Dizzied by the Bilingual: Words as Vehicles for Self-Understanding


Poems may be my most permanent home…

Painting: Arush Votsmush, Russia

“It was never sense, but the
Singing of light. At six, I abandoned
the fraught letters of scrabble strewn
before our family of four

to color the ambulances smudged
blue and green through a window in rain:
a poet dizzied by the bilingual
burdened by the weight of sprouting


My relationship to language is a weight I cannot push away. Throughout my childhood, my family moved between Russia, England, and multiple regions in the US (never staying in one place for more than 3 or 6 years). Everywhere I went, I faced confusion, the pressure to assimilate, and difficulty at school. Torn by multiple grammars and cultures, I was a wanderer in a double sense: I had no home and no language. Language was too permeable to find any cohesive form.

For most of my youth, I felt pulled to the visual arts, magic, percussion, and filmmaking. Perhaps, I found an escape, a blank space, where the contradictions of words could resolve themselves. I felt fluent in the vocabulary of the visual. Though I didn’t write poetry, I was always charged by the musicality of Russian poets, especially Mayakovsky, Esenin, and Joseph Brodsky. I didn’t enjoy their work because it made sense to me intellectually. I enjoyed it because I was swept up in an super-intellectual reality. Through a sensory-emotional experience, I felt understood as a whole.

After completing my senior-year high school film project, I became frustrated with my crashing film editing console and the bureaucracy of music rights. Words began to reveal themselves as my most trusted tools and I could not stop reading, writing, and performing poetry. Luckily, I was exposed to the electrifying oratory of my father, a Soviet dissident pastor. Far from a weight or a burden, the playful use of language gave me a way to self-define as opposed to be defined by the world. The words of poetry offered vehicles for more accurate self-understanding. Today, I am almost tempted to say, poems may be my most permanent home.

Resistance to Despair: What Frida Has to Teach Writers


“I drank to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim.”

I am excited to share that my writing coach service, WRITING AS HEALING PRACTICE, is off to a great start. In the last two weeks, I shared two exciting testimonials. This week, I would like to share how visual art relates to my own writing practice as well as my coaching service. As the great poet and essayist Anne Carson reminds us, seeing poetry as a visual art allows you to see the poem as an object, something “enterable” and related to our bodies.

Lately, I’ve shared how adulthood can often bring a sense of loss, anxiety/depression, and distrust of the body, leading to despair. Frida Kahlo’s life and art, on the other hand, is a story of resistance to despair. Whether it was polio, a bus wreck, miscarriage, infidelity, or an infuriating classist society, Kahlo sharpened her fears into spears. She did not see her art as an illusion, a surreal expression of the unconscious. Instead, she turned to her paints and her complicated life to recreate her reality.

From her bold fashion sense, the use of real blood in a painting, political activism, or a pet monkey, Kahlo’s work was meant to be lived-into. If the root of health means wholeness, with her fierce imagination and unbreakable honesty, she sought to piece-together both her broken body and her classist society. I am glad that we can learn from her technique in our writing, breaking and re-shaping language.

In the end, Kahlo never became the medical doctor she wanted to be; she became a patient. But her art healed her and others, it created a powerful vision, emboldening us to join.

How Personal Struggles Can Fuel Creativity


Writing as Healing Practice

There is power in what is most strange, beautiful and vulnerable

In 2019, I announced my writing coach service: Writing as Healing Practice. Many expressed interest and wanted to know more. Writing as a Healing Practice is a writing coach service rooted in sensory and emotional awareness. It provides support in understanding and re-imagining personal conflicts through language. Each week, I will share one feature of my approach. Here’s 1. Discover how personal struggles can fuel creativity.

Teachers have the ability to awake or deaden the poetic instinct. Ironically, my first experiences with poetry were tortured and negative. In an authoritarian post-Soviet school system, I am the poet who first hated poetry. I didn’t know that we all had the instinct to let the imagination roam with words. But in high school, I kept coming back to poetry. It didn’t start with poetry books, but it did begin with words, with text: song lyrics.

It was the words of singer-songwriters that showed me that there is power in what is most strange, beautiful and vulnerable in me. Poetry requires nothing, no money or prestige, yet it allows the poet to create something of unquantifiable value. In fact, poking for the roots of the word poetry, we find the Greek word poesis: which means simply: to make.

Whatever poetry requires lies deep in the imagination and the inner experience of the maker. In college, when I realized that poetry is what I am called to do, I turned to writing from personal struggles: chronic pain, anxiety, interfaith relationship, the loss of spiritual certainty. Just last week, one of my favorite poets Phillip B Williams @pbw_poet shared how meaningful poetry was in getting through his depression.

I post this book by Anne Becker because it revealed an unquatifiable value to me. As many of my friends and I approach thirty, we are making healthy lifestyle choices. This has led to a guilt, health anxiety, and a distrust of the body. I am so thankful for books like these as well as the doctors, counselors, family and friends who help me trust my body again. This is one example, of many, of the kinds of poems we will use to understand our struggles.

Writing as Healing Practice

2019-02-21 02_38_06.921.jpg

Understand and re-imagine personal struggles through a playful relationship to language

Healing, from the Proto-Germanic "hailjan," literally means “to make whole”

On the heels of the New Year, I am excited to officially announce my newly-designed writing coach service: WRITING AS HEALING PRACTICE. Here’s how it started. In my 5 years as writing coach and tutor, many of my clients brought a slew of emotional and spiritual struggles, leading to writers block or lack of confidence. These challenges not only impacted their personal life, but their writing. My training in ministry (M.Div.) equipped me with the tools of self-awareness, social analysis, and spiritual care. But how could I relate writing coaching to spirituality?

Luckily, in my own progress as poet, I felt that more open, meditative, and playful practices like sensory awareness, memory recall and journaling helped me understand my writing and my life; they allowed me to self-define as opposed to be defined by others. So over the course of three years, I began to boil down my writing and spirituality to three key principles: 1) awareness (sensory, emotional, social), 2) self-definition (history, flexibility of language, imagination) 3) culture-creation (publishing, speech, relationships). Through a more aware use of language—written or oral—you may restore a more agile, empowered relationship to language, oneself, and the world. Words themselves become the most versatile instruments in re-imagining personal and relational struggles.

It is also important to emphasize that, in cases of mental disorders, my writing coach service is NOT a substitute for therapy or a medical treatment plan. Although there is a growing body of research to support the physical/mental benefits of writing, with my service, healing (from Proto-Germanic *hailjan; literally, “to make whole”) is defined as partnership (or alliance) in a creative writing process that supports your development as a whole. In other words, though my approach is informed by the latest clinical research, it is centered around the aesthetical and spiritual (not the medical). Whereas a therapist offers the most well-equipped clinical approach to mental disorders and interpersonal conflicts, I offer the most well-equipped literary approach to self-understanding and social reconfiguration.

In my sessions you may:

  • Discover how personal struggles can fuel creativity

  • Explore the flexibility of language in self-definition and culture-creation

  • Gain insight into how language impacts social relationships

  • Unlock how mindfulness exercises remedy writer's block

  • Explore the techniques of other writers, filmmakers, visual artists and poets

  • Mine your memories, sensations, and surroundings for creative material

Your 60-min free trail session:

Through the Lens of Others: A General Introduction to Writing as Healing

1. Defining Your Goals (10 min)
2. Writing as Healing: definition, process, tools (10 min)
3. The Flexibility of Language: exploring the work of others (15 min)
4. Free-writing Exercise (10 min)
5. Discussion and Q&A (15 min)

OPTION B. Through the Lens of Your Story: A Customized, Theme-based Introduction

1. A Little About You (10 min)
2. Writing as Healing: definition, process, tools (10 min)
3. The Flexibility of Language: a customized, theme-based exploration of other writers (15 min)
4. Free-writing Exercise (10 min)
5. Discussion and Q&A (15 min)

To book your free 60-minute trail session, please write to konstantinkulakovpoetry@gmail.com or fill out the contact form with your free times as well as your desired option. Sliding scale is available.

Two Lessons in Poetry and Politics


For the Russian-American poet, it is hard to imagine the poetical and political as neatly separable.

Mountains fall before this grief,
A mighty river stops its flow,
But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death.
Fresh winds softly blow for someone,
Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don't know this,
We are everywhere the same, listening
To the scrape and turn of hateful keys
And the heavy tread of marching soldiers. 
(Anna Akhmatova, "Requiem")

For the Russian-American poet, it is hard to imagine the poetical and political as neatly separable. If robust politics is vital for growth in society, then robust poetry understands the political dimensions of society. In some form, political realities emerged prominently in the work of Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Isaiah, Dante, Neruda, Baraka, Melville, Rich, Ginsberg, Sinclair. Most of these poets did not see themselves as political poets. As Neruda said, "… I am simply a writer. A free writer who loves freedom. I love the people. I belong to the people because I am one of them.” This politically-literate sensibility found expression in lines like "Stone of the sun, pure among territories, / Spain veined with bloods and metals, blue and victorious, / proletariat of petals and bullets, / alone alive, somnolent, resounding."

For these poets, poetry was not a political megaphone, but an aesthetic vision of truth, exposing, among other things, how the political operates. This does not mean it did not posses their sense of the political struggle and that evil is not made to appear ugly. For example, Akhmatova's poetry may have paradoxically been condemned as "apolitical" by Soviets for not formally supporting Soviet slogans, but landmark poems like "Requiem" unquestionably bore witness to the concrete terror of political persecution. They are some of the greatest achievements in poetry bearing witness to brutality. In fact, as Mandelstam's execution shows, it seems she avoided publishing the poem until 1953 for strategic reasons of safety. In the Euroasian continent, too often publish can mean perish. 

Before we move forward, I must offer a definition of what I mean by the political: the relationships between people and systems of power (whether governmental or more unofficial cultural power). This also means the abuse of power recognized by its systemic domination of a group or individual: authoritarianism, censorship, fascism, patriarchy, nationalism, classism, heterosexism, and racism. Poetry of witness testifies to an experience of political scope: the use or abuse of this power; it presents a vision expansive enough to show how something really works.

