Hope for Poiesis: An Interview with Stephen K. Levine
by Paolo Knill
Paolo Knill: My wonder is always, when you entered the field of Expressive Arts at Lesley College (now Lesley University) in Cambridge, MA in the 1980’s, you brought in a word that still today makes things happen that were not easily explained otherwise, and the word was poiesis.
I want to introduce that word into our conversation. I imagine you were involved in the arts before. Was the word poiesis already there and you brought it together with the arts? Or was it found through your activity?
Stephen K. Levine: When I was in university as an undergraduate, I was a poet and edited the university literary magazine. I wanted to understand what I was doing and the significance that the arts had for me and for human life in general, so I did my dissertation in philosophy on Heidegger’s essay on The Origin of the Work of Art. In that essay, he uses the word poiesis as a central concept.
From there it seemed to fit into my work in psychotherapy where I was using so called “action techniques,” and into my work in theatre and poetry as well. But it wasn’t until I came to Lesley as a post-doctoral fellow and met you Paolo, that I had the sense that I could bring all these things together. I was able to do that partly because you recognized the importance of the philosophical dimension in this field.
Previously I had been living in three worlds: in university I was living in philosophy, in theatre I was living in performance, and in therapy I was living in the world of feelings and emotions. When I went to Lesley, I originally thought I would study psychodrama because of my theatre background, but Shaun McNiff, the Dean at that time, said that there was someone I should meet before I decided. That of course was you. We had lunch and you immediately started talking about Heidegger; then I knew I was in the right program, where I could do therapy, art and philosophy all together. Poiesis is a central word for Heidegger, but I’m not sure whether I stick to his meaning or not.
Over the years I’ve tried to develop the word in a different direction. Certainly Heidegger didn’t have a sense of the therapeutic or social change aspect of poiesis. It was just about the work of art. I had found in the 1970’s, when I started studying psychotherapy, the field was very much understood as self-expression; the goal was to express yourself. And, as you and I started working together, I realized art is not self-expression. The art work expresses, not the self. Perhaps it says something very important for the self, but it is not a reflection or a representation of the self. I thinks Heidegger’s concept of poiesis captured that dimension of it. As my thinking developed in this field, I began to understand the complex nature of its role in human experience in general, not just in the arts. It has to do with taking what you receive and shaping it in a new direction. Thus, the concept has both a receptive and an active aspect to it. And, in order to work like that, you have to be willing to give up certain things. In particular, you have to be willing to give up control. I remember you often used to say, “You have to give up control in order to achieve mastery.” I took that to heart. You have to give up control, and you have to give up knowing in advance what the result will be. And yet these two things, knowing and willing, are the hallmarks of human activity. Human beings are not pre-adapted to a particular environment, but rather they have to shape their environment in order to survive. They do it through what Freud understood as the ego functions of knowing and willing. These are considered, then, to be the central characteristics of being human, and also of the divine. God is the paragon of omniscience and omnipotence; he is all-knowing and all-powerful.
However, in order to engage in a poietic act, you have to let go of knowing, and you have to let go of controlling. That’s scary and counterintuitive, but I think it is essential in all creative work. Poiesis became my way of understanding the work that we do in the field of expressive arts, understanding it not as self-expression but as forming works, which then speak to us in meaningful ways.
PK: I may be jumping now to a very different point.
PK: OK. This shaping that happens on condition that you give up control and knowing that produces a work. Perhaps it’s a process to get there; however, I cannot imagine anything else when I say giving up control and knowing, then something else becomes present..
SKL: Yes, something else arrives. You have called it the “Third.”
PK: Today I would like to say, the work arrives. You are someone who continuously has shown that you are fully aware that you may have to give up control, however, not give up skill.
PK: You also were one of the scholars I have seen passing through Lesley who got into painting, refining your skills, you even took courses. And still today you take Butoh courses, you take clown courses, voice courses. So what is it that enables us to give up control and knowledge in order to get skills?
SKL: As you know, we have this idea of “low skill/high sensitivity.” That is a good slogan for the helping relationship to another person. We don’t insist that they become masters in order to paint but that they can paint or be engaged in any other art-form through being sensitive to the materials. However, I think that it’s important for everyone who is a helper to be skilled in at least one area of art-making so that they have some sense of what it is to make works and how important that is. And, at the same time, the most highly skilled person has to let go, has to say, “Let me see what’s coming,” because skill will not produce what does not exist. This is the really difficult part.
