Interview with Pennsylvania poet, as she talks on ‘both … my poetry and … my spiritual life’…

Maddox_Marjorie photoMarjorie Maddox, the pen name for Marjorie Maddox Hafer, a poet from Pennsylvania, is a woman of faith. In this lengthy introduction she spends time in corresponding by email with this Religion Writer. The first subject is Eucharist, that tender subject that sets the relationship with Christ in motion through worship. But let her speak to it through her email and some short quotes from her poems.

The following is what she wrote in her email in September, 2013 to this Religion Writer in Mill Valley, California:

 

THE FIRST OF MARJORIE MADDOX’S EMAIL’S TO PETER MENKIN.

Driving to work today, I was thinking some about the article you sent and also your comments about the “moral” poetic voice. Certainly the voice of the poet or short story writer—like a good painting or piece of music—has the potential to become that voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” It needs to be experienced, though, that voice; the painting, the music, the poem can’t really be paraphrased or condensed and must avoid the didactic. (And sometimes the didactic is misinterpreted as the moral.) But there is that potential for the work to point toward God and there is, indeed, something spiritual or akin to the spiritual in the process of creation.  (We are, after all, made in the likeness of the Creator. The work gains its life from the spirit/breath of the artist.)

 

But, finally, words are not The Word. Period. I think it would be arrogant to think otherwise.

 

Off to classes. I’m teaching all day.  These are getting long, so use what suits you. I hope they are

helpful. I will have less time during the school week, but wanted to get you something today.

 

Comments on poems

 

“Eucharist” (Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, 83-84)

 

cathedral bookMany of my faith poems center on and around what I see as one of

life’s most intimate experiences, the Eucharist. In part, this speaks

to a shifting of focus—both in my poetry and in my spiritual life.

 

The actual poem titled “Eucharist” appeared in an early issue of

Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion and also in the chapbook

Ecclesia, which is my poetic examination of the Anglican Theological

Exam. For a time, my husband considered ordination and so, while he

dutifully answered questions in prose, I explored the theological

concepts of Penance, Consubstantiation, Substantiation, Concomitance,

Reservation, and the like through metaphor and image.  Some of this

series later found itself in the book Transplant, Transport,

 Transubstantiation, which focuses on my father’s unsuccessful heart

transplant.  (For a radio interview on this book, click on WPSU Take

Note Interview Show: For Father’s Day, Poets Todd Davis and Marjorie

Maddox Write About Their

Fathers <http://wpsu.org/radio/single_entry/LL-4707/takenoteradio>.)

 

The rest took up residence in my third full-length book, Weeknights at

 the Cathedral, the collection which most overtly chronicles my spiritual journey.

 

Surely, on one level or another though, my faith informs all my

poetry. It is, along with writing, most central to who I am. My core

beliefs have not changed that drastically. I grew up in a protestant

denomination and am grateful for the strong fellowship, values, and

Biblical education I received there. However, I knew nothing about

liturgy, the Church Fathers, or the Church calendar. Over the

years—and perhaps first at an Episcopal Church I attended while at

Wheaton College—I found myself increasingly drawn to liturgy and

image. And so, too, the Eucharist. Whereas in my early church

tradition we celebrated Communion four times a year with a meal and foot washing, I now celebrate it in weekly Catholic Mass.

 

Again, I see this as a shift in focus. Where and how am I able to most

fully worship the Living Christ?

 

Focus also is my greatest struggle. How to be truly present in

worship? In relationship? In writing? How to best battle all life’s distractions?

 

Through my first full-length book, Perpendicular As I, does not center

on faith, such images and struggles appear there as well, as in

“Invitational Hymn” (17).

 

 

Invitational Hymn

 

Everywhere white and stained glass.

 

margie earlier
The poet in earlier years. She currently teaches at Lock Haven University
Lock Haven, PA 17745 MMaddoxh@lhup.edu

Here, on this page,

notes dip like a child learning to swim.

In these sounds, I feel her

drop to her knees, sink till eyes touch water,

till she blows all air from her lungs.

 

Or, on the next page,

bells humming on a summer night

in circles:  louder, softer, farther.

 

On this pew alone, a girl

 

twisting her hair like a chain, a man,

his voice a groan, a woman,

pushing half-notes past the stone walls, out, over the hills.

The boy beside me breathes in, out, loud,

migrates toward the aisle, leaves me

 

alone with a hymnbook,

words I’ve known too long,

trying hard not to breathe you in,

not to breathe at all.

 

 

Always, the choice, it seems to me, is whether or not to breathe God in.

 

(Interestingly enough, a poet from another state who has now become a

close friend, read this book, recognized the spiritual throughout the

collection, and began our now 10-year friendship. Poetry does

that—brings together seekers across states, countries, and, yes,

centuries.)

 

I am thinking now of an excerpt from John Donne’s “Satire III,” which

I used as epigraph for Weeknights at the Cathedral.

 

 

. . . doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right is not to stray;

To sleep or run wrong is. On a huge hill

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must, and about must go..”

