep from last night with a nap this afternoon and woke up with the phrase along the lines of "the devil is going to get his." I don't know what this means, but for some reason I attached it to the current conflict between Russia and Georgia. Sleep can indeed be an escape.

In times of most intense stress from the world at large I seem to be able to sleep. I think perhaps my mind is trying to escape the stress.

Jake Berry: I hope you don't mind if I keep hammering away at this idea of the singular. My experience is that we are in a state of constant change. My self, what "I" am seems to change to adapt constantly to circumstances. So, I find it difficult it locate a singular self. I have an ego of course, an inflated one too much of the time, but I think of that as something like a device for asserting one's presence in the world, and a very crude one at that. It's necessary, but temporal and shouldn't be taken too seriously. I think that one of the origins of our idea of self lies in monotheism.

When Moses asks who is speaking form the burning bush the voice comes back "I am." There's that singular I. As western culture developed around monotheism we also see popes, kings, and so on represent themselves as the presence of God on earth. The presence of the God. Your work seems so varied - you write poetry and songs of all kinds, you do all manner of visual art. Even your recent series of films seems the product of many selves, not a single individual. So I'm puzzled. Can you help me to understand how all of this happens from a singular identity?

Chris Mansel: I keep going back to Georges Bataille, he wrote, "Me, I exist." It is pounded into us that we are all good and evil, but we are all singualr, just one man or woman. My story, The Savage Tale of Walter Seems tells the tale of a journalist who has multiple personalities. One is a journalist, one is a killer, and yet another is a holy man.

Perhaps that role of monotheism is in all of us and that is where it comes from. Perhaps the burning bush was talking back to Moses in his mind. Maybe we hear what we want to hear. It would account for the many readings of the same text and the many different versions of worship. We understand more about the chemcials in the brain now than we did then.
How this happens from a singular identity is in my opinion is like The Neophyte by Durer. Maybe we are like the fresh young scholar surrounded by the more expeirenced and as we get older we learn to how to utilize them. But again we are all one mind. As I get older my writing and my films will become better and other artistic endeavors will become apparent.

Chris Mansel: I'd like to ask you a question I asked Neeli Cherkovski in my interview with him. I wonder if you have a favorite artist or painter and what brought about this opinion?

Jake Berry: It would be impossible to single out anything like a favorite artist. I'm reading, listening, learning all the time from new artists. There's a list at:

If you mean painters only the list is just as long. The earliest art yet unearthed is every bit the equal to the "great masters," though I love DaVinci, all the Renaissance north and south, art from all the ancients, everything that isn't just pure commercial crap. I can't get enough of art of whatever kind. I feel the same way about philosophy, history and science. There's so much to see, hear and learn that it's frustrating knowing there will not be enough time to see it all.

Jake Berry: Recent developments in the cognitive sciences reveal that our behavior, our emotions and thoughts, are associated with electrochemical activity in the brain. This leads back into the old debates about self-determination. To what extent are we able to make individual decisions? Or is everything we can feel or know or do the result of chemicals in the brain, their transmitters and receptors, responding to external stimulus and biological predispositions?

Chris Mansel: Any mapping of the human mind surely would include a descent into hell. As for individual decisions we must prey upon ourselves like rapid dogs and weigh the consequences but finally whether we receive council from others or not we are the Emperor in his new clothes draped in the blood of the designer and his minions. We are the final word unless we are someone without honor or purpose. A dog will follow a bone only as long as the scent or the desire allows unless you beat him to do so. As someone who suffers unimaginable headaches I can hereby say that the chemical imbalance is that descent into hell with no poet's way out, no guide to soften the rough waters. The transmitters click off and on I believe but in a situation of intense pain I believe that like a damage nerve they simply shut down. I can only speak for myself and truthfully in the ways of science, just my belief but I tend towards the belief that hell and its torments are in the mind and its pain I feel on an occasional basis.

- Chris Mansel

Monday, July 28, 2008

Interview with Neeli Cherkovski

Chris Mansel: Now completing your memoir, there must have been times during the writing, or reflecting became too much to bear?

Neeli Cherkovski: Yes, there were such times. They came up on me at the most surprising moments. One way of dealing with some of the past is just leaving it there, not bothering to include it in my story. I had a short list of bothersome folks, friends, relatives, and acquaintances who I chose to leave out of the narrative. My interaction with them were either too painful or too irritating. I left out much of the “school years” because of so many negative feelings, and I had to no way make it interesting. I found a way to crystallize a lot of my “time” in a few emblematic moments.

The memoir I have written is not a confessional (in the tradition of St Augustine), but a literary memoir, literally the making of a poet or the shaping of a poet’s life. The first sentence sets up the entire project: “When I was two years old you could read me like a book because a strange disease left my skin looking like parchment.”

Perhaps the most lyrical section of the memoir is when I write about my relationship with a boy my own age. I was born July 1, 1945 and Richard was born on July 11, 1945. We were playmates and lovers for three and a half years, most of that time while we were in junior high school. The memories were pleasant, and I enjoyed writing them down, only later was his story too much to bear.”

