Monthly Archives: September 2012

Down in My Heart, William Stafford resists conscription

One of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, William Stafford is a peacemaker, a lover, a teacher and a giver.  His first book Down in My Heart: Peace Witness in War Time, published in 1947, is a testament to the righteous courage & uncompromising integrity that allowed such a stunning poet to emerge.

Each chapter of the book is preluded with a poetic setting the scene, “fur of winter for the hurt mind,” which contrasts great beauty with the horror of war and destruction.

No one knew, in that spell while war came on in the 1930’s – no one knew how civilization would find ways to destroy itself. 

Down in My Heart is inspiring to artists like us who are working for a life of peace and justice.   The story of Stafford’s time spent as a conscientious objector during WWII is told with wisdom and humility, from the clear perspective of a young poet who was marginalized for his beliefs, during a very difficult time -when men were forced to fight war, go to jail or go to camp.

In the book, Stafford lives in a camp as a Civilian Public Service laborer, doing intense work such as fighting fires.  He also recognizes that his fate is easy compared to people like the Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Down in My Heart is that the book is in’t didactic.  Like many of Stafford’s poems, this testament presents life-giving images of tenderness, humanity and generosity, in contrast to the mainstream narrative of male white dominance.  Stafford states his convictions of non-violence resistance and his position of working toward a peaceable kingdom & common good for all.

We met continual frustration and every magazine, newspaper, movie or stranger was a challenge to convictions that were our personal, inner creations. 

In the face of taunts and tormentors from those who could not understand the refusal to kill, Stafford tells how the COs remained non-violent, silent, thoughtful, prayerful, and artistic.

Almost always the tormentor is at a loss unless he can provoke a belligerent reaction as an excuse for further pressure or violence.  

Down in My Heart demonstrates how the work of non-violence is done by listening – an activity akin to mysticism in this book – which allows understanding and consensus building to occur.

As the conscientious objector camp director says after Stafford and his friends were attacked by an angry mob for painting, reading, and writing poems:

“I know you men think the scene was funny, in spite of its danger; and I suppose there’s no harm in having fun out of it; but don’t think that our neighbors here in Arkansas are hicks just because they see you as spies and dangerous men.  Just remember that our government is spending millions of dollars and hiring the smartest men in the country to devote themselves full time just to make everyone act that way.” -22

This statement eerily foretells of the monstrousness capitalist war machine, which still works hard to suppress equality, sustainability, pacifism, and opposition to violence.

The hero of Down in My Heart is Stafford’s friend George: George, you see, lived for a life of reconciliation, of kindness, of governing the mind and its retributive feelings. 

When the war is finally over, George tells us to maintain our consciences,

“’But how long will it be before all the soldiers still alive can come back?’ George reminded us.  ‘Before there’s no more fighting anywhere, no more intimidation of people in their own homes by strange uncomprehending men in foreign uniforms with foreign speech and foreign money.’” – 81

Stafford drives home the importance of being non-violent pacifists and devoting our lives to good causes always – not just when there’s war.

“I felt then, while listening to George, how good it would be—he made me see it—if that stretch of street could remain forever closed to automobiles, if for six blocks of a city’s shopping center people could again have spaciousness.  If they could sometimes get that feeling we often got on the truck, rolling along through the open country, gesturing broadly around at the mountains and the tall trees, knowing that we could relax with friends and confess our doubts, fears, ambitions and confusions—and that just over the hill was the back country, or rebellion, or any other adventure endless with possibility and serenity.” -83

William Stafford shares the ecstasy of being alive & the longing of those of us who wish for a sustainable way of life and and a future where we slow down and take better care of ourselves and nature.

Stafford with his wife Dorothy.

The 2006 of Down in My Heart contains a moving introduction by William Stafford’s son, Kim Stafford:

Sometimes decisions seem impossible.  Enemies of peace abound.  “Justice will take us millions of intricate moves.”  And yet—and yet, there is a clarity.  By writing, or living a local life, we cherish simple things.  In quiet, we honor the feelings found down in our hearts.  We think our own thoughts, and go our own ways.  We are accountable—to society, to friends, to nature, and to the natural processes of imagination and vision that no government can legislate—and so we are free.  

Stafford on a bicycle; from tinhouse vol 12 number 4

Down in My Heart reminds us of the great poem by Maine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Conscientious Objector
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on
the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans,
            many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him
            which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black
            boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on
            his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my
enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to
            any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me:
Shall you be overcome.
-Edna St. Vincent Millay

And here’s a poem by William Stafford from The Darkness Around Us is Deep:

It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any, time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things we live by.
Far to the north, or indeed in any direction,
strange mountains and creatures have always
elves, goblins, trolls, and spiders—we
encounter them in dread and wonder,
But once we have tasted far streams, touched the
found some limit beyond the waterfall,
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful.
Suppose an insane wind holds the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler’s ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and
where we are, sturdy for common things.

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Filed under literature review, maine citizens engaged in resistance, manifestos, poems, protest song ancestors, truth speakers

The Earth is a Living Being: Gary Lawless Interview

Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto


Gary Lawless is an internationally recognized poet & environmentalist who has published over sixteen books of poems.  In the 1970s, he forewent graduate school in order to be Gary Snyder’s apprentice in California.  Lawless is publisher of Blackberry Books Press and co-owner of the independent bookstore Gulf of Maine Books.


The iceberg has come
to speak with Nanao.
She is just beyond the window,
waiting beyond the light.
She has come a long way.
She has a message for us.
She is very shy.
If we look directly at her
she begins to melt away,
all that she
has to say, lost
to the light of
day, the wind, the
rocks, our eyes—
She begins to speak.
We must listen
very carefully.
Tonight she comes as
moose, no longer iceberg,
tiptoeing carefully
between the tents.
She is happy in darkness.
She is looking for Nanao.
She wants to enter
his dreams.
Today she is standing
beside the road
in a patch of bog and
dirty snow.
She is the color of glacier,
iceberg, snow and
She turns and
into the woods.
She is caribou,
she is iceberg
she is message,
and dream.
            Twillingate / Terra Nova / Gros Morne
Every stump is sacred.
Every stump a saint
Every silted river a church to which
the pilgrim salmon return.
Every breath of wind a love song.
We worship in wetlands,
bow to the fern, the rock,
the holy salamander,
the blood of sweet water,
the body of moss. 
The soil is dreaming of trees.
The trees are dreaming of wind.
The wind is dreaming of clouds.
The clouds are dreaming of water.
The water returns to the earth.
Without trees, the soil washes away.
The wind blows over barren ground,
and the dreams of the world are broken.
Somewhere within the shell mound
a dog is barking.
seals turn their ears
to the sound.
sand through our hands
drifts, plants
move along the ground –
to wear copper and bone,
left alone
for two thousand years.
it is where we come to
on this sunny day,
stick our hands
deep into shell and
sand, strike bone,
touch land again,
make the wind,
make the rain.

-Gary Lawless


The following interview took place in March 2012 at Lawless’ home in Nobleboro, Maine.


Interviewer: What was it like for you growing up in Belfast?


Lawless: Belfast was a really different place then.  The whole town was organized around production of broiler chickens.  There were two big factories down on the water and there was no water treatment plant or anything back then so everything was piped straight into the ocean.  There was constant blood and grease and guts coming out of the two chicken plants and right into the bay.  That stuff would have rotted any boat away, so there were no pleasure boats in the harbor, there were just tugboats and the sardine factory boat and some lobster boats.  It was not a harbor for summer people.  It was a real working harbor and working town, it smelled bad in the summer, and not a lot of thought about the outside world.


I was a teenager in the mid-sixties.  We didn’t know a lot about what was happening.  There wasn’t a good radio station and so we were not hearing the music of our contemporaries and we were not seeing the books and the movies, we were a little bit isolated [laughs].  Plus my dad was the chief of police when I was in high school so I had to behave, which was okay, he wasn’t a mean policeman, he was a really caring, thoughtful policeman, so that was alright.


I stayed in Maine to go to college and then I hitchhiked to California.  I went from Belfast and Waterville, where I lived the first twenty-one years of my life, to living at Gary Snyder’s house in the mountains of California and meeting all these people whose books I’d been reading for the last four years.  All of a sudden, who’s here today, well there’s Daniel Ellsberg, and Jerry Brown, and Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and all these other people who were equally cool.  It was immediately expansive, like my whole life had changed for the better.  My parents were worried that I’d go to California and grow my hair out and take drugs and have sex, and all of that happened like the first day [laughs].  There was this whole world of change going on in 1969 to ’72, that in Belfast in Maine, things were pretty much going along the way they always did.


