Gary Snyder, Dōgen, Jason Wirth & Our Ecological Crisis

In August of 2017 I had the good fortune to be invited to a reading to celebrate a new book by Jason Wirth. A professor of Philosophy at Seattle University and Zen Priest, Jason’s new book is Mountains, Rivers and the Great Earth: Reading Gary Snyder and Dōgen in an Age of Ecological Crisis.

Gary Snyder and Dale Pendell were the other readers. It was Snyder’s first reading in Nevada City, California, in 40 years. (See below.) (See also this.)

Last Friday, November 3, 2017, I caught up with Jason in his Rainier Beach (Seattle) home to discuss the book, Snyder and the fact that our current ecological crisis has a huge spiritual component.

Listen to Part 1, 8:16

Paul E Nelson: Mountains, Rivers, and the Great Earth: Reading Gary Snyder and Dōgen in an Age of Ecological Crisis. What an amazing book, and what an important book it is at this time, after a summer when we saw ash from ancient forests landing in spider webs around our house in this neighborhood. This is jump time, right now. We’re living in it.

Jason Wirth: It is jump time.

Paul E Nelson: May you live in interesting times.

Jason Wirth: That was a Chinese curse.

Paul E Nelson: Yes, and we know what they mean by that. When did you first get interested in the work of Gary Snyder?

Jason Wirth: Oh, boy. It’s hard to remember a time in which I was not interested in it. I would say as a high school student in San Francisco, Gary Snyder was already in the air. We already had a sense. But this vision went two directions that were very important. One being on the west coast of Turtle Island.

The ecological issues, as early as the ’70s and ’80s, were already forefronted. Then, too, this all had something to do with Zen. And Zen had something to do with revolution. And Zen had some to do with a different kind of a mind and a different way of living.

Paul E Nelson: I’m trying to picture that time. I’m guessing you graduated in 1980, or … ?

Jason Wirth: Good guess. ’81.

Paul E Nelson: ’81. What high school did you go to?

Jason Wirth: I went to St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco.

Paul E Nelson: Jesuit, sounds like.

Jason Wirth: Jesuit, yes.

Paul E Nelson: So you’re a Jesuit, but you’re a budding Zen master in high school?

Jason Wirth: Well, my father was a Catholic convert, so we got a strong impression about this being the way to live from early childhood. That being said, I will always credit the Jesuits for dismantling my faith and putting me on a different path. I think it speaks well of them as teachers that the result of being under the tutelage of the Jesuits was not that I became more Catholic. I ceased, in a very radical way, to be Catholic at all. And I thank them for that.

Paul E Nelson: Ceased, maybe, being big C Catholic, but certainly small c catholic.

Jason Wirth: Yes, mostly. Also, a sense that what’s at stake in Catholicism, whether you’re on that path or not, are the big questions, and these are philosophical questions, these are poetic questions. This are questions that ask us, even transformatively, to think about who we are and how we’re going to live, and who we are to each other. Catholicism, at it’s best, has participated valuable in those sorts of things.

In my text I even call out Pope Francis in an appreciate way. He’s a powerful ally, I think, in these questions. At the same time, the Catholics don’t have a monopoly on these. The bigger takeaway was living a more mindful, meaningful life. For that, I thank the Jesuits, and for that I’m grateful to be teaching about the Jesuits at Seattle University.

Paul E Nelson: So, San Francisco 1981 was seven years after Gary Snyder had won the Pulitzer Prize.

Jason Wirth: Yes, for Turtle Island.

Paul E Nelson: And that was a moment of validation for the Beat movement. And yet, that validation wasn’t necessary in a town like San Francisco. But it would seem to me that would only have amplified whatever Beat presence, celebrity or influence might have been in that town at that time.

Jason Wirth: For sure, for sure. Again, I want to say, San Francisco, for me, in my memory, and who knows to what extent memory mixes with desire, but as I now remember it, maybe mythologize it in my own mind, we all had a sense that Snyder was a Zen teacher. That that was not something that was part of his Beat reception at a popular level. Those who really knew Snyder’s work, of course, would be the first to agree with that. But in terms of the kind of superficial veneer of how it was received, he was a kind of hippie, yeah, Japan-[influenced] sort of ecologist. I think that just underestimates, the importance of the Beat movement for radical ecological politics, and certainly underestimates Snyder.

Paul E Nelson: You are a Zen monk, and Dōgen has come up in other contexts. For those who never heard of Dōgen, tell us about this Zen monk and poet who lived 800 years ago.

Jason Wirth: Dōgen is the best. He’s absolutely the best. My relationship with Dōgen is complex, but I’ll point to a few high points. One goes right back to Snyder himself.

Snyder is good friends with Jack Shoemaker, who now runs Counterpoint Press. But at the time, he ran North Point Press out of San Francisco. Terrific press. It was eventually just swallowed up by FSG. Shoemaker got out of town, wisely. That was the end of that press and end of that experiment.

But one of the things that they did early on, 1985 I think, or thereabouts, and under Snyder’s insistence, Shoemaker and North Point published Moon in a Dewdrop, one of the first really serious translations of Dōgen’s works. That was done by Tanahashi who was at the San Francisco Zen Center, and a bunch of people at the Zen Center. That was seminal. That was when I first read Dōgen. That would have been in senior year in college.

That was powerful. Powerful experience. My own Zen training began in  Rinzai. I trained in Tōfuku-ji monastery in Kyoto. My first teacher, Fukushima, was the dharma air of Shibayama, who was the US replacement for D.T. Suzuki. It belonged to that really privileged — intersecting of course with the Beats — deep reception of Zen in the United States. Fukushuma really had his finger on academics who were interested in Zen. He gave us all a very hard time, and said, “Well, you think you can figure this out from books. You can’t.”

That was a very deep teaching. But when he died, my next teacher, and it was somebody who was in the States so I wouldn’t have to keep going back to Japan, was Sōtō. Sōtō comes out of ultimately Dōgen. Sōtō is a translation of  Cáodòng in Chinese. That was the monastery in which Dōgen had studied, where his great teacher was.  Rújìng, or the Japanese called him Nyōjo. That was the great Chinese teacher of Dōgen.

Dōgen came back and wrote, in his 53 years, I think one of the masterpieces in the history of Buddhism, certainly, I think, one of the finest works in the history of Zen, and that’s the Shōbōgenzō, the Treasure of the True Dharma Eye, excerpts of which appeared in Moon in a Dewdrop. It’s a lifelong study. It’s deep. It comes from a very, very deep sense of Zen. Since the ’80s, Dōgen has really emerged as one of the great minds in this Zen path.

Gary Snyder’s own path was also Rinzai. He spent 10 years in Japan studying Rinzai in Kyoto. He discovered Dōgen also late, through Carl Bielefeldt, initially, who is now at Stanford, who had done an early translation. He also found Dōgen electrifying.

Listen to Part 2 – 6:42.

Paul E Nelson: I’m listening to you, and I’m thinking that the background is our current cultural situation. In an age with internet, space travel, instant worldwide communication, that someone who lived 800 years ago would be totally irrelevant to the life we’re living in today. But I suspect that you contend the opposite is true.

Jason Wirth: Opposite is absolutely true. I would say, one of the things I do when I’m teaching hard work of philosophy, or hard work from the Buddhist tradition, is I try to say, “Well, this work is an answer for struggles with what question?”

And what was Dōgen’s great question? He never puts it explicitly, but what’s the big background question if you were to try to say, “Well, what’s the experience of reading Dōgen?”

I would say it’s something like this. “What happens to you when you take the Zen path? What is your mind on Zen? Zen does what do your very manner of consciousness?”

That’s part of what makes the Shōbōgenzō difficult. There’s also other technical difficulties. You lose the traditions that might be very remote now. The hardest thing is, if you have no sympathy for Zen practice, if you’ve never tasted Zen practice, there’s an element of it that will always be very elusive.

But what makes him so incredibly important right now? I think the prevailing mindset, who we think we are, what we imagine it is really to be a human being, has catapulted the entire earth into a global crisis. This has something directly to do with our sense of ourselves. I would say it’s insufficient to respond to the ecological crisis only by giving us new ideas or new information to consider …

Paul E Nelson: New technology.

Jason Wirth: New technology. I think Tillerson gets it as wrong as wrong can be when he says, “The ecological crisis is an engineering challenge and an engineering problem.”

No. We have it because of how we think about engineering. I’m not going to blame engineering. I’m going to blame engineering mind.

Paul E Nelson: Unless you want to apply the scientific approach to consciousness. So engineering of proper consciousness is what we’re after.

Jason Wirth: I would say so. I think there is a real science of Zen. In the deep sense. This is not mysticism. This is not magic thought. Zen is not magic, it’s not supernatural. As the 10th Ox-herding picture says, “No spells, no magic, just teach the withered trees to bloom.” To bring back what our mind is. To awaken us to what our mind is. To awaken us from the nightmare of what we thought it was.

Paul E Nelson: So, this is the thesis, again, stated thesis of the book. Can you go to the beginning? Do you remember the first idea you had that you could write a book looking at Snyder’s epic poem, his use of Dōgen, and the environmental situation we find ourselves in right now?

Jason Wirth: Yeah. I come at that … That’s the great sea, and there’s all these different tributaries in my own thinking and my own experience that led me to this sea. One, just loving Snyder. Always being favorably inclined to taking up in a serious way. Convinced that Snyder really is on to something that we won’t fully appreciate in our generation.  I think Snyder’s accomplishment will come the next generation? Next generation after? When it becomes even clearer to us how catastrophic the prevailing mindset, and set of assumptions about what it is to be who we are becomes more apparent.

Paul E Nelson: He said it would take 100 years.

