Category Archives: Arts & Literature

Relaunching “Words&Music” – my personal newsletter

Dear reader,

This post invites you to sign up for my newsletter, Words&Music. Sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9

Now here’s the background:

In May 2018, I assumed a new professional position, working as Director of the Department of Partnership & Innovation at Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Becoming a public official in Sweden caused a number of other changes in my life, including (of course) the closure of my consulting business, as well as handing off or stepping down from many projects that I had pursued for years. I was fortunate to have a network of wonderful colleagues, formerly called the “AtKisson Group,” to whom I could pass on certain initiatives and products — the tools I created, for example, are now managed by the Sustainability Accelerator Network. To get the story of this transition in full, see the final edition of my company newsletter, WaveFront, which is published here:  http://AtKisson.com/the-last-wavefront/

But while I have stopped being a consultant, I continue to be a writer and a musician, and I continue to work in the field of sustainable development. Here on my personal website, I will continue to post information about my books, articles, poems, songs, music, and whatever else I come up with. And I will continue to blog and post on Twitter and other social media.

To keep interested readers up to date, I have also (re-)launched a new (old) email newsletter, called “Words&Music”. There are certain overlaps between the newsletter and this website, but they are not identical. My blog includes public statements and is focused largely on professional matters. Words&Music is a private, personal letter, sent irregularly, about unpredictable topics. It’s free of course, but you have to actively sign up if you want to receive it.

Sign up for Words&Music here >>

When you sign up, you will receive the first Welcome email. It will tell you about the inspiration for Words&Music (via my mentor Donella Meadows and her “Dear Folks” letters). And it will lead you to — among other things — the under-construction website for my 1997 long poem, Chronosphere.

It’s about time.

 

Launching “Swedified” – a new blog

swedified-opensFor years, I have wanted to write about what it is like to come to this small, unusual country — Sweden — and then become part of it.

There is a Swedish word used to describe foreign people (or things) that have been absorbed by the unique culture of Sweden, but have been given a kind of Swedish twist in the process: försvenskad. Or in English: swedified.

Which is the name of the new blog I launched recently. To get a sense of what it’s about, read the Welcome letter. And to read the first full article on the site — commemorating the remarkable life of my friend Vincent Williams, an American-Swedish artist who passed away in 2016 — click here.

New Book: “Parachuting Cats into Borneo”

Parachuting-Cats-into-Borneo-Cover-small“Fascinating” (Paul Polman, CEO Unilever) … “Highly Recommended” (Maureen Hart, ISSP) … “Indispensable” (Michael Kobori, Levi Strauss)

The Center for Sustainability Transformation and the AtKisson Group are pleased to announce the publication of a new book by our co-founders, Axel Klimek and Alan AtKisson.

Parachuting Cats into Borneo – and Other Lessons from the Change Café  offers the reader a complete Master Class of tools and approaches for promoting positive change, in the form of an easy-to-read business book.

The book has been drawing praise and endorsements from reviewers the world over, including Unilever CEO Paul Polman, German social scientist Ortwin Renn, former African Union Commissioner Bience Gawanas, and green business guru Joel Makower, among many others (see below). Publisher’s Weekly in the US called it “a shrewd and discerning look at systemic change” that was “insightful” and “particularly valuable” — both for making change happen and dealing with daily work life.

Parachuting Cats into Borneo takes its name from an historic, cautionary tale about what can go wrong: about two-thirds of efforts to make positive change in organizations and institutions end up in failure, according to studies cited in the book. Klimek and AtKisson bring over fifty years of combined experience to the table, to help readers avoid common obstacles and equip themselves for greater success.

While aiming to support positive change of all kinds, the authors build on decades of experience working with the special problems of sustainability transformation in companies, governments, cities and institutions. Sustainability has been an especially valuable learning arena, note Klimek and AtKisson, “because achieving [sustainability] requires altering some very deeply embedded human habits, concepts, and attitudes.” The closing chapters are devoted to building capacity for leading change in one of the most demanding, and increasingly essential, challenges of our time: making sustainability real.

To order the book, please visit your favorite bookseller (such as Amazon) or the publisher’s website.

If you would like a review copy for a publication or for an organizational bulk order, please contact the Center for Sustainability Transformation (CforST.com).

ParachutingCats-Icon

EARLY REVIEWS FOR PARACHUTING CATS INTO BORNEO

by Axel Klimek and Alan AtKisson, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016

“A fascinating account of the cultural, psychological, and institutional barriers that prevent more change programs from succeeding – and how to overcome them.”

–Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever

 

“I’ve been waiting for this book, from these gentlemen, for years. Decades of distilled experience, insight, wisdom, guidance, and delight about engaging the most challenging parts of change―people and groups of people. (Technological innovation is simple by comparison.) Only one in three change initiatives succeed, the authors tell us. This little book, and the thoughtful systems and tools it offers, might just help you boost your odds.”

–Gil Friend, chairman and CEO, Natural Logic, Inc.