Throughout my undergraduate studies, I struggled to describe my approach to the political in poetry. The range of styles and perspectives is vast. It was Pound and Keats who came to the rescue. Their insight related to poetry and values, to a sense for right and wrong in the world. Pound's essays on an artist's responsibility to make "evil" appear "ugly" and "good" appear "beautiful" saved me in a very controversial way. It is still hard to understand how such a bright insight into the ethics of poetry was produced by a poet who once identified with Mussolini's fascism. Keats, on the other hand, helped me see musicality and imagination are not separable from truth and reality: truth is beauty, beauty is truth. One of the greatest expressions of this was in Oscar Wilde's Preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey:

Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope...
The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

However, throughout my undergraduate years and beyond, I understood that many poets are weary of didactic poetry, of poetry with political agenda. Many poets like W.H. Auden, Basil Bunting, and David Lehman have emphasized that poetry is not about political truth-telling, but a play of language, employing craft in service of the most advanced form of language. For this group, craft is central and the political interest is bias that dilutes an impersonal artistic world. Poetry understood in political terms, or political ideas emerging in a work, could be seen as didactic. The fact that art could risk being flattened by politics was something I agreed with, but I also thought art has important political implications. I was convinced there was a way to do it right. I was not alone. Some poets like Neruda, Rich, Baraka, Lorde offered a different view to the "apolitical poets." They suggested apolitical poetry, or poetry blind to political horror is privileged, revealing the poet's luxury of formal play for formal sake.

"I speak here of poetry as the revelation or distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean... For women, then, poetry is not a luxury." (Audre Lorde, "Poetry is Not a Luxury")

For poets like Lorde, poets must be responsible to both form and lived experience, craft and the world. Even if Brodsky resisted the political poet label, he was convinced ethics and aesthetics are connected, saying aesthetics is the mother of ethics because there are limits in the natural world. For example, the color wheel, one of the artist's central tools, has limits. The idea that poetry has a responsibility to the ways of the world, to truth, is currently understood as "poetry of witness." You can find "poetry of witness" in Carolyn Forche's anthology Against Forgetting as well as journals like Cortland Review, Witness, Muzzle, rock & sling, Matador Review, and Winter Tangerine. For poets of witness, technical maturity and ethical maturity, the political and personal, are not mutually exclusive. Here, Brodsky's poem "Bosnia Tune" finds consonance between form and the the suffering of the world, the aesthetic and truth:

As you pour yourself a scotch,
crush a roach, or check your watch,
as your hand adjusts your tie,
people die.

In the towns with funny names,
hit by bullets, cought in flames,
by and large not knowing why,
people die.

For years, I was convinced any resistance to the political in poetry (including concerns about the flatness of political language) was suspect, status-quo and dangerous. Looking back, my view has changed, but only to a certain extent. What remains: the inseparability of politics and poetry. The best of our spiritual traditions and the latest scientific evidence suggest the inherent interdependence of all of life. If this is the case, it is impossible, and I would argue, dangerous to stand outside political engagement. And I would argue this is because my Russian immigrant status made me aware of something important. Whether through family history or bullying in high school for my immigrant name, I know what it means to be deemed separate, outsider, and abused for things outside my control. But at the same time, my honesty forces me to admit that I enjoy privilege as a white male. In other words, through these experiences, I began to uncover my complex sense of place in the relations of the world. 

Nevertheless, I see I was missing two important things:

  1. Letting conventional politics (and political language) drive the work of art can lead to impoverished poetry, lacking perceptiveness and imagination. Reality includes the political, but reality surpasses the political: here, our immediate relationship to a situation, a time and place, comes first. Forche understands it this way: "The poetry of witness reclaims the social from the political and in so doing defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion." If one is an open, honest, responsible poet, and if the artistic process is trusted, good "poetry of witness" emerges organically from the breadth and depth of the artistic vision.

    In other words, the open, responsible artist listens deeply, explores and understands his/her relationship to the world and the range of emotional textures. The inclusiveness of the artist will be curious about the experiences of others while being honest to their limited vantage point. Through the skillful use of craft, the poet may uncover insight into the interrelations of power and abuse of power. At its best, what is left is a poem that offers a direct, sensory experience, revealing the tensions of power as well as our potential to transform the ugly abuse of power into the beautiful use of power. The work is best when the form allows the experience to speaks for itself, when the craft most precisely serves the whole experience.

  2. The poet who does not see their art as a part of the struggles of larger society may risk irresponsibility, abandoning their duty to bear witness to truth. While I agree that political language can be impoverished, I do not see innovative language itself (without any connection to the larger witness to truth) as the fullest expression of poetry. If the artist is blind to the struggles of his/her neighbor, his/her vision risks being narrow and sometimes even lopsided; the art may be technically successful, but it may distort the truth of how their artistic vision is inescapably connected to power, privilege and the abuse of power.

    Nevertheless, the problem of bearing witness to experiences that are not yours can be problematic. The poet Claudia Rankine has emerged with the most substantive response. For Rankine, the response should not be cautious avoidance, but a radical honesty of one's social location and how power is functioning through it. As Claudia Rankine writes in Whiteness and Racial Imaginary: "This is not to say that the only solution would be to extend the imagination into other identities, that the white writer to be antiracist must write from the point of view of characters of color. It’s to say that a white writer’s work could also think about, expose, that racial dynamic...Perhaps the way to expand those limits is not to “enter” a racial other but instead to inhabit, as intensely as possible, the moment in which the imagination’s sympathy encounters its limit."

This is the intuition I always had as a poet, but struggled and still struggle to express best. For me, good poetry has always offered, not just good form, but flashes of truth, the fullness of a human situation, uncovered through the formal effects of language. Like Kendrick's lyrics or "decolonize this place" stickers, it has role as an activist tool as much as a cellphone revealing police brutality. But it works through a three part process: 1) the materials are words, words with a range of sensory and intellectual properties: images, sounds, ideas, colors, movements, concepts, textures, smells, tastes etc., 2) the form is the shape the materials take, how the words are arranged to produce the intended experiance, 3) the artistic vision is the emotional insight into human experience, it either succeeds or fails to honor the complexity of the world. The poet's openness is central: it is a demonstration of their ethical maturity to accept uncomfortable information and bring it to its corresponding aesthetic form. 

Of course poems are not absolute. The poem is not The Fullness of truth, but it is a fullness: a dimension, a window into part of the Fullness of truth. If the poet is open, honest and responsible, the completed poem is a gift to the broader world; it has political implications, and by being a compelling bodily experience, it has implications in all spheres of life. The poem becomes part of the reader's body and it is carried into the world. If others resonate with the work, it becomes a shared reality and new feature in the fabric of culture.  As Rich wrote, "poetry isn't revolution, but a way of knowing why it must come."

Amiri Baraka

A political art, let it be
tenderness, low strings the fingers
touch, or the width of autumn
climbing wider avenues, among the virtue
and dignity of knowing what city
you’re in, who to talk to, what clothes
—even what buttons—to wear. I address

                                                             / the society
                                                          the image, of
                                                         common utopia.

                                                                        / The perversity
                                                            of separation, isolation,
after so many years of trying to enter their kingdoms,
now they suffer in tears, these others, saxophones whining
through the wooden doors of their less than gracious homes.
The poor have become our creators. The black. The thoroughly

                  Let the combination of morality
and inhumanity

10 Websites Every Poet Should Know

by Konstantin Kulakov

Ever since I began my life as poet, I have traveled across the web to explore the publishers, databases, resources that enrich my work. This list is in no way definitive or objective. Instead, I must disclose that these findings reflect my development as poet: English Romantic poetry, modernist literature, Russian literature, Beat poetry, Black Arts Movement poetry, Arab and Islamic poetry, and spiritual poetry. Nevertheless, this list is a good reference among many other references, provides indispensible resources, and offers something new.

1. Poetry Foundation


First to Publish T.S. Elliot’s, “"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and   "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks, Poetry magazine, for me and many others, functioned and continues to function as the foremost literary publication devoted to poetry. It is committed to  “the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” Thanks to this broad principle, the magazine continues to honor the multicultural as the issue devoted to the Black Lives Matter richly introduced by Sarah Browning. Through the magazine, I encountered poets like Danez Smith, Kazim Ali (with whom I made correspondence), Yehuda Amichai, and Mahmoud Darwish. Ruth Lily’s endowment Poetry Magazine holds a vigorous presence and many multimedia resources with a multicultural slant.

2. Bartleby


In a Western culture that often privileges knowledge and youth over wisdom and elderliness, Bartleby persists as the home of our past, the gems of classical tradition. Whenever someone refers to or recommends a classical literary text from Shelley, T.S. Elliott, Poe or Whitman, I find a good textual rendering of the works, from obscure to common. In my experience, Bartleby specializes in works before the latter half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, a truly inclusive approach demands that we not lose hold of past, present, and future.

3. Split This Rock


I had the honor of inviting and moderating a panel with co-founder and executive director, poet Sarah Browning. She is a poet and activist who brazenly represents Split This Rock. Their mission is clear and urgent: "Split This Rock cultivates, teaches, and celebrates poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change. It calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national network of socially engaged poets."

Split This Rock also includes a daunting task, a database that consolidates the work of socially engaged poets since 2009. It is searchable by " social justice theme, author’s identity, state, and geographic region: 

4. Brain Pickings


Brain Pickings is a leading publication interested in the arts, literature, and philosophy in the digital age run by fellow Eastern European, Maria Papova. For the fast-paced, social-media savvy millennial artist, it publishes exciting and digestible information that enriches my work as artist with meaning. She has written on painters like Kandinsky and poets like Rilke. She has been able to illuminate the works of philosophers and their relevance to writers and artists today.

“The core ethos behind Brain Pickings is that creativity is a combinatorial force: it’s our ability to tap into our mental pool of resources — knowledge, insight, information, inspiration, and all the fragments populating our minds — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways.”

