Why interview Jenovefa Knoop? She’s not a celebrity, but like Brother Yusuf, Medicine Story, and other people I’ve interviewed in recent months, she celebrates the truth in ourselves.
Jenovefa is a 34-year-old poet, songwriter, playwright, and musician who lives in the country near Durham, N.C. Perhaps best known as a feminist singer, Jenovefa has been performing for ten years, singing her original works with such groups as The Hash-house Harvey Swing Band, Blue Skies, Indigo, and on her own. She has written and performed in two musical plays — Flo is Crazy, a swing musical produced in 1977, and A Young Wife’s Tale, a semi-autobiographical story of suffering and re-birth that was produced last year at the Art School in Carrboro, N.C. In her new women’s band, Venus Rising, she sings about women, animals, the earth, and neglected parts of ourselves; some of her melodies are light, others are hauntingly melancholy.
Jenovefa’s poems have appeared in THE SUN, Hyperion, The Guide, and a new anthology of women’s poetry entitled Black Sun, New Moon. She is the music, theatre, and art reviewer for The Anvil, a weekly alternative newspaper published in Durham, in which she’s interviewed Scarlet Rivera, Lightning Hopkins, Tom Paxton, David Grisman, and Holly Near.
Her strength is obvious; so is her softness. She is a vocal woman, with tones that swiftly move from sweet to sarcastic, both with a touch of playfulness.
For Jenovefa, the real changes began in 1970, the start of a four-year trial for the custody of her first daughter, Ericka, now 13. (Her other daughter, Elizabeth, is 8.) It was a period of deep stress that pushed her to her limits. “When you’re really down,” she said, “there are amazing resources that open up, psychic, emotional, ancestral resources and wisdom.” She began to work with these unconscious and creative energies, using the I Ching, astrology, and the Tarot. She shares much of what she’s learned through workshops at the Community Wholistic Health Center in Chapel Hill; recent workshops have been on voicing (a meditative approach to singing), and “Creative Rapport with the Unconscious.”
— Howard Jay Rubin
SUN: If you had to define yourself in a few words, who would you say you are?
KNOOP: I’m still looking for those few words. I’m an artist, a woman, a mother, a being who moves in and out of a lot of different dimensions — some are dimensions that anyone could recognize, and others most people probably don’t spend as much time in. These are places where I’m not so pinned down by the fact that I’m a human being or that this is the 20th century. (laughs)
SUN: How do you view your role as an artist?
KNOOP: There’s always something a little golden about an artist, a charismatic prestige, although we certainly, as a community, don’t always financially reward them. There is a solid community in this area that supports me, and that I basically communicate with when I’m singing, or composing, or writing. There’s also the straighter community, the money-economy community. Dealing as an artist with those facets of our community often is a job. It is a question of survival as much as if I were a street cleaner.
I hope that I produce an effect. I have to trust that, although I don’t always see the effects, I’m making ripples, and that they are sustaining ones. I know that I’m sustained when I see anybody in any field being creative or independent and generating something good or strong.
SUN: You headed a workshop recently called “Creative Rapport with the Unconscious.” Can you talk about that?
KNOOP: Years ago, I was fighting for custody of my child against some very conservative, scared people. They accused me of dabbling in many things I really didn’t know anything about — astrology, the new morality, divination. But I ended up researching and reading lots about this. I discovered Carl Jung through that, and spent years reading everything that I could get on Jungian thought, astrology, and so on.
Since I was in a period of deep stress and pain, my dreams were very vivid. I began to really look within. In fact, I began to dream so hard that my dreams turned inside out.
SUN: What was that like?
KNOOP: I had used up all the images I had stored from my past, and I had to make up my dreams from images of events that hadn’t happened yet. Because I was driven to such a deep place in myself to survive this war, my dreams were all of the future. Nothing happened to me that I didn’t dream about beforehand. It was very strange. I worked as fast as I could to keep up with it. I read, studied, kept dream journals, and basically had my own little laboratory going. Slowly, I got to know the language of the unconscious, how mind manifested in shape and color and form. In a sense, all that hardship became a golden opportunity. So much richness came out of it for me.
So having done my homework ten years ago, and having consistently developed and maintained a discipline of touching in with my dreams, using Tarot, astrology, the I-Ching, I feel some readiness to teach. I can’t point out particular symbols to people, but I can at least get people to notice that there is this cohesive, consistent language of the unconscious.
SUN: Is this a level where we’re all connected, like Jung’s collective unconscious?