 

 

I was taking an undergraduate class in the 17th Century Metaphysical

Poets from the great Dr. Beatrice Batson, dutifully reading my

homework, when I ran smack into epiphany. It is OK to question, to

doubt—just keep moving forward. Even the Biblical men and women I grew

up studying knew this, but to my teenage self, this was a huge revelation.

 

And so thirty + years later, I keep reading and writing, and, in the

process, discovering. I try, as often as I can, to breathe in.  Deeply.

 

THE SECOND EMAIL. IN A SUBSEQUENT EMAIL THAT MAKES A PART OF THIS INTRODUCTION TO THE INTERVIEW. THE SUBJECT IS THE BUSINESS OF POETRY. MORE NOTES AND THOUGHTS BY MARJORIE MADDOX.

 

 

Poetry as a business

 

I think it has become that, and this is something that I’ve learned rather late.

 

I’ve always been able to switch between the business-of-submitting-writing-hat and the more important actual-writing-the-writing hat. (More often than I care to admit, the submission process occurs when I am procrastinating and unable to face the harder task of composing.) I am even good at teaching these necessary “business” skills to my students.

 

But now there’s the added hat of marketing.  I am not a cocktail party conversationalist. I am not good at hobnobbing.  It’s not part of my personality. Walking into a large room where I know absolutely no one still terrifies me. At heart, I am an introvert.

 

And yet, I am very comfortable (and animated) as a teacher. I love to give readings and interact with others. I am an email (but not Facebook) junkie; I like the one-on-one correspondence. (Some of my closest friends are poets of faith who live more than a few hours away.) It has to do with rapport and connection, I think.

 

I am delighted to direct three reading series and build relationships with visiting authors. I very much enjoy marketing and promoting these writers.

 

These days, though, writers also need to market and promote themselves. I prefer to first build the relationships and let the rest follow. That’s not always, though, how the world works. And so, I’m becoming braver. And so, with this new book, I’m learning to put on the marketing hat, too.  I’m even having fun.

 

P. S. Here’s a poem that’s the epigraph for my circulating short story collection entitled What She Was Saying. The poem speaks, I think, to the same ideas that I mention above:

 

 

 

Articulate,

 

I’m not; all fine-toed thought

tip-tripping on this gang-plank of tongue,

clumsy and cumbersome in the outside air

of others’ ears and expectations,

all incubation of consonants off-limits,

sounds’ syllables looking silly,

without a line to dry on.

What a mess of metaphors the mouth makes!

It’s the pen that injects

tap dance, the click-clack of keys

that decodes the meaning.

Outside the letters, I’m incognito:

A suburbanite. Two toddlers.

A mouthful of stumbling practicality.

You won’t see me

till I write.

 

THE THIRD EMAIL AND A LAST REMARK ABOUT PODCASTS AND READINGS AND THE EXPERIENCE OF SPEAKING BEFORE PEOPLE BY MARJORIE MADDOX.

 

Comment on podcasts, readings, etc.

 

Because writing is by nature such a solitary act, it can been good—invigorating even—to meet face-to-face, hand-to-hand, or even ear-to-ear with my readers.  Why these phrases? Sometimes I read at libraries or universities where I can physically see the responses of my listeners: the leaning in, the recognition in the eye, the tilt of the head, even (dread upon dread) the yawn. Though it is my voice in the room, I am face-to-face with the reader, often continuing a conversation started with the words on the page. Sometimes the reading itself is prelude for more in-depth conversations to come.  Either way, what was once just me and the computer screen has turned into a more visible relationship with readers.—a rapport, not completely unlike that found in teaching. Channels open up.  Listeners respond with their lives, their stories, their beliefs, their art. In a few weeks, I will be reading again at Franciscan University of Steubenville. I know the students and I will be able to engage in more personal discussions about faith than, say, may occur at a state university. That’s a solace, a gift, an exchange of trust.

 

One of the most unexpected and wonderful reactions I received after a reading was at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. After I presented several poems, these world-class musicians responded with their cellos. Replying with a song, another poem, a discussion of faith, an invitation for more interaction—all these opportunities help balance the larger solitude of writing.

 

When I read at elementary schools, I often do so as a way to teach poetry to children, and so I am reading brief pieces as a way to get them to write. The reactions can be immediate and no holes barred.  High fives, squeals, raised hands, intense scribbling (all those hand-to-hand interactions)—or an icy stare. You know right away if you are a success or a flop. I love that immediacy with school visits. It’s very high energy and exhausting, but downright fun. For the most part, the kids still love words. I think most of us start out loving poetry—the songs, the nursery rhymes, the riddles—but some have this love for words stomped out of them. The arts aren’t “practical,” they’re told. I want to help keep the love of words going.

