Category Archives: interviews

Singing the lines: Interview with Leonore Hildebrandt

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Leonore Hildebrandt grew up in Germany and teaches writing at the University of Maine. Living “off the grid” in Harrington, Maine, she is a member of the Flatbay Collective and serves as an editor for the Beloit Poetry Journal. Her poetry has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, the Beloit Poetry Journal, the Poetry Salzburg Review, and the Quercus Review, and Cabildo Quarterly, among others.  

 
Rock Me
 
I have always done things the hard way––
cutting through razor wire, sitting in protest
until the cops yanked us by the hair.
 
After turning down the millionaire,
I boiled the baby’s diapers on the wood stove––
but in summer I danced into the pale light of morning.
 
There were men, there were women––
mostly I lived more fiercely than that,
my head full of road-songs, the secret of seeds,
 
Masters of War. Once I climbed an oak tree
I had planted thirty years before. The leaves,
like orange hands, pulled me high and higher.
 
When I went fasting in the woods,
the hours would open their mouths wider,
the verge of the pond carried on endlessly.
 
I know of padded cells and stifling nightmares.
But age is ageless. So rock me––like glass,
we are sharp, molten, shattered, redone.
 
It’s like the death penalty––
once you have handed it down,
then do it, already. Don’t let it drag on.
 
-Leonore Hildebrandt

 

*

 

Here, Leonore is interviewed by Lisa Panepinto.

 

Lisa: I’m excited that you have a poetry collection coming out soon, The Next Unknown.  Can you give us a preview into the book?

 

Leonore: In 2001, I began writing poetry under the tutelage of Constance Hunting. The Next Unknown gathers poems up to 2010 when the manuscript was accepted for publication by Pecan Grove Press. Many of the poems are inspired by my experience as a traveler––between the German and English language, between city and country, between my joy over life on the earth and sorrow about its decline. My hope is that the poems are imaginative, that they speak through specific images while evoking questions about larger themes––nature and power, art and knowledge.

 

Lisa: What are some other projects you’re currently working on?

 

Leonore: I am moving toward a second book-length collection. As far as I can tell, this one will have fewer autobiographical references and more of an eco-feminist feel. I don’t really like using this term; it implies a narrow, didactic agenda, which is not what I am interested in when I write poems. But I do feel passionate as a woman about a less exploitative relationship with all life-forms, and this passion finds expression in the poetry.

 

For last summer’s Belfast Poetry Festival, I teamed up with the painter Heidi Daub. We presented The Shelter, a series of poems with corresponding landscape paintings. Heidi and I were surprised by the intimacy inherent in the work, and we are hoping to keep this collaboration alive. We will be performing The Shelter at the University of Maine at Machias (probably in the fall of 2014) and are looking into publication.

 

More recently, I have written a few new songs, and my pianist/writer/friend Brian Stewart and I are working on these and some of his new material. Also, inspired by my grandson’s arrival, I just recorded a CD of German children’s songs. As my 93 year old mother put it: “Germany has made many mistakes, but the folk songs it has produced over the past centuries are something truly beautiful.” It felt great to remember this lovely tradition.

 

Lisa: Your poems portray both the destruction of the environment and the denigration of women.  Do you see these themes as linked?

 

Leonore: Common ideas about the affinities between “Nature” and “Woman” have in the past too often resulted in disrespect for both, which is convenient for those looking to justify domination and abuse. I would be careful of a classification of man as perpetrator and woman/nature as victim, because it ends up stressing difference in our perception of man versus woman. Still, a patriarchal value system tends to take for granted a sense of entitlement to take, and take, and take. It is my hope that a more “feminine” age is in the making, one in which both men and women value caring more than controlling.

 

Many writers have spoken to that shift. Currently I am teaching a course in American Women’s Literature. Among the stories we are reading is “A White Heron” (1886) by Sarah Orne Jewett, in which a boy demonstrates his passion for birds by shooting and stuffing them. This sets in motion the conflict for the young heroine: should she be loyal to him or the great bird?

 

In “Annunciation” (1935) by Meridel Le Sueur, a woman in dire poverty becomes pregnant, and in spite of her partner’s wishes, she goes through with the pregnancy. She contemplates a pear tree growing behind the dismal boarding house: “The leaves are the lips of the tree speaking in the wind, or they move like many tongues. The fruit of the tree has been a round speech, speaking in full tongue […], hanging in ripe body…“ This sense of ripening and fullness coming out of the depression era is remarkable.

 

By asserting themselves as women, the protagonists of these stories come to notice also the integrity and beauty of other species. Our speech can be “in full tongue” even when writing poems of witness.

 

Lisa: You live off-the-grid on the coast of Maine, where you have raised a family.  It seems to me your poetry expresses a counterculture mentality of giving up capitalist concerns in exchange for an allegiance with the earth.  Does this connection seem accurate?

 

Leonore:  My choices in lifestyle have tended toward the simple, resourceful, and natural––and I am glad that you find these values in my poetry.

 

Off-the-grid requires a degree of self-sufficiency. My husband and I get electricity and part of our heat from the sun. We grow our own fruit and vegetables. We thin the forest to obtain firewood. We buy mostly used clothes. And so on. The willingness to pay attention to one’s small actions lives on in our children. While our daughters now have moved to urban areas, they are, each in her own way, connected to nature and committed to its protection. They have chosen to work in a way that does not feel alienated.

 

Striving for a gentler environmental footprint is not hard for me. The earth is generous, and I feel refreshed while working on the land. Harder than these lifestyle choices, I find, is to change my mind, to think about the value of money, power, and entitlement outside of the prevailing paradigms. For example, does less consumerism make for a shrinking economy which means more global poverty––or not necessarily? In spite of the justified rhetoric against the richest 1%, should we hope that wealthy people will help implement a more egalitarian system, also in regard to non-human life?

 

Poetry is a place where I can imagine “what if.” I can circle around things that puzzle me, try out different voices and positions. If I had a plan, if I called myself a Buddhist, or a Marxist, or a Naturalist, I may not be driven to write poems.

 

Lisa: Can you discuss the importance of place in your writing?

 

Leonore: Recently I wrote a longer poem inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s invention of geodesic domes. It’s called “Where You Happen to Be,” and it starts with a quote by Fuller: “The most important thing to teach your children is that the sun does not rise and set. It is the Earth that revolves around the sun. Then teach them the concepts of North, South, East and West, and that they relate to where they happen to be on the planet’s surface at that time. Everything else will follow.” In a few words, Fuller connects the larger space (and our orientation in it) with our individual presence. Everything else will follow––in my poem follow impressions of hiking in the Southwest, interwoven with geometric concepts and natural shapes. Place is not merely a backdrop––along with time, it makes for our experience, offers a perspective, molds our voices. The challenge for the writer of poetry is to choose significant and fresh images as a stand-in for all that space so that a reader, too, may imagine a specific place where we happen to be.

 

Lisa: Your poems feel highly lyrical, chant-like and are often referential of song.  Could you talk about music in relation to your writing?

 

Leonore: I came to poetry from songwriting, or perhaps I should say, poetry found me while I worked on lyrics. Since the early 1990s, I have been playing music with other songwriters, and we perform mostly our own songs. During practice and musical performance, one incessantly repeats the same material while trying to improve its presentation. I think this shaped my critical sensibility. If I want to keep enjoy singing the lines, they have to roll off the tongue.

 

Song lyrics may be simpler than poetry, especially if they are meant for performance. The music will add interest. But to be singable, they must be smooth. No harsh clusters of consonants. Repetition of sound, be it full rhyme or near-rhyme. Rhythm. You see, song lyrics compare well to poetry in fixed form, like the balled. One counts the meter,  the number of lines. Free-verse poetry offers more formal freedom, which I enjoy. And still, I always read poems in progress out loud, listening for an underlying pulse over which flow the words’ cadences.

 

Lisa: Who are some of your literary influences?

 

Leonore: Writers whose work I keep coming back to include: Bertolt Brecht, Rilke, Goethe. Pablo Neruda, Garcia Marquez. Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson.

 

As a member of the editorial board of the Beloit Poetry Journal, I regularly read a selection of new submissions. I am very grateful for the opportunity to see what my peers are doing. Additionally, reading and discussing these poems with a group of seasoned editors often brings the work more fully alive for me.

 

Most immediately and constructively I am engaged with the work-in-progress of my fellow writers in the Flat Bay Collective: Robert Froese, Tony Brinkley, Dick Miles.

 

Lisa: Who are you currently reading and what are you currently listening to?

 

Leonore: A recent post to The New Yorker is titled: “Is the News Replacing Literature?” I was taken aback––indeed, for me that may be increasingly true. I browse online content from NPR, the New York Times, and Deutsche Welle. I enjoy political satire, like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. I find that I learn things from The Atlantic, perhaps because it caters to a younger, more urban audience. I am just about addicted to the New York Review of Books which I read cover to cover.

 

Thankfully I am teaching American Women’s Literature! Presently we are reading literature from the turn of the century, an exiting time in women’s history, which produced many great writers, among them Kate Chopin, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary Austin, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton.

 

In music, I respond to syncopation, both in world music and jazz.  A few favorite artists in no particular order:  Salif Keita (Mali), Manu Dibango (Cameroon), Manu Chao (France/Spain), Cesaria Evora (Cape Verde), Gigi (Ethiopia), Ali Farka Touré (Mali), Baaba Maal (Senegal), Toumani Diabaté (Mali), Souad Massi (Algeria/France).

 

I grew up in Germany with folk music and the composers from the classical era: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, Boccherini… This heritage still nourishes me and I turn to it at certain times with much appreciation.

 

In terms of films, here are a few recommendations for documentaries I recently saw: A Place at the Table (on hunger in the USA).  The House I Live in (on the war on drugs).  Last Call at the Oasis (on the global water crisis).  Inside Job (on the financial crisis of 2008) and Food,Inc (on industrial food production.)

 

Lisa: Your poems often juxtapose the beauty of nature and fragility of life with war’s shadow.  Do you see nurturing the earth as a means to protest war and violence?

 

Leonore: Poetry as protest––this is a powerful legacy, but I’m not sure I can claim that for my own work. But like everyone, I write from my place in history. My father was an officer in WWII, he spent five years as a POW in the Soviet Union and returned physically frail. My mother’s energies were at times more focused on him than on the children. But, to stay with your metaphor, war’s shadow also may cast the light in sharp relief. In their remaining years together, my parents strove for mindfulness and peace, at least in the family. Perhaps that primed me to become a young political rebel: I wanted to make things right. I joined the anti-nuclear protests that swept through Europe in the 1970/80s. We would “occupy” the construction sites for nuclear waste and power plants. (This movement led to the foundation of Germany’s Green Party.) During the course of it, my friends and I started a commune and learned about gardening and beekeeping…

 

The earth nurtures us, not vice versa. We may try to limit the harm we do. It is my hope that when we open ourselves and pay attention to the forces of life, to the land, the clouds, all that beauty, we will be able to do less harm. Of course, there is violence in nature as one thing feeds on another, but no mean-spirited revenge, no contemplated or organized destruction. Too long during our history, we have convinced ourselves that we are above nature, entitled to use and rule over it, just as leaders convince themselves that it is okay to dominate and exploit people. This attitude is changing, thankfully.

 

Lisa: Can you talk about your involvement with the Flat Bay Collective and being part of a community of artists in rural Maine?

 

Leonore: The Flat Bay Collective is a low-key, informal gathering of artists in Washington County, Maine. We support each other’s work and maintain a common website to present it (flatbaycollective.org). Most fruitful are the collaborations, which include feedback for writing-in-progress, co-translation, music, and design of books. Last but not least, we have produced letter-press chapbooks of poetry.

 

Writer’s groups have become common––they offer wonderful opportunities for learning, motivating one another, and building community. For us, the exchange with artists of different media is an added benefit.

 

Lisa: There’s so much to mourn and feel anger and despair about in this world; how do you keep your spirits up?

 

Leonore: I just saw The Square, a film about the uprising in Egypt. The documentary follows a number of very sympathetic protesters––their bravery, their eloquence, their effort of conscience are entirely admirable! I take with me the joy that I live in a world where these young people are active. I also take with me the devastating thought that they have not reached their goal of democracy, and that many of their peers have been killed, imprisoned, or silenced. The point is that my thinking is malleable––and feelings follow suit. I don’t have to repeat over and over the inner monolog of devastation to the point that it harms me. The world is not one bit better off if I insist on feeling angry or sad, however justified that may be.

 

When I find myself going “down,” I pay attention to things I can actively shape. I limit my intake of graphic cruelty. I take care of my body: good food, exercise, sleep. I alert those who love me. In quarrels, I attempt to see things from the perspective of the other and to ask open-ended questions in a spirit of generosity. Not that this is easy. But over the years, I have come to trust in the process.

 

Lisa: Is there anything you’d like to add?

 

Leonore: Thank you for the opportunity to think about your probing questions, Lisa. Your inquisitive mind, your gentle presence, and your sensitive poetry––all of these are admirable.  May you be very well.

 

 

“Rock Me” by Leonore Hildebrandt was originally published in Gemini Magazine.

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

James Koller: Crows Talk To Him

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James Koller, photo by Donald Guravich

James Koller lives in a simple cabin he and his friends built in the woods on the coast of Maine, the inside filled with few possessions but books, records, and photographs of his grandchildren.  He writes the way he exists, a bit of a trickster, like so many of the animals and people in his poems, oftentimes inhabiting several places at once, straddling dichotomies of chance and fate, domestic life and civilization, east and west.

James Koller’s poetry is often deceptively simple and free, using language that can easily be understood by anyone when presented orally, yet at the same time his poems often cohere to some kind of form, often of his own design, and musical devices such as couplets and stanzas, metered verse, syllabics, rhyme and internal rhyme are frequently used.

Koller’s poems reflect his desire for daily authenticity and meaning, as well as a spirituality that is very much rooted in ancient wisdom traditions.  He has an extensive knowledge of folk music and cultures, several titles of his works are derived from folk songs, such as “if you don’t like me you can leave me alone” and “didn’t he ramble.”  His writing also reflects his views on human and natural history, living simply and modestly, with compassion for other beings.  This is encapsulated in the following selections from Koller’s The Bone Show; the text is based on the I-Ching and contains Italian translations alongside the English.

FREYA
 
Be strong & friendly
tell it all, as it is.
Keep everything moving.
Don’t settle in, get on with it.
Give away as much as you gather.
 
 
COYOTE
 
It’s like the sky opens
& a wall of water comes down.
Nobody expects it.
Nobody can do much with it.
No reason to kill anybody –
just get the word out.
Get it all out–don’t hold back.
Tell it just the way you see it.
 
