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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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A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry

I learned about Lorraine Hansberry through the great songwriter, musician, performer and civil rights activist hero Nina Simone.  Hansberry, a genius playwright who died at age 34, was one of the first people who inspired Simone to work for social justice and the rights of black people.

Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun is a brilliant, stunning work of art, as well as important social commentary on the oppression of minorities and the need for compassion that transcends human constructed barriers.  Such assets of literature are still highly relevant 55 years after A Raisin in the Sun’s debut.

The title of the play, and perhaps the premise, comes from the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred.”

 
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
 
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
 
Or does it explode?
 

Hansberry asks the same questions as Hughes’ poem in A Raisin in the Sun, a drama both captivating and heart-wrenching in its realistic depiction of the lives of a hard-working yet impoverished black family living in cold war era Chicago.  A Raisin in the Sun centers around the dreams each family member has for a better life—dreams that are hungry for progress & growth, desperate for survival & self-worth.  Ultimately it is the communal, life-giving dream of the family matriarch, Mama, which brings understanding, strength, perseverance and dignity to a family hindered by circumstances–victims of racism, poverty and bad luck.

Every line in the A Raisin in the Sun serves to show insight into the characters of the family and adds to the construction of scene and setting, such as in the following passage portraying Mama’s messages of love:

“There is always something left to love.  And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing…Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most?  When they done good and made things easy for everybody?   Well then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all.  It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the world done whipped him so!  When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right.  Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

The speaker, Mama, is an emblem of a family structure that holds love above all else, allowing self-respect and humanity to prevail.

Hansberry’s play shows that amidst a world of hypocrisy, hatred and apathy, we can overcome the most daunting trials through love for one another, understanding, solidarity and being true to ourselves, our families, and a greater good.  We may be broke and have nothing material in this world, but strength comes through maintaining dignity and being able to hold our heads high with satisfied minds.

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The Wilderness, Gary Snyder

There’s a useful section at the end of Gary Snyder’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection Turtle Island called “Plain Talk,” in which Snyder expresses profound reverence towards nature, and insights on how all the elements of earth are alive, magical, and responsible for human existence.

Snyder addresses the dire global problems that are becoming increasingly worse because of human carelessness towards the earth, in practical terms.  In his essay “Four Changes,” originally distributed as a pamphlet, Snyder maps out what he believes are the four most necessary human changes needed for the survival of the planet, and gives practical solutions for how to act on these current problems.  The essay addresses: Population, Pollution, Consumption, and Transformation.  Snyder argues that there needs to be large scale cultural transformation in order to change the environmental problems that have been growing exponentially due to the over-population of humans, sanctioned polluting of the earth, over-consumption of resources, and negligent disposal of resources.

Another important section of “Plain Talk,” is the essay, “The Wilderness,” where Snyder discusses the very real need to represent the plants, animals, air, water and soil in government, and in all human decision-making.  Natural beings are our life-giving mothers, and it’s necessary to protect and defend them as we would our own bodies.

Gary Snyder says:

“I don’t like Western culture because I think it has much in it that is inherently wrong and that is at the root of the environmental crisis that is not recent; it is very ancient; it has been building up for a millennium.  There are many things in Western culture that are admirable.  But a culture that alienates itself from the very ground of its own being—from the wilderness outside (that is to say, wild nature, the wild, self-contained, self-informing ecosystems) and from that other wilderness within—is doomed to a very destructive behavior, ultimately perhaps self-destructive behavior.”

The actions of many in today’s global capitalist society disregard the air, soil and water as being inanimate—when in fact these elements create human life.  To disregard nature is to exist without feeling what it’s like to be truly alive, for the body is the earth, and requires air, water, soil and sun to survive.  It is self-destructive to destroy our earth.  Though the plants, air and water may not speak our language, they have a sophisticated language of their own, and carry molecules that connect all life.

