An Imagination of Tarot History– Part Three

Islamic Mysticism is known as Sufism and practitioners are called Sufis. It is a belief and practice by which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge [19].

“The first stage of Sufism appeared in pious circles as a reaction against the worldliness of the early Umayyad period (661–749). From their practice of constantly meditating on the words in the Qurʾān (the Islamic holy book) about Doomsday, the ascetics became known as “those who always weep” and those who considered this world “a hut of sorrows.” They were distinguished by their scrupulous fulfillment of the injunctions of the Qurʾān and tradition, by many acts of piety, and especially by a predilection for night prayers.” [19]


taweez: Good Luck & Protection

Sufism is based on the idea that Allah is a disinterested god with neither hope for the future as fear of hell [19].

Sufi means ‘pure’ and believes there are ‘7 planes of existence’. Practitioners engage existence as multi dimensional [20].  Sufism deals specifically with direct connection to a creator god or original consciousness. 

Rumi is a well known Sufi poet.

Sufism intersects with Christian Hermits (mystics), plus cultures of Europe and India [19]. Sufis practice trance and magic, especially as it is practiced in India [19] [21].

Christianity is anchored in mystical practice also [22], prophecy itself is a mystical practice. Christianity is born as a reformation of Judaism, also a religion with a strong mystical backbone [23]. Religions of the world contain mystical practices and attempts to see visions and make direct connections to a divine state through varieties of prayer, meditation, trance, dance, and drumming. 

The mystical is universal and its practice is found at every intersection within this imagination of  Tarot History. The Eurasian Steppe is steeped in magic as is Chinese culture during 900 b.c.e to 1400 b.c.e and certainly beyond those time frames, but definitely during this era when cultures were trading and integrating and conquering in constant succession along the Steppe.

The mystics of all these backgrounds met amid the exchanges of culture created by nomadic tribalism, empire building, and the long wars of the Crusades, of course.  

Mystics generally perform divination as part of their practice or follow the words of prophetic characters like Jesus. 

As for the Kipchaks, their name means ‘Hollow Tree’. According to them, inside a hollow tree, their original human ancestress gave birth to her son [24].

As these cultures meet and exchange much integration of practice and ritual converge in ways we may only imagine.

NEXT . . . We go to Egypt and find the card suits that survive until our present.









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An Imagination of Tarot History– Part Two

At this point I imagine the Kipchaks as practitioners of what modern times might call shamanism and likely also Tengrism, to be engaged in forms of mysticism that would include divination and forms of ‘vision questing’. I also imagine that they are in possession of playing cards, the yezi ge perhaps specifically, or other types of cards that may have circulated at this time along the Eurasian Steppe [10].

The Kipchaks do not have a land of origin, their language is considered Turkic, but there are many languages that fall under that title [11]. The Kipchaks and their history does not form anything close to a straight line. They were nomadic conquerors who conquered through assimilation to the sedentary cultures they conquered [12] [13]. In this way, I am imagining here, the Kipchaks acquired a great deal of language, religious practice, and cultural ephemera, to say nothing of a variety of racial and national identities. Eventually, the Kipchaks, at least some of them, join with another nomadic confederation known as the Cumans [10].

0727191036Modern ideas of lineage break like pie crust with just this simple look at history along the Eurasian Steppe. Nationalism, race, and religion become muffled by the sheer activity that happens in these ancient civilizations. Technologies in language, mysticism, tools, animal husbandry, and general processes are trading and integrating from both the eastern and the western seaboards– from the Black Sea to the Yellow Sea [14].

At this point in my imagining, the physical playing card is placed into the hands of the Kipchaks in Manchuria, just outside of Beijing, and/or the machine technology to create them is passed along, sometime between 900 B.C.E and 1200 B.C.E. 

In the early 12th century the Mongols begin taking power along the Euraisian Steppe [15], eventually the Mongols become one of history’s most brutal conquering powers, but for my purpose here I am mostly interested in how their growing power might have affected the Kipchaks and their enslavement as Mamluks or warrior slaves. 

The Mongols combined forces with the Kipchaks to defeat the Alans, then the Kipchaks attempted to overthrow the Mongols, but the Kipchaks lost the overthrow and, it would seem, their identity. Some Kipchaks flee to Russia, Hungary, and Iraq, while others among the Kipchaks become mercenaries in Europe. It is that later group of Kipchaks, the mercenaries, that are eventually captured as slave warriors and brought to Egypt among other nations [16] [17].

The ‘slave warrior’ is known as Mamluk [18] and were taken from a variety of cultures and were considered to hold a higher status than other enslaved persons. Several Mamluk Dynasties appear in history. The Kipchaks and other nomadic confederations were skilled at assimilating to sedentary cultures and then overthrowing those cultures. I imagine here that enslaving nomadic tribes or confederacies with this deep knowledge of politics and warcraft would risk that they would eventually come to power. The fact that these dynasties are referred to as Mamluk Dynasties might be a way of pointing out a certain truth in this regard. 

The Mamluks are descended from a variety of ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds. While they are generally– from what I can tell– working/warring in service to the spread of Christiandom, they are not necessarily Christians themselves or not originally Christian and the Kipchaks, at least, are mimics of dominant cultures as a means to infiltrate and come to dominate those cultures. 

Our next stop will be a brief look at mysticism in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism as all of these religions play a role in Egyptian culture during the Mamluk Empire and form the roots of modern mysticism. After that we will move on to the Mamluk overthrow of Egypt and the development of the playing cards that contain numbers.










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An Imagination of Tarot History- Part One

The first note I ever took on the History of Tarot was from Rachel Pollack: “No one knows.”

Being more fascinated by the potential to create future through Tarot Philosophy than in the history of and development of that Philosophy, I was content with the basic truth. No one does know exactly or roughly how the modern Tarot Deck and modern Tarot Philosophy came to be.

Tarot is a deck of cards that is in fact a book, to paraphrase Paul Foster Case, it tells an endless number of stories and has its own narrative arc, its own private and permanent mystery of origin. Tarot Philosophy is the never ending story of life in its many perceived and lived personalities and experience and the deck itself has a story of its path that we may only imagine.

This imagining begins with the advent of the physical card itself. 

The invention of cards as a physical object first appear (possibly) in China sometime prior to 907 B.C.E., which marked the end of the Tang Dynasty [1]. The original cards were made of hemp paper and decorated by the use of ink and woodblock printing. The paper and the printing were both developed under the same dynasty sometime between 650-670 B.C.E. [2]. 

0726191248It is believed by some that the cards were used to play the ‘leaf game’, or yezi ge, a game referenced in some writings, though the rules of play are unknown. The word ‘leaf’ may refer to the cards themselves or maybe yezi ge was originally played using actual organic leaves or it may be a reference to pages (leaves) in a book and was a game played with the book and a set of dice [2]. In any case, these early cards did not contain numbers or suits.

According to game historian David Parlett, playing cards with suits and numbers appear in Europe by way of Egypt, numbered cards originating out of the Mamluk Empire [3] [4], but let’s back up for a moment and consider some travels the playing card may have taken.

When we reference ‘an idea whose time has come’, I suspect we mean that someone or several someones are bound to think of it. When a certain number and type of information, inventions, and set of goals come into focus, new ideas are born because someone or many someones are bound to think them up. 

The invention of the playing card is bound to enter the minds of those in the midst of the necessary technology to press paper. I think it possible, inevitable really, for the playing card to enter the human world at several points, but for fun and for interest I decided I wanted to try to deliver the playing card from China to Egypt.

Enter here: The Kipchaks. The Kipchaks were a nomadic people, a confederation or tribe that occupied/travelled along what was known as the Eurasian Steppe [5] [6] which was once known as Silk Road and now referred to as the Eurasian Land Bridge [7]. 

At the time of 800-900 BCE, there were a number of confederations or tribes along the Eurasian Steppe that were known as Nomadic Empires [7] and while these empires roved, they often conquered non nomadic societies by assimilating to the sedentary culture before overthrowing the society and establishing their own Capital Cities [8]. 

The Kipchaks interest me in this imagining of Tarot History as it is possible that some Kipchaks originated along Chinese borders [5] and because they practice what we might call ‘shamanism’ in our modern language [9], meaning mysticism and practice that involves altered states of consciousness. The Kipchaks are eventually conquered by the Mongols and go a number of directions geographically, politically, and spiritually [5]. 

It is the Kipchak influence in Egypt that we will look at next…











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review: SLEEPER CELL BY Michael Quess Moore


Cover Art By: Rontherin Ratliff


In a collection of carefully orchestrated poems titled Sleeper CellMichael Quess Moore constructs a text that brings forward palpable sense within the body. On the page these words stop the eye and ask to be read again and again and again. On the page these words will make the heart race.

Michael Quess Moore also takes Sleeper Cell to the stage as a work of performance that made a powerful and successful debut as part of Infringe Festival in New Orleans in 2017. This is a poet who can capture our attention and speak directly to the places inside us that knows when we hear something truthful.

This writing is exactly the kind of dangerous American culture needs. Words, beats, movements that disrupt our acceptance of trauma and how it resides in the body and the actions of that body are dangerous works in all the right ways. Any work that teaches the power of identifying pain and feeling the grief of loss, any work that actively moves the spirit toward healing and its inherent dignity is dangerous because it shifts our attention from shaming targets to naming crimes and the perpetrators of those crimes.

From the title piece, Sleeper Cell

rekindled in kind  


Michael Quess Moore Performing Sleeper Cell 2017. Photo By: LadyBabyMiss

in kinsmen through thyme

and this is our season

to unearth truth like treason

from each root to each region

of a family tree ablaze


Readers are carried forward from here on a trip through time and feeling that seeks, and often forges, the right sequence of words and ideas that open pictures too vast to capture any other way. 

On the page these words lead the reader through a series of revealings and juxtapositions that build both an urgency to consciously acknowledge and dismantle the white supremacy so deeply rooted in the ‘American Dream’ the hum of it resonates in everything we touch, and the assurance that disruption of the notion of that same dream has its own hum. 

In performance this collection builds an emotional grasp that spans centuries and locates the consistency and relentlessness of white supremacy from circumstance to circumstance, from generation to generation, from system to system.

We hear the poetic field notes of a frustrated educator:


our children are a poisoned harvest

ripened out of season . . .

who will tend this garden better . . .

than those who sprouted from it themselves . . . ?


