Wendy-O Matik

urban-guide2 (17K) Wendy audio (sound by Noah). Wendy-O: I was a poet and a writer first, and singer after. I've been doing spoken word for thirteen years. I started in the punk scene and at various regular spoken word events in San Francisco. Bucky Sinister was my comrade. He took me around to different readings and said "Oh you should read here on Thursday night at Babar or you should read here on Sundays at the Paradise Lounge." So he helped get me into that world. A little later, maybe a year or two later, Noah and I started Gag Order. We tried to keep the band balanced with two women and two men.

JD: You and Noah started Gag Order?

WO: Yeah. We started Gag Order with Claire and Keith, and then when Claire dropped out, we continued on with Ira and later Raina. This was before Noah joined Neurosis. This was in '91 or '93 or something like that.

JD: So did you guys describe yourselves as a hardcore band or punk rock?

WO: I would say that we were a punk rock band. I hate all the labels but we were in the punk scene. Most of us described ourselves as misfits or outsiders. We definitely came from an alternative point-of-view. The scene I was involved in consisted of men who really wanted to help women come to the fore front. At that time bands like Spit Boy and Tribe 8 were coming into prominence and getting more exposure, all-women bands. In our own gender balanced project there were less political aspects to what we were did. I can't speak on behalf of other people but we had fun interacting with each other -- feeling a community with other people through making music. It wasn't just about going out and doing shows.

JD: How did you get exposed to punk rock?

WO: High school! [laughs] I was a misfit outsider in high school. I identified with the punk scene because of the anger reflected in the lyrics and the music. High school was the beginning of my becoming politicized in attitude and mind. I was discovering books like 1984 and Animal Farm. I took this political satire class that exposed me to a wealth of diversity of opinion as well as political slants on things and the concepts of socialism and anarchy. That's when I started seeing punk films like Decline and things of that sort and these just altered my view. I realized then that I didn't think like other people and didn't act like other people. I didn't fit in at all. I just wanted to rebel against the conformity of what was around me.

JD: Now high school where?

WO: Oh southern California -- Claremont. I went to Claremont High School but I grew up in Pomona. Pomona is a perfect breeding ground for rebellion! It's so conformist down there. Before people all over the country became obsessed with liposuction and fake breast implants, LA was way ahead of the times in terms of people trying to alter their bodies to fit this narrow ideal. A lot of people would look at these magazines and succumb to wanting to be like these anorexic models that were posed all over them. I didn't fall into that. I thought it was completely unrealistic: these women in the magazines weren't real. They were made of paper!

JD: That's like the Twilight Zone episode: "Number 7 Looks Just Like Me," do you remember that one? I think that was the title.

WO: [laughs]Yeah.

JD: There're four models per gender of what adults are supposed to look like and one girl doesn't want the operation.

WO: Yeah, yeah, exactly. That's a weird one. At any rate I survived track home hell/neo-conformity/ultra-conservative/pseudo-liberal upbringing.

JD: It seems like the SF Bay Area is getting more like that. Do you think?

WO: It is starting to. If you opened up a local paper maybe ten years ago you wouldn't have seen all the local listings for tanning salons, get your nose job here, penis enlargement bullshit. None of that was going on -- at least I don't remember it to quite that extent. Now it's like every page you turn has an ad for body alterations.

JD: When I moved to SF it seemed kind of edgy and dangerous. It still seemed like a big scary city where you had to watch your ass but now, maybe because I'm older, it seems a lot more suburban by and large. Dot-com cleaned out a lot of undesirables. Now you have the Sony Metreon instead of the St. Francis Theater. [The St. Francis was a run down movie theater on Market Street where as late as the millennium you could watch three movies for three dollars. People would bring beer in and smoke pot or crack in the aisles and talk shit to the characters they didn't like in the films. It was the best movie theater I ever saw a movie at.]

WO: Right, yeah it's really changed. I've been here 18 years, four of which were spent up in Sonoma County but that's still a long time to have a glimpse into how much it's changed.

wendy (15K) JD: What bands or artists were you really into in the punk culture? Did anybody give you an epiphany?