I started finding out about stuff in college at Colby but when I got out there and met the people who were involved, it was pretty great [laughs].  Hard to go back to the earlier worldview once you’ve been exposed to this.  Just being around people who are excited about learning about other cultures, because Belfast is incredibly white.  The most exotic people we had were Jewish people, and they owned and ran the chicken plants, so we weren’t as happy about them necessarily.  But it wasn’t because they were Jewish, it was because they were the bosses.  There were no people of color, there were no Asians, there were no African Americans, and so it was great to get out to California where all this stuff was going on.  Gary had a Japanese wife, and there were all these Japanese people hanging out and several Native American people, one of whom was hiding from the law, it was just really exciting.  Plus I became part of a Zen Buddhist community and I had to sit everyday, it was a whole different world.


I really missed Maine, I like it here.  So I came back and tried to figure out ways that I could encourage what was happening out there to happen here as well.


Interviewer: When did you first become engaged with issues of social justice?


Lawless: When I was a senior in high school I got run over by a car and I missed my whole senior year.  I couldn’t read, so I was listening to the news and watching tv a lot, and there was a huge amount of stuff about the Vietnam War going on at that point and civil rights stuff and women’s issues.  Belfast didn’t have any visible anti-war protests; there wasn’t really a structure for that to happen.


My freshmen year at Colby the school was shutdown after the Kent State shootings.  There were marches and lots of talks and chances to get some input and do something.  I went down to Washington for the Days of Rage.  7,000 people got arrested that weekend.  They had no place to put us so they put us all in a baseball stadium and didn’t take anything away from people.  People had jugs of wine and various substances and guitars and it was like this huge outdoor party [laughs]; it was really festive, it was not a bad thing.  It’s never been a bad thing to get arrested for those kinds of causes, you wonder, like Thoreau, why aren’t you in here with me.


It was that year I couldn’t walk and I couldn’t see very well so I had all this time to think about things.  The Chicago Convention happened and Vietnam protests, lots of civil rights stuff, Bobby Kennedy was killed and Martin Luther King, it was hard to figure out where you fit.  I knew in one way where I fit because I was about to be eighteen and draft age, and people were getting sent to Vietnam on a regular basis, although once I got run over that was taken right off the table, I was not draftable.


Interviewer: You recovered okay from getting hit?


Lawless: Pretty much.  It took a long time.  But it got me interested in a lot of different things, that enforced stillness when you’re seventeen and all your friends are doing all this stuff and you’re not [laughs].


I started writing poems and reading poetry and listening to speakers who were left of center who were making sense to me.  It was a time when you could learn a lot by listening to other people pretty much your own age.  We were starting to teach each other because our elders weren’t going to teach us about this stuff.  Fred Neil was singing around that time and Phil Ochs, lots of people.  Musically and in terms of poetry and literature it was a really creative time, and artistically, because there were all these issues at once that people were working on, and some of them began to hit home.  The civil rights movement didn’t hit home as much in Belfast but the Vietnam War sure did, people started being dead.  Local kids were going off and coming home damaged or coming home dead, you saw that, and to some extent the women’s movement too, since there weren’t African Americans, that was a more distant issue in a way.


Interviewer: The Native American population here was invisible to most Mainers?


Lawless: Yeah.  Until the lands claim case, then all of a sudden they were more visible.  I got involved because when I lived at Gary Snyder’s I met several Native American activists and became friends with them, and back in Maine I published three little books by one of them, which I’m republishing.  I published a book by this Mohawk named Peter Blue Cloud in 1978 and it did really well, but it went out of print.  He died last summer and I was looking around to find some books of his to have at the store and everything was out of print, and I thought, well this is not right, Peter’s voice shouldn’t be gone.  Peter was at Alcatraz, Peter was at Wounded Knee, Peter was writing poems and telling stories.  He was friends with John Trudell and Dennis Banks and Russell Means and that whole crowd.  They were tough guys; they had to be tough, some horrible shit happened to them.  Trudell’s wife and mother-in-law got murdered, and some of them got shot, Anna Mae Aquash got shot and they cut off her hands and said she died of exposure, two bullets to the head and your hands cut off, but they said she died of exposure.  There’s a really good Buffy Sainte-Marie song about her.


Interviewer: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”


Lawless: Yeah. I wanted to bring all those issues to Maine.  Right after Wounded Knee I brought Leonard Crow Dog, who was the Lakota medicine man at Wounded Knee and went to federal prison for that, to Brunswick and he gave a talk [laughs]; and I brought Peter Blue Cloud here.  I was trying to get people exposed to some stuff.  With a bookstore you can do that, if you start seeding a bunch of Native American authors or women’s authors or African American authors you can help people find the access I didn’t have at eighteen because those books weren’t around. A good bookstore should enable people to explore those issues and find out more and get involved.  Plus if you have people coming into the store talking to each other you can get that networking going.


We were lucky, almost immediately after we opened our store the first people’s referendum to shut down the nuclear plant happened.  We took books to every anti-nuclear protest, and people found out about our store that way.  Then we would get invited to other events, not so much right wing [laughs] but lots of leftist events, so we would have books as tools, or books as weapons, as one old button used to say.


We definitely have a certain vibe to our store that’s left of center, but there’s a lot of things that I don’t think have to do with American politics as much, like the Native American issues.  That’s not republican or democrat, they’re sovereign nations.  Last week the XL pipeline people tried to cross the Lakota Sioux reservation and the Lakotas blocked the road and went to jail.  The XL people said they’re a sovereign nation but we’re a corporation and corporations are above sovereign nations.  That’s their argument in court: we can go anywhere we want and they can’t stop us because we’re corporations and they’re only nations.  That just doesn’t seem right.  The Lakota are used to be pushed around by everybody, and they don’t like it.


Interviewer: They’re not afraid to stand up either.


Lawless: Two of the women were elders in wheel chairs who were blocking the road [laughs]; it was a great protest.


Interviewer: The Caribouddhism poems present the view that the earth is our teacher, can you talk about that?


Lawless: In my late high school years I discovered the The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Two or three years after I read the novel I found out it was based on a real person whose name was Gary Snyder, so I started reading him.  He recommended Native American texts and Buddhist texts, so I was following all those trails and trying to find out who all these people were, and a lot of it led me back to the idea that the earth is a living being and that that’s who I owe my allegiance to, not to humans, and that I should listen to the other species and learn from them.


When I was living at Gary’s house I met one of his teachers, this Japanese wandering crazy man named Nanao Sakaki.  Nanao started telling me to listen to the animals and hang out with the animals more.  Years later I became good friends with Nanao; he was just this amazing spirit to me.  He would call his friends with something that he wanted to do and we would all make sure it happened.  He was down in the Pinacate wilderness in Mexico and he called here and said, I must see icebergs!  We flew him from Arizona to Portland and then Beth and I took our little Geo Metro and picked Nanao up.  It was mid-May and we drove to northern Newfoundland to see icebergs, but we also wanted to see moose and caribou.  So we were up in Newfoundland following caribou around and watching them and talking about how we should have a religion whose teachers aren’t human.  We started playing around with words and came up with caribouddhism and caribouddhidharma.  It was kind of whimsical but serious at the same time.


A magician friend David Abram was talking about how we can’t think in the way that other species use language.  For instance, he thought lichen was the spoken language of granite.  What language does granite speak, what language does lichen speak, what language does caribou speak?  They’re not going to speak English to us. In the whole interaction with the rest of the world there’s all this stuff going on that we just don’t know about, and the more we learn about that the more we realize what an incredible variety of languages is going on in any ecosystem at any given moment, and humans are pretty much not aware of most of it.


We would think, what do you do when you’re in the caribou’s home, what’s the polite way to behave when you’re among caribou?  What’s the right way to behave when you’re in grizzly territory so you don’t upset them and so they don’t come and eat you, which I think is a perfectly valid response for them.  A bunch of us used to carry cards that said when we’re dead take us to Glacier and feed us to the grizzlies.


Then I started thinking about that in terms of human interactions, and placing myself in communities where I would feel uncomfortable because I didn’t know how to behave properly.  I started working with the disabled a lot and realizing that most of us from the abled community are uncomfortable when we’re hanging out with disabled folks because we’re not quite sure how to behave.  Then I started working in Portland with the homeless community and I found that same thing, a lot of people can’t just hang out and relax, there’s a disease, so we don’t know how to behave with each other.  Humans don’t even know how to behave properly with each other much less other species.


I enjoy doing poetry workshops with people from communities who aren’t encouraged much to express themselves.  I did a long-term residency at the homeless shelter in Portland – just getting those folks to talk about what they wanted to talk about and to believe that someone actually wanted to hear what they had to say.  I had to get their trust, they wouldn’t just sit down and start pouring their hearts out to me; I had to learn how to behave.


Lately I’ve been working with combat veterans and it’s the same thing, they know I’m not a veteran and they talk to each other in a certain way but with me there it’s different because I don’t have the shared experience.


I did a workshop with Somali women when Somalis were first coming to Maine.  The Arts Commission sent me down and had no idea what they were getting into, and I had no idea, and I committed every kind of cultural foul [laughs].  They’re all Muslim women, Somali Muslim, and I committed all sorts of cultural gaffs, but the women were very forgiving and were actually kind of entertained by me because I was such an idiot.  They wrote a poem about me in their language and every time they recited it they would all laugh.


