Listening to Drew Dellinger‘s poetry regularly gives me goosebumps. Very shortly it will give you goosebumps too. He is a US-based writer, poet, speaker and teacher whose passions revolve around ecology, social justice, cosmology, social change and transformation. He uses arts activism to build movements, such as ‘Planetise the Movement’ which he founded. He is fascinated by the big stories that operate in our culture and the power of arts education and activism. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a deeply thoughtful and powerfully eloquent man. It was my great honour that he gave me an hour of his time to talk imagination, an hour that I found moving, inspiring and deeply thought-provoking. You’re going to love this one. I started by asking him what, for him, is imagination? When he thinks of the word imagination, what does it bring up for him?
A couple of things come to mind. One is that it has some quality of novelty to it. Not to mention imagination has some quality of novelty to it in the sense that’s about bringing forth something that hasn’t existed before, or hasn’t existed in quite that way, or combining two previously existing elements into a third and different thing that’s never existed. I think of imagination as somehow bringing in novelty, new forms and connections that previously hadn’t existed in the universe.
That brings me to the second way I think of imagination, i.e. in cosmological terms. Because if we live in an interconnected universe, then there’s ultimately not going to be a clear and defined separation between human imagination and planetary or Gaian imagination, and galactic imagination, and the imagination of the cosmos. If we take this idea seriously, that this is an interpenetrated, interrelated, interconnected cosmos, then there’s going to be interconnections with creativity.
We are connected to the creativity of the galaxies. We are a manifestation of the creativity of the solar system of the cosmos itself, of the planet. When we talk about something like creativity and imagination, we’re talking about some of the deepest dynamics of the universe itself. We take a universe that started hydrogen and then can unfurl in such a way that there are 20 million different species in the Amazon rainforest.
I mean, to go from hydrogen to helium is an incredible accomplishment, but to go from hydrogen to 20 million or more differentiated species in the Amazon rainforest, 7 billion people, each with their own experiences and creativity and imaginations, so the universe unfolds towards creativity. That’s just a scientific fact.
It started as hydrogen. Now we have all these elements, all of these planets, all of these nebulae, all of these solar systems, all of these galaxies, all of these species, all of these hopes and dreams and aspirations and imaginations of various people. There’s no question as to whether the universe is creative. The universe is creative. That’s not some new-age interpretation; that’s the straight science. The universe unfolds in a creative way. It unfolds in terms of novelty and new forms coming into existence. When we engage our human creativity, we’re tapping into the deepest dynamics of the cosmos itself and getting at the deepest layers of who we are.
Who are we? What are we? We are creativity. What is the cosmos? The cosmos is creativity. My teacher, Thomas Berry, used to talk about the universe, the earth, as a ‘dream process’. It’s guided by some kind of dream vision. Some dream vision, some dream process. A planet that four billion years ago was a boiling orb of molten lava, and then can unfold towards Jimi Hendrix and Nina Simone, and these great exemplars of human creativity. I mean, that all came from a boiling orb of lava four billion years ago!
The planet is imagination. The planet is creativity. The galaxies and the stars and the cosmos are imagination and creativity. When we tap into the most creative dimensions of ourselves, we’re tapping into some of the deepest dynamics of the universe itself.
Beautiful. As somebody who spends a lot of time going around and meeting people and interacting with the world, I wonder how you would assess the state of health of collective imagination in 2018?
It’s pretty rough out there just in terms of the economic, social and political systems that we’re enmeshed in, and embroiled in. It’s hard to speak very generally because there’s so many different cultural contexts and national contexts and different situations in terms of class, and economics and these sorts of things.
But one of the things that I notice a lot is that most people want to engage their creativity and their imagination on a deeper level than they have been able to up until now. There are very few people that feel fully actualised in terms of their creativity and their imagination. There are a lot of people who are professional artists or creative in their work in various ways, but most people, there’s this idea of, “Oh, when I retire, then I’m going to write a book” and this sort of thing. It’s like creativity is something that other people how have more time for leisure activities are able to engage in but, “I’ve got to be in my job all day, every day, and then I’m knackered when I get home”. Or creativity is something for other people, or creativity is something that maybe I could indulge in when I was older, you know, this sort of thing.
There’s a chasm for a lot of folks between their aspirations and inclinations towards creativity, and what they’re actually able to engage in. That’s really important because creativity is one of the keys to human happiness. There’s a way in which people are often most happy and most fulfilled and most present when they are engaged in a creative or an imaginative or an artistic or a playful kind of activity.
If we’re going to think about how we transition our society into where there’s less ecological destruction, more happiness, if we had more creativity, we could have less consumerism. If we had more imagination, we could have less capitalism. There are ways in which capitalism and consumerism become a pale imitation of creativity. “I’m going to go out and make some creative choices in the shopping mall that reinforce my unique sense of self-identity”, and I think most people would rather be engaged in a truly creative or imaginative or artistic or playful process that engages them to be present and in the moment, and appropriately challenged, without being overwhelmed.
