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Michael Tisserand (BA), journalist

Beyond Dionysus

In a new memoir, an alumnus explores a hunger for the ecstatic in the latter half of the 20th century

Erik StorlieErik Storlie (BA 1962; MA English 1962, Berkeley 1965; PhD American Studies, University of Minnesota 1976) says he was born too late to be a Beat and too early to be a hippie, but he hit the 20th century exactly right to hang with Dylan, drink with poet (and Minnesota English professor) James Wright, drop acid with Timothy Leary, help bring Zen Buddhism from Berkeley to Minnesota, and join Robert Bly in the early days of the Men’s Movement. Luckily for the rest of us, he’s chronicled his journey through all these adventures in a new memoir, Go Deep & Take Plenty of Root: A Prairie-Norwegian Father, Rebellion in Minneapolis, Basement Zen, Growing Up, Growing Tender. (He’s hosting a launch party for the book 4 pm Sunday April 6 at Magers & Quinn.) An affable 73-year-old, Storlie sat down for an interview in Lind Hall, nearby where he teaches at the University's Center for Spirituality and Healing.

1. You published an earlier memoir (Nothing on My Mind) starting from your days in graduate school in Berkeley in the early ‘60s, where your thirst for mental expansion led you to the beginnings of Zen Buddhism in the U.S. Why continue the story with this new memoir, with its more expansive reach from childhood to the 21st century?

As with the first book, I wanted to offer a frank, eye-witness account of times that are extraordinarily important for American culture and history, an account not only of the romance and positive changes wrought by the counterculture, but also the naiveté, the damage to people, the train wrecks. A more personal motive: I worked with an editor who kept saying, “You gotta go deeper. You gotta go deeper.” That moved the writing toward a kind of psychotherapy--being forced back into buried memories. It surprised me when the book came to speak more and more about a young man and his father, about how the death in 1900 of a grandmother I never knew played out all the way through my life. And I came to reflect on my curious position between these two countercultural movements [the Beats and the hippies] that threw me into friendships with people like James Wright and the Dinkytown/7 Corners bohemian characters—and then the Zen scene. I wanted very much to tell about Jim.  He was such a powerful part of my experience as a student. Everyone has those teachers whom they remember, even though they don't remember most of the coursework. And that's not going to happen with virtual education! It really isn't, sadly enough.

Cover of Go Deep & Take Plenty of Root2. In Go Deep, you write of you and Jim Wright: “We drank because it was the only way we could open.” Is that a thorough-line in the book, the quest to catch hold of that feeling of being opened, after growing up with your father’s emotional repressiveness?

I just saw a review of the recent book on Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and other alcoholic writers [The Trip to Echo Spring], with a nice quote in which Hemingway says something like, I just considered it part of good living to drink. That was the pre-AA, pre-Minnesota Model attitude. Not only was strong drink the right of every red-blooded American, but if you didn’t drink, it was a blue-nosed, tight-assed refusal of the light. Drinking had a panache that just doesn’t exist now. I read The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises over and over again.

With Jim reading poems at parties—actually saying them from memory—something extravagant, ecstatic happened. Ah, this is how poetry can come alive. It’s not just sitting and looking at print. It was an opening that especially resonated for me as a lover of Chaucer, whose words, as [English Professor] John Clark impressed upon his students, were originally not read in a book, but spoken aloud to an audience. 

By the mid-'60s, many of my friends were exploring the major psychedelics, these new and powerful mind-opening substances. That moved some of us into Zen and meditation. Part of my concern in the first book was to capture that history, because by the '70s and '80s, Zen and yoga centers were trying to sweep their psychedelic origins under the rug.

So, maybe I’ve got something further to write about the intoxicants. Poisonous as they can be, they offer something that human beings seek: an opening, release, expansiveness. The Greeks understood this. Terrible punishments awaited those who denied Dionysus!

Of course, this isn’t a recommendation to abuse intoxicants. They aren’t a passport to creativity. Robert [Bly] is a beacon of light here, insisting that none of this is necessary to achieve ecstatic openness to art, beauty, and nature. Encouraging men to rediscover that openness is what the Men’s Movement is about.