 

In the last several years, I’ve begun doing more radio book reviews, interviews, and readings.  Although I am connected more ear-to-ear than face-to-face with these listeners, this also can be an intimate experience. The words can be traveling with someone down the road, hovering in the kitchen while spaghetti boils, lingering in the background while someone else touches up a painting.  And I don’t have to see those who walk away or turn to another channel! Sometimes I even get the pleasant surprise of someone who doesn’t typically read or listen to poetry strike up a conversation because of what they heard on the radio. Much of this is due to the good work of folks like Garrison Keillor with The Writer’s Almanac and Ted Kooser with his  “American Life in Poetry” series, which promoted poetry through newspapers. Bringing poetry to the people is alive and well. (This is something I spoke about at the Chautauqua Institution a few summers ago.)

 

My most recent radio interview centered on my new book, Local News from Someplace Else. The poems focus on living in an unsafe world, and several of the works stem from area headlines, landmarks, or events.  Although I read some humorous poems, I also read some pieces on tragedies that deeply affected the community, for example, a poem about the TWA Flight 800 plane crash that killed 16 high school students and their chaperones from Montoursville, PA (my neighbor lost both his wife and daughter). Poems like these can’t help but be personal. Even though I couldn’t see the listeners, here were poems about my community read to my community.

 

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wvia/local-wvia-1028614.mp3

 

And poems on faith and doubt are like that as well. There’s a community. There’s an intimacy. The poems can be risky to write and read, but sometimes if you’re fortunate, there’s a connection of souls.

Marjorie Maddox Reads at River Fest, 2012

Published on Aug 18, 2012, by poet David Bauman

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spGNjGmvu8Q

I had the honor of reading with two fantastic poets this weekend at the River Festival in the town of Sunbury, Pennsylvania. This was such a joy for me for many reasons, not only the beautiful day, and the talented writers, but the opportunity to do something concrete and local to bring, as Marjorie Maddox says, “Poetry to the People.”

Marjorie has published several volumes of poetry and is co-editor of the book Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. She was poet in residence last month at the Chautauqua Institute, and is director of creative writing at Lock Haven University, where she just so happened to teach composition to my oldest son. Yes, central Pennsylvania is a vast woodland, but a small world after all.

Here is a good article in the Chautauqua blog about her work in July:
http://chqdaily.com/2012/07/10/poet-i…

You can read more about her in her bio on the Poetry Foundation website: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/m…

And if you are interested in Common Wealth, you can find more info here: http://www.psupress.org/books/titles/…

 

A LIST OF MARJORIE MADDOX’S BOOKS AND PUBLISHED BOOKS.

Here we find some of Marjorie Maddox’s books and published books from her biography as they are listed on her website: Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published  Local News from Someplace Else (Wipf & Stock 2013); Weeknights At The Cathedral  (an Editions Selection, WordTech 2006); Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (2004 Yellowglen Prize, WordTech Editions); Perpendicular As I (1994 Sandstone Book Award); Perpendicular As I (forthcoming as an ebook 2013); When The Wood Clacks Out Your Name: Baseball Poems (2001 Redgreene Press Chapbook Winner); Body Parts  (Anamnesis Press 1999); Ecclesia (Franciscan University Press 1997); How to Fit God into a Poem (1993 Painted Bride Chapbook Winner); and Nightrider to Edinburgh (1986 Amelia Chapbook Winner), as well as 400 poems, stories, and essays in such journals and anthologies as Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, and Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion.

One reader of her new book says this, from her book jacket and the publisher’s page on her book: “Marjorie Maddox’s newest book offers visions of disaster, tempered by a mother’s hope. In taut language, these poems move into the center of familiar tragedies, often lifted from the news—9/11, school shootings, kidnappings, floods, and hurricanes—rendering each one personal. Local News from Someplace Else is a reminder that what separates us from destruction are sheer luck (or grace) and the insistence of life itself.”
—Shara McCallum, author of This Strange Land and The Face of Water:                                                 New and Selected Poems

The work is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, BAM, Wipf and Stock, and elsewhere: https://wipfandstock.com/store/Local_News_from_Someplace_Else

 

San Francisco Chronicle:

http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Kids-books-that-make-a-pitch-for-baseball-3166855.php#

Though her children’s book Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems by Marjorie Maddox was not favorably reviewed by Kirkus Review, it is an energetic book and fun. Sadly, the reviewer says it wasn’t well designed. It is also said in the review the illustrations by John Sandford are uninspiring. I didn’t think that at all, and they are fun and attractive, if not special. The reader of this review would think not to even look at the book in the bookstore, but I say do look at it on the shelf. It is worth giving it a look and judge for yourself. After all, Marjorie Maddox is a good poet. That is known.

A Podcast on the baseball poems:

WVIA August 23, 2010 ArtScene with Fiona Powell

Here the baseball book is favorably reviewed:

Booklist: RULES OF THE GAME

The overlap between poetry readers and baseball fans at this age range may be small, but for those in the middle of that particular Venn 51WcLmjo-uL._SY346_diagram, this is indeed a rare treat. Which isn’t to say others won’t gain something from this book. Sports fans will find themselves nodding in recognition of Maddox’s sophisticated grasp of the game’s intricacies, while language mavens will appreciate her joyous wordplay and dead-eye command of poetic devices, even if they don’t quite catch all of the allusions. A knuckleball becomes “that pigeon / flapping awkwardly / out the barn door of a hand” and a line drive “a sharp swing of invisible string on which the ball careens.” Some of the best lines are the simplest: a sacrifice bunt “kills it with a tap. Sandford’s charcoal pencil drawings, backed by sepia-toned pages, may not exactly grab readers’ eyes, but they impart a classy timelessness to the book that’s a nice match to its subject. For the right reader, this could be an eye-opening glimpse of poetry doing what prose cannot.

