[Note: the content of this blog has changed somewhat since this interview, however, it is being kept in the blog archive for the benefit of those who have bookmarked this page.]
Giving time to other people’s stories is a gift in a world increasingly built around attending to the self. Dennis Cardiff gives his time to people who aren’t normally given time – namely homeless people – listens to what they have to say, and then considers this important enough to take further time in organising and sharing it.
There’s an honesty in his description of their lives that’s frequently unsentimental. Yet there’s more to this than mere warts-’n’-all shocks. In one dialogue, the talk includes where to get the strongest free wi-fi signal for listening to the radio on a mobile phone. If these narratives are anything, they’re an education.
Dennis’s education is primarily in art, poetry and creative writing, and he’s three and a half years into an honors degree in Theory and History of Art. Unsurprisingly, he’s done care work with seniors through an outreach centre so that they could remain in their own homes rather than move to a care facility. He’s also been a professional portrait painter for over forty years. He’s also worked in art galleries in a variety of assistive and educational roles.
But this interview is about Dennis’s writing practice. In all the time and space he devotes to others, he’s almost an absent figure, as though his process necessitates a kind of self-abnegation. Unsurprisingly then, even when discussing his practice, he does so through discussing others. The questions thereafter move further towards those others. Finally, there will be some concluding remarks about the implications of Dennis’s work.
Is there any ‘ultimate goal’ in writing about homeless people?
My goal when I started these interviews was to investigate the ultimate cause of homelessness, to find a possible solution. I haven’t found any solutions, but have encountered as many reasons for homelessness as there are people sleeping on the streets.
I spoke to Joy [a central contact in Dennis’s befriending] about my interest in writing a story about her and her friends. She thought that was a great idea. I discussed with some of her friends my intention of writing a book from the point of view of homeless people. I asked them, ‘What would you guys like the general public to know about your situation?’
‘I’ll talk to you’ said Darren [a college graduate and Gulf war veteran]. ‘First of all we aren’t you guys, we’re not a group, we’re individuals. We come from different places, different backgrounds, in some cases different tribes. Some of us don’t even like each other, but we congregate here to have a beer, smoke a joint, to be with others who don’t judge or verbally abuse us. We accept everyone here as they are.’
How do you practically go about writing the conversations? I’d imagine that recording devices could ignite some people with mental health conditions and/or addiction problems. Is it all recalled from memory? If so, do you go about this as soon as possible, or do you wait a while?
I have never used any recording device. If I were found with one, my life could very well be in danger. Every day I hear about thefts and witness minor crimes, mostly the sale of illegal cigarettes and dope deals. I know the dealers and turn away when business is being transacted.
I pay particular attention to accents, manners of speaking, unusual phrases, and general topics being discussed. Now that I know these people, as long as I can remember the topics, I can reconstruct how they would respond. I also seem to have a particularly good memory for dialog – very little else. I jot notes in my journal as soon as I can and type the conversations later.
What does the technology of blogging bring to this writing? Do any of the homeless people read your blog?
Blogging, especially on WordPress, has brought me encouragement and support. Many homeless people, or people who have, at some time in their lives, experienced homelessness, have written to me about their experiences. Psychologists have given anonymous accounts of child neglect, physical and sexual abuse and how these can lead to homelessness in later years. Very few of my homeless friends know how to use a computer. Since my blog is still a rough draft, I haven’t brought it to their attention.
My blog is a workspace, part of my editing process. The dates referred to jump back and forth from 2012 to 2013. I do this in order to be able to post each day. I still haven’t completely edited 2012. If I had, I would post it as a chronological set of entries as I have for 2010 and 2011. There is still much editing to do. I use Scrivener for that.
The people in your stories often sound like teenagers. There’s little indication of their ages and so on, so the suggestion is that they’re adults who have had developmental problems in their youth.
