Kathleen Henderson Staudt, PhD, Poet
“The idea of grace is pretty fundamental to the way I see the world,” explains poet, professor and spiritual director Kathleen Henderson Staudt, PhD. Powerfully so, as Kathy’s is a poetically transformational story, one that began with degrees from Smith College and Yale University (PhD, Comparative Literature) and a literary criticism teaching background, then slammed head first into a “perfect storm” that included breast cancer, miscarriage, and book rejection. Kathy never imagined her encounter with mortality would lead her to write and publish multiple volumes of poetry, including her most recent, “Good Places,” and she certainly never imagined mystical poetry would appear.
But from darkness, light! In Kathy’s life poetry and spirituality are linked at the core – she even teaches poetry as spiritual practice. As an Episcopalian, she walks a sacramental path similar to that of her beloved David Jones, the important though surprisingly not widely read British Catholic modernist poet and artist, and her work is a beautiful combination of humanness, poetry as prayer, and telling one’s own story within a Scriptural framework. Practicing the arts, she says, is part of what makes us human and connects us to divine mystery.
Kathy’s poetry is smart, giving, and open, as is she. Our conversation ventured from her own artistic and spiritual work, including an about to be published new anthology of poems she edited, "This Thing Called Poetry," written by young adults with cancer, to David Jones and Christian writer/mystic Evelyn Underhill. I loved hearing Kathy’s views on theology, sacrament, and Scripture, and how she uses that lens to write such compelling words. For me, Kathy’s gorgeous poetic voice is one I hope to hear over and over again!
RG: Kathy, thank you for talking with me, I'm truly appreciative and I'm really excited to get to know you and your work! By way of introduction, you are a poet, a professor, a spiritual director at two theological seminaries, Wesley and Virginia, you have a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale, you've written poetry, essays and reviews widely, you've had a number of poetry volumes published, and you teach 'Poetry as Spiritual Practice.' How do you define spiritual poetry? What sets it apart, and what makes it a practice?
KS: I'm not sure I have a definition of spiritual poetry. I think of reading and writing poetry as a spiritual practice so that it's more about what kind of intention and curiosity and listening one brings to a poem rather than the poem itself as a spiritual poem. I don't know if that makes sense. It's not necessarily the content. You can have a poem about almost anything and have it speak to somebody's spirituality, to someone's sense of that place of mystery in our lives that we don't always know what to do with.
RG: So is it more about the person who's reading it rather than the person who's writing it?
KS: I guess for a poet, poetry is a spiritual practice, in my view, because it invites us to pay close attention to the world and we write out of that sense of attention. We notice something and words come, and the words want to name that and probe it and stay with it. So that practice of attention is just at the core of poetry. Mary Oliver has a poem, ‘Praying,’ that is almost like a mantra of people who work on poetry and spirituality and she says, 'It doesn't have to be/ the blue iris, it could be /weeds in a vacant lot/ or a few small stones, just /pay attention, then patch a few words together.' I'm with her on that, that process of paying attention and then patching a few words together and seeing how those words talk back to you about the mystery.
RG: How does it work with the intention of the writer? If the writer is coming from a particularly spiritual place or moment or vision, how does that intersect with the person who's reading it? In other words, how does the person read it with the same intention as what the writer brought to it?
KS: I think that's one of the things a poet has to let go of. You write the poem because the poem wants to be written and then how somebody reads it is another thing. In fact, I just had the experience. I've got a poem that's included in a new anthology that I'm editing, it’s poems by young adults with cancer. The poem came out of my experience of having cancer and coming through it and feeling healed. It's a poem about a retreat center that I went to that was a place of healing for me, but this person reviewing the manuscript read the same poem as being a poem about the experience of being in a cancer ward. That was interesting to me! He didn't read what I put into it but his reading isn't wrong. So that's an example of what I'm talking about. I wrote the poem because I needed to capture this sense of healing and retreat. The reader of the poem brought something else to it and saw it as at that place of being somewhere you didn't want to be.
