Politics And The Arts, Internationalism, And Activism: An Interview With Gary Corseri By Lloyd Rowsey

By Lloyd Rowsey
Interview of
Gary Corseri
featured writer
Dandelion Salad
Dec. 1, 2008

(INTRO: Gary’s Biography: “Revolution without the Arts is meaningless,” writes Gary Corseri, whose articles, poems, stories and plays have appeared in/at The New York Times, Village Voice, Redbook, The Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Japan Times, Georgia Review and hundreds of  periodicals and websites worldwide.  His dramas have been presented on PBS-Atlanta and in five states, and he has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum.  Dr. Corseri has taught in public schools and prisons in the U.S., and in universities in the U.S. and Japan.  He has published two collections of poems.  His novels, Holy Grail, Holy Grail, and A Fine Excess, as well as the Manifestation anthology he edited, may be ordered at Borders, etc.  He can be contacted at Gary_Corseri@comcast.net.

Lloyd’s Biography: A graduate of Stanford Law School, Lloyd Rowsey worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 23 years.  His poems and articles have appeared at OpEdNews and elsewhere. He can be contacted at lloydrowsey@hotmail.com.)

Question by LR: Gary Corseri, I’m familiar with your writings – some of which are prose-poems – at several notable websites, and from them and from our personal emails, I know that you are a radical, a political activist, an internationalist, and a poet of considerable achievements.

Do you have words you can share with us regarding the relation between the arts – especially the fine arts as expressed in words or in pictures – and political activism?

(In this regard, my take is that the American public is almost oblivious to poetry and fine art.  But I consider Barak Obama’s victory a sea-change in America, and I’m hoping there will be a comparable sea-change in the American public’s appreciation of poetry and pictorial fine art.)

Your thoughts?

Answer by GC: That’s a double-barreled question, so let me take them one at a time.

First, thanks for the kind words about the “considerable achievements.”  I feel okay about what I’ve done, but from my own viewpoint, I have “Miles to go before I sleep; Miles to go before I sleep.”

You also compliment me as a “radical, a political activist, and an internationalist.”

I certainly never started out as a radical.  I was born and raised in the upper middle class in New York City – Brooklyn and Queens.  (My parents were actually working class – my father a high-school drop-out, but he was successful in the garment trade.)  When I was 16, my father retired young – he hated his job – and my family of 5 moved – first to a little 2br apt above a local bar (flashing “bar” sign included) in Queens for 6 months, and then to a little townhome in Miami Beach.  I really didn’t mind the change in lifestyle.  I’ve never been a materialist.  After a year at Miami Beach High, I went to the University of Florida, because it was a land-grant university and was cheap.  In my freshman year (I was 17), I considered myself a moderate Republican.  Everything changed in my sophomore year.  That was 1964, the Tonkin Gulf incident and LBJ instituting the draft.

The Vietnam War radicalized me.  The thought of having to die for my country was hard enough – but I could accept it.  The thought of having to kill for my country was totally anathema to me.  I didn’t buy the argument of the falling dominoes of Southeast Asia, nor any of the tripe about “fighting them there so we wouldn’t have to fight them here.”  I understood that it was an imperialist war, and we were picking up the pieces of the French Empire, trying to establish our hegemony on China’s southern border.

I graduated from U.F., won a scholarship to Harvard, where I got into Black studies—reading people like W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Eldridge Cleaver, and Langston Hughes.  I taught high school for a year in Massachusetts, taught junior high for a year in San Francisco, then returned to UF, where I was an instructor of English from 1971-1974.  For ten transformative years (64-74), I struggled with my country’s history.  I taught myself about our genocide of the native peoples.  I had to let go of all the comforting myths I’d been taught as a kid.  I smoked grass, too, and I thought our country’s drug policies were insane—mostly punitive of minorities and dissidents.  I was all for the Woman’s Movement, too.  So, you could say I was a radical by my mid-twenties.  I like what Henry David Thoreau said, “For a thousand who are hacking at the branches of injustice, one is digging at the roots.”

As for “activist,” my friend, Garda Ghista, of World Prout Assembly, called me an “activist” earlier this year.  I had never thought of myself that way.  Like “poet,” I think it’s an honorary title conferred by others.  One doesn’t, like Napoleon, crown oneself.

