The Author's Corner
The Urban Primitive
Talks to Tannin Schwartzstein
TWPT: This first question is aimed at the both of you, what kind of spiritual experiences make up each of your backgrounds and how is it that you came to find yourself walking the path that you currently follow?
RK: I'm an eclectic pagan fundamentalist, and a member of the Pagan Kingdom of Asphodel. By that I mean that I draw my tradition from a number of cultural pantheons and mythological systems (eclectic) but that my basic tenets are similar to that of a reconstructionist: deism, polytheism, animism, and spiritual discipline.
Translated without all the big words, that means that I firmly, solidly, and even fanatically believe the following: The Gods are real, not merely archetypes, and are independent of our existence. All gods are not one god or goddess, but have separate existences. All natural things (and some manmade things) have an indwelling spirit. Spiritual discipline to burn off karma is always worthy work. That's why I call myself a pagan fundamentalist. It's not because I'm intolerant - my religion states that this path is not for everyone, so I am fundamentally, rabidly tolerant on principle.
I've been a Gardnerian, a Dianic, a hippie granola pagan, a heathen reconstructionist, and none of it mattered because the Gods grabbed me by the neck, killed me, brought me back, rewired me, and now I am a shaman for my tribe. So whatever I was before, now I'm what the Gods tell me to be, and that's all.
TS: I grew up on the New Jersey Shore. While there certainly were New Agers and Pagans lurking about the backdrop of high-class neighborhood and broken down carousels, I did not have a lot of direct exposure to them. My energy experience in New Jersey very much reflected the atmosphere portrayed by film director Kevin Smith in Clerks. But, as reflected in Dogma, sometimes Deity likes to take a break for some Skee-Ball in Asbury Park. On a more serious note, I was raised in conservative Judiasm. My mother, while observant, was very critical of the social and political situations she ran into in the synagogue we attended where I grew up. For her, communing with Deity one on one was more important than doing so in a group.
Many times while growing up I saw her create religious services for herself in our home rather than attend Temple with the rest of the family. She did a lot of independent research and interpretation of Judiaica as practiced in many parts of Europe and the Middle East- rituals, holidays, history, and art. As a Neo-Pagan, I have taken similar steps. Sometimes it is nice to celebrate the Sabbats with others. However, I have not always found myself seeing eye to eye with others in our demographic in matters of communing with deity, energy work, and such. So, like my mother, I have done my own searching, and come to my own conclusions. This is reflected in many of the sections I wrote for The Urban Primitive.
TWPT: Do you find that it is currently more accepted or more common for those who are seeking spiritual answers to search for them along less traditional pathways than in times past?
RK: There have always been people who've wanted to look for alternative spiritual answers. I think that what's different today is the sheer level of information exchange. No matter what you're looking for, you can fish around and find something vaguely like it, usually in 24 hours. So I think it's less that people are yearning more as that they simply have more opportunity.
TS: I'm afraid that "Og does not understand this question". Are you asking me if I think that it is more acceptable for people who live in the same century, hemisphere, continent, country, and part of the East Cost to seek answers outside of the Big 5 than it was mumblety-some years ago? I dunno, really. Maybe the answer is yes, to a certain extent. The publishing industry seems to have been reflecting that over the past ten years or so at least. Maybe my perspective is skewed from the perspective of the various demographics I belong to. I find that most people I have come to know over the past 12 have been pretty put off by main-stream Judeo-Christian based spirituality. Certainly there are more resources than ever at the fingertips of those who have the wherewithal to locate and use them- between the Big Bad Internet and Barnes and Noble, there sure are a lot of words to read on the subject of "Alternate Religion". However, I'm not certain that the actual style of approach is that much different. Most of us seem to be looking for "the magic words" in a book, or out of the mouths of someone we know, or an authority of some kind (whether that be the HP at the lecture, or the stripey socked woman on the chat show). I don't think that this is a bad thing in in of it self, just kind of funny that's all.
TWPT: Who were the most influential people in your life that showed you by example or by encouragement that following your own heart in regards to a spiritual path was the most important thing a person could do?