Jason Wirth: He said it would take 100 years.

Paul E Nelson: I think he says that in … Doesn’t he say that in Mountains and Rivers?

Jason Wirth: It’s going to take a long time. And we don’t have a long time. I don’t sense that Snyder’s optimistic that we’ll figure it out in time. Or, at least before we could prevent some really catastrophic things. I hope that’s not true, but that’s just a hope, that’s not a conviction or a belief, or certainly not how I would pose a hypothesis based on the prevailing evidence. Deeply entrenched is the mindset that we have to call into question.

But it’s becoming clear in my own Zen practice, on my own philosophical path, my own literary path, my own sense of growing up on the west coast of Turtle Island, and then after studying and teaching on the other side of the island, coming back to the west is really a place that — as a place — I think has certain openings and certain powers that speak very loudly to me from these perspectives.

Paul E Nelson: Your penetration of Gary Snyder is so thorough and so intense, and such a valuable gift to anyone interested in anything approaching this subject. The fact that Gary helped promote the book at a reading in Grass Valley … It was his first public appearance in his county in 40 years.

Jason Wirth: Yes, yes.

Paul E Nelson: That speaks of some respect that he has for the work that you’ve done.

Jason Wirth

Jason Wirth: He’s been very kind. I’ve been immensely grateful. The book is, in some ways, to take very seriously the kind of Zen backbone of Snyder’s entire project and its entire sensibility. To my knowledge that has not been done, not in a book-length study. A couple of good articles out there, but really a serious, deep engagement, and then raising it unapologetically against the background of the Earth crisis, that’s Snyder’s great contribution. I’m very grateful that he saw, at least in me, someone who appreciates what he’s doing.

Paul E Nelson: And is on to something.

Jason Wirth: Is on to something, yeah.

Paul E Nelson: Especially the Dōgen connection.

Jason Wirth: Yeah.

Listen to Part 3 – 12:32.

Paul E Nelson: Yeah. The current situation we face, you say in the book, is a result of the poverty of our practice.

Jason Wirth: Yes.

Paul E Nelson: That’s very potent, to put it that way. Can you elaborate?

Jason Wirth: Yes. I think really the Zen perspective is, A) immensely suspicious of the following kinds of intellectual moves: That we have some fixed human nature. We should figure out what it is, and then make our politics based on what we assume to be true about our human nature. That’s always a scam.

Paul E Nelson: What’s an example of that?

Jason Wirth: I would say justifications for capitalism. Or, an exact example, capitalism, which will probably participate directly in the auto-extinction of our species. How is it ultimately justified? Well, human nature is self-interested. It has first and foremost, if we’re honest, itself as its primary concern. This is what modern philosophy called the conatus, the endeavor to preserve and enhance yourself. That we’re self-interested, greedy agents. So, capitalism is a way to take our fallen, greedy human nature and help it enrich everyone. The rising tide that lifts all boats, and all these other scams. Invisible hand. All these ways in which we’ve abdicated our responsibility for who we are and what we are, and how we are in relationship to the earth.

Zen does not start with human nature. It starts with all of the interdependent relations that comprises who we are. In that way I think it lends itself very nicely to science. To all these kinds of studies that try to understand ourselves more, systemically.

The earliest way of naming that in the Buddhist tradition was something like karma. I use that word very advisedly because it’s easily misunderstood, and I don’t want to come across at the last minute like I’m pulling out some superstitious mumbo-jumbo. But karma is just something like our prevailing background conditions that enable us to be the kinds of creatures that we are. Those are ecological conditions, kind of like a climate if you will. A climate makes possible certain things within that climate. If you shift the climate, you shift what’s possible in that climate.

Paul E Nelson: The climate is shifted through one’s practice.

Jason Wirth: I think we can see our karma clearly from the ecological emergency, because our practice is capitalist, self-serving. We like getting rich, and so therefore we retroactively make up a story that justifies what we’re already doing. It was not like, “Wow, we discovered that we’re a bunch of greedy SOB’s. What should we do? Oh, I know. The best way for us not to destroy ourselves is capitalism.”

That didn’t happen. It was the other way around. It was the fact of capitalism. And when we saw what we were doing, slavery, genocide, empire, exploitation of the workers, total ecological devastation, then we said, “Well … “

Paul E Nelson: “That’s human nature.”

Jason Wirth: “That’s human nature.”

Paul E Nelson: “It’s just the way it is.”

Jason Wirth: “It’s what we are.”

I think that’s just bogus. Zen is really to practice deeply on who we can be by practicing deeply on our relationship to these background conditions, improving these background conditions, but also improving our awareness. Our openness. Our honesty.

Paul E Nelson: It’s very interesting that this would be a critique of right-wing thinking, or right-wing ethos, and yet the left-wing is really into an identity politics, which, just even saying that is a loaded thing. But basing things on identity. The impulse, I think, is a very good one, because people of color in this climate, women in this climate, gay and lesbian people in this climate, have certainly gotten the short end of the stick.

And yet, to talk about Pope Francis again, he says the most abused entity or orphan on this planet … I don’t think he said the word orphan, but-

Jason Wirth: No. “The poorest of the poor.”

Paul E Nelson: “The poorest of the poor is the planet itself” which is a living thing.

Jason Wirth: Yes. Yeah. Identity politics, first and foremost, on the one hand I understand and am empathetic to the political expediency that gives birth to that discourse. In limiting its ultimate value, I don’t want to suggest it has no value. It might be the best that we can do under very, very anguished circumstances, under a brutal history that we in no way seem willing to confront.

Things are only getting worse on these fronts. So, I get the battle. Am for that battle. I do think, however, that long term, it’s not going to serve us well. If the background conditions that make this discourse politically expedient are themselves addressed, identity politics will also keep us from seeing other aspects of our prevailing problems. That is a more karmic, systemic, Earth-oriented … By that I mean not that we’re on the Earth, but we’re the bioregional, inter-penetrating, co-evolving, co-enabling conditions of a place. And not just how we appear within a political ideology as we fight for our life. I want to say, people are fighting for their lives.

That political ideology, so long as it’s in place, will give rise to these things. But I also dream of a less ideological relationship to each other. A less ideological sense of politics. A less mega-state underwritten by crazy ideology way of being with each other and with non-human animals as the places that we are.

Paul E Nelson: #heterotrophsolidarity?

Jason Wirth: Yeah. For sure.

Paul E Nelson: Your book is part of your practice.

Jason Wirth: Absolutely.

Paul E Nelson: The lack of academic jargon in the book was intentional.

Jason Wirth: Yes.

Paul E Nelson: You’re a guy who, you can use jargon with the best of them, and have used jargon with the best of them, but chose not to for this book.

Jason Wirth: Yes. I’ve never ever loved jargon. By that I mean, we say in a more complicated way what could be said more straightforwardly. One of the things I love about Gary Snyder is he’s deep as all get out, but he believes in straight talk. If you can’t say it straightforwardly, and you have to hide in mumbo-jumbo, go back to the drawing board.

Paul E Nelson: I’m reminded of a bumper sticker that said, “Eschew obfuscation.”

Jason Wirth: Yes. Yeah. It’s an old, medieval logical fallacy. Do not explain the obscure with the further obscure. You want to shed light on things. I’ve always been, although I’ve been trained of course, in super-jargonese as one of the sub-languages of all philosophy. One of your foreign languages that you learn, to speak philosophese, but is of no service to students. It’s of no service to the reading public. It’s sometimes used to allow philosophers to speak in mantras rather than in clear ideas. Really, for me, philosophy always is about the “what test.” The what test has two aspects. Exactly what are you talking about? Then, more importantly, so what? What are you saying, and why are you saying it? You have to be crystal clear about that. What’s motivating this discourse? What motivates a lot of philosophy is, “Well, it’s what we do. We’re philosophers.”

We just hide in the crowd of people already doing this, and if we’re all doing it, it must be worth doing. But I don’t know. I think philosophy is a life and death issue, and if we’re not crystal clear about the problems that we’re trying to solve, and we’re hiding in mantras, or we’re writing in a way that only exactly your 10 peers working on this problem can read, I don’t know.

I think writing is also the art of becoming … this is my mixed Zen metaphor. It’s the art of becoming a piñata. You’re out on a limb. You’re all out there. You’re not hiding where you stand. Of course you are going to be attacked. I say, bring it on. Tear me apart.

Paul E Nelson: And I’ll spit out candy.

Jason Wirth: I’ll spill the candy. It’s full of candy. You walked right into my trap.

Paul E Nelson: What is underlying that urge to hide behind jargon?

Jason Wirth: Looking at ourselves. Looking at who we are.

Paul E Nelson: Vulnerability?

Jason Wirth: Vulnerability is power in Zen. Not just in Zen. I think even that’s a deep, deep reading of the Christian traditions. The power of Jesus was vulnerability. Openness. Exposure.

Paul E Nelson: Humility.

Jason Wirth: Humility. Not the Roman power of the sword. It’s absolutely the case in Zen. What first appears to be strong, the rock, the mountain, that which shows its power by being able to maintain its place, stubborn, dominating, is in the end shown to be weak. What first appears to be weak, water, vulnerability, is shown to be strong. It washes down the mountains. It gives mountains part of their movement. It’s also associated with compassion. Compassion is also the art of becoming vulnerable. Exposed.

But being exposed, that means also in this country exposing ourselves to some very ugly things. I would say one of the deepest fruits I think of Zen, and certainly I’ll speak my own experience of Zen, is having a mind that becomes strong enough, or at least aware of its own untapped strengths that it’s able really to look at itself honestly.

