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Eleanor Lerman: From mysticism to Occupy Wall Street
BOOKS Extended for the online edition of Windy City Times
by Sally Parsons

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Eleanor Lerman:

From mysticism to

Occupy Wall Street

By Sally Parsons

Eleanor Lerman has published five acclaimed books of poetry. She has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and was, for The Sensual World Re-emerges, a finalist in 2010 for the Audre Lord Award for Lesbian Poetry from The Publishing Triangle. In 2011, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In Janet Planet, her first novel, Lerman builds on the story of the '60s spiritualist Carlos Castaneda as a metaphor for what happened to many people of that generation. We spoke with Lerman about the Woodstock generation, mysticism, and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Windy City Times: You had stated once that you're not a novelist. Now, here's Janet Planet, a novel. What happened?

Eleanor Lerman: While poetry seemed to come naturally to me, fiction writing did not. So it took a long time for me to realize that the poems I was writing really were stories. … I'm still learning, but I do feel much more comfortable, now, working in all sorts of different writing forms.

WCT: Janet Planet is based on the life and influence of Carlos Castaneda. Why him?

Eleanor Lerman: His ideas, that there really was magic afoot in the world, that if you applied yourself to gaining spiritual knowledge and being a spiritual warrior, you could break on through to the other side … and access whatever alternate realities and alternate universes must exist somewhere, really resounded.

But Castaneda's life ended badly and he did a lot of damage. ... When he died, I think the women [ who lived with him ] were so lost that … probably at least one and maybe all committed suicide. ( It's unclear. ) When I read about all this, I was angry at him for letting everyone down and I decided that I would sort of rewrite his life to give him another chance.

I also wanted to explore how people my age—many of whom devoted a lot of time, thought and energy to spiritual searching when they were younger—lost that path as life took over and we all had to get "real" jobs. ... It becomes clearer and clearer, as we get older, that we're heading towards some sort of portal at the end of life and we're going to go through it, like it or not. It helps, and it's comforting, to try and form some belief about what will be on the other side of that portal. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Who knows?

WCT: What are the themes in Janet Planet for you?

Eleanor Lerman: One of the main themes has to do with how people who are disappointed reconstruct their lives. Janet Harris [ called Janet Planet by Castelan, the fictitious Castaneda ] was a member of Jorge Castelan's inner circle; for a long time she believed in him and believed in his teachings. But when that all fell apart, she had to remake her life. So she finds herself living on the margins of society, trying to get by without really fitting in. … So the book also focuses on that idea: How do you survive when you're a bit of a misfit? How much do you compromise? How much do you go on trying to shape your life the way you want, even when it doesn't fit with the structure of society around you?

WCT: Congratulations on your Guggenheim Fellowship. Those award funds must be a great help, giving you some space to work. Can you say what are you working on now?

Eleanor Lerman: Yes; I'm finishing another novel. … The whole idea of the mysteriousness of life, and what comes next has taken hold with me. It's going to sound like sci-fi although I don't mean it to be. The theme [ is ] that, if there are aliens and they have been here, probably they are really interested in the same way we are—or some of us, anyway—in finding out what God is.

And then with Guggenheim Fellowship I will write another collection of poetry. … I wrote a poem called We Have Our Dogs and Their Ancestral Blessing. And my brother and I worked on a video together [ ] to make that sort of an homage to Occupy Wall Street. That poem will be the linchpin of the next collection of poetry.

WCT: Any distinction between what people were searching for in the '60s and '70s, and what's going on now? What do you want to say about the Occupy movement?

Eleanor Lerman: Maybe their specific goals were different but they grow out of the same impulse—being that we have to care about each other. … If we mean well to each other, then whatever comes of that will be good for all of us.

You know, everyone thinks of the Occupy Wall Street movement as not having a message. … I think the larger message is that all around the world, and in our country, we should care that we all have enough to eat, that we're all warm in the winter and not dying of the heat in the summer.

WCT: Agreed. Janet Planet learns to growl as a way to gain confidence in her resolve about something. So what have you growled at lately?

Eleanor Lerman: There was a sign that I saw somewhere at one of the Occupy events and it was, "We're the 99 percent and we finally woke up." And my brother and I were saying, "OK, we have to wake up too." … That was our gentle growl of, well, even those who went before are still here and we still care and we stand with you.

WCT: We all have to find our growl.

Eleanor Lerman: Absolutely.

WCT: Tell me some more about what part mysticism plays in your life.

Eleanor Lerman: I'm very lucky to live near the beach, near the Atlantic Ocean and I can go for a walk on the boardwalk. … Just being able to see the ocean and the horizon and the way the light changes over the beach in the seasons reminds me not to [ change ] .

Life is not just all going to the grocery store. You have to make room in yourself for the path to spiritual understanding, especially when there is less of life ahead of you than behind you. You have to prepare yourself for whatever is ahead. There is some portal we're going to pass through. I have no idea what it is.

For me, at least being able to walk on the boardwalk and see the horizon helps.

Janet Planet ( $17.95 ) is out now.

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