Interview with a Vampire Author and Psychedelic Activist: Nicholas Powers
Utopian psychedelic visions, PTSD recovery, "Trip Weekend," and the art of writing political fiction
Nicholas Powers, author, teacher, and psychedelic activist, discusses the future of psychedelic therapy, his release from PTSD, and his vampire political novel, Thirst: The Rich are Vampires.
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The following transcription is auto-generated and lightly edited.
Welcome to Charlotte Dunes Lagoon, where we talk about whatever we want.
I love swimming in the lagoon. I feel like the creature from the Lagoon, so thank you yay!
I'm going to let you introduce yourself because I'm sure you can describe your bio better than I can, but I'll just say that you're the author of Thirst, Nicholas Powers. This is an amazing book with incredible writing, a crazy story, and stunning illustrations. I was very impressed.
Thank you! My name is Nick Powers. I'm a professional Daydreamer, and that's my side gig. The way I keep the lights on and food on the table and to make sure child protective services don't take my kid away for starving is I'm a professor of literature at a State University, Old Westbury, which is in Long Island. I live in Brooklyn, and I take the train out to Long Island and teach.
The teaching is going very well. I've been doing it for about 16-17 years, and so I think I've got it down to a well-oiled machine, but the students always change, and so the way that you teach changes. This semester, we're doing Caribbean literature. We just finished Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague in London during 1665. Now, we're doing Albert Camus Le Pest, which in English is The Plague.
In my other class, they’re getting ready to write their senior thesis, which is a 25-page critical essay. So, that's my professor gig.
On the side, I advocate for psychedelic therapy. I give a lot of talks, and some of them are paid, and some of them are not. It's more of a passion project, and the goal with that is hopefully to get the Department of Mental Health in New York City and hopefully the surrounding Tri-State areas to follow like a domino effect offering mental health psychedelic therapy as an advanced mental health technique to working-class people and poor people who really need it.
Because oftentimes, they face intergenerational trauma, life in the streets, and I think they could benefit from this new high-tech medical technology.
Lastly, I'm a father, and I would say probably the most powerful psychedelic I've ever taken is my son. I love him; he brings me incredible amounts of joy and grief all at the same time, sometimes within the space of one minute.
How old is your son?
Oh, wow, that is a joy and terror all at the same time. I have a 15-year-old, so I'm a little ahead of you.
My daughter has Asperger, well what they used to call Asperger's or high-functioning autism, so it's a very different experience, I think, for me. But it's a beautiful time. All the times are beautiful, but I like that she and I can have intellectual conversations.
We watched Romeo and Juliet, the Baz Luhrmann version, the other night, and her takes on it were so hilarious because they're reading Romeo and Juliet in school, and she was like, "This is giving call the police; this is giving underage date rape; this is like…and on and on” And I’m like, I did not know these words when I was your age, and I'm so glad that this generation exists.
I have a lot of hope in Gen Z. People will knock on them, but I'm like, these guys are smart. Yes they're addicted to their phones, but aren't we all at this point? You must have a really interesting perspective teaching young people and seeing firsthand how technology is changing everything, and especially reading about the plague. That must feel really timely.
I taught the literature of the plague in 2021, and you know, that was kind of like at the climax and we were starting to kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccines starting to roll out. It became a form of book therapy because the plot reflects or parallels their real life, and so the emotions that the characters feel are emotions that the reader has felt.
By expressing what the character is feeling, the reader can then ride along and some of their anxieties can get expressed out through the characters. Some of the depths that they've had to witness and endure - the near-life fatalities, the paranoia about the quarantine, the insecurity about the future that kind of just went up in smoke - all of these emotions are reflected in the text.
So, the book, in a sense, allows them to express themselves through reading the book. They actually massage stuck emotions out through their consciousness via the book, and so it becomes a kind of an odd form of psychodynamic therapy where emotions that are stuck start flowing again.
I found that it is not surprising because I've seen it before in other courses, but for the students, they're surprised because they remember what literature and art can do as a form of kind of therapeutic expression.
Overall, I've seen the students become dramatically less homophobic, less sexist, and less racist. I started in 2006, or seven, that their attention span decreased. They're more knowledgeable, but they have a hard time judging the quality of the knowledge they acquire.
They're more knowledgeable, but they have a hard time judging the quality of the knowledge they acquire.
The internet is a great relativizer; you can see anything there, and it all becomes a soup. Without a kind of hierarchical sense of pedigree or quality, or at least gatekeeping, everything can just collide together. The students sometimes have a hard time knowing what's a good argument and what's not a good argument.
Finally, I realize that they're such visual thinkers that there's a difference when you think primarily in visuals. It can be very kind of mushy-headed, but when you're reading, reading tightens up the brain.
The last thing I've noticed is that as a generation, they're a lot more anxious. I think it's because they're exposed to the judgment of their peers through social media in a dramatic way that those of us who are Gen X and older just weren't.
For GenX, we're addicted now, but our deep brain settings were without media. So, if I don't have my phone, I actually feel fine. I feel great. But when they don't have their phone they feel anxious.
For us and for people who are older, there's like a federal quality to us. We like being out in the moment, like wild animals and just figuring it out. And if we bite someone or get bitten, that's kind of part of the price of being a feral wolf.
For them, they're not feral at all. They're very domesticated. They like to stay inside.
They’re house cats.
They hear these 40-year-old parents screaming outside the window and they're like, 'what are you guys doing?'
I know. My daughter doesn't want to get her learner's permit to drive because she's like, ‘where would I go? Everything I have is right here inside the computer.' And I'm like, 'oh honey.'
You can try to fight it as a parent, but it's very challenging.
Both you and I have spent time in countries that were less developed. She grew up in the beginning of her childhood in Cameroon, and I'm glad that she at least had that little bubble of nature and that little bubble of experiencing the world without all of this before she got thrown back into, well, first we moved to Canada and then America, but before she got thrown back into the mix, that she has at least a little perspective still. I want to take her back because I think it's important to see the world, especially when you're a teenager.