KNOOP: It’s easiest for me to understand it not by phrases like “the collective unconscious,” but as a form of consciousness we have that moves in pictures, whole pieces, not a fragmented consciousness of words, pieces, or separations. We’re born with that, like our left and right hands. That’s a level that helps me to understand how we are all connected — not only do we have the same bodies, but given all of our variation and all of the changes we move through, the essentials are so parallel.
Also, I know, as a person who creates, that this universe is programmed a certain way. We cannot create anything except along the lines that we’ve been given. This universe is already wired. We provide current that extends that wiring, extends those patterns, or we just make a little flare and then collapse and die. There’s a determined set of relationships. If you take a kite, you’ve got to put it in the air, not in the water. There’s an unseen set of threads, pathways through nothingness. We can even break new paths, but the style is already set. Even the unseen universe which hasn’t yet become, can only become along these lines. We’re not each separate solar systems; we’re little branches on the larger tree. In other words, we are one, in a literal way. It’s all the same tree; we’re branches of the same being. What’s funny is that we can’t see the shape of that tree. We lose it by adapting so fast that we become rigid, without seeing the shape of events, the shape of the tree.
SUN: Do you think we ever have seen the shape of the tree?
KNOOP: I think that many cultures are much more parallel to the alignment of the universe than we are. More in tune.
SUN: In what direction does our society have to move to get more in tune?
KNOOP: I think that if you had to pick one imbalance, it would be the relationship of individuals to their bodies. We’re a society that has drawn real lines between men and women. To me the women, the bodies, the earth are all lumped into one subservient position in our culture. I used to read these Zen masters who would say, “Sleep when you’re sleepy and eat when you’re hungry.” It’s a big challenge for us: “Oh, I’ve got an appointment at 8 and the car needs oil at 9.” We have put ourselves into such a squirrel cage. Our bodies are like little cars that we drive in, and curse when they get sick.
It’s a one-way universe, it flows in one way. It’s a waste to go against the grain. In fact, what makes a person an artist, in any field, is that they’re dancing with the grain of the universe, they’re extending the thoughts of God.
SUN: You said the custody struggle was a golden opportunity for you. Can you elaborate on that?
KNOOP: When you’re really down, there are amazing resources that open up, psychic, emotional, ancestral resources and wisdom. Genuine suffering is never so bad. As heart-rending and bleak as it is, it pulls you to the center of creation, where everyone who has ever lived has suffered, to the great wellspring of wisdom and survival knowledge and grace. Every creature that has ever lived has left its mark on us, and that’s there for us inside. People are incredibly resilient. That’s why people who have lived in more essence-aligned cultures fasted and did deliberate deprivations to awaken that level.
SUN: Do you think that suffering is the only route?
KNOOP: I’m not sure. I just know that when you’re suffering, you need it. You have to be in tune with essence to reach it. The first way to get yourself in tune is to ask, and look for it. The essence is you. The you that was born, rather than the you that was made. They are not two different things, but we’re in a culture that pulls the surface out and tightens it into armor. We’re now trying to learn to take the armor off and see who we are.
There’s another kind of helpful fasting that not many people do, which is not reading magazines, or listening to the radio, or watching television. To consciously make more quiet zones in your life for what’s inside to emerge.
SUN: What was it like when you began to open to the unconscious?
KNOOP: I began to be more creative and to love myself more. I threw off more of the external definitions of myself. Not that I don’t still spend a lot of stagnant time, with my nose in my navel. It’s important to learn to love yourself and not to be too disappointed when your work doesn’t shine, or when the next morning it looks like rubbish. You have to be tolerant when the creative flow is just a trickle, and nurture that trickle. Once you’ve grown in your creativity, the trickle has been allowed to broaden into a stream, you are in fat city; it’s always there for you. Everyone is creative.
SUN: How do you induce creativity in yourself?
KNOOP: I have some routines. Being alone is one. There isn’t any external stimulus that’s as important as being alone. You can also enhance it by creating a space for yourself where you feel comfortable and happy. I think that you have to feel special and unique to create. Picking up the guitar is opening the door for me. If I’m fighting with myself, I use my images, my Tarot. At this point I can pick up a dictionary and talk to God.
SUN: How does that work?
KNOOP: I put my thumb in it and open it. I poise myself on the edge of either a conceptual question or a cramp inside me and say, “Hey, what is this?” I sensitize myself, let my little thumb-nail be guided. I get a word that usually bomb-shells me wide open.
SUN: Are you ever afraid to be creative?
KNOOP: I get afraid of the consequences of exposure, and being successful because of the changes that brings. When you share yourself with a lot of people, you have to weather a big influx of energy. You become a mirror for a lot of people. It can be destructive.
SUN: When you feel this fear, how do you deal with it?
