Fred Dewey: How did you cope with John Thomas' passing away?
Philomene Long: Shortly before John passed away I had a dream in which I was told that in order to save John I would have to become a "skinless one." (A skinless one, in this case, would be someone living without ectoderm, sinews exposed, utter sensitivity). In the dream a large Black Book (about 2 feet tall and a foot-and-a-half wide), was placed before me. At that moment Jack Kerouac walked by and I thought, "Yes. He would be among the skinless ones." The book was opened. I raised my pen above a blank page, hesitated. My hand quivered. Nevertheless, I signed. The result: I did not save John and I live as a skinless one.
For the next two years I cloistered myself within silence and poetry, speaking to only a very few. But I would receive words from the Poetry Community of Los Angeles (notes, telephone messages, etc.), expressing great loving care. It was a tactile presence during that time like a continuous enormous embrace. I now understand intimately the meaning of the phrase "The Poetry Community of Los Angeles."
In the last year I am gradually going out into the world in order to publish John's work. This has been our conjoined vow over the 19 years of our marriage regarding who predeceases the other. The remaining spouse is to publish both our works before suttee. It is a great responsibility.
FD: John Thomas, whose works we are preparing for publication, is one of the great poets of Los Angeles. In his later years when I knew him, he was a kind, thoughtful and generous and moral soul. His teaching was extraordinary. He had wrestled with his demons and given back to society many times over. Unfortunately a campaign of vengeance against him personally resulted directly in his tragic death.
There is no injustice worth of remedy by another injustice. There is nothing in anyone's past that could possibly justify the torture, misery, and humiliation that Thomas was put through in his final days. Apparently my attempt to be initially open-minded with the claims of Susan and Gabrielle Idlet has been used to legitimize their campaign of vengeance and I would prefer my name not be used in defense of it any further. Thomas' death was a result of deliberate cruelty and this is intolerable.
PL: John said repeatedly in the intolerably cruel last year of his life: "This is happening because of our love." He said it on his last day here.
In our final words to each other his eyes, concentrated, became an intense brown. Great focus. Great power. He said, "They did not touch it our love, our connection, nothing can touch it," and added "Our love, Philomene if I die, it can't touch it. If you die, it can't touch it. If we both die, it can't touch it. NOTHING can touch it."
We sat in silence (I whispering to myself: "He's dying. He's dying"), and then he said, "My Only One. My Only One." And I said, "My Only One. My Only One." Those were the last words we said to each other.
FD: Would you say that you taught poetry with a Zen perspective?
PL: I would say I use the Socratic method with a Zen perspective. The focus of Socrates was to examine and refine the mind. The focus of Zen is "no mind." It is to write with attention as if facing an army of thousands a prolonged attention, so that the writer becomes the pen; becomes the subject of the poem, and finally the poem itself.
FD: And how is the Zen of no mind expressed in your teaching?
PL: There is a saying in Zen: "Big Sky Mind." Here I quote myself: "To teach creativity, one must listen for sounds the deaf Beethoven could hear." One of my favorite lines by John [the late John Thomas] is: "Silence, I know, loves me." My efforts at teaching, as well as writing and living, are out of that silence; a stillness on a cellular level. I feel that Marcel Proust wrote from a cellular level, possibly because he cloistered himself in a corked room for the last decades of his life to write Remembrance of Things Past. And there is Emily Dickinson in her "white habit" to write her "letters to the world." Again: the seclusion. But this stillness, this emptiness does not mean simply secluded or slow. Here I am thinking of the "spontaneous prose" of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Admittedly, his was Buddhism with Bennies and Booze. But the emptiness is always present.
FD: And Socrates?
PL: Socrates used questions to examine his life as well as the lives of others. ( "The unexamined life is not worth living." ) To examine and refine the mind for Socrates also meant for knowledge to be followed by virtuous living. He was not interested in any idea that did not lead to virtuous living. He believed we were to become gods.
FD: Questions as in Zen koans.
PL: Exactly. With a Zen koan you become the answer (and the question for that matter). You could see writing or even reading a poem as a koan for it asks questions. It is a way to focus the mind to pay attention.