– Ian Chipman

 

 

School Library Journal

“[Maddox’s] carefully constructed word pictures offer dramatic snapshots of infield flies and collisions between fielders, sacrifice bunts, balks and pitch-outs, stolen bases, and grand slams. … Compact yet full of meaning, these selections offer glimpses of the game’s pleasures and poignant moments. Sandford’s black-and-white pencil drawings add to the drama, focusing viewers’ attention on the gangly pitcher’s calculating gaze or the single-minded pursuit of the pony-tailed infielder. Maddox’s whimsical wordplay will be savored by casual sports fans and hardcore baseball addicts alike.”

 

http://wpsu.org/radio/single_entry/LL-2278/bookmark

 

Once again I am going to quote from someone’s review. This time the review is by The Scrapper Poet http://thescrapperpoet.wordpress.com/tag/marjorie-maddox/ where she writes about this most recent book I find disheartening and less than hopeful myself, titled Local News from Someplace Else:

Many of the poems in this collection explore tragic news events that have marked the later years of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century.  Indeed, if I wanted to use the cliché, “Ripped from the Headlines” to describe many of the poems, I could, but many of Maddox’s works do more than simple retell the event. For instance, in “Seven-Year-Old Girl Escapes From Kidnappers” she invites the reader to be with a young determined victim: “And we climb with her/out of that abandoned basement” so that we can understand both the place where the victim is escaping and the place where she is escaping to: “a city not brotherly/a ghost-world of gray.” In another poem, “Woman, 91, Frozen to Floor” we learn about a victim who kneels on her kitchen floor, hoping for warmth but finding herself surrounded by broken pipes and water that turns to ice, her “muscles about the room/bullies her, pins her knees/to the slick floor.”  Other poems explore the different eyewitnesses of the United Airlines Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania on September 9, 2001 or meditate on a daughter’s years in school years after the Columbine shootings.

Always, Maddox seems to be asking, what should our proper responses be to these grim events.  Perhaps the answer is found in the poem “Backwards Barn Raising” where a narrator addresses the 2006 Amish school shooting in Nickel Mines, asking “And what can we do but wail with you/grief burning back to ashes//those splintered schoolroom boards/that heard the bullets?” but also responding with admiration, “Even out of this/you build forgiveness.”

Still, what dominates this book is not poetic headlines of the sad and violent news of our world.  Instead, Maddox spends many poems celebrating the news on the homefront – defining home in her poem “Settled” by explaining “Burrs in their Pennsylvania wind/we’d drift, stick at most a year/in these hill four hours from everywhere.”  In her collection, we see a young daughter pretending to travel in a make-believe time machine, a woman swimming at the YMCA while she is pregnant, and a couple learning to ride bicycles again.  Some of her poems depict everyday landscapes such as diners, doctor offices and backyards.  There is a quiet spirituality about this life that Maddox is examining, one of contentment in spite of the everyday fears that threaten to engulf us.  My favorite poem, “Anniversary Coffee” depicts a couple quietly celebrating an important even in their lives in a place they know well: “Those behind the counter/know us and know//when to save what we want.”  The narrator concludes the scene saying, “You are/not what I ordered but what I order now//across the café table, across the morning/spread with such delectable savor.”

Let us face it, Marjorie Maddox is a woman, and a married woman with children, let us say that important fact, who likes to write. She wanted to write her answers to the interview questions. When faced with some short emails asking about matters of opinion like what she felt about Eucharist, and poetry as business, and even the more difficult question of the moral voice of the poet, she really got into the swing of things and so to speak put pen to paper and took some time writing this Religion Writer a thoughtful email. Thanks for your answers, Marjorie. You’ll find much of what you wrote here. It is good to hear from a contemporary poet of Pennsylvania. I think we can file you under Believer. Readers can write Marjorie Maddox here: Maddox Hafer, Marjorie MMaddoxh@lhup.edu

 

 

INTERVIEW WITH POET MARJORIE MADDOX WITH PETER MENKIN, RELIGION WRITER, AS SENT BY EMAIL BY THE POET TO MILL VALLEY, CALIFORNIA IN SEPTEMBER, 2013

 

  1. 1.     The act of directing creative writing, as you do at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, must have its moments. What are some of those moments when the student writer comes to fruition, especially the student poet? Can you remember a seminal transition or even an opening up of the writing juices in a young person’s life in the classroom in this area. This moment needn’t be momentous, just telling.