And as for being an internationalist—absolutely.  I’m a world citizen.  This planet is my home.  I don’t want to be confined by artificial political borders constructed by powerful men for their own advantages.  We find ourselves within certain “countries,” and we are restricted by their laws and customs, but we’ve got to think “out of the box”–or out of the borders– if we’re going to realize the full measure of our humanity; if we’re going to save our threatened planetary home.

As for your second barrel—about the arts and politics…I would say Americans are not so much “almost oblivious” as they are poorly informed and educated.  A Korean professor-friend of mine says that people live in either good art or in bad.

Comment by LR: That’s a simply perfect way to put it.

Continuing Answer by GC: In other words, the arts—aesthetics—are fundamental to our lives, as much a reason that people fight for their country as mom, flag and apple pie.  Every time they play the “Star-Spangled Banner” at a ball-game, the political elite are devoting a couple of minutes to the arts.  Unfortunately, it’s bad art.  In the case of the “Star-Spangled Banner”—the melody is from an old drinking song!–, it’s very bad art.  Hardly anyone knows the words, and even fewer can sing the high notes.  But, it’s rousing, martial music that gets people in a fighting mood.  Add the pageantry of pretty cheerleaders waving the flag, and we can see how the boys get all sentimental and stiff with patriotism!

I hope you’re right about Obama’s victory representing a sea-change in America.  And I hope there will be a comparable sea-change in our appreciation of “fine arts” and “political” art.  For now, I’m observing, holding my fire.  (I can tell you that I don’t like the way Obama is being packaged: all these silly comparisons to Lincoln; Obama working with a bi-partisan cabinet—and Jeez!–the guy isn’t even in office yet!  Frankly, I’m not a great fan of Lincoln’s, but that’s another story.)

I don’t think we’ve had really good and effective political art since the Beat Movement petered out in the 70s.  Of course, we have had notable exceptions, but artists, in general, have been constrained and restrained since the Reagan Revolution—which, among other things, was a backlash against the Arts and artists!  (Patrick Buchanan was right about a kulturkampf here!)  Even before Reagan, with the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam, a lot of energy leaked out of the arts.  We saw the rise of Master of Fine Arts programs in universities—and the focus of the writing workshops became very insular, formalistic in style and conservative in outlook.  There has been a don’t-rock-the boat attitude from the universities—probably inevitable when you “institutionalize” something with the feral roots of art.  (After all, Plato wanted to ban poetry from his very institutionalized Republic!).

Do you know Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s wonderful poem with the powerful refrain, “I am waiting”?  Well, I’m waiting.  I’ve been waiting and pushing and probing and crying and elucidating and yelping and roiling and rolling out the words for decades now.

Ferlinghetti, by the way, is one of the marvelous exceptions to the general trend these past 30 years or so.  He should long ago have been our poet-laureate—but the political class would never abide it.  He would have resigned over Clinton’s long embargo of Iraq, or on the first day we bombed Baghdad.  He would have resigned over Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, bailouts for financial whiz kids (all whizzed-out now!), etc.

I’m waiting!  I’m waiting for a “rebirth of wonder”—for America to stop congratulating intself about how great it is, and start making this planet of ours a home fit for living—a home of beauty, grace, community and love.

Question by LR: Actually, I’m reading “I Am Waiting” right now.  But it was written for jazz accompaniment, and I prefer my poetry written for the blank page.

Answer by GC: I prefer my poetry where I find it.

Comment and Question by LR: Vive le difference! But what about rock-and-roll?  I still hear rock-and-roll as (white) America and Britain’s protest art form of the 20th Century.

Answer by GC: That’s a huge subject, which I’d rather not get into now.

Question by GR: Okay. Did you vote for Obama?

Answer by GC: I did not vote for Obama, or for anyone else.  I don’t want to legitimize a corrupt electoral system, and I didn’t see substantive differences between the two corporate candidates.  Both are pledged to policies of maintaining the latter days of our American Empire. Both talk the language of militancy and bellicosity; i.e., maintaining our strong defense; defeating our enemies; supporting our allies, especially Israel; opposing Russian “expansionism.”  They differ tactically: Obama would “withdraw” (really re-deploy) more quickly from Iraq so that he can more speedily buttress our forces in Afghanistan.  Obama would “talk” to Iran, but the message he would bring it is the same as the no-talking, non-negotiating McCain; i.e., Iran must not develop its nuclear industry because even one Iranian nuclear bomb would change the equations of power (and Israel’s latitude for action) in the Middle East.  Economically, both McCain and Obama came to heel when the corporations and lobbyists came calling: they both supported the bailout.  I thought it telling that when Jim Lehrer asked both candidates if the economic meltdown would affect their proposed policies, both men skirted the question, and acted as though everything was exactly as it had been; in other words, they continued to ask voters to trust them and to buy into their pipe dreams.  Equally telling, Obama already appears to be back-tracking on his proposal to raise taxes on those American families with incomes above $250,000 per year.