But I resonate with every single thing that you're saying. I just read Stolen Focus by Johann Hari. I don't know if you've read it, but I thought I had exhausted that topic and there were things that I had not exhausted in that topic of the Stolen Focus /distraction.
I imagine with Chat GPT, it becomes even harder for you as a teacher?
I'm lucky that I'm in a sweet spot because my students know that they need sharpening of their skills, their writing skills, and so I tell them upfront that if you use AI to write your essay, you're robbing yourself because at some point you're gonna get caught. There's no way that you're going to go through this life not knowing how to write or read critically and then not get busted at some point. Someone's going to look at something that you need to write ASAP and know, and you're gonna look empty-handed.
And so they generally want to learn how to read better and write better because they know that they're not going to be able to AI their way through life, but then I think once they actually start doing it, writing creatively, thinking, reading critically, we actually enjoy it because then the world opens up. They're like, 'oh, I didn't know.' Oh, there's all these signs, and it's like that scene in The Matrix. Everything's like green letters coming down."
Psychedelics vs Traumatic Dust
I love what you said about how narrative can unlock trauma and release trauma, unlock memories, and release memories.
One of the reasons that I wanted to speak with you was because I heard you speak to the Naropa Institute about how you had witnessed a lot of things that no human being should ever witness, like 9/11 aftermath, Hurricane Katrina, Darfur, Haiti after the earthquake, and how psychedelics helped you unlock that trauma. That is what psychedelics, books, and writing also did for me.
My first use of psychedelics was in a college dorm room. It was more hedonistic and artsy. There were theater majors doing body and scatological versions of Broadway tunes, and film majors taking lights from the storage room and casting blue and reds and stuff.
So my first experience of psychedelics was the classic 1960s narrative or role play, which is mind expansion and aesthetic play. But when I moved back to New York as an adult, my family had been here, and I'd always traveled here. So, New York was always inside of me. When I came back in September/August 2001, I was like everyone else, in this naive state. I was going out, getting my books ready, and getting my classes ready, and then September 11 happens. That whole year, all of us were smelling the ash of people and looking at the rubble.
When I went to Burning Man in 2002, I actually did not like Burning Man at all, the first time. I was about to leave, and then this New Yorker, this guy named Tony, who wasn't even in my camp, just a couple of tents down, said, "Hey, how are you doing?" and I could hear New York in his voice. He gave me ecstasy and acid. When I took it, that was the first time I had a therapeutic experience. It wasn't a classical Freudian psychodynamic. It wasn't cognitive therapy. There was no proper Freud floating in the desert, although on LSD, I wouldn't have been surprised. It was literally me just walking away from the city, getting out of Burning Man, walking to the Deep Playa, out into the desert, and crying and screaming and just letting it all out.
When I came back, there was this bonfire and people were half-naked and running around the fire. It looked like Walt Disney's Night at Bald Mountain. Everyone was just circling around, and it felt very purifying to be screaming it out, dancing it out, sweating it out.
When I came back to New York I still had dust on me a little bit. My body felt buoyant. I felt loose, and I could look at everyone else, and they felt very tight. That was the first experience of psychedelic therapy that psychedelics warped speed like hyper speed. It shot me through my trauma or shot trauma out of me, and I was able to get to a place of equilibrium within a couple of hours that other people would have taken years to get to.
It shot me through my trauma or shot trauma out of me, and I was able to get to a place of equilibrium within a couple of hours that other people would have taken years to get to.
I don't think New Yorkers, in general, had the peace in their body, the easiness in their body, for about five or six years after 9/11 that I had, literally because of a couple of hours. I knew that, and then eventually getting into psychedelic culture and learning about the history of it as medicine and the history of it with this therapy. It totally made sense because it helps lower your ego.
Your ego and the trauma that the ego causes can be compared to a plug in a socket. Once the ego is removed, a lot of the trauma that was suppressed can come out. I found it incredibly helpful for myself, and I believe many others could benefit from it as well. People dealing with opioid addiction, sexual, physical, and mental abuse, PTSD from war, and many more could use it to get their lives back quicker.
Your ego and the trauma that the ego causes can be compared to a plug in a socket. Once the ego is removed, a lot of the trauma that was suppressed can come out.
You've got a dust theme in your book, and love the metaphor of dust as I think about trauma being like dust in your brain that needs to be vacuumed up. Psychedelics can help clean up that dust so that your brain can function properly.
Some people call it spiritual bypassing, but I'm like why not bypass? I wish more people could have access to this kind of therapy, and if it works, why suffer?
For me, MDMA was my first therapeutic experience, and it helped me a lot. Different compounds have different magic, and many of them address trauma. More studies are coming out to back up the anecdotal evidence we have. I don't know what to call it - sometimes I say sacrament, sometimes medicine, sometimes spiritual compound, or psychedelic, but I wonder if you have any special relationship with a particular psychedelic now and how you envision advocacy around making this experience available to people who need it?
I am the primary caretaker for my four-year-old in a co-parenting situation. He is with me almost all the time, Monday through Friday, and the first weekend of the month. Although I love spending time with him and we have a great relationship, there isn't much space for a long psychedelic trip. I need to stay sharp while caring for him because he's already in a constant kind of psychedelic state. Being a toddler, the world is still very fresh and raw to him, and it doesn't quite fit into words yet, so I have to be his guide.
However, about a year ago, my mom passed away, and I was invited by a private company called Field Trip to do a ketamine trip. They administer doses in a therapeutic setting, with nice music, a little glowing crystal in the center of the room, soft Persian mats, and African mud prints on the wall.
I was injected with 35 milligrams of ketamine, and it helped dissolve my sense of grief. It was euphoric but more disassociative, and I felt like I was floating and my body was a sandcastle that got washed away by a wave.
