Thursday, May 15, 2014



INTERVIEW WITH GRAHAM HARMAN by Tom Beckett (October 2011)

EXCHANGE ON FILM AND POETRY by Thomas Fink and Eric Monder (Nov. 2011)

INTERVIEW WITH bill bissett by Ryan J. Cox (Nov.2011)




Questions for Sonny Rae Tempest by Maria Damon (November 2012)





 Tom Beckett: Where did/does art begin for you?

Angela Simione: 

I suppose that, for me, it comes down to a certain way of seeing.  Everything has an inherent art potential and somehow I have to see it.  I have to find a way to have those kind of eyes. 
The easy answer is that my work begins in my diary.  Every morning when I wake up, I make a cup of coffee and get back in bed with my diary.  I write for as long as I want.  That flood of slang and swear words and totally ineloquent run-on sentences somehow rinses my eyes out.  It cleans out my filters.  I’m more able to see the art potential that surrounds every facet of my day.  So maybe WORDS is the answer?  For me, Art begins in the desire for language.

TB:  I’m going to want to circle back in a little while to the response you just made, but what I need to ask you now is: if that’s the easy answer to my question, what’s the knottier one?


Haha!  I knew I shouldn’t have said that!

Honestly, the question sorta stumps me.  I’m not exactly sure how to answer it.  I’m not sure where art begins for me because I can’t see where it ends.  It’s such a big, banal part of my life that it’s hard to locate where art isn’t.  So much of how I determine what is and is not my “art” happens in retrospect.  And I’m pretty lenient when it comes to defining art.  My practice itself is such a great big, wide open thing.  Taking a walk is as much a part of my practice as actually sitting down to write or make a drawing.  When I was really young, I had this masochistic outlook that I couldn’t call myself an artist unless I painted 6 hours a day.  I was chalk full of these romantic ideas of what made an Artist and who could claim to be one, largely determined by cinematic representations and my own teenage longing for a romantic life.  J  Now, I can see how simply taking a walk down the street is as valuable as flinging paint around.  Maybe even more valuable.  I can see how going out and getting drunk with my friends is part of the process.  I scribble about the experiences I have and sometimes they wind up becoming part of poem.  And then later, that poem spews out a single line of text which snags my heart and won’t let go and haunts me as I walk to work, as I walk to get a burrito, as I walk home from the bar.  It haunts me until I do something with it.  Maybe that’s where the art begins:  when the haunt of the thing forces a response.

TB:  Was there a breakthrough thing you made or text you wrote that repurposed or reorganized your thinking about what you were capable of doing (or that really changed your direction as an artist)?  If so, please feel free to include it as part of your response.


All the pieces I’ve made that felt really honest and really took a lot of self trust to make, feel like breakthroughs to me but there was a particular piece that really helped me turn a corner in my own practice.  I made my first crochet artwork as a result of slipping a disk.  I was trapped in bed, flat on my back, for a month. My art practice was at a stand-still.  I couldn’t draw.  I couldn’t paint.  I was in so much pain that really all I could do were things that required next to no movement.  I had to crawl slowly down the hallway just to go to the bathroom.  It was awful.  But I could write and I could read and I could crochet.  I decided to let that be enough.

At that point, I had a pretty rudimentary understanding of crochet as a skill.  I knew a few basic stitches and, spending days inside the warm patience of a Vicodin haze, I was able to teach myself how to render lettering through tapestry crochet.  My first piece was a table-runner that read: IN THE NAME OF MASS HYSTERIA.   I was thinking a lot those days about female hysteria and what a horrible joke that diagnosis was… that a woman’s natural state was expected to be one of happy passivity and to be angry or dissatisfied was totally unacceptable.  So unacceptable as to be pathologized. 

TB:  I had back surgery for two crushed disks when I was 35.  So I’m familiar with the kind of pain you’re talking about.  Familiar too with the Vicodin haze.  I spent a good chunk of time in bed reading Blake and scribbling incoherently. Didn’t achieve, though, anything as elegant as your “IN THE NAME OF MASS HYSTERIA.” 

That work, in its impulse and style, reminds me of the agitprop kind of pieces that Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer have made.  Which leads to the question: as a writer and visual artist, who do you think of as your forebears? 


Goddamn! Sorry to hear about your back!  Makes my sciatica burn just hearing about it.  Eeesh!  I sympathize with that agony entirely.  I think it’s hard for people to understand this level and type of pain unless they’ve sustained a back injury as well.  It’s simply indescribable.  Being born naturally optimistic, I’ve tried to find the silver lining to this particular physical ailment and I am, at times, genuinely grateful for the insights that have resulted; specifically those related to ableism in our culture.  Being confined to bed is a unique experience that really turns up the volume on how we treat (and hide) disability.  It makes me so grateful for every day that I am able to get up and walk.  It makes me value my physical strength (when I have it) and the youth I still enjoy in a much deeper, more poignant way than I would have otherwise.  It helps me appreciate my mortality in a more individual, solid, specific way:  I can feel my mortality. This, in and of itself, has made me a much more thoughtful human being and a much more thoughtful, serious artist.  Being trapped in bed for weeks at a time definitely gave me a lot of time to think.  And read.  And write.  And it’s definitely in the landscape of crochet where my writing practice and visual practice finally found a place to overlap. 

Jenny Holzer was an instant favorite and is an artist I routinely turn to simply for pleasure’s sake.  I love looking at her work!  I love how participatory it is, and how poetic.  I love that her work makes room for poetry in places we aren’t used to finding it; poetry that has come off the page and scurries across the walls of museums and billboards.  I appreciate this so much and her work just makes me so excited!  Barbara Kruger too!  Beyond the overlap of writing and visual art, we share an affinity for the black & white aesthetic.  I’m not nearly as politically motivated as she is (at least not overtly), but I’ve been so encouraged by her work to continue in the feminist vein and not shy away from my politic.  Not for a second.  The work of Louise Bourgeois has been one of the biggest influences on my practice so far.  I turn to her work constantly.  There aren’t many days I don’t find myself looking at and thinking about her work.  The details of the Cells…  that blanket that reads “j’taime” over and over and over down the length of its’ entirely shook my heart so hard when I saw it…  the way it makes art and emotion an actual space one can inhabit physically…  like actually being able to curl up into a poem.  I would think about that when reading the poems of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and, later, Sharon Olds and Rebecca Loudon.  I’d think, “God, I wish these poems were blankets that I could just wrap myself up in and hide under”.  Had I not been injured,  maybe I wouldn’t have had these thoughts?  I wouldn’t have needed them.  

