Interview With Dennis Cardiff

What Might Creativity Achieve for Others? 
Posted on September 8, 2013 by 

Photo: Eric Parker

Photo: Eric Parker

[Note: the content of this blog has changed somewhat since this interview, however, it is being kept on the site for the benefit of those who have bookmarked this page.]

Giving time to other people’s stories is a gift in a world increasingly built around attending to the self. Dennis Cardiff gives his time to people who aren’t normally given time – namely homeless people – listens to what they have to say, and then considers this important enough to take further time in organising and sharing it.

There’s an honesty in his description of their lives that’s frequently unsentimental. Yet there’s more to this than mere warts-’n’-all shocks. In one dialogue, the talk includes where to get the strongest free wi-fi signal for listening to the radio on a mobile phone. If these narratives are anything, they’re an education.

Dennis’s education is primarily in art, poetry and creative writing, and he’s three and a half years into an honors degree in Theory and History of Art. Unsurprisingly, he’s done care work with seniors through an outreach centre so that they could remain in their own homes rather than move to a care facility. He’s also been a professional portrait painter for over forty years. He’s also worked in art galleries in a variety of assistive and educational roles.

But this interview is about Dennis’s writing practice. In all the time and space he devotes to others, he’s almost an absent figure, as though his process necessitates a kind of self-abnegation. Unsurprisingly then, even when discussing his practice, he does so through discussing others. The questions thereafter move further towards those others. Finally, there will be some concluding remarks about the implications of Dennis’s work.

Is there any ‘ultimate goal’ in writing about homeless people?

My goal when I started these interviews was to investigate the ultimate cause of homelessness, to find a possible solution. I haven’t found any solutions, but have encountered as many reasons for homelessness as there are people sleeping on the streets.

I spoke to Joy [a central contact in Dennis’s befriending] about my interest in writing a story about her and her friends. She thought that was a great idea.  I discussed with some of her friends my intention of writing a book from the point of view of homeless people. I asked them, ‘What would you guys like the general public to know about your situation?’

‘I’ll talk to you’ said Darren [a college graduate and Gulf war veteran]. ‘First of all we aren’t you guys, we’re not a group, we’re individuals. We come from different places, different backgrounds, in some cases different tribes. Some of us don’t even like each other, but we congregate here to have a beer, smoke a joint, to be with others who don’t judge or verbally abuse us. We accept everyone here as they are.’

How do you practically go about writing the conversations? I’d imagine that recording devices could ignite some people with mental health conditions and/or addiction problems. Is it all recalled from memory? If so, do you go about this as soon as possible, or do you wait a while?

I have never used any recording device. If I were found with one, my life could very well be in danger. Every day I hear about thefts and witness minor crimes, mostly the sale of illegal cigarettes and dope deals. I know the dealers and turn away when business is being transacted.

I pay particular attention to accents, manners of speaking, unusual phrases, and general topics being discussed. Now that I know these people, as long as I can remember the topics, I can reconstruct how they would respond. I also seem to have a particularly good memory for dialog – very little else. I jot notes in my journal as soon as I can and type the conversations later.

What does the technology of blogging bring to this writing? Do any of the homeless people read your blog?

Blogging, especially on WordPress, has brought me encouragement and support. Many homeless people, or people who have, at some time in their lives, experienced homelessness, have written to me about their experiences. Psychologists have given anonymous accounts of child neglect, physical and sexual abuse and how these can lead to homelessness in later years. Very few of my homeless friends know how to use a computer. Since my blog is still a rough draft, I haven’t brought it to their attention.

My blog is a workspace, part of my editing process. The dates referred to jump back and forth from 2012 to 2013. I do this in order to be able to post each day. I still haven’t completely edited 2012. If I had, I would post it as a chronological set of entries as I have for 2010 and 2011. There is still much editing to do. I use Scrivener for that.

The people in your stories often sound like teenagers. There’s little indication of their ages and so on, so the suggestion is that they’re adults who have had developmental problems in their youth. 