When I was deep into writing about our time together, and what it means for me, I decided to search for him. What was he doing now? Married? Did he become an architect as he wanted to be? Was he teaching? Did he have children? Was he gay? I went to the Internet and began snooping around. I found a site that told me he lived with his mother in San Bernardino, Ca. where we both grew up. His mom was 95 and he was 62, or so it said. I contacted a cousin who lives in San Bernardino and put him on the case. “Get me an address,” I asked. Cousin Jerry obliged and went to work. Meanwhile, I called the church Richard and his family had attended. The church secretary remembered the family, but they hadn’t attended for decades. We had no luck trying to trace Richard. There were addresses, but all of them old. On the web I found a site telling me he had moved thirty three times in twenty years and had used several aliases: Rik, Rick, Ricky, Dick, etc. Then my cousin phoned to inform me that my friend’s mother had died fifteen years ago. He found the death notice on microfilm at the library. The notice mentioned my friend and his sister as the survivors. The sister now had a married name. I went to work on the computer, but got nowhere. In desperation, I asked a private investigator to find out what he could for me. At first, he had the same dead-end info I had come across on the internet, but at 10 pm one evening he called to tell me that my pal had died in a Salvation Army shelter five years earlier, not far from where we had grown up.

The news shattered me. I was angry for having looked for him and devastated that this middle class kid had ended up that way. My cousin did further research and found that “Ricky” had come down with cancer. He had been moved from the homeless shelter to a nearby hospice, where, according to all accounts, he simply lay in bed and waited to die, contacting no one. I finally found his sister. She lived in a college town in South Carolina where her husband taught at a local college. I phoned her and began to talk. She remembered me clearly, bringing up the time I went on vacation with her family. We hadn’t seen each other in forty-nine years. As the conversation progressed, I said, ”It’s too bad about Richard.” “What do you mean?” She replied. I realized she didn’t know that her brother had died. “We haven’t been in touch since the funeral” she told me.

I think the strongest emotion coming out of this experience was one of sadness.
I tried to imagine Richard back into being. He haunted my dreams. I heard from am old friend who remembered lusting after Richard when we were all in high school? By that time, he was tall and sturdy, not the short, rotund kid I had loved. As time went on, I was able to reconcile the whole mess I talked to a few of pals from later years learning that he was a college drop-out (UC Berkeley), that he couldn’t hold a job, nor was he able to sustain a meaningful relationship. He was described as paranoid. He hid behind his mother. He wore disguises when he went out shopping.

I have written it down and “out.” And have moved to other places. The memoir satisfies me, emotionally. I have left out some of the people who remain thorns in my side and have decided not to deal with some painful experiences and issues still unresolved.

This is the end of the book, the final words. You may see from it that I kept my emotional bearings, despite the “too much to bear” material. Here it is:.” Poetry makes a difference because it is a land without boundaries. It helps us to understand language as a determining factor in our lives. With it we re-order the cosmos, make it sing, or send it into the void,”

Chris Mansel: Do you have any plans to publish a book of your letters?

Neeli Cherkovski: That a good question. I have put together an archive of my work and am very weak in the letter department. I know how important letters are in literary lives. Recently, I read a fairly comprehensive compilation of John Keats' letters -- they are amazing -- and provide insight on his poems. I guess I'd have to day that a book of my letters would be a slim volume. Over the past years, however, I have written a blizzard of e mails. They tend to be short, even terse. The e mail form has been good for my hyper-active soul. In negotiating with a university library for my archive I found that the e mail exchanges are a vital part of the package, so I am keeping them now. I also have Real Letters form many poets, but not my responses. Someday I will search those out.

Chris Mansel: Why is it do you think no one ever asks a straight writer about their sexuality in relation to their writing?

Neeli Cherkovski: Well, that isn't necessarily true. Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Norman Mailer were certainly probed about their sexuality, especially in light of their work. Yet, it is mostly thee gay and lesbian writer who gets asked "about their sexuality in relationship to their writing. Bukowski once made that point to me in regards to poetry. He said there was so much attention on Allen Ginsberg's homosexuality when it should not have been such an issue. That reminds me. Some of the best "gay" writing I have ever read is by Mailer in HARLOT'S GHOST, his epic on the CIA, when he describes the leather scene in Berlin during the Cold War Era.

Obviously, gay sex is thought of as being "off the map." It fascinates people, and, of course, with the emergence of gay literature in the past half century, especially since the early work of James Baldwin and Gore Vidal, later followed by John Rechy (CITY OF NIGHT), there is a whole critical field. Early critics of Walt Whitman tried to side step the issue of his homosexuality, which for me and many readers, is so obvious. They had all kinds of terms for it/not it that they employed to erase his homo-eroticism from the record

As a poet who enjoys the sexual and sensual company of other men I have written love poems rather than sex poems. I "fall in love" and stay there. Some of the poets I know and admire, who are gay, like Ginsberg and Harold Norse, wrote sex poems, as far as I can see, and sidestepped the more lyrical love poems. Robert Duncan subsumes his sexuality in poems that make love to the planet with rare lyrical grace. There have been several studies of Duncan as a gay poet, and they add dimension and insight into his work.