 

Parachuting Cats into Borneo takes change management off the white board and places it into your own hands―inviting you into a café conversation with the authors, who put together a thoughtful collection of practical tools that I found valuable even after 25 years in the sustainability and social change field. Grab a pen and some paper (and a coffee!). This book will take you on a thought journey, best when you have a change process and goal in mind. And who doesn’t?”

–Gillian Martin Mehers, managing director, Bright Green Learning; coauthor of The Climate Change Playbook

 

“Welcome to the world café―where it’s raining, well, cats. Axel Klimek and Alan AtKisson are hosting. Slow down, relax, and prepare to change the way you think about change.”

–John Elkington, co-founder, Environmental Data Services (ENDS), SustainAbility, and Volans; coauthor of The Breakthrough Challenge

 

“We live in times of continuous accelerating change―as I have personally experienced―and yet we have difficulty adapting to it. That’s human nature: We like the comfort of stability and predictability. Here Klimek and AtKisson draw a short and very easy-to-read roadmap for implementing sustainable change. A great effort and recommended reading.”

–Nani Falco Beccalli, former President and CEO, GE Europe

 

“Change is difficult, and usually takes time, but this book gave me hope that change will happen, whatever time it takes, and guided me through the appropriate sequence of steps I should take to achieve my mission―slowly but steadily. The book presents a combination of concern, determination, and faith: concern about people and nature, the determination to continue the path, and the faith  that what we are doing is right. I received this book on June 11 and started reading it the morning of June 12. I powered off my mobile, and I went on reading ‘til the afternoon of June 13. At that time I discovered that it was my birthday; I think that this book was the best birthday present I had this year!”

–Boshra Salem, director, Office of International Relations, Alexandria University; member, Women in Science Hall of Fame (Egypt)

 

Parachuting Cats into Borneo is a great guidebook for leaders and individuals who want to create transformational changes in any society, community, organization, workspace, or family they are a part of. The authors have done a great job illuminating not only the most up-to-date ‘skills and knowledge’ on change processes, such as a system approach and coaching, but also ‘attitude and being,’ or how leaders can develop themselves and cultivate organizational cultures. I have been using these approaches in Japan and elsewhere in the world, and they have proven to be effective in work for many clients across sectors.”

–Riichiro Oda, president and CEO, Change Agent, Inc. (Japan)

 

“The one thing we all have more and more of is CHANGE, and we all need to become more skillful in navigating through it. Klimek and AtKisson are great companions to have with you on your change journey, providing guidance, great stories, and good company.”

–Peter Hawkins, Professor of Leadership, Henley Business School; chairman, Renewal Associates (UK)

 

“This book is a must for anyone who is involved in change processes toward a more equitable, humane, and environmentally friendly world. It is not the usual ‘how to do and get what you want’ instruction book. No recipes, no safe or proven success guidelines, no software program for making changes happen! It is a book about personal and group empowerment. It orients readers to become agents of change based on their own resources and their own creative ideas. And all this for a common purpose: to reach a more sustainable future for all.”

–Ortwin Renn, scientific director, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (Germany)

 

Parachuting Cats is a small book with a really big bag of tools for the change agent’s toolkit―describing how, when, and where each can best be used. Some are tools for personal change that make one a more effective change agent; others are tools for helping organizations and communities create lasting change. Highly recommend for all sustainability professionals or anyone working to make the world a better place. I could and will reread this book at least ten times and get more out of it each time.”

–Maureen Hart, executive director, International Society of Sustainability Professionals (USA)

 

“An apparently endless stream of conferences and workshops is applauding the big transformation toward sustainable development. And is tiring. Real action is not following suit. I see a growing disconnect between advocacy and personal behavior (and the behavior of advocates’ home institutions). Yet never before has humankind been in a better position to successfully end hunger and poverty within the limits of ecological boundaries. Never before have there been so many experts and campaigners dedicated to making this planet a better place. But, strangely enough, all this does not yet deliver. Action is often halted. Advanced thinking is often restricted to special interest groups. Experts are arguing within the boundaries of their own unconnected communities. That is why this book is timely. The authors bridge change attitudes on the personal level and the structural level. They help us understand (and change) the patterns of our very habitudes―and, fortunately, they never forget the importance of changing vested interests and political structures in a democratic society. Absorbing Klimek and AtKisson’s recommendations has added value to both my thinking and acting.”

–Günther Bachmann, secretary general, German Council for Sustainable Development; advisor to the Global Network of National Councils for Sustainable Development

 

“Spanning change management, leadership, strategy, and spirituality, Klimek and AtKisson’s volume is an indispensable guide for current and would-be sustainability leaders.”

–Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability, Levi Strauss & Co.

 

Parachuting Cats offers a deep dive into what it takes for our economies and our families to flourish within Earth’s finite limits. For all the attention paid to technologies, policies, leadership, and ‘corporate social responsibility,’ creating the change we want to see in the world means understanding how societies and institutions transform. In the end, it’s the system, stupid, that needs transforming. Klimek and AtKisson tell us how to do that. This is a vital read for our turbulent times.”

–Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor, GreenBiz Group; coauthor of The New Grand Strategy

 

“Many of us need to change ourselves or to bring about change through our work but always get stuck in a rut because we need confirmation to do the right thing. This book helps us enter into conversations to see within and around us and to make that so-needed transformation.”

–Bience Gawanas, former commissioner for Social Affairs, African Union

 

“As a funder, I was drawn to organizations that had both a clear vision for the future and an approach to the inevitable difficulties of change. If this valuable toolkit had been around, I would have sent a copy with every grant check.”

–David Grant, former president and CEO, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; author of The Social Profit Handbook

 

About Those Parachuting Cats

ParachutingCats-IconOn September 1, my latest book — written together with my dear friend and business partner Axel Klimek — hits the shelves, both physically and digitally.

Parachuting Cats into Borneo distills our many years of working together into very readable little book on how to make change happen, and also how to avoid the common pitfalls that prevent change from happening.

“But what about those cats?” you may immediately be wondering. “Did they really parachute cats into Borneo? And why is that the title of the book?”

The short answer to the first question is yes. I won’t give away the story here, because I want you to buy the book. You can even follow the footnotes to the academic sources and the evidence about what actually happened. (But you may already know this story from many other sources, including the song I wrote about this historical event from the 1950s.)

And why this title? Two reasons: (1) To draw attention to the book, and (2) to reinforce a key point. All too often, when trying to change things for the better, we end up changing them for the worse. And then we have to take even more drastic action to try to fix the new problems we have inadvertently created.

“Parachuting Cats into Borneo” is a true story, but it’s also a metaphor: it’s something we always want to avoid having to do! We have loaded up this book with tools, methods, advice, coaching, and stories to help you increase your chances of success as you try to make your organization, or your corner of the world, a better place.

So that you don’t have to parachute cats into Borneo … or anywhere else!

With over 60 years of experience between us, Axel and I believe that this little book can truly be helpful — to anyone trying to start, lead, manage, or fix a change process. In almost any context.

And that means: helpful to just about everyone.

And hopefully, also, a pleasure to read. (I am glad to report that the early reviews are very positive.)

On September 1st, the cats are coming!

You can pre-order Parachuting Cats into Borneo today at the publisher’s website, at Amazon, or via your favorite book-seller.

Seven Pieces of Joan – and a Song about Water

joan-davis-e1374529339249_0My dear friend Joan Davis passed away on Monday, 11 January, 2016. She was a unique and inspirational person, a top scientist who also believed strongly in the spiritual dimension of human life, the “non-quantifiable variables” as she liked to say. Her extraordinary life is being remembered, in English and German, on a special website set up by her close friends in Zurich, Switzerland, where she lived most of her life (she was originally from Ohio). I have written a remembrance of her there.

https://rememberingjoandavis.wordpress.com/

Here, I am publishing something else. Joan loved stones and shells, which she had lying on her window sills and tables. This text, “Seven Pieces of Joan,” is something like that: a collection of seven discrete memories, like stones clustered on a table, reflecting how much of Joan’s subtle influence in my life I keep discovering as time goes by.

At the end, I have posted a song (about water), which was in large part inspired by Joan. It has very poor sound quality, for which I apologize, but it is the only digital copy I have, of a song that was recorded on a primitive (by today’s standards) cassette deck, in 1993.

 

Seven Pieces of Joan

1

Two days before Joan’s death, I had gone back to a certain store to buy a certain wool sweater, like one that I had just bought the week before. I found the styling relaxed, yet somehow elegant in its simplicity. I liked the thin, gray fabric, and the way the end of the sleeves felt unfinished and were rolled up a little bit. “Joan would like this,” I had thought to myself. “It reminds me of one of her sweaters.”

2

Two decades ago (Joan was fond of talking in terms of decades and quarter-centuries) I was at a Balaton Group meeting. Joan took a liking to one of my shirts, dark blue, linen, long-sleeved. “That is really nice,” she said. “I wish I could find one like that!” So at the meeting’s final banquet, I wore the shirt, and then I stood up and gave a little speech about friendship. “There’s a saying: a true friend is someone who will give you ‘the shirt off his back’. Joan, you have certainly been a true friend to me. So Joan, here, I give you my shirt.” I took the shirt off and presented it to her. She gave me that sidelong, mischievous look, but accepted the gift with gratitude. Later, on visits to her house, I saw her wear it a number of times.

3

Outside my office-cottage at the back of our property, on the tiny porch I built, there is a certain beautiful shell that I picked up somewhere. I placed it on the corner of the porch, so that it catches my eye each time I go into the cottage. It has a special white-and-reddish beauty, which speaks of its former life in the sea, contrasting perfectly with the plain gray wood of the porch, and the green-brown forest around it. “That shell is like one of those shells Joan has all over her house,” I think often to myself.