Michael Quess Moore Performing Sleeper Cell 2017 Photo By: LadyBabyMiss


We are gifted with a letter to Whitney Houston that anchors her memory in what she gave to the world and shines a light on the way media narratives directed its audiences (i.e. all of us) to view her as a clown in a tragic circus. These words refuse that command and reach out to her spirit instead:



Dear Whitney,

your song remains, evergreen

will sing us through seasons to come

we don’t know what torturous angles

broke your heavenly wings angel

turned your temple to cage

you felt you had to flee, but your spirit

has finally escaped its vessel

and is from . . . to life everlasting

Readers are taken to a world half-dreamed and half lived where ancestors tell the stories that were never recorded, tell of desires still lingering, and wrongs so long and complete no amount of recompense will suffice in the face of what otherwise might have been. Ancestors and bones speak and the earth rumbles.


Michael Quess Moore Performing Sleeper Cell Photo By: LadyBabyMiss


In performance the piece titled Obesity lands perfectly and hits hard. The hungers that can not be fed with food are well established and placed on a landscape of scarcities of every variety save low nutrition and highly addictive foods. The trap of it is made so very clear in this work, a handful of lines delivers a full picture because that is what the best of poets can do when they work.

Michael Quess Moore is a performer with presence and power. You will heal something and break something, some will learn and some will meet within a shared pain. This is the best of poetry on a stage and I hope a recording will be forthcoming from this artist.

Sleeper Cell is both immediate and archival. Memory and story have been carried by beat and rhyme and meter for centuries of human life. We need these stories in just this form as a record. As American history sheds its ‘image’ as a colonizer in the continued colonial project to erase stories of brutal and genocidal oppressions even as these atrocities increase in intensity and scope, we need archives we can carry in our minds and bones.

You know how truth feels when you hear it. Michael Quess Moore will help you remember how to use your natural senses as compass.

Sleeper Cell is a collection of well crafted poems, a necessary archive, and most importantly a key for those who need his words as a mirror of self in the world. This is a book that reads as if you can hear it and the work translates beautifully as a passionate song presented fearlessly and alone on a dark stage.

Read Sleeper Cell and give it away too. Especially to the young people in your life.

NOPP Gus Bennett shoot- Quess (1)

Michael Quess Moore Photo By: Guss Bennett


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Cover Art By: Melora Kuhn Title: Bunny Ears

The Bunny Suit and Other Stories (Stone Hole Press 2017) by Carolyn Michaels Kerr is that book; the one you want to give to everyone you know. These seven, interconnected stories offer the reader companionship and humor on a search for the meanings within intimacy and the losses inherent in its aftermath. Each story offers a space of reprieve, be it gathering around a warm kiln or picking up an old vice or lying face down in a bunny suit, this is an author who knows where we go when we don’t know where to go.

These stories are warm and subtle, highlighting what connects us to one another even during those experiences of life that must be faced alone. This is a wildly successful collection of stories written with skill and depth.

In the title story, The Bunny Suit, we are brought along to discover a strange secret left by a deceased husband. Of course it is his bunny suit, the one he wore all over town, the one his now widow had seen him wear all over said town and never knew it was her husband inside. The narrator explains: “I was about to tell you that the discovery was the equivalent of finding out that your husband has been having an affair, but let’s be honest: it was exactly like finding out your husband owned a bunny suit.”

The narrator climbs into the bunny suit herself and moves around town, just as her husband must have, grappling with the fact that only she and he were aware that they had broken up just before his illness brought them back together for the end. It is the kind of secret that interjects an ocean between ourselves and the rest of life. It is the kind of secret that might make a person want to curl-up in a bunny suit, forever.

This story, like the others, carries us over an awkward terrain of intimacy, loss, and the


Carolyn Michaels Kerr

unfathomable mystery of life with a welcoming compassion. These characters are at once complex and fully accessible.

In another story titled Andrea Lamb, we are seduced not by Andrea, but by Valerie, our narrator. Valerie is a mature, married woman, an artist who tells the reader she is looking for something more kinetic in her work. All we need are those words to tell us that things are about to get interesting. This is skillful writing and excellent storytelling. We follow Valerie as she longs for and resists the company of Andrea Lamb, a sparkling mirage of a woman upon whom nearly anything could be projected. Andrea Lamb also happens to be rich and openly provides venues for money making and culture indulgence to both Valerie and her husband.

bunnysuitcoverfinalAndrea Lamb is almost a thriller in the sense that we know our narrator is careening toward an emotional eruption that may or may not break apart the very best she has created in her life and it is tense because we know we could be her, we could shake our own foundations just as surely. What if we decide we need something more kinetic? What if we can not resist what we know is dangerous? What happens then?

Carolyn Michaels Kerr has created a collection of stories made highly visual by the brevity of her descriptions and poignancy of the objects she chooses to mention and maneuver. This is an author who trusts her audience with a capacity for emotional creativity and empathy. The result is a neat and well handled series of stories that illustrate how deeply strange it is to be human. Put this book on your shelf because you will want to return to it again and even again.
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Meet your fearless publisher: Carolyn Bardos



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KOOK TEFLON: Talking Across The Veils

Kook Teflon is in a continous state of motion. She is a dollmaker, videographer, IMG_7081photographer, and muscian among other more esoteric callings. She is a Hoo Doo Practitioner, a Rootworker and a Witch who does readings and is even trained to conduct depossesions if necessary. Fortunately, according to Ms. Kook, this is rarely needed.

Kook Teflon has a presence that quietly entrances you. Yes she has a sweet smile and a loving attitude, but it is the bright lights that surround her life force that really draw you into her sphere of energy. 

Enjoy learning more about Kook and follow her on Facebook for tons of cool photography and art and happenings.

Cunning Crow Apothecary

MICHELLE: What is your first memory of having an extra sensory experience? How old were you, what did the adults around you say, if anything?

KOOK: When i was about 3 my mother said i sat on her lap and started telling her stories about my life before i arrived before i came down here, she said it gave her chills and i told her all about some ancestors that had passed away before i was born, our family is Hungarian and we have alot of people with clairvoyance,  so the adults in my life were always encouraging. I feel lucky!

The house we lived in from when i was 4-12 is when i first recall my personal extra IMG_7079sensory encounters, the house was paranormally active.  My dreams have always been foretelling and still are to this day.

M: You were speaking of your ancestors from the beginning. I know you are a dollmaker and the ancestors are a key aspect of this art and craft. What is your process like in conceiving and building your dolls?

KOOK: The ancestors have always been so important to me in all my processes of art and in magic, My grandmother had a huge part in raising me and we would spend days together and she would tell me the details of her immediate family, she was so scared that their stories would be lost.  She taught me all my sewing n creative crafty skills, i feel she is with me for many of my pieces……

I also danse heavily in the dark which wasn’t her thing, i am very connected with the LOA / Ghede, Laveau, I am also a Priestess of Hekate.  These spirits  also tell me their stories and guide me in my creations.

Since I am a Hoodoo Practitioner I use  specific organic plants that are always placed inside my dolls that charge them, which includes a  a eucalyptus nut that is retrieved from a tree planted in the 1860’s by Mary Ellen Pleasant (1817-1904).  

A woman that was 6’1 and had a green eye n’ a brown eye, that would dress as a man and ride ahead of the underground railroad to keep the coast clear and played a huge part in the abolitionist  movement,

she was born into slavery and her mother was murdered in front of her for being a vodou priestess, she grew up in Nantucket and the family that owned her educated her and included her as part of their family, she married into money and as a widower inherited $30 million dollars, her second husband was the cousin of Marie Laveau, who advised her on settling in SF. She was able to pay for persons freedom and help start their business’s there. She even fought the city to ride the trolley and won!

I charge all my dolls with these nuts!!

IMG_7080M: That’s a beautiful honor. You are such a lighted being. It just shoots out of you. One of the most captivating thing about your presence is this big love. It is so palpable. You are connected to the dark as you describe you above. What are you pulling from the shadows? How is it informing or contrasting this bouyant presence that is you? That may be an over complicated ask– but what does dark mean to you?

K: Aww you are so sweet.. I have lots of love and compassion… i’ve always understood where the Angels are and why the Demons are the way they are from a very young age, When i say dark i mean the dead, the lost souls, necromancers…..I’ve always felt comfortable around them and wanna hear their stories, mostly it seems they have been misunderstood.

I have always been different and i know lots of people are , again i am lucky that i was raised with a mother that was a practitioner, a believer and encouraged me to always be my true self and top put myself out there be vulnerable but also have boundaries. And respecting the differences in others.

In high school she’d put together tarot parties ( she was a reader) and have me do past life readings, it was a little intense for me at 15, people would start weeping and so i stopped. I know now it was because i was striking a chord of truth.

M: You do work on sites where there are reports of activity? Do you help clear/understand and move lingering spirits? What are you seeking when you work with ‘place’?

K: Yes i worked for many years in the infamous Butterworth Mortuary here in Seattle, IMG_7082for the most part i am the only one that took groups in. I would tell the history, the stories and the deaths that occurred here in the downtown area when seattle was settled. Some very intense situations happened in my 5 year there, it’d be quiet for 2 or 3 months and then boom everytime i’d go in it would be active, that is a place that the spirits can not be exorcised, it is definitely a portal.

The spirits were getting a lil too attached so i resigned, but when i do go in and help spirits cross over or make an agreement with them to chill out i do it with full compassion! Normally they just wanna be heard and have something to say.

I call on my ancestors n psychopomps for protection and guidance whenever i enter a known active space that i have been invited to. I seek to help the living and the dead be heard and empower them to cross over if they haven’t, which is pretty interesting!

If its demonic i would normally have the owner’s contact a church cause that is outta my zone, at least for now it is.

Prior to the mortuary i hosted a monthly death show and would tell the audience about ol mourning traditions and how in modern times especially in America it is frowned upon to mourn more than a week, proper healing takes time and you must grieve. I also had a public access show in Seattle from 2007-2009 called ‘Ill Famed Spirits” i would focus on stories and hauntings in different neighborhoods. I grew alot during that period of time.

Currently I’ve been contacted by a few businesses to come in and help, I had to remove a Witch Ladder from a cafe door that noone else was willing to touch, i just called on Hekate and she helped me get it to the river.

M: You were used to these energies being around, you just listened from the start like IMG_7078anything else around you. Your sympathy developed before fear. I love that you do this and your viewpoint on it all. To help both the living and the dead through a balancing of communication between worlds. I have to ask, what is a psychopomp?