To be honest about who we are, both as a species … Our intense self-regard as a species has been catastrophic for many other species. We’re probably in a sixth great extinction event. That’s in part because of our species’ ego, which Peter Singer once called speciesism.

The difficulty of being on Turtle Island. That we don’t call it Turtle Island. That we mark it with empire, and don’t look at the genocide of indigenous peoples, who, by the way, lived in a way that suddenly seems pretty good, given that we’re about to destroy ourselves.

Our slavery, and other forms not as toxic but still plenty toxic forms of labor exploitation. Industrialization. Look straight on at who we are as a species, as a culture. For men to look at themselves fully and deeply, and to own what it has been to be a man for half of our own species. For white people to look at themselves. For human beings to look at themselves in terms of our relationship to all things non-human.

To look at ourselves in terms of how we relate to the Earth. It’s not just there for us. It’s not just raw materials at our disposal to use as we see fit. It’s that which gives us birth. Our primary stance should have been gratitude. But that it was not means our primary stance then becomes deep forms of practice by which we also atone.

Listen to Part 4 – 9:42.

Paul E Nelson: A quick sidebar. You made the connection between water and compassion. When we live in this part of the world, water, especially this time of year, November, water is a very real fact of living. Not to mention the fact that here in this neighborhood there’s at least two of the city’s three perennial creeks. Not to mention that Seattle’s surrounded by water. Lake Washington is nearby, the bay is nearby. What do you think makes that connection more especially profound in Cascadia? What are the implications, I think, of that connection?

Jason Wirth: We are the water salmon people. I think that’s simply true. Two reflections, one anecdotal and one philosophical. The anecdotal one, I remember going to the receiving of the canoe families when the Squaxin people down in Olympia held it, and as the canoes all came in from up and down the Coast Salish historical territory, as far away as Alaska, as all the canoe families had been received, they then, the Squaxin elder, asked everyone, no matter what your religion is, say it in terms of your own path if you need to, but we’re now going to thank the water for our life. I simply said, “Yeah.” That sounds eccentric, and magical, and superstitious, but really it’s the exact opposite. Not to be able to see that water gives us life, that our body is a majority of water to begin with, to be in Seattle, blessed with rain, and here we are cursing the rain because we’re not living in Phoenix-like conditions, this is crazy. It’s all speaking to how profoundly spatially alienated our mode of habitation has been in this part of the world.

We look at this land as if it’s separate from us. We look at the climate as if it’s something that should serve us and fit our preferences rather than thinking, “What are all the ways in which this climate, among its many fruits, is the fact of us? That we’re able to be here. That it gives us life.” If we imagine that we own it, and can’t see it really as the other way around, we belong to the Earth. We are its gift and fruit, not that it’s there for us as something that we can carve up and sell and use as we feel. This level of profound alienation is going to be the end of us as a species, I think. But here, especially in Ish River country, man oh man, it’s the gift of this place, that as stupid as we are, as impoverished as our practice is, here just pounds at you. People, as dim as we have been, people begin to start to get it here. There is a level of receptivity, however flawed, however wanting, that you can still see that it’s begun. It’s begun.

Paul E Nelson: The power of compassion in the water itself works on us.

Jason Wirth: It works on us. The philosophical reflection on water, what’s interesting about water as a figure of compassion is that water, which is also aligned in the Mahayana tradition with emptiness, because it has no position of its own, because there is metaphorically no form of water … Again, we’re speaking about water as emptiness, not just the literal fact of water. But you can see easily in actual water, because it has no form of its own, it can take any form. We turn back to identity politics. When the form of who we are means that the form of who you are does not matter to us, you have to insist on the dignity of your form. And well you should, and I think you have no choice. It’s that or perish. I get it. But compassion is, “You never should have been in that situation to begin with.”

The mind itself is water. So the teaching in Mahayana really works like this. The journey inward, to prajñā, to wisdom, to clarity of the mind, to the deep, calm, bottom of the ocean of the mind, wisdom within expresses itself as compassion without, as it moves out. It is the mind being able to hold, and cherish, and appreciate all things human and non-human, that’s what compassion is. That you never mattered to me, even though I’m in a species-mad, self-obsessed species. One hand, humanity sees itself as the only life form that truly matters. Catastrophically, it thinks that. But it’s not even true that in thinking that, that all of our species matters. Well, actually it turns out very little of it matters.

It’s crazy. It’s moving more and more in a suicidal direction. This, of course, is the paradox of the climate crisis. You’d say, “Well, selfishness should at least be good for selfish people. At least they’ll get more stuff for themselves.” But really what selfishness is doing is it’s cutting ourselves off from our own species. It’s cutting our species itself off from all the climates that make it possible, that make it flourish. That make it flourish as it co-inhabits and co-shares its way of being with other ways of being. Selfishness serves no self.

Selfishness is self-destructive. But that’s how deep this poison runs. Our selfishness is self-destructive, and what is the result? We have politics like the one we have right now, that doubles down on the selfishness, and therefore doubles down almost catastrophically, almost sublimely catastrophically, the repercussions of what it is to be selfish.

Paul E Nelson: Shoveling coal into the engine of a freight train careening out of control.

Jason Wirth: That’s a crazy thing to do.

Paul E Nelson: Yeah. You mentioned that Snyder and Dōgen are “critical interlocutors in the emergence of an Earth philosophy, poetics, ethics, science.”

Jason Wirth: Yes.

Paul E Nelson: I’d love to hear … I think we’ve already been hearing what’s at the core of it, but I’d love to hear you elaborate on that phrase, “Earth philosophy, poetics, ethics, science.”

Jason Wirth: Yeah. I’m really also very suspicious of the manner in which thinking has taken over a very unfortunate metaphor from capitalism, which is hyper specialization. The philosophers only know philosophy, they don’t know science or poetics. The poets … not the good ones, but the worst of poetry is you just imagine that poetry is just expressing your subjectivity, or …

Paul E Nelson: I’ve heard poets tell me, “I don’t like to read other poetry because I don’t want it to influence me.”

Jason Wirth: Which is crazy. The better a poet you are, the more selfless you are. Only when you’re selfless does your poetic voice come out. Only what is singular about your voice comes out precisely when you don’t pursue it. When you get out of the way. When you read other poets. When you read science, when you read philosophy. When you read everything.

What I loved about meeting Gary Snyder was having the treat of going into his library, and spending some time in his library. Of course, he’s so extraordinarily well read in everything. That’s what it takes. In what way does science need poetry? That’s a philosophical question.

But a philosophical question brings dignity back to philosophy when we can think deeply about the relationship between science and poetry. Poetry left only to the wiles of subjectivity is aligning itself with a sense of ourselves completely alienated from an Earth that science, for example, can help us understand. Help us understand how our body shares its own possibilities and its own paths with other life forms. 145 genes in every human being are totally non-human. Just alone our genetic makeup already is not just human. We’re not human. We’re not free-floating subjects out of which magically emerges some poetic creation. We’re channeling deeply the earth, what it is to be here now.

I think really Zen without science, without poetry, without philosophy, is impoverished. But philosophy that simply philosophizes without rooting itself in science, without thinking deeply about how, finally, will we sing these things? How, finally, will we find voice that helps us more clearly be who we are, and do that by singing where we are?

Listen to Part 5 – 12:26.

Paul E Nelson: When I see that quote, and I when I hear you talk about the intersection of Earth, philosophy, poetics, ethics, science, very much obviously Snyder. That’s part of what draws you to him. And then the discussion of form that’s in the book, and I’ll just read from page 45.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Form is always temporal, i.e. relative, for it is nothing more than the means necessary today through which the present revelation makes itself heard. Form is the outer expression of the inner content. We should never make a god out of form. We should struggle for form only as long as it serves as a means of expression for the inner sound. Therefore, we should not look for salvation in one form only.”

That’s one quote. What I’m trying to get to is a notion of this combination that … in other words, a poetics that’s also a cosmology. The other quote on the next page is, “To see without eyes is to see freely. Not in the sense of granting one’s own ego free license to do whatever it wants, but rather to participate in the sovereignty of nature’s own imagination. That is, in the freedom at the heart of the coming to be of form.”

So, to discover the form that’s already inherent, and to get in sync with that. Gary’s talked about the wilderness of the mind. So, he’s after that. To me, it’s a combination of cosmology and poetics is what you’re articulating.

Jason Wirth: Absolutely. The Kandinsky quote, that’s from a book that translates concerning the spiritual in art. As Kandinsky is trying to A) make a strong pitch for what’s happening to art in the very early parts of the 20th century, he’s not saying, “All other forms of art were wrong. This finally is the arrival of the true form.”That art has no form, if by that you mean art is only the forms of art that it’s been. Art is all the forms of art that it has been, and all the forms of art to come. Now, what is art if it’s not simply its form? What is this animating artistic impulse that gives rise to all the forms of art that trace all the way back to our shamanic, pre-literate periods. Art is really the oldest of human artifacts. It belonged very, very deeply to who we’ve always been before we left any other relics of cities, or relics of politics.

What is this spirit? The book itself says the ecological crisis is, for want of a better word, a spiritual crisis. It’s not just saying, “Shall we replace the form of who we have been with a new form, a new corrected form?”

Spirit’s a dicey word, because it says all the wrong things in so many ways. It sounds like you’re tying to get away from the world. It’s a way of trying, in a more Western idiom, to zero in on something that’s at the absolute heart of Mahayana, which is emptiness. “Ah,  Śāriputra, have you not heard? Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.”