 
 

“Tell it all, as it is,” is a mantra James Koller has included in his writing, publishing career, and life since the nineteen fifties  – his poems read like film clips and soundtracks to his living – expressing images and feelings with simplicity and honesty.

Koller sees writing as record of a poet’s life, and he has been consistently making records for most of his years.  He is author of several books of poetry: Snows Gone By, Ashes & Embers, Looking For His Horses, Crows Talk To Him, Iron Bells, After Days of Rain, In The Wolf’s Mouth, This Is What He Said, Roses Love Sunshine, Graffiti Lyriques (w/Franco Beltrametti), Fortune (w/Franco Beltrametti), Openings, Give The Dog A Bone, Great Things Are Happening, One Day At A Time, Back River, O Didn’t He Ramble, Poems For The Blue Sky, Bureau Creek, California Poems, The Dogs & Other Dark Woods, Some Cows, Poems of Civilization & Domestic Life, Two Hands; fiction: I Went To See My True Love, If You Don’t Like Me You Can Leave Me Alone, Shannon, Who Was Lost Before; prose: Close to the Ground, Road Work, The Natural Order, Working Notes, Messages; is publisher of “Coyote’s Journal,” “Coyote Books,” and, formerly, the review of books Otherwise.  Prolific as Koller is, he is also someone who refuses to force anything, believing that one shouldn’t make themselves write, everything will come in its own time.

A young man when the Beat Generation was in bloom, Koller has roots in that era’s innovative cultural scenes, the ecstasy of that time, and the longing to be on the move. He has been consistently at home in alternative cultures that defend nature and condemn war. He has lived and traveled extensively in the US and Europe and many of his poems have been translated into Italian, French, German & Swedish.

James Koller has long been part of the “bioregional” movement, which is based on the view that naturally defined geographical systems such as watersheds, are life regions, which both create and define local populations, provide a basis for cultural knowledge and are a primary source for life based solutions.

The following is a collage of conversations with James Koller, from interviews with the international journals New!, La Nuova Ecologia, Lato Selvatico, my own questions, and my readings of Koller’s writing.  –Lisa Panepinto

When did you first start writing poetry?

I started writing poetry when I was ten. The first poems were much like the folk songs I often listened to. The stories within these songs expressed lives that were of emotional interest to me and gave me some idea of what to expect from the world. Telling such stories covers it all: artistic, cultural and existential. Certainly my writings have served all these ends at one time or another.

A story: before I knew anything about poetry, I once walked with my father on a beach.  He pointed to a cabin situated to look out over Lake Michigan, and said, “This is the kind of a house a poet lives in.”  I’ve often wondered what exactly my father meant by the remark, but at the time I knew instantly I wanted to live in this particular way, wanted to be a poet, live as this man did.

The man who sometimes lived in that cabin was Carl Sandburg.  He was from the middle of America, Illinois, which is where I grew up.  He was interested in folk music and had a socialist point of view.  When I was ten or so, a substitute schoolteacher read one of his poems to the class.  It was about how fog moves into a place, on little cat feet, he said.  I liked the poem, started to read poetry, especially Sandburg, and to write poetry.

Would you talk about some of your socio-political roots?

I was born seven years into the Depression Era, hard times for many, including my extended rural family, an early “down home” introduction to economics. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, which brought the US into WWII, happened when I was five, & “the war effort” ended the Depression. Several in my mother’s family found themselves in the US army, including her little brother. Initially I was little concerned with what was happening beyond worries that my favorite uncle, who was captured by the Japanese in early 1942, might be killed. In the next few years I came to more fully understand the disasters of war, learned that there were economic causes for the war, as there had been economic causes for all the earlier wars the US had gotten itself involved in. As I grew I also noted when lies were told to serve government’s ends. Ultimately I learned that very little any politician said could be taken at face value – they were worried about keeping their jobs. Reading history I find one usually encounters several threads that need to be unraveled before real understanding can be made of any of it. You can only be patriotic, or nationalistic at the expense of common sense.

My sense is that one has a single life, which might be spent in many tolerable ways. The sole reason to put that life in jeopardy would be the intolerable. I will never seek military adventures as such. Were a war foisted upon me, I would fight as an individual or one of a group of individuals, never as a “citizen” of some country. There are many through history who I’ve felt akin to when learning of their struggles. Those who come quickest to mind include most all the native tribal peoples of the Americas who were driven from their lands & to near extinction by capitalist adventurers.

Ezra Pound came to my attention as a literary/political phenomenon years before I thought I had the background to read him. My understanding then & now is that he was imprisoned because he had spoken what he thought the truth, beliefs at odds with what was then & is largely still the US point of view. I understood that Pound was declared insane to make it possible to jail him without a trial. When I read about 1920s Paris I discovered Pound’s importance in that time & place, which led to my reading all of his own writings that I could find, then to the great many others he referred to. His ideas were & are of great importance to me. Like Pound I believe that things happen for reasons, i.e. “nothing exists without effective cause.”

How do your poems usually come about?

My life is lived as much in the present as possible, mostly a physical world, a world of natural process. My poetry and what I say come from this focus on my senses.

My poems are a record of my experience on several levels.  They are often built from images or bits of dialogue that have collected in my mind – a process, these bits seem to gather themselves with other fragments to finally express some complete “message.”

Much of my poetry is concerned with the spiritual, as I experience and understand spiritual: the love that one feels for other living beings, the love given by others, the sensuality others elicit and I experience, the messages that the natural world elicits, the messages that come from dreams.

Those I’ve known who have died appear with regularity in my poems.  They continue to live in both the poems and my mind.  Even dead their lives evolve from my knowledge of them as living folk – life, like identity, as long as any vestige remains, continues to change as that life or identity is experienced by others.

I don’t differentiate between the experiences of physical reality and dream mind in my writing – they do all create my reality, which is what I’m expressing.

You started writing poems in traditional forms based on folk song; would you say your poems have maintained an allegiance to some type of form throughout your life?

Poetry has both content & form.  Because each person experiences life in his own way, the content of a poem can only represent the individual who writes it, must be unique & true to the one writing that poem. A poet’s collected poems will represent when put together the best possible record of that poet’s perception, the most honest record of that poet’s insight & his or her ability to catch the unique moments of his or her personal interactions with the world s/he moves through.

The form of a poem, as Robert Creeley said, is inherent  in its content, should evolve from that content. Some perceptions make for songs, some don’t. Certainly one’s understanding of the possibilities form might take is a big help. Another quote from Creeley: when asked if he considered form when he wrote, he answered, I’d be a damned fool if I didn’t.

Sense of place seems to be essential to your “record keeping”?

Experience happens in a place. As one records experience, which is what I do as a writer, those places are brought in as part of the perception, to become part of the record.

As we move, we all carry with us the sum total of who we are: where we’ve been, what we’ve become, a record (like the collected poems) of the individual people we’ve known, the families or groups we’ve been part of, & what we’ve done in these places with these people. We even organize our thoughts, perceive what & how we do what we do, because of who we’ve become. The idiosyncrasies of the language systems we’ve learned become relevant as we use a language, as we think, as we write – we have, for instance, our sense of past & future, our concerns for whether a thing is male or female, for example, from the Indo-European languages.

The natural world has a large role in your poetry?

The natural world has created me, someone with little interest in the affairs of today’s people, beyond their real news, their hungers, the babies, the deaths.

Those who refuse to limit their views, who desire to include all of the intense world surrounding them, need to understand the natural world as primary, with all else evolving from it.

The poet perceives the world, & selects images drawn from his or her perceptions, with them recreates as s/he is able, with them describes the details s/he has perceived, nature as it made itself known to him or her.

Poetry becomes the “record” of the poet’s perceptions, giving his or her readers an opportunity to recognize & acknowledge that they as humans are each & all part of the same web of evolving & interconnected life systems.

Considering what remains from the human past is also important because through examination of that past we can more clearly realize where we’ve got to, how it has happened, what does in fact remain, has been sustained – maybe we can discover a way to the future.

Can you talk about animals and your poetry?

All animals have power; it is the power that I see.  Birds are like rosaries, a link with natural power, with natural spirits. Magpie & Raven were the Ghost Dance messengers.  They are all also fellow travellers.   When I look at another animal’s eyes, I find we are the same, they have the same problems we’re having, often more of them.  Even insects.  Once, walking into a room, I saw an ant walking toward my path, but it stopped suddenly on seeing me, such a big monster, then as I waited for it to make its move, it zoomed past me.  Clearly insects can relate noises from those passing to their own staying “out of the way”.

When I use “animal lore” in my poems it is because the animal is integral to the story or line of thought, & that information as such is what is happening – it’s not in the poem if it isn’t part of the story. The poems with animals or birds in them grew from my first hand observations of those animals & birds.

Trees too are alive, have senses, react, turn and relate to heat and cold.  We often forget that the tree is part of a forest—the tree’s extended family—that the forest itself has its own relationships with other living forms and the energies that affect it.

I have a symbiotic sense of nature.  Reciprocity comes into it.   Everything is interconnected.  We allow ourselves to think that we can function in nature.  But the whole ability to be thankful for our food, to know who died to feed us, what contributes to our life, is not thoroughly understood by most western people.  On the same level, I can identify myself with the animals, the life I see when I go into the woods.  I am not different, I am part of the whole.

Themes of chance and fate come up a lot in your work?

Jacques Monod, the Nobel winner, wrote a book called Chance & Necessity in which he argued that once a chance event happened that event initiated a series of realities that would necessarily follow.

We can all begin only where we do begin, but we need to understand that what happens there happens because we allow it or make it happen.

My entire early life included, by chance, regular farm contact through my mother’s “southern” kin in central Illinois, while my urban life, by choice, included extensive boyhood exploration in most of the “forest preserves” & State Parks scattered through greater Chicago & northeastern Illinois.

That I began in Illinois, the middle of the country, with roads leading away in all directions, to other places, enabled me to become aware of differences, first a discovery, but subsequently, a mission, to pursue, understand both differences & similarities of geography & culture.

The point being that one needn’t follow anyone, or any group, that all choose to make their own lives.

Cause & effect functions on all levels, in all circumstances, providing perhaps the most inclusive lesson anyone can learn. The study of ecology develops from an understanding of cause & effect as they relate to the interactions of human & nonhuman systems in all environments. Such study is especially useful in educating those within their own home place, as the systems involved are commonly known, physical, not theoretical.

Can you talk about music in your poetry?

The sound patterns I use are generally enhanced natural speech patterns – enhanced in that they are recognized and added to, or eliminated, to effect what it is that the work seems to “want to say.”  Some of my poems evidence a determined and sustained focus, functioning much as thinking about someone intensively often does, by bringing response.  These poems are directly and consciously related to shamanic acts.  Repeated words and phrases, words that sound like the thing spoken of, sometimes find their own way into these poems, in patterns of sound and silence, creating a music which differs from my normal cadence.  When performing with a musician the poems take on still another reality, often a result of counterpoint.  I am very interested in folk music and many of my poems can be sung or at least musically spoken.

Would you briefly describe bioregionalism?

In the late 1960s and early 70s a great many people turned back to the land, back to tribal values, to religious understandings that better incorporated the reciprocal dynamics of life within nature, or were at least one’s own beliefs. Many of these people, instead of trying to take on all of the natural world, including humans, thought it far more useful to define and describe the area and inhabitants of one’s home space: one’s bioregion.

Ecology tries to make sense of the relationships within the natural world. That natural world includes mankind. “Human ecology” describes the intricacies of human behavior as it has evolved in response to the natural physical environment  including humans. Acknowledging that man is only a single part of a very complex system is essential. Understanding that everything happens in place, in context, is essential. Things and beings are what they are because of who their neighbors are, what their surroundings are. Change to any changes all.

Bioregionalists share the understanding that they live under unique natural & cultural circumstances. They share as well the desire to maintain & sustain what they share. Certainly shared sentiments have potential political force, especially within the bioregion itself, but the bioregional group is primarily directing itself by way of its own reeducation. You might argue that it functions as a learning group.

In recent years I’ve worked with the Italian Bioregional network and others in schools, national parks and elsewhere in Italy, promoting the ideals of understanding one’s life-place, of keeping what is good in that place for future generations, and of trying to educate the young as well as the misdirected.

I also wander extensively on foot around my own place trying to better understand and live with those (especially non humans) who live there with me.

How do you approach educating children about bioregionalism?

Kids are intensely interested in learning about the world they live in. Poetry, like song, provides an opportunity to express & learn with direct simplicity. The forms & devices of poetry & music are of  interest in & of themselves, making the mediums themselves, whatever the message, of potential interest. Because a simple formulation is easiest to present, the image, especially the image of the thing itself (Pound says), is easiest for all ages to grasp.

An agenda should be prepared for the schools, one which allows an awareness of the unique social realities of a bioregion, but also those physical realities that transcend the social, an agenda which allows unique one to one relationships within the natural world, & particularly within the bioregion.

In your book of poems Close to the Ground you say: “Poetry celebrates all the living beings, all that is alive and has been alive”. Do you think human beings of today have forgotten the value of life?

I don’t believe it’s a question of having forgotten anything. We have in fact more information available to us now than ever before. What is missing is the awareness that we need to focus – that we as individuals need to step out of the flow, discover where we’ve gotten to, analyze all we feel is relevant information, & then rejoin the flow, create for ourselves the lives we want.

Most of the planet’s population now tries to function with the economic model we know as capitalism. I understand capitalism consciously tries to confuse all of us about what life is, about what is actually necessary to live. Capitalism creates product, survives by spreading that product to ever-larger populations, who will necessarily have increasingly complex life styles. Whole populations are convinced to work for & buy what they imagine will allow them to “better” their lives. Advertising goes so far as to delineate groups, target & “offer” them goods & lifestyles that they are likely to accept & buy. While family life is touted in many “markets”, the ideal family unit for capitalism stays small because it duplicates needs – i.e. it creates need for multiple houses, more goods, more communication, more travel.

For me a “good life” means that true needs, food & shelter & healthcare, & family & social interactions, are adequately – not excessively met, & met in a manner that also allows for the time to observe & reflect upon one’s natural & social surroundings.

It’s been said that we become what we do. It goes further than that. Social behavior drives biology. What is the basis for choosing a mate?  What does it mean to have children?  Are we perpetrating tribal or religious relationships? Are we unthinkingly contributing  to the capitalist dream? The relationship of parents to children, children & parents to extended family & friends, all provide direction & support for the choices made, all contribute to the future & its genetic & social interplay.

You’ve said before that everything has a spirit?

I believe that everything that exists has a spirit, and that these spirits remain even as we change our shapes. I believe its possible to know these spirits.

I understand the planet to be a unified & integrated reality, a whole, with a spirit of its own.

I think it’s the business of humans to understand the spirits, to communicate & commiserate with them, for the well being of the planet.

Are you optimistic, in the long run, about the fate of the world?  Do you see potential to reverse global capitalism?