Before the trip, we had a circle where we talked about our goals and setting. During the trip, I was injected with 35 milligrams of ketamine, and it helped dissolve my sense of grief. It was euphoric but more disassociative, and I felt like I was floating and my body was a sandcastle that got washed away by a wave. As I floated like a cloud, I could experience the raw grief that had still been locked up inside of me. Eventually, it too began to warm up and loosen, and then trickle away.
When the trip was on its way down, and I felt solid in myself again, I could feel that my body had been washed out, cleaned out, and some of the grief that had been stuck inside, like old mothballs, had been finally flushed out. It helped speed me through the stages of grief without skipping over necessary emotions or getting stuck in them.
This is important for those of us living in modern America because we work so much. We wake up, grab coffee, go out to work, have lunch, maybe sneak a couple of moments on social media, have a phone call, but mostly work. Then we come back and pick up our kids, make dinner, help them with their homework, and so on. There's very little time for us to be ourselves and feel what we're feeling.
Our modern life and work schedule make us get stuck in emotional stages because we don't have the time to let them flow. We're always servicing our kids, boss, or others.
Taking time for myself is helpful, especially when my child is with his mother. Sometimes I will indulge in an edible or go to a hot spa to relax and enjoy some downtime. However, I do believe that as my child gets older and becomes more competent, I may be able to experiment more freely again.
Does speaking openly about psychedelics as a parent, especially as a single parent and a black man, take a certain amount of bravery? Have you felt tension or personal risk in doing so?
My background is a mix of cultures, Newyorrican, Black, and honestly, that’s as common as a slice of pizza. There is not a lot of risk for me, particularly because I am not detailing any illegal drug use. The ketamine trip I took is legal, and the occasional edible I consume is legal as well, now that cannabis stores have opened in my area.
However, as a teacher, I generally do not drink or use cannabis because I need to be mentally sharp for my students.
I believe that it is important to be honest about our real-life experiences and desires. There is a danger in not being honest because we can begin to censor ourselves and lose touch with who we really are. We may even end up leading a double life.
Eventually, the double life, the kind of hidden life, grows to such a great size that it begins to capsize us. This double life, this secret life, is really what we enjoy; it's really who we are. However, with the pantomime of conservatism, the theater mask that we wear for others, our real self becomes so far away that we barely check up on it. It gets dusty and dirty, and our real life is this other life. This state of imbalance is relatable because we can lose ourselves in the effort to keep up appearances.
In the end, those in authority who ask us to lie about our truth do not deserve much respect. They don't deserve our lies because they built their power on an illusion, and even that power is often illusionary. It's almost like we should save our lies for the people we really love.
I'm thinking about Dr. Carl Hart, which I know he's a controversial figure to some, but I really admire him and his idea that people at low risk should talk about drug use because there's nothing wrong with doing it. And some people would really face hardship if they were open about whatever they're doing because of systemic discrimination and because it varies by region. Somebody might feel more discomfort in certain parts of the country than in New York.
You're absolutely right, and certain levels of privilege, certain risks involved. That's the attitude I adopt, too. I'm just like, civil disobedience has a place, it really does. And there is a level of political storytelling or mythic storytelling, and then there's reality and the reality you can only glimpse sometimes.
I'm not a very big math person, but I remember interviewing Dr. Hart and also reading some of his research, and he's done a lot of original research, but he's also synthesized other people's research, which is what, you know, researchers should do, and 70% of people who do some kind of either narcotic or psychedelic are actually fine.
The image of the drug user we have is a minority of those who use drugs. Most people who use drugs are like Dr. Hart; they go to work, play with their kids, help their kids with their homework.
Most people who use drugs are like Dr. Hart; they go to work, play with their kids, help their kids with their homework.
This paranoia that if you take a drug that you're going to turn into—remember in The Simpsons the alcoholic at the bar? He was this young preppy, clean-shaven Rhode scholar, then he took one drink, and all of a sudden he’s molded into this alcoholic—that's the image the conservatives have of drugs. It's like, you do a drug once and all of a sudden you're this crackhead scratching on the corner.
Where do you think that comes from? What do you think that's about?
I think part of it is a sense of social control, like controlling those who are lower in class, controlling those who are of different ethnicity, using drugs as an excuse to keep whole neighborhoods in a kind of a lockdown, in their place.
The character trait I've seen in those who have a kind of an erotic investment in being a puritanical authority is that it's a way of controlling themselves.
The character trait I've seen in those who have a kind of an erotic investment in being a puritanical authority is that it's a way of controlling themselves. They themselves are afraid of who they would be if they just let go a little bit. They're very wound-up type-A people.
Then the other group are people who've been hurt in some way by drug abuse or drug addiction, maybe not their own, but by someone else. So, because of that experience, they can only see drugs as leading to the destruction of a life. There's a social reason, political control, and personal character types, but then also woundedness.
Dr. Hart has been interviewed by people in the black media elite, and oftentimes, these are GenX like us, and they come at him with a lot of drug war propaganda because they were deeply, deeply scarred by the crack era.
We were all programmed by the War on Drugs as kids, like DARE.
Remember that skillet and the egg, "This is your brain on drugs."
Exactly, my daughter painted the egg behind me, but we were all programmed by that rhetoric and it took a fair amount of unprogramming, and they didn't program us at all about the dangers of alcohol, which I always cite as far more dangerous than almost anything else you can try, with many negative health outcomes and impacts.
That's part of what people felt was such hypocrisy. How many people got drunk and smacked their kids around, got behind the wheel and smeared a family into a puddle of blood on the highway, or got a little bit too confident at the roulette wheel or the poker table and came back with no house? Alcohol has done an incredible amount of damage, and I just don't see that on weed, mushrooms, or mushrooms. No one's with me like, "Yeah, let's get to an MMA fight. I can't wait to kill my family on mushroom."