RG: Which poem was this?
KS: It's in 'Waving Back,' and it's in the series of poems about the cancer experience. 'Waking Dream.’
At the end of a long hallway --
Autumn sunlight, soaking
tended plants, polished floors,
simplicity and order
that sings. . . .
I do not belong here
But meals have been prepared for me
And I am
I move down the corridor,
To a door with a card,
And on that card
RG: Writers don't necessarily write to be understood but I would think a writer of poetry would want some sort of understanding of what was intended.
KS: Right. Let me think about that. Its a multilayered answer to that, which comes out of the different hats that I wear. In the world of literary criticism, there's an old idea called the intentional fallacy that says if you figure out what the poet was trying to say then you've understood the poem. The so-called new critics of the '50s and '60s disputed that idea and said that the poem really is an aesthetic object and there's a lot more going on than just deciphering the writer's intention. A poem is a different kind of communication. Just like if you look at a work of visual art, you stand in front of that work of art – some of my artist friends have taught me this, they say that it's important to stand in front of a work of art for more than 10 seconds, which is the average amount of time that people stand in front of a work of art – and see what you see. Let it work on you. If you do that, you're not trying to figure out what the artist was trying to do. You may be trying to see what the artist saw, and that's more like what I'm talking about. When I write a poem, I'd like people to see what I saw, but they might see it and respond to it in a very different way than the impulse that led to my writing the poem. Or they might say, 'Yes! That experience that you've captured there, that speaks to my experience.’
RG: Is it more that there's perhaps a spiritual impulse on the writer's side that may not float to the reader's side?
KS: Well, the hope is that it will evoke a spiritual response in the reader, but it's not something that you try to manage as a poet. You don't sit down and say, 'OK, now I'm going to write a poem that's going to create a sense of gratitude in my reader.' Because as a poet, all I'm interested in is this sense of gratitude I'm feeling when I look at this tree, and how am I going to get that into words in a way that will capture it and talk back to me? That's what I'm going for, and if I succeed in that, it'll probably talk back to some other people. But it might have a different effect.
RG: I think it's probably true for a lot of people in writing, that you may not have a sensibility about the person's spiritual side. You might read a poem that seems incredibly secular on the surface and yet it hits you in a very deep way spiritually.
KS: Exactly. I'll give you another example. The opening poem in my latest volume, 'Good Places,' it's called, 'The Volunteer,' and it's about a cherry tree. It starts out,
'A tree sprang up, a volunteer
After we lost the shade
Of the oak tree that came down.'
For me, it's a poem about the amazing grace of this tree that I didn't even know was in my backyard and then suddenly there were all these blossoms and it just seems like an image of grace. But even to say that reduces it. I'm just trying to capture that sense of what the last line says, ‘The grace that volunteers.’ A friend of mine read the poem – I gave her the book as a gift – and she said, 'You know, I’m reading these poems very slowly and I started that poem and I got as far as, 'After we lost the shade of the oak tree that came down,' and I immediately thought of my mother-in-law who just died, whose presence we've lost, and that oak tree for me was an image of that. We've lost the shade of this oak tree that came down.’
Wow! I thought, that's a successful poem, right? Because there was some wonder in me that was responding to one thing but it somehow conveyed wonder to somebody else in a different way from their own experience.
RG: Sometimes it's like what the other person says is so much better even than what the writer thought.
KS: Right! Exactly! You're serving the poem that wants to be written. You notice something, your medium is words, and so you work on finding the words, on patching some words together that are going to somehow capture that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but when it works it's a poem that speaks.
RG: You mentioned grace, and I read in your bio that your teaching focuses on the connection between literary art, the theology of grace, and Scripture, and then the spiritual practices involved in reading and writing poetry. I wonder if you could explain how you approach those connections given what we've been talking about.