5. Etymology 


Poets, at their most influential, are also wordsmiths. The most world renown poet, Shakespeare, is said to have coined 1700 new words.  As poet, I am committed to study the roots and depths of words. They are my only tools. Aside from the obvious thesaurus, studying etymology on a basic level is enriching. Etymology gives us hints at the first uses of any word and reveals the baggage and imagery these words carry.  We gain a fuller sense of how to best understand and use our tools, words, when we know how they began and what is at their core. When I am seeking clarity on a word and its associations, this resource always provides consistent information.

6. Dan Simmons


Dan Simmons is an award-winning science fiction writer who grippingly shares the inner workings of world literature in a series of installments called Writing Well. Although my investment into prose and novel writing pales in comparison to my investment into poetry as poet, especially science fiction, science fiction writer Dan Simmons changed my discipline as a writer by raising the bar in literary discipline, skill, and insight. Dan has an incredible appreciation for the music of poetry, Zen Buddhism, and imagism which I connect to.

7. Apogee


The mission of Apogee is to promote "literature and art that engages with identity politics, including but not limited to: race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and intersectional identities. We are a biannual print publication featuring fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art."

I am ranking Apogee as 7th most important resource because of its multicultural, racial justice-oriented mission and content. It was the poetry editor of Apogee who took on Rattle magazine for publishing an issue on "New York City Poets" who were all white. This opened up groundbreaking questions in diversity and submissions. 

8. Song Meanings


In the larger tradition of poetry, there is a strong relationship to music, instrumentation, and oral culture. Textuality, bookishness, I would argue, is the reason for why contemporary poets have not been able to ignite a larger following and perception of poetry. Delve into the lyrics, text, and meanings of your favorite songs and learn how poets can SING better.

9. Rhyme Zone


Rhyme zone is a good resource to systematically search for and find rhymes, near rhymes, and similar-sounding words. You may organize results by: Syllables, Letters  and are asked if you want to include phrases. 

10. Poetry Chaikhana


Poetry chaikhana is probably the most inclusive and extensive resource for spiritual and religious poetry. It includes works of all major world religions along with blog posts and comments around the spirituality behind eachwork. 

What Haitian Vodou Has to Teach Dissident Artists

What Haitian Vodou Has to Teach Dissident Artists

Konstantin Kulakov

Erzulie Freda   Yaël Talleyrand

Erzulie Freda
Yaël Talleyrand


    I came to Union Theological Seminary to study the relationship between science and religion. I was committed to the idea that history would give the proper context to understand this difficult relationship. After that, I wanted to pursue a PHD in psychology to continue William James's and Maslow's project: to describe religious experience in what I considered a "universal, scientific language." This conviction was rooted in my assumption that reason and natural science must be the universal, foundational arbiters of knowledge; all other ideas and experiences must be integrated into and through the language of reason and natural science.

    However, over the course of my first year in seminary, four events dramatically transformed my worldview. I moved from my certainty in Western epistemology to a much more contextual, embodied, and non-doctrinal worldview. I define Western epistemology as a framework that privileges certain modes of thought over others in the name of technoscientific control: reason over affect, quantity over quality, regular pattern over irregular pattern. The alternative contextual, embodied, and non-doctrinal worldview will be explored as the blog post is developed. The focus of this post is threefold: 1) to introduce my personal background as it relates to Haitian Vodou 2) present the interview, 3) and explore how visual art music demonstrate the socio-political resistance of the religion in the face of national crisis.  

    In this part, I will extensively introduce the experiences that brought me to study Haitian Vodou and its significance to my development. First, I experienced an existential crisis caused by my rationalist alienation from my body in the name of power and control. Second, through the physicist Thomas Kuhn, philosopher Michel Foucault, and physist Karen Barad, my historical study of science and religion led me to see the contingency or situatedness of science. Third, Toni Morrison's piece, "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination" really shook my faith in liberal, scientifically-literate worldviews (i.e. Schleiermacher) and I viewed it as legitimization of a Eurocentric and instrumental rationalist ideology. And fourth, I began to date a Dominican-American Brooklynite; through music, dance, and spirituality, she helped transform my puritanical, repressive, and rationalist Protestant consciousness to one that was more embodied, holistic, and celebratory of the body and its intuitions.

    After my disillusionment with Western rationalism and natural science, I struggled to relate to a science that I still saw as indispensible to our society; from penicillin to vaccines, automobiles, heart transplants, and Internet technology, natural science has ushered in a reality unimaginable to medieval society. Thus, I struggled to articulate alternative modes of being because they clashed with hegemonic technoscientific practices and discourse of today. This led to an intellectual confusion and paralysis.

My Encounter with Haitian Vodou

My encounter with African Religions in the Americas began to reveal concrete, embodied modes of being that challenged Eurocentric beliefs and practices with Afrocentric ones. I felt that Santeria and Rasterianism challenged Western epistemology and domination by sustaining the Afrocentric embodied intuition of spirit. However, through their ties and political and religious coexistence with European Catholicism and Christian literalism (in the case of Rastefarianism), they seemed to lack socio-political subversion. This continued to be so until I studied Haitian Vodou.

    Through the work of Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, I uncovered how the enslaved Africans of Haiti sacrificed a wild boar and made a sacred pact to overthrow their European masters. This war of independence was completed under the political and military control of Toussant L’Ouverture in 1803. Through Latin America and the Caribbean, it would become the first country to gain independence. As Fernandez Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert write, “The ceremony represented the consolidation of the connection between Vodou and the Haitian spirit of resistance which, together with the appropriation of Catholic ritual that became part of the rites of liberation, remains a powerful repository of subversion today.”

    Furthermore, Haitian Vodou was also powerful practical, concrete resource for socio-political revolution. As argued by Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, “The revolution’s early leaders—Boukman and Makandal—were reputed to be powerful oungans whose knowledge of the powers and poisonous properties of herbs had helped mount a campaign of terror and death among French planters in Saint Domingue.” The nature and function of Haitian Vodou in society seemed to sustainably challenge and transform Haiti across the board. It allows the 1) embodied, 2) the ecological, 3) the socio-political, and the 4) cosmological to symbolically express themselves on their own terms as an ongoing conversation of various and powerful spirits: the lwa. These spirits are consolidated in private altars at home and communal rits of spiritual transformation. Not only did the religion maintain and celebrate the Afrocentric embodied, sexually liberated, and spiritually transformative elements of life, but it also insured that the most pervasive and vicious slave-run sugar industry in the Caribbean was destroyed. From this holistic subversion of reality, Haitian culture may flourish.

Haitian Vodou and My Own Development

In regards to my intellectual and spiritual life, Hatiain Vodou’s commitment to the inner spiritual as well as socio-political subversion demonstrated what Carl Jung described as the “evidence of inner, transcendent experience.” I felt that Haitian Vodou, by securing independence, demonstrated a mode of being that functioned without the impulse or demand to be interpolated or integrate itself into any outside structure or discourse. Again, as Carl Jung argues, only individual experience may provide the “extramundane principle capable of relativizing the overpowering influence of external factors.” Thus, for me, the history of Haitian Vodou helped me see that in order to sustain a more holistic, embodied mode of being, you need an epistemological framework that allows itself to function. This means that there is no need to work within the language and constraints of empirical evidence and logical argument.  

    However, each dimension must be able to free itself from the hegemonic grip of Western epistemology that limits what kind of questions may be asked of the universe and how they may be answered. Below, this post will present the  interview, visual art, and explore how Haitian Vodou still functions as medium of socio-political resistance in the face of crisis. The two crises I will explore are first the 2010 earthquake and the 1991 Haitian coup d'éta.

A Conversation with Dr. Nixon Shabalom Cleophat, professor and Asongwe, High Priest of Vodou

Nixon Shabalom Cleophat.    Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Asongwe, high priest of Vodou.

Nixon Shabalom Cleophat.
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Asongwe, high priest of Vodou.

I spoke with Dr. Nixon Shabalom Cleophat, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an Asongwe, high priest of Vodou. Cleophat was born in Port-au-Prince on June 18th, 1978. His grandmother as well as his mother practiced Haitian Vodou while Cleophat was a child. This experience involved her grandmother telling stories about Haitian Vodou at a bon fire and going to ceremonies where others were mounted by spirits. However, around the age of 16, Cleophat mother converted to Pentecostalism, rejected Haitian Vodou as evil, and required that he convert to Pentecostalism as well. Cleophat did not have a relationship with Haitian Vodou until his visit to Haiti in 2011. Here, Nixon reports his experience of Haitian Vodou on a public and personal level:

And that was very clear to me when I visited Haiti a year after the earth quake… It was July, 2011. Before my trip I was thinking “well, you know, Haiti was just devastated by this earthquake, you know, so Im going there and I will find a group of people who are miserable, who are destitute, in the worst situation. And then I went to Haiti and it was the complete opposite […]

I was like I don’t understand how these people can smile. I did not understand how people could wake in the morning and you know they would all gather in the morning, gathered in the community. And I’m like wow. And there were several happening at that time: there were Vodou ceremonies going on everywhere because they had to do special ceremonies for the dead, they had to pray, make offerings on behalf of the dead... the evangelical churches were busy condemning Vodou and in the meantime what was happening: Vodou was getting more and more attention as well as becoming more powerful.

So from that event on, I became very interested in what role Haitian Vodou played in my scholarship… and I realized it was not for me just an academic endeavor; it was very personal. I feel as if in my interaction with Vodou I was you know… that experience transformed my life completely, transformed my life to the point where I was able to receive the manifestation or the empowerment of Vodou deities…

Here, Cleophat explains the practical power of Haitian Vodou juxtaposed against the Evangelical impulse to condemn it as evil. Haitian Vodou took on mythical nature in the face of the what Hans Blumenberg called the “absolutism of reality;” in other words, Vodou provided order and meaning despite the destruction and death of the earthquake. This is something that Evangelicalism and even Pentecostalism cannot provide in the same manner because of the rationalist, hegemonizing nature of mono-centric, doctrinal, and other-worldly religion. Elsewhere in the interview, Cleophat compares the spirituality of Haitian Vodou against that Western-influenced religion where control is emphasized in the name of a monocentric faith. Below, he describes the experience of being mounted by the lwa, Damballa, the Sky father and primordial creator of all life.