In my book, I intend to start with a character sketch of each person in the order they appear in the story. Actual ages vary from early twenties to senior citizens. Most of them have suffered physical and sexual abuse from early childhood. Parents were often alcoholic. Some babies were born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Some were physically injured while still in the womb. Some have very little education, while others have university degrees. Most of them have mental conditions such as bipolar disorder and agoraphobia. They also have physical illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, fibromyalgia, kidney malfunctions, cirrhosis of the liver and heart conditions

I notice that you concentrate on the events of each person’s day rather than their histories. Is this a conscious move, and if so, why?

I try not to ask directly about a person’s history, although bits and pieces do come up in conversation. I hope to compile these bits and pieces together as I edit the book.

I concentrate on the events of each person’s day because I want the individuals to come through in their own words. I don’t want to influence or edit, in any way, what is being said. There are often contradictions between what is said one day and what is said another. I will leave it to the reader to take from these conversation what they wish.

Do you have any background of political activism (on any subjects) or is what you do now down to that first, chance meeting with Joy?

I have no background of political activism or political interest, although my political leanings have always been to the left. It was my meetings with Joy, Antonio and Craig that sparked my interest in homelessness. Also, I was reading books on Buddhism at the time, and committed to informally follow ‘the path of the Bodhisattva’. This entails, among other things, to open one’s heart and to practice generosity: having the will to dedicate body, possessions and merits to others.

My brother-in-law works at The Oaks, a treatment center and hostel for homeless alcoholics. His involvement, aroused my interest and led me to apply to The Shepherds of Good Hope, where I volunteered. I stopped working there due to back injury.

There’s something chaotic about the conversations you’ve written; for example, this one jumps from topic to topic without any apparent structure, nor is any point being worked towards. How much of this chaos is a reflection of their lives, and how much is it down to any reconstructive work at the writing stage?

My original blog was at Writing.com. It was written in blog style so that the latest entry would always appear on top.  If it were to be printed it would come out chronologically backwards.

I endeavour to post to WordPress every day, so on weekends or rainy days, when none of the panhandlers are out, I refer to entries from 2012 [panhandling = slang for begging (with or without a pan)]. In the final book everything will appear chronologically, names and places will be changed in the interests of privacy.

A typical day for me involves taking the bus and walking two blocks to work. I pass Joy’s spot every day. I usually sit and talk with her for twenty to thirty minutes. Chester and Hippo may drop by to chat. Joy generally doesn’t do Mondays – days immediately after receiving her monthly check – nor does she do rainy or very cold days.

Most afternoons, depending on weather, I walk two blocks to the park where the group of panhandlers varies in size from two to twenty or more. They don’t panhandle at the park. Like a soap opera, every day is different, some scenarios will carry over a few days or weeks. People will disappear for weeks or months due illness, rehab programs or incarceration.

These two situations could develop into two different books: Joy’s biography, and a collection of the stories I hear at the park. By writing two books, […] I could avoid some of the redundancy of explaining where each story was taking place. I have no idea how they will end.

Do you plan on bringing the subject of homelessness into your paintings?

I hope to draw or paint portraits to accompany these stories. In this way I could subtly alter individual facial features to maintain privacy, yet still include the details of dress and surroundings.

I have photos, but for reasons of privacy, I have been told that I cannot use them, nor can I use real names. Even if I was to have signed publication releases, they would not hold up in court, due to the fact that many of these people are not of sound mind and are usually drunk.

Does your writing process provide anything for you that you can’t get from the world of work or consumer leisure?

Writing about the homeless, and helping the homeless has given my life a purpose that it didn’t have before. Documenting their stories will, I hope, introduce them to the public in a non-threatening way. Some panhandlers look intimidating, but that disappears when one sees them laugh.

I’m also encouraged by the number of comments I get on my posts. I didn’t know that there was so much interest. This also bolsters my resolve to bring this project to completion.

Would you go so far as to say that this is a life-changing event? Is there a Dennis’s ‘life before’ and ‘life after’ the conjunction of those first meetings with the Buddhism? Or is this all simply a continuity from things you’d already involved yourself in throughout your life?

