Sunday, December 15, 2013



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)



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.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Questions for Sonny Rae Tempest by Maria Damon

What is your background in terms of artistic or mathematical or any kind of formal training?

Unfortunately, I do not have any formal artistic training beyond books that I’ve read. I do, however, have a long history of mathematical training. The Bachelors degrees that I have (Meteorology; Nuclear Engineering Technology) as well as the Naval training that I’ve been through (nuclear reactor chemistry engineer; pilot) focused strongly on math in all aspects. I don’t find that I use this knowledge much in my work, if at all really (at least for now). Actually, the training that has helped most in my work occurred in the computer camps that I attended as a kid. In the early 80s, I was able to experiment with LOGO on the Commodore 64, which in turn gave me the confidence to learn BASIC and to create games at home. Sadly, once I entered high school, this type of creation fell by the wayside, as the guitar became my sole creative outlet. While the chicks dug it, I was an incredibly mediocre guitar player. I promptly stopped playing after graduating. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I moved to Louisville that I began creating works on the computer again. It turns out, those computer camps helped shaped the way I think (in discrete, logical steps) that made it easy to pick up modern computer languages that have evolved from BASIC. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a strong coder. Aside from Assembly language, which I needed to thoroughly teach myself in order to make my Atari game poem triptych Monday, I have a very superficial knowledge of the languages in which I most often work (python, javascript, html). I only know enough to piece together code from online how-to’s, and shape them to suit my needs.

What is the role of amateurism in your practice?

None of the work that I create is intended to make a profit. If I were worried about perfection and marketability, nothing would get finished, and they certainly would not see the light of day. There are very few pieces that I’ve spent considerable time on, enough to call “professional” work, which would Monday (almost 2 solid years of my life devoted to that), and my larger x-stitch pieces (you know firsthand how long that takes). Most of what I create is done so through my Moment Art practice, which came about as a reaction to The Artist’s Way morning pages. I’m sure you’re already familiar with The Artist’s Way, but if not, the morning pages are a method of writing to maintain creative momentum, in the form of stream of consciousness, diary-like writing, to be accomplished each morning. According to the author, these daily exercises are to be kept in a notebook and stored away, never again to see the light of day. I did not like this idea. Instead, I came up with the concept of Moment Art, where one spends a minimal amount of time during each day making something creative, be it art, poetry, or whatever. Once the Moment is finished, it must be released into the world, freely available to all to see. For me, this usually means posting it to some social network, but could very well include sending it as a message in a bottle. The point is to give birth to these works and then set them free into the world, instead of locking them in a drawer. I find this method perfect for those like me who spend most of my waking hours at work, where the time to make elaborate pieces simply does not exist. As a result, much of the work that I create is left unpolished, so that it actually will be seen and enjoyed, instead of sitting somewhere waiting for me to “finish” it properly.

Now don’t get me wrong; I do spend a large portion of each day thinking about one or another creative project. I am fortunate enough to have a job that does not require a lot of brainwork, so while execution time is limited, each piece is usually in a mostly-finished form mentally before I even begin creating it physically. For the UnderAcademy classes, each assignment was conceived and developed over the course of a day-a week on a forklift at a trade show (just an example), and produced at night when I found the time. Would I like to spend more time polishing all these pieces to perfection? Absolutely. Unfortunately, my time is limited and my ideas are numerous (and I’m totally addicted to a sense of accomplishment), so only a select few things receive that time and attention that they deserve. At the moment, this includes a chapbook of poetry, and an upcoming UAC class that I’m excited to have the opportunity to teach.

How did you find your way to Underacademy College? You mentioned that it was through following Chris Funkhouser on Twitter, and that it was his books that in turn drew you to that.  How did you find his books and what area of your own interest does it most overlap with? The historical? The merging of visual, digital and literary/poetic?

It is also through Twitter that I discovered Chris Funkhouser. Somebody (can’t remember who) retweeted his new book New Direction in Digital Poetry, right at the moment when I was delving deeper into the e-lit community, discovering a host of ways to compose poetry/art that I hadn’t before considered. I bought a copy of his first book (Prehistoric Digital Poetry) in order to learn more about what I was doing, and what had already been done in the field of digital poetics (which is what I’m most interested in). I am a huge proponent of learning the history of what I’m doing, so that I not only have a deeper appreciation for what’s being created today, but also to map out methods that have yet to be addressed/created. I am very much interested in trailblazing, so it helps to have a map of the known world at hand.

What is poetry to you?