You talk with other people about their perceptions and you hear these wonderful differences, and if your heart’s open enough you learn how better to get along in the world.  We’re new to this continent, we ought to learn how to get along here instead of just imposing this bullshit white European structure on a place that’s not necessarily white or Europe.  Is this the way to live here?  We’re bullies in a lot of ways I think.


Nanao Sakaki was sort of the preeminent Caribouddhist I think, he was there at the creation. He was my main mentor for a long time, trying to understand the world the way he understood it.  It was just fun to be around him, everything would drop away.  We’d bring home paperwork from the store and he’d say, why so many papers, too many papers, not so pleasant!  He was a good guy.  He passed away three years ago.  The tallest mountain in our solar system is on Mars so he wanted to climb that mountain, then plant trees on Mars, and then hike the Milky Way.  He made posters that said “let’s plant trees on Mars;” we put one up at the bookstore.  He was trying to figure out how to do that, so one night he walked out to look at the stars and he dropped dead, and we thought, well he figured it out.  So now we’re waiting for trees to appear on Mars.  Last year they found what looked like water systems on Mars, so we figured Nanao was getting the irrigation ready for the trees.  I’m quite excited about the next move.  I don’t know what kind of tree he’s going to plant.  It’s nice thinking about him hiking the Milky Way; that’s a good walk, it will take a while.


Interviewer: There’s music throughout your poems, rhythm, refrains.  Who are some of your musical influences?


Lawless: I started out listening to rock n roll in the sixties, which was a really good time to do that, and then I got to college and my roommate had this incredible collection of jazz records and was really into John Coltrane.  He took me to see Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Rollins and Mingus and all these people, so I got this great education.  A lot of what I listened to was jazz and rock n roll.  Plus I’ve played in a lot of rock n roll bands, so I know lots of Allman Brothers songs and Grateful Dead songs, but also songs of the social protest movement.  I was a big Pete Seeger fan, and around here I was a Gordon Bok fan, I still like Gordon.


The Clearwater Boat that goes up and down the Hudson that Pete Seeger commissioned was actually built in South Bristol.  Right before the launching Pete Seeger came and toured around Maine and did a bunch of concerts and he had all these singers with him, and Gordon Bok was on the tour with him.  It was really exciting to be in Maine yet be around all those folks, and sort of hearing it as poetry.


I think of poetry as rhythm.  When I write my poems I read them out loud because they’re written more to be read out loud then to be read off the page.  I’d rather read my poems to somebody then have them read out of a book and not hear my voice.  But that’s sort of old fashioned, several thousands of years old, that tradition.  I think there’s a lot of interest in beat and measure but not to the point where I’m writing iambic pentameter or something, which I admire when it’s done well, but it’s not necessarily what I’ve done, because it can be done badly and just sound kind of dumb.


Interviewer: You live at the former farmhouse of nature writer Henry Beston; do you feel like you’re carrying on his torch in some way?


Lawless: I hope he thinks I am.  He’s buried right up there.  He and Elizabeth both lived in this house for decades, they both died in this house, they’re both buried right up there and all their stuff is still here.  But if you have to be haunted by somebody, it’s nice to be haunted by two writers who really loved being on the planet and loved trying to express what that was like.


Henry went to the First World War as an ambulance driver and was pretty horrified.  They put him right on the front lines and he saw horrible awful things, and then he came back and lived at the end of Cape Cod by himself for a couple of years, which seems like a natural human response to the trauma.  It’s sort of a posttraumatic stress disorder response to the huge violence that he was witness to, all the death that he saw.  To seek solace and healing he went to the natural world, which is the right impulse I think.


Interviewer: Do you see having reverence for the land as a method of resistance?


Lawless: For sure, and a reason for resistance.  That makes much more sense to me than things based around the idea of nation or state.  Those kind of artificial borders don’t make a lot of sense to me and seem indefensible in a way. There’s problems when you become a culture that reveres the place where you live and then you hate all the outsiders from any place else and don’t want them coming there.  You have to be careful of how you express that as a human.


I like the idea of trying to live as best you can within the system or the ecosystems where you live, trying not to be too disruptive to that place and the systems of that place, so you don’t kill off all the animals and you don’t cut down all the trees and you don’t pour poisons onto the earth, that just doesn’t make sense.  I think that you can never learn enough about the place where you live, and it doesn’t mean you have to stay there all the time either, you can learn a lot by observing how other people live in the places that they live and what they’ve come up with.  Even if you just go and see how the Penobscots live here, that’s a whole other way of thinking, or how the Passamaquoddys live, but instead of learning from them we pretty much shut them out of any kind of conversation that we’ve had about living here.  Now we don’t even let them vote in the legislator, they can go and watch but they can’t vote.  It’s not talked about much; people don’t really talk about how we’ve treated our fellow citizens of this region.


Interviewer: The past is very censored.  I think a lot of people don’t even know about the Spencer Phips Proclamation that offered bounties for Penobscot scalps.


Lawless: Yeah, in Brunswick Joshua Chamberlain’s a big hero but his cousin Samuel, instead of coming back from the Civil War, became a scalp hunter in the West and made money with Apache scalps and Mexican scalps.  That was the 1870s, that wasn’t that long ago.


Interviewer: Your poems have been protesting environmental genocide at the hands of corporate greed since the seventies, a message echoing into the streets today.  How do you feel about the Occupy Movement?


Lawless: I love it [laughs].  It’s so heartening, because Americans have been so quiet and have taken so much.  I don’t know why we’re not in Augusta every day just getting Governor LePage out of the building.  We will take so much.  The Occupy Movement doesn’t have a centralized structure with hierarchal goals, it’s sort of amorphous so it can react to everything; I really admire that.  The level of education that it provided about economic issues, that doesn’t go away, it’s there, people now are thinking differently about issues than they were a year ago.  Here in our county we just had a special election to fill a state senate seat.  The favorite son republican who everybody thought was going to win lost, and his opponent barely campaigned against him, and he won.  I’m hoping that that’s maybe a sign that people are waking up to what’s going on and will hopefully take some positions.


Interviewer: Who are some people who inspire you to seek justice?


Lawless: There are lots of people.  I was lucky in the early seventies because I got to meet some really inspiring people.  The people I met in California knew I was there as Gary’s student so they felt like they should tell me stuff too.  I’d come from a Catholic family but I’d really not been that excited about the Catholic church, but maybe Ellsberg, maybe Jerry Brown, told me I should learn about Dorothy Day and the Catholic workers movement and I did, and they were such incredible people.  It turned out that one of Dorothy Day’s cohorts from the Catholic Workers in New York used to come here to visit the Bestons when he needed to relax from stuff that was happening in New York.  He would come and stay here in this room [laughs].  There are all these trails that get personal after a while.


A lot of people I admire now are people nobody ever hears of because they’re just doing the work, they’re out working with homeless people, working with disabled people, working with refugees, and that’s what their lives are about, doing things that really inspire but in a selfless way because they think it needs to be done.


Having access to a bookstore I get excited by ideas from people all around the world.  There have been a lot of Native Americans that I’ve really learned from.  Although, I’m a white guy and they probably wouldn’t necessarily want me hanging around that much [laughs], it’s true.  There’s so many people in the world doing good stuff and that’s part of what I see at the bookstore, we ought to have their books available to people, and maybe they’re not bestsellers.  We still have Gandhi’s books at the store even though he’s certainly not a best seller anymore, but people need to read what he had to say, and Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, people like that.  There are a lot of people whose lives have bearing on our lives if we hear what they’re saying.  It’s necessary for the rest of us to still have minds that inquire and still ask questions and still want to learn to be better citizens, and not think we’re already the best we can be, there’s not much humility in that.


Interviewer: The bookstore seems like revolutionary direct action in a way.


Lawless: We see it that way.  For over thirty years we’ve provided access to a range of literature that if our store wasn’t here most other bookstores wouldn’t carry it because they don’t sell fast enough or they’re not ideas that people come in every day looking for.  We have a whole Native American section and a lot of people seem surprised that such a section exists.  When I first started in bookstores we wanted to have a women’s section and the guy who owned the chain said he didn’t want to have a women’s section.  Then we wanted to have a gay and lesbian section and he didn’t want to have a gay and lesbian section.  It was really imperative to start our own store.


I think bookselling is part of the cultural movement.  If you want to change the culture you have to introduce alternate ideas and alternate ways of being and living, and books are one way you can learn about that other than actually going places.  Not everyone can go and live at the Coleman’s Farm or the Nearing’s Farm but you can read their books, not everyone can go and hear Chomsky speak or go and hear Betty Friedan or Mary Daly.  We did a book signing once with Mary Daly, she didn’t want me in the room, she only wanted women running the book table [laughs], which is fine, okay, I get it, but I’m on your side!


Interviewer: She thought the male presence was dominating.


