Annaliese Jakimides Interview: kindness is the root of justice

Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto

Annaliese Jakimides is a freelance writer, poet and visual artist who lives in Bangor, Maine. Cited in national competitions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her work has been broadcast on the radio and published in many journals, magazines, and anthologies, including This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men, Women and Beloit Poetry Journal.
by Annaliese Jakimides
All war, under law, will from this September day
on a dirt road in northern Maine where
Albertine Cyr flies her French mourning hands
into the night, often into the day, be conducted by women.
The sucklers will choose where to place the charge,
whose child to take, and what reason is good enough to send
Otto Schroeder’s daughter, Muzah Bozieh’s brother,
Albertine’s youngest son into the fire.
She enters the room where her Freddie slept,
palms the feathered pillow’s sack, the one
that rubbed his night cheeks.
Experienced witness to vulnerability,
spooner and changer, cradler of whole bodies,
her big heart swells in the cramped air
of this dark curled into its own cell.
Cap on the dresser. Church shoes by the bed.
Red fishing jacket on the doorknob.
She bruises a war cry from her tongue to slash
bayonet, napalm, missile from her vocabulary,
and smoke shadow-writing up from the merciless
shine of bones onto the moony walls: blood, Earth,
broken hearts, supple hands, hunger, a milky mother,
hope, and open-mouthed bass in the morning.
-by Annaliese Jakimides, from The Café Review, The Other Side of Sorrow
The following interview took place at Jakimides’ apartment in April 2012.

Interviewer: When did you discover writing and art?

Jakimides: I came to writing much sooner than I came to any visual work. I’m always in awe of people who have been able to have families and continue with their creative work. I married really early on, and we moved to the land, in Patten, a hundred miles north of here [Bangor], had three kids. At that point in time life was grow everything you eat, make everything you eat, build the house, knit the mittens, and I know that many creative people do all of that and their own work, too, but I could never figure out how. So most of that part of my life is scraps of paper, backs of napkins, envelopes, a paragraph, a phrase, maybe a whole page, maybe an idea for a short story, but very little brought to completion. Once my kids were in high school, I found a way to make somebody want my work, which allowed me to continue to make it in a more focused, public way. The editor at the weekly newspaper in Houlton hired me for $10 a pop to write a column about the weather. As it turned out, it was about the external and internal weather, and that laid the groundwork for much of what I have written since. I know this sounds really limited and sort of controlled womanhood, but it was almost like I had to feel that I had permission, from myself even, that this was a valid thing to do.

Although I know it means I won’t have written all I could have in this life, it was not a negative thing. I’m not saying it’s true for all writers, but I think that sometimes when you’re a writer, and you’re a writer who’s a parent, you see your life and what’s going on through the lens of a writer as opposed to being present for what’s going on. I see it very much like people who are walking around with their camera phones and they’re at all these events that they could be totally present for, I’m here, as opposed to I’m catching this image. I’ve known a fair number of writer women who have watched their lives unfold and seen what was unfolding almost as subject matter. And I don’t ever want to live my life as subject matter. Coming to my life later as a writer, I am very aware of not doing that.

I’ve been writing from the time my kids were in high school. The artwork has come to me in a much more convoluted way. I had no money for materials when I lived up north, no paper, no paints, there was no money for that. It was a very back-to-the-land life. There are many people who live back-to-the-land lives that have an inherent economic support structure, whether they acknowledge it or not. That’s an easier back-to-the-land life. I’m not saying one’s better than the other, but ours was not easy. There was struggle, and a vocabulary of experiential struggle that enables you to transcend judgment and boundaries in a small town; a small town is a beautifully magnified community, and you can sense those connections or disconnections. So since there was no money, I started gathering roof slate from buildings that were being torn down. I pressed flowers and ferns and grasses, skeletonized leaves I found buried in the spruce forest across the road, beside the old five-person graveyard in my woods, in the fields and gardens. I pressed them in newspaper, because there wasn’t anything but newspaper, between plywood, because there wasn’t anything else but plywood, with bricks on top, because there wasn’t anything else but bricks, and I would create collages out of pressed flowers. I did that for quite a while, until I began to trust my vision. Now I also work in fibers and fragments, feathers, wire, paint, bark, photographs.

Interviewer: When you say you got sort of permission, where did that come from?

Jakimides: Me. I’ve not had a restricted life in which the world has walked around telling me I needed permissions. Although on some level I believe we are working through our origins, consciously or not. I was a first generation American although I never even recognized that until recently. My brother was the one who was seen. Not me. Old-world values. I was the first in the family to go to college. Those kinds of things. Once I was in Mt. Chase, I had so many responsibilities and obligations that to actually close myself off to do the work of writing or anything like that would have meant taking that time from the life that I had chosen. I had chosen to grow my own food, I had chosen to pump the water, I had chosen to be a vegetarian, to care about chemicals in food, water, air; I had chosen to have three children, and as a result of that, I’d also chosen to be an active participant in their lives. Once they went to school, I started volunteering in the schools and writing grants and getting artists and musicians to come in.  One could argue I could have used that time not to do that but to be home and write, but I didn’t. It seemed important that I be there.

Interviewer: You chose to pursue community service instead, getting art for the kids?

Jakimides: When you talk about speaking out or using what you do in an activist way, it comes in varied packages. Much of what is activist goes unlabeled, unnoticed. It is part of the fabric of a family, a community. Patten’s a really small town, and we actually lived in Mount Chase, which is population 160; Patten’s about 1,000. There are times that I haven’t always consciously known the thing that I was doing or the impact that I was making, it just felt like the right thing. I could have been home teaching my children various things, discussing issues of importance just with them, exposing them to jazz, blues. None of that was up there by the way, none of that was on the radio. We had no galleries. The library was in a small church with no Dewey Decimal System. What I chose was to write these grants to have musicians and writers and artists come into the school system, so that all the kids could have the same thing. Now that the kids are all grown and gone, other kids mine grew up with tell me that that’s the first place they read poetry, that’s the first place they listened to jazz, they’d never heard jazz before. To come to our house was the first place they had any sense of what organic food was or being a vegetarian. So oftentimes one is doing things because it’s the right thing inside, and you’re not aware of how impactful it is going forward. I think that all of those foundational elements of my life inform the work I do now.

That was the time period where we had the first antidiscrimination referendum. The bulletin board outside the IGA on Main Street became this place where people were putting their posters up, “don’t let this happen, this will be awful, gay people aren’t entitled to ‘special’ laws.” I began to put hand-lettered counter-statements up on the board. The dynamics of the community allowed you to be at the bulletin board with people whom you love in other ways but you can’t love over this issue, and they love you in other ways but they can’t love you over this issue, and you could meet there buying groceries and you could agree to disagree and it would still be okay. It was a very interesting exercise in voice and democracy. But what is more interesting to me is that I run into kids all the time down here who grew up during that era, and they have often taken me aside, one kid took me to dinner, to tell me that I was the only reason he survived that period of time in his life, because he was gay, and nobody could know it, and he was wrestling with himself as to what this all was. His parents were Pentecostal, and the fact that I would fight on the bulletin board made all the difference. So you do it for everybody, not just your small nuclear family. *

Interviewer: How has sense of place and living in the country inspired and informed your work?

Jakimides: Sense of place and the country informs everything that I do. Silence and stillness and coexistence. You’re totally aware of having to interact with lots of living things. Black flies and mosquitoes and eagles and osprey, deer ravaging your garden, people under that magnifying lens of a small town. I think it informs everything I think about how to coexist in a larger world, a global world. I believe I learned how to listen on that dirt road in the woods, in that town. So many people are hell bent on the importance of what they have to say, and it may be important but I think that what one has to say is more impactful if you’ve really been listening to what somebody else is saying. That listening piece is a very underrated part of who we are.

I was a city girl; I grew up in Dorchester, which is working-class inner city Boston. I did a lot of inner city work, working in community organizations, teaching in after school programs in storefronts. To this day, people scratch their heads that I moved away—from the movement, from the music, from the dancing, from the diversity. I don’t know if I knew what I was getting into when I moved to the land. I had never been to the country. I was not exactly pining for dirt under my fingernails, a sky over my head, healthy food. I really thought I already had a great life. Would I go back and not have done it? Absolutely not. Patten is still home to me, people up there are still family; it’s a community where you cannot fall through the cracks. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt no matter what my story was, if I didn’t have a pot to piss in, that I would eat, I would be housed, I knew that no matter what happened that would be true. But after a divorce, I no longer had my land or house. And so it was time.

Interviewer: People take care of each other.

Jakimides: In a small town they truly do. I look back on that time, and they were just so accepting of all the little quirks, and the big quirks. You have a little town, most of the families in that town go back generations, a lot of mill workers, a lot of woods workers, that’s just the way it is. Then you have the hippies who move onto the Owlsboro Road and they’re building a house and they don’t really know what they’re doing, and they have no water, they have no electricity and they don’t want it. They’re going to have an outhouse—damn, everyone else had been glad to be rid of those things—and the power doesn’t even go up that far on the road so they can’t hook into power because there isn’t any power to hook into. They’re planting these gardens; they don’t know what they’re doing there either. They’re going to grow all the food that they eat and they’re cutting their wood.

The first winter we had a cookstove that we got out of somebody’s barn: the generosity of souls, it’s an exercise in the generosity of souls. So I have this cookstove, it’s a beautiful cookstove, I barely even knew how to cook to begin with, never mind on a cookstove, and the whole winter we’re bringing wood in from the outside, stacking it along the wall of the house, it’s frozen, it’s green, we’re baking it in the oven so that we can even put it in the firebox to heat the house at all, and it’s just crazy. They put up with all of that. They loved you no matter what. If I’m honest, they give me hope for our future—and a model for unconditional love.

I have three kids, two are black, and to watch this community love my children and love my family all those years ago, that was something. I’m not saying these things couldn’t happen in the city, but you see it so clearly in the country, the way people rise up to a challenge, how they handle change and difference. Whatever is there in a small town in the country you see, whatever it is, the good, the bad, the painful and the sweet, you see it all. And I’m not saying that it’s all roses. Really, sometimes when people were coming to my house, I knew that over the weekend they had been driving around with a state trooper locked in the trunk of their car, just for the hell of it [laughter].

That all drives the way I look at life, the work I make. I’m not trying to convince people that they have to come to my side. I’m telling my story, in poems or essays, in short pieces of fiction, and if something talks to you, you will take it in. The more voices one has out there speaking their truth, and the truth of their experience, the more opportunities people have to hear it, and you never know when one of those pieces will be the thing that they really hear. I intend to use my work to tell the important stories about not just war and destruction, about losses, but about how we as humans can allow ourselves our differences—because we will always have them—and access joy. I tend to do it in a quiet way, I think.

Interviewer: And your work has a reclaiming of life too, life-giving images and peace-giving images too.

Jakimides: If we don’t have that, what do we have? This is a really short run on this planet for each one of us. I don’t want to live my life full of despair, and yet it’s a fine line. Yes, there’s shit in the world. But I don’t want that to be what dominates my cells or I become that too. Life is good. I have a roof over my head, I’m present for every day, I’m not scrambling for food. I also know that that line is very close. One of my greatest fears when I moved to Bangor and left my support network up in Patten was that I could easily see myself as being homeless and a bag lady. There were many times in those first years after I left Mt. Chase in which I wouldn’t have eaten except for the generosity of other people, and many days in which I ate a lot of noodles. I know where that edge is, so I want to live my life not mired in negativity. It’s important for my heart, and if it’s important for my heart, it’s important for other people too, to get my heart right. To make a better world.

by Annaliese Jakimides

Interviewer: Your poems are real musical, jazz, I think; can you talk about music’s influence on you and your art?

Jakimides: Music’s huge to me. I grew up in a house in which there was none. We had only a few records in our house, Mario Lanza, some Brahms concerto, Sarah Vaughn, there was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I think that’s essentially it. Only played at holidays. But from the time I could control it, music has ordered my world. Where my ear and my body would go was a lot of jazz, a lot of blues, Motown stuff, and Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Gil Scott-Heron, like that. I am open. Don’t I love Meredith Monk! So many voices, actually. Sometimes it’s the sound, sometimes the message, sometimes both.

The people in my early adult life were musical people; they were people who were either involved in music, loved music, or they were actually performers, composers. Before I even knew what tofu was I was listening to Stanton Davis’s “Funky Fried Tofu.” Then once I moved to Patten all you had was WHOU out of Houlton, which was country for the most part, and you periodically heard some pop mainstream. Around that time was the birth of NPR and Maine Public Radio, so my family lived on NPR. They used to have a program called Songs Jumping in My Mouth, and it was music and stories, and then the Spider’s Web, which was read-aloud stories. We had public radio and a record player. All of my records were scratched and beat to death, I was not the kind of person who kept pristine records.

To this day, I write to music. I could probably give you the soundtrack of what I was listening to at various points of writing certain things. There’s really a soundtrack. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live without music. I dance around here all the time. There’s always music on when I’m making art. And I choose for the most part that it’s music that rhythmically invades my body and my work. Everything is energetically connected.

Interviewer: Your poems give voice to the oppressed, women, people torn by war, people from different cultures, what’s some of your inspiration for taking on the stories of these different people?

Jakimides: They aren’t different. We’re all the same. In a heartbeat I could be in any one of those positions, as could any one of us. So I feel as if I am telling these stories because they are mine too.

I don’t think our boundaries are all that hard and fast. I think that a lot of what we see as our edges, the end of us, the definitions that say separation, are not true at all. We are informed by others’ energies. We are all born, we all die, we all have the same basic desires in life. I really do believe that everything is motivated by love or fear, and that we all do want a life of love, but fear gets in the way. Then that drives certain people or drives a country or drives factions of a country to the negatives.

I’m never going to be accused of writing a “nature” poem. I write about people and their lives. Friends of Acadia Journal has a nature poetry competition and I remember a few years ago somebody was saying to me, Annaliese, you should submit to that. And I’m saying, have you ever heard me read a nature poem? Well, I completely forgot about it, then a few days before the contest deadline somebody emailed me again and said, oh did you do that? And I thought, oh fuck. So I went through my stuff and for some reason I followed through and I submitted this one poem that might be remotely considered a nature poem. It was a poem about my mother’s cremation and the fact that she lives in the water now because her ashes are in the water. I sent it off and completely forgot that I’d ever even done this, and then I got a letter in the mail, which I thought was a solicitation, and I almost threw it away without opening it. This particular prize comes with a check, and I took first place. It bought me tires when I needed tires. I’ve learned to not think in terms of the closed-offness of how we see things.

by Annaliese Jakimides

We’re all so interconnected that there’s something about the energy of my life that speaks to yours. I think that’s when writing is most impactful—that piece of writing is a conduit, an opening that allows you to enter someplace you might not have gone. Every one of us who does that kind of creative work is saying, here’s a way to go somewhere, welcome, come in, see where you go and trust the journey. You can have the best created, best engineered, put together, dynamically constructed, kick ass frickin poem with the intention of influencing the world and opening them to the destructive elements of every gun ever manufactured et cetera, whatever it might be, but if that piece does not have an opening, a place of life, a breath somewhere where the reader can get in, then it hasn’t been able to do its work. I figure if one of my anythings does its work on just one person, that’s enough.