David Wojnarowicz is also a major influence on my life and practice.  It’s his refrain “smell the flowers while you can” that I scribble on abandoned couches on the street.  I stole it from the postscript to his essay ‘The Suicide Of A Guy Who Once Built An Elaborate Shrine Over A Mouse Hole’.  He’s just so fucking smart and so passionate and not at all afraid to be romantic…  to make a show of his love for the world and for other humans.  That’s a trait I admire and find horribly lacking in the world.  Especially in the art world.  I like romance.  I like being and feeling poetic. It’s fun.  These shouldn’t be slurs. 

Annette Messager, Tracey Emin, Ed Ruscha, Kiki Smith, Terence Koh, and Francesca Woodman are total pillars in my life and bookcase.  I’ve slept with my Francesca Woodman book in the bed next to me for weeks.

TB:  We’ve talked a little bit about where you think your art comes from, a little bit about who you see as your forebears; and you’ve spoken a bit, as well, to how you want to be and feel poetic—the importance of romance in your practice.  What I’m wondering is what do you think art can do?  And what kinds of things do you want the art you make do? 


 I mean, honestly, I think art can do anything.  It can also do nothing.  Art can just as likely save a life as piss off an entire country or command absolutely no attention at all.  There really are no limits to what art can do, be, and accomplish; or not accomplish.  I think I stopped needing art to be some sort of cultural savior a few years ago when I realized that I personally didn't appreciate being put in the role of savior, nursemaid, or saint in my personal dealings with other people.  And casting off those titles and roles, dealing with the painful fallout that can't be avoided from refusing such titles and expectations, taught me a lot about why new art is (at first) sometimes met with such disdain and contempt.  Refusing to fulfill expectations is something art has always circled back around to doing.  It's something art has to do and something I very much appreciate.  But it's something I had to learn how to appreciate and I really struggled with that for a long time.  I thought art had to be a certain way-  be made with certain materials, deal with certain topics, yadda yadda yadda.  It took me awhile to see that that is such a closed way to look at something.  Anything, actually.  And that the closed way I was viewing art actually belied the way I was thinking about and responding to my own life.  Art needs to circle around to ignoring expectations perhaps because humans need to as well, to simply achieve being oneself...  which isn't at all a simple thing.  The openness of Art testifies to the openness a mind can achieve, and the openness the world can achieve.  It makes me feel good when people like my work or experience a sense of kinship with me because of it but, honestly, that's totally out of my control.  I can't force that type of response and I don't even think about getting that response when I'm writing or making something.  I think primarily of myself and my own need to record and share my experiences; mostly in the hopes of finding out how absolutely non-unique my experiences are.  Something happens in the process of writing and making that allows me to feel attached to my own humanity.  Even in moments when I felt most alone and most isolated, the process of creation itself gave me hope that maybe that wasn't the case...  the creative act itself reassuring me that, even if it feels like it, I'm not screaming into a void.  Or even if I am, so what?  The scream itself is valuable.  The scream itself needs to BE.  But I'm not sure I know what I want my art to do beyond satisfy my own need to get the scream out.  I like feeling heard.  Everyone does.

I installed a new yarnbomb a few days ago on a street corner and then went and got dinner.  As I headed back home, it was a lot of fun to watch people stop and read the text.  it felt good to watch them stop walking, tilt their heads to the side, and consider the sentiment in front of them.  In this particular instance, it was a banner that read THE WAY YOU NEED TO BE LOVED and I really got off on seeing this.  I didn't need people to know it was my work.  it was more than enough to just have it be out in the world, working whatever magic it might work without me standing there next to it to guard it or explain it or influence the experience of others as they encounter it.  I hope that people think about the way they need to be loved.  If it provokes that type of inner dialogue, that would be fantastic, but what the piece has already accomplished is making me meditate on that idea.  My art nurtures and challenges me.  it makes me look at myself and then makes me look beyond myself.  

TB:  There’s a risk and an erotics in this.  I have often remarked that the reception of a poem—or work of art—is akin to that prompted by an unsolicited kiss. 


 I like that! There’s certainly the risk of getting slapped, as it were, for stealing a kiss.  Not everyone likes the stuff I do on the street.  Pieces have been slashed and thrown in to the street.  A few pieces were even set on fire.  It amazed me that the work provoked such a violent response but you raise a good point: if the reception of these pieces is akin to how one might react to a stolen kiss, a violent response is justified.  Especially since this work is taking place in public.  I’m not asking permission to show the work.  I’m not waiting for my turn to speak.  I’m taking my turn and I’m taking up space.  But back to the topic of erotics for a moment:  it was definitely a pleasurable moment of voyeurism to witness other people read my work and know they had no idea that the artist responsible for the piece was watching them. Very pleasurable.

TB:  I want to return to the point where, at the beginning of our exchange, you suggested that “For me, Art begins in the desire for language.”  Could you flesh that out a bit?  I’m interested in finding out more about your process.  Maybe you could take me through how you came to make some particular work.