Lawless: Yeah, that was cool.  We’ve had our several thousand years, I can step aside for a night or two [laughs].


Interviewer: There’s reverence for different places, cultures and species in your poems, can you talk about being a respectful, globally engaged citizen?


Lawless: That’s part of where my poetry comes from is that wish to be a respectful but also educated global citizen.  I don’t want to be just from Maine or from America, I’m someone who lives on the planet and I’d like to be aware of other people who live on the planet and not be someone who wants to make them be me.


There are other species who have adapted to live on the planet in much more interesting ways than we have.  We just sort of destroy things and move along.  There are other creatures who’ve figured out how to live here without wrecking it who lead really interesting lives.  I like to be open to it as an educational process.  I think my whole life will be an educational process and I’ll never learn enough, it’s the process rather than the product.  The process of learning how to live on the planet means that you’re interested and curious and open.  I’m still learning about humility but that entails quite a bit of humility, because you’re not better than anybody else but you’re also not better than other species.  Humans have a really hard time not thinking we’re the apexes of creation.


I think human beings are temporary. In that sort of Big History, we haven’t been here very long and we may not be here long.  The climate can change, some species will survive, plant life will change.


Before the 1900s Maine had caribou and now they’re all gone.  Now they’re worried about not having enough white tail deer so they want to kill the coyotes and the lynx.  They want a federal exemption on killing lynx so if they’re killing coyotes and they happen to kill a lynx, which is a protected endangered species, it’s okay, there’s no prosecution involved, which I’m skeptical of because the best lynx habitat that they’ve found in the state of Maine is right in the middle of the proposed Plum Creek [logging] development, and there’s a Plum Creek road that goes through some of the most intense lynx population, so Plum Creek wants to be able to kill lynx accidentally.  I think there may be a connective conversation going on between Plum Creek in the back room someplace with some republicans.


Interviewer: Many of your poems are positive and hopeful in their wish for change; do you feel it’s important for us to be peaceful in the way we speak out for justice?


Lawless: I admire non-violence, but I’m not necessarily a complete advocate of non-violence.  I can’t give in.  I have to remain hopeful.  I want a lot of my poems to be hopeful and encouraging that a better future is possible, and a better future doesn’t necessarily mean a more advanced technological future.  My idea of better is different than the global corporate citizen’s idea of better.


You don’t have to look too far to come across signs of hope.  It’s the deadening assault every day by the major media that can get you worn down.  Lots of activists get worn down and burned out and tired of the fight for a while, so it’s hopeful when all of a sudden the Occupy Movement comes along and there’s hundreds of thousands of people standing up.  That’s such a great sign, that people are still involved and still thinking and want a better future, even though the republicans keep winning [laughs] and creating this soulless deadening future that’s really frightening.  Why do women vote for people who oppress them, why do poor people vote for people who oppress them?  It’s hard for me to figure this out, is it based on theology?


I see Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and that wasn’t done just peacefully, and it’s certainly not being done peacefully in Syria, but change happens.  As a poet, I went online trying to find out what poems were being recited in the squares and there were poets and singers who were having their stuff read every night.  There are poets involved in revolution right now, not in this country necessarily, but there are.  There are poets who are being jailed; there are poets who are being tortured.  There was a Yemini poet who recently had his tongue cut out for reciting poems against the regime, there are Afghani women poets who are being tortured and killed, there are Chinese poets in prison, one of them just won the Nobel Prize but he couldn’t go because he was in prison.  There continues to be this wonderful cultural resistance and much of what they’re writing is hopeful, much of what the singers are singing is hopeful.  But we don’t see that, our newspapers don’t represent the cultural arm of those revolutions, which is too bad, and yet with the Internet now we can find out.


It’s hard for me to think of anything that we do here in Maine as being brave because we’re not threatened with imprisonment or torture or death, it’s just not happening.  I’ve been in jail, not necessarily for a poem, but for physically putting myself where I thought the poem took me.  I once got arrested teaching environmental literature at Bates.  My students were reading Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams, and Route 1 down in Warren was going to be widened.  My friend Steve, whose house is along that strip, was trying to get people to come and stand with the trees against the Department of Transportation.  I told my students this and they all wanted to go, so we went, and my students were chained to trees, and I was standing between them and the Department of Transportation chainsaws, and the State Police came.  It was great!  It took from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon for the cops to get everybody who was chained to the trees.  We basically shut down Route 1 for six or seven hours.  We all ended up in jail [laughs].  Here I was the professor with my students in jail.  I got back to Bates and the Dean of Faculty was really unhappy with me, she was like, what are you thinking? I said we’re faculty, we’re supposed to be acting in Loco Parentis, don’t you think the parents would want someone to go with their kids if their kids were going to jail [laughs]?  These assholes can’t be allowed to just do whatever they want, someone has to speak up and say no, even if you lose.  Lots of times you lose but you did it.


Those women who are speaking up against Muslim oppression, they pay with their lives and nobody hears about it.  The Taliban’s been killing a lot of teachers because the teachers were teaching women – that’s primarily their mistake.  Through the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, for sixty bucks a month you can hire a teacher to teach a class of up to twenty-five women and girls how to read and write.  So we sponsor a teacher for a whole year every year.  RAWA’s thing is that if you teach Afghani women to read or write the country will change, women will do it, and I agree with them.  They’re writing poems, they’re learning to read and write and they’re starting to tell their own stories.  There’s a structure that doesn’t want them telling their own stories because once they do they’ll empower each other.  Sometimes the way to talk about that throughout history has been allegorically or metaphorically, it doesn’t say straight out what it’s talking about, but people know.


Interviewer: Can you talk some about being part of the Maine small press community?


Lawless: That started for me in 1969.  I started doing this little mimeograph poetry magazine and giving it away for free.  Then when I went to Colby in 1970 I discovered that there were other people in Portland, Orono, and Augusta who were also publishing little magazines.  We started cooperating with each other and helping distribute each other’s stuff, so this kind of interesting scene developed where there were several magazines you could send work to.  Then people started doing little works by individual poets.  It was really homegrown and very lo-tech and not much money involved.  The Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance was started as a place that would receive grants from the state and then individual writers and publishers could apply there for some money.  All of a sudden more bookstores started appearing around the state where people could find stuff that we were publishing.  I started doing little Blackberry chapbooks in 1975.  My printing and book design has gotten more sophisticated, it’s not just mimeograph now, but the impulse is still the same, it’s trying to put stuff out that you like and are interested in and then sharing that information with other people who are doing the same thing.


It was exciting to learn from each other, learn how to do books and distribution, learn who was writing and who people were interested in.  I love that educative process where we’re all telling each other about stuff.


Interviewer: You’ve said that all life has a language that you’re translating, and several of your books include images by visual artists.  Can you talk about collaboration?


Lawless: I think that poems occur inside you and then you choose to translate them into an exterior.  Sometimes you choose to translate them as these words on a page but sometimes you choose to translate them as a song or as a painting or as movement.  The poetic impulse is inside you and everything that comes out is a translation.  I think that I have these ideas and these images and these feelings and I try to turn them into poems, but the poems aren’t exactly the same thing as what I had inside me, they’re a rough translation, so it’s okay to go back and sharpen them.  Walt Whitman did that for the whole rest of his life on Leaves of Grass, he kept going back because he kept learning more and being in the world more so of course he could bring all those resources back to the poem.


I see my poems as rough translations of what’s going on inside me, and I like to see the visual interpretation of my idea, or my poetic idea of the visual that somebody else has.


I want to leave enough room so that anyone who hears the poem or reads the poem collaborates with me, that they bring something from their experience or their knowledge to that poem.  I don’t think it’s a finished poem until somebody else comes to finish it.  So I like that the visual arts add to the experience of the poem, or the poem adds to the experience of the visual art, and then whoever sees it or reads it then adds something of their own in a collaborative way, which also breaks down that barrier of speaker and audience.  I’d rather be collaborating, if I could write a poem about caribou that makes people think, oh gee maybe we shouldn’t let these guys go extinct, if Gary thinks they’re good teachers maybe I ought to listen to them once in a while, maybe not shoot them all.


Interviewer: I’ve seen videos of you reading your poems to the river, do you feel like the river and fish like to be read to?


Lawless: I like to say hello to trees and birds and plants, I think that it’s neighborly to say hello.  That’s one way of saying hello and trying to recognize the authenticity of their being, which may not be good for them but it’s good for me.  It’s good for my heart to stay open and recognize my fellow beings in a way that’s loving.  It feels good to do something like that, but I don’t know if it has any affect at all, it has an affect on me and maybe if somebody else sees it they think about that and maybe it has some affect on the way they behave.  I like to see rivers as living things.  Heraclitus said all things are flowing.


Interviewer: You’ve used your poetry to be an advocate for the sardines?