RK: I had none. I've never had a human mentor. The Gods and spirits started chasing me around at a young age, and I had to defy everything I knew in order to follow them. I felt very alone for a long time. By the time I met others, I was long past needing examples or models in order to follow my own path. I'm more one of the pioneers that others use as a model.
OK, wait a minute, there's one exception. In 1990 I went to a workshop on "Sacred Androgyny" at Rites of Spring, a big local pagan gathering. I expected it to be some kind of new age fluff about "connecting with your male-female side" or some such crap. Instead, there was a large hairy bearded woman telling us that she was an intersexual, and that not only was it OK, it was a spiritual path, and what that was about. And it completely knocked me in the head....because I am also an intersexual, and up until that moment I'd been hiding it in shame from even the two lovers sitting next to me. That workshop was the start of my serious work as a member of the sacred third gender, which culminated in me writing "Hermaphrodeities: The Transgender Spirituality Workbook".....s/he really started me on my path. I never did see Siren again, but if I ever meet hir again, I'll buy hir dinner.....
TS: Well, my Mom for one. There have also been numerous people I have run into over the years in school, fleamarkets, gatherings of many different sorts. I've been influenced by. I could go through a laundry list of people I met at my first Pagan gathering a few years later who came from all sorts of different backgrounds and yet found enough in common to share sacred space together. I have been influenced by so many people from different age groups, cultural and spiritual backgrounds that it is hard to pick out just one. I can give you an example of an unsual one though. There was a boy in my Highschool who was compelled by Spirit one day to ask me if I would like to pray and meditate with him during a particulary emotionally rough afternoon. He was a born-again Christian, yet he was highly conscious and respectful of the fact that I was not, and did not want to be. He just shared his connection with Deity, and kinship as a spiritual person, which turned out to be some of the most subtle and powerful magick I have ever experienced in the space of thirty minutes.
TWPT: In the same vein as the last question, during the formation of your spiritual beliefs were there any books that you remember as being enlightening as far as helping to shape your perspectives when it came to following a particular spiritual path?
RK: Mircea Eliade's book "Shamanism" was a big help when I had my shamanic rebirth, because it helped me to find out that what was happening to me happens to people in primitive cultures all over the world, and we just don't have acknowledgement or a context for it. It helped me realize I wasn't crazy, that this was a known phenomenon. "The White Goddess" by Robert Graves gave me inspiration, and Margot Adler's "Drawing Down The Moon" helped me to find community when my first coven fell apart.
TS: Wow! That sounds like a 20,000 dollar question if ever there was one. I can honestly say that the girders that hold up my mind were permanently altered by quite a few books. The three I'll list are: Sidhartha by Herman Hesse, Undoing Yourself by Hyatt, and a novel by an author I cannot remember called "The Dark is Rising" Oh yeah, then there was all that overdosing on National Geographic as a kid. I secretly harbored a desire to be an "aborigine" from somewhere in the world where coming of age was marked with a piece of horn jewelry through the septum, or elaborate back tattoos from about the age of 9 until I was at least twelve from that....
TWPT: Were your friends and family supportive regarding your choices of spiritual path?
RK: I'm not close to my family of birth.....ran away from home at 17 for good reasons and never looked back. None of my friends had any problem with my paganism; that was the least of their issues with me. I lost nearly all of my friends when I got my sex change many years ago, and that included most of the pagan ones. So no matter how crazy your religious choices are, you can find something even worse to shock people with. I no longer care. The folks who are my family now love me for who I am.
TS: My parents were less than thrilled when I came out of the broom closet. My mother summed up her feeling best when she said during a phone conversation: "When you turned thirteen we should have taken you to Isreal instead of Salem!" However, I believe they would have been equally taken aback had I chosen something more mainstream when it came to religion, it was mostly the matter of the "conversion" that they found upsetting. My surviving parent is very supportive of me in general, even if he does not embrace my decision to seek a very different faith. My friends, back in those days, were very supportive. Then again, most of them were exploring other faiths than those of their birth- and not just Paganism either!