Interviewer: I like the perspective of the unifying energy, and that it could all be part of you.

Jakimides: If we walked around with the awareness that we’re all interconnected, I don’t think we’d have this fractured world. How do you convince people that we’re all the same, and that there’s value in all of it? How do we not fight over property and boundaries and religious beliefs and the political? How does that happen? It’s scary times, as, I think frankly, it’s probably always been and may always be, which doesn’t mean we stop taking some action to affect change.

Interviewer: And getting people on board with thinking about interconnections, how everything affects everything?

Jakimides: Everything, everything. The truth is that everything makes us who we are, and I wouldn’t be rid of the heartbreak anymore than the joy because of that interconnectedness. If you get okay with who you are, then you have to get okay with everything that got you there.

Interviewer: In the midst of the suffering and destruction in the world what are some ways that you keep your spirits up and maintain resolve?

Jakimides: Music and dancing.

I am a person, clichéd as this is, who sees the cup as half full, not half empty, and with that I always see that we are capable of being better. I am capable of being better, and I believe that everyone else is also. I’ve always believed that, I don’t have difficulty with that sense of keeping my resolve or believing that there is possibility. Do I necessarily believe that we’re going to have a peaceful world? I don’t know, people have been fighting since there were people, there have been issues since there were people, the issues shift and change, although I think it is always about difference: accepting difference in someone, someone accepting difference in you. A different way you look, a different color of your skin, a different belief pattern, a different religion, a different place you came from, a different way you were raised. It is hard for me to envision a world in which all of that is now gone and everybody loves everybody, however, I do believe that if everybody were walking around saying, okay, I can accept you for who you are, I think we would resonate at a higher level and we would be closer to all of that.

So what can I do about that? The most important thing I think I do is to continue to believe and to continue to do what I do, because I’m the only person I can really control. I’m sort of, not Pollyannaish, but I certainly do see the silver linings in things, I just see them. I don’t ever think or believe or feel that we are beyond making a better life, making a better world. I know we are capable of that.

I love people. I don’t move in one particular circle of people, so my friend-acquaintance-movement-circle base of humanity is very broad. In a real way, I see everybody on pretty much the same level. Just because so and so has a PhD doesn’t make that person any different in my mind, really, than a homeless guy I talk to every few days on the corner, or some woman I know from up north who’s Pentecostal and her belief system’s pretty rightwing, but we’ve always clicked. It’s a big world I live in and I operate in. I have been, and probably will be, chastised many times for this observation, but one of the things I’ve always felt has been most problematic in like, the women’s movement, is the fact that for the most part women primarily operate within circles of women of like structure, mind, achievement, socioeconomic range, that’s who they are friends with. It’s hard to create a women’s movement if you don’t really have any friends who aren’t as educated or that kind of thing. We box ourselves off, so just open the box. I think it starts that simply.

Interviewer: Who are some heroes and people who inspire you to seek justice?

Jakimides: It’s really the nameless, everyday people in their homes, on the streets, living their lives. None of those people are looking for any kind of acknowledgment of what they do, they’re just doing the best they can, in their neighborhoods, at their kitchen tables, raising their children. Raising one damn child aware of kindness. Kindness, that’s the root of justice, okay, so raising one child who is aware of that and will carry that forward, that’s a huge thing. Not so easy, either. Kindness, politeness, respect, love. Respect yourself and in respecting yourself you respect others, and when you respect others, you really do approach them with kindness and love, and you see that for all our differences we’re the same.

Interviewer: Can you share a vision for the future, your ideal vision?

Jakimides: I want a world in which we’re not destroying the planet, I want a world in which we’re not shooting people just because they don’t believe the same thing we believe, I want a world in which we’re not at war all the time. I don’t understand a country in which we don’t provide health coverage for everybody—we all know we can. My ideal world would not have famine. There’s enough food on the planet for everybody. I want a literate planet; the vast majority of people on the planet do not read and write at a functional level. I want clean water. My ideal world would have none of those boundaries. I want you to be able to walk outside your door, walk down your street, I want you to be able to dance, hear music. I want you to respect each other, I want kindness. I want us to develop the things that are possible to be developed that allow us not to rape the planet, all of which is possible. I drove a cheap Ford Festiva in 1991 that got sixty miles to the gallon; if we could do that in 1991 with a cheap Ford Festiva, I’m sorry, the technology exists to give us 120 miles to the gallon now. I want us to do the right thing, and doing the right thing means treating everybody fairly and justly, and if we do that we’ll be fine. I think we’re here to experience joy, I really believe we are. Live simply, love seriously, care deeply, speak kindly. I read that somewhere and it made so much sense I taped it up on the wall in the closet where I write. It seems a very clear path to being all we can be. ###

*    (11/6/2012) Maine has just become the first state in the country, the first entity in the world, to legalize same-sex marriage by citizen initiative. We wanted it, we asked for it, and we voted on it. Thousands of conversations later by many people gay and straight, and it finally happened. Hundreds of volunteers all over the state, and I am honored to have been one. One of the things I told many people on the fence while I was making calls from the field office in Brewer was, I’m straight, my kids are straight, and I have two grandchildren, 3 and 1, and I have no idea who they will love when they grow up. I want them, too, to be able to commit no matter the gender of their love, I want them to be able to have that someone have their back in sickness and in health. I want that for everyone. -AJ

Let us tend each other,
Sunni and Shi’a, South and North,
Kikuyu, Luo, the Blue
and the Red, the way a man tends
himself when he’s lost his woman,
and rattles through the hollow bones
of lonely nights,
ultimately surrounding himself
with those who will feed him
kindness, laughter, understanding, a feast
of palatable heart at every meal
until he comes again to woo mode, where
he can fall in love, see the new
woman of his dreams as extraordinary,
brilliant, beautiful, sexy,
all things sweet and
deep. He lifts himself up
onto the body of hope and forgives
every perceived indecency,
no matter the truth of the moment. 
-by Annaliese Jakimides, from Consequence
She puts out a hummingbird feeder,
plastic and red, scarlet-high, up
outside her sixth floor window,
floating, wired on a
suction cup over streets
filled with people and cars
and half-filled trashcans.
But what she gets are crows. Three
scruffy crows of dull black wings on
the granite ledge below. She calls them
ravens, peeling pink-tinged transparent
wrap from a lump of bread, three
raisins, a cube of cheese she slivers.
The tip of a wing shushes against the pane,
delicate and wild. An abandonment to
desire. No complaints. No whining.
It beats into the air. Angles.
Folds against its body. Settles.
She leans her rouged cheek
into the glass, her fragile capillaries
anticipating the return of
the heat that is family.
-by Annaliese Jakimides, from Puckerbrush Review

Find out more about Annaliese here:

Everything is responsible to everything else: Robert Shetterly Interview

Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto

Robert Shetterly is a visual artist, activist, writer, educator and speaker who lives in the woods on the coast of Maine.  Schools, universities, churches, libraries, museums and various community groups around the country host his traveling exhibit and book of portraits, Americans Who Tell the Truth, a project which showcases hundreds of America’s most courageous humanitarians, educators, activists, environmentalists, peacemakers, freedom leaders and truth-tellers.


The following interview took place at Shetterly’s home studio in March 2012.


Interviewer: Do you feel like you’re invoking the spirit of your portrait subjects in some way?


Shetterly: Absolutely.  Without getting new agey or sentimental about it, when I painted the first portrait in January 2002 and got the idea of doing this whole thing, there was a real sense of a spiritual, almost mystical significance to what I was doing.  I was so angry at the way this country was being misled, with the administration lying to start another war, I was desperate to find a community of people to identify with so that I wasn’t absorbed in a community of people I intensely disliked and had no respect for.  I wanted to surround myself with the spirits of people I admired, I wanted to feel good, I wanted to live in a country I didn’t feel ashamed of – live in a country that I had respect for.


The intent was actually to invoke the spirits of the people I was painting.  I started with all these nineteen century figures, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Susan B Anthony, people like that, and I indulged the idea that I could bring this army, if you will, of people back in some way, and that they would have an effect on the present.



People sometimes ask me, why do you paint these people, why don’t you paint the people who are lying and misrepresenting what this country really is, the enemies of this country who are in positions of power.  The answer to that is, to make good art it has to be done from a feeling of love and intense compassion in some way, you can’t create from a place of anger and disrespect and feed yourself, after a while it drains you and destroys you.  The energy of anger is really important, but to turn it in some way.  If there’s injustice you’ve got to be angry, but you’ve got to use that anger in the service of love.


The process of painting every one of the portraits, whether they’re living or dead, becomes almost like falling in love.  I have such respect and admiration for the people I paint, and I paint largely with my fingers, so I’ve got my hands all over the person’s face, I’m feeling their eyes and the shape of their skull, I’ve got my hands on their lips and in their ears.  That’s the way I paint – is to thin and blend and create transparencies in the paint by manipulating it while it’s wet with my hands – it’s like sculpting.  So there’s intense intimacy, both in the physical process and in the emotional and mental process.  It’s deep in my understanding of who this person is: how much courage and energy they’ve expended in order to insist that this country live up to its own ideals.  There’s a huge spiritual commitment, and also connection.


Interviewer: Can you talk about when you became conscious of and interested in social justice?


Shetterly: I got interested in social justice when I was in high school.  I went to a little white high school in Cincinnati, and when I was a senior, my older brother who had graduated, myself, and a few other people, insisted that the school integrate.  This was in 1964.  My older brother had a big affect on changing my thinking about sense of social justice.  In 1964 he went to Freedom Summer in Mississippi, over the objections of my parents and everybody else he knew.  The need to register black people to vote in the South was not something a lot of people were even aware of in Ohio.


I grew up in a middle class family.  We had black servants growing up, a cook, and a maid.  It was always kind of odd, but nobody ever said anything.  It was also not unlike a lot of the people around us who lived that way, white families with black servants.  I was sensing something about what this meant, but without any framework of how to think about it.  Then my brother went off to college and got involved with civil rights activity, and at the same time, I started reading people like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, and thinking about American history and race and racism.  The next thing that happened was I got deeply involved in anti-Vietnam work in college; I turned my draft card in.



So it began in high school with an awareness of history and race and thinking that I had to get involved in some way.  Also, being successful in something, we got our school integrated in one year.  It was interesting seeing the resistance, how many families didn’t like that happening, and then the opportunity it opened up for me to begin to understand myself as a player in history.


Interviewer: Do you feel part of a tradition of Maine artists involved in working towards an equitable society?


Shetterly: The tradition of social justice art in Maine is not broad or deep, but it has some spectacular people in it, like Rockwell Kent, who spent a lot of time living on Monhegan.  He was probably one of the most political artists in American history, but he was never a model for me.


The tradition that particularly interests me is the Union of Maine Visual Artists, which I’m now the head of.  It has an almost forty year history of political activism in Maine, which started in 1975 with Carlo Pittore as the head of it.  Through that, I met Natasha Mayers, whom I have painted a portrait of, who’s been one of Maine’s most active and prominent social justice artists for thirty plus years.  Because of her I’ve been spurred to want to do more myself.


There are other people in that movement now, people like Abbie Shawn, Kenny Cole, and organizations like the Beehive Collective, which are fantastic, the work they do, the quality of it, and the places they go to talk about various systemic problems in our society.  I think the tradition of progressive artists in Maine is building right now more than it ever has, and that’s interesting to me.


Interviewer: Could you talk about your involvement in protesting the removal of the Maine labor mural?


Shetterly: Here we had this mural in the Department of Labor, which was artist speak, it wasn’t government speak, and it was telling a very mild and simple truth about labor history.  It was in the Department of Labor, it was not in the Department of Business – but it should have been – and there was nothing about it that was not true about Maine labor history.  It told the story of strikes, of organizing child labor, women, voting – straight ahead things that were true.


That the governor would take it down because he thought it was unfair or cast the business community in a bad light – American labor history does cast the business community in a bad light, that’s the only light you can see it in, how the business community has tried to exploit labor and to what extent they’ve actually harmed people by doing that.  Then of course the story of how laborers organized to fight back to get better working conditions, better pay, end child labor – it’s all true, it’s there in history, it’s not somebody’s political spin.  So it seemed as an artist and as a citizen the necessary thing to do was to oppose what the governor was doing and insist that the mural be put back.


The judge says your remedy is the ballot box, vote this guy out of office next time.  That’s true, but that’s not good enough.  You really need to confront the issue head on for what it is and get that issue taken care of, not just make it one of a lot of different things that most people probably won’t even remember at the next election.


Interviewer: How does Maine as a place inspire and impact your work?


Shetterly: Hugely, although you wouldn’t necessarily see it.  I love living in Maine, I get from the environment in Maine a sense of unconditional love.  I’ve lived here forty-one years now; it’s a huge part of my identity. I’ve never tried to paint the landscape, I feel it would be redundant, it’s there, it’s so beautiful, I like being in it.  My work has always been about something else, but without it, I don’t know who I’d be.


I travel all over the country speaking, but I spend more time in Maine schools than anywhere, and interestingly enough, I get invited to a lot of rural schools, places that I would have thought might be nervous about my politics and some of the things that I’m doing.  I get to go to places in northern Maine and western Maine.  These portraits have been embraced by lots of different kinds of groups in the state – libraries, museums, and especially schools – so I like having a communal base that I feel part of.   The fact that Maine has done so much to embrace what I’m doing makes me feel really good.


Interviewer: What made you decide to use gender equality in the paintings of Americans Who Tell the Truth?


Shetterly: How could I not.  You look at gender equality in this country’s social justice history and there have always been as many significant women as men.  So to be honest about it is to paint it the way it is, but it’s also been very important to me.


Women have been so much left out of American social history, even when they’ve been prominent, they’re not in the books.  I painted César Chávez, then I start getting letters from San Antonio, Texas saying why didn’t you paint Emma Tenayuca, and I’d never heard of Emma Tenayuca.  Why hadn’t I heard of Emma Tenayuca?  Why haven’t you heard of Emma Tenayuca?  Twenty years before César Chávez, here was this teenage girl leading strikes during the Depression and winning them in Texas for Tejanos – for Mexican-American workers.  It’s just amazing her courage and what she was doing in a very tough time.  So considering all the labor people that one could paint, I paint her then, because what an important story.  To me it’s about all of us.  I take as much inspiration from women as from men, and a lot of my contemporary heroes are women; they’re often the people whose courage I want to emulate myself in some way.



Interviewer: Your art has been more for public benefit than profit.  Has that freed you up as an artist?