KS: The idea of grace is pretty fundamental to the way I see the world, that we live in a world that is broken in many ways but we have a sense that this is not the way it is supposed to be. To me, as a literary reader of Scripture, it seems that the arc of the Biblical story is about a God who keeps offering us a kind of freedom and joy and grace and when we screw it up lets us reap the consequences of that, but then offers it again. Again and again, that there's a way to be on offer, that we somehow understand and know exists but we keep not getting it.
I think the original experience of grace is in creation, and in the gorgeousness of the world and the richness of the beauty of what's given to us, and our ability to receive that. Helping people to read Scripture so that they see that story, and I'm not the only one who reads Scripture this way. This understanding that there's sort of patterns in the story that's told, even in the Old Testament where we tend to focus on all of the genocide and the ugliness and the judgmental God, and yet there's also this theme of God's desire to be in relationship with the people of Israel and the people rejecting that desire and God continuing to offer it and desire it and even when they wind up getting sent into exile, God brings them back from exile with some of that beautiful poetry in the Bible. There's this sense of a divine yearning for our wholeness. I find that in Scripture, and I see it in the natural world, and I look for it in human relationships. I think the practice of art and poetry is partly a practice of connecting with others in the human experience and trying to name what is most profoundly desirable in our lives. I don't know if any of that makes any sense at all or what I'm going to think when I see it in print!
RG: As I'm listening to you, I feel like you're writing a poem!
KS: Well, I think theology, the best theology, is poetic. I find sometimes when I talk to seminarians who are chafing at the meticulousness and logic of systematic theology, in which you learn about all these different ways of addressing theological questions, I sometimes say, 'You know, whatever theological system you've chosen, think of it as a sonnet, think of it as the form that's holding the poetry, because we're talking about something we can't understand discursively, we're talking about mystery and love and grace and these are not things you can nail down into a philosophical argument, but when we try to understand it we are kind of growing in our receptiveness to this.'
RG: Do you see all of art as spiritual? Or is it that all of life is spiritual and by inclusion art is as well, and is it a way of engaging with your faith in an artistic way?
KS: The short answer is yes. I think it's kind of a modern tradition that somehow the spiritual is separate from other things, that there's a secular life and spiritual life. I've been reading a lot around this issue of the sort of secularism of the modern world, and I’m not sure. I think we are a sacramental people. We are aware of the connections between the material world and something beyond it, and because of a lot of abuses and wounds, perhaps, from religious discourse, we don't talk about that in religious language much anymore. Poetry and art become our language, or making that connection between our, as a Christian, I would say our incarnate experience and the mystery that is beyond what we can control and understand.
RG: In thinking about the Christian piece of it, first of all, you're an Episcopalian. Are you a cradle Episcopalian?
KS: No, I'm a cradle church goer. I grew up in a liberal Presbyterian family in suburban Connecticut. We were Presbyterians so we read the Bible and talked about how we took it seriously but not literally, way before that was sort of a shocking and interesting thing to say. I grew up assuming that you didn't take everything in the Bible literally but it was an important book, and we tried to make sense of what it had to say to our lives and how we should live our lives. The Presbyterian church was pretty focused on action and living our faith, which is good and important, and the most aesthetic part of it was that I sang in children's choirs and youth choirs and adult choirs all the way through my upbringing and so music and the shape of worship formed me even in that Presbyterian tradition. I learned later that the choirmaster was an Episcopalian so that may explain me. In fact I have two sisters and we're all still involved in churches. One of my sisters is a Presbyterian minister and the other one is Unitarian and a music director at a Unitarian church.
