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Michael Hettich Interviews Joe Paddock

In 2017 I was privileged to publish a book of poems, The Frozen Harbor, with the Minnesota

publisher Red Dragonfly Press. Scott King, Red Dragonfly’s editor and publisher, was a great

pleasure to work with. A husband, father, translator, book designer, poet, artist, carpenter,

engineer, essayist, naturalist and dragonfly expert, he and I became friends, regularly emailing letters back and forth, exchanging our writings and books. When Scott died suddenly in 2021 at the age of 56, I was shocked, of course, and deeply saddened. A year or so later, curious to find out how the press was faring, I sent an email to Leslie Taylor, who had stepped in as a volunteer to help organize Red Dragonfly’s publishing commitments in Scott’s absence. She told me that the last book Scott had edited and designed before his passing was Joe Paddock’s Infinity’s Edge: Jung, Tao, and the Poet’s Way. As a kind of homage to Scott’s life and spirit, I read the book right away. I was powerfully impressed: the book is a beauty—vividly written, accessible, and full of fresh, engaging insights. Through Leslie, I got Joe’s email address and asked him if he’d be interested in being interviewed for Hole in the Head. I’m really grateful to Joe for the honesty and thoroughness of his answers to my questions and for his willingness to dig deep in both these responses and in Infinity’s Edge itself.


MH: Toward the beginning of your book—in fact in the first chapter—we encounter these words: “There are…great advantages in our becoming consciously aware of and involved

with our dream content when we wake, experiencing it as we do, say, an obscure poem, and coming to terms with it in much the same way as we do that poem.” This is very interesting on many levels. Could you please elaborate, particularly the ways in which “reading” a dream might be similar to responding to an obscure poem—or any poem, for that matter.

JP: In both dream and obscure poem interpretation has to do with coming to terms with metaphoric images and situations, with little or no help from linear language. Our feeling response to the image or situation should prove a guide for us. As for dream, the great depth psychologist Carl Jung (my companion throughout this book) has written that the metaphoric language of the unconscious is the one foreign language that we should all come to know. I should note here that, though I might loosely be called a Jungian, I am by no means a complete Jung scholar. Jung opened the door to the unconscious for me, but it is what has flowed through it that has guided me along my way. In good part Infinity’s Edge tells of that story.

A principal difference between poem and dream is that in the dream the metaphors contain a message meant specifically for the dreamer. If in the dream, you find yourself on thin ice, it would be good to discover what that means in terms of your life situation.

As an example I’ll offer here an important dream for me which helped me to an understanding of the bardic mission that is an ongoing element in this book. In the dream I am on the bank of my local river, the Crow, at the place where the mill wheel turned at the beginning of white settlement here in my home region. In dream and vision water is the most common metaphor for the unconscious realm, the creative source, and a striking woman, an archetypal anima or muse, stands before me then sinks into the river water in a swirl of clothing. In a few moments she returns holding out for me a manuscript that glows. Then a bit downstream I am somehow sitting at the center of a massive keyboard that stretches completely across the river. It seems I might be allowed to learn how to play it.

In response to a later dream, I wrote a poem titled “Bard of the Crow” in which I, with a necessary touch of humor, but with seriousness too, claim that role. This bard, as the unconscious has described it for me, is a poet who serves, like a tribal storyteller, as a provider of images and stories for a place and its people. The poem ends with these lines:

....A harvest then, a gathering

of stories and whatever wisdom is

caught within them, accumulated

from life to life, mostly forgotten.

And surely this is mission enough. Yes,

I hear the happy honking of the geese,

and in last night’s dream, the goddess-muse

wrote it all down, and then to make sure,

spoke it out loud:

“I need,” she said,

with calm intensity,

“the echoes of the ancestors

to reverberate in me.”

MH: The connections between the process of exploring poetry and Jung’s thinking are fairly clear to most serious writers and readers of poetry, as are the connections between poetry and Tao. However, the linking of the Tao and Jung have a certain suggestive resonance and surprise that feels new and very interesting to me. I think of those two approaches to self and being as very different in terms of their relationship with mind and outer world. Can you talk a bit about how poetry brings them together, if indeed it does?