I mean, it’s very much like how children point at objects which are new to them and ask, “What’s that?  What’s that?”  It’s curiosity.  But that sounds really thin.  It’s a deep love of my own curiosity. And maybe even simply a deep love for the world at large.  I want to know what things are.  I want to know their names.  In learning about the outside, I learn about the inside.  During the last few years especially, I’ve become increasingly concerned with knowing who I actually am.  Not who I thought I was or who I’d been brought up to be, but who I truly was.  The embarrassing shit.  The dark shit. The scary shit… The things that I perhaps once thought would never apply to me.  One day you wake up and are confronted with the fact that you’re just as capable of being bad, selfish, and fucked up as everyone else.  That was a reckoning.  Still is.  I appreciate those moments so much because those are the environments in which I’ve learned a greater depth of honesty.  Or the true depth of my bravery…  sometimes even the true depth of my cowardice. 

My diary has called me out more than a few times.  There have been these really strange, horrible mornings when I flipped back through previous volumes of the diary because I playfully wondered, “What was I doing on this day three years ago?”  I find the correct page and am confronted with the horrifying fact that I’d been making the same complaints about life three years prior that I had just made that very morning when I was scribbling in the current volume.  SO EMBARRASSING! Amazingly, brutally embarrassing!  But it’s moment like those that have given me the strength to pull whatever trigger I’d been afraid of pulling.  It’s moments like that which showcased my own cowardice in such a way as to give rise to a greater strength of will and a more solid self-esteem. Those texts are often the ones that become the basis of a blog post or a piece of art.  With a few exceptions, pretty much all the sweaters and banners bare a sentiment that came straight from the pages of my diary.  And usually the sentiments nod at (or straight up disclose) a truth I am uncomfortable with and feel called out by.  When this project first started, I wanted to walk around with snippets from my diary on my chest as a way to get comfortable with certain facts about my life. I needed to make peace with my Self and my history.  It became a test of courage to see if I could really wear certain statements out of the house.  It didn’t really matter if other people “got it” or not. I knew I was exposing something fragile about myself.  I knew I was turning my body into a billboard.  I wanted to be dry-eyed and stoic, stomping down the street to work, while broadcasting a hard truth about my life.  For awhile, I nicknamed the project “sweaters of death” because the work largely dealt with the massive trauma of my mother’s death.  It was important to me to be open about a subject that our culture is so closed to.  I wanted to offer up my experiences as common fodder for discourse or attack simply because I was pissed off that there aren’t many spaces in our culture to talk about death and mortality.  The hardest sweater to wear out of the house at that time was the one that reads I WILL NOT DIE IN FRONT OF YOU.  People would read it as I walked by and then I’d watch their faces crinkle up.  It was a turn off.  And I was okay with it being a turn off.  I just had to learn to see this work as more than making sweaters.  I had to see it for what it really was: performance.  I needed to find a way to let the sweaters function as an armor as well as a billboard.

And then they went beyond the subject of my mom’s death into different realms.  Desire, fear, loneliness, horniness.  In that work, I’ve opened up about so many things that I didn’t foresee speaking about, at least not in such an overt way.  There’s something about the meditative quality about crocheting though that helped me become comfortable with exploring sides of myself I tend to keep intensely private.  Some of my projects take weeks to resolve.  I’m meditating on the sentiment the piece bares the entire time.  It’s a catharsis and a reckoning at once. 

TB:  Thank you, Angela.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

John Bloomberg-Rissman interviews Nina Power

“… I do have a lot of friends who are artists and poets. Most of the poets are obsessed with the way in which capitalism talks about itself, the language of the markets, the speeds and strangenesses of financial activity. It’s interesting - as if contemporary experimental poetry is the nearest thing to the critique of political economy that art has. …”

JBR: As best I can tell, over the last few years, you have morphed a bit from an academic / activist into an activist / academic. In other words, your main focus these days seems to be activism, rather than writing, translating, etc. If that is true, can you tell us a bit about the transition? And about your activism? (this is where you can talk about the trials, I think)

NP: I certainly shifted from being primarily interested in politics as a theoretical object to it being a pressing daily concern in 2010, but I would refuse the activist/academic division to some extent. I mean, I wish more academics were explicitly politically, both in the media and in political life, and there are many that are - but an awful lot are content to remain within the often limited scope of their academic research, and to go along with various management decisions, however detrimental these might be. So you often end up with a few 'radicals' on campus who, often alongside their students, are fighting to prevent departments being closed own, fight against imposed registration (often used to check immigration status of students), contest Vice Chancellor's pay-rises, fight fees, improve conditions for non-academic staff and so on. In 2010, with the closure of the undergraduate Philosophy department at Middlesex, the beginning of this long round of attacks on Higher Education really kicked in. I had studied and worked at Middlesex and feel a very strong connection to its aims and ambitions, so I was part of the campaign to prevent its closure - the occupation was seen as a kind of test-case for what would happen at universities over the next few months as fee increases were debated in parliament, the Education Maintenance Allowance was cut, and so on. The outcome (the graduate centre moved to Kingston and the undergraduate programme was indeed cut) was ambiguous, but, alongside the university occupations over Gaza the year before, the tone was set for a certain kind of student and staff militancy between then and the end of 2010, when the tripling of tuition fees and the funding cuts were finally passed.

