Remembering Karl Pohrt

Introduction

 Karl in front of Shaman Drum

Karl in front of Shaman Drum

Karl Pohrt died in Ann Arbor in July of 2013. He was a special presence in our small, Midwestern university city.  In some towns and cities, it is a businessman, banker, publisher, university president or a famous author or scientist who is the de facto leader of the community. In Ann Arbor, it was Karl Pohrt.

Karl founded and led Shaman Drum Bookshop from 1982 until it closed in 2009. He created the Ann Arbor Book Festival, served on the Boards of the American Book Association, the Great Lakes Booksellers Association, and the Downtown Development Authority, and was the former Board Chairman of the State Street Area Association.

The Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History Chair was named in his honor, an exceedingly rare tribute, bestowed by the U-M academic community. He hosted hundreds upon hundreds of author events over the years, and if you were an academic at the university, and also an author, you could count on Shaman Drum to herald the arrival of your latest work. At the same time, his originality of mind brought a unique and progressive voice to the civic boards he served on, so he also made his impact felt on the cityscape, and on the ethical climate of this city. He asked the right questions, and he articulated communitarian values that came to hold sway.

He was a civic and intellectual leader without equal in this town over the last 30 years. Though a full half year has passed since his death, his contributions to the life of our city over the last generation were singular and important. We are publishing two essays about Karl. One is by Richard Gull, a long-time friend of Karl's and an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan; the other is by Rev. Joe Summers, the Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Lohr Road. 

Reflections Given by Rev. Joe Summers at the Memorial Service for Karl Pohrt on July 14, 2013, at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation

(Readings: Isaiah 61:1-3, Isaiah 25:6-9, The Heart Sutra, & John 1:1-17)

 O God, from whom to be turned is to fall, to whom to be turned is to rise, and in whom to stand is to abide forever. Grant us in all our duties your help, in all our perplexities your guidance, in all our dangers your protection, and in all our sorrows your peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, our Body, and our Blood, our Life and our Nourishment. Amen. (Prayer of St. Augustine)

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

That opening of the gospel of John was one of Karl's favorite Bible verses. While a graduate student in the American Culture program at the University of Michigan, Karl took a class on "The Word" which was co-taught by three professors: one Christian, one Buddhist, and one Jewish. The class met in the Modern Languages building. While on the way to class one day, Karl turned the corner and came across the body of a young woman who had just committed suicide by jumping out of the Bell Tower. Karl stood there stunned. Nobody seemed to know what to do. Most people simply walked past without seeming to acknowledge what had happened. One person threw their coat over her head. When the police came they immediately started taking photos. No one stopped to acknowledge the death of this human being through words, or prayers, or holding in silence. For Karl, it all felt incredibly crass and dehumanizing and helped frame his understanding of how important it is for us to be able to acknowledge and speak to the great mystery of human existence.

“Just as his joy and enthusiasm were really out there and infectious, so too, when he was in a bad mood, he became like one of those cartoon characters who has a black cloud following behind them.”

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we beheld its glory."

At the heart of John's gospel is a vision of the joy of how the eternal becomes incarnate here and now in human flesh and human history, in Jesus, and in us.

I've found myself struggling to articulate why Karl was so beloved to me and to so many of us.

One of my father's favorite preachers' anecdotes was about a preacher going on and on in a funeral sermon about how wonderful the dead man had been until finally the man's widow nudged her son and said "Boy — go up and look in the casket and make sure it's your pappy up thar." I don't want us to demean Karl by losing the richness of the complexity of who he was, so before I talk about his many great qualities, I want to acknowledge some of the less great qualities that were also such a vital part of who he was.

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times quotes one friend describing Karl as "one of the most well adjusted people I ever met.… he exuded a certain calm and ease with the world that touched everyone who ever met him." I think that's for the most part true, but Karl could also be really temperamental. Just as his joy and enthusiasm were really out there and infectious, so too, when he was in a bad mood, he became like one of those cartoon characters who has a black cloud following behind them.