I had an editor once who told me she could not "see" the gay element of my love poetry, and she is right, for the most part. I am so much in love with love.

Chris Mansel: I hope I express this question correctly. Do you edit as you write or do you stand with the theory that if you edit a piece it is another piece entirely?

Neeli Cherkovski: I rarely edit as I write, especially not with poetry. I let the poem come to me and then I usually will go back and do some tinkering here or there. On some occasions I have done more than mere tinkering, especially with longer poems. There is a great joy in watching the lines of a poem appear on the page. I used to do this on a typewriter, now the computer, that magic box we mostly take for granted, serves the purpose. I love to words dropout of my brain and my nerves and jump onto the screen and to see how they reveal themselves in relation to other words. Just as exciting is to watch for the lines breaks. Once in awhile, I will trek up and down the text to find where I might change the end of a line, move a word down one step, perhaps or bring a stanza break into being. But it is the sense of instant or spontaneous creation that intrigues me.

I write poems at rapid speed. If that doesn't happen, I will generally think something wrong and try over again (God bless the delete button). In order to try my hand at slowing down I try to compose on paper with a pen, but it won't work like with a computer. It reminds me of what Charles Bukowski once said on the phone the very first night he began writing on a computer: "The words sit there like they are on a throne."

So what is the deal here? Writing a poem is a kind of love-making. You are stopping from the activity of the world to dip your mind into something deeply mysterious and spiritual, I guess. There is no end to it. The poem rises out of a somewhere inside of you. It has been waiting to be un-earthed', so to speak.

Prose is a different beast. I re-wrote the beginning of my memoir many times, and worked and worked entire sections, not an easy task with over 354 pages. That does not include the many, many pages I took out of the manuscript for one reason or another.

Even in short pieces, reviews, letters, etc. I find that editing is a wonderful tool.

Chris Mansel: You have mentioned love several times but I wonder, what is the political responsibility of a writer or an educator? Is there one?

Neeli Cherkovski: I wrote a poem years ago that reads: "When Neruda wrote blue/he wrote blue/but when Neruda wrote Stalin/he wrote Neruda." This is a warning of sorts. I believe in a poet's responsibility, but while the great Chilean wrote paeans to "Joe," his hero was slaughtering millions of his own citizens."

At the same time, Neruda's poem on the United Fruit Company is a magnificent, and, I think, necessary comment on injustice. One of my favorite Spanish poems is Garcia Lorca's famous Ode to the spanish civil "Guard," haunting and memorable because it surrenders none of his poetic powers to the message, which is about the banality and evil of the "Guardia Civil" as they strike terror across the land

What is the political responsibility of the poet/writer? Rimbaud explodes old myths of homeland and culture in "A Season in Hell" through the largeness of his vision, which pushes far beyond the political travails of his time and reaches across the centuries to challenge fundamentals. There is Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind" and "Masters of War," two politically charged works of grave beauty that ask for social and political justice. Those two songs became anthems for the reform movements of the 60s and beyond. "Blowing in the wind" helped galvanize feelings for civil rights.

At the same time, what is not politically responsible about a poet who writes on the beauty of a garden or on the mountains glimpsed from a window. Cezanne focus on Mount St Victoire? Was he avoiding politics? Or did his dialogue with nature “Hoist" us into new realms of thinking and being? Which leads me to Pablo Picasso, he is commissioned by the Spanish Government in Exile to do an art pieced for a world exhibition. While pondering over a subject, Franco bombs the Basque town of Guernica. The saturation bombing turns the town to powder. Picasso has his subject and he paints a "political" work, one that shows war in all its horror: man and animal torn to pieces. Today the paintings has its own room in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and remains both aesthetically pleasing for viewers as well as informative regarding our ability as destroyers. During the Second World War he did not choose to continue along those lines.

Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is a political poem, toppling Walt Whitman's Manhattan. Suddenly, the city of dreams and hope becomes a place where the poet sees the hand print of Moloch rising form the streets. The city is a madhouse. It drives people crazy. "America" is another AG (Allen Ginsberg) poem that strikes a deep political chord, laughing at anti-communist hysteria and calling for sexual freedom. One of the first truly powerful indictments of our "bomb culture" was "Bomb" by Gregory Corso, which begins with the line, "fat budger of history. . ." Thoreau gives us Walden, a textbook on living right, living free from too many things; living in harmony with the natural world. It is an animistic text. Everything is alive. The political and social/cultural commentary in that book rises gracefully out of the writer's intense observation of the world around him. He becomes a natural philosopher, not just a philosopher of nature. Then, in his essay on civil disobedience, we get a more pointedly political work. Each has its value. But Thoreau, like Emerson, being a poet, spent most of his writing time letting intuition and a broad turning of the mind instruct him.

