“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, is that true?
KS: Anglo-Welsh because he didn't know any Welsh, he wrote in English. But my father who, bless his heart, read every word I ever wrote, the one time somebody asked me if David Jones wrote in English and I said yes my father said, 'Well, the words are English,' because he's pretty hard to understand. My favorite poem is 'The Anathemeta.' It's very dense and allusive, like some of the major modernist works like Eliot's ‘The Waste Land’ or Pound's ‘The Cantos’ or Joyce's ‘Finnegan's Wake,’ which Jones very much admired.
RG: I read that Auden called ‘The Anathemeta’ the best long poem in English in the 20th Century.
KS: He did, that's right, and his review of it captures some of what I'm saying, too. I think Auden responded to much of what I also respond to, that it's a poem that kind of teaches you how to read it as you read it, and he provides a lot of footnotes because he knows that he's going to have to explain things but then the footnotes wind up being off-putting to people. He's trying to convey how this whole sacramental practice happens in language. Jones was also a visual artist so his practice as a visual artist blends into his practice as a poet and he understands the words of the poem the way he understands the materials that a visual artist is using.
RG: He also painted religious subjects though, is that right?
KS: He did, yes.
RG: On your blog you said you saw him as a poet for our time and yet I don't recall ever hearing about him, which is horrifying to me! But is he kind of William Blakean?
KS: Well in the sense that he's both an artist and a poet, yes. He doesn't see himself as a prophet in the way that Blake did. Blake makes analogies between the way that he creates his work, he talks about burning the words into the plate and how his prophetic poetry is supposed to do that as well. I think for Jones there's this self-consciousness of the artist, and this is a modern thing in some ways, that the artist makes the work of art but there's always the idiosyncrasies of the paint and the style of the artist. He's not doing purely representational art, he is inviting us to watch the artist making something out of this subject. Probably his most religious paintings are religious by their title, not by subject matter. I mean, he's painted, he's done crucifixions and explicitly Christian themed art but there's a beautiful painting in the Kettle's Yard Museum in Cambridge, England called 'Vexilla Regis,' and the 'Vexilla Regis' is the title of a Latin hymn that is sung on Good Friday, a hymn to the cross. The painting is of three oak trees outside the poet's window and there's something about the way he paints those trees and echoes the iconography of crucifixions that connects that everyday image of the tree with that horror story in his faith.
Similarly he has a painting called, 'Flora in Calyx Light,' Flora being the Roman goddess of nature and fertility and flowering, and Calyx is Latin for chalice, and it's a painting of flowers in a wine goblet and flowers climbing through a window, and there's something about it that's just holy and seems to be about the Eucharist but don't ask me to explain it! That's what he does, he kind of sees the divine presence in whatever he's painting and actually he also does painted inscriptions and makes the words into kind of artistic shapes. There's some kind of connection between the process of making a work of art and what it represents. He's doing it so you can see it the way he sees it, and sometimes it works, and I think that's what I find inspiring about him.
RG: This is probably a good place to segue into your own poetry. You wrote in an essay that Jones looked to the particularities of place, landscape, story and ritual, and his work invites readers to do the same. In many ways I could say the very same about your poetry.
KS: Interesting. I think my poetry is a lot more accessible than Jones' is.
RG: I haven't read much of his but your poetry is very accessible.
KS: I think that's right, I think there's a common vision there, even if there's not a common style. I think I've come to see the richness of life and the gift of life in all of those things you listed there.
RG: I noticed there was a lot of emphasis on sound, on birds, flowers, time, growth, change, family, children, and the idea of home. Were those things always deeply resonant for you or were you kind of surprised when certain themes kept appearing? I was really struck by the humanness in your poetry.
KS: Yeah. Well I think we have to talk about where I was in life when I started writing poetry. I was pretty much into my mid 30s. I saw myself as an academic doing this work on David Jones. I wasn't writing poetry – I wrote about poetry. Then my husband's career got to be a lot more demanding than mine.
RG: What does your husband do?
KS: He's a scientist, he does cancer research at the National Cancer Institute. What happened was I was teaching full time at Drexel University and sort of on a path to do the tenure track thing. I was starting to see what some of the challenges were of being a woman in academe. I hadn't started my family yet, although I was married, and I got an NEH grant to write this book on David Jones that I published many many years later. I got the grant in the early '80s. I followed my husband to Boston where he was doing a post-doctoral fellowship and had my first child and was trying to get this book on David Jones finished while I was having my first baby because the wisdom in academe was you should finish the book before you have the baby. I thought I'd done that, but then the book got turned down.