Although there are many aspects to directing my university’s creative-writing track, when interacting with the students themselves, I interpret the role of “director” as “one who gives direction” or “guidance.”  In this way I’ve been privileged, yes, to witness and take part in many “epiphanies” in the student, many instances where the brain and heart and spirit click into action, and what were once the raw materials of ideas and words transform into crafted poetry.

This is not to say that such transformation is immediate or easy. It is often debated in the creative writing world whether or not such writing can, indeed, be taught. Can a student enter the class having never written a line of verse and exit as a “poet”? Yes and no.

Certainly, not all students will or can embrace the art, just as not all those enrolled in a music class will or can become inspiring pianists. Yes, they can memorize the notes and tap on the keys, but does the music soar? Have they captured in their playing some part of this world or the next? Have they connected the day-to-day of practicing scales with the beyond-this-world passion of the spirit?

The strong writer (and this is true also in Composition classes) moves past a formulaic structure of words on the page into the realm of mystery. Can I guarantee that a student will “become a poet”? No. But can I teach and model the necessary skills? Can I challenge and inspire? Can I instill an effective process of revision? Will my students leave stronger writers? Absolutely. For those who commit themselves to write (for a writer is one who writes, after all), it’s true every time.

Getting to that point takes time and groundwork. In my classes, week five seems to be the magical number. Why, I can’t say, except that by this point we have spent a lot of time reading and discussing literature. (I am a firm believer that one of the best teachers of strong writing is good and diverse literature. Too many would-be authors want to take on the “persona” of a writer, without actually reading or writing. There’s much to learn from masters of the craft.) We’ve also, by week 5, spent a lot of time writing; giving and receiving feedback; and revising, revising, revising. We’ve talked much about precision—exactly the right word in the right place—and perspective—coming to a subject or idea from a fresh point-of-view. We’ve practiced writing both with our eyes (image, detail, metaphor, etc.) and our ears (alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc.), so that words resonate with music and meaning. And we’ve become a community.

That gift of a trusted writing community is especially important for my students, a time and place where they can experiment with a wide variety of styles and subject matter and receive careful feedback from both myself and peer authors. We look at the poem as art, not diary, and discuss where and how to best shape it. We marvel at what works well; we push the author to polish what does not.

I also take my students into a community of writers beyond the classroom. After having turned in a final portfolio (a type of revised “book” complete with an Introduction), students give an end-of-the-semester reading at a local coffee house. It is a celebration, really, of all that they’ve accomplished—and some of them have accomplished much. The difference between those early attempts (also included and written about in their books) and the more polished versions are obvious, and, often, students are giddy with excitement. They can see the transformation both in their poems and in themselves. They can hear it in the pieces their fellow writers read, and they are now more confident and proud to share their own work with a wider community. They are glad I am there, but, at this point, they are most connected to their poems and to each other. Their applause is loud and genuine—as is mine.

By the end of the semester, I’ve also asked that authors submit work to our literary and arts journal, a magazine that is written, edited, and designed by students. In addition, each spring, Theatre or Speech students select and “perform” from the magazine poems, stories, and essays through dramatic readings. There in that audience, I hear a phrase a particular student rewrote and revised until it was just so. Or I watch as a young woman listens intently to someone else bring to the stage what she has written. Or I overhear a young man burst into laughter or gasp in amazement at the precise way a student author has expressed ideas. I see students passing out copies of the magazine to friends. I hear them quoting each other’s lines. To cite the American Express ad: “priceless.”

Much of this enthusiasm for the magazine and the subsequent performance stems from students’ earlier engagement with our visiting authors. At LHU, we host The Pennsylvania Authors reading series, The UpWrite series (which emphasizes diversity from a number of different angles), and WriteNow: Community Conversations with Contemporary Authors. These events, which I co-direct, often profoundly change the way apathetic students see literature and further inspire students already “in love” with reading and writing.  Students need to read, meet, and interact with “real live” writers; they need to hear authors talk not only about the writing process, but about the various ways they integrate into their art through words the unique, yet often universal, challenges of their lives. I can’t tell you how many times a student has said to me, “I thought this reading would be boring, but this really changed everything for me” or “Wow, he came from my hometown. If he can write like that, maybe I can, too.” The impact of visiting authors is both immediate and long-lasting. Semesters later, students continue to bring up an image or idea from an earlier reading. They experiment with new approaches. They start seeing as themselves “writers.” And they are.

This past week, amidst some of my more tedious duties of scoring quizzes, battling my on-line gradebook, and filling out paperwork, I received in the mail an inscribed novella from a former student, gone from the university now a good decade. She thanked me for all that she had learned and was continuing to use in her writing.

The same day, a student came up to me after my Composition class and stated, quite forcefully, “Thank you for these types of exercises, for connecting us not just to the literary, but to the human.” Of course, they (the human and the literary) are intricately intertwined—as is my life as a writer and my life as a “director of/guide to” other writers.

It was good to be reminded. Though it was the end of the day and I was tired, I returned to my paperwork with a bit more stamina.