Lawless: Yeah, Karin Spitfire and I had the Summer of the Sardine.  We invited people to come and talk about working in the sardine plants and we had several nights where all these women came who had worked in the fish plant.  They talked about how important that was culturally for them because all winter they would be in their houses with their families but not seeing the other women in town, and then the sardines would come, so all the women would come work at the plant and there were very few men on the plant floor.  All the women were there together and that was really important socially to them.  And they missed it; they were nostalgic for this piecework, because it had been important for them to be around other women and also to have their own money.  A lot of them cried when they talked about it, it was so moving for them to remember this way of life that will never happen for them again.


It’s the same here with the alewives, when the alewives ran years ago primarily women would go down to pack and smoke and process them.  The women said the alewives would show up right at the time when you would run out of just about everything you’d put up for the winter, so you were pretty much out of food, and then the fish would arrive, so it was really well timed and brought on the beginning of a season of bounty rather than a season of cold.  Those critters pop up in a lot of my poems, they’re trying to tell me something.  I like hanging out with them.


Interviewer: Could you share a vision for the future?


Lawless: I would like to see a future where people come back to their senses.  When you’re using all of your senses then you’re much more in touch with the planet.  I would like to see a future that’s better for the planet, but it’s hard for me to be convinced that that will happen.  I see humans still so arrogant, they misuse the resources that they’re given, even human resources, not just fracking and tar sands but also just the way the United States treats its own population, we don’t seem to want to provide education or health care to people.


I don’t feel that I’ve done enough, but I tried.  I said things, I tried to encourage other people to try and make a difference, and we provide resources to people who are trying to figure out how to live well on the planet.


A lot of the Native American people I’ve spoken with talk about the basic principle of balance and how we needed to learn to live in balance on this planet, and that people for the most part don’t live in balance, and that just the process of trying to bring balance to your own life has an influence on the planet.  A number of Native American people that I’ve respected over the years have talked about that.  The big change you can make is in yourself, and if you can find a way to be in balance with your community, not just in the human community but the community of life around you, then you’ve done something that’s good and has a lasting effect.


I’m interested in the future, so I’ll be kind of bummed not to see what happens, but that happens to all of us, I’ll leave and stuff will still go on.  The wind won’t notice I’m gone, the trees won’t notice I’m gone.


Interviewer: Maybe you’ll still see it from the mountain on Mars.


Lawless: Well if I can join Nanao and go on that hike – that would be really good.  We’ll see.  He’s still around, I can go on YouTube and have Nanao talk to me, I can just type in his name and he pops up and he reads.  That’s sort of fascinating to me, I think of somebody who’d I’d like to have read a poem, and if they existed in the twentieth century, they’re probably there.  So who knows what the future will bring, maybe Homer will be on the Internet or Sappho.


There’s been a world revolution.  There have been several revolutions.  A civil rights revolution in this country, there’s been a women’s rights revolution in this country.  Those are the revolutions we’ve had in the twentieth century.  They aren’t armed overthrows of the government, but they’ve been overthrows of cultural values that have changed a lot.



For more information on Gary Lawless, please visit him here:  and here


Filed under interviews, maine citizens engaged in resistance, manifestos, poems, protest song ancestors, truth speakers

Renewing Images: Mihku Paul Interview

Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto

Mihku Paul is a Poet, Writer and Visual Artist. She holds a BA in Human Development and Communication and an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast. Her poetry has been in various journals, both print and online.  Mihku is an enrolled member of Kingsclear First Nations, N.B. Canada. She is presently teaching creative writing at the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England.

Paul’s multi-media installation, “Look Twice: The Waponahki in Image & Verse,” went on exhibit in October 2009 at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine.  The exhibit has since been at the Glickman Library at the University of Southern Maine.

Paul’s book of poetry 20th Century PowWow Playland was just released through Greenfield Review Press.  This is a powerful book of visionary heights, available here.


Her Own Kind
Sunset, sentinels bear witness:
pine and birch, spruce and cedar.
She slides, belly curled on warm granite,
uncoiling flesh along the new moon’s arc.
This woman slips her skin,
leaves her old shape behind.
Take this body, earthbound,
craving shelter, her own kind.
She runs, four-footed in autumn’s coat,
furred and restless, sharp of tooth.
This woman strokes the guard hairs,
golden softness underneath.
Take this song, howling melody, music for stars.
Fire leaps from her throat, ash-whispered prayer.
She rises, brilliant flame, arms out-stretched.
Feathers pierce her fingertips.
This woman spreads her wings, climbs into sky,
a thunderbird in flight.
Take this vessel, sun-touched, tricked by nature.
Hovering chimera, floating like red dust.
This woman falls to earth, changing,
changing again.
-Mihku Paul, from 20th Century PowWow Playland

The following interview took place on March 24, 2012 at Paul’s home in Portland, Maine.


Interviewer: Can you talk about where you grew up?


Paul: I grew up in Old Town.  My mother was born in Houlton, which is where the Houlton Band of Maliseets are, and then she moved to Old Town.  My granddad remarried and he was married to a Penobscot woman on Indian Island, so that’s where I spent a lot of my childhood.  I’ve got cousins there and several of my relatives are buried there, including Grammy Paul.  There were four of us, and I’m the only one in my family who made it through high school.


I was my mother’s youngest child, and I think she viewed this as the last opportunity that my grandfather might have to pass on his cultural knowledge.  He was very traditional; he was a guide and great on all types of water with any kind of watercraft, and he hunted and trapped.  He took me along with him when I was a child, and my mother would take me out of school in town for days at a time.  I would go back with my little note, and the note would say she was on the river the last few days because it’s fiddlehead season and she was fiddleheading, or what have you.  My mother would say, her grandfather is teaching her, and that was that.  I got some strange looks and a lot of attitude from the teachers at times, they were non-native teachers, but I was never busted for truancy.  My grades were always really good, so I flew through school.  I started school a year late and I finished school a year early.


With my short story collection, while it’s fiction, the stories are an outgrowth of my experience growing up in a small town in Maine where there’s a reservation and tensions between the Native community and the town.  Old Town also has a distinctive Franco community, because there were textile mills along the town after the logging industry moved elsewhere, and they used the waterpower.  Our town was unique in that sense, and the stories that I wrote for the Water Road are portraits of the way those three distinct communities interacted with each other, in good ways and not so good ways.  I wrote the work because I felt like I want those stories out there, because nobody ever told them.


Interviewer: Did you feel alienated, or did you have enough of a group of people to support you?


Paul: I felt alienated, absolutely.  We lived at a dead end street at the bottom of a great big hill in town.  My mom didn’t want to live on the reserve because at that time, forty or more years ago, it was tough to live on the reservation.  The programs that are in place now, the infrastructure and housing, weren’t there, much of that came after the civil rights movement of the sixties.  My mother felt it was better to be in town.  Even though we lived in town, we lived in an extremely poor neighborhood.  I spent a lot of time on the reservation, so within my own group, things were good, but it was difficult when I went outside of that, like in public school.  I didn’t fit in, and I wasn’t the only one who didn’t fit in, other Native kids had to go to school too, and we got picked on.  I even got picked on by some Native kids because I’m so light, but once they got to know me and knew who I was, everybody knew my granddad and I was there all the time, I was able to get accepted.


It was a different environment back then. After the 1980 lands claims, where the tribe proved that there were treaty issues and that the federal government owed the tribes a lot of money and land, it gave some of the tribes, mainly Passamaquoddys and Penobscots, some capital in order to improve conditions among the communities.  There were many people who moved back who had left years before because they were looking for jobs.  After 1980 we had an influx of people who were Native, but the kids had essentially spent the first halves of their lives elsewhere because their parents moved away for opportunities.  So that created a shift and change as well in the community.


There are incidents from growing up that I incorporated into stories: the reservation is an island and the Penobscot River splits and flows around it.  Across one side is Milford and that’s where it’s more shallow and rocky, but up until July, the water’s deep enough, it’s easy to canoe across.  The Native kids on Indian Island and the white kids in Milford would taunt each other from their side of the river, and sometimes the white boys would take their outboard and come across and they’d have a fight, and the Indian boys would canoe over and they’d have a fist fight and paddle back to the reserve.  Now there are laws in place where when Native communities have sovereignty, they can have their own court system dealing with most legal issues except for felonies, but back then when I was little, nobody ever came over to do anything about it because it was just a split lip and a black eye.  They were afraid, especially during the civil rights movement; you couldn’t get a cab onto the reservation.  That was during AIM and everything, somebody took a piece of plywood, it might have been 1968 or ’69, and hand-painted something, “AIM” or “white people stay out,” so the town taxi wouldn’t cross the bridge; they were afraid to go over there.  It was a very intense time, even in a small town up here.


I enjoyed school up to a point because it was stimulating to me, and I liked the opportunities to do art, but a lot of the times I was bored silly in school and I got hassled, and I wasn’t the only person who did.  My brother’s dad is Haitian and he was dark skinned.  He was the only black child in that school system at the time, he went through the Old Town school system all alone, and it was very tough.  I’m sure that it was hard for the other Native kids in town, because it wasn’t just a matter of people giving you a dirty look, it was a lot of friction.  Like I said, the high school boys would beat each other up, people spit on you on the school bus, all that.