K: Yeah last year i walked into a shop and there was a tarot reader, i sat down next to her and she said “wow you have a caravan of spirits with you, and the difference between you and others is that you speak to them all and communicate & have a relationship with each one so they are all heard and feel important”, everyone is a badass and i like helping reignite that in others or remind them through my healing practice, i went through major loss,grief n divorce in 2012-2014 and as hellish as it was i grew from it and healed and know that one of my reason in this journey is to help others with the most compassion and holding space for them in these times, i spent the last 5 years in constant training, workshops, i even became an initiate to conduct Deposessions, i’ve done a few so far and it is the best feeling to help others and help the dead pass on. I also did a medium ship and learned boundries…

A psychopomp are the spirits that greet you when you die and help you cross the river to the veil, for example Baron Samedi, Grim Reaper and Hekate….they aren’t gonna take you if you’re not ready but they make the transition alot easier and smoother xx

M: What is the basic theory behind the deposessions that you are doing? What are some of the symptoms you look for?

K: My teacher Ylva Mara Radziszewski that taught the depo’s is so amazing and I realized i had been doing this on a lower level for many years but what i learned is that approaching the client and spirit with thee upmost respect and compassion is key, i currently see about 3-7 clients a week and in the last 4 months there are only 2 that i felt where in need of an immediate depo,

They are both successful,highly intelligent persons. But during our sessions i could tell IMG_7084 (2)someone else was answering their questions, and they’d go back and forth with thoughts. Normally the signs are also insomnia, lethargy, a sudden pain or craving for a food you wouldn’t normally eat, strange thoughts that even the client is aware not normal. Also they have normally tried medical and professional help.

When i say possessed it isn’t like in the scene of what Hollywood portrays or how a demonic one would be, it’s usually a spirit that jumps in while you’re at the store, bar or move into a new house it can happen anywhere and the spirits sometimes don’t even realize they are in the human body. So you go thru a few meditative procedures and talk them out and to cross over. Some of them have keen memories of their prior lives, some are foggy or we even experienced an extra terrestrial.

M: What fascinating and fulfilling work. We are all lucky you had a good support system. What would you say is the most important thing your clients take with them when they leave a session?

K: My reviews so far from clients have brought tears to my eyes,

IMG_7083 (1)Most important thing is reminding em they are a complete badass regardless of what they’ve been thru they have the power!!!

Ive literally had clients leave the apothecary and message me saying they got a positive email/call/text about what we just worked on and their minds are blown,

Embracing their ancestors and leaving with a lesson of focus and honoring their path cause they are in charge of their story!

M: If someone feels like they have a presence around them that they want to engage, what would you advise?

K: First I’d advise to check electrical circuits, loose floor boards, also ask if they are on any medications, has their sleep patterns changed? From there i would contact someone local that has experience to help, and if they ask for huge sums of money before a consultation or visit then be weary. Also a good housecleaning, clutter n dust will literally attract spirits.

Some refer to these as goblins, gremlins or just unwanted spirits. They also love stagnant water, so if in your yard you have any dump out the containers etc that are holding an stagnant waters.  Pay attention if you’re an antique or vintage collector because there can be residual or actual intelligent hauntings attached to these items.

M: Kook, thank you for sharing these words with me. Your way of being in the world and relating to people is in itself instructive and it just does something special to us all, though I’m not sure exactly what I even mean. And maybe that is it right there– restoration of the dignity of our deep and personal mystery. Thank you my friend, thank you very much for that.

Watch Some New Videos from Kook Teflon Here:






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SPIRIT OF THE SWEETGRASS: A talk with Casey Leigh

IMG_4634There is a rhythm to a reading from Casey Leigh. She is methodical and thoughtful in what she brings into the space of her reading work. I recommend the experience very much.

Casey read for me one beautiful afternoon and it brought me to a heightened awareness, it woke me up to the day and to the steps ahead. The colors were a little brighter and my hearing was a little sharper. Her readings are clear and generous. I left her company with the good sense to keep myself open for what was comming and set myself free from what was going behind. 

Casey Leigh lives in New Orleans she is a former Tarot Reader for Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo and continues to accept private clients locally. 

Get to know Casey Leigh a little in this great talk I was lucky enough to share with her:

MICHELLE: So, you are a kid. Do you live in the city? Country? Is there religion? Give usalchemwedoldpic some basics on where you were and where you were coming from when you had the first experience that you would now consider to be part of your abilities? What was that experience?

CASEY: i grew up in a small rural town in alberta, a french catholic town, went to catholic school all my life because that was the only school. but my family wasn’t french or catholic so I guess I was destined to be a freak from the beginning!

I didn’t grow up going to church or with any kind of spiritual practice but my mom has always nurtured my interest in the realm of Spirit. i grew up in the prairies of alberta and was always very drawn to the indigenous traditions there. she would take me to see the drummers and dancers. she had some friends who were Cree elders and when I was six they took me out to pick sweetgrass and taught me to pray to the four directions, and to the spirit of the sweetgrass. that had a deep impact on my psyche, and was a stark contrast to my catholic school education. also my grandmother is very psychic and she works with the cards. I was the only grandchild to show interest in them and she bought me my first deck when i was 13.

MICHELLE: Talk about the four directions a bit. Do you call to them in prayer?

CASEY: the four directions, or six really, and the elements that correspond are definitely a big part of how i pray. calling on the directions creates that sacred space, the container to do the work in.

MICHELLE: And Sweetgrass? Tell us about this a little. What is your relationship with Sweetgrass like?

colorwheelCASEY: It grows where i come from but not where i live now. and it’s not part of the tradition or heritage that i personally come from. but when i participate in ceremony in indigenous spaces sweetgrass is a medicine that is used and the smell of it is so evocative and grounding to me. besides the work it is doing as a medicine in ceremony, holding it in my hands feels like a connection to my prairie roots, which feel a little far away out here in the swamps.

MICHELLE: What deck did your grandmother give you? Was there significance in the number 13?

CASEY: i don’t remember what it was called, it was an art deck and i used it for awhile but i have always been kind of a rigid traditionalist when it comes to the cards and i really wanted to get my hands on the rider-waite. that was before i heard of the thoth deck! but she gave it to me wrapped in silk with a moonstone. i still keep my cards wrapped in silk. i think there probably is a significance to me being 13 but not sure what that is except it’s such a magickal number! and it was right around when i started bleeding, which feels more significant.

MICHELLE: That’s beautiful. I know you are a fan of the Thoth Deck. Those are my usual cards. Let’s talk about this deck for a minute. What do you find so valuable about it at this juncture in time?

CASEY: i think that deck is timeless! it’s like a book that is different every time you open it. It never fails to blow my mind. it feels like a living entity that changes with the times, and that’s real magick.

MICHELLE: I agree with that. Frieda Harris made such beautiful use of geometry in the


THOTH DECK / The Fool / Artwork by: Freida Harris

artwork that I always feel like it’s good for me to look at the cards. I feel like they are always talking– living like you say. I read with multiple decks and the Thoth is always the one I keep in my hands. It is the deck that does the ‘whispering’ to me. That’s how I think of it. What is a card you strongly identify with? What does it mean to you? How does it fit into your life as a story?

CASEY: That definitely changes all the time! I feel like The Star is one that continually comes up with me, and feels like an old friend in a reading. right now the hanged man is the one that won’t leave me alone. that’s probably because i’m stubborn, and am currently butting my head against some wall i can’t see yet!

MICHELLE: How did you come to take clients and read cards professionally? Talk about sitting at the table and doing the readings.

CASEY: haha well, i never would have gotten there of my own volition, so i think Spirit had a hand in my current profession.

i have a tattoo that is a line from the ‘charge of the goddess’ and i was in a hot tub a long time ago and this person was staring at me, which was sort of creeping me out, but then he asked me about my tattoo and he knew the ‘charge of the goddess’ so we started talking about witchy things and then he just looked past me for a second and asked ‘do you read cards’, which caught me off guard, and i said yes, and he said ‘do you want a job?’ and i said no but he told me if i changed my mind i should go talk to him, because he was the head reader at a shop in the French Quarter, Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo, and he’d give me a job.

to make a long story shorter, i was working at a coffee shop in the marigny for 5$ an hour and a friend convinced me that i should go try it out because at least it would make a good story. 9 years later i’m still doing it, although thankfully at my kitchen table and not in a shop on bourbon street. i am a homebody and i like the peace and quiet of my own house, and the ability to choose who i let into my space. I think working at the shop in the quarter taught me about having boundaries like no other experience in my life. It was an intensive education! and it taught me about how to be a reader. but sitting at my own table, in my own space allows me to let go in a way that i never could working there. i also worked at the Island of Salvation Botanica for a while, but i really like working on my own time, in my own space.


THOTH DECK / Lust / Artwork by: Frieda Harris

MICHELLE: What is ‘charge of the goddess’?

CASEY: The charge of the goddess is arguably either the channeled words of the goddess or a composed/inspired poem, credited to doreen valiente. it’s a liturgical piece used as invocation in a lot of modern traditions of witchcraft. i used to have it memorised! i had a dream once where i saw one of the lines as a tattoo on my body so of course i immediately went and did that. 

MICHELLE: Talk about the experience of reading. Do you see? Hear? This is a tough one to describe, I know, but I always learn when other readers and psychics talk about their impressions and how the work of it looks/sounds.

CASEY: i think at this point i’m using the cards more as a crutch, but they’re like old friends, and just shuffling them takes me to the place where i can listen. and they’re so beautiful! i hear most of what i say to people.. i call them my little birdies. and i see things too, but i would say i’m more clairaudient. i’m still learning to get out of the way. shuffling the cards also helps me circumvent my internal censor, that voice that tries to talk you out of believing what you’re hearing

MICHELLE: Ahhh! Shuffling. I understand this completely. It’s an act that balances my mind, I think. I think shuffling cards is a great way to come down from stressful or traumatic interactions.

So, let’s get technically speaking here. How do you perceive the court cards– especially in terms of gender? It’s an important topic of the times and I’ll be asking all of us something along these lines. How do you bring the court into your readings?

CASEY: i think the court cards are a great example of how the deck works as a living magickal book. the court cards each hold two of the elements (except for the four that have only one!) and so gender is fluid in the cards, just like it is in the world. personality shows up as a balance of elements rather than something out of a constructed binary.

when i pull court cards for a person i look at the elements represented and see how that plays into their personality and how they perceive and move through the world. i feel like the court cards are a great representation of how we can all hold both the feminine and the masculine, in different balance. i guess when court cards show up in a reading i see it one of three ways – representing the core personality of the person i’m reading for, their state of being at that particular moment in time, or an important person acting in their life. whenever i teach classes on the cards, the court cards are always the most perplexing. to explain, and to understand!

