Friday, November 29, 2013

Thoughts Upon Standing Between the Republican National Convention Barricades, September 2008 - A poem

Photo credit: taliesin from

Thoughts Upon Standing Between the Republican National Convention Barricades, September 2008

this isn't the downtown st. paul i know,
home of handfuls
of partially abandoned buildings,
fair to middling corporations,
sleepy weekend streets,
and kits of pigeons.

no, this is somewhere else entirely,
a nightmare maze
of rusty fences, slabbed concrete,
and near dead silence
the day before
the beginning of the coronation.

i suppose i could go on the sly into gardens,
slice the stems of as many daisies
as i can possibly find,
return to the barricades
and slide them,
one by one
into the slats
to remind us all
of the beauty which springs forth
from the hells we're so prone to creating ...

but somehow
as i stand here
the sun glaring across
these tall, blackened gates,
such peace feels like a dream,
when so many bodies
lie dead in the streets
or are still warm in the ground
here and abroad,
their ghosts floating everywhere,
demanding to be housed
in our still beating hearts.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How to Grow a Life

How To Grow A Life

Embrace the field you have,
no matter how shabby,
and breathe, deeply.

Take your shovel
and diligently dig,
until the ground
is good and loose.

Plant whatever seeds
you've been given,
gently cover them over,
and water daily.

When sprouts appear,
begin the watch
for the fierce, wild ones.

Do not rush to eliminate,
but practice being open
to elimination.

Love everything
that arrives,
and release to the earth
whatever doesn't.

Offer prayers
to the sun and the rain,
even if you don't
believe in doing so.

Forgive the world
for giving you a harvest
your mind couldn't possibly
dream of.

Bow to the field
you now have,
and breathe, deeply,
one final time.

*Revised NGT 11/24/13

Friday, June 28, 2013

I Celebrate Trolls

I Celebrate Trolls

“they write as though the great public crises were over
and the most pressing business we had were self-cultivation
and the fending off of boredom.”
Mark Edmundson, Harper’s Magazine June, 2013

I want to thank you.
My muse had gotten flabby,
a bit too much like the heart after living
half a lifetime
addicted to television, take out,
and tranquilizers.

I readily admit
that my verse had become
too insular, too opaque,
mostly because it barely
touches the page anymore.

Perhaps this is due to
the MFA program I attended,
or all those wicked teachers ,
some of whom still,
over a decade later,
follow whatever words I am able
to place,
gently or by force,
onto the page.

No, it was not their foreign policy
that did my muse in,
It was not their water cannons
of consideration and critique
that snuffed out my voice of protest.
No, I’d gladly drink
from that lake again
Because at least I can,
drink from it,
eat of its bounty
its flora and fishes,
without fear of being poisoned.

that’s what happened to me.
That’s what’s happened to
so many of us
You don’t know what it’s like
(I’m guessing – oh, the horrors of that self questioning voice, I know)
But you don’t know what it’s like
to be swallowed whole
by poverty,
teaching when it means mandatory
classes to the indifferent,
or by some other
40 hour a week job that isn’t
40 hours,
not by a long shot.

You don’t know, or you have forgotten
what it’s like
to be paralyzed
by the need
to have present in your life
anything that resembles
that which no one
who is poor
surviving under capitalism
can have – really -
without a struggle.

I understand your concern,
But I struggle to see
How America’s poets – as a whole – are to blame.
I am a poet.
I, too, long for more
direct grappling with this world
we’ve created that so benefits the few
at the expense of the many.
And I know I’m not alone in this.

I long for a society that reclaims
the true meaning of wasteful:
that of the rose, the crabapple, dogwood, magnolia, cherry
tomato blossoms the soil covered over
as if being
tucked in by its mother at bedtime,
a protection which lives on
long after the lights go out.

I long for world where we,
to stick a sword
straight through the heart
of colonial darkness,
and then do it.
Like Nike said,
Just fucking do it!
Take down this bloody patriarchal porn site
of white supremacist
military industrial
fossil fuel
driven global
for good.

Perhaps you are offended by my words.
If so, perhaps you might be
more careful
next time
in what you ask for.
You see, my longings are as vast as the Mississippi;
what I see as “pressing business” could fill every river that runs
across the entire earth.

I get it, what you’re aiming at.
We have gotten inferior
You’ve got that right buddy
Our collective angles obtuse to the very soil we’re made of
but I’m not speaking of poets here, Mark,
mark my words,
You’ve got that part wrong.