 

  1. 2.     I have often wondered about the campus life for the poet, for it must be a rich life. But mostly I want to know how do the rhythms of your days enrich your life of being a poet. For example, someone told me that a poem can have a life in its conception and in its revision living many years. A life of revision, even. Does the life of writing poetry meld with the life of living the life of a teacher and the campus life and the life of living the poet’s journey?

In addition to being a “director of/guide to” my student writers, I also am a collaborator. What I mean by this is that in the role of reader and editor, I work together with the student to make the poem, story, essay, or drama its best possible self. How can this line more fully capture the moment? How can this phrase better echo the poem’s earlier rhythms? I don’t revise for the students, but I push them to see where and how the work can be strengthened, where and how it can move from one level to the next. Often, as editor, I also am gardener, weeding out the weak images, clichéd passages, or flat language to allow the rest of the poem to flourish. It is a very creative process—serving as this type of editor—in the same way that teaching is a creative process. There is engagement, rapport, trust, innovation, experimentation, discipline. These are, of course, also techniques and strategies useful to me in my own writing, so there is crossover, you see. In all three—editing, teaching, writing—there is the intimate interaction of words and audience.

I worked for several years after college as an editor and proofreader of computer books—for me, not the same as teaching at all. By the end of the day, I was completely depleted with no creative energy. This is not to say that I don’t often arrive home these days drained and exhausted. I do. However, I’ve still been connected throughout the day to words and ideas (by “words” I mean literature, not computer texts). I’ve seen students come alive to writing and reading. I, too, have been inspired by our discussions and interactions. This, in turn, motivates me to write (even when I am not able time-wise to do so immediately).

For instance, a few years ago, I began teaching Dante’s Inferno in a freshman Honors class. I had not previously taught the work, didn’t even remember if I’d ever read it closely, so I was learning along with the students, engaging with the text as reader, as teacher, and eventually as poet. One of the poems that came from this experience was the following piece, later published in Anglican Theological Journal.

 

Winter: Teaching Dante’s Inferno

 

March:  icy apparitions, frigid prayer,

all good intentions damned to frozen lakes—

or were they good?—the wordcraft of warfare

 

revises motives, thaws our worst mistakes

to lukewarm doubt, to culture-clutching spin.

And yet the sleet rains down, the once-soft flake

 

pounds snowy fists, bites suntanned, frost-bound skin.

Hellfire or glacial pit—Christ, sin is sin.

 

What I was struck by in these class discussions and later in the poem was our (and maybe by this I mean “my”) tendency to euphemize my own sin, to pretty it up, not call it what it is. It is easy to do. I have never been a rebel or searched out confrontation. I have not been enmeshed in great scandal. By the world’s standards, I have lived a pretty straight-laced life, but in reading Dante, I could not escape coming face to face with the cowardly, those not brave enough to take a stand. The sin of omission: how great and wide a sin this can be and how often I fall into its abyss.

And so, the reading, the teaching, and the writing were a way for me to struggle with this, a way to examine my own soul. It is a long ongoing process.

Although such moments intersect with my teaching days, often the actual physical process of writing is put on hold. I teach four classes every semester at a state university; many of these are writing classes, sometimes with 26 students in a class. That is a lot of reading and grading. Add to that committee work and advising, and I clock in fifty to seventy hours a week. It is a heavy, time-intensive profession.

Even more importantly, I have a husband and two children. It is a lot of juggling of roles. During the school year, many of my poems, stories, and essays are there churning in my brain while I am doing dishes or teaching my daughter to drive (well maybe not the latter as I am focused on the road!) but don’t make it to the actual page or computer screen until my winter or summer “breaks.” Surprisingly, to me, I seem to get just as much if not more written this way. It is as if I am, on one level or another, writing away, but the words wait to burst forth during the less cluttered spaces of time.

These spaces also leave me more time to think and rethink, to go back and revise previous work, and to more fully connect with my writer self. In turn, I am able to more fully connect with my teacher self at the beginning of a new semester. The one feeds the other. Although I would prefer to do much less teaching and much more writing, the two do complement each other. For that, I am grateful.

 

  1. 3.     Let’s talk some more of the work of writing, but something also about the mystery of what is religion. You have written a poem titled, “The Sacrament of Penance,” in your book Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation. Is the heart of religion the nature of mercy in your sense of what religion is about?  And if not, what is religion’s heart? For I do get that in your poem when you write, “Wherefore, I pray God to have mercy upon me…” Or is that just in this poem? I know, tough question and maybe an unfair one. Maybe even too personal rather than personable. Staying more with the poem itself is okay.

Yes, I think at the heart of Christianity, to be specific, is mercy. We are offered this great gift of forgiveness, a gift which, in our human stubbornness and arrogance, we reject far too often—or maybe “accept” intellectually but still keep at a distance. And yet it’s always there, as the poem’s epigraph by Edward Pusey describes absolution: “a second plank given to us by the mercy of God after shipwreck.”