Once something comes, you can shape and refine it and use your skills to achieve a result. In that situation, your reflective capacity comes in, your knowing, because the work is coming, but then you step back and reflect on it: , Did it arrive? What does it need? And then engage with it again. That’s one of the things I learned from you about so-called “takes,” the idea that you can keep working on something until the work arrives. You don’t have to just say, “Let’s dance,” and then ask, “How was that? How did you feel?” The question is much more, “Did it arrive?
Does it work?” And, if not, “What would you need to make it arrive?” Or, “Let’s do it again. and here’s a suggestion for you.” Maybe I see something in a movement sequence, for example, and I say: “Don’t forget, you can use different levels, you can go fast or slow, you can be sharp or smooth in your movements,” and so forth. So, the more I know, the more I can help someone with letting something new arrive, but I can’t produce it. I can’t make it. And that’s what’s scary about the arts. That’s why we have writer’s block and stage fright, because it really is a question of going into a place of unknowing and a lack of control. And, that is opposite to the way we live–even me, I like to know what’s going on and I like to be in charge of it.
I was going to write a poem about an illness that I have been diagnosed with, inspired by the dissertation of Irene Renzenbrink at EGS, who talks about working with loss through the arts. So I thought, OK, I’ll start with that. I began with that impulse, then suddenly there was a connection in the poem with the people who were at the border in the United States who were being mistreated, jailed and separated from their children. This situation somehow connected with my need to accept what comes. Do I accept my loss? Do we accept them? How can we do this? Acceptance is counter to all our impulses which are to keep away things that may be bad and bring in only good things. But, sometimes you have to say: “I let in whatever comes”. The poem was a big surprise to me, that it had anything to do with the border situation in the United States which I was not thinking about at all, but which of course I had been very concerned with, as have many people, the horrible ways in which refugees and immigrants are treated. The separation of children from their parents is a notorious crime, so it must have been on my mind in some sense. And it popped up in this poem about myself and my illness.
Shall I read you the poem?
SKL: I had been given a provisional diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, a motor disease., It’s quite troubling, and I had difficulty accepting the diagnosis. My wife, Ellen Levine, and I decided we would call it “Mr. P.” That felt more familiar, to personalize it, so this poem is called “Welcoming Mr. P.”
Mr. P is knocking at the door
must I let him in?
He bears no gifts,
only burden, danger, fear,
At the border there are others
no better than us
or even worse,
must we let them in?
You shall welcome the stranger
for you were once a stranger yourself
It does not say
welcome the stranger
who can give you what you need
I hear him knock
I hear them knocking
I am knocking too
It was a total surprise that coming to terms with my illness through the arts would have anything to do with the way people are treated at the United States border, and at the borders of other countries too in this worldwide refugee crisis.
PK: And, at the same time, you quote yourself in a strange way. For me it is the most important statement you ever made about poiesis, and you did it repeatedly. I remember that it was in your first book Poiesis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul . You read this statement to the community in the community meeting as an important finding.
SKL: What was that?
SKL: I don’t know! The one statement that keeps recurring to me is in the essay I wrote for the Foundations of Expressive Arts Therapy, “Poiesis is always possible,” but I don’t think that’s the one you mean.
PK: That is a great one, but it’s not the one I mean. The one I mean is: “Bringing gifts to the feast”.
SKL: That’s true. Of course, in that case I was talking about when someone brings you a gift, you welcome it without any problem. If someone wants to bring me a gift, I like it, but, if someone comes to the door, and I don’t know whether they are bringing a gift or not, I become wary. Many people in our field would like to make a disaster into a gift: “Oh, you have this disease, well, there are so many things you can do, maybe it will help you in the end.” But sometimes it’s not a gift, or it’s a gift in the sense in which in German das Gift means also “the poison.” You don’t know what’s coming, and to welcome that is much more difficult than when someone says “Here’s your birthday present!”
PK: You said in another context that the gift you bring may be, I’m pretty sure I’m quoting, “Tears and other difficult feelings”.