RG: Oh no!
KS: It took longer than I thought. I was on leave from Drexel for two years and then something happened, it was like a conversion experience. I realized that this child rearing thing was really rich and I didn't want to be missing it. I decided that even though Drexel had given me this three-year leave of absence, I wasn't going to go back. I decided this even when my husband had managed to get himself offered a job at Penn and we could have easily gone back. But there was just this moment – I've even tried to tried to write about this, but it was this moment that I'll never forget, just sitting at the sticky kitchen table in our apricot painted rental kitchen in Watertown, Massachusetts and my 2-year-old was in the high chair. My husband called, he was in Philadelphia and he said, 'You know, Plan A is a go. I've got this job at Penn, you can go back to Drexel in the fall,' and I realized I'm not doing that, this is not who I am anymore. My husband was amazed, he couldn't believe it. I said I still think we should go back to our life in Philadelphia, because we had church, we had community, all of this. It actually freed him and he got offered this job in Washington and we wound up later on going to Washington. I call it my Annunciation moment. I realized what I wanted to do was have another baby.
RG: Speaking of making, and sacramental!
KS: Yeah, well this is a story understood through that lens in retrospect. I'm going to tell you this whole shaggy dog story. You may not want to put it in, but I knew that's what I wanted to do. We got to work on making another baby and he decided he'd stay a little bit longer on his post-doc as long as I didn't have to hurry back to my job. That was OK with me, I was working on getting a draft of this book and I sent it off to Oxford University Press while I was working on seeing if we could have another baby. I am not making this up – on Good Friday of 1987 I had an early early miscarriage, and the same day the manuscript arrived on my doorstep, rejected.
RG: Oh my God. Wow.
KS: So the whole Plan A of my life was gone. I also had not been involved in a church because our church was in Philadelphia, and I didn't have that religious community as I was encountering this crisis. My husband was great, it was Good Friday and he figured out we should at least get to church for Easter on Sunday. We found a church and went that Easter and it was quite a bleak experience because we didn't know anybody. But there was something in us that knew we needed to get back and for the next year I kind of climbed back. I started going to an Episcopal church that was within walking distance from our house, taking my son with me and getting back into that practice of regular weekly worship, not really knowing why I was doing it.
But you know I do remember there was a friend of mine during that period who knew me from Philadelphia and also knew how excited I was about the work I was doing on David Jones, and she said to me before this whole sequence of events, 'You know, this Jones project is how you worship.' I think she was probably right about that, that was how I was keeping in touch with that spiritual grounding in me. But the fact was I needed to get back to actually practicing so I went to a very unsatisfactory little Episcopal church that was a dying church in Watertown, but they had a weekly Eucharist. I showed up with my baby, and there was one other family with a baby, and we kind of made it work, you know? That was a pretty profound kind of shake up, and then I got pregnant with my daughter and we moved to Washington and kind of went on with it. The book got rejected yet another time in the course of making that second baby, and my daughter was born, so I remember the book was still in the works with publishers looking at it just around the time she was born.
Then when my second child was 2 and my oldest was 5, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Wham, 1990. So that was another round of, ‘Your plan, your original plan, really wasn't how it's going to down,’ so I had to deal with that. I was very fortunate, it was an early diagnosis. I had a mastectomy but the only thing I cared about was making sure that I would live so I did what I needed to do to see my children grow up. I had been having this sort of feminist struggle about career and family and how was I going to make it all work and it got to be really clear that this was a blessing and important and something to live into. It was really after the cancer experience that I started writing poetry as a way of getting in touch with that really deep encounter with mortality.
RG: It was this perfect storm that perhaps led you to writing poetry.
KS: Exactly. I started keeping a journal as I as going through the cancer thing because I just thought there's nobody to talk to about this. We had started going to church again and the priest was very helpful in helping me process what I was going through. I did find myself putting together that encounter with mortality with the whole Passion story. I was equipped to do that certainly by all this time with David Jones. Just by kind of growing into this sacramental theology. But it was really a process of making it real. The first poem I realized was a poem that I started to meditate on was the story of the woman with the flow of blood who reaches out to touch Jesus' garment but she's trying to stay hidden. My push with my breast cancer diagnosis, I wanted to get better, I didn't want to have chemo if I could avoid it, and I was able to avoid it. I didn't want to scare my kids, I just wanted to get better and have this be OK but then I realized that I couldn't just pretend it hadn't happened and move on. I was under quite a lot of pressure to do just that, from other people in my family.