SUN: Then how do you get back to creating?
KNOOP: I’m forced to. I’ve set it up so that I rely on my creativity to get by. I either create or I wait tables or write ads. It’s that simple.
There’s also the part of me that gets cut off, and dried up, and crazy if I don’t connect with my creativity. So I’m stuck. Evasively kicking and screaming, I usually make it through.
SUN: Could you speak about the process of writing a song?
KNOOP: Artists are open. They’re catching stuff from me or you, they’re catching stuff from last night’s dessert. It’s all coming in. There’s craft involved. It’s like I’m panning for gold. I’ve got my little bucket under the stream almost daily to catch what I can, and make something out of it. But sometimes I’m hit so hard or so deeply by something that the songs flow out from that place. Those are the songs I treasure the most, because they’re so magical.
I abandon a lot of songs that I really have to shape and reshape after the initial inspiration. I don’t like music that’s too slick. I guess that’s because the music that really excited me at first was blues and folk music. I have a commitment to working as humanly as the women and men who created folk music for us. I do so much of this for love and for change and to testify that I don’t have to be slick, so I throw a lot of them back in.
The essence of the blues has always been for me the severed self crying to be realigned with its totality. When I heard a blues singer, I never felt that they were really talking to Maybelline or Ruby or whomever. It was always themselves that they were trying to get back to. People really sing the blues to God.
In a sense we’re most afraid of what we most desire. Letting go of that is an identity-axis shift. As long as you identify with the shadow and fears and the temporality, then you’re stranded there. If you claim the wholeness then your fears get defined as “Oh, I’m in that place again, let me get back.” That helps.
I see a lot of people going through therapies that are just like wheels going around in the clay. It’s still nose to navel, still this infantile hanging on. You have to be a volunteer for growth, saying, “Hey, I want to change. I want to find out which of these walls are really my bones and skin, and which are lies, or shields that are holding me back.” I think that intention is more important than any teaching in awakening yourself.
We get set into life, and it’s too much for us. We want to curl up and stay seeds. That’s why some of these things I’m exposing in myself seem like secrets. We’re a generation that has been afraid of life. I think that a lot of this New Age stuff is just pure food fetish, a fear ritual. A lot of people are eating fear along with their vitamins.
SUN: Do you consider yourself to be on a spiritual path?
KNOOP: No. That word confuses me. As soon as you say spirituality, then you’re dividing it from corporality. I’m doing life, and if you use the word spiritual to mean muddy and clear and green and moving and empty and full and all that then yes. I just do whatever is there. Sometimes I’m conscious of it being spiritual, and sometimes I’m not.
SUN: Would you sing a song?
KNOOP: This song comes from a recognition that the realities that have existed in the past we see only through our distortions. We call these times primitive and have images of violence when actually the violence and primitiveness come out of our separation. The way that life is here is through nurturing and synthesizing and sharing. We’ve made a history and a reality out of our shadows. This song was written in a moment when I saw through a lot of our shadows.
I Know A Secret
I know a secret, a secret I will tell to you, my darling, Of the beginning, and how the gods were won into our Hearts, and how the speech came to our tongues And how the light came to our eyes It was the children, the children born so empty, so fresh and new It was the tending, the years of care, And more than children grew The words began, the families gathered And learned the land, the seasons spanned It was the feeding, the selfless giving, the healing touch That mastered living, that made us many, That brought us much. Don’t let them tell you It was the wars, or any hunter, or any sword This is the secret, our lives are here because someone loved someone, Till we believe it, we make the earth our angry enemy, But we can see it, if we look for it inside, Deep in our eyes, the secret abides.
© Copyright Jenovefa Knoop
SUN: To some you’re a symbol of feminism. What does feminism mean to you?
KNOOP: Feminism, to me, is the work to change dominance/subordination into new kinds of relationships — cocentric relationships, bilateral relationships. We’ve created a whole category that’s one down, like woman and children and animals, the earth, black people. What I see myself trying to do as a feminist is empower people to be whole. There’s a real revolution now; turning your consciousness inwards is absolutely connected to the changing of the political situation.
It’s critical for all of us to pay more than lip-service to this movement. It’s necessary for a person who wants to be whole or liberated to establish the male/female mutuality within themselves. That means respecting the body, the lowly parts of life and all of the other taken-for-granted parts of life.
SUN: Do you mean, for example, that men need to get in touch with the feminine parts of themselves?
