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Heather Blakey : An Interview with Heather Blakey

An Interview with Heather Blakey (February 2005)

Publisher of the Soul Food Café

By Chris Dunmire

I recently enjoyed reciprocal interviewing my friend Heather Blakey from the Soul Food Cafe (www.dailywriting.net). I'm not afraid to say that Heather enchants everyone she comes in contact with, including me. Though based in Australia, her creative Web weaving and sweet sticky words of praise entice and entrap all sorts of unsuspecting victims into her lair. Heather not only amuses, but she is a muse. Enjoy the interview.

Q: When I read about Heather Blakey on Soul Food Café, I see you have a closet stacked with many hats. From a Web publisher, educator, and former Mayor of Fitzroy, you have accumulated many feathers for those hats. But now, what do you consider most important as far as your life's work, after having experienced so many things?

A: It just so happens Chris that metaphors are an essential fuse lighters in my muse toolbox. One of my favourite ways to begin a year with a group of students is to have them make a doorway to represent themselves. We talk about what sort of doors they might be and in order to move right out of the square I suggest things like pantry and refrigerator doors. I always love to suggest that someone might be like a toilet door because that makes everyone fall about laughing and once I have them laughing they are trapped in my evil web of creativity.

Invariably, when I am talking about the doors I tell them that I am like a full pantry. But now I have read this question I am rather taken with the idea of being a closet door. I love the idea of that closet being filled with the hats and feathers I have worn. It rather reminds me of the Indian Bonnet exercise, which involves telling your story using twenty-eight feathers.

However, I do know that it is one thing to conjure an image of a door and quite another to open that door and begin rummaging around inside the container of our creative self to determine what defines us. I know that I am a compilation of all that I have done and experienced and that it is what I do with that experience which is most important. After having experienced so many things I have come to the conclusion that my most important work is to provide a myth to live by. The myth is that if you make writing your daily practice you will be magically transformed.

I sponsor people and put them in the spotlight. I warm stone artists. I open cage doors, lure the caged to come out of the prisons that they and society have built around them. I empower people and insist that they dance with their own possibilities.

When the people tentatively come out of their cages, when the artists have been released from the stone, as people sit at the Soul Food banquet table and bask in the warmth of Soul Food's sun I know I have been a successful human being. With this realisation comes the understanding that any time I spent involved in political intrigue was utterly inconsequential.

Q: After earning a degree as an adult, I still love learning in the classroom. The classes I did the best in (and enjoyed the most) had instructors who were hands-on in the learning process — intent on teaching from the heart, and not just from the textbook. Your enthusiasm for your pupils and their work makes me know that you are that kind of teacher.

Do you ever have students come back to you years later to express the impact you've made on them? And what about the visitors of Soul Food Café? What kinds of feedback are you receiving that fuels you to develop more features and tools to help people write for well-being and dig for "creative gold?"

A: Last week my week began with a Patron sending me a copy of her new book that included Soul Food in the acknowledgement. This week a Patron wrote welcoming a friend to the halls of Soul Food.

"What a joy to meet you dancing down the halls of this magical place! You will find words here! And mystery and magic and meaning and doors, doors, doors! I always envision Soul Food as a huge mansion of many twisting halls. In each hall are many doors that open to reveal wonders, upon wonders, upon wonders. Open a door and you find yourself in ancient Delphi speaking the Oracle. Open another door and you walk into the Golden Grove of Lemuria where you can hear the thoughts of the trees. Behind another door is the Hay Loft, the Artists Studio, where all sorts of creation is going on. You can get lost in the halls here really easily. It worried me at first how often I got lost, now I do it on purpose, as therapy. To be lost in the halls of Soul Food is to have turned off time for a while and given a gift of lush sweetness to yourself. Wander, ramble, browse, drift, . . . expect miracles."

It is not unusual for me to receive praise or to be told by people that when they found Soul Food they felt that they found home. I am touched by such outpourings and have, on more than one occasion shed tears.

However, I am careful not to become addicted to this 'Turkish delight'. I remember all too well the time when I could not seem to get enough praise. My parents, my husband, my children, have always been proud of me so it was not actually their approval I was seeking. Yet, it was as though I had been malnourished and needed approval from above or outside.

The absolute turning point for me was when I looked at Soul Food and my work within schools and knew that I had created something incredibly special, that I had not only made a difference to hundreds of lives but had woven a most outstanding creative tapestry. That was when I knew I was not holding 'Fools Gold' and that I had found my Eldorado, my creative gold.

On the site the most exciting moments are when Patrons discover their creative self and sing like a nightingale. I remember the moment when Winnie Cross named herself artist, when Anita Marie Moscoso faced her fear and named herself writer, when Lois Daley acknowledged that her defining moment was coming to love herself after doubting she would ever come back.

