(Note from Adam: To make this as authentic as possible, I did no revision and answered all questions given without reservation and as the responses came to me. What you see is what was written the first time. I looked back at not one question. I wanted this to be as conversational as possible and not a prepared document.)
1. Why are you a poet?
I am not a poet. What a strange question. To call myself a poet would be terribly presumptuous and boorish. Not only that, but it would set up an unfair expectation and then I’d have to perform. Sit, Adam, sit. Show the folks how well you poe.
I am not a poet, I simply think metaphorically. I think in metaphors about everything. The contents of the world—whether we believe they originate from within one’s head, are a combination of that which is without and the experiences and expectations from within, or come wholly from within one’s head—always rumble around and find things to connect with. Everything is a metaphor. Since I don’t see terribly well and remember nothing of the visual world, I think in words. So I get a picture or a sound and I make them into words.
Well, enough of that and my head fills up, so I write. I can’t stand not being understood so I revise and revise and revise, cutting out everything that is not meaning because I’d hate for people to think something I didn’t want them to. My goal is to lead them to the same metaphoric feeling and understanding I experienced. By the throat, if need be. By the hand, if I can. Though truthfully, by the throat is much more fun.
The poetic model allows me to do this in a way that is deceptively short so people will read it. Otherwise I’d have twenty-six page essays.
I then put it out there for people to read, on the blog, in magazines, in anthologies, and in my own books, because part of me believes Descartes: I publish, therefore I exist. Besides, I like the fan mail and the undies that get thrown at me.
Of course, none of that explains why I also write twenty-six page essays.
Asking why I am a poet is very much like asking why I have two legs. I can’t help it. I’d have a prehensile tail if I could. My wife would love that. It would be like in Venus on the Half-Shell. But I don’t. So I have two legs. So I think metaphorically. So I put everything into words. It’s burden. It’s a pain. I’m simply built that way. It’s not my fault, I swear. I blame my temporal lobe. I once filled an entire sliding glass door with poetry. I write on my office walls. I write on people if they stand still long enough and give me enough exposed area.
2. Your first public reading was at a clothing-optional event, and you performed in the nude. And you've written about your visits to the local nude beach, and clearly have no problem with nakedness. On the other hand, you write about how you wrestle with body image, and seem to feel ashamed when you are battling weight. For me, being fat means I don't want anyone to see me naked, even though I thoroughly enjoyed my one and only visit to a nudist resort, and am a closet naturist (I've even been skinny-dipping in my neighbors' pool while they're away, when I go over to feed their cat).
So how do you reconcile that dichotomy? How do you find the freedom to be nude with others even during those times when you feel discomfiture over the way you look?
Because I’m ornery. Because, unlike dancing, which scares me silly and I force myself to do, or parties, which scare me sillier and I don’t force myself to do, reading poetry at a clothing-optional gathering flies in the face of so many conventions I have no choice but to do it. I teach myself my fears are meaningless and my self-judgments are baseless and thumb my nose at society at the same time? Hell, where do I sigh up? Can I do it twice?
You can walk all the fire pits you want, jump out of airplanes hoping the chute opens, bungee-jump from any bridge you choose, but for sheer fright, read your poetry in front of a crowd while wearing nothing but glasses.
I always reserve the right to not reconcile anything. No need. What makes sense anyway? I am about as dysmorphic as a fella can get. I just got over yo-yo binge and starvation. I no longer run three miles because I ate a piece of bread. That ended last Thursday. A friend who knows me better than well (bless you Joyce) will notice the look in my eye as we are out to eat and take away the menu and order for me. It’s insane. And so, through all this, while I thumb my nose at the culture I live in I simultaneously thumb my nose at that part of the culture that lives in me and is discordant with my world-view, or at least the view I would like to have of the world.
In my mind, the more I push this particular illusion, the thinner it gets and, sometimes, I can see clearly through it and know it is untrue.
There is another part to this as well. I want the walls, those illusory walls between self and other, to disappear. I want the illusions to go away. I am happiest when I cannot tell self from other. That is a theme in my writing. That is a theme in my spiritual practice. That is a theme in my massage practice and in hypnotherapy. That is a theme in my life. Maybe I know it is true and I am working to make it happen, to experience it as much as possible and bring that to other people as well. Maybe I am just trying to convince myself that it is so. Which depends on when you ask me.
And let’s be clear—I do not seem to feel ashamed when battling weight. I have, in this area, a self-disgust that is deep and abiding. It’s open 24/7 and never takes a vacation. I am not sure where it came from and I’m not sure when it’s going, but my job, since I can’t seem to shake it, is to be happy anyway. Happy with the world around me. Happy with myself. My job is to thumb my nose, even from within, at anything that keeps me from being happy, at anything that keeps the illusion of separateness alive.
