Dale Pendell is a contemporary writer who looks to synthesize poetry and science. His publications include Pharmako/Poeia (1994), Pharmako/Dynamis (2004), and Pharmako/Gnosis (2005). These books, which are collectively known as the Pharmako series, detail the chemical, pharmacological, historical, and political implications of a variety of psychoactive substances.
Conversation with Dale Pendell
by Scott Riley
Scott Riley: How did you become interested in the written word?
Dale Pendell: It may sound glib, but desperation. How else to hold together a bridge between science and poetry? How else to bring science and poetry back to a more ancient or, say, more traditional vision, like what you find in the classical philosophers up through Lucretius, who wrote “The Nature of Things” in verse? That tradition of scientists and poets working together kind of ended at Thomas Beddoes’s Pneumatic Institution, where Humphrey Davy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey all worked together, both in the laboratory and on poetry.
SR: As a young writer, who were some of the writers you were reading in order to deal with this gap between science and poetry?
DP: Well, there wasn’t much science in it, but in high school I was reading Eliot and D.H. Lawrence and e.e. cummings and Kenneth Patchen and looking at new techniques. The formal ideas for Pharmakopoeia—I think I’ve said before—was to extend the idea of composition by field that Robert Duncan spoke about, expanding the field so that it could include large blocks of prose and more encyclopedic-type writing. That and the structure of Patterson. There’s not a direct link, but they both serve to open up new possibilities.
SR: So how does the Pharmako series fit into that tradition of Projective Verse, is it the interplay between prose and poetry?
DP: Yes, so that the field could be expanded to include history and science, kind of linked and held together with a poetic interaction.
SR: Does this interplay of poetry and science relate to the American environmental tradition?
DP: Well, the tradition is clear enough in American letters, I think. Other scholars have addressed that better than I could, but certainly from Hawthorne and Thoreau to travel writing and more experimental works like that of John Wesley Powell. It would be a jump maybe to include Joaquin Miller in that tradition; he did found Arbor Day, and in his prose book, which I think was called “Unwritten History,” he tries to spark a Native American consideration of California that is certainly connected to the land in the sense that you would find later in John Muir.
SR: When writing the Pharmako series, did you see yourself as working within that tradition of American environmental writers?
DP: I didn’t feel that I was particularly writing within that tradition, though I was steeped enough in it that maybe it was a bit too close to see and I took it for granted. I was really more interested in inspiration and the poetic voice as the other. I think Gary Snyder once said that the job of poetry is to give voice to those who have none, or something like that. That seemed to fit in with the subject matter of the pharmakon, the notion that the pharmakon was like a bridge or connection to the gods or the spirits or to other nonhuman entities. The traditional role of the shaman is to hear that news and to bring it back to the people. In the tradition I like to call the western shamanic tradition, then, the type for the poet-shaman would be Orpheus. In the same way, in the Pharmako books, I talk about the western plant doctor, the curandera, in the western tradition that would be Eve, the one who took the medicine. Both of those traditions in Western culture kind of take a backseat to our primary mode, which is Faustian.
SR: In what way is it Faustian?
DP: The Faustian art is conjuring. Conjuring is giving a body to a spirit or, by extension, to an abstraction by invocation, and that seems to be our particular forte. An easy example is the corporation, where an abstract legal entity is given a body, given a corpus. Also, in our case, the rights of citizens are all created by a magical writ in, say, the Supreme Court, and then in an act of what we could call dark magic released from the magic circle into the world.
SR: And so what are the traditions outside of that Faustian tradition? What would be the Orpheus tradition?
DP: That was first identified by Herder and by Goethe. These reports of shamanism were coming back to Germany from Siberian explorers. They even had a tunga shaman’s costume in the museum there in Göttingen which they were both familiar with, and Herder connected the shaman to Orpheus that way. Orpheus did, you know, walk into the land of the dead, a primal shamanic activity.
