My guest today is a fellow I’ve known since the mid-eighties, when he came to a poetry festival in Asheville. His name is Greg Palast. Greg wears a number of hats. He’s a writer, he’s a journalist, he reports the news, and he’s a poet.
James Navé: So tell us what you’ve been up to? The last time that we spoke, you had just finished writing another book and you have always been doing investigative journalism. That’s I would suppose we could say to your day job. Then your full-time job is being a poet. Because when one becomes a poet that takes up 24 hours a day, no matter what you’re up to. So tell us a bit about what’s up and how you’ve been doing, what kind of work you’ve been working on? And then let’s skedaddle right to some poetic conversation. How’s that sound?
Greg Palast: OK. Hey, I’m sure Aristotle will be happy. For those of you who don’t know Greg Palast, or maybe you do. Yeah, that’s the guy that you see on like programs like Democracy Now!. And I was a BBC television investigative reporter and in The Guardian newspapers, Rolling Stone, et cetera… I’ve written a string of New York Times bestsellers. I have my very public side, which is investigative reporting and TV, et cetera. And then my other side, versification. This is a good question: Is my poetry something else other than investigative reporting? I think of myself as an investigative poet.
But I just returned from Georgia where I found this woman, Pam Reardon, a GOP official. She had challenged 32,000 voters with names like “Kim” and “Garcia” and “Johnson”. She challenged 32,000 voters, said that they didn’t live in Georgia. This is under a new Georgia law. And so I decided to go find the voters who had left Georgia, these skanky, illegal voters — of course, almost all voters of color. But there they were her neighbors, right? Down the street. Well, way down the street, I should say. She lived in what looked like a Gone With the Wind mansion.
She was all dressed up in a red outfit, like Nancy Reagan, high heels. Because she thought I was interviewing her about running for vice chair of the Georgia Republican party. I asked her about the challenges to all these voters. Yes, she was going after the illegal voters. And I said, you said these people don’t live in Georgia. Have you called them? No, she said. Written to them? No. Ever gone to their houses to see if they’re still there? No. I said, well, I have. I called 800 of them. They’re still in Georgia. They’re right down the street from you. And I said, would you like to speak to one of the voters that you knocked off the voter rolls? He’s on the phone right now.
Now the thing is, when I walked in, there was a shotgun next to the door, ammo boxes loaded up on the table between us, several handguns. So, when I confronted her, she starts swearing like a sailor, and her husband who was in his seventies, ran out and grabbed me. But given the weaponry, I wasn’t going to disagree with him.
But this is the new game that’s going on. She’s one of a group of 88 Republican operatives who are going after voters of color. So this is the fun I have. This is the type of thing I do. And you won’t see it on U.S. TV. That’s why I report for BBC or Rolling Stone or other places. Because, as Rachel Maddow said when she refused to run the tape, it’s too Greg Palast. And that it is. So that’s what I’ve been doing politically.
Navé: So when you do this work and you go to Georgia and you’re wandering around Atlanta, and you’re finding all these people and you’re discovering what many of us, we at least suspect, and then you prove it. You knock on the door and the people open the door, and the voters who do not live in Georgia are indeed living there in Georgia. So when you’re doing all this work and you’re reporting on it, what is it about poetry…? Why is that important to you?
Palast: Well, here’s where I come from… I come from the anus of Los Angeles. Literally. It’s in Sun Valley, Pacoima. We have the sewage plant there. We have the garbage plant there. We had the coal-fired power plants, if you can imagine that. As an investigative reporter, I often say I took the job because I want to find out who were the billionaires that did this to us.
But before that, I needed an escape. A soul escape. And I was assigned to write about a poet called William Carlos Williams. I had to do a book report in the ninth grade, cause he’d won the Pulitzer Prize. So I had to write this report, but I actually never read his poetry. I couldn’t find his poetry in the library, just books about him or writing about him. And finally, one night I was in Palm Springs with a friend of mine. I was 13 years old and we had our own room. His parents were trying to restore their marriage. That failed. But while they were trying to restore their marriage, unsuccessfully, we successfully snuck across the desert to a 24 hour bookstore where I actually found William Carlos Williams poetry, and I was knocked out, and I immediately just started writing my own. It was my way the hell out of the sewage dump. Not because I had higher thoughts, because, in fact, whatever, I could write about the sewage…You were free.