I see the return of control over their own places to indigenous peoples, and generally, a return of socially responsible folks to public office, as good signs that the capitalist experiment will eventually run its course. But whatever follows will for a long time suffer the ever more disastrous affects of “late capitalism.”

A “better world” will come from individuals rather than organizations or governments. Individuals can adapt, ad hoc and as necessary, while organizations are cumbersome, self-interested, need “funding” and generally arrive too late.

Appropriate early education regarding nature and bioregionalism seems to help kids avoid the traps of social milieu (race, class, economics), gives them an awareness of those realities that transcend the social, allow unique one to one relationships, and enables them to set priorities in line with their own futures as well as the future of the planet.

What are your plans for the future?

My plans are to continue, to keep doing what I can, where and when, in terms of writing, publishing, working with kids, reading my poems. I’d like to keep my life in order, new and old, home and away, simple, and in order.

*

SONG
(w/Stefano Panzarasa)
 
A river I couldn’t find
flows through my head.
A river I couldn’t find
leads me from my bed.
 
A river I couldn’t find
flows through my head.
A river I couldn’t find
leads me from my bed.
 
You’re standing on the river’s bank
below the cottonwood tree.
 
I listen to the wind
move the tree’s leaves.
I listen to the wind
the stories that it weaves.
 
I listen to the wind
move the tree’s leaves.
I listen to the wind
the stories that it weaves.
 
You’re standing on the river’s bank,
I can’t see your face.
 
Your long dark hair’s wrapt round you,
I can’t see your face.
 
Your long dark hair’s wrapt round you,
I can’t see your face.
 
Nov 08
 
 
 
LAST WILL & TESTAMENT
 
 
I want only blue sky over me.
I want the clouds, so many
of them, variations, passing,
changing as they pass.
 
I want the blackest nights
filled with turning stars.
I want birds to find me,
want the hot breath of animals.
 
The wind too will pass,
on its way to places
I have been.
 
                                                30 Nov 95                
                                                BATTLE MOUNTAIN
 
 
 
*
 
They keep moving the streets
picking up the paving stones
& moving them somewhere else.
We followed them around, watched the men work.
 
Things happen like that –
change quickly & many times.
 
We met then on steep steps, a narrow hallway,
hadn’t seen one another for years,
at first didn’t know one another.
 
Where would those streets be
if we went there now?
 
There is sand under it all.
 
                                                APR 1988
 
 
 
POEM FOR YELLOW HAIR
 
who did you come with, you asked
caw caw caw
 
                           high into the trees
I think I was too drunk to answer
 
yellow light & all the greens
yellow
 
               after the rain
grass & willows
out my window
& the apple trees in blossom
 
maybe time to know each other
 
I don’t know why I came
(not answering your question)
 
I followed the crows
(not answering your question)
 
on the beach
or in the mountains
maybe time
a few good moments
 
if you get to where you’re going
                                                         (follow
the crows)
I’ll be there
 
the horses fat from apples
 

–James Koller

*

Bibliography

Koller, James.  Looking for His Horses.  Brunswick: Coyote Books, 2003.  Print.

—.  Crows Talk To Him.  Brunswick: Coyote Books, 2003.  Print.

—.  The Bone Show.  Trans.  Giuseppe Moretti, et al.  Brunswick: Coyote Books,
            2004. Print. 

—.  Snows Gone By.  Albuquerque: La Alameda.  2004.  Print.

—.  Reciprocity comes into it: an interview with James Koller.  By Claire Millerioux.  New!  2 (2006): 88-93. Print.

—.  James Koller interview for La Nuova Ecologia.  2006.  Web.  8 June 2006.

—.  James Koller interview for Lato Selvatico.  2006.  Web.  May 2006.

2 Comments

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

Blues to overcome the blues: Eric Green Interview

Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto

 

This interview was originally published by Cabildo Quarterly Online, here.  cabildoquarterly.tumblr.com.

 

Eric Green is a blues swamp funk rock musician & Maliseet and Penobscot tribal member who grew up around Indian Island, Maine and spent several years living as a musician in New Orleans.  He’s recorded numerous records and is active playing shows around Maine.  Check out his music at: http://www.myspace.com/ericgreenband  

 

[Eric playing The Girl from Ipanema on the piano]

 

Interviewer: You sometimes play straight up jazz when you’re solo don’t you, on the piano?

 

Green: Not typically what you’d call jazz, it’s more improvisational with whatever the form it is.  I do play some of what you would consider jazz structures.  A couple songs I wrote but most of them are standards and I improvise within the forms.  I never studied jazz in terms of approaching it like jazz; it’s more just songs.  I don’t have a big arch top guitar, the whole trying to sound like a certain type of jazz.  What I do best is the rootsy stuff I think.  It’s something to keep me occupied [laughs] so I don’t go crazy.

 

Interviewer: Yeah, like a blending.

 

Green: Yeah, it’s an American art form, a changing art form, basically.

 

Interviewer: What are some projects you’re currently working on?

 

Green: I have a bunch of loose ends going and songs.  I started getting into advanced harmonies, and I’ve kind of been putting all my energy into that for the last couple years.  I’ve got to get my little studio area here piped up, that’s one of the things.  I have an album that’s ten songs and I need to go back and finish it up.  I’m kind of watching what happens with everything before I write the last song or two to tie it all together.  I’m not in a rush at all.  I don’t care about the music business or anything [laughs].  You know what I mean?  I’m just doing it because I’m just doing it.  But I really have been enjoying learning about advanced harmonization, and learning standards and stuff.

 

Interviewer: When did you first start writing songs?

 

Green: I first started writing songs in the early eighties.  I was living up at Carrabasset Valley in a little A-frame on the water.  I had gone up there to work and I kind of discovered music.  I got a guitar and it seemed really natural to make up stuff.  I didn’t have enough technique to learn anything else so I made up my own stuff.  I did get a little recorder and I started recording it.  My first rhythm track was like with two river rocks, it was really primitive [laughs].

 

I started writing stuff and some of the songs people liked, and then I just kept doing it.  It was also a really good way of communicating.  I was like a suicidal, fucking raging kid and definitely music kept me alive, and writing songs as well, being able to put something down, because when you sing it just kind of releases.  It’s a release or something it seems like.  I take all this for granted now but that’s where it all comes from I think.  I never really wanted to be a rock n roll star or anything like that.  It was a survival thing, and then it was just like, I can make a hundred bucks doing this at a club and get free drinks [laughs], that makes sense to me.  So I started playing in bars really quick [laughs] and writing songs.  Some of them were uncomfortable when I played them, because you know, you’re just putting your shit out there for any redneck to squash [laughs].

 

Interviewer: You started out on guitar?

 

Green:  Yeah, guitar was the first thing.  I did acoustic for a long time and then eventually it had an American roots finger style element, but it was like contemporary folk.  I would make albums all the time and just distribute them among friends.  I have so many collections of songs, but of course, I don’t really want to play those songs anymore – except for one or two of them, they’re so dated you know, when you’re just starting out.

 

I scored a gig within a year of starting, for John Hammond Jr. at Raoul’s Roadside Attraction in Portland, which was rated number one nightspot in Maine.  So I got a chance to open for a national act my first year of playing, and that just fueled me.  I met John Hammond, it was electrifying, and I got sucked into playing clubs my whole life.  Everywhere I lived I played clubs and opened for a bunch of different national acts.  I would play the music that I liked but mix my songs in with it, and that’s what I’ve been doing all this time [laughs].

 

Interview: How does being Maliseet Penobscot inform your music?

 

Green: One of the big things is I have some kind of environmentalist lean by default I think; but sometimes when you’re playing in a mill town you’re the enemy then, and so it becomes really uncomfortable.  The cool thing is, some of the songs that explain that kind of thing I’ve managed to slip in in between other songs that other people like.

 

It’s just something you have to let out if you write a song, especially if it works, it’s good if it has that thing that makes someone else tell you, wow, that song’s good, you should play that more, so you play it.  What’s been weird for me is that my art has been tied to the business end of it from the very beginning, which is different.  I’ve had to be practical on one level.  In other words, I can’t just blatantly start calling out corporations and be expected to get jobs making money from the same corporations.  I have to survive too.  I think all artists have this fine balance of how truthful are you going to be, because it’s like, people tell the truth all week and when they go out to the bar they don’t want to be reminded of what they’re going through already.

 

As far as my writing, I just sit and something will pop into my head and everything will line up right.  I’ll be sitting there and hopefully have a recorder going and I’ll just go play it and maybe do something with it.

 

Basically just the way I think gets me into trouble.  It shouldn’t, but in some markets it does, more in the rural markets.  I hate to say it in terms of market, but I’ve had to make money off of my music.  I don’t bend to the market too much, I do what I like, but if you do that one song that one night you win all these people over for life, versus just being self-indulgent, being pissed off and singing about it.

 

One thing I love about James McMurtry is, especially with the help of Stephen King, he’s somehow been able to slip the truth to the people who wouldn’t necessarily share his views; it’s almost like fooling.  You watch the Colbert Report, there’s a lot of people that that shit goes right over their head and they think Steve Colbert’s a Republican and his satire his real.  That’s part of the consuming public in our country; it’s really sad that it’s like that but I see it all the time.  Go up to Lincoln around seven in the morning and go to the gas station where they’ve got chairs where you can eat an egg sandwich.  There’s a whole bunch of guys and they’ll all be sitting there talking some shit.  The rednecks are my worst enemies.  I do pretty well on the coast [laughs].

 

Interviewer: You were living in New Orleans as a musician and then you came back to Maine, how important have those places been to your music?

 

Green: New Orleans was incredible.  It’s a reality check for musicians.  Here, there will be a band that went to high school together and everybody knows them and they play gigs and everybody shows up.  You can’t do that down there, because there’s real musicians down there, generations of musicians, families that have been making their life off of real fucking music for years.  So it’s a real test if you can play in New Orleans for a while.  If you can keep getting gigs in New Orleans, you’re doing well, because it’s a tough market.  The reason why it’s so hard is it’s such a rich musical culture.  The Louis Armstrong stuff has blown up and evolved, because it is all about the gumbo and all the different flavors, they’ll reach into these other genres, it’s just a great thing.  It opens your eyes musically, but it’s also a reality check because the best players are playing around town with different people.  Sure it’s a soap opera, but if you’re playing and you’re hot, you’re playing with everybody.  You’re going to play.  There is no, you can only play with my band, you get a lot of that up here, the drama that’s like, is this is a marriage or are we doing something here.  It cuts through the drama.  You’ve got to have a thick skin because it’s the real deal down there, there’s no [whining sound], it’s the real fucking deal.  You’ll get put down hard if you mess around, so that’s kind of a reality check as an artist, but also, it’s so incredible, the sound of a brass band wailing that sloppy sound.

 

New Orleans totally influenced me in terms of being serious, even though it’s a really lazy atmosphere down there.  I had to leave there because there is so much going on that I couldn’t concentrate.

 

I’ve noticed since Katrina, the song writing down there has gotten a lot better.  It was just about [sings] “Mardi Gras party!  Party, Mardi Gras party!”  Now there’s a little bit of a social justice vibe mixed in with the music, so it isn’t all just Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras world or whatever, there’s something more than King Cakes, there’s real people attached to it.

 

Interviewer: You’ve stayed independent and original to your own blend of blues-funk-swamp; how has that freed you up as an artist?

 

Green: I get the joy of being able to play what I want.  Now in the last five or so years, I’ve taught myself to read music, so I’m having a complete rebirth, it’s unbelievable.  I spent so much time on it, but I love it and it just gets bigger and bigger everyday.  It’s very rewarding, and it’s funny because I couldn’t do it when I was younger, I was too distracted, but now I’m at a point where I crave it.  I’m obsessed, literally.  That’s where New Orleans helped too because you hear Kermit Ruffins and the Barbeque Swingers play Besame Mucho, and it’s like the nerdiest song ever, but when those guys do it it brings new life into it.  Then all of a sudden you’re looking at all these other classics and you’re realizing, oh this is where that chord change I play all the time came from, all this derivative stuff.  To learn that stuff you have to go the extra step I think and learn theory, but I had to school myself on it.

 

I think, what if I would have started earlier, but I didn’t want it like I want it now, I would have been spinning my wheels, so it kind of ended up being more efficient in the end.  Plus they didn’t have the Internet when I was younger.  You can YouTube anything; if you want to learn, you don’t have to wait until the next class and maybe remember it or maybe forget it, you can enter it in on YouTube and hear six different people explaining it differently until you can find what’s really going on yourself by listening to it all on demand.  I couldn’t have learned as quickly when I was a kid as I learn now because it was a slower process.  You’ve got to want it.  You have to want to learn.

 

Interviewer: Who are some of your biggest influences?

 

Green: Man, that’s a good one.  Muddy Waters, Chris Whitley, anything that’s rootsy and kind of raw, and it doesn’t matter how many notes, it just sounds good.  There are so many people I could talk about, but those are two big ones of mine, just a certain part of their aesthetic.

 

I enjoy so many styles of music.  Lately I’ve been getting into organ trios, really digging that.  I’m studying this stuff, so even though I’m enjoying it I’m still applying it to something I’m doing.

 

Muddy and Chris Whitley are two really big ones.  Bob Dylan of course, all the biggies are in there.

 

Interviewer: Your songs are sympathetic to the oppressed, like the river and the workingman; has social and environmental consciousness always been with you?

 

Green: It seems to have been [laughs].  I’ve been poverty stricken my whole life, and I’ve seen how the whole Native American thing illustrates the worst of the United States [laughs] and what this country has gone through.  You’re constantly reminded of it, the lack of respect.  Go into Johnny’s Pizza and look a little Native, even if there’s a Native working there, you’re still going to get this fucking attitude.  Old Town is like the worst place ever, so I try to stay away from there.  It’s just horrible, it reminds me of everything bad, especially when I smell that fucking mill and know about all the people that have fucking cancer from the river because of all the shit that they’ve poured into it so a select few can rich, et cetera.  And now the landfills they’re putting right up river from Indian Island, it’s beyond not in my backyard [laughs].  It’s blatant fucking asshole move shit.

 

So sometimes I can write a song that gets that out there a little bit more, so maybe somebody listens to it and goes oh really, I didn’t know that.  The cool part about it is that the actual story tells itself too.  You can state fact, because it’s just the way it is.  There’s some environmental shit going on right in Old Town.  I seem to gravitate towards going after the people who are really fucking with the environment and everybody else has to deal with it.

 

Interviewer: What’s the story with your raining poison song?

