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
Tonight she comes as
moose, no longer iceberg,
between the tents.
She is happy in darkness.
She is looking for Nanao.
She wants to enter
Today she is standing
beside the road
in a patch of bog and
She is the color of glacier,
iceberg, snow and
She turns and
into the woods.
She is caribou,
she is iceberg
she is message,
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
move along the ground –
to wear copper and bone,
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.
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: http://gulfbookpoem.blogspot.com/ and here http://gulfofmainebooks.blogspot.com