Monday, May 6, 2013

Monday Muse: Poets on Faith

A book about faith is as much about "engagement with beauty, hope, doubt, and fear" as about belief (or not) in your god. Nowhere is the truth of this statement more evident than in A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith (Tupelo Press, 2012). 

In their wonderful collection of interviews (presented in essay form), author and editor Ilya Kaminsky and novelist Katherine Towler share their conversations with 19 poets about the "difficult topic" of creating and sustaining a spiritual life that is not defined by the limits of being named "Christian" or "Jewish" or "Muslim", "believer" or "atheist" or "non-religious", but by willingness to be, in the words of Kazim Ali, "not certain" and ever-seeking.

Searching the inner spiritual landscape is no facile exercise. Sometimes borne from loss, mostly it rises from need for making meaning, for marking in words, if you are a writer, a steep ascent to fuller understanding of one's community with god.

It will come as no surprise that the poets featured in A God in the House — it's important to grasp what is implied in the use in the title of that word "A" — are eloquent and remarkably open in relating what Gregory Orr intuits as "the experience of the voice speaking to me". If you are a reader who moves from page to page with a highlighter in hand, you will find yourself marking many passages, especially where the poets expound on what faith shares with poetry, which is, Kaminsky and Towler stress, first and foremost "a sense of awe" and deep appreciation for "a life of wonder" fully lived.

The following brief quotes give some idea of the line of thinking of the interviewed poets, whose writing lives, it is clear, are bound to and animated by a connection to the divine that finds its most personal expression in language.

Carolyn Forche — "We are beings in process, in a deep spiritual process that we recognize and intuit and do not understand at all. . . If we live long enough, if we are given enough time on earth, we can live to see the spiritual potential of human beings. What else do we need? We're in an incredible adventure here with God." (Page 16)

Gerald Stern — " Poets — maybe all artists — get away from their own religious upbringing in order to arrive at a condition of faith." (Page 21) "My faith is in existence." (Page 26)

Kazim Ali — "Prayer is speaking to someone you know is not going to be able to speak back, so you're allowed to be the most honest that you can be. . . Prayer is not a refuge of shelter, so much as it is an opening of arms, an acceptance into whatever storms exist in the world." (Pages 41, 42)

Jane Hirshfield — "The only way we can know anything is with our own eyes and our own looking." (Page 51)

Jericho Brown — ". . . poems ask us not to understand in the same way that we often find ourselves not comprehending the possibility of a God in this world." (Page 89)

Li-Young Lee — "For me the question of what is poetry is very narrow, but then my definition of what is God is very wide." (Page 130)

Alicia Ostriker — "Like other poets, I am often asked if I have a spiritual practice. Yes, writing is my spiritual practice. Ultimately, the words come from somewhere beyond myself. . . ." (Page 146)

Marilyn Nelson — "Surely everyone has a spiritual journey. . . Mine began with wonderment." (Page 153)

Joy Harjo — "Our most beloved spiritual teachers are those who have been tested the most in this world." (Page 211) "What is common to all indigenous peoples is a belief that we are all relatives, all being. All is sacred. . . we are one person, one poem, one story, and one song." (Pages 211, 212)

Julius Lester — ". . . the fact that we pray in song and in silence, that's heaven to me. . . Having a religion [Judaism] that makes this central keeps me in touch with the wonder and the awe. Part of my personal journey was coming to a religious sense of awe, the wonder that I'm alive, and all this is here, too." (Page 233)

Dunya Mikhail — "Poetry is my homeland and my religion." (Page 257)

Other poets included in the book are Jean Valentine, Grace Paley (this interview was conducted the year before the poet's death in 2007), Fanny Howe, Annie Finch, G.C. Waldrep, Eleanor Wilner, Christian Wiman, and Gregory Orr

Each poet's interview is preceded by helpful biographical notes, and information about where, when, and how each was interviewed. Each conversation is framed with a memorable epigraph and followed by a poem that opens still another window of insight into these artists and how they have used their gifts to enlighten their own and our lives.

1 comment:

Tabatha said...

Great quotes. This book has been on my TBR list for a while, but your post has bumped it up higher!