So I felt as if I was mounted by the holy spirit. And all of the sensation was the same. My feet started to lose ground and I felt like I was going in and out of myself. And I was trying to hold on to everything that was in the sanctuary. And I was like oh my god, I think I am casting the holy ghost at a Vodou ceremony. And I wasn’t the holy ghost; this time it wasn’t. And I realized that the difference between the manifestation of what most people would call the holy spirit in Vodou is not much of difference. But I can tell you, the energy was probably stronger and more palpable when it comes to Haitian Vodou spirits mounting. In that ceremony I lost consciousness, but what happened in the Pentecostal church: I feel it was as if the spirits were controlled that they could not take over completely. But in the Vodou ceremony, there was so much spiritual freedom that I was taken over by the essence of the spirit.

In this experience described by Cleophat above, I began to see exactly how Haitian Vodou is able to function without circumscribing experience the way Western religion often does in the name of rationalist power and control. Nor is there any scriptural or institutional authority that prevented Cleophat from understanding the spiritual source of the holy ghost and Damballa as essentially the same; there is no need to pit one against the other. Further in the interview, Cleophat illustrates the powerful, embodied, and intuitive nature of Haitian Vodou:

It’s not a secret that it’s a magnet. The more you are studying these religions, the more you realizing you are learning about yourself, your own spirit, your essense, you are learning about your history, even if you are not Haitian and even if you are not africian, if you invest enough energy, if you invest enough time… its almost like this feeling… it doesn’t overtake you, but it empowers you so much…

This description of the nature of Haitian Vodou was illustrative of the embodied and open-ended nature of Haitian Vodou. It further reinforced the limited, unfounded Western epistemology which rejects the witness of inner, qualitative experience as inferior to the reliability of the scientific method. Again, the work of Jung is relevant here as it illuminates exactly how the unique insight of individual spirituality serves a socio-political function. Jung writes, that “the evidence of inner, transcendent experience” can protect one from submersion in the mass.

    Further, Jung sees the danger of collective belief: “Anyone who has once leanred to submit absolutely to a collective belief and to renounce his eternal right to freedom and the equally eternal duty of individual responsibility will persist in this attitude, and will be able to set out with the same credulity and the same lack of criticism in the reverse direction, if another and manifestly ‘better’’ belief is foisted upon his alleged idealism.” Jung’s emphasis on individual experience seems to demonstrate exactly how Haitian Vodou resists the impulse for collective, doctrinal belief and why faiths like evangelicalism and Pentecostalism feel threatened by them: they are often arbitrary and driven by dualistic labels of “us” versus “them.” By affirming the unique, inner experience, Haitian Vodou is able to sustain a deeper, genuine culture of solidarity that may always survive and struggle against external claims of power.

    Finally, Cleophat spoke about the pervasiveness of Haitian Vodou throughout the fabric of Haitian society, particularly the arts:

You cannot be a Haitian, an authentic Haitian without being a Vodouist because you find Vodou in the arts, you find Vodou in the songs, and you even find Vodou in the church. So, Vodou is so pervasive. So for us Vodou is not just a religion; Vodou is a way of life. Um… and that’s way there is a saying a Haitian can be a Pentecostal by religious affiliation, but by culture that person is a Vodou-ist.

Given that Haitian Vodou has such an extensive role in Haitian society, it is necessary to explore visual art itself to see how they function on their own terms.

Visual Art

    In order to explore the socio-political resistance of Haitian Vodou art, I will turn to Karen McCarthy Brown’s article, Art and Resistance: Haiti's Political Murals. Before I begin to explore the nature and function of visual art in Haitian Vodou, I will turn to Historian of religious art, David Morgan. In his book, Visual Piety, Morgan summarizes the view of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, artifacts invest the human self with a degree of objectivity in three ways: by displaying power and social status; by securing the continuity of the self over time in terms of focal points in the present, traces of the past, and indications of future expectations; and by providing material evidence of our position in the web of social relations. In each case material things assert our identities and maintain them in the face of an ever-present flux of sensation and mental activity.

Another word I will use for the art of Haitian Vodou is cultural fabric. However, while accepting the identity approach of Csikszentmihalyi, I will maintain that the art of Haitian Vodou does not only remedy the “an ever-present flux of sensation and mental activity,” but is a medium of perseverance and resistance in the face of national catastrophe. As Brown argues, “In the fall of 1994, art was a primary response to liberation. It mediated between terror, a powerful force that had shaped daily life in Haiti for three long years, and the sudden absence of terror. Art helped to restructure life toward normality…”

     In 1990, Haiti was celebrating the first democratic election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Catholic priest, liberation theologian, and social activist. However, Aristide served less than one year as President before being placed from office by a coup d'etat. During the three years that the coup leader, General Raoul Cedras, headed the government, Haitians lost freedom of expression. Not only so, but the Haitian people received nothing from the de facto leaders. They found that they were interested in nothing more than power. This was all until 1994 US invasion. In the image below, a Haitian artist has created a portrait of Aristide, one of many murals on National Route 3 outside Cap Hatian.

For many people in Haiti, this image, accompanied by the creole word “libete,” may serve as a more durable, visual place marker that claims Aristide as a symbol for liberation. This portrait is all the more meaningful because it is painted on a wall, asserting the power and meaning of human agency on a public space. This automatically holds socio-political implications. However, the power of the art of Haitian Vodou is that it is not static, but perceptively and powerfully responds to changing reality. After the military coup, the Haitian national consciousness was in terror and under government censure. In response to this terror, the work of art below was found on a fence in the city of Gonaives, a site of resistance against Haiti's many corrupt leaders.  

The image below is a veve, a creole word for Vodou symbol. This veve represents Ogou, a Vodou warrior lwa (or spirit) of the righteous use of aggression. According to Fernandez Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, Ogou is a “tutelary god whose worship dates back to mythical African wars and the Haitian Revolution, an ‘old veteran from the time of bayonets’…” I argue that this symbol functions according to Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of art by “securing the continuity of the self over time in terms of focal points in the present, traces of the past, and indications of future expectations.” For Haitians, and the larger Afrocentric consciousness, this symbol transcends time and carries a much more longer view of history where they ultimately endure. For the repressive leaders of the coup, the image would not only discredit their legitimacy, but carry the threat that the righteous use of violence is looming. This does not necessarily translate into terrorism, but instead a visual sense of socio-political power.


Haitian Vodou, above all, works for its inclusiveness and holism of experience. It allows the 1) embodied, 2) the ecological, 3) the socio-political, and the 4) cosmological to symbolically express themselves on their own terms as an ongoing conversation of spirits: the lwa. This expresses itself through the culture: visual, musical, sexual, and political. This hybridizing and lack of Western monocentric epistemology is a sustainable movement that adapts. This fullness of reality is the greatest anti-dote to political domination for it opens space for artists as culture creators where there can be a move from disharmony and ignorace to awareness and harmony. 


Cartoon by Belgian artist Lecctr

Cartoon by Belgian artist Lecctr

Social media is just today's town square, graffiti or telegram. Thank you for your reflections during a big political turn. Perhaps, I am in political denial/apathy. Or perhaps I and many of us feel that the real power exists within us, our bodies, spaces, relationships, and the words, images, music, food, and touch that makes our lives...ALIVE.

Coming to New York and studying under the radical black thought of James Cone, Cornel West, and Sam Cruz and ecofeminists and psychoanalysts like Anne Ulanov and Chung Hyun Kyung helped see that America is much bigger and deeper than the picture of the United States government. That the fullness of "America" will come when everything "low" and "lowly" rises: That means, everything must come into mutual relationship with what is high: multi-billion dollar corporate influence.

This does not mean calling for violence or wishing upon more destruction, but bearing witness to truth of a living, interconnected whole we can call Truth, Love, Hope or God. And this means admitting that the government has a striking resemblance to Rome with its imperial architecture, sword, military expansiveness, ecological devastation, wealth inequality, racial police violence. It is the European intellectual superiority that depends on a ignorant and exploitative stance to anything that is "barbarian" and needs to be tamed: earth, women, people of color, "third world" peoples, crime, sexuality, resources, terrorism without checking the log in ones own eye.

Thank God I am given the gift of serving as artist/minister, to represent the Gospel of an radically inclusive Christian community that survived within and outside UNJUST either/or of Empire. Thank God for the stories of my elders who survived Soviet persecution. Maybe then, the "America" I love can grow into all it always was deep in its potential: a place where mama Earth, all Latin Americans, kidnapped peoples of African descent, women, LGBTQ, differently abled and Indigenous Peoples are given back their power and resources so that we may all share sustainably.

Violin and Melody:  Heschel’s Poetry as “Initiation” of the Ineffable

Violin and Melody: Heschel’s Poetry as “Initiation” of the Ineffable

Violin and Melody:

Heschel’s Poetry as “Initiation” of the Ineffable, the Divine

Konstantin Kulakov
For The Philosophical Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel
Dr. Cornel West

It is difficult to picture the character of Western civilization without the rationalism of Rene Descartes; from the cartesian coordinate graph of mathematics, to the famous "cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), Descartes looms large in our post-enlightenment thought. Still, from the Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization to Antonio Demasio’s Descartes’ Error, philosophers and neuroscientists have demonstrated the enduring influence and problematical nature of Descartes’s thought. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s philosophy-of-religion begins where Descartes left off, challenging Descartes’ rationalism. For Heschel, “philosophy that begins with radical doubt ends in radical despair.”[1] It is not a comprehensive and coherent system of philosophical propositions that affirm God’s attributes (i.e. Aquinas, Calvin); instead, Heschel argues that philosophy begins in wonder: for him, philosophy is “a retreat, giving up premises rather than adding one, going behind self-consciousness and questioning the self and all its cognitive pretensions.”[2]

I will never forget a fellow classmate’s response to Heschel’s collection The Ineffable Name of God: Man: “I didn’t like it. I felt that there is something missing there; it does not compare to the fullness of his prose.” However, it is exactly this poetic economy, efficiency of language that defines Heschel’s philosophy of religion. “Music, poetry, religion— they all initiate in the soul’s encounter with an aspect of reality for which reason has no concepts and language has no names.”[3] Along with Heinrich Zimmer, I argue that it is the particularity of poetry that provides a medium where the embodied, complex, and ambiguous nature of reality may be engaged without the reductionist, descriptive impulse. Through poetry, we may encounter the experience of an “activist theology” on its own terms.  Thus, it is my assumption that Heschel’s philosophy of religion is inseparable from his poetry just as his theology is inseparable from his activism. Throughout this paper, I will explore three maxims of Heschel’s philosophy of religion and critically examine how his poetry is a reification of each maxim: 1) wonder as the beginning of philosophy, 2) science and spiritual insight as distinct, objective reality 3) and wonder as a call to action.