I have always read books on Buddhism, Sufism and New Age books on love forgiveness and relieving stress through meditation. When I met Joy I was going through an emotional crisis. Meeting her and her friends – worrying about them and whether or not  they would be able to eat and find a place to sleep – took my mind off my problems, that then, seemed insignificant. It was truly a life changing experience.

What kinds of changes have visitors told you that your blog has made for them and/or what they’ve brought from your blog to the world beyond themselves?

Many visitors have told me that, after reading my blog, they want to be more active in helping the homeless, either on their own or through their church. Many say that my writing has opened their eyes to people they would otherwise have ignored.

What have people who are professionally or voluntarily involved in dealing with homeless people in their day to day lives said about your blog? I use the term ‘dealing with’ rather than ‘helping’ because I’m not assuming that everyone who comes across your blog is necessarily sympathetic.

The reactions are mixed. I have been told that I am wasting my time, that addicts and alcoholics can only be reformed if they want to quit; that they are manipulators and that my efforts, although altruistic, will simply lead to these people buying more alcohol or drugs.

I respond by saying that I am not trying to reform either alcoholics or other addicts. Most of my friends have terminal illnesses, cancer, HIV/AIDS,  cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure. My intent is to make their last months or days less stressful. With a meal card and bus fare they have the means to eat and get back to where they are staying. I realize that these things can be traded for cash to buy alcohol, but that is beyond my control.

Most psychologists, health workers, social workers and  church officials who provide meals for the poor, commend my efforts.

———

So too do I, though maybe for reasons they wouldn’t give. His use of writing stands out in a number of ways. It centres on, as already suggested, his attention to others. The self-publishing revolution, for all that it’s done to help aspiring authors, has in its very name the emphasis that its industry puts on so much of its endeavours: the self.

It’s understandable that the democratisation of creativity by technology is individualistic. Computers as we understand them today have that spirit in their very name: they’re personal. It seems a pity then that global interconnectivity doesn’t do more to help us work towards goals beyond building our personal profiles and wealth. How many times have you been advertised at with a slogan such as ‘it’s all about you’?

So what do I mean by goals beyond personal profiles and wealth? I’m not referring to the ubiquitous propagation of religion on the Internet. Many religious people will go about this propagation in any medium. And though it’s true that Dennis has some religious feeling in what he does, his writing is no doctrine. As he says, his interest is in the experience of homeless people in their own words, however mixed-up that is. Just read his blog to see for yourself how he desists from judging them.

Of course, we have only his account of their account to go by. I’m not suggesting that he’s some kind of paragon of moral creativity. I’m not sure he would either. This is ultimately a matter for his readers to decide on. What I do propose though is that his work (in writing and beyond) raises important questions about what creatives want to achieve and for whom. 

There are all kinds of causes that people are passionate about. There are all kinds of changes in the world that people would like to see and make happen. Yet self-publishing seems to be dominated by escapist novels. Why on earth is that? Is this a good use of talent and energy? The nearest that authors usually get to causes greater than the self is when writing about events in their own lives that may touch others. Why then is a practice like Dennis’s so much the exception?

Perhaps the Internet distracts people from causes greater than the self by generating anxieties about how to get the greatest possible audience? There seems to be no end of advice available about how to do this. Perhaps pursuing a cause feels too niche to apply some creativity to? Yet the web is surely a great medium for both collecting the interested everywhere and adding to their number? Or perhaps there are other reasons? Perhaps for some people it’s all a bit like ‘do-gooding’ (as opposed to what, do-badding, or even doing nothing)?

Where can anyone go for intelligent discussion and information about directing our creative interests into causes greater than ourselves? And are the practitioners of an other-oriented art the last people to ask because it would mean expounding on theirexperience?

So many questions. And these are the kinds of them that Dennis’s practice and his comments about it leave me with. All this, and without even getting into the expectations we might realistically have about how much creativity can achieve for other people. And is the real creativity, in his case, more in the befriending than in the writing? Hopefully I’ll return to Dennis with these and other questions at a future date. In the meantime, my thanks go to him for taking the time for this interview.