 

Green: The “Poison Down” song?  That’s about the mill in Old Town.  It just so happens that a lot of the better songs have the double entendre thing going.  The poison down is also how the whole mill life promotes alcoholism and pill addiction.  There’s another poison going down as well, which is a byproduct of the other poison going down.  So that’s got a triple meaning at least, and also, I don’t know if anybody gets it, but there’s a lottery ticket comment in it too, and I think there’s an anti-big-tobacco line in it too [laughs].  My mother chain-smoked, so all that stuff is crazy – to see her helpless.  I see some of my friends who are addicted to nicotine and big tobacco and they’re outside just fucking hooked, and it’s going to kill them [laughs], but they don’t care.

 

Interviewer: Can you talk about what it’s been like working pretty much fulltime as a musician in Maine?

 

Green: You stay busy all the time, I do.  The traveling sucks, the load-ins suck, but getting paid is awesome.  It’s a lot of work, especially doing three sets at some of these places.  I’ve had to carve my own little niche and I’ve done it before in different areas I’ve lived.  I think that’s the best thing to do is find the places where you go over and there’s a future for you there and get on the roster and keep playing.  You always try to bring in new stuff and do old stuff and do whatever’s on your mind.  It’s this ever-changing thing that’s going on.  I’ve tried to stop a couple times and it just wouldn’t stop [laughs].  More people call me and it’s like, I might as well.  People call me now.  I only book when people book me, and so it’s rolling along on its own basically.  Every once in a while I’ll try to get into a new place and try out something different and see if it works.

 

It’s awesome because you have time to do other things.  You want to put as much time into your music as possible.  I think of it as a job, so even on my days off I’m either working on repertoire or fixing shit.  There’s always something to do, because it is like a business.  You’ve always got to be working on new stuff for the future.  You have to keep it fresh.  I go through phases where I’ll write for a while and then I won’t write for two or three years, then I’ll write a bunch.

 

I have all kinds of stuff that I haven’t even looked at.  I’ll start editing this stuff and I probably have a whole other album of ideas.  Then I can make a decision and I’ll bring a drummer in.  So it’s ongoing, and I guess I’m going through different phases.  It’s perfect, I get sick of one phase after two months, now I’m going to go into editing mode or I’m going to go into recording mode, but I’m not pushing any of it, I’m just taking it as it comes, as my time lays out.  It’s kind of a natural continuum.

 

I have enough people who want me to work for them that if the money thing is a problem, I make a phone call and I can get paid.  But the more time I have where I’m not doing other jobs, the better in a lot of ways, because it’s just an endless time thing.  You put more and more time and more time and more time into it.  I never have to worry about not having something to do.  It gets really busy at certain times of the year and I’m running all over and I have no time to play, so in the winter I shed as much as I can.  This is my shedding season right now because I worked at the ski resorts this year more than usual, so I was constantly traveling.  I have to have a couple times a year where I get three or four eight hour days working on different stuff, repetitious stuff.  This just happened in the last three or four years where I started doing this, and sometimes you’re learning your own songs.  So yeah, it’s a full time job basically, and you don’t get paid much for it, for a long time, so unless you have a trust fund, it’s really hard to just do it.

 

Interviewer: You’ve collaborated with many different musicians, and some visual artists over your career; can you talk about collaboration?

 

Green: I think some people respect each other enough to be able to work together; that’s what it comes down to for me.  Nobody wants to be wasting the other one’s time.  I don’t want to waste somebody’s time.  I’ve only had a few people I’ve been able to actually write with, because everybody’s got their thing.  I think collaborating’s a lot harder when songwriting.  It has to be the right people definitely.

 

It depends on the context, where is the media, where is it going, who’s going to hear it, all that kind of stuff.  It’s complicated, and it’s not always you who’s complicating it.  There has to be mutual respect all the way down the line or else you’re going to get something that’s not the real thing.

 

Interviewer: Who are some of your heroes?

 

Green: Oh man.  I have a lot of heroes.  Some of my heroes aren’t the heroes you would think, they’re local people who nobody knows, they’re not famous.  They’re like my buddy Ready Teddy McQuiston down in New Orleans.  He’s a hero of mine, and he’s really in a bad position right now.  He goes way back in the record industry, he worked with Little Richard for years, and he did all kinds of stuff, he was a DJ, but he would do these back flips, standing back flips and stuff.  He worked with Joe Tex and Ernie Cato and all these different people, and he slipped and fell last year.  Now he’s totally paralyzed and he has to talk through a voice box, and this guy would dance, he would stand on his hands.  There are pictures online of him doing a handstand on Little Richard’s piano.  He came up here and played with my band after Katrina, and I had already known him from New Orleans.  He’s one of my heroes, just because even in his seventies, he wouldn’t stop.  He toured and worked with James Brown, all kinds of people, Solomon Burke.  He had all these archives of cassette tapes of him interviewing Champion Jack Dupree and stuff, but he couldn’t play a musical instrument.  He would dance and sing and do gymnastic maneuvers, which was like this unbelievably weird thing.  No matter what happened to him he always played.  He’s one of my heroes.  And there’s, not necessarily Dizzy Gillespie, but some of those guys who were traveling around in school busses through the south playing music and getting shit on by the whites basically.  That’s really tough.  Those are some of my heroes – people who had to endure that kind of oppression, definitely.

 

As far as musically or writers: Hunter S Thompson, the usuals.

 

Snooks Eaglin is a guy who’s a hero of mine definitely.  He’s a blind New Orleans guitar player that passed on recently; he was an incredible person.  Those are a couple of my heroes [laughs].

 

Interviewer: You’ve played pretty much everywhere, for causes sometimes, and just getting people out, do you feel like that’s kind of community service?

 

Green: I do. I am making money for live performances.  I always call it the brandy belt [laughs], like there’s the Bible belt, well up here there’s the brandy belt.

 

I always like to bring this music that I’ve learned in other places.  I lived in Oklahoma for a while, I was a member of the Oklahoma Blues Society and I opened for all kinds of national acts there.  So I had this southwest blues thing, and then I was in New Orleans where I learned all kinds of different stuff, so I try to bring this stuff rather than a lot of the cover radio kind of thing my so called competition plays, mainstream acoustic classic rock.  I always like bringing these other styles of music here, stuff I’ve learned on the road, and just giving them an option, playing a lot of New Orleans stuff.  There’s a big rockabilly scene in Oklahoma City; I guess I must have soaked some of it in because we do a lot of rockabilly stuff as well.  Just taking my influences and bringing it and having it be something different than a lot of the other acts playing around, trying to bring variety.

 

There’s a good vibe with the whole New Orleans thing, it’s just a great big open vibe, and so I do favor some of that stuff, but I also love the hillbilly stuff that’s the roots of this area.  Sometimes I’ll play that Dick Curless stuff and I’ll win over a couple people from the area who will listen to the New Orleans stuff and then will listen to my stuff and then before I lose them I go right back to the hillbilly shit [laughs].  It’s a never-ending wrestling; it’s kind of weird.  But those are all influences that I love.  I pick the stuff that I think is real to play and or good songs.  I want to play stuff that’s good you know.  It is always nice too when you get compensated, it’s nice to be making money off your work, especially after you’ve poured so much of your everything, and lost everything to it.  The investment makes no sense at all; it’s unbelievable.  I often call it a curse, because it’s like, you do this thing and you’re almost not sure why but you keep doing it because it’s just one of these weird things and so then you find out you’re making money off it and it’s kind of nice.

 

It’s a lot of having a thick skin is really what it is.  You can’t expect applause, you have to just play your songs and try to keep it good because that will kill you if you expect people to react, because the more you do, the less they will.  That has to be the last thing you care about; and you can’t wear your heart on your sleeve, you can in your song, but in between songs you can’t.  You have to not let any of it affect you, it’s weird, you have to totally have armor; sometimes a couple bourbons work really well as armor [laughs].

 

[Plays some cha cha on the piano]

 

Green: I’ve been getting into the Latino thing too.

 

Interviewer: Do you feel part of a tradition of Maine artists like Dick Curless?

 

Green: I most definitely do, yeah.  I mean, I usually do about a hundred and fifty gigs a year and like three sets a gig; I definitely do.  But the difference between them and me is that I did not go to Nashville, I went to New Orleans, and I didn’t really get involved with record companies.  I have always done what I wanted to and not cared.  I got tied up in that, but I realize from what I know from being Indian is to never trust the motherfuckers.  That’s what I know.  You want to trust them and you try to do amazing things, you overcompensate with everything you do just trying to measure up, but you can’t trust them.  I’ve had friends of mine who have gotten signed and ended up owing the record company like sixty thousand dollars, because it didn’t happen right, and not only that, you end up with all that fucking mental scarring of the whole being involved with show biz bullshit.  Everybody acts like you’re their friend when things are going good, people you don’t even know.  A couple times I’ve done well and I’ve tasted a little bit of that; I really didn’t think I could live like that.  Once you get to a certain level, the fucking vampires come out or something, the bloodsuckers that want to suck off the fame, so I just never bought it.

 

I’m still stuck with the curse of music so I just keep doing it, and I’ll tell you what, it’ll keep you out of trouble.  That’s one thing that it did for me when I was younger, it kept me out of trouble.  Instead of going down and raging at the fucking bar I stayed home and worked on something; that was early on before I started playing out.  Then you’re getting paid to hang out at the bar, it’s such a better thing. If you’re going to go out to the bar you might as well get paid.  That was a nice thing, but I don’t think any of it was motivated by money; it was more out of dysfunction so I’d have weed money.  Weed made me able to deal with the other stuff.

 

Interviewer: Your band has been cross genre and intergenerational, you’ve had a lot of young people in your band and young audience, does that help keep you inspired?

 

Green: It does, it is inspirational to me that any body cares, whatever age.  It inspires me when some eighty-two year old woman in a wheelchair goes yeah I like that song.  There’s this timeless thing about good music.

 

Have you seen that DJ thing with DJ Premier Pretty Lights, and there’s like five of them, it’s called Re-production something?  Anyway, they take these five DJs and they each get assigned a genre of music to produce an album using what they do as a DJ.  One of the guys, that guy Shazizzil or Fizil or whatever, he grew up with his dad listening to the Doors and he’s an Los Angeles DJ.  I forget what his name is, his head’s shaved on one side and one side’s long and he always wears these big bug glasses and he’s like a dub stepper.  I don’t even know what it is, it’s just him and all these light shows and he’s like [makes thumping, techno noise].  So he gets the original members of the Doors to come in, and Robby Krieger must be eighty years old, he’s got white hair and he looks like a skeleton, but he still fucking rocks when he does his part.  He’s barely alive but he’s so ultra hip and cool.  I don’t think it matters, if you rock, you rock, there’s no age thing.

 

Whether or not younger people will come to see you play and like the music, I never know.  We play on these islands and all these weird places and you never know who’s going to like what or why.  You don’t want to give them what they want completely, but there has to be some sort of what’s on the menu.

 

Interviewer: You don’t know what their taste is.

 

Green: Totally.  I mean all those guys like the Meters said you have to just play so much stuff, if you’re really playing places you just have to play a lot of stuff.  One night they’re a country band, another night they’re playing jazz, the next night their playing funk.  We kind of do all that in one night; like the Steve Jones band the Boneheads, they’re really eclectic doing that all over in Maine.  There are a lot of people doing it in other states, but in Maine it seems like it’s all classic album oriented rock a lot of it.

 

Interviewer: What’s your vision for the future?

 

Green: I’ve got all these new tools and all this new information and what I’ll do is try to mix it with what I do, put it in the pot.

 

This next project that I do may be a little bit more sophisticated in some ways, a portion of the harmonics stuff, but it’s still got to have a primal thing underneath it.  It may be just harmonizing in a different scale; it may be like [plays piano] using McCoy Tyner stacked fourths, using something like that and then just borrowing from it a little bit.

 

As soon as I get my little studio area done I’ll work for like three months, all the tools will go away and I’ll work on that for a little while.  It’s exciting.

 

Interviewer: When you put out a record it’s always on an indie label of your own?

 

Green: I have my own label but I have never mass-produced anything; it’s all been two or three hundred pressings that I do myself and sell them at gigs or through the mail and that’s it.  It’s always been on a shoestring.  Things are pretty good right now, but it’s been really lean for long periods of time.  There are times when I had no way of recording anything for long periods of time, but I have all the stuff right now to do it.  The last nine songs that I have recorded for another album all came out really good.  My mother passed on right towards the end of it and I just kind of froze up on that project and realized I needed to compartmentalize it and put it over here and move on completely.  That may have been symbolic of what I had to do with my own life, mirrored in my production.  Basically I’m working on so much new material that it’s just crazy.  I haven’t been writing per se in the last eight or nine months, but I can at any time, I can actually write on demand [laughs].

 

I have some songs out there that have a life of their own and they’re out there doing their thing.  I have no delusions that one of my songs is going to be a big hit, it will be enjoyed among people who come to our shows and like it or not, and we’ll get some live recordings of it and it will live on in mp3 form and that’s it.  If somebody has a better idea tell me what it is.  Surviving off of my music and being able to do what I want seems like payment enough in terms of it’s awesome.

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There Is a Price To Pay For Freedom (And It Isn’t Security), Laetitia Sadier

Some crucial insights from Laetitia Sadier around this song, from an interview with the Quietus:

Speaking of ‘There’s A Price To Pay For Freedom, And It Isn’t Security’, is that a response to the old quote about sacrificing freedom for security and deserving neither?

LS: You mean the George Bush government and the general trend at the moment?

Yes.

LS: It’s totally about that. The deeper ramification is that it affects us very, very deeply in our psyches, and we become very fearful of everything. I realized that the biggest concern for people is not necessarily security. It’s jobs and being able to do things and making sure their children have care and things like that. This whole security thing is a complete fabrication. The way I look at it also is not only to manipulate people and to control people, and to make sure they don’t get together to fight the system to take over the power, their legitimate power, but also I think it’s a means to make people consume, to make people feel very insecure, and to give them brand names, for instance, as significance to their lives. And I think that’s very pervasive.

We had this thing about fighting the man and not working for the man and being independent and not waiting for institutions to give us anything, especially not happiness. Our purpose was to be independent. I just don’t see that at all as even a thought process in the youth today. I don’t see any politicization of the pop music today. Maybe some art. But politics in terms of wanting to determine your future, I don’t really see that. There are a few movements maybe in other art which will be ‘save the planet’ kinds of things.

But I find we’ve barely scratched the surface to sort out the economics and the financial system, which itself is exploitative of nature and of people, and I feel that very deeply, our identities have been stripped from us. The very idea that we can make for ourselves has been stripped from us. If I buy this product, then I will feel much more secure about myself and therefore I will be happier. Which of course isn’t true. It’s not true at all. In fact, it can lead some people to [commit] suicide when they realize that they bought all the Chanel lipsticks and Christian Dior eye shadows and Nike shoes, and they don’t feel better about themselves.