Over the course of the four main student protests that took place between November and December that year - huge, thrilling events which broke away from the main route and occupied Tory HQ in one instance, and escaped police containment (kettling) in another - we saw a series of arrests, as well as the increasing police violence that occurred on every protest - horse charges into static crowds, baton use, use of shields as weapons, and so on. This police desire for retribution culminated in the extreme police violence witnessed on the day of the fees votes, where many protesters suffered head injuries and, as is quite well known now because of the subsequent criminal prosecution brought against him, one protester, Alfie Meadows was so seriously injured he had to undergo life-saving brain surgery. The Crown Prosecution Service then saw fit to charge him with Violent Disorder (a charge used against many of the protesters arrested on the student protests and others), which has a maximum life sentence of five years. Alfie and his co-defendant Zak then had to suffer through three trials (the first jury returned a hung verdict, the second trial collapsed due to multiple delays), which finally culminated in their unanimous acquittal in March this year. Along with a number of others, we set up a campaign (Defend the Right to Protest) which focussed on helping defendants get the best legal advice, supporting them during their trials, writing articles about the trials in order to raise awareness about what was happening to the dozens of students who faced court cases and prison and linking up with other campaigns that work on protest, police violence and imprisonment. One of the links the campaign has worked on, and continues to work on, is the broader question of police violence: deaths in custody, daily police harassment and so on. While many of the people on the protests did not necessarily have experience of police brutality before they witnessed it in late 2010 (though many did), we wanted to try to make the link between protest violence and the violence that many (particularly young black and Asian men) suffer daily: in other words, to try to get people to think in a more 360 degree way about the role of the state and the police, and the way in which violence is meted out unevenly. We continue to attend inquests into deaths in custody and to support families of those involved in the justice campaigns. Because the scale and the extent of the cuts have been so brutal since the Tory government has come to power, alongside the rise of extreme right-wing groups like the English Defence League and the UK Independence Party, it has been hard for those who oppose cuts and fascism to keep up with the extent of state violence: opposition to austerity measures has been fierce but so too has the state's response. One of the most significant things for me over the past few years has been to meet up with criminal defence lawyers - these people are truly extraordinary in their fight for justice for ordinary people: of course, the legal aid that ensures people can get even the slightest hint of justice is being dismantled as we speak.

Personally, I'm not sure if I write more or less now than I did before 2010. The main thing I stopped doing was my blog I guess, which just started to seem a bit frivolous: it was something set up as a distraction during my PhD but I got tired of having all this word-junk hanging around - also, I could see from searches to the blog that someone/some people were looking for dirt on people who had been arrested or were heavily involved in the protests. Needless to say there wasn't anything on the blog that could do anyone any damage, but a lot of people were feeling exposed and anxious at that point. As you know, there have been a few very high profile exposes of police infiltration into protest movements in recent years, and I think paranoia is sometimes a normal response: people were going to prison were insanely minor things and newspapers and right-wing blogs were all-too-happy to smear protesters when it suited them.

I think my writing has perhaps become more fractured over the past few years, and I really am a terrible academic - if by that I mean someone who focuses on one thing in a scholarly way and becomes an expert on that one thing - because I write about so many different things all the time in different contexts. But I get bored easily I think. Some of my more recent work on notions of the 'public' tries to bring my interest in protest to bear on larger philosophical and political questions - definitions of collective subjectivity, for example, which I wrote about in my PhD. But I try to mess about with different styles of writing - journalism, academic articles, reviews, experimental stuff - so as not to get too ossified in one way of thinking or doing.

JBR: "Are any of the activists with whom you are colleagues, are any of your friends and non-activist colleagues, artists? If so, do you discuss art with them? Which arts? Are any of them poets? Do you have a connection to that aspect of their work?"

NP: I’d like to start with a quote from an interview given by Rachel Kushner (not with me though I did chair an evening with her recently in London):

‘I think it’s unfair to compare the stakes of art and the stakes of protest. The implication is that art is sillier, that the stakes are about ego and money and hierarchies ... but we are not choosing between a world without exploitation and a world without culture. They are not in direct competition with each other.’

I was really struck by this quote as it articulates something important about the way in which the relationship between activism and art are often framed, as if they are opposed and mutually exclusive or excluding. Clearly there is a way in which art sometimes appears to be self-contained - in its own little world, the “art world” perhaps - though obviously at the top end the links between this world and the world of finance are very tight. A lot of what people mourn these days when they talk about the disconnect between a lot of art and politics (or ask ‘why isn’t art relevant?’) is based around a fundamental assumption that these two spheres are somehow distinct. They might even be distinct, often, but it doesn’t mean that they should be, or always were, or always will be.

Nor, though, do I think that art has a ‘responsibility’ to be political, to have a particular message etc. Practically speaking, a lot of my friends who are artists are heavily involved in politics, particularly since the events of 2010 that I described in my first answer. Groups like Arts Against Cuts and The Precarious Workers’ Brigade look very clearly at the material constraints and conditions for artists and for art’s relation to politics in the UK context, and I have friends who work for both groups. Here I think there the question is one of specificity: rather than making generalisations like ‘all money is dirty money’ or ‘we are all complicit’, these groups think about the context, funding and presentation of art (and who gets paid, and who doesn’t). A couple of my friends, Dean Kenning and Margareta Kern, wrote a recent piece for Art Monthly that I think addresses these questions head-on. They write:

Knowledge as to how class power operates through art, and how we are in various ways subject to its forces, can inform artistic decisions. It may be exactly those points where art brushes directly against neoliberal power that offer most potential for effective resistance. In this respect, decisions made in specific art-world situations, including acts of subversion or refusal, should not be interpreted as points of individual morality or personal preference but as artistic acts with the potential to affect the wider field of art.

Much of the time, when people refuse to work with galleries etc. or pull out of events because of where the money comes from the response is often to attack this as a ‘moral’ position, but really the question has to be asked on a case-by-case basis with as much recognition of the different positions people are in and are able to take (obviously someone with a salary from a university job is better-placed to ‘refuse’ than a young artist without a job or money)  

To get back to your question, I do have a lot of friends who are artists and poets. Most of the poets are obsessed with the way in which capitalism talks about itself, the language of the markets, the speeds and strangenesses of financial activity. It’s interesting - as if contemporary experimental poetry is the nearest thing to the critique of political economy that art has. Most of the visual artists I know are also engaged in kinds of mapping, or political critique of one kind or another, and often critique of the artworld itself.

In terms of cultural form, I spend most of my time listening to music - I’m very, very keen on experimental electronic music that has an interesting relation to gender - figures like Julia Holter, Laurel Halo, Berangere Maximin, and I obviously write quite a few music reviews for The Wire. I also watch quite a lot of films and have been asked to speak on a few occasions about film-art - this weekend I’m speaking about the work of Ericka Beckman, for example. I grew up reading a lot of novels and it’s still the cultural form I probably feel most at home with (hence reading all of the Booker shortlist this year! The prize is open to accusations of mainstream conservatism, for sure, but an interesting project to attempt alongside work and other writing).