WO: Rather than take the band route -- I mean there's just so many to list, the obvious being the Dead Kennedys and the Subhumans, but there's so many to list -- the epiphany had to deal with my writing. I've been obsessed with keeping a journal since I was eleven. I have something like thirty journals now. But what started it all was when I was listening to KALX -- the college radio station here at UC Berkeley -- I was about 19. I was living in Oakland and I flipped on the radio and some woman came on and she was "Fuck this" and "Bring it on you asshole" -- she was just going insane. Her words of fury unleashed on the world really seized me. All I know is I grabbed a cassette -- and I didn't even look at what was on it -- and I just pushed play/record. I wasn't even concerned about what I was taping over. I was just "Oh my God. This woman is speaking to me!" It was this hardcore, in your face, confrontational style that struck me so personally. It turned out to be Lydia Lunch.

JD: Oh wow.

WO: She was doing some kind of live performance or they caught her live at a show -- and this was back in the day, obviously, eighteen years ago when you could say fuck -- shit -- cunt -- all the bad words!

JD: Not really. You couldn't but...

WO: They did.

JD: They did yeah.

WO: With little apology. Once I heard Lydia Lunch I started learning about Exene Cervenka -- because she and Lydia did the Adulterers Anonymous together and then I started hearing, of course, Jello Biafra -- not just doing the band stuff but also doing spoken word and political dissertation stuff. It was exciting to hear about punks who were doing something different in the scene. I finally heard about Henry Rollins but I was first a Lydia Lunch fan and still am. Those doors opened spoken word to me. There was a lack of strong, powerful, vocal women in the punk scene and that motivated me to step up and be vocal. If we can't smash patriarchy in our own alternative scene, then what the hell are we doing?
      I've always come from the school of Silence is Death. I first saw that statement in the mid-eighties when activists ran the Silence is Death campaign about AIDs awareness. Those words really hit me in a profound way. I thought "yeah silence is death," so why not take my writing to a scene that isn't really supportive of poetry, doesn't have a lot of women getting up there and showing a lot of anger, and proceed to fuck shit up? I definitely felt the influence of Lydia and thought if she can do it and she's on the East Coast. What the hell? We need somebody on the West Coast too!

JD: She read over at Adobe Books in San Francisco not too long ago.

WO: Wow.

JD: She's got a new CD out called The Anubian Lights, which I guess are the lights you see when you die, these lights that occur in your mind.

WO: Wow is it all spoken word?

JD: It's all spoken word with some instrumental backgrounds on a couple of the pieces.

WO: Wow I should check it out.

JD: I don't know what your attitudes are towards belief systems but there is this thing, this neo-paganism or rejection of Christian beliefs that tends to be strong around here. Your feminism and your anti-materialism/anti-authoritarianism seem to have parallels with the libertine aspects of this pagan revival -- which also has a fascistic side like racial Odinism, but do you see yourself as part of a pagan consciousness or do you simply have similar beliefs and try to avoid bandwagons? You seem to have some regard for the natural world with your gardening practices and what you've said about Sonoma and the pagan thing seems to center around a reverence for the natural world.

WO: Right. I definitely align myself more with the eco-feminist philosophy -- I'm not really strict on labels. I would say I'm back to the land. What's that author? Ishmael -- Daniel Quinn? He did a lot of stuff on the indigenous people, how we all started out as indigenous tribal people and then we somehow took this wrong turn. Where we took that wrong turn has lead us to where we are now. I certainly feel like we took a wrong turn and we're on a pretty crazy downward spiral economically, environmentally and socially -- which isn't to say we can't possibly change this. I do think I'm part of that change.

JD: Or maybe take stuff from the past and...

WO: I've kind of gotten more into daily activism: doing something everyday and not getting jaded. Feeling like you're still making a difference even with small changes in your life and being aware, educating yourself. Not being a stupid consumer and staying away from the rat race of materialism.

JD: That seems to be the strongest -- I don't know -- I think spiritual values are important but people our age have been traumatized by so much trendy religion and con jobs. I use terms like "spiritual" very carefully but it seems to me that perhaps the strongest "spiritual" or perhaps "emotional" trend going on now is a rejection of just being a consumer. It seems like there's a whole cross-section of people with very different viewpoints, radically different beliefs, but they seem to have a resistance to just being consumers or being defined as human beings by jobs that they hate doing. They don't want their identity to be based on just what they buy or have bought.