The poem you reference, “The Sacrament of Penance,” is part of that same series in which I wrote “poetic” answers to the Anglican Theological Exam. On one level, the poem explores the various theological components of this sacrament: absolution and repentance (contrition, confession, amendment). On another level, I try to envision what these mean at their deepest, most personal levels. What is true contrition? How, if we are truly sorry for our sin, do we go out and commit it again and again? Are we, just like Young Goodman Brown in Hawthorne’s story, promising that we will cling to Faith “tomorrow”—while at the same time we continue toward life’s dark woods?

On an even more personal level, how can I pray to focus more fully on the Body and Blood of Christ in my everyday life and, even before my prayer is finished, be thinking of some school duty I have not yet completed?  Some days I feel very much like the apostles sleeping while Jesus prayed in the garden. “Could ye not watch with me one hour?” He asks. Sometimes, it seems, I sleep for days.

I do not like confession. I do not like admitting my sins in front of others, even when that other is a priest, a representative of Christ. But is it necessary? I think so. That doesn’t make it any easier.

All of this has been a part of my spiritual journey toward a more liturgical form of worship, toward the merciful arms of God, as explored in the following:

The Sacred           Heart of Jesus

O holy auricles,      venerable ventricles,

cathedral of cavernous sanctification, the nave we need,

 windowed with the unstained wine of crucified corpuscles,

we echo in your vaults, our sin-cleansed cells rising high

  into arias, into the buttressing arch of your aorta.

 Here is the architecture of mercy,

shafts bright with agape shine,

our mortal veins split wide

on your unveiled

altar of

heart.

 

(previously published in Christianity and Literature and Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation)

I also see this concept of “mercy” in our relationship to others. Forgive us, we plead in The Lord’s Prayer, “…as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What a hard but important condition. How powerfully it connects our relationship with God and our relationships with others. To me, one of the most almost unbelievable acts of forgiveness/mercy came from the families who lost children in the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting.

 

Backwards Barn Raising

Nickel Mines, October 2006

 

And what can we do but wail with you,

grief burning back to ashes

 

those splintered schoolroom boards

that heard the bullets?

 

Flames hot enough to melt the nails—

now and then—

 

rise up in our eyes; we hear

that ancient hammer thud

 

echo, “Eli, Eli,

lama sabachthani?

 

Can what is lost be leveled?

You hold each other’s hands,

 

huddle in an unending circle,

“. . . . as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

 

Even out of this,

you build forgiveness.

 

The book in which the poem appears, my latest, Local News from Someplace Else  (Wipf & Stock 2013), focuses on living in an unsafe world. But the world (and the poems) are not without mercy, not without hope. Many are joyful celebrations of life even in the midst of this country’s tragedies. This is mercy, too.

 

  1. 4.     Why do you go so contemporary in your new book, even to the gynecologist? The title of the new book is Local News: from Someplace Else, by Marjorie Maddox, and takes us into the misery and angst of our newspaper headlines and television presence as it defines us. There is even a television with snow-filled screen on the cover. What turned you to visions of disaster for your themes? Did angst overtake you right to the genitals? Tell me I am wrong and how, where. Briefly, show me how God is present, whether we know it or not. If you say so.

The headline poems are in the book because they are in my life, in all of our lives.  How do we live in this world of school shootings, hurricanes, and bombings? How do we raise a family? My children were toddlers on 9/11. Now they are teens. Their growing-up years are very different than mine. As a society, we keep adjusting to new definitions of “safety” and “home.” We have to.

This doesn’t mean that ours is a life without delight. In fact, the poem that you mention, “At the Gynecologist’s,” is much more about hope than horror. Although the speaker fears bad news, the poem ends with “and, yes, it’s a baby.”

PrintPerhaps this is where our hope most lies—in our children, in our bond with family and friends, in the parent/child relationship of God and mankind—and so the book includes many joyful moments as well. It gives us that choice, as articulated at the end of “Twice”; “will we continue, with hope/or fear, to look up straight/into whatever warms us?” Yes, tragedy hits us hard in the heart (even in the genitals as you ask in your question), but so does joy; so does mercy.

There is a time to grieve. There is a time, as Ecclesiastics tells us and my poem “After” echoes, “to get living again.” In Local News from Someplace Else, moments of mourning occur alongside moments of rejoicing.

And isn’t this the reality of life?

 

  1. 5.     I am sure I have missed much, and wonder, tell me again, do you believe God is present in the television snow-filled screen and anxiety of the news writer’s reality he presents of the world? What has this Religion Writer missed in these questions of you. Please add here. And thank you for your time.                                                                

Against a dark backdrop, the stark older TV with its static-filled screen captures well several of the book’s central concerns:

•our paradoxical horror of and fascination with local and national events and how, too often, we disconnect from our own lives

•the sometimes static and confusion of our days

•our nostalgia for the past and hope for an unclear future (and thus our attempt to “tune in” to our everyday lives while trying to make sense of the chaos).

Ultimately, though, I think the cover and the book emphasize our universal joys and sorrows—what we share even with those whom we’ve never met.

