Editor’s note: this year, I am featuring a different poet from the anthology each month. For March, Camelia Elias offers some intriguing answers to my questions about Tarot, magic, poetry, and the academy.
Q: In your blog, Taroflexions, you discuss the cunning-folk method to reading cards. What does a cunning-folk approach to writing poetry look like? How is your cartomantic craft related to your poetics?
First of all I’d have to say something about how I define the ‘cunning-folk approach.’ For me, this approach, whether on the conceptual or pragmatic level, is deeply steeped in common sense, folk wisdom of old, and enchantment. What I emphasize in all of my writings and teachings, whether at the university or other learning community, is the following: Keep it to close to nature. When I say this I don’t mean to equate the cunning-folk approach to some Romantic idea of the sublime, or the arrogance that goes into it: ‘Here I am, on top of this mountain. I’ve conquered it all by myself. I’m so good. The nature up here crushes me and it’s nothing like the nature down there’. I see the cunning folk approach to cards as a humble approach, and it is in this humbleness that I find the poetics of divination. When you keep close to nature, you forget culture and its discontents. A different voice emerges than the dictatorial one that instructs us on how to follow this or that symbolic order, because only so can we gain access to this or that symbolic power.
What interests me in the cunning folk approach to the cards is the grace that we find associated with the tender voice. The voice that enchants us by showing us how to embody the functions of each image we contemplate without prejudice, and then act accordingly. You see that Moon card? You see that Moon beyond the card? How about you think: ‘I’m going out tonight to look at the moon. I will let the moon shine on my fears, madness, and self-delusion. Better yet. I will just let the moon shine.’ It is in this latter statement, and the ‘better yet’ that I locate the cunningness in the way in which we perceive whatever message we can derive from a card.
Ultimately, and speaking from the position of someone who is beginning to lay down her guns, I suppose that what I’m interested in is how to get old and avoid developing a patronizing tone. I try to listen to each card and then assess its power in relation to how it can teach me to be a silent sage among the crowds. I’m interested in the cunningness of listening to nature, not to ourselves.
There is a lot of emphasis in the Tarot world on the power of the cards to participate in developing awareness about who and what we are, but I’m beginning to be suspicious of what kind of self emerges from the so-called ‘work on the self’. I find the self to be very much the product of culture, the product of algorithms that compute personal realization, reputation, and inter-relationships according to rankings and feedback processes. I’m quite tired of all this.
Personally, what I now advocate for myself and others in my work with the cards is simply to go out and get a sense of what nature gives us. In fact, I find the ultimate cunningness manifested as the ability to escape being in the world according to the world’s premise. The cunning-folk way has a long tradition behind it of questioning the very premise for the condition of our existence, always suggesting that perhaps there are other ways of matching our skills and values to what the world needs than through constantly having to compromise our intellectual integrity, freedom to think beyond thrones and global fame, and honesty.
Q: I’m interested in the balance you strike between cunning folk wisdom and your academic work as a professor who holds many degrees. Would you be willing to talk about a few of the intersections (and/or divergences) between university life and learning outside the classroom?
I often say that the reason why it works for me, that is to say, why it works to have my feet in both camps, is because I’m good at keeping narratives apart. ‘Give Caesar what Caesar wants, and God what God wants.’ But that is not entirely true. Actually, that is more like wishful thinking. One of the lessons I’ve learned throughout the years is that you pay for everything. If you’re with the university and let the others in the university know that you entertain what from the university’s point of view is a cuckoo idea, you find out very quickly that, although you can account for the cuckoo idea, and tell everyone that there’s a long tradition of intelligent folks having stuck their intellectual noses in, say, Renaissance cauldrons, combining math with magic, philosophy with fantasy, and cosmology with culture, the others in the university will still look at you with suspicion.