There is reciprocity between the pen, the intellect, the spirit and the body. An example of a koan would be the question penetrating: "What was your original face before your mother was born?" That question is like a fire ax in the hand of the Muse breaking down fire doors literary personas for a start. Self-expression can degenerate into creating a literary persona. I was just rereading Plato, and you know what he had to say about poets!
FD: You know what Hannah Arendth said about Plato?
PL: Hannah Arendth? She's one of my favorites. What did she say?
FD: "Would you rather have a cup of coffee with Plato or a poet?"
PL: (Laughter) I appreciate what you said in the last issue of Beyond Baroque Magazine. Here: "If you teach people that poetry is just about self-expression, they'll never break out of their prison. It's more than self-expression. If you teach them that poetry is more about language than self-expression, then they have to start to think." That's it, Fred! It should be engraved on the threshold of Beyond Baroque!
Language in the form of words, as far as we know, is particular to humans. I feel to use them in the creative act is to move evolution forward. Poetry, of course, is language on the cutting edge of that evolution — the cut into the unknown of what we, as humans, are becoming. Poetry, I believe, is the language of the gods. And Socrates said we are to become gods. less.
FD: When I asked you to teach I knew you would come in with your free spirit ? you, having escaped a convent.
PL: I escaped because I would not accept "blind obedience." Ironically, although I did live in a convent within a medieval environment, there was freedom of thought. (Perhaps because the order was founded by a Jesuit). I lived for five years in silence atop the Santa Monica Mountains (the hill directly behind the Getty Museum), overlooking the great stretch of Los Angeles — a life of contemplation and study, using the Socratic method.
FD: Why did you decide to teach the Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop at Beyond Baroque?
PL: The Native Californians had what they called "power spots." I see Beyond Baroque as a power spot for poetry. It (I believe you told me) may be the only architectural structure in America that exists for poetry alone — perhaps the reason for this sense of poetic power.
Poetic power is as strong as a primitive instinct. On the night I returned to give back the keys after three months of teaching, Phillip Levine was reading. I liked his phrase "the tiny jaw tired from prayer" so I memorized it and that line would be resting on my jaws a few hours later as I faced a 6 foot tall, heavy built assailant on an empty Venice street at approximately 11:00 pm. I think it was an appropriate line from a poem for the occasion — almost a prayer itself.
It had been the first time in my life I have ever had to brandish a gun? real or imaginary. While facing him, my right hand was in my right pocket so I moved it upwards slowly; pointed it towards him and aimed — my finger on the tip of a pen or the trigger of a pistol. Real or imaginary — it did not matter. It was a "High Noon" type showdown of the mind's eye verses fact. After about a minute in that posture he blinked, then zigzagged into the Venice night, dodging "the barrel of my pen."
FD: What was your experience teaching the workshop?
PL: There is a sense of history as well as a living presence. The workshop meets in Beyond Baroque's bookstore, which contains many poems written by the teachers and students that have gone before. Many of the poems written there will be read in the room across the lobby-- the performance space where so much literary history has taken place — those black walls jam-packed with poems.
There are no two people from the same background in the workshop. This is a unique time in the history of Los Angeles (I would go so far as to say possibly in the history of civilization) in which so many cultures have converged. In the Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop there is the opportunity to experience these different backgrounds through language before we all amalgamate into one enormous homogeneous
I notice this sense of "the whole world" extends to Beyond Baroque Books as well. In your role as Fred Dewey, publisher, you include Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Catholic. If wars can be started by language, they can be prevented by language. We can kill each other easily in generalities, but not so easily in detail. Poetry gives us that detail.
FD: I understand completely.
PL: You must understand this intimately because of your gene pool — your ancestor John Dewey's ideas about education and democracy. I am descended from the man (Warren Fitz Gerold), who not only participated in the writing and signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, but also actually delivered it to King John. Freedom pulsates through my veins particularly when freedom concerns language. Magna Carta meets New Dewey Theory at Beyond Baroque!
© 2005 - Fred Dewey/Philomene Long
Philomene Long: Interview with Route 66