Do I see God as present in these universal joys and sorrow? Yes. In the former, as grace. In the latter, as comfort.

 

Peter, thank you for the opportunity to think through these questions.

 

 

 

ADDENDUM

 

Weeknights at the Cathedral

 

Weekday evenings, I watch you

stuff soprano into boy into choir robe

like ricotta into a shell,

faces bursting on the high A.

A priest wraps the rotten notes about his collar,

fingers them like a rosary

till they rise, whole, smooth,

beyond the organ pipes.

Sometimes you hide in those pipes,

pop out on middle C.

Sometimes you filter through the stained glass,

jiggling the tinted cross

until your thorns slip.

Today, hunchbacked on the fourth pew,

canvassed in grays,

you kneel, a beggar woman.

I think you are praying for me

 

(from Weeknights at the Cathedral)

 

Ash Wednesday

 

Fingernails scrubbed clean as latrines

in the army, this symbol

of a man dirties his thumb

with our sin, the powdery ash riding high

on his pores, not sinking in

before he sketches the gray

of our dirt-birth across a brow

we were born to furrow.

 

Listen to the sound of forgiveness:

the crossing of skin, the cult-

like queuing up to explode

in ripped whispers, “Lord,

have mercy, Christ, have

mercy, Lord, have mercy.”

 

And we want it.  And we take it

home with us to stare back

from a lover’s forehead,

to come off in a smear on the sheets

as we roll onto each other’s skin,

or to wear like a bindhi this medal of our not winning

each day we wake to the worlds

we are and are not.

 

And when we wake too early

before the light of just-becoming-day

sneaks in on us, and we stand, toes cold,

in the tiled bathroom, still lonely, deceived

into piety, scrubbing away the grime of our humanness

like fierce fierce toothbrushes on latrines

in the army, there it is still,

raw with our washings:

the human beneath.

 

(from Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation)

 

 

Backwards Barn Raising

Nickel Mines, October 2006

 

And what can we do but wail with you,

grief burning back to ashes

 

those splintered schoolroom boards

that heard the bullets?

 

Flames hot enough to melt the nails—

now and then—

 

rise up in our eyes; we hear

that ancient hammer thud

 

echo, “Eli, Eli,

lama sabachthani?

 

Can what is lost be leveled?

You hold each other’s hands,

 

huddle in an unending circle,

“. . . . as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

 

Even out of this,

you build forgiveness.

 

(from Local News from Someplace Else)

 

 

Comma          

….of all that is, seen and unseen

 

what we see and don’t

split by the simple curve

of cursive, a pencil slip

or determined nitch

on paper. God

Almighty,

we miss epiphany

when we step

our voice too quickly

over the light lines

punctuating the Light

of all that is,

visible and invisible,

our hurried eyes

forgetting to read

what so powerfully pauses

our lives between

the meanings.

 

(from Weeknights at the Cathedral)

 

Invitational Hymn

 

Everywhere white and stained glass.

 

Here, on this page,

notes dip like a child learning to swim.

In these sounds, I feel her

drop to her knees, sink till eyes touch water,

till she blows all air from her lungs.

 

Or, on the next page,

bells humming on a summer night

in circles:  louder, softer, farther.

 

On this pew alone, a girl

 

twisting her hair like a chain, a man,

his voice a groan, a woman,

pushing half-notes past the stone walls, out, over the hills.

The boy beside me breathes in, out, loud,

migrates toward the aisle, leaves me

 

alone with a hymnbook,

words I’ve known too long,

trying hard not to breathe you in,

not to breathe at all.

 

(from Weeknights at the Cathedral)

 

Eucharist

 

Host

 

the small circle of face

we see by

in light of wine

 

the sliver of why

that bends the bones

begs “Come!”

 

the orbed cross

bright in the palm

of the poor

 

the crucified moon

nailed high

on the night of tongue

 

 

Chalice

 

To sip is to sing the Amen

into veins, sweeten

the soured tongue.

But first:  lips

pursed with it,

hollowed mouth brimming

with want.

 

This is the swallowing

of what spewed out:  spears

stuck long in the side,

thorns thick in the skin.

No trickle.

A Hallelujah

torrent down the throat.

 

(from Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation)

 

 

Easter Eve Vigil

 

Awaiting baptism,

our first-born son sleeps

the sleep of the dead.

 

Our insomnious daughter,

all two-year-old insight and innocence,

proclaims, “It’s dark, dark, dark!”

 

and “cross of Jesus”

in the sanctuary silence.

Nothing can calm her pre-resurrection joy.

 

Finally, in the depth of blackness,

the boulder of Lent rolls away

to Easter.

 

“This little light of mine”

drips the bright blood of light

across pew and aisle, and I see

 

my daughter enraptured

by her brother breathing

bubbles, his calm face

 

starting to surface

into this world of renewal:

two small ones

 

wrenched so recently

from my dark night of the soul

into these still waters

 

of family where Christ struts

triumphantly and loudly

on waves as smooth as wafers.

 

(from Weeknights at the Cathedral)