So the process of claiming that experience started with this meditation on the woman with the flow of blood, and that poem, which is in my first volume, ‘On the Way to the House of Jairus,’ was the first thing I was writing and I thought, 'What is this? It's a poem. What if I treated it like a poem, what would happen?’ And then it became a poem. Then I started letting myself write poetry, which is actually not so easy if you’ve been trained as a literary critic so that was the spiritual part.
RG: It's a different muscle.
KS: Letting the poetry come from the place that prayer comes from, that's really what this has all been about ever since, that writing poetry is a way of prayer. It's not exactly that I'm putting words to prayers, but it's part of how I connect with God, and perhaps how God connects with me, sort of saying, ‘Here's what's going on. You see, this is something you know, these words are in you, let these words come out.’
RG: Were you at the time shaken in your faith as a result of everything that happened, and does the writing show any of that?
KS: You know, the peculiar thing was I wasn't shaken in my faith, I was really confirmed in my faith.
RG: How so?
KS: I was diagnosed in October and my surgery was in November so I was just sort of coming back into being able to cope that Christmas, and then the Lent and Easter after that I remember intentionally going through the services of Holy Week and realizing I was almost doing a post-traumatic thing. I was just letting myself remember the whole experience of the cancer diagnosis and treatment and the fear and the sacredness of that and bringing that into the Passion story, so that when I got to Easter, I just received that as the gift of faith, and that's what this is about. That's never left me, that's really how I see life – that suffering is a part of the story, and that fear of mortality that we have is part of the story. Our faith isn't about, 'Believe this and everything will be fine for you,' it's, ‘This is life, and God is in this, and he placed himself in the order of signs, went through the whole thing, death and resurrection, and that's what life really is.’ I think my faith was strengthened by this and I think my poetry reflects that, actually.
RG: Your poetry is absolutely gorgeous. I read your two recent books, they're incredibly wonderful, and in some ways I feel like I know you deeply after reading them and then at the exact same time...
KS: People say that, 'I feel like I know you really well!'
RG: And then at the exact same time I feel like I don't know you at all. I think some of it has to do with understanding it from a poetic standpoint but not from a factual standpoint. In your work I find longing and sadness, nostalgia, kind of a forlorn feeling, a deep ache, even in some of the, let's say, softer poems. I found I was getting really teary at times and you cover some very personal ground extraordinarily well in talking about the miscarriage and talking about the breast cancer, etc. But I also kept thinking about 'next beginnings.' You have a new home that happens in the midst of all of that.
KS: Yes, yes.
RG: I kept getting this sense of ‘Hope springs eternal' with you.
KS: Right, and if you think about that sequence of perfect storms when I was in transition from Plan A to whatever I'm in now, I think that that sense of whatever happens, some kind of way opens, you know? Sometimes it's hard to believe that but it's kind of where I go if I can to try to discern what is the way that's opening here, even if it's hard to see. It's what I try to help other people to see in my work as a spiritual director as well. But not by denying the pain. The pain is right there and the beauty of the world is an aching thing because we just don't live into it. The world is not the way we know it should be.
RG: Do you write in the midst of it, or do you write once it's already happened?
KS: My process is I keep a daily journal and so whatever comes out comes out of the journal. I write in these black and white marbled Mead composition books, I've got a million of those, and what I do is when I fill a book, which usually takes two or three months depending on what's been going on, I go back and kind of harvest whatever looks like a poem. My journaling usually is in cursive, almost completely illegible by anybody else, and sometimes I have to figure it out. I look back through and I can kind of spot the things that felt like they were poems or sometimes important prayers or spiritual experiences that I want to harvest. Then I'll type those up and begin to work with them. ‘What do I have here? What's it saying to me?’ It's like any artist working with their materials, kind of, ‘OK, I have this idea but what's here? What's it doing?’