Snyder points out that it’s natural for a poet—the deep feeler, sensitive receptor artist—to feel akin to nature and defend the earth:

“You would not think a poet would get involved in these things.  But the voice that speaks to me as a poet, what Westerners have called the Muse, is the voice of nature herself, whom the ancient poets called the great goddess, the Magna Mater.  I regard that voice as a very real entity.  At the root of the problem where our civilization goes wrong is the mistaken belief that nature is something less than authentic, that nature is not as alive as man is, or as intelligent, that in a sense it is dead, and that animals are of so low an order of intelligence and feeling, we need not take their feelings into account.”

The poetic muse is the earth goddess: the animals, wind, birds, rivers, oceans, lakes, mountains, flowers, trees.

Gary Snyder offers solutions within “The Wilderness,” which look to primitive cultures and life ways, where historically people have opened themselves up to the representing other life forms through art.

“What we must find a way to do, then, is incorporate the other people—what the Sioux Indians called the creeping people, and the standing people, and the flying people, and the swimming people—into the councils of government.  This isn’t as difficult as you might think.  If we don’t do it, they will revolt against us.  They will submit non-negotiable demands about our stay on earth.  We are beginning to get non-negotiable demands right now from the air, the water, the soil.”

Melting icecaps, flooding, tsunamis, fires and major storms are the non-negotiable demands from the earth.  A reciprocal relationship between us and the planet must be nurtured and respected for our own health and sustenance, and in order for human life to be sustained.

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Review: Nurses Who Love English by Paula Marie Coomer

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Paula Marie Coomer is a nurse and writer who uses poems as balm.  Her latest collection of poetry Nurses Who Love English gives a diverse coalescence of lyric story and song: a soundtrack to a personal history that traces American landscapes of ghosts, rivers, mountains, healers, wanderers and the divine.  The language in these poems feels authentic, giving the sense of passing through forest roads and being let into secrets near campfires, in fields and in diners.

The poems range stylistically from couplets to syllabics to found poems, all containing imagery of earth, dream, memory, presence and desire.  Coomer’s use of the prose poem is notably musical and enchanting:

“He carves us pitch for better spark and hotter kindling to knit old times with folks he doesn’t even know.  The fire keeps you and I tippling Glenlivet and telling serendipity tales long after he drives into the October dim.

Brook trout with strawberry bellies, fins dipped white-edged, trimmed like frosting, leave Strawberry Lake by the scores to spawn, thick enough to walk across the fingers of the delta.  I think it’s a miracle and accuse you: you led us here because humans need to see miracles now and again.”  – from“Strawberry Lake’s Photo Album”

One of the most compelling aspects of Coomer’s poetry is the surprising and spiritual glimpses into human relationships.

Nurses Who Love English offers current social commentary, like in “Polar Bear SOS,” which gives stark and realistic visions of polar bears drowning in the melting polar icecap, and in “A New Poetry,” where the luck of a few people is juxtaposed with the destruction of others, and the raven’s song has the final say.  While using art to imitate the life of now, Nurses Who Love English keeps hold of a well-rooted foundation capable of transforming the heartbreak of loss and war with beauty and love.

The book showcases other types of transformation as well.  In “On Leaving Home” the narrator describes boldly breaking free of her Indiana homeland at a young age, and how the place “never said, daughter, why don’t you/come on home, now, you hear?   It just let me/go.  It let me take my satchel and book bag/and follow the creek out of the woods, down/and out of my holler.”  Here the narrator recognizes the need to spread her wings in order to survive, yet she is pulled by a telepathic message from her Aunt Imogene, “Smart girls don’t drill holes in the water bucket.”  The poem ends.  Such unsentimental telling is a Paula Marie Coomer signature, seen also in the Americana traveling poem that comprises her chapbook Road.

Coomer’s poems show us how to meld into our surroundings, which in turn become us, and give us the wisdom to love trees, sip water straight from the well, and listen to birds give blessings, “Safe journey earth daughter.”

 http://www.paulamariecoomer.com

Review by Lisa Panepinto

Originally published at: cabildoquarterly.tumblr.com

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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.

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

walter echo-hawk talk

Last week we attended a speech by Walter Echo-Hawk, author, tribal-law expert and Pawnee from Oklahoma.  He is a brilliant speaker—warm, funny, incisive and inspiring in his ability to be positive and hopeful amidst decades of untangling legal trespasses enacted against Native American tribes.