Interviewer: The whole manuscript of 20th Century PowWow Playland feels like protest against colonization and oppression?


Paul: I didn’t write the poems necessarily with the goal of them being subversive or political or resistant but it came out that way very naturally, because I was writing about my own experience.  I think that to be a mixed-blood person and to be Native is to be political; you can’t get around.  I write about other things, science fiction, but the poetry is an outgrowth of my own identity and experience and because of who I am, then it’s political, because of my history and my origins.


Interviewer: Can you talk about your work as an educator around LD291: An Act to Require Teaching of Maine Native American History and Culture in Maine’s Schools?


Paul: I’ve been doing that for at least fifteen years.  What I’ve found is that when I presented in schools, the first thing teachers said is, can’t you just come and bring your baskets and talk Indian or tell a legend or something?  I’d say, please, what I need to do first is meet with the kids to break the ice, we need to become connected.  So I began with a circle discussion time where I would introduce who I was and talk about what we were going to do together.  It was also a chance for me to hear where they were at in terms of their awareness.  Even in the twenty-first century, I say to them, what do you know about Indians?  “They shoot bow and arrows, they don’t wear any clothes,” “I watched the Indian in the Cupboard movie” [laughs].  I think that’s a real problem, I think that should be an embarrassment to the state of Maine.  Bless Donna Loring and the other people who have done so much work towards getting LD291 passed.  Things have improved somewhat in the last three to five years but there’s so much work to be done.


This past year I was invited to be a guest artist in the Portland schools and we met first and talked about the differences between Native teaching paradigms and Western teaching paradigms.  Research nationally shows that across the country Native students begin having trouble in school.  While there are many reasons for that, the kids are getting turned off in school in large part because of the way they’re being taught.  The Native kids can’t relate, they’ve got home, they’ve got the reservation environment, the way they’re taught there, and then they go to this box and sit in a straight line in a box all day and someone talks at them and says write this down, now repeat what I just told you to write down.  That’s not how most Native cultures teach.  The Many Hands Project was a way of giving students in public schools here in Portland the experience of doing a collaborative project that they were guided through using Native teaching paradigms; the kids particular strengths as individuals were looked at.


I think if I can get one kid in the fifth grade to realize that there is a great deal of complexity – there’s a rich cultural history and there is also an extremely brutal political and social history, that is part of what it means to be a Native person – if I can get them to remember that, then that’s something.


Interviewer: Could you talk about your Look Twice exhibit of writing and art?


Paul: It was an opportunity to create social change, and that’s part of the reason that I did it.


I used Kant for some of the underpinnings of Look Twice.  One of the things that Kant says about truth, truth as in honesty, is that even when it’s painful or difficult, it’s imperative to have honesty between people, that lying is absolutely awful because when you lie to someone you’re depriving them of a response to that information or that situation or event, you’re depriving them of the opportunity to respond to it in an authentic and an accurate way.  Lying to someone robs them of their humanity and their opportunity to be their best selves, because they’re responding to an inaccuracy.  I was using that idea around the Look Twice show because people have very fixed, strange notions about what it means to be a Native person.  In effect they have been lied to for hundreds of years.  So by giving them poems that I think more clearly reflect the now for Native people in Maine, along with photographs that sometimes they’re accurate and sometimes they’re not, it creates disequilibrium.  It creates internal tensions, and that’s the opportunity for someone to change their attitude.  They can’t change their attitude simply by looking at something; the best opportunity to change someone’s interior landscape is to engage them in a multi-sensory way.


There was art all around like a river, because we’re a river culture people. There were circular medicine wheels that I create that are really colorful and they also have symbolism, so there’s pattern there and color and repetition and that has an effect on the brain, and also the symbolism can end up engaging people’s thought processes.  So they have the archival images, and the poetry, and then this almost purely visual experience that acts on the brain, so that’s what I was trying to do.


Interviewer: Your poems refer to the false education you got about your culture and US history, like the Columbus discovered America story, can you talk about when you first started challenging those lies?


Paul: When Dee Brown came out with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee my mother gave it to me and I read it.  I was born in ’58, I think I was about twelve or so, and my mother was like that, she hands me this book that’s like three inches thick.  I read anyway as a child, I read everything I could get my hands on.  It was a little beyond me, but it was also very powerful and effective, so I remember that being sort of the beginning of that place where I started to get an awareness of the political landscape and what that meant.


I went to another school for a year, Helen Hunt, which was in a middle class community closer in town, not really on the outskirts where we had lived.  I started getting hassled by kids in sixth grade there, and I got really angry.  My mother used to make extra money by doing a lot with leather, she made these great fringed-vests and did hand sewing, and she had a beautiful deerskin dress that she had made.  There was no reason for doing this, one day I just begged her to let me wear it to school.  So I wore it to school.  It was my way of saying, how do you like me now [laughs].  In the eyes of my classmates, that was probably one of the strangest things that I had ever done.  I told everybody my mom had made it; I just felt like I wanted to do it and had to do it.


I was still spending a lot of time with my granddad, and I stopped being silent about our family and who I was.  I talked about it more freely.  Then as a freshmen at college, I got a little bit more outspoken about it, this was like 1977-78, so that civil rights environment was still there.  That was when I became aware that I was an object, that even though I was at a college setting and I’d share my background with people, I realized people were looking at me, they weren’t interacting with me.  Not everyone.  When I was eighteen, nineteen, I started realizing, maybe they’re not spitting at me, they’re not calling me a squaw or a nigger lover or whatever, but people are still looking at me as this thing, so that was a little bit hard.


Finishing my undergraduate work was when I really began to speak out more on issues.  I started doing committee work, I felt supported in a university community in speaking out about issues of diversity and about who I was.  That was about the time too that I started doing more consulting in the schools, and I started the curriculum enrichment.


Interviewer: Weren’t you involved with IRATE in the nineties?


Paul: Yes; here was the situation, we were the Native American Student Association, we were trying very hard to be seen, and we were struggling. We saw what the Native kids were up against.  I imagine college is hard for anyone, but you take a Native person – I already told you about the teaching paradigms and the racism – you pluck them out of this community in which the connectivity between people and the life-ways are so established culturally, then you’ve plucked them out of that environment and put them in this other one, it’s very alien, and it’s hard to endure.  It’s very typical of Native people to take a number of years to get an undergraduate degree.  We were seeing Native students who were having meltdowns, suicidal, couldn’t stay in school, left school, they weren’t getting the support they needed through this.  You’re thinking, there are all those people, everybody else, and then there’s me.  You feel like an outsider.  Then they’re saying, don’t you know how it works, here’s the drill, get this paper done, bring that paper over there, speak to that person, do that.  There was no one to help coordinate that, which was very daunting.


Esther Altvater Attean was in the Old Town area.  Her and her mother-in-law Rene Attean formed an organization called Indigenous Resistance Against Tribal Extinction, and they knew that we were having trouble down here on this campus.  We found out that the international students numbered fewer than the Native students at the campus, but the international students had their own office, they had a coordinator, they had an admin, we had nothing!  And so we said to the President of the University, we’d like to talk about this because this is something that is needed.  All we said was we want to meet, will you meet with us.  He wouldn’t respond, he ignored us!  So then we got IRATE, and we got Kathy McInnis who was an organizer and activist, she’s disabled, she did a lot around ADA and accessibility, she knew the drills.  We brought her in and she said, here’s what you have to do.  We drafted the letter, made a request for a meeting and we said if you don’t meet with us, we are going to take an action – a peaceful action – and he wouldn’t respond.  So IRATE came down, they brought us some people from the reservation to support us, Rebecca Sockbeson and Lana Dana, and we took over the President’s office on the seventh floor of the Law School, we did a sit-in.  Kathy showed us how to do the whole thing, not speaking, linking arms, and we trooped in.  They did sort of try and stop us, and you just keep walking, and if they put their hand on you, you say, please take your hand off of me.  There are ways that you do it that are non-confrontational, but still you keep moving forward with the action.  We took it over and Fox News came and interviewed us, and we said we’re staying here and we’re not leaving.  The President was off at some reception or something, and all we wanted was for him to give us in writing that he would meet with us and talk about this.  Even so he made us wait, we were there for a while, but we did it.


There was very little in the office, there was a wooden hanger, and Esther broke it, took it apart and we took his waste basket, which was empty, this gray plastic thing, but it was a good size, and she flipped it and [laughs] used the broken thing for a beater and we drummed.  It was awesome!  We were up there singing and drumming and Fox News comes and they’re like what do you want, and it’s like, this is what we want.


It was good because that was the beginning of the formation of not just a Multicultural Center, but also establishing the position of someone who is there specifically as a support and resource to guide Native students through their academic experience and help them stay in school, so we can graduate more.  Because people were coming in and people weren’t finishing; there are many reasons why you don’t finish but one of the big ones is a lack of support around navigating that whole environment.