That’s the kind of experience we’re looking for. We’re looking for experiences of creativity, of celebration, of connection, of community. But what we’re offered instead is the pale imitation of experiences of consumerism, experiences of capitalism.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading around the rise of smart phones, social media, and the damaging impact that is having on our ability to concentrate, on our attention spans, our ability to focus. I wonder what you would see as the implications of this, and how you as a poet and an imaginative, creative person, observe and manage those impacts?
It’s a huge issue. We’re only beginning to understand what we’re doing to ourselves and to our minds. Since the rise of smart phones our internet consumption patterns have changed dramatically and it’s very concerning. We can’t even begin to know what the effects are going to be. It’s taken a major toll on our attention spans, collectively. On my attention span, personally. I’m on Twitter and I feel the pull of the smart phone and wanting to see what the latest news is. There’s a way in which that type of short attention span is anathema to creativity and imagination.
Imagination can come in a flash of insight, but that flash of insight occurs in a field that’s been prepared, and the preparation for that field is oftentimes solitude, is quiet, is reflection, is contemplation. When we’re talking about our imagination, that’s connected to the cosmos, that’s connected to the planet. The voices of the cosmos and the planet are persistent and powerful, but they can be overwhelmed by the voices of technology and the voices of society and the daily din of activity and noise and clutter, if you will. Mentally and psychically.
The deepest impulses of our creativity arise from our unconscious mind, and that’s a lot of the power of creativity, linking the unconscious mind to the conscious mind. We can’t hear the deepest stirrings of our soul, we can’t respond to the most subtle voices of our psyche and our soul and our unconscious when we’re constantly being titillated and distracted. There is a time-honoured connection between having a little bit of psychic and mental and soulful, spiritual space, and those moments of creativity that happen. They can be flashes of insight or it can be a slow process, but the easiest thing in the world is to get distracted from these deep impulses of creativity and imagination.
I think we need a little boredom. We need a little fallow time, a little downtime if you will, to let the imagination to begin to weave its magic. It’s just impossible when we’re constantly, “Okay, I’ve got email. Okay, I’ve got to be on this call. Okay, I’ve got to check my phone”. It’s a real issue. Internet addiction is a major issue that we’re going to have to deal with moving forward.
We’re not getting the same quality or depth of work if we just live in this world of, “Well, here’s my latest hot take. Here’s the tweet that I dashed off. I took a little time and I made a whole blog post that I spent this morning writing” … but where’s the 10 year research project? Where’s the book that took someone 15 years to write? Where’s the collection of essays that is a summation of 30, 40 years of a scholar’s experience, or a person’s background and experience?
Someone said recently, it’s incentivised, this kind of hot-take, dash-off-a-tweet, put-up-a-blog-post, world we’re living in. You get incentivised because you get the little dopamine rush when people retweet your tweet, or like your Facebook post, but you’re not getting that same incentive when you’re alone spending 12 years researching a book project. We’re losing some of the depth, and some of the quality that comes from intense and prolonged engagement with our creativity and our imagination.
One of the causes behind the decline in our imagination has been suggested as being the decline of play, of that unstructured free play. When you’re in the space of creating poetry, is that like play? What does that have in common with play?
We have this phrase ‘word play’. Poetry is word play in a lot of ways. It has a lot of the same dynamics as play in the sense that it’s not goal orientated, necessarily. It’s not instrumental. It’s not like, “I’m writing this poem so that I can get accolades and then I can get some income.” Number one, you’re not going to get much income as a poet! You may get an accolade or two. But it’s intrinsically rewarding.
If we talk about the kind of perspective of the author of the book Flow, we’re looking for these ‘flow experiences’ so often. We’re looking for things that are intrinsically rewarding. So that then becomes a revolutionary proposition in a society that’s structured around extrinsic rewards. You go to school and bore yourself to tears and stuff your body into this desk for 8 hours a day, so that you can be a success, so that you can go to University, and you do that so that you can get a job, so that you can get income and provide for yourself and your family.
It’s all, “Do these painful and mentally debilitating and boring things, and things that feel meaningless so that you get…” It’s that kind of extrinsic reward. That’s a completely different orientation than being in the moment, being spontaneous, being present, which is what so much of all spiritual experience and spiritual tradition is about. Being fully present in the moment with whatever’s happening.
This is some of the rewards that creativity and play offer us. You don’t play so that you can get a gold star from the teacher on how well you play. You engage in poetry because you’ve some sense of attraction to the juiciness of words, and charge you can give when you put different words in combination together. You’re creating these sparks, you’re creating these ripples, and you’re doing it because there’s something to communicate. There’s something to express.
