Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Groundless Ground: Poems 2010-2014 by Jim Cohn: A Review

The Groundless Ground: Poems 2010-2014 by Jim Cohn
Museum of American Poetics Publications, Boulder, CO, $20.00

Reviewed by Kirpal Gordon (2,079 words)

          Jim Cohn has created in The Groundless Ground a multi-valanced voice that re-conjures the genre of the meditation poem for he not only reveals the everlasting now by deftly erasing the illusion of time, he provides readers with visas to other realms of consciousness. In short, these 93 works of verse deliver a meditative experience, or as he writes in the “Author Introduction,” “Groundless ground—this is what The Poem returns to us.”

In the opening poem, “In Which Room Do You Reside?,” its conversational ease, uncertain second person address, its mansion as metaphor of being, the music of its lines when read aloud, the duet of roman and italics down the page and its hint that that outer space is inner space all conspire to provoke that “you know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is” sensation:

In Which Room Do You Reside?

Are your walls made of names?
Were there so many hands
You needed several minutes
To realize your clothes were gone? 

Does it follow you, wandering yellow fields,

Across nations without borders,
Alone in moonlight, racing
Through deep space?

Are you standing in a city that never sleeps?

Like a person in a stout wind,
Understanding what the heart cannot,
Flush with dreams,

Clear as lightning on your eyelids,

Shaken out of this world,
In a room where you stand up for others,
Reconcile contrasting impulses.

 16 January 2010

          The awakening in the last stanza ends in an action that also acts as a gateway to the rest of the collection: Shaken out of this world, his reconciliation of contrasting impulses has him re-working perceptions, paradoxes and polarities which suggests to this reviewer that a Cohn poem is at least in part, however non-denominationally, a koan, that is, a literary form from Chan and Zen Buddhism using a story, question, dialogue or statement to provoke in the reader great doubt/seeing clearly. In Cohn’s case it can also be hilarious, irreverent and spooky. Check his twist on encountering his doppelganger while under the influence of what George Harrison once called the “dreaded lysergic”:

My Double

I met my double at a Grateful Dead concert in
Palo Alto, early February, 1973.
I was peaking on LSD. It was intermission.
He walked right past me. I had a twin.
I said to him, “You’ve got some licks that are out of this world.”
He turned and said, “They were all yours.”
Seeing him made me feel at peace in the world.
I didn’t go after him. I never saw my double again.
Isn’t this the secret you’ve been keeping all these years?
(You want us to be together.)
I fell each day, between then and now,
But always to a higher place.

5 June 2012

Note the narrative elements used to convey the scene: brief sentences, scant details, short quotes and that ending couplet that resolves the opposites of falling and ascending into one event. The twelve lines are dreamlike a la Borges yet the suddenness of the meeting feels so real, thanks to Cohn’s knack for layering and combining all sorts of tropes---the rhetorical, the indeterminate and the non-sequitur---in a mélange of voices from another room, another time or another dimension revealed in jump-cut, serial-surreal edge and Hydrogen Jukebox compression. He’s an American Vajrayana word warrior singing the mutual arising of phenomenon, the wonder of aliveness, and “the inarticulate speech of the heart,” but it’s the alternation of the declarative and the speculative with the insightful and the off-hand comment that gives his works an element of comedy with which to mediate buried truths. In “Hell or High Water,” he writes, “A central fact of Futurism is the / Acknowledgment that / Apocalypse already happened. // Everything is alive. The past is living. / All points of space & time are accessible. / I tried to say hello, but you were sedated with aphorisms.”

Andy Clausen said of Cohn, “His voice exposes the hard truth yet it gestates that hope one is tuned to after one has given up hope and right action is its own reward.”  Like much of the verse in the book, the poem below, illustrated on the book’s front cover, was inspired by current events over the last four years, and per usual, gets right to the heart of the hard truths Clausen references:
Poem Writ 50th Anniversary MLK “I Have a Dream” Speech

“Jim Crow may be

Dead,” said Reverend Al Sharpton

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial,

“But his son,

James Crow, Jr., Esq.,

Is very much alive.”