I don’t like being herded, and I felt that this was one more election when people were being herded.  I think the idea that if we don’t vote we have no right to complain is patently absurd.  Complaining is a sacred human right–an animal right, too!  Eagles don’t vote, but they will claw at you if you try to abuse them.  Let’s not congratulate ourselves too heartily over this symbolic election.  Let’s sharpen our talons!

Question by LR: Do you think it is necessary for lefties to continue to pursue impeachment between now and Inauguration Day, in the United States?  I’m referring here to lefties who cannot travel abroad or prefer not to.

Question by GC: How do you define “lefties”?

Answer by LR: I was defining “lefties” to refer to activists in the United States who advised voters this year that voting for a Republican or a Democrat presidential candidate would be endorsing the system and said, in effect, that voting for McCain or Obama would be meaningless in terms of accomplishing change in America.  However, the specific individuals I had in mind may or may not consider themselves “lefties” in that sense.  For example:  Ramsey Clark, Cindy Sheehan, and Elizabeth Holtzman, who was on the House Impeachment Committee in 1974, and Dennis Kucinich, of course, have stated their intention to pursue impeachment regardless of whether McCain or Obama prevailed.

(I’m also conscious of the fact that the word “lefties” has an American tilt, and is in fact still applied by Americans when referring to American communists.   I suppose that as a (Castro) Communist and American myself, I gravitate to the usage of the word.  But I have no difficulty with using “leftist” or “the left” instead.)

Answer by GC: “The Left,” of course, covers a wide spectrum of political beliefs and activities.  There were “lefties” who advocated for Obama, believing he was the best chance we were going to get from this system.  There were “lefties” who went with Nader or McKinney or local Greens.  And there were leftists who advocated not voting – but not voting with a purpose, not out of apathy!  Back in ‘04, I posted a piece called “The Six Best Reasons Not to Vote.” http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Oct04/Corseri1031.htm

Names have changed since then, but there has been no real change in our electoral system–which I often think of as organized and theatricalized disenfranchisement.

I respect the people you mentioned, especially Ramsey Clark and Cindy Sheehan, whom I know a little better through their work.  I met Cindy Sheehan at the “Building a New World Conference” in Radford, Virginia last May.  She’s a diamond.  And Ramsey Clark – he’s up there with Nader in terms of my respect for him.  Nonetheless, I don’t see the point of impeachment at this time.

In June of ‘05, I wrote a piece called “25 Reasons to Impeach Bush.”  It was at several websites, including Counterpunch: http://www.counterpunch.org/corseri06062005.html

Even U. S. Representative John Conyers posted it on his website.

I think that was the time to seriously pursue impeachment.

Interruption by LR: Wait, wait, Gary!  The objective isn’t necessarily to get Bush impeached.  It’s holding Bush’s feet to the fire every moment until Obama is sworn in as President.

What can be done here in America, now, to have some impact on the apparently 90 pieces of repressive legislation that Bush intends to push through Congress before Inauguration Day?

And, how long will it take to get the international movement you’re asking for rolling, really rolling?

Reply by GC:  If we lived in a real democracy, rather than a sham democracy, I’d say go for it! – go for impeachment now.  But we live in what Joe Bageant calls the “simulacrum” society, what Justin Raimondo calls a “Bizarro” or upside-down world.

I agree that it will take a long time to get the international movement “rolling, really rolling.”  So we better start working on it today!

Along these lines, I plan to attend an international peace conference in Bangalore, India, in February, ‘09.  And I’m in touch with leftists in Rome and London and Sydney—and around the U.S.  But I’m just one small cog in this movement.  “Collective action” should be more than rhetoric.  Technically, and organization-wise, we can learn from leftists around the world.  And they can learn from us, too.  We all face this unifying, behemoth problem: the mal-distribution of wealth on this planet.

Given our system – with anti-democratic elements actually built into our very flawed and rather antiquated constitution! – there’s virtually nothing we can do to stop Bush at this point – not within our own system!  We have a better chance holding Obama’s feet to the fire as soon as he lowers his right hand.  (As I said/wrote before, I see him back-tracking already.)   The “pragmatists” of the Democratic Party will never push for impeachment now.  They feel they have “won” – their people will get the new jobs, new appointments.  Their careers are battened.