3. There’s a wonderfully squirmy scene in the book where some loose nut from Berkeley gassily describes the West Coast scene for the staid students in a Jim Wright class, then invites some white female students along to a Seven Corners bar patronized by black people, hoping to impress the women so they’ll sleep with him. . .

Yes, “Quentin” was always trouble--a rogue, a trickster. There were a bunch of such characters about ten to 15 years older than me, some Korean War vets, I think all now dead. They were fixtures in Dinkytown and at the Mixers [Bar]. They fascinated me. A few years ago I visited “Quentin” in a nursing home shortly before his death. And yet the magnetism of Seven Corners was the zany, wild mix: James Wright, the poet; Dudley Riggs; Kim Chang, a respected medical research doctor and PhD from Korea who showed up at Mixers every Friday night and got totally drunk; Dr. John Wild, who developed ultra-sound screening techniques for cancer; the professors; the working people—mechanics, truck drivers, and guys doing the high steel work for the new University towers on the West Bank; hoboes and down-and-outers; students, artists, up-and-coming folk musicians like Dylan. People of all colors and nationalities. Various sexual preferences. All rubbing elbows. Curious about each other. Something I’ve never seen again in one place at one time. This was a remarkable piece of Minnesota literary, cultural, artistic history. I wish I’d been able to capture more of it in the book. But people who read drafts said, We’ve had enough of that. Okay. I’ve got a pile of stories that might go somewhere else.

4. Later in the book, you talk about Jim’s death in 1980, and how it caught you broad-sided; you thought you should’ve stayed in touch, but now it was too late. And then you ask yourself whether you had been afraid to tell him about “a career stalled at a two-year college.” You spent some 30 years teaching English, Composition, and Humanities at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). Can you talk about that?

I started teaching at Minneapolis Community and Technical College in 1965. The college opened on the third floor of Central High in Minneapolis to serve primarily poor and minority students. Most were the first in their families to attend a college. This was an important initiative to bring education to the non-elite—a mission that I valued and in which I was excited to serve. I was 24-years-old, still taking acid once a week (the Timothy Leary approach to spiritual development). I’d already taught one semester at the St. Mary’s Catholic College for men inland from Berkeley, a job the poet John Logan persuaded me to take. 

Within a few years, my focus shifted away from the counterculture and acid to teaching, Zen, and my doctoral work. My punishment for overindulgence in the intoxicants was, perhaps, to spend years poring over Puritan and Zen writings, comparing their approaches to spiritual discipline and awakening. In the middle ‘70s, as I was completing my dissertation with Bowron, Delattre, and Griffin, I was told, “The doors are slamming shut. If you want an academic career, finish this up and move.” Meaning, move out of the city and probably out of the state. By then I was fully engaged with Robert Pirsig and others in bringing Dainin Katagiri Roshi here to establish The Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, so I made a decision to stay at MCTC. In later years, I’d go to a University event and think, Well, I could’ve been a Professor of Medieval Studies or American Studies. What if?

For some years, I lived in three worlds: the academic world, the Zen world, and the world of psychedelic exploration. Each was dismissive of the other two. The writing was healing. In my books I could bring them all into the light and say, Here they are, struggling with each other.

5. That makes 50 years of teaching, and you’re on your 12th year at the Center. What keeps you going?

Yes, my wife and I could be in the condo next to the golf course watching a wide screen TV somewhere down South. I’ve heard of folks my age doing that, and I think, This would be one of the deepest pits of Dante’s Inferno! The teaching is . . . . It’s so good to take these things I’ve practiced so long and bring them to the University, offering the practice of meditation to students—and offering it within a framework that encourages reading, writing, inquiry, skepticism, critical thinking. It’s good to work with students, at the University here largely with young people. It feeds me deeply. I love it. We’ve lost the connection, mostly, in our culture, between youth and age, we’ve forgotten that older people are vital, are there to give back.

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