It is difficult to untangle art in the British context from its commercial elements, and certainly most of the artists I know - Laura Oldfield Ford for example is a dear friend - find it difficult to earn enough from art alone, even though their work is excellent, moving and incisive. I think it’s interesting that so many discussions of so-called immaterial labour begin and end with the artworld and the figure of the contemporary artist as the paradigm examples of this tendency: art has perhaps become dominant as a mode of existence, which of course makes it no easier for those who describe themselves as ‘artists’ to make a living.  

JBR: I’m guessing you know about the Militant Politics and Poetry Conference held in London this past May. I’m also guessing that you know a number of the people who presented there. I wasn’t there, but a number of the talks and a number of responses subsequent to the conference have been posted to the Militant Poetics forum

Among many other things, there seems to have been a lot of – I don’t know if anxiety is the right word – desire that poets think about “how to go forward, what we might do etc.” (Chris Gutkind).  I’ll quote a few illustrative comments:

“Is there something we can actually do that might help, make a useful contribution? But together, since we’ve come together, and what is together anyway, what do we mean by that in our situation?” Chris Gutkind

“It's a good sign that there's a conference on militant poetics raising explicitly non-rhetorical questions, & a good starting point for poets to at least think thru the implications of a shared poetic militancy. But what are the forms this ought to take to make any fucking difference at all, to effect a reversal in the seemingly endless parade of abhorrences & loss of common rights?” Michael Tencer

“How do we fight the corruption and greed of politics, and is the power of language alone sufficient?” Selina Vuddamalay

I used the word anxiety above, and then withdrew it, but would like to put it back on the table. Because it seems to me that poets who are sure of what they are doing don’t ask such questions. I would add that I don’t find the anxiety unreasonable, in fact I share it; tho I don't find it unreasonable, I'm not actually sure that it IS reasonable.

Since it does not appear from your answer to question 2 that you find poets NOT doing what they ought to do, to be falling short, failing somehow, what would you say to me, what might you have said at this conference, to the poets (and other artists) who express these kinds of doubts? (In a certain way your answer already addresses this, I know, but I’m hoping to push you a little into a more specific interaction with this “anxiety” …)

NP: Anxiety is this omnipresent cloud over everything anyone does I think! It can and does tip over all the time into fatalism, or panic, or despair. It’s not surprising that poets would feel this particularly acutely as poetry as a cultural form seemed to be peculiarly marginalised in some ways, and thought not to have the strength to make much impact outside of a few small camps who will be extremely moved by it - although it’s clear that in Iran, for example, poetry is still highly privileged as a mode of political, spiritual and literary communication and whose effects are deemed to be worrisome by the authorities. At the same time, it won’t do to imagine cultural forms are more subversive or relevant than they actually are.

There are several kinds of anxieties at work here it seems to me: the anxiety that what one is doing is of any value or makes any difference, for starters; the anxiety that the entire mode or form of production has value or is still historically relevant; and an anxiety about how individual or collective production links up to broader questions of political struggle, or how to tie being a poet, for example, in with being someone engaged in political work (anti-police protest, for example, of which we have seen a lot lately in London). I have many friends for whom the question of whether they concentrate on their work or whether they spend their time organising (alongside everyday economic questions) is a daily, practical dilemma. Of course the ambition is for there to be no gap between the work and the politics. But these moments are rare and utopian. But they do exist.

Another option is to see the negativity all the way through to the end, to analyse and categorise it, to pin it down and to work out whether there is anything to be done with hate, revenge, pessimism etc. I’m also interested in this option, as are many others (see

JBR: To change topic a little: How does global warming play into your "communist horizon"?’

NP: I think this is a difficult question, though one as relevant as ever with the news today that 95% of scientists are now convinced that global warming is the direct result of human influence. I think one of the problems we have politically is to try to conceive of nature in a dialectical way: one obvious fantasy (perhaps a primitivist one) would be to imagine the world in a pre-capitalist state, with sustenance farming, commons, and so on, where humankind lives harmoniously with the environment. Of course this is in many ways a wonderful image - and I have nothing but admiration for people who live in this way, wherever possible. But I think too that realistically you have to think about the planet as it has been constructed and changed by capitalism, by pollution, man-made disasters like Fukushima and so on. Obviously some of these things can be ‘cleaned-up’ and behaviour changed, but it is clear that there is significant damage done to the planet at this point: and the mismatch of scale between an individual recycling glass bottles and companies dumping waste quantities of crap into the oceans is hard to conceptualise. Futility or a kind of nostalgia for the future of the kind that Herzog sometimes engages in - wouldn’t the world be better off when all the humans are gone and nature can return to its true beauty/horror? - seems tempting sometimes. Most contemporary cultural explorations of this idea of ruin begin or end in apocalypse (think of Children of Men etc.), and it is a tempting position, to romanticise the destructive ruins left by a ruinous species, but again it depends upon a concept of nature that is somehow pure and doesn’t include humans, as if we are not also a part of the nature that we have betrayed, and in doing so, have betrayed ourselves.

JBR: Let’s talk a little more about global warming and a communist response to it. I see that you rule out two possible responses: nostalgia for a golden age, and desire for our species’ extinction. I am fine with that; neither seem useful, both dodge the question of how humans are going to go on, and each is just too romantic for words. I have seen the capitalist response: either denial, and business as usual, or a reliance on geoengineering projects when the going gets bad (or a combination of both: for example ExxonMobil funds a great deal of denialism, AND is investing heavily in geoengineering – heads I win; tails you lose). And, when I look back on prior attempts at communism, e.g. the USSR and China, I find that each were dependent on the very same technologies as capitalism, i.e., those that are killing the planet. So, while it’s all very well to remember Marx’s “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”, now it’s not just the tradition of the dead generations, it’s also the CO2, etc. I don’t see that the communist (or any other truly left) tradition has theorized this kind of thing well [this kind of thing = changing the modes of production, the energy and other technologies upon which we depend, at the same time as consolidating the revolution itself] (please tell me that I’m wrong about this!). How does a communist think this crisis [the crisis of capitalism AND energy technology] (it feels to me to be a crisis) now? Or, perhaps better, how do you?