I celebrate you,
not because you have got it all right,
or all wrong

No, I celebrate trolls
for their ability to hang
on the oblique of society’s leaves,
to find the appropriate vein
and stick a needle in-
(anything sharp enough will do really),
to disturb the blood just enough
so that it might
right it’s course, reanimate
the four chambers
of our heart,
so weary from missteps,
so tender from
all these acts
of unwarranted aggression
we have committed.

Nathan Greenwood Thompson
June 27-28, 2013

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The New World

The New World

It is June 1905. The eminent physicist Max Planck has just finished lunch and is now sitting down to read his mail. Outside, blue jays yelling, marking their territory. All around them, a heavy rain, carrying away the gravel roads, yet again. Inside, dust, books, and the smell of day old smoke. The volume of mail: high. The prospects for sun before the day is out: low.

Physicist Brian Greene, in his recent book The Elegant Universe, describes this day as the one in which “the accepted scientific order had been overthrown”(23). He spends a paragraph on the day itself, and then moves into a discussion of the young Einstein’s thought process concerning the travel of light. In doing so, he leaves the reader with a mystery. He gives the reader Einstein, but what about Planck? What happened to Planck on the day he saw his entire worldview overturned?

He woke up. He got out of bed and walked through numerous doors. Eventually, he made it to his office, where he sat down and got to work on some problem or another. At lunchtime, he stopped to rest. This is essentially what happened before he began opening his mail.

Planck feels wet and cold. He squeezes himself into a corner of his chair and then picks up an envelope. He slits open the side, and then sighs. Thomson. He reads a paragraph, then sighs again. I wish he would move on and stop living off the electron already. He puts the letter down and looks up. His eyes fill with the world as it appeared to a single mapmaker in 1507 and for a moment, he forgets the mail. He becomes lost among the meridians of the New World, unable to swim his way out from under the blue he knows is North America. Breathing in, he sees Amerigo Vespucci putting pen to paper, manufacturing his navigational history in order to get himself on the map. Breathing out, he looks down at the latest copy of the Annals of Physics and wonders if he, too, has been tricked into putting his good name behind the well-crafted lies of others. This proves, Planck says to himself, as he swings the next envelope across his stomach, that pickles and mustard do not go well together.

He discovers several sheets of circular paper stapled together inside the next envelope. Each paper has several lines, which converge at the center, and are covered with writing. He notices, too, that the letters of the words grow smaller and closer together as they approach the center. Before reading a line, he thinks Hendrik. He bends down to get the envelope off the floor and, upon reading it, has his suspicions confirmed. Turning back to the letter, he finds the beginning. Max. This is Lorentz. I have tried to reproduce the contraction idea for you in a letter, but I am afraid it failed. He laughs. A branch hits the window and falls. Planck looks up, sees the rain rolling down the glass, and realizes that this is physics. As he picks up the next envelope, he wonders why the Spanish had it so easy in the New World, while he, and the rest of the physicists, keep hitting the walls of the Old World over and over again.

Bored with the side of the envelope, Planck begins, this time, by making a slit at the bottom. Then he lifts it to eyelevel, tilts it, and finds the contents stuck. Having had a long morning of formal meetings with stuffy university patrons, Planck decides to abandon his etiquette and go at it the way he imagines the poor do. He puts down his scissors, stands from his chair, and then tears the envelope in three. Sitting down, he begins reading. After a page or so, the first question that comes to his mind is who is this?

An hour later, Planck puts the paper down and looks out the window. Sun. I can’t believe it.

A few minutes later, he finds himself frantically searching the floor for the pieces of the envelope. He finds the address, somewhere in Switzerland, but no name. He picks the paper back up and scans it front to back. Nothing. He looks under his desk and finds an accumulation of dust to rival that of any barn, but no pieces of the envelope. Planck sits up and realizes that no one would believe him if he claimed the work as his own. Turning around in his chair, he thinks, I have to find that name.

Four hundred years earlier, the Spaniards were hopping from one island to the next, and getting the names right was the last thing on their minds. Bernal Diaz, who was there, is famous for his keen eyes and repetitive sentences. In his The Conquest of New Spain, for example, the statement “We called this place ______, and so it is named on the charts” is found in various forms throughout. Although the accuracy his work is often questioned, the truth of this statement is certain. Look at any map of North and South America today, and you will find the land heavy with the names the Spaniards threw out as they moved on through.