WO: Yeah. It's interesting that you asked that question because I just recently went and saw Noah Levine, who did that book Dharma Punks that just came out. I went and saw him speak.

JD: Oh yeah.

WO: I certainly don't follow the Buddhist spiritual philosophy as he has done but I feel it has a place, as any religion has a place in people's lives. He raises really good questions about how in the punk scene we are so skeptical of anything from a higher institution or anything from a patriarchal standpoint. On one level it's good that this is so. It's good to be anti-authoritarian, it's good to be anti-establishment but we take it to such an extreme that we alienate ourselves from a kind of spiritual insight or feeling which I think can be unhealthy. You can talk about Joseph Campbell's "journey" here and the mythology of one's quest. It can be good to ask those kinds of greater questions like "Why are we all here?" which maybe you do ask later in life. I think there is a kind of spiritual desert or spiritual devastation in many people and with people in the punk scene too because we're so afraid to go there you know? I wouldn't classify myself as pagan but I would like to say that I'm a deeply spiritual person. I do seek out meaning and I do read everything I can get my hands on and I am open to grasping that there may be things I don't understand and can't explain. I wouldn't label these things "god" or a "miracle" or anything like that. Instead I would call them that which is unknown: the Mystery of Life -- that's pretty fascinating stuff for me. I can hold that space of unknown, of mystery, without having to say "I'm a Christian" or "I'm Jewish." I was raised in a Jewish home and rebelled against all of that but then later I realized I like the tradition of family dinners. I really like the tradition of ritual. I like ritual in my life: daily ritual. I would like to incorporate rituals back into my life and still uphold my values. The question is how to do that without selling out to the mainstream? I think in some ways I've gone back to the more aboriginal thought that is basically this: true spirituality is nature. The true magic and beauty and wisdom of all of life and all of creation start with nature. It doesn't have anything to do with humans because humans manufacture things for profit -- not all humans, but I mean most religion is bought and sold as a commodity.

JD: It is but human beings are still a part of nature. Maybe it's natural for human beings to be greedy.

WO: Yeah, yeah except the motive of a tree is not the same as the motive of a person. The motive of a panther is not the same motive and so on down the line. There's only one species that has to pursue for other reasons than just being.

JD: Have you read Murray Bookchin?

WO: No.

JD: He's a Green Anarchist who is probably in his seventies or eighties now if he's still alive, but his whole agenda is reconciling radical labor with radical environmentalism. He wrote a history of European anarcho-syndicalism called Spanish Anarchism: The Heroic Years which starts in the nineteenth century and culminates in Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War. He was saying the whole principal of anarchism was not chaos, not everybody doing whatever they wanted to "Oh okay I feel like killing everybody now so I will." It's more a matter of everybody cooperating according to mutual interest as opposed to coercion: the cops are going to beat me up and throw me in jail if I don't cooperate.

WO: Right. What's his last name?

JD: B-O-O-K-C-H-I-N. AK Press has some of his stuff. Do you think it's possible to build a society where people are cooperative as opposed to coerced? Because we live in a coercive society. It seems like most societies are.

WO: I don't know because I've never experienced something else you know. I've definitely experienced the underground scene in Europe and I've definitely experienced small pockets of cooperative communities or collectives or communal land type things but they're still under a form of coercion. Even if you're living off the grid in land up in Oregon you're still part of the system. You go to work and you make money and all that, so I don't know if such a society exists. If it does it exists in a tribal state somewhere in the Amazon you know, where people don't have to adhere to the same laws as you and I but I don't know if it exists. I would love to experience it. We all live under this umbrella here of the US power structure and so does the rest of the world in some way.

JD: Yeah the king over there, ayatollah over here or the CEO anyway.

WO: Yeah a non-hierarchical society is an ideal. I would say I identify more with tribal connections than nation-state or what have you.

JD: Who inspires you musically and linguistically today? Lydia Lunch you already mentioned.