Neruda writes blue and the land erupts. He takes his readers to Machu Picchu and hurls them down to the steaming jungles. He tells them that they are a part of an ever evolving process of creation and re-creation. In his early book of love poems he writes viscerally of "my peasant body." Sexual desire and energy is made palpable. When he dances with Stalin he might have been better served writing an editorial, a piece of prose.

Writing about a flower or a war, expressing outrage over injustice of one kind or another, or offering a feeling about the sun setting, they are all "in the flow." My own inclination is to let my feelings lead me to my responsibility. It all gets mixed together I spent a lot of time along the California and Oregon beaches these past years and wrote a lot of poems on sea birds and seals. I love the, somehow. I want to walk up to a sea lion and offer my hand to a flipper, but that might be dangerous. The poems are coming out of a deep need to explain the animals, the birds; maybe I feel I am speaking for them in some way. I like to think that I might eventually have an impact on protecting their environment. But I am not striving for anything more than to watch them, the seals, diving in the sea or stretched out on the sand, and to watch the birds soar.

Chris Mansel: That leads me to ask you your opinion on the new interest in the environment we are experiencing lately. Do you think this enthusiasm will last long enough to make a difference?

Neeli Cherkovski: Since most of the poetry I have been writing lately leads to a forest or a seaside, a bird or a seal I guess the environment is on my mind. Yesterday I drove to a nature reserve South of SF to see the colony of harbor seals who bask in the sun there. But it remained overcast, and I simply walked on the cliffs then drove to a nearby shopping mall. I was thinking how we "go to see nature." It is in a reserve. I remember the impact of THE SEA AROUND US by Rachel Carson, a 60s book that pioneered in the kind of environmental thinking that is current today. She warned of the coming catastrophe, the loss of the rhythms that old the sea together, the cheapening of the dialogue between man and this planet. It is the sea round us and the land we live on that is dying. And yes, I think a new relationship with the environment is taking old, and will sustain, but I also believe it may be too late already. Maybe everyone should write a haiku, a glimpse of nature, a mini moment and we will link them together and see if that helps. 6 billion haiku!!

Chris Mansel: In your book Whitman's Wild Children which I am sad to say I have never seen a copy, you wrote of several important poets who had touched your life, if you were to do a second version whom would you include?

Neeli Cherkovski: I am probably writing a biography of Gregory Corso. He is in the Whitman book, but this would be a fuller portrait. I have thought of doing essays on Kenneth Rexroth, Robinson Jeffers, Diane Di Prima, Emily Dickinson (everyone thinks they get her right -- I believe Adrienne Rich did a great job in her essay "Vesuvius at Home"). The possibilities go on and on, and, if I do all of this, it may make a book of "literary" essays. Then there is Thoreau and Poe and, Ahh/ One model could be Studies in Classic American Literature" by D H. Lawrence. What really got me going on my W.W.C. book was a wonderful book called, My Friend Henry Miller by Alfred Perles, a grand tour of the Miller mind, mixing memoir, appreciation, and literary criticism together.

Chris Mansel: As an educator what is your opinion of the new crop of writers coming out these days?

Neeli Cherkovski: My eyes and ears have been focused on the deep past. I don’t know why that is, but in my teaching I held to cave art, The Odyssey, Heraclitus, Lao Tzu -- o what a headache. Then, pushing forward, I leapt to Emerson and Thoreau. I do manage to look at new poetry now and then, and at a lot of non fiction.

There are some younger poets going in interesting directions, which should not be surprising. A few of my own students have written powerful poetry. Not everyone is a tech star or a tech drone. I even know younger poets who write with pens. Astounding. Samuel Delany is not new, but he is not as old as Homer, and is still alive. I am reading DAHLGREN, an epic novel pushed as science fiction. It was written in the 1970s and is well worth reading. It is about a city in mid America abandoned by all but a few intrepid souls. Delany grew up in Harlem, is gay, and is hailed in the field of sci-fi --- his work goes well beyond that genre.

Chris Mansel: To finish this interview I wonder if you have a favorite artist or painter and what brought about this opinion.

Neeli Cherkovski: I have traveled the world just to see art. There is a pantheon of painters for me, but I have to say that Monet strikes me to the bones. Nobody ever painted a tree as he did. I have seen his paintings in books, online, and face-to-face in museums all over the world, the elemental quality, the sense of deep meditation come together so powerfully. He did many seascapes that make me want to taste the ocean and the seaside cliffs on his canvases, and his landscapes are just too emotional for words, so I stand before them in the museum I have built in my head and fall into a meditative state, thankful for the somber and amusing colors. As an elder he grew increasingly wild, pouring his energies into those great lily pond paintings in his garden at Giverney. He was as challenging as that other holy monster, Van Gogh, and as forward going as Baudelaire or Rimbaud. Monet's later work constitutes a one-man revolution. People look to Picasso for the breakthrough in modernism, but it is all there in Monet as well.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Interview with Jack Random

Ezra Pound in an interview from March of 1963 said, “I have lived all of my life believing that I knew something. And then a strange day came and I realized that I knew nothing, that I knew nothing at all. And so words have become empty of meaning…” Asking these questions and reading the answers I get in return reminds me of what I do not know but as the answers arrive I am even more humble at the responses. The answers from Jack Random are no exception.