Now, I know of folks deeply steeped in all sorts of magical discourses and at the same time holding the endowed chair of this and that fancy academic discipline, yet without ever having disclosed anything to another academic fellow soul about what they research during the night. Why? Because it’s too expensive, and they can’t really afford the luxury of the so-called freedom of speech. Generally, if you speak against the empty rhetoric of the academy in relation to the way the academy squares off against alternative epistemologies and systems of knowledge, you’re out. As an academic you lose a lot of credibility if you do too much research into the esoteric arts, into sacred and secret texts. A few academics are excused, if they happen to be associated with anthropology, or history of religion departments, but even these folks have to be careful, as they are often under a lot of scrutiny. No sir, you can’t be both an objective observant and a subjective participant in ecstatic dances that would allow you to see for yourself what the circus is all about.
Fortunately, this attitude has been changing now, but it’s still too slow for me, and I can see that a lot of competent academics interested in esotericism are still under too much pressure. So what is there to do, if you want to let others know that, perhaps, indeed, you are good at keeping narratives apart? Some go ahead and establish a solid publishing record, just think of historian Carlo Ginzburg writing about the witches in Italy, or Ronald Hutton doing the same in Britain, or the late Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke writing on Western esotericism and Neoplatonism. They have been very influential in changing the public opinion about the ‘relevance’ of studying cunning-folk methods of reading signs at university level and living the magical life according to all sorts of systems of correspondences, some more intellectually devised than others. But there’s also a lot of energy that goes into simply devising strategies of countering the general rhetoric of suspicion that goes on at the administrative level.
In other words, if you want to prove your worth and gain some form of respect for your work in the critical, historical, and analytical study of esoteric movements and mysticism, you must work twice as hard, as you’re likely to be up against the administrators’ prejudice and a constant worry about preserving the reputation, or the brand name of the university. You are also up against gatekeepers who will do everything in their power to ensure that none of that talk about alternative forms of knowledge and aspiration for setting up programs in astrology, divination, and cartomancy infiltrates the good old Hellenistic thinking about what the university is good for. This can have an unfortunate outcome: As the scholar interested in promoting esoteric scholarship, you run the risk of becoming too eager and too righteous, too defensive and too resentful, hating the worlds that don’t really accept you.
In my case, as I’m not even affiliated with the intellectual history department, I have to find a way to cover my base when I disclose that what interests me in my own field, American Studies, is not politics and what Obama is now up to, but rather forms of spirituality and the transmission of alternative systems of knowledge. In this sense, I would much rather teach a class about the way American poets have been using the images of the tarot in their poems to say something about their time, than teach the same poets but from the perspective of what they have to say about war, the fragmentation of the self, and other such abstract concerns.
Yet, devising my own curriculum along esoteric interests has not always been welcome, and on one occasion I’ve actually had students complain about the reading list for a course on magic, claiming that it went against their religious beliefs. The same students have also expressed concern with being taught by someone who they were convinced was a practitioner of the occult arts. I laughed a lot at such crass stupidity and pointed to the fact that what I was doing in the classroom was teaching the students the venerable skills of critical thinking and that I had no obligation to share with them what I engage with on a private basis. Still, I couldn’t help lamenting the lack of vision and bigotry among young people who ought to display openness towards all knowledge, rather than assume a position of conservatism and prejudice. I find this development deplorable, for what is next? The students will express their sense of entitlement to have their history of religion professor fired because she goes to church on Sunday, or their anthropology professor for doing yoga, or their literature professor for reading tarot cards in the manner of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Charles Olson, Anne Sexton, Diane DiPrima, Sylvia Plath, and a host of others.
On the other hand, some of us are fortunate enough to work at universities that don’t resist the idea of considering other approaches to knowledge than the ones dictated from above by the ones interested in money, external funds, visibility, ranking, and points for your publications that bring in more money.
Not so long ago my own Head of Department at Roskilde University, together with the Chancellor at the time, approved of taking over the famous collection of 20th c. Tarot cards, donated generously to the University Library by K. Frank Jensen, a legend in the Tarot community. They have also appointed me the president of the collection. The library is now in the process of cataloguing the material and soon I hope we can open it to the public. On another occasion, the same Head of Department has also asked me what I thought of his involvement and work towards assessing an application for accreditation of an astrology program at the University of Oslo. I simply said the following to him: ‘You go in there, sit at the table with the other suits, and if anyone has any objections just raise this question: ‘what are you all afraid of?’ We both laughed, but I hope we can both do better than that.