SKL: Ha! Well, I would agree with that. I don’t know that I said it that way, but I definitely agree. Yes, when someone cries in a group, I always say to them, if they feel ashamed, that this is a gift you are giving to the group. It allows us to connect with your distress and sorrow and that allows us to connect to our own sorrow. In fact, I will say this about the gift of Mr. P, who I don’t think of as bringing gifts really, but it enabled me to connect with the suffering of the refugees which I wasn’t really thinking about at all, so in that sense, it’s true. And I think it’s a Buddhist perspective also. I understand when Buddhists say existence is suffering, because we always want to hold on to what is, rather than accept that everything is passing, and we suffer from not letting go. They also say that if you can accept this, you feel great compassion for all beings. I think that’s it exactly.
PK: Including the shaped beings.
SKL: Ah, ha! Say more about that.
PK: In helping people and in leading them through a process, we use the image in the way you describe. It’s as if the image is as much waiting for you as you are waiting for it.
PK: So, in that statement it’s evident that in order that it can arrive, you use your skills.
SKL: Yes, we help it to arrive with skill.
PK: You say there is something in treatment that is similar to this perspective. It needs skills to treat people. And one skill is that you serve whatever needs to come.
SKL: Whatever needs to come, you help it to arrive. Socrates said that the job of the philosopher is not to tell you the truth, but to be a midwife to your ideas. To help you arrive at your own ideas, give birth to them. I don’t think Plato took that statement too seriously himself, but I think it’s a brilliant idea.
PK: To make such a statement and guiding thought, you must have had the experience of working with the arts. You are a living example of these thoughts based on your experience. So you have done art and you train in art, and thus you can make the thing come faster. You still train for it, but what motivates you then? You especially. Writers write books and books. Like Sisyphus, they do it again and again.
SKL: Yes, again and again, because you’re never finished. Sometimes I worry that I’m repeating myself, and I probably am. I think I have one idea about poiesis and just keep repeating it over and over, but that is probably what most philosophers do. They have an idea, and just keep saying it in different ways and seeing different aspects of it. But I think for me, part of it is you have to love it. Certainly, this is true in theatre; otherwise why would I keep taking these workshops? Perhaps I can’t do them very well, but at the same time that I hate it, I love it. Doing Butoh is a good example - everyone in the class is a trained dancer and about 40-50 years younger than me (laughter), so I am always thinking, “Oh I’m so clumsy, I’m not doing this well.” I remember saying to my Butoh teacher, Denise Fujiwara, “I suck at Butoh.” She looked at me and said, after a moment’s pause: “Well, you’re improving” (laughter). And I love that because she didn’t say: “Oh no, you’re very good.” We both knew that wasn’t true. But there is something about doing it, I don’t know what it is, the sense of discovery maybe, the sense that something may be arriving that I didn’t know was there before. That’s what all creative work is in a way, giving birth. It’s scary, but also very satisfying. Of course, sometimes it’s a still-birth, or it even produces a monster. Sometimes it’s a failure, but when something does happen, it’s a great pleasure. So I think that’s the pleasure in it.
PK: Something still bugs me. We can get lost by going into explanations, that the sculpture is already there, we have to peel it out of the stone to reveal it, etc.
SKL: I think Michelangelo said that.
PK: Yes, sure it needs skill in order to help it come through, but can I really help it if it is so powerful? Does it help itself? So what exactly is this activity we do when you describe these things? I believe that you have experienced them. But when Heidegger writes about them for instance, he may write poetry, but I don’t see him doing Butoh.
SKL: There are several things about that that I want to say. First of all, Heidegger is a language person and was part of the linguistic turn in philosophy. I don’t think he is really familiar with any of the other arts. In the essay on the Origin of the Work of Art, he does an analysis of a painting by Van Gogh, the one of the two boots. It’s a beautiful phenomenological analysis, but it’s also very imaginative, and he’s been criticized by interpreting the two boots in the painting as peasant boots. He imagines the world of the peasant woman in the fields and then her bringing in the boots with mud on them, and how they support her experience of her world. But then I also read an interpretation of that painting by a psychoanalyst who said something like this: “Well if you see that one of the boots has a shoelace that lies on the other, then you realize that this is the painting of two brothers, Vincent and Theo. The shoelace that lies on the other shows that Vincent is relying on Theo. Each of the boots represents one brother”. I think Heidegger does go into an imaginative interpretation in his phenomenological analysis, but at least he had some sense of the beauty of Van Gogh’s work. His examples otherwise are mostly poetry, particularly the work of Hölderlin, with a little bit of Rilke, Stefan George, and so forth.