 He could have an amazing temper. First he would get paler and paler and then you would see the blood rise up in his face like a volcano. It would happen if somebody was being abusive, or just really impolite or demeaning to others, or if they were avoiding taking responsibility for their actions or inaction. It could also happen when Karl felt cut off from others. Sometimes fighting was part of his way back into connection with those he loved.

“He gave you the courage to be truthful, humble, kind, serious, playful, and adventuresome — and in his presence all those qualities seemed to go hand in hand.”

Karl could be obstinate — incredibly so. If he had an emotional reaction to something, or he didn't want to deal with something, he could be pretty unmovable. He was excellent at procrastinating. He told me about a critical moment in the life of the bookshop when he finally found the courage to show Dianne what he, perhaps exaggeratingly, said was a two to three-foot high stack of mail he had been hiding because he was embarrassed by the fact that he couldn't keep up with it. And saying that, let's be clear the success of Shaman Drum was partly about Karl's incredible love of books, but it was also about his coming to realize that he needed to surround himself with people who were good at doing all the many things he wasn't good at doing. Part of the beauty and power of Shaman Drum was that it was the achievement of a community of incredible workers. They were also a key part of the joy of hanging out there.

So Karl would be the first to acknowledge that he was radically imperfect, but at the same time, for many of us he was a kind of sacrament — a material means of grace. I don't think I've ever known a human being who I found to be more encouraging. He gave you the courage to be truthful, humble, kind, serious, playful, and adventuresome — and in his presence all those qualities seemed to go hand in hand.

I experienced grace upon grace through Karl.

He was such a source of delight for me. My heart would lift whenever I saw him.

Karl really felt like my beloved. I think it's significant because he loved so many things and people that he inspired me to love with a similar abandon. If you think about the list of things Karl loved, and the many people he loved (as is reflected here today and in the many people who couldn't be here today), it is amazing. Among other things, Karl had a profound love for literature, poetry, film, TV, theater, anthropology, religion, philosophy, politics, history, psychology — and in each of those areas Karl loved many, many specific writers, thinkers, and works of art. Karl loved music, dancing and sexuality. He loved community. He loved great conversations. And Karl gave himself over to the things and people he loved in such a way that he seemed to create real relationships with all of them. 

Karl's way of creating relationship with things and people reminds me of Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road." Like Whitman, he relished this magnificent mystery we find ourselves in. There was something so open and appreciative, an almost physical desire to know the world and people in a deep way that it reminds me of the Hebrew word Yada, which both means to know and to have intercourse (sex) with. Karl gladly embraced a multiplicity of contradictions in a way few of us do.

I loved Karl's appreciative chuckle whenever I would call up asking for Carlos the Jackal, or the mutual joy we took in action movies. Both of us came from inner city high schools and enjoyed imagining ourselves as the badass dudes we never were.

I love the joy Karl took in fighting injustice — and sticking it to the man. One of my favorites of Karl's stories was the time the F.B.I. pulled him out of teaching a class at the University of Michigan in Flint to interview him about the whereabouts of his former friends who had become part of the Weather Underground — only to have Karl tell them they would never find them — because they were so stupid.

I loved Karl's profound commitment to trying to help to create a better world, a world with less suffering, less injustice, a world where the dignity of each would be respected, a world where human creativity and culture flourish.

I love the joy Karl took in being a businessman and a pillar of the community. Karl understood the price of community and what it takes to sustain a healthy and vibrant community and he was willing to pay the price. He embraced all those things that the socially concerned aren't supposed to be concerned about like making a business profitable. He was totally willing to step in and do the unglamorous stuff, whether it was wheeling people in and out of chemo sessions when he was a conscientious objector working in the hospital, or sitting with a friend who was dying, or doing the often boring work of going to meetings. He even served as the lay leader of this congregation.

And the joy Karl took in words, literature, and poems — almost always when he spoke — about a book or a poem or a movie — I found myself opening within and being able to see and appreciate whatever insight he had such that it became part of me. Since Karl could love some pretty insane things — that could take you on quite a journey.

“Part of the beauty and power of Shaman Drum was that it was the achievement of a community of incredible workers. They were also a key part of the joy of hanging out there.”