The workers still

Act like workers,

But they have no work.

Businessmen still act

Like businessmen

Except they have no business.

You sow. Somebody else reaps.

“So say we all,” says the jury foreman after reading

The verdict. When asked

How I escaped detection,

I answer, “George

Washington was Zorro.”

Rebellions are contagious, conformity a disease.

I feel like debris, a junkyard of

Selves—all someone else.

Why is it that the only war

My country is winning

Is the one against The People?

 28 August 2013

His first two stanzas “keep it real” narratively and politically while the third stanza explodes the narrative like a surrealist parlor game, all to set up that final stanza where our rebellions become disease and our debris become us, how at war with our own humanity we really are, underlined by “a junkyard of / Selves—all someone else,” a scary truth about commodification (and meditation), and like his shift from George Washington/Zorro to the now of the 99 to 1% equation, a great set up for the rhetorical question in those last three lines.
            In “The Lean Years” he further brings into the present echoes of the past that, a la

Chuang Tzu and his butterfly, suggest relationships overlooked:

The Lean Years

Empty clouds, gullies, forests and hills,
The mansions of the rich remain,
But they all have new masters.

The lean years have been here a while
And every year they just get leaner.

I read Li Yu’s
“How Can a Man Escape Life’s Sorrow and Regret?”
This—by a man who saw the destruction of his empire, rape
Of his wife by the one who’d overpowered him, incarcerated him,
Then poisoned him
Till he bled out every hole.

Man, born of woman, has but a short time to live.
Hold your cards close, if you’ve any at all.

This is why I hand the girl in the blue dress my axe & say,
“That I might reach you, O Heart,
Black site of sorrows."

26 August 2012

That haunted, final stanza! He’s outlining more than just a trace of the troubles in seventeenth century China under the late Ming Dynasty; he’s certainly sketching a correspondence to the USA in 2014, but to this reviewer he’s also inviting the reader into a larger appreciation of events, above-below-and-beyond history, to a music of the spheres where words align the unseen worlds of the non-corporeal co-existing within and without us.

In “Where My Poetry Comes From,” he writes, “In antiquity, it was common to assume a cosmos consisting of ‘many worlds’ inhabited by intelligent, non-human life forms.” He mentions Epicurus’s infinite universe, the Talmud, the Vedas, the categories of angels in the Catholic Church, verse 42:29 of the Quran, Immanuel Kant’s cosmic pluralism, “Crazy” Zhang Xu’s exuberant but illegible calligraphy and ends the prose poem: “My own transnonspecific semantic influences go back before invented or primal scripts. My poetry is a relic of the original Lingua Cosmica—the wordless open nature of asemic writing considered a universal style of expression by which characters do not need to retain their traditional forms or speak words.”

            Asemic means “having no specific semantic content,” and perhaps Cohn suggests that the reader, like the viewer of abstract art, deduce meaning on her own. Hence the reference to the lingua cosmica, an artificial language invented by Hans Freudenthal in 1960 to communicate with extra-terrestrials. The Quaranic verse he cites could also imply ET life, and who else but celestials dwell in the lokas sung in Vedic literature? As S.A. Griffin writes, “Cohn’s Ground is the champagne of angels.” As for his own place in such a universe, he writes in “My Legacy,” “I look at my legacy like this— / Intergalactic mystic archeologist of / Multiple timeline word gems— / The keys to the locks. All the locks.”

Nevertheless, in spite of the props he pays to the cosmos and the Akashic record, Cohn is also making it new/making it ancient by calling out, creating and cohering a poetry community on earth. Mixed in with his impressions of the Obama presidency and the woe of the world today, he celebrates in recollection and re-cognition the work and life of Amiri Baraka, Pete Seeger, Gary Snyder, Jayne Cortez, Chogyam Trungpa, Wanda Coleman, Audre Lorde, Elvis Presley and a kissing nun, Ted Berrigan, Commanche Chief Quanah Parker, John Lennon’s “God” and Bob Dylan’s Superb Bowl commercial. His prose poem, “Revisiting Olson’s ‘Projectivist Verse,’” is of the deepest appreciation and a first stop for readers unaware of his postbeat scholarship, though one could start with “Jim Cohn’s Top 600 Movies,” a list poem of films he composed on his sixtieth year that illustrates his postbeat perspective.