Shetterly: That’s very important.  The very first moment that I had this epiphany that I would paint this project, in a conversation with my partner Gail, I determined three things: I’m going to paint fifty portraits – and I’d never painted a portrait – and I’m going to call them Americans Who Tell the Truth – I didn’t realize at the time what that meant, but that was the title, it was just like neon, and third, I was going to give it away.


I realized there would be something wrong with me painting these figures in order to sell them, to make profit from people whom I was painting because I admired their selflessness, how much they had given without ever getting back.  Their object was not money, but to make the country richer by having more freedom and equality.  So I understood immediately that I would never sell the paintings, I would give them away.  When I decided that, it was like I levitated.


No matter what you do in the art world, if you’re trying to sell your work there’s something commercial about it, even though we try to divide: it’s not about money, it is about money.  I’d been an artist who painted very much what I wanted to and insisted that if I’m going to have to be in a market, the market would do it on my terms, I would not compromise my images in order to sell them, and I survived.  I was making a living and supporting the family on selling paintings, but as soon as I decided that I would do art to give away, I felt totally free.  I thought, now I can say everything I want to say, just straight ahead, put it out there.


I’m now making didactic art in a sense.  I never thought I would make didactic art.  That seems anathema to me as an artist.  I like messages in pictures, but mysterious, ambiguous, often embedded in some way in the art.  People have to dig around and find it for themselves from their own experience and imagination.


None of us chooses when we live.  We have to deal with the realities of the moment and how to confront them.  This project became a way that I could deal with the realities of my time in a way that made me feel good, and in order for it to be totally free it had to be not about money.



I make money because of this, I get paid to talk now, but I don’t sell the paintings, and it’s an entirely different thing.  People come to me to have me speak because I’m free to say exactly what I think needs to be said.  I don’t have to pull any punches.  So many people in our society feel constrained in one way or another, and I don’t feel that anymore.


Interviewer: You were tried and acquitted for protesting Bush’s plan to increase troops in Iraq; what was it like being one of the Bangor Six?


Shetterly: That was thrilling.  It was a terrific group of people I was with who had been arrested for sitting in at Senator Collins’ office.  We owe a lot of that trial to the decision of the judge to let us argue international and constitutional law.  In other words, to argue why we were doing the action, not whether we were guilty of trespassing or not, because most times when you commit any kind of civil disobedience they nail you on the action itself.  Were you in that office sitting-in that day and were you ordered to leave and did you not leave?  Then they have the police and everybody verify that in fact that’s what happened and you have no chance to argue why you were there, what motivated you.


The judge allowed us to argue in front of a jury why we were there, and as soon as you present the evidence about what you’re protesting – that the propaganda of our government was in contradiction to our own constitution, to the Geneva Conventions, the Nuremberg principles, to all these things that are our own law – the jury was unanimous in a few minutes.  It’s so obvious, that we had a necessity to be there was greater than the issue of trespassing, and that we had the right to be there because of that overriding moral-legal concern.


The judge in this case not only allowed us to argue in defense of the trespassing issue, the state had to argue against our philosophy and our reason for being there.  It was a terrific case, and each one of us was able to talk articulately about the issues.  One of the jurors came up to us after and said, I learned more in two days in this courtroom than I learned in four years in college.  That’s the good thing.  The bad thing is, it didn’t change anything, except us maybe.  In other cases similar to it around the country, judges didn’t start changing what they allowed people to argue, just the opposite, they didn’t allow it.  That’s why that’s not allowed, because if juries could hear why people were doing these things, they would acquit them, and then it would become part of the news, other people would understand, it would be a way to explain why these laws need to be broken, because there’s a higher law.


Interviewer: I read a Common Dreams article where they were implying that the case set a precedent for Maine and could it be an example for people around the country, but you’re saying, maybe it’s the exception?


Shetterly:  It’s the exception.  There’s that moment when you think, this is going to make a difference.  No, what makes a difference are things like Occupy Wall Street where people persist.  It’s not just one moment, one case, they stay in the streets, people get arrested, they stay in the streets.  That’s what it takes.  To the extent that my project is a metaphor of that, I started this over ten years ago now, I thought it would last for a couple of years and then I would go either backwards or forwards in my career to do something else.  Instead it’s become bigger and deeper and more consuming and more thrilling and taken me places I never would have dreamed of; it’s the persistence.


Interviewer:  How do you keep your spirits up and maintain resolve?


Shetterly: I feed a lot on other people’s commitment and courage.  One of the people I’m going to paint soon is Lois Gibbs.  In the late seventies in Niagara, New York, Gibbs led the fight against the chemical dump called Love Canal, where a school and all these developments had been built on top of this unbelievably toxic chemical dump.  The company, Hooker Chemical, had sold the land to the town for one dollar, just to get rid of it; the town had to sign a statement saying that they would never prosecute or question anything that was in it.  So the town should have known what they were getting into.  Hundreds of people got sick, died, genetic problems, birth defects, miscarriages, cancers.  Gibbs led this struggle in having the state and the federal government pay to relocate about eight hundred families because their real estate became worthless and they were all sick.  She is an incredibly courageous person.  Her work led to the Superfund law and trying to clean up toxic dumps around the country, and she still does this stuff.   Our history is full of stories like this.


To have time to be consumed in doing the physical painting, and honoring the person by doing that, that really keeps my spirits up too.  Also, being in a classroom with young kids and telling them history they don’t know keeps my spirits up.



The only thing that doesn’t keep my spirits up is staying informed with the deep news about what’s going on, say, in the environment at this moment.  We’ve almost killed the ocean, from the lowest to the biggest in terms of what supports life on this planet.  What does this mean?  That’s the heaviest part, the constant need to know the truth, not just what you want to know, or like to believe, or see things as improving, but to know what’s really happening.


Interviewer: It feels like you’ve put forth a manifesto of truth tellers.  It must be empowering to be connected with this network of heroes?


Shetterly:  It is.  About the only way that our economic and social culture can continue the way it is, is in a state of denial of the effects that it’s causing.  One can choose to live in that denial as though that music is going to keep playing, or you can move the curtain away and find out what’s really going on behind there and where it’s leading.


To be with people like that who have made the decision to either know or try to know the truth about what’s really happening is exciting.  One of the aspects of why I call this Americans Who Tell the Truth is about that issue.  Unless you face the truth of what the problem is, you can’t fix it.  We’re a country that pretends we can reform and treat symptoms and go on doing that forever and everything will be okay.  If we don’t treat the causes, finally the causes will overwhelm us, as they are now. Whether it’s as we were just talking about, the oceans, or the economy, or anything else, we’re not treating the cause.


James Baldwin said people who close their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction.  We’ve been inviting our own destruction for many years now, but pretending we’re doing a great service to the world by being a paragon of both democracy and capitalism, as though they’re the same thing.  That untruth, which is part of the American myth of power and exceptionalism, is incredibly dangerous.  To be around people who understand the danger of that myth and also how hard it is to eradicate it is a good feeling.


I was at a program two weeks ago in Washington DC with Ralph Nader, and a group of people I painted all came together at Washington College of Law to talk about law and ethics and integrity in America.  They were all people I painted.  It was a dream come true, except I never could have dreamed it [laughs].  Nader was talking about the idea of truth telling, and he said what we’re talking about is people who are naming reality, it’s not like truth is a slippery amorphous subjective thing, we’re talking about realities here.  It’s not like, who’s your god and where does he or she or it live in the cosmos, it’s not those kind of amorphous belief systems, we’re talking about truths, realities, not beliefs.


Interviewer: Do you see the mediums of words and visual art affecting people in different ways?


Shetterly: It’s very gratifying to get the kind of feedback I get from people who have been moved by either the words or the images or both, which makes me just want to do more.


Every one of us becomes a potential extender of somebody else’s reality.  If I painted the portraits and had them in my basement and nobody ever asked to show them, nothing would have happened, there wouldn’t be the Americans Who Tell the Truth book, nothing.  It’s because other people get moved by the paintings, and say, I want to bring this to an audience somewhere, I want to get you in a classroom to talk to children, I want to bring you to a library to talk to adults.  Every person who makes a decision like that is just as important as I am in terms of the reality of what I do.  Then being able to extend the reality of the people I paint and use their words to make the further inspiration to not just be moved, but to act.


There’s a school in Louisville, Kentucky where a fifth grade class has been using the portraits for several years now.  These were kids at a poor school from all kinds of the usual social problems, drugs, broken families, crime, everything, a lot of kids angry, learning disabilities, not able to focus.  So we use Americans Who Tell the Truth to show them people who came from backgrounds similar to theirs, who used all that disaffected energy and anger to do something good, rather than to do something bad.  These kids were encouraged to then go out into their neighborhoods and identify things they would like to change: the housing, no place to play, the treatment of animals, the dumps in their backyards and neighborhoods.  Then they wrote reports on it, took pictures, described how they would like it changed.  Then the school invited the mayor’s office to come in and listen to these kids talk about what was wrong in their neighborhoods and how they wanted it fixed, and the mayor’s office started fixing those problems.  They took all the kids posters and drawings and photographs and started actually working on the problems.


That to me is about the most exciting thing I can possibly think of coming out of what I’m doing, it leads to a shift in energy, from a lot of negative energy to positive energy, to actual transformation of people’s lives.


It’s possible, it can happen with kids.  I say to kids all the time, don’t wait for adults to fix these problems that they’ve caused, they’re not going to do it necessarily, you’ve got to do it and you can do it, you are unbelievably more powerful than you understand, if you’re willing to start struggling to bring attention to what the problems are and insisting that things change.  I’ve tried to paint more and more young people, to make examples of how a young person can cause significant social change.



Interviewer: Could you talk about working collaboratively with other artists and writers?


Shetterly: I love working collaboratively. I’ve been involved with Bring Our War Dollars Home and making posters and stuff about that issue of where our money’s being spent for years.


I’ve particularly liked being involved with writers, either being inspired by them to illustrate or collaborate in a sense, or being a source of inspiration.   There’s a book of my drawings and etchings with poems written to them.  People think that I illustrated Bill Carpenter’s poems but it was the other way around, he wrote poems in response to my pictures.


I spent three years making and then painting seventy etchings in response to William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell.  It totally consumed me for a while.  Blake was one of my favorites in college and I never felt that I quite understood some of the things that he was saying, but when I started to make pictures in response to his proverbs I began to feel I could understand what he was talking about, sometimes even disagree with him, I was getting that close to it.  That’s the way I often make art is to try and understand an issue, something will be bothering me and I don’t know what it is until I can make a picture.  That’s where I get a lot of my clarity is the image.


We are taught in this society to be competitive and to want to stand separate and alone and better all the time than other people.  Our whole educational system and work system and everything else is often set up in terms of competition.  The more we collaborate instead of compete, the happier we are, the better results we get, the more fun it is, and the much more ultimately satisfying it is and also good for our communities.


I think it’s very important to delve into your own psyche and make your own statements and know who you are through that process, but also to be collaborating at the same time only enables you to go deeper into yourself, not further away from it.  It’s not like you become homogenous by collaborating with other people.  If you’re conscious and introspective you’re going to use those collaborations to ask yourself a whole new set of questions about who you are and what you’re doing and what you believe in, so both things happen at the same time, but they happen best in a non-competitive framework.



If there is going to be any hope in solving a lot of social justice issues, we have to do a lot more coalition building.  So much of the activist community is often split idiotically around ideological points of view, which are so narrow compared to the issue or the enemy against which we’re supposedly aligned, and we magnify those little differences so that we don’t fight together, we fight each other.  It’s crazy, and it totally hamstrings the movement often.


Interviewer: Could you share a vision for the future?


Shetterly: Probably a lot of it is going to be very difficult, because it’s going to involve decommissioning what we call civilization today, which is built on a paradigm that’s unsustainable.  If we’re going to continue to live as a species in collaboration with other species on this planet and survive in any kind of healthy way, we have to completely change the systems by which we’re living.  So my vision of the future is the process by which that would happen, and my guess is that when you look at the intransigence of the kind of systems and who profits by them now, it won’t be an easy transition.


What I find thrilling is what’s being done in communities, everywhere in the world, not just around here.  Communities of people are trying to take charge of what happens to them in terms of those major systems – education, housing, transportation, food production, energy – in order to live in a more sustainable fashion.  People understand, and everywhere communities are springing up to try and tackle those questions of how are we going to live in a way that actually reflects the reality of being one species on this earth?  Are we going to learn to live in harmony with our own reality, which means, supporting the health of every other species on earth, plant and animal, not just our own, and not using them for profit?


What’s difficult is that much of the world is so intimately and complexly and complicity tied in with these systems which are causing the death of the world, that it’s so hard to disengage and find a healthy way back, or forward, to a different relationship with the earth, but that’s what’s required.


So my vision is of a people, many of whom have to be a whole lot smarter than I am and with a lot more energy, willing to figure out how to do that.  The important thing is the spirit with which it be done with, it’s got to be done with excitement, with joy of bringing hope to young people about a different way to live that will ultimately make them more healthy.  They’ll have less stuff, but they’ll be a lot happier and healthier.


Joy has got to be part of that picture.  Not just a bunch of rats living in rubble of a collapsed civilization, we’ve got to find a way to celebrate the success of every species collaborating together to live in a healthy planet.  I don’t know if that will happen, all I can say is that’s my vision [laughs].


I have a grandson, I want a future for him as I want a future for every child, and seven generations of unborn children.  What a shame that we’re wasting so much.  There’s such delight, such beauty.


Nature is the only law that we know of for sure.  Nature’s laws determine everything that happens on the earth, not us, nature.  The big transgression in the Garden of Eden, which is the earth, was when nature was saying, you have to live by nature’s law, and if you don’t live by nature’s law, you’re going to be very unhappy.  The original sin was to separate ourselves from nature: saying that we’re not the same as all the other species and our health is not determined by the health of other species, our health is going to be determined by how much profit we can make by exploiting the other species and their resources.  That was the sin, and it wasn’t god’s law, it was nature’s law.  Don’t call it god, just call it nature, it was nature’s law which said you can’t do that, and that’s what we did, and that is what we’re paying for so deeply.


That’s why I’m painting Aldo Leopold right now, he understood.  He grew up in Iowa with his grandfather, and his father took him out all the time to hunt.  He got to understand nature like a Native American.  All the animals and plants and the signs and everything, he could read nature.  Then he went to forestry school and he learned to see nature as a product, walk into the woods and you see board feet; and then he also learned that predatory species like wolves are bad, they’re like rats, they’re like varmints, you need to kill those so we have more deer for people to use up.  So one day he’s with a bunch of other guys working for the forest service and they’re shooting wolves, and they shot a she-wolf with a bunch of cubs, and he went over to them after, and the cubs were dead and the female was still alive but dying, and he said he watched the fierce green fire go out in her eyes, and he said it was years before he realized that that light in her eyes which was dying was the thing that was going to save us, that that light was much wiser than he was, and that that’s what he had to protect, not the fucking deer, it was the light of wildness.