One such name is found on the tip of Mexico: “Yucatan.” Having finally made it the mainland in 1517, Diego Velazquez and crew attacked the natives and took what they could. The booty included two prisoners, promptly named Melchoir and Julian by the Spaniards. It is generally accepted that there was extensive questioning, probably by Velazquez himself, about the mainland. Above all, the Spaniards were alchemists of the word. Thus, anything the natives said instantly became a sign of gold. The one thing that did not translate into gold was the name of the land. The Spaniards came out of their meetings with the prisoners believing it was “Yucatan.” The prisoners came out of their interrogation having said nothing about the name of the land. What the Spaniards took for the name was in fact a discussion of the yucca plant, its cultivation and use in making bread.

However, the name “Yucatan” stuck with, among others, Velazquez, who most likely spread it to Cortes and the other Spanish captains. They, then, sent it back to Europe in their correspondences with the Pope, and with King Charles V. It is well known that, among the court of King Charles V, was one Gerardus Mercator, master mapmaker. Gerardus Mercator was famous not only for his maps, but also for his conferences on the state of cartographic thinking. King Charles, thus, often found himself waking to a convergence of eager cartographers and navigators. Each time this happened, the news would be spread all across Portugal and Spain. What began, then, as an error quickly became set down as truth on the world maps.

This ease of transformation is what the eminent physicist Max Planck was thinking about just before he picked up the envelope from Switzerland. He did not know much about the conquest of the Americas, however he did know that the conquerors possessed something he wanted. Namely, the power to take matter, any matter, and extract truth from it. Yes, he knew that the explorers sometimes lied to the public about what happened in the New World. He even hated people like Vespucci, whose lies were solely for personal gain, and had nothing to do with the pursuit of truth. However, there was something about those lies that fell within the pursuit of truth. He knew, for example, that the Aztecs believed in ritual sacrifice. He also knew that the conquerors believed this practice was a sign that the natives were barbaric and godless. Being an enlightened man of the early 20th century, Max Planck was fairly certain the Aztecs were in the wrong. However, no matter how much he tried, he could not get rid of the thought that, somehow, they were also in the right. Back and forth between the conquerors and the natives he went, seeing each perspective, on its own, as right. This thought only became more certain after reading the paper from Switzerland. However, there was still the problem of the name, for which he knew, there was no answer other than to keep searching for it.

Having exhausted all the conventional methods of searching, Max Planck, eminent physicist, decides to be bold. He takes his pen, penholder, and paperclips off his desk. He removes the journals, sets them on the floor next to the bookshelf. The clock he sets in the window and the rest of the mail, he carefully stacks next to the open door. He then closes the door, rolls up his sleeves, and, in a single shove, overturns the desk. Dust flies everywhere. Planck shades his eyes and waits. After a minute or so, the dust settles and Planck looks at the floor. Scattered amongst the dust-bunnies are a few pieces of torn, yellow paper. Planck bends, picks one of them up, finds half of a canceled stamp on its backside. He bends down again, gathers the rest, and then sits down at his chair. One by one, he turns each piece over to see if there is any writing on them. Eventually, he throws two of them back on the floor, leaving two in his hand. Out of these, he begins to decipher the handwriting and make a name.

After awhile, Max Planck, eminent physicist, looks up. He notices the sun fading behind the furthest tree in the university courtyard. He should be getting hungry, but thoughts of food are nowhere on the map for him. He puts the two pieces of paper in his pocket and stands for the first time in over an hour. It had taken him about forty seconds to read the name on the scraps of yellow paper. The rest of the time he had simply sat, staring at the map of the New World, wondering how it could all be true.

Now, as he walks across the room, he feels his feet hitting the floor a little harder than before. Reaching for the clock in the window, he feels himself draw in a breath and then hold it for just a little longer than usual. He notices the clock feels a little heavier and, so does his arm. However, none of this can blind him in the face of his main thought. It is like a beam of light that he chases over and over again, but never quite catches up to. He conjures up every list of names, in every journal he has ever read, but none of them contain the one he has. He thinks also of the lists of students, whose names sometimes become attached to their professor’s work, but that too is a dead end. The name he had lost, and now found, is nowhere, and also, everywhere.

As he turns his desk back over, Planck thinks about the meaning of the word physics. In his mind, he draws a line across the present day, and leaves physics to wobble on the border. If he had been an explorer in the New World, he would have been Velazquez. The others knew too much, or too little. Their names are either much more prominent, or entirely gone from the planet. However, Max Planck, eminent physicist, was born in the 19th century, not the 15th. His New World is much bigger, and also, much smaller, than that of the Americas. He maps it by choosing, editing out whatever appears to be failure. Entire visions of the galaxy, as well as the minutest details of matter, come to rest in his hands. And yet, here he is, stumped by the work of a single man whose name he has never heard before.