Chris Mansel: Is it still possible to see a clear line between left and right politics in Washington?

Jack Random: When I was just a kid, seeking my way in the world, I used to hitch up to Berkeley to sniff what was going down. On one adventure, I ended up talking politics in Marin County with the bass player for Boz Skaggs. I told him I was a liberal. He replied, "Liberal is bullshit."

Not many words have stayed with me over the years, those did. LBJ was liberal and I despised him for the war. Goldwater was conservative but at least he stood up for the libertarian ideal. When you throw ideology into the political mix, it comes out diluted. Voters define liberal and conservative by who they identify with the label. So Bill and Hillary are allowed to define liberal even though Bill was responsible for the most significant right turn in modern political history (welfare reform, free trade). Who defines conservatism? Rush, O'Reilly and Ann Coulter. They are more demagogues than ideologues for they want big government to spy on us and enforce the moral dictates of the evangelicals. The agenda is determined not by ideology but by partisanship. Maybe some of them sincerely believe in the social agenda but there is nothing conservative about it.

In today's political environment, liberal is bullshit and so is conservatism. It has long been a false dichotomy. It is in fact a continuum in which the modern left has abandoned its ideals and the modern right has yielded much of its founding principles.

The left-right divide has greater meaning in other parts of the world -- particularly Latin America. What is left in Europe or Latin America can only be found on the fringes of American politics.

For myself, I find some virtue on both sides of the continuum and little in the middle. I admire the libertarians and favor them for the judicial branch of government. I admire the socialists for their conviction to help the poor and working class. Take the soul out of the libertarian and the guts out of the socialist and you're left with Democrats and Republicans who are free to pander on any given issue.

Chris Mansel: Your support of Leonard Peltier is well known to readers of the Jazzman Chronicles. Do you envision freedom for Peltier?

Jack Random: To their eternal credit, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee is still actively working for his freedom. They recently had a hearing for a motion that would lead to a new trial. Anyone who is remotely familiar with the case recognizes a classic frame job but the system is stacked against him. It is not enough to prove that witnesses were coerced and intimidated, that false testimony was given, or that the judge was clearly biased. Against the full weight of the government, they must also prove that the legal abuses altered the outcome of the trial.

Peltier's best chance came in the waning days of the Clinton administration when rumors circulated that the president was considering a pardon. In an unprecedented move, the FBI picketed the White House and the president caved, doling out pardons to corrupt white-collar criminals but withholding the same for Peltier.

The wounds of Wounded Knee are still with us and the healing cannot begin until justice has its day. Until Leonard Peltier is free, we are all imprisoned. We carry the chains of our sordid history.

Tragically, while I will not lose hope, I fear justice will come too late for the imprisoned AIM warrior. We need new leadership. We need a president who is ready and willing to make reparations -- beginning with Leonard Peltier. That kind of courage is rare.

Chris Mansel: It says in the Koran, (The Koran, 3:169) “Never think that those who were slain in the cause of God are dead. They are alive and well provided for by the lord.” If this is the same lord of those who believe in Christianity in the west how far apart are these beliefs?

Jack Random: An army of a thousand soldiers fighting for god is worth ten thousand fighting for any other abstraction. God is the performance-enhancing drug of warfare. There is not a nation or fighting force in the world that does not appeal to god -- to any god or all gods -- and all religions bow to the god of war.

As a reader of Joseph Campbell, I am aware that the god of destruction is a universal construct. It is not surprising that elements of ancient Islam are just as filled with violence and vengeance as the Old Testament. Destruction is the first step toward remaking the world. The Christian world has their crusades and the Muslim world has similar holy wars. (See film: Kingdom of Heaven)

I am not so concerned with the concept of dying for god as I am with it corollary: killing for god. Let every individual decide what is worth dying for but let no one deciding for others.

Preparing for execution as a prisoner in the Bastille, Tom Paine wrote The Age of Reason because he was convinced that political reform was not enough. He believed that religion would fail if faith and reason could not be reconciled. I would settle for a revision of religions so that no army could ever again claim god as an ally in war.

What could be more absurd than war for Jesus?

One of my favorite sayings from Buddhism is: If you see the Buddha, kill him. It is of course not literal. It means that the Buddha would not appear as the Buddha.

If anyone claiming to be a messenger from god asks you to die or kill for eternal glory, you can be sure the messenger or the god is false.

Chris Mansel: Does a body count shock you anymore? Where is the pain threshold, the level of disgust?

Jack Random: Search through the gray fields of your memory: Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, Malcolm X, a father, a nephew, a friend, a child. The face of death is never a number. Three million Vietnamese did not carry the weight of a single Buddhist monk christening his sorrow in flames.

What is the threshold of pain?