I’ve tried and tried over the years to address this question, to no avail. The best thing I can say is that poetry is any expression that is made with poetic intent. To me, this can mean a host of things. If you look through all the work I’ve created under the moniker “poetry,” you’ll see an array of completely different projects. These run from traditional text to static paintings to generative code to games, and all exist in a variety of media. Even though I call myself a poet, very little of my work consists of text only.

How do you define your practice(s)? How do you integrate these practices into your daily life (worklife, family life, affective life, spiritual life): do you experience this process as disjunctive or harmonious?

As mentioned, most of what I create is done so through the Moment Art process. This process integrates wonderfully into my work life (keeps my mind occupied when it would otherwise be drooling on itself), and as a result many of my processes are expressions of my feeling toward my work.

Family life can be hectic, especially with five children. We are all a creative tribe, but since a lot of the work I do is at the computer, it can be anti-social and not conducive to quality family time. It is usually late at night after everyone is in bed that I have the chance to truly sit down with my work and move it forward.

As a whole, this process is my spiritual life.

Tell me by way of a biographical sketch how you got started in the kind of creative production you do for your Underacademy College work, your x-stitching, etc., and how you have evolved to the present?

As mentioned, the work I do for UAC is the result of my Moment Art practice. Cross stitching, however, began when I was very young. My mother and grandmother are incredibly crafty people, and raised me to be in a constant state of creation. Among many of the things they did was cross stitch. At the time, I was very much into my Nintendo, and realized that the pixels on the screen translated perfectly to a cross stitch pattern. Instead of making hand-stitched Marios and Zeldas and Metroids for me, my mother taught me how to do it myself. I began with simple sprite stitching, but quickly found that I could make anything that I saw on the computer into a cross stitch pattern (back then, I was hand-drawing images pixel by pixel on an old Tandy 1000 computer, mostly album covers). I was not very interested in traditional cross stitch patterns of cats or farms or samplers, but to a young boy, the idea that I could stitch Mario onto my backpack was the coolest thing ever. Again, though, once I got into high school, the quest for popularity squashed my interested in crafts. It wasn’t until many years later (2006, I believe) that I began spending more and more time with my grandmother and got back into cross stitching as something to keep the hands occupied while chatting. Most of what I stitch still revolves around my love of classic video games, though I have done some portrait work as well, since now, 20-30 years later, modern computers allow for simple one-click conversion of an image into a pattern. I’m not sure how many more 200-colour, 200x200 pixel projects I’ll do in the future; I’ve done a few, and they’ve eaten up months of my life. I have been considering how to use cross stitch poetically since Eric Snodgrass’ Nō Code class at UAC, where I experimented with stitch patterns as a way to represent digital code in a non-digital form. I am very much interested in seeing where this goes.

Do you ever collaborate?  If so, can you describe the process and practice?

I have yet to collaborate on a large project. My experience with collaboration on a creative work has gone no further than 2 painters 1 canvas.

Did you have a “poetics” or an “aesthetics” for your artworks beforehand? Do you have one now? Does it matter? or is there a better question for getting at what satisfies you in a work or how you understand the underlying principles of your endeavors?

I don’t usually begin with a certain aesthetic in mind. For my larger projects, I try to do is to use/create an aesthetic that relevantly matches the theme of my poetic expression. Everything else is usually just a sketch, where the aesthetic is far less important than the message. Most of what I do is play. I enjoy the process of creating my pieces far more than I enjoy the product.

What do you DO with the visual work? where is it kept–the x-stitches, for example? do you give it away? keep it? Is there any “bibliography” of its circulation? What would be some ideal ways of circulating it, if you wanted to do more.  Do you document the items in any way?

Most of my cross stitch pieces are gifted. Otherwise, they’re rolled up and put in a drawer. As I mentioned, it’s the creative process that I appreciate most. My Moments are typically uploaded to whatever social network site I’m currently using. Any of my larger or more serious works are posted on my blog, freely available. There is a limited collection of my work on my website, though I am working on gathering everything for a more “professional” website. If I have spent considerable time on a project, I will write a blog post or a post-mortem about the process, which is as extensive as documentation gets. When a work is finished, I try to make it available as soon as I can, because I will likely begin another piece immediately, and forget about the one just completed. I’m running into the problem now where the more I create, the more daunting a creation of this collective website becomes. I have so many things that need to be moved from my folders into the world.