Now, Kandinsky, who to my knowledge had no deep reading of the Buddhist traditions, although he was a very cosmopolitan, world culture-oriented person … This was a period in which they were electrified by African art, and I’m sure they just misunderstood it in so many ways, and appropriated it in infelicitous ways. But still, you can see in their openness to it, this form that so thoroughly challenged European forms, that something besides European form or African form was opening. There was a solidarity with art as showing us the living emptiness of forms. I think that’s really key. So how, then, do you see emptiness? Well, you don’t see a form of emptiness. The form of emptiness would be nihilism, and that’s, to add salt to an open wound, that’s going in the wrong direction. It’s to receive forms differently. To see forms not merely as ends in themselves, but as part of life processes.

We can see that already in poetry. Poetry is both the history of poetry … Very viable. Things that have been done. Things that have come into form. And poeticizing. That poetry can be exhausted by no poem. That the history of poetry can never have a final period. The history of art can never have a final period. That what is art? It belongs to art never to be able to answer that question. That is its life.

Paul E Nelson: Denise Levertov lived the last 10 years of her life not far from this present scene. Said, “form is never more than a revelation of content.”

Jason Wirth: That’s exactly right.

Paul E Nelson: I think that’s accurate.

Jason Wirth: We call that inspiration. We call that creation.

Paul E Nelson: Snyder’s interest in bioregionalism goes back to the ’60s or ’70s. A quote on page 32 says, “When the bioregion is not jeopardized by the manner in which we are part of it, we are our bioregion.” Is bioregionalism a thing that was appropriate for the ’80s, and out of date now? Or is it valid for the time in which we live?

Jason Wirth: It’s just a word. That being said, I think it’s a pretty good word. I think it does a number of things that are very valuable. One, it gets us away from an abstract sense of place. You speak about the problem of place admittedly in very abstract terms. But in so doing, you say that place is never just generically place. It is singularly, specifically, and also historically singularly places.

When Joanna Macy proposed a council of all beings, Snyder very, very thoughtfully retorted, “What we need is a village council of all beings.”

As in, thinking about a place or Earth simply by saying, “Okay, well, think the Earth as Earth,” misses the thought of the Earth. The Earth is desert and rainforest. The Earth is 17th century Earth. The Earth is 10 billion year ago Earth. The time and place matter, and they conspire together to give us the temporal, spatial uniqueness of the places that give us a sense of ourselves as place. I think that’s really cool. In regionalism, you get that. We want to think place regionally, but the bio, I think you’re also getting something deliciously temporal. This place is not another place, nor is it settling into the form of itself. It’s alive. It’s temporally dynamic.

I’m struck here, when you go to the eastern side of the Cascades, and you come across, right off of I-90, near the Columbia River, the remains of this ancient forest. This fossil forest, including fossilized ginkgos, and these massive trees. You look at it now and it’s just these barren hills in which nary a tree will grow. Columbia River comes carving through this, this water that’s contrasting an otherwise really quite grassy, Palouse-oriented land. This was once a massive forest. Mountains come and go. To think not just regionality as a way in which we think of place in general, but think, “What is this place?”

What is it to be on Earth, here in Ish River country, now? What is practice now? In a way, Dōgen appears not as who he truly is, but simply in a way in which he’s only accessible now, which is, you read Dōgen when the imminent collapse of our species is clearly imaginable. Now, here, from what we can see around us is in imminent threat. It can now be what it is. Things are not what they are in a vacuum. There’s no such thing as “x” in general. X is always temporally and spatially formed, and it’s moving. And it’s not, see that it’s just … I’ll put it one last way. The Zen tradition is extremely suspicious of our over-reliance on abstraction. You have to do that as a matter of convention. Otherwise we can’t get business done, we can’t have a conversation. But you’re not an abstract sense of yourself. We’re not in an abstract place. We’re in a living place. Now, here, who are we?

Paul E Nelson: When you find your place where you are, practice occurs.

Jason Wirth: Practice is being your place. It is being your place. Practice … To think that there’s some generic way to be … I’ll put it like this. If you think Zen practice is not worrying about President Trump, if you think that Zen practice is just relaxing, and it’s a form of-

Paul E Nelson: Navel gazing.

Jason Wirth: Navel gazing. Then Pope Benedict was right. It’s just autoeroticism. But that’s an unfair critique of Zen, because at its best, it’s moving in the exact opposite direction.

Not who are we in general. Here, now, today, this minute. Who are we? And that is a spatially and temporally specific question. What are the conditions that give rise to who we are? What are its temporal openings? Its temporal threats? Its opportunities and crises? That’s who we are. In that way, the Zen insistence upon mindfulness is key.

If you could just figure out who we were in general, and that’s what we were, if we’re just generally this or that, you would not have to be mindful. Mindful means, “Pay attention. Don’t simply go for the trans-temporal, trans-spatial answer.”

Now, here, what is it to be in Seattle? As we talk, with President Trump in the White House, the Paris Climate Accords pulled out of. As we began our interview, with three to four weeks of unbreathable air in Seattle, with ash coming in from almost every direction, depending on which way the wind was blowing. With enough fires that wind could blow anywhere, from any direction, and it would bring in ash. There was so much fire. Fires now, on average, burn twice as much as they did in the 1980s in this region.

Somehow, it made sense of us to disparage part of our own fellow citizens and double down on an absolutely suicidal environmental policy. And for the environmental record of Trump, given that he has done almost everything wrong, for that not to have been the most egregious … even worse than Russia, should have been this.

Listen to Part 6 – 14:14.

Paul E Nelson: The great strategy of bioregionalism was that we reinhabit where we are. How does that look to you in this neighborhood, for example? And what are the rituals of reinhabitation? Paint us a picture of what this really looks like, when we reinhabit the place?

Jason Wirth: The word “reinhabitation” gets some people into trouble. So I’ll just say one caveat about it first. Indigenous people sometimes hear that, and they go, “Oh, man, it’s the second round of domination.”If the word suggests that, we need other words to make sure that that is not what we’re saying. It’s not a second regime of habitation. As a matter of fact, reinhabitation first and foremost begins with a thorough, honest investigation of the historical record and present reality of habitation. Whose lives were displaced? Upon whose backs was this built? Human and non-human? What were the ecosystems in play that are now scarcely imaginable? This summer when I was working on a different project I re-read Muir’s Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf of Mexico. When he gets to Florida, his description of Florida reminds me of no place I’ve ever seen in Florida. He claims it was true of the whole state, just about. It’s an amazing thing that this book was written in 1867, I guess, was the walk. Book didn’t come out until right after Muir died. But it’s unimaginable, the world that Muir walked in.

Inhabitation is also a deep imagination of what this place was. That includes its peoples, and by peoples I mean human and non-human. It’s a deep reckoning with ourselves and our culture. That being said, it’s also the following. Part of habitation is, you’re not in it for the long haul. That where you live is just the raw resources that drew you here. You use them up, and if they run out, if you sully the place, if you kill off all the things that make it possible to sustain life, you move on. It’s a form of living in which space is for us to use and for us therefore, if we so desire, to use up.

Paul E Nelson: Disposable.

Jason Wirth: Disposable space. It’s because, as we say, this was said of both land and slaves in this culture, “It is at our disposal.” Human beings can be used at our disposal. That’s why it was in the constitution of Carolina, when John Locke, the great philosopher added on it, it was not possible to murder a slave. Because a slave belonging to you could be used at your disposal. Reinhabitation, the land is not at our disposal. Neither is peoples, nor as enabling conditions. Imagine you’re going to be here for 1,000 years. Even if you’re here for one day. Imagine you’re going to be here for 1,000 years, and begin to undo the practices of disposability.

Paul E Nelson: That’s a tough sell on AirBnB. Come here for 1,000 years.

Jason Wirth: Yes. But even come for a day. We live at the Earth’s pleasure. That’s the turn upside down. The Earth is here, and we’ll use it at our pleasure.

Paul E Nelson: When I think of reinhabitation, I am heartened by the fact that the one farm in the city of Seattle is Rainier Beach.

Jason Wirth: Right down here.

Paul E Nelson: Right down by Pritchard Island.

Jason Wirth: And in one of the poorest parts of the city. And we’re going to say, “Okay, those who experience city living really as a form of nature deprivation, we’ll start here. We’re going to teach you to work the land.” It’s magnificent, what they’re doing down there. Rainier Beach is one of the best places to live on the West Coast of Turtle Island, in my opinion.

Paul E Nelson: What are some of the other examples of what reinhabitation might look like in practice, in daily practice?

Jason Wirth: In this neighborhood, struggling with gentrification. Deeply, deeply understanding how the ecology of this neighborhood is interrelated with t ecology of the city, with the ecology of the region.

Paul E Nelson: Daylighting Mapes Creek, for example.

Jason Wirth: Daylighting Mapes Creek is a great thing. But also, I would say, struggling with gentrification. By that I mean, as you know, Seattle, every time some white folks like us say, “Rainier Beach is a great place to live, because there’s so much diversity,” we all pour in here, and next thing you know it’s the next white neighborhood of Seattle. How are we going to do this in an economy that rewards money and profit? How are we going to make this a neighborhood in which we really hold onto what NPR reported some years ago, that this zip code, 98118, was the most diverse zip code in the United States. In a city that people assume is largely white, because they spend all their time in the north. Really, the real Seattle is one of the experiments in which what it meant to be here will include all of our species. The economic range of our species. But also consider all that is here. People. There’s lots of raccoons in this neighborhood. What do we do with raccoons? How are we going to live with raccoons? What treaty shall we make with raccoons? And the crows?

Paul E Nelson: The treaty that you made in your backyard is you feed them, right? What did I remember from that night we had dinner back there?

Jason Wirth: Yeah. They have their route. 

Paul E Nelson: Yes. And you want to respect that?