NP: I think there is a very long tradition that relates to ideas of “the commons” that precisely relates to this problem of capitalism and energy technology/access to resources/sustainability. The work of the Midnight Notes Collective ( points to exactly this kind of thinking. I don’t have much to add here except to say that every time I read what they write I can’t help but agree with them.

Nina goes on to add, “John: I realise this isn’t a very satisfactory answer! Feel free to maybe cut this response or maybe you could incorporate it back into the earlier question about global warming?” Instead of cutting or incorporating I am going to leave this as-is, to point to the fact that I believe that what I call just above “the crisis of capitalism AND energy technology” is undertheorized, which is not to take away from the work of those who are attempting to deal with it in the least, it’s just to note that this crisis needs to be at the top of the agenda, or perhaps the rest of the agenda will find itself irrelevant before too much more time passes … Do I need to add that theorizing this (trying to think it through) is just a first tho necessary step? Again, this is just my opinion …

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Interview with Branton Shearer

Tom Beckett:  You’re a psychologist who has built a business on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  You’re also a friend of mine—a go to guy to play bad pool with—but when I first became acquainted with you, you were an aspiring poet.
So, where did/does poetry begin for you and how does it relate to what you’re doing for a living now?

Branton Shearer:  I suppose it is simplistic to say that words on the page define a great swath of my reality.  I like writing because it slows down my appreciation for the meaning and impact of individual and particular clusters of words.

As I transitioned into the role of psychologist from that of a poet I unconsciously found myself attracted to psychological theories and activities that were 'word focused.'

During therapy one listens to the other person's reality as it is captured in words and perhaps how the person is likewise 'captured' by those very words. Can changing our words change our reality -- for the better?   I could probably think of a lot of examples to support this but let me illustrate with the simple semantic shift that I've shared around the world and that has sustained me in my work for nearly 30 years.
   An IQ-based view of intelligence asks, "How smart are you?" but a multiple intelligences perspective asks, "How are you smart?"
The first implies one ladder of smartness while the latter assumes that there are numerous ladders.
   This subtle shift can have dramatic consequences for someone who has always been negatively labeled with “not smart” "low IQ" - "not college material" - "dull" or - horrors! "merely average". These labels are gross over simplifications and may completely neglect, denigrate or demean a person's true "intellectual potential".  I know that this semantic shift can be very good news for anyone for has been negatively compared to a sibling, i.e., "Ah, she has a nice personality but she's just not as smart as her brother."  This person's keen interpersonal intelligence may go unrecognized and undeveloped in the shadow of her "smart brother".

TB:  Do you have a theory of the Self?

BS: I notice that you capitalized the word Self. Does that imply that there is higher Self as well as a lower self?  Or perhaps many selves….Years ago I was attracted to the idea that we are each made up of many different voices of sub-personalities. Like that commonplace experience of hearing your father’s (or mother’s) voice coming out of your mouth, when you least expect it. I suspect that I envision that we are composites of all the different voice influences encoded in our brain neurons. Some voices ring louder in our ears than others over the years. Each sub-personality serves us – for better or worse – in different ways. Are we more than the sum of these voice parts woven into a higher Self? Perhaps.  That’s a bit too abstract for me and my daily purposes. I’m satisfied knowing that there is some voice that keeps my fingers pecking out words in some sort of meaningful order on this cold keyboard.

TB:  If I recall correctly, the trajectory of your career so far has been tripartite in nature.  You began by working with patients who had suffered brain injuries.  In the next phase you did therapy with individuals.  And for the larger part of your career you have been working on ways to assess how individuals learn.  Could you speak to your work experience and your sense of how you’ve arrived at the point you are at today?

BS: You've skipped over my earlier stints as roustabout on oil rigs and three miserable years as an apprentice carpenter where I learned the basics of building things. I continue to build things today but instead use materials and tools that I'm more adept with - words, ideas and people rather than wood, blueprints and sledge hammers.  These days I labor mostly with teachers, principals and students as we strive to redesign how learning takes place in classrooms and beyond. I use my carpentry knowledge often as a metaphor for this effort. In my fantasies I am the Frank Lloyd Wright of learning, except that I want my structures to be more liveable and easier to maintain. Hard to balance elegance with practicality, eh?  I strive to help teachers (and people-in-general!) to see beyond their conventional expectations of what it means to be smart and how best to learn. I have to paint word pictures to get people to move out of their square box homes and to see the potential in the neglected, ignored or denigrated aspects of their abilities.   For example, I have found that students who are strong in the Kinesthetic and Naturalist and Spatial thinking abilities can struggle in the classroom. Academic tasks are difficult for them so the challenge is to construct learning activities that embed academic content into their particular thinking strengths. We usually don't mix these things together. P.E. is only for physical games and math is for logical thinking. This is wrong headed. Real life is much more of a mixture of various abilities that allows for multiple entry points. If we force people to focus on their weaknesses in order to drive the round peg into the square hole then we inflict harm upon many people. This doesn't apply only to children in school. We're attempting to make similar shifts in thinking on the job. I think that too much of work is awful because of a mismatch between person - position. We choose our careers and jobs for all the wrong reasons. See above my misguided efforts to become a carpenter! But, I learned stuff from pounding my head and thumbs one too many times. I stumbled down many blind alleys before I found the path that promised to make the best use of my own particular cognitive strengths. Not everyone gets this opportunity.

TB:  Did you have an “aha” moment of epiphany?