In my book, I intend to start with a character sketch of each person in the order they appear in the story. Actual ages vary from early twenties to senior citizens. Most of them have suffered physical and sexual abuse from early childhood. Parents were often alcoholic. Some babies were born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Some were physically injured while still in the womb. Some have very little education, while others have university degrees. Most of them have mental conditions such as bipolar disorder and agoraphobia. They also have physical illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, fibromyalgia, kidney malfunctions, cirrhosis of the liver and heart conditions
I notice that you concentrate on the events of each person’s day rather than their histories. Is this a conscious move, and if so, why?
I try not to ask directly about a person’s history, although bits and pieces do come up in conversation. I hope to compile these bits and pieces together as I edit the book.
I concentrate on the events of each person’s day because I want the individuals to come through in their own words. I don’t want to influence or edit, in any way, what is being said. There are often contradictions between what is said one day and what is said another. I will leave it to the reader to take from these conversation what they wish.
Do you have any background of political activism (on any subjects) or is what you do now down to that first, chance meeting with Joy?
I have no background of political activism or political interest, although my political leanings have always been to the left. It was my meetings with Joy, Antonio and Craig that sparked my interest in homelessness. Also, I was reading books on Buddhism at the time, and committed to informally follow ‘the path of the Bodhisattva’. This entails, among other things, to open one’s heart and to practice generosity: having the will to dedicate body, possessions and merits to others.
My brother-in-law works at The Oaks, a treatment center and hostel for homeless alcoholics. His involvement, aroused my interest and led me to apply to The Shepherds of Good Hope, where I volunteered. I stopped working there due to back injury.
There’s something chaotic about the conversations you’ve written; for example, this one jumps from topic to topic without any apparent structure, nor is any point being worked towards. How much of this chaos is a reflection of their lives, and how much is it down to any reconstructive work at the writing stage?
My original blog was at Writing.com. It was written in blog style so that the latest entry would always appear on top. If it were to be printed it would come out chronologically backwards.
I endeavour to post to WordPress every day, so on weekends or rainy days, when none of the panhandlers are out, I refer to entries from 2012 [panhandling = slang for begging (with or without a pan)]. In the final book everything will appear chronologically, names and places will be changed in the interests of privacy.
A typical day for me involves taking the bus and walking two blocks to work. I pass Joy’s spot every day. I usually sit and talk with her for twenty to thirty minutes. Chester and Hippo may drop by to chat. Joy generally doesn’t do Mondays – days immediately after receiving her monthly check – nor does she do rainy or very cold days.
Most afternoons, depending on weather, I walk two blocks to the park where the group of panhandlers varies in size from two to twenty or more. They don’t panhandle at the park. Like a soap opera, every day is different, some scenarios will carry over a few days or weeks. People will disappear for weeks or months due illness, rehab programs or incarceration.
These two situations could develop into two different books: Joy’s biography, and a collection of the stories I hear at the park. By writing two books, […] I could avoid some of the redundancy of explaining where each story was taking place. I have no idea how they will end.
Do you plan on bringing the subject of homelessness into your paintings?
I hope to draw or paint portraits to accompany these stories. In this way I could subtly alter individual facial features to maintain privacy, yet still include the details of dress and surroundings.
I have photos, but for reasons of privacy, I have been told that I cannot use them, nor can I use real names. Even if I was to have signed publication releases, they would not hold up in court, due to the fact that many of these people are not of sound mind and are usually drunk.
Does your writing process provide anything for you that you can’t get from the world of work or consumer leisure?
Writing about the homeless, and helping the homeless has given my life a purpose that it didn’t have before. Documenting their stories will, I hope, introduce them to the public in a non-threatening way. Some panhandlers look intimidating, but that disappears when one sees them laugh.
I’m also encouraged by the number of comments I get on my posts. I didn’t know that there was so much interest. This also bolsters my resolve to bring this project to completion.
Would you go so far as to say that this is a life-changing event? Is there a Dennis’s ‘life before’ and ‘life after’ the conjunction of those first meetings with the Buddhism? Or is this all simply a continuity from things you’d already involved yourself in throughout your life?