He was a pediatrician and one of the babies he delivered was Allen Ginsberg. He was actually Allen Ginsberg’s pediatrician. That’s how Ginsberg became a poet, because Williams nurtured his career. He sent his stuff to Ezra Pound, who hated it and told Williams, never send me crap like this again (from Allen Ginsberg). But it inspired Ginsberg and so I started reading about this guy, Allen Ginsberg, and later, I was a student of Allen Ginsberg.
Here’s this guy saying “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” And that’s what I saw. I grew up in loser-ville. We were meant to be losers. We were meant to go to Vietnam and, if we didn’t get our legs shot off, come back and go work at the Chevy plant or at Lockheed building fighter jets.
And my classmate, I was Palast, sitting next to me was this guy named Paddock. And Steve Paddock is the most famous graduate of my high school. He’s the guy who killed 56 people in Las Vegas and then shot himself. So he was a close acquaintance for a decade. He didn’t find a way out. He was a genius. That’s one of the problems he had. Steve Paddock, the Vegas shooter, was a genius.
Navé: He was the one who fired into the big crowd of people at the concert. Is that correct?
Palast: That’s tight. And he was quite brilliant because he was so good at math. He was able to figure the complex calculus of the ballistics to maximize the killing. He was a chess wiz when I was a kid. And I’m actually thinking of doing an epic poem about me and Steve called “The LA Book of The Dead.” What do you think Navé?
Navé: Well, I think “The LA Book of The Dead” about you and Steve would be interesting because what comes to mind when you mentioned that? Of course I’m at a distance from it because I read it on the news. I have no idea who Steve was. All I know is what I saw on the screens. And yet when I think about Steve and personalize him as a friend of yours, and definitely a horrible act that he finally found himself performing, my thought went to him as the individual holding all of the guilt of his act and yet the culture that drove him to that final moment when he did such a horrible thing, that culture you came from beside the auto plant and the fighter jet plant and the oil refineries, and how sad it is that someone who had all of that genius ended up in such a horrible, horrible moment for so many people, hundreds and hundreds of people. How will you work with that poetically? Because that’s a challenging proposition to dance with.
Palast: Here’s how I dealt with it. As soon as Steve slaughtered all these people. And by the way, I’m not sympathetic. I mean, I’m glad he killed himself. He should have done it before he killed the others. It’s just that cold. We went to a place called Poly High. It was also the city’s dump, where they dump mostly Chicanos. But also, Steve’s dad was a bank robber, escaped from prison. So after a while, he couldn’t see his dad. Single mom, a tough time in the fifties and sixties to be a single mom. And again, living under the stacks of the coal plant on San Fernando Road.
The school was supposed to be one of these new advances in education, because they knew that kids like me and Steve were never going to go to college. And so the best thing they would teach us was a skill. We were required to take drafting, and electric shop, and wood shop, and metal shop. Those are required subjects. We didn’t have advanced placement French. We didn’t have calculus. We didn’t have any of those things. He learned that stuff all on his own.
We were supposed to go to Vietnam and then come back and work at Lockheed, which he did, as a draftsman and engineer. Because he was so bright. He should have been at Stanford, he should have been at Yale with his math genius. But instead he went to San Fernando College, got his job. And then, of course, Lockheed was shut down, as was the GM plant, which was sent to Mexico after NAFTA.
I just did a film with Shailene Woodley, where I had her go out to my old house. It’s a film called The Best Democracy Money Can Buy... Shailene Woodley and I go back to my old spot, she’s like a spirit that takes me back. But there you see all the guys who had worked at the GM plant and they had their campers, because they used to have paid month-long vacations after 20 years. And now they’re living in their campers along the tracks. You can’t say they’re homeless. We call that a home. That’s what happened. And I escaped, I escaped.
I literally talked my way into the top schools. But Steve fell down the hole that was dug for him. He didn’t get out. Everyone was saying, why did he do this? Why did he do this? Why didn’t he do this? I said, I know why he did this. I knew Steve and I know why he did it. And why I did it… Sun Valley, Pacoima is like North Hollywood. Your face is pressed against the glass, watching other people eat a steak while they’re feeding you dog food. And you get angry, you get real angry, as I did.