Besides, I am awesomely cute.
3. In both “Funeral, Expurgated” and "My Grandmothers Came from the Ukraine," you talk about the quandary a writer faces over how much personal or familial information to reveal and how much to conceal or change to protect the innocent (or guilty). David Sedaris, when asked if his books should be filed in fiction or nonfiction, replied, “Nonfiction. I've always been a huge exaggerator, but when I write something, I put it on a scale. And if it's 97% true, I think that's true enough. I'm not going to call it fiction because 3% of it isn't true.” And I can’t remember which writer says that the first duty of a writer is to kill his family—that is, write as if there were no one to offend, no one who would be upset if secrets were revealed.
So how have you struggled with the issue of “truthiness” in your writing? And what kind of fallout has there been among friends or relatives when you’ve revealed something that they would rather keep quiet?
Some of what I write falls into the category of New Reporting or New Journalism. Some into creative non-fiction. But, regardless of what I write, I have never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Many have made the mistake of thinking every piece I write is true just because most of it is non-fiction. So the poetry must be as well. Sure, some of it is but much of it is not. Poetry can be creative storytelling just as much as any other type of writing. My daughter never gathered angels in a field. My wife never complained about her life over coffee as I dreamed of moving west. But with few exceptions, what I write is based on the amazement of that which makes up everyday life. So I did almost hit a wall while she was changing in the passenger seat and the monk did make the spoon stick to his nose. But just because most of it is true does not mean it all is. I reserve the right to tell a story from time to time.
Given that, those who read me know if you see a name in the essay, the account is true. Percentage? If you see a name, it happened. If you see my name, I reserve the right to make my life what I choose it to be. If that is after the fact, then that is just fine with me. My memory is fluid.
That said, there are some things I just don’t write. I don’t write things I feel will hurt a person or compromise them in some way. I have made that judgment incorrectly from time to time but I never set out writing knowing what I am putting down will hurt. I can’t do that. It’s not in me. Even if the person has done me harm, I won’t.
There is so much out there to write. There is no need.
As far a narrative therapy goes, that is the truest account, the most full exposition I can manage. Your example of "Funeral, Expurgated" is narrative therapy. So is "The Shadow." I write them so fully, so completely there is nothing left inside and, in the end, the content is all without and not within.
Many fail at narrative therapy and are sure it does not work. But they just write it once and get it out in the immediacy of the moment. That is ineffective. To work it must be revised and revised and revised again, experienced over and over in the writing, pared down, blown up, filled and emptied until it is all truth as you see it, until it reads like drama and feels real to one and all. Then, and only then, is it out.
In the essay you mentioned I spoke about the potential fallout a writer can experience and the fear that can engender. My wife, I mentioned in the first paragraph or two, said she cannot grasp the bravery of writing in tha manner. Sometime, neither can I.
But I did not think I wrote anything that would hurt anyone. As my daughter had pointed out, if they thought what they did was wrong or embarrassing, then why did they do it? One would think they felt their actions just fine and so why not record them?
But I did hurt some feelings. After it was out for a while my mother calls with some confusing story about an email and a letter and whatnot. It took me quite a while to put the bits together and figure out it was about the essay. The feeling was, I gathered, that I had aired the family’s dirty laundry in giving the blow-by-blow account of the funeral days.
I have a very small family. Now, it is much much smaller.
4. A casual reader of your blog may be confused about your spiritual inclinations. Are you a Buddhist? A Jew? A Unitarian? A Pagan? How do you reconcile all your disparate beliefs? Or are they really disparate after all?
I am a Jewitarian Buddhaversalist Pagan. What could be more clear than that? I follow the shamanic elements in Judaism as well as in Buddhism but find Buddhism and Judaism are quite similar in their emphasis on tikkun and right action.
I am, of course, a panentheist. But I am also a solipsist and once attended a convention of solipsists where we spent the entire weekend trying to figure out which of us it was.
I spent ten years studying with the Center for Tao and Man. Master Ni told me I had the cosmic egg. What difference what I call it? OK, so I am a Taoist. I follow the watercourse way and sometimes that flows through Judaism and sometimes it washes me into the Thai Buddhist Temple where the abbot explains to me the deeper meaning of the Kol Nidre.
After many years of attempting to reconcile seemingly disparate paths, I have stopped any attempts at reconciliation. The result is that all things now seem much more similar and it becomes more and more difficult to see the space between them or recognize there are differences.
Besides, name one cantor who does not like to be accompanied by a rattle or drum.