Wonder as the Beginning of Philosophy

Heschel’s philosophy makes a powerful case for wonder; however, it is only by relating his prose (philosophy of religion) to his poetry may we engage the experience of wonder on its own terms. Heschel writes: “the greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches.”[4] Heschel already witnessed what he believes to be the logical end of modernity: the instrumental reason of Zyklon B and the atom bomb. Thus, for him, the Cartesian maxim of radical doubt will only lead to radical despair. By affirming wonder, Heschel claims that he is returning to Plato’s conception of thaumatism and disturbing mental placidity. Thus, Heschel does not sever his tie to what he referred to the ineffable. One of the words used to describe the experience of wonder is reverence: “Reverence is an attitude as indigenous to human consciousness as fear when facing danger or pain when hurt. The scope of revered objects may vary, reverence itself is characteristic of man in all civilizations….”[5]

However, by claiming that the essential characteristic of wonder escapes language, Heschel encounters a new problem: the difficulty of all discourse, including poetry, of engaging the ineffable. Heschel addresses this problem through the concept of the indicative, often turning to embodied sensory language of love, beauty and nature: “…while we are unable either to define or to describe the ineffable, it is given to us to point to it. By means of indicative rather than descriptive terms, we are able to convey to others those features of our perception which are known to all men.”[6] Nevertheless, Heschel admits that indicative terms may diverge for different people, but it is the “essence of perception,” the universal capacity that is recognizable.

            In order to explore the characteristics of wonder, it is necessary to ground the nature of the experience in the philosophical language of Heschel: “often it appears as if the mind were a sieve in which we try to hold the flux of reality, and there are moments in which the mind is swept away by the tide of the unexplorable, a tide usually stemmed but never receding.”[7] One of the strongest illustrations of this experience is in Heschel’s poem “Need.”

As still as the growing of a hair on me,
A feeling ripens deep in me, truly of You

And feeling Alarm—
I must lead them to words, to screams.
Where can I ferret out Your name […]

I’ll disappear in the night, through the stars and forest—
I’ll be silent.
I’ll scream and wail an alarm:
Haw Aw! Haw Aw!

As still as the growing of a hair on me,
A fire ripens deep in me—

I know not from where, I know not at all.[8]

In this poem, there is no need to fit the demands of philosophical categories, premises and conclusions, and soundness of argument; instead, we witness the experience on its own terms. First, it is important to examine Heschel’s broader view of wonder and meaning. For Heschel, “What we encounter in our perception of the sublime, in our radical amazement, is a spiritual suggestiveness of reality, an allusiveness to transcendent meaning.”[9] The line “A feeling ripens deep in me, truly of You / And feeling Alarm—” is relevant: the metaphor of a feeling “ripening” does not fit the accepted abstract psychological terminology. Thus, words are selected based on their dramatic effect as opposed to the precision in regards to scientific standards of judgment. If the experience of the feeling is metaphorized as “ripening,” then the feeling itself has a spiritual, transcendence meaning: organic, life-affirming, spiritual growth. Lastly, the choice of enjambment of “You / And feeling alarm” facilitates a dramatic, evocative experience that is indicative of a transcendent meaning.

In the fifth stanza, we encounter the complex nature of this experience and through its traditionally-non-sensical, paradoxical nature, further pointing to the experience of transcendence: “I’ll disappear in the night, through the stars and forest— “I’ll be silent. / I’ll scream and wail an alarm: / Haw Aw! Haw Aw!” Here, through the equally-affirmed statements of being silent and screaming, Heschel does not satisfy the principle of non-contradiction, but instead subverts it; nevertheless, Heschel is able to illustrate the character of the experience. In many ways, this stanza bears significance to Heschel’s pietism where the stream of consciousness and expletive “haw Aw!” enact the uninhibited drama of humanity’s vexed and transcending relationship to the ineffable God; for it is through this drama that humanity may approach some unexpected solution. In the Hasidism, the solution is in the problem: “There is a strange contradiction in man’s bringing charges in the name of Truth about the absence of Truth; such an argument can be meaningful only if it presupposes the presence of Truth. Is not our agony over the burial of Truth evidence of the life and power of Truth?”[10] 

The last stanza is the most clear illustration of the mind sieve that is swept away by the tide of the unexplorable: “As still as the growing of a hair on me, / A fire ripens deep in me— / I know not from where, I know not at all.” The last stanza begins with a repetition of the first stanza. However, there are two changes: 1) the feeling becomes a fire, 2) and the feeling loses its reference point completely. Thus, the experience ends in a strong affirmation of wonder and unintelligibility. Through the affirmation of unintelligibility, there is no immature ignorance, but instead, a wise humility. There is a much deeper phenomena at hand: “The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all.”[11] This insight is not new to even the community of Anglo-American, analytic philosophers (i.e. philosophers Thomas Nagel and Frank Jackson contribute to the problem of consciousness, defending the qualitative nature of consciousness through qualia).

Science as Legitimate yet Limited

For Heschel, modernity, and natural science in particular, is extensively engaged. However, in his poetry, Heschel does not engage natural science in an explicit way. Nevertheless, by studying the nature of the poetry, one may see how the experiances relate to the philosophy of religion as well as Heschel’s rudimentary philosophy of science. From penicillin to vaccines, automobiles, heart transplants, and Internet technology, natural science has ushered in a reality unimaginable to medieval society. However, natural science also helped usher in 20th century horrors like the atom bomb and Zyklon B as well as contemporary menaces like industrial pollution and drone warfare.

With the towering advancements of Einstein and Watson and Crick, Heschel neither retreated into an anti-scientific literalism of fundamentalists, nor did he believe that science was the only arbiter of objective knowledge: “Science extends rather than limits the scope of the ineffable, and our radical amazement is enhanced rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge.”[12] In many ways, his writing resonated with the questions opened by the quantum revolution: “Scientific research is an entry into the endless, not a blind alley; solving one problem, a greater one enters our sight…”[13] For example, through the apparatus of the electron tunneling microscope, it was discovered that the more fundamental structure of the universe behaved in laws that contradicted classical mechanics; this only complicated things. Furthermore, for Heschel, the turn to secularize religion in order to fit into the narrow box of positivism was a narrow assumption. For him, the encounter with the ineffable was not reduced to an internal, psychological reality a la Maslow.

Instead, reality possessed meaning, an objective meaning. He wrotes, “namely, that meaning is something which occurs outside the mind in objective things— independent of subjective awareness of it.”[14] Thus, Heschel resisted the epistemological privilege that white liberal Christians and secular humanists gave natural science. Implicitly, this had important implications in regards to power and the oppressed. Even if they were interested in social justice, in promoting their ideology, liberals and secular humanists robbed many minorities of the only spiritual authority they had and raised themselves as the ultimate arbiters of knowledge.

Heschel does not explicitly write of or engage natural science in his poetry. However, I argue that it is precisely Heschel’s philosophy of religion that undergirds such artistic decisions. For Heschel, “reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh.”[15] Nevertheless, poetry, among other practices, is fit for the encounter: “Music, poetry, religion— they all initiate in the soul’s encounter with an aspect of reality for which reason has no concepts and language has no names.” In other words, it can be said that reason and natural science, which are quantitative, do not engage qualitative reality; and they do not engage this reality because only metaphor, with its evocative qualities, may lead to qualitative dimensions (i.e. transcendence). Heschel’s poem, “The Right to Wonder,” allows us to examine the nature of religious experience and how it may enhance the human situation by encountering the spiritual dimension of erotic love.

Your face—God’s crest—
His scepter—your hands.
It’s your beauty, I know—
gives poets proof of God […]

When I first touched
your endlessly-tender shoulder,
like Heaven itself—
you sweetly sealed
my right to wonder.

Since then I carry you in my ear,
The distant pull of your voice,
and am as if by a thousand holy festivals

In these two stanzas, Heschel begins to show the correlational nature of physical reality and spiritual reality; again, this is because, for Heschel, reality possessed meaning, an objective meaning. The woman’s face takes on the objective meaning of divinity. Heschel, as a Jewish humanist, asserts that humans are God’s image on earth. The second half of the stanza, “It’s your beauty, I know— / gives poets proof of God” is a more explicit, even abstractly framed, illustration of the metaphorization of the previous line. The balance between imagery and the speaker’s narration makes a connection to the rational, practical, and empirical world. It could be argued that the word choice “poets” implies that the proof of God is beyond the limits of ordinary empirical science; it is another qualitative dimension: “beauty.”

In the second stanza, we encounter a different empirical reality; here, it is the “endlessly-tender shoulder” that is allusive to the meaning of “heaven itself.” This demonstrates that even the metaphors are correlational as argued in his philosophy of religion; in other words, Heschel asserts that metaphors or “indicative” words may be different, but the “essence of perception” is the same. Thus, it could be argued that for another poet, the face of the woman may become God’s light. Although the metaphor differs, the essential meaning is the same: transcendence.

Finally, the line “you sweetly sealed / my right to wonder” is the counter-point to the imagery and metaphorization before. Again, a more explicit, abstract noun “wonder” and “right” is employed as Heschel connects the imagery to the voice of the speaker. Furthermore, the title and line “right to wonder” is the legitimatization of spiritual “insight.” This is because for Heschel: “Insights are the roots of art, philosophy and religion, and must be acknowledged as common and fundamental facts of mental life.”[17] Lastly, it is important to address exactly how Heschel resisted the anti-scientific literalism of fundamentalists. The answer can be found in the context of his philosophy of religion. As opposed to employing scientific claims in his poetry, Heschel demonstrated that practices that “initiate the soul’s encounter with the sublime” are not even empirical claims. They are qualitative claims. In a time when scriptural texts were interpreted in literal, anachronistic methods, Heschel resisted this by reading scripture as spiritual insight and making claims that did not trespass unto the field of science, but opened one to the spiritual significance of reality.