WO: Well my favorite writers and philosophers are Emma Goldman, Noam Chomsky, Marge Piercy, Angela Davis, Bell Hooks, June Jordan and Paulo Freire. I could go on and on, there's always people writing more and more things from different perspectives. I'm always reading stuff on the Internet. Here's what's on my desk today: Jennifer Saur: "What We Want: An Anarcha-Feminist Perspective on Feminism; "Race and Ethnicity/ Sexism and Misogyny: Who Takes the Rap? Misogyny, Gangster Rap and the Piano" by Bell Hooks; "An Anarcha-Feminist Manifesto" translated from the French. Oh I didn't get her name off the Internet.
      I mean I'm always reading. Tomorrow it could be Bitch Magazine and the next day it could be my favorite magazine, The Sun, which is out of North Carolina. It's a magazine that has poetry, art, philosophy, interviews, politics, environmentalism. It has a little bit of everything. It has absolutely no advertisements. It's been around for years and years and years. Really amazing.

JD: Tell me about Paulo Freire. I don't know that name.

WO: He's definitely South American. Oh he's Brazilian. He had this idea that to teach people, to teach them the alphabet and to teach literacy, is more than just your ABC's. It's teaching people consciousness. He had a word for it like conciencia or something, but he literally went around teaching people consciousness literacy. You don't sit down and go "Dick plays with Jane/Jane kicks the ball," that had no place in learning for him. What had a place was looking at a bill board and ads and teaching the people of a village how that bill board ad was distorting their reality, was telling them lies. It was awareness teaching where you teach critical awareness through language. We understand things because of how we're taught from when we were children and this is integrated in the ABCs as a sort of philosophy and dogma. Freire was trying to get at the root of that propaganda. What Freire was trying to teach was a sort of awareness literacy and I think that's totally revolutionary.
      Just to give you an idea of how revolutionary that is, as he began teaching poor people what their government was saying to them, what the local corporations in their own villages were doing to them, people started rising up. He had politicized their education and people woke up, they became political. And what do you think happened? He's been exiled from dozens of countries. I don't even know if he can even return to Brazil -- his own country of origin. So he's a man of great revolutionary force in our time.

JD: What's a book of his worth reading?

WO: Problem Posing and Consciousness Raising for the Poor. Great man.

JD: Could you talk about gardening? Where does your interest in alternative horticulture derive? Could you explain "Permaculture" and "Biodynamism." I've heard the term "permaculture" a lot but not "biodynamism."

WO: It's actually "biodynamics."

JD: Oh "biodynamics". How do they differ from business-as-usual agriculture or agribusiness and corporate agriculture which you see taking over family farms in this country and around the world?

WO: I've read books on permaculture and biodynamics and I worked on a farm for four years doing permaculture where someone came out and said: "This is how you do hands-on permaculture." So you can read about it in a book by the pioneer, Bill Mollison, But the real learning begins when you have to apply the principals on land. It's a huge philosophy and we're not going to be able to go near describing it in a few sentences. The same is true with biodynamics. I read about both systems in a few books and then went up to a farm in Covelo to try and practice them.

JD: Covelo, California on the Round Valley Indian Reservation right?