Jason Wirth: Yeah. I’ll struggle with it. I think the answers aren’t clear. But we have to think deeply. Of course, what’s thriving in Seattle? It’s all the recycler species. Crows, raccoons, and all these things that live off the fat of a disposable society, and yeah, they have their place. But the creatures that thrive on the disposability culture are the ones that are ascendent. What else was lost? What else should we be worried about?

Paul E Nelson: The Pacific Marten.

Jason Wirth: For example. Good luck seeing one of those. Good luck being one of the people who will be able to say that they saw one in your lifetime.

Paul E Nelson: I’m kidding, I’m kidding, and I’ve been to the Olympics 30, 35 times. And backpacking many of those times. In the book Mountains and Rivers, Snyder writes about ghost bison, ghost bears, ghost big horn, et cetera. He concludes with, “Then the white man will be gone.” And he’s a white man speaking in this way.

Jason Wirth: Absolutely.

Paul E Nelson: He’s not speaking of skin, necessarily, but he’s speaking of a way of being on this planet. He’s speaking of a cultural whiteness. Can you elaborate on that?

Jason Wirth: I think that’s an extremely powerful passage in Snyder. I think it resonates so deeply with other thinkers, also. On the one hand, he’s evoking the Ghost Dance. As people probably know, the Ghost Dance was received by Wovoka, who thought if this dance could be done, all the indigenous people who had died and been destroyed would come back. The ghost dance led to the horrible tragedy at Wounded Knee that was crushing the Ghost Dance. We thought they had exterminated it. A new work just came out that said, “No, it still survives.” So deep was this hope.

But Snyder reads this extraordinary hope among indigenous peoples. The white man would go away and that the dead would come back. He reads the dead as all indigenous peoples, so that includes all the species that have gone extinct in this country. It includes all the wounded and vanishing species in this country, which is a lot of them. All the wounded and vanishing ecosystems that were we to do this dance, were we to sing this poetry that brings together philosophy, and science, and ethics, and deep practice … Were we to do this dance, and were all of us to do this dance, the dead would come back, as in, a very different world would again show itself. Because what would go away … And again, on the one hand just literally taking it from the vision that Wovoka had, the white man would go away.

The white man has nothing to do with something that is true intrinsically about Caucasian pigment. The fact of whiteness as a scientific fact tells you almost nothing about a person. It’s like saying what does the fact that you’re tall tell you about a person? Or your shoe size? The fact of whiteness is very different from the idea of whiteness.

Charles Mills, who I don’t discuss in the book, but I could well have if I wanted to write a very long book, spoke about this as the racial contract. “What shall matter is not the fact of whiteness, but the idea of whiteness. The idea of whiteness shall now designate going forward, and shall benefit all those who meet the criteria of this idea.”

Those who matter as people. And those who don’t matter as people, those who don’t meet the criteria of this, are the disposable, the enslavable, the genocideable, the exploitable at work. This immense white privilege that all white people inherit, even if you are a counter-signatory. Even if you oppose it. We still benefit from it. The white, capitalist, disproportionately male. The racial contract has interlines with gender contracts, with poverty contracts, with all these ways in which we let the “white man” mean not the fact of white men, but the ideology of power.

Paul E Nelson: Control and domination.

Jason Wirth: Control and domination of the Earth, as a disproportion, rewards almost none of us. Including even in the final analysis, not all that many white men. Although they still are beneficiaries to some extent. The Ghost Dance, this crazy, suicidal ideology, stingy, self-serving, delusional, all the Buddhist’s three poisons, dissipates in an awakening.

We wake up to each other. Each other meaning not just other humans, but all the life forms with whom we share our being. The Earth itself, in its bioregional, temporal, spatial singularity. All this emerges. The dead come back. I think it’s an incredibly compelling vision.

I think that Snyder’s masterpiece is also a carefully designed technology of awakening. It is to kill the white man as an ideology of ultimately suicidal, but in the interim, deeply genocidal and species-cidal, if I can make that word up, the rendering to extinction of non-human animals and the persecution of the majority of our species.

This habitation scheme upon which the global world order has been built, Snyder calls the New World Disorder. The New World Disorder comes to an end. Now that’s a revolution. The revolution has to happen, not on television, not just in marching, not just through legislation. It has to be, first and foremost, a revolution of the mind. That’s hence why I want to insist, that the book insists, that there is, for want of a better word, an unavoidable spiritual quality to the climate emergency.

I don’t know else to name, and I’m happy to use other words. There has to be some awakening transformation about who we are, and we can mark that as the awakening of the Ghost Dance, after which the white man is dead. Thank god. Everyone should celebrate that. Including those who in fact happen to be white, and male, and those who are the beneficiaries, even in refusing it. They still have to say, “Well, okay, that means I’m going to have to sing that Ghost Dance twice as much as everyone else.”

That’s okay. That’s good Zen.

Paul E Nelson: I’m really grateful for your time.

Jason Wirth: Thank you Paul, it was really a great gratitude to know you, to have you as a friend, and to learn so much from you in all the extraordinary work that you do and have been doing for years. Thank you so much. What a privilege.

 

Gary Snyder Readings from Richard Mentzer on Vimeo.

More interviews by Paul E Nelson are found at: www.AmericanProphets.org

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Insanely Concentrated Wealth is Strangling Our Prosperity

“Insanely Concentrated Wealth Is Strangling Our Prosperity” is the title of a recent article on a website that proposes to offer ways in which we can, as a country, address what one amateur economist calls the worst income inequality in the history of time. The article’s sub-heading is, “Today’s amounts of wealth throttle the very engine of wealth creation itself.” The website is called” “Evonomics” and the author of this piece is Steve Roth, a Seattle resident who agreed to an interview about his article. It has been lightly edited for clarity. The audio is here:
Part 1 – 7:20
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Part 2 – 10:50.

Part 3 – 11:24

Part 4 – 11:59.

Paul Nelson: Can you tell us about the Evonomics website?

Steve Roth: Yeah, Evonomics was founded by founding Editor Robert Kadar. He and I were both working for The Evolution Institute. He was the editor of “This View of Life” online magazine about topics evolutionary. There’s a lot of the interest at The Evolution Institute, and a fairly academic topic at that time called Evonomics, which basically looks at economics through an evolutionary lens of competition and cooperation, survival of the fittest, the common ideas between evolution and economics. Robert decided to launch this site called Evonomics. I was very interested, because two of my huge intellectual passions are economics and evolution.

I was like, “Yeah, nobody’s going to want to read that.” Within a few months he was getting a quarter million page views a month. For the last two years Robert and I have been working on building it up, and we’re currently reaching millions of people a week on Facebook and getting hundreds of thousands of page views. Average person reads an article for five minutes, which is off the charts for website metrics.

Paul Nelson: In this era.

Steve Roth: In this era, right. People go to it and they read it, and the one thing I want to add is it’s not just about evolution economics anymore. We settled on the tagline, the next evolution of economics, which lets us do a much broader variety of …

Paul Nelson: Content.

Steve Roth: … content and topics. Wherein, what I liked in the economic scene wherein I like to call a very non-Kuhnian the moment, Thomas Kuhn wrote the structure scientific revolutions. You’ve heard of paradigm shifts before. He’s the guy that came up with that idea. The idea in that book is that a new paradigm comes along and replaces or supersedes: Copernicus, Einstein, Newton [are examples].

We’re in a fast name period in economics where the traditional paradigm is crumbling or is crumbled where many, or most have huge difficulties with its basic premises, but unlike a Kuhnian revolution, no single paradigm has replaced that. There is you might describe best as a whole plethora of competing research projects, where people are going at how the economy works in many different very diverse ways, and we’re trying to be a place for that, see change to be read about and understood.

Paul Nelson: As you were talking, I was thinking about the evolution of economics, and it seems to me there is an exact parallel between the devolution of our electoral system, and the person representing the country at this time – the 45th President of United States – and the current economic situation, both are so horribly wrong and horribly out-of-date and horribly inept at addressing the situation that we have today, would you say that’s accurate?

Steve Roth: Yeah. I would actually take it far more broadly to look at basically the economy over the last century. We had a Gilded Age in the 20s, crashed in ’29. Basically, we got the new deal where a huge amount of progressive agenda was enacted and put in a great deal of redistribution and social support programs. They simply built the spring board and platform that allowed tens of millions of Americans to stand up and change the world. The period after and then we had World War II where we ran our national data up to 120% of GDP, and the period that followed that was the greatest burst of widespread prosperity and wellbeing in the history of the United States.

It was just spectacular what was delivered unto the normal person in that period. That started to fade basically after Roosevelt. Truman was okay. Kennedy delivered the most massive tax cut for rich people we’ve seen in forever in 1964. (It was implemented in 1964.) Then came the Reagan “revolution.” If you look at any economic metrics, the economy has basically sucked and increasingly sucked ever since. The implementation trickled down, which actually started with that Kennedy tax cut has strangled our economy.

Paul Nelson: Trump is so horribly unqualified, but you’re talking about the problem going back to Kennedy who has looked back as maybe one of the last good presidents. Jimmy Carter’s tenure was seen as unsuccessful, and he was not reelected. If people liked Kennedy, Trump is fathoms and fathoms worse than that.

Steve Roth: Understand that I can’t help idolizing Kennedy. I have here a postcard that I keep on my computer screen of John-John and Catherine dancing in the Oval Office, with John F. Kennedy and it still brings tears to my eyes, but I know he was no paragon of progressive values and virtues. I think most progressives understand that, or I hope they do.

Paul Nelson: I’m not so sure they do, because I think the era that you’re talking about starting with Jimmy Carter continued with what you called the Reagan “revolution.” I would call that a “devolution.”

Steve Roth: Right.