Wonder as a Call to Action

For Heschel, wonder did not lead to complacency or asceticism, but to obligation and action. This theme is powerfully illustrated by Heschel’s poetry. First, in the section, What to do With Wonder, he writes: “The world consists, not of things, but of tasks. Wonder is the state of our being asked. The ineffable is a question addressed to us.”[18] In Moral Granduar and Spiritual Audacity, Heschel writes: “This is no time for neutrality. We Jews cannot remain aloof or indifferent. We, too, are either ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil…” We may ask how wonder may lead to a sense of responsibility, but we are missing something: For Heschel, the entire universe had a spiritual significance. As he wrote, “To be implies to stand for, because every being is representative of something that is more than itself; because the seen, the known, stands for the unseen, the unknown.” In the following poem, I and You, Heschel presents the most direct image of human-divine inseparability:

I and You

Transmissions flow from your heart to Mine,
trading, twining My pain with yours.
Am I not—You? Are you not—I?

My nerves are clustered with Yours.
Your dreams have met with mine.
Are we not one in the bodies of millions?

Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’ form,
hear My own speech—a distant, quiet voice—in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden.                       

I live in Me and in you.
Through your lips goes a word from Me to Me,                         
From your eyes drips a tear—its source in Me.                      

When a need pains You, alarm me!                        
When You miss a human being
tear open my door!
You live in Yourself, You live me.[19]


One of the most striking features of this poem is the unexpected shifts in speaker. The shifts are suggested by the capitalization of “You” and “Me.” In the first stanza, the speaker appears to be God because “Mine” is capitalized; however, in the last line of the stanza, suddenly “You” becomes capitalized indicating that the speaker is human. This interchangebility is punctuated by the statement “Am I not—You? Are you not—I?” In the second stanza, this interchangeability is expanded from the micro individual/God relationship to the macro humanity/God relationship: “Are we not one in the bodies of millions?” In the stanzas following, the texture of this is reified in the imagery of tears: “Through your lips goes a word from Me to Me, / From your eyes drips a tear—its source in Me.”        

The interchangeability and inseparability is not only a spiritual meditation, but a call to action. As Heschel asserts, “The world consists, not of things, but of tasks.” In light of the inseparability of God and humanity, liberalist individualism is impossible: love thy neighbor as yourself is reified, flesh and bone. First, if a tear drop falls from the cheek of any “disparate” human being, that tear drop is God’s. Second, if a tear-drop falls from the cheek of any “disparate” human being, it is also “the bodies of millions.”

Given poetry’s qualitative dimension, we are not only compelled to treat each other with respect by logical necessity. In other words, it is not only the ontological connection which is presented, but the experiential, evocative connection. The embodied imagery of a tear compels one to feel the suffering of others and such an emotional sensibility and worldview makes demands on humanity. This is why the last stanza includes these exclamatory lines: “When a need pains You, alarm me! / When You miss a human being / tear open my door!”

Today, the US holds military presence in a 150 countries with 172,966 active-duty personnel.[20] By strongly supporting tyrannical states like the Saudi Royal family, it robs Saudi citizens of basic freedom and refuses to participate in the international criminal court. Israel is now the closest alley to United States, supporting every invasion and expanding settlements against international law. Domestically, as documented in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, the United States holds the highest incarceration rate: 2.3 million prisoners with blacks and Hispanics accounting for 60% of the inmates. To struggle for justice during Heschel’s time was to choose life, to oppose explicit laws rejecting the humanity of others. But American racism has changed from explicit to hidden, an ugly systemic rejection of black lives.

During his life, Heschel confronted the injustices of his day head-on at their root from prose to poetry. As thinking and feeling creatures with a capacity for beauty, the fulllness of life's  picture, the question is how will we address these injustices of today and does our philosophy of religion, religious body, and culture (poetry, visual, film) urgently demand it.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 289.

[2] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1068-1070.

[3] Ibid, Kindle Locations 537-538.

[4] Ibid, Kindle Location 265.

[5] Ibid, Kindle Location 401.

[6] Ibid, Kindle Location 377.

[7] Ibid, Kindle 232.

[8] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Ineffable Name of God: Man, (New York: Continuum Books, 2007), 63.

[9] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 385.

[10] Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), Kindle Locations 3796-3797.

[11] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 305.

[12] Ibid, Kindle Location 305.

[13] Ibid, Kindle Location 437.

[14] Ibid, Kindle Location 439.

[15] Ibid, Kindle Location 252.

[16] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Ineffable Name of God: Man, (New York: Continuum Books, 2007), 107.

[17]. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 341.

[18] Ibid, Kindle Location 884.

[19] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Ineffable Name of God: Man, (New York: Continuum Books, 2007), 31.

[20] "Total Military Personnel and Dependent End Strength By Service, Regional Area, and Country". Defense Manpower Data Center. September 30, 2014.

Tears or Holy Water: Post-9/11 Sermon Delivered at All Souls Bethlehem Church, Brooklyn, New York, September 18, 2016

Tears or Holy Water: Post-9/11 Sermon Delivered at All Souls Bethlehem Church, Brooklyn, New York, September 18, 2016

Last Sunday, my partner Sabrina and I embarked on our journey from elevated, compressed Washington Heights to the spaciousness of Cortelyou, Brooklyn. And as I walked, I saw many gardens. As we looked for the church, Sabrina remarked: it’s probably a house...where I see a house and read All Souls Bethlehem. And is that not what it is supposed to be….a home for those who are seeking. From the back of the worship space, I could see a homely staircase descend while people of different colors, ages, and genders entered and moved around.

Like the early church, we sang and we read scripture. And then something sacred began to emerge between all of us. Words began to rise, stories of disease and healing, murder and triumph. We sang and we greeted one another in one of the most non-awkward passing of peace. And then we raised the stories of a day that changed New York forever, that left tears on the eyes and lump in the throat for many in the room.

This July, looking over the Gri Gri lagoon in Rio San Juan, I managed to link to the Wi-Fi of our outdoor bar and a read news that forever changed my view of my homeland. I was visiting my partner’s relatives in the Dominican Republic, and as the power blinked in and out, the words of my uncle brought a weight I could not push away: I slowly read the news of the Russian “anti-terrorism” law that imposed an oppressive clutch of restrictions on the religious freedom, and really freedom of conscience, of my Russian people. “Religious activity” outside “designated places” is now illegal.

This is an incredibly weighty matter for me. I was nurtured by the courage of those who,  because of their religion, suffered Soviet persecution in Stalin’s labor camps or discrimination and brutality in their communities: my great-grandfather and grandfather spent ten and five years, respectively, in Stalin’s gulags; my father and mother challenged school and military authorities, facing discrimination and physical brutality. In fact, I witnessed this authoritarianism when my father’s visa back to the US was delayed for months in 2004.

That night, I poured tears for the people of my land and all peoples because we could not share this planet without the unjust structures of power and control. I poured tears for Latin Americans othered in their own lands, Haitians deported both from the United States and the Dominican Republic in a larger crushing of difference, of blackness. These were human issues, these were issues that emerged right here at All Souls Bethlehem Church.

The brutality, the fragmentation of relationships from the spiritual self to the family, local, religious, and national: the macrocosm. The weight, the pain, the immensity of it all. How could conversation, how could anything bring back those lost or take away the pain.  This ugliness, meaningless, this boredom of repressive cycles. The thorns in the flesh.  Perhaps, that ordinary, boring monotony of isolation, loss, and meaninglessness  that T.S. Elliot immortalized in his poem, the Hollow Men is real:  

his is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

But we have gathered here as followers of Christ, for us, it also unfolds within the Christian narrative. In fact, for the Israelites of the Hebrew bible, and really all religious folk, God is revealed in the vulnerable, in the absence, the silence. The Lord God says:, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for theLord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”

Maybe, as we spoke of the trauma and loss of 9 11, Shakespeare was right in calling tears holy water, maybe the silence and pain that resonated through the room was no longer isolated in the abyss of loneliness, but seeped, broke-through and made us more whole. After my partner and I were leaving church, we remarked how we appreciated feeling welcomed and listening to such intimate personal recollections and reflections. But we did not just listen, we also re-oriented ourselves to something beyond, we entrusted ourselves to that which we can not control. I felt lighter.

Yes, it was not solutions, but the most honest and helpless pleas that gripped us, that bound us in a holy sense of feeling.  Perhaps, this is because vulnerability allows us to confront that which is repressed or rejected, consciously or unconsciously from the whole. And this whole begins from our own hearts to the borders built around nations. From the person we sit beside on the train to our support of tyrannical dictators in the middle East. We, we just visitors are a part of the ministry of presence. We showed up. We held-up and resonated with each other’s incredibly different struggles.

After returning from the Dominican Republic, I was reading Angela Davis’ book, Freedom. My thoughts were on Russia and the encroachment of freedom that returned. Speaking of her understanding of Black politics, in her book Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Ferguson, Palestine, And the Foundations Of Movement former black panther, academic, and activist, Angela Davis writes “the Black struggle in the US serves an emblem of the struggle for freedom. It’s emblematic of larger struggles for freedom.”

I came to realize that by claiming my personal vulnerabilities I was able to join the struggles of others and begin liberate myself from white supremacy.  I started from my vulnerability: my immigrant, religious minority, short, poet, experience. It was not male whiteness I had to defend or white guilt to absolve.  There is nothing to defend there: there is nothing good in domination.  I do not think whiteness as the Western, objective, absolute truth is real. It is the impersonal cultural and economic systems that continue to leave people of color disproportionatly invisibilzed, brutalized or killed that are real. And for me, that means there is only privilege to be shared within these systems of resources. I do not not have to invest time defending whiteness which was only a supremacist construct hurting us both on a social plane. This is taking our weaknesses and vulnerabilities as our starting points, not notions of supremacy. That means that there is something spiritually expensive, holy about tears. They have moved people towards insight and action.