MICHELLE: I know. That’s why I’m asking. Ha-ha. I love what you are teaching here. What about the Hierarchy aspect, the kings and queens? How do you read the ‘system’, so to speak, how does it pertain to our psyche? Or not?

CASEY: That’s a tough one.. the idea of hierarchy is diametrically opposed to my politics


Book of Keys / Ace of Swords / Artwork by Michelle Embree

and my own psyche! i might just stubbornly refuse to acknowledge it in the cards too. I see the difference between the different court positions more as division of function and strengths. just briefly, the knights seem to be ones to set things in motion but maybe aren’t the ones to see something through all the way. queens don’t necessarily have the idea but they hold the container to get the work done. princes are the doers and princesses see things through to the end. that’s just an example, or more like piece of how i see them.

MICHELLE: What card gives you the hardest read? For me, it’s that four of cups. I have my standards for reading it at this point, but it pauses me every time I see it. What card gives you a hard time?

CASEY: For a long time the devil was the hardest one for me. I don’t like to see any of the cards as entirely good or bad, and i struggled with seeing the shining side of the devil for such a long time.

MICHELLE: The World. Final card in the Major Arcana. As a stand alone story, what does it mean to you?

CASEY: well in the thoth deck it’s called the universe, because crowley always has to make things bigger than they were! i see that card as being the hinge-point between an ending and a beginning. like the space between two breaths – the archetypal pause between dissolution and creation. in a person’s life, it usually feels like crossing a major threshold, like making a choice at the crossroads and moving into a new phase.

MICHELLE: Beautiful. Very beautiful interpretations. Thank you for taking time to talk to me today.

Get a reading with Casey Leigh: 504-813-0148


Casey Leigh // Photo By Sarah Danzinger


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Navigating: A Tarot Talk With Meghan Guidry

11884677_10155916360665453_7960320578939039406_o (1)Meghan Guidry’s essay, Mourning The Unknowable: A Daughter Comes To Hold Her Vanishing, Remote Mother As A Myth, tells a story about the levels of communication that we may establish through the making of personal mythos. This is a story about telling stories in order to bridge gaps and make order for a past that was only chaos.

Meghan Guidry has sharp philosophical skills and a point of view that naturally speaks in multiplicity. She hears and sees from a variety of perspectives simultaneously. Her insights are valuable and the doors they open offer opportunities for endless exploration.

Meghan’s mother suffered a deep unrest in her psyche. An unrest, a distress, that disabled her capacity to keep a job or a relationship or a steady place to sleep. She lived on a dreamscape made of synchronicities and secret messages. Her world was a combination of never-ending betrayals and of magical, expansive meanings. To stay in her life one had to stay in her favor and to stay in her favor one had to submit completely to the ever-changing parameters and expectations of the world that erupted from her imagination. Even her daughter had to submit to the wild swings and often outlandish proclamations of an unseen world in order to keep her mother reachable.

This essay is visceral. Meghan Guidry’s writing is so physical, so truly real that I felt her fear. I felt the jagged isolation of a young woman lying awake knowing her mother was out in the streets because she lives in the streets and there was nothing anyone could do to change it; even ‘help’ would only mean locking up an indomitable spirit. I felt it all. Meghan’s writing is deeply physical, she builds these rooms inside her paragraphs and you can sit inside these spaces and get the feel of the place.

Meghan also reads Tarot cards. She learned this art from her mother who used the cards to construct and interpret a world where only she herself would ever live. For Meghan, the cards were a language that could, at least, hold her mother in some physical proximity though they would never bring true knowledge of her mother as a person.

Meghan Guidry has a viewpoint on the cards that is profound and utterly unique. She continues to embrace the possibilities and the healing properties of Tarot work even though she knows that a mind without solace may grow destructive conclusions from the narrative of the cards because such a mind works that way. If you have ever loved someone who follows ‘the signs’ without regard for any other means of operating a human life, you will gain much from Meghan Guidry’s personal story. If you don’t know how this feels, get an idea:  Click here to read Mourning The Unknowable.

“Meghan Guidry is a poet, novelist, essayist, and librettist currently living in Boston, MA. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and a Masters of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School, where she studied bioethics, medical anthropology, and political philosophy. Her work explores themes of bodies and boundaries, with a particular focus on the intersections of myth, memory, and medicine. Her work has appeared in The Pitkin Review, The Wick Journal, Applied Sentience, The Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and others. Her first novel Light and Skin was published by Empty City Press in 2010, and her second book Kinesiophobia is scheduled for release in 2017. Meghan is also a working librettist, and has collaborated with composers on several original pieces, including Roots and Wings (c. Oliver Caplan), which was performed by the Handel Society of Dartmouth College. She wrote libretto for The Little Blue One (c. Dominick DiOrio), a new opera performed by Juventas New Music Ensemble in 2014. She is currently working on Tarography, and experimental interactive poem, and a new musical collaboration with Oliver Caplan focused on climate change.”

Click here to Visit Meghan Guidry’s Website

11884677_10155916360665453_7960320578939039406_o (1)Michelle // Let’s start with one of your current projects titled Tarography. I have only a handful of words about it, but my intrigue is vast. Can you describe the process of this work to some degree and then we will talk a bit more specifically about the insight of your life experience.

Meghan // Absolutely. Tarography is, in many ways, the sequel to A Place on Earth. Because my mother was obsessed with Tarot, and because the cards themselves dictated her lifeworld, I’ve long felt that the only way I could authentically write about her is through that structure. But, the problem I’ve had with many Tarot-poetry books is that they’re static. The cards themselves are meant to be moved, turned, to be rearranged–I was missing that in Tarot poetry. So Tarography is a moveable poem where each stanza is linked to a card. You can read the cards from start to finish in order for one story, but you can also draw poems by picking cards and arranging/rearranging them. This felt like the authentic way to tell my mother’s story, and my story of her: because there’s no way to tell one person’s perspective with any kind of authority (especially when there’s a question of mental illness involved), it felt right to have this piece that, by nature, is always unfinished.

Michelle // Tarot is the never ending story, yes. I get that, I love that. All of this is an amazing concept and it goes directly with what people are thirsty for these days. We need stories that are large enough to hold us. When mental health is brought in, we need an even larger picture just to be compassionate with ourselves. This poem is an important construction.

What was the first story about your mother that you committed into writing?

Meghan // What you said about the need for stories large enough to hold us is exactly colorwheelright. I’ve long felt that experimental forms create that space, and that those spaces are vital. Especially, as you so insightfully said, when questions of mental health are brought in. And in addition to the need for compassion, there’s also a need for dissociation. Not in a clinical sense, but in the sense of giving space to accommodate the myriad self. Who I am at work is different in some ways than who I am with friends or at home, and these are normal and natural shifts that humans engage in everyday. So, I think there’s such an urgency for work that provides–or at least give potentiality to–that space and its recognition.

Your question about the first story about my mother is really interesting. I tried, and failed, for years to write her. I’ve seen vestiges of her and our relationship in many of my pieces, but I could never write about her, only around her. Partially, it was because I knew her view of her life world was so drastically different than my experience of my own and hers under her care, and that’s something I want to pay attention to and represent in any work I do about her. In some ways, the first card of Tarography is the first piece of writing I ever did about her that felt authentic and right. It’s for The Fool card, and the stanza is:

Perhaps the pact

Was always this:

I will believe everything you say

Michelle // The physicality for me is big. As you were typing I was thinking of the feelings your essay gave me– I’ve been thinking about how to describe it. Vertigo was the word that just came. Indeed The Fool falls from the cliff. It’s tremendously visceral. Maybe more so for me because of my relationship with the cards. This stanza is a perfect description and gets to a big feeling that came across through your essay was this suspension that occurs when you know you have to say you believe her in order to keep her. Vertigo.

acecupeffectsIn picking up this tool as your own do you use it to read for yourself? Do you hold a spiritual practice that involves the deck that is strictly personal for you? Did you make your own relationship with the cards?

Meghan / / Your point about physicality is also a crucial component to this that gets to the heart of the answer to your questions. As a teenager, I had a personal Tarot practice, though I didn’t have a set cosmology that accompanied it. I think I was looking for something that articulated the act of seeking something beyond this world, but that could be rooted in it. The cards, to me, provided that physical manifestation of questioning, even though I didn’t know then (and still don’t know now) what it is I’m seeking answers from.

In my 20s, after my mother passed away, I put the cards away for a while. It wasn’t a decisive action. I just didn’t know how to engage with them. I picked them up again in my late 20s because a friend wanted a reading, and even now, I mostly use the cards for others. However, in that gap between adolescence and now, what I discovered is that there are particular physical and mental sensations I have when using those cards that I find in other activities. Like, when I go swimming, for the first 10 minutes or so, my brain is very much “on.” I’m thinking about my day or working through problems or overly focusing on my movements in the water. But at some point, the momentum of what I’m doing takes over, and everything goes on autopilot. The action then becomes very meditative, similar to that free fall central to The Fool. And my brain, or the conscious part of it, shuts off. I’m always amazed at the ideas I have when I’m in the middle of swimming, and most of them are related to my writing. The sensation is similar to how I felt reading Tarot: it’s another way of putting a physical condition on an act of seeking outside of what we might consider physical constraints. So, I don’t read the cards as much or as intentionally now, but I’ve been slowly finding other iterations of that process in different domains so that I can weave that process more intentionally into my daily life.

Michelle // Body memory work. It’s interesting to bring that into the work with cards. Asrwdeath a teacher of Tarot I get into using shuffling as an indicator to the deeper self that help is coming, that self-care has begun. It works for me, maybe it balances the hemispheres, I don’t know, but it begins a process that brings me down from anxiety or confusion. Then the questions. As I talk to cards, I am focussed on asking logically ordered questions. It’s all body work. That’s deep work whether it uses cards or other mechanisms.

How do you see mythology in relationship to psychological healing, or physical healing for that matter?

Meghan // I think the body memory work you described is key, and as we talk, I’m having vivid memories of how the cards snapping down on a surface feel in my hands. It’s so key, this kind of physical orientation as a part of or a signal of a ritual beginning. Regardless of whether that ritual is private or public-facing, there’s always some kind of physical orientation to it, and I love the way you describe your relationship to shuffling as a physical signal that help is coming. It’s like a beacon, in a sense.