I have always read books on Buddhism, Sufism and New Age books on love forgiveness and relieving stress through meditation. When I met Joy I was going through an emotional crisis. Meeting her and her friends – worrying about them and whether or not they would be able to eat and find a place to sleep – took my mind off my problems, that then, seemed insignificant. It was truly a life changing experience.
What kinds of changes have visitors told you that your blog has made for them and/or what they’ve brought from your blog to the world beyond themselves?
Many visitors have told me that, after reading my blog, they want to be more active in helping the homeless, either on their own or through their church. Many say that my writing has opened their eyes to people they would otherwise have ignored.
What have people who are professionally or voluntarily involved in dealing with homeless people in their day to day lives said about your blog? I use the term ‘dealing with’ rather than ‘helping’ because I’m not assuming that everyone who comes across your blog is necessarily sympathetic.
The reactions are mixed. I have been told that I am wasting my time, that addicts and alcoholics can only be reformed if they want to quit; that they are manipulators and that my efforts, although altruistic, will simply lead to these people buying more alcohol or drugs.
I respond by saying that I am not trying to reform either alcoholics or other addicts. Most of my friends have terminal illnesses, cancer, HIV/AIDS, cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure. My intent is to make their last months or days less stressful. With a meal card and bus fare they have the means to eat and get back to where they are staying. I realize that these things can be traded for cash to buy alcohol, but that is beyond my control.
Most psychologists, health workers, social workers and church officials who provide meals for the poor, commend my efforts.
So too do I, though maybe for reasons they wouldn’t give. His use of writing stands out in a number of ways. It centres on, as already suggested, his attention to others. The self-publishing revolution, for all that it’s done to help aspiring authors, has in its very name the emphasis that its industry puts on so much of its endeavours: the self.
It’s understandable that the democratisation of creativity by technology is individualistic. Computers as we understand them today have that spirit in their very name: they’re personal. It seems a pity then that global interconnectivity doesn’t do more to help us work towards goals beyond building our personal profiles and wealth. How many times have you been advertised at with a slogan such as ‘it’s all about you’?
So what do I mean by goals beyond personal profiles and wealth? I’m not referring to the ubiquitous propagation of religion on the Internet. Many religious people will go about this propagation in any medium. And though it’s true that Dennis has some religious feeling in what he does, his writing is no doctrine. As he says, his interest is in the experience of homeless people in their own words, however mixed-up that is. Just read his blog to see for yourself how he desists from judging them.
Of course, we have only his account of their account to go by. I’m not suggesting that he’s some kind of paragon of moral creativity. I’m not sure he would either. This is ultimately a matter for his readers to decide on. What I do propose though is that his work (in writing and beyond) raises important questions about what creatives want to achieve and for whom.
There are all kinds of causes that people are passionate about. There are all kinds of changes in the world that people would like to see and make happen. Yet self-publishing seems to be dominated by escapist novels. Why on earth is that? Is this a good use of talent and energy? The nearest that authors usually get to causes greater than the self is when writing about events in their own lives that may touch others. Why then is a practice like Dennis’s so much the exception?
Perhaps the Internet distracts people from causes greater than the self by generating anxieties about how to get the greatest possible audience? There seems to be no end of advice available about how to do this. Perhaps pursuing a cause feels too niche to apply some creativity to? Yet the web is surely a great medium for both collecting the interested everywhere and adding to their number? Or perhaps there are other reasons? Perhaps for some people it’s all a bit like ‘do-gooding’ (as opposed to what, do-badding, or even doing nothing)?
Where can anyone go for intelligent discussion and information about directing our creative interests into causes greater than ourselves? And are the practitioners of an other-oriented art the last people to ask because it would mean expounding on their experience?
So many questions. And these are the kinds of them that Dennis’s practice and his comments about it leave me with. All this, and without even getting into the expectations we might realistically have about how much creativity can achieve for other people. And is the real creativity, in his case, more in the befriending than in the writing? Hopefully I’ll return to Dennis with these and other questions at a future date. In the meantime, my thanks go to him for taking the time for this interview.