However, it’s in the praise songs and elegies to his elders---the writers and teachers he, an elder himself now, most admires---that gives the collection its most human touch, accomplished without forfeiting his ear for the non-human. In “Memory Ashes,” it’s the interplay of the one with the other that resolves the duality and uncovers the fullest story:

Memory Ashes
Above Great Stupa of Dharmakayna,
Up trail leading to Marpa Peak,
The Dharma Lion memorial is so striking
Even fearless Anne Waldman gasped back tears.

 Here in this John McCann oatmeal canister are
ashes of Allen Ginsberg, poet.

Peter Orlovsky, who inspired Allen Ginsberg
With love & poesy, banjo singing songwriting
Oracular Peter Orlovsky, personal trainer
To sons and daughters
Of nobility—

 His memorial in outcrop, a few steps away—
Remains in plastic bag.

As soon as we begin burning their photographs,
Shelley’s west wind whips through the trees.
Eventually, the wind dies.
Their images are no more.
Blue sky—all for show,
All for emptiness.

In this place, these words were said:
“O Compassionate Ones, these people—
Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovksy—
Have died without choice, with no friends, no refuge, no allies.
They have entered the great wilderness.
They have gone where there is no solid ground.”

 Shambhala Mountain Center

28 August 2010 

To “where there is no solid ground”: his meditation on the beyond is deepened by the compassion he feels for those entering the beyond. In the case of Allen Ginsberg, Cohn has more in common with his mentor than this one elegy can contain. For one thing, Cohn has grokked Ginsberg’s intent to present the oral-aural side of the poem/song alongside the written. Cohn, a musician blessed with impeccable time, knows how to work a deep pocket with a pianist, and in the happy accident of a recent recording, Venerable Madtown Hall features Cohn and his rhythm section with ten of the poems in The Groundless Ground. In a multimedia lagniappe, one can read the verse first before listening to the poem on the CD or watching Cohn speak the poem on the DVD with the band. Click for a taste of all three, but start with “When Hard Times Take Everything” because how Cohn achieves a nondual unity ‘tween spoken lyric and musical note on the DVD is the fullest expression of what Cohn is doing with language. Once again, he’s got that ghost-like trace---in this case, Woody Guthrie---that makes his work larger than the sum of its parts:

When Hard Times Take Everything

            May you and your neighbor never turn
           Against one another
When hard times take everything.

           The late afternoon sun is hottest.
           Who can judge another’s happiness?
Unbroken gloom is all over the world.

           Deep canyons, abandoned mines.
           Some things you never get over—
The not-known unknowing.

           Others just leave you scarred.
            They come up like giant twisters.
You remember rolling in their arms.

           Many life forms have evolved beyond us.
           Although their transmissions are murmurs,
They grow within our children and transform who we become.

           There was great sacrifice among the people.
            It’s not simply that the moon
Thinks about things the rest of us haven’t.

 24 April 2011


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Regarding The Encyclopedia of Rebels: An Interview with Mel Freilicher

KIRPAL GORDON: First off, congratulations, Mel, on your new book, The Encyclopedia of Rebels, published by San Diego City Works Press. It moves gestalt-like in serial form(s) toward a full inclusion, and I thought of Robert Duncan’s lines in “Rites of Participation,” “To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animals and the vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure---all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.”


MEL FREILICHER:  Thanks, Kirpal.  For some time, my writing has largely been about processing texts in new combinations (new ways of “cooking” them, as Peter Elbow would say). This book evolved gradually--I wrote some of the pieces quite awhile ago. The first was the one where Jane Eyre becomes an FBI mole in the middle of the Vietnam war.  I loved the idea of dropping the forthright, and oh so moral Jane into this nefarious milieu: I used several ex-FBI agents’ confessional memoirs as well as a lot of information about the  COINTELPRO programs designed to infiltrate leftist organizations to create internal disruption, and even to assassinate dissidents like the Black Panthers.