I also loved Karl's deep commitment to the practice of inner silence and the life beyond the ego that he learned through studying and practicing Buddhism. Being grounded in silence is the only way words become living and vibrant rather than stale and dead.

“Grace upon grace” — Karl had such a way of forging a real relationship with you that you felt honored to be called his friend, his co-worker, his associate, his brother. You knew he really valued you. My song of Karl is a song of deep, deep thanks for being such a wonderful co-worker, friend, and brother.

                   *for being so open, receptive, and appreciate, giving me permission to become more so

                   *for loving so fiercely that he helped me claim my own ferocious love

   *for being a song of praise — even here and now amidst so much suffering and so much   

    that is crass and dehumanizing.

“Karl had a way of moving right up through your heart by continually surprising you, waking you up to whatever reality you hadn’t seen or been dull to. What could be better than that?”

The night he died I told Karl how I had heard David Byrne live for the first time the night before at the Michigan Theater. There is a Talking Head's song that Byrne played that night that's been going through my head ever since. It goes:

            I got a girlfriend that's better than that

            She has the smoke in her eyes

            She's moving up, going right through my heart

            She's gonna give me surprise…

            Stop making sense, stop making sense, stop making sense, making     sense

            I got a girlfriend that's better than that

            and nothing is better than this,

            is it?

Karl had a way of moving right up through your heart by continually surprising you, waking you up to whatever reality you hadn't seen or been dull to. 

What could be better than that?

Amen

Richard Gull Reflects on Karl Pohrt’s Life, His Religions, and Their Last Lunch

By Richard Gull

Karl Pohrt died last July 10. He was well known in Ann Arbor as founder and owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop and as a political and spiritual leader. He was a fellow staff writer for the Crazy Wisdom Community Journal and a long-time friend.

Sometime after Karl was diagnosed with cancer in October 2012, I wrote to him:

The prospect of losing you is daunting but maybe there is hope. We have known each other since New Years Eve 1966 when we met at a party in Flint. You were 19; I was 27. You were a student of mine in a philosophy class in 1968. Years later on my 70th birthday you told me that back then you learned in my class that “the world of ideas can be really cool.” In the 60’s we were political activists, often together, from “Getting Clean for Gene McCarthy,” going door-to-door in the 1968 Wisconsin primary, to attending an early meeting of the radical Weathermen faction at an old ballroom on North Saginaw St. in Flint at the end of 1969. I attended your wedding to Dianne in 1973. You became a colleague in the late 70’s, teaching English as an adjunct at U-M Flint. You founded Shaman Drum Books in 1980 and became a creative force on the Ann Arbor scene. We remained friends throughout many changes, fellow refugees from the post-industrial city to the bookish university culture of Ann Arbor. Shaman Drum became one of the best independent bookstores in the country. It was a community, bringing town and gown together. You were honored in numerous ways. I remember the huge fake conference on “The Book in Ann Arbor” at Rackham in 1990 that was a ruse to get you to a surprise 10th anniversary celebration of the Drum. You were awarded a framed poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger from The Terminator.

You always encouraged my creativity and through the years we have shared many drafts of our writings. We’ve been having lunch regularly for decades. Two years ago you explained to me how to do interviews and now we are both staff writers for the Crazy Wisdom Community Journal.

I just returned from a writing seminar at Esalen last week, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. At the end of the month, I’m attending the conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement. I’m going to write an article on the New Left and the New Age. I’ll want your suggestions.

If you leave now, if God takes you, it is happening at a moment when our friendship is in full flower, a moment when it has never meant more to me in all of its 45 years. We have so much more to say to each other. I dearly love you Karl, Richard

 Karl with Allen Ginsberg

Karl with Allen Ginsberg

“Like the Zen student, Karl thought his understanding of the born-agains was limited by his preconceptions. He thought his lack of understanding called for deep attention…”

Shortly after this note Karl began chemotherapy; he never saw my completed article before he died. It was inspired by his own article about traveling to the town of Phil Campbell in northern Alabama with Habitat for Humanity to help repair tornado damage (CW Issue 52, Dec. 2012). Karl had an epiphany there: he did not understand the born-again theology of the people he met. For Karl, “Religious understanding is a form of knowledge that requires a great deal of practice and attention.” He likened Buddhist meditation to a gradual ripening, a “biological unfolding,” and not a leap of faith. Yet he regarded his own lack of understanding as “a gift.” He quoted a Zen master who said to his student: “Like this cup you are full of opinions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” Like the Zen student, Karl thought his understanding of the born-agains was limited by his preconceptions. He thought his lack of understanding called for deep attention, for there is something about oneself to be learned from this.