So yeah, we did a sit-in; it was the longest sit-in in the history of the University [laughs].  It was funny, we couldn’t get food in so we even had a rope we lowered out the window for a basket, and they would put snacks in and we would pull the rope up [laughter].  They thought we would think, this stinks, I’m hungry – that we’d give up – and we didn’t give up.


Interviewer: Who are some people who inspire you to seek justice?


Paul: One of the first people was my granddad when I was a very small child.  I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but did you know it was the nineteen sixties before Native people, at least in Maine, could vote?


Interviewer: Yeah, it’s awful.


Paul: Isn’t that crazy?  I remember my granddad telling me that, I was just a little girl, but it blew my mind.  And of course being a child, I took it in and went, holy!  And then I was like, okay, let’s go fishing.  But I’m 53 and I still remember him telling me that, that moment.  He would let me know about things but he didn’t belabor the point.  He would give me these pieces of information that somehow became part of the whole fabric of my experience growing up, so I think that’s where it began.


My mom was very outspoken with her identity.  Even though she lived in town, she spent a lot of time on the reservation with my granddad.  As I told you my mom took me out of school for my education.  She gave me the Dee Brown book.  Another thing that my mom did: Old Town High had dress codes, and one of them was hair length, and my eldest brother Tibby James wanted to grow his hair.  He grew his hair and he kept getting warned by the school that he was going to get suspended, and he did.  My mother consulted a lawyer, there was a pro bono place for poor people, and she went to the high school and she argued his case.  She said he is an Indian, and we grow our hair, and the men grow their hair, and if you don’t let him grow his hair then you are – and of course this is civil rights period as well – she said then you are not letting him be who he is, and she won.  That really inspired me as well.


I didn’t really understand that there was a whole Native literary cannon out there.  A friend sent me Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko and that really made me curious about the existence of a Native literary cannon and these highly accomplished Native writers, because you have to envision the possibility before you can take a step towards something. That helped me.


I saw the political stuff happening all around me.  There was a thing in the early seventies called Stand Up and Be Counted, which was a movement that originated with the American Indian Movement.  They were encouraging Native communities across the entire country to do this, and on Indian Island they had these gatherings.  I remember coming home and my mom said put your sneakers on, we’re going to the Island and I said why, and she said we’re walking.  She had long dark hair and she braided it up and everything, and she said we’re going to stand up and be counted!  It was in the spring and everybody was gathering, there was this community hall just a little ways across the bridge on the reservation, and my granddad was one of the people who spoke.  It was a community meeting to inspire people to be more involved about their rights.  I was quite young, but I remember that very clearly, everybody gathered.  They took turns, there was somebody from Vietnam, and they picked different people from the community to get up to the podium and address the community about this sort of newfound social awareness and the necessity to organize for change.


Interviewer: Your poems are real rhythmic and sound like they’re meant for being read aloud, can you talk about the music?


Paul: I tend toward lyricism, so with the poems, I really like sounds, and I’m very interested in language and sound.


Every Sunday my granddad and I used to sit in the kitchen and have tea and he would tell stories of his life, and they were always interesting.  Sometimes he’d repeat what I’d heard before or some poor tired joke, but it didn’t matter.  I think that I brought to the work I’m producing a lot of that storytelling aspect, and the love for the way language sounds.   Granddad taught me certain things in dialect; if he says to you, gazelmo, then you know he’s saying I love you, whether or not you’re fluent you learn, so I was exposed a little bit to the language.  He always said to me the way it sounded is like birdsong, the sound was a really important piece for him, and he imparted that to me as a child.


I started college as a theater major.  I did theater in high school and it was very liberating for me, so I already had some experiences around the spoken presentation of creative work.  Then when I started reading the poems and interpreting them, people said wow.  I just sort of acted it out or interpreted it, I didn’t know anything about slam poetry or anything, all of that I learned just in the last few years.  When I started, my intent had more to do with storytelling and love of language and love of sounds and flow and rhythm.


Interviewer: Place is obviously a huge part of your art, the sense of New England?


Paul: It is, especially as a contemporary Native artist in New England.  A lot of times I talk with folks at different organizations, you tell them you’re Native, and they’re like, great, do you make baskets?  That’s the first thing they ask, and I’m like, no I don’t make baskets. Yeah, I know how to make a basket, my mother beaded a lot, I do bead.  I try to explain to them that the traditional arts are great but don’t pigeonhole me.  So I’m trying to bring my Native identity, which is deeply embedded in an ancient culture, forward into the contemporary moment, and I’m trying to use my art as a way to bridge that into the twenty-first century.


When I became a sun dancer I went out west to North Dakota.  I met all these people who were wonderful, Sioux people, Lakota people, Mandan people, Ojibwa people.  It was great for me, but it was also very hard, because they looked at me, especially my first year or two, and they said, there aren’t any Indians back in Maine, there’s no Indians back there, we’re the Indians out here.  I bring that up because we in this region of the country had some of the earliest contact.  We had contact, and the oppression, and the whole assimilation cycle for longer than many of the tribes west of the Mississippi.  So we’re not just dealing with distortions around identity and culture with non-Native people, we’re also dealing with it with other Native people, with the western tribes who have some kind of sense that we are so dissipated and so assimilated that maybe we barely even exist.


One of the ways that I proved my worth to them is one year, an elder came around to the various encampments looking for someone who could dress out a deer.  It was 102 degrees on the plains of North Dakota and he’d taken his nephew to shoot his first deer to feed the people.  We had 80 to 100 people out there for ceremony.  I didn’t want to do it, it’s so hot out there and the work you have to do to prepare for ceremony, everyone’s just miserable for certain hours of the day.  The sun doesn’t go down until after 10 at night and there’s a certain chunk of the day where it’s just too hot to do anything but sit, all work comes to a standstill.  So here he comes and my friend, who’s the head female dancer, a dear friend of mine, is asking everyone, because she’s kind of the diplomat person among the women, the coordinator – she felt obligated to say, I’ll try and help you.  I waited and waited and nobody said a word, and up goes my hand, why, because I know how to do it, because I grew up in a hunting family.  My mother used to make extra money skinning out animals and dressing them for the hunters from southern New England who came up to Maine.  They never wanted anything but the flanks anyway, the steak, and so they’d throw her twenty bucks to skin out a bear, and we’d get some meat, which was great because we were terribly poor.  I learned all this from an early age.  After that, I was in like Flynn.  I got a crew together, I said find the salt, get some tubs, get everybody’s salt they’ve got, get a stone, the best knives you’ve got, somebody’s got to stand by and constantly be sharpening the knives.  And we dressed out a deer on the planes of North Dakota – it’s July, it’s so hot, no shade.  I found some boards in the fields and we were kneeling on boards with a blue tarp over it and these chunks of deer body [laughs], but we did it.  We dressed it out, I told them what to do, there’s no refrigeration out there, and you also have water discipline because there’s no drinking water near by so you have to be very careful, there’s a water buffalo we used.  Anyway, I did it, I showed them how to cut it up.  We sent the best cuts off to the elders because the old people get the best cuts of meat.  After that, they never gave me a problem; but I had to prove it to them.


Interviewer: Your poem “Mother Tongue” is one of the most powerful poems I’ve ever read about Native Americans being taken from their families and brought to the Carlisle School; what are your thoughts on the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Project?


Paul: If you go to the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Project website, there’s actually a piece of my poetry on the flash page there.


I grew up in Maine, but my family is from Kingsclear, New Brunswick.  I have C31 status, I have dual-citizenship with Canada, but Maine is my home.  In Canada they have been working on that for a while, the Truth and Reconciliation, because Carlisle wasn’t the only school.  Some of these residential schools were in place all the way up until possibly the 1960s and early ‘70s in the western part of the US.


I think the Truth and Reconciliation is really important, I’m amazed and thrilled that the Governor signed the mandate.  It troubles me that in comparison to what Canada is doing, so little is being done around talking about that issue and recognizing the incredible impact that it had on a society of people, just one of the terrible things that happened.  There really needs to be a lot more discourse around that.  For my own part I can tell you that one of the reasons that I don’t speak my language fluently is because of the schools.  “History 101,” which was in my Look Twice exhibit, is a poem that I wrote about that.  My granddad was taken, he wasn’t sent to Carlisle, which is the most famous one here, but he was sent to one, it might have been Shubenacadie, and he would never talk about it.  When my mother was young, and especially when we were young, it was like, don’t speak dialect in the house, it was looked at like, don’t do it.  You’ve got to talk English, you have to be this way, you must assimilate or you’re screwed.  I mean they didn’t say it like that, but that was the whole hit of what we were taught.  Even so, there were the phrases like, I’ve got to siggiazi, needing to go to the bathroom and needing this or that, those useful kinds of things.