I fell in love with the Episcopal Church in college with the rituals and physical things you do in an Episcopal service. You stand, you kneel, you sing, you use your body as part of the expression of your worship, and also it was a tradition where the ritual and the liturgy are central to who we are as Episcopalians, even more than what we believe. There's an expression that praying shapes believing, that we learn how to be believers by participating in these rites that Christians have been doing for centuries, and we allow ourselves to be formed by that. It's a more aesthetic and intuitive approach to the life of faith than the reform tradition I was raised in, which was more of a kind of confessional – what do I believe and what do I do as a consequence of what I believe? I think for people in sacramental traditions, and that would be Episcopalian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, our faith is shaped by our participating in the life of the Christian community as it’s been lived out throughout the tradition, and has been understood and reinterpreted. We figure out from that what we believe and what makes us whole. We land in a lot of the same places as I landed in the reform tradition, but it's sort of a felt-to-the-bone, embodied thing is how I experienced it and what drew me to become an Episcopalian.
RG: I'm fascinated that you have two sisters who are in the faith life. Did one of your parents have a ministry?
KS: My father was an elder in the Presbyterian church, a lay leader, but the Presbyterian theology understands ordination as belonging to everybody who's in leadership. My Mom was baptized as an adult, actually. Her parents were part of the original Watchtower community, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and they broke off from that. Then they joined a group called the Dawn Bible Students who were very fundamentalist, kind of attentive readers of Scripture, and you see their tracts around. They would worship in the YMCA in New York, they didn't have their own church building, they didn't believe in that. But they had a wonderful community. They had people that supported them and cared for them. They took the Bible literally and didn't believe in the ordination of women, but then they had this granddaughter who was going to be ordained and so they sort of just forgot about the fact that they didn't believe in that, you know?
I have a wonderful picture of my grandfather giving my sister his huge ‘Cruden's Complete Concordance to the Bible,’ showing it to her when she was a young adult before she went to seminary. It was just such a lovely picture of love overcoming doctrine, and I think that's been our family's story. The other thing is my parents were Sunday school superintendents when we were teenagers and we went to a couple of church family camps with the Presbyterian group in the summer. We would all be in church together, we would hear sermons and we would talk about sermons over Sunday dinner. I mean, that kind of classic churchgoing upbringing that I think we usually associate with the south and we were Northeastern liberals. We got our liberalism from our churchgoing. It was during the Civil Rights movement and we got involved with racial relations in the city next door to our little suburban town.
RG: Where did you grow up?
KS: I grew up in Darien, Connecticut which, when you say it, is sort of the name of the elitist all-white suburb, and the city next door was Stamford. One of my most formative experiences was in the late '60s. I was part of a Great Society program. This goes to the arts, actually. It was government funded and designed to bring suburban kids and so-called inner city kids together to do street theater. For two summers I would go to the Y on West Main Street in Stamford, and there was a group of kids from the West Main Street area, which was an African-American pretty impoverished neighborhood, and a few of us from suburban backgrounds, and these two guys from Cornell who were theater majors. I thought of them as being very grown up and I'm sure from my parents point of view it was like, 'Who are these guys?!' They taught us how to do Stanislavsky style improv. We made up our own show that was centered around the assassinations that had just happened and we took it on the road to communes and city community centers around the Stamford and Norwalk area. The first summer I was a participant and the second on staff helping with music. The other kids taught me how to sing gospel music and we put that into our shows. The theory was you could create human connections through the arts and that was why the program was funded. Imagine trying to make a case for funding something like this now. But it was absolutely formative for me, it did exactly what it was meant to do and it has shaped my understanding of privilege and race that we have been talking about so much more now.
RG: How did you get from there to poetry?
KS: You know, I'm not sure! I was involved with poetry mostly as a scholar up until I was in my early 40s. I think it was appealing to a part of me that wasn't really reinforced by my school and social surroundings. In Darien, I was first in my high school class, I was the smart girl, I was the good student, I was the scholar who went off to Smith and then to Yale. You know, I sort of met all the expectations. What I was really good at was English and French and reading poetry so I wrote about poetry, term papers about poetry, and I got interested in poets. I was interested in reading across cultures. It was interesting to me to read literature in French and Spanish, which I did even in high school.
RG: Do you remember who you were reading at the time?
