Paul E Nelson’s Interviews by Jason Wirth

Paul E Nelson and Jim O’Halloran perform “Elegy for Tahlequah’s Calf.” Photo by Greg Bem

It was a very humbling experience for me Friday, December 14, 2018, to hear very intelligent and considerate people talk about different aspects of SPLAB’s 25 years in existence, with a special focus on our old days (pre-2009) in Auburn and the interview collection we have donated to the White River Valley Museum. Huge thanks to all who attended, starting with my Mom Lesbia Nelson, my sister Barb, my partner Bhakti Watts, my Mother-Out-Law Buffy Sedlachek, former Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis, Tetsusan Jason Wirth and his partner Elizabeth Sikes, Greg Bem, Matthew Trease, Gerald and Brendan McBreen, Joe Chiveney, Daniel T. Fleming, M Anne Sweet, Barbara McMichael, Dan Wend, Len and Linda Elliott, Jim O’Halloran and Lucinda O’Halloran, Thomas Walton, Hilary Pittenger, Cindy M. Hutchings and others. It has been a blessing to be able to do this work and know that there are people who see the value and are inspired. Wow. A thousand thanks. A thousand blessings. Now on to the next project: for which we are seeking donations, sponsorships and are preparing to put Gold Passes on sale within three months.

I was delighted to hear the talk prepared by Tetsusan Jason Wirth of the Seattle U Eco-Sangha and Philosophy Department. He has graciously offered me this opportunity to publish the document. I do so, humbly and with huge gratitude.

Reclaiming the Space of Thought and the Poetic Word

(Jason Wirth, Seattle University)

Paul Nelson is a master interviewer and this fact also belongs to his poetic life and legacy. His interviews are not about poetry and prophecy, but rather they are of poetry and prophecy.

What does that mean?

We must first clarify what we mean by the performance of the art of the interview.

We inhabit a media world saturated with the decimation of language into journalistic facts—and in a time of “fake news,” routine executive office mendacity, and ubiquitous ideology, this seems like the best we can do.“Democracy perishes in darkness,” Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post tell us everyday. And indeed it does. As important and indispensable as these considerations are, they obscure the immense humiliation of language and the wide spread degeneration of the gifts of writing and speaking. The interview at first glance merely appears like the routine task of fact retrieval, and the latter, suffering their own extinction event, need to be secured and protected.

We nonetheless also need to retrieve and reconsider how else we might appreciate the art of the interview. (Again, this is not to oppose the journalistic interview—increasingly valuable in these dark times—but rather to open the expanse of writing, speaking, and thinking more fully.)

In order to do this, I would like to consider two practices of the interview that contest journalism’s monopoly on the art of the interview.

The first is the Zen interview, or what is called dokusan. I turn to this tradition for many reasons, but this includes the fact that a) Paul has his own Zen practice and b) more germane, Paul’s poetic mind leads him effortlessly to appreciate the cultivation of Zen mind and the latter just as effortlessly leads to the cultivation of the poetic mind.

What is communication in the Zen interview? The great Kamakura period Japanese Zenmaster Eihei Dōgen explained that communication requires the awakening and recasting of one’s mind to be able to communicate and be communicated to. For Dōgen, communication was “Buddha to Buddha [yuibutsu yobutsu].” Dōgen also called this experience ichibutsu-nibutsu, one Buddha and two buddhas, that is, two buddhas realizing their mutual interdependence in the great expanse of the Buddha mind. The Buddha in me speaks to and communes with the Buddha in you. Or better: we both speak to each other from the background of our sharedBuddha mind.

In this sense, the Zen interview is a meeting of the minds, even an awakening of mind itself. It is not a transfer of information

My second model is the word interview itself.

It traces back to the early 16th Century, meaning literally a “face-to-face meeting,” from Middle French entrevue, “to see each other,” or “visit each other briefly.” Entre- means “between” and voir means “to see” (from the Latin videre). In contemporary French, however, one uses the American English term, interview, and its usage attests to the triumph of its journalistic reduction. Its journalistic sense has come to mean: “conversation with someone to obtain statements for publication” and it stems from American English.

The ‘interview,’ as at present managed, is generally the joint product of some           humbug of a hack politician and another humbug of a newspaper reporter. 