If you are an American who has never seen a flag-draped coffin, never attended a soldier's funeral, never comforted the dying, never looked into the eyes of death, the threshold is infinite. If you are a Palestinian, a Lebanese Shiite or an Iraqi, you have seen the face of death a thousand times over until the faces are like waves in an endless sea and the sorrow is unbearable. You have long passed the threshold of pain. You become numb and bury your pain in a dark, secret place until the time comes to remember.

You bury your grief with a solemn vow -- a blood vow that holds the last thread of your humanity -- never to forget. Before you die, you pass your memories and your sorrows to your children, who take up the vow never to forget.

It is your birthright. It is your inheritance. It is the survival of your tribe, your people, your family, your faith.

Never look at a number without seeing a face, a heart, a soul, a mother, a father, a child. When death and destruction are no longer real, we have lost the last battle for humanity.

I still have tears for Rachel Corrie, George Alexander, Curtis Greene, Matthew Denni, James Pitts, Andres Raya, Marla Ruzicka, Ripley Mae Sherwood and children with names I will never know buried beneath the rubble of unnecessary war.

Peace. Peace. Peace.

Chris Mansel: Does it take a terrorist attack to bring citizens into action?

Jack Random: Short answer: The cart before the horse.

Activism is crisis oriented but it was not the 9-11 attack that precipitated the current wave of activism. The president asked the citizenry to go shopping and the citizenry happily obliged, adding Chinese made American flags to the shopping list.

When the planes hit the towers my first reaction was horror, then empathy for the dead and their survivors. When the full weight of the event set in, taking account of who was president and who controlled the reigns of power, the second response was fear. Like millions of people around the world, I understood what the dominant power on the planet could do with the impetus of 9-11.

The first wave of activism began with the the war on Afghanistan, a horribly misguided response of disproportionate retribution against a nation that was no more responsible for the attack on this nation than Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, a christening of the most aggressive war policy since Nazi Germany.

To this day, we do not know the truth of 9-11.

The second wave of activism came in response to our president's announced intention to invade Iraq, a nation that had absolutely nothing to do with attack of 9-11. We raised an army of several million voices on the streets of protest but we could not hold back the juggernaut of blind vengeance and war. Three and a half years later, does it even matter that we were right on every point?

The struggle continues and our greatest fear is another terrorist attack that will once again suspend all reason and send the people into a frenzy of blood thirst.

Read Howard Zinn and understand that dissent matters. Dissent changes the world. Dissent is the heart of America. Dissent is the hope of true democracy and it will never die. Never.

Chris Mansel: What to you is required reading, both political and personal?

Jack Random: The books you need find you. These I recommend.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.

Joseph Campbell’s Flight of the Wild Gander.

Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man, The Age of Reason. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.

Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins.
Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree. Black Elk Speaks.

William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways.

George Orwell’s 1984, Down and Out in Paris and London.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Island.
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

Franz Kafka’s The Castle.
William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, Cities of the Red Night.
Jake Berry’s Brambu Drezi.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, On the Road.
Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan, The Teachings of Don Juan.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, King Lear, Henry V, Richard III.

Sam Sheppard’s Buried Child, True West, The Curse of the Starving Class.
Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Death of a Salesman.

Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, A Long Day’s Journey into Night.
George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
Harold Pinter’s Birthday Party, The Homecoming.
Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit.
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Pablo Neruda’s Wind Poems.
Ann Charter’s The Portable Beat Reader.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind.

Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth.

Ira Cardiff’s What Great Men Think of Religion.

Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing... Mari Sandoz' Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas. Woody Guthrie's Hard Travelin'.

Chris Mansel: In the early days of this country we imprisoned Native Americans in reservations, during World War II we held Asian Americans in Internment Camps. So finally in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba we call it a prison. What has changed?

Jack Random: Correction: In the early days of our nation’s history, we attempted to annihilate the native population (see Ward Churchill’s “A Little Matter of Genocide”). When extermination proved too great a task and far too expensive, we offered the Indian nations an alternative: In the words of Geronimo, imprisonment on lands where only scorpions and snakes could survive.

What has changed? The Indian nations have survived. The Japanese Americans have prospered. The African Americans survived centuries of slavery and must be continually disenfranchised for the elite to retain power. I suspect those dark skinned warriors confined at Guantanamo Bay, most of whom have never been charged or tried in a court of justice, will survive as well – and their legacy will live on to fight again.

Has anything changed? Yes. The weapons are more deadly by a quantum leap. Technology has transformed the planet into a village. Information is available to more people than ever before. The truth is out there and the tools of enlightenment are equal to the tools of destruction.

What has not changed is human nature. As always, the powerful will seek power by consolidating interests, purging the opposition, and subduing the masses by deception and manipulation. As always, good men and women will resist and their voices, armed by the power of truth, will be heard.

The elite have always underestimated the power of truth, the force of justice, the guts of decency, the endurance of the oppressed, the hearts and minds of the common folk.

I am a warrior in the propaganda wars. My cause is justice. My power is truth. I follow in the footsteps of countless others who live on in the hearts of the people.