5. Tell me about turtle shells.
[Note: I had a turtle shell that I brought out whenever I did any group shamanic work. Every time Adam was present, he clutched the shell as if it were a talisman or protective shield. And when I do energy work with him, particularly when I use quartz or amethyst crystals, he seems to find the shell soothing, since my energy feels "edgy," for lack of a better word. It became clear one evening that the shell wanted to go and live with Adam.]
The carapace is the dorsal, convex, magical part of the shell structure of a turtle, though a turtle would argue it is concave. It consist primarily of the ribcage which is a strange concept because there is never any chance of the ribs escaping. The spine and ribs are fused to bony plates beneath the skin which interlock to form a hard shell when blue and yellow make green, locking freshness in. Exterior to the skin, the shell is covered by scutes, horny plates that protect the shell from scrapes and bruises. Underneath they are made of backhoes.
They are alternately named Don, Horace, or Filbert.
They are not like crystals at all.
They go wonderfully with a cup of papaya juice and Northern Exposure.
One called to me for a year before it ended up coming home with me. It was playing hard to get.
If you lie one on your stomach, you might not have seizures.
Turtles don't mind.
6. A dear friend of mine named Geralyn said an old chum once told her, "You know what's so wonderful about you, Schulz? You can't sing worth a damn. But it never stops you!"
I know you love to listen to music—music of all genres, music that makes you think and feel, with a smattering of Broadway just for good measure—but I think you like making music even more. Singing for the joy of it.
I remember a workshop you conducted on chanting. It was something everyone could do even if they couldn’t carry a tune. And there’s that wonderful Yom Kippur piece you wrote where you imply that chant and prayer and incantation are different aspects of the same thing.
So what does singing give to you, or do for you, that other forms of creativity do not?
Everything sings. The Earth sings from beneath and around us. Everything on/in/apart of it sings. We come out of the Earth and go back into the Earth and, therefore are never apart from the Earth, and so we sing. Any part of a whole carries the nature of the whole. So I do a whole lot of singing.
I think everyone should. And, no, it does not matter if the person can carry a tune. Sing. We are made of an Earth that sings and it is a function of our bodies. We get caught in subjective notions of quality which we mistake for objective ones and which we then assign value to. People do not sing because they are not good at it. But we do many things we are not the best at. We don’t see people refusing to walk because so many other people do it so much better. So sing.
Music reconnects me to all that is around me. I can disappear as a separate entity—the illusion of disconnection evaporates—when I sing. When I am singing with others in harmony there is an experience that is ecstatic, in what I feel is the true sense of that state: I am outside of myself. The harmony creates a larger sound that is made of but is not simply the voices that create it. The harmonious vibration is larger than the sum of the voices. Larger and different. And that applies holographically from the macrocosm to the microcosm, and fractally from the microcosm to the macrocosm.
What is it that vibration does not do, is not made of? I remember someone wrote somewhere in some well-known book something about “In the beginning there was the word; the word was in God’s presence, and the word was God.”
Names, sounds, create things. And it is the naming that creates separation and, therefore, identity. It is my feeling that what wounds can also heal, and sound heals. Singing heals. Music heals. The cantor sings to the congregation the holy words. We chant holiness. Incantations create. All is sound.
Other forms of creativity are, for me, secondary. They are derivative. They pale. To learn to write I took music classes. My writing exists because I do not play an instrument well.
7. I actually went back and reread every single entry in your blog this evening. I teared up at a few, but mostly I smiled. Or sighed. I am honored to know you.
One of my favorites (though to pick even a Top Five would be next to impossible) is Day of the Manatees. There’s a quote by Henry Beston that we both like—in fact, we’ve emailed it to one another, forgetting that the other had already sent it to us—that goes:
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
If you’re a panentheist, then you believe that God (however you define the concept) interpenetrates every part of Nature. My friend Tim has a wood carving of a fish; on the side is painted the word COD, except that the bottom of the C curls in just a tad too much, making it halfway between a C and a G. It’s the God Cod. (Or, for the dyslexic, the Dog Doc.)
Speaking of dogs, here’s my second favorite zen kōan: A monk asked Zhàozhōu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?" Zhaozhou answered, “Wú!” (Wú means “no” and “non-being,” and is also the sound of a dog’s bark.)
There doesn’t seem to be a question in there anywhere. Hmmm.
How’s this: Manatees. Dogs. Cod. Us. God. If all our separateness is maya—illusion—then do manatees bark, and does God swim in Turkey Creek?
Hafiz tells us:
Ever since Happiness heard your name
It has been running through the streets
Trying to find you.
And several times in the last week,
God Himself has even come to my door—
Asking me for your address!
If God can come to my door, I am sure God can swim in Turkey Creek.