Paul Nelson: That’s really neo-liberalism and that’s the problem we have now, because we have neoliberals saying, “No, we need to elect someone who’s more like the way things are and who’s not that far out, Hillary Clinton, and we see what happens.”

Steve Roth: Yeah.

Paul Nelson: We will talk about the neoliberal period, but I’d like to get a sense of your background. You’re calling yourself a student of economics and evolution.

Steve Roth: I have had a very varied career. The last real job I had was loading chair lifts at the ski area in 1980. I was a ski bum.

Paul Nelson: To me, that suggests you’ve been hugely successful, because you’ve been able to live your life the way you want to live it.

Steve Roth: I have been. Right, well, I was lucky I was born to a prosperous family. My dad was a classic 1960s St. Louis, do-gooder, Jewish lawyer, national board of the ACLU, health and hospitals, aid the victims of crime. He was that kind of guy and that’s been imbued in me, but I was also quite prosperous, I was lucky. I was able to start my own businesses, and I did quite well. I’m not wildly rich, but I’m very comfortable, because of the month, built and sold quite a few, and I’m an equity investor in various things now. I was lucky. I started on third base. In the process, I’ve built a lot of businesses, and I’ve really come at this whole thing very much from that perspective.

I’m also just naturally a sort of intellectual guy, and I get super interested in things. I got super interested in economics and about 15 years ago, I started studying that hard and started writing a blog, which is how I figure out what I think or try and work through problems. I’m totally an autodidact, a self-trained student of economics that results in some spotlight knowledge that an autodidact ends up with. I don’t have some of the broader stuff that you would get if you went to graduate school for instance, so I’m a self trained student of economics, but I’ve studied hard and read thousands and thousands of things.

Paul Nelson: The gap between rich and poor in the United States at this time is the greatest gap in the history of time, isn’t it?

Steve Roth: I think it is, it’s hard to say, but if you look at Thomas Piketty’s work, we’re certainly at or above where we were in the late 19th century and early 20th century. This raises a point about the article I wrote is that wealth has always been extremely difficult thing to measure, because basically rich people don’t want to tell you for very obvious reasons.

Paul Nelson: They don’t want to tell you how much they have or where they’ve hidden it.

Steve Roth: Right, exactly. I think Piketty’s colleague Gabriel Zucman has said, “There’s at least $20 trillion in household wealth hiding in the world just for a benchmark, U.S. household wealth that’s $100 trillion.”

Paul Nelson: How much?

Steve Roth: About $20 trillion. Now the $20 trillion is from worldwide.

Paul Nelson: Right. Those are in the mattresses somewhere in the world, right?

Steve Roth: Yeah, they’re in the labyrinths.

Paul Nelson: Right, and the gap between rich and everyone else in this country?

Steve Roth: Yeah, the top 1/100th of 1% in the U.S. today, for instance, 2014, I think had about average $420 million in 2014. In the 70s and the 80s that was more like 30 million, so they have 12 times as much as they did then, and they already had a huge amount. Anybody below the top 10%, it’s almost invisible how much wealth they have individually compared to that.

Paul Nelson: Compared, yeah. You say these people could spend 20 million every year, and they’d still just keep getting richer even if they did absolutely nothing except choose some index funds.

Steve Roth: And shop for a yacht for their 8 year old. Yeah, we pay people for two things in this world; we pay them for doing things, and we pay them for owning things. Increasingly, it’s been the later. Much of that ownership income and people like to call it investment income, but if you have $420 million, you put it in a handful of index funds and never touch it and you can easily spend 20 million a year and still get richer.

Paul Nelson: Index funds, explain that to me.

Steve Roth: Index funds are like you say, “Okay, invest in all this S&P 500 stocks or invest in all the emerging market stocks.” They’re just a fund, you put some money in to maintain a portfolio of whatever type stocks and modern portfolio, for reasons that’s how you should invest. You just buy a few index funds and ignore them. Warren Buffet proves that with a bet recently. He said, “I’ll bet you,” some hedge fund guy, “I’ll bet you if you put money in an S&P fund for 10 years compared to 10 hedge fund, funds, funds of hedge funds, you’ll come out ahead with the S&P 500 index fund”, which is a tiny little management cost compared to the hedge funds who charge a huge amount and the S&P 500 just won hands down, so that’s what rich people certainly can do with their money, is just sit on it.

Paul Nelson: Just to get a sense of that, the market right now under the current president is doing fantastically.

Steve Roth: Well, it’s been doing fantastically since March of 2009, which was the bottom and so that’s eight years, it’s been doing fantastically.

Paul Nelson: Right.

Steve Roth: That I want to suggest has a lot to do with the whole game being rigged for owners to do well.

Paul Nelson: Right. The people who don’t have that kind of wealth and aspire to it, who is the one who said, “There’s no poor people in America just temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Steve Roth: Yeah.

Paul Nelson: I think it was Steinbeck that said that, I’m not sure, but they believe that the rich earned this. This is a typical response. You allude to this in the article. First of all, where does this notion come from, that the fact that they’ve rigged the system to benefit them, they’re getting enormously wealthy beyond what anyone could ever need in lifetimes and lifetimes and some people who go without that, who may be go without basic things like health care believe, no, they deserve that?

Steve Roth: Yeah, I think that the most interesting statistic on that is in the U.S. 50% to 70% of wealth, that’s a $100 trillion in wealth. 50% to 70% of that wealth is inherited. We just haven’t even known that number until the last few years. Wealth, again is extremely difficult to measure and Piketty and company, Gabriel Zucman  have been doing the world changing work to actually analyze that and also some of the accountants at the national accounts agencies, we didn’t even have a measure, a complete and coherent measure of U.S. wealth in the national accounts until 2006. We didn’t have quarterly numbers until 2012. We had some early efforts to measure that by the national accountants in the 80s, improving in the 90s, but when Mr. Kuznets in 1930 first created the national income and product accounts, it was just designed to measure the flows of money in production and income. There was no way they could hope to measure. Well, they just didn’t have the wherewith all to do it. I think that this focus on wealth has not occurred before, because we simply didn’t have the information. I think I diverged from the question you just asked me.

Paul Nelson: Well, yes. For people keep voting against their best interests have the sense that these people are rich, because they deserve it on some level. You’re saying, “No, they just were lucky.” I mean like you, in other words.

Steve Roth: Well, certainly, I worked hard. When I was in my heyday, I was working 60, 80, 100 hour weeks, but let me make this perfectly clear, I was loving it. It was fun. It’s not like I was some diligent Calvinist with my nose to the grindstone, I was doing cool stuff and I loved it. Yes, many people do make fortunes, but again, 50% to 70% of wealth is inherited. I just saw a number today, the average household in the top 1% has inherited more than $400,000 in their lives. My most successful business, I started shortly after my father died. He died somewhat young. I got a small six figure inheritance, nothing like a retirement or anything, but I was just about to have kids, I was married. It was a buffer. I knew that if this business I was going to try failed, I’d have a place to stand. I’d like to see every American, every guy in the world have that kind of solid platform spring board, a place to stand, a comfortable life, secure, where they can take some chances, where all of us can be that kind of risk-taking entrepreneur, because it’s one thing to risk some money if you’ve got a million or millions of dollars. It’s quite another thing to risk your family crashing and burning.

Paul Nelson: Living under a bridge somewhere.

Steve Roth: It can happen.

Paul Nelson: There’s no health care, because there’s no health care in this country.

Steve Roth: Right, there but for the grace of God, go I.

Paul Nelson: Right. Since, 1976, the game has been rigged to the rich, so we see it really starting during the Carter Administration and you might suggest or you did suggest that 1964 with Kennedy’s tax cuts, we began to see a change from the new deal ethos.

Steve Roth: Yeah, I like to say that the Kennedy tax cuts were a pre-abdication to trickle down, before trickle down had even been coined.

Paul Nelson: Exactly.

Steve Roth: I mean we heard the same arguments in the progressive era with very same fights. Teddy Roosevelt was having the very same fights.

Paul Nelson: Exactly. There was a different ethos back then with… who was it the dimes, I’m trying to think of the name of the dime. The guy was giving away the dimes, the rich guy.

Steve Roth: I don’t know.

Paul Nelson: Well, anyway Carnegie, let’s look at Carnegie Library.

Steve Roth: The Rockefeller.

Paul Nelson: Rockefeller was the name I was trying to think of. The Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Robber Barons. Back then they knew that if they didn’t give it away somehow their souls were going to rot in hell. That ethos is gone. Not only is that ethos gone by and large, but what’s happening now is a system — and this is your thesis — that the rich people hoarding the wealth, is strangling the whole economic situation except for the richest of the rich.

Steve Roth: Yeah, now this is interesting, because it’s a thing that economists, I think just don’t perceive. You’ve got this $100 trillion in wealth and if 20% of it gets spent in a year, you got 20 trillion in GDP and so producers produced 20 trillion dollars worth of stuff, because as a producer I’m here to tell you that producers produce stuff for one and only one reason, because people are spending on it and buying them. The economy is always and everywhere demand-driven, at least from my perspective as a producer and entrepreneur, there’s no other reason I produce stuff.

Paul Nelson: The rich holding on to all the wealth is strangling any kind of multiplier effect or any serious multiplier effect we might have if there were more of that money circulating.

Steve Roth: Yeah, I don’t even like to use that word multiplier effect, because it sort of confuses income with wealth. I prefer to just talk about the velocity of wealth. I think it’s easy to understand and fairly simple arithmetic. In the article that brought you here to talk to me, I pulled a little table. I’ve been meaning to do this for years, I finally did it. Bottom line is the bottom 60% of people and this is as a group. Don’t think individuals, so group, the bottom 60% turnover 40% or 50% of their wealth a year in spending, driving production.