JP: There isn’t the distance between Jung and the Tao that likely exists in the minds of most poets. In psychiatrist David Rosen’s The Tao of Jung. we find this quote from Jung: “The truth is everywhere the same, and the Tao is a quite perfect expression of it.” Jung also wrote that: “The human psyche is the womb of . . . all art.” Emergent from it then. Surely a parallel there with the emptiness of the Tao being the open source, the emptiness out from which all of creation flows. Here though we are talking about the unconscious, the psyche below the conscious ego level, as the source from which creative content flows. The poet and the poem of course have a foot in both worlds. One could compare the poet to a downstream paddler in a canoe, guiding a bit as necessary, but once the creative flow starts, the paddler-poet should be careful to not get in its way, but flow on and with it.

MH: How are poetry and synchronicity linked? Does it have to do with what you call an individual’s emotional recognition of meaningful connections. That is, does poetry provide the necessary emotional recognition of synchronistic connections occurring more often than we realize? If so, how does it accomplish this goal?

JP: Since the concept may not be familiar to every reader, I will say here that synchronicity is the simultaneous occurrence of events which have no discernible causal connection but which feel significantly related. Its our emotional response to the event that awakens us to the synchronicity.

As I see it, it is less that the poem provides the necessary emotion to awaken us to the synchronous event than that the emotion inherent in the experience of the event that leads to the poem. However, it surely works in both directions. In the book I’ve told of a number of such incidents in my life, and I’ve included Thomas R. Smith’s poem “Often it’s a Bird” in which he tells of a man who when digging to bury his wife’s urn a chickadee came to rest on his pick handle. The man was moved by this surprising visit. And wasn’t somehow his wife contained within the tiny presence that had come to rest so near him? And then in the poem, a week after the death of his father, Smith tells of a moment on the golf course when his brother who often golfed with their father watched as a crow strutted across the green and tipped the ball into the hole with its beak. I’m guessing that the brother must have said, “Thanks dad.”

On a less obvious level, I believe that whatever emotional response awakens a poet to write has connections in the mind and life of the poet that are synchronous. Vague synchronous connections are ongoing gifts that Life provides us all and perhaps especially the poet who is alive to his or her moments. Of course neither the poet nor the listener or reader of the poem are thinking, ah, synchronicity!

MH: One of your chapters is titled “The Ecology of Creativity,” which I find to be a wonderfully evocative and intriguing phrase—very useful too. I’d like to hear more about your own ecology of creativity.

JP: The unconscious is nature within us, and the processes of the creative unconscious are one with those in the creative evolution of nature. They contain just that same vitality and evolutionary drive toward balance, homeostasis, health, climax perfection.... Writing is fun and exciting when it goes with this flow.

In my understanding of the ecology of creativity, it’s not good to be too conscious during especially the beginning of a creative process such as the writing of a poem. In it we merge, and its better to allow the ongoing flow to work through one. A most important magic!

A poem is far less something that we make, as if laying bricks, than something that emerges from the unconscious mind and happens through us. Works of art then can be thought of as products of nature, like dreams, flowers, children.... Still, in the end, except in a fully given poem, the poet returns to the conscious mind and guides it to its final form. The poet and the poem then have a foot in both worlds.

As I tell of in the book, I spent much of the six ear period between 1968 and 1974 living in an unimproved wilderness cabin on Minnesota’s wild Kettle River. During that time I became especially alive to the ongoing flow, the interchange that is ever going on in the natural world. In a poem written at that time, I included these lines:

Everything eating everything else,

nature flows

through the gut of itself.

MH: Briefly elaborate on what you mean by a “given” poem. I wonder how a “given” poem differs from the first drafts of most poems, since (at least for me) most poems are “discovered” in their making.