The amazing thing to me is that Heidegger’s writing on the poets is so sensitive. He is so receptive to what they have to offer, but he’s such a shit when it comes to human beings. Remember, he was an anti-Semite and a follower of Hitler. His “Black Notebooks” have recently become available. These were private journals he kept. We see in them that he was not only a follower of Hitler publicly, but privately throughout his life he was an anti-Semite. How can that be? Ezra Pound was the same. How can you be a fascist and still be a poet? This is peculiar. It’s like there is a different dimension of your life than the one comes out in your work. Most people can’t accept this contradiction, so they either say he never was a fascist, or that his philosophical writing is crap because of his politics. I don’t think either one of those is the truth. He was a terrible human being and a wonderful philosopher. If we judged people’s works by who they are, we would then have to say that a good person produces a good work and a bad person produces a bad work. That’s obviously not true.
PK: It would be totally against the point of view of Expressive Arts.
SKL: Totally against reality. I know someone who said he won’t read Hemingway because Hemingway was such a chauvinist and so misogynistic in his relationship to women. I said to him, “That’s ridiculous, I suppose you don't’ read Heidegger because he was a fascist”. He said: “That’s right,” I then asked, “Have you read Heidegger?” He said: “Well, no.” So Heidegger’s case is very strange, particularly because his work is really all about letting go, letting be, Seinlassen, which is the opposite of fascism, which was based on “the triumph of the will,” to quote the title of the film about Hitler.
PK: And nowadays…
SKL: Well, Trump is a good example of the triumph of the will. For him, if I want it, it’s true. And if I want it, it must exist. And anything that prevents me from getting what I want is bad and needs to be destroyed. This is terrible!
PK: Hypothetically, can you imagine rewriting the whole philosophy of our world view, the Menschenbild,of Expressive Arts built on poiesis? Is there something else that needs to be said today? Something to be changed in the foundation of our field?
SKL: Well, I’m sure that someone else will change it, and that’s good. But as for me, I stand by this. But I also feel like I need to keep thinking things through and really consider all the different aspects. For example, one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is that in psychotherapy, outside of Expressive Arts, there has been a tremendous interest in the past decades on relational work, so-called “relational psychotherapy.” I’m wondering, what is the importance of the relationship in Expressive Arts and in art-making generally? I start to think of Cathy Moon’s book Studio Art Therapy, which I highly recommend. She has a chapter on relationship and the arts therapies.
I realize that art is relational in its essence. Sometimes we still have a hangover from the modern concept of the artist as an isolated genius, who creates out of his… his own mind. I emphasize that pronoun because it’s not a traditional feminine perspective, which emphasizes the relationship. I think we have to reinsert our thinking about the arts into being with others, Heidegger says this well in Being and Time, that what is existential about human existence is mit-sein (being with) and in-der-welt-sein (being in the world); we are with others, and art-making takes place in the world with others.
First of all, the work is always coming from me to you, even if the “you” is undefined and may in fact never exist. The poet Paul Celan talks about the poem being a message in a bottle that is sent into the sea and you don’t know where it lands. Maybe it’s writing “for the drawer” (all the Soviet writers who could not publish), maybe it never sees daylight, maybe it’s destroyed. But it could be read, and it’s meant to be read. The painting is meant to be seen. That’s why I always tell Ellen she has to exhibit more, because her painting needs to be seen. It says: “Look at me, look at me”. And, the poem says: “Read me, hear me.”
I think there is something very relational about poiesis to begin with. Furthermore, in the arts every medium is handed down to us from others, even if we destroy it, even if we alter it radically. But we begin with it. And this tradition means something because it is handed down from others. How do we know to paint on a canvas or don’t paint on a canvas? Because not to do something is also to have a relationship to it. How do I know that I am writing poetry? My poems would not have been considered poetry a few hundred years ago, when we had to stick to classical models (a sonnet, a sestina, an ode). The whole idea of so-called “free verse,” which is not free, but that doesn’t follow an established metrical pattern, is a new concept developed by others. This is true for me as well. I’ve been very influenced by many other poets, the Beat poets, Allen Ginsberg, as well as poets like Celan, Rilke, all of the great poets.