Finally, when all this is said and done, I have to admit that there’s yet another reason why I don’t keep my esoteric interests under the table. This is due to my gender and ethnic background. I may have a good job in the humanities, but like so many in my position, as a woman of different ethnic background there’s only so much you can aspire to in terms of getting that final recognition for what you do. You can score the highest and most prestigious degrees, but you will not come even close to having any real power. This is very humbling but also liberating at the same time. Now I tell myself that it doesn’t matter whether I tell people or not about my research interests. At my working place I will always be that odd woman from Romania who has weird ideas. Hence, I will never have power because no one will trust me enough to give me any. Maybe that’s a good thing. As I’m a very good problem solver, but not in the way that others expect me to be, I can only imagine what I would come up with, if they all let me.
The bottom line is that if you want to hack it at the university, while insisting on doing unusual research, be ready to pay for your lunch. But where the magical discourse in the university is concerned, I’d venture to say that, in fact, things are as they should be. It would surprise me greatly, if all of a sudden we had magic gentrified and part of the mainstream. I prefer not to think of that scenario.
Q: How would you describe the Tarot scenes in Denmark, where you currently live, and Romania, where you are from? How do they compare to each other and to Tarot communities in the US?
The answer to this question will be shorter, simply because I’m not competent enough to offer an opinion. I’m not familiar enough with what is going on in any of these communities, because I don’t have the necessary time to invest in making contributions other than marginal through my writings on Taroflexions. On a general level, I’m aware of the different traditions of reading the cards. In Romania I grew up with reading plain playing cards. If people read the Tarot, then it would be a variant of the Marseille cards. In Denmark, pretty much as it used to be in the US, people have preferred the Waite/Smith tarot and the Crowley/Harris pack. Most Danes, however, have shown a preference for the Thoth Tarot, rather than the ‘standard’ Rider US Games pack. I place this on a form of snobbism that I have a hard time relating to, though I may be unfair here in my generalization.
In contrast, Romania nowadays is most eclectic. This may have to do with the fact that we’ve always had a very strong tradition for all things esoteric, even when interest in such things could land you in prison. There were many ‘secret’ groups and societies acting underground under the communist regime. After the fall of the communist block these societies have grown exponentially, and there’s now a large proliferation of all things occult. I’m more familiar with what the Association of Romanian Astrologers is up to, as they organize events and write interesting papers on horary and electional astrology. To my knowledge, the Romanian cartomancers are not as organized, and my impression is that each card reader acts in private capacity without attending any regular group meetings.
In Denmark, most card readers also have another umbrella they practice under, ranging from advertising work in Nordic shamanism to spiritual healing, life-coaching, and psychology consultancy. No one I know in Denmark works for the financial prediction market, but there may be some in private practice who do similar work as some astrologers do for the so-called financial tycoons. The country loves consultants, but there’s a preference for the ‘official’ ones with degrees in business and communication, and who deliver the worst clichés you can imagine. My university hires them. The horror, the horror…
Finally, comparing the three countries, I’d have to say that Denmark is the least interested in either endorsing or consecrating diviners. Although there’s a growing interest in spirituality here, there’s also a lot of suspicion regarding the role of the diviner for the society. Shamanism seems to be more accepted, winning ground, but there’s little a cartomancer can do here to convince the general public that we are neither better nor worse than the fortune-tellers populating Wall Street. Romania is a great place for divination. Everyone is deliciously superstitious and there’s a lot of interesting work coming out of it, especially in respect to revaluing the cunning-folk tradition. In the US, I find it entrancing that people can attend Tarot conferences, get together for workshops and other related activities.
Q: I’m fascinated by your creation of sigils and enchantments. How would you compare crafting words and sigils? Would you talk a little about visual poetics?
As I have also stated elsewhere, I’m having fun with magic. I don’t believe in anything and I don’t pay allegiance to anything. I trust in experience and the experience of enchantment. The experience of magic is one of adjustment to the possibility of enchantment and tuning in to what may be accomplished. I often tell people that all they need to do is simply imagine things. Imagine getting the desired job, or the desired man. Personify it, shapeshift, and run after it faster than a gazelle, and make that stone, or the impossible mountain twinkle in your eye. See the whole universe unfold before your gaze.