Right now I'm in the midst of a new project that I'm not sure how to describe but I've just finished a process of this harvesting. I've got almost 100 pages of poetry, most of it probably not any good but now I’ll start using the tools of the craft and looking at, 'Well, could I put this into some kind of form that would make it speak more?' You'll see in the most recent volume I have some tankas and a sestina. I had these impressions as I was attending to what this experience of the new home was like, and I wasn't sure what to do with it so I thought, 'Well what would happen if there's this repeated idea, what would happen if I tried to make that into a sestina?’ I did that with a couple of them and it didn't really work. But there was one that kind of worked, a Lenten villanelle. When there's an idea and some words then I start to think about form – the pressure of putting it into a form often works. There was one year – and I've done this more than once, actually – I made it a Lenten discipline to write a sonnet every day. So 14 lines, iambic pentameter.
RG: Oh my goodness.
KS: Or a quatrain. Didn't have to rhyme but 14 lines with some kind of sonnet-like structure. I did that every day for 40 days, and of course it's an exercise in humility because most of it is crap, right?! But there were a few things that came out of that exercise that worked. Letting myself write and then taking the time to craft it into form, as crafting can take years, is how I'm finding out what I have.
RG: I don't know anything about their process, but in reading your poems I found myself thinking a lot about Mary Oliver, and also about Fleda Brown. Do you know her work?
KS: I don't, no! Fleda Brown?
RG: Fleda Brown, she was the Poet Laureate of Delaware at one time. She lives now in northern Michigan. Her work is personal and very accessible and also has a spiritual component to it. You might be interested in her.
KS: I will indeed! One of the things I am finding, that I'm not quite sure what to do with, and you can see this in the latest volume, is I find that my poetry is getting a little bit more explicitly mystical.
RG: Yes, I wanted to talk to you about that!
KS: I'm not quite sure what to do with that, because it's a risk, including the poem about Christmas Eve that's in there, ‘Dancing Day.’
RG: Why is it a risk?
KS: Well, that's a real vision! That's a real experience I had, of a kind of waking up and experiencing the universe as being this dance where everything came together and having something to do with the Incarnation and it all making sense. And I can't put it into words! That poem is the closet I've gotten. It started out as a journal entry then one day I thought, 'Well, could I? Would it sing if I made it a poem?' I don't know how you reacted to that poem but I'm talking about experience that not everybody has had. I don't know if people can relate to it, and it seems weird, so that's why it felt risky.
RG: I think you'll find your people.
KS: I think I want to find my people now. I'm not sure I really wanted to be one of those people but I'm starting to realize I just am. So there it is! That's just spiritual maturity, you know, being who you are.
RG: Well it is. I mean, a big chunk of this is about paying attention as well. I've found that in my life and in other people I’ve spoken to about this through the years, a lot of times it takes those perfect storms to arrive for us to pay attention. It's the universe's way of getting us to pay attention. It probably was staring us in the face and we didn't see it.
KS: Absolutely, absolutely right. Yes.
RG: So you may be on that path at the moment!
KS: Oh, I think I've been on that path! In my teaching, the other thing I do a lot of work with is 'discernment,' of paying attention to what God might be doing in your life. I call that a practice of 'reading God's novel,' you know? Looking at how God is telling my story and reading it the way I would read a novel. When I do one-on-one spiritual work with people that's really what we're doing, we're reading the events of life on the premise that God is involved, and what are we being invited to pay attention to here?
RG: Well the other piece to this with mysticism is that you are very involved with Evelyn Underhill.
KS: Yes, yes.
RG: How does that couple with what you might be focusing on now?
KS: She's another one, she's another companion. I first heard about her at an adult forum at our Episcopal church that I didn't even attend. She was described as a Protestant mystic, and especially during the period of this real deep deep processing of the cancer experience I did have a number of what I would call mystical experiences and lively dreams where I was just in the presence of the beloved. It was just There. But I was really shy about being a mystic. I mean, a mystic is like a crazy person, right? The thing I liked about Underhill is that she understands that and she talks about the experience of the mystics as differing, not in degree, not in kind, from the experience of ordinary people. She has a book called 'Practical Mysticism - A Little Book for Ordinary People,' so she kind of made it safe to explore this territory of mysticism. There's an organization called the Evelyn Underhill Association that I'm now an officer of. Since 1990 they've been offering an annual quiet day in honor of Evelyn Underhill and I happened onto that one year, I think it was probably 1993 or 94, and I don't think I've missed one. Maybe I've missed one or two over the years. It's always held in June. She's on the calendar of saints in the Episcopal church and it's always held close to her feast day which is June 15. That was an experience of just being around people who were for various reasons drawn to her work. There are people who come every year who have never heard of Evelyn Underhill but come to this quiet day. I think the early experience was a book that fell off the shelf in a bookstore in Denver when I was browsing Evelyn Underhill and it was called, 'Life as Prayer,' and I thought, yeah! OK! Life as prayer, and it's an anthology of her writing that is still a go-to for me. It took me many years before I actually read her book on mysticism.