Under what circumstances do you make your art? (do you even call it “art”? What do you call it?) Late at night? With music on? At the computer? Spread out on the floor of a room in your home?  What prompts a piece: an assignment? a conversation? a nagging feeling that something must be done? a shape, color or word in your mind's eye? A recognition of relationships (numbers to letters or colors)? All at once in one go or over the course of a few weeks, months, etc.? Is there "revision"?

As I said, the bulk of my work is mentally processed while I’m at work, and completed at night while everyone in the house is asleep. I could be at the computer or in my basement studio, generally with either soft music or silence. I find it hard to remain focused on production if there’s anything going on around me.

Anything could prompt a piece, though most times it relates to my family or work. Chances are, I will try to get the idea completed as soon as possible, usually within a day or so. Otherwise, I may sit with an idea for weeks or months before I attempt a go at it, during which I will mentally revise throughout the day, day after day, until I drive myself, and everyone around me, absolutely crazy. There are times where I may go an entire day without speaking, simply because I’m hyper-focused on a certain piece. These are the times when physical revision is minimal, since the work is more or less “completed” before it’s even started. Other times, I may jot down some ideas in my notepad (which I carry everywhere, and at all times), which I can use to fall back on when I’m creatively fallow. In this notepad, there can be a single sentence, pages of the same thought, or lines upon lines of crossed out and rewritten words that later become something more concrete and meaningful. Once a piece is completed and released into the world, there is rarely any further revision. But then there are times, especially when I’m working on longer textual works, that I may go through dozens of printed drafts before I consider the work finished.

Much of your work could be described as translation. Do you understand it as such? What does that mean to you, if anything? What’s the thread of continuity, the “thru-line” in all your work? Is it code and coding? Transposition/translation from one form of systematicity to another?

It’s like a wave riding onto shore. The beach becomes inundated. Things begin to move. The water recedes, and there is a moment when a swath of wetted sand teems with bubbles and mollusks. It is this disturbance of baked beach and brackish water that I find so fascinating, the ephemeral instability caused by hybridization in a holistically stable system.

Code is just a language I use to express a thing that English has no word for.

Monday, July 2, 2012


Thomas Fink: One main premise in Dialogics of Self for the investigation of Indian-Americans’ responses to the great Indian epic The Mahabharata and especially to its televised 1989 refashioning by the Indian filmmaker B.R. Chopra is the epic’s openness to so many different ethical, philosophical, and psychological perspectives, and this makes the participants’ interpretive discussions especially amenable to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of Dialogism. You indicate that “while Ramayana . . . clearly stipulates the “ideal” to be achieved, The Mahabharata is . . . an intricate labyrinth of history of ideas that highlights irony at every point” (107). Does The Mahabharata (prior to Chopra’s version, of course) oppose a monologism in ancient Hindu Indian culture(s), perhaps exemplified by Ramayana, or does it bring out the true dialogism that is always already present in the ancient culture?

Lakshmi Bandlamudi: A very interesting multi-layered question. First, let us talk about the necessary conditions for a dialogue – there must be openness on the part of the individuals, a willingness to engage with competing ethical and philosophical dimensions and even place themselves in the midst of these conflicts, so that they may realize something about themselves in culture and history. Second, the text must be open-ended to invite dialogue and thirdly, cultural conditions must allow for the dialogue to emerge. Self-Consciousness may be very dialogic, but if the text is closed and rigid, the range of possible meanings is limited. Both the self and the text may be open, but if the cultural conditions are unfavorable (as in authoritarian regimes), then, dialogue may not be possible. The title of the book – Dialogics of Self, the Mahabharata and Culture reflects this necessary triadic relationship.

When you are studying Indian-Americans, they are in a unique position (as with any immigrant group) of experiencing the ‘enigma of arrival’ – where all the hidden cultural codes become visible and are forced to question selfhood, their cultural baggage and their histories. This feeling of displacement creates a unique opportunity to enter into a dialogue with different cultures, which could lead to creative understanding of self/culture/history. What was evident in my study was that the vast majority does not respond to this dialogic potential; instead, they either shun what they perceive to be ancient/Indian or romanticize the past and the culture. The expressions ‘back then’ and ‘back there’ are either glorified or vilified making any engagement with a familiar epic monologic.

Now, let us discuss about the text and its history. In general, the hermeneutic tradition in India was never preoccupied with preserving the authenticity and originality of texts, but instead, celebrated the ever-evolving living traditions of epic texts. Furthermore, when these texts are orally transmitted, the storyteller is always preoccupied with many truths – the psychological, social and the dramatic and hence resorts to all sorts of persuasive tactics to beckon the listener. The transition from oral to textual in numerous languages in India adds more layers to this complex phenomenon. Therefore, there is a built-in atavism to any version of the text. The dialogic potential is already present in the various versions of the text. Therefore, the ‘surplus of meanings’ about the text is always floating around in the cultural atmosphere and it is up to the reader to select a few and construct meanings. In the constructive process the ontological and the epistemic choices made by the reader become visible.