4

Many years ago, on a visit to Wallisellen, I photographed some of Joan’s stones and shells. I downloaded the images to my computer — both Joan and I were avid Mac people — and shrunk them down, and then turned the images into small icons. Then I used the icons to replace the little drawings of folders that Macs have on their desktops. So then, when I needed to open a folder and review my archives or my correspondence, I was usually clicking on one of Joan’s snails or stones.

 

5

Joan was a professional water person, and at the time we first got to know each other, so was I. But we shared a relationship to water that went far beyond science and policy. Water, the simplest of chemical compounds, is also the most extraordinary: beautiful, ever-changing, ever-reflecting, and of course, we ourselves are mostly water. Joan, an aquatic chemist, also taught me to appreciate the special qualities of water in new ways. So whenever I am admiring water, thoughts of Joan are never far away.

6

After my first Balaton Group meeting, where I met Joan for the first time, I wrote a new song. Songs are strange things: once I have composed and written them, and sung them a few times, I (usually) no longer remember how I wrote them. I can remember the feeling-tone that gave rise to the song — in this case, reflecting on the wonder that is water, sitting by Puget Sound in Seattle. And I remember certain special times I perform them — like the first time I played “Water of Life” for the Balaton Group, and for Joan, in 1994.* I remember her smile. There was a bit of water in her eyes.

7

Joan had a mystical relationship with the number 22. It was a signifier, not of good or bad, but of something very important. When it turned up, she knew she needed to pay close attention to what was happening. She had so many unusual stories around that number; at least one story involved a moment where noticing the number on something (in the context of a car accident) saved her life. I have also loved, for no good reason I can explain, 22: it was the number I chose for my jersey when I played basketball as a teenager. So whenever I see that number, of course I think of Joan. On or about the day Joan died — was it on that day? a few days before, after? — my daughter came to breakfast in a new t-shirt, with a sports theme. The shirt had a big number on it: 22.

 

* My song “Water of Life” was only recorded once, on a home “demo” cassette album called “Fire in the Night”. The quality of the one copy I have is very bad. But I post it here anyway, and the lyrics below. Conversations with Joan Davis, and listening to her lectures, were very much a part of what inspired this song into being.

Water of Life

Words and Music © 1993 by Alan AtKisson – from the cassette album Fire in the Night

published here in memory of Joan Davis

 

Look at the light shining off the Sound

There’s nobody around

But me, and this body of water

Alone in a crowd

Of stars and stones and trees and passing clouds

Spirits high, I’m singing right out loud

Sing up the beauty of this

 

Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

It’s the water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world

 

Look at these jewels of morning dew

The eyes I’m looking through

Are windows of water

When it falls down

I am water watching water hit the ground

Every drop splashes up a crown

The Queen of all the Earth is

 

Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

It’s the water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world

 

The water takes a complete control

Like a river running through my soul

Like a rainstorm roarin’ up my spine

Like an ocean of love that rocks my mind

 

Look at the waves rolling up the beach

They can almost reach

The place where I’m standing

Won’t be too long

The moon will pull that tidal rush up real strong

Me and my footprints will be gone

But evermore there will be

 

Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

The water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world

The water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world

 

Why a “one-man musical” on sustainability, you ask?

Stage-JumpingFirst and most truthful answer: because it’s fun.

Now, here’s the longer and more nuanced answer.

Years ago, in the early 1990s, I discovered that music was a great way to deal with the emotions that come up around overwhelmingly huge global problems. Key people in my life — most notably Donella Meadows, lead author of The Limits to Growth, and a dear friend as well as mentor — heard my first songs on sustainability issues, and immediately asked for more.

I should explain that this tendency to write songs did not come out of nowhere. I spent my 20s in New York, playing music professionally and doing other fun things, before going back to the kind of work for which I had been trained at university, and finding my home in the field we now call sustainable development. See my book Believing Cassandra for the whole story.

So, encouraged by the positive response I was getting, from Donella and many other people, I wrote more songs … and people kept asking for more. And suddenly I was no longer an “ex-musician” doing sustainability. I was a sustainability expert who also did music.

And I started making albums. Not all of the songs that I wrote had sustainability themes, but a lot of them did. I started mixing a few of those songs into my speeches and workshops. Apparently that worked, because people kept asking me to do more of that. They even paid me for it.

This went on for about 20 years.

Now, even back in the 1990s, I was already starting to play with the idea of a “musical” — a show about sustainability, Broadway style, with a mixture of songs that were funny and serious. I emphasize that I was just playing.

But after Donella Meadows died, in 2001, I decided to try to do that show for real, to honor her memory and her countless encouragements. But to be honest, writing a whole musical play was beyond me. And I was busy with other things, like settling into a new home country (Sweden), growing a business, and raising a family.

Still, I kept doing music, and people kept asking for more.

I have a habit of incubating ideas like this for a long time, but not letting go of them. Finally, in 2014 the thought occurred to me: why not make this a one-man show? Take the best bits from my introductory lectures on sustainability, combine personal stories about events and people who had inspired me, pick out the “greatest hits” from my collection of sustainability-related songs, weave it together into a quasi-theatrical narrative … and just do it.