JP: A given poem as Ive experienced it happens largely of itself on its own energy, flowing from the unconscious as with a dream. Taoism has much to do with the way I live, think and write, and I frequently turn to Lao Tzu for a bit of respite. Nature does abhor a vacuum, and the emptied and open mind of Tao now and again allows a poem to open out and flow, finding its way, like water giving in to the gravitational forces that lead it along. The result will be not overly worked, overly tight. The Taoist approach admires the effortless––what just happens of itself–– dislikes what seems too worked. The given poem then is a product of the unconscious, of nature, and should have the spiritual validity of a dream. Which the overly worked poem may not.

MH: Though you don’t much discuss the ideas of Jung’s mentor Freud in Infinity’s Edge, these have obviously been tremendously influential on 20th century poetry and poetics. I wonder what you think of Freud’s influence on literature, and art in general.

JP: I’ll have to be careful here. Most of my understanding of Sigmund Freud has to do with what’s been reflected from my engagement with Jung. Nevertheless, it’s clear to me that Freud was a major influence on 20th century poetry and art in general. The Surrealist art movement, with its focus on dreams, was directly influenced by Freud. Surrealist poetry allowed the liberated subconscious mind to find its way in a dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness writing style. Shades of the “given poem” in this, and I think too of a writing exercise I and other poets I’ve known have given to students in which it is suggested that they write whatever comes to mind whether or not it makes conscious sense. The hope is that something interesting and of value will emerge.

I think that the main difference between Freud and Jung when it comes to understanding the psyche is that for Jung the collective unconscious is made up of Inherited archetypal content. Just as we’ve inherited the evolving physical characteristics of the life that has preceded us, so too have we inherited the wisdom guidance that is given in archetypal dream and vision content. If I’ve got it right, for Freud the subconscious and the dreams that rise from it are an outcome of repression, of repressed childhood memories and sexually related repression. For Jung, if the metaphoric language of them is understood, dreams are given guides, laden with inherited wisdom, that tell the truth about our lives.

MH: How would you define “organic form” in poetry? Would you find more meaning in the kind of organic form Robert Creeley is thinking about when he says that “form and content are one,” or perhaps in the sense of “organic” as being of the earth, grounded in earth and concrete images. What is the “bardic” role of the poet?

JP: Both the Creeley idea and organic form in the sense of ‘‘organic as being of the earth” work well for me. I think here of the fully integrated working together of the organs of a living body. The deep autonomic self in us, our breathing, our heartbeat, the lymphatic flow work harmoniously within without mind intrusion. As does the integrated ecosystem when not overly disturbed by us. And so then does the poem find its form organically when mostly allowed to become itself. I think also here of Jung’s thought that “The human psyche is the womb of . . . all art.” As he sees it then, art including poetry is born from the psyche, surely inheriting from it then the form of its parenting source, and as with a living organism its parts work in an integrated way.

I’ll mention here too, as I’ve written in the book, that I believe the deep underlying theme of our poetry has to do with our ego isolation from the whole of things. Whether conscious of it or not, the poet and the poem open us out to a oneness with that whole. As Wordsworth has told us we come “trailing clouds of glory.”

At the end of the above question, you add a second question: What is the “bardic” role of the poet? Guidance given me from the unconscious tells that the bard, beyond simply being a good enough poet or storyteller, has to become a voice for a place and its people and their story, the story which that people inhabits. As I’ve mentioned probably more than once in the book, storied place becomes sacred place for those who inhabit it.

Inner life guidance by way of dreams and other psychic phenomena--this has much to do with what my book is about--has led me to and to write of the story and place of my origins, a region, mostly rural and small town. Of course there are bards in this sense of given cities, neighborhoods, athletic fields, perhaps ethnic origins.... One could say the bard writes of, to, and for what he or she is rooted in, his or her gift back to the whole within which he has risen and existed. This in part has to do with what is synchronistically given to him or her along the way.

MH: Do you have a writing practice? A meditation practice? If so, what are they? If not, why not?

JP: My poet wife of 48 years, Nancy Paddock, is now in memory care. I visit her almost every afternoon and re-introduce myself to her. She’s only three blocks from my doorstep, but so very far gone. So in this my late-life situation I spend much time alone. I mostly write in the mornings, and have been working on a volume of new and selected poems. I meditate now and again at any time during the day. Sometimes with a mantra, sometimes simply paying attention to my breathing, sometimes closing my eyes and going lost in image flow. It is often imagery of water, still or flowing, that emerges.