I like this song. I wasn’t sure at first, and then it hit me how good the lyrics are, and how deeply they go into this problem of identifying with merchandise more than something sacred about being human or what it means to be creative. The divinity within life, or behind life, and embracing emotions, feelings. Embracing what it is to be alive and celebrating. So, I really like this song. I’m very proud of this song.

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Annie Finch Interview: Building a Human Architecture


Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto

 

Annie Finch is the author or editor of fifteen books of poetry, translation, and criticism, including her brand-new Spells: New and Selected Poems, available now for pre-order from Wesleyan University Press.  Her other books of poetry include Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (2002) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic Libretto in Seven Dreams (2009). Calendars was shortlisted for the Foreword Poetry Book of the Year Award, and Eve reissued in the Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporaries series in 2010. Other honors include the 2009 Robert Fitzgerald Award, the 2012 Sarasvati Award from the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology, and fellowships from the Black Earth Institute and the Wesleyan Writers Conference.

 

Finch’s music, art, and theater collaborations include the opera Marina (American Opera Projects, 2003). Her work has been translated into numerous languages, and she has performed her poetry across the U.S. and Europe. Her books about poetry include A Formal Feeling Comes (2003), The Ghost of Meter (1994), An Exaltation of Forms (2003), and the poetry –writing guides The Body of Poetry (2004), and A Poet’s Ear (2010). Finch holds degrees from Yale University, The University of Houston, and Stanford University. She currently lives in Maine where she directs Stonecoast, the low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.

 
 
Gulf War and Child: A Curse
 
He is sleeping, his fingers curled,
his belly pooled open, his legs gathered, still
in their bent blossom victory.
 
I couldn’t speak of “war” (though we all do),
if I were still the woman who gave birth
to you soft-footed, with your empty hand
and calling heart, that border of new clues.
 
May the hard birth our two heartbeats unfurled
for two nights that lasted as long as this war
make all sands rage, until the mouth of war
drops its cup, this bleeding gift we poured.
 
-by Annie Finch, from Eve
 
 
 

The following interview was conducted in April 2012 on a warm breezy day outside the Terry Plunkett Maine Poetry Festival in Augusta, Maine.

 

Interviewer: Has embracing meter been a form of resistance for you?

 

Finch: Yes I think that’s accurate.  It’s been a way to assert my inner heart against resistance, because for me meter is physical and emotional, and very female, and connected with nature.  Meter was difficult for me to embrace because I’m so progressive politically, and it goes against pretty much all the received wisdom about how you’re supposed to write as a progressive. So it’s taken persistence and self-validation for me to continue on that path.  It has not always been easy, but it gives me so much joy that I just focus on that.

 

Interviewer: It’s been going against the grain it seems like.

 

Finch: Yeah.  A lot of people haven’t had the exposure to it that I had pretty young, so I’m coming from a totally different place. I can understand why they feel the way they do about it, because if I were coming from that place I would also feel that way.  My mother, who’s a poet, alerted me to it, and then in college I was lucky to study with one of the few people who was bold enough to teach it in the nineteen seventies, so I had an exposure that most people haven’t had.  I take that as a kind of charge that I need to carry out to feel that I’ve done right by it, which is to spread the word so that other poets who want to learn about it can.  It’s not really natural to me to do a lot of editing and criticism, but I’ve done it because I believe so strongly that this saved my life as a poet and I want other poets to be able to have it if they want it.  Now that I’ve put everything that I know into A Poet’s Craft I feel I can kind of relax, because it’s all there pretty much.

 

Interviewer: I see the Stonecoast MFA program that you direct as a matriarchal society in a way; do you have hopes for a larger scale matriarchal society?

 

Finch: I totally do, yes.  The first matriarchal society that I facilitated was the WOMPO Women’s Poetry Discussion listserv online, which I started in 1997. I remember once several years after I started WOMPO, which was the first poetry listserv that wasn’t male-dominated, maybe it was about seven hundred people at the time, and one of the few male poets said, I can’t believe how this community is just so civilized and kind and wonderful, I wonder why [laughs].  He had no idea that it was a matriarchy and that was why.

 

The most ancient and traditional societies worldwide are built around women and their extended families; women are the glue that holds things together.  I think that’s a wise way for things to be run.  Men are of course essential parts of the activity, but they’re not the central core of everything.  I love the matriarchal aspects of Stonecoast, and it just kind of naturally evolved that way.  The men who are there are an organic and crucial part of the community, but it’s essentially matriarchal in a low-key and healthy way.

 

I’d envision the whole culture being like that, the sooner the better, and the whole world, the sooner the better; I think it’s necessary for our economic and environmental and political survival, actually, to return to our matriarchal roots.

 

Interviewer: How important do you feel music is to revolution?

 

Finch: It’s everything, because it brings people together on an instinctive level.  It reminds us that we’re all part of one body and one soul, and I think that’s what it takes to have revolution, the feeling that we’re all together, so that the actions that you’re taking are not for yourself individually but they’re for the community, the group.

 

Music is where the meter comes in.  Meter in poetry really is the music; it’s the part that doesn’t have to be translated, that every language can hear.

 

Interviewer: You’ve often worked with other musicians, playwrights, and actors; how important is collaboration to you?

 

Finch: Collaboration is a survival tool for me.  It makes me feel less lonely, and it makes me feel inspired by being part of a large aesthetic community.  I need that to keep happy and writing what I want to write, to keep self-validating so I can write in my own way.  I don’t necessarily feel part of any poetry movement or any group of poets, and that used to bother me, but since I started collaborating with people from other genres I never worry about it, because I have a very deep kinship with the musicians and the dancers and the composers and the visual artists who I’ve worked with.  It feeds me, and it also satisfies all the other creative parts of me.

 

Interviewer: Your writing addresses women’s rights and the costs of war; would you say your poems have always been tied with issues of justice?

 

Finch: I think so.  One of the first poems I remember writing was in seventh grade, and it was about a bullet.  It was called “Joel’s Bullet.”  It was only six lines long; I’ll recite it for you:

 
 
Joel’s Bullet
 
My hand looks transparent
holding this thing of metal
made by man.
 
It is dead and loves death. 
It weighs heavily on my hand
and my mind.
 

 

I don’t think it was a coincidence that I used the word “man” there.  It shows that even at twelve, I was already passionate about pacifism and women.  Yes, the themes have been there from the beginning: nature, dream and reality, fantasy, myth and peace, and women and feminism.  They’ve been my themes all along.  And I think they’re all sort of tied together.

 

Interviewer: How do you keep your spirits up and maintain resolve?

 

Finch: There’s a Tibetan saying that your heart is a second sun.  I can always go inward and feel my heart shining like a sun.

 

Another saying I like to remember is something that the feminist scholar Merlin Stone said to my mother: I only do what I feel like doing.  When I first heard that I was in my twenties, and it sounded radical and ridiculous, but as I’ve tried to follow it I’ve discovered it is very wise.  If I’m doing something and it’s not what I want to be doing, it helps me be aware, and then sometimes I can make a micro-adjustment in the way I do it until it becomes something that I want to do, even if I’m not free to change what I’m actually doing.

 

I try to stay in the heart as much as possible, to live in joy.  I do bodywork like Rolfing.  I do yoga, I try to eat okay, I’ve started doing Zumba and dance classes, which is really great.

 

And then there’s seeing friends, being part of communities and circles.  I have three different circles I meet with, a writer’s circle, a spiritual circle, and a coven.  It helps to keep my spirits up, to recognize that I’m not really an individual person, not an isolated person, but I’m part of a group, a web of kindred spirits.  I used to think this was optional; but now I think it’s essential.  Especially because I’m solitary in my work and thought, I need to feel that connection.

 

Finally, it helps me to remember the people of the past, to remember so many wonderful brave heroes I can connect with from the past, whether it’s Emily Dickinson, Emma Goldman, Gandhi, Millay, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, so many people, hundreds and thousands of people, I could probably think of hundreds, if I took the time.

 

Interviewer: Could you talk about your recent efforts to get Rush Limbaugh off Portland radio for his misogynist comments?

 

Finch: When I get involved in political campaigns I tend to get very involved, I treat them like poems and give them my all, go overboard really.  So I’m very careful which ones I take on and I set firm limits, because otherwise I’ll put too much into them and the rest of my work will suffer.  In this case I took a central role with a very specific goal, to gather signatures to pressure the Portland radio station to take Limbaugh off the air after his misogynist comments.   We delivered over 5,000 signatures at the rally.

 

It was about language; that’s one reason I took it so seriously.  It was about nature and language and women all at once.  It was about using language in a way that I thought was harmful, that felt bad to me physically.  It was damaging to the cause of women and also damaging to the air.  I kept thinking about the air that we breathe, which is sacred to me as a Wiccan—the breath of the Goddess.  I just hated that those hateful sentiments were being broadcast through the air.

 

A writer has such valuable skills for politics because we understand about organizing and communicating and we can write, and we know how relatively little energy it can take to motivate people when you communicate truthfully—which is one reason that writers tend to be political targets in repressive regimes.

 

Interviewer: Can you talk about poetry as healing?

 

Finch:  I think poetry is healing on a physical level because of the meter, and on a spiritual level because of the way it connects us with other people in the moment.

 

This is a theme that keeps coming in:  I think it’s so important for us to remember that we’re not isolated.  Even though our architecture and our cars and our city planning and our TVs and our entertainment and our screens all conspire to make us feel as if we’re separate, we’re not separate.  The Internet is a way of beginning to change that, but even physically we’re not alone, and telepathically we’re not alone.

 

We are a tribal species, meant to live in tribes.  At this point, anything that reminds us of our connection with each other is healing, and poetry can do that, through the meter and through the language and through the imagery. The combination of those three things is literally magical, I think.  It can change energy, it can change reality.

 

Interviewer: Can you share a vision for the future?

 

Finch: Here’s my ideal:  people would live in communities built with a human-scaled architecture, sort of along the lines of Christopher Alexander’s work.  We’d live in mixed-use residential communities, with public transportation, with shared green spaces and also wilderness spaces accessible to everyone through public transportation.  There would be sustainable energy generated within the space [a bird sings happily], within the community, local organic food pretty much, but not entirely, maybe about 80% local organic food.  The whole world wouldn’t necessarily have to be this way, but the idea is that anybody who wanted to live this way easily could.

 

I think humans really want awareness of each other as a global community and a global village, so that would be part of my vision.  The communication and means of dispersal of goods and services and information would evolve as quickly as possible to where things are pretty equally shared and nobody has to feel like there’s somebody who’s miserably suffering anywhere.  There would be a balance on the globe between all the nations so we wouldn’t have these ridiculous disparities.  I was just in the Congo, and it’s clear to me that they need a third to a half of what we have in terms of material goods and we need a third to a half of what they have in terms of spiritual goods.

 

Women, and men too, would be free to express and enjoy and be proud of the feminine energy, and no one would feel ashamed of it or feel that they had to hide it or translate it into something else.  Women would really be accepted as full human beings and female energy would be able to take its natural course in whatever systems and structures arose out of that, and be celebrated and enjoyed by everyone.

 

The arts would be honored, important.  I went to the museum in Heraklion in Crete and the art was so amazing.  That’s by far the largest and most thorough collection of art we have from a matriarchal culture.  It was amazing, it was decorated in spirals, beautifully sophisticated, simple shapes, and the pottery was unlike anything I’d ever seen in any other museum or gallery.  It felt so unfamiliar, like visiting another planet, that it made me feel in my gut how every museum I’d ever seen in the world before has been a museum of patriarchal culture.  Minoan art looks a lot like where our contemporary design could be going, actually:  sophisticated yet organic.  I would like to live surrounded by design that has that sensibility to it.

 

In my ideal world, when you turned on the radio to listen to music half the time it would be by a woman composer, and by composers of a diversity of backgrounds; same thing with movies, everything.  I think classical music is one of the last holdouts of absurd sexism.

 

All religions would be completely embraced and tolerated, and everyone would be able to respect any path including Paganism and Wicca and atheism.

 

Of course, the planet would be in healthy shape.  The planet and the animals would be natural participants in any decision that was made by humans.  The impact on the environment would be the first or second thing we would think of.

 

To learn more about Annie Finch, please visit her website: http://www.americanwitch.net

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Annaliese Jakimides Interview: kindness is the root of justice

Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto

Annaliese Jakimides is a freelance writer, poet and visual artist who lives in Bangor, Maine. Cited in national competitions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her work has been broadcast on the radio and published in many journals, magazines, and anthologies, including This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men, Women and Beloit Poetry Journal.
 
 
 
by Annaliese Jakimides
 
 
 
FROM THIS SEPTEMBER DAY
 
All war, under law, will from this September day
on a dirt road in northern Maine where
Albertine Cyr flies her French mourning hands
into the night, often into the day, be conducted by women.
The sucklers will choose where to place the charge,
whose child to take, and what reason is good enough to send
Otto Schroeder’s daughter, Muzah Bozieh’s brother,
Albertine’s youngest son into the fire.
 
She enters the room where her Freddie slept,
palms the feathered pillow’s sack, the one
that rubbed his night cheeks.
Experienced witness to vulnerability,
spooner and changer, cradler of whole bodies,
her big heart swells in the cramped air
of this dark curled into its own cell.
Cap on the dresser. Church shoes by the bed.
Red fishing jacket on the doorknob.
 
She bruises a war cry from her tongue to slash
bayonet, napalm, missile from her vocabulary,
and smoke shadow-writing up from the merciless
shine of bones onto the moony walls: blood, Earth,
broken hearts, supple hands, hunger, a milky mother,
hope, and open-mouthed bass in the morning.
 
-by Annaliese Jakimides, from The Café Review, The Other Side of Sorrow
 
 
 
The following interview took place at Jakimides’ apartment in April 2012.
 
 
 

Interviewer: When did you discover writing and art?

Jakimides: I came to writing much sooner than I came to any visual work. I’m always in awe of people who have been able to have families and continue with their creative work. I married really early on, and we moved to the land, in Patten, a hundred miles north of here [Bangor], had three kids. At that point in time life was grow everything you eat, make everything you eat, build the house, knit the mittens, and I know that many creative people do all of that and their own work, too, but I could never figure out how. So most of that part of my life is scraps of paper, backs of napkins, envelopes, a paragraph, a phrase, maybe a whole page, maybe an idea for a short story, but very little brought to completion. Once my kids were in high school, I found a way to make somebody want my work, which allowed me to continue to make it in a more focused, public way. The editor at the weekly newspaper in Houlton hired me for $10 a pop to write a column about the weather. As it turned out, it was about the external and internal weather, and that laid the groundwork for much of what I have written since. I know this sounds really limited and sort of controlled womanhood, but it was almost like I had to feel that I had permission, from myself even, that this was a valid thing to do.