TWPT: What were some of your first impressions of your fellow travelers along this spiritual path when you began to meet them face to face?
RK: I was seduced by a pagan teenager - the kid of a Fam-Trad Italian "strega" - when I was fourteen, and two years later was initiated into their coven. So I started really young, before I had any real expectations of paganism.
Then, later, when I came out into the pagan community, I went from this structured group of older people who emphasized training and devotion, to a madcap bunch of vaguely earth-centered people who mostly seemed to have come to paganism because it wasn't telling them they were going to hell for their lifestyle choices, and because it was theatrical and beautiful. It was tons of fun for many years, then I began to really miss the structure, and being part of an actual religion rather than merely a vaguely spiritual subculture. So I started my own group.
TS: My impressions varied widely. I met people who I found very interesting, creative and intelligent. I also met folks I thought picked Paganism because it was an excuse to Party Hardy and not take reponsibilty for their actions. I guess I was always attracted to the mystics (particularly diviners), crafters and storytellers. I think I was both fascinated and knocked for a loop by the sheer variety of approaches that the people I met took to their Paganism.
TWPT: Considering that most of the material available about Paganism emphasized getting out into nature, did you ever consider yourself at a disadvantage coming from an urban environment?
RK: Yes. Unlike Tannin, who will always be a city person and who loves it, I finally fled the city, and now I live rurally on a farm. It's not that I can't do magick in the city - I can, and I am very appreciative of its energy - but it wears me out physically to be there. City magick is a lot more wilderness-like; rural magic is more agricultural. Are you happier as a hunter-gatherer or a farmer? It's a personal choice, and there is useful magick for both.
TS: I would not say "disadvantage" but rather "at odds". You see, I actually left a rather green suburban environment, and became more urban as time went on. I'm one of those sorts who came to the conclusions by my late teens that the best way for me to respect Mother Nature was to visit once in a while and then leave her as I found her and retreat back into the city. The main difficulty I had were the conflicting messages. If the Mother's energy was everywhere, why would it stop dead in its tracks at mere asphalt? We certainly should strive as human beings to be kinder and gentler to our environment. However, if we are egotistical to believe that we are destined to be the saviors or destroyers of Gaia, I fear that we are much mistaken as a species. HUMANS would probably wipe themselves out and a few thousand species with a stupid disaster like a nuclear war, but given a few million years, I imagine the Mother would be just as (if not more) beautiful as ever before.
TWPT: Do you find that those who live in "the concrete jungle" have to work harder at connecting to nature or is it just a matter of organizing your thoughts around a different concept of nature?
RK: As I said above, the city's a lot like the pre-agricultural wilderness. That's why people who live there and expose themselves spiritually to its vibes (instead of just hiding from them) begin to revert more and more to a hunter-gatherer stage. This goes especially for lower-income people who are less able to insulate themselves. So they walk the streets like a tribesman in the jungle, waiting for monsters to leap out upon them. They hunt and forage for what they need, rather than growing it. They might even put bits of metal or bone or stone through their flesh as a rite of passage. I really see the modern primitive phenomenon as a direct result of urban magic.
TS: First, pardon me while I twitch a bit. That phrase was used as part of the subtitle of our book by choice of our publisher, and not us (sigh). Ok, well, now that I've recovered a little, I will say that both are true.
Urban oriented people have to work a little harder (Suburban people might have more green things aroung, but let's face it, they have no more connection to the agricultural cycles than us city folk) and connect with the "nature" of the environment around them. My co- author, Raven, has said that it is good for people (especially Pagans) to connect back with our agricultural roots once in a while, even in a cursory way. I agree. However, living in a state of "let's pretend we live in the Summerland" and ignoring the movements and patterns of the energy actually around us seems a bit goofy to me as a spiritualist. I think being conscious of both "Green" and "Non-Green" surroundings is rather important. Ignoring either completely seems unbalanced to me.
TWPT: When was it that writing made its presence felt in your life and was there anything in particular that you felt drawn to do with the words that you wrote?
