Phil Cousineau on the Making of Something the World’s Never Seen
Phil Cousineau is a freelance writer, documentary filmmaker, independent scholar, worldwide lecturer, creativity consultant, guest host of New Dimensions Radio, and host and writer of the PBS series Global Spirit, of which journalist Bill Moyers has written, “The discussions on [this] series are sorely needed in this dispirited and disenchanted world. In many ways it is more important than journalism today.”
Cousineau’s life-long fascination with the art, literature, and history of culture has taken him on many journeys around the world. He lectures frequently on a wide range of topics—from mythology, film, and writing, to beauty, travel, sports, and creativity. His thirty plus published works include several bestsellers, such as The Art of Pilgrimage, The Hero’s Journey: the Life and Work of Joseph Campbell, and Stoking the Creative Fires, The Olympic Odyssey (chosen as a gift for US athletes at the 2004 Games in Athens), and Burning the Midnight Oil. His many documentary film credits include The Ecological Design, Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey, and Forever Activists: Stories from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which was nominated, in 1991, for an Academy Award.
He is a Fellow of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, a Board Member of Sacred Sites International, a frequent consultant at Warner Brothers Studios, and a member of the Author’s Guild. He lives with his family on Telegraph Hill, in San Francisco.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
I simply tell them that I write. I learned that from the poet Robert Bly. Keep it in the verb. I write, film, teach, coach. The minute you go to the noun, ìI am an author, I am a filmmaker—you go into inflation. Keeping in the verb keeps it real. Otherwise, the ego runs rampant.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
My Sisyphean struggle is supporting my family as a writer. Up goes the boulder, down rolls the boulder. Quick—what’s your attitude towards the roller-coastering ride of your life? I accept the ups and downs because I love the freedom of being a freelancer, which I’ve been since I was 22. Haven’t punched a time-clock since leaving the steel factory in Detroit in the early 1970s.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Do it, don’t just talk about it. Ask yourself, Do I have to do this? If you don’t, don’t. Freelancing in the arts is tough and not for the squeamish. Two other things: learn the craft of whatever you’re dreaming about doing. Art is inspiration plus skill. Then surround yourself with as many creative people as possible. Not the snarkerati for they will yank you down with their cynicism. Find kindred spirits—and be one for others.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Yes, because I am doing what I’ve wanted to so since I was a kid reading Homer out loud with my parents and seeing 5 movies a week down at the town theater. I’ve been supporting myself and my family on my earnings as a writer and teacher. The outward success is gravy, as Raymond Carver called it. The book sales, honors, bestseller’s lists are all wonderful, but not nearly as wonderful as the handwritten letter from someone who was moved by the chance word here or there that has come out of my pen.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
None. There are still too many good books and gorgeous walks around San Francisco to catch up on and friends to meet at Caffe Trieste.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
Charlemagne Cousineau, my great-grandfather, who raised a dozen kids on a farm near Lake Nipissing, Ontario. He was a voyageur, a man who got in his canoe and paddled up to the Yukon and back every year, catching silver fox and beavers. A great storyteller.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
Al Kaline, right fielder for the Detroit Tigers, and Joe Falls, sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press. If I couldn’t play for the Tigers, I wanted to write for the Free Press. Recently, I worked on a film about Detroit’s own Field of Dreams, the revival of the grounds at Old Tiger Stadium. It’s called Stealing Home.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
I have spent weeks deep in the Amazon with a tribe that had been non-contact until the early 1990s. It was excruciating, sublime, otherworldly, and a privilege.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
Just enough for a pint of Guinness and new biking shoes for my teenage son, but not enough for a ’64 Mustang convertible.
What’s wrong with society today?
Nullity by narcissism.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
Pain meds for recent knee surgery.
What is your fondest memory?
The birth of my son Jack is worlds away the fondest memory in my life.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
If I don’t fall in love at least once an hour life isn’t worth living. But only a narcissist would restrict him or herself to falling in love with another person. The deeper and more satisfying way of falling in love is with life itself—the sunsets over the Golden Gate Bridge is an obvious, kaleidoscopic example, but also the smell of bread from your neighborhood bakery and roasting coffee from your local coffee shop, the tolling of bells at dawn, the kindness of a stranger picking up a kid who’s fallen off her bike on the sidewalk, the roar of the neighborhood during the World Cup, the sight of a child walking back across the street to take the arm of an elderly person having trouble crossing on her own.
If we can’t fall in love with our life here in San Francisco at least once a day, we are, to paraphrase the Sufi poet Rumi, a thief.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
The banning of the death penalty, the rise of restorative justice, as practiced among all indigenous peoples and advanced Western cultures.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is the making of something the world’s never seen before in images or words. It is creation itself on a human level. It is as necessary as breathing because it is our greatest means for learning about and conveying to others what life means. Art is a meaning-making machine. Without it, we are stammer and grasp, like Eugene O’Neill’s fog people.
What are you working on right now?
A book on the discovery and meaning of the Venus de Milo, another book on the history of baseball, several scripts for Global Spirit, a show I host and cowrite on PBS and Link TV, several radio scripts for a program I guest host for New Dimensions Radio. I’m also compiling copious notes for tours I am leading this fall to Greece and Turkey.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I’m doing exactly the kind of writing work I’ve aspired to since I was a kid working on the high school yearbook. I admire James Salter’s short stories, Jack Gilbert’s poetry, and Annie Dillard’s nature essays. I try to read a letter every day from Van Gogh’s cripplingly beautiful Collected Letters to his brother Theo, as a reminder of the possibility of transcending our loneliness, anger, and sorrow through daily acts of artmaking.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Bring real conversation back into the cafes and bars. Watching 50 people staring at their cellphones is like watching the Narcissus myth writ large, the height of narcissism.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
A night of Get Real conversation with old friends at a favorite pub, cafe, park bench or the bleachers down at the Giants ballpark.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
Dinosaur tracks crawling up a cliffside wall in Portugal. A tribal warrior teaching his son how to eat monkey brains in the Amazon rainforest. A drunk snorting his sister’s ashes in a North Beach bar because he couldn’t afford the usual snortstuff.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
With 50 words I can send a postcard to someone I love or someone who made a significant influence on my life, old teachers, coaches, long-lost friends. Fifty bucks would pay for shots each of Laphroaig Islay Single Malt Scotch to properly celebrate a new book of mine, a friend’s art opening, or my son’s being accepted into college.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Burning peat in the hearth of an Irish country pub. The smell of ballpark franks at old Tiger Stadium. The wafting smells of cherry blossoms in Kyoto.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I would take the North Beach rascals, the kids I coached in baseball down at Joe DiMaggio Playground, to the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame—to spread the love of the game.