BS: Actually, I did. I can clearly remember it.....I had watched a TV news report that interviewed a psychologist who started a school in Massachusetts for kids with learning disabilities. There was something about hearing him during the interview that really struck me as being important. A while later, I was drinking a beer on my front porch on my Ram Island home (where I was charged with remodeling a ramshackle house as an outdoor environmental education center -- thumb pounding daily) and I had this vision of completing my BA in education / psychology and then going on for my doctorate. It is a little hard to believe today because at the time I had only completed 1 year of my undergraduate degree and I was a poor, married, carpenter poet living in a house without running water and an outhouse. But there it was....and it had to be done. The vision was realized about 8 years later.

TB:   Talk about those 8 years and what was going on with you, how you were evolving personally. At what point did you become exposed to Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences?  At Harvard?

BS: Ah, so it is a story you want to hear, eh?  Get comfortable, my friend…  My life changed on a rain soaked Saturday in Brattleboro Vermont while visiting with friends. Bill is a folk musician who had recently graduated with his teaching degree from the Lesley College Adult Degree Option (ADO) independent study program. Instead of sight-seeing we spent the whole rainy day talking about his program and how he worked full time while completing his bachelor's degree. I immediately knew that's what I wanted / needed to do.
    For the next 2 years wife Beth and I lived on Ram Island commuting by boat (Limping Dog) while I studied independently towards a degree in education and psychology.
It was there that I wrote poems such as this.....

    With the Dusk

I did not come to Bass Rocks
on this Gloucester cape
in fog
to catch the sun
nor bob my head in the tide
cold and recoiling.
I lie on my back on granite
that juts into the mist.
Twin Lighthouses to the left,
a loose crew of gulls – we
are the only ones
      on this cusp
            to call our names
      against the constant waves.
are thumbnail crabs, sea urchins
& barnacles, the dim
lights of fishermen
drawing nets
               through the mist
as smoke
twists a black scarf
               around cold throats.
I did not come
to these Atlantic rocks
to carry on
with the task
               of a day’s catch.
I came to coil my nets, reel in
the lines
& be content
to scan the grey blue arc
while a distant seam in my world
         is unraveling    in this
                                      near silence.

During this time living in the salt marsh surrounded by clam flats egrets great blue herons and biting green head flies and the regular rise and fall of the tides my BREAKWALL BOOK of poems was edited and published by friend Major Ragain.

I found it easy to slip from writing poems and letters into writing in response to my academic readings.  It was a great way to process my new learning. I'd work half a day on island projects and then settle down for a solid 4 hours of school work.  I used a manual typewriter and had to be finished by dark because it was difficult to read by kerosene oil lamp light.  Our days started before sun up and ended with the coming of night.

Speaking of writing, while words flowed naturally for me I found that my mechanics were flawed. Much work was needed to bring them up to snuff. I was all set to graduate and get on with my life when I was advised to stay one more term to work on my prose skills. I balked at this and my committee allowed me to graduate. This might have been an error. It took me many years of slaving over my prose to figure out how to write a proper academic paper. Numerous papers were rejected for publication because of their atrocious writing.  Years of writing poetry did not prepare me to follow the rules of academic (or even simply standard) prose conventions. Even today after writing somewhere around 10 books of prose I'm still sometimes baffled by commas and clauses.....

I managed to get my B.A. degree in 2 years because the school awarded me one year of college credit for my "life experience".  To get this credit I spent 6 months creating a thick binder documenting my cross country travels, exotic work history (on paddle wheel river boats and such) and poetry involvements. I think they called this "American Studies."

After graduation I was desperate to move home to Ohio so my 1 year old son, Dylan, could grow up with his grandparents in his life.  I applied to several graduate schools in Ohio and to Harvard. Well, Kent State rejected me but Harvard accepted me so I HAD to go to Harvard.   This was a good thing because both of my main advisors at ADO got their Ph.D.s at Harvard so they brainwashed me with developmental psychology theory. Harvard Grad. School of Education being the home of world renowned developmental psychologists.

I LOVED my time at Harvard even though I worked harder than I think I had ever worked in my life. Even harder than my 12 hour days on the oil rigs stacking 100 pound sacks of chemical mud off barges onto the rig deck. In fact, one time we worked 24 hours straight after an accident....but, my studies at Harvard were equally relentless but much more enjoyable.

Oh, I learned of multiple intelligences theory as an undergraduate and was happy to be going to Harvard where Howard Gardner was teaching except that the year I was there he just happened to be on sabbatical,, I never had the pleasure of taking a course with him. But, to my great good fortune, he has been a steady correspondent ever since 1986 when I informed him of my efforts to create a mulitple intelligences assessment.

Six days after an amazing Harvard graduation Beth and I packed our belongings into a UHaul truck and hit the road for Ohio. We had borrowed money from her parents to buy a run down Amish house (sans indoor bath, furnace and with only a little electricity) and 10 acres. All our neighbors were Amish and deposited quarters in a coffee can to use the phone in our barn.
           ((An interesting existential aside…while driving the loaded UHaul on country road with Dylan in his car seat beside me, we almost died. A fist-sized rock shot through and shattered the side window landing on the seat between Dylan and I. A brush hog mowing the weeds along the roadside lopped off the top of a rock and sent it flying through the driver’s side window. I thought it was a gunshot until I saw the rock lying on the seat. We arrived in at our country home in Middlefield with tear stained faces….))