The epic Ramayana is Kavya – poem, while The Mahabharata is Itihas – history of ideas. The former preaches about the ideal to be achieved, and hence the Godhead Vishnu incarnates as a human being and sets an example for the subjects to emulate, whereas, The Mahabharata exposes the very process of ‘idealization’ and hence nothing is absolute and final. This does not mean that Ramayana cannot be dialogized, but the scope is greater in The Mahabharata, since the reader is faced with bewildering complexities. While The Ramayana commands devotion, The Mahabharata demands dialogue.

TF: Whereas Draupadi, a major female character in The Mahabharata whom we’ll discuss next, seems to invite dialogue, the male character Karna doesn’t. All of your interviewees—whether their perspective is feminist, patriarchal, or somewhere in between—indicate “unconditional respect, sympathy and admiration” for Karna, the “tragic hero, who has been abandoned by his mother, ostracized by the society, betrayed by teacher and tricked by gods…” (154). Does this result suggest that, even in the very dialogic situation of this epic, consensus is possible? Or, in your view, are all the interpreters missing (or even resisting) the possibility of finding a negative aspect of an otherwise respectable character and blameless victim?

LB: Any encounter with Draupadi – both within the epic text and in the literary history – has enormous potential for dialogue, but this potential is rarely realized because of the tendency to refract her character through the prism of patriarchy. Therefore, more than dialogue, Draupadi invites strong response and controversy. While passions run high in dealing with Draupadi, Karna invites tender sympathy, only because in every important relationship he faces betrayal for no fault of his. Draupadi is a woman of extraordinary beauty with a fiery temperament and so for men she is both the temptation and the terror. And so, when viewed through the patriarchal lens, Draupadi’s pugnacious nature is seen as the root cause of her woes. Interestingly, both Draupadi and Karna seek the battlefield to avenge the insults hurled on them, but Draupadi’s actions are seen as bloodthirsty and vengeful, while Karna is spared of such characterization. Seeking the battlefield is seen as a natural and justified response when a valorous hero is insulted. Whereas, when Draupadi’s asks pointed questions, all the wise men assembled in the court of Hastinapur not only fail to answer her, but questioned her audacity to question and most of my respondents also joined the patriarchal/masculanist chorus. Therefore, Draupadi is a palimpsest and a contradiction bearing all the marks of gendered history. She is the site for affirming and challenging the ideologies of patriarchy. Although Karna is a noble character and has numerous redeeming qualities, he joins hands with evil forces out of sheer loyalty and even instigates and partakes in their nefarious activities, and yet, he doesn’t receive the same degree of condemnation as the heroine. In a dialogic reading, one recognizes the temperament of a character, their unique role in a plot, their past experiences in the story and their situational trappings to give a multi-dimensional and multi-layered interpretation. The characters are located in a broader episteme to reflect on uneasy issues of caste, class and gender in our chequered history.

Therefore, to your question on the possibility of consensus even in a very dialogic situation, the answer is of course yes. Remember centripetal and centrifugal forces are inherent in a dialogue and hence voices do adhere. For that matter it wouldn’t be a dialogue if it were a collection of disparate and disconnected opinions. There must be points of convergence and divergence in a healthy dialogue.

TF: Perhaps you were constrained by your position as researcher/facilitator from entering the dialogue on Draupadi as much more than a questioner. What “multi-dimensional and multi-layered interpretation” of Draupadi would you like to provide that you might not have been able to present in the book?

LB: In the long literary history of India, Draupadi remains unparalleled in personifying womanhood in its wholesomeness and uniqueness, with all its glory, horror, retaliation and resilience. Her complex and contradictory nature makes her versatile and she has stirred the imagination of many writers. She is an excellent literary device to write commentaries on nation, gender, caste and class. During the freedom struggle, a Tamil nationalist poet, Subramania Bharati wrote a classic piece based on the attempted public disrobing of Draupadi titled Panchali Sabadam – the Vow of Draupadi. In the very public humiliation of Draupadi, the poet saw the tribulations of Mother India, whose body has been invaded and stripped of dignity, while the rulers and enforcers of law and justice were either complicit or silent, and her custodians remained pathetically helpless. Bharati mobilized the nation to wake up and retaliate and gain inspiration from Draupadi who relied on her inner strength and strong convictions. In this piece the poet justifies Draupadi’s anger and the Nation’s rage over colonial rule and even deems it necessary to overcome self-pity and degeneration. In my view, any encounter with Draupadi is like entering a hall of mirrors, where we see ourselves seeing ourselves. Infinity is the reality in the play of mirrors – and in the reflecting reflections we see both the mirror and the subject – Draupadi and womanhood, inseparable in our journey from the immediate present to the remote past.