In the prologue to Infinity’s Edge, I wrote about a long ago sturdy oak rocker that I spent much time in that I thought of as my thinking chair. Now my chairs are more often devoted to “no thought.” The Zen concept of “no mind” fits here, the mind of no mind, free of thought or anxiety, simply alive then in the present moment. Quite nice when it’s working well.

MH: Which postmodern/contemporary poets have been most important to you? And which poets/writers of the more distant as well as the truly distant past?

JP: My literary connections may be quite a bit more limited than with most of the poets you interview. In college I found Chaucer quite to my liking. In my later career, as I turned more fully to poetry, Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry were very important to me. As an environmental activist working with projects such as The American Farm Project and the Land Stewardship Project which I helped to start, the books of these two were always nearby me, and on a couple occasions I was programmed with Berry. I remember a long ago refusal from the editor of a literary journal that mentioned I sounded too much like Gary Snyder.

Other poets more or less contemporary with me that I’ve found important include Thomas McGrath, William Stafford, Robert Bly, Mary Oliver, Joyce Sutphen, and Ted Kooser. My age is showing here. So many of these have passed on now. But their poetry does live on.

I must not forget here my wife, Nancy Paddock, a truly fine poet. We worked together for years through an array of arts and environmental projects. I’ve mentioned her current circumstances, and as her dementia worsened, she drifted away from the poetry she’d been working with. It was moving and deeply satisfying for me to go into her computer and gather together the poems of her final book, Green Reaching, published by Red Dragonfly Press.

MH: Where is the true source, within or without? What do the wild ones think when they see us?

JP: The true source. within or without? I’m afraid I won’t be able to provide the final answer to this. Anyway, as I see it, the consciousness of the isolate ego self is divided from the source, the whole of things. But, the unconscious Self within is ever reaching across to us by way of dreams, visions, creative imaginings and creative illnesses. These coming from the greater realm within expand to include the whole of things. As ego self consciousness the true source within increasingly flows out in oneness with the whole of things.

I’ll add here that I’ve written in the book that I’ve come to believe that our isolation from the whole of things is the principal underlying theme of our poetry. And in poems the poet at his or her best can bring us to moments when small self goes lost in the realm of the infinite.

And then there is the Tao. Quoting myself here, “Lao Tzu wrote that one should ‘Enter into Tao as if you are leaving it.’ Give up intention and will and allow the mind to go empty, go lost, and then you will be near, hovering there on infinity’s edge. And the poet, with a foot in both worlds, has work to do.”

As for, “what do the wild ones think when they see us?” Life is programmed for survival. The bird instinctually recognizes the squirrel as not so dangerous, unlike the lurking cat. We are more like the cat for them, but when we feed the birds this relaxes. This not only with birds. I have a friend who pours a bag of corn onto the ground near the fire ring in his extensive sculpture garden, then rings a little bell. He then sits down on a nearby bench, and after a bit deer slowly begin to emerge from the surrounding cover, and he, with sometimes a friend beside him, sits just a few feet from the deer as they feed.

MH: How would you define “sacred,” and how does poetry fit into that dimension?

JP: What is sacred is ever present within and around us. The busyness of our lives, the “getting and spending,” divide us from it. A sense of the sacred wakens in us when we open our minds to the strange fact of our existence, of life, that there is anything at all! What is sacred is ever with us. We need only open our eyes, our selves, to the presence of it.

In Infinity’s Edge I argue that storied place is sacred place. This especially for those somehow involved with that story. Shared story that ties the group or community together in memory opens the psyche to a living sense of the sacred, whether we think of or use that word or not.

And of course sacred moments, sacred places are brought to life in poetry. I’ve written a short poem, which I”ll share here, in which the poem itself is recognized as a sacred place:


When we write poems, free

of excessive self, we create

for ourselves and others

who enter a sacred place

of words, windows stained

by the blood of our lives

that allow in the radiance.

This place exists outside time

for the time we are in it.