PK: Am I hopefully not far from your imagination about poiesis when I say that it is based on resonance and that art is always in resonance in a relationship.
SKL: I like this idea of resonance, but I would have to think more about it. It’s not my concept, but I like it. We say in music, if you want to make music, the first thing you have to do is listen. And if you’re making music with others, you definitely have to listen to the resonance between their sound and yours. We have to think also about attunement, as Mitchell Kossak says. How am I attuned to the other? Do I resonate with what the other has to say, even if I disagree with it? I need to think more about to what degree is poiesis a matter of resonance.
PK: For me, the thinking of poesis is not different from the perspective based on resonance. The resonance principle comes for me as a musician, and as a community artist, I cannot avoid that people hear each other. They may not listen, but they hear each other. They’re forced to deal with resonance and non-resonance. They are only in the world in relationship to what was already done, what will be done.
PK: So, the whole focus on community art and this so-called “performance art,” a key word today in exhibits, also brings the discourse to the level of you do it and you witness it.
SKL: Yes, there is always a witness to every performance. Hans Georg Gadamer, in his book Truth and Method, says that every work of art is a performance, including painting. The painting only exists when someone is looking at it, so in that sense it is performing itself through your vision. I think this is a very profound insight of his. Ultimately it’s all performance.
Of course, you have brought so much into our field, including the notion of community art which is so strong and which leads us not only to do this work here at EGS with students and faculty, but to work in communities, to do social change work. We use the same principles of community art. That was a great gift. I think your great contribution was to stand on this principle that art is about making, shaping, and it’s about wanting the work. The poet wants the poem, the musician wants the music. They don’t want to just express themselves. We wait for it to arrive and we do our best to shape it when it comes, but it does not express us. In fact, it gets us out of the preoccupation with the self.
First of all, the focus on the self is a great disease of individualism, tied up with capitalism, the competitive market system, but it also has to do with the whole philosophical system we’ve inherited from Descartes where the individual is cut off not only from their body but from others and from the world. Most of psychology has inherited this perspective, which I think is a total disaster. In a way, your work as an artist and in music and community art has brought us back into this relationship to the world and to the other, which we are often missing in the arts therapies.
PK: So your skill training that you never get tired of is actually nothing else than a kind of dynamic meditation in becoming aware that art is living in this concept of relationship.
SKL: Yes, even when the relationship is a mess, as relationships often are.
PK: So even though a therapist may not do art with a client, they should make art for themselves to exercise this capacity.
SKL: That’s an interesting point. I would say going back to your definition, that therapy is always an “art analogue” process, even if the arts are not directly involved. It’s the same process when the therapist is receptive, does not force something on the client. There is so much therapy today, because of insurance and general tendencies in the culture,, in which you are supposed to give a solution within six sessions. In Ellen Levine's workplace they are even working on single sessions. Single session therapy, this is insane! In such a case, you as a therapist must have an agenda, and you want to push this agenda on your client. It’s terrible, because I think the essence of therapy is the receptive attitude. How can I help you bring out what is within you? That’s education. That was the original meaning of educare, to bring out what is already there. That requires skill, patience and holding your own needs at bay. It’s very satisfying, but you can’t make it your agenda.
Recently, there was a young woman from Peru who wrote to me. She was in dire straits. I immediately became concerned for her, wrote to the teachers in Peru and told them to contact her, to help her. What happened when she found out about this was that she was furious with me and said: “I didn’t ask for your help, I don’t want people to do that.” And, eventually, I apologized profusely. We’re all subject to this need to fix it, to have people not suffer. I was afraid she might hurt herself. But my intervention was not helpful. I realized there was some counter-transference, as we say, and there was a need of my own to rescue her. So, it happens to everyone.
PK: Can you give a little comment on the following: You said we are there to help them express what is within them.
SKL: Not “express,” to help them discover or uncover what is within them.