 

Comments
  1. i surely do agree that having a meal card or bus fare will make their days less stressful. I, too, feel sympathetic toward homeless people. It doesn’t surprise me either that there are as many reasons for homelessness as there are homeless people. Blessings to you, Dennis…

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  2. hello, Dennis… you have a wonderful blog here and a worthy cause. keep on going and keep on writing. thanks for coming across my blog and for the follow. hi to your friends… 🙂 ~ San

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  3. This is my first visit to Dennis’s blog and I read a couple of recent posts before I read this interview. Excellent interview, both the questions and answers. I found Jeff’s musings at the end of the post very thought-provoking. I think Dennis and some other people truly are motivated by wanting to help people. This blog is valuable because it allows its audience to see homeless people as individuals, and Dennis, because he doesn’t judge, leads us (readers) to suspend judgement as well. I commend Dennis for his huge contribution in both befriending the homeless and putting in all this writing work to share their stories.

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  4. Hi Dennis I’m sure you’re aware of the publication in the U.K for helping the homeless empower themselves (http://www.bigissue.org.uk/)
    Reading between the lines here I feel you could probably launch a similar kind of publication your side.
    I have friends in Scotland who sell it and one of them uses the hilarious sales pitch for it, that ‘it’s fully absorbent’. Joking aside, a lot of leading artists donate interviews and financial support towards the Big Issue and it is well read and entertaining.

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    • I am aware of The Big Issue and similar newspapers available in North America. Unfortunately, where I live they don’t exist. It is a great idea to give the homeless relevance, by working on and selling a paper, rather that having them beg. ~ Dennis

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  5. nottooold2 says:

    Dennis, Your goal and your blog are, without a doubt, an inspiration for any and all. As the father of 3 teenage boys (young men) and VERY conservative (politically), your empathy for those in need is an example of the way human beings should behave toward each other. I’m honored that you chose to click the “Follow” button on my blog. Better company, there could not be.

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    • Thanks for your kind words. I enjoy your poetry very much, especially “Carnal thoughts”. ~ Dennis

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      • nottooold2 says:

        You are quite welcome & thank you. It seems we share a soft spot for the less fortunate in this world. Just finished preparing tax returns and my wife asked, “Where did $5000 go?” I simply replied, “I gave it away, a $100 at a time to random people that I felt needed something Good in their life.” She just smiled. 🙂

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  6. Outlier Babe says:

    What you are doing is definitely transformative. I saw it in action at a church I belonged to where I was NOT charitable. One visiting street person, likely schizophrenic, was frequently loud and aggressive, and easily thrown into a frightening temper. I was civil to him, but just. A couple of congregation members were more Christian, providing regular showers, multiple sets of clothes, arranging and chauffering to social services and medical appointments, and, eventually, assisting with job placement. The man was made new.
    Thank you for what you do. Solely the relief of loneliness a great gift of love.

    And thank you for the Follow on The Last Half! It is a pleasure to have you joining me there : ) !

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    • Thanks for your kind words. It is surprising how little it takes to bring a smile to a person’s face. We are all the same, we seek happiness and an end to suffering.

      I thoroughly enjoy your blog — I learn things and I laugh. It’s a good combination. ~ Dennis

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      • Outlier Babe says:

        You are welcome. And thoroughly enjoyed hearing your compliment. Perhaps should be as pleased by your claim to have learned (some disturbingly unnamed) “things” as by your claim that I’ve succeeded at making you laugh. However, the latter counts for far more in my book–that is, assuming you chortled mirthfully where I intended, rather than snickering cruelly at my flubs. (“Flubs? Quel flubs?”

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  7. susanddhavle says:

    Yes, in the UK the homeless sell the Big Issue themselves and it has got coverage in some mainstream media. It is not boring or full of efforts for sympathy (though what’s wrong with sympathy or empathy?) but a good reflection on society as such, and that homelessness does not necessarily mean that the homeless are just a shiftless bunch. This was a good interview. Thank you for it being available to read.

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    • The Big Issue is a great idea. I wish we had that available where I live, unfortunately nothing like it exists. By selling something of value the homeless are able to earn money, instead of begging for change. ~ Dennis

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  8. Iana Roy says:

    Dennis I am truly touched by what I read here and by what you do with homeless people. You are often interacting directly with people who live on the street. Somehow I admire you because I know that being over-sensitive, I can’t do that. It is not my way to embody compassion in this world. But I am glad to know that you are there, doing this work, and sharing it so wonderfully with people through your blog. Much respect.