Although I know it means I won’t have written all I could have in this life, it was not a negative thing. I’m not saying it’s true for all writers, but I think that sometimes when you’re a writer, and you’re a writer who’s a parent, you see your life and what’s going on through the lens of a writer as opposed to being present for what’s going on. I see it very much like people who are walking around with their camera phones and they’re at all these events that they could be totally present for, I’m here, as opposed to I’m catching this image. I’ve known a fair number of writer women who have watched their lives unfold and seen what was unfolding almost as subject matter. And I don’t ever want to live my life as subject matter. Coming to my life later as a writer, I am very aware of not doing that.

I’ve been writing from the time my kids were in high school. The artwork has come to me in a much more convoluted way. I had no money for materials when I lived up north, no paper, no paints, there was no money for that. It was a very back-to-the-land life. There are many people who live back-to-the-land lives that have an inherent economic support structure, whether they acknowledge it or not. That’s an easier back-to-the-land life. I’m not saying one’s better than the other, but ours was not easy. There was struggle, and a vocabulary of experiential struggle that enables you to transcend judgment and boundaries in a small town; a small town is a beautifully magnified community, and you can sense those connections or disconnections. So since there was no money, I started gathering roof slate from buildings that were being torn down. I pressed flowers and ferns and grasses, skeletonized leaves I found buried in the spruce forest across the road, beside the old five-person graveyard in my woods, in the fields and gardens. I pressed them in newspaper, because there wasn’t anything but newspaper, between plywood, because there wasn’t anything else but plywood, with bricks on top, because there wasn’t anything else but bricks, and I would create collages out of pressed flowers. I did that for quite a while, until I began to trust my vision. Now I also work in fibers and fragments, feathers, wire, paint, bark, photographs.

Interviewer: When you say you got sort of permission, where did that come from?

Jakimides: Me. I’ve not had a restricted life in which the world has walked around telling me I needed permissions. Although on some level I believe we are working through our origins, consciously or not. I was a first generation American although I never even recognized that until recently. My brother was the one who was seen. Not me. Old-world values. I was the first in the family to go to college. Those kinds of things. Once I was in Mt. Chase, I had so many responsibilities and obligations that to actually close myself off to do the work of writing or anything like that would have meant taking that time from the life that I had chosen. I had chosen to grow my own food, I had chosen to pump the water, I had chosen to be a vegetarian, to care about chemicals in food, water, air; I had chosen to have three children, and as a result of that, I’d also chosen to be an active participant in their lives. Once they went to school, I started volunteering in the schools and writing grants and getting artists and musicians to come in.  One could argue I could have used that time not to do that but to be home and write, but I didn’t. It seemed important that I be there.

Interviewer: You chose to pursue community service instead, getting art for the kids?

Jakimides: When you talk about speaking out or using what you do in an activist way, it comes in varied packages. Much of what is activist goes unlabeled, unnoticed. It is part of the fabric of a family, a community. Patten’s a really small town, and we actually lived in Mount Chase, which is population 160; Patten’s about 1,000. There are times that I haven’t always consciously known the thing that I was doing or the impact that I was making, it just felt like the right thing. I could have been home teaching my children various things, discussing issues of importance just with them, exposing them to jazz, blues. None of that was up there by the way, none of that was on the radio. We had no galleries. The library was in a small church with no Dewey Decimal System. What I chose was to write these grants to have musicians and writers and artists come into the school system, so that all the kids could have the same thing. Now that the kids are all grown and gone, other kids mine grew up with tell me that that’s the first place they read poetry, that’s the first place they listened to jazz, they’d never heard jazz before. To come to our house was the first place they had any sense of what organic food was or being a vegetarian. So oftentimes one is doing things because it’s the right thing inside, and you’re not aware of how impactful it is going forward. I think that all of those foundational elements of my life inform the work I do now.

That was the time period where we had the first antidiscrimination referendum. The bulletin board outside the IGA on Main Street became this place where people were putting their posters up, “don’t let this happen, this will be awful, gay people aren’t entitled to ‘special’ laws.” I began to put hand-lettered counter-statements up on the board. The dynamics of the community allowed you to be at the bulletin board with people whom you love in other ways but you can’t love over this issue, and they love you in other ways but they can’t love you over this issue, and you could meet there buying groceries and you could agree to disagree and it would still be okay. It was a very interesting exercise in voice and democracy. But what is more interesting to me is that I run into kids all the time down here who grew up during that era, and they have often taken me aside, one kid took me to dinner, to tell me that I was the only reason he survived that period of time in his life, because he was gay, and nobody could know it, and he was wrestling with himself as to what this all was. His parents were Pentecostal, and the fact that I would fight on the bulletin board made all the difference. So you do it for everybody, not just your small nuclear family. *

Interviewer: How has sense of place and living in the country inspired and informed your work?

Jakimides: Sense of place and the country informs everything that I do. Silence and stillness and coexistence. You’re totally aware of having to interact with lots of living things. Black flies and mosquitoes and eagles and osprey, deer ravaging your garden, people under that magnifying lens of a small town. I think it informs everything I think about how to coexist in a larger world, a global world. I believe I learned how to listen on that dirt road in the woods, in that town. So many people are hell bent on the importance of what they have to say, and it may be important but I think that what one has to say is more impactful if you’ve really been listening to what somebody else is saying. That listening piece is a very underrated part of who we are.

I was a city girl; I grew up in Dorchester, which is working-class inner city Boston. I did a lot of inner city work, working in community organizations, teaching in after school programs in storefronts. To this day, people scratch their heads that I moved away—from the movement, from the music, from the dancing, from the diversity. I don’t know if I knew what I was getting into when I moved to the land. I had never been to the country. I was not exactly pining for dirt under my fingernails, a sky over my head, healthy food. I really thought I already had a great life. Would I go back and not have done it? Absolutely not. Patten is still home to me, people up there are still family; it’s a community where you cannot fall through the cracks. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt no matter what my story was, if I didn’t have a pot to piss in, that I would eat, I would be housed, I knew that no matter what happened that would be true. But after a divorce, I no longer had my land or house. And so it was time.

Interviewer: People take care of each other.

Jakimides: In a small town they truly do. I look back on that time, and they were just so accepting of all the little quirks, and the big quirks. You have a little town, most of the families in that town go back generations, a lot of mill workers, a lot of woods workers, that’s just the way it is. Then you have the hippies who move onto the Owlsboro Road and they’re building a house and they don’t really know what they’re doing, and they have no water, they have no electricity and they don’t want it. They’re going to have an outhouse—damn, everyone else had been glad to be rid of those things—and the power doesn’t even go up that far on the road so they can’t hook into power because there isn’t any power to hook into. They’re planting these gardens; they don’t know what they’re doing there either. They’re going to grow all the food that they eat and they’re cutting their wood.

The first winter we had a cookstove that we got out of somebody’s barn: the generosity of souls, it’s an exercise in the generosity of souls. So I have this cookstove, it’s a beautiful cookstove, I barely even knew how to cook to begin with, never mind on a cookstove, and the whole winter we’re bringing wood in from the outside, stacking it along the wall of the house, it’s frozen, it’s green, we’re baking it in the oven so that we can even put it in the firebox to heat the house at all, and it’s just crazy. They put up with all of that. They loved you no matter what. If I’m honest, they give me hope for our future—and a model for unconditional love.

I have three kids, two are black, and to watch this community love my children and love my family all those years ago, that was something. I’m not saying these things couldn’t happen in the city, but you see it so clearly in the country, the way people rise up to a challenge, how they handle change and difference. Whatever is there in a small town in the country you see, whatever it is, the good, the bad, the painful and the sweet, you see it all. And I’m not saying that it’s all roses. Really, sometimes when people were coming to my house, I knew that over the weekend they had been driving around with a state trooper locked in the trunk of their car, just for the hell of it [laughter].

That all drives the way I look at life, the work I make. I’m not trying to convince people that they have to come to my side. I’m telling my story, in poems or essays, in short pieces of fiction, and if something talks to you, you will take it in. The more voices one has out there speaking their truth, and the truth of their experience, the more opportunities people have to hear it, and you never know when one of those pieces will be the thing that they really hear. I intend to use my work to tell the important stories about not just war and destruction, about losses, but about how we as humans can allow ourselves our differences—because we will always have them—and access joy. I tend to do it in a quiet way, I think.

Interviewer: And your work has a reclaiming of life too, life-giving images and peace-giving images too.

Jakimides: If we don’t have that, what do we have? This is a really short run on this planet for each one of us. I don’t want to live my life full of despair, and yet it’s a fine line. Yes, there’s shit in the world. But I don’t want that to be what dominates my cells or I become that too. Life is good. I have a roof over my head, I’m present for every day, I’m not scrambling for food. I also know that that line is very close. One of my greatest fears when I moved to Bangor and left my support network up in Patten was that I could easily see myself as being homeless and a bag lady. There were many times in those first years after I left Mt. Chase in which I wouldn’t have eaten except for the generosity of other people, and many days in which I ate a lot of noodles. I know where that edge is, so I want to live my life not mired in negativity. It’s important for my heart, and if it’s important for my heart, it’s important for other people too, to get my heart right. To make a better world.

by Annaliese Jakimides

Interviewer: Your poems are real musical, jazz, I think; can you talk about music’s influence on you and your art?

Jakimides: Music’s huge to me. I grew up in a house in which there was none. We had only a few records in our house, Mario Lanza, some Brahms concerto, Sarah Vaughn, there was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I think that’s essentially it. Only played at holidays. But from the time I could control it, music has ordered my world. Where my ear and my body would go was a lot of jazz, a lot of blues, Motown stuff, and Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Gil Scott-Heron, like that. I am open. Don’t I love Meredith Monk! So many voices, actually. Sometimes it’s the sound, sometimes the message, sometimes both.

The people in my early adult life were musical people; they were people who were either involved in music, loved music, or they were actually performers, composers. Before I even knew what tofu was I was listening to Stanton Davis’s “Funky Fried Tofu.” Then once I moved to Patten all you had was WHOU out of Houlton, which was country for the most part, and you periodically heard some pop mainstream. Around that time was the birth of NPR and Maine Public Radio, so my family lived on NPR. They used to have a program called Songs Jumping in My Mouth, and it was music and stories, and then the Spider’s Web, which was read-aloud stories. We had public radio and a record player. All of my records were scratched and beat to death, I was not the kind of person who kept pristine records.

To this day, I write to music. I could probably give you the soundtrack of what I was listening to at various points of writing certain things. There’s really a soundtrack. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live without music. I dance around here all the time. There’s always music on when I’m making art. And I choose for the most part that it’s music that rhythmically invades my body and my work. Everything is energetically connected.

Interviewer: Your poems give voice to the oppressed, women, people torn by war, people from different cultures, what’s some of your inspiration for taking on the stories of these different people?

Jakimides: They aren’t different. We’re all the same. In a heartbeat I could be in any one of those positions, as could any one of us. So I feel as if I am telling these stories because they are mine too.

I don’t think our boundaries are all that hard and fast. I think that a lot of what we see as our edges, the end of us, the definitions that say separation, are not true at all. We are informed by others’ energies. We are all born, we all die, we all have the same basic desires in life. I really do believe that everything is motivated by love or fear, and that we all do want a life of love, but fear gets in the way. Then that drives certain people or drives a country or drives factions of a country to the negatives.

I’m never going to be accused of writing a “nature” poem. I write about people and their lives. Friends of Acadia Journal has a nature poetry competition and I remember a few years ago somebody was saying to me, Annaliese, you should submit to that. And I’m saying, have you ever heard me read a nature poem? Well, I completely forgot about it, then a few days before the contest deadline somebody emailed me again and said, oh did you do that? And I thought, oh fuck. So I went through my stuff and for some reason I followed through and I submitted this one poem that might be remotely considered a nature poem. It was a poem about my mother’s cremation and the fact that she lives in the water now because her ashes are in the water. I sent it off and completely forgot that I’d ever even done this, and then I got a letter in the mail, which I thought was a solicitation, and I almost threw it away without opening it. This particular prize comes with a check, and I took first place. It bought me tires when I needed tires. I’ve learned to not think in terms of the closed-offness of how we see things.

by Annaliese Jakimides

We’re all so interconnected that there’s something about the energy of my life that speaks to yours. I think that’s when writing is most impactful—that piece of writing is a conduit, an opening that allows you to enter someplace you might not have gone. Every one of us who does that kind of creative work is saying, here’s a way to go somewhere, welcome, come in, see where you go and trust the journey. You can have the best created, best engineered, put together, dynamically constructed, kick ass frickin poem with the intention of influencing the world and opening them to the destructive elements of every gun ever manufactured et cetera, whatever it might be, but if that piece does not have an opening, a place of life, a breath somewhere where the reader can get in, then it hasn’t been able to do its work. I figure if one of my anythings does its work on just one person, that’s enough.

Interviewer: I like the perspective of the unifying energy, and that it could all be part of you.

Jakimides: If we walked around with the awareness that we’re all interconnected, I don’t think we’d have this fractured world. How do you convince people that we’re all the same, and that there’s value in all of it? How do we not fight over property and boundaries and religious beliefs and the political? How does that happen? It’s scary times, as, I think frankly, it’s probably always been and may always be, which doesn’t mean we stop taking some action to affect change.

Interviewer: And getting people on board with thinking about interconnections, how everything affects everything?

Jakimides: Everything, everything. The truth is that everything makes us who we are, and I wouldn’t be rid of the heartbreak anymore than the joy because of that interconnectedness. If you get okay with who you are, then you have to get okay with everything that got you there.

Interviewer: In the midst of the suffering and destruction in the world what are some ways that you keep your spirits up and maintain resolve?

Jakimides: Music and dancing.

I am a person, clichéd as this is, who sees the cup as half full, not half empty, and with that I always see that we are capable of being better. I am capable of being better, and I believe that everyone else is also. I’ve always believed that, I don’t have difficulty with that sense of keeping my resolve or believing that there is possibility. Do I necessarily believe that we’re going to have a peaceful world? I don’t know, people have been fighting since there were people, there have been issues since there were people, the issues shift and change, although I think it is always about difference: accepting difference in someone, someone accepting difference in you. A different way you look, a different color of your skin, a different belief pattern, a different religion, a different place you came from, a different way you were raised. It is hard for me to envision a world in which all of that is now gone and everybody loves everybody, however, I do believe that if everybody were walking around saying, okay, I can accept you for who you are, I think we would resonate at a higher level and we would be closer to all of that.

So what can I do about that? The most important thing I think I do is to continue to believe and to continue to do what I do, because I’m the only person I can really control. I’m sort of, not Pollyannaish, but I certainly do see the silver linings in things, I just see them. I don’t ever think or believe or feel that we are beyond making a better life, making a better world. I know we are capable of that.