     I’ve been interested in past radicals for a long time: what they accomplished, and to what degree they were fucked over in the end--like “Big Bill” Haywood, leader of  mine workers unions, and the IWW, who had to flee to Russia or face life imprisonment here, once WW1 and all the anti-sedition acts kicked into high gear.  From all reports, life there was lonely and even more alcoholic in the few years he had left--he never learned the language for one thing--though he was an official Soviet hero. As I got into reading about some of the radicals’ deaths--suicides, madhouses--the more pressing and depressing it was to unearth more stories.  I began looking for successes, like Jane Addams: these people tended to start out with money, education, and political connections, of course, and they also had a more liberal, reformist approach to social evils.  Still, it wasn’t invariably like that. 


     By the time I came around to writing the last and longest piece which I conceived as the title piece for this collection, I was trying to cover the widest array of rebels’ stories possible: though the main thrust concerned John Brown and a discussion of some lesser known abolitionists, and aspects of the Civil War--like the horrendous rate of vets’ post-war mental illness.  I think if the book seems inclusive in ways that you’re suggesting, it may chiefly be due to this last piece which goes into the background and accomplishments of people like Mother Jones, Upton Sinclair, Dalton Trumbo as well as many individuals who I knew nothing about--in some cases, I didn’t even know of their existences--until I started my research.


KIRPAL GORDON: It’s fascinating research delivered at a moment in time in which our need for progressive political thinking could not be greater. You are certainly “cooking” texts! However, much to this reader’s satisfaction, you blend & bend non-fiction elements---biography, history, personal admiration for your subjects, gossip, journal---with the tropes of fiction & drama to create a hybrid text that indeed does poetic justice to the wide range of your American rebels.

One thing that much enlivens & humanizes these rebels is your own political activity as a grassroots activist in San Diego. Another is a very tender account of your relationship with Kathy Acker from college days & beyond. A third is your decades of teaching at UCSD. Would you comment?


MEL FREILICHER:  There’s a lot to say about all of this.  I wanted most of these pieces to be funny--partly just for accessibility, and to offset the heaviness of the material. I tried various strategies. “Stories We Tell Ourselves” is about recent historical research which revealed how Denmark Vesey and 34 others were trapped in a trumped up slave rebellion conspiracy trial (actually, Vesey himself was a freed black man), resulting in their execution--a careerist move engineered by a reactionary South Carolina politician who ultimately became governor and leader of secessionist forces.  Not many yucks in that story, but I framed it with a satiric Nancy Drew mystery; some sexualized Horatio Alger scenes (which required only a few changes from the original text); a look at how the Stratemeyer syndicate functioned, which was responsible for creating and publishing all the popular children’s book series in those decades.  The title, “Stories We Tell Ourselves,” allowed me to play around with popular fiction as well as the previous falsified history which featured Vesey as the perpetrator of a conspiracy, not its victim.


     The easiest piece to make into a comedy was the radio play, based on an actual one, where Superman fights the Nazis’ fifth columnists.  For the sake of the book, I further punched out Lois Lane as a well educated feminist heroine, tirelessly spouting off about women’s roles in Nazi Germany.  Jimmy Olsen finds a woodsy fuck buddy in this script, and by the end Lois and Superman are acting out scenes from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, as George and Martha, which morph into their speaking as the country’s first presidential couple, bragging about how much land and how many slaves they own. 


     The book’s lengthy title piece took a long time to write: I tried a lot of different approaches to the humor sections which all turned out to be silly, as I kept suspecting, and as my friend and invaluable reader, Stephen-Paul Martin, confirmed.  Then I started thinking about using anecdotes from my own past in the New Left, and to a lesser extent family anecdotes, revealing the chasms between my political beliefs and those of my regular, liberal-ish Jewish family.  I felt like these anecdotes were both informative and sort of absurd (in retrospect)--like our plans to stop a supply train during Vietnam, or some of the civil rights sit-ins that ended in sexual encounters (after the sit in was over)!