But mine turned into funny poems and crazy investigations and television and film. I just worked it and got out. And what I wrote was that there was just an inch of difference that could have led me down Steve’s path. And I had a damn editor refuse to publish my story, ‘cause he said no one would ever believe that an internationally famous investigative reporter was going to end up on a hotel room window, murdering 56 people. It’s just that little bit of difference. It’s that little bit of luck that got me out.
Hunter Thompson’s phrase, “It was like falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids.” Steve didn’t. And I have to write about it and I’ve been writing about it. And I think that everything I’ve ever done is writing about it. In fact, I end my book, Vultures’ Picnic, by saying what happened to these people? And, ironically, I say maybe they ended up in Las Vegas. Yeah. It’s real close. And that’s what motivates me.
Navé: You were able to get out. Steve wasn’t. What was it that got you out? Or what was it that moved you in the direction of getting away from the kind of fate that Steve’s suffered so horribly? Was it a moment in time? Was it some kind of awareness?
Palast: I can give you some fancy explanation and say, oh, you know, I discovered poetry and I had to become an intellectual and I was reading books. I mean, it’s true. I was 11 years old reading Paradise Lost. I found this writer in a Hollywood bookstore for 10 cents, this cool looking book and it was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And so I thought I had discovered James Joyce and read Ulysses. So I was, you know, an intellectual, but so was Steve.
I’m going to tell you what happened actually. It’s and interesting story and it says the whole damn thing. I was lucky. Okay, number one, I’m a Jewish kid, which is unusual for my area. Which means that I can see that there’s another world possible. So I actually could understand that, believe it or not, the people you saw on TV living better lives, I could be one of those. I knew that it was possible. I just had to figure out where the key was hidden. But I knew that there was a way out.
In fact, my great uncle was on the U S Supreme Court. And my other uncle was the head of the Writers’ Guild here in Hollywood. So while Steve is pressing his face against the glass, I’m feeling for the knobs to get out.
So I had a friend who was at Fairfax High, which like Beverly Hills High, and they had a program… You took the battery of tests and they would let you into UCLA early. But they didn’t even tell us kids in Loser-Ville, under the coal plant stacks, that you could do this. I happened to be meeting my friend at UCLA. We’re going to go to the library. He said, I got to take these tests. I could get into the school. And so I walked in, I said, can I take the test? Is this restricted? This was the sixties, so everything was loosey-goosey. They said, nah, take the test.
So it’s only by those connections that others don’t have, and the knowledge that it’s there. So I took the test. And by the way, I flunked one of the four tests. It was called a Subject A exam. Now you have to understand, you can’t get into the University of California unless you pass this exam that says you know basic English, that you can spell and have grammar. And I flunked. I flunked it, but the Dean of Students at UCLA called up my principal and said, what the hell are you teaching kids at school? We tested his IQ, it’s through the roof. We gave him the SAT without any practice — perfect. But then, he’s illiterate. And he said, don’t you teach English language? And my principal said, we’re lucky if someone can understand English at all at this school. And so they said, well, we’ll take a chance on this kid. I ended up being named Head of the Philosophical Society at Trinity College, a position previously held by Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde. That’s a kid that flunked basic English.
Someone gave me a chance. Today, they close off the exit. So that’s what I always write about; About people whose exits have been not only cut off, but something else, they can’t speak for themselves. And I really believe I’ve been put here on this earth to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves, for the kids like Steve, buried alive. And that’s all over the world. And that’s a pretty strong statement for an atheist about why I’m here, but I kind of have to acknowledge that.
For example, I was in the Amazon, way up the Amazon River where Chevron oils had just poisoned the Amazon. And I found a chief and I go meet this chief. He speaks Spanish and most of the natives don’t. But the chief spoke Spanish so we could communicate. And he said, you know, my three-year-old son went swimming in one of the watering holes here, which was shiny, and didn’t realize that the shine meant that there was oil in that water. Oil dumped by Chevron, oil waste. He came up coughing blood and dropped dead in his father’s arms. And his other son died of leukemia. So I went with him to the jungle court room in Ecuador, in the middle of nowhere. He put on war paint, feathers, naked from the waist up. He was ready for battle and filed… He had some people type up for him a lawsuit against Chevron for his son’s death and for destroying the area. And they’re laughing at this Indian dressed up like it’s Halloween. Anyway, he won the suit, a $9.5 billion judgement. Because he had a guy named Steve Donziger, a lawyer in New York who had graduated from Harvard with Obama, but instead of going out to cash in and make money, he decided to volunteer to work for these natives on their case. And he spent his life doing it.