In one of the cantos in The Mahabharata, Draupadi herself presents the most persuasive argument on the ethical-philosophical dimensions of anger. She vociferously argues for the ‘ethic of rage and retaliation’ in response to Yudhishtir’s ‘ethic of restraint and forgiveness’ and I read the Feminist Manifesto in this debate/dialogue.

I am fascinated with Draupadi’s character, because long before women’s liberation philosophies were recorded, she loudly proclaimed that “Personal is Political” and hence challenged the kingdom about the legality of the transaction when she was pawned in the game of dice. In the court of Hastinapur nobody questioned when she was staked and nobody answered when she questioned, For that matter her question – did her husband lose himself before staking her or after – is a brilliant legal maneuver, because if the husband lost himself and if she is considered his possession, then she is lost along with him. But if the wife is an independent entity, how is the transaction valid if she was never consulted? This question remains unanswered to this day. Instead history has been clever, for it has been after all –‘his-story’ and not ‘her-story’ and so it has conveniently masked its inability to answer her question, by questioning her audacity to question and ascribing her character with subterranean and complex evaluations. She is both a victim of patriarchy and an irritant for patriarchy. I think to answer her question we need to go back to her – fight a good fight – and to use my earlier metaphor, when we enter the hall of mirrors, we see our reflection along with hers, and so we come in full circle – from Draupadi to Draupadi and between these two intervals we may discover new terms for gender relations.

TF: Did Draupadi feel that “rage and retaliation” was a strategic stage that would eventually allow women to gain equality with men in her society or a strategy for ongoing resistance in a never-ending conflict? (Separatism is a third option, but I don’t surmise that she would find this ideology satisfactory.) And which “new terms for gender relations” may we discover between the directional prepositions involving Draupadi?

LB: The epic The Mahabharata is about conflicts on many levels, and hence gender is not the only issue and therefore we could say that her legal maneuvering was a brilliant form of resistance and retaliation in a never-ending conflict. Now, how her strategy has been interpreted is an interesting issue and it says more about our contemporary conflicts than about the ancient past. As Gayatri Spivak has noted, I see Draupadi as an active ‘shuttle’ between the past and present and in this bi-directional movement we are constantly redefining gender relations. In our cultural life the nature of conflicts in class, caste, gender etc., are never static and the strategies shift and hence the shuttle does not necessarily explain everything about the gendered phenomena, but at best explains how and why the culture has produced some of these phenomena.

TF: From Bakhtin you derive (and in your assessment of the participants apply) the concept of seven kinds of selves: the Traveler, Biographer, “Clan” self, Seeker, Scriptural Self, Gendered Self, and Dialogic Self (92-3). You notice intriguing dialogic conflicts: “Interestingly, all the seekers are men, who insist on rational, scientific knowledge which they claim to be universal, and the gendered selves, who are all women, vociferously contest these claims,” which they say are held by “men with vested interests” (101). You speak of “the Traveler’s engagement” with the text as a “search for ‘authenticity’” (245) that, like the Seeker’s quest, is dehistoricized. The “rationalist” Seeker is after the replacement of ignorance by “Truth” (93), while the Traveler wants to enjoy and be moved by “fleeting impressions of the world” that s/he regards as “neutral” and “realistic” (92). I wonder, in a dialogic space involving The Mahabharata or not, whether transformations often occur. Might a Traveler ever get weary of the relative superficiality of his/her experience and “convert” to the seeker’s position or encounter an intense sense of gendered power relations and veer in the Gendered Self direction? Might a seeker ever reach such a mighty impasse that s/he experiences the limits of rationality and heads toward the Dialogic Self’s path? And can a Gendered Self, while retaining gender as a crucial category of experience/analysis, become fully dialogic in the sense that she acknowledges not only conceptions of gender change due to historical circumstances, as most influenced by recent feminist theory do, but also other categories that are vital and that, at times, may take precedence over gender?