He wrote of the power of Raven “whose energy is a precise and specific kind of deep attention.” He was moved by Abraham Anghik Ruben’s sculpture Migration: Umiak with Spirit Figures at the Museum of the Native American on his first trip to Bethesda for chemotherapy.

A month before his death, we went out for lunch even though Karl was in hospice care at home. He had lost his hair to chemotherapy, walked with a cane, and now looked older than his 65 years. He told me he had just read anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Vintage, 2012). He said that this was “a smart, smart book” on the evangelicals. Clearly Karl was still giving deep attention to his lack of understanding back in Phil Campbell, Alabama. He said of his impending exit: “I’m O.K. with dying, but I regret leaving a little early.” He said that it is hard to believe that there is nothing more beyond death and that he thought of death as a “migration” and not a termination.

“He said that it is hard to believe that there is nothing more beyond death and that he thought of death as a “migration” and not a termination.”

In the weeks after our lunch, I gave deeper attention to Karl’s religions. He attended a small Presbyterian Church growing up, later became interested in Buddhism, and began practicing meditation over thirty years ago. He then became a practicing Christian again as well. He wrote in his blog: “I know that this may be theologically complicated, but it is what I am. As Walt Whitman says: ‘I am multitudes.’”

Buddhist meditation’s taking heed not to squander one’s life diverted from the present by anxieties of the past and future was the kind of seriousness Karl admired. He wrote: “It is Buddhism’s version of that Old Time religion.” For Karl, Buddhism is about the impermanence of human existence and Christianity’s central message is practicing “large and small kindnesses” towards one’s neighbor as exemplified by the story of the Good Samaritan. But, he asked, “Why do I need to label this according to specific religious ideas? It is really the truth about what it is to be human.” Karl quoted novelist and essayist James Baldwin, who was not a Buddhist, poetically uniting human impermanence (Buddhism) and interdependence (Christianity) in one passage:

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down the rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.

Baldwin’s passage shows that uniting Buddhism and Christianity may be theologically complex but poetically simpler; it also shows that Karl’s religious pluralism included humanism grounded in the humanities that is not an alternative to religion but is enhanced by religious experience and language.

Besides Buddhism and Christianity, Karl’s Whitmanesque multitude included strong ethical commitments to political action to heal the world, and to institution building. And Karl had a fierce work ethic. It also included his knowledge of Native American culture and his reverence for the natural world. Commenting on the novel The Echo Maker by Richard Powers about Sand Hill Cranes in Nebraska, Karl wrote that the protagonist’s pathological condition of not being able to recognize human faces is a powerful metaphor for the loss of the human ability to decipher nature’s languages. He quoted Powers’ biblically poetic description of our fallen state: “When animals and people spoke the same language, crane calls said exactly what they meant. Now we live in unclear echoes.” We have turned away from the hard task of relearning the lost language of cranes in favor of our own self-centered comfort. Karl wrote: “I am terribly worried about the world my grandchildren will inherit.”

“Karl created an institution that was an incarnation of his ideals.”

Esalen in Big Sur, California, is a long distance geographically and spiritually from Phil Campbell, Alabama. But I had an epiphany at Esalen not unlike Karl’s back in Phil Campbell. Karl thought of his failure to understand born-again theology as a gift, as a call for deeper attention to see beyond his preconceptions. Esalen, for me, was similarly the beginning of a deeper understanding of American spirituality and its roots. Secular people often dismiss born-agains as bumpkins; those who are impatient with talk about the new spirituality often dismiss Esalen as self-indulgent New Age craziness. Preconceptions mask a deeper understanding.