RK: I've been writing since I could hold a pencil. By the time I reached puberty, I had huge stacks of notebooks that I'd filled with bad fiction. I wrote my first novel at the age of 16 - and oh, was it terrible. I sold my first short story in my late teens, and things just snowballed from there. I think that you can tell a real writer because they can't stop writing. I'd do this anyway, even if I wasn't getting paid for it. The fact that I can make money doing it means that I can justify doing even more of it.
TS: I think the first time that writing became a "presence" in my life was in the second grade. I was seven or eight at the time, and writing stories on my own for the first time. I remember very clearly getting in trouble over what I would consider my first "horror novella", and winding up in detention (also a first) over the piece. The problem was not over content- it was the fact that I was too lazy to re-write the 10+ page first draft, and my teacher and mother conspired to have me stay after school until I wrote a "good" ( a readable version in pen) version of the story. From that time to this, I have had a peculiar relationship to writing. It's hard work! I am paradoxically extremely picky about my choice of words, and very, very lazy. From the time I was in the fifth grade on, I wanted to write and get paid for it. By the time I was in highschool, I vowed to have my first book published by the time I was thirty, and by gum, with 2 months to spare, I did (Thanks to Raven, many delightfully sadistic writing teachers, and a cast too numerous to count).
TWPT: Did the idea of sharing your thoughts and ideas with others in the community in the form of book(s) cross your mind at this point in time?
RK: Well, of course! I knew that I wanted to change the world, a little bit at a time, and it seemd to me that my writing was the best shot I had at doing that.
TS: I can only assume that by "the community" you mean Neo-Pagans. If this is the case, I guess the answer is no. I did, however, want to write not only fiction, but my personal experiences.
TWPT: Having shared my ideas on the website on occasion I have always wanted to ask another author/writer this question, what is it that makes a writer think that their opinions or ideas are worth sharing with the community at large via a book?
RK: Arrogance. If you aren't arrogant, you'll never make it as a professional writer. You have to be thick-skinned enough to ignore rejection after rejection, on a scale that even the worst geek never sees from dating, and have it never dent your conviction that what you have to say is damn well worth it. I'm terribly arrogant. (Just ask my wife and boyfriend.) But it means that I'll never give up. If you aren't arrogant, forget being able to do this for a living.
TS: I think it's ego. Most people, when they hear the word "ego" get it mixed up with "egotism". I think of "ego" more in its root in Latin, and Psychology, meaning "I am" as part of one's identity. I suppose tere's probably at least a touch of egotism in there too. For me , it's the belief that I may have a peculiar spin on describing the world around me that might serve to exite, inspire or piss off my fellow Space Travellers.
TWPT: Tell me about how the two of you crossed paths and were there any clues that you might end up working together in some form or another?
RK: Oh, we've been friends for close on a decade now, and we're just very opinionated, and we figured that writing was a good way to express our opinions.
TS: Oh boy- Raven and I have known each other for years. I think writing was one of the areas of common round we've shared since the beginning. I think he showed me a piece of his writing first, and it all went "bing" in my brain from there. Before "Urban Primitive", we would occasionally review each other's pieces, and give fairly detailed critiques. We've stayed friends afterwards- that should tell you something.
TWPT: Tell me how the idea was born to work on your joint effort The Urban Primitive?
RK: I think it happened while sitting in Tannin's store, and it just snowballed.
TS: One of the many things that Raven and I have in common, is that we're rather curmudgeonly souls. At the time , I remember looking at recommended book lists on the subject of Paganism/Wicca for my shop, and getting very hopped up about how suburban and "safe" they all seemed to be. As usual, I griped about this to Raven and included a phrase like "Ya know, we oughtta write a book". May the Gods Bless Raven's Sagittarian soul for saying "Yeah, we can do that".
TWPT: Is there more difficulty associated with doing a book together as opposed to working on a project on your own? Tell me how the collaboration was accomplished on this particular project?