During this time, I wrote a few pieces like this....
            First Cutting

Hay, hay, hay.  Heave-ho.   Heave-ho-hay.
Hot day with the itch
Of hay bales hefted high. Up lifted
Sun hot mow air
Thick dust and chaff scratch.  Make work
Some fun, poke holes
With a word that turns and winks.
Blink.  Leap up and have-ho. Shove hard
Bare hands as baling twine burns lines
In soft palms. Straw hatted
Father, brother, neighbor, friend
Drive a wagon creaking on. Hay-yea.
Ho-yea-heave-ho.  Hot horses plod and stamp
Huge hooves on hard earth.
Ho  -- back  -- Ho.
Heft up a warm bale and stack’em high
As the wagon tilts down
Around the bend and lurches up
The short path to farm barn.
Hay   home.  Hay home. 
No hum drum drowsy days
But turn and learn how hay is cut—
Raked, baled and heave-ho.
Stacked on edge, cut side up
In hot air to hay mow  - slow fun  - sweet bale
Work tough as words fresh sound
And turn our face to catch a breeze
Through the hatch.  Bearded brother, father neighbor, friend
Lend rough hands – soft punch
Up the mow – Heave Ho! -  Sun low
We turn and go
‘til next cutting comes.
Rain willing  - sun up  - sky high – HAY!

It was tough to find a job as a master's level counselor in Amish country. After 3 months of hard job searching, home improvement, fence building (for Beth's horses) and farm life I landed a position as a psychology assistant at Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital counseling people recovering from illness and accidents.  I was assigned to the brain trauma unit where I had to devise a crash course in cognitive remediation because I was completely ignorant.  And overwhelmed.

I would sit stunned with quadriplegics, young men just emerging from a coma and stroke victims wondering what I in the hell I could offer them...
I was soon trained to administer a 6 hour battery of neuropsychological tests so I could describe in great detail what was WRONG with the person's brain functioning but I really couldn't tell you what was working well. I knew something was missing, especially when no one paid a bit of attention to my carefully written reports that I sweated bullets over.  It was frustrating. I wanted my work to contribute something meaningful to the person's rehabilitation program but no one on the team seemed to pay much attention. Something was missing from this picture.

In my reading of the cognitive rehabilitation literature I learned that it was important to estimate the patient's "premorbid intelligence," e.g, how smart they were before their injury. This was supposed to help you know how to conduct therapy and how much cognitive function was lost (and to what status they might hope to return to).   To make a very long story a little bit shorter, I was showering one morning before work and it dawned on me what I needed to become a useful member of the treatment team. I needed an understanding of the person's multiple intelligences profile prior to their injury.  This would tell me their strengths as well as weaknesses that could be used in the design of strength-based therapeutic activities (that should be more motivating for the patient). How to obtain this information was the problem.
    Quite suddenly I realized that I needed to devise a structured interview that could be conducted with a family member who knew the person well prior to injury. Thus was born the Multiple Intelligences Developmental Assessment Scales (MIDAS) in 1986.

TMI yet?   We can now connect back to writing poetry....

Creating the MIDAS has proven to be my life's work that makes deep use of two of my strengths - words and people. I was once told by a neuropsychologist that I have a unique way of "feeling into how people think". And on occasion I'm told that I've written a good poem. Both require close attention to details. Writing questions for the MIDAS questionnaire (and reports) is easy for me -- small words in short sentences.
    Interesting story..... After writing the first version of the MIDAS questionnaire in collaboration with 2 psychologists and a speech pathologist, I was astonished to learn that it was written at the college reading level! Not good, if it was to be used with adults with a high school education or less. And many brain trauma patients are dare devil teenage boys who are not necessarily academic stars.
     My solution became a fascinating journey into words and their meaning. I started interviewing people with less than a high school education; most from the hospital's substance abuse treatment program.  The person would read the question aloud and I would in turn read aloud the response choices. I would listen where the person stumbled on the words then ask, "What does that mean to you? How else could you ask that? What words would you use to ask about that?" After a series of these interviews I completely rewrote the 120 questions to simplify and shorten them. It was a fun challenge to translate abstract ideas into everyday language while retaining the nuance and subtlety associated with specific skills and abilities.
   THEN I recruited hundreds of people with various education levels to complete the questionnaire so I could statistically evaluate the questions in relationship with other questions pertaining to that particular intelligence. Whew.  As I like to say, Fun with numbers!   This is where poetry and psychology come together.....a single word can alter meaning. Go figure. Poets have known that forever, eh?   It still strikes me sometimes how deaf psychologists are to words and how dead their language is.

TB:  To what do you attribute that deafness on the part of your fellow psychologists?

BS:  An analogy might be helpful.  Words are instruments. Psychologists fancy themselves as doctors who use words to do things like a doctor uses a stethoscope or perhaps an X-ray machine that describes a broken bone. I used to have a supervising psychologist who joked that writing psychological reports was the “lowest form of literature.”   For poets, words are also instruments but more like a flute through which blows the music that is their life’s breath.  Does that make sense?  Another analogy is painting. A house painter brushes color on the wall. A painter uses color to create a portrait of a house infused with his spirit / imagination. So, anyway…the psychologist applies the words to the surface while the poet infuses words with life. Or..something like that! J  

TB:  You have the distinction of being the first person I’ve interviewed who has inserted a smiley face at the end of a sentence.  I hope this doesn’t signal the beginning of a trend.

Final question.  What gets you going?  What keeps you motivated to do what you do?

BS: What keeps me going? (Besides being the first to insert emoticons into a “serious interview”?  hee, hee….I do like to cross boundaries and stretch the rules…. )

Words are like little magic mirrors that I like to play with bouncing light shards all around the room.  They allow me to reflect on present experience and - if the light is just right - peer through a keyhole into the future that I hadn’t seen before.

The small thrill of discovering something new are the fireworks that brighten grey mornings, dreary afternoons and dark nights for me. The challenge is to capture these fleeting flashes of light and then share them with others. Or - even better - show others how to ignite their own fireworks displays. Seeing the glow in their faces as they realize their own personal spark is the other source of joy that keeps me trudging forward when the going is thick, murky and slow.

Yes, it has been a long march through the proverbial thick and thin - good times and bad - since I left home at 18.  I've tried to keep my wits about me and learn things during both the good and bad stretches. The highs have indeed been high and the lows quite low.  If I can live through them fully and keep my head up then it is another good day!  I don't always achieve it but if I keep returning my attention to those little magic mirrors then something good is bound to come of it. 

That’s what keeps me going.