Now, my hat goes off to Mike Quinn, director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at Mt. Royal University in Calgary, Canada. Mike had invited me to Calgary, to do their annual sustainability lecture in the spring of 2014. I proposed using that opportunity to debut my “one-man musical”, and linking it to the surprisingly popular little book I had recently published, Sustainability is for Everyone. Mike quickly agreed. (Frankly, without Mike’s bravery, this whole thing might never have happened.)

The debut performance went well — at least, according to the review in the student newspaper! So I did it again, at a conference in Hungary in the fall. Good reaction there, too!

So now, as I write this, it’s Spring 2015. I just turned 55. And I’ve decided that … well, performing this musical is really fun. I get to act, speak, play guitar, sing, get the audience involved … and they have fun, too.

I also believe, very strongly, that sustainability — this quest to help our world change course, avoid the worst ravages of environmental destruction and climate change, while assuring that everyone has as good a life as possible — needs the arts and culture just as much as it needs advances in science, technology, economics, and policy. We need to mobilize every gram or ounce of creativity at our disposal, if we are going to tackle and solve complex problems. If I can help shake loose a little more creativity from people, by taking a risk myself and being a little creative … well, I’ll try anything. Within reason.

Of course, I’m still consulting, writing books, and working with the UN and companies and leaders of all stripes, as a strategic advisor. That’s also fun! I’ll also continue giving straightforward lectures and keynotes, with or without music. I truly believe in helping to advance sustainability with every tool and capacity I have, and in encouraging others to do the same.

But hey, if you need an hour or so of someone standing up in front of your group, being provocative, informative, reflective, inspirational (hopefully!), and funny, while showing pictures, telling stories, singing a bunch of songs, and even getting the crowd singing … then I’m your man.

— Alan AtKisson

For information on booking Alan for a performance of “Sustainability: The Musical!”, please write to him using the Contact form on this website. If you missed the main page with the promotional video “trailer,” click on: The Musical!

Inside Llewyn Davis: Not the Greenwich Village I Knew

BlogPic_InsideLlewynDavisYou might expect that I should love the film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” about the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, seen through the eyes of a young folk singer, who is a reinterpreted version of the young Dave van Ronk. Van Ronk was a legend by the time I hit that scene, as a young singer-songwriter, in the early 1980s. I barely knew him, but I did work the soundboard for one of his performances at the Speakeasy — a folk music club and artists’ cooperative, which put on nightly shows behind a falafel stand on Macdougal Street. I thought Van Ronk was an awesome performer, with a dominating stage presence. I found him intimidating at the time.

Folk music was serious business to the artists who were keeping it alive in those clubs. As a newcomer, you had a steep hill to climb, to prove yourself worthy to be in their company. Van Ronk’s memoir, on which the movie was partly based, is called “The Mayor of Macdougal Street.” I haven’t even read it yet, but I thought of him more as the Pope. I didn’t dare approach Van Ronk, partly because I was not even a true “folky” — though I did get one song, “Epiphany Dream,” onto a “Fast Folk” record album, a periodic collection that was published as a “musical magazine” by the Speakeasy cooperative, and which you can still find online. (I thought of Jack Hardy, editor of Fast Folk, as the mayor.)

I spent several fun, formative musical years in that colorful Speakeasy / Folk City / Macdougal Street music scene, which is painted in brownish-grayish tones in the Coen Brothers film. I have some beautiful memories, too: the legendary Odetta watching my show, complimenting me, hugging me, the memory of which gladdens me still. At the same time, however, I was also fronting a rock band, playing at clubs in the rougher parts of the East Village and Soho, clubs with names like CBGB, 8BC, Kamikaze. (This double life probably made me suspect in the folk world, but that’s another story.)

Yet despite this semi-personal connection to what was being portrayed on the screen, I did not love “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I found myself skipping and fast-forwarding through big hunks of it, in 10-20 second stuttering hops, trying to find parts I liked.

And I did find a few gem moments, most of them musical performances, including a surprising folk turn by Justin Timberlake. The film certainly captured the look of the New York folk music scene as I remember it, which (I now realize) had not changed that much by 1982. Indeed, my experience of New York itself was pretty much just as that movie portrayed it: a little run-down, funkier, more dangerous than the shiny place it is today.

So, I didn’t hate the film. But several others from that scene and time — most publicly Christine Lavin and Suzanne Vega — did hate it, and they went public with harsh criticisms. I mostly agree with their general complaint: the movie doesn’t reflect what I remember of life in that community. We were all young, aspiring songwriters, by turns cooperative and competitive, enjoying the feeling that we were part of something with a history. The Greenwich Village folk scene was a kind of musical nebula that occasionally gave birth to a star (Suzanne Vega broke out with two worldwide hits, “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner”, about the time I began turning from aspiring New York musician into an aspiring Seattle sustainability wonk who still did music). But mostly, that community was all about dedication to tradition, craft, songwriting, artistry, mutual support. Being a musician in New York — especially being a songwriter outside the mainstream of pop — was a hard business. We needed each other.