Everything we organize, whether it’s our environmental policies, our banking policies, our pollution policies, have to be thought of in that same way we would define a biological web.  Everything is responsible to everything else, and when you write a set of laws that say the only obligation of a corporation is to make profit for its stockholders, you’ve tried to slice off that corporation’s responsibility to all the other economic things in the world, environmental and physical and everything else.  Nothing can operate independently, and when you start to make those distinctions and say one thing’s separate from another, that the only obligation is profit, it’s absolutely crazy.  That’s what we’re living with, that craziness.


Look up Oren Lyons on my website, he’s the Native American who’s the faith keeper of the Onondaga.  I had a wonderful conversation with him when I went to paint him, we talked about this very issue, and he said, “we, Native Americans,” whenever he said that it was like it was two hundred years ago, he said, “when we saw you sign your constitution and separate church and state, we knew it would only lead to disaster.”  I thought, what are you talking about, that’s one of the most important things about the constitution, and he said no, you don’t get what I mean, he said you’re ultimate reality has to be your deepest spirituality.  Your ultimate reality is nature, so your deepest spirituality has to be tied to your reality, and that is your church, and when you separate your political and economic institutions from the responsibility to that reality, to nature, as though they’re separate, it will only lead to disaster, and you separated your institutions from your most important church, which is nature – disaster. I thought, what a great way to think about that.



So that’s the thing, I meet these people and I learn so much, reading their books, talking to them, understanding the way they think, and then I just become this medium for spreading other people’s courage and words and actions.


To learn more about Robert Shetterly and the Americans Who Tell the Truth project, please visit :

Down in My Heart, William Stafford resists conscription

One of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, William Stafford is a peacemaker, a lover, a teacher and a giver.  His first book Down in My Heart: Peace Witness in War Time, published in 1947, is a testament to the righteous courage & uncompromising integrity that allowed such a stunning poet to emerge.

Each chapter of the book is preluded with a poetic setting the scene, “fur of winter for the hurt mind,” which contrasts great beauty with the horror of war and destruction.

No one knew, in that spell while war came on in the 1930’s – no one knew how civilization would find ways to destroy itself. 

Down in My Heart is inspiring to artists like us who are working for a life of peace and justice.   The story of Stafford’s time spent as a conscientious objector during WWII is told with wisdom and humility, from the clear perspective of a young poet who was marginalized for his beliefs, during a very difficult time -when men were forced to fight war, go to jail or go to camp.

In the book, Stafford lives in a camp as a Civilian Public Service laborer, doing intense work such as fighting fires.  He also recognizes that his fate is easy compared to people like the Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Down in My Heart is that the book is in’t didactic.  Like many of Stafford’s poems, this testament presents life-giving images of tenderness, humanity and generosity, in contrast to the mainstream narrative of male white dominance.  Stafford states his convictions of non-violence resistance and his position of working toward a peaceable kingdom & common good for all.

We met continual frustration and every magazine, newspaper, movie or stranger was a challenge to convictions that were our personal, inner creations. 

In the face of taunts and tormentors from those who could not understand the refusal to kill, Stafford tells how the COs remained non-violent, silent, thoughtful, prayerful, and artistic.

Almost always the tormentor is at a loss unless he can provoke a belligerent reaction as an excuse for further pressure or violence.  

Down in My Heart demonstrates how the work of non-violence is done by listening – an activity akin to mysticism in this book – which allows understanding and consensus building to occur.

As the conscientious objector camp director says after Stafford and his friends were attacked by an angry mob for painting, reading, and writing poems:

“I know you men think the scene was funny, in spite of its danger; and I suppose there’s no harm in having fun out of it; but don’t think that our neighbors here in Arkansas are hicks just because they see you as spies and dangerous men.  Just remember that our government is spending millions of dollars and hiring the smartest men in the country to devote themselves full time just to make everyone act that way.” -22

This statement eerily foretells of the monstrousness capitalist war machine, which still works hard to suppress equality, sustainability, pacifism, and opposition to violence.

The hero of Down in My Heart is Stafford’s friend George: George, you see, lived for a life of reconciliation, of kindness, of governing the mind and its retributive feelings. 

When the war is finally over, George tells us to maintain our consciences,

“’But how long will it be before all the soldiers still alive can come back?’ George reminded us.  ‘Before there’s no more fighting anywhere, no more intimidation of people in their own homes by strange uncomprehending men in foreign uniforms with foreign speech and foreign money.’” – 81

Stafford drives home the importance of being non-violent pacifists and devoting our lives to good causes always – not just when there’s war.

“I felt then, while listening to George, how good it would be—he made me see it—if that stretch of street could remain forever closed to automobiles, if for six blocks of a city’s shopping center people could again have spaciousness.  If they could sometimes get that feeling we often got on the truck, rolling along through the open country, gesturing broadly around at the mountains and the tall trees, knowing that we could relax with friends and confess our doubts, fears, ambitions and confusions—and that just over the hill was the back country, or rebellion, or any other adventure endless with possibility and serenity.” -83

William Stafford shares the ecstasy of being alive & the longing of those of us who wish for a sustainable way of life and and a future where we slow down and take better care of ourselves and nature.

Stafford with his wife Dorothy.

The 2006 of Down in My Heart contains a moving introduction by William Stafford’s son, Kim Stafford:

Sometimes decisions seem impossible.  Enemies of peace abound.  “Justice will take us millions of intricate moves.”  And yet—and yet, there is a clarity.  By writing, or living a local life, we cherish simple things.  In quiet, we honor the feelings found down in our hearts.  We think our own thoughts, and go our own ways.  We are accountable—to society, to friends, to nature, and to the natural processes of imagination and vision that no government can legislate—and so we are free.  

Stafford on a bicycle; from tinhouse vol 12 number 4

Down in My Heart reminds us of the great poem by Maine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Conscientious Objector
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on
the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans,
            many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him
            which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black
            boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on
            his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my
enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to
            any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me:
Shall you be overcome.
-Edna St. Vincent Millay

And here’s a poem by William Stafford from The Darkness Around Us is Deep:

It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any, time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things we live by.
Far to the north, or indeed in any direction,
strange mountains and creatures have always
elves, goblins, trolls, and spiders—we
encounter them in dread and wonder,
But once we have tasted far streams, touched the
found some limit beyond the waterfall,
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful.
Suppose an insane wind holds the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler’s ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and
where we are, sturdy for common things.

The Earth is a Living Being: Gary Lawless Interview

Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto


Gary Lawless is an internationally recognized poet & environmentalist who has published over sixteen books of poems.  In the 1970s, he forewent graduate school in order to be Gary Snyder’s apprentice in California.  Lawless is publisher of Blackberry Books Press and co-owner of the independent bookstore Gulf of Maine Books.


The iceberg has come
to speak with Nanao.
She is just beyond the window,
waiting beyond the light.
She has come a long way.
She has a message for us.
She is very shy.
If we look directly at her
she begins to melt away,
all that she
has to say, lost
to the light of
day, the wind, the
rocks, our eyes—
She begins to speak.
We must listen
very carefully.
Tonight she comes as
moose, no longer iceberg,
tiptoeing carefully
between the tents.
She is happy in darkness.
She is looking for Nanao.
She wants to enter
his dreams.
Today she is standing
beside the road
in a patch of bog and
dirty snow.
She is the color of glacier,
iceberg, snow and
She turns and
into the woods.
She is caribou,
she is iceberg
she is message,
and dream.
            Twillingate / Terra Nova / Gros Morne
Every stump is sacred.
Every stump a saint
Every silted river a church to which
the pilgrim salmon return.
Every breath of wind a love song.
We worship in wetlands,
bow to the fern, the rock,
the holy salamander,
the blood of sweet water,
the body of moss. 
The soil is dreaming of trees.
The trees are dreaming of wind.
The wind is dreaming of clouds.
The clouds are dreaming of water.
The water returns to the earth.
Without trees, the soil washes away.
The wind blows over barren ground,
and the dreams of the world are broken.
Somewhere within the shell mound
a dog is barking.
seals turn their ears
to the sound.
sand through our hands
drifts, plants
move along the ground –
to wear copper and bone,
left alone
for two thousand years.
it is where we come to
on this sunny day,
stick our hands
deep into shell and
sand, strike bone,
touch land again,
make the wind,
make the rain.

-Gary Lawless


The following interview took place in March 2012 at Lawless’ home in Nobleboro, Maine.


Interviewer: What was it like for you growing up in Belfast?


Lawless: Belfast was a really different place then.  The whole town was organized around production of broiler chickens.  There were two big factories down on the water and there was no water treatment plant or anything back then so everything was piped straight into the ocean.  There was constant blood and grease and guts coming out of the two chicken plants and right into the bay.  That stuff would have rotted any boat away, so there were no pleasure boats in the harbor, there were just tugboats and the sardine factory boat and some lobster boats.  It was not a harbor for summer people.  It was a real working harbor and working town, it smelled bad in the summer, and not a lot of thought about the outside world.


I was a teenager in the mid-sixties.  We didn’t know a lot about what was happening.  There wasn’t a good radio station and so we were not hearing the music of our contemporaries and we were not seeing the books and the movies, we were a little bit isolated [laughs].  Plus my dad was the chief of police when I was in high school so I had to behave, which was okay, he wasn’t a mean policeman, he was a really caring, thoughtful policeman, so that was alright.


I stayed in Maine to go to college and then I hitchhiked to California.  I went from Belfast and Waterville, where I lived the first twenty-one years of my life, to living at Gary Snyder’s house in the mountains of California and meeting all these people whose books I’d been reading for the last four years.  All of a sudden, who’s here today, well there’s Daniel Ellsberg, and Jerry Brown, and Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and all these other people who were equally cool.  It was immediately expansive, like my whole life had changed for the better.  My parents were worried that I’d go to California and grow my hair out and take drugs and have sex, and all of that happened like the first day [laughs].  There was this whole world of change going on in 1969 to ’72, that in Belfast in Maine, things were pretty much going along the way they always did.


I started finding out about stuff in college at Colby but when I got out there and met the people who were involved, it was pretty great [laughs].  Hard to go back to the earlier worldview once you’ve been exposed to this.  Just being around people who are excited about learning about other cultures, because Belfast is incredibly white.  The most exotic people we had were Jewish people, and they owned and ran the chicken plants, so we weren’t as happy about them necessarily.  But it wasn’t because they were Jewish, it was because they were the bosses.  There were no people of color, there were no Asians, there were no African Americans, and so it was great to get out to California where all this stuff was going on.  Gary had a Japanese wife, and there were all these Japanese people hanging out and several Native American people, one of whom was hiding from the law, it was just really exciting.  Plus I became part of a Zen Buddhist community and I had to sit everyday, it was a whole different world.


I really missed Maine, I like it here.  So I came back and tried to figure out ways that I could encourage what was happening out there to happen here as well.


Interviewer: When did you first become engaged with issues of social justice?


Lawless: When I was a senior in high school I got run over by a car and I missed my whole senior year.  I couldn’t read, so I was listening to the news and watching tv a lot, and there was a huge amount of stuff about the Vietnam War going on at that point and civil rights stuff and women’s issues.  Belfast didn’t have any visible anti-war protests; there wasn’t really a structure for that to happen.


My freshmen year at Colby the school was shutdown after the Kent State shootings.  There were marches and lots of talks and chances to get some input and do something.  I went down to Washington for the Days of Rage.  7,000 people got arrested that weekend.  They had no place to put us so they put us all in a baseball stadium and didn’t take anything away from people.  People had jugs of wine and various substances and guitars and it was like this huge outdoor party [laughs]; it was really festive, it was not a bad thing.  It’s never been a bad thing to get arrested for those kinds of causes, you wonder, like Thoreau, why aren’t you in here with me.


It was that year I couldn’t walk and I couldn’t see very well so I had all this time to think about things.  The Chicago Convention happened and Vietnam protests, lots of civil rights stuff, Bobby Kennedy was killed and Martin Luther King, it was hard to figure out where you fit.  I knew in one way where I fit because I was about to be eighteen and draft age, and people were getting sent to Vietnam on a regular basis, although once I got run over that was taken right off the table, I was not draftable.


Interviewer: You recovered okay from getting hit?


Lawless: Pretty much.  It took a long time.  But it got me interested in a lot of different things, that enforced stillness when you’re seventeen and all your friends are doing all this stuff and you’re not [laughs].


I started writing poems and reading poetry and listening to speakers who were left of center who were making sense to me.  It was a time when you could learn a lot by listening to other people pretty much your own age.  We were starting to teach each other because our elders weren’t going to teach us about this stuff.  Fred Neil was singing around that time and Phil Ochs, lots of people.  Musically and in terms of poetry and literature it was a really creative time, and artistically, because there were all these issues at once that people were working on, and some of them began to hit home.  The civil rights movement didn’t hit home as much in Belfast but the Vietnam War sure did, people started being dead.  Local kids were going off and coming home damaged or coming home dead, you saw that, and to some extent the women’s movement too, since there weren’t African Americans, that was a more distant issue in a way.


Interviewer: The Native American population here was invisible to most Mainers?


Lawless: Yeah.  Until the lands claim case, then all of a sudden they were more visible.  I got involved because when I lived at Gary Snyder’s I met several Native American activists and became friends with them, and back in Maine I published three little books by one of them, which I’m republishing.  I published a book by this Mohawk named Peter Blue Cloud in 1978 and it did really well, but it went out of print.  He died last summer and I was looking around to find some books of his to have at the store and everything was out of print, and I thought, well this is not right, Peter’s voice shouldn’t be gone.  Peter was at Alcatraz, Peter was at Wounded Knee, Peter was writing poems and telling stories.  He was friends with John Trudell and Dennis Banks and Russell Means and that whole crowd.  They were tough guys; they had to be tough, some horrible shit happened to them.  Trudell’s wife and mother-in-law got murdered, and some of them got shot, Anna Mae Aquash got shot and they cut off her hands and said she died of exposure, two bullets to the head and your hands cut off, but they said she died of exposure.  There’s a really good Buffy Sainte-Marie song about her.


Interviewer: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”


Lawless: Yeah. I wanted to bring all those issues to Maine.  Right after Wounded Knee I brought Leonard Crow Dog, who was the Lakota medicine man at Wounded Knee and went to federal prison for that, to Brunswick and he gave a talk [laughs]; and I brought Peter Blue Cloud here.  I was trying to get people exposed to some stuff.  With a bookstore you can do that, if you start seeding a bunch of Native American authors or women’s authors or African American authors you can help people find the access I didn’t have at eighteen because those books weren’t around. A good bookstore should enable people to explore those issues and find out more and get involved.  Plus if you have people coming into the store talking to each other you can get that networking going.


