Interviews by Chris Mansel

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

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.