Q: While acting as a facilitator of introspection and growth in others, do you feel yourself aspiring towards secular coaching or counseling?

A: Monastic buildings are full of fine arts and craft, which reveal the benefits of developing a rich interior life. When I read this question I thought of St Theresa's interior castle, a metaphor that spoke to me for years.

Thoughts rock climb up from the valleys within my brain and I imagine a virtual monastery, like the Monastery at Iona off the coast of Scotland. Such a monastery would be filled with tiny, Spartan cells where votaries of the muse could come, retreat behind walls and observe time differently.

In this Monastery, time would not be measured with clocks and monastic writers would be free to wander through the cloisters and walled gardens in a meditative state, capturing metaphors in their writing nets.

As I write I can hear the melodious sound of Gregorian chanting drifting through the grounds and I can see myself walking, dressed in my blue robe, down a long hall, listening for reflection and introspection, peeking within the cells. I see myself watching votaries using fountain pens, dancing with words; dancing the flamboyant tango, a gentle waltz, see memoirs rising from the folds of chiffon ball gowns.

Seriously Chris, the primary function of Soul Food is to provide people with prompts and suggestions that will enable them to make writing a daily practice. To practice is to establish a habitual action. It refers to 'repeated exercise in an art' with the view to 'improve skill'. Brenda Ueland wrote that, "when we commit ourselves to writing for some part of each day we are happier, more enlightened, alive, light hearted and generous to everyone else. Even our health improves."

Establishing a daily practice facilitates introspection and growth. It is enough that I provide the tools to achieve this. There are no overt religious or ecclesiastic overtones at Soul Food and I have no desire to move towards providing secular coaching or counselling.

But who knows, I might just set up that virtual monastery as a brand new feature. Do you think I would have applications for residency?

Q: I feel creative energy buzzing around the corridors of Soul Food Café every time I visit the site. New interviews, patrons, and features are offered regularly. Your latest creation, the Alluvial Mine, has just opened up and is teeming with miners. Heather, what is your ultimate wish for Soul Food Café?

A: I am always delighted to hear that someone has been wandering the halls of Soul Food. People tell me that they actually get lost in here and that it has taken them endless hours of exploration to mine the site. No wonder I have massive data transfer issues to contend with.

The Alluvial Mine has been a resounding success and it is heartening to see miners staking mining claims. Mind you, I am beginning to worry that the ground around Soul Food will be filled with mullock heaps and I am expecting that, some time soon a miner will give me a fright by burrowing through a wall, tumbling, covered with gold dust, back in to the foyer.

My ultimate wish for Soul Food was fulfilled when creatives began congregating here, when they began telling others about the treasure to be found within this vast estate. As writers and artists tell the story of Soul Food and leave their footprints behind, they create a myth for others to live by.

Q: Now, how about indulging me in some random questions? Who are your favorite people to spend time with?

A: It goes without saying that I love spending time with my husband, children, mother, cat, dogs and goldfish but I also like spending time with my muse, myself.

An elderly digger (Australian Soldier from World War 1) who died recently said that his longevity was due to the fact that he spent a half an hour each day in a meditative state. When you make writing your practice and spend twenty minutes, each day, alone with your muse you improve your well-being.

My favourite place to spend time with some of my favourite female friends is in the Japanese Bath-house here in Melbourne. I also take my muse there and we spend quality time together. My favourite day of the month is the first Sunday when a gaggle of creative women arrive at my house and the place swirls with concentric ripples of creativity.

Q: What is coming up this year on Soul Food Café?

A: Well now Chris it so happens that 2005 is going to be my year. I have told quite a few people that if the fates permit I will move on and make significant changes to my working life. But the detail is hidden under the seven veils I am wearing today. What I CAN tell you is that when patrons at Soul Food sit together around the Soul Food billabong to remember 2005 they will affectionately recall 'To Love Veronica Bee' and the Gold Rush.

Sarah Boland's Pop Fiction project is going to have a significant impact on Soul Food because it is a key project in the Creative Literacy Program that I am initiating at LaTrobe Secondary College.

Remember that Soul Food was originally created as a resource for students at LaTrobe and within the primary schools where I work. Soul Food will be showcasing the work of students and helping to make them stars. This will be the opportunity for quite a few people to enjoy more than five minutes of fame.

Soul Food junkies will tell yarns around the camp fires about how the alluvial mine was discovered in the grounds of this estate and will wax lyrical about the miners who scoured the alluvial mine searching for Eldorado. These stories will become urban legends.