KS: In high school I know I wrote a paper on Edgar Allen Poe and another one on William Blake. Those were both people that fascinated me, and T.S. Eliot, just because he was sort of challenging and I was trying to figure him out. In college I sort of jumped the line and took as a sophomore an upper class seminar in the English Romantics, which was really a little over my head. I remember I wrote the term paper and I got a B+ on it. I had really worked my tail off on it, and the teacher said, 'You know, you've done a lot of work here but this is not an excellent paper.' I read criticism on the poetry and I kind of learned how people read poetry and understand it through different lenses, and I loved the sound of poetry in French. Charles Baudelaire was somebody that I got very interested in early in college. My undergraduate thesis I wrote on Shelley and Rimbaud, so English and French together. I was doing poetry and trying to figure out what my theology was at the same time. My undergraduate thesis was about the image of the veil in Shelley's and Rimbaud's poetry, and this image of something that both reveals and obscures, something transcendent so that it allows you to see it but if you lifted the veil it would be more than you could bear to look on.
That's a Scriptural image too, if you think of Moses coming down the mountain with his face veiled because he'd been talking to God, and if he had lifted his veil people wouldn't have been able to look at him because he had seen the face of God. So I was really interested in that. Then my doctoral thesis at Yale was about poetry. I called it, 'The Problem of Transcendence,' and what do you do with poetry that is trying to put into words what is by definition not expressible in words. So I went back to Shelley, the Romantic poet, but also Stéphane Mallarmé who talks about the poetic text as being a thing as well as something that reveals. That was where I discovered, and we're going to have to talk about David Jones, who is a poet who talks about poetry and the arts as sacramental activities where both are dependent on our material life and signs of something other that affect what they signify somehow. There's a whole long tale about the theological and philosophical issues that Jones helped me to solve.
But your question was how did I get from Summer Street Theater to poetry, and I think as I'm talking to you I'm realizing that Summer Street Theater as a teenager put me in a place where I was really at home. The experience I was having there was not something I could express. I was having it as a young teenager and I did keep a journal about it that I shared with my grandfather who kind of understood this sort of thing. This was a life changing experience and it had to do with something I couldn't really fully express in words. I experienced it in my body and in relationships, and that winds up being what the sacramental life was about but I hadn't put that together at that point in my life.
RG: You use word 'sacramental' a lot, and I understand it on one level, but I'm not sure I'm entirely understanding how you're using it.
KS: How do you understand it?
RG: Well, I was raised Catholic so I understand it from that perspective and what the Catholics say are the ‘sacraments.’ But I'm not sure I know past that what it means, having poetry perhaps be sacramental.
KS: This is where I think David Jones is helpful. He has an essay, 'Art and Sacrament,' and he was a convert to Catholicism. He came to the Catholic faith from art school when he was studying the Post-Impressionists who said that a painting is first of all a thing, a thing made out of paint and brushes and brushstrokes. But it's also a sign of something other. You make a painting of a mountain, and the way he puts it is "'mountain' under the form of paint." That is, when you're making a work of art you're using material things but you are somehow showing forth something else. Even before becoming a Catholic Jones' instinct was that was something like what the church says is going on in the sacrament of the Eucharist, that you have these material things but they're also signs of a transcendent presence. So you don't have to get into all the nitty-gritty of how that works and whether it's transubstantiation and is this actually body and blood and what are we saying here.
RG: Right, that's what I'm wondering!
KS: Right, right. That's not really relevant. What's relevant is that act of holding – he talks about holding up these material things and saying, 'This is something profoundly other that is also profoundly important to the whole human story.' He was really interested in that and I found that to be very resonant with the way I read Scripture and the way I was experiencing worship in the Episcopal Church. I was pretty new to the Episcopal Church when I encountered Jones. The other question that he solved was that at the time I encountered Jones’ work, in the late '70s, I was a graduate student at Yale. I don't know how much you know about the world of literary criticism but at that time at Yale the dominant current was this way of reading called deconstruction, which is pretty much a postmodern way of reading a text.