My favorite Tarot deck is the one my mother bought me when I was thirteen: Clive Barrett’s The Ancient Egyptian Tarot. The Major Arcana are all deities or key scenes from Egyptian mythology, which I’ve been reading since I was in third grade. For me, the link between myth and physical and psychological healing has always been kind of a given. I think, often, in mythological terms. It’s like a common language: if someone else is familiar with the basic tenets of a given myth, you can start there to cultivate shared understanding and empathy. But likewise, because myths are so ensconced, you can tweak certain elements of them to highlight particular challenges, or to crystallize a perspective. That kind of tinkering is very powerful, because you’re playing with something that’s so ingrained. It provides a kind of necessary shock. And for me, that shock, that twisting of the expected and ingrained, is often both what causes injury and what is required to heal from it. On a simple physical level, if you move your body in a way that you don’t normally, you pull a muscle or pinch a nerve. The healing often requires moving your body in a way you don’t normally move it to coax something back into balance. Psychologically, I think it’s helpful to have these set story arcs that you can play with, move through, twist, place yourself into (or use mythic figures as avatars), because it forces you to engage with yourself in ways that aren’t habitual, and in doing so, it creates the space for growth or for healing. It also gives a loose arc towards completion through the myth itself, so it’s almost a kind of motivation, or at least a defense against the unknown.

It’s like the difference between apophatic and kataphatic discourse in theology: apophatic approaches are negating, and you say what something isn’t; kataphatic is where you affirm what something is. Often, these are used in describing how different theologians in the Christian tradition approached understanding and describing God. But I think mythology is incredible because it lets you do both simultaneously. Because the stories are set, you’re automatically engaging in kataphatic analysis, but because the stories are set, you get these really clear images about what something isn’t or what doesn’t resonate. And, if we’re taking healing to be  synonymous with purposeful understanding that moves us towards something more authentic or more harmonious, then  myth is an incredibly powerful tool for holding these two tensions conscious in a way that’s already been mapped.

Michelle // Organization of thoughts, feelings, and images. The completion you


Cracked Mirror By Miss. Led 2014

mentioned, anything traumatic automatically lacks meaning, lacks reasons– or I should say, the traumas that make us suffer– mythology can give this way of making reason, making a story with the possibility of resolution. It’s huge. Purposeful understanding. I’ve been teaching the cards as a map, too. Amazing work to undertake. There is always too much to say at this level of working with the ‘book disguised as a deck of cards’.

Are you planning to make Tarography as a deck? How will we interact with this poem?

Meghan // I couldn’t agree more about how there is always so much to say, about the book-as-deck, about the question of mapping and how we build them. In an older essay I wrote called A Place on Earth, I talked about grief and trauma as violent destructions of maps, and what remains is something akin to old sea charts where the immediate area is mapped, but everything else is sea monsters. And a lot of the work of moving through loss and upheaval is going to interrogate the areas where we see  Krakens on the map. I think it’s such a powerful point you’ve made and powerful work you’re doing around using the cards as a map.

For Tarography, my hope is that it will be printed as a deck. I have some ideas already for the artwork, and I think that could be really effective not just as visuals, but as a physical artifact. I’m also exploring how to create a digital version that offers interactivity as well, though we’re very early in that process. I don’t know if the image I see in my mind can translate to digital form, but I’m working with a friend of mine who is both a poet and a programmer on how to make that version a reality.

wincrystalMichelle // Trauma tears up the map. It does this absolutely. And yes, everything else is sea monsters. I love your description. You used Hunger like a map. Our stories of escape and survival and the creative pursuit of making a place to just be inside of our own skin–these are all maps we can share with each other.

Do you have a specific memory of something you did when you were young that makes you feel strong and capable despite the reason you had to act as you did? We make these maps and we mark treasures where we find them, right?

Meghan // Absolutely. I think one thing I did as a child that makes me feel strong and capable now is that I would always listen to music and create stories around and for the songs. It started because I would get very nauseous in cars, and we figured out that listening to music was a good distraction. So I got a little portable tape player and a few cassettes, and would listen to them over and over again. When I was doing that, I would often pay attention to the lyrics, and try to imagine stories that would fit with the songs. Over time, I began to try and map what I was seeing outside the car window (and later on, what I would see on walks and on the train) to the music as well. It became an unintentional exercise in drawing connections and narravatizing the world around me in a deeply personal and private way. When I was younger, doing this always made me feel like I was growing and making connections. Now, it functions more as a grounding practice, as a way to go back into my head and make sense of myriad  events from the day. Ultimately, it’s how I parse stimuli into stories, and how I try to keep those things connected intentionally.

Michelle // Wow. Yes! We all need to look deep and find the things that make us strong 11884677_10155916360665453_7960320578939039406_o (1)even though we learn them when life is overwhelming. Thank you so much for this talk, Meghan.

Click Here To Visit Meghan Guidry’s Website

Follow Meghan’s Author Page on Facebook

Read From: A Place On Earth  (which deserves its’ own conversation)

Find Meghan on twitter: @MeghanGuidry1


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Love Each Other & Destroy Culture: Keith Backhaus Talks To Me About Rituals, Writing, and Making Books



I, Dagger by Keith Backhaus

Keith Backhaus was teaching conjure magic under the guise of facilitating a workshop for writers. I found him listed in the catalog alongside the title: DIScourse: Mysticism, Allegory, and the Adversarial in Writing Practice. I read the title again and probably again, it was a kind of fate and I knew that much.

The lesson was an experience. We were charged by the topics we covered and talked  happily over one another even though we were missing dinner service. Of course, that is what we all came for anyway; a dose of the medicine that affirms life and creation and manages to hold the truth that our worst fears are utterly applicable. It is a special kind of medicine, a terribly rare potion, honestly.

Keith Backhaus carries himself with the confidence of a man who simply does not care what other people think or what other people fear. His presence is both compelling and endearing. As a writer and a teacher, Keith openly invites us into his thoughts and his complicated renderings of what it means to be human, he just doesn’t care if you approve. It stands out as an aspect of his person because for Keith Backhaus this is real, not a posture to throw you off guard. In a world that worships popularity, Keith Backhaus leans outside of the paradigm and questions the verisimilitude within our desires.

 If we are to exist at all, we must tell our stories beyond the purview of the colonists, the conquerors of the human spirit, the money changers through time. To exist at all, we must determine our own value and from there, our own lives. To exist at all, we must conjure ourselves where we stand, every day.

Enjoy these words. Absorb this medicine.


Keith Backhaus

Michelle Embree: What did you first begin with in creating? When you were a kid, what did you start doing first?

Keith Backhaus: Well, quite honestly my first artistic memory doesn’t truly come from my own experience. Both my mother and father are artists (among other things), a painter and a musician respectively. So I can honestly say it is a kind of messy splatter of color and sound–very likely a kind of bricolage experience that first characterized what ‘art’ would be for me. Myself, I did not have a knack for art when I was younger…I spent most of my time playing in the woods or the dirt looking for bugs and other things that crawled/flew/etc.

Most of my ‘makings’ were stories filled with these beings–to me, that miniature world was so much larger than my own. I can remember wanting to be small all the way back to my very first experiences. The first tangible object that I truly remember was a book that I wrote in 4th grade (I think)–it was for a bookmaking project–mine was about monsters; everything for me is about monsters if you get right down to it.

Michelle: Did you ever get other people involved in the stories you made up about


I, Dagger by Keith Backhaus


Keith: Absolutely. In fact, that collaborative experience is the foundation of all the art that I make. It was that very same year that one of my friends from school (prompted and introduced by older brothers) began to play Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (2nd Edition) with me. Those experiences have continued through the present day, and friends of mine and I still regularly get together to ‘tell stories’ together in that uniquely participatory and fluid manner.

At any given time, I am likely involved in at least a few ‘games.’I think, in a way, that process of game-making becomes a kind of predictive/reactive space not unlike the work you do with tarot/i-ching etc. Both, I think, have a foundation in that connective space that exists between participants.

Michelle: When you start a process of writing a story with multiple authors, where does it begin, what might that process look like?

Keith: Well I think ultimately that entire structure has a number of factors that are somewhat difficult to quantify. I think the stories that are created in the process of the lived-experience of a ‘game’ and a story that one deliberately attempts to fabricate alongside another author are two different animals. And these, of course, separate from the stories created when any thinking or living beings decide to exist in consensus-reality.

Books, that is, formal stories that have been codified for ritual purpose and these begin with the shared act–the decision ‘to make’ with set purpose. In ‘game’ the process is much more messy, as the experience of the making and the making coexist in real-time in a different way; they layer multiple perspectives both within the story and within the process itself. 



Axiom Radnor: Year One by Keith Backhaus & Meghan Guidry

For me, I’ve always been interested in collaborative work despite the pitfalls and the seeming disinterest in the literary community, and I got to realize that process more fully working with my dear friend Meghan Guidry–our collaborative work  Axiom Radnor: Year One explored a world-making process as essentially reactive: a kind of call-and-response process that changed the world as we wrote it. I think that was as close as I’ve ever gotten to recreating that more dynamic story-making.

I think it is necessary to formalize the process of living in ritual–writing a book is just one way of accomplishing that.

Michelle: Tell me a little about Meghan Guidry and give me an idea of what small things happened in the process, this call and response? Were you working by e-mail or from shared files, how did it work in a practical sense?

Keith: Meghan has been with me since the earliest beginnings of the press (Empty City Press).  Probably the most innately empathetic human being I have ever met, Meghan knows how to really dig down to the very depths of human experience; she and I exist on the same ‘plane’ but move very differently–our worldviews are not drastically different in tone, but our operation in them is a pretty serious contrast.  We complement one another very well emotionally/spiritually and consistently challenge one another intellectually.  I would not have been able to write what I’ve been able to write without her.

 She has two manuscripts currently in process that will be put out through Empty City Press.  Both are going to blow people away, and I am not a person prone to hyperbolic p.r. garbage.  Our first true connection came by the way of a shared project.  Meghan, myself, and fellow Goddard alums Michael Dobos and Daniel Heacox embarked on a rather ambitious collaborative project–what would later become Axiom Radnor.  Meghan and I had been orbiting one another for a year or so at Goddard; we were part of different cliques, but had some tangential meetings due to the fact that we were both working within speculative fiction (though I would say in the amorphous edges).  She had a similar interest in rigorous language and the construction of complex ‘puzzles’ and so it seemed natural.  