Paul Nelson: Buying milk and paying rent basically.

Steve Roth: Yeah, well, or buying boats for their family vacation, I don’t care. I want people to have that kind of basic comfortable life to be able to take their family on vacation once a year, once every two years. Sure, that seems like we have plenty for that to be true for pretty much every American. The bottom 60% turns over about 40% or 50% of their wealth a year. The top 20% turns over 5% of their wealth a year. They are quite literally sitting on a hoard of money and turning it over very slowly. It’s important to say turnover. When they spend it, it doesn’t go away. One person is spending is another person’s income. All this wealth turnover is a circular thing. Wealth also grows over time, but there’s through a couple of various effects, but I’m not going to talk about that at this instant.

Paul Nelson: Other than the huge tax breaks to the uber-rich. We know the Reagan era, the decimation of unions starting with the decertification of the air traffic controllers — the PATCO Union. These were some of the things that began to happen. What were some of the other things that have happened in this neoliberal era that have just made it horrible for working people?

Steve Roth: Yeah, it’s a whole panoply of things if you go back to the 70s and the famous Powell Memo. Lewis Powell, Supreme Court Justice wrote a memo to the captains of industry saying, “People are trying to destroy capitalism, we need to get together and fight back,” on the founding document of Koch brother’s-type effort that has been his expended hundreds of billions of dollars in propaganda over the decades. They were so fully aware that they bought grad schools, they built think tanks. They hired armies of lobbyists. There were many ways that this happened. I could point to a few things. One of the key ones was a bill that went through in the waning days of the Clinton Administration when he was struggling with the whole Monica Lewinsky thing called the Commodities Futures Modernization Act. It basically took the shackles off Wall Street and the shadow banks. It’s one of many things. I think the deregulation of the financial industry to the point that finance delivers maybe 5% of “value added” to our economy, but extracts 25% of corporate profits is the result of that. I could run through a long list of things. It’s been a full spectrum attack and spectacularly, brilliantly executed, spectacularly successful. Killing unions, Reagan and the air traffic controllers was just a classic moment, but there are so many of those moments over the decades.

Paul Nelson: The Bernie Sanders campaign seemed to believe that going back to the new deal era would have made things better, but is that possible? Can we just have a second New Deal or has the situation changed so much that it’s a lot more complicated than that?

Steve Roth: There’s two questions; one is economic, the others political. Economically, yes, why in the hell not; politically, the essential problem is those decades of propaganda have been so effective that even the left has been ideologically captured.

Paul Nelson: Hence, neo-liberalism.

Steve Roth: Hence, neo-liberalism.

Paul Nelson: Hence, Clintonism.

Steve Roth: Yeah, the “Washington Consensus,” the austerity campaigns, you can go on and on, yes. I think maybe the biggest problem is that democrats abandoned, really in the 60s and 70s, abandoned the full-throated economic progressive populism that won FDR, four resounding terms. One of his campaigns, he lost one state. For some reason, Democrats have been for many decades unwilling to pick up that torch and waited, and left-winged economists are maybe the worst. They’re so weak-voiced. This assertion I make that concentrated wealth is strangling the economy. You can throw that at any left-wing economist. “Let’s say, well, yes, we really don’t have the data to demonstrate that conclusively. I think you’d be in a little over, you’re overstating the case. Wah wah wah…”Meanwhile, the republicans are absolutely unabashed, the right-wing economists and republicans are unabashed saying, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to create a million jobs and bring all the jobs back from overseas.” They’re unabashed about just saying the most outrageous thing. That “cutting taxes increases tax revenues.” The right-wing economist saying that for decades many of them in the bottom paid for think tanks …

Paul Nelson: Proven wrong in Kansas.

Steve Roth: Proven wrong over and over and over again without remiss.

Paul Nelson: Kansas, especially, is a great example of that.

Steve Roth: Yeah, that’s just such a beautiful recent small example. Now, we’ll say you always have to look at long periods and big samples to really draw conclusions from this stuff. Kansas is only one, but it’s a very good one.

Paul Nelson: Elaborate on why it’s a good example, Kansas? Governor Brownback.

Steve Roth: Brownback, yeah. I thought you said brown bag.

Paul Nelson: We’re left holding the brown bag in this case.

Steve Roth: It’s just a good example, because it was a very distinct move in time from point x to point b, there’s a big cut. Since it’s only one example, it’s anecdotal, but we do can compare it to Nebraska, Missouri, the states around that and the other similar states, which is a good way to sort of evaluate these kind of things judiciously and sensibly. It just got its fanny whooped economically, it’s just been terrible. It’s, by all appearances, been terrible for Kansas. They’re slashing education and again. That’s another thing is this kind of wild austerity is incredibly short sighted short-termism. There is no more valuable payback or mid businessmen, payback, ROI over 10, 20, 30, 40 years than robust investments and education. Thanks for the G.I. Bill and what it did for America. To strangle that funding as the republicans have been doing here in Washington here for years to the point that there are under $100,000 a day, a week fine for underfunding education, the legislature is, that it’s just so contrary to my businessman’s approach to building a successful long-term business or country.

Paul Nelson: How to fix this, one thing that’s been suggested is a universal guaranteed basic income?

Steve Roth: Yeah, I should just mention that there’s quite a bit of controversy in the progressive community between UBI and job guarantee. An important thing to say is it’s not either or we should be trying both. I’m very much a fan of a broad panoply of progressive programs. The Republicans love to say “unintended consequences” and they are sure it’s right. Really, we never know how one particular thing is going to work. You got to try a whole lot of things, which is what FDR was brilliant at. He tried things, when they failed, he stopped doing them and he did other things. UBI, I think… we have a hundred trillion dollars in household wealth in America, that’s three quarters of a million dollars for each household. I’m not saying everybody gets three quarters of a million dollars, but there is just a vast amount of wealth that everybody can be sharing and income as well. Much of it goes to owners for doing nothing; I think that should be shared commonly, because it basically comes from our collective economy. I like to say the primary input to production is cooperation, is people working together. There’s no way you can say that person deserves this share of the cooperation money. Just two concrete examples I’ll give of how that might work well: Alaska’s Permanent Fund, I think it’s called permanent fund…

Paul Nelson: Based on oil revenues.

Steve Roth: Right, and Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, in both cases, they’ve built funds that invest in a wide range of assets, just like an individual prosperous person does. Then they deliver dividends to the populace, each person gets a certain amount and their rules for whether kids get it. Do you have kids? There are different rules. They’re an incredibly reasonable, effective and fair way to make sure everybody shares some of the prosperity that we built together. It’s not insane. It’s just a straightforward thing. I’m not saying that everybody should get a universal basic income up $40,000 a year every household, but how about $10,000, $5,000.

Paul Nelson: What safeguards would there be that someone just doesn’t end up spending it on pure grain alcohol or living under a bridge?

Steve Roth: Look, I’m a rich guy and I’ve been spending a great deal of my life hanging out with rich people, you know what we do? We sit on beautiful decks and drink really nice alcohol.

Paul Nelson: If you want to do that, it’s okay, is what you’re saying?

Steve Roth: Yeah. We basically say: “If you sit on this nice deck in this fancy house and drink really good wine. It’s okay, but if you sit on the stoop of your apartment building and drink a beer, it’s not.”

Paul Nelson: Okay, all right, fair enough. Job guarantees evoke memories of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, two New Deal projects that give us lasting legacies,  such as if you walk in Queen Anne and you see the beautiful stairways that were built and all these other projects were built by these two government agencies. Is that what you’re talking about when you say job guarantees?

Steve Roth: That is what the job guarantee advocates are talking about and I’m all for it. I want to see it ramped up slowly as I would with UBI to see how it works, because the way I’ve heard it described so far I just don’t really get the mechanics. The idea they’re talking about is that nonprofits have their employees paid for by this job guarantee, so maybe you’re a social entrepreneur, you know, the nonprofit that-

Paul Nelson: Let’s does literary arts and interviews, for example.

Steve Roth: That would be fine or that builds civic structures like those stairways you’re talking about.

Paul Nelson: Right.

Steve Roth: What I haven’t heard explained to me to my satisfaction as a business owner and super systems organizational guy, is who decides, which nonprofits have their employees paid, and who decides, which employees at those nonprofits are paid? I have a lot some really practical questions about the job guarantee, but I think we should be trying it all over the place and see how it works and see what the kinks are and work it out. I did want to say one more thing about job guarantee. I really object to the idea — and this is something that conservatives rant on about all the time — the idea that we should be working more.Understand that in Europe they have a standard of limit about equivalent to ours, they live really well. They work six weeks a year less than we do. If you believe in family values, we should be trying to work less. In the 1930s, Keynes said that by now he expects us to be working 15 hour weeks. Instead of devoting our productivity to giving people more free time and time with their families, time doing things that they want to do, we have devoted this increased productivity to delivering … he did Corinthian leather car seats and million dollar Maseratis. For $1 million Maserati, you can deliver 40, $25,000 Toyotas. One, were devoting it to the wrong products, because of the concentrated wealth distorts the production incentives that way. Two, we’re devoting it to products instead of time. Time is the one thing that we all have a very limited amount of.

Paul Nelson: It’s interesting how the millennials by and large are choosing to not buy cars, to use public transportation, to live in cities and instead of buying things so much, buying experiences or traveling, so maybe that’s a harbinger of coming things.

Steve Roth: Maybe, will they be willing to sacrifice income to spend time with their families, so for instance, one of us want the father or mother or one of the parents stays home.