The role of the left is to be a vanguard movement for social justice, real political freedom, and economic security for all.  I don’t see how we can achieve that now by working with the Democratic Party in its triumphalist and take-no-big-chances mode.

Continuing Question by LR: I got it.  Although I still wonder about the appropriateness of your advice for the aged, the handicapped, and for those whose financial destitution precludes travel abroad.  Maybe I have an exaggerated idea about the size of these populations in America.

So.  You were saying that from June of ’05 through ’06 was the time to seriously pursue Impeachment…

Reply by GC: I’m not saying everyone in America should start traveling.  In his day, Emerson looked at the phenomenon of upper-class Americans traveling abroad and he commented wryly: “they carry ruins to ruins.”  In other words, they did not prepare themselves to learn from the experience. What I’m talking about is openness to the outside world.  Thanks to the U.S. news and entertainment media, we’re very insular, very isolated.  We need to exert ourselves to get beyond that insularity.  We can travel physically and we can also travel mentally—through cyberspace, for example.  We can rent movies from abroad, read foreign authors, and connect through the internet to foreign media, to organizations or to individuals.  We live in an age of connectivity.  Let’s make use of that; make use of that to build a global consciousness!

The crimes of Bush have only gotten worse since the end of ‘06 – 100,000’s more Iraqi deaths, displacement of millions there; Guantanamo, Abu Gharib, etc.  Can there be a greater crime than lying this country into war in order to expand our empire in the Middle East; to internationalize, build bases and deploy our assets to capture the Caspian basin resources to fatten the coffers of our oil companies, Halliburton, etc?  What about the destruction of the world economy?  If we cannot hold these criminals liable for this kind of devastation – what is democracy?  What is “We the People?”  What are our rights, our powers?

When the Democrats returned to majority status in Congress in ‘06, one of the first things Pelosi did was announce that “Impeachment is off the table.” I think it was clear that the fix was in; that our duopolistic parties would continue to collaborate to keep the military contracts coming in, to pork-barrel their way to re-elections

I’d really like to see the American Left internationalize itself.  Instead of wasting efforts on an impeachment trial here—which will split the country and fragment the Left (just as Clinton’s impeachment did in the 90’s)—I’d like to see the American Left work with the Left in Europe, Asia—all the continents—to bring our war criminals to trial in the Hague, etc.  (Friends tell me that the World Court, etc., has no authority for this kind of prosecution.  If that’s so, then we’d better start working to develop an international court which has such powers!  We need new Nuremburg trials so justice may reaffirm itself throughout the world.)

So, to cut to the chase:

Before Bush bombed Baghdad in ‘03, something like 10 million people around the world marched against the coming war.  We need those kinds of actions repeatedly.  The problem with our system is that we’re easily distracted.  Decades of mis-education and Bernays-type propaganda have created a narcotized population.

Interruption by LR: Bernays, who is Bernays?

Reply by GC: Bernays was one of the most important and influential intellectuals of the 20th century (he lived 100 years).  But very few people know about this nephew of Freud who used Freudian techniques to create our modern world of advertising and “public opinion.”  Bernays influenced Goebbels and F.D.R. directly.  All that you’ve ever heard about repeating a big lie often enough so people will believe it came originally from Edward Bernays.

Continuing Question by LR: Okay, thanks, Gary.  Now, you were talking about the need for millions of people around the world to protest and demonstrate against the American Empire, repeatedly, before change will occur.

Answer by Gary Corseri. Yes. We’ve just been through a 2-year long distraction known as a presidential campaign.  A lot of youthful energy gets diverted and even older people who should know better get hypnotized again and again.  The Neo-cons, the global elite, do not recognize national borders.  They make their deals and then work with their media cohorts to convince their citizens they are acting in the citizens’ best interests.  It’s really entangled.  It’s like a Greek tragedy, the way Antigone or Oedipus dig their own graves and won’t take wise counsel.  But the Left has no choice but to be the Greek chorus—to keep lamenting, to keep sounding the alarm.  You read people like Derrick Jensen and Morris Berman and you realize just how much we are teetering on the brink of cataclysm and ecocide.  The Left has got to have the most dedicated, most rational, most passionate, and most organized activists if we are going to help this world steer clear of a millennial disaster.


Tour of Duty By Gary Corseri


The Century Of The Self By Adam Curtis (2002; must-see)