Grampy would never talk about it very much.  Once in a while he’d say something and then he wouldn’t talk about it again.  This is what he told me though, he said they took him, he was eight or nine, when he was taken from Kingsclear.  He was a smart guy, he didn’t finish high school but he served two tours in World War II and he spoke English, French, Maliseet, and one other dialect, I don’t know if it was Micmac, or not; he also wouldn’t talk very much about his experiences in World War II.  But he said I kept running away, all he could say, and I could tell it bothered him.  He just said he kept running away, and they’d bring him back, and then when he was about fifteen he said they stopped coming after him.  One of the things he had learned to do when he’d run away was not to come home to Kingsclear.  He would go to where his cousins lived at another reservation, it might have been Tobique; he learned to go where they might not find him.  Then at fifteen they gave up and didn’t come after him anymore.  I think it was very hard on him.  He always spoke dialect with me but it wasn’t a thing that he did all the time amongst other people, it was something that he kept inside himself.  The nuns beat them.  I’m sure other things happened, he got locked up, and they’d lock them in a closet for hours he said.  That’s what they got for speaking dialect.


A lot of Native kids died of diseases, TB especially.  My grandfather always tested positive for TB, I guess he carried it, he didn’t have an active case, but he carried it, and that was from those years at the residential schools.  But he made it quite a ways; he made it until almost 81, which is amazing for us, it really is.  My mother only made it to 45, my brother only made it to 48.  We die sooner.  There are a lot of reasons why, like stress, poor healthcare access, substance abuse, depression, it’s higher among Native populations compared to general populations.


Interviewer: Could you talk about your literary influences?


Paul: I didn’t know much about literature per se in school.  I read what we had at home, which wasn’t a lot of stuff.  I remember my mother giving me the Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton when I was pretty young.  She was always doing that, giving me books that were three steps over my head, but I’d try to understand it anyway.


For my own work I’d say in the last ten years one of the things that just blew my psyche wide open was when I began to read other Native writers, reading Leslie Marmon Silko, reading Joy Harjo and reading Louise Erdrich.  Then I started getting more interested in the socio-political aspects of it and reading stuff like by Robert Warrior, Jace Weaver, Craig Womack, and M Scott Momaday.  When I was working with Richard Hoffman he introduced me to writers from this region that I didn’t even know about, so it was a huge thrill for me to finally meet Cheryl Savageau and Melissa Tantiquidgeon and work with Joseph Bruchac.  I’d been aware of the books that Joe Brushac made and the work he does with kids and schools, and I thought wow what a cool guy, and now he is publishing my first book of poetry, so this is very cool for me.


Interviewer: What are some ways that you keep your spirits up and maintain resolve?


Paul: I own a dog [laughs].  I have to have an animal presence around, it’s important to me.  I think that we can often become our best selves when we are responsible for other creatures, including kids.  I would have children if I could have but I grew up eating fish from a very polluted river and I was born to an alcoholic mother and I didn’t know until many years later, after I was married and we weren’t getting pregnant, that my ova are no good, they’re fragile.  That was another thing I had to deal with.


I seek out things that not only give me pleasure, but also help me to feel alive in the moment.  One of them is my art.  Creating is when I’m at my most content; it’s a place where I get quiet inside.  Spending time outside is very important to me.  As a child I didn’t even wear shoes unless I was required, so having that connection with the natural environment is really important.


Having a spiritual practice has helped me tremendously.  I go as often as I can to ceremony and it’s been really good for me, I have a whole other family out there and we are connected in ways that are different than my family connections here or my professional connections.  Engaging in ceremony has definitely been good.


Interviewer: Could you share a vision for the future?


Paul: One of the things I realized in this journey that I am on is that I had so much to learn about the body of literature by Native writers, so I want to explore that more.  I want to educate myself and get a nice foundation and awareness of those bodies of works, particularly with writers in this region, and try and promote that more. The other part of it is trying to find ways to foster the development of new Native writers from this region.  The Wabanaki Writers Project is one of the things that might be able to support the continuation of that.  I’ve done workshops with them for that project and I’m hoping to do more with them in the future.


As I tell people, before you can do any of these things, you have to be able to imagine it as a possibility.  You can’t take a step towards a goal if you think that that’s just not a possibility for you.  For a lot of Native people, the idea that that could happen for them has been taken away for various reasons and by various means.  So I want to support other Native writers, I want to raise awareness and I want to educate myself further.


To learn more about Mihku Paul, please visit her website at:


Filed under interviews, literature review, maine citizens engaged in resistance, poems, truth speakers

dwellings, linda hogan

The pages of Linda Hogan’s Dwellings smell like crow feathers – a perfume of roots and sky and leaf.

Dwellings is a wise, reverent Spiritual History of the Living World, containing beautiful poetics highly relevant to today’s earth, which is constantly assaulted and threatened by corporate and war interests that seek to profit few while killing our most precious, essential resources – life on this planet and future generations.

The book shows how plants and animals have language – they have feelings – and just like people, they’re impacted by trauma and the destruction of their ecosystems.

Hogan describes how all living matter has conscious energy that is embedded with human cells.  We are all affected by the history of shared air molecules, shared water molecules, and passed on DNA containing the stories of our ancestors – and we all feel global tragedies and desecration of life – stories carried on the wind.

Dwellings helps us remember the divinity of all life, the sacred fragileness, how our instincts are real and should be followed above societal madness of being closed off and human-centric.

“Do you remember the friend that the leaves talked to?  We need to be that friend.  Listen.  The ears of the corn are singing.  They are telling their stories and singing their songs.  We knew that would be true.”

Hogan explains how the earth is a generous giver who wants peace and natural balance.  It benefits all species – human, plant, animal and molecule – when we “participate in a reciprocal and balanced exchange with life,” gratefully receiving the gifts of the present, while giving back with compassion.

Nature is the deepest reality of earth and the universe, and to deny that reality causes us to suffer from toxic life: pollution, global warming, broken heartedness, emptiness and loneliness.

Hogan says:

This far-hearted kind of thinking is one we are especially prone to now, with our lives moving so quickly ahead, and it is one that sees life, other lives, as containers for our own uses and not as containers in a greater, holier sense.

Even wilderness is seen as having value only as it enhances and serves our human lives, our human world.  While most of us agree that wilderness is necessary to our spiritual and psychological well-being, it is a container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours.  It is not only where we go to escape who we have become and what we have done, but it is also part of the natural laws, the workings of a world of beauty and depth we do not yet understand.

Hogan gives examples of how she’s seen animals treated carelessly, like wolves being shot and killed from planes.  From a chapter on wolves…

 Environmental work, like tribal issues have been for us Indian people, is subject to very negative reactions, to what we call ‘backlash.’  This situation is especially fragile, complicated by the psychological fact that wolves carry much of the human shadow.  They contain for us many of our own traits, ones we repress within ourselves.  More than any other animal, they mirror back to us the predators we pretend not to be.  In that way, we have assigned to them a special association with evil.

Close up, there is even more beauty in the wolf than any of us have seen from a distance.  The fur is shadowy gray and golden.  The jawbones with their circular valleys are smooth, outlined by the bare, lean winter.  Inside the mouth, the teeth are layered and worn down.  There are strawberry leaves, frozen in place, on the wolf’s teeth at the gum line.  The tenderness of such an image moves me.  I feel it in the heart.  And there is something delicate about the legs, something gone from wandering earth, something that ran so far it left the body behind.   

This compassionate description of connection with the wolf comes from someone truly alive.  The line, “something that ran so far it left the body behind” is stunning.

In Maine, all the wolves have nearly been slaughtered – some say there are no wolves left here, others think they are scarce and hiding but still around.  And now in this state there is a culture of coyote killing mobs – unlimited numbers of coyotes are allowed to be hunted in Maine, a blood sport that serves no practical purpose.  Why is it seen as okay for humans to kill deer but evil if wolves or coyotes hunt for food?

Hogan observes, “What we really are searching for is a language that heals this relationship, one that takes the side of the amazing and fragile life on our life-giving earth.  A language that knows the corn, and the one that corn knows, a language that takes hold of the mystery of what’s around us and offers it back to us, full of awe and wonder.  It is a language of creation, of divine fire, a language that goes beyond the strict borders of scientific inquiry and right into the heart of the mystery itself.”

Dwellings describes the importance of listening to this language of mystery, and to our own intuition, feelings and dreaming, which provide intrinsic knowledge and understanding.

Hogan describes how our role as intelligent human guests on life-giving earth is that of care takers and compassionate stewards.  We can help reestablish a balanced world by simply praising the miraculousness of all living things – this praise-giving attitude of tenderness helps the creatures by letting them know we share an allegiance of wanting health, respect and love for nature; in turn, such actions sustain ourselves and life on this planet.

“Here is a lesson: what happens to people and what happens to the land is the same thing.” -Linda Hogan

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Filed under literature review, maine citizens engaged in resistance, manifestos, poems, protest song ancestors, truth speakers