RG: Why did it take so long?
KS: Because I was afraid of that category, and I didn't want to get caught up in it and not be sure whether I could trust my experience if somebody was suggesting things. It took me a long time to want to read it, and then when I wanted to read it it was very life giving and fascinating and it's been a book that's spoken across traditions to people. It's really from a period of her life before she was even that enthusiastically Christian, so she has a very kind of Universalist language when she writes about the mystics. That's made that work very accessible to all kinds of people and it's a starting point for a lot of teaching about Christian spirituality.
RG: To me it just feels like you're going farther down the road that you've always been on.
KS: I think that's right, and it takes awhile to just accept that that's what's going on here, you know? It's taken me probably 50 years! My mother just gave me a file of letters of mine that she had kept, and I haven't opened up and read them yet but there's a collection of letters that I wrote when was 9 or 10 from Girl Scout camp. I know there's a letter somewhere in there that I wrote to my parents about something that I saw that was this revelation of just how wonderful this place was and how much I loved it. The voice in a couple of these letters is of a very innocent, enthusiastic, nature-loving young girl and I definitely shed a lot of that as I was growing into the smartest girl in the class role over the years.
RG: And yet all of the nature came back in your poetry.
KS: It's really back now in this new thing I'm working on. In ‘Good Places,’ there's a sequence of poems called, 'Three Meditations on Viriditas.'
RG: Which makes me think of Hildegard von Bingen.
KS: Yes! Totally! That's Hildegard, that word viriditas, but what she means by it, she uses it in some of her hymns to the Virgin which are hymns about the Incarnation really, about spirit taking on flesh in nature. I've been obsessed with greenness and trees, and Mary Oliver actually has a recent poem about this, about talking to trees, and I'm just kind of blown away by the green things right now. I almost can't write about it anymore because after awhile it seems like the same words and I’m not even sure there's anything there. But there's something that has captivated me, and I think my next volume will be called ‘Viriditas’ and I'll only be able to put it together when I see what I have here. In some ways it's what I've already been doing. But there’s something deeper and more explicitly mystical about it, that I'm still trying to hear the words for, and that's buried in this 100 pages that I've just harvested from the last couple of years of summers, particularly, in journals. Something about trees is really talking to me.
RG: There's a wonderful book called, 'The Hidden Life of Trees.'
KS: I've read it! And I've just finished this novel called, 'The Overstory,' have you heard about this novel?
RG: No, I don't know it.
KS: There was a rave review of it in The New York Times last spring, and it's fascinating! It's a big bulky novel about several people who in various ways kind of hear a summons from trees and it draws on a lot of what's in 'The Hidden Life of Trees' about how trees communicate, and there's this kind of silent life going on in the forest and the idea of the forest as an organism. But there's heartbreaking stuff about the clear cutting of overgrown forests in the Pacific Northwest and the blight that wiped out the chestnuts. You're drawn into both the pain and the resilience of hope of the life of trees. It's fascinating. There’s another book that the author of 'The Overstory' alludes to called, 'The Secret Forest,' and I wasn't even sure it really exists but it does. There's something going on here and I don't even know what it is yet.
RG: There is, and perhaps it means you need to spend more time outside! I've been doing a lot of reading about forest bathing.
KS: Yes! I have too, this idea that actually there's an organic reason why you feel refreshed walking in the woods because the trees are putting out chemicals. I believe it. I think it's true. They may even be talking to me! I'm really a little scared I'm going to hear a tree talking to me and then I don't know what I'll do!
RG: Well I hope it does! You know, a lot of where my website came from is that I heard something.
RG: Yeah. So I understand it, and I've had those things happen to me before. I think I've had them happening my whole life. I started meditating when I was 15 years old and certain things started to come. Later, I heard a voice talking about Radio Gabriel.
KS: Do you think it was an angel?
RG: I don't know, and like you, I was a little bit scared and didn't quite know what to do with it. This is quite a number of years ago and it was one of those things that just never left. Finally I said, 'OK, I get it, I may as well embrace it,' because this isn't going away.