RK: Collaboration is difficult. It generally goes slower and takes longer than doing a book singly. You have to meld your writing styles, and pass things back and forth. You end up arguing a lot. Still, for some reason I do enjoy co-authoring with knowledgeable people, although I do my own books as well. Co-authoring brings more than one perspective to a book, and someone else may notice points you missed.
TS: Well, for many people, there can be. Writing with Raven helps me actually finish pieces that would otherwise be doomed to be locked away in fragments in a composition notebook. Raven and I tend to use e-mail quite a bit to send fragments to one another to be critiqued, revised and all that. For Urban Primitive, I sat with him in his bedroom at his computer terminal talking, while he typed for many, many hours as well. He's the fast one, I'm the slowpoke when it comes to putting things on paper.
TWPT: For those readers who might be unfamiliar with this book could you give us a synopsis of what you hoped to accomplish with the release of this title.
RK: Letting people know that there are more pagans in cities than anywhere else, and that being in a city can have its own kind of magic. That Neo-Paganism is malleable enough to work anywhere.
TS: Urban Primitive is a Handbook for the deistic city-dweller who is looking to harness the magick present in his/her enviorment rather than sitting about and sighing over the fact that there isn't a peaceful grotto of birch trees for hundreds of miles. Raven and I share the philosophy that being a Witch isn't just an identity- it's what you do where you are, right now. To us, the Gods and spirits we share the world with aren't hiding in hedgerows in England, Ireland and America, they are nearly everywhere. Urban Primitive was written for a fairly specific audience. We have that affirmed by almost every piece of praise and every thumbs down we receive.
TWPT: When authors present works of fiction their obligations to the reader is that their works are entertaining and have the ability to believably transport the reader into this alternate world for the duration of the time spent reading the book. As non fiction authors are there any responsibilities that you feel for your reader during the creation of one of your books?
RK: 1. Get your facts straight. 2. Do't use bad science. 3. Differentiate proven facts from things you believe to be fact. Do all this without disclaimering so much that your readers lose faith in your authority. Oh, and lastly 4 - organize things so that they make sense in their layout, and are easy to find.
TS: When one writes how-tos about spirituality, being entertaining is actually very important if you want to get published. Let's face it- publishers are in the business of selling books. PERIOD. One not only to be clear, concise, and earnest , but also consumable! Personally, I feel obligated to strive for all four. As a practitoner of witchcraft ( and by this I mean the art, not the religions that now embrace that term) I feel it is my duty to slowly pry open the filing cabinets that are buried under a lot of guilt and uncertainty about how "outsiders" perceive magick and the people who practice it. Goodwill work is very important, but it's akin to serving starving people rotting meat if it serves only to obscure our reality, and arm our opponents with lies and half truths. Instead, I would rather worry about passing information to the people who want it, rather than convincing people to accept gross generalizations about creed or belief.
TWPT: What kind of perception of urban Pagans do you want the readers of Urban Primitive to come away with after reading your book? Are there images that urban Pagans hold of themselves that you might want to alter with the information provided in this book? (i.e. We live in an urban environment and we are not as "pagan" as those who live in the country.)
RK: I'd say t's more of an aesthetic thing. I'd like to stress that urban pagans are quite varied and different. There are soccer moms with kids in strollers warding their apartments with Cheerios, and there are pierced and tattooed people in black leather leaving offerings to the dark gods in subways, and there are professional wage slaves in office drag putting good-fortune spells around their cubicles. There is no one "look" to the urban pagan. We tried to cater to the whole bunch of folks in our book, although sometimes the presence of the chapters on body mods made the other groups uncomfortable.
TS: Personally, I would like all of the readers of Urban Primitive to get the sense that we need to be witches, shamans, etc. here and now, wherever it is that fortune has brought us. I would like the suburbanites (who I feel most Pagan authors are writing for in the US) and rural folk to realize that their Urban counterparts are no more or less "connected" to spiritual forces than they are.