[The Nation, Jan. 28, 1869]

The naiveté of journalistic interviewing is, as the model of the Zen interview indicates, that a) the interview has its motivation the collection of information; if it is just information, anyone can understand it or learn to be able to understand it; b) the question of the meeting of minds is irrelevant.

However, if we keep listening to the word, interview, the inter—French entre—speaks of a between, a third, that holds together the face to face, or the mind to mind. It is the intermediary that brings the two views together.

What is the nature of this in between such that if it is not there, the interviewer reduces the interviewee to a transmitter of information and reduces the transmission itself to information?

We can hearken to this in between by simply reflecting on the fact that Paul Nelson interviewed poets and other prophets. What happens if the poetic voice degenerates into the deliverance of opinions, gossip, and information? You would have to say that the biggest loss is that the fact of poetry disappears in the mere communication of facts, even facts about poetry. If there is at stake the mere transmission of facts, then poetry itself becomes superfluous. Just cut to the facts and just tell the audience what you want them to know. Poetry from this perspective appears like an eccentric conveyance of facts by other extravagant and irrelevant means.

To hearken to poetry, one has to hearken to what it is that only poetry can do. There are many ways to inform people and poetry cannot compete with our dizzying array of electronic information delivery devices. Just “google” it and put the poet out of her misery! Yet this dazzling array recalls how Henry David Thoreau in Walden characterized the advent of the telegraph: “improved means to unimproved ends.” It is quaint to think of the telegraph as efficient, but the world of information on demand demonstrates the prophetic force of his critique: we can with increasing, even sublime, efficiency communicate almost instantly with each other, but this just magnifies the nature of ourself-deception. We still do not have anything to communicate, even though we can transmit our vacuous prolixity with lightening speed. We can communicate faster and more often in an endless proliferation in which we tacitly confesst hat we have little to say by drowning out the silence between us in a din of relentless verbiage.

One of the spokes of the Buddha’s eightfold path is consummate speech, that is, understanding the full power of communication and not defiling it with an aggressive verbal assault that overwhelms the silence and fills the space between us. The poetic word protects this space, nourishes this silence, and takes its strength from this in-between. It does not report. It creates, speaking from this bottomless space that we share. (And since Paul is a bioregionalist, we can also see that this space is also the land that grants our manner of interdependent being.)

Or we can rephrase the problem at hand like this: how does one come face to face with the poet and the prophet? The journalist fails to appreciate that the poet means just what she says. The poem does not mean something besides what it says, as if it were encrypted, waiting for the journalist to decrypt it and report to the authorities what its hidden facts were. In Paterson, William Carlos Williams clarifies: “The poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity.” To approach the poetic mind of the other, to come face-to-face with poet and prophet, one has to enter the “in between” out of which poetry and prophecy emerge. In a sense, one has to enter the “in between of mind itself,” out of which poetic minds emerge. It is poet-to-poet communication, or with Dōgen, albeit with a variation: one Poet and two Poets, that is, two poets realizing their mutual interdependence in the great expanse of the poetic mind.

The interview as practiced by Paul Nelson is not reportage. It is the dance between listener and speaker where those roles alternate and shape each other and allow the “in between” to emerge with the shape and intensity specific to that dance and to its dancers. The listener has to know, first of all of all, who merits an interview, whose mind has its roots in archaic wisdom, and whose fruits feed the spiritually and culturally hungry of our shared life in the here and now. It has to have a sense of what is worth asking and to allow the answers to shape one’s inquisitive responses. This is not the extraction of information for public consumption, but rather a display of the poetic in-between at work and play. As such, it means what it says and in that its thought, and that in itself is its profundity.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to Paul Nelson and we celebrate the artifacts of this ancient yet strikingly contemporary dance in which the poetic mind as the great in-between of the poetic face to face.

Photo by Pete Lewis

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Open Books Interviewing Workshop

I am delighted to be celebrating the release of American Prophets by way of doing interview workshops in and around Cascadia for the next few months. 

A workshop happens at Open Books: A Poem Emporium, March 10, 2019, 10:00 am – noon. Preregistration is required.

