Anthony Alvarado is a Portland-based writer who teaches at Portland Community College, and he is also the author of a book called “DIY Magic.” When I first stumbled across it, I noticed this grimoire of spells was really more like a handbook of techniques for harnessing one’s untapped creativity. I was intrigued by this playful approach to the occult, so I caught up with Alvarado at a coffeeshop near his home in NE Portland to pick his brain about magic, art, politics, and being a writer here in the city.
Gerlek: So what is your definition of magic?
Alvarado: A magician is somebody who tries to affect change in reality by changing themselves, in other words change the outer world by changing the inner world. If you want to change anything, it starts from your own perspective. So whether you’re going to choose a perspective of optimism or pessimism, that’s going to limit your opportunities or show you more opportunities.
G: From a wizard’s perspective, what would be your advice to those trying to come to terms with the change in the country after the election?
A: I think Gandhi said it best, be the change you want to see in the world. Magic is about shaping your own reality, your own inner reality, and then using that to create. Whether you’re creating art as a musician, a painter, a writer, a filmmaker, a baker, you can use whatever it is that you do, to further the reality you want to see in the world. And I think that that is a form of magic.
G: So there’s this connection between art and magic. Aristotle said art is “any made thing.” So whatever it is you do, it seems like a way of countering the movement of hateful rhetoric could be with a more powerful, more positive artistic movement.
A: There’s a culture war between the red states and the blue states, and for us to move past that, we have to fight with love, with freedom and equality, but that’s very hard to do, especially when you’re pissed off. You have to find ways to channel that energy in a positive way. I think it’s important to remember, this is the side of that battle that has always had the poets, the freethinkers, the writers, the artists, and I think that there is an element of despair right now where people are like, “Oh, what can art do?” But it’s not time to despair, it’s time to fight, and if the way that you have a voice is with art, I think that’s what you have to harness. Art has shaped us—and by art I include narrative—art has shaped what we value as a people. Art has shaped what we want from our heroes. Magic and art, I think they’re synonymous. When art was invented; singing, dancing, storytelling, that was shamans in tribal periods long ago. Magic and art were the same thing.
G: Yeah, one and the same idea.
A: Yeah, and I think because we live in such a rational age, we don’t like to talk about magic. But if you’re an artist, any artist who has actually created something that is inspired, will tell you that they’re tapping into some deep reservoir. Whether you want to call that the collective unconscious, the holy spirit, the Muse, whatever you call it, there’s some magic going on there, and that is how we can steer the zeitgeist.
G: So there is an increasing amount of people defining themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and seeking alternative spiritualities that might include magic. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I read this great quote from Leonard Cohen that I’ll try to paraphrase. He said that we’re all spiritual beings, and even if you don’t cop to it, you can sense that there’s energies at play in life. But I think a lot of the renewed interest in magic comes from the fact that we are always going to be searching for a connection to transcendence. And historically, that was Christianity in America for the past couple centuries. And that’s largely fallen out of fashion. So people are looking for any way that they can to reconnect with their inner selves, with their spirit world.
G: What would be some suggestions you could give to help people make their lives more magical?
A: Well, the age that we live in is all about rationality and the scientific worldview. And magic is about listening to your dreams and introspection. We imagine that we humans are very logical beings, but we’re not. So what we need to do is dance with that other energy and use it, and part of that is being aware of how you shift your modality. So a lot of the techniques in “DIY Magic” are actually techniques for shifting your modality of awareness. Practice lucid dreaming, try psychedelics. Reading good books will shift your ideas, your perception, and open new paths in reality. Take time to be alone in a quiet place. Unplug from the internet. Take a long walk at night by yourself, give yourself time to let your thoughts bloom. These are things that connect us to the spirit, where we can find strength, and find a new and better message to rewrite our scripts.
G: Do you think Portland is a good place to be an author? What is it about Portland that is able to generate artists?
A: There’s a vibrant scene. There’s a really strong poetry scene. And zines too. The comics artists at Floating World Comics. Seeing the energy from all that is inspiring. That said, writing is a lone wolf activity, there’s something very lonely about it. I like Portland because I can get energy from all the other scenes, but writing is something you have to work on your craft as an individual. There’s a kind of camaraderie among artists here and that’s beautiful. You write to communicate to as many people as possible, so ultimately it is about being connected. But for anyone that wants to be a writer, you have to train yourself to be alone with no distractions and focus on the page in front of you, and you have to be able to do that for long stretches of time for it to get good.
G: So do you have any other projects you’re working on?
A: Yeah, I taught a class based on “DIY Magic” at Portland Underground Graduate School, and I’m interested in doing more of that. I’m also doing an interview show called the Magic Hour, it’s a podcast on XRAY FM, Thursdays at 12:30 pm, you can access on my website, anthonyalvarado.net.