SR: So in that tradition, instead of conjuring, the shaman travels?
DP: Orpheus creates a bridge through song. So through poetry he creates the bridge that allows him to enter the worlds of the spirit. There’s that beautiful poem by Denise Levertov where the trees uproot themselves to crawl after him. It’s chilling. So, it’s certainly doctoring, in the shamanic sense, through song, and song is still the connection that curanderos and curanderas, shamans, use to bridge the two realms. There’s a lot of crossover between traditional poetic work and work with mind-plants, and that’s what I was trying to work from. It’s also connected to divination. Divination, we might say, is a long spectrum between augury, at the one extreme, which Cicero said was the pursuit of rational men. That’s the reading of science, you know: a flight of crows, that means this. So it’s reading the world as a book. The other extreme is possession, when the god actually takes possession of the medium’s body and speaks in his or her own voice. There were discussions about whether the pythoness at Delphi was speaking in her own voice or that of the god among the ancient writers. I think it was Robert Graves who writes about the ancient Hebrew distinction between true prophecy and false prophecy, where he says that in true prophecy the prophet occupied an intermediate realm where he was still in possession of himself during the moments when he received the words, whereas, in full possession, someone else would have to write the words down—like automatic writing—and wouldn’t remember what they had said when they woke up. In between the two extremes of possession and augury, we have what we would call inspiration, which Graves called the poetic trance; it’s a half trance, and there’s a strong shamanic tradition of the shaman occupying that spot where he’s still occupying enough of himself or herself when dealing with the gods and spirits that he can maintain a conversation. It’s not just a one way reception, you know. You can make a deal. You can negotiate.
SR: So are you saying that writing is like that process?
DP: Writing is like that process. Poetic composition is that process.
SR: The italicized voice that comes in throughout Pharmakopoeia, does that come in when you’re editing or when you’re writing?
DP: I’m not consistent, but the idea was to give what I was calling the ally—that is, the plant voice, a voice a little different from my own—the idea was to give the plant allies a chance to speak for themselves, and as I moved from plant to plant in my process, which in each case was immersion, the idea was that a signature of the ally or plant spirit might emerge beyond what I could think of. So in some cases the italicized parts are little mini divinations; sometimes they were the words that came in the trance states, but not in every case.
SR: In the beginning of Pharmakopoeia, you write about the difference between sun medicine and moon medicine, where sun medicine is comparable to daily routines and moon medicine is comparable to living spontaneously, living without routine. Does writing deal more with sun medicine or moon medicine?
DP: Writing goes both ways. It seems to be best with routine, if you want to get a whole book done. And it fits into routines, but Pharmakopoeia had so much to do with boundary transgression that there were certain breaks in the process. Sometimes I would work with a tape recorder because in certain states I couldn’t write anything, you know, I couldn’t really write or type, but I could still talk.
SR: Could one draw a metaphor between the pharmakon and the writing process?
DP: Sure, you wouldn’t be the first. Socrates did the same. I think it’s in Phaedrus, where he talks about writing as a pharmakon. For Socrates, writing was a gift that would allow for long addresses and epistles to be written down, but he maintained that there was also a cost in its effect on memory and inspiration. It had a dangerous aspect in that way. Clearly if we look at poetry as a pharmakon, the drug side of it, the poison side of it, it’s probably led many bright young people who could have had successful lives in the worldly sense to spend their time singing the glories of the moon and butterfly. Bless them all. The pharmakon has an aspect of power, a transgressive or more sabotage aspect; maybe it’s the way the gods are trying to get some messages back to us.
SR: What do you mean by that?
DP: They’ve been pretty much shut out of the public discourse, and yet they probably have something to say about their mountaintops being ripped off and their air poisoned. That is what is sometimes called the sacred. There’s a certain sense that the world we live in—I guess this brings us back to the environmental tradition, but not environmental writing as such, but in a more radical way—that the earth we live on and walk through is already owned and inhabited and filled with intelligence, and maybe the job of the poets is to try to find some crack in the dominant worldview that sees the world as dead objective matter, to seek those cracks where light or a song breaks through.