What do you see as the pathway forward? The medical model? Decriminalization? Legalization? What is your preference for the future of psychedelics in America and the world?
At first, I think the medical model is necessary because it changes the narrative frame. It changes the story we tell about psychedelics. Psychedelics are no longer just "Oh, my friend took too many tabs of LSD and thought he was a chicken," or "Someone thought they were a glass of orange juice and said, 'Don't touch me, I'll spill.'" There are these crazy LSD stories or someone who's in a mental asylum shaking invisible bugs off themselves.
At first, I think the medical model is necessary because it changes the narrative frame. It changes the story we tell about psychedelics.
So, I think the medical model has dramatically changed the story around psychedelics to one that's mostly appealing. It helps that a lot of celebrities, who generally are in a cocoon of privilege, can come out and talk about their experiences with psychedelics.
The great truth about class in America is you can commit a lot more crime if it's done in a private space. It's just the way it is. And no one's going to arrest Snoop Dogg or Willie Nelson.
The great truth about class in America is you can commit a lot more crime if it's done in a private space.
Because cops are people too, they may ask themselves why they should bother. The hope is that psychedelics, which are already legal, can provide help.
Ketamine is a relatively benign disassociative that is already available, and MDMA is going to be legally available for therapy in about a year and a half to two years. Psilocybin will likely follow in about five or six years, and then perhaps LSD.
One day, it would be wonderful to hear a conversation at a construction site about trips, with guys relaxing during their lunch break and talking about what they plan to do on the weekends. Perhaps there could be a monthly trip offered at a psychedelic healing therapy center or the Department of Mental Health, which becomes colloquially known as "Trip Weekend," and someone who is struggling, like a construction worker who was physically abused by his parents and has trouble disciplining his own children, can go on a trip to get help.
He can go to the clinic and be given MDMA, participate in an integration circle and be asked about his intentions, and even explore his own mind. He can put himself in other people's shoes and see things from a different perspective, perhaps realizing things he never had before. The therapist can guide him and ask him questions to help him get through the experience, and he can emerge on the other side, perhaps feeling like he has climbed over a mountain range of internal calcified questions that had turned into stone inside his heart.
When the trip is over, he can return to work, able to handle heavy equipment with ease and go home to his kids, who are surprised to learn about his past and how it has impacted him. They can show him love and support, and he can feel like he has crossed over a big mountain and has people there to help him on the other side.
Then what happens is that there are a couple of other people who went on different trips because it's a Trip Weekend. So, the conversation is happening all throughout the city from construction sites to bars to kitchens to supermarkets and stock rooms. People working at a corporate office are also talking openly with more nuance about their inner life. This is not in a kind of new age mushy way, but rather in a very matter-of-fact manner. People talk about what they have dealt with, and what it does is re-humanize and expand our circle of empathy for other people.
This way, we can understand that we are not alone, and we can look at other people and say, "Oh, they have this internal obstacle course that they've been going through, and now I can understand them a little bit better."
It changes the tone of a city. It dramatically shifts it, and so psychedelics are not seen as something that is only for the Bohemian avant-garde. It is something that is just woven into the culture, not only of a city but also of a rural town of the United States. This is evident everywhere from Brooklyn to Appalachia to Skid Row to Alaska. It's just part of the culture now, and at that point, it opens up space for other changes in our culture.
Maybe we realize that we really don't need to have poverty. We actually have enough, and there's more than enough land here.
Maybe we realize that we really don't need to have poverty. We actually have enough, and there's more than enough land here. Maybe men realize that patriarchy is our enemy too, and not just for a dime-store feminist thing, but literally, patriarchy is one of the belief systems that make us file towards war, and war winds up hurting, obviously, killing men but really hurting women and children the most.
In an era of nuclear weapons, maybe male culture can realize that we need to actually find a different way of settling things other than war. Maybe, when we had crossbows and swords, it wasn't a big deal, but we're not there anymore. We've gone beyond that, and we have to pull back.
Maybe we'll start looking at the hyper-materialism of our lives and all the stores filled with plastic. In this country, we buy more and more and more to keep up. Maybe people will start asking themselves, "Do I really need this stuff?"
I would like to think that this begins a kind of incremental, but eventually, tipping point, where the culture begins to shift.
That's such a beautiful utopian vision and it sounds so rational and so logical. I'm like why can't we have it right now? I get frustrated by the bureaucratic process of the government, having worked for the government myself in the past. I'm just like why can't we make this happen faster? It makes so much sense.
I love the idea of Trip Weekend. I grew up in rural Appalachian myself and I would love to see little Regional Community Gathering centers in my hometown, but instead, there are police everywhere and they're probably all doing some kind of drugs, but if you were to have ceremonies in my hometown, I fear the police there, like you will get arrested. We're so not there yet. I hope we will be one day.
I found it interesting that you said the Department of Health, so you would actually envision the government being very involved in this? I guess to make it more accessible?
Once the Venture capitalists get their hands on the psychedelic Renaissance things get expensive and instantly out of reach, not just for the poor, which is a banal thing to say, but even the upper working class can't reach it. The lower middle class and even middle-class people have other things to pay for. So for me, one of the reasons I'm actively kind of reaching out and trying to get the ball rolling with the Department of Mental Health in New York City and trying to offer ketamine services to the thousands upon thousands of patients that go to the mental health clinics is to also reach and signal to the police and other security parts of the state, like hey, chill out. Focus on assaults and rapes and robbery, maybe white-collar crime. Focus on the stuff that really matters, but ketamine and psychedelics—we're taking that off your plate.
Then the other thing is to start making it acceptable, not just the chemical, but the culture of therapeutic inner journeying and coming out on the other side more integrated and more healed, to have that plot line, that kind of movement that cultural ceremony to be something that is widespread, because it shouldn't just be part of some bohemian elite. It should be something that even the workers recognize is helpful for them, all the way up and down society. Then it allows people to refine it in ways that meet their needs.