In this, nothing has changed. Only this time, the injustice, the inhumanity, the oppression, the greed, the destruction, the subjugation and the genocide will be recorded in vivid color and, in the fullness of time, justice will be served.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Interview with Sheila E. Murphy

Sheila E. Murphy is the kind of writer who could you a handful of blank pages and fill you with a sense of awe. You’d take the pages and know specifically that something important or dramatic would soon come. Thinking of questions for a writer who has moved me so as I have read her work is a daunting task. But if you have read her work or know her at all you’ll know I have to try.

Chris Mansel: If the prophetic voice of a writer doesn’t exactly need to find a voice, it already has one at the moment of creation then why do we seek to change or curb our interests to invite others to our work?

Sheila E. Murphy: Chris, you post a challenging question. In some cases, there may be a prophetic quality in a writer's being that spawns a creative act. In other situations, this may not prevail. I believe that some writers change, at wink speed, their impulses to fit or to respond to others who are hypothetical readers. Other writers may move steadfastly forward. I suspect that this may differ even within a given writer, who possibly perceives different situations; different creative acts as necessitating varying impulses and offerings.

I am going to infer in your question the word "should." That is, should a writer make the adjustment of which you speak? I think that the issue is worth considering, and is a very individual thing. For myself, I'm sure that part of the impulse to create carries with it a hypothetical audience in many instances. I may have that built into my psyche. I do not believe that this always implies a compromise. It might mean a way of energizing whatever self there be to provide something, to offer a text, to press to the floor a figurative accelerator and DELIVER!

Whatever happens during the early portions of the creative process, I think that I'm best served by recognizing that my own work will be very free to vary, as the statisticians would have it. The particles of my oeuvre will differ and maybe result in a whole that is not immediately easy to classify. There certainly will be differences among the parts. I am not concerned about changing what I'm doing or not changing what I'm doing in a given piece, about whether I've bowed to some invisible reader. What I must make sure to do, though, is to do my best work and not "write off" something as inconsequential. I might decide to throw something away or edit it significantly, to where the original impulse may no longer be recognizable. If I do, that's what we will have, unless someone manages to locate the early versions. (And given the Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection curated by Dr. John M. Bennett, someone may!)

Chris Mansel: Writing can be an escape and even in some instances a method of therapy, but where in private writings should one in those words become, “Perfectly suited for a mood of quiet regret”?

Sheila E. Murphy: The way that each of us experiences time is worthy of considerable study. Perhaps in part a cultural thing; some people have a stronger relationship with the past than others. Some individuals live very vividly in the moment, even in the second. Still others live in dream of what may be created up ahead.

I often think about "The Dead," final story in Dubliners, by Joyce. The story depicts perfectly the degree to which the Irish culture provides for a continuing relationship between the living and the dead. People who are gone from this earth may remain very real, even more real than those who continue to be physically present. My own heritage derives from Ireland, as I am a third generation Irish-American, 100% of that ethnicity, most recently on my paternal side, hailing from Castle Townshend near Skibbereen in County Cork.

I use this personal context to make my point that one can be positioned via cultural background to perceive the past in certain ways, to feel vividly the ancestral and friendship lines, therein sensing what has come before, how it was, how adjustments might have been made, and the like.

As for "quiet regret," this may accompany the territory, but not necessarily. My own version of what I have described runs to the optimistic, to having made an eternity of some profoundly important relationships that continue to thrive in me, inevitably as inventions of my making. But there are countless examples of people whose relationship with the past is one that fuels and propels the mood of quiet regret to which you refer. A relationship with alcohol, by the way, can intensify such a proclivity, engendering, if you will, a state of being "stuck" in a cyclic past than cannot be redeemed and that defines one's fate. Many of us have known people who perpetually recycle old stories in a manner that shows disappointment and that reinforces a particular message of disappointing inevitability.

Your use of the word "should" here could be highlighted in terms of there being a kind of mandate for making a place for the quiet regret. I suspect that rather than needing to incorporate such a perception, one simply may find it in one's being to do so. One equally may not. In either case, quiet regret may not do full justice to one's engagement with the past. There might be an alternative. That alternative would be, in my view, a discovery of what is most lasting and most powerful and loving and engaging, if one has that to draw upon.

Chris Mansel: Georg Trakl wrote, “Soul then is purely a blue moment.” You’re a musician as well as a writer so I ask you does language have color? Where is the soul in writing?

Sheila E. Murphy: Language certainly has color and taste and touch and aspects of all the senses, plus some we don't yet know how to talk about. Writing occurs like music, and can be equally pure. Writing possesses so many features, and chief among them, for auditory types such as myself, is its inherent music, be it percussive, edgy, powered-forward pulse, melodic riffs, harmonies like big, lovely quilts . . . New awareness’s have come to me in recent years that teach me the elegance, even the dance, in an individual letter or symbol of just mark. I'm sensing the visual more than I ever have (I know I'll always hear writing, but I'm getting the paint in the sound now more than previously).

The soul in writing is infinitely present, and expresses itself through the multiple features that are a part of writing: the text; the subsets of the text (syllables, pictures, tone); the potentially sun(g) (sprung) moments; the voicing in multiple (voice choir); the theater, as in the powerful staged presence of a Kirk Wood Bromley play.