We were lucky, almost immediately after we opened our store the first people’s referendum to shut down the nuclear plant happened.  We took books to every anti-nuclear protest, and people found out about our store that way.  Then we would get invited to other events, not so much right wing [laughs] but lots of leftist events, so we would have books as tools, or books as weapons, as one old button used to say.


We definitely have a certain vibe to our store that’s left of center, but there’s a lot of things that I don’t think have to do with American politics as much, like the Native American issues.  That’s not republican or democrat, they’re sovereign nations.  Last week the XL pipeline people tried to cross the Lakota Sioux reservation and the Lakotas blocked the road and went to jail.  The XL people said they’re a sovereign nation but we’re a corporation and corporations are above sovereign nations.  That’s their argument in court: we can go anywhere we want and they can’t stop us because we’re corporations and they’re only nations.  That just doesn’t seem right.  The Lakota are used to be pushed around by everybody, and they don’t like it.


Interviewer: They’re not afraid to stand up either.


Lawless: Two of the women were elders in wheel chairs who were blocking the road [laughs]; it was a great protest.


Interviewer: The Caribouddhism poems present the view that the earth is our teacher, can you talk about that?


Lawless: In my late high school years I discovered the The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Two or three years after I read the novel I found out it was based on a real person whose name was Gary Snyder, so I started reading him.  He recommended Native American texts and Buddhist texts, so I was following all those trails and trying to find out who all these people were, and a lot of it led me back to the idea that the earth is a living being and that that’s who I owe my allegiance to, not to humans, and that I should listen to the other species and learn from them.


When I was living at Gary’s house I met one of his teachers, this Japanese wandering crazy man named Nanao Sakaki.  Nanao started telling me to listen to the animals and hang out with the animals more.  Years later I became good friends with Nanao; he was just this amazing spirit to me.  He would call his friends with something that he wanted to do and we would all make sure it happened.  He was down in the Pinacate wilderness in Mexico and he called here and said, I must see icebergs!  We flew him from Arizona to Portland and then Beth and I took our little Geo Metro and picked Nanao up.  It was mid-May and we drove to northern Newfoundland to see icebergs, but we also wanted to see moose and caribou.  So we were up in Newfoundland following caribou around and watching them and talking about how we should have a religion whose teachers aren’t human.  We started playing around with words and came up with caribouddhism and caribouddhidharma.  It was kind of whimsical but serious at the same time.


A magician friend David Abram was talking about how we can’t think in the way that other species use language.  For instance, he thought lichen was the spoken language of granite.  What language does granite speak, what language does lichen speak, what language does caribou speak?  They’re not going to speak English to us. In the whole interaction with the rest of the world there’s all this stuff going on that we just don’t know about, and the more we learn about that the more we realize what an incredible variety of languages is going on in any ecosystem at any given moment, and humans are pretty much not aware of most of it.


We would think, what do you do when you’re in the caribou’s home, what’s the polite way to behave when you’re among caribou?  What’s the right way to behave when you’re in grizzly territory so you don’t upset them and so they don’t come and eat you, which I think is a perfectly valid response for them.  A bunch of us used to carry cards that said when we’re dead take us to Glacier and feed us to the grizzlies.


Then I started thinking about that in terms of human interactions, and placing myself in communities where I would feel uncomfortable because I didn’t know how to behave properly.  I started working with the disabled a lot and realizing that most of us from the abled community are uncomfortable when we’re hanging out with disabled folks because we’re not quite sure how to behave.  Then I started working in Portland with the homeless community and I found that same thing, a lot of people can’t just hang out and relax, there’s a disease, so we don’t know how to behave with each other.  Humans don’t even know how to behave properly with each other much less other species.


I enjoy doing poetry workshops with people from communities who aren’t encouraged much to express themselves.  I did a long-term residency at the homeless shelter in Portland – just getting those folks to talk about what they wanted to talk about and to believe that someone actually wanted to hear what they had to say.  I had to get their trust, they wouldn’t just sit down and start pouring their hearts out to me; I had to learn how to behave.


Lately I’ve been working with combat veterans and it’s the same thing, they know I’m not a veteran and they talk to each other in a certain way but with me there it’s different because I don’t have the shared experience.


I did a workshop with Somali women when Somalis were first coming to Maine.  The Arts Commission sent me down and had no idea what they were getting into, and I had no idea, and I committed every kind of cultural foul [laughs].  They’re all Muslim women, Somali Muslim, and I committed all sorts of cultural gaffs, but the women were very forgiving and were actually kind of entertained by me because I was such an idiot.  They wrote a poem about me in their language and every time they recited it they would all laugh.


You talk with other people about their perceptions and you hear these wonderful differences, and if your heart’s open enough you learn how better to get along in the world.  We’re new to this continent, we ought to learn how to get along here instead of just imposing this bullshit white European structure on a place that’s not necessarily white or Europe.  Is this the way to live here?  We’re bullies in a lot of ways I think.


Nanao Sakaki was sort of the preeminent Caribouddhist I think, he was there at the creation. He was my main mentor for a long time, trying to understand the world the way he understood it.  It was just fun to be around him, everything would drop away.  We’d bring home paperwork from the store and he’d say, why so many papers, too many papers, not so pleasant!  He was a good guy.  He passed away three years ago.  The tallest mountain in our solar system is on Mars so he wanted to climb that mountain, then plant trees on Mars, and then hike the Milky Way.  He made posters that said “let’s plant trees on Mars;” we put one up at the bookstore.  He was trying to figure out how to do that, so one night he walked out to look at the stars and he dropped dead, and we thought, well he figured it out.  So now we’re waiting for trees to appear on Mars.  Last year they found what looked like water systems on Mars, so we figured Nanao was getting the irrigation ready for the trees.  I’m quite excited about the next move.  I don’t know what kind of tree he’s going to plant.  It’s nice thinking about him hiking the Milky Way; that’s a good walk, it will take a while.


Interviewer: There’s music throughout your poems, rhythm, refrains.  Who are some of your musical influences?


Lawless: I started out listening to rock n roll in the sixties, which was a really good time to do that, and then I got to college and my roommate had this incredible collection of jazz records and was really into John Coltrane.  He took me to see Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Rollins and Mingus and all these people, so I got this great education.  A lot of what I listened to was jazz and rock n roll.  Plus I’ve played in a lot of rock n roll bands, so I know lots of Allman Brothers songs and Grateful Dead songs, but also songs of the social protest movement.  I was a big Pete Seeger fan, and around here I was a Gordon Bok fan, I still like Gordon.


The Clearwater Boat that goes up and down the Hudson that Pete Seeger commissioned was actually built in South Bristol.  Right before the launching Pete Seeger came and toured around Maine and did a bunch of concerts and he had all these singers with him, and Gordon Bok was on the tour with him.  It was really exciting to be in Maine yet be around all those folks, and sort of hearing it as poetry.


I think of poetry as rhythm.  When I write my poems I read them out loud because they’re written more to be read out loud then to be read off the page.  I’d rather read my poems to somebody then have them read out of a book and not hear my voice.  But that’s sort of old fashioned, several thousands of years old, that tradition.  I think there’s a lot of interest in beat and measure but not to the point where I’m writing iambic pentameter or something, which I admire when it’s done well, but it’s not necessarily what I’ve done, because it can be done badly and just sound kind of dumb.


Interviewer: You live at the former farmhouse of nature writer Henry Beston; do you feel like you’re carrying on his torch in some way?


Lawless: I hope he thinks I am.  He’s buried right up there.  He and Elizabeth both lived in this house for decades, they both died in this house, they’re both buried right up there and all their stuff is still here.  But if you have to be haunted by somebody, it’s nice to be haunted by two writers who really loved being on the planet and loved trying to express what that was like.


Henry went to the First World War as an ambulance driver and was pretty horrified.  They put him right on the front lines and he saw horrible awful things, and then he came back and lived at the end of Cape Cod by himself for a couple of years, which seems like a natural human response to the trauma.  It’s sort of a posttraumatic stress disorder response to the huge violence that he was witness to, all the death that he saw.  To seek solace and healing he went to the natural world, which is the right impulse I think.


Interviewer: Do you see having reverence for the land as a method of resistance?


Lawless: For sure, and a reason for resistance.  That makes much more sense to me than things based around the idea of nation or state.  Those kind of artificial borders don’t make a lot of sense to me and seem indefensible in a way. There’s problems when you become a culture that reveres the place where you live and then you hate all the outsiders from any place else and don’t want them coming there.  You have to be careful of how you express that as a human.


I like the idea of trying to live as best you can within the system or the ecosystems where you live, trying not to be too disruptive to that place and the systems of that place, so you don’t kill off all the animals and you don’t cut down all the trees and you don’t pour poisons onto the earth, that just doesn’t make sense.  I think that you can never learn enough about the place where you live, and it doesn’t mean you have to stay there all the time either, you can learn a lot by observing how other people live in the places that they live and what they’ve come up with.  Even if you just go and see how the Penobscots live here, that’s a whole other way of thinking, or how the Passamaquoddys live, but instead of learning from them we pretty much shut them out of any kind of conversation that we’ve had about living here.  Now we don’t even let them vote in the legislator, they can go and watch but they can’t vote.  It’s not talked about much; people don’t really talk about how we’ve treated our fellow citizens of this region.


Interviewer: The past is very censored.  I think a lot of people don’t even know about the Spencer Phips Proclamation that offered bounties for Penobscot scalps.


Lawless: Yeah, in Brunswick Joshua Chamberlain’s a big hero but his cousin Samuel, instead of coming back from the Civil War, became a scalp hunter in the West and made money with Apache scalps and Mexican scalps.  That was the 1870s, that wasn’t that long ago.


Interviewer: Your poems have been protesting environmental genocide at the hands of corporate greed since the seventies, a message echoing into the streets today.  How do you feel about the Occupy Movement?


Lawless: I love it [laughs].  It’s so heartening, because Americans have been so quiet and have taken so much.  I don’t know why we’re not in Augusta every day just getting Governor LePage out of the building.  We will take so much.  The Occupy Movement doesn’t have a centralized structure with hierarchal goals, it’s sort of amorphous so it can react to everything; I really admire that.  The level of education that it provided about economic issues, that doesn’t go away, it’s there, people now are thinking differently about issues than they were a year ago.  Here in our county we just had a special election to fill a state senate seat.  The favorite son republican who everybody thought was going to win lost, and his opponent barely campaigned against him, and he won.  I’m hoping that that’s maybe a sign that people are waking up to what’s going on and will hopefully take some positions.


Interviewer: Who are some people who inspire you to seek justice?


Lawless: There are lots of people.  I was lucky in the early seventies because I got to meet some really inspiring people.  The people I met in California knew I was there as Gary’s student so they felt like they should tell me stuff too.  I’d come from a Catholic family but I’d really not been that excited about the Catholic church, but maybe Ellsberg, maybe Jerry Brown, told me I should learn about Dorothy Day and the Catholic workers movement and I did, and they were such incredible people.  It turned out that one of Dorothy Day’s cohorts from the Catholic Workers in New York used to come here to visit the Bestons when he needed to relax from stuff that was happening in New York.  He would come and stay here in this room [laughs].  There are all these trails that get personal after a while.


A lot of people I admire now are people nobody ever hears of because they’re just doing the work, they’re out working with homeless people, working with disabled people, working with refugees, and that’s what their lives are about, doing things that really inspire but in a selfless way because they think it needs to be done.


Having access to a bookstore I get excited by ideas from people all around the world.  There have been a lot of Native Americans that I’ve really learned from.  Although, I’m a white guy and they probably wouldn’t necessarily want me hanging around that much [laughs], it’s true.  There’s so many people in the world doing good stuff and that’s part of what I see at the bookstore, we ought to have their books available to people, and maybe they’re not bestsellers.  We still have Gandhi’s books at the store even though he’s certainly not a best seller anymore, but people need to read what he had to say, and Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, people like that.  There are a lot of people whose lives have bearing on our lives if we hear what they’re saying.  It’s necessary for the rest of us to still have minds that inquire and still ask questions and still want to learn to be better citizens, and not think we’re already the best we can be, there’s not much humility in that.


Interviewer: The bookstore seems like revolutionary direct action in a way.


Lawless: We see it that way.  For over thirty years we’ve provided access to a range of literature that if our store wasn’t here most other bookstores wouldn’t carry it because they don’t sell fast enough or they’re not ideas that people come in every day looking for.  We have a whole Native American section and a lot of people seem surprised that such a section exists.  When I first started in bookstores we wanted to have a women’s section and the guy who owned the chain said he didn’t want to have a women’s section.  Then we wanted to have a gay and lesbian section and he didn’t want to have a gay and lesbian section.  It was really imperative to start our own store.


I think bookselling is part of the cultural movement.  If you want to change the culture you have to introduce alternate ideas and alternate ways of being and living, and books are one way you can learn about that other than actually going places.  Not everyone can go and live at the Coleman’s Farm or the Nearing’s Farm but you can read their books, not everyone can go and hear Chomsky speak or go and hear Betty Friedan or Mary Daly.  We did a book signing once with Mary Daly, she didn’t want me in the room, she only wanted women running the book table [laughs], which is fine, okay, I get it, but I’m on your side!


Interviewer: She thought the male presence was dominating.


Lawless: Yeah, that was cool.  We’ve had our several thousand years, I can step aside for a night or two [laughs].


Interviewer: There’s reverence for different places, cultures and species in your poems, can you talk about being a respectful, globally engaged citizen?


Lawless: That’s part of where my poetry comes from is that wish to be a respectful but also educated global citizen.  I don’t want to be just from Maine or from America, I’m someone who lives on the planet and I’d like to be aware of other people who live on the planet and not be someone who wants to make them be me.


There are other species who have adapted to live on the planet in much more interesting ways than we have.  We just sort of destroy things and move along.  There are other creatures who’ve figured out how to live here without wrecking it who lead really interesting lives.  I like to be open to it as an educational process.  I think my whole life will be an educational process and I’ll never learn enough, it’s the process rather than the product.  The process of learning how to live on the planet means that you’re interested and curious and open.  I’m still learning about humility but that entails quite a bit of humility, because you’re not better than anybody else but you’re also not better than other species.  Humans have a really hard time not thinking we’re the apexes of creation.


I think human beings are temporary. In that sort of Big History, we haven’t been here very long and we may not be here long.  The climate can change, some species will survive, plant life will change.


Before the 1900s Maine had caribou and now they’re all gone.  Now they’re worried about not having enough white tail deer so they want to kill the coyotes and the lynx.  They want a federal exemption on killing lynx so if they’re killing coyotes and they happen to kill a lynx, which is a protected endangered species, it’s okay, there’s no prosecution involved, which I’m skeptical of because the best lynx habitat that they’ve found in the state of Maine is right in the middle of the proposed Plum Creek [logging] development, and there’s a Plum Creek road that goes through some of the most intense lynx population, so Plum Creek wants to be able to kill lynx accidentally.  I think there may be a connective conversation going on between Plum Creek in the back room someplace with some republicans.