They can start to tweak and experiment with it and push at its edges and say, like, 'Oh, okay, this part of the ceremony works, that doesn't. Let's find something that works for this neighborhood, this block, this town, you know.' So that's, I think, why it's important to have the government involved because it shifts the resources away from prosecuting drug use and really changes the culture of policing to be like, 'Fine, if we're going to have police, let them do something that's actually helpful.'
Yeah, I saw in Ontario they were having police officers do Ayahuasca ceremonies, and I was like, 'Wow, good for Toronto! They need it.'
That's what I'm saying. It's not just a construction worker, it's the police officer because there are a lot of messed up people and they're going to see a lot of horrific things. It's not to play the world's smallest violin for police, but that's the reality. They are vicariously traumatized by what they see and deal with, but if it's good enough for them, if it's good enough for the soldier coming back from Iraq, if it's good enough for the police, if it's good enough for childhood victims of different kinds of abuse, then it's just good for everyone.
Yes, everyone without serious mental health issues who need something different, but that's implicit in what we're saying.
What do you think is the role of the storyteller in making that happen? What story does the storyteller need to tell?
I think there are two sides to it, so I would say the back end is the story about psychedelics itself. That’s changing with MAPS and others, like, Johns Hopkins and then the celebrities coming out and the kind of the culture, it has already changed the story around psychedelics. Like Michael Pollan. Then I would say on the next end is that it changes the story that we tell about ourselves.
The next end is that it changes the story that we tell about ourselves.
People have the ability to narrate and use whatever images, metaphors, or similes or allegories they wish, but it makes us a more literary country. What I mean by literary country is that people begin to have more nuanced stories about pain, about shame, about anger, about how emotions travel through the body, that we have a more empathic, nuanced, well-rounded, and realistic narratives about how we are not these isolated egos, but we're in some ways like fish constantly floating in the currents of emotions that sometimes start with other people and pass through us. That we're more like sponges, and the emotions can get saturated within us, then we gotta squeeze them out and keep them flowing. And I think that it would allow for the storytelling that we all inevitably do throughout the day with each other to become more insightful."
What I mean by literary country is that people begin to have more nuanced stories about pain, about shame, about anger…
I wouldn't say Naval gazing. I think that's kind of pejorative, but I would say more inner aware. Once people become more literate of their inner state, they're less likely to subscribe to a social script. The social script may be marriage, but maybe this marriage doesn't work for you. Maybe you're monogamous, maybe you're poly, maybe you're okay with a blended family. Maybe you really don't want to do that job, you need to do this other job. Maybe you're at a part of your life where you actually need to go off on a journey by yourself, or maybe you're in a part of your life where you need to be surrounded by family and children, and just hearing the voices.
Once you're emotionally literate, it becomes a kind of immunity to the social scripts that everyone says you have to follow. Those scripts are on everything from race to sexuality. It allows people to be more honest about how kaleidoscope we are.
People identify with each other all the time, but what you have is a language of Us versus Them, both from the left and the right. Now, I don't want to play the game of equivalence, but they both do speak generally in kind of a sports team Us versus Them language.
Race has taken on that kind of quality of Us versus Them. I'm sure it'll be the same with sexuality, and then eventually it'll be class. It's like a rotating wheel of words and stories, but the reality is that people identify with each other all the time, and identification is very messy.
I remember a friend of mine who was a BLM Queen. We'd go out to all the protests, and then afterward, we'd hang out at her house, and she would only watch Brad Pitt movies. I asked her why she was watching Brad Pitt movies, and she loved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. She said Brad Pitt is God, and he's her spirit animal. I was like, "What are you talking about?" Then I was kind of looking around, and there was this other brother, very dark-skinned, very gay, and he said, "Katie Bush is his spirit animal." It's just like people grow up in the culture, and they identify with each other. It's the same thing when I go out to the suburbs, and there's this Irish twink who identifies with LeBron and has everything. It's just messy, and I think that how psychedelics can change our storytelling is that it forces us to disintegrate our ego and see who are all the people we have inside of us.
I think that how psychedelics can change our storytelling is that it forces us to disintegrate our ego and see who are all the people we have inside of us. You realize that these categories which are like just "us" or "them" are a lie.
You realize that these categories which are like just "us" or "them" are a lie. That's not how people really work.
I'm laughing because Brad Pitt's funny and random, but I think it's good to cross-identify and find yourself in all different types of people.
Speaking of identification, do you consider yourself a psychedelic writer? Do you think your books are a form of psychedelics for the reader? You've written several books. I wonder if that influenced those?
Yeah, I think a lot of them have, almost all of them have been created in the absurd, the churn and soup of a psychedelic state. The first one was definitely very psychedelic. I wasn't taking psychedelics, but I think there are ways of entering that through poetic exercise and breathwork, and practice.
The first book is the Theater of War. That's the poetry book. The second one is the Ground Below Zero, and that's the reported one. It wasn't written on psychedelics, but many psychedelic experiences influenced it.
There is a drug plotline in Thirst too.
You're right. The main character, she's taking pharmaceutical medicines. She is schizophrenic and she's hearing voices. When she stops taking the pill, she has to accept that the voices are not internal schizophrenic illusions or audio illusions, but that they're the voices of vampires. She's hearing vampires plot to promote a real estate mogul to become the president in order to start a nuclear war. Because if they can start a nuclear war and eradicate humanity from the planet, then they finally stop being vampires and become real beings. They can take over the planet.
So, there's a lot of kind of questioning about the role of drugs in one's life. Maz, the main character, has to reassess and change her mind about these pills that she thought were going to make her normal and good. To embrace her true powers, she's got to throw those pills away.
Were those pills an allegory for something? I mean, the book is very allegorical.
