YR #59: American Prophets: Interviews with Thinkers, Activists, Poets & Visionaries by Paul E. Nelson
American Prophets by Paul E. Nelson (Seattle Poetics Lab, 2018)
"Over the past decade or so, no one has done more for poetry in the Pacific Northwest than has Paul Nelson. He has sponsored and hosted free public readings and workshops while bringing to Seattle notable poets like Wanda Coleman, Nate Mackey, Michael McClure, Brenda Hillman, George Bowering and other leading figures in the world of Organic Poetry. He is as fine an interviewer of poets as anyone working today, coming to each interview thoroughly informed but retaining great flexibility, letting the various threads intertwine. These interviews, combined with lengthy scholarship, have produced a number of remarkable essays and, ultimately, his manuscript American Prophets." (Sam Hamill)
In an era of echo chambers, an era where the world follows itself on social media and divisions run prevalent across spaces traditionally inspired by discourse, it is incredibly refreshing to encounter the interview as a form of and continuation of the literary arts. Like critically-minded celebrities Amy Goodman and Joe Rogan, like the many independent journalists whose names will sadly go unknown through the rift of consumption, Paul E. Nelson has an intentional mind toward the interview as a form of idea exchange. Of investigation. Of interpersonal existence. This is a quality that he brings from decades past and has managed to continue focusing upon as he moved forward with his own poet’s life as organizer, activist, mentor, and community elevator.
Nelson has spent the last decade (and arguably earlier) exploring the cultural landscape within the Cascadia bioregion. The results of his efforts include the formalization of this inquiry symbolized by the Cascadia Poetry Festival, which sees a strong-but-not-exclusive emphasis on poetry and poetics. The wide net cast to inspect and dissect how people live and create and grow in the bioregion is reflective his newly collected book of interviews, American Prophets, which includes conversations with 16 extraordinary people (from within and beyond Cascadia). The interviews that are captured in this book from years (and decades) past reveal Nelson’s passion and compassion for the brilliant shine of the human mind that co-occupies the world and the contemporary humanity through which Nelson conducts his own artistic practices. Each interview is startlingly different and yet in sum can be looked at as descriptive of Nelson’s own open-minded spirit.
The book’s subtitle is “Interviews with thinkers, activists, poets & visionaries.” The book is broken into three sections: “Thinkers/Activists,” “Poets,” and “Technicians of the Sacred.” The first category contains the voices of parenting coach Gloria DeGaetano, animal communications expert Rupert Sheldrake, feminist-futurist Jean Houston, and medicinal radical Larry Dossey. These authors and specialists, while representing completely unique perspectives and focuses on work to reform humanity, are all quintessentially forward-thinking through an exploration of health, the psyche, and the urgency of responding to negative contemporary changes in our societal living. To read each section, each interview, is to find intensely uplifting and inspiring paradigms to how we might confront some of our major human issues. The information (and advice) overload is not to be taken lightly; each moment I read through these interviews I was scrawling notes about profound illuminations that might make my own life better. In that way, American Prophets may have been prophesizing how the reader’s life might turn out, adamantly and necessarily!
As a concept, “necessary” and the hard determination/imperative of the expressions contained within these interviews is a bit of an overstatement. Taken mostly from radio programs that arguably was designed for a very open audience, the interviews here are light-hearted and beautifully intimate exchanges between Nelson and those who invited to chat. I believe every interview contains at least one moment of humor (with laughter indicated in the transcript), which reflects another aspect of Nelson’s character. As we saw in American Sentences, Nelson-as-poet carries humor as one of the handful of universal tools that can make truth accessible, approachable, and tolerable. Because none of these messages, none of these truths, are easy and straightforward—most require work just to understand the work of those experts within the dialogue. A joke here and then takes the interview that much further.