LB: A very interesting and an important question. Transformations do occur in the interpretive act, either due to the pull of their reading partner or the plot. The movement towards dialogism was greatest in Plot III, where an attempt is made to disrobe Draupadi in public. The plot pulled the reader in multiple directions and hence it was difficult for them to exert complete authority over the text and determine its meanings. The dissonance was palpable in this plot, whereas the other plots involved more of affirmation and repudiation. Interestingly, the neutral, detached world of traveler was relatively more amenable to making entry into the dialogical world, than the absolute world of the biographer with a clear demarcation between right and wrong. Ideological idealism was far more obstinate than ideological realism. The objective/rational world of the seeker was slightly more malleable than the strict moralist world of the biographer. What was the influence of the reading partner? My study demonstrated that the dialogical readers were able to draw only few wavering subjects into a dialogue, whereas monologic readers were more successful in silencing the multiple voices of dialogic readers. Therefore, what is clear is that the monologic impulses are very strong. It is interesting to note that 50% of my subjects engaged in strict ‘Direct Unmediated Discourse,’ in reading all the plots, and only 8% were dialogic in all the plots and the rest occasionally moved towards multi-voiced reading depending on the plot. While the Scriptural, Gendered and Dialogic selves were interested in spreading layers of meaning, the single-voiced readers were busy scraping layer after layer only to negate other possible meanings or actually run away from the text or affirm their interpretive stance. The dialogic reader happily wanders in the semiosphere of the text and its immediate and remote surroundings only to discover a host of dormant meanings. That is why I am arguing that dialogic consciousness is rare and is a developmental achievement; it requires effort, courage and confidence in self to question our assumptions and transform.

The seeker is a classic Hegelian/Piagetian subject who is more interested in extracting a unified philosophical truth in the story. To them, the theatrical element of the story is just surface noise. For most part, they engaged in “uni-directional discourse” where extra-textual materials were used only to substantiate their already formed worldview. Remember, the seeker firmly believes that there is a deep down stable rational truth/philosophy in the text and it can be uncovered with objective methods. Hence their entry into the ‘vari-directional multi-voiced discourse’ is rare.

The gendered self is inherently dialogic to begin with, whether they retain gender as a central category of experience or not. In fact they seem fully capable of de-centering gender and treat it as one of the many stratifying factors in cultural life. For instance, when Draupadi dismisses the candidacy of Karna, the gendered selves are aware of the privileged position that the heroine enjoys at that moment. So you are quite right, at times other categories of class and caste may take precedence over gender.

TF: Using Giambattista Vico and Hayden White, you indicate how four master tropes are situated in discourse and how “the transition from one rhetorical trope to another… or the stagnation at one trope, signifies human and cultural consciousness” (33). Chez Vico, “the transition from a primal metaphorical world to a metonymic world leads to from a theocratic to an aristocratic world,” whereas “the movement from metonymy to synecdoche… represents the transition from aristocratic to democratic worldview, where wholes are constructed from parts” (255), and then, “as one moves from the world of heroes to the world of humans,… “individuals”—I take it, within democracy—“recognize their power and their limitations and, thus irony” (256) becomes the major trope.

I agree that irony is a vital trope for the realization of dialogism, especially in its connection with “parodistic discourse” and “hidden polemic” within “double-voiced discourse.” In American literary criticism in the seventies and eighties, one can look at dialogues among Stanley Fish, Wayne Booth, and others who tease out the distinctions between stable and unstable irony. For Booth, the former is readable as an attitude in opposition to a particular literal perspective, whereas the position or attitude of the latter cannot be located. Fish sees the binary stable/unstable as comparable to decidable/undecidable, but he argues that “all ironies are stable, even those that point in multiple directions, in that the shape they have (or don’t have) will follow from in-place interpretive assumptions; and all ironies are unstable, even those that are sharply pointed, in that they are the product of interpretive assumptions, and not the properties of texts” (Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies, Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1989: 568). Do you agree with Booth that stable and unstable irony can be distinguished or with Fish that it is all up to interpretive communities and conventions? In other words, would it be useful to perceive the irony you’re talking about vis-à-vis Vico and White as unstable or stable?

You point out the danger of synecdoche lucidly. But I would problematize the implicit devaluation of metonymy. This trope, when its constituent parts are both held in mind and one is not repressed, indicates relationality, interdependence, a non-hierarchical understanding of contiguity, and hence the possibility of a historically situated understanding that could exist in concert with dialogism. What do you think about this?

