'I Thought I Was Going to Be This Big Fucking Superhero': A Conversation With Nicholas Powers

Interview of Nicholas Powers, associate professor of English Literature at SUNY-Old Westbury and author of Theater of War andGround Below Zero (UpSet Press, 2013) for The Indypendent.

Published Text (edited for length):

https://indypendent.org/2013/10/30/i-thought-i-was-going-be-big-fucking-superhero

Full Unedited Text:

Nicholas Powers is a tenured associate professor at SUNY Old Westbury and winner of the 2005 Ippy award for Best Editorial for the Indypendent. He has written for the Indy since 2004 and many of the articles that appear in The Ground Below Zero first appeared there. He grew up in a counterculture household with a mother who was a part of the 1960s anti-war movement and later found his own place in American counterculture through psychedelics, Grateful Dead shows, and the Burning Man Festival. He started his journalism career reporting in Boston for the Newton Tab in 1999 and has since written for The Village Voice, Alternate, Vibe.com, and TruthOut. His book The Ground Below Zero is his second project for Upset press, following Theater of War which was published in 2004.                

 

Can you briefly describe some of your intensions going into writing this book and how they’ve changed since its publication?

As I was writing each article I had a feeling in the back of my mind that it was for a larger project. I didn’t know what that larger project would be I had a feeling that each article was not just about a news report, but to try to look through it and see what the central human conflicts were - the details that make it rise above that specific moment. I was driven to do that because I felt that in each specific protest march, or funeral, or relationship with someone, there were universal themes that were going through all of them. My second intension was not to have all of those emotions locked in my body. When you’re witnessing something, you absorb other people’s emotions and they get inside of you. It’s almost like a fish tank that you keep putting water in, at some point you can’t hold anymore.

Your writing is cinematic with lots of quick scene changes, imagery and rich descriptions. As a poet and a journalist, at what point did you actually decide to write a novel? How was that process different for you?

I think this almost became a novel, but in a haphazard way. I won’t classify it as a novel because there are too many gaps between the articles, but the cinematic quality of it comes because actually my first love was film. My mom would sometimes give me a couple of dollars and I would go to see films, and that was my babysitter. I would hang out in the movie theater and just watch films all day. Also I’m nearsighted, so I’m very sensitive to how things look because the moment I take off my glasses I can’t see them.  I think what makes it feel like a novel, or that it has an arc is the narrator – who is a little different than me, the author - who needed to find some sort of redemption for himself and the world he was reporting on.

 

Your writing is also full of stories of and relationships with people. There are two characters towards the beginning (the passionate, yet ignored subway prophet, and the rasta “driven insane by morality”) that I feel you highlighted for the purpose of comparing them to yourself. Do you feel that you relate to these characters?

I think the narrator – as much as the narrator channels me, the author – is deeply moved by the commitment of those who are religious - their wholehearted belief in something larger than themselves. He is very much attracted to that because it implies a connection to a truth that one can ground their life by. If you’re a person who is between worlds, there’s a desire for a truth to keep yourself grounded in who you are. So the narrator is both deeply attracted to and repulsed by it because when people find that truth they begin to get really judgmental over others and end up creating that hierarchy all over again, based on their truth. And sometimes they just end up looking like isolated fools and people take pity on them.

You start the book with a glimpse of your family history, which then re-occurs often in the more personal or memoir sections. What did it feel like to juxtapose the intimacies of your family life with the major tragedies of the 21st century?

I felt that some of the fights and long-standing silences in the family, a lot of those class and racists judgments that one gets from the outside, filter into the family and end up warping family relationships and sometimes snapping and breaking them. Those family scenes that are very intimate are threaded on the same ideas that affect the larger disasters that the narrator is going through. The same racism that he sees being played out in New Orleans or in Bed-Stuy is the same racism that he could see on the very head of his own mother – who tries to fry her hair to look white and feels guilty because she is not white enough for her mother.

Nick’s relationship with his activist mother plays a big role in the family history of the book. Do you feel that the narrator ever truly lives up to her expectations or reconciles with her?

He fails to live up to her expectations, but he also fails to see that they’re not even her expectations anymore. Those are expectations that she discarded a long time ago, but because they were separated when he was relatively young, psychologically he held on to those ideas that she had when she was an activist and an artist in the 60s and 70s. When they separated those ideas were the one thing he could take with him, but ultimately those ideas are impossible to live up to. He – or I - gave it a really good try.