“Well, because we all carry our egos with us so, it is perhaps a vain ambition to think that you’re going to rid yourself of ego. But lyrical interference, I mean, the lyric is taken, if we take it not in the sense of song, but in the sense of a first person poetry, a most subjective form of poetry. Ultimately, this has its limitations. It throws the poet back on himself, herself and that’s OK, but it also narrows down the field of poetry. And when we imagine ourselves to be part of a lineage going back to a Homer, or a Dante, or a Shakespeare, poetry is a big proposition there. Partly it’s big because, Dante, Shakespeare and Homer, worked extensively and these were larger works. But even the possibility that in the shorter work, the short poem then, the medium-size poem, that there would be room for more than that kind of vaunted self-expression. The possibility of being able to express other selves, selves other than me, that the poet can be a spokesman for others and bear witness in the name of others.” (Jerome Rothenberg)
Sandwiched between the opening and closing of the book is its collection of poets’ voices. Nelson is predominantly (today, at the time of this book’s publishing) a poet, and as such his attraction to talking with poets makes a certain logical sense. And it might come as a surprise, but despite the spotlight being placed on the term “poet,” these interviews often cover much more than poet-ism and poetry. From the spiritual spectra of Allen Ginsberg to the Seattle roots of Michael McClure to the environmental activism of Brenda Hillman, there is much to be found within these interviews. Much more than their categories would lead the reader to believe! And as such, I find Nelson’s work, this book, to be far more open to more voices than I thought it would be going into it. The voices within should reflect the book’s readership (or vice versa).
Considerably a retrospective of Nelson’s longitudinal efforts as an interviewer, professionally and personally, the book is a marvel. The voices of the poets include Jerome Rothenberg, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Sam Hamill, Michael McClure, Wanda Coleman, Brenda Hillman, and Nate Mackey. In sum, a group as diverse in their walks of life as in their poetic practices. Each interview is just long enough to explore incredible, major ideas while not seeming endless. When it comes to endurance, each interview feels naturally like a chapter within the book, as a reader should expect it to be. They are weighted evenly and can be engaged with in bites, in individual reading experiences.
“I felt that I was a part of a community that wasn’t being documented historically, that events and things were occurring on a level that no one seemed to recognize, or if they did want to recognize, certainly didn’t want to publicize.” (Wanda Coleman)
The section focusing on the poets is followed by “Technicians of the Sacred,” which could be interpreted in a variety of ways. I interpreted it as those folks whose specialties or expertise is grounded in the spiritual; that spirituality is a value or quality to these interviewees above and beyond other values or qualities. While those thinkers and activists included a level of spirituality, as did the poets, the “Technicians” are those who are committed, mindfully devoted, to taking their concerns a step further. Phyllis Curott is a Wiccan high priestess. Bhagavan Das is a guru operating in the lens of Hindu religion and culture. E. Richard Atleo is a hereditary chief of the indigenous Ahousaht people. And Beaver Chief, whose interview is the last in the book, is of the Salish. Like the individuals who make up the previous two sections, these technicians are from extraordinarily unique backgrounds and carry their grave sense of self with them. Nelson’s respectful, curious position as interview is one that is inviting and careful. In each of these interviews, he puts the interviewee first, and the intimacy grows from there. To learn about each of these people through Nelson’s initiative feels special, like a gift, or a token of the human experience survived and cherished.
“Yes. I think that this is where the perspective of Aboriginals, indigenous peoples with a reputation for spirituality, I think will, in the future, be a necessary complement to the survival of the human being. I think science, with its great wonders and powers, as a technological advancement tool, serves to provide certain necessities for the human being. But none of the values that are necessary for survival on this planet. And I think that values can be derived. The authenticity, the legitimacy of values can be derived, not from ideologies but from spiritual quests where human beings can re-learn or remember, in fact, what was always the legacy of the human being.” (E. Richard Atleo)
Unlike many interviews we encounter online and in snippets, these full-length moments between Nelson and his subjects, his invitees, are at once lengthy and natural. They feel legitimate and at the same time the transcription reflects a fantastic degree of craft and a humbling degree certainty. American Prophets will hopefully be just the first of multiple books if interviews Nelson releases. Its potential to impact is strong. Ideally it has the additional potential to inspire a new, emerging sense of belonging that will increase our drive for interviews, for conversations, to triumph over the age of the echo and those vacuous monologues so prevalent today.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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