This is really my chief complaint about “Inside Llewyn Davis”: I felt nothing of that. In fact, I felt nothing at all. I really wanted to just get through the film and go back to work. (I was watching it on a long plane flight.) A reviewer who loved the movie noted that it’s just a fiction, maybe a profound one, and even called Lavin and Vega “narcissistic” for criticizing it — that is, for not accepting it as an original, aching, coming-of-age story, that has nothing to do with their reality. The Coen Brothers, in that reading, just borrowed bits of Van Ronk’s memoir, and images of that time and scene, in order to tell a different story about misplaced ambitions and the hard treatment dished by the real world on youthful dreams.

But I have to defend my old Speakeasy colleagues, Lavin and Vega, on this point: if someone takes your youth, full of colorful people and memories that you love, and repaints it as tawdry and sad, and then presents this portrayal to the world as The Truth On Film, you are fully entitled to hate that movie. And to attack it, critically. (Thanks, Christine and Suzanne, for doing that. I called you “colleagues” above, rather than friends, because while I knew you, I never really knew you. I always wished I had — I so admired your work, you were role models — but I doubt you even remember me. I was a junior, marginal player in that league. I was a Wednesday and Thursday night kind of performer; you were Friday and Saturday night. Still, it gives me pleasure to remember that we played on the same stages, sometimes in the same multi-artist shows …)

So the true Greenwich Village Folk Music Movie remains to be made. Or … maybe it would be interesting to make a movie about a folk musician who lives a double life as a rock ‘n’ roll artist, flitting between gigs in different parts of New York, dancing with the ghost of Dylan’s controversial flip to electric guitar, moving furniture to make a living with a fellow songwriter and, improbably enough, future Earth First! activist (my old friend Darryl Cherney, who recorded my first cassette album in his bedroom studio, and who was the spitting image of the guy playing Llewyn Davis), avoiding the muggers and the groupies and the drugs (I was a total nerd in that regard), performing at weddings and funerals and hospitals for the mentally disturbed, until finally getting a big break with the offer of a serious management deal (the guy that offered me that deal is now head of a major Hollywood movie studio), but then realizing he had a different calling in life, this thing we call “sustainability” …

Well, if you are into making movies, I’ve got a story for you.

PS: Hey, my new album — which which owes a debt of gratitude to those old Greenwich Village days, but is sort of “global folk-rock” — is finished, we are just working on the packaging and marketing now … Stay tuned …

 

Why I Wrote “Purging Wallace Stevens”

Unfortunately, I was deeply affected by the poetry I loved and/or studied as a university student — Rimbaud, Tagore, Elliot, and so many others. Wallace Stevens was perhaps the most difficult to understand, and I loved his work all the more for that, just as I loved Wittgenstein or Hegel. I really understood very little of what I was reading in those days. But I read it all hard, I carried it to bed with me, I scrutinized the volumes while sunbathing nude (the one and only day that was possible, in May of 1980) in the cow pasture out behind my Oxford college. I was earnest.

I wrote poetry then, but it was bad. When I began to write poetry somewhat more seriously, in the early 1990s, Stevens got in the way. I could not possibly measure up to him. Having read Stevens so assiduously meant that I was also, to use a word I learned from another writer the other day, “primed” to think in his oblique, formalistic terms. I sounded like a poor imitation. That is why I had to purge him.

This poem emerged in a kind of controlled verbal rage against not just Stevens, but against the strictures of that schooled set of influences. I’ll reprint the poem here, then explain its references. Readers of Stevens will immediately recognize that this poem is chock full of references to his work. And of course, the embedding of references to other poems, philosophers, artists, the science of the day, is precisely what reading people like Stevens and Eliot and Pound, and studying literature generally, taught me to do.
So this was the weapon I took up against my mental priming.

Purging Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars and tell him to

get his ass out of town. He doesn’t give the orders

anymore — not in Key West, not anywhere. His world

 

is an attic, a koan at the end of the mind

posed by a million angels, all of them

unnecessary. Our complacencies are of the painful

 

variety:  the muscular ones who whip the Kurds

or contemplate serial murder on Sunday morning.

Oh Wallace, we hardly knew you. Your words said only

 

what would suffice. You met every man of your time

but one, who sold insurance at a crap shoot. You

did not face the women of your time. They could have

 

introduced you, at the grand finale of seem, to the

sticky puddle underneath the emperor of ice cream.

1992

Reprinted from Alan AtKisson, “Collected Poems: 1989-2009,” Broken Bone Press, 2012

So, that felt good. I got that out of my system. Here is what you might have missed, if you were a less obsessive fan of Wallace Stevens’ work.