It is a sanctuary

in which our burdens go lost

in the white spaces

between the lines.

Within the resonance

of its interior,

we often discover,

however briefly, even in

times such as these, happiness.

MH: Could you discuss what Jung meant by a “personal myth”?

JP: Jung believed that like dreams myths express wisdom that has been encoded in all humans, and our ongoing and evolving personal story, if well tended, will evolve to become our personal myth, the conveyer of wisdom and meaning in our life. The final chapter of Infinity’s Edge, “A Long-lived Fellowship of Writers,” tells of the local writers group I mentored for 30 years till caring for my wife caused me to back away. My intention during those years was less to lead the group toward publishing success than to lead the writers to discover, hone and develop their personal story. Till it, yes, would become mythic for them. One of the group members, pharmacist and fine writer Bill Peletier, in his writing now and again celebrated his home corner here in Litchfield as Greater Peletonia, the flags of which were waved by a dozen or so members of his family as they marched away at the end of his recent funeral.

MH: Turning to Freud for a moment, toward the beginning of your book, you share one of your own poems as illustration of Freud’s ideas. The poem, “So Strange,” is short enough to be quoted in its entirety: “We travel timidly,/fearfully/in the small boats/of ourselves./So strange/when we are also/the water.” Would you please talk about how this poem relates to and is illustrative of Freud’s ideas? And Jung’s?

JP: Freud, like Jung, was quite aware that ego consciousness, our consciousness in a given moment, is but a frail craft on the ocean of subconsciousness (Freud), the unconscious (Jung). For Jung the unconscious holds controlling and guiding archetypes, inherited just as we inherit our physical characteristics. For Freud, as I mentioned before, the subconscious is made up of repressed experience from childhood and of sexual repression. Truly popular with the artists and writers of his time, Freud’s theories of the subconscious led to Surrealism, a movement which sought freedom from the constraints of the rational mind and societal constraints that artists and writers found oppressive. In any case, both Freud and Jung were fully aware of the infinite ocean that underlies our conscious moments.

MH: I’m curious to hear you discuss your wonderful and evocative term “shaman’s sickness.” What is shamanic sickness?

JP: Here in Minnesota there are a goodly number of Hmong refugees from the Viet Nam war among whom there is a shamanic tradition. On a recent Minnesota Public Radio interview, I listened to a Hmong shaman reiterating that “There is so much sickness, so much sickness.”

Both Freud and Jung suffered midlife sickness that went on for years, out from which came much of what they would later offer to the world. Jung wrote of his long and difficult experience in his Red Book about which he has said that the illness-driven fantasies and dreams of that period were the source of all his later works and creative activity resulting in the formulation of his analytical psychology.

In the chapter in Infinity’s Edge titled “Sickness is the Healer,” I tell of my own experience with shamanic sickness or guiding illness. As with dreams, visions and synchronicities, this sickness is emergent guidance in certain individuals, forcing them to give in and accept a role different from their early ego imaginings and ambitions. I am not a shaman and for me the role I was not so gently led into, helped along by synchronistic opportunities, was that of a certain type of poet, best described as a bardic poet-activist, a voice for people and place. In his essay “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry,” Jung wrote, fittingly to my circumstances, that “The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him.”

In Infinity’s Edge, I wrote that my personal myth fits with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, one element of which has to do with “refusal of the summons,” which leads to the shamanic or guiding illness I’ve been discussing here.

MH: And please do the same with your equally evocative term (used in the poem “May Day Awakening”), “Liminal Mind.”

JP: For me “liminal mind” has long referred to that blurry space between sleep and waking during which, though no longer in dream, something dreamlike is given. In the case of the poem you mention, the words “not reason but song” sounded in mind for me. Such emergent content could be a remnant of a dream or something new given for one’s entry into daylight. Too easily lost in the first moments of waking.

I’ll mention here that “Not Reason but Song” is the title of the chapbook I’ll be sending to you and Bill along with my responses to these questions.

MH: “We inhabit story at least as fully and deeply as we do place.” Very interesting. Tell us more.

