5 Questions with Robert Jensen, Author of Plain Radical

plain radicalIn our last event of 2015, we welcome back to City Lights an old friend. Robert Jensen will be at City Lights Bookstore this Thursday discussing his new book, Plain Radical: Living, Loving and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (from Soft Skull Press).

Event: Thursday, December 10, 7:00PM, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133

About the Book: There was nothing out of the ordinary about Jim Koplin. He was just your typical central Minnesota gay farm boy with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology who developed anarchist-influenced, radical-feminist, and anti-imperialist politics, while never losing touch with his rural roots. But perhaps the most important thing about Jim is that throughout his life, almost literally to his dying breath, he spent some part of every day on the most important work we have: tending the garden.

Plain Radical is a touching homage to a close friend and mentor taken too soon. But it is also an exploration of the ways in which an intensely local focus paired with a fierce intelligence can provide a deep, meaningful, even radical engagement with the world.

Drawing on first-hand accounts as well as the nearly 3,000 pages of correspondence that flowed between the two men between 1988 and 2012, this book is about the intersection of two biographies and the ideas two men constructed together. It is in part a love story, part intellectual memoir, and part political polemic; an argument for how we should understand problems and think about solutions—in those cases when solutions are possible—to create a decent human future.

“In a brilliant fusion of memoir and biography, Robert Jensen captures the bedrock Northern Plainsradicalism of his longtime friend and mentor. This is storytelling at its best and most inspiring, reminding the reader of what will be required for both survival of life itself and a future of mutuality.”—Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Photo by Nerissa Escanlar
Photo by Nerissa Escanlar

About the Author: Robert Jensen spent his twenties working at newspapers as a reporter and copy editor, receiving an M.A. in journalism and public affairs from American University. After earning a PhD in media ethics and law from the University of Minnesota, in 1992, he began his teaching career at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor in journalism and interdisciplinary programs. Jensen is also active in a variety of national political movements and community organizations.

Robert is the author of 3 City Lights publications, Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2004), The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege (2005), and Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog (2013).

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?

Robert Jensen: I have been fortunate to publish three books with City Lights. So, my first time in the store was as an author to read from the first of those books, Citizens of the Empire. I remember being nervous. At the time, I had written as either a journalist or an academic. That book was my first step into writing political material for a general audience, and I wanted to make a good impression on what I believed would be a smart, sophisticated City Lights audience. And, sure enough, the people there were smart and sophisticated.

I also remember that that place is kind of messy.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

RJ: In a very real sense, my last three books do have a soundtrack—my wife’s records. For the past decade I’ve been lucky to live with Eliza Gilkyson, and her songs reflect a lot of the values I’m trying to write about. Her CD Beautiful World is the perfect soundtrack for Plain Radical.

CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

RJ: Do you mean finished to the end? The whole book? Do you mean, like, all the words?

CL: If you weren’t a writer, what might you do?

RJ: I am not really a writer. I’m a guy who sometimes writes. Real writers are much more interesting than I am. I’m from North Dakota, which is not necessarily the reason I’m not very interesting, though it’s likely a contributing factor. I don’t want to blame the whole state, but North Dakota has produced very few writers anyone has heard of. There’s Louise Erdrich, who was actually born in Minnesota, but she lived for a bit in North Dakota and some of her fiction is set in North Dakota, so let’s not be picky. And Larry Woiwode, a pretty good novelist, who was born in North Dakota and is the state’s poet laureate, though I confess that I didn’t know that he was (or that North Dakota has a poet laureate) until I checked to make sure I had spelled his name right.

The other reason I don’t think of myself as a writer is that I have a day job, teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. Writers are supposed to starve until they hit it big, at which point they become insufferable self-indulgent bores. As a professor, I’m already insufferable, self-indulgent, and a bore.

CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi). 

RJ: When I was younger, I would have said that all I need is books. Now, I would say that all I need is a reasonably good kitchen knife. I’ve read a lot of books and can replay the best of them in my head. But it’s hard to cut an onion with the recollection of a good knife. I’d also need onions, garlic, and olive oil.


Robert is at City Lights Bookstore on Thursday discussing his new book Plain Radical. For more about him, go to his official site and follow him @jensenrobertw on Twitter.

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