Interviewer: Many of your poems are positive and hopeful in their wish for change; do you feel it’s important for us to be peaceful in the way we speak out for justice?


Lawless: I admire non-violence, but I’m not necessarily a complete advocate of non-violence.  I can’t give in.  I have to remain hopeful.  I want a lot of my poems to be hopeful and encouraging that a better future is possible, and a better future doesn’t necessarily mean a more advanced technological future.  My idea of better is different than the global corporate citizen’s idea of better.


You don’t have to look too far to come across signs of hope.  It’s the deadening assault every day by the major media that can get you worn down.  Lots of activists get worn down and burned out and tired of the fight for a while, so it’s hopeful when all of a sudden the Occupy Movement comes along and there’s hundreds of thousands of people standing up.  That’s such a great sign, that people are still involved and still thinking and want a better future, even though the republicans keep winning [laughs] and creating this soulless deadening future that’s really frightening.  Why do women vote for people who oppress them, why do poor people vote for people who oppress them?  It’s hard for me to figure this out, is it based on theology?


I see Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and that wasn’t done just peacefully, and it’s certainly not being done peacefully in Syria, but change happens.  As a poet, I went online trying to find out what poems were being recited in the squares and there were poets and singers who were having their stuff read every night.  There are poets involved in revolution right now, not in this country necessarily, but there are.  There are poets who are being jailed; there are poets who are being tortured.  There was a Yemini poet who recently had his tongue cut out for reciting poems against the regime, there are Afghani women poets who are being tortured and killed, there are Chinese poets in prison, one of them just won the Nobel Prize but he couldn’t go because he was in prison.  There continues to be this wonderful cultural resistance and much of what they’re writing is hopeful, much of what the singers are singing is hopeful.  But we don’t see that, our newspapers don’t represent the cultural arm of those revolutions, which is too bad, and yet with the Internet now we can find out.


It’s hard for me to think of anything that we do here in Maine as being brave because we’re not threatened with imprisonment or torture or death, it’s just not happening.  I’ve been in jail, not necessarily for a poem, but for physically putting myself where I thought the poem took me.  I once got arrested teaching environmental literature at Bates.  My students were reading Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams, and Route 1 down in Warren was going to be widened.  My friend Steve, whose house is along that strip, was trying to get people to come and stand with the trees against the Department of Transportation.  I told my students this and they all wanted to go, so we went, and my students were chained to trees, and I was standing between them and the Department of Transportation chainsaws, and the State Police came.  It was great!  It took from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon for the cops to get everybody who was chained to the trees.  We basically shut down Route 1 for six or seven hours.  We all ended up in jail [laughs].  Here I was the professor with my students in jail.  I got back to Bates and the Dean of Faculty was really unhappy with me, she was like, what are you thinking? I said we’re faculty, we’re supposed to be acting in Loco Parentis, don’t you think the parents would want someone to go with their kids if their kids were going to jail [laughs]?  These assholes can’t be allowed to just do whatever they want, someone has to speak up and say no, even if you lose.  Lots of times you lose but you did it.


Those women who are speaking up against Muslim oppression, they pay with their lives and nobody hears about it.  The Taliban’s been killing a lot of teachers because the teachers were teaching women – that’s primarily their mistake.  Through the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, for sixty bucks a month you can hire a teacher to teach a class of up to twenty-five women and girls how to read and write.  So we sponsor a teacher for a whole year every year.  RAWA’s thing is that if you teach Afghani women to read or write the country will change, women will do it, and I agree with them.  They’re writing poems, they’re learning to read and write and they’re starting to tell their own stories.  There’s a structure that doesn’t want them telling their own stories because once they do they’ll empower each other.  Sometimes the way to talk about that throughout history has been allegorically or metaphorically, it doesn’t say straight out what it’s talking about, but people know.


Interviewer: Can you talk some about being part of the Maine small press community?


Lawless: That started for me in 1969.  I started doing this little mimeograph poetry magazine and giving it away for free.  Then when I went to Colby in 1970 I discovered that there were other people in Portland, Orono, and Augusta who were also publishing little magazines.  We started cooperating with each other and helping distribute each other’s stuff, so this kind of interesting scene developed where there were several magazines you could send work to.  Then people started doing little works by individual poets.  It was really homegrown and very lo-tech and not much money involved.  The Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance was started as a place that would receive grants from the state and then individual writers and publishers could apply there for some money.  All of a sudden more bookstores started appearing around the state where people could find stuff that we were publishing.  I started doing little Blackberry chapbooks in 1975.  My printing and book design has gotten more sophisticated, it’s not just mimeograph now, but the impulse is still the same, it’s trying to put stuff out that you like and are interested in and then sharing that information with other people who are doing the same thing.


It was exciting to learn from each other, learn how to do books and distribution, learn who was writing and who people were interested in.  I love that educative process where we’re all telling each other about stuff.


Interviewer: You’ve said that all life has a language that you’re translating, and several of your books include images by visual artists.  Can you talk about collaboration?


Lawless: I think that poems occur inside you and then you choose to translate them into an exterior.  Sometimes you choose to translate them as these words on a page but sometimes you choose to translate them as a song or as a painting or as movement.  The poetic impulse is inside you and everything that comes out is a translation.  I think that I have these ideas and these images and these feelings and I try to turn them into poems, but the poems aren’t exactly the same thing as what I had inside me, they’re a rough translation, so it’s okay to go back and sharpen them.  Walt Whitman did that for the whole rest of his life on Leaves of Grass, he kept going back because he kept learning more and being in the world more so of course he could bring all those resources back to the poem.


I see my poems as rough translations of what’s going on inside me, and I like to see the visual interpretation of my idea, or my poetic idea of the visual that somebody else has.


I want to leave enough room so that anyone who hears the poem or reads the poem collaborates with me, that they bring something from their experience or their knowledge to that poem.  I don’t think it’s a finished poem until somebody else comes to finish it.  So I like that the visual arts add to the experience of the poem, or the poem adds to the experience of the visual art, and then whoever sees it or reads it then adds something of their own in a collaborative way, which also breaks down that barrier of speaker and audience.  I’d rather be collaborating, if I could write a poem about caribou that makes people think, oh gee maybe we shouldn’t let these guys go extinct, if Gary thinks they’re good teachers maybe I ought to listen to them once in a while, maybe not shoot them all.


Interviewer: I’ve seen videos of you reading your poems to the river, do you feel like the river and fish like to be read to?


Lawless: I like to say hello to trees and birds and plants, I think that it’s neighborly to say hello.  That’s one way of saying hello and trying to recognize the authenticity of their being, which may not be good for them but it’s good for me.  It’s good for my heart to stay open and recognize my fellow beings in a way that’s loving.  It feels good to do something like that, but I don’t know if it has any affect at all, it has an affect on me and maybe if somebody else sees it they think about that and maybe it has some affect on the way they behave.  I like to see rivers as living things.  Heraclitus said all things are flowing.


Interviewer: You’ve used your poetry to be an advocate for the sardines?


Lawless: Yeah, Karin Spitfire and I had the Summer of the Sardine.  We invited people to come and talk about working in the sardine plants and we had several nights where all these women came who had worked in the fish plant.  They talked about how important that was culturally for them because all winter they would be in their houses with their families but not seeing the other women in town, and then the sardines would come, so all the women would come work at the plant and there were very few men on the plant floor.  All the women were there together and that was really important socially to them.  And they missed it; they were nostalgic for this piecework, because it had been important for them to be around other women and also to have their own money.  A lot of them cried when they talked about it, it was so moving for them to remember this way of life that will never happen for them again.


It’s the same here with the alewives, when the alewives ran years ago primarily women would go down to pack and smoke and process them.  The women said the alewives would show up right at the time when you would run out of just about everything you’d put up for the winter, so you were pretty much out of food, and then the fish would arrive, so it was really well timed and brought on the beginning of a season of bounty rather than a season of cold.  Those critters pop up in a lot of my poems, they’re trying to tell me something.  I like hanging out with them.


Interviewer: Could you share a vision for the future?


Lawless: I would like to see a future where people come back to their senses.  When you’re using all of your senses then you’re much more in touch with the planet.  I would like to see a future that’s better for the planet, but it’s hard for me to be convinced that that will happen.  I see humans still so arrogant, they misuse the resources that they’re given, even human resources, not just fracking and tar sands but also just the way the United States treats its own population, we don’t seem to want to provide education or health care to people.


I don’t feel that I’ve done enough, but I tried.  I said things, I tried to encourage other people to try and make a difference, and we provide resources to people who are trying to figure out how to live well on the planet.


A lot of the Native American people I’ve spoken with talk about the basic principle of balance and how we needed to learn to live in balance on this planet, and that people for the most part don’t live in balance, and that just the process of trying to bring balance to your own life has an influence on the planet.  A number of Native American people that I’ve respected over the years have talked about that.  The big change you can make is in yourself, and if you can find a way to be in balance with your community, not just in the human community but the community of life around you, then you’ve done something that’s good and has a lasting effect.


I’m interested in the future, so I’ll be kind of bummed not to see what happens, but that happens to all of us, I’ll leave and stuff will still go on.  The wind won’t notice I’m gone, the trees won’t notice I’m gone.


Interviewer: Maybe you’ll still see it from the mountain on Mars.


Lawless: Well if I can join Nanao and go on that hike – that would be really good.  We’ll see.  He’s still around, I can go on YouTube and have Nanao talk to me, I can just type in his name and he pops up and he reads.  That’s sort of fascinating to me, I think of somebody who’d I’d like to have read a poem, and if they existed in the twentieth century, they’re probably there.  So who knows what the future will bring, maybe Homer will be on the Internet or Sappho.


There’s been a world revolution.  There have been several revolutions.  A civil rights revolution in this country, there’s been a women’s rights revolution in this country.  Those are the revolutions we’ve had in the twentieth century.  They aren’t armed overthrows of the government, but they’ve been overthrows of cultural values that have changed a lot.



For more information on Gary Lawless, please visit him here:  and here

Renewing Images: Mihku Paul Interview

Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto

Mihku Paul is a Poet, Writer and Visual Artist. She holds a BA in Human Development and Communication and an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast. Her poetry has been in various journals, both print and online.  Mihku is an enrolled member of Kingsclear First Nations, N.B. Canada. She is presently teaching creative writing at the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England.

Paul’s multi-media installation, “Look Twice: The Waponahki in Image & Verse,” went on exhibit in October 2009 at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine.  The exhibit has since been at the Glickman Library at the University of Southern Maine.

Paul’s book of poetry 20th Century PowWow Playland was just released through Greenfield Review Press.  This is a powerful book of visionary heights, available here.


Her Own Kind
Sunset, sentinels bear witness:
pine and birch, spruce and cedar.
She slides, belly curled on warm granite,
uncoiling flesh along the new moon’s arc.
This woman slips her skin,
leaves her old shape behind.
Take this body, earthbound,
craving shelter, her own kind.
She runs, four-footed in autumn’s coat,
furred and restless, sharp of tooth.
This woman strokes the guard hairs,
golden softness underneath.
Take this song, howling melody, music for stars.
Fire leaps from her throat, ash-whispered prayer.
She rises, brilliant flame, arms out-stretched.
Feathers pierce her fingertips.
This woman spreads her wings, climbs into sky,
a thunderbird in flight.
Take this vessel, sun-touched, tricked by nature.
Hovering chimera, floating like red dust.
This woman falls to earth, changing,
changing again.
-Mihku Paul, from 20th Century PowWow Playland

The following interview took place on March 24, 2012 at Paul’s home in Portland, Maine.


Interviewer: Can you talk about where you grew up?


Paul: I grew up in Old Town.  My mother was born in Houlton, which is where the Houlton Band of Maliseets are, and then she moved to Old Town.  My granddad remarried and he was married to a Penobscot woman on Indian Island, so that’s where I spent a lot of my childhood.  I’ve got cousins there and several of my relatives are buried there, including Grammy Paul.  There were four of us, and I’m the only one in my family who made it through high school.


I was my mother’s youngest child, and I think she viewed this as the last opportunity that my grandfather might have to pass on his cultural knowledge.  He was very traditional; he was a guide and great on all types of water with any kind of watercraft, and he hunted and trapped.  He took me along with him when I was a child, and my mother would take me out of school in town for days at a time.  I would go back with my little note, and the note would say she was on the river the last few days because it’s fiddlehead season and she was fiddleheading, or what have you.  My mother would say, her grandfather is teaching her, and that was that.  I got some strange looks and a lot of attitude from the teachers at times, they were non-native teachers, but I was never busted for truancy.  My grades were always really good, so I flew through school.  I started school a year late and I finished school a year early.


With my short story collection, while it’s fiction, the stories are an outgrowth of my experience growing up in a small town in Maine where there’s a reservation and tensions between the Native community and the town.  Old Town also has a distinctive Franco community, because there were textile mills along the town after the logging industry moved elsewhere, and they used the waterpower.  Our town was unique in that sense, and the stories that I wrote for the Water Road are portraits of the way those three distinct communities interacted with each other, in good ways and not so good ways.  I wrote the work because I felt like I want those stories out there, because nobody ever told them.


Interviewer: Did you feel alienated, or did you have enough of a group of people to support you?


Paul: I felt alienated, absolutely.  We lived at a dead end street at the bottom of a great big hill in town.  My mom didn’t want to live on the reserve because at that time, forty or more years ago, it was tough to live on the reservation.  The programs that are in place now, the infrastructure and housing, weren’t there, much of that came after the civil rights movement of the sixties.  My mother felt it was better to be in town.  Even though we lived in town, we lived in an extremely poor neighborhood.  I spent a lot of time on the reservation, so within my own group, things were good, but it was difficult when I went outside of that, like in public school.  I didn’t fit in, and I wasn’t the only one who didn’t fit in, other Native kids had to go to school too, and we got picked on.  I even got picked on by some Native kids because I’m so light, but once they got to know me and knew who I was, everybody knew my granddad and I was there all the time, I was able to get accepted.


It was a different environment back then. After the 1980 lands claims, where the tribe proved that there were treaty issues and that the federal government owed the tribes a lot of money and land, it gave some of the tribes, mainly Passamaquoddys and Penobscots, some capital in order to improve conditions among the communities.  There were many people who moved back who had left years before because they were looking for jobs.  After 1980 we had an influx of people who were Native, but the kids had essentially spent the first halves of their lives elsewhere because their parents moved away for opportunities.  So that created a shift and change as well in the community.