KS: This is why when I teach about discernment I say the Annunciation is actually my favorite call story. There's still a lot to plumb in that story about the experience of hearing something.
RG: There is, and it's fascinating to me, and in part with my website, and I read your really wonderful poem, ‘Annunciations.’ Gabriel's the only angel, to my knowledge, named in all three of the Abrahamic religions.
KS: I don't know if he's the only one but he's certainly named in all three so yeah, yeah.
RG: Part of the Venn diagram. But even that story is sort of connected.
KS: Yes, it is. The way that people encounter the divine, there's something similar in those stories.
RG: How do prayer and Scripture enter into your writing? Its possibilities, its role for you? I noticed that in a couple of the poems you open with, well one you open with a passage from Revelations, 'and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.' So again we have trees!
KS: Oh yes, you're right! Oh golly. Yeah! That's another mystical poem that I was really excited about because I read it to an audience that included some theoretical physicists and they said, 'Yeah, you've got that right,' and I thought, 'Oh Goody! It's all true!’ My first volume, which I may not have sent you, is all poems out of Scripture.
RG: No, I don't have that.
KS: I've always been writing poetry out of Scripture. So the story of what the theologians call salvation history, that if you read Scripture through a literary lens, that the themes that keep reoccurring are themes of exile and return, loss and recovery, death and resurrection, that this just keeps coming up. I think that's what began to really shimmer for me after the cancer experience, that this story of the Passion was about my life, so that my story can be told within the Scriptural story. Talk about finding Scripture speaking to your life. There are two traditions that really explain to me how I experience Scripture and one is the rabbinic tradition of reading Scripture. Have you heard of Midrash?
KS: I use this a lot in my teaching. I teach a course on Scripture and literature and the rabbis’ idea is that you come to Scripture in order to enter a conversation with God, not to find out what the truth is, right? You engage in the story and you ask questions of the story. I just love that. I read the story about the woman with the flow of blood and I think, 'What's going on with her? Why is she feeling like she needs to be hidden? What was that experience of 12 years of visiting doctors like? Why does he call her daughter, and what is all this?' There are all these questions you can ask and then the answers you come up with, if you're asking them faithfully, there's a kind of prayer dialogue going on and you can believe that the Holy Spirit or God or whoever you're talking to is giving you some insight in that engagement. Then I discovered five years out from my cancer thing, I had my first experience with the spiritual exercise of St. Ignatius. Did you ever do anything with Ignatius in your Catholic upbringing?
RG: No, I don't remember that at all.
KS: Well the Jesuits are actually pretty cool in the way they engage with Scripture because it's all about imagination and emotion. They're called The Society of Jesus because it's all about a personal relationship with Jesus and here they are Catholics and they're sounding like Holy Rollers but you know, that's what it's about. It's a mystical path, but they get there by bringing the imagination to Scripture. The spiritual exercises of Ignatius are what any Jesuit priest goes through as part of his formation. He does it usually over a period of 30 days on a silent retreat with a director.
There are a lot of ways of experiencing the exercises for people who can't go away for a 30-day silent retreat. Ignatius actually provides for that in the spiritual exercises. You work with a director who tries to get to know you and figure out where you are spiritually, and then assigns you under the guidance of this sequence of readings that Ignatius provides, invites you to enter into the Scriptural stories by using your imagination. I have a poem at the beginning of ‘Annunciations’ that's 'walking with God in the cool of the day, that moment before the fall.' This was before I did the exercises. I was given them on my own. What were God's hopes for the world before the fall? What did it look like in God's mind, what was God imagining? The first week, your director will give you passages that emphasize God's amazing love for us and invite you to just dwell with those until they kind of sink into your imagination and you can have an experience of God's love. If that takes you to a place where you feel like you have to make a confession, then that's available to you, because sometimes when we experience God's love we don't like ourselves so much.
The second week is all about scenes from the life of Jesus, so you spend time with Mary and Joseph and the nativity, or you're part of the crowd at the feeding of the 5,000 and you let your imagination take you there and the director chooses passages that seem like they might take you to where the director discerns you might be needing to go. The third week is all about the Crucifixion, the Passion, and the fourth week is all about the Resurrection. The first time I just did a week long experience of the exercises and focused on that first week about God's love and spent that time with Scripture.