I did not want to tackle publishing without some confidants, and the idea of a shared work that would keep each member accountable really appealed to me.  We set up a plan to essentially do a serial.  Each week we would all put up a post.  Those posts would immediately become canon; the only rule was that we could never directly jump into another’s story–everything that touched would be at the barest edges, or to display the ripples that happened from the narratives.  Thus, for the next week, I would have to respond to what my friends had put up…  This meant that if there was a bar on ‘x street’ then that was to be so for the remainder of the project.  If someone burns down that bar, then that was to be the new reality.  But it could also play out in more subtle ways–the fashion in which different characters and narratives (for the narratives themselves build a kind of gestalt perspective) perceive that same event and respond to it.

 The possibilities really did feel endless, and we really pushed one another.  Thus, we had


Axiom Radner: Year One by Keith Backhaus & Meghan Guidry

a constantly reflexive setting that responded to the stories more or less as they happened. Daniel and Michael unfortunately had to drop out due to a variety of life-factors (though who knows, we may be able to release some of their contributions in a volume of ephemera someday), but Meghan and I kept the process going whilst spending copious time on gchat hashing out world-rules and the philosophic principles behind the narratives.  And I mean copious time.

There is actually an entire second volume that has not yet been published; I still bug Meghan about it now and again, but I think in some ways she may feel she has grown past Radnor as a space, which is totally fair–it was a very temporal experience I think.  Someday I’ll be able to convince her and we’ll release a really badass omnibus volume of both years alongside extra materials.  The original plan was to make the whole project a massive multimedia experience with soundtracks played by friends’ band projects etc etc.  It would be awesome to return to the decaying city someday, or even to work with some other authors.

Michelle: The book as object, as a ritual object, just talk about that . . .



I, Dagger by Keith Backhaus

Keith: Well I’ll start with something silly… Which is, I’m sort of nuts about books. The books that I own are kept in immaculate condition; I let no one touch them. I clean and arrange them regularly. I think of them as loved ones essentially, which likely makes me some kind of psychopath. But consider this, I guess: if we can indeed prove (as we have) that emotions/thought/etc have direct physical manifestation (whether biochemical or physical in the ‘physics’ sort of way) in the world, then clearly intention does as well, as does the somewhat shakier idea of connection. People tend to get on their high horses about so called possessions as indicative of all the damage bourgeois values have inflicted on culture, but those possessions carry weight. This weight is all the more serious if you infuse your being into those objects. Is your boyfriend really more important than that beloved stuffed animal from childhood? What about that bicycle that carries you to safety every day? I have lived in books for much of my life, and I don’t identify or define my life by what I find in them, but I do recognize their significance in the shaping of myself and the necessary sacrifices made in order to infuse them WITH that meaning. But that’s the silly.

I think ultimately a book acts as a very important conduit. I wrote about this in a recent essay for the Grey Alley anthology… Essentially a book is a fetish–not in the sexual sense, but the classification of idol/spiritual conduit that is both symbol AND thing. It is a space we briefly enter/occupy and that occupies us–it is a kind of mutual possession (do we not love the double meanings here?) that reifies our world.

Books are a way for us to view our own perspective with at least the illusion of difference. This is because we can offer a fragment of ourselves to a book or other ritual object in a way that we cannot with another person–that other person’s personhood gets in the way–we become preoccupied in colonizing or being colonized by their perspective. We cannot truly explore our own. A book allows for us to read ourselves–and that is the key, for reading is an exercise in transformation–of TRYING to separate the symbol and the thing WHILE TRYING to unify them. It is about as dynamic experience as a human being can have. In formalizing it, in giving it clear edges (which is important to us all not going out and trying to be Ishmael or what have you) we briefly occupy a space as creator and experiencer both–reflecting the divine experience.

Michelle: I follow. That is all very true, our need to enact our will in a space that leaves others to their own lives/selves, it is the biggest story of our own moment in time. It is a clear rendering of a major imbalance in our interacting and it has solutions, the endless technology of story. The idea that we are in need of formalizing our social rituals, this is a key in my life right now. What I go to do, whether it is reading stories that I write or leading workshops, I realize at some point in the prep that I have to go have this experience in this room with these people. It’s a ritual disguised as something else. I realize that I have to set up the magical aspects and step away, so to speak. I’m just doing it suddenly. What experiences do you have like this and what are some of your general thoughts; people are starving for ritual, for ritualized devices that will free us to acknowledge the stories we are playing out, or, that is one part. People are starving for ritual .

Keith: I could not agree more. I mean the evidence for this frantic desire is all around us:


I, Dagger by Keith Backhaus

we consistently watch ourselves and watch others doing the watching. I mean we could get into the whole photographic gaze conversation, but I imagine most have an understanding of that. More disturbing, I think, than the realities of that penetrating gaze is the manifestation of ready-made as the real–the hyperreal as not a theoretic space but instead as the lived space. We have been infected with a desire that cannot be fulfilled–we seek to duplicate experiences endlessly in order to escape what we perceive as time. The duplication of reality has become the norm for memory. The notion that we can preserve a duplicate reality removes the totality of reality itself–a dangerous prospect I think.

If we remove the totality, however, it becomes much easier to ascribe varying states of value…and thus sell reality–to each other, to ourselves, to reality as brokers. Ritual is quite the opposite of ownership, and yet it has been ruthlessly redirected for that purpose. ‘OUR’ memories, ‘MY’ ‘space’ etc etc There was a period when I really fought with these ideas in a violently directed fashion–two music projects that really sought to subvert and redirect the readymade by breaking it into caricature. Unfortunately, the scary thing about the nature of those ‘discussions’ is that they happen on terms that we as individuals can’t control. The buzzword version is: Capitalism is so deep in everything that infinity itself is a commodity.

I think the attempt at ‘just doing it’ is as close as we can get–and you use a very important term–magic. If we think of the importance of ritual and magic, they are about expansion–our culture is obsessed with reduction.

Michelle: Yes. All of it yes. I appreciate your take on redundancy, that we do it to stop time. I love that. I take redundancy to be the deepest expression of the fear of being wrong. Nostalgia, we know it, AND if we just keep doing it, time stands still. Wow. I’ll be thinking about that for awhile. Infinity as a commodity, it’s true. Infinity as an entity will have to resist, break free. See if you can isolate one thing that desperately needs a ritual. For me, it is adulthood initiations. I feel like I needed several, 13, 16, 23 . . . something like that. What from your life do you feel the loss of ritual surrounding it?

Keith: Well I think there is something that needs a more complete ritual–and that is an actual affirmation of the completeness of suffering or hurt. Part of this commodification process is the notion that one can compartmentalize life and ‘move past’ things–our culture is obsessed with healing, and completely uninterested in investigating hurt. We investigate it to SOLVE it, but never really come to grips with its inevitability and ubiquity. We ignore it, essentially saying ‘suffering is banal’ when it may be the only thing that we can actually use as a true conduit.



Keith Backhaus

So I think the adulthood initiations is absolutely emblematic of that–we move through life in stages, as we experience, reflect and learn. But learning isn’t moving past, its moving with–I think we need to ritualize or come to commune with our hurts. Not to attune with them, but to keep them as part of our own dialogue.

For me I think, I wish I had taken the time to really slow down and realize the importance of loss in terms of space. I think a lot of the moves that we perform physically in our lives take on significance out of difference, but not out of loss. Even if you hated where you were, that motion reverberates in perpetuity through infinity…if you don’t recognize it, you do not even have the benefit of perspective within that infinity–you’re drifting without purpose.

Place is crucial to the understanding of self, and people tend to imagine it as static, rather than a process that occurs alongside our occupancy. Love where you live (even if you hate it)–recognize that connection.

Michelle: The latest book is I, Dagger. Tell me what you mean when you talk about consciousness as a dis-reality. When I read those words, I think of how much information we assume, impose, infer, expect. I think of how we fill in visual blanks with what we know. What are you getting at in this work?

Keith: Well I think you’re on to something there, in that there is a kind of innate confrontation going on when we experience anything–a kind of conflict between the self and these other things–the things that make up consensus reality or experiential circumstance. I think, perhaps in direct conflict with many of my colleagues, that we should not attempt to reduce this dissonance, but instead push it. The ‘dis’ is kind of an inside joke in a way–in the punk community dis takes on a direct role as an adversarial principle and you can find it placed alongside pretty much any other term. It is used in much the same way as ‘anti’ and serves to provide a kind of knowing wink and stance all at once.

As I outline in an essay before ‘A Fitting Epilogue’–my ‘big’ novel–consciousness itself

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A Fitting Epilogue by Keith Backhaus

as a precept naturally defies divinity. It ‘kills’ it in a sense–we are all born as a kind of luciferian cognate and it is our duty as sentient beings to try and destroy the divine, or merge with it…I think it’s ultimately a choice…but I like having a self, I guess? So I’m going to kill it. It for me is reality itself. That’s why I work in the much maligned (at least in the literary world) genre of ‘fantasy.’ I have absolutely no interest in consensus reality whatsoever; like all reasonable people, however, I fake it in order to function in culture.

The work itself has a bit more of a pointed purpose, but I think that it was the next step in my outlined purpose before ‘Epilogue’ to use fiction to hurt reality.

Michelle: The future is a myth. That is part of the description for I, Dagger on the Empty City Press page, is that the more pointed purpose? Are we in a kind of delusion about what we are truly doing in daily life? I get you on the consensus reality. When I hear someone say something along the lines of: “Well, medical research is always going to benefit the pharmaceutical companies.” I have this shock reaction to that because I know the point of the statement, said with a kind of shrug, is to prevent themselves from attack as an idealist, that the statement is intended to assert their personal reasonableness among other things, but for me, I feel, well, shocked. Disappointed. I feel the future weakened under statements of that sort. We do live in a delusion. Why is the future a myth?



I, Dagger by Keith Backhaus

Keith: Well I think that you’ve hit the real zeitgeist (yes, I did in fact do that…we can all be embarrassed) for the early 21st century in all of its postmodern angst. We have gotten to the point where we recognize the necessity for extremes within ourselves but we dare not live them. Instead people just want to be spider-man or whatever. And I don’t mean want to BE spiderman, but want to entertain the idea of being spider man. Actually being anything terrifies pretty much everyone, myself included.