Echo-Hawk discussed how indigenous people in North America are approaching an exciting new era of reclaiming human rights, led by internationally endorsed legal framework put forth by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Obama and the United States officially signed in support of in 2010 (the US was the last country to sign it).

Echo-Hawk sited the need for a national discourse on Native American human rights and human rights violations.  He pointed out that the US has made significant strides in designing policy that grants human rights to women and people with disabilities, but not for Native Americans.  Tribal cases lose over 80% of Supreme Court rulings, & indigenous peoples are among the most impoverished populations in the US, which is directly linked to an oppressive legal system that denies tribes human rights.

Legal framework for protecting human rights as outlined by the United Nations protects the basic right to exist and practice one’s culture.  To Native Americans, that means being able to care for and manage their traditional sustenance lands.

Just a few days ago in Maine, state governor LePage transgressed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by trying to deny Passamaquoddies fishing privileges on their own land, making threats to close their hatcheries, despite the fact that Maine tribes are sovereign nations with their own Fish & Game departments to enforce fishing & gaming limits on their territory.  Such human rights violations among us cannot be tolerated.

Echo-Hawk discussed how current US laws dealing with tribal-state and tribal-federal issues are based on colonialism and racism, which uses oppressive, abusive language based on the Doctrine of Discovery, such as calling Maine tribal peoples imbeciles who require parental guardianship.  Echo-Hawk spoke of the necessity for a new legal framework based on recognizing past and present human rights violations perpetuated against Native Americans, safety from further injustice, healing from wrongs, and enabling indigenous cultures to manage land and practice their cultures.  The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a blueprint for how to ensure indigenous peoples are allowed such rights.

When indigenous cultures are allowed to exist and flourish, practices of reciprocity and living in balance with nature create a healthier environment and better, more diverse world for everyone.  Human rights for indigenous people enables human rights for animals, water, air, and land as well.

Echo-Hawk ended his talk by calling for forgiveness and healing among Native Americans and non-Indians.  He described how all wisdom traditions contain forgiveness practices, and sited these steps for healing from wrongdoings:

1 Acknowledge that injury has taken place

2 The person who harmed another apologizes and asks for forgiveness

3 Person or community accepts apology and forgives

4 Offer voluntary acts of retribution and atonement to wipe the slate clean

5 Healing process allows justice and compassion

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on Gabriela Mistral

Chilean poet & activist Gabriela Mistral is the first Latin American, and the only woman Latin American, to receive the Nobel Prize.  Mistral passionately devoted herself to poetry and a spiritual commitment to liberty & civilization, thru education & service, which she considered alternatives to barbarism.  She was a founder of UNICEF, champion of women and children, and an international worker in the struggle against poverty, illiteracy and oppression.

Someone who identified all her life with the poor and outcast, Mistral’s commitment to social justice and poetry make her revered throughout Latin America.  She placed value on communication and the gift of translating one’s own reality to the reality of another.  Her poems use language of clarity and truth that all people can relate to.

A distinctive author herself, Ursula Le Guin’s beautiful translations provide the first substantial collection of Mistral’s divine poems in both Spanish and English.

Mistral’s stanzas are so gorgeously visceral I can hear them thru my fingertips:

AMANECER
 
   Hincho mi corazón para que entre
como cascada ardiente el Universon.
El Nuevo día llega y su llegada
me deja sin aliento.
Canto como la gruta que es colmada
canto mi día Nuevo.
 
   Por la gracia perdida y recobrada
humilde soy sin dar y recibiendo
hasta que la Gorgona de la noche
va, derrotada, huyendo.
 
-by Gabriela Mistral
 
DAWN
 
   I open out my heart so the Universe
can enter like a cataract of fire.
The new day comes; its coming
takes my breath away.
I sing, a hollow filled to overflowing,
I sing my break of day.
 
    For grace lost and grace regained,
I am humble, not giving and receiving
until the Gorgon of the night
flees defeated and takes flight.
 
-translation by Ursula K. Le Guin

 

Work cited:

Mistral, Gabriela.  Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral.  Trans. Ursula Le Guin.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.  Print.

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Filed under literature review, poems, protest song ancestors, truth speakers