the muse apprentice guild
--the new canon of the 21st century




Once in a while there comes along a poet whose soaring aspiration to understand himself and the clear truth of life leads him to explore and examine nearly every system of thought and faith known to man, both past and present. His mind quenches it's thirst not by poetry alone, nor by knowledge, nor by affiliation with any single cultural tradition. This is because he has welcomed the soul into his existence; his mind has soared beyond the mere quest for intellectual gain; his spirit has broken the chains confining him to this or that school of thought, theory, belief system. The soul and not the mind has become his guide, and wisdom, not knowledge, not fame, has become the light toward which he journeys.

I met Joel Weishaus, poet, essayist, teacher, scholar, student of human experience, in the way many of us meet new people today: via the Internet. I have never met Joel in person, but I feel as though I have known him all my life. I conducted this interview with Weishaus by Email.

August Highland:

Joel, thank you for this opportunity to interview you. At first I felt a little daunted by the prospect of interviewing you because of your encompassing knowledge and experience. Then I realized that if there was ever anyone who exemplified humility, compassion and groundedness it was you. Can you tell us about a few of the significant defining moments in your life to which you attribute the self-understanding that you have today?

Joel Weishaus:

August, first I must thank you for your praise, and admit that I don't recognize myself in it. You make me feel like I should be living in a cave in the Himalayas instead of an apartment in Portland Oregon.. That said, I will try to answer your questions.

Self-understanding is just trying to be honest with oneself. It is meditation, a continuous practice that maybe ends at the moment of one's death, or that's where it really begins. The defining moments in my life, then, is every moment.

I presently live in a building in which most of my neighbors are older than me, some of them much older. I see the indignities of old age every day, and quite often hear that someone whom I've met has died. So that every day I see my not-too-distant future. I also see in some of these people the satisfaction of a life that's been honestly lived. While it is an honor to live amongst them, facing the inevitability of my own death never fails to rock me. Notice how vita, life, is cradled in this word which death subsumes.

AH: Your insatiable thirst for the truth has brought you into contact with many systems of thought and with many exceptional people. Who are some of the people who have made the deepest impression on you with regard to their self-evolution? People who by their role-modeling as human beings and not by their storehouse of knowledge as intellectuals, have taught you the most about yourself and your purpose in life?

JW: I have been lucky when it comes to teachers! There are of course the ones whom I only know through their writing, or painting. These are innumerable, and continue to grow each day. During the mid-1960s, having left my native New York for San Francisco, I began to meet some of the Beat Poets. Gary Snyder, who was home from Japan for a few months, was the first. The woodcut artist, Peter Le Blanc, introduced us. Later I met other poets from the generation before mine, and learned from them, not in classrooms but at social gatherings, something about the tradition, responsibilities, and joy of being a poet. Then there were spiritual masters, such as Nakagawa Soen, Roshi, whom I visited at his temple in Japan in 1968. A very great teacher, to which his many Western students still testify. Well, the list is long. When it comes to teachers, I've been blessed. However, I must add that teachers are about overcoming them in order to find your own unique packets of expression. The more influential the teacher the greater the difficulty. Teachers are people who make things difficult. For example, in Snyder's case I had to stop writing for four years, during which time I sculpted and caught up on Art History, before I could divert the rhythm of his poems from my working mind. There are still echoes of them in my writing, but echoes are okay, if they bounce well.

AH: What do you perceive in today's world to be the greatest obstacle to humankind discovering the peace and wellness that it desires?

JW: This is an easy one! The human mind itself is the obstacle. The fact that it does desire, that it discriminates, is both wonderful and disastrous. It leads to art and science and, no less, to bloodshed.

AH: Why do you think so many people are fascinated by the dysfunctional lives of celebrities, or by the lives of artists who create and live with untreated mental disorders? What attracts people to disease, to unbalance? It seems a little like when people slow down on the road when there has been a serious accident and they have an impulse to look at the casualties. Or it seems like our culture places a high value on the abnormal and extreme. How did we come to lose our sensitivity? How did we come to lose our commitment to health and wholeness?

JW: We have never had a commitment to health and wholeness. We've been torturing and killing each other since before our history began to be annotated. I doubt that things are any worse now than they were thousands of years ago. The only thing that's changed is that we now have the ability to do more damage and quicker; while, as a species, we haven't gained much wisdom. There's no 100th monkey when it comes to enlightenment. Even in a monastery, spirituality is a lonely struggle.