In the novel, 9/11 is what begins it all. It’s Nick’s initial call to action to position himself to shine a spotlight on tragedy. Why did 9/11 have this effect instead of just causing him to shut down?

I think the first time that I experienced history was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1992. I was in high school, and I just remember something had changed in the world for a lot of people but it was still very far away. I think 9/11 was the first time I experienced history right in my face. I lived through all of the clichés of it having to wash my hair to get the smell of the towers – which just saturated the air in the city for months- out of my dreads. Knowing that there were people in that dust, we were all breathing cremation dust. So many things around that time changed the trajectory of my life, the anti-war protest, breaking up with my fiancé at the time, the need to be at the center of history again…I felt like a failure because I never physically got a chance to help people at ground zero. When the hurricane came, I directed all of that pent up energy towards New Orleans. 

But it’s kind of a battle with yourself right? You put yourself in these situations and you make yourself vulnerable in order to publish the heart of their stories, you struggle with them but it doesn’t ever seem to fulfill you. After leaving New Orleans in the wake of Katrina there’s one point where you say that you “wanted to be free of caring for people [that you] could not help.” Can you explain what this feels like? After experiencing this, why continue to go back?

My altruistic desire to go to New Orleans was essentially a façade. Underneath was a very selfish desire to see myself as a good person. I thought I was going to be this big fucking super hero – suck up all of the water into my lungs and everyone would thank me for saving their city. I went there and I did nothing...I did help and I took people’s stories down, but what I could do was so small compared to what they really needed. That broke that selfish drive; I was just so ashamed that when I left people were still suffering. Then, coming back in shame, I aimed to write the most beautiful, poetic, honest stuff I can to get people’s attention so that they could help, but hardly anyone read it. The people who did congratulated me but didn’t do anything to actually help. I just got really angry at the world…I was isolated and ashamed, and that’s what it actually felt like.

A big theme that we see in relation to that is Nick’s struggle with “reality”. Before you left for Chad, one of your friends in your poetry group accuses of “trying to distill life into a pure moment” instead of living rationally and finding those moments in a more reasonable, less self-destructive lifestyle. What about this sense of extreme or pure reality is so appealing to you?

All of the crises were inevitable. Between corruption, individual greed, and incredible amounts of stupidity, people didn’t prepare for what was going to happen. You don’t built a city in an under sea-level bowl next to the ocean and not have adequate levees. You don’t build a city next to a fault line and then through INF programs loan the country money to buy cheap food from the US, but in turn destroy their agricultural base. Without that business, all of the farmers move to the city so then all of those people are packed on top of each other in a city that’s packed on top of a fault line. These pure moments of crisis expose the truth of a system which has been concealed underneath privilege. I was driven to them by the old Marxist concept of contradiction; every social system has a contradiction that will eventually explode into the open.

In the US, you talk about not being white enough to be mugged, but not black enough to be frisked; or later in Africa you take on what you describe as a form of western privilege that prevents you from being harmed by the African police. Do you feel that you have a bit of a “White” or Western savior complex?”

It was a white savior complex but I guess more of a mixed savior complex? It wasn’t so much about saving people who were different from me; it was more like saving people who are connected to me on a cultural level. It wasn’t like the other, it was like my mother. I was trying to bear witness to the racism that she dealt with and stop it from hurting other people.

In the book, you attribute your racial identity and perceived responsibility to blackness in terms of your dreadlocks, which you eventually cut off. Can you explain why your hair was so culturally important to you?

I didn’t know where to fit in and it gave me a psychological anchor. My family is Puerto Rican, but my mom didn’t teach me Spanish because she didn’t want me to have an accent, but at the same time I’m not going to pass for white any time soon. There was an identity and spirituality attributed to Rasta culture that was attractive to me. Also, growing up and seeing pictures of my mom’s afro and hearing stories of her activism, her natural hair was connected in my mind with my mom at her best and at her strongest.

One thing that a lot of educated minorities reading this novel will definitely relate to is your conversation about the minority character’s “dialects of English”. There’s a constant switch between the slang or language of your culture versus the language of the professional world. As a professor with a PhD, do you ever feel like you’ve stepped too far into privilege to really relate to the part of your culture that is still stuck in oppression?