I love people. I don’t move in one particular circle of people, so my friend-acquaintance-movement-circle base of humanity is very broad. In a real way, I see everybody on pretty much the same level. Just because so and so has a PhD doesn’t make that person any different in my mind, really, than a homeless guy I talk to every few days on the corner, or some woman I know from up north who’s Pentecostal and her belief system’s pretty rightwing, but we’ve always clicked. It’s a big world I live in and I operate in. I have been, and probably will be, chastised many times for this observation, but one of the things I’ve always felt has been most problematic in like, the women’s movement, is the fact that for the most part women primarily operate within circles of women of like structure, mind, achievement, socioeconomic range, that’s who they are friends with. It’s hard to create a women’s movement if you don’t really have any friends who aren’t as educated or that kind of thing. We box ourselves off, so just open the box. I think it starts that simply.

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

Jakimides: It’s really the nameless, everyday people in their homes, on the streets, living their lives. None of those people are looking for any kind of acknowledgment of what they do, they’re just doing the best they can, in their neighborhoods, at their kitchen tables, raising their children. Raising one damn child aware of kindness. Kindness, that’s the root of justice, okay, so raising one child who is aware of that and will carry that forward, that’s a huge thing. Not so easy, either. Kindness, politeness, respect, love. Respect yourself and in respecting yourself you respect others, and when you respect others, you really do approach them with kindness and love, and you see that for all our differences we’re the same.

Interviewer: Can you share a vision for the future, your ideal vision?

Jakimides: I want a world in which we’re not destroying the planet, I want a world in which we’re not shooting people just because they don’t believe the same thing we believe, I want a world in which we’re not at war all the time. I don’t understand a country in which we don’t provide health coverage for everybody—we all know we can. My ideal world would not have famine. There’s enough food on the planet for everybody. I want a literate planet; the vast majority of people on the planet do not read and write at a functional level. I want clean water. My ideal world would have none of those boundaries. I want you to be able to walk outside your door, walk down your street, I want you to be able to dance, hear music. I want you to respect each other, I want kindness. I want us to develop the things that are possible to be developed that allow us not to rape the planet, all of which is possible. I drove a cheap Ford Festiva in 1991 that got sixty miles to the gallon; if we could do that in 1991 with a cheap Ford Festiva, I’m sorry, the technology exists to give us 120 miles to the gallon now. I want us to do the right thing, and doing the right thing means treating everybody fairly and justly, and if we do that we’ll be fine. I think we’re here to experience joy, I really believe we are. Live simply, love seriously, care deeply, speak kindly. I read that somewhere and it made so much sense I taped it up on the wall in the closet where I write. It seems a very clear path to being all we can be. ###

*    (11/6/2012) Maine has just become the first state in the country, the first entity in the world, to legalize same-sex marriage by citizen initiative. We wanted it, we asked for it, and we voted on it. Thousands of conversations later by many people gay and straight, and it finally happened. Hundreds of volunteers all over the state, and I am honored to have been one. One of the things I told many people on the fence while I was making calls from the field office in Brewer was, I’m straight, my kids are straight, and I have two grandchildren, 3 and 1, and I have no idea who they will love when they grow up. I want them, too, to be able to commit no matter the gender of their love, I want them to be able to have that someone have their back in sickness and in health. I want that for everyone. -AJ

 
 
 
TENDING
 
Let us tend each other,
Sunni and Shi’a, South and North,
Kikuyu, Luo, the Blue
and the Red, the way a man tends
himself when he’s lost his woman,
and rattles through the hollow bones
of lonely nights,
ultimately surrounding himself
with those who will feed him
kindness, laughter, understanding, a feast
of palatable heart at every meal
until he comes again to woo mode, where
he can fall in love, see the new
woman of his dreams as extraordinary,
brilliant, beautiful, sexy,
all things sweet and
deep. He lifts himself up
onto the body of hope and forgives
every perceived indecency,
no matter the truth of the moment. 
 
-by Annaliese Jakimides, from Consequence
 
 
 
PUTTING OUT
 
She puts out a hummingbird feeder,
plastic and red, scarlet-high, up
outside her sixth floor window,
floating, wired on a
suction cup over streets
filled with people and cars
and half-filled trashcans.
 
But what she gets are crows. Three
scruffy crows of dull black wings on
the granite ledge below. She calls them
ravens, peeling pink-tinged transparent
wrap from a lump of bread, three
raisins, a cube of cheese she slivers.
 
The tip of a wing shushes against the pane,
delicate and wild. An abandonment to
desire. No complaints. No whining.
It beats into the air. Angles.
Folds against its body. Settles.
 
She leans her rouged cheek
into the glass, her fragile capillaries
anticipating the return of
the heat that is family.
 
-by Annaliese Jakimides, from Puckerbrush Review
 
 

Find out more about Annaliese here: http://annaliesejakimides.com

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

Everything is responsible to everything else: Robert Shetterly Interview

Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto
 

Robert Shetterly is a visual artist, activist, writer, educator and speaker who lives in the woods on the coast of Maine.  Schools, universities, churches, libraries, museums and various community groups around the country host his traveling exhibit and book of portraits, Americans Who Tell the Truth, a project which showcases hundreds of America’s most courageous humanitarians, educators, activists, environmentalists, peacemakers, freedom leaders and truth-tellers.

 

The following interview took place at Shetterly’s home studio in March 2012.

 

Interviewer: Do you feel like you’re invoking the spirit of your portrait subjects in some way?

 

Shetterly: Absolutely.  Without getting new agey or sentimental about it, when I painted the first portrait in January 2002 and got the idea of doing this whole thing, there was a real sense of a spiritual, almost mystical significance to what I was doing.  I was so angry at the way this country was being misled, with the administration lying to start another war, I was desperate to find a community of people to identify with so that I wasn’t absorbed in a community of people I intensely disliked and had no respect for.  I wanted to surround myself with the spirits of people I admired, I wanted to feel good, I wanted to live in a country I didn’t feel ashamed of – live in a country that I had respect for.

 

The intent was actually to invoke the spirits of the people I was painting.  I started with all these nineteen century figures, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Susan B Anthony, people like that, and I indulged the idea that I could bring this army, if you will, of people back in some way, and that they would have an effect on the present.

 

 

People sometimes ask me, why do you paint these people, why don’t you paint the people who are lying and misrepresenting what this country really is, the enemies of this country who are in positions of power.  The answer to that is, to make good art it has to be done from a feeling of love and intense compassion in some way, you can’t create from a place of anger and disrespect and feed yourself, after a while it drains you and destroys you.  The energy of anger is really important, but to turn it in some way.  If there’s injustice you’ve got to be angry, but you’ve got to use that anger in the service of love.

 

The process of painting every one of the portraits, whether they’re living or dead, becomes almost like falling in love.  I have such respect and admiration for the people I paint, and I paint largely with my fingers, so I’ve got my hands all over the person’s face, I’m feeling their eyes and the shape of their skull, I’ve got my hands on their lips and in their ears.  That’s the way I paint – is to thin and blend and create transparencies in the paint by manipulating it while it’s wet with my hands – it’s like sculpting.  So there’s intense intimacy, both in the physical process and in the emotional and mental process.  It’s deep in my understanding of who this person is: how much courage and energy they’ve expended in order to insist that this country live up to its own ideals.  There’s a huge spiritual commitment, and also connection.

 

Interviewer: Can you talk about when you became conscious of and interested in social justice?

 

Shetterly: I got interested in social justice when I was in high school.  I went to a little white high school in Cincinnati, and when I was a senior, my older brother who had graduated, myself, and a few other people, insisted that the school integrate.  This was in 1964.  My older brother had a big affect on changing my thinking about sense of social justice.  In 1964 he went to Freedom Summer in Mississippi, over the objections of my parents and everybody else he knew.  The need to register black people to vote in the South was not something a lot of people were even aware of in Ohio.

 

I grew up in a middle class family.  We had black servants growing up, a cook, and a maid.  It was always kind of odd, but nobody ever said anything.  It was also not unlike a lot of the people around us who lived that way, white families with black servants.  I was sensing something about what this meant, but without any framework of how to think about it.  Then my brother went off to college and got involved with civil rights activity, and at the same time, I started reading people like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, and thinking about American history and race and racism.  The next thing that happened was I got deeply involved in anti-Vietnam work in college; I turned my draft card in.

 

 

So it began in high school with an awareness of history and race and thinking that I had to get involved in some way.  Also, being successful in something, we got our school integrated in one year.  It was interesting seeing the resistance, how many families didn’t like that happening, and then the opportunity it opened up for me to begin to understand myself as a player in history.

 

Interviewer: Do you feel part of a tradition of Maine artists involved in working towards an equitable society?

 

Shetterly: The tradition of social justice art in Maine is not broad or deep, but it has some spectacular people in it, like Rockwell Kent, who spent a lot of time living on Monhegan.  He was probably one of the most political artists in American history, but he was never a model for me.

 

The tradition that particularly interests me is the Union of Maine Visual Artists, which I’m now the head of.  It has an almost forty year history of political activism in Maine, which started in 1975 with Carlo Pittore as the head of it.  Through that, I met Natasha Mayers, whom I have painted a portrait of, who’s been one of Maine’s most active and prominent social justice artists for thirty plus years.  Because of her I’ve been spurred to want to do more myself.

 

There are other people in that movement now, people like Abbie Shawn, Kenny Cole, and organizations like the Beehive Collective, which are fantastic, the work they do, the quality of it, and the places they go to talk about various systemic problems in our society.  I think the tradition of progressive artists in Maine is building right now more than it ever has, and that’s interesting to me.

 

Interviewer: Could you talk about your involvement in protesting the removal of the Maine labor mural?

 

Shetterly: Here we had this mural in the Department of Labor, which was artist speak, it wasn’t government speak, and it was telling a very mild and simple truth about labor history.  It was in the Department of Labor, it was not in the Department of Business – but it should have been – and there was nothing about it that was not true about Maine labor history.  It told the story of strikes, of organizing child labor, women, voting – straight ahead things that were true.

 

That the governor would take it down because he thought it was unfair or cast the business community in a bad light – American labor history does cast the business community in a bad light, that’s the only light you can see it in, how the business community has tried to exploit labor and to what extent they’ve actually harmed people by doing that.  Then of course the story of how laborers organized to fight back to get better working conditions, better pay, end child labor – it’s all true, it’s there in history, it’s not somebody’s political spin.  So it seemed as an artist and as a citizen the necessary thing to do was to oppose what the governor was doing and insist that the mural be put back.

 

The judge says your remedy is the ballot box, vote this guy out of office next time.  That’s true, but that’s not good enough.  You really need to confront the issue head on for what it is and get that issue taken care of, not just make it one of a lot of different things that most people probably won’t even remember at the next election.

 

Interviewer: How does Maine as a place inspire and impact your work?

 

Shetterly: Hugely, although you wouldn’t necessarily see it.  I love living in Maine, I get from the environment in Maine a sense of unconditional love.  I’ve lived here forty-one years now; it’s a huge part of my identity. I’ve never tried to paint the landscape, I feel it would be redundant, it’s there, it’s so beautiful, I like being in it.  My work has always been about something else, but without it, I don’t know who I’d be.

 

I travel all over the country speaking, but I spend more time in Maine schools than anywhere, and interestingly enough, I get invited to a lot of rural schools, places that I would have thought might be nervous about my politics and some of the things that I’m doing.  I get to go to places in northern Maine and western Maine.  These portraits have been embraced by lots of different kinds of groups in the state – libraries, museums, and especially schools – so I like having a communal base that I feel part of.   The fact that Maine has done so much to embrace what I’m doing makes me feel really good.

 

Interviewer: What made you decide to use gender equality in the paintings of Americans Who Tell the Truth?

 

Shetterly: How could I not.  You look at gender equality in this country’s social justice history and there have always been as many significant women as men.  So to be honest about it is to paint it the way it is, but it’s also been very important to me.

 

Women have been so much left out of American social history, even when they’ve been prominent, they’re not in the books.  I painted César Chávez, then I start getting letters from San Antonio, Texas saying why didn’t you paint Emma Tenayuca, and I’d never heard of Emma Tenayuca.  Why hadn’t I heard of Emma Tenayuca?  Why haven’t you heard of Emma Tenayuca?  Twenty years before César Chávez, here was this teenage girl leading strikes during the Depression and winning them in Texas for Tejanos – for Mexican-American workers.  It’s just amazing her courage and what she was doing in a very tough time.  So considering all the labor people that one could paint, I paint her then, because what an important story.  To me it’s about all of us.  I take as much inspiration from women as from men, and a lot of my contemporary heroes are women; they’re often the people whose courage I want to emulate myself in some way.

 

 

Interviewer: Your art has been more for public benefit than profit.  Has that freed you up as an artist?

 

Shetterly: That’s very important.  The very first moment that I had this epiphany that I would paint this project, in a conversation with my partner Gail, I determined three things: I’m going to paint fifty portraits – and I’d never painted a portrait – and I’m going to call them Americans Who Tell the Truth – I didn’t realize at the time what that meant, but that was the title, it was just like neon, and third, I was going to give it away.

 

I realized there would be something wrong with me painting these figures in order to sell them, to make profit from people whom I was painting because I admired their selflessness, how much they had given without ever getting back.  Their object was not money, but to make the country richer by having more freedom and equality.  So I understood immediately that I would never sell the paintings, I would give them away.  When I decided that, it was like I levitated.

 

No matter what you do in the art world, if you’re trying to sell your work there’s something commercial about it, even though we try to divide: it’s not about money, it is about money.  I’d been an artist who painted very much what I wanted to and insisted that if I’m going to have to be in a market, the market would do it on my terms, I would not compromise my images in order to sell them, and I survived.  I was making a living and supporting the family on selling paintings, but as soon as I decided that I would do art to give away, I felt totally free.  I thought, now I can say everything I want to say, just straight ahead, put it out there.

 

I’m now making didactic art in a sense.  I never thought I would make didactic art.  That seems anathema to me as an artist.  I like messages in pictures, but mysterious, ambiguous, often embedded in some way in the art.  People have to dig around and find it for themselves from their own experience and imagination.

 

None of us chooses when we live.  We have to deal with the realities of the moment and how to confront them.  This project became a way that I could deal with the realities of my time in a way that made me feel good, and in order for it to be totally free it had to be not about money.

 

 

I make money because of this, I get paid to talk now, but I don’t sell the paintings, and it’s an entirely different thing.  People come to me to have me speak because I’m free to say exactly what I think needs to be said.  I don’t have to pull any punches.  So many people in our society feel constrained in one way or another, and I don’t feel that anymore.

 

Interviewer: You were tried and acquitted for protesting Bush’s plan to increase troops in Iraq; what was it like being one of the Bangor Six?