Instead of being we name constructs and claim those as being: ‘oh I’m progressive’ or ‘I’m a lawyer’–whatever it happens to be. Identity politics as the hallmark of our era, and the nature of identity is division. That way we don’t dare have to be anything, we can just step into these neatly bounded suits. Being requires vulnerability and nakedness. Assuming a mantle is nothing more than building a wall out of insecurity.

So I think that’s it, Michelle, so many people desire those ideals, but we’ve learned to bound ourselves. I mean there is something to be said for community, I’m not arguing against the importance of those labels for how people see themselves…just that we have allowed those lenses to be HOW we see. People tend to think of the Panopticon as a construction of social and temporal power, but I think it is a much deeper, more insidious device. For me, the statement ‘the future is a myth’ has to do with the nature of suffering and how we more or less constantly attempt to reach into/extrapolate into the future and we never can. It’s that desire for being that will never be being because we have to reach into the future to grasp it.

Michelle: It is vulnerable to be something, to be someone. I’ll be thinking a great deal

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A Fitting Epilogue by Keith Backhaus

about what you are saying here, the extra abstraction you are getting at. That we don’t even want to be Rock Stars anymore, we want to entertain that idea. Wow. It can just keep going. I want to entertain the idea of entertaining the idea of entertaining the idea of being a Rock Star. It’s deep.  We do imagine the future without suffering, and so it can never truly be. I get that. What is the outline you made Before A Fitting Epilogue. Are you outlining where you want you overall trajectory of work to take you? Is writing a kind of experience that lifts you over your own sense of limits?

Keith: Well first off–wow, yes. I think that the rockstar example works super well. The idea of the infinite regression is pretty accurate I think, as it mirrors how we think, right? I touch on that in I, Dagger in that awareness itself cannot be removed from the awareness of that awareness etc. And I’m in the same spot…is it a fact, or is it a sort of societal nurturing. I like that! Hah…well as for an outline for A Fitting Epilogue there was none. I had no idea what was going to happen.

In order for the book to work I had to walk alongside Salvador (the main character) the whole way; I did, however, know where he was to be by the end…as the conception for the follow up work (many many many years away) was concurrent. But in terms of ideological focus, I think so. I mean, I’ve always had grand plans for the work--in a pie in the sky sort of way that entire book was to be only a single chapter in a much larger conceptual work…a work that would come out (if all the ‘chapters’ were equal) at around 84,000 pages? And then I wanted to do a set of encyclopedias written ‘in world’ as accompaniment?

But I have to eat and sleep and be a human…so no dice. I could, by then, have immersed myself so completely into the world of the books so as to remove myself completely from this one, or at least that was/is the hope. An analogue virtual reality if you will. I wish writing could get me to where you allude, but I find writing extremely taxing and demanding, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. If anything, the act makes me feel very small and very limited–that may be why I write about fantastic spaces.

Michelle: Writing is physically taxing and, yes, feeling like a tiny, gnat seems to be part of it. I have a moment from time to time where I am exalted by the act, but when I look at it later– it is senseless and possibly even illegible and scribbled in colored pencil on my desk pad. Honestly, those bits of writing will always be my favorite even though I throw them away and don’t remember what it meant when I did it, like dreaming or channeling. Which of your books should a new reader choose first?



The Grey Alley Vol.1 Curated by Keith Backhaus

Keith: Channeling is precisely it. Channeling our true selves–those unbounded things that exist around those constructions we make. Our spirits. It’s so wonderful that you can get to that space. I envy writers that regularly reach that space–for me, that is a very, very rare occurrence. Nihilism has its limits hahah. In terms of my work…heh, I think any of my current readers would be pretty quick to say that I’m an acquired taste, as my style borders on decadence and all of my works tend to be long, deliberately printed in small font, and well, let’s face it, a little hateful of pretty much all of reality. In all honesty, I think a safe bet would be to check out the anthology I curated entitled The Grey Alley Vol. 1–I have a short piece in there that pretty well sets up my stylistic sensibilities; by doing this, readers that feel nauseated by the end can simply turn the page and read someone else’s work! There are numerous very talented folks in the anthology, and I stand by them.


Michelle: You work with a publishing imprint; Empty City Press. Tell me a little about that project and what you are releasing into the world through it.

Keith: Empty City Press is part of a larger lived position for me, so I apologize if I grow a bit less erudite and a bit more ‘mouthy.’  I suppose I should not beat around the bush regarding these things…  I am an anti-capitalist anarcho-individualist (and here I just got finished talking about identity politics hah!).  I take that as seriously as I can, separating myself from the damaging portions of culture around me as much as humanly possible without living in a shack and becoming a cannibal (though someday, god-willing…).

Empty City Press began to breed in my mind after a number of conversations I had while at Goddard with the very talented faculty there.  All of those conversations and wonderful people were extremely helpful, what I needed to hear, and a little harsh for me emotionally at the time…  They boiled down to ‘Keith…no.’  

My writing isn’t marketable, my identity isn’t marketable.  I am precisely the sort of author that is not going to appeal to most, and I certainly won’t sell to the general public.  And I saw all around me folks that were incredibly talented being told ‘no’ again and again–and they weren’t even writing anti-culture, existentialist fantasy!  

Even those that got ‘yes’ seemed to get hammered with ‘no’ right after.  It was (and is)

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Keith Bachaus

total bullshit.  Consider these realities…  Major publishers make millions of dollars a year.  They take what, something like 95% of the profits of the book sales?  And what is it that they do FOR authors?  Promote them?  After that first ‘hit’–the author’s name promotes their work better than any sales campaign or interview where they are paraded around as some kind of celebrity.  Their work, ultimately, promotes them.

The art world is full of middlemen (critics are included in this scumbag universe) who profit from producers…artists.  They profit from pushing papers around and being ‘people people’–making ‘deals’ (whatever the fuck that means).  You make something, and some slick asshole in chinos and a tie or a tailored pantsuit is going to smile, go to a few luncheons and make you a ‘star’–for who?  For them.

I mean that’s just the microcosm; the same principle applies to culture itself–people can even be tricked into becoming middlemen for themselves.  Small presses, however well-intentioned, can also fall into this trap as they grow.  I didn’t want a part of any of it.  I want to write books.  I don’t want to keep a promotional blog.  I don’t want to post shit on social media to try and stay ‘visible’ or ‘relevant.’  I don’t want to go to fucking luncheons and have some false human being tell me they ‘care’ about my work.



The Grey Alley: Vol. 1 Curated by Keith Backhaus

I want to write books.  So that’s what I’m doing.  Other, like-minded authors have joined me, and the press allows them to do that with minimum interference–it facilitates what THEY want to do, not what the ‘market’ dictates.  The press, while run by me, is essentially driven by our members.  You set the price for your books, you decide the content, you make the marketing decisions you want to make.  We are here to help, as a collective–help support one another’s work, help to collaborate and just well…be human beings to each other, not commodities.  Not vectors for money.  There’s no ‘angle,’ no ‘strategy;’ I try to minimize that ‘public’ business speech that people have ALLOWED to somehow hijack our interactions.


 It’s time people start to consider others, and yes, even themselves as people–that’s where value stems from; the fact that authors/artists/performers of all sorts are even the slightest bit concerned about ‘making a living’ doing what they do disgusts me.  Stop thinking about ‘making’ a living.  Live.  We will not change anything from within.  Reform is a convenient, paternalist platitude that comes to us from existing power structures.

 It is not enough to take that power and give it back to the people.  Who has the power isn’t the problem; all human beings are equally exalted and equally garbage.  The notion of ‘power’ itself is the problem.  Write books.  Love each other.  Destroy culture at every opportunity.               

Michelle: Thank you so much for spending some time talking with me. These subjects are truly inspiring for everything I am making right now. We need conversations that make us think. It matters. Thanks for the words, Keith Backhaus.

(More artists and healers and freaks like Keith Backhaus will be having conversations here with me. If YOU LIKE IT, SUBSCRIBE to it and share it with others who need these words today.)



I, Dagger by Keith Backhaus


Check out the new title from Keith Backhaus: I, Dagger



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Keith Backhaus


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Bread And Story: Savannah Reich Talks To Me About Making Theater At your House

Photo Credit Carly Bales.3

Savannah Reich Photo by Carly Bales

This conversation between Savannah Reich and myself actually begins in 2010. This conversation begins because of something that happened in a room behind a record store called Static Age in Asheville, North Carolina. It was a one act play titled  Fanciness VS. The Void. And I was lucky enough to see it.

The story was set on a boat on the Ocean, a boat forever adrift with its little cast of characters. The whole scene was completely vast and that is what I remember even though I know it actually happened in a darkened room behind a vinyl record store, it felt completely vast.

In December of 2015 I have the fortune to witness Toby Johnson Was My Best Friend In Junior  High School . Savannah Reich, Lauren Anderson, and Jon Mac Cole, brought this storytelling adventure through a cold city of St. Louis and we remain grateful.

The show happened in Pete McAvity’s dinning room and it is a permanent memory for me, maybe for all of us who were there. Ten to fifteen people arrive to share an evening of story telling and story making. It was a night of genuine experience. The show holds something of value and what that is exactly is what I feel curious to explore.

I can tell you a few of the things we did: we read from mini-scripts, heard the sad tale of

photo credit Carly Bales

Lauren Anderson in Performance Photo by Carly Bales

two sardines who broke up right next to each other in the can. We mourned the loss of a man’s dreams and listened to the woes his enemies gave him. We sang Bohemian Rhapsody and it wasn’t really ironic. We thought about where we belonged in the world and we ate food.

We became a community of witnesses to this event. We invested our trust and something special happened. We were entertained. We laughed. We sang. We vented. We socialized, we were fed. There was a sense of something being completed. I know I won’t forget it. I learned something and I can’t exactly explain it, but I know I’ll think of it again and again.

With years of experience in making collaborative projects and terrific theater happen already behind her, Savannah Reich earned her MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 2015.

I love the words Savannah uses to talk about the over-lapping subjects of making art and ritual, of writing scripts and finding stories, of taking the steps to make these gems happen in real time. This conversation is pure fuel.

ENJOY . . .


Photo Credit Carly Bales.3

Savannah Reich in Performance Photo by Carly Bales

Michelle Embree: When did you start making things? How old were you and what were you doing? What got your attention first?

Savannah Reich: I know that I wrote a play when I was in second grade. I recently found some pieces of it in a box at my parents house, and a lot of it is in purple marker in my dad’s handwriting, so I definitely had some help. It was about orphans at an orphanage that is secretly run by witches who are turning orphans into chickens and eating them. I think I had seen the movie The Witches based on the Roald Dahl book. Similar idea. I don’t actually remember this but apparently the second grade class performed the play.