Heidegger's philosophy depends on the notion of truth as uncovering, not as correspondence between statement and fact. He goes back to the Greek word Aletheia, which means literally “bringing out of darkness.”Lethe is the river of darkness, the river that leads you when you die. Truth is not the correspondence between a statement and an objective state of affairs, which is the usual concept of truth. This table in from of me is brown. The statement, “This table is brown,” and the actuality of this state of affairs correspond, therefore this statement is true.
Heidegger says that this is a secondary notion of truth. The basic sense is that there is a table in the first place. To have a table, you must already live in a world in which tables exist, you have already inherited meaning where what it means to be a table is already uncovered. Truth as uncovering also means there is always more that is yet to be uncovered. We don’t say that this “more” is in the unconscious, which means nothing in my opinion, all that means is I don't know where it is,Unbewusstsein. The unconscious in English means the same thing as the German, not knowing. And it’s true, we may not yet know something, but that doesn’t mean that it is in me, “in my head.” I need to discover it.
We’re in a very bad situation right now in the world. My only hope is that new creative possibilities that are not apparent can be uncovered. Heidegger quotes Hölderlin, who said: “Wherever danger lies, there too lies the saving power.” And I think that might be part of what he meant. That out of this disaster there may be something we’re not aware of that is trying to be born. Let’s welcome it and hope that it arrives.
When I say poiesis is always possible, I believe it, but I’m not sure it’s true, if that makes any sense. Because I can conceive of many situations, extreme situations, where maybe it’s not possible.
PK: That would be sad, because then it would be possible to stop everything.
SKL: Yes, to stop everything. It’s a little like Remnants of Auschwitz,. Giorgio Agamben’s beautiful book on the meaning of Auschwitz. He writes about what the prisoners in Auschwitz called the "Musselman.” That’s actually a racist designation because the word literally means Muslim. What they were trying to say, without knowing how to say it, is that sometimes prisoners lose so much hope and so much capacity to act that they become like someone who is bowing up and down at prayer without any volition, without any intention. It’s an automatic thing, as close to being dead as you can be and still be alive, without any capacity to respond.
I don’t know, though, is that true? Even in Auschwitz there was theatre, there was music. Elie Wiesel’s book Night (a beautiful book that I recommend to everybody), talks about how on a forced march at the end of the war there was one man who had a violin and had been commanded to play for the Nazis in the camp. When the prisoners stopped for the night and lay down, he started to play of his own volition. He played beautifully, and then he died. It was his last act before he died. All the prisoners heard this, and it gave them some hope in the world.
So, I don’t know. Is poiesis always possible? What if we were to act as if were always possible. This is the philosophy of “as if” by Vaihinger, as he outlines it in his book of that title–you may have come across it.
PK: I think of Spielraum, the play range. As if the play range were always there.
SKL: Yes, as if the play range were there. Can you actually eliminate it? In the wonderful book, Resistance: My Life in Lebanon, by Souha Bechara, she talks about the time she was in a prison in Lebanon because she had tried to assassinate a fascist leader in that country. She was captured and sent to this infamous prison where they were tortured and deprived of everything; but the women prisoners were together and would make little figures out of thread from their clothes and dust from the floor. That’s all they had. They would create little creatures and make worlds where there was nothing, absolutely nothing. It was as close to nothing you can get without being in a sensory deprivation tank, and they still made art.
PK: And challenged themselves with skill.
SKL: Yes, skill. It’s not so easy to make little sculptures out of dust and thread. So, I hope that poiesis is always possible, and I hope it will be possible for me because otherwise I can give way to despair. Actually, what helped me with the poem I read before about my illness was that Irene’s dissertation had inspired me by all the examples she gave of people who had lost everything, including herself, but were still able not only to go on living, but also to give birth to something new. So we encourage each other., I think that’s very important. Not that everything is wonderful and we’re all going to be happy, and Expressive Arts Therapy will solve the world’s problems, but that it’s always possible to give a poietic response.
PK: If only Expressive Arts could help to reduce all this chatter about self-expression and turn it into a discourse on training skills.
SKL: Yes, we need skill, and we need hope. My hope is that our community will support each of us in finding not only the will to live but also the will to create. My fervent belief is that only poiesis can lead us to a better life for all.
Transcribed by Michelle Grace, Saas Fee, July 2018
Stephen Levine is the founding Dean of the Ph.D. program AHS
Paolo Knill is the founding Rector of EGS