Upon my return, I began to see wholeness, the repression of church communities in Russia as the same repression of alternate economies when people of color are harassed and even murdered by US police for “violations” like selling CD’s (Alton Sterling), loose cigarettes (Eric Garner). The wholeness of the global justice struggle began to uncover.  The Russian government’s attack on dissidents, LGBTQ, people of color, freethinkers, Muslims, and religious minorities is a crisis that to varying degrees joins the black struggle, the working class people’s struggle, the LGBTQ struggle, the feminist struggle across the world.

This fall will mark the first time I am not in school. Now I have loans. I am now in the world of adulthood. And I see how we become pulled apart by the gods of responsibility. Something has happened to the world of our daily life, especially in the screech and text vibration of the city. Job interviews and business pitches do not want vulnerability, but success, power.

Not only so, but constant attachment to solutions, the sound of verbal communication, to the certainty of light, digital connection, uncovers our deeper fear of silence, of darkness, of reality itself. It suggests that somehow, for us, words are superior to silence, light superior to darkness. And I think it is this kind of thinking, this orienation that allowed sexism, racism and neglect of nature and earth-spirituality.  It suggests an inner and outer world where something is rejected and unaddressed, controlled or kept at arms length. But when we approach the birth of Christ, we read of John the Baptist, strengthening his spirit through discipline in the steep desert terraces and blunt escarpments of the Judean desert (Luke 1:80). There is seclusion, stillness, and silence. And ultimately, we read of Jesus, after his baptism in the Jordan River, compelled by the Holy Spirit to fast and be tested in that same strenuous terrain (Matthew 4:1).

How much energy, bodily and spiritual, is wasted on unresolved inner conflicts or what we call stress. I am afraid that unchecked, at their most tragic, these same energies can result in violence, whether individual, domestic or global. This energy could be channeled into finding our creaturehood through co-creation. We must begin to become whole and that takes just doing it, where even an instant counts:

confronting the challenge of confronting the real self, of resting in all our whole being, where prayer becomes resistance through self-surivival and expression. It takes reconnecting with all creation, especially what is most repressed, our bodies, sexuality, the earth, which feeds us. That is the place where vulnerability is home and renewed. We preserve our spirit from the thousands of needs that pull us apart. We may confront the thorn in the flesh; instead of being something we neglect and step on, hurting ourselves and then others, it teaches us. Then, right in our hand, the greatest thorn we hold in the greatest darkness, can become a match lighting the way to our calling: something powerful, a strength born within weakness.

A Letter to Friends and Relatives about Race, Justice, and the Election of Donald Trump

A Letter to Friends and Relatives about Race, Justice, and the Election of Donald Trump

Dear Friends and Relatives,

This fall afternoon, I wanted to clarify my view on the relationship between race in America and the election of Donald Trump. There have emerged tensions throughout our country and these tensions have even emerged between us. Some have reached out, others haven't. These tensions, hidden and unhidden, must be reckoned with. So let us begin... First, I think it is important and crucial that people speak, write, express and act on their political thoughts and feelings in spite of the tensions.

At its core, politics is our relationship to power and government. There are proposals from the President Elect Trump website that promise to toughen on immigration and crime: for many, he means it: and for those who brush the world of criminality or immigration as Latin American, especially the non-white, these attitudes and policies are a threat and signal loss and pain. Through deportation, families have been torn and with Trump there is a promise of even more aggressive systematic deportations. And discomfort is inevitable and necessary when this hits too close to home, when those we love may be affected by this force.

   Example of what is known as "scientific racism: Science in defense of American slavery from Types of Mankind, 1854  http://www.wm.edu/as/anthropology/research/ihb/scienceideology/   


Example of what is known as "scientific racism: Science in defense of American slavery from Types of Mankind, 1854



Second, I think it is important that I clarify a) my political concerns: resisting domination of all vulnerable communities, but seeing particularity white supremecy as one of the most continually neglected and brutal structures in world domination (most neglect by white people) and b) what the Trump election means to this structure of domination. 

Thus, in listening to those affected, to speak of white supremacy is not generally to point to the KKK or Nazis (that is individual bigotry and hate), but to speak of an impersonal system and actions. This system started after the genocide, scientific racism, kidnapping and enslaving of black people. But the wounds have not healed, but hurt and mutate: sociologists have concluded that the biggest determinant of disadvantage across legal, educational, economic, and cultural lines is race.

Thus, for anti-racist activists and intellectuals, white supremacy is defined as a power imbalance: the economic, legal, the conscious or unconscious psychological and cultural structures that continue to privilege white people at the expense of people of color. This has been documented in the following: 1) The case for reparations here, 2) discrimination in the low wage job market here, 3) stereotypes in police visual processing and decision making here. 

Confusion may arise about "black on black" crime and majority color police departments, but white supremacy can and is internalized by everyone, including people of color. The politics of respectibility (where as Arundhati Roy writes, some people are pardoned from oppression) means little because America did not heal the gaping racist wounds. It's tragedy is that our fellow human family, people of color, must reckon with a prison industrial complex with 2.3 million prisoners where they are unjustly over-represented, general power imbalance in economics and leadership, and cultural appropriation/exploitation/tokenism. Watch the film 13 for this.

The relationship to Trump. Trump is not the emergence of fascism, but it is the symbolic representation of white America. The domination structures have already been here. Neither the Left, nor the Right have addressed these structures sufficiently. But I still stand by the fact that since Nixon and Reagan, the right has instituted laws (war on drugs and militarism) continued by the left that hurt people of color. Backed by the largest white majority, the right has been the mastermind and supporter of law and order policies that hurt people of color and across the seas:

whether we write of ALEC orchestrating and furthering the prison complex or the conservative commitment to expanding the military budget and thus the military industrial complex. Trump, his words, spirit, website policies, track record, and the recent criticism of Trump by the Black Lives Matter Movement show that Trump has and will most likely continue "making things worse." This is specifically because his constituency, overwhelmingly white people (as opposed to the democratic party) and he himself has not reckoned with racial justice: the opposite.

I urge us to think about this deeply especially when we are not the most vulnerable. Furthermore, as much great writing has shown, we white progressives have failed. And I take some responsibility for not resisting this enough. We have failed at stepping down and making sure we share and give up power that is often in place for us in some way. We have failed at securing reparations or making it a conversation. We have failed at being in relationship with oppressed, minority, vulnerable communities. We have failed at being in relationship with all white America, holding it accountable. I would argue, being educationally privileged, we may have othered and even participated in the classist marginalization of whites who are stuck in poverty.

Thus, again, there is work to be done. Most importantly, how to reconfigure relationships and power in our life to the service of the WHOLE. This does not mean centrism. This means working to dismantle white supremacy with our whole being, listening, losing jobs, sharing of resources, and giving up leadership positions. Let this letter serve as my hand reaching out to EVERYONE, a pact to listen to each other and especially transform this lisenting into understanding, growth and new action.

With justice and love and peace,



In these violent and painful times, I wanted to share my poem, "Where People Move and Find Their Being," published in the 2015 issue of the Harvard Journal of African American Policy. Now, you may read it as one poem- a whole. I seek to illuminate the underserved city community (and gentrification/police brutality) in the context of white space. Similar to the Black liberation theology of James Cone, I locate divinity in Blackness and sexuality, raising up the so-called “thug” and “crack whore” as the real image of the Virgin Mary and Christ. He presents the Black Lives Matter movement as an essentially spiritual movement with its own symbols and narrative.

You can read the entire issue here: http://hjaap.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/HJAAP-2015-promo-compressed.pdf


“The projects in Harlem are hated...
And they are hated for the same reason:
both reveal, unbearably, the real attitude
of the white world...”
- James Baldwin


Jamaica Center, Queens

First, it is the bodega, blossoming
with a ruffe of coats and lotto tickets.

The liquor store, pale-green,
yet empty in the street.

The young, weathered faces
enthroned on gray stoops.

The thin church walls, trembling
to “Peace in the valley”—and an

unendurable grayness, crying-out,
“Lose hope; we have abandoned you.”


They tell me,

“You can say the word ‘injustice,’
but cannot know the weight

of body rejected, the hot flush
of father arrested. You can read

the word ‘shooting,’ but cannot know
the crackle of gun shots,

the teeth against cement—”
here, at the edges of peril where

people move and fnd their being.



This is how those with much
take from those with little:

Slowly, the metallic bodega
is cleared for the dim bar.

The small handle is sawed-off
for the brass revolving door.

They say, “This is Morningside Heights!
The edges of peril are not near!

The thug, the prostitute: gone!,
pushed further from our luster.”


Still, in the pregnancy of night, two Angels
broke through the skyline. Lifting

the blackness, they say: “No! the one you call
‘crack whore’ is the Blessed Mother; see her blue

garment, the dip of her brown breast.
She is holy.” Then, revealing a man

in an side street, another Seraph advances:
“No,” she says, hovering. “The son you call thug,

the son plummeting in bullets, is The Christ...” And,
illuminating his vast body, says “He is

the fabric of existence... Repent, repent...”


After the decision is proclaimed, those
in whiter spaces sink into their beds.

Outside, like burning petals, an expanding line
of youth, streams into the night.

Signing hands-ups and I-can’t-breathes,
they make-real their Last Supper.

While, in the streets, the armored tanks
wait beneath a blackening sky.