     Once I started doing this, I realized that much of the impetus for writing about, and trying to understand the motives of, these admirable radicals of the past was very personal, intimately tied into the need to re-assess my own history: falling away from my activist past; dealing with the usual difficulties and frustrations of trying to make a living teaching and continuing to write. (This is basically the thrust of the entire piece, “Saved by Hippolyte Havel, Anarchist,” which concerned a frustrated period of time when I’d stopped writing, and was re-inspired by reading about this wild guy in pre-WW1 New York.)


     Since I’d been teaching at both UCSD and San Diego State for many decades in somewhat precarious lecturer positions, conditions of employment there naturally played a big role in this reassessment--especially because I was writing it in the midst of California’s, and the UC system’s, economic downswing. In “Encyclopedia,” I came around to considering ways that teaching provided me with a substitute for activism, as did the actual writing about radical figures from the past who I tended to idealize.


     The piece about Kathy Acker was initially written soon after her death, and was therapeutic for me; I expanded it when putting the ms. together, and its tone is really quite different from the rest of the book.  It was meant as an homage to her but also as a clear-eyed-as-possible, psychological assessment of the life circumstances involved in shaping her.  Because I had known Kathy up close for so long, I’ve often found a lot of people’s assumptions and writings about her, both when she was alive and since, to be weird (though her “presentation of self” certainly invited this): myopic, self-serving, inaccurate, just off-the-wall   For one thing, I wanted to set the record straight.  Her life and work remain totally fascinating and hugely significant to me. The tragedy of her death was compounded by her refusal to have chemo or radiation after her mastectomy, or to even consider that--partly due to (understandable) paranoia about the medical establishment.


KIRPAL GORDON: I find the comic elements in your character descriptions serve as compassionate reminders to see the humanity behind the mesmerizing, larger-than-life quality. Keeping them human helps limit the hero-ification of these radicals which indeed helps us understand better what it means to speak truth to power. For example, I have always admired-feared the John Brown solution & to read of how different generations of African-American leaders have thought of him really enriched my understanding. Ditto on your anecdotes from your time in the New Left; they contextualized the struggle & brought it up to date. And yes, Hippolyte Havel roaming the West Village is not a detour. Like his bohemian neighborhood, he’s a destination!

Regarding your remark that teaching has provided you with a substitute for activism, how have you found student responses to be over the decades? Is our horrific legacy of racism, nationalism & elitism so institutionalized as to be rarely addressed?



MEL FREILICHER:  I also feel that the comic elements point to the less easily mythicized, more idiosyncratic, screwed up and endearing qualities of these individuals. Although I admire John Brown pretty much unreservedly--and his attitude toward black people appeared to lack the condescension of more blue-blooded abolitionists--not many comic elements there! A telling anecdote for me about Brown’s grimly unrelieved Puritan character concerns his disciplining one of his many children. Keeping a list of credits and debits regarding John Jr.’s behavior (Brown was a failed businessman), when it came time to settle up, he’d whip him, stop in the middle then whip himself bloody for the remainder of the punishment, since he viewed his son’s flaws as a reflection of his own.


      For awhile, in the “Encyclopedia” piece, I thought about trying to explicitly sketch out some of the ways these figures intersected with my own activities, but I decided against that approach. I strongly believe what James Baldwin says in his preface of Evidence of Things Not Seen, his brilliant meditation on the Atlanta child murders: “History, I contend, is the present--we, with every breath we take, every move we make, are History.” So I did want to draw out the kinds of historical legacies and immediacies which you mentioned regarding Langston Hughes and John Brown: Hughes had 2 relatives who fought and died with Brown, and he saw Brown as a hugely important figure.