LB: Not having studied in any great detail, the works of Booth or Fish and in particular the distinction between stable and unstable ironies that they make, it would be difficult to make any intelligent connection with Vico or White. However, based on the explanation you have given, I would think that unstable irony would be closer to Vico’s explanation of the trope. In Vico’s exposition, ironic speech presupposes awareness that any interpretation could entail some amount of feigning or lying or masking and therefore you need a dint of self-reflection as a cover to establish veridicality of one’s position. It demands meta-interpretation. That is why I have argued that unlike monologic reading that is so keen on self-affirmation, the dialogic approach leads to self-realization – an awareness of the limitation of your interpretations – leaving a loophole for other interpretations to emerge, and thus keeping everything unfinalized and open-ended.

I think your point about metonymy is well taken. I agree that it could lead to dialogicality and I would stress ‘could,’ because not all readers move from metonymy to other tropes. I am not suggesting that movement of these tropes is necessarily sequential. If anything the discourse moves in zigzags and coils. When the movement stops with metonymy, then there is a danger of making simple-minded causal relations. I think you said it quite well that all the elements of metonymy create the possibility of a historically situated understanding.

TF: “A dialogic consciousness,” you write, “seems brave enough to explore every nook and corner of the semiosphere, which is the gathering ground for many disparate texts and distant spheres” (253). In this “journey,” “these spaces become ‘tools’ for reactivating the text” (254). Freshman expository writing (Composition) is a large part of what I teach, and you teach psychology, in which, I imagine, students also have to write papers supporting a specific thesis. To what degree would or could a dialogic pedagogy reconfigure expository structure into something that either allows the notion of a thesis to be much more capacious or is not thesis-driven? And how would such a dialogic advance in teaching methodology provide safeguards against the risk of chaotically thrown together, meandering essays?

LB: Sadly what we see in our classroom, despite creating an atmosphere for dialogue is the chaotic grouping of texts and ideas without achieving any kind of metamorphosis. This trend was evident even in my study, where readers would invoke many texts and draw comparisons, but fail to use the extra-textual materials as tools to return to the original text and open up other dormant meanings. For instance, while discussing the dice game plot where Draupadi is vociferously challenging the kingdom, the readers may invoke Anita Hill’s testimony and this was common. They would engage in a parallel discussion in an unconsummated fashion. Rarely would they get to another level of drawing converging and diverging points between these two characters. If they did that, they might have discovered something about the contemporaneity of the ancient text – in other words, recognize that Draupadi may belong to the mythical past, but the past she belonged to still remains with us. Despite my prodding, many of my respondents, like our students, fail to make the dialogic connection. I think that is what we struggle with in our classrooms, and hence, left with random grouping of references and texts without the central thesis. Even to engage in a good dialogue, there has to be some anchoring, so that there is unity in diversity. Surely, dialogue is murky and meandering, but there is method to this madness! I notice that in my developmental psychology class, students grasp F:Piaget with relative ease – it is a linear theory of development with neat stages, whereas the non-linearity of Vygotsky is a challenge, because it demands connecting disparate elements – that is, enter into a dialogue.

I wonder if we can directly teach dialogicality; after all it is not a technique or a concept with identifiable features, and the best one can do is to create a condition for a dialogue and make every effort to pull the student into the dialogic space with a hope that they push themselves too. I am curious about your take on this.

TF: Yes, we can create a space for dialogue, and we can help students organize the contours of their thinking without sacrificing dialogism. I have been very gratified when a student tells me that s/he has strong arguments for two opposing sides and is having trouble formulating a thesis or wonders whether any thesis will do justice to the complexity of the issue. We talk about the possibility of “weighing” the two sides and provisionally coming up with a qualified preference for one side, or else acknowledging a current impasse (undecidability without further data) as the thesis, or else achieving a synthesis that is not a “reconciliation of opposites” or paradox but a compromise formation that takes the best aspects of the two sides, shaves off the weaker aspects, and entails generalization that may go in an unexpected direction.

In the Platonic dialogues, the gadfly Socrates always wins. (Of course, the reader might engage in an ironic reframing of the philosopher’s bullying mode of questioning.) It would be exciting to allow some essays to take a (literally and non-Socratically) dialogic form, where there are ultimately two theses and not necessarily a winner, even as the two speakers acknowledge each other’s strong points. There’s no referee or judge.

Is monologism in its most extreme forms a kind of psychopathology? What modes of psychotherapy and/or psychoanalysis are most dialogic? Are the most dialogic most efficacious?