JP: It would be good here to think on the necessity of a background in a work of fiction. The background, the place in which the narrative is happening, will inevitably emerge with the telling of the story. Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum, nor do stories. Whatever our place, whatever our community or communities, we are contained by the personal and shared memories contained within them, their stories.

This ties in to Jung’s thinking on personal myth. The happenings we experience and those we inherit from storytellers become touchstones and psychological containers for our lives. Without story, related remembrance, place is psychologically empty. We live within memories of the family we grew up in, the schools we attended, the people we’ve admired, loved or hated. Good times and bad, laden with the emotions of the happenings. What would we be without such memories? They are the containers of our lives.

Without competition from television and such, Native American storytellers once created tribal togetherness through the stories they told about their past. And for them, their storied place was their holy land. And yes, storied place does have a way of becoming sacred place.

There is a late chapter in Infinity’s Edge titled “Oral Historian,” and this discussion of a place and its story--the subtitle of a 300 page book of poetry of mine--provides a place to mention the importance of oral history in my writing. Projects I’ve worked in and with have led me to become an oral historian, and in my writing, recorded storytelling has often flowed out into narrative poetry, story poems, perhaps originally intended for the community of the interviewee, but often reaching beyond.

MH: Finally, at the heart of your book you use the term “land organism” and go on to say the following: “’land organism’ has been a principal underlying metaphor in much of my writing. It’s a phrase expressive of the fully interconnected ecosystem…” This is beautiful and deeply resonant. Again, I’d like to hear more.

JP: The land organism: Though I only occasionally use the phrase directly in my writing, an awareness of it is an ongoing living part of my consciousness. It has to do with the interconnectedness within the whole of the natural world, including us. Just as a living individual, animal or human animal, contains its various organs--gut, heart, liver and the many more--all in ongoing harmonious interaction without guidance from the mind, in an expanded sense we too are an “organ” within the interactions of the greater organism, ”the land organism.” Our unconscious mind is nature within us, at one with that greater flow, but our ego consciousness, ever seeking advantage, is almost by definition divided from it, and with ever greater technological power, it is increasingly disrupting the flow of healthy interchange.

The land organism is of course fighting back in expanding ways. I’ve called this “the big story,” and its plot is beginning to move now at a truly rattling pace. Populations are expanding and things are heating up. Our oceans are turning acid and our rainforests are diminishing, this all part of the ongoing interconnected flow of the planetary land organism. May we come to more fully understand and adapt to its necessities.


Joe Paddock is a poet, oral historian, and environmental writer whose adult life has been a spiralic odyssey homeward toward Self and rootedness in place. Buoyed along by guidance from the “vast and deep waters of the unconscious,” often working with his poet and author wife, Nancy Paddock, there were fascinating, if sometimes painful, “island stops” along the way. These included spending much of the six year period between 1968 and 1974 living in an unimproved cabin on Minnesota’s wild Kettle River, National Endowment for the Arts residencies as a community and regional poet in Southwest Minnesota, as a poet-in-residence for Minnesota Public Radio at Worthington, as a humanist with the American Farm Project, and a consultant with the Minnesota Rural Arts Initiative. He was a writer-in-residence at Lakewood Community College and an adjunct faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the University of Minnesota. A founding member of the Land Stewardship Project, he is the principal author of the Sierra Club book Soil and Survival. In addition, he is the author of Keeper of the Wild, the biography of wilderness preservationist Ernest Oberholtzer. His books of poetry include Circle of Stones, Dark Dreaming, Global Dimming, and A Sort of Honey (Red Dragonfly Press); Boars’ Dance (Holy Cow! Press); Earth Tongues (Milkweed Editions); and Handful of Thunder (Anvil Press). Beyond books of his own he has been involved on one level or another with a great many project books, and both his poetry and prose has appeared in many journals. For his poetry Paddock has received the Lakes and Prairies Award of Milkweed Editions and the Loft-McKnight Award of Distinction. For work in support of the arts in Southwest Minnesota, he was a recipient of the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council’s Prairie Disciple Award. He now lives in the house in which he grew up in Litchfield, Minnesota.


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