WO: Yeah. I worked on that farm for three days, not very long but at least I got exposed to some of the principles set forth by Rudolf Steiner and got hands-on exposure. I don't feel qualified to extrapolate any further on the agri-theories of Permaculture and Biodynamics, but I would like to talk about composting as direct action. For me it's essentially about moving towards organics, biodiversity, sustainability, and what is actually a very old way of farming. Biodynamics is a system that existed before pesticides got sprayed all over screwing up the land.
      My four-year experience in Sonoma County was working on a quarter-acre garden and growing all year 'round. That's what really changed my life. What happened is I went from an urban setting to a more rural setting and got exposed to the joys of composting. I can't tell you how it radically changes your life. You can't just keep taking something from the earth and not give something in return. This is how we're raised though: you go to the supermarket, you buy your stuff, you throw away the packaging, you eat it, you shit, you don't care where your shit goes -- you flush it down the toilet and then youšre done. You filled yourself up and you have energy and you go out in the world. We think about giving energy back to our friends and family but we donšt always think about how to connect with the earth. It's called composting. You take your coffee grinds and your banana peels and your tea bags, and even paper composts as well. I take paper and tear it into pieces and compost it separately. The crazy thing is so few people really know what this practice is. Eight years ago you could have said composting to me and I wouldn't have known what you were talking about. Now I can't even imagine going back. I can't imagine after all that I've taken from the earth that I would not compost.
      I've taken it pretty far. After living in the country I was back in the city in an apartment building and there was no backyard, there was no exposed earth -- it was all cement. What little exposed earth there was had trees and bushes and gardens and such. I couldn't conform to this new environment. So what I did was I took my bucket and my shovel and I went out into the night and I would dig up earth. I wouldn't dig up any plants or gardens but I would dig around in-between them and I would bury my compost -- not very deep, maybe about six inches deep -- cover it with dirt. Then I'd come back two to four to six weeks later, and by that time it would all be decomposed. It would be this rich earth, rich soil.
      People think compost is some kind of rotting muck that turns really disgusting and rotting and then rats come from all over the neighborhood and dogs too. I lived in a very nice Berkeley neighborhood and I never saw a dog once dig up the area I composted in. I mean I covered it with dirt! I never had a problem with rats or dogs or anything. Right now I have an enclosed compost bin. Recycled plastic with a lid. You just keep dumping it in and whenever you want access to that rich soil you have it -- I fill my flower boxes with it, I fertilize my plants with it. It's life renewing. It's so easy and it reduces the trash that will end up going to some giant dumpsite.
      There's more to life than just recycling. I think we have to recycle our food too. Then once you start recycling your food, you start thinking about how important organics are because you don't want to throw any pesticide stuff into your rich soil. Once you get into organics you start thinking about sustainable agriculture and there's easy ways to get involved in that. I pay $14 a week and I get an incredible produce box -- not delivered here but I bicycle five blocks away and it's right there -- the best food I've ever tasted in my life! How do you save the planet? It seems like an enormous task. Actually you can, each person, little by little, by supporting organic horticulture. You really can give something back directly to a tree! To me it's a matter of changing your habits and eliminating laziness.

JD: What, if you can summarize it simplistically, is a key or signature practice of permaculture?

WO: I can't summarize Bill Mollison -- one of the leaders and experts who teaches at schools all over the place, but permaculture basically utilizes the principles of what Native Americans have used in their agrarian practices. He sort of asked this greater premise which is how have people lived for thousands of years not polluting their water, not using pesticides, growing in abundance and never depleting their top soil. How do you do that? Because all we know how to do is monoculture -- farming with homogeneity. You just have one crop -- in rows -- for as far as the eye can see. Of course what that does is it depletes the soil, causes insect infestation and all kinds of plant diseases because plants were never meant to be grown in a monoculture. It's about biodiversity which the Native Americans and other indigenous people have known about for centuries. It's about growing in a more natural state which is growing plants with other plants that work well together; that fight off bugs together. Grow marigolds if you have an aphid problem because aphids don't like marigolds. You're using plants in a way that's insect-deterrent. Likewise, you utilize the floral plants that attract the desirable insects.
      People are also anti-weeds and permaculture attacks the problem of weeds by using them as compost. Weeds can be used as food for the earth. When we started our garden in Sonoma we had a quarter-acre of knee-high weeds and we thought, "Oh my God what are we gonna do? We're not going to pull them all out." What we ended up doing is we laid down soy ink based newspapers on top of the weeds and then we laid plain, flattened cardboard -- not white or colored cardboard -- on top of that. We poked holes in the cardboard and covered it all with topsoil. What happened is -- imagine what happens over time -- all the weeds are going to decompose because they're getting no sunlight, so they turn to compost. They turn into this rich, wonderful, healthy soil. As the newspapers and cardboard decomposed they turned into a thick base of really rich soil as well and we would plant on top of that soil. We ended up with this huge garden with no weeds in it.
      Eventually you lay down mulch to minimize the weeds. You can also use straw or woodchips that haven't been treated chemically, and use that as mulch. What this does is it keeps the moisture in, weeds down, and requires less water during the hot season.

For the rest of the Interview with Wendy-O Matik look for the upcoming Species Magazine in non-cyber version soon.

Wendy-O Matik official website.