Outside, the sun has disappeared, taking the squabbling birds with it. Unable to stand it any longer, Planck heads for the door and opens it. Down the hall, he hears footsteps, sees shoes going around a corner. Planck closes his eyes begins moving, knowing that he will have to find his way out on his own. He follows the sound of the other, lifting his still heavy feet and breathing fast. Finally, silence, and then the creak of a doorknob. Planck skids to a stop. Startled, the other turns, opens his mouth.

“Who’s there?”

Planck lifts an arm slowly, making a weak gesture of friendliness. He cannot say what he cannot stop thinking.
The man at the door sees a shadow move slowly across the wall, but hears nothing. He waits for an answer and then, after a minute, turns and heads out the door.

In his mind, Planck can hear the words racing around a single loop. He wants to hear another voice, but as the man steps across the threshold, he knows there will only be one left: Max Planck, eminent physicist. Like Diaz, he repeats a single statement over and over again. He hears himself shout Who the hell is Albert Einstein! and then he opens his eyes. Each time, he hears it rattle through the walls, sees them fall to the earth in rubble.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Statement on the Public Discussion of Occupy Minneapolis' Social Media Use

Open Letter to Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy Homes MN,

Over the past week, there has been an unfolding, very public debate between Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy Homes MN about shared access to social media, methods of group governance and action, and the nature of solidarity. As a member of Occupy Minneapolis (since day 1) and affiliated collations, I feel compelled to offer a statement of what I see from my vantage point. It is my hope that at some point, the two groups can find enough common ground to mutually support each other against the forces and power structures that are currently oppressing all of us.

In order to promote transparency and honesty about personal stakes - something lacking to some degree on both sides of the public debate - I'd like to speak about my involvement in Occupy since October 7th, 2011. I was there on the People's Plaza the first day, and averaged about six to eight hours of active presence on the plaza five days a week. My participation in the General Assembly meetings was much less frequently due to schedule conflicts, and then later on, a distaste with the amount of conflict and stagnation that developed. I was active on multiple Occupy committees, including the facilitation committee that attempted to address issues of shared governance, consensus model structures, and methods of leading meetings. In the beginning of January 2012, I joined the Whealthy Human Village, and earth-centered offshoot of Occupy Minneapolis focused on environmental issues, food justice, and indigenous rights. More recently, I've been involved in Occupy and Idle No More's work addressing the XLKeystone and Enbridge pipelines. My involvement with Occupy Homes MN is much less significant. I did canvasing one weekend early on Monique White's home, the first foreclosure Occupy Homes worked on. I also attended a half dozen other events, press conferences, and rallies associated with Occupy Homes during 2012. While I haven't been actively involved, I have followed Occupy Homes work online, and have contact with a few folks more active in the foreclosed homes movement.

The Public Divorce

Members of the Occupy Minneapolis media team released this video last week in which they announced the suspension of access to Occupy's social media outlets - Facebook page and Twitter account - for members of Occupy Homes. Pointedly, the suspension and much of the following commentary has centered on Nick Espinoza, a vocal critic of Occupy's consensus structures from the beginning, and a prominent leader in the Occupy Homes movement since it's start here in the Twin Cities. Members of the Occupy Minneapolis media team cited philosophical differences with Nick, as well as attempts to control the message and image of the Occupy social media pages as the main reasons for suspending Nick's access. Nick countered this position by citing Occupy Homes MN's public influence, which added followers and readership to Occupy MN's pages that probably wouldn't have been there otherwise. He also called the process of suspension "undemocratic," and called for dialogue and a return of open access to Occupy MN social media for himself, and other members of Occupy Homes MN.

Occupy Homes MN released a response to the original statement a few days ago, in which they stressed that loosing access to the vast majority of their readership/followers through these suspensions could be a serious blow to their foreclosed homes work.

The Differences in the Two Groups

While Occupy Homes MN is rightly considered an offshoot of the original Occupy movement, it's structure, function and governance are qualitatively different from that of Occupy Minneapolis or offshoots like the Whealthy Human Village. Whereas Occupy Minneapolis has done it's best to maintain consensus decision making and shared, rotating leadership, Occupy Homes MN has a defined leadership, chosen public spokespeople, and a handful of paid "staff" members. Whereas Occupy Minneapolis continues to address a diversity of issues, Occupy Homes MN is clearly focused on a single issue - home foreclosures and their impact on the lives of families and neighborhoods. Whereas Occupy Minneapolis has connections and coalitions with a diverse variety of groups, from Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers to Idle No More MN, Occupy Homes MN is largely associated with other foreclosure groups around the nation, even though their coalition base is much broader than that. While Occupy Minneapolis is focused on addressing the root causes of social inequality and environmental destruction, Occupy Homes MN has - at least in it's public presentation - a more reform-centric focus, including home loan modifications, and working with the Minnesota state legislature to get restrictions placed upon the banking industry.