Paul Nelson: Right. One other thing we haven’t discussed about economic matters is the notion of worker-owned businesses. That’s another thing you’d throw up there, perhaps legislation that would benefit something like a worker-owned business.

Steve Roth: I don’t know much about that subject. The reason is and maybe this is stupid, but because I’ve never see much of it out there. It seems sort of small change. I intend to look for this sort of big opportunities that’s what interest me for whether they’re a pie in the sky or maybe they are, but I’m always looking for the big things like $100 trillion in wealth, as opposed to,  for instance, United Airlines at one point, one worker only, it didn’t last long. That was one of the big ones. I just haven’t paid much attention to it though. I’d certainly see it as a strong possibility. Currently, corporations are very much C-Suite owned. They have big ownership shares and when I ran businesses, big ones, I gave a big ownership share to my employees just because I thought it was the right thing to do. I thought we’d all do well by it.

Paul Nelson: Also, the notion of cooperatives. REI for example, PCC, here in this city in Seattle, people have a choice to shop at the local Safeway, the local QFC, the PCC or increasingly having their food delivered to them via Amazon/Whole Foods. Now anyone who’s a real progressive looks at Whole Foods, sees them as another corporation who’s trying to take wealth out of towns and bring it to their corporate headquarters, whereas PCC for all its efforts of becoming more corporate is still cooperatively owned and came out of this area and is connected more deeply to this area, so that’s one example I think.

Steve Roth: Yeah, that’s true. REI, I think is pretty much a big corporation. I’ve been a member since forever, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. I still shop there just like I shop with any other store.

Paul Nelson: Are you optimistic that things get better in the near term or that we’re going to see a crash?

Steve Roth: I think we’re long overdue for a financial, for a stock market decline, I would fully expect that to happen soon. There’s a lot of indicators. Anybody that says they know when it’s going to happen is lying to you, but certainly if it doesn’t happen on the next few years, I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t happen in the next few years. That’s a stock market decline and that’s what generally causes real economy declines. This is a fairly simple explanation. All of a sudden a whole lot of people look at their brokerage accounts and have less wealth, so they spend less. This is a behavioral economic assertion when people have less money, they spend less. When they spend less, producers produce less, they hire less, pretty straightforward. Yeah, these price meltdowns when the price … we had a very interesting one in 2008 and of the real estate market was the first cause, but then the stock market went after it. That usually doesn’t happen. Usually, it’s just the stock market that causes the recession, but every time real household net worth has declined over the last… since the 1960s, since basically the end of the Bretton Woods Monetary Agreement since the early 70s. Every time the real household net worth has declined, you’re either in or about to be in a recession. I see that, basically, they’re not really business cycles, they’re financial cycles and the financial cycle causes the real economic recession.

Paul Nelson: To find out more about your work we can go to Evonomics and what other website would you put out there?

Steve Roth: My personal website, which I blog, which I’ve been working on for about 15 years haven’t done much just lately, but there’s a huge mass of my research from work. There is Asymptosis. It’s like an asymptotic approach and the tagline is, “always approaching.”

Paul Nelson: Thanks for your time today.

Steve Roth: Thank you very much. It was fun talking to you.

Steve Roth serves as Publisher of Evonomics. He is a Seattle-based serial entrepreneur, and a student of economics and evolution. He blogs at AsymptosisAngry Bear, and Seeking Alpha. Twitter: @asymptosis. We caught up with him

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Brenda Hillman Interview (Letters on Fire)

I caught up with Brenda Hillman at her Northern California home August 4, 2017, and we had a lively discussion about her last book: Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire.

In the first segment she discussed her twenty year effort to write books about each of the classical Greek elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire and how she began to consider writing about a fifth element: Wood. She also discussed how fire would work its way into the process of writing the poems for the book. She spoke of “inviting the element into her unconscious” which she likened to being in love. She credits her “earth-worshipping pagan practice” for the part of the process of writing the poems.

With fire, I was waiting to get to fire because I’m a triple fire sign astrologically. And so I was excited about it, I thought this is going to be exciting; I know fire is just going to take over. And it had so much more varied presences than I had imagined: inner fire, outer fire, world fire, conflagration, you know, end-of-the-world fire, Occupy fire. All of those things, and so I just kind of let it – but I don’t tell the subject matter what to do in my poems. I haven’t for decades. I’m just going to invite you. I’m in love with this idea. And fire is such a cliché for inspiration, for poets. It’s a cliché to think, oh, you know, the inner fire, whatever. So I thought, how can I do it originally? Click here to listen to Part 1 6:47.

In segment two she discussed the late poet Jack Collom and an epigraph quoting him at the beginning of the book. She talked about his approach to eco-poetics and about eco-poetics itself, which she said she has been describing lately as “worried nature poetry.” She also said: “the non-human has interesting “other’ information.” She believes nature to be “endlessly restorative.” She also talked about sending her students at St. Mary’s out to interview bugs. She said:

We did a conference at Point Reyes: The Geography of Hope a few years ago, and Angela Hume, my former student and now poetry colleague and friend, had organized a long interview with me and Bob and Jonathan Skinner, and Evelyn Reilly. And we talked for like an hour about what the word means. And I teach a whole class in it. My latest way of thinking about it is worried nature poetry. When I try to tell my students this big long theoretical thing, what is ecopoetics? It’s sometimes easiest to say, you used to go outside in nature to feel better, and so what’s happened to that impulse? What’s happened to us since the 1820s when Wordsworth would go out with Coleridge and they’d take a walk and they’d feel better?

I still go outside to feel better. I almost always feel better. And honestly if it can’t provide the old magical juice, like the British Romantics, at least there’s some sense that the non-human has interesting other information for my human stuckness. And it’s, as Gary Snyder says, very high-quality information, that’s what he calls poetry. But I think that that high-quality information that we have from the non-human realities are just endlessly restorative. Endlessly restorative. Even if there is climate change and other disastrous stuff going on. It’s not nothing to just still go out and have the interchange. To the creatures: you have a different way of making your breath that I do, and how is it an experience to be you? You know, that bird we just saw. Like, how does it feel to be you instead of a Brenda, you know.

But ecopoetics has to, to me, involve the sense of peril and endangerment that we have created. And I do feel like it’s something about human cause that we’re worried.

Click here to listen to Part 2 10:06.

In segment three she read the Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie, discussed current California water policy discussions, the masculine nature of most manifestos and likened her minifesto to bouillon. Click here to listen to Part 3 6:49.

In segment four, she discussed her poem To a Sense of the Lively Unit and the notion of letters themselves having intelligence. She talked about an interest in divination, the oracular and Gnostic traditions and links to sound poetry. She read her poem Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways. It is a poem that was inspired in part by trying to make her activism more poetic, or bring that activism into the poem itself and in part by her anger over munitions sales. She also discussed how trance work helps inform some of the poems she writes. Click here to listen to Part 4 9:19. 

In the 5th segment she discussed punctuation, how fetuses look like commas and her notion that lichen looks as if it were made up entirely of punctuation. She read the poem entitled: In The Room of the Glass Breasts. She discussed a reference in the poem, “the Lord of Literature” and said he is “a kind of inspiration figure.” She also discussed Wheeler Hall at the U.C. Berkeley, which was the room referenced in the poem’s title. Click here to listen to Part 5 6:29.

In part six she talked about the Occupy Movement, how she sees it as a massive success and that it was a “leaderless movement” was extremely important. She said foregrounding economic disparity in that way was critical and that opposing the status quo is part of her poetics. She responded to a question about the cluelessness of neoliberals and agreed and mentioned a her process of writing a rant against neoliberals, or “white moderates” as Dr. King put it in 1963. She also discussed notions of privilege, gratitude and sacrifice. Click here to listen to Part 6 8:37.

In part seven she responded to a question about whether this country was worth saving and she said she does not think in terms of nations, but more in terms of universes and entire visible and invisible worlds. She said she is not in favor of saving capitalism as it is now and if our democracy and economic system are tied together, she would not be in favor of saving it. She agrees the response from the USAmerican Left is “inept.” She read her poem On the Miracle of Nameless Feeling. Click here to listen to Part 7 5:44.

In the 8th and final segment she discussed her capacity for a quality Allen Ginsberg called “Surprise Mind” and said, regarding the possibility that this can be taught, that:

Maybe a capacity, like I just saw a hummingbird out there and I think they do see different colors, and so on. So maybe some people do have sort of a different range of perception that they’re tapped into, just like I am not particularly logical when it comes to making mathematical theory. But I do have a metaphor-making capacity. I think children have it a lot and it gets trained out of us, you know. Because it’s embarrassing and you can’t be always doing that.

Paul E Nelson: This professor’s having us interview bugs in the hall. Is she nuts or what? I can just imagine.

Brenda Hillman: And my classes are popular because they get to do stuff like interview bugs. But also because I remind them that when they were children, they were magical, and they got it trained out of them in about sixth grade. I mean, with airport carpet, things like that just bubble up in my brain. They just rise, rise in my brain. I don’t know where it comes from, but it just is there. And so anyway, that airport carpet, I have no idea. You know how when your life is just so tedious and you feel like you’ve forgotten to pay attention to how unusual everything is? It just seems like a deadening pattern, and you know, we all fall into it. And we can get out of it by paying attention again. But sometimes we’ve lost interest because that pattern has deadened us.

We’ve gotten deadened to the pattern rather than the exception. So you know, when you’re in the airport, and you know how hideous it is. The carpet. They choose it because it supposedly will put you to sleep, you know.

Paul E Nelson: They could have poetry readings.

Brenda Hillman: They could have poetry readings.

She also talked about the notion of ancestors being around us in life and that they have to be tuned out at some level, because they are always there. Click here to listen to Part 8 9:34.

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