I think of poetry more as communication than self-expression. We have this idea that the arts are about self-expression and there’s some of that, but they’re really about connection, and they’re about communication. You engage in a kind of delightful process. The content of the poem may be very dark, or about some of the shadow sides of human experience, but there’s still a delight in being able to put those experiences into words. To be able to create something new that’s never existed.
There’s a power in naming our experience. There’s a power in sharing a story. Even if it’s a poem that’s very abstract and you can’t quite understand it, there’s a level of delight in that. There’s something very spiritual about doing things that are intrinsically rewarding.
I run in progressive circles and we have a lot of sports culture here in the United States. It’s a big thing and it’s hyper-capitalist, and it’s hyper-masculine and it’s hyper-competitive, so it’s not considered progressive to be too into sports. I remember when the Olympics were happening a couple of summer ago, I posted something about the Olympics and somebody said, “Oh, well that’s not very progressive” or whatever, and I said, “You know what? I actually think, yes, the way the sports culture is set up in this capitalistic system is very problematic, and there’s too much money and too much attention and too much focus on all this stuff, but when you think about what sports is, that’s the kind of thing that humans should be involved in.”
When I think of the future and that we’re trying to restore the biosphere rather than pull down all of the last ecosystems on the planet, we need something like a Universal Basic Income, or something like that. You know, human beings are still going to need meaningful activities, delightful activities, important activities. I envision a future that looks like the Olympics meets Woodstock, where it’s humans engaged in activities to challenge themselves and to engage in the process of cultivating their own excellence.
But, yeah, we need more arts. We need more sports and more activities. Not necessarily hypercapitalist, hypercompetitive, but human beings need things that help them grow and challenge their skills and develop their skills. We need mental activities and we need spiritual activities and we need physical activities and we need artistic activities that are all a combination of those.
My vision of humanity is where we have our basic needs taken care of in a self-sustaining biosystem and we can engage in sports and creativity and philosophy and the arts of connection making and community and society. Sports, like creativity, are things that we engage in because they’re intrinsically rewarding.
A question that I’ve asked everybody that I’ve interviewed as part of this is, if it had been Drew Dellinger who had been elected 2 years ago as the President of the US and you had run on a platform of ‘Make American Imaginative Again’ and you had set out with this idea that – rather than having a national innovation strategy, which every government does – we needed a National Imagination Strategy. We need imagination back at the heart of education, at the heart of public life, of policy making, of family life, of how everything works, and you had been elected, I wonder where might you start? What might you do in your first 100 days as President Dellinger?
One of the first things that I would so is I would kick the corporations out of the universities and I would kick the military contractors out of the universities, because there’s just a fundamental conflict of interest when we’ve got these corporate interests and these military interests directing so much of the money and the funding and the research in our universities. To me that’s a violation of the spirit of what learning is about, what a university is about.
As one of my friends, Matthew Fox, is fond of pointing out, ‘university’ originally meant a place that one goes to find his or her place in the universe. I know that this is kind of idealistic, but I still cling to this notion that universities are one of the last places that should be free from capitalist political influence. I think of learning as sacred, and so I think of school as sacred. I know you use different terms for college and university than we do, but I think of higher education as sacred. It’s a supreme blasphemy to me that we have pharmaceutical companies and defence contractors and other corporate interests who are in large part dictating the directions of our universities.
If we kick out the military and we kick out the corporations, then we could begin to reconnect to the original mission and purpose of universities, which is almost a place insulated from the other competing interests of our social life, so that we maintain this place – this sacred space – for creativity and imagination.
Scholarship, at its best, has a lot to do with creativity and imagination. There’s this reputation that academics are dry and boring and we all know that there’s good reasons for that and academic writing can be just deathly to read, but academic work at its best is about connection making, is about imagination, is about creative breakthroughs. Obviously there are so many different ways we could make the United States imaginative again, or make these different countries imaginative again. There’s many different directions we could go.
In the United States we have a lot of political challenges. The political situation is so extreme that a lot of these initiatives would be discounted by political opponents. You have to push that out of your mind. We need an imaginative, creative revolution at every stage of education, but I’m particularly focused on the idea of the university because there’s a lot that we can do. People in their teenage years, like High Schoolers, have amazing creative ideas for real solutions. You see these stories, this 15 year old girl, this 16 year old guy, came up with this amazing plan, and they’re making it happen.
I don’t think it’s just reserved for the university level, but universities are an institution that should be focused on, “What kind of guidance and wisdom does our culture need now?” Not, “What are the commercial and corporate interests that we can contribute to with our research in our facilities?”