      For instance, Upton Sinclair was one of the founders of the League of Industrial Democracy (so was another rebel in the book, Florence Kelley) which was the progenitor of the much diminished Socialist Party led by Michael Harrington (who wrote the very significant study of American poverty, The Other America), Bayard Rustin and others: that was the group that SDS spun off from--rather violently. At that time, the Socialist Party refused to condemn the Vietnam War--one reason that Bayard Rustin began to fall out of favor with the left. When they realized they’d spawned this radical young group, the Party tried to hide their mailing lists: needless to say, quite a schism rapidly developed.


     About the students: it’s hard for me to generalize since I’ve been teaching mostly lit/writing majors and minors who are atypical for this science school. UCSD is set up with 6 different colleges which largely seems to me a way to maintain a top-heavy bureaucracy. The core courses are different in each college (along with some graduation requirements).  A few of those courses seem to involve some history of U.S. racism.


      But, to generalize, I do I feel that the lit and writing students are often bright, creative and motivated, but lack information, especially about history: particularly problematic, they don’t understand that such a perspective is absolutely crucial. Often, a poli sci, history or ethnic studies major in a writing workshop will know a lot more than the lit majors (the communications majors seem to know even less).  (Unfortunately, the lit majors usually haven’t read much literature either, the Dept. leaning rather heavily toward cultural studies.) For our class readings, I try to clarify the biographical, social and historical contexts--and to pick works from different eras and geographical regions of the world.  But I also emphasize the importance of a close reading of the text, a skill that often seems to be lacking--and one which I believe can actually be taught.


     A few years ago, some very telling events regarding student racism happened at UCSD.  It started with the “Compton cook-out” which was a major party at a large apartment complex near school where students, especially frat members (happily, UCSD doesn’t have frat houses on campus--yet) occupied many apartments: the party was apparently spread out, each apartment having a related theme.  An unbelievably offensive invitation went out on line, quickly going viral locally, offering women guidelines on how to come dressed, and acting like, ’ho’s.  There were photos of mostly Asian students in blackface and fright wigs. Some students at school started to react, there were demonstrations; soon 2 major petitions appeared on line, with (if I remember correctly) about an equal number of signers: one was this is appalling, the other, what’s-the-big-deal-get-over-yourself. 


     A number of weird events followed, some of which got a fair amount of national media attention, to the consternation of the administration: UCSD already had the smallest percentage of African American students of all the UC campuses.  A few black students residing in the dorms were being taunted, and they, not the offenders, were placed in other housing facilities; someone put a KKK hood over the statue of Dr. Seuss (a major La Jolla benefactor to the school); a noose was found hanging in the library.  Several weeks later, an anonymous student confessed, claiming that she and her friends just happened upon a small piece of rope; she was simply astonished that one of them could make a noose out if it.  They went to study in the library, and she forgot all about it, leaving it on a table (it was found hanging from a bookcase). (Supposedly, she was suspended for a quarter.) One campus, closed circuit TV program applauded the Compton cook-out, taking the opportunity to show many of the blackface photos again, and to use “the n word” as often as humanly possible.


     The school newspaper took a very rational line, condemning what was going on and pointing out that many of the students didn’t even have the information to make a semiotic analysis of what a noose meant to African Americans. Worse, they apparently didn’t care enough to inform themselves--slavery was a long time ago, and hey, this is the age of reverse discrimination.  (I was proud that two of the main editors were my students!)  All along, I kept ranting (undoubtedly, with many colleagues), that this was indeed a failure of education.  Although I hate the expression, “a teachable moment,” since it applies to virtually every moment we’re breathing, it did seem like a time for real discussion.  I have no idea how much of that went on outside of specific humanities and social science classes. The administration staged a very lame “teach in”: black students and others spontaneously walked out of it, and held their own version.  The Black Student Union came up with a list of demands, a few of which were met--mostly involving hiring more administrators, in the capacity of overseeing diversity hiring.


KIRPAL GORDON: Your remarks on grim John Brown with his whipping of son & self remind me how much we need these correctives to our hero-ifying impulses. As for UCSD, real discussion about real people based on an actual event currently happening on campus is an incredible opportunity for a group “ex ducare” experience. In this era of terrorism, it is hard to imagine American college students unaware of the implications of a noose or a KKK hood; they aren’t merely emblems of the terrorism we perpetrate on black people---they’re the evidence of the crime yet to be brought to justice.