Through writing about Esalen, I came to see Karl’s spiritual pluralism in a new way. For Karl, like Michael Murphy and Richard Price, the founders of Esalen, religion should enhance the unfolding of human potential. Like them, Karl created an institution that was an incarnation of his ideals. And as with Esalen’s nature mysticism, Karl regarded nature as objectively sublime. And he shared their vision of spiritual reformation, a democratic ethic that exceeded mere tolerance of other religions by calling for deeper understanding as well. Other religions were to be understood on their own terms, approached humbly with deep attention to what they can teach us while respecting their complexity, unlike the so-called New Atheists of recent times, who dismiss religion as superstition and ignorance. At their best religions are complex responses to fundamental aspects of the human condition.

At lunch, Karl told me that he had neuropathy in his feet, legs, and hands. He knew that I suffered from this condition myself. I reached over and took his hands in mine. “Weird feeling isn’t it,” I said. “It’s a combination of numbness and internal inflammation.” I had never held Karl’s hands before. They felt bigger and stronger than I had expected. We looked into each other’s eyes. He told me that he had three brain tumors, and spots on his kidneys and spine, and felt his abilities slipping. I squeezed his hands; I was speechless.

 He was moved by Abraham Anghik Ruben's sculpture "Migration: Umiak with Spirit Figures" at the Museum of the Native American on his first trip to Bethesda for chemotherapy.

He was moved by Abraham Anghik Ruben's sculpture "Migration: Umiak with Spirit Figures" at the Museum of the Native American on his first trip to Bethesda for chemotherapy.

“What have you been reading?” Karl asked. I said I had just read Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay on Aldous Huxley titled “Brave New World: We Don’t Want To Be Happy.” In Huxley’s pleasure-oriented dystopia, children are “conditioned” not to fear death by being taken to hospitals and given sweets as they watch patients die. “Huxley’s point is like Zen,” said Karl. “Self-determination requires the experience of suffering.” I said: “Your blog contains humor about your cancer and chemo but doesn’t sugar-coat death. You wrote: ‘I wouldn’t recommend chemotherapy as a weight loss plan, but I’ve lost thirty pounds since I got sick.’ Or when you said that it was either pay for plane tickets to get chemo in Bethesda at the National Cancer Institute or buy a shovel. Your humor draws people in and shows your spirit.” “Thanks, man,” he said.

“We remained friends throughout many changes, fellow refugees from the post-industrial city to the bookish university culture of Ann Arbor.”

Driving Karl back home, I said: “I remember at one of your parties in the early 90’s, you were dancing wildly to Prince and said: ‘He’s a fuckin’ genius!’ That young African-American writer Touré said that, for Prince, Jesus was underneath that music.” Karl said: “And here all this time I thought it was sex underneath there.” In his driveway we hugged. “I love you, Karl.” Karl said: “I’ve loved knowin’ you, man.”

“A few days ago I had a seizure that the doctors discovered was due to three small brain tumors. I’ve decided to end this blog — to exit the Hotel Karma (at least for the time being) — while I’m still in sound mind and body.”
— from Karl Pohrt’s blog, thereisnogap.com

Karl had maintained his blog “thereisnogap” throughout his illness. Recently I looked again at his final post on May 10, 2013. There is a photo of Karl in Manali, India, in 1994 in sunglasses looking quite cool standing in front of a seedy hotel under its sign that read “Hotel Karma.” He wrote: “A few days ago I had a seizure that the doctors discovered was due to three small brain tumors. I’ve decided to end this blog — to exit the Hotel Karma (at least for the time being) — while I’m still in sound mind and body.” I was reminded of an essay Karl sent to me years ago in which he described seeing a dead, mummified monk sitting zazen displayed in a glass case somewhere in Thailand. Sunglasses had been placed over the monk’s eyes to cover the empty sockets. Karl wrote that the mummified monk looked very cool — and very dead.

 Hotel Karma; Manali, India 1994

Hotel Karma; Manali, India 1994


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Posted on January 10, 2014 and filed under Karl Pohrt.