I could cite many examples. But one thing is for sure. The soul is the only reality. And it can be found everywhere.

Chris Mansel: This is a question I ask of everyone because I think it is important to know what avenues they too might go down, so what to you is required reading?

Sheila E. Murphy: We're glutted with books, with texts, with beauty, with less-than-beauty, with essentials that make scars, with. So am I trying to be evasive when I answer that part of our world is now so vast, our cultures so diverse, that to pin down a curriculum (as in Great Books, Great Ideas that Mortimer Adler has advocated) is laudable in one way in inherently limited in another, and possibly just plain IMPOSSIBLE? I hope not. I just have to acknowledge the challenge.

This whole issue threatens to parallel the gesture of parents who expose their children to NO beliefs, saying that their children will adopt their own. It's a vulnerable position to take. People can benefit from guidance and exposure to something.

For me personally, reading philosophy is key. That means taking courses, reading early writers, middle, current, and so forth. Reading science is critical Brian Greene. I read the most intelligent blogs and magazines I can find to help me through current political crises. I read economics. I read poets like crazy. I read novels, such as Henning Mankell (because it's an obsession). I read quality work most of the time. I'm not an advocate of junk reading, because that isn't fun to me. It never has been.

I love beautifully crafted novels. I'll do a scattershot rendering: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Works from other cultures. I read regionally interesting things like Going Back to Bisbee by Richard Shelton.

I am always reading and marveling at the elegance of other people's texts, and I'm reminded constantly that the human mind has infinite capacity for creating and for appreciating!

Chris Mansel: What do you feel is the anatomy of a poet? What makes some write, and others not?

Sheila E. Murphy: I used to wonder what people who didn't write poetry did. I guess that I still do. In my world, writing is more natural than not writing. I believe that having an "inner license" is a real beginning. As to the question of where this originates, well, all I can conceive of are examples:

First, I have a little tiny relative who is soon to be seven years old. She is a wonder. She writes herself silly. She's very good with plot. She illustrates her work. She is full of writing, full of stories, and she is a great enjoyer of language, pictures, life . . . I believe that this gift is equivalent to great joy. When she laughs, she really laughs. She is all for fun, and I believe that language is a deep part of her. Her mom taught her about alliteration when the little girl was about three, and she made us all jump when she identified its use somewhere in speech.

Second, I recall in high school having the most stupendous English teachers one could have. They were clearly quite engaged with poets. I realized early on that what I wanted to be was a poet. This happened while everyone who knew me considered me the personification of the flute. I was drawn to writing, even its trappings, such as portability, flexibility, its everywhere potential amid the low level of instrumental requirements (not that the flute is exactly a tuba to carry, but . . .). There's nothing quite like enculturation. I wrote in secret. I was afraid to show anyone anything. That revelation would begin in my twenties.

In addition to the production side of poetry, the process itself, the beauty of pens, the leisure and luxury of the keyboard, the screen, the printing activities; all of these things make me feel wealthy. The bounty of opportunity still excites me greatly. I cannot imagine what would make that stop.

Chris Mansel: Finally, is it possible or necessary for a writer to be political and not use their personal beliefs in their work?

Sheila E. Murphy: When it comes to writing, anything is possible. Your reference to 'political' means to me 'beliefs' in general, and I think that, depending upon how one's perceptions, feelings, beliefs occur, how they have emerged, one might very well write parallel to them without any direct reference to them within the work. That said, everyone's worldview is present in each of his or her practices, even if such views are not immediately evident.

Subtlety may be at work in many writers. When some pure and strongly felt conviction is a part of one's being, that core belief will likely be palpable to some percentage of readers. Even if the belief does not come through as obviously as would a statement, per se, at least the many derivations of it would.

There are also choices/decisions about this matter. Let's say that I hold a very strong belief that there should be universal health care for citizens of the United States. Let's also say that I have thought through very carefully the extent to which I feel this belief, and have taken multiple actions to help bring this vision to reality. Writing may well be a direct part of my action. Perhaps I write letters to members of congress, to other elected officials. Let's say that I am active politically. But let's look at the possibility that I do not refer to this belief directly in my poems.

At the same time, I may (seek to) accomplish a number of things in my poems, some of them conscious, some of them no less vital, but less directly conscious. What MAY come through in the poems, even if it is not a direct plea about the issue I've referenced, is a deep feeling for the welfare of fellow human beings. Let's say that there's even a reverence about that feeling. We could even go further and say that if I hold humans and their breathing to be sacred, that someone might even read what I write, begin to feel differently about humanity or about his/her friend or family member or congressional representative. Perhaps by being and living, in addition to direct, evident political acts, my writing, indirectly, might have had an influence about which I might only have guessed.

The miracle of living and talking and writing and relating is that we control some things and do not or cannot control others. Or so it would seem. At the same time, what we MAY do is be in a position of greater strengthen when we are simply BEING and focusing on the many things worthy of our reverence.