LB: I agree that non-Socratic dialogue would validate each thinker the ‘truth value’ in their own right – as Bakhtin would say, Dostoevsky created characters who were philosophers in their own right – often taking a diametrically opposite view from the author. It is this kind of dialogic form in The Mahabharata that is appealing to me – there are no phantom ethics, but only ethical validity at a given place at a given moment.

One of the topics that I am often preoccupied with is the connection between monologism and psychopathology. Long ago I presented my work to a group of very culturally oriented psychiatrists and psychologists and they made a very interesting observation about my various categories of self. Gingerly, they said that very often the dialogic character arrives at their clinic feeling thoroughly exasperated by the rigid world, feeling like misfits. Whereas, the monologic character might drive a reasonably healthy individual into therapy, making them believe that they need to sort out their emotions. The dialogic character operating in an ever-ambiguous world might become susceptible to that kind of labeling, while monologism masquerades itself as firm, decisive and by extension healthy. This kind of struggle was evident in my study; often the traveler would shout, “get to the point” or “don’t be so emotional” at the meandering dialogic reader, whereas for the latter there are too many points and emotions are one of the basis for interpretation. This disturbing trend is something we witness in our cultural and political life in particular, where volume of the voice drowns the nuanced voice. The dialogic self has greater penchant for self-interrogation, thus leaving the door open for attack, while the world of monologic reader is heavily fortified.

About the modes of psychotherapy that are most dialogic, I think first, we need to re-examine how we define human pathos. Think about the play – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and I think we have gotten worse in attaching pathos where there isn’t one and we offer pills as the remedy, making drug companies rich. Therefore, as J. Krishnamurthy, a philosopher from India said, it is not a mark of great mental health to conform to a sick society.

TF: Those who say, “Don’t be so emotional” themselves are being emotional, and the dialogic reader as an interpreter, I suspect, tends to be less in the thrall of emotions that are hostile to particular points of view. Openness and irony contribute to skepticism about situations in which emotion and, in fact, bullying overrides thoughtful reflection. And perhaps the dialogic thinker can be sensitive to the “get to the point” attitude—which can be understandable in terms of norms of attention spans—by verbally foregrounding process in advance of and during elaboration.

What you say about our political life is so true. Kerry was branded as a “flip-flopper” rather than a dialogic thinker, and Bush’s monologism was considered admirable, though by 2004, people were thinking less monologically about Iraq, and so Bush squeaked by. Somehow, in 2008, Obama’s dialogism relative to McCain’s monologism won out, as the former was viewed as more sympathetic and “cool” than the latter, and Bush was blamed for the tanking economy. This year, with respect to monologism/dialogism, I wonder whether the electorate will behave as it did, marginally, in 2004, or in 2008.

Regarding the Krishnamurthy quote, I would say that there’s a condition of heteroglossia in our society: there is a good deal of conformity to exclusively money- and status-centered striving, and yet many people are pursuing deeper desires in a self-directed and/or communitarian way, and still others are trying to synthesize divergent aims, perhaps with some success. And this diversity is probably reflected in the panorama of psychotherapies.

As a scholar of Dialogism, what post- Mahabharata project might lie ahead for you?

LB: I agree with your point that there is equal measure of conformity and creativity in our culture. In the former one marches to the drums of culture, pursuing money and status to enter into a Faustian bargain, while the latter pursues deeper meaningful desires that are in tune with their inner rhythms. Perhaps that is what makes life bearable.

I am at present working on a manuscript – Difference, Dialogue and Development: A Bakhtinian World – in which I am trying to look for images of developing subject in his collected works, to explore significance of his theory for developmental psychology. The basic argument is the reality of differences in the world necessitates dialogue, which in turn leads to development.

I will also be convening an All India Bakhtin Conference in August 2013 in India to explore the dialogic potential in the culture. Interestingly, if Mikhail Bakhtin’s works stand under the banner of plurality, open-endedness and diversity of languages and social speech types, the cultural, philosophical and literary histories of India may very well be brought under the same banner. A polyglottic culture with an amazing assortment of dialects, religions and customs would then seem to be an ideal soil for the growth of Bakhtin’s ideas. It may very well be the case that long before the principles of dialogism took shape in the western world, these ideas, although not labeled as such, were an integral part of the intellectual tradition in India. However, like most places the monologic impulses have taken over, and hopefully in the conference we will explore ways of recovering the dialogicality.
It is a rare privilege to respond to someone who asks thoughtful open-ended questions and so THANK YOU for opening up a sustained dialogue…

TF: Thank YOU, Lakshmi. I have learned a great deal.