Call the roller of big cigars

The principal poem being toyed with here is Stevens’ most anthologized work:  “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Professors loved to teach this poem, with its tough-minded meditations on the interplay of appearance and reality.  “Let be be finale of seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” That’s Stevens’ closing line. “Do you get it?” the teachers would always say. “Ice cream always melts. Death and entropy are all that rules us in the end.” They appeared to love flogging their students with this kind of confrontation with our mortality.

not in Key West

In “The Idea of Order in Key West,” which is perhaps Stevens’ second-most-anthologized poem, I was taught that he was celebrating the human capacity to impose linear order on a chaotic natural world. The sail boats at Key West “mastered the night” (get that play on words with “mast”) with their straight lines against the sky, etc. etc. Well, two can play at the double entendre game, so I do, with “doesn’t give the orders anymore”.

a koan at the end of the mind / posed by a million angels

Here my studies of Zen Buddhism crept into the picture:  there are no koans in Stevens, but his work is very koan-like, especially “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (the third most anthologized poem of his, though I have no data to back up these ordinal claims). I’m blending, in these lines, “The Palm at the End of the Mind” (the title of my tattered collection of his work) and “The Necessary Angel,” his singular book of essays.

Our complacencies are of the painful variety

The upper-class domestic sketching in “Sunday Morning (“Complacencies of the peignoir” is the opening line, as I recall). The newspapers were full of violence against the Kurdish people (and others) in those days, and some serial murderer (Jeffrey Dahmer maybe?) was in the headlines. We weren’t in the 1920s anymore. Oh, and the roller of big cigars, “the muscular one,” is bid to whip concupiscent curds in “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” (The word “cereal” shows up in one of those Stevens’ pieces too — I am writing all this from memory now, so I am not quite sure exactly where it shows up.)

Your words said only / what would suffice.

Stevens explicitly practiced the art of saying “what would suffice,” like a sculptor chipping away at stone till what’s left is statue. Of course, I admired this, deeply, else I never would have had to become so irate in order to purge it, in an effort to find my own voice.

… who sold insurance at a crap shoot.

Stevens, as is well known, was a senior insurance executive. That was his “day job.” Here I am claiming — with something like false bravado — that he never actually encountered himself. His poetry is certainly self-reflective, deeply intelligent, sometimes achingly beautiful … but also cold and impersonal, like the poetry of a self-aware supercomputer. What’s the crap shoot? Oh, that’s easy. That’s life. But the insurance approach to poetry has the tendency to reduce life’s blood-and-sweat vagaries, its reckless gambling, to the precision of actuarial tables, which is, as I insinuate here (with that subtle word “crap”), a load of crap.

You did not face the women of your time.

The treatment of women in Stevens’ work is deeply problematic. They are posed, if they are present at all, in their peignoirs, or as two-dimensional cut-outs, inquisitively but rather naively questioning Picasso and his blue guitar. This is masculine, old-boy stuff. It seems, in Stevens, that only the men have minds — orderly, masterly minds.

Which is why this poem ends on a note of pity. Who knows what Stevens really thought, or felt. I hope that my purge-by-critique is base and unfair; I am, after all, reacting against a cardboard cut-out. But how different might he have been — how different would his poetry have been — had he broken a few more pencils, ripped up the dance floor a bit, lain his head in his lover’s lap and sighed a deep sigh … and just listened to what she had to say.

Flummoxed About My Music (plus, a free song)

Update 12 Apr 2013: I wrote this about six months ago, but now, I am no longer feeling so “flummoxed.” The musical path forward is getting much clear. See What Music Means (to Me).

I confess: I am flummoxed. (Translation: deeply puzzled about what to do.) Why? Because I don’t know how to reach my audience. I’m a family man, and a working sustainability consultant, and those are my highest priorities, in that order. But I’m also a writer, a poet, a songwriter, a musician. I don’t have the time (or the energy, or the drive for attention) required to run around tooting my horn and selling my creative products. But this world doesn’t notice you if you don’t.

So why am I making a new album, full of new songs? And what should I do with my old ones?

[Keep reading, or scroll down, and find the free (very old! 1983!) song to listen to, in MP3 format.]

Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I imagine that my potential audience is somewhat bigger than the Twitter followers (833) and the Facebook friends (642 “friends” + 318 “likes” on my public page).  Or the average 500 per month who visit my blog. Or the 500 or so who actually open my company newsletter (out of 2,700 on the list).

Evening performance for Northwest Earth Institute, Portland, OR, 2003 (photo from the NWEI newsletter)

In fact, I am pretty sure my audience used to be bigger, back in the good old pre-Twitter days. My first book sold something close to 20,000 copies. My essays on the now-defunct blog Worldchanging were probably read by many more, and occasionally got noticed by the news media. My music … well, to be honest (with myself), not that many people know my music. My greatest “hit” is a YouTube video (my song “System Zoo”) that has been watched 7,757 times. Yes, my albums are available on iTunes and Amazon … and I have sold a whopping 107 songs and six albums through those channels, generating $118.

That doesn’t much bother me. I write songs because it pleases me to write them, and play them, and record them, and occasionally even listen to them. If no one else ever listens to them … well, that’s fine.

