Culture Hero

Subversive Stargazer Rob Brezsny
by Steven Winn

Originally appeared in the Utne Reader

Aquarian readers of Rob Brezsny's Free Will Astrology column got a special invitation in January. "Find or create a symbol of your greatest pain," Brezsny wrote. "Mail it to me. I will then conduct a sacred ritual of purification during which I will burn that symbol to ash."

Some 900 readers responded, cramming the astrologer's San Rafael, California, mail drop with everything from drawings and love letters to a Jack Daniels bottle and a pair of real owl wings. The wings, Brezsny explains, represented the correspondent's sense of "always being watched."

Several months later, the column carried a report on the raging bonfire Brezsny set on a Marin County beach: "I begged the Goddess to release you from the karma that brought you the pain."

Sipping pink lemonade in a house on a quiet suburban street north of San Francisco, Brezsny expresses great satisfaction with this well-received piece of astrological performance art. A number of his readers, he says, wrote to say their pain was gone.

For Brezsny, a shaggy-haired Texas native who has been writing his weekly column for the past 23 years, that sort of interaction with his public is its own karmic reward. With a blend of spontaneous poetry, feisty politics, and fanciful put-on, Brezsny breathes new life into the tabloid mummy of zodiac advice columns. Free Will Astrology runs in 124 alternative newspapers, from Anchorage to Miami, with a combined circulation in the neighborhood of 9 million.

In the course of a single, 12-sign column Brezsny might riff to his Capricorn readers on the glories of silk worms; advise Sagittarians to dispense with jewelry, tight clothing, and "constricted expectations" for the month; evaluate the San Francisco 49ers' top draft choice; and get in a dig at Donald Trump. Behind all the quirky metaphors and topical patter, however, lies a serious intent. When Brezsny asks Cancerian men to wear veils on International Women's Day or proposes "brag therapy" weeks for Leos, he's really challenging readers to subvert the assumptions that govern their lives more firmly than any stars. Conventional astrology columns "reinforce reality," Brezsny argues, "and try to get people to adjust to the ghastly limitations of civilization. My intention is exactly the opposite. The ultimate political act is to overthrow perceptions of reality."

Brezsny breezily concedes that "most smart people wouldn't be caught dead reading an astrology column." And that's exactly what he relishes about it. Working in a "devalued genre," he says, allows him to practice his calling as "a tantric poet, storyteller, and teacher in disguise" without the expectations and limitations that accompany those roles. "I've thought of myself as a poet for many years," says Brezsny, who studied religion as a Duke University undergraduate. "Eventually I figured out that nobody reads poetry. You almost have to do it surreptitiously if you want to have an audience."

Brezsny hit on the astrology column as a populist poetic form while he was living in Santa Cruz in the late 1970s. "Poetry proposes that the language you use to render experience helps shape the experience," he says, "that language is crucial to the act of creating your life." And so, he believes, is an astrology column written with the "Dionysian logic" of ecstasy, paradox, and humor he favors. Insisting that his work is rooted in a well-grounded knowledge of the art, Brezsny endorses the "mythic language" of astrology. He first studied astrology with a private teacher in Plainfield, Vermont, in the 1970s but has no use for official sanction or certification. "I see everything I do as inherently astrologically correct," he says.

As a practitioner of what he calls "ironic sincerity," however, Brezsny doesn't need anyone to debunk the self-canceling concept of his column. He'll do it himself. "If I'm not engaged in some sort of self-mocking, I'm probably taking myself too seriously and distorting the information," he says. "I've always said I believe in astrology about 75 percent."

For the record, his own sign is Cancer. But he deflects most other questions about his personal life and won't even reveal his age, except for admitting he's in his 40s. "It's a great blessing not to be known as a personality," he says. "It keeps me humble and close to the source."

Among his other component parts, Brezsny is both prankster and polemicist. His performance art stunts include "Reverse Panhandling," in which he hands out money on a freeway exit ramp. His raps on a corporate "world entertainment war" with the imaginations of a global audience at stake and "a cult of science that propagates the notion that science is more true than the other myths in our culture" roll out with practiced smoothness. His latest project is a novel called The Televisionary Oracle. The hero, he says, is "a character somewhat based on me" who encounters a group called the Menstrual Temple of the Funky Grail. Is Brezsny serious when he talks about the craft of "feminist porn" he's perfecting in the book?

"Everything I do," he says, "is both tongue-in-cheek and not."