Magic is a set of rules and rituals performed with the intent to change something. If I tell people that I perform something exclusively for them, they get happy. That’s pretty magical to me. I follow in the footsteps of old masters, such as Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano Bruno, and Marsilio Ficino. For a splash of blood and gore, I go with the instructions in the magical grimoire called the Picatrix: ‘Kill that tiger, and eat its liver at midnight…’ I create elections by looking at the stars and constellations and then I imprint their patron sigils on parchment. The whole time I say to myself: ‘Blessed be your lucky star, for you are never ever bored, nor suffer from depression or some other midlife crisis’. I want life to spell ABRACADABRA for me.
I want others to see what I see, to see what there is to see for themselves, with their own eyes. That’s the function of my sigils: to give people a sense of being alive beyond dictations. I put all this into weird scribbling on parchment and I allow my voice to thunder a conjuration in good balance. I write it all down and try to recreate for others the same feeling and excitement that grabs me in the moment of crafting these spells, talismans, amulets, or some other type of sigil. People can then put it into their pockets, and read aloud the words whenever they feel that they need a boost of confidence. I call this walking the web of life with others, with their life-force and their breath. It’s really a high privilege to be able to exert our presence unto others in this way.
Q: Your life seems to be filled with magic. What advice do you have for people who want to live a more magical life?
Sense. Smell. Hear. Touch. See. Living the magical life is not the kind of living that is always up to others. Living the magical life means giving yourself license to go places where no one else has gone: ‘Kill that tiger and eat its liver at midnight…’ Living the magical life is like putting a bullet to your head, a bullet that has passed through a butterfly. As superstition has it, with a butterfly in your gun you can’t possibly miss the target. I think that we ought to be less concerned with the ways of culture and more concerned with the ways of our own sensing. The tower protecting our egos should be gunned down as soon as it becomes a prison. Living the magical life means getting a sense of being leveled to the ground, tasting the nothing that is. Our own nothingness. You can live the magical life if you see the magic in you, not the culture in you.
Culture has its discontents, as Freud rightly pointed out, and so has magic if we insist on tagging understanding and the rational onto it. Magic is not easy, precisely because it’s very simple. We invent rules and conventions to counter our bewilderment with how simple everything really is. The laws of nature are mighty simple, but we resist that understanding, that ‘seeing’. It’s as if we don’t trust simple truths because we are suspicious that the simple doesn’t offer us enough. Others have capitalized on this suspicion. Just look at the main religions. The more rules they invent, the more money there’s in it for them. I think that participating in the creation of something magical is participating in that which does not ask us in return: ‘What’s in it for me?’
Fall in love with your own heartbeat, and feel the pulse of an other who may stand next to you, watching the magic that you are, and the magic that you can perform with the greatest force there is, the force of the voice that can successfully summon a mountain. The voice that can successfully command: ‘Open Sesame’. The voice that can sing the ancient song of the self as rhythm and symmetry, as a walk in beauty and balance through the doors of perception.
Madre di Dio
The dead head of Saint Catherine of Siena
Guadalupe in the fire
Black Madonna, mother of all
Life and death –
Dead children can also come out of you – bless their souls
Madre di Dio
Lilith, mother of the ultimate disobedience –
How dare you give birth to a God out of wedlock –
Bless the Gods
Who offer their semen to Goddesses
More powerful than them to drink
Madre di Dio
What is yours is not also someone else’s
That’s the law.
The law of non-contradiction.
Guadalupe in the fire
Madre di Dio
Only you can suspend the law
With your swift ‘and yet’ and ‘amen’ –
If you so please.
Madre di Dio
There’s compassion in the bond.
Love in symmetry is a mysterious dance. A dance of stars. The crossing hearts are marking the spot, fetching the X. The coup de grâce on behalf of the cross blows the breath saying: Let there be light and love and a strong body.
The spell be impaled. © Camelia Elias
Spell on black tourmaline with bones
Ink on paper, 2013
You can learn more about Camelia and the other poets who are in the anthology here.