Transcript of Introduction: Art and Activism Panel, Judson Memorial Church, July 9, 2016



by Konstantin Kulakov

summer - latin night -­ gay club ­- bodies - safe in sanctuary ­- bodies opened to dance - ­waiting in the bathroom ­ - bodies opened with bullets ­- queer bodies ­- Puerto Rican bodies - black bodies ­- sacred bodies ­ bodies heavy with guilt of living

Louisiana ­- Alton, the CD man ­- black body ­- ground -­ father -­ chest opened­ red -­ red shirt -­ “shots fired” -­ “shots fired” -­ the children ­- an arm moving -­ an arm becoming still - 

Minnesota ­- traffic stop -­ black bodies -­ boyfriend -­ black body -­ gun permit -­ child - ­backseat - father -­ police -­ bullet -­ metal -­ father -­ arm ­- child ­ “jesus please don’t let my boyfriend die"

Activist Mariame Kaba, who will join us during Part II of the panel wrote in the New Inquiry the Summer of 2015: “I dread summer. It’s the season of hyper­surveillance and even more aggressive policing of young people of color in my neighborhood... The urban summer criminalization merry­go­round...” I dread summer becoming a refrain throughout the article. After Pulse, after Sterling after Castile, this refrain is loud and getting louder. A tension, an unease I heard in the singing of Sekou, in the brush of Alfonse, in the words of Browning, in the visual culture of Natasha Johnson and Husains’s cinematography in the Martyr, and all the panelists here today.

We have come together from incredibly different backgrounds, experiences, privileges and disadvantages; still, we have come with the conviction that both art and activism are connected, that they are valuable, that the brushes and the spray paint, the pianos and the larynx, the words and the colors, the song, the dance and the movement must be connected to the suffering of the world, to social justice, to acting, to activism, to the vulnerable, to politicians, and profits. That there are tasks ahead to address the dominant cultural white supremacist lens: As the poet Claudia Rankine writes, “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.” And if we are activists, that in our legal advocacy, commentary, direct actions, civil disobedience, in our protests, boycotts, art is valuable and powerful and functions as activism. We have come to explore experiences and ideas together.

Since not all are artists are activists per se and not all activists are artists, we will devote two different PARTS to the panel, exploring the arts and activism from each perspective: Part I: the Arts (11 am to 12:00) and Part II: Activism (1:00 pm to 2:30 pm). Each part will be followed by your questions. Perhaps, the binary, the opposition of art and activism does not even have to exist, perhaps for some of us it should because our artistic process has no agendas and rises from the unconscious, but for different reasons... Maybe Peter Burger is right, (here summarized by poet Ben Lerner) “abolish art as a separate category from the rest of our experience.” And make it the “praxis of life.” But one thing we can agree on is this: our different bodies have given us completely different experiences and insight, and we must enter into respectful presence, listening and relationship to make a more whole world. 

I hope this panel can be that kind of event, an unfolding of a new way of being in the world. I trust that we will have the courage to balance sensitivity and productivity as we make this time and space meaningful in our encounter. Last night, Jeff Duda of the The Artistry of Democracy podcast reminded me that the event will be recorded and that press will be present. What we say will enter into an collective memory that can be used beyond itself. But before we begin, I want thank everyone who was key in organizing this event:

Judson Memorial Church, Micah Bucey, Michele Thompson, Toby Twining, Zach Mosely, Jane Truehold, my partner Sabrina Frometa, my mother and father. And I would like to thank you. In a time of what Donna Schaper calls “time famine,” our decision to volunteer our time is subversive. Finally, I would like to agree with a close mentor of mine, black liberation theologian, James Cone, there is never disembodied objectivity, and I have a responsibility to say who I am and my origins, as a Russian American immigrant poet who is also a white male.



Alton Sterling

After leaving the waters of Puerto Plata to arrive in New York, I watched how another human being, Alton Sterling, laid on the ground, moving his arm tragically, chest opened with bullets...for selling CD's. This is today; now. And the coldness of the police had nothing to say but "shots fired" as he breathed his last. I remembered Eric Garner placed in a banned choke-hold...for selling loose cigarettes. And the coldness of the police, the EMT's, and the justice department had nothing to offer him and his family, the human family but the steel of more guns.

After watching the trauma last night, I went to sleep to the warmth of my life-giving partner, embracing her beautiful skin and its blackness, asking: Is this white response a coldness, or emptiness of spirit: A society structured around fear, criminalization of black bodies, more guns, and a "law and order" that preserves white lives and property. Emptiness. This is emptiness. Because what is evil but the lack of love that can bind us towards moral responsibility, reparations, healing and wholeness.

We are not there, we do not want healing and wholeness, we want more "power" and "things," because we (and hear I speak of white people) have not even collectively admitted the danger of our disease. We may choose to deny it, but if we "love thy neighbor as ourselves," we are still in a hell where the painful shrieks of Sterling's son and mother rise-up. This "law and order" that preserves white privilege and property has an ugly underbelly. And this ugliness will rise up and swallow up everything if we do not ADMIT this and ACT.

Where Excavating the Sky Came From

Where Excavating the Sky Came From

Irrationnal Geometrics digital art installation 2008 by  Pascal Dombis . Public Domain. Wikimedia. 

Irrationnal Geometrics digital art installation 2008 by Pascal Dombis. Public Domain. Wikimedia. 


In a technoscientific age of near-cyborg-existence and capitalist social structure, we find ourselves pitted against each other and our own inner experience: whatever is not material, profitable, or logical is at best, distrusted, and at worst, banished: a very one-dimensional way to live. This has led to the abandonment of what spirituality is (derived from the Latin spiritus, to breathe)  and what it means to be human; and this abandonment is not only outside religion, but within it: the impulse to impose an absolute truth on diverse human experiences. Audre Lorde observed this when she alluded to post-Enlightenment thought on the world: “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us - the poet - whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.”

For me, spirituality begins in the body and includes all inner (or “subjective”) experience, on its own terms. And at its healthiest, to be spiritual is to be open and in healthy tension to all experience: for example, it would view the findings of natural science, the Church Fathers, or the rituals of Haitian Vodou not as an opposition, not as a hierarchy of truth, but as different, different and equally legitimate dimensions. It may not be a dimension I enter or understand, but instead of being destroyed, it must be honored as still-unexplored and unknown. On this plane, the before-irrelevant beauty, wonder, hope, and love are able to emerge and continue to persist. Poetry, an embodied art because it is rooted in sensory perception and emotion, honores inner experience. As I write in the title poem of the book, "Excavating the Sky"

                                 In my room,
I punch in letters, mixing words

to bring-out sparks. And it is You, Yahweh. 

For me, poetry is spirituality and spirituality is poetry. Excavating the Sky is a spiritual experience and as such it is living and invites the reader to participate and shape that experience. 


Wikimedia. 9th-century photo of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, Russian Empire (now Ukraine). 

Wikimedia. 9th-century photo of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, Russian Empire (now Ukraine). 

Born into a Russian family, tongue, and country, beauty and curiosity as a spiritual sensibility seems implanted in me. My parents often remind of my first time attending an Eastern Orthodox Church service and the way I was transfixed by the dizzying chanting, candles, luminous icons, and incense. It was not until I read my Professor Mckguckin’s book Standing in God's Holy Fire The Byzantine Tradition: “The synonymity of beauty and holiness is something that resonates throughout all Byzantine religious philosophy, emerging time and time again, even into the present Orthodox world. Prince Myshkin's exclamation in Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot catches the idea exactly: 'Beauty will save the World!'” Those sentences alone pushed me to claim my Russian identity and its spiritual sensibilities with dignity, a sensibility I had repressed in order to blend in, or what I now think was "assimilate" into the United States at all costs. I remember that only now, after coming to New York, did I begin to claim my Russian identity completely in all spheres. 

In the first poem of Excavating the Sky, “Perestroika” you get a glimpse of my roots for the beautiful, the seemingly different and sensual. Amidst the sterile and muddy economic rubble of the Soviet Union, I remember what would become my first retrievable memory of existence, an experience ushered-in by my mother in the poem "Perestroika," a word I heard often signaling Gorbachev's reforms. After the first line reads "In the sterile-white room, I would look-out / the window and lose count in the snow," I my mother finally arrives, bringing a colorful fruit that I did not see in an store-empty Russia:

She would carry a small aluminum can
and set it on the white table.

Slowly, she would tear open the metal.
Inside: a mango cut in halves, aglow (p. 12)


A description of my book, Excavating the Sky, reads that it seeks to “relate the inner spirituality of [my] Russian background to the fragmentation of a market-driven New World.” Living in an information age, experience is uprooted from its holistic, present-focus in order to fit systems of power and control. These systems of power and control (multinational corporate capitalism, white supremacy, anthropocentrism, patriarchy) have no concern of the whole and thus betray the spirituality, betray the breath, and betray all of life. The fragmentation created a tension that existed in and between religions, between the city and the country, and between races. 

A significant portion of the poems in Excavating the Sky were written during a very difficult spiritual crisis (“Excavating the Sky”) where everything I thought or every decision I made was subjected to the supreme authority of “natural” science and “secular reason.” This experience is dramatized in the poem of the same name as the book title, Excavating the Sky. Here, there is an emptiness and silence that is "absurd as wreckage" almost in a Camus-like manner:

Each morning, I rise like the
wrestling Jacob, running

through parking lots. I pray,
“Break open my counting brain;

make me your holiest fool.”
What blessed psych ward

must they leadeth me to


Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich

Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich

From my wandering childhood starting in Russia, moving to the US, moving back to Russia, then to England, back to Russia, and multiple regions in the US, I have experienced exclusion. Thus, for me, beauty is connected to my commitment to heal chasms and put opposing forces into relation. During my now-failed Muslim-Christian relationship, I was able to survive through new ways of seeing because seeing leads to acting. Again, Audre Lorde's words are fitting: "For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action." This opens up an important topic: the relationship between art and activism that I will explore in other posts. 

The fragmentation I lived under turned out to be ultimately destructive and you can feel these tensions in many of the poems. However, it was poetry, specifically the poetry of Excavating the Sky that honored, unearthed, and charged me; I touched the integrity of beauty. For me, just like Van Gogh's Starry Sky painting is a reflection of what Van Gogh felt, Excavating the Sky is an affirmation of my inner experience. But not only so, it is an experience that is participatory. In other words, it is there to be experienced and shaped by you:

There, above Qur’an and Bible, two different heavens

rise-up and conjoin: it is rivers of milk, streets of gold,
hairless companions, and pearly gates.

I leave these thin wishes as words on a page. Here,
at my bedside, the Qur’an lies not far from the Bible.