Right now he’s under house arrest in New York. Chevron found a judge to say that he had manipulated the case in Ecuador. This is completely insane. Well, he had refused to hand over to Chevron his computer and his cell phone. ‘Cause they’ll find the names of whistleblowers and in places like Ecuador and in South America, if you’re on a list of whistleblowers, you’re dead. The death squads will get you. He wasn’t going to put these people in danger, so now he’s facing six months in prison… So I’m speaking for Steve, but more I’m speaking for Chief Criollo, ‘cause he’s there deep in the jungle.
Now I was able to get his story on the top of the BBC nightly news — by the way, silenced here in America. No one would touch it. PBS News Hour turned it down. And I said, well, wait a minute. It says that the main sponsor of the PBS News Hour is Chevron oil. Does that have something to do with not running this story?
Again, I’m an atheist, so I don’t know how this happened, but I was in doctor’s office and some working class-looking guy brushed against me and I thought, did he just pick my pocket and take my wallet? And I reach in to my pockets and there’s a piece of paper. It said on the piece of paper, thank you for speaking for those of us who can’t. So that’s what I do. And I’m trying to do it with the poetry too, which is not by the way, generally overtly political. What did Pound say? it’s the news for which men die every day.
Navé: Well, it’s interesting, that fellow who slipped a note in your back pocket could have been an angel. And I mean that on all serious levels. If you think about the whole wide expanse of the universe being available to us as one proposition, then the idea of God becomes much more understandable.
Palast: Talking about angels, I was thinking two things. One, I just pulled up an angel poem, but I was also thinking, which is kind of somewhat inspired by Rilke’s line…”Every angel is terrifying.”
Navé: And Lorca’s essay on the Theory and Play of the Duende. He talks about the angels. He says the angels fly overhead and they sometimes bless you. And they’re at a bit of a distance, an angelic distance. The muses will get into your heart, and sometimes other muses, they will drive you crazy. And they don’t cooperate with you, but the Duende, the Duende, deep in your body that bubbles, bubbles below your belly button, it sounds like the river’s roaring and itches the skin, that’s where the art is. So I love the idea of the angels being at a distance, but the Duende, that ooze that comes out of us as poets, I like the idea of the Duende.
Palast: If you don’t mind, I’ll do a little versification.
Navé: So Greg Palast will now read a poem about angels I think.
Palast: I don’t know if you remember this, for a while there was a craze about finding your angel. And people used to go these angel classes. You’d go into these classes and you’d find your angel. And you’d start out and you’d say, “I’m breathing in light and I’m breathing out doubt.” Then your angel is supposed to appear to you. So I said, you know, okay, I’ll take all the help I can get. Cross-legged, I’ve got my hands up, I’m breathing in light and I’m breathing out doubt. This poem is a kind of Benadryl for your ooze…
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
“I’m breathing in Light.
I’m breathing out Doubt.
I’m breathing in Light.
I’m breathing out Doubt.”
And finally my angel whispers in my ear.
“Jerk!” she says.
“I’M BREATHING IN LIGHT,” I say very loud.
“AND I’M BREATHING OUT DOUBT,” hoping Someone will hear
and I’ll get a more encouraging angel.
“jerk!,” she says.
“You know,” I say, “They can’t put me in jail
for slitting an angel’s throat.”
“I’m immortal,” she says, “And, Jerk,
she adds, “I’m just gorgeous…”
“I don’t care and I can’t see you and I don’t care.”
“…Long legs and a cute little butt high in the air.
I bet you want to have sex with me…”
“I don’t care and
I know I’m a JACKOFF – I DON’T NEED A DIVINE PROCLAMATION
“…Well, you can’t. I don’t have a vagina.
Angels don’t have vaginas, you know.”