SR: It seems like you’re saying that the song, or the writing, doesn’t come from that artifice; it comes from within or behind those cracks.
DP: Yes, and that certainly fits in with the traditional view of inspiration, maybe even a little bit like Jack Spicer’s “Dictated Verse,” though more in theory than praxis.
SR: Does this understanding of poetry then go against the idea of poetry as invocation?
DP: Well, both are appropriate. It was traditional to have an invocation to invite the other energies in. That was kind of a formality, and that’s like ritual, laying certain objects or offerings. But you’re right that it’s particular places, a particular tree, a particular spring, a particular breeze, that are important, rather than as abstract collective nouns.
SR: This seems to refer back to Kant, the separation of the noumena from objective reality.
DP: Yes, at least Kant recognized the bifurcation there, the two aspects, whereas what we could call the standard model, the standard model of reality, leaves the self or consciousness and the reality of what’s called the outside world separate. It may not be so.
SR: In that way, do you think a category like “environmental poetry” can be labeled—that is, separated off—as such?
DP: Well, I don’t know; it could probably be divided and categorized in any number of interesting ways, some more useful than others. I guess I’m not real comfortable with environmental literature as such; I’m looking for something much more radical than that. Environmentalism still may not challenge the dominant paradigm underlying the separation. It may or may not.
SR: What about something like “poetry as magic,” the Jack Spicer tradition?
DP: Well, I’m not sure I have anything to say about that in regard to Spicer particularly, but to extend the idea of magic to art I think the roots of art are in magic. And the best art is almost magical; art does lots of different things and can manifest itself in different ways, but as magic—if we could define that as trying to change the world in some way—I think Crowley said “to make a change in the world or in reality in conformance with one’s will.” If we can expand his statement enough to include that in a poem, or, you know, the poem as a charming song, which is not the only function of poetry, but is definitely one, then that power can exist with the sacred.
SR: Through voice?
DP: Through voice, and through constructions of words and images that alter perception. That brings us back to the poem as the pharmakon, you know, if a poem can act as a pharmakon, as a drug in the world, it could open us up to new ways of seeing things, it can inject new energy. This is not always good, of course. Such things also feed hysterical diseases like nationalism. Maybe I included that little Nietzsche quote someplace, “A sense of gratitude is seemly.” You certainly find that in traditional societies—a sense of gratitude. You can still get it in Hesiod, where the economic culture was changing from agriculture to the marketplace. For agriculture it was clear that our life and our food are gifts, and in spite of what we think, this is still true.
SR: In a way, it’s like the difference between a poetics of consumerism versus a poetics of gratitude.
DP: That’s good. I like that. That’s a very nice way of saying it. It certainly comes right back to the function of poetry. It would be easy to say that laying a tobacco offering wrapped in a cornhusk at the bottom of a waterfall is not doing anything, you know. Saying grace before a meal, well, that’s not doing anything. Why not just get on with business? In fact, why even take the time to eat? Why not just swallow a pill and get on with what’s really important, which I guess is consumerism and the market. So it comes down to a wager. I’m not sure it can be proved that actions have consequences, but the act of making an offering or a poem of thanks or appreciation or just expression—as the Inuit poet Orpingalik said, “the joy at seeing the sun rise”—these are the gifts that we can make to keep up some kind of exchange with those who give us life. You know, the Huichol recognized that corn and the tree ritual sacrifice—that corn, maize, deer’s blood, and the peyote plant—they recognized that these were the same, and they put a little smudge of deer’s blood on the foreheads of their babies recognizing that our life comes from the deer’s blood, our life comes from the maize plant, and our life comes from the peyote plant. By that I mean, they create a bridge that we can traverse to give our thanks back and maintain an economy, an oikos, at the level of life itself and energy and consciousness, which is where it really matters.