No, because I’m too freaky to ever fit in. There’s some parts of slang that I avoid just because I think it’s linguistic pollution. Once I’m in a conversation and they hear that I’m emotionally honest, and that my creativity is probably kind of scary to them, they’re like “oh you’re down”, maybe down in a different way but “you’re down”. I don’t want to try to speak slang, because then it comes off fake.

 

In the novel you describe your religion as a type of atheism as a cheap pose that sometimes cracks under pressure, yet despite your disdain for religion you use biblical references in your writing, even when referring to your personal life. Why have you chosen to do this?

I think religious metaphors have essential truths in them that speak to the human condition even if they’re not fundamentally true or real. I experience scenes from the bible, the Quran, the Dao, the Bhagavad Gita as spiritual lessons that one can use in their life. A lot of people read these texts, why would I cut myself off from the spiritual languages that so many of us share? I don’t have to believe in god to believe in allegories.

 

Religion is a big part of visiting ethnic cultures and coping with tragedy, can you explain how the religious backgrounds of the people and places that you experienced affected you? Was it at times more difficult to relate?

When I went to Haiti and they said “God’s punishing us” for not believing in him with the earthquake, and I heard the same thing in New Orleans. I’m like no, god’s not punishing you, you just shouldn’t have built a fucking city next to a fault line, but you didn’t know because Port Au Prince began long before scientists knew about fault lines or this particular fault line or whatever. People are ignorant. It’s hard to say that because you don’t want to kick people while they’re down or make fun of third world people, or people who are poor, a symptom of being poor is not always having access to education. It makes it very hard sometimes to communicate. On a physical level you’re helping people and they know that you’re a good person because you’re there helping them. On the other hand you’re trying to say “these ideas that you live through may not be the most helpful for you...you may have a gay daughter or a gay son and if you kick them out in say, Jamaca they’ll be killed.” This is the pathology of poverty, which I think is hard for white leftists to really understand. It’s hard because at the same time there’s something that they desperately need from the transcendence of religion because the rest of their lives are shit.

 

Your visits to the Burning Man festival are a big part of the healing process for you. Do you feel that attending Burning Man has changed your views on spirituality in any way? With reality?

Being an atheist is very lonely. After I began to study evolution, it took a while for me to come to terms with things because all of a sudden god vanished. There was nothing in the sky, I had no one to talk to, there was nowhere to find meaning in my life and the world became very cold. Atheism was like the great nothing in the never-ending story, it just destroyed everything. And it was necessary. When I went to burning man and I was on LSD and ecstasy, candy flipping, I began to feel like I was creating my own sense of spirituality. When I went into the desert and I looked up, I saw these starts and just realized how big and far away everything is. I suddenly began to feel that atheism wasn’t a great nothing but I could build something in the place of what it cleared away. I began to feel the sacredness of life, exactly because there’s nothing after this.

 

 Last question. There’s one scene where you’re in the airport on the way back from Haiti and you become enraged at seeing a business man reading a newspaper skip the section about the earthquake, yet you consistently express your exasperation for the ineffectiveness of rallies, protests, journalism and relief efforts. If not these things, how is the reader of The Ground Below Zero meant to respond? What do you feel is the proper response to tragedy?

To save lives in the moment and change the system over time. Each crisis is created as the inevitable result of a capitalist, neo-liberal system. The rallies and marches are necessary for people to meet and see each other. Theory is necessary. When I came back to Haiti, my friends on the left wanted a vision of Haiti based on their ideology. If their ideology is that there’s a ruling class and the poor are suffering, they wanted to see people who are victims, and people who are resisting the system to reaffirm their ideas. In Haiti I did see people who were suffering, but I also saw people stealing things that they didn’t need. Basically I saw people. In every society you’re going to have a spectrum of kinds of personalities and temperaments but when you report on that, anyone who’s a political ideologue will look at it and say “you’re being conservative, or playing into a racist stereotype”.  There is a central thesis that demands certain kinds of images to prove itself, and those images do exist in reality, but so are a lot of other images. If you’re an honest person or a good reporter, you’re going to report on all of the things that the central thesis doesn’t want to acknowledge. That, in literary theory is called deconstruction, but I think it’s just called telling the truth. I think this makes me a good writer and a good progressive, but it may make me a bad leftist, and that’s okay.