“What I don’t know has filled several books
of unpublished poetry. What I don’t know …”
“I’m talking. You should be Breathing in Light
And Breathing out Doubt.”
(DAMN. I’m such a total failure
Even my guardian angel is a disaster.)
“Don’t they have to test angels for personality
or bedside manner or …?”
“I’m only into Enlightenment.
I don’t take care of all your problems like those
Cheap movie angels who stop you
From killing yourself on Christmas. Go ahead,
kill yourself on Christmas, I think
it would do you some good.
And, I’m a dick-teaser.”
My legs have fallen asleep under me and
I can’t get off the prayer rug.
I tell myself, I’m through with gimmicks: my soul
Will have to take care of itself.
“GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!” I shout,
And take a punch at the air.
“I DIDN’T SEND FOR YOU, I asked for the Devil!
I WANT TO SELL MY SOUL FOR A MAJOR PUBLISHER
WITH A HIGH-POWERED MARKETING PLAN…”
Then WOMP!! She hits me.
Hard, on the kisser.
I fall back on the prayer mat.
“DAMN! Angels don’t hit people.
That’s got to be a rule!”
” JERK,” she says. ” JERK.
and it is a thousand voices in tears and anger
and before I can get off the floor and run
the gossamer feathers of light surround me
choke me and smother me, blind me, cut me
and fill me with a storm of blackened verses
useless, unspeakable poems, without endings
without explanations without any way to form or
shout for help or say their name.
Palast: So that’s my bad luck with angels.
Navé: That is bad luck with angels. So read another one for us.
Palast: This is not about my bad luck with angels. This is actually called “Audition for Harvey Weinstein” because I’m here in Hollywood, by the way. I made it up the hill from the pit of Sun Valley, Pacoima. So now I can actually see where I grew up.
Navé: People listening might not know if they don’t live in LA what made it up the hill means? I think I know what it means.
Palast: It’s physical. I was doing a film with Rosario Dawson, and we were talking about it and I said, Pacoima, Sun Valley is this trough. It literally is a trough. It’s the most polluted place in California. It has the highest COVID rate in the nation. But if you crawl out of that hill, financially, emotionally artistically, now I’m up at the top of the hill in the Hollywood Hills, looking down above the smog. As I told Rosario, where I grew up from where I am now, I said, from where we’re standing, I said, it is a 20 minute drive and 3000 miles. And that’s when people don’t understand when they watch a guy like Steve Paddock.
By the way, my high school… we’ve had only two mass killers born in Los Angeles, both graduated from my high school. It’s not by accident. Including the Santa Claus killer, the guy who dressed up like Santa Claus and killed himself and eight of his in-laws on Christmas Eve. Another way to get out of the trough, a guy who in my school is expelled because he had ripped off a guy’s face with his teeth. He was expelled and he went to prison, and he came out and a casting agent saw him and grabbed him. His name is Danny Trejom, who then went on to make the Machete films, has stopped biting people’s face off — except on camera and that’s when it’s fake.
That’s where I come from. But the other way to get out, like Danny did, is to get an audition. By the way, Sun Valley, where I came from, was the porn capital of the world. My girlfriend went to audition, not for a porn film. Well, she thought not for the porn film. She went for an audition, so when Weinstein was arrested I went back to what she told me happened at her audition, and so the first part of it is non-fiction. So this is “Audition for Harvey Weinstein”.
AUDITION (FOR HARVEY WEINSTEIN)
“STICK WITH ME ON THIS:
“IF YOU WERE ON A DESERT
“ISLAND AFTER A PLANE CRASH YOU WOULD DO
“ALL THESE HORRIBLE THINGS.
“YOU WOULD EAT DEAD BODIES. YOU WOULD HAVE SEXUAL INTERCOURSE WITH
Why are we listening to this freak?
Because he is an EMPLOYER
and we are under-employed.
“YES YOU WOULD! WE WILL REVEAL IT ALL!
“THE WHOLE DARK HELL OF THE HUMAN SOUL!
“WE HAVE THE GUTS TO FILM IT AND I WANT TO
“KNOW IF YOU HAVE THE GUTS TO PLAY IT!”
What he wants to know is, are we willing
to play girl corpses
with our vaginas sticking up out of the sand.