Like any artist, I would certainly prefer that other people listen to my songs, read my books, etc. But — again — I deeply dislike tooting my own horn and doing self-promotion. And the older I get, the less energy I’m willing to spend on self-promotional activity. Hence I am flummoxed.

So, for example:  what to do with my music — old and new? Here is that free song I promised, the opening title track from my very first album, a 10-song cassette demo, produced in 1983, in New York, on a 4-track reel-to-reel system engineered by Darryl Cherney, in his studio/bedroom. He was living with his Mom in those days, and a big white cat whose purring was so loud it could be heard on the tape if we didn’t throw it out of the room. The song is called Whitewing, and it retells the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus (click the link to open the song in a new window):

AtKisson_Whitewing_1983DemoVersion

When I made Whitewing, I was just starting to dream of a career in music. A few years (and a few bands) later, I was finally offered the management contract of my dreams … and I turned it down. Cut my hair. Changed careers. Headed toward what we now call sustainability. The reality of succeeding in a career in music — endless touring, smoky bars, playing the same repertoire every night for months — was, when I finally looked that possibility in the face, far less appealing than the dream.

And yet, today I go into the studio again. I’m in the process of recording my sixth album — after a break of twelve years. You probably never heard of most of my albums — “Fire in the Night,” “Testing the Rope,” or the twelve Rilke poems I set to music on “Falcon, Storm, or Song.” (I recorded that one in the year 2000, but did not release it until 2006.) Three of them — the Rilke album, plus the humor album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On,” and the more serious singer-songwriter collection “Testing the Rope” — are available on Tunecore.

This new album is a return to the troubadour-style ballads of “Testing the Rope.” In fact, I’m thinking of calling the album “American Troubadour,” which is one of the song titles, and also a good description of how I feel these days in relation to music:  American.  You see, living in Sweden — which has a long troubadour tradition, yet not a lot of places for troubadours to play, and even less opportunity for 52-year-old, family-man, American-origin troubadours to play — has further complexified my situation, and made the whole music thing an even more private affair. On top of that, Sweden is not a country where you stand up and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m not just this, I’m also that, and I’m actually this other thing as well, and please listen to my songs and read my books.” Sweden feeds my natural inclination to not draw attention to myself, even though I am in a profession — author, speaker, performer, etc. — that requires drawing attention to oneself.

Then there’s the issue of mixing your professional identity (which I’ve written about in my books). I do quite a lot of work that falls into a category that one might call “serious” — advising companies or UN agencies, writing reports on global economic issues, moderating high-level panel discussions, etc. But my best-known songs (as anyone reading this probably knows) are humorous. Singing humorous songs, especially live, puts one automatically in a sort of “clown-entertainer” role. “Serious” work and “clown” work do not mix together very well.

People tell me, “Oh, but your songs are so effective at getting these messages across!” (I heard this just yesterday, at lunch — and I say thank you very much to the person who said it!) It’s often true that when I give a keynote speech or do a training, people remember what I sing — when I do sing, which isn’t always — more than what I say. I know that because I meet people who heard me years ago, and the first thing they say is, “You’re the guy who sang that song!”

So, I’m flummoxed.

Flummoxed or not, I’m going to keep doing what I do. Maybe more so. All of it. Including music. I’m going to start putting more of that music here, on my blog, so you can access it (for free). And I’m making a new album. (It’s not a funny one.) I have no idea how I’m going to promote that album, or even pay for it — but there’s a decade worth of songs that are just demanding to be recorded. They won’t let me alone until I do.

And then … I’ll put the work out there. On Facebook, Twitter, the Blog, the Amazon, whatever channels are available.

And see what happens.

Announcing Two New Books from Alan AtKisson

Now available for purchase online, or for ordering through your favorite bookstore: two new books by Alan AtKisson

Because We Believe in the Future: Collected Essays on Sustainability, 1989-2009 is a greatest-hits selection of Alan’s best articles, speeches, and blog posts over a twenty-year period. Woven together by personal commentary, these essays offer the reader a walking tour through the history of the modern sustainability movement, as seen from AtKisson’s unique perspective. In voices that are at times provocative, ironic, substantive or philosophically reflective, Alan’s writing always aims to inspire engagement for change. (An ISIS Academy publication, 2012).  Click here to purchase online

Collected Poems 1982-2009 represents the first time that Alan AtKisson’s poetry has been published in book form. As a poet, AtKisson covers a wide range of subject matter including contemporary global issues, deeply personal stories, and the unexpected intersections between the two. Also known as a singer and songwriter, AtKisson’s use of language is precise and rhythmic. The poetic forms he uses are highly varied, ranging from strict formality to wildly referential free verse. He often invokes the work of other poets directly, such as Wallace Stevens, T. S. Elliot, and James Bertolino; and he experiments with poetic structure, while aiming to keep the text accessible to a general readership. Click here to purchase online

Are interested in reviewing these books for a publication? Please write to:  information@atkisson.com