I think they were an allegory, a symbol of normality, of the hope for being normal that a lot of us are infected with at a very early age, this desire to be normal.
I think the archetypal plot that I've seen in great literature is that the protagonist has to at some point go through a rite of passage in which they abandoned the dreams of their people. They have to abandon normality and go off into a very wild and sometimes supernatural realm, which is oftentimes metaphors or images of their own internal state or the state of the world, then emerge on the other side having known the truth. We see this all the time, from something as old as Plato's allegory of the cave to the Matrix. It's a very common truth.
Alice in Wonderland. When I was reading your book, I thought about Radio free Ablemuth by Philip K dick. Have you read it? You gotta read it. There are some very similar and strange parallels between your book and that book including the president Trump storyline.
Oh, I can't wait to. That's why I love talking to writers.
I have to resist giving people comps. I feel like sometimes I'm like the Comp Queen because I'm just like ‘Ooh you need a comp for your book? Let me tell you all about it!”
I was also interested in what you're saying about poetics and how is that involved in your writing process, like non-psychedelic entheogens in your creative life?
So for Theater of War, I took the National Security Strategy Report, and I turned it into a kind of a surrealist manifesto. Now, this is during the Bush years, after 9/11, and the Iraq War. It was my way of scrambling, almost like taking refrigerator magnets and just scrambling the security report, and making it into a very kind of surreal text. That was very, very fun, mostly using the device of what other word does this word rhyme with or even if it's kind of a perverse alliteration. Then, I started to replace those words, and as I replace those words, the meaning of the text became twisted, like a bent coat hanger. It still was similar, but there were these odd flashes of weird epiphanies that were shining through the text. I almost felt I read a deeper truth of not just the Bush administration, I mean, that's there, but more of the mindset of the kind of American military-industrial complex and how it views the world. What is this collective not consciousness but its collective unconscious.
What is their mindset?
A mindset of seeking purity in the world and almost using bombs like a dry board eraser, like erasing the people and the architecture and the history, and then being able to recreate itself in the empty places, basically being able to build a McDonald's in a bomb crater, recreating itself, and a fetishized or high, nearly sexual need for bean counting, like counting everything, quantifying everything, right? Almost kind of going up to one of those porn sites, but instead of people having sex on the video screen, it's like numbers, and it's just this kind of sexual attachment to quantifying life, quantifying emotions, and making everything into a number.
Do you mean in terms of money, like making it all into money?
Also coordinates for maps. Everything has to be quantified. And so it's very, very perverse, and it prizes up. It's like a general looking at him or herself in the mirror and turning to stone. That's the vibe that I got looking at that report, that's their kind of mindset.
Who is responsible for that, and how do we fix it?
I don't know, someone did not raise those kids right. I don't know.
When I worked for the government, I actually thought they weren't counting enough because I really felt like they had lost track of what taxpayer money was for, and they were running programs they didn't know where the money was going. It was being grossly mismanaged. It was really hard to watch. So for me, I felt like, oh gosh, if only they would keep a little better track of the things that actually mattered. But I see what you mean too.
I love what you said in the other interview also about mushrooms instead of mushroom clouds.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it is like if you were in the 80s at all, that was the last era of like Star Wars defense program and you know the whole thing, and you're just like, Are we gonna get out now?
Don't we have a program literally called Star Wars now?
That's the thing. Satellites that were supposed to shoot down the nuclear weapons as they were flying to us from the Soviet Union, and now you're right, now they actually literally ripped off the insignia from Star Trek and they're like, "alright, now we're gonna have this whole new, you know, Star Wars one."
I was like, "Okay, maybe we can get them all on Trip Weekend. That’s always the joke in the psychedelic world to say, "Jesus, can we just dose people?" And always the elders are like, "it doesn't work like that," and the kids are like, "I'm tired."
Yeah, what did Joe Biden see on his DMT trip? Somebody give Kamala Harris some DMT, please.
If you give Vladimir Putin some acid, I swear to God he would be in his dreams dancing with the mushroom cloud and making love with this nuclear mushroom cloud, riding a white horse, yeah, a Russia allegory.
On Writing Craft
What is your approach to writing in general? Do you have a specific writing process or any advice for writers?
When I sit down, I start with whatever it is I'm the most scared to say. Whatever I'm the most ashamed to say, whatever I'm the most scared to say - that's the lead sentence.
It's kind of like a gambler; you're putting the chips on this turn of the wheel. By confronting whatever I'm the most scared to say - which doesn't make it right, it doesn't even mean it's going to make it into the final version that's published - but by doing that, at least I get rid of the kind of circling around, the endless circling around of the first draft, which takes up so much time, and as a parent, I don't have that much time, so I just say, you know, there's that.
I start with whatever it is I'm the most scared to say.
The second thing is that I generally never really have writer's block. The one or two times I've had it in my 20 years or so, what I did is that I actually described the block. By describing it, there's like a release of energy. There's this good book called Writer's Block on Creativity, and it says, whenever you're blocked, it's not because you can't write, it's because you're trying to write something that someone else thinks you should write, but you're not really writing what you need to write, and your unconscious is actually telling you, like, "Hey man, stop, this is not who you are. And this is not who I am. And this is not us, you know. This is some other thing. You know, I think you saw this on TV somewhere."
So, it could just be procrastination, hesitancy, whatever, but use that as a guide, saying, maybe I'm not writing what I'm really supposed to write.
The other thing is that sometimes as writers, we can get loops in our heads, almost obsessional kind of loops. People are like, "Oh, those are getting in the way of me writing, you know, because I'm thinking about this." Well, then maybe you should write about that.
Writing is just an instrument or artistic form for whatever content. The content is pliable and the form is pliable too, but the content can be whatever. You can put any content in the form of writing and it'll change the writing. So maybe it'll be stream of consciousness, maybe it'll be social realism, maybe it will be a romantic love story, maybe it will be tragedy or comedy, whatever genre. Usually, the form will be in some ways influenced by the content.