Patrons will also remember how artists clamoured to acquire space in the Soul Food Art Studios and will talk about the wonderful art walk, the studios that flung open their doors and offered workshops. Hopefully they will each get a copy of the limited edition Art Calendar that will hit the press in time for 2006.

But alas, this is only what I know will happen Chris. A very harsh taskmaster, a muse who cannot be distracted easily, drives me and so anything is possible. I could be talking to a student tomorrow, pick up a fragment and before you know it there will be a new feature on Soul Food. So everyone at Soul Food better have their running shoes on if they plan to keep up with what is happening.

Q: When are you going to author a book?

A: It is no coincidence that just the other day I shared with one of my Patron's that I would not be publishing a collection of poems or the great Australian novel any time soon. Soul Food Café has taught me that while it is important for me to dance with metaphors it is not my destiny to write books. I am too much of an adrenalin junkie to focus and concentrate on the task at hand. Besides, I love the leniency of the web. It is so forgiving. If I load something and then notice an error, twenty seconds later that error is fixed. The print text is not nearly so forgiving as will be evidenced when the school magazine arrives. I am sure someone will find a mistake and I have a prize for that alert individual.

Anita Marie insisted that I have an intriguing story to tell and she is completely right! There is a fabulous story behind the inception and growth of Soul Food. But it will be the role of my biographer to capture that story. Wink! Wink! Now, after my patrons have emulated the cave people and captured the story of Soul Food the biography could just become an international best seller. Wink! Wink! Chuckle! Think of the pilgrims who will be circling looking to find this elusive place.

Q: Where can visitors see your artwork?

A: Recently I had a wonderful time setting up a mini studio in our spare bedroom. It looks fabulous. I have lots of magazines and scissors and glue and I have imaginatively stored supplies in fascinating containers. Believe it or not I find a few moments to go in there every so often and I work making altered books.

When I sent a patron an altered book that I had made for her she was so overwhelmed that she insisted that it was time I declared myself to be an artist. She told me that it was about time that I claimed some space in the Artist's Loft.

Given that my art teacher at school had looked at my work derisively this meant facing the internal critic that leapt out like a Rottweiler snarling.

Anyway, I ever so calmly looked the Rottweiler in the eye and taunted him with a juicy big bone. Then, while he amused himself chomping on that bone, I created a space for myself in the Artist's Loft.

Of course, surprise surprise! You will find lots of links that take you back to features at Soul Food. These features have become my true art.

Q: How much time do you have left over in a day?

A: There are so many things that I yearn to fit into my day. Sometimes I am hard on myself because I have not found the time to relax, doing altered bookwork. It frustrates me that I have trouble managing to read any of the books that lie on my nightstand. I try to discipline myself and spend less time in front of the computer but there is constantly something to attend to and I am gaining an acceptance that Soul Food is my primary creative outlet. My problem is that I feel like I am permanently in a class with enthusiastic primary school students. Hands keep going up demanding that I pay attention to their specific needs and, no-one is willing or able to provide me with extra hours in the day.

Q: Why is there a cat on Soul Food's home page?

A: Five years ago I went on the trip of a lifetime to Japan. The cat you see on Soul Food's home page is no ordinary cat. He is Maneki Neko and has borne witness and seen Soul Food evolve!

This is the legend of the Maneki Neko:

In the 17th century, there was a rundown and poverty-stricken temple in Tokyo. The temple's priest was very poor, but he shared what little food he had with his pet cat, Tama.

One day, a wealthy and important man was caught in a storm while hunting and he took refuge under a big tree near the temple. While he waited for the storm to pass, the man noticed a cat beckoning him to come inside the temple gate. This was so startling that he left the shelter of the tree to have a closer look at this unusual cat. At that moment, the tree was struck by lighting.

As a result, the wealthy man became friends with the poor priest, and the temple became prosperous. The priest and his cat never went hungry again.

When Tama died he was buried in the Goutokuji Temple's cat cemetery with respect and love, and the Maneki Neko was made in honor of him.

Maneki Neko is Japanese for "beckoning cat." The message he's holding says "Please come in. You are welcome!" and he is beckoning you with his paw . (In Japan, the gesture of beckoning is pretty much the reverse of the gesture used in the West.)

Maneki Neko has witnessed the transformation that took place when my son and I became a team and Greg began designing the stunning templates you will find on the site. I should put a link on Maneki Neko that takes people somewhere wild and unexpected. What a good idea!

Now what was I saying before about how I could go off on a tangent simply as a result of a conversation with someone? •

Learn more about Heather Blakey and the Soul Food Café at: www.dailywriting.net and right here at Creativity Portal.

02/03/05