People attend churches, synagogues, or mosques for reassurance that their life has more meaning than owning a new car or a big TV. They need to feel that they have a connection to something on which they can depend, even while everything around them changes. But the Creator is about creativity. About becoming.

AH: Right now the United States is in a trying predicament. Several factors have converged to motivate our political leaders to make decisions that they believed were in our best interest. But now more and more Americans are having to come to terms with the realization that the consequences of the actions taken by our government were less than ideal, and that there could have been an alternative, more moderate way of handling the crisis that faced us. Now that the damage has been done on both sides, what is next? What kind of political leaders can we place our faith in?

JW: I suspect the motivation of anyone who wants power over others, as it usually means that they feel powerless inside themselves. In his poem, "The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express," Allen Ginsberg says, "In my train seat I renounce / my power, so that I do / live I will die." Allen was on the right track.

AH: Poetry has many roles. One role that I see emerging since 9/11 is the role of healing. In your lifetime have you ever seen this phenomenon occur before?

JW: The first healers, shamans, were poets, because they believed that words have healing properties. From here we get prayers and mantras. Contemporary physicians, such as John Stone, Robert Berlin, and Peter Pereira, to name a few, continue this tradition, except that now it's more a need for self-expression, self-healing. Of course this is also part of their medical practice. There is also a movement that has patients write poems, which is a reversal of power, a move toward teaching the ill how to empower themselves. This is the patient becoming a shaman. It is not so much about curing an illness as healing a soul. This is strong medicine.

AH: Another trend that has emerged in poetry and fiction is web-specific or Internet-related literature, including software-assisted literary work. Do you perceive a crucial distinction between software and "humanware"? By "humanware" I mean that our brains are like wired networks with programmed languages operating within our brain "chemistry". In other words, what we are accustomed to calling "chemistry" is perhaps really "software". The information in our genetics is a coded language, and the archetypes in our psyche are also engines, or blocks of information inherent in our human makeup (engineering). What are some of your thoughts on the way in which cyber-tech mirrors the psycho-somatic?

JW: Why should we want to mimic the brain when we've hardly begun to explore it? In this sense, I find neuroscience more interesting than computer science. I respect computers enough to think of them as developing along their own path, not using another anthropomorphic model. So that we have the brain, or archetypal-driven mind, and we have the computer, or information-driven capacity. If they marry someday, it will be in the quantum world not the mechanical.

AH: More writers today, (I am thinking of American writers), are also becoming involved in social activism. What organizations are you aware of or even possibly active in which you would highly recommend to another writer who wants to expand his/her role in the world?

JW: Organizations are always dangerous to a creative person. But if you feel you must join one, I recommend your neighborhood association. Activism begins at home.

AH: I read your Autobiography on the Internet (, which is an impressively courageous and astonishingly beautiful work. There is a very powerful collectiveness about your writing. A day or so after I read your Autobiography, I began thinking of James Joyce's Ulysses. The thought that occurred to me was that Joyce had written about the day in the psychological life of Leopold Bloom, whereas you had written about an historical period in the collective life of the soul. Joyce gave the ego prominence like all writers before him, only he did this in a new way. You seem to have given selflessness prominence in your Autobiography. What are your thoughts on this?

JW: Joyce is astounding. I read his "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" when I was a would-be poet, still living in Brooklyn. As for "Reality Dreams," it was the first time I used the trope I call "invagination." The idea is to inject fragments from other writing into one's sentences, so that the reader is suddenly reading someone else, and then you again. Technically, this is done by changing font style and size. Sometimes there is another voice within the appropriated voice. In it's original conception, this process continues inwards until the words are no longer visible.

Although I didn't use it until electronic hypertext became available, I discovered invaginational theory while writing the notes for Thomas Merton's Woods, Shore ,Desert. (Museum of New Mexico Press, 1983), in which Merton quotes from someone and ends the sentence either with his own words or from a different source, without any indication as to what he had done. Whether he did this on purpose, I have no way of knowing.

Merton might say, "All art is a gift from God. Its origin is a mystery, even to, especially to, the artist." After all, he was a Hua-yen Buddhist, a school that metaphorically models reality as if were an infinite hologram, in which everything in the universe is a reflection of everything in the universe, including itself. Perhaps this is where wisdom begins.

AH: Please direct readers to places on the Internet where they can read your essays and poetry.