Class Description:

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of SPLAB (Seattle Poetics LAB) Paul E Nelson discusses American Prophets: Interviews 1994 to 2012, featuring poets Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Wanda Coleman, Jerome Rothenberg, Nate Mackey, Brenda Hillman and Sam Hamill, and will facilitate an interview exercise. Participants will learn techniques to connect with a guest, quickly develop a rapport and sharpen skills in this under-appreciated art form. Paul E Nelson has conducted over 600 interviews with poets, authors, indigenous leaders and whole systems activists through his non-profit organization SPLAB and will discuss how he prepares for interviews, the difficulties that are sometimes encountered, tech aspects and how to develop your interviewing technique. Copies of the book American Prophets will be available for purchase. 

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The non-profit organization I founded on December 14, 1993 turns 25 tomorrow and we are going to celebrate. SPLAB started as It Plays in Peoria Productions and had a mission of creating radio interview public affairs programs. At the height of that mission, our weekly show aired on 18 stations. Affiliates at one time or another included KING-FM, The Mountain, KZOK, KJR-AM and FM, KMPS, (all in Seattle), KGON-FM (Portland) and Village 900 (Victoria.) 

In addition to a look back at what we’ve done over 25 years, tomorrow night at the White River Valley Museum, we’ll celebrate the museum’s acquisition of over 15 bankers boxes of reel-to-reel tapes and CDs from our historic broadcast era (1993-2005) and a few tapes from before that. You can see the interviews we did at

In addition to a discussion of the museum’s plans for the archive, Hilary Pittenger, Curator of Collections for the WRVM, there will be the official launch for the book American Prophets, some of the best interviews conducted over the years, transcribed and published in a beautiful (if I say so myself) collection that includes history, prophetic insight and moments that helped shape my life. 

Jared Leising has graciously agreed to be Master of Ceremonies. Barbara McMichael of SoCo Culture will discuss what SPLAB meant to the culture of South King County in the years we were based there and facilitating programs (1993-2006). Former Auburn Mayor Peter Lewis, who helped us fund many of our programs during the early years, will discuss SPLAB’s legacy in Auburn. Jason Wirth, Professor of Philosophy at Seattle U, Zen Priest, scholar, translator and author, whom I interviewed in 2017, will give the keynote. He previewed that yesterday as we strolled though Kubota Garden, and will talk about the ethos of the organization as exemplified by the work we have done over the years, over 600 interviews, facilitating the visits of many amazing poets: Michael McClure, Wanda Coleman, Sam Hamill, Anne Waldman, Andrew Schelling, Ethelbert Miller, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Jerome Rothenberg, Nate Mackey, Brenda Hillman, José Kozer, Adrian Castro, Joanne Kyger, George Bowering and others. Conceiving of and producing the Cascadia Poetry Festival and furthering the deep ecopoetics stance inherent in bioregionalism in Cascadia and an awareness of Cascadian poetry with efforts like Make It True: Poetry From Cascadia.

My Mom will be attending, visiting from Chicago, as will my Sister Barb. 

Doreen Mitchum, of 4Culture, who coordinates Arts Projects and the Touring Arts Roster, said by email a few weeks ago: “…Do you know how special it is to have an arts org. last for that long? You’re in an elite club my friend!” It feels like something special to hit a quarter of a century in existence. We have large goals for the next five years, including continuation of the Cascadia Poetry Festival, expansion of the August Poetry Postcard Fest to 1,000 participants in 2019 and eventually 10,000, two new anthologies to be released in 2019, more interviews, more books of interviews, more support for other bioregional poetics efforts like what is happening in Cumberland, BC, with the Cascadia Poetics LAB and who knows what else?

So, huge gratitude to everyone mentioned here, everyone who has helped SPLAB exist and create unique and (we think) visionary programs. People like Danika Dinsmore, David McCloskey and Lana Ayers, 4 Culture, ArtsWa, Humanities Washington, the City of Auburn, Seattle Office of Arts and Culture and many many more, and those who have attended, or participated in any of our events. People who have taken time to make individual contributions. Our gratitude can not be adequately expressed. Huge thanks to all SPLAB Board Members, past and present, including Joe Chiveney, Nadine Maestas, Peter Munro, Matt Trease, Lisa Fusch Krause and Cate Gable. Huge thanks to Bhakti Watts, Thomas Walton and Elizabeth Cooperman. Huge thanks to you and a thousand blessings. This has been such a gift in my life. I hope to see you tomorrow night.

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