KS: Which says simply any literary text is a construct out of whatever social context it comes from and there's no meaning that you can arrive at. The meaning of truth is itself a construction. Jacques Derrida talks about getting rid of the ‘transcendental signified,’ and this was the thing I encountered when I got to graduate school. So if you have to get rid of the ‘transcendental signified,’ what does that do to God, what does that do to any kind of religious faith? You often almost can't engage in a conversation in this sort of triumphantly nihilistic postmodern understanding of what literature, culture and the arts were about, that they were basically arbitrary constructs. There was a lot of conversation about signs and the signifier and the signified and the need to kind of drain the signifier and not believe that words could refer to things. To me this was really alien, but it was also fascinating because it did allow for ways of looking at, ‘Well, what are we doing when we're reading a text?’ Actually Biblical studies a generation later has picked up on some of this in kind of fruitful ways, but at that time I was kind of troubled by, ‘If we're talking about signs and signifiers and draining the signifier, what do we do with the language of faith? What do we do with the sacrament?’
Then Jones comes along and he's using language about signs and signs that signify and he's really kind of asserting against – very consciously actually – writing in a post-Christian context when he realizes that when you use religious language, fewer and fewer people are even going to understand you anymore. But what we do as human beings is we make signs, and when we say, ‘This is That,’ we are holding something up, pointing to something other and making connections. From the perspective of faith, when you're making those connections, you're ultimately making a connection to the ultimate signified. That really helped me with navigating this whole world of talking about signs and signifiers. He was sort of the synthesizer of the other two poets that I looked at, because Shelley talked about all languages being vitally metaphorical and everything being alive with meaning and Mallarmé talked about the arbitrariness of the signifier, and for me Jones kind of pulled those two things together in this idea of sacrament, and it was sort of a primitive way that I constructed the logic of my dissertation. I wound up working on him for the next 10, 20 years.
I really have never let go of him though there was a long hiatus. He was exploring – if you're a person of faith living in an era when faith is very suspect and we're really more interested in the utilitarian aspect of everything, what do you do with the dimension of life that's completely gratuitous? For him, and for me, the fact that we practice the arts is part of what makes us human and part of what connects us to that divine mystery that the Biblical tradition calls the Creator, but you can call it other things. But there it is – we make things, and the fact that we make things is a beautiful thing and connects us to our Creator. Now theologically he adds another dimension. He is fascinated by a fairly obscure Jesuit theologian who said the following, and tell me if I'm losing you here, people sometimes glaze over when I get talking about David Jones! If you could see me I'm waving my hands around – I get very excited when I do all this.
RG: I love that!
KS: He was very interested in a Jesuit theologian named Maurice de La Taille, who was talking about what Christ is doing in the institution of the Eucharist, when he gathers his friends and holds up the wine and says, 'This is my blood,' and the bread and says, 'This is my body.' And de La Taille says what he is doing there is "he placed himself in the order of signs," that is, the God, the Incarnate God, part of how we recognize the humanity of Jesus as God Incarnate, is that he makes a sign, which is what human beings do. He joins us in that activity of sign making, and for de la Taille that sign is the whole Passion story starting with the Last Supper and going through the Crucifixion to the Resurrection to every subsequent celebration of Eucharist. So we're always celebrating a God who is trying to reach us by acting out in his own human experience what God's desire for us is in a fallen world.
RG: Is that in some way an artistic sign, an artistic sacramental viewpoint? There is a sense of artistry to it.
KS: Absolutely! It's something that's crafted by God as God Incarnate, by this human being who's also God, making something and it's a work of art that we are left with, which is every celebration of Eucharist that retells the whole story and invites us to keep trying to make sense of it in our own lives.
RG: I should say here, let’s talk about who David Jones was. He was both a Welsh poet and artist, and a modernist, i