In 2012 I did what's called the '19th Annotation' which takes you through those four weeks of the spiritual exercises over the period of a year where you meet with your director weekly and you work with, you stay with, you pray, about an hour a day with the same Scripture passage. In between, when I was doing my training as a spiritual director, I worked with someone who was trained in the Ignatian tradition and I said what I'm going to do is write poetry out of these experiences, and so a lot of the poems in my first volume of poetry come out of that experience of Scripture. I didn't plan it this way but the way that the book unfolds actually follows the progression of those four weeks of the spiritual exercises.
RG: How fascinating!
KS: Creation, and love, and walking you through some scenes from the life of Christ and then the Passion and then a lot of poems about the Resurrection. That conversation with Scripture has been very fundamental to my poetry and so when you see that passage from Revelation, the whole story is in there, that moment when the writer of Revelation encounters the Tree of Life and says that the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. It's almost at the end of the Bible when everything is being restored after everything's been destroyed. Scripture is almost, it's second nature, it's part of the language of poetry for me, and I have that in common with David Jones.
RG: I was going to say...
KS: I don't provide footnotes much but they come out. There's one poem in 'Waving Back' called 'Autumn Pange Lingua,' it's probably my most Jonesian poem. It's got an epigraph from David Jones where he said, 'If the poet writes the word 'wood,' what are the chances that anybody will think of the wood of the Cross?'
RG: I remember that.
KS: But, he says, the fact that that's true means there's an impoverishment in the poet's language, that there are things that you want to say that people aren't going to understand in the way that you're saying it, which goes back to your original question to me, I guess.
RG: And what the intent is. Is there a poem of yours that over time has developed perhaps even more significance for you than at the time you wrote it? Maybe like 20-20 poetic clarity, so to speak?
KS: There are a couple of them. One is the poem, 'In the Cool of the Evening,' at the beginning of 'Annunciations,' my first book of poems. I've just started biting the bullet and using it in my teaching. It's my longest poem, I think three or four pages long. It was given to me, I remember starting to hear this voice on walks that was giving me these lines and I thought, 'I can't write a poem in the voice of God,' but there it is. It's kind of a prophecy. So that keeps speaking to me. There's a more recent poem, 'Reveling,' about my experience of prayer that I think just pretty much says it and I can't really add anything to it. It's the last poem in 'Good Places.' And then in 'Waving Back,' the title poem of that volume. This whole experience of launching your kids, which is very much in the topic of that volume of poems. Another one that's just kind of sad because it's taken on a new resonance is one in 'Waving Back' called 'Power Loss,' and it's at the Outer Banks and based on something that happened. I wrote it pretty much in August of 2001, so right before 9/11 happened, right? It's a sort of last moment of the innocence of raising kids in the '90s, you know? It just all got very, especially in Washington and New York, I don't have to tell you if you were in New York at that time.
RG: Yeah, I was.
KS: That sense of safety, it's just gone. In my original manuscript of poems from that time, that poem was right next to a poem I wrote about Washington National Cathedral the day that we started bombing Afghanistan, which is sort of my 9/11 poem. They're right next to each other because they were pretty much written in sequence. I suppose if I ever did a new and selected volume I might put those things back together just because of the way that they speak to each other. The other one is 'Holy Spirit,' also in the first volume. I think it's on my website too. It's a poem about talking to the Holy Spirit. If it's not there I should put it up there – people really like that one and I keep going back to it. It's a mystical poem, again. It's the mystical poems that are really speaking. I guess I need to pay attention to that. I’m just noticing that as I'm talking to you.
RG: Honestly, at this point you could just sort of connect the dots to the mystical work!
RG: I'm wondering if there's a new book coming that is strictly mystical poetry.
KS: There's definitely a section of it. The poems are there, and I am now in a place where I can share this poetry and I know there's an audience for it. I think especially as an academic and also being in a family where everybody's very supportive, but I'm the one that's into this church stuff. Everybody else is a scientist. Well, my daughter shares some of this, but my son and my husband are both rational humanists and lovely people and get all that's beautiful and lovely in life and like my poetry but this mystical stuff, it's a whole other thing.
RG: Does the mystical piece enter in at all with the anthology that you're working on, the young adults with cancer? Is there a mystical component to that, in facing death? A lot of people who are facing death often talk about having a mystical moment.