Challenge and crisis is a great spur to imagination. Imagination needs to be able to go in whatever direction it wants to go, and creativity should be loose and free and unstructured. But we also have some real profound ecological and social challenges, so it would be prudent to challenge our creativity and our imagination and to marshal the brilliance and the genius of these upcoming generations to say, “We’ve got to figure out the ecological crisis. We need to come up with solutions for Transition and powering down and what is our economy going to look like? What is our politics going to look like? What are energy and transportation sectors going to look like in the future?”
We’ve got these massive challenges, and we’ve got these massive transformations that need to happen in terms of injustices around race, class and gender in terms of preserving the biosphere and creating a really harmonious human-earth relationship. We’ve got these amazing young people, and old people, and everybody in between, who have this energy, and this imagination, and this creativity, and we’ve got to start merging these things.
When Al Gore talked about how we need a Marshall Plan for the planet, we need some kind of galvanising collective action and, I think, imagination. We have to marshal our imaginations. We have to galvanise our creativity and we have these generations coming up with their brilliance and their genius and their energy and their insight and their perceptions that are going to be beyond what our generations have been able to perceive.
There’s a way to activate creativity and imagination in a very loose and open ended way, and also marshal our creativity and our imaginations in terms of creating ecological sustainability and social justice. We need new social and collective technologies for how to live on this planet, and that’s going to have everything to do with imagination and creativity.
I asked you before if you had a particular poem of yours that you felt particularly spoke to that? I don’t know if there’s anything that comes to mind?
Sure, yeah. I’ve got two that are really short. This first poem is called ‘re:vision’:
open your eyes.
imagine a melody,
a planet of stories
with islands of silence,
her curved surface
milky way blazing
in the sky above the city.
speaking in fractals,
the stars are telepathic.
wake the poets.
wake the dreamers.
cultivate the tendrils
in the vineyard
of your heart.
reorient our buildings to the solstice,
and from the center of the city,
see the stars.
Here’s another short one that speaks to seeing our creativity as creativity of the cosmos. So seeing our creativity as a cosmological dynamic. So this is called ‘We Make Music’:
We exist amidst the scattered shards of shattered stars,
we exist amidst the scattered shards of shattered stars and we make music.
We rock on this rock,
we flow on this globe.
We go from Muddy to Buddy, from Janis to Alanis, from Charlie Parker to Ali Farka,
from Artie Shaw to Mardi Gras, from Madonna to Rihanna, from Raga to Gaga,
from Ode to Joy to Soldier Boy.
The Earth was once lava and now sings opera.
Our home is a poem, the planet is a sonnet.
We exist amongst the scattered shards of shattered stars and we make music.
Thank you. We live in a world where we see the diversity around us disappearing. Just during my lifetime, we have lost half the creatures we share this planet with. How do you think that living in this time of dwindling diversity affects us, and impacts upon our imagination?
Thomas Berry, and another writer named René Dubos, they both had this idea that our inner world of imagination was obviously connected to the outer world of nature. René Dubos had this image that Thomas Berry picked up on and would use, that if we lived on the Moon, our imagination would be as barren as the Moon. It’s only the fact that we live in this world of colour and sound and scent and movement, that we live in the midst of an ecstatic celebration. That’s what Thomas Berry called the universe.
At one point he said the universe is celebration. That was his one word synonym for the cosmos. The universe is celebration. It’s an immense multiform celebratory experience. That is unquestionably true. The richness of the palette that we paint with comes from the diversity and the richness of the planet Earth. We’re losing modes of divine presence. We’re losing forms of the universe that stimulate our imagination and our creativity, and that we have these soul connections with.
Again, it’s not an instrumental thing, like, “Oh, we need all of these different colours so that we can have the different colours.” It’s like we are drawn into existence and ecstasy and desire to share our creativity from this rapturous of experience of being born into a cosmos, being born into a planet, being born into a society.
There’s clearly a diminishment that comes as we lose species, as we lose the diversity of this garden planet of the universe. But there’s also an angst and a pain, if we think in terms of eco-psychology and what are the connections between the destruction of the biosphere and the despair in our spirits? And is that despair conducive to more creativity, or is this kind of general malaise and despair and frustration having a dampening effect on our creativity? I don’t know.
My very last thing was if you had any last reflections or thoughts on imagination? Anything we’ve talked about what I haven’t asked you the right question to elicit?
There’s no aspect of our lives in which creativity is not essential, and whether that’s social change, politics, economics, technology, the arts, education, medicine – all of these things depend on creativity and imagination. Again I’ve already said this, but what we’re seeking is experiences of communication, compassion, creativity, connection, and celebration. When we realise that we could trade in the false ecstasies of consumerism and capitalism for the true delights of celebration, community, connection and creativity, we’re going to find ourselves strongly pulled by that future vision.