The three other girls are from Iowa. They played “Sandy”
in the Lansing High School production of Grease.
They have glossies
and they are listening to this brain-damaged tarantula.
and I am listening to this brain-damaged tarantula.
But I am 8000 years old. Yes I am.
So when we step out into the California storm,
and hear him screaming back in his production office,
my little sisters don’t know that
I have psychokinetically twisted his eyes back into his head
and as his sockets drip blood and mascara, he is looking
straight into his own brain and he can’t stop screaming.
That’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re 8000 years old.
And you know what else I can do?
I can read flags.
And this flag says, “My tongue is in New York and my anus is in
I eat dollars made of Mexicans and it comes out of LA as
When you’re 8000 years old you can do all these things
But you can’t get a job, can you?
Unless you put your lips around the tarantula.
I’ll tell you what.
I’ll trade you your resume for this information:
Kill Mrs. Schneider because she lied to you in the third grade.
Kill Santa Claus because he lies to children day after day.
Kill everyone but Richard Nixon, because
he told you the truth
when he said,
Evil is a full-time job.
[That’s what he told me when I was much younger than you.]
Navé: That captures all of this stuff that’s going on for sure.
Palast: Harvey Weinstein didn’t invent the casting couch. Obviously there’s more.
Navé: So in terms of the poetry you are writing, this piece that you just read, is performative. It’s almost like a monologue. It’s constructed so that it takes us into the grit of life. And much of the work you do from underneath the smokestacks, there’s a grit about it. Do you ever find any inclination to write in the direction of something that’s softer? Or is that something you’ve ever thought about doing?
Palast: That’s the other wonderful thing about poetry. Unlike the deadlines I have, and I listen to some editor at Rolling Stone say, well, that’s not our style. They don’t like the topic I’m trying to sell them or something. But instead I have plenty of room… Let’s find something here. This is something I just did. It looks a little bit different.
WHAT DID I THROW UP TONIGHT?
I’d say about half a pound of chicken Jalfrezy from the Indian diner
2 pounds of regret 140 pounds of envy
an Old man shouts in his sleep
Millions used to listen to him, or at least felt a discomfort in their dreams disturbed by the shouting
his Young Wife is listening to a podcast with those earphones in
but the cat pays attention
The Next Act is flexing his muscles in the Green room
Younger, with that wonderful arrogance of self-delusion
“and now a guest who needs no introduction…“
no, I would like to be introduced: Our next guest is the man that doesn’t love his children.
“We have a caller on line 2 with a question for Greg Palast.
It’s a Mr. God who wants to know, with all the evils you’ve bitched about, Mr. Palast, what’s your solution, what can We do about it?”
it’s an answer I’ve given many times,
polished by expensive PR consultants.
But I can’t remember any of the lines I’ve practiced.
And I realize, there’s nothing we can do about it,
not the man who forgot his gloves on the bus,
not the man on the line who created the heavens and the earth, not my young bride, nor my cat nor yours,
The line goes dead.
The silence suffocates.
And a tiny planet fights for the words,
“I can’t breathe I can’t breathe”
Palast: It’s more work to read, than to write.
Navé: It’s an interesting thing to think about, because when we write our poetry and we generate our work, it’s one thing, but then when you enter it from the storytelling, spoken word point of view, if you will, engaging with it — especially given the story you’ve already told us about how you did fight to get out — I think that we have an instinct to go do something that makes our lives happier. That makes our lives more abundant, more productive, more generous, and more able to care about the people that are around us. I think we all have that drive, and sometimes it gets turned in the direction Steve got turned in. Somehow poetry allows us all to stay in that sensibility. And even though you are driven to speak for all those who can’t speak, it’s interesting that you are still speaking for the Greg Palast who couldn’t speak as well. So you are everybody in a sense. I can hear that struggle in your performance.
Palast: Well, I’ll tell you, I do feel smothered a lot, even now. But it’s a different ghetto that I’ve been put in. I crawled out of Sun Valley, Pacoima, the smog hole. I’m still ghettoized as a journalist and this has affected me. In other words, I can tell these stories; a third of a million voters have been challenged in Georgia. I can’t get that on the air in the U.S. for love or money. When I went to the jungle, to the rainforest, and met with the indigenous people that were being literally poisoned, murdered, killed by Chevron, it was top of the BBC nightly news, which is great. It went all over the world, except my own country, where it bounced off the electronic Berlin wall.