Well, the one that you mention is just one of them. Along with that sometimes
comes the feeling that because one is not in direct contact with "unspoiled"
nature, that somehow that this entitles one to be lax about oneís spiritual
persuits. Well, thatís just lazy in my opinion. I donít think dedicating oneself
to a spiritual path is easy. I hope that after reading UP that city dwelling
Pagans will combine their creativity with their spiritality and stop merely
fantasizing about being healers, witches etc. and get down to the business of
doing it! Thatís why we did interviews. People are doing just that in cities all
across the USA, and I think itís helpful for our readers to know that...
TWPT: I met Tannin at the Craftwise gathering as a vendor but do either of you ever go out and do any teaching/lecturing within the community? Or is this done strictly via your books.
RK: I teach quite a few courses, and I'm available to do classes on a truly amazing number of things in Mass. Email me to find out more.
TS: Oh yeah. I Ďve babbled at Starwood, wayy too many Pagan Prides, Pagan artshows, psychic fairs and other stuff.
Yup. Despite the steady increase in the number of books and other "educational" sources for Pagan, and "Pagen interested" folks, the primary preferred source of information is other human beings. Wrong or right, off the cuff opinion or deeply researched, the spoken word is the word that seems to stick best in a personís mind. Neat , huh?
TWPT: Tell me about your upcoming release entitled Handfasting and Wedding Rituals. What made you choose this subject matter for a book?
RK: Ah, yes. It used to be called Hera's Blessing, but Llewellyn decided that no one would know what that meant, because not enough pagans know that Hera is the goddess of marriage. At any rate, we noticed that there was a serious lack of write-your-own-ritual wedding books for pagans. There are actually a truly huge amount of them on the wedding book market, but they're all Christian, Jewish, or completely agnostic. So we put together a tome of handfasting rituals that ought to have something for everyone. There are chapters for interfaith marriages, for GLBT and polyamorous weddings, for incorporating kids, for year-and-a-day stuff, mix-and-match vows and openings and closings, and even a chapter on handpastings for those who want a ceremony with their divorce papers. And there's a kickass list of potential wedding favors, and stuff on how to deal with candles and bonfires and incense without burning down your rented building.
TS: Thatís an easy one. Raven picked the topic, ask him. Imagine that I nod alot afirmativcely, and bounce on my heals exitedly at nearly everything he sauys in response to this question.
TWPT: Tannin, you also operate a brick and mortar store, what made you decide to open the store in the first place and does it limit the amount of time that you can spend out on the road?
TS: Uhmm.. Well, for the interest of time, I will say that I run an Occult shop
because I do not feel that I am fit to do anything else quite as well. It does
make travelling tricky, because my business functions best when I am here. I run
almost everything myself, you see. Even if I were better off financially, and
could afford to hire scads of people, Iíd still need to be here. A shop is very
much like a growing animal that is trully bonded to ONE person. When that person
is gone for brief periods of time, that animal can be ok, and take itís care
from another keeper. When that person is gone frequently, the animal suffers not
only for lack of proper attention in the form of food and drink, but also
emotionally. Itís a strange metaphor, but I think it fits.
TWPT: Where are the two of you headed (personally or professionally) over the next few years? Do you plan to keep writing together for the foreseeable future? Any particular subject matter that you might like to cover in future titles?
RK: We're working together on a book called "Deeper Powers", which is on underworld magic and the Eightfold Path of altered states. We also write articles for Llewellyn together, but mostly I'm doing my own stuff. I have a book coming out through them later in the spring, "MythAstrology", which is learning astrological planets and signs through stories and myths around the world.
TS: Raven and I do have some more books in the works. As I have said before, he is a far more prolific writer than I am, so heíll probably be biusting out oodles of juicy solo projects as well! We will probably tackle the subjects of underworld magick, Pagan Polyamory, and a couple other 600 pound gorillas. Whether or not weíll find a publisher for such things remains to be seen.
TWPT: Are there any thoughts that either of you would like to leave our readers with as we close out this interview?
RK: The Gods are real. Magic is real. Live as if that was truth.
TWPT: Thanks to the both of you for taking the time to talk to me over the past few months in between other scheduled events and projects. It has been a pleasure. I look forward to running into either one or both of you at an event somewhere down the road. Good luck in your future endeavors.