Which connects to your notion that a close reading of text is a teachable event for without understanding language, context, nuance, history, symbolism & psychology, we would not come to appreciate that we make history every day, as Baldwin said. Which leads me to ask you, now that we’ve started a new year, who from 2013 would you nominate for entry into your encyclopedia of rebels?


MEL FREILICHER: I think of helping students to read closely as a skill that can be learned over time, using provocative texts (like Kenzburo Oe’s “Agwhee, the Sky Monster” and Clarice Lispector’s short stories, for example) which have appealing characters and narratives; under careful scrutiny, when they start getting unpacked, mostly for their sociopolitical implications, so do students’ brains!


     As for a 2013 list, I feel like I don’t know enough about global politics to begin to do justice to such a task.  (Similarly, I know much less about who’s writing fiction today than, say, what novels were written in the U.S. and Europe in the 19th century on which I’m totally fixated.)  Offhand, I can’t think of any politicians, elected or otherwise, who’d make my list, though the late Paul Wellstone (was he assassinated?) and Elizabeth Warren are certainly positive forces.


     On top of my list of anti-politicians would be Ed Snowden, who has actually been getting a lot of positive press lately.  For instance, the exteriors of numbers of buses in D.C. have big THANK YOU, ED SNOWDEN ads on them.  Getting government out of individuals’ private lives is apparently an idea that people of virtually all political stripes can get behind. And tapping cell phones of leaders of other countries, aside from being a poor strategy to win friends and influence people, is just plain tacky. Of course, I would also put Julian Assange and the Wiki-leaks crew on that list, as well as Chelsea Manning--though I must say to do what she did while in the military seems tantamount to a death wish.


     Mostly the list would be composed of individuals whose names I don’t know, and probably never will. People like Grace Lee Boggs, and many Detroit activists who are trying to build self-sustaining infrastructures--urban farms, soup kitchens, housing and alternative schools--in the middle of near total economic collapse. Like the admirable Zapatistas, I think these people have given up on representative democracy, seeing it as a fiction of the “Empire of Money,” as they term it: they’re all about participatory democracy.  Subcomandante Marcos would surely be on that list.


     While individuals in Detroit and Chiapas are already operating from close to ground zero, I  assume there will continue to be severe, more or less worldwide economic crises since very little manufacturing is  left in this country, and the giant financial institutions are barely regulated.  The existence of alternative modes of survival would, at least, give people some sense of possibilities.


       I know a little about a number of significant movements in Latin America to redistribute arable land to the poor, and also to take over defunct factories. I think the Right to the City movement has resulted in squatters being able to stay on land, and improve it. In places like Chicago and Cleveland, there have been some successful worked-owned businesses springing up when companies have failed or outsourced their entire workforce.


     Smart political commentators like Naomi Klein and Amy Goodman serve very useful functions.  I also think there are many progressive aspects of the slow food movement.  For that matter, my hat is off to any teacher who can continue to work creatively within the current horrendous, assessment-driven education system of No Child Left Behind aka Race to the Top. In other words, there are a lot of people on the front lines as the Empire slides into further decline.



KIRPAL GORDON: So how can Giant Steps readers stay better informed on your writing (your earlier book with San Diego City Press Works, The Unmaking of Americans: 7 Lives, is killer) and thinking and teaching and activism?



MEL FREILICHER: That’s hard to say.  I don’t have a website or a blog.  Living in San Diego, I’ve gotten used to low visibility, and I’m past the point in my “career” where I expect anything else.  GOOGLE is always there, of course.  I’ve written many book reviews and essays in the past, and continue to have some interest in doing that. I often have some unpublished pieces which I only send out sporadically.  If anyone is interested in contacting me regarding any of this, my email is


     Many thanks, Kirpal, for the opportunity to spout off.  While parts of The Encyclopedia of Rebels itself are a kind of meta-commentary on how and why it was written, I really appreciate the chance to review my own processes in writing this book.