 

Shetterly: That was thrilling.  It was a terrific group of people I was with who had been arrested for sitting in at Senator Collins’ office.  We owe a lot of that trial to the decision of the judge to let us argue international and constitutional law.  In other words, to argue why we were doing the action, not whether we were guilty of trespassing or not, because most times when you commit any kind of civil disobedience they nail you on the action itself.  Were you in that office sitting-in that day and were you ordered to leave and did you not leave?  Then they have the police and everybody verify that in fact that’s what happened and you have no chance to argue why you were there, what motivated you.

 

The judge allowed us to argue in front of a jury why we were there, and as soon as you present the evidence about what you’re protesting – that the propaganda of our government was in contradiction to our own constitution, to the Geneva Conventions, the Nuremberg principles, to all these things that are our own law – the jury was unanimous in a few minutes.  It’s so obvious, that we had a necessity to be there was greater than the issue of trespassing, and that we had the right to be there because of that overriding moral-legal concern.

 

The judge in this case not only allowed us to argue in defense of the trespassing issue, the state had to argue against our philosophy and our reason for being there.  It was a terrific case, and each one of us was able to talk articulately about the issues.  One of the jurors came up to us after and said, I learned more in two days in this courtroom than I learned in four years in college.  That’s the good thing.  The bad thing is, it didn’t change anything, except us maybe.  In other cases similar to it around the country, judges didn’t start changing what they allowed people to argue, just the opposite, they didn’t allow it.  That’s why that’s not allowed, because if juries could hear why people were doing these things, they would acquit them, and then it would become part of the news, other people would understand, it would be a way to explain why these laws need to be broken, because there’s a higher law.

 

Interviewer: I read a Common Dreams article where they were implying that the case set a precedent for Maine and could it be an example for people around the country, but you’re saying, maybe it’s the exception?

 

Shetterly:  It’s the exception.  There’s that moment when you think, this is going to make a difference.  No, what makes a difference are things like Occupy Wall Street where people persist.  It’s not just one moment, one case, they stay in the streets, people get arrested, they stay in the streets.  That’s what it takes.  To the extent that my project is a metaphor of that, I started this over ten years ago now, I thought it would last for a couple of years and then I would go either backwards or forwards in my career to do something else.  Instead it’s become bigger and deeper and more consuming and more thrilling and taken me places I never would have dreamed of; it’s the persistence.

 

Interviewer:  How do you keep your spirits up and maintain resolve?

 

Shetterly: I feed a lot on other people’s commitment and courage.  One of the people I’m going to paint soon is Lois Gibbs.  In the late seventies in Niagara, New York, Gibbs led the fight against the chemical dump called Love Canal, where a school and all these developments had been built on top of this unbelievably toxic chemical dump.  The company, Hooker Chemical, had sold the land to the town for one dollar, just to get rid of it; the town had to sign a statement saying that they would never prosecute or question anything that was in it.  So the town should have known what they were getting into.  Hundreds of people got sick, died, genetic problems, birth defects, miscarriages, cancers.  Gibbs led this struggle in having the state and the federal government pay to relocate about eight hundred families because their real estate became worthless and they were all sick.  She is an incredibly courageous person.  Her work led to the Superfund law and trying to clean up toxic dumps around the country, and she still does this stuff.   Our history is full of stories like this.

 

To have time to be consumed in doing the physical painting, and honoring the person by doing that, that really keeps my spirits up too.  Also, being in a classroom with young kids and telling them history they don’t know keeps my spirits up.

 

 

The only thing that doesn’t keep my spirits up is staying informed with the deep news about what’s going on, say, in the environment at this moment.  We’ve almost killed the ocean, from the lowest to the biggest in terms of what supports life on this planet.  What does this mean?  That’s the heaviest part, the constant need to know the truth, not just what you want to know, or like to believe, or see things as improving, but to know what’s really happening.

 

Interviewer: It feels like you’ve put forth a manifesto of truth tellers.  It must be empowering to be connected with this network of heroes?

 

Shetterly:  It is.  About the only way that our economic and social culture can continue the way it is, is in a state of denial of the effects that it’s causing.  One can choose to live in that denial as though that music is going to keep playing, or you can move the curtain away and find out what’s really going on behind there and where it’s leading.

 

To be with people like that who have made the decision to either know or try to know the truth about what’s really happening is exciting.  One of the aspects of why I call this Americans Who Tell the Truth is about that issue.  Unless you face the truth of what the problem is, you can’t fix it.  We’re a country that pretends we can reform and treat symptoms and go on doing that forever and everything will be okay.  If we don’t treat the causes, finally the causes will overwhelm us, as they are now. Whether it’s as we were just talking about, the oceans, or the economy, or anything else, we’re not treating the cause.

 

James Baldwin said people who close their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction.  We’ve been inviting our own destruction for many years now, but pretending we’re doing a great service to the world by being a paragon of both democracy and capitalism, as though they’re the same thing.  That untruth, which is part of the American myth of power and exceptionalism, is incredibly dangerous.  To be around people who understand the danger of that myth and also how hard it is to eradicate it is a good feeling.

 

I was at a program two weeks ago in Washington DC with Ralph Nader, and a group of people I painted all came together at Washington College of Law to talk about law and ethics and integrity in America.  They were all people I painted.  It was a dream come true, except I never could have dreamed it [laughs].  Nader was talking about the idea of truth telling, and he said what we’re talking about is people who are naming reality, it’s not like truth is a slippery amorphous subjective thing, we’re talking about realities here.  It’s not like, who’s your god and where does he or she or it live in the cosmos, it’s not those kind of amorphous belief systems, we’re talking about truths, realities, not beliefs.

 

Interviewer: Do you see the mediums of words and visual art affecting people in different ways?

 

Shetterly: It’s very gratifying to get the kind of feedback I get from people who have been moved by either the words or the images or both, which makes me just want to do more.

 

Every one of us becomes a potential extender of somebody else’s reality.  If I painted the portraits and had them in my basement and nobody ever asked to show them, nothing would have happened, there wouldn’t be the Americans Who Tell the Truth book, nothing.  It’s because other people get moved by the paintings, and say, I want to bring this to an audience somewhere, I want to get you in a classroom to talk to children, I want to bring you to a library to talk to adults.  Every person who makes a decision like that is just as important as I am in terms of the reality of what I do.  Then being able to extend the reality of the people I paint and use their words to make the further inspiration to not just be moved, but to act.

 

There’s a school in Louisville, Kentucky where a fifth grade class has been using the portraits for several years now.  These were kids at a poor school from all kinds of the usual social problems, drugs, broken families, crime, everything, a lot of kids angry, learning disabilities, not able to focus.  So we use Americans Who Tell the Truth to show them people who came from backgrounds similar to theirs, who used all that disaffected energy and anger to do something good, rather than to do something bad.  These kids were encouraged to then go out into their neighborhoods and identify things they would like to change: the housing, no place to play, the treatment of animals, the dumps in their backyards and neighborhoods.  Then they wrote reports on it, took pictures, described how they would like it changed.  Then the school invited the mayor’s office to come in and listen to these kids talk about what was wrong in their neighborhoods and how they wanted it fixed, and the mayor’s office started fixing those problems.  They took all the kids posters and drawings and photographs and started actually working on the problems.

 

That to me is about the most exciting thing I can possibly think of coming out of what I’m doing, it leads to a shift in energy, from a lot of negative energy to positive energy, to actual transformation of people’s lives.

 

It’s possible, it can happen with kids.  I say to kids all the time, don’t wait for adults to fix these problems that they’ve caused, they’re not going to do it necessarily, you’ve got to do it and you can do it, you are unbelievably more powerful than you understand, if you’re willing to start struggling to bring attention to what the problems are and insisting that things change.  I’ve tried to paint more and more young people, to make examples of how a young person can cause significant social change.

 

 

Interviewer: Could you talk about working collaboratively with other artists and writers?

 

Shetterly: I love working collaboratively. I’ve been involved with Bring Our War Dollars Home and making posters and stuff about that issue of where our money’s being spent for years.

 

I’ve particularly liked being involved with writers, either being inspired by them to illustrate or collaborate in a sense, or being a source of inspiration.   There’s a book of my drawings and etchings with poems written to them.  People think that I illustrated Bill Carpenter’s poems but it was the other way around, he wrote poems in response to my pictures.

 

I spent three years making and then painting seventy etchings in response to William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell.  It totally consumed me for a while.  Blake was one of my favorites in college and I never felt that I quite understood some of the things that he was saying, but when I started to make pictures in response to his proverbs I began to feel I could understand what he was talking about, sometimes even disagree with him, I was getting that close to it.  That’s the way I often make art is to try and understand an issue, something will be bothering me and I don’t know what it is until I can make a picture.  That’s where I get a lot of my clarity is the image.

 

We are taught in this society to be competitive and to want to stand separate and alone and better all the time than other people.  Our whole educational system and work system and everything else is often set up in terms of competition.  The more we collaborate instead of compete, the happier we are, the better results we get, the more fun it is, and the much more ultimately satisfying it is and also good for our communities.

 

I think it’s very important to delve into your own psyche and make your own statements and know who you are through that process, but also to be collaborating at the same time only enables you to go deeper into yourself, not further away from it.  It’s not like you become homogenous by collaborating with other people.  If you’re conscious and introspective you’re going to use those collaborations to ask yourself a whole new set of questions about who you are and what you’re doing and what you believe in, so both things happen at the same time, but they happen best in a non-competitive framework.

 

 

If there is going to be any hope in solving a lot of social justice issues, we have to do a lot more coalition building.  So much of the activist community is often split idiotically around ideological points of view, which are so narrow compared to the issue or the enemy against which we’re supposedly aligned, and we magnify those little differences so that we don’t fight together, we fight each other.  It’s crazy, and it totally hamstrings the movement often.

 

Interviewer: Could you share a vision for the future?

 

Shetterly: Probably a lot of it is going to be very difficult, because it’s going to involve decommissioning what we call civilization today, which is built on a paradigm that’s unsustainable.  If we’re going to continue to live as a species in collaboration with other species on this planet and survive in any kind of healthy way, we have to completely change the systems by which we’re living.  So my vision of the future is the process by which that would happen, and my guess is that when you look at the intransigence of the kind of systems and who profits by them now, it won’t be an easy transition.

 

What I find thrilling is what’s being done in communities, everywhere in the world, not just around here.  Communities of people are trying to take charge of what happens to them in terms of those major systems – education, housing, transportation, food production, energy – in order to live in a more sustainable fashion.  People understand, and everywhere communities are springing up to try and tackle those questions of how are we going to live in a way that actually reflects the reality of being one species on this earth?  Are we going to learn to live in harmony with our own reality, which means, supporting the health of every other species on earth, plant and animal, not just our own, and not using them for profit?

 

What’s difficult is that much of the world is so intimately and complexly and complicity tied in with these systems which are causing the death of the world, that it’s so hard to disengage and find a healthy way back, or forward, to a different relationship with the earth, but that’s what’s required.

 

So my vision is of a people, many of whom have to be a whole lot smarter than I am and with a lot more energy, willing to figure out how to do that.  The important thing is the spirit with which it be done with, it’s got to be done with excitement, with joy of bringing hope to young people about a different way to live that will ultimately make them more healthy.  They’ll have less stuff, but they’ll be a lot happier and healthier.

 

Joy has got to be part of that picture.  Not just a bunch of rats living in rubble of a collapsed civilization, we’ve got to find a way to celebrate the success of every species collaborating together to live in a healthy planet.  I don’t know if that will happen, all I can say is that’s my vision [laughs].

 

I have a grandson, I want a future for him as I want a future for every child, and seven generations of unborn children.  What a shame that we’re wasting so much.  There’s such delight, such beauty.

 

Nature is the only law that we know of for sure.  Nature’s laws determine everything that happens on the earth, not us, nature.  The big transgression in the Garden of Eden, which is the earth, was when nature was saying, you have to live by nature’s law, and if you don’t live by nature’s law, you’re going to be very unhappy.  The original sin was to separate ourselves from nature: saying that we’re not the same as all the other species and our health is not determined by the health of other species, our health is going to be determined by how much profit we can make by exploiting the other species and their resources.  That was the sin, and it wasn’t god’s law, it was nature’s law.  Don’t call it god, just call it nature, it was nature’s law which said you can’t do that, and that’s what we did, and that is what we’re paying for so deeply.

 

That’s why I’m painting Aldo Leopold right now, he understood.  He grew up in Iowa with his grandfather, and his father took him out all the time to hunt.  He got to understand nature like a Native American.  All the animals and plants and the signs and everything, he could read nature.  Then he went to forestry school and he learned to see nature as a product, walk into the woods and you see board feet; and then he also learned that predatory species like wolves are bad, they’re like rats, they’re like varmints, you need to kill those so we have more deer for people to use up.  So one day he’s with a bunch of other guys working for the forest service and they’re shooting wolves, and they shot a she-wolf with a bunch of cubs, and he went over to them after, and the cubs were dead and the female was still alive but dying, and he said he watched the fierce green fire go out in her eyes, and he said it was years before he realized that that light in her eyes which was dying was the thing that was going to save us, that that light was much wiser than he was, and that that’s what he had to protect, not the fucking deer, it was the light of wildness.

 

Everything we organize, whether it’s our environmental policies, our banking policies, our pollution policies, have to be thought of in that same way we would define a biological web.  Everything is responsible to everything else, and when you write a set of laws that say the only obligation of a corporation is to make profit for its stockholders, you’ve tried to slice off that corporation’s responsibility to all the other economic things in the world, environmental and physical and everything else.  Nothing can operate independently, and when you start to make those distinctions and say one thing’s separate from another, that the only obligation is profit, it’s absolutely crazy.  That’s what we’re living with, that craziness.

 

Look up Oren Lyons on my website, he’s the Native American who’s the faith keeper of the Onondaga.  I had a wonderful conversation with him when I went to paint him, we talked about this very issue, and he said, “we, Native Americans,” whenever he said that it was like it was two hundred years ago, he said, “when we saw you sign your constitution and separate church and state, we knew it would only lead to disaster.”  I thought, what are you talking about, that’s one of the most important things about the constitution, and he said no, you don’t get what I mean, he said you’re ultimate reality has to be your deepest spirituality.  Your ultimate reality is nature, so your deepest spirituality has to be tied to your reality, and that is your church, and when you separate your political and economic institutions from the responsibility to that reality, to nature, as though they’re separate, it will only lead to disaster, and you separated your institutions from your most important church, which is nature – disaster. I thought, what a great way to think about that.

 

 

So that’s the thing, I meet these people and I learn so much, reading their books, talking to them, understanding the way they think, and then I just become this medium for spreading other people’s courage and words and actions.

 ∞

To learn more about Robert Shetterly and the Americans Who Tell the Truth project, please visit : http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org

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