I wrote plays in high school, and in college, and then when I dropped out of college and was running around and going to punk shows, I wrote plays about that. I remember having periods of being like “I’m not going to do this any more because it is too hard/ too uncool/ too whatever” but those periods only lasted like six months and then I would go back to it.

Photo credit Savannah Reich.3

‘Toby Johnson’ in Performance Photo by Savannah Reich

Michelle: Tell me what you like about it best, why do you think you keep going back to theater?

Savannah: I have thought about this a lot recently because I’ve been doing some screenwriting, and I’m shocked by how different of a form it is.

Film and television is this totally different world from theater. Something I’ve been saying about it is that film feels story based to me. Like the basic unit of it is story, and the form of delivering the story is very important, but the basic relationship is that the film is telling the audience a story. And we love that, we need that.

Theater feels like something else to me. It contains story, but story isn’t the most important part of what it is. It’s more like ritual. It’s fulfilling the weird, specific human need to be together in a room in a group, watching this ritual that stands for our experience.

I don’t know why humans need that. I feel like I need it more than most. I need to do it all the time. If there was a religion where everyone in the congregation got to take a turn making up the service and leading everyone else through it, I think that would be a really good religion.

Michelle: I get the ritual and I get needing it. Bearing witness to one another. Just writing those few words feels emotional. I relate to the sense that I need it more than most– I relate to those words. We sit in the dark with one another’s heartbeats and something happens. I would love that church! So, let’s talk about  Toby Johnson Was My Best Friend In Junior High— how did you approach the writing, where did you start?


Photo Credit Lisa Channer. 2

Savannah Reich in Performance Photo by Lisa Channer

Savannah: Yeah! ‘Toby Johnson’ was written with those ideas really directly in mind, of course. It was inspired by a couple of things- 1, a play I love by Young Jean Lee called Church, and 2, a play by the Medium Company in Philly called Nobody’s Home. Morgan Andrews and Mason Rosenthal made this play where they went into different people’s bedrooms, and when they came to Pittsburgh they did the play in my bedroom.


There were about twelve to fifteen people there, and they all sat on the floor in my bedroom, and Mason sat on my bed and did this very strange, intimate, sad play. And I was so excited by that quality of “bearing witness” to each other- I love that phrase!- and that they could make something that was very funny and odd while having that kind of gentleness.

Church has the form of a church service, but the content is all jumbled. Partly nonsense and partly horrifying and funny and, although I haven’t seen it, I think it would be partly inspiring anyways. It seems like it would re-create the experience of going to church, how going to church feels to her.

So I started writing ‘Toby Johnson’ to re-create what a Passover Seder feels like to me. That includes feeling like Judaism is important to me, but also sort of foreign. I personally feel like Passover is all about the idea of being in a group, of belonging to a group, in this case, The Jews. And the Jews are only one of many groups that I belong to but also have mixed feelings of alienation / loyalty / resentment about.

Michelle: Right! You start ‘Toby Johnson’ by asking us to think about our groups. It is so effective, too. The whole piece is effective. When you did the show in St. Louis, I had never met half the people there and the other half went far back in my life but afterward, after we sang a Queen song together, after we made all these intentional acts of solidarity, I felt real love for the people I shared it with. I continue to feel it.

It is so exciting to hear you talk about these very interesting plays and the intimacy– that word– I was struck by the fact that sharing the actions we shared at ‘Toby Johhnson’ transcended any opinions or experiences that any of us may have had, the ideas we might hold are less important than the shared experience. What were some of your experiences with the show that stand out to you?

Photo Credit Savannah Reich.2

Lauren Anderson & Jon Mac Cole in Performance Photo by Savannah Reich

Savannah: I actually think about the St. Louis show a lot! There was that guy that told that very long, intimate story about his evolving politics right after dinner. I don’t want to share it because it isn’t my story, but it was so amazing, and I was thinking that I literally do not know this person’s name, but it feels very natural for us all to be sitting around and hearing about this personal / emotional experience he had, because we had committed to each other as a group.


We did the show a lot of times, I don’t remember the exact number- around twenty? So there were a lot of different groups and they all had different feelings to them. Some groups, you could tell they were not wanting to have this experience right now. Which is fine! The play asked a lot of people. There was one group where they were all really close friends, and two of the couples in the friend group had just broken up, and some people were going to have to move away, and everyone was feeling kind of raw and traumatized. So that group told me afterwards that the show was a little too appropriate to the situation. We all got really drunk that night.

In Asheville we all sang Christmas carols together after the show. In Detroit we did a show on Thanksgiving for six people. In Philly we had someone who only spoke French, and sometimes people would translate for her, and sometimes she would just sit and watch what was happening and smile even though she didn’t know the words. After that show a whole bunch of people crowded around her and started talking in French, and there ended up being a whole group conversation of people who had taken French in high school. We had a dance party after that night too. There were so many things that happened after that show that felt so funny and intimate, like we had known the people for a very long time, and I think it was because we had just done this thing together.

Photo credit Carly Bales.2

Jon Mac Cole & Lauren Anderson performing ‘Toby Johnson’ Photo by Carly Bales

Michelle: When you wrote ‘Toby Johnson’, or when you write in general, how does the script work go? Do you incorporate what the players/actors you work with are putting forward? How do you work as a group?

Savannah: Usually I like to come into rehearsal with a draft that feels like I have pushed it as far as I can on my own, but of course that doesn’t always happen. It always changes a lot in rehearsal.

For ‘Toby Johnson’ I worked really collaboratively with Jon Mac Cole and Lauren Anderson. I brought the piece in a sort of half baked state to Jon, and then we started doing workshop nights with invited test audiences at the Bedlam Studio space last summer.

After Lauren came on board, she was there at every workshop too, and we ended up re-writing the show a bunch because she is such an amazing performer that we wanted to give her more to do. So we would try it out, talk about it, and then I would go off and revise and try some new stuff and bring it back again. It was the only way I could figure out to write this show, since it is so participatory and game-based. We had to play the games and do the things with audience members to figure out how it was going to work.

I have worked with Jon for a really long time, and I definitely was writing with him in mind. He’s one of my favorite performers on the planet, this is our fifth tour together and it is easy to bounce ideas off each other.  Much of my aesthetic comes from stuff Jon was doing at Bedlam, from the work so many amazing artists were doing at Bedlam Theater when I first started working with them.

‘Toby Johnson’ is an Eternal Cult production, which is a name we are using to refer to any collaborations between Jon, me, Carly Wicks and Christopher Allen. Jon also is a wizard at coming up with lists of funny names.

We had a lot of friends and collaborators who came to the’ Toby Johnson’ workshops and

Photo credit Lisa Channer (1)

Jon Mac Cole, Savannah Reich, Lauren Anderson Photo by Lisa Channer

participated as test audiences, then told us what worked for them and what felt weird or uncomfortable in the wrong way. That was so helpful. Most shows I wouldn’t be comfortable crowd-sourcing like that, but for this show it felt really right.

Michelle: The performance is so special and that work with your co-players and audience is very much felt in the experience. What is next? What are you focused on now or what feels like it is brewing? I love these house shows and the feel they bring, the difference in culture making that comes from this type of traveling and performing. Do you have more ideas for working in that way?

Savannah: I do want to work that way again at some point, but I’m not sure when. My friend Samantha Johns once talked about going back and forth from directed scripted work and devising as “rotating the crops”, and I kind of feel like I need to rotate my crops. I love to create work with my friends and self-produce it (both because of the control it gives me and because it is really, really fun), but I also want to sometimes have work where I am just the writer and I have more of a traditional playwright’s role in the rehearsal room. So I am working on a piece like that right now- a “play-play” as they say.

We are also booking a Midwest mini-tour for Toby Johnson Was My Best Friend In High School at some point this summer. We’re going to do another week in Chicago and another week in Minneapolis. We’re really excited to get to do the show again.

Michelle: And you are venturing into screenwriting. I’ll be excited to see what you do with both.

What is something you would like to say to artists working right now to make work that fulfills the needs we have for creation– that is to say, artists working outside the restrictions of ‘art’for pay’– what do you need to hear? How can we validate one another at this moment in cultural history?

Savannah: I am struggling with this idea a lot right now. I am having conversations about

Photo Credit Savannah Reich

Jon Mac Cole in Performance Photo by Savannah Reich

it with so many different friends and artists, and none of us can explain it to each other or fix it for each other, and it’s so hard.


I just graduated with my MFA in playwriting, so I feel this new pressure to be “succeeding” in a different way than I was before I went to school. I am working full time for a decorative painting company right now. We do high end kitchen cabinets. And I feel like maybe there is something else that I am supposed to be doing, something more impressive, something that will make people think I am a “real artist”.

But we’re all just trying to make it work. I see people posting inspirational stuff on Facebook like, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”, but I honestly think that it’s more like Calvin-ball.

I feel like I could talk a lot about this but it’s all so fraught. And I am really conscious of the fact that other artists that I respect have made different choices than I have, and we all feel really defensive about our choices and I don’t want to seem like I am saying that I think any one way is the right way. I have dear friends right now that are in LA working to get into screenwriting. And they can make a good living from that. And I know wonderful people who have decided to divorce their art practice from their money making completely. And I haven’t figured any of that out for myself yet.

Photo Credit Willis Gilliard

Savannah Reich in Performance Photo by Willis Gilliard

Michelle: What you do is food. There is a wonderful bit from Barry Lopez in the voice of the Badger. Badger says something along these lines: “sometimes people need a story more than food to stay alive. We put these memories into one another, it is how we care for ourselves.”

This is what creation has always been, from stories, to rituals, to beautiful objects, we feed one another as spirits and as creators.

Thank you for what you are doing. In all the ways you choose to put creativity into the world. Thank you for coming through St. Louis and giving us all this moment of grace and story and connection, a moment of commitment to our own humanity.

It matters. Thank you for taking time to talk with me and I truly look forward to what you will do in the future and how you will inspire people to create and be better to themselves and each other. You do that, whether it is your intention or not. Thanks again.

Photo Credit Pete Mcavity

Savannah Reich, Lauren Anderson, Jon Mac Cole Photo by Pete McAvity

Savannah:  Thank you Michelle. That is the answer to “what do you need to hear”. And what we all need to say to each other more often I think.

Photo Credit Willis Gilliard.2

Lauren Anderson in Performance Photo by Willis Gilliard

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