One of the things that get in our way as writers are that we assume that there's only one way to write about something. We're trying to cram in all these different life experiences into the kind of same Cinderella slipper, and we can't walk that way.
We're trying to cram in all these different life experiences into the kind of same Cinderella slipper, and we can't walk that way.
You can write about anything in any way. You can write about your obsessions and write about what it's like to have an obsession, and almost all the time, literally poof, all of a sudden that loop is gone because now it's on the page.
I try to have a good relationship with my unconscious and to use it to constantly draw things up, bring them up. Also, realize that the time that I'm in and the cultural moment that I'm writing in almost always has cliches, dogmas, rhetoric, or jargon that stand in the way of full, honest expression.
Monuments, Walls, and Jargon
Prepare yourself to push against that wall of jargon because you're going to get rewarded if you repeat what other people think, but in a more beautiful way, you'll get awards. If you do, sometimes that's great, you can ride that wave. But you also may feel that there are things that you need to say that go against the award system, what's being celebrated, and you're still writing really well. You're writing great stuff, but it's going against the kind of morality of the time.
Maybe because I teach literature, I can look on my shelf and see books that if someone tried to publish them today, would not get published. I don't know if Native Son would be published today. I don't know if Moby Dick would be published today. Ulysses by James Joyce... I'll be honest, and this is a hard thing to say, I don't even know if Beloved would be published today. Or they could be published, but they would not be rewarded. They would not be put into the sacred literary firmament.
In some ways, looking at the history of literature, you're looking at the sediment and the way that people look at tree rings or the way an archaeologist will look at rock sediment and be able to tell what was happening in the atmosphere at the time based on the chemicals that are in that ring of rock, but it's changed now. It's still part of our tradition, but it's not a part that, if it were published today, would ever see the light of day.
Personally, I go back and forth. I think we need to be able to see that sediment and the tree rings. I don't like this business of, re-editing Ronald Dahl... I'm like, no, I don't want Netflix to rewrite Ronald Dahl. But then, I also feel conflicted because, for example, like taking down the Confederate monuments, yeah, it's like, how much of the rings do we want to remain? How much will future generations just erase them or remove them or change them?
Acts of literature that are part of the American literary canon are constantly being reviewed and seen in a new light, understood through literary criticism. Literary criticism is a living, constant conversation between writers in the present and writers in the past that will inform writers in the future. They're constantly re-understood.
I think the difference between that and Confederate statues of Robert E. Lee or whoever in the middle of the town square, or Columbus over here in the Columbus Square Circle in New York on 59th Street, is that they're not really open to reinterpretation because they're not a book and there's not a conversation. I mean, there is a conversation, and the conversation is like, "All right, we'll pull them down," but then they can be put into a museum, and then people can say, "Look, this is what used to be here, and we thought about it, and we moved it."
And that's kind of what happens with books. Like, this book was important, but we don't think it's as important as it used to be, and maybe we'll move it. To say that a novel or a poem or a statue or a flag is so important that it could never be moved is, in some ways, to have a necrophiliac relationship, so that we love the past at the cost of the present.
I feel so comfortable with the monuments, but as a writer, I'm less comfortable with the rewriting of books. I'm like, "No, leave the books as they are, put them somewhere else if you want, don't rewrite them and change them." But I think that's my own ego attachment to writing, probably.
I'm wondering, what are you obsessed with right now, and what are you afraid to say for your next book?
Love in the Time of Covid
For the next book, it's going to be almost like reversing the plague plotline. What I'm the most scared to say or imagine is wondering who we are if we lived our most extreme joys, or what does it look like if a kind of radical mass healing happens?
The reason I'm almost scared to say it is that once you start imagining something, you almost become responsible for it; you become a midwife to it, and you have to, to some degree, bring it into the world.
Right now, I'm writing a series of essays a little bit like Roland Barthes' "The Lover's Discourse," but on the history and legacy of 9/11, not in a political or military way, but in these kind of small, odd ways.
Like when I was jogging in Cambridge and saw this old bodega and it was called the New York style deli. On the awning, which is rain-streaked and kind of ragged and torn, there was the image of the Twin Towers, and it just struck me because in New York, you don't really see the Twin Towers on our coffee cups, and you don't see the Twin Towers in the subway posters of the city. You see the Freedom Tower, which makes sense. The Freedom Tower has been up there for more than 10 years now, and time moves on, but it just struck me as like, "Oh, wow, the towers not only are physically gone, but they're also being erased from history, from memory, from our media." Yet they take a long time to disappear completely. Just small moments like that.
The other one is the kind of lightly fictionalized novel on love during Covid and the tension between meeting people and sometimes falling in love, sometimes just being intimate, sometimes just hooking up in the midst of a plague where we don't know if just by touching other people, we're spreading a virus that could kill someone we don't even know. At the same time, we have this deep hunger to be with someone because we're anxious, and we want to be held, and we want to hold someone. So there's this tension, of having the experience of new blossoming joy in the middle of a city in which a lot of people are dying.
Death put this kind of pressure upon our new relationship, the way that you know the Earth puts a pressure on coal and makes it into a diamond. There's something about kissing someone for the first time when everyone's wearing a mask that makes that kiss more important and it makes that kiss more articulate. You're saying more through that kiss because every other mistake is higher.
It makes me think of that episode of The Twilight Zone where this couple is given a box and every time they press the button inside the box, they get money. But also, every time they press the button, a stranger dies. It’s Black Mirror, like, "Oh, we want to feel the joy." And I feel like what you're describing is like that too. Like, I'm feeling sexual energy, I want sexual joy or love, but someone could die because I'm possibly transmitting this, and I won't know that person. And they're like, "We need this money," and who knows, it might be like a bad person that dies. It's a crazy episode.
How many times did they press the button?
