A Culture of Possibility Podcast #9: Seed Syllables: Sowing Dialogue in the Quadruple Pandemic

NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the ninth episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available on 17 September 2021. You can find it and all episodes at iTunes along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts. Francois is taking a little break but will be back as cohost down the road.

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In August, in the brief lull between multiple lockdowns, vaccinations, and the arrival of the Delta Variant, I got to see Meena Natarajan and Chrissie Orr in the actual flesh, when Meena and her husband Dipankar Mukherjee visited New Mexico so Meena could work with Chrissie on their ongoing collaboration entitled “Seed Syllables.”

As you’ll learn in the podcast, Meena came to the U.S. as an adult — then a scientist with a lot of theater experience — and she (Artistic and Executive Director) and Dipankar (Artistic Director) have for the last 25 years led Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, MN, in the Upper Midwest of the U.S. Chrissie came here years earlier from her home in Scotland, settling in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I live. A decade ago, she cofounded Seed Broadcast, “a collaborative project exploring bioregional agri-Culture and seed action through collective inquiries and hands-on creative practices.” I’ve known both women for years, and it was a pleasure to talk together.

Seed Syllables originated with support from the Academy for the Love of Learning, where Chrissie is a Creative Practice Fellow. She was invited to inquire into the time of the pandemic, to “illuminate and share really what’s going on at the moment.” She quickly asked Meena to collaborate.

When Chrissie called, Meena “was sitting at home. The murder of George Floyd happened in May and this was a few months later. There had been an uprising. I live very close to the police precinct that got burned down. A number of the businesses in the area got burned down, and we had a very close relationship. So part of the work after the uprising, apart from protecting our houses and our streets because of white supremacists coming into the street, was creating a response to what happened in the uprising, basically to rebuild the area near my house. I joined the group called Longfellow Rising which was created in order to rebuild and to figure out how we wanted to respond, and also to rebuild in a way that would prevent displacement of immigrants and people of color. I was deep in this work as well. So when Chrissie told me about the project, I was so delighted. It felt like a perfect way to think about all this.

“It’s hard to even fathom or even be able to articulate what this time has been like for us. Perhaps we’ll be able to do this in the next five or ten years, but it feels like an overwhelming assault. This is also the time of COVID. I have family in India, many of whom have had COVID. So when we had this chance to talk through artistically a project that was about this particular time — the pandemic of COVID, the pandemic of racism, the pandemic of violence, the pandemic of fascism all over the world. It felt like a blessing to have these really deep conversations.

Dialogue is at the center of the Seed Syllables project, which started with 16 online conversations. “Our conversations became so deep and meaningful,” Chrissie said, “to be able to share what we were going through in a vulnerable way, we decided that we wanted to open that up to other people that we knew and respected and had a relationship with. We felt that to take a deep dive into these conversations you would need to have had a relationship with people so that vulnerability, if it was going to arise, could arise. So Meena picked about 15–20 people, I did the same. These were all people that we love, respect, and who have a deep commitment to social justice and environmental justice and to change, to transformation either individually or collectively. Then we very intentionally paired people so it would be Meena, myself, and two other people over Zoom. We settled into these intimate Zoom calls where we invited people through certain prompts from people we respected like James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, Krishnamurti, Grace Lee Boggs, to help us stimulate the conversation. These prompts actually landed and took you to a deeper place. That’s why we called this ‘Seed Syllables,’ it’s about these words, words and images and sounds that are coming to us at this particular moment in time and how can we really document this in a very distinct, vulnerable, and true way?”

Meena and Chrissie “love to sit in the emergent” — an important theme in the podcast. So they had no preconceived idea of how the project would be shared out. They’re not ready to quote anyone, nor to settle on a plan, but a lot is happening. They’re developing prose poems based on transcripts, and reading them to each other. “We’ve thought about how these could be presented in some kind of performance,” said Chrissie. “We’ve thought about how these words could be written, scribed, with visuals and rolled up and placed in containers, hidden in certain places for people to discover and there would be a question, so you could read, see the visual piece, and there’d be a question: what has changed in you? It could also be a book.” Meena mentioned “having installations in different spaces where people are from, place-based. We would offer to some of our artists to go there and create something in their garden or their farm.”

In the meantime, certain things stand out for the collaborators. “People were so vulnerable,” said Meena. “When they came on screen, they were able to present their whole selves in their fullness, wherever they were at that particular moment. People were so present. There was such a sense of current time. People brought aspects of themselves that I didn’t know. Many of these people I’ve known for 20, 25 years but they were able to bring a piece of themselves to this conversation that was so beautiful. Some of the questions were ‘What are some of the demands for you at this time?’ ‘And how has the pandemic brought changes to you?’ ‘What are things you’ve let go of?’ I loved that people were able to go to a place of depth and generosity with us.”

What have they learned from the experience thus far that might inform their future work? Chrissie explained: “I think it points to the absolute importance of taking time, that some of us before maybe didn’t take enough time out to really reflect on the impact that the work was having on us. So to be vulnerable, to let down a little, to be able to talk about that. Maybe it was the pandemic, all that was happening. Everything came to the forefront. Maybe it was that it cracked our hearts open. I know that it did for me. It cracked my heart open bigtime. Before, the work just kept going. I love my work, I love what I do. I love collaborating, I love engaging in these stories that are covered up. But I wouldn’t take that pause to actually reflect on the impact it was having on me. I saw and heard that through these conversations.”

There is much more to be learned from the podcast. We hope you enjoy it!

Tree of Life” by Aretha Franklin.