So I feel my words gets smothered. I mean, compared to others, yeah, you could say I’m lucky. I’ve had a bunch of bestsellers, I’m in some big outlets, and once in a while, they let me on MSNDNC or whatever. And they used to, but not anymore, allow me on National Petroleum Radio. If I could have found Steve I’d say, well, you know what? I could use your brains. The words are going to strike them harder than your bullets.
But I still feel small. And so that frustration comes out in that poem I just read to you. It’s our world which can’t speak the truth, but it’s also obviously very personal to me. Again, the poetry is uncensored by an editor, uncensored by a television executive. It’s the full thing. It’s an area in which I can actually operate uncensored, which I love.
My book, Vultures’ Picnic, which is somewhat autobiographical, there’s a lot of poetry in there. What I did is I took out the enjambment. I sneak it in. You don’t actually know that there’s several poems in there. I wanted to start the book with two words. The second word is God, but the first word is a word we can’t use on community radio. Penguin, they’re not going to publish it, unless I take out those words. I actually got several ministers to write them. A rabbi, a minister, a psychologist, a professor, all saying that what Greg has written is actually a very religious book and you can’t get to the heart of things unless you doubt this system. So, yeah, I still get censored, even in my books.
Navé: And, you know, in poetry, unlike a lot of the art forms, poetry has never been commercialized at the level the other art forms have been. So it’s a bit more open in terms of allowance. What I think happens is that this censorship that you feel around your journalistic work is indeed in place in the world, for sure, and it is with poetry. So for example, you can’t say certain words on a community radio station. You can say almost anything you want to on a podcast. So in a sense, in this poetic arena, censorship forces us as poets to craft the message so that it gets through the filters, unlike a lot of messages that can get stopped, it’s possible to put the poetry through those filters. And there’s so many different ways of getting it out. And there’s some kind of magic about poetry that allows it to be heard under almost any circumstances.
Palast: I only knew two poets who trained me how to write. One was Allen Ginsberg, the other was my mailman, Charles Bukowski. You know, Ginsberg became internationally famous. He’s one of the only poets who’s ever been on the cover of Time magazine. He was 29 years old, here he’s on the cover of Time magazine because he was arrested for obscenity for his poem “Howl” put out by City Lights Books. Cause he’d use the word mother “lover” in the poem. William Carlos Williams, his pediatrician and mentor said, would you take that word out? Ginsberg actually presciently said, I’m leaving it in because you know what, maybe I’ll get arrested and that will bring some attention to it. And boy did it, worldwide. The reason Allen Ginsberg became the most successful, that is, the most read, and certainly most financially successful poet of our time, the last century, was cause of that scandal.
Same with Ulysses. We wouldn’t have known about that wonderful book if it hadn’t been banned. In fact, there’s a lot of terrible artists who’ve become famous because they’ve been banned from scandal and they don’t deserve it. So scandal can be very helpful. It’s only when we say something naughty, or do something naughty, that poetry gets any notice.
Navé: Naughty also can be interpreted as pushing the limits and using language that you can’t use on community radio. All of that language, when used artistically, has great power. So none of it is really vulgar when it’s placed properly, and all of it can be just horrible and terrible and off tone if it’s placed in the wrong way. How do you figure out how to use all of this language, and build your own coding into it, so that it rings in someone else’s psychology, in someone else’s imagination and affects them? Why don’t you close this out with one more poem, Mr. Palast,
Palast: This is called “Cruel and Silent on the Phone”.
CRUEL AND SILENT ON THE PHONE
Larry, please, I don’t believe in God.
I, I believe in you and the kids and
I don’t want to die–Did Lydie call
Why can’t she
Pick up the phone and call
DON’T ARGUE ABOUT THE TESTS I DON’T NEED TESTS —
— And that’s when his head popped off and floated
over the hospital air conditioners
and the hospital parking lot like a stupid grinning balloon.
He was 200 years old
This can’t be the last time. I’m scared.
I’m scared of Bernstein that schmuck
And Lydie doesn’t back me up. WHY
ISN’T SHE ON MY SIDE!