There are incidents from growing up that I incorporated into stories: the reservation is an island and the Penobscot River splits and flows around it.  Across one side is Milford and that’s where it’s more shallow and rocky, but up until July, the water’s deep enough, it’s easy to canoe across.  The Native kids on Indian Island and the white kids in Milford would taunt each other from their side of the river, and sometimes the white boys would take their outboard and come across and they’d have a fight, and the Indian boys would canoe over and they’d have a fist fight and paddle back to the reserve.  Now there are laws in place where when Native communities have sovereignty, they can have their own court system dealing with most legal issues except for felonies, but back then when I was little, nobody ever came over to do anything about it because it was just a split lip and a black eye.  They were afraid, especially during the civil rights movement; you couldn’t get a cab onto the reservation.  That was during AIM and everything, somebody took a piece of plywood, it might have been 1968 or ’69, and hand-painted something, “AIM” or “white people stay out,” so the town taxi wouldn’t cross the bridge; they were afraid to go over there.  It was a very intense time, even in a small town up here.


I enjoyed school up to a point because it was stimulating to me, and I liked the opportunities to do art, but a lot of the times I was bored silly in school and I got hassled, and I wasn’t the only person who did.  My brother’s dad is Haitian and he was dark skinned.  He was the only black child in that school system at the time, he went through the Old Town school system all alone, and it was very tough.  I’m sure that it was hard for the other Native kids in town, because it wasn’t just a matter of people giving you a dirty look, it was a lot of friction.  Like I said, the high school boys would beat each other up, people spit on you on the school bus, all that.


Interviewer: The whole manuscript of 20th Century PowWow Playland feels like protest against colonization and oppression?


Paul: I didn’t write the poems necessarily with the goal of them being subversive or political or resistant but it came out that way very naturally, because I was writing about my own experience.  I think that to be a mixed-blood person and to be Native is to be political; you can’t get around.  I write about other things, science fiction, but the poetry is an outgrowth of my own identity and experience and because of who I am, then it’s political, because of my history and my origins.


Interviewer: Can you talk about your work as an educator around LD291: An Act to Require Teaching of Maine Native American History and Culture in Maine’s Schools?


Paul: I’ve been doing that for at least fifteen years.  What I’ve found is that when I presented in schools, the first thing teachers said is, can’t you just come and bring your baskets and talk Indian or tell a legend or something?  I’d say, please, what I need to do first is meet with the kids to break the ice, we need to become connected.  So I began with a circle discussion time where I would introduce who I was and talk about what we were going to do together.  It was also a chance for me to hear where they were at in terms of their awareness.  Even in the twenty-first century, I say to them, what do you know about Indians?  “They shoot bow and arrows, they don’t wear any clothes,” “I watched the Indian in the Cupboard movie” [laughs].  I think that’s a real problem, I think that should be an embarrassment to the state of Maine.  Bless Donna Loring and the other people who have done so much work towards getting LD291 passed.  Things have improved somewhat in the last three to five years but there’s so much work to be done.


This past year I was invited to be a guest artist in the Portland schools and we met first and talked about the differences between Native teaching paradigms and Western teaching paradigms.  Research nationally shows that across the country Native students begin having trouble in school.  While there are many reasons for that, the kids are getting turned off in school in large part because of the way they’re being taught.  The Native kids can’t relate, they’ve got home, they’ve got the reservation environment, the way they’re taught there, and then they go to this box and sit in a straight line in a box all day and someone talks at them and says write this down, now repeat what I just told you to write down.  That’s not how most Native cultures teach.  The Many Hands Project was a way of giving students in public schools here in Portland the experience of doing a collaborative project that they were guided through using Native teaching paradigms; the kids particular strengths as individuals were looked at.


I think if I can get one kid in the fifth grade to realize that there is a great deal of complexity – there’s a rich cultural history and there is also an extremely brutal political and social history, that is part of what it means to be a Native person – if I can get them to remember that, then that’s something.


Interviewer: Could you talk about your Look Twice exhibit of writing and art?


Paul: It was an opportunity to create social change, and that’s part of the reason that I did it.


I used Kant for some of the underpinnings of Look Twice.  One of the things that Kant says about truth, truth as in honesty, is that even when it’s painful or difficult, it’s imperative to have honesty between people, that lying is absolutely awful because when you lie to someone you’re depriving them of a response to that information or that situation or event, you’re depriving them of the opportunity to respond to it in an authentic and an accurate way.  Lying to someone robs them of their humanity and their opportunity to be their best selves, because they’re responding to an inaccuracy.  I was using that idea around the Look Twice show because people have very fixed, strange notions about what it means to be a Native person.  In effect they have been lied to for hundreds of years.  So by giving them poems that I think more clearly reflect the now for Native people in Maine, along with photographs that sometimes they’re accurate and sometimes they’re not, it creates disequilibrium.  It creates internal tensions, and that’s the opportunity for someone to change their attitude.  They can’t change their attitude simply by looking at something; the best opportunity to change someone’s interior landscape is to engage them in a multi-sensory way.


There was art all around like a river, because we’re a river culture people. There were circular medicine wheels that I create that are really colorful and they also have symbolism, so there’s pattern there and color and repetition and that has an effect on the brain, and also the symbolism can end up engaging people’s thought processes.  So they have the archival images, and the poetry, and then this almost purely visual experience that acts on the brain, so that’s what I was trying to do.


Interviewer: Your poems refer to the false education you got about your culture and US history, like the Columbus discovered America story, can you talk about when you first started challenging those lies?


Paul: When Dee Brown came out with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee my mother gave it to me and I read it.  I was born in ’58, I think I was about twelve or so, and my mother was like that, she hands me this book that’s like three inches thick.  I read anyway as a child, I read everything I could get my hands on.  It was a little beyond me, but it was also very powerful and effective, so I remember that being sort of the beginning of that place where I started to get an awareness of the political landscape and what that meant.


I went to another school for a year, Helen Hunt, which was in a middle class community closer in town, not really on the outskirts where we had lived.  I started getting hassled by kids in sixth grade there, and I got really angry.  My mother used to make extra money by doing a lot with leather, she made these great fringed-vests and did hand sewing, and she had a beautiful deerskin dress that she had made.  There was no reason for doing this, one day I just begged her to let me wear it to school.  So I wore it to school.  It was my way of saying, how do you like me now [laughs].  In the eyes of my classmates, that was probably one of the strangest things that I had ever done.  I told everybody my mom had made it; I just felt like I wanted to do it and had to do it.


I was still spending a lot of time with my granddad, and I stopped being silent about our family and who I was.  I talked about it more freely.  Then as a freshmen at college, I got a little bit more outspoken about it, this was like 1977-78, so that civil rights environment was still there.  That was when I became aware that I was an object, that even though I was at a college setting and I’d share my background with people, I realized people were looking at me, they weren’t interacting with me.  Not everyone.  When I was eighteen, nineteen, I started realizing, maybe they’re not spitting at me, they’re not calling me a squaw or a nigger lover or whatever, but people are still looking at me as this thing, so that was a little bit hard.


Finishing my undergraduate work was when I really began to speak out more on issues.  I started doing committee work, I felt supported in a university community in speaking out about issues of diversity and about who I was.  That was about the time too that I started doing more consulting in the schools, and I started the curriculum enrichment.


Interviewer: Weren’t you involved with IRATE in the nineties?


Paul: Yes; here was the situation, we were the Native American Student Association, we were trying very hard to be seen, and we were struggling. We saw what the Native kids were up against.  I imagine college is hard for anyone, but you take a Native person – I already told you about the teaching paradigms and the racism – you pluck them out of this community in which the connectivity between people and the life-ways are so established culturally, then you’ve plucked them out of that environment and put them in this other one, it’s very alien, and it’s hard to endure.  It’s very typical of Native people to take a number of years to get an undergraduate degree.  We were seeing Native students who were having meltdowns, suicidal, couldn’t stay in school, left school, they weren’t getting the support they needed through this.  You’re thinking, there are all those people, everybody else, and then there’s me.  You feel like an outsider.  Then they’re saying, don’t you know how it works, here’s the drill, get this paper done, bring that paper over there, speak to that person, do that.  There was no one to help coordinate that, which was very daunting.


Esther Altvater Attean was in the Old Town area.  Her and her mother-in-law Rene Attean formed an organization called Indigenous Resistance Against Tribal Extinction, and they knew that we were having trouble down here on this campus.  We found out that the international students numbered fewer than the Native students at the campus, but the international students had their own office, they had a coordinator, they had an admin, we had nothing!  And so we said to the President of the University, we’d like to talk about this because this is something that is needed.  All we said was we want to meet, will you meet with us.  He wouldn’t respond, he ignored us!  So then we got IRATE, and we got Kathy McInnis who was an organizer and activist, she’s disabled, she did a lot around ADA and accessibility, she knew the drills.  We brought her in and she said, here’s what you have to do.  We drafted the letter, made a request for a meeting and we said if you don’t meet with us, we are going to take an action – a peaceful action – and he wouldn’t respond.  So IRATE came down, they brought us some people from the reservation to support us, Rebecca Sockbeson and Lana Dana, and we took over the President’s office on the seventh floor of the Law School, we did a sit-in.  Kathy showed us how to do the whole thing, not speaking, linking arms, and we trooped in.  They did sort of try and stop us, and you just keep walking, and if they put their hand on you, you say, please take your hand off of me.  There are ways that you do it that are non-confrontational, but still you keep moving forward with the action.  We took it over and Fox News came and interviewed us, and we said we’re staying here and we’re not leaving.  The President was off at some reception or something, and all we wanted was for him to give us in writing that he would meet with us and talk about this.  Even so he made us wait, we were there for a while, but we did it.


There was very little in the office, there was a wooden hanger, and Esther broke it, took it apart and we took his waste basket, which was empty, this gray plastic thing, but it was a good size, and she flipped it and [laughs] used the broken thing for a beater and we drummed.  It was awesome!  We were up there singing and drumming and Fox News comes and they’re like what do you want, and it’s like, this is what we want.


It was good because that was the beginning of the formation of not just a Multicultural Center, but also establishing the position of someone who is there specifically as a support and resource to guide Native students through their academic experience and help them stay in school, so we can graduate more.  Because people were coming in and people weren’t finishing; there are many reasons why you don’t finish but one of the big ones is a lack of support around navigating that whole environment.


So yeah, we did a sit-in; it was the longest sit-in in the history of the University [laughs].  It was funny, we couldn’t get food in so we even had a rope we lowered out the window for a basket, and they would put snacks in and we would pull the rope up [laughter].  They thought we would think, this stinks, I’m hungry – that we’d give up – and we didn’t give up.


Interviewer: Who are some people who inspire you to seek justice?


Paul: One of the first people was my granddad when I was a very small child.  I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but did you know it was the nineteen sixties before Native people, at least in Maine, could vote?


Interviewer: Yeah, it’s awful.


Paul: Isn’t that crazy?  I remember my granddad telling me that, I was just a little girl, but it blew my mind.  And of course being a child, I took it in and went, holy!  And then I was like, okay, let’s go fishing.  But I’m 53 and I still remember him telling me that, that moment.  He would let me know about things but he didn’t belabor the point.  He would give me these pieces of information that somehow became part of the whole fabric of my experience growing up, so I think that’s where it began.


My mom was very outspoken with her identity.  Even though she lived in town, she spent a lot of time on the reservation with my granddad.  As I told you my mom took me out of school for my education.  She gave me the Dee Brown book.  Another thing that my mom did: Old Town High had dress codes, and one of them was hair length, and my eldest brother Tibby James wanted to grow his hair.  He grew his hair and he kept getting warned by the school that he was going to get suspended, and he did.  My mother consulted a lawyer, there was a pro bono place for poor people, and she went to the high school and she argued his case.  She said he is an Indian, and we grow our hair, and the men grow their hair, and if you don’t let him grow his hair then you are – and of course this is civil rights period as well – she said then you are not letting him be who he is, and she won.  That really inspired me as well.


I didn’t really understand that there was a whole Native literary cannon out there.  A friend sent me Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko and that really made me curious about the existence of a Native literary cannon and these highly accomplished Native writers, because you have to envision the possibility before you can take a step towards something. That helped me.


I saw the political stuff happening all around me.  There was a thing in the early seventies called Stand Up and Be Counted, which was a movement that originated with the American Indian Movement.  They were encouraging Native communities across the entire country to do this, and on Indian Island they had these gatherings.  I remember coming home and my mom said put your sneakers on, we’re going to the Island and I said why, and she said we’re walking.  She had long dark hair and she braided it up and everything, and she said we’re going to stand up and be counted!  It was in the spring and everybody was gathering, there was this community hall just a little ways across the bridge on the reservation, and my granddad was one of the people who spoke.  It was a community meeting to inspire people to be more involved about their rights.  I was quite young, but I remember that very clearly, everybody gathered.  They took turns, there was somebody from Vietnam, and they picked different people from the community to get up to the podium and address the community about this sort of newfound social awareness and the necessity to organize for change.


Interviewer: Your poems are real rhythmic and sound like they’re meant for being read aloud, can you talk about the music?


Paul: I tend toward lyricism, so with the poems, I really like sounds, and I’m very interested in language and sound.


Every Sunday my granddad and I used to sit in the kitchen and have tea and he would tell stories of his life, and they were always interesting.  Sometimes he’d repeat what I’d heard before or some poor tired joke, but it didn’t matter.  I think that I brought to the work I’m producing a lot of that storytelling aspect, and the love for the way language sounds.   Granddad taught me certain things in dialect; if he says to you, gazelmo, then you know he’s saying I love you, whether or not you’re fluent you learn, so I was exposed a little bit to the language.  He always said to me the way it sounded is like birdsong, the sound was a really important piece for him, and he imparted that to me as a child.


I started college as a theater major.  I did theater in high school and it was very liberating for me, so I already had some experiences around the spoken presentation of creative work.  Then when I started reading the poems and interpreting them, people said wow.  I just sort of acted it out or interpreted it, I didn’t know anything about slam poetry or anything, all of that I learned just in the last few years.  When I started, my intent had more to do with storytelling and love of language and love of sounds and flow and rhythm.


Interviewer: Place is obviously a huge part of your art, the sense of New England?


Paul: It is, especially as a contemporary Native artist in New England.  A lot of times I talk with folks at different organizations, you tell them you’re Native, and they’re like, great, do you make baskets?  That’s the first thing they ask, and I’m like, no I don’t make baskets. Yeah, I know how to make a basket, my mother beaded a lot, I do bead.  I try to explain to them that the traditional arts are great but don’t pigeonhole me.  So I’m trying to bring my Native identity, which is deeply embedded in an ancient culture, forward into the contemporary moment, and I’m trying to use my art as a way to bridge that into the twenty-first century.


When I became a sun dancer I went out west to North Dakota.  I met all these people who were wonderful, Sioux people, Lakota people, Mandan people, Ojibwa people.  It was great for me, but it was also very hard, because they looked at me, especially my first year or two, and they said, there aren’t any Indians back in Maine, there’s no Indians back there, we’re the Indians out here.  I bring that up because we in this region of the country had some of the earliest contact.  We had contact, and the oppression, and the whole assimilation cycle for longer than many of the tribes west of the Mississippi.  So we’re not just dealing with distortions around identity and culture with non-Native people, we’re also dealing with it with other Native people, with the western tribes who have some kind of sense that we are so dissipated and so assimilated that maybe we barely even exist.