KS: Yeah, it's interesting. The anthology is pulled together now, it's in press. There's always another shaggy dog story. It arose out of my relationship with a young man named Brendan Ogg. Brendan was one of the kids in our babysitting co-op when my kids were growing up and his mom, Jackie, is a good friend. I knew Brendan best when he was probably 6 or 7, maybe younger, 5 or 6, and I would babysit for him and read him stories. We had one of these sort of collective pay people back for hours babysitting co-ops, and I remember him as this towheaded young kid who really loved having me read stories to him. When he got to be the college kid, he had gone to the University of Michigan and got fairly interested in poetry and his mom would tell me about this. When he was a sophomore at the University of Michigan he was home for Christmas and diagnosed with brain cancer, and died of it 14 months later.
RG: Oh my.
KS: But during that 14 months he had really gotten passionate about poetry and the introduction to the book tells this story. The babysitting co-op all knew about this, this was our neighborhood support group, women's support group, we all were with the family on this whole awful experience and it was like it was one of our kids. He recovered from the surgery and got really involved in trying to work on his poetry and did some workshops and wrote some more out of the experiences he was having. He and I had this really interesting conversation, it was just one conversation in a coffee shop. His mom and I were going to have coffee and he said, 'Can I tag along?' He knew that I had had cancer when my kids were very young and that it had made a difference in my spiritual life because Jackie knew about a lot of this. He had also been talking to his priest about the cross and about things that were making sense to him as he was dealing with all of this. We didn't talk very much about this but we talked about it enough to realize that we sort of understood each other, that there was spiritual insight coming out of this fact of facing death as a young person.
Of course, my experience was very different from his because I survived it to adulthood. But when we were talking we didn't know where this was going. He was recovering from the surgery, he was a little bit impaired physically but sharp as a tack mentally and really working on his poetry. And then it came back. But in between that he had given me some of his poetry to read and it was quite wonderful, and I proposed to him that we work on trying to put it into book form for publication. We worked together on this for, I mean it's a heartbreaker when I even talk this, but for as long as he could communicate verbally, and even after that when I was reading him the manuscript and I was saying, 'Should I put this in, should I take this out,' and he was giving me hand signals. So when you talk about feeling like you know me from working on my poetry, this volume, which is called, 'Summer Becomes Absurd,' and published by Finishing Line Press, I got to edit, and we were able to report to Brendan before he died that it was going to be published. It was published shortly after he died. There were artists in the neighborhood and a community of young people, and there was a lot of art and poetry that came out of people's experience of how Brendan went through this experience. I don't think he was thinking about his death particularly, he was thinking about life and writing about life.
My work with Brendan kind of got me back into the business of cancer poetry, which I had kind of gotten out of for a long time. The first poems of mine that were published were the cancer poems. Then they got published and republished, and I would get calls from people who said, 'Are you all right?' You know, 10 years out because they were just getting republished and people were just seeing them. Then Jackie and Finishing Line Press came back to me and she's been working with the cohort of young adults diagnosed with cancer and finding that a lot of the things that they're processing are, you know, this experience I had of being in a place where you think your whole life is opened out before you and you have a plan and it's all going to be how you pictured it and then Wham! You might die. Maybe you will die. We just lost one of our contributors, you may have heard of her, Anna Krugovoy Silver. Her obituary was in yesterday's ‘New York Times.’ She didn't make it.
RG: I'm so very sorry.
KS: We published three of her poems. She would have been a wonderful person for you to talk to, she was really somebody who put together this spirituality and poetry. She died at 49 of inflammatory breast cancer. It's amazing she lived that long with it, actually, because that's a really bad one. She was diagnosed in 2004 when she was pregnant. It's people embarking on their life tasks. Brendan was getting ready to be a poet, by gum – he was really on the path when this happened. The things that people write about, they dig deep into the broken, the heartbreaking and painful experiences of what happens to your body when you have cancer, and they talk about the treatment experience and they talk about life and what they value in life and what is important even if they might die. I don't think any of the poems are explicitly mystical, nor are my cancer poems, really. But they're in touch with that border country between life and death that you're living with when you're facing off life threatening illness, and that's a spiritual place. It just is.
RG: It goes back to that veil you were talking about.
KS: Yes! Absolutely. It's a liminal place. Every now and then I’m in social situations with colleagues of my husband's, people who are working on cancer research. He's a lab researcher. Once I was talking to some of the nurses on the clinical side of his work, they work with patients who are in clinical trials, and realized they