— And what the hell was he doing in a client’s rental car
in Utah. He was too old for this crap.
He knew one thing:
He’d come to build his mother’s tomb.
Larry stood over the bed,
holding a sword over her head.
She was only two minutes old, tiny and red
in the hospital grown meant for
a grown woman, a grown and old dying woman.
“Everyone,” said Lydia, eleven thousand miles away.
“Everyone,” said Lydia to the bottle, “gets one last phone call.
“What’s the last bill I’ll pay before I die?
“What’ll be my very last car?
“A KISS-MY-ASS CADILLAC that’s what!
“A MONSTER MOTHER MERCEDES, THAT’S WHAT, MISTER!”
Ev-er-y day in eve-er-y way
I’m getting a wee bit better.
Ev-er-y day in ev-er-y way.
Newborn and fresh,
impotent and insomniac,
he’d learned the lessons of Vietnam
and was ready to MAKE A BUCK.
The sword came down.
Larry’s bride cradled the severed, bleeding phone cord
in her arms and sang a lullaby:
“We’re ALL scared of Bernstein.”
I ONLY WISH ON YOU A DAUGHTER WHO TREATS YOU
LIKE YOU TREAT ME —
— and just as she said it,
a daughter just like her
was born out of her ear
born to be cruel
and silent on the phone.
Let us take her up and drown her
This one just born.
Navé: Thank you, Greg Palast for that poem. I’ve really enjoyed all of the stuff that you put out, and your work ,and your poetry. What I like about it now is… you come to it with doubt. You don’t come to it with certainty. You are certain when you get in it, and you’re confident with your work, and yet there’s a part of you that is still just a little bit not sure, and within that uncertainty lies some kind of potency, some kind of power.
Palast: Wow. That is ridiculously perceptive. ‘Cause I just realized something. I know how I’m going to begin and I know I’m going to end, and I just have to go from there to there, right? But you know what? I’ve never written a poem, ever, knowing how it would end. That’s a very different journey. I don’t want to be corny about it, but it’s a really, really different way, where you let your mind and your soul, or something, takeover. The book I consider actually a secret poem, called Vultures’ Picnic, unlike my other writings, I said, I didn’t write this book, I wrote it down. And I think that’s the difference between the prose and the poetry. The prose, you know what you’re writing. The poetry, if you know what you’re writing, don’t do it.
Navé: Man that if great advice. Because I do think that that’s really, really true. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the rational mind and the imaginative mind, and I always say to people, stay in your rational mind because if you get out of it, you’ll just go off and never come back. But if you stay in your rational mind and let your imaginative, soulful mind lead the dance, it may know the end of the poem. But we don’t sense that end until that imaginative dance comes to a conclusion and gives it to us, and we recognize it, oh my gosh, there’s the end of the piece.
Palast: I had no idea what the angel was going to do to me.
Navé: You don’t know what the angel will do, or the muse, or for that matter, the Duende.
Palast: Well, they’re playing with us. I’m enjoying these conversations because it’s very different. Because, just like the poetry, if I’m on MSNBC, I know exactly what’s going to happen and it’s going to happen in 140 seconds. But here, I don’t know, this show runs like an epic poem.
Navé: I never come on this show with a question prepared. I have never done that. I wait until I connect with the person and pick up the conversation where we left it off, like you and I have been having a conversation for years. So I just pick up where we left off before. And if it’s a brand new person, I find an easy place to enter. Sometimes I’ll enter by asking someone about what their relationship to color is, or what their relationship is to silence, simple little questions like that, that really aren’t simple at all. Then start this fabulous journey through a beautiful woodland, if you will. We roam without a map and we find the pathways that are there and they take us to the other side of the wilderness, which is no longer wilder. It’s still maybe is wild, but it’s no longer as unfamiliar a wilderness as it was when we embarked.
So, Greg, I really have always enjoyed just the way you do all of this work and it’s been such a pleasure to have you come back and be here a second time. I really, really do appreciate it. And it’s always fun to check in and see what the political climate’s like out there in the field and to see what the poetic climate is like inside your head. So thanks so much for being on Twice 5 Miles Radio. I really do appreciate.
Palast: It’s a thrill, it’s a challenge, and it’s dangerous — and I love it!