One of the ways that I proved my worth to them is one year, an elder came around to the various encampments looking for someone who could dress out a deer.  It was 102 degrees on the plains of North Dakota and he’d taken his nephew to shoot his first deer to feed the people.  We had 80 to 100 people out there for ceremony.  I didn’t want to do it, it’s so hot out there and the work you have to do to prepare for ceremony, everyone’s just miserable for certain hours of the day.  The sun doesn’t go down until after 10 at night and there’s a certain chunk of the day where it’s just too hot to do anything but sit, all work comes to a standstill.  So here he comes and my friend, who’s the head female dancer, a dear friend of mine, is asking everyone, because she’s kind of the diplomat person among the women, the coordinator – she felt obligated to say, I’ll try and help you.  I waited and waited and nobody said a word, and up goes my hand, why, because I know how to do it, because I grew up in a hunting family.  My mother used to make extra money skinning out animals and dressing them for the hunters from southern New England who came up to Maine.  They never wanted anything but the flanks anyway, the steak, and so they’d throw her twenty bucks to skin out a bear, and we’d get some meat, which was great because we were terribly poor.  I learned all this from an early age.  After that, I was in like Flynn.  I got a crew together, I said find the salt, get some tubs, get everybody’s salt they’ve got, get a stone, the best knives you’ve got, somebody’s got to stand by and constantly be sharpening the knives.  And we dressed out a deer on the planes of North Dakota – it’s July, it’s so hot, no shade.  I found some boards in the fields and we were kneeling on boards with a blue tarp over it and these chunks of deer body [laughs], but we did it.  We dressed it out, I told them what to do, there’s no refrigeration out there, and you also have water discipline because there’s no drinking water near by so you have to be very careful, there’s a water buffalo we used.  Anyway, I did it, I showed them how to cut it up.  We sent the best cuts off to the elders because the old people get the best cuts of meat.  After that, they never gave me a problem; but I had to prove it to them.


Interviewer: Your poem “Mother Tongue” is one of the most powerful poems I’ve ever read about Native Americans being taken from their families and brought to the Carlisle School; what are your thoughts on the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Project?


Paul: If you go to the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Project website, there’s actually a piece of my poetry on the flash page there.


I grew up in Maine, but my family is from Kingsclear, New Brunswick.  I have C31 status, I have dual-citizenship with Canada, but Maine is my home.  In Canada they have been working on that for a while, the Truth and Reconciliation, because Carlisle wasn’t the only school.  Some of these residential schools were in place all the way up until possibly the 1960s and early ‘70s in the western part of the US.


I think the Truth and Reconciliation is really important, I’m amazed and thrilled that the Governor signed the mandate.  It troubles me that in comparison to what Canada is doing, so little is being done around talking about that issue and recognizing the incredible impact that it had on a society of people, just one of the terrible things that happened.  There really needs to be a lot more discourse around that.  For my own part I can tell you that one of the reasons that I don’t speak my language fluently is because of the schools.  “History 101,” which was in my Look Twice exhibit, is a poem that I wrote about that.  My granddad was taken, he wasn’t sent to Carlisle, which is the most famous one here, but he was sent to one, it might have been Shubenacadie, and he would never talk about it.  When my mother was young, and especially when we were young, it was like, don’t speak dialect in the house, it was looked at like, don’t do it.  You’ve got to talk English, you have to be this way, you must assimilate or you’re screwed.  I mean they didn’t say it like that, but that was the whole hit of what we were taught.  Even so, there were the phrases like, I’ve got to siggiazi, needing to go to the bathroom and needing this or that, those useful kinds of things.


Grampy would never talk about it very much.  Once in a while he’d say something and then he wouldn’t talk about it again.  This is what he told me though, he said they took him, he was eight or nine, when he was taken from Kingsclear.  He was a smart guy, he didn’t finish high school but he served two tours in World War II and he spoke English, French, Maliseet, and one other dialect, I don’t know if it was Micmac, or not; he also wouldn’t talk very much about his experiences in World War II.  But he said I kept running away, all he could say, and I could tell it bothered him.  He just said he kept running away, and they’d bring him back, and then when he was about fifteen he said they stopped coming after him.  One of the things he had learned to do when he’d run away was not to come home to Kingsclear.  He would go to where his cousins lived at another reservation, it might have been Tobique; he learned to go where they might not find him.  Then at fifteen they gave up and didn’t come after him anymore.  I think it was very hard on him.  He always spoke dialect with me but it wasn’t a thing that he did all the time amongst other people, it was something that he kept inside himself.  The nuns beat them.  I’m sure other things happened, he got locked up, and they’d lock them in a closet for hours he said.  That’s what they got for speaking dialect.


A lot of Native kids died of diseases, TB especially.  My grandfather always tested positive for TB, I guess he carried it, he didn’t have an active case, but he carried it, and that was from those years at the residential schools.  But he made it quite a ways; he made it until almost 81, which is amazing for us, it really is.  My mother only made it to 45, my brother only made it to 48.  We die sooner.  There are a lot of reasons why, like stress, poor healthcare access, substance abuse, depression, it’s higher among Native populations compared to general populations.


Interviewer: Could you talk about your literary influences?


Paul: I didn’t know much about literature per se in school.  I read what we had at home, which wasn’t a lot of stuff.  I remember my mother giving me the Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton when I was pretty young.  She was always doing that, giving me books that were three steps over my head, but I’d try to understand it anyway.


For my own work I’d say in the last ten years one of the things that just blew my psyche wide open was when I began to read other Native writers, reading Leslie Marmon Silko, reading Joy Harjo and reading Louise Erdrich.  Then I started getting more interested in the socio-political aspects of it and reading stuff like by Robert Warrior, Jace Weaver, Craig Womack, and M Scott Momaday.  When I was working with Richard Hoffman he introduced me to writers from this region that I didn’t even know about, so it was a huge thrill for me to finally meet Cheryl Savageau and Melissa Tantiquidgeon and work with Joseph Bruchac.  I’d been aware of the books that Joe Brushac made and the work he does with kids and schools, and I thought wow what a cool guy, and now he is publishing my first book of poetry, so this is very cool for me.


Interviewer: What are some ways that you keep your spirits up and maintain resolve?


Paul: I own a dog [laughs].  I have to have an animal presence around, it’s important to me.  I think that we can often become our best selves when we are responsible for other creatures, including kids.  I would have children if I could have but I grew up eating fish from a very polluted river and I was born to an alcoholic mother and I didn’t know until many years later, after I was married and we weren’t getting pregnant, that my ova are no good, they’re fragile.  That was another thing I had to deal with.


I seek out things that not only give me pleasure, but also help me to feel alive in the moment.  One of them is my art.  Creating is when I’m at my most content; it’s a place where I get quiet inside.  Spending time outside is very important to me.  As a child I didn’t even wear shoes unless I was required, so having that connection with the natural environment is really important.


Having a spiritual practice has helped me tremendously.  I go as often as I can to ceremony and it’s been really good for me, I have a whole other family out there and we are connected in ways that are different than my family connections here or my professional connections.  Engaging in ceremony has definitely been good.


Interviewer: Could you share a vision for the future?


Paul: One of the things I realized in this journey that I am on is that I had so much to learn about the body of literature by Native writers, so I want to explore that more.  I want to educate myself and get a nice foundation and awareness of those bodies of works, particularly with writers in this region, and try and promote that more. The other part of it is trying to find ways to foster the development of new Native writers from this region.  The Wabanaki Writers Project is one of the things that might be able to support the continuation of that.  I’ve done workshops with them for that project and I’m hoping to do more with them in the future.


As I tell people, before you can do any of these things, you have to be able to imagine it as a possibility.  You can’t take a step towards a goal if you think that that’s just not a possibility for you.  For a lot of Native people, the idea that that could happen for them has been taken away for various reasons and by various means.  So I want to support other Native writers, I want to raise awareness and I want to educate myself further.


To learn more about Mihku Paul, please visit her website at:

dwellings, linda hogan

The pages of Linda Hogan’s Dwellings smell like crow feathers – a perfume of roots and sky and leaf.

Dwellings is a wise, reverent Spiritual History of the Living World, containing beautiful poetics highly relevant to today’s earth, which is constantly assaulted and threatened by corporate and war interests that seek to profit few while killing our most precious, essential resources – life on this planet and future generations.

The book shows how plants and animals have language – they have feelings – and just like people, they’re impacted by trauma and the destruction of their ecosystems.

Hogan describes how all living matter has conscious energy that is embedded with human cells.  We are all affected by the history of shared air molecules, shared water molecules, and passed on DNA containing the stories of our ancestors – and we all feel global tragedies and desecration of life – stories carried on the wind.

Dwellings helps us remember the divinity of all life, the sacred fragileness, how our instincts are real and should be followed above societal madness of being closed off and human-centric.

“Do you remember the friend that the leaves talked to?  We need to be that friend.  Listen.  The ears of the corn are singing.  They are telling their stories and singing their songs.  We knew that would be true.”

Hogan explains how the earth is a generous giver who wants peace and natural balance.  It benefits all species – human, plant, animal and molecule – when we “participate in a reciprocal and balanced exchange with life,” gratefully receiving the gifts of the present, while giving back with compassion.

Nature is the deepest reality of earth and the universe, and to deny that reality causes us to suffer from toxic life: pollution, global warming, broken heartedness, emptiness and loneliness.

Hogan says:

This far-hearted kind of thinking is one we are especially prone to now, with our lives moving so quickly ahead, and it is one that sees life, other lives, as containers for our own uses and not as containers in a greater, holier sense.

Even wilderness is seen as having value only as it enhances and serves our human lives, our human world.  While most of us agree that wilderness is necessary to our spiritual and psychological well-being, it is a container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours.  It is not only where we go to escape who we have become and what we have done, but it is also part of the natural laws, the workings of a world of beauty and depth we do not yet understand.

Hogan gives examples of how she’s seen animals treated carelessly, like wolves being shot and killed from planes.  From a chapter on wolves…

 Environmental work, like tribal issues have been for us Indian people, is subject to very negative reactions, to what we call ‘backlash.’  This situation is especially fragile, complicated by the psychological fact that wolves carry much of the human shadow.  They contain for us many of our own traits, ones we repress within ourselves.  More than any other animal, they mirror back to us the predators we pretend not to be.  In that way, we have assigned to them a special association with evil.

Close up, there is even more beauty in the wolf than any of us have seen from a distance.  The fur is shadowy gray and golden.  The jawbones with their circular valleys are smooth, outlined by the bare, lean winter.  Inside the mouth, the teeth are layered and worn down.  There are strawberry leaves, frozen in place, on the wolf’s teeth at the gum line.  The tenderness of such an image moves me.  I feel it in the heart.  And there is something delicate about the legs, something gone from wandering earth, something that ran so far it left the body behind.   

This compassionate description of connection with the wolf comes from someone truly alive.  The line, “something that ran so far it left the body behind” is stunning.

In Maine, all the wolves have nearly been slaughtered – some say there are no wolves left here, others think they are scarce and hiding but still around.  And now in this state there is a culture of coyote killing mobs – unlimited numbers of coyotes are allowed to be hunted in Maine, a blood sport that serves no practical purpose.  Why is it seen as okay for humans to kill deer but evil if wolves or coyotes hunt for food?

Hogan observes, “What we really are searching for is a language that heals this relationship, one that takes the side of the amazing and fragile life on our life-giving earth.  A language that knows the corn, and the one that corn knows, a language that takes hold of the mystery of what’s around us and offers it back to us, full of awe and wonder.  It is a language of creation, of divine fire, a language that goes beyond the strict borders of scientific inquiry and right into the heart of the mystery itself.”

Dwellings describes the importance of listening to this language of mystery, and to our own intuition, feelings and dreaming, which provide intrinsic knowledge and understanding.

Hogan describes how our role as intelligent human guests on life-giving earth is that of care takers and compassionate stewards.  We can help reestablish a balanced world by simply praising the miraculousness of all living things – this praise-giving attitude of tenderness helps the creatures by letting them know we share an allegiance of wanting health, respect and love for nature; in turn, such actions sustain ourselves and life on this planet.

“Here is a lesson: what happens to people and what happens to the land is the same thing.” -Linda Hogan

Guantanamo : Strange Fruit

Guantanamo Detainees, Defense Lawyers Continually Gagged in Military Tribunals: Report | Common Dreams.

american flags from red wounds
blue bruises     shredded pulp
of human flesh
people torn from ancestral lands
for brown skin   blankets
of blood    bouquets
of ripped muscle
the human rose
beat to blood sap    stomped light
crushed back    broken bones
blown up
balloon hands
heads drowned     chained to cold
concrete     starved & suffocated    forced
to take drugs    american citizens safe
comfortable from the agony
& murder
of brown people

Stop The East-West Corridor Coalition

Stop The East-West Corridor Coalition

Act now to resist a 220-mile privately owned, toll highway / industrial corridor from Calais to Coburn Gore.

Please write a letter to Governor LePage asking that the feasibility study be stopped.

Learn what has so many Maine citizens concerned :

“We the citizens of Maine love the place we call home.  Our sense of place is what defines us. When it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

For more information: email sacredhomelands at gmail dot com

STEWCC Eastern Region Mtg

drums, jim pepper

this righteous song from the phenemonal jim pepper album, pepper’s pow wow, refers to native american youth being stolen from their homes and put in boarding schools like carlisle where white priests, nuns, and teachers brutally tried to force the young kidnapped students to be non-indians

this abuse at residential schools has caused severe generational trauma & furthered cultural genocide amongst american indigenous people

“drums” is powerful in how it reclaims identity and pride, and calls out the futility of violence:

let me tell you mister teacher when you say you’ll make me right
in five hundred years of fighting not one indian turned white

this song is triumphant in its beat and its message.  colonizers have tried to wipe out indigenous people for hundreds of years, but haven’t succeeded.  native americans have perservered, luckily.

we can take cues from them on how to be respectful, intelligent, green, aware of interconnectedness, community based, greedless, and not destroying life for money.

 you may teach me this land’s history but we taught it to you first

native american ingenuity is responsible for domesticating 60% of crops now consumed worldwide, including the tomato, and for mapping most of the united states.

pepper’s chorus provides momentum of defiance and joy:

there are drums
around the mountain
indian drums
that you can hear
there are drums
beyond the mountain
and they’re getting mighty near

so much evil has been thrown at natives, but they are still here, themselves, not turned white.  the indian drums will always be the heartbeat of this continent…

thankfully, truth and reconciliation commissions in canada are addressing the harm inflicted against natives at the hands of residential schools and are seeking truth and healing.  and in the united states, maine has created the first state-tribal trc in the nation.