I'd have to re-watch it, but quite a few. And then the twist - I'll just spoil it for you because the twist at the end is great. The twist at the end is they finally feel so guilty that they give the box to someone else, and when this next person presses the button, they die.
I love that. I can't wait. I'm gonna show that to my son. He'll be like, 'What are you doing, Dad? Show me Avatar.' Oh wow, that's so powerful. Thank you for that.
Are you working with a non-profit or any kind of organization in your work? Or are you directly advocating to the health department? What is the midwifing that you're doing looking like these days?
I'm a freelance psychedelic activist and advocate. I give talks and presentations to Cardia, which is a Ketamine Clinic. Horizons, which is the kind of annual gathering, and right now, I am talking with people to see who is interested in creating some kind of organization, hopefully short-lived, that pushes the Department of Mental Health to really start taking this seriously and going up to the mayor's office and saying, "Look, this city could save a lot of money if some of these mental illnesses were cured in a shorter way. Maybe even some of the gang stuff could stop, not stop totally, but at least decrease dramatically if we can go to some of the Section 8 housing and offer conflict negotiation along with maybe a ketamine trip and maybe a job."
In other words, there are ways to use this as one part of a larger interwoven support system to pop people out of their toxic lives into something that's more transcendent.
There are ways to use this as one part of a larger interwoven support system to pop people out of their toxic lives into something that's more transcendent.
I'm good with ideas. I'm great at talking with people. I can present stuff. I'm generally a decent human being behind the scenes, you know, treat people with respect, make sure people get paid, but I'm not really organized. I don't like looking at emails. So I have to find ways to get folks to do that so that we can really pressure this one goal, because if New York becomes a city that does it, then other cities can follow like dominos.
I would love to give presentations to social workers and be like, "Hey, this is it," to administrators. I would love to give a presentation to Eric Adams, he's the mayor of New York. Mayor Adams, I'll be like, whoever, just be like, "Hey folks, this is what science is. I'm a professor, but I was, I'm a New Yorker, I've been here like this is what the deal is." And hopefully, they'll be like, "All right, let's consider this, you know?"
It's a big goal, and I'm very impressed that you're taking it on. Anytime you're dealing with the government, it can be hit or miss. Sometimes you nail a home run, meet the right person, talk to the right person at the party, and boom, it's done, and other times, good luck, like, it will just take forever and ever and ever, never and ever, ever.
I'm thinking about what that would look like in my own community. I live in Fort Lauderdale. It's not as big of a city as New York, but it's a place of extreme inequality.
The inequality here is maybe the worst I've seen in any place I've been in the United States—extreme, extreme wealth, and the yachts, the super yachts, the mega yachts, and then extreme poverty, especially in the Haitian community that lives on the outskirts of the city.
Yeah, my aunt who passed away and my grandma, they used to live in Fort Lauderdale, and I used to go there for the summers. I remember they had a one-story ranch-style house, and it was fine, but I could see the inequality then. I could see the constant grinding poverty, and the resentment that people had toward the poor.
And toward the rich. Everywhere there's conflict. There are little quarters, and people stick to their areas. There's not a lot of philanthropic work going on from what I can see. So I think about what your idea would look like here because so many problems could be fixed by medication and medical care and treatment of mental illness.
I love this vision. I really hope that you can succeed with it and have it trickle down into other places.
How to Help
If somebody watching us wanted to support you, what's the best way they could support you?
That's a good question. It’s easy to contact me at the school or like what you did in the email. If someone knows people who are very good at the nuts and bolts of an organization in terms of like, what are the platforms so that everyone can meet, the scheduling, keeping track of who we talked to and what we've said, and what's the next step. If we ever get money from a venture capitalist or a philanthropist, keeping track of the budget, making sure people get their payroll, just like the nuts and bolts of it, that would be great.
But more than that, I would say like a volunteer, and again, it's like I'm not I don't need the money. I'm not like a hidden Daddy Warbucks. but more than that, I think people coming out of the psychedelic closet and letting others know if they've done psychedelics, just making it part of the conversation.
I remember dating someone who was poly, and she just dropped it really casually in a conversation, and the fact that she said it casually, people accepted it casually. It’s the same with psychedelics or things that people think are counterculture. If you just say it casually, let people know, like, hey, psychedelics are part of my life, and they've helped. I've had a weird bad trip, I've also had lots of good trips, and just be realistic about it. You don't have to be a car salesman for psychedelics; you don't have to sell a lemon like it's a Bugatti, but you can say what you know, and if everyone does that more, more people will begin to feel the conversation change.
Other than that, I would just say, get Thirst, and enjoy vampires.
It was really good. I really enjoyed it. I loved the illustrations too. I opened this book, and I was like, oh my gosh, look at this artwork. What's the story there?
Upset Press is a press that's been around for about 15-20 years in Brooklyn, and they've published experimental poetry and prose, and this is their first novel, so it breaks ground for them and continues their political mission, but in a popular genre, a hard-boiled vampire Noir.
The publishers and owners want to give the baton to another generation, so Upset Press is going through a transition in the next year or two and there will be a whole new kind of sensibility in it.
I was the first author they published with Theater of War and then Ground Below Zero and Thirst is probably my last book with Upset Press. It’s all good. It's all love, but the next published book is going to be I think with North Atlantic press, about psychedelics.
Do you already have a title for that book?
Yeah, I think it's gonna be Tripping on Race.
Tripping on Race, ooh I love it because you don't hear enough about race or you don't hear enough diverse voices in the psychedelic community to begin with, so I love that you're writing about that.
It starts with Will Smith, Chris Rock, and Kevin Hart, on doing Ayahuasca and psychedelics, and I wrote this before this slap. They're all in the first chapter of the book.
Awesome. I hope it's a great success. When is that going to come out?
Hopefully some point next year.
Thank you for sharing so much of your time and for doing all the amazing work that you do.
Thank you so much and blessings and love to your child.
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