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  9. Rob McShane says:

    In the immortal words of William Blake (Auguries of Innocence) “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,And eternity in an hour.” You do this, and us, honour as you walk your path with respect and integrity….and offer change to the world! Thank you for the like and following – I talk and/or write, you walk it! Respect!

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    • Hi Rob, thanks for your encouragement and support. It is much appreciated. As you’ve written in your blog “we each live with our own day to day issues and challenges.” I’m very impressed by the number of books you’ve published. ~ Dennis

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rob McShane says:

        Thanks Dennis – busy with a poetry collection now which is fun! Variety being the spice of life (if not of sound marketing and business sense! 🙂 )
        Congrats on the publication of the first of your books for June 1st! Will there be an ebook version or a drop shipment? Would like to get a copy…
        Keep the strength!
        Rob

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  10. Amanda Banks says:

    Really indepth, thought provoking questions, answers and reflections. Thanks!

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  11. WeaverGrace says:

    May more people reach out to others to “make their last months or days less stressful.”

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  12. Hi Dennis, thanks for stopping by my blog. Homelessness is a subject close to my heart. We lost our home in the recession. In our mid fifties we are probably never going to ‘own’ a home again. We have been renting for six years now and at first it was scary, feeling vulnerable I suppose having always owned whatever house we lived in. We have moved three times in six years and now I’m not so worried. There is a certain amount of freedom in renting, if you’re not happy you can move and you’re not tied down by a mortgage. But all of this served to highlight for me the plight of homelessness and just how easy it can be to find yourself on the streets. We should never judge street people and I like the way you respect them and give them dignity by your words.

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    • Hi Jean, we lost our home also. If not for my wife’s income we would have been on the streets. We now rent and are much happier than we were when we had the responsibilities of a mortgage, repairs and an unstable housing market. Thanks for your comment. ~ Dennis

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Hey there just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading correctly.

    I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.

    I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same outcome.

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  14. I feel rather humbled that you are following my rather self-centred blog.
    Yours is so full of goodness.
    I am just an artist trying not to lose his modest rental home by making money tutoring art, selling pictures, doing courier work and whatever I can. Like you, I am free of the huge weight of a mortgage but also without the safety net it provides.
    For the first time, I feel vulnerable, despite having chosen this chance to see if I am a painter.
    You restore dignity and value to people who have lost their homes.

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  15. charlypriest says:

    I was homeless, and finding a solution to homelessness would be to change human nature. I screwed up and blew all my savings. Now I´m pretty much in the right track with some mishap here or there, but not homeless(would be kind of cool to be homeless with a laptop, yet again at the time I would have sold the laptop). So it comes to personal responsibility. And if you ever can change that in humans…..

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  16. dbp49 says:

    That was a great interview Dennis. I’ve been following your stories for quite a while now, and they ring very true with the stories of the people I know here on the Vancouver streets. I spent 12 years on the streets here, and so I ran into a lot of very similar people, after all, I was one of them. It really is nice to see someone taking the plight of the homeless so seriously, and especially someone who seems to understand them as well as you do. So I hope everything keeps going all right for you, I hope you keep up all the great writing, and I hope you have a wonderful New Years.

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  17. Shery Alexander Heinis says:

    Dennis – I’m happy I came across this interview. It explains so much about you, and the people you encounter. I didn’t know you were a poet and artist as well! Since I moved to the freezing city of Ottawa, Canada, the issue of homelessness (and affordable housing) has really come to the fore for me. It’s incredible to see people sitting outside on the freezing sidewalks and the demographic is getting younger. I understand better why some of them are out there, after reading sum of your posts.

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  18. pearlz says:

    I have nominated you for The Power of Words Award because of the inspiration and education that your blogs provide! The post is here : https://pearlz.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/power-of-words-award/. Don’t feel obligated to repost, for me it’s just that you know your work is appreciated. – All the very best for this book and your work.

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