In my view, there can be value in both "radical" (i.e. root causes) activism and also reform-based activism. At the same time, both sides have tendencies that can limit their impact and lessen their appeal. One shared tendency is a total dismissal of the other side.

Amongst reformist types is a tendency to work too closely with folks in power, and to give up too much for painfully modest gains. Something that we see repeatedly every four years on the left when it comes to supporting Presidential candidates. Another tendency of reformists is to trust the processes and structures that have been useful primarily by members of the elite to oppress and control the rest of us. The sense that corrections can be made to capitalism to make it "fair" for example, is problematic in my view. Or the idea that if we just elect the "right" person or people to public office, things will be ok - another highly problematic view in my book.

Amongst radical types, there's a tendency towards ideological purity, and both private and public disowning of anyone or any group that doesn't feel "pure enough." Along with this often comes an increasing isolation, where the ability to develop the kinds of broad coalitions necessary to bring about justice becomes next to impossible. Anyone at all associated with Democrats, for example, is out. Anyone who questions an open ended "diversity of tactics" policy is out. Those associated with religious or spiritual communities are held as suspect at best, or are allowed only if they fully "secularize" their activism. The list goes on.

Public Personal Attacks and Hate Speech

Personality conflicts are inevitable in any social movement. Unfortunately, these conflicts seem to have a tendency to "go public," and become a catalyst for weakening and/or destroying social movements. As such, it's been highly disappointing to me that this attempted divorce between Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy Homes MN has including extremely personalized attacks on Nick Espinoza. Including anti-gay hate speech that should be publicly condemned by Occupy Minneapolis, regardless of the desire to maintain a no censorship policy. Frankly, I find the understanding of "speech freedom" amongst some folks associated with Occupy Minneapolis to be woefully short sided. The idea that one is free to say whatever, without any consequences or kick back, is astoundingly ignorant. Not only of the role of the 1st Amendment in American history, but also of the role public speech has in social movements, and their advancement or lack their of.

Why I support a Separation, but not total Divorce between the two groups

While it's true that Occupy Homes MN developed out of Occupy Minneapolis, and that Occupy Homes MN's public position over the past year and a half has added to the membership of Occupy MN's media, the reality is that these two groups have been - for all extensive purposes - separate entities for at least a year now. The vast majority of Occupy Homes MN's current membership has little or no connection to Occupy Minneapolis's work, meetings, or committees. Occupy Homes MN speaks of solidarity, but hasn't publicly demonstrated support for the work Occupy Minneapolis has done, and continues to do. While they've used Occupy MN media to promote foreclosure work, there hasn't been any - to my knowledge anyway - reciprocity in the form of promotion of Occupy Minneapolis's activities around various issues. Given the single issue focus of Occupy Homes MN, it's likely that such reciprocity would be challenging to execute. Perhaps efforts towards such sharing would alleviate some of the tensions here.

Beyond this, it strikes me that the philosophical differences in terms of both internal governance and approaches to activism are great enough that a public separation makes more sense than a continued awkward co-existence. Making it clear that these two groups are different entities with some shared aims and goals allows for a true partnership to develop (if folks so desire) and for sharing in mutually enriching ways to occur. It seems disingenuous to me for Occupy Homes MN to call the suspension of their access to Occupy MN's social media undemocratic when the principle players doing the calling have had little or no active involvement in Occupy Minneapolis for a good year now.

On the other hand, I think it's short-sided for members of Occupy Minneapolis' media team to completely dismiss Occupy Homes MN. They're work is in it's own way part of the broader movement of justice, and it seems value to make an effort to see if an amiable separation is possible which allows for public support of each (when called for), while gives some necessary borders and boundaries for each group.


While I think there are significant and important issues behind this discussion, the quality of it so far probably looks, to outsiders or folks not connected to both groups, as petty, foolish, and childish. It's the kind of thing that gives fuel to the powers that be to dismiss all of us and our work, and as such, I am appealing to the folks most intimately involved in the conflicts to step your A game up. In other words, figure out a way to act like the responsible adults I know you all are capable of being, and get this dealt with one way or another.

In my view, the challenges from the 1% and their accomplices are going to get worse in the coming months and years. Those in power never give up power easily, as anyone with a sense of history knows. There must be more working together, and less unnecessary division. That's the only way we'll ever see a more just and environmentally sustainable world.


Nathan Thompson

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