KNOOP: Yes, but it’s hard to speak of it like that. That still leaves the woman inside defined as a frail flowery thing. As a culture, we’ve defined woman as open and flowering and nurturing and beautiful. All the female people who don’t fit into that category become expendable, not important. The functions that have been allocated to woman are nurturance, feeding, child care. I’d say, rather than encouraging men to get in touch with the woman inside themselves, I’d encourage people of both sexes to work on developing what we now call woman’s work into human work. The whole of life is important to both sexes.
Feminism means that women get to be people, and following from this, men get to be people also. If men as a class are dependent on women for materiality, how can they become whole? How can they get in touch with their own feelings, their own bodies? How can they feel safe on the face of the earth if they can’t go out to the garden, grow a vegetable, wash it, and cook it? By the same token, if a woman never makes the decisions that shape her own life, how can she be whole? She has to learn to create and to partake of what’s happening.
SUN: How do you feel about the separatism in the movement?
KNOOP: It’s healthy. A lot of women have had the choice of hating men for a while or going insane. That man who is raping people, or only paying women 59 cents out of a dollar, or is molesting women, is very real. That experience, like rape, has shattered many lives. The shelter that many women have found through withdrawing has been necessary, and I’ve seen many beautiful and wonderful things come out of that. Where women are getting together they’re being fruitful and generative. They’re creating businesses, music. It’s incredibly human. I have to say that it’s healthy. To say, “No, women, you’re just shitting on the men inside you” or to criticize them for their need to be negative is really just being angry at them for leaving their nurturing roles and projecting that they’re supposed to be the holy ones. A lot of criticism is sexist. I question why a lot of men who haven’t gotten sucked into the media image of hippies, or drug-users, have bought the association of feminism with the bra-burner or castrator. Even many of my very realized friends are like this.
SUN: Where do you find sexism most deeply rooted?
KNOOP: It’s institutionalized so totally and flagrantly in terms of our priorities. That’s where sexism is most realized. Sexism is really about ripping off materiality, ripping off women, ripping off the earth. As a country our priorities are affluence and increase on a very narrow plane. We feel we can dominate and force things. Humanizing our priorities is the first step. I’d like to tell some men, “Hey, we’re not here so that you can make tangerine-colored space-dust for our kids. Go home and feed your own kids.”
SUN: What advice do you have for rooting out the subtle forms of sexism in ourselves?
KNOOP: First, notice that it’s there. No blame. It’s there in the woman as well. And take a creative approach to it and assess it as a cultural evolution. Not like you’re trying to erase grime, but trying to build a new structure where you and your women friends and your lovers can be realized more completely. You have to first forgive yourself. I mean, look where we’re coming from as a culture!
SUN: What is your vision for feminism?
KNOOP: I think that individuals will be born with the birthright of identity in a way that they haven’t for generations. There is going to be more openness for people to be who they are. There’s a big difference between a woman who’s never had a choice about having three or four kids and doing housework every day of her life, and a woman who, with consciousness, moves into that. It’s only lip-service if there isn’t that rock-bottom freedom.
SUN: What do you think about marriage?
KNOOP: It’s a human thing that happens, this fusion. It can happen in a band, or in the army. If you’re supposed to be married to someone you’re going to recognize it. If that valence or affinity is there, it will assert itself. The same way that your dharma reaches out and grabs you, so can your mate reach out and grab you. At times I’ve thought that there were little children up in the clouds wanting to be born, with little ray-guns that zap their parents together. (laughs)
SUN: Why do you think so many marriages don’t last?
KNOOP: I think that many people go into relationships looking for security, when really a relationship is a Waring blender, for a long time. What we really want is to grow, and we want a relationship as a gateway to that growth. When you’ve moved through that gateway, you’ve moved through it. Some of these endings happen with openness and gentleness. The standard used to be that if you were lovers and you separated there was broken, nasty shards all over the place, lots of blood and barbed wire between you forever. There are very few of my friends who aren’t interacting reasonably positively with their ex-spouses. That’s one characteristic of the New Age that I’m happy about.
SUN: What’s your politics?
KNOOP: I’m radical, and I’m in a hurry and I feel an urgency. I want people to get down to earth, to start recognizing life as it’s lived, with mouths to feed and physical absolutes that must be honored. It’s tempting to denounce the supply-side, take-the-oil-company-president-out-to-lunch trip that’s happening now. But it’s more important to be taking charge in my life, my community, and to be learning what power really is, and where it comes from.
SUN: How does this translate into action?
KNOOP: Well, I do a lot of benefits for political causes. I write political songs. I march. I economically support community-based projects and businesses that I feel are sound and humane. I avoid patriarchal institutions. I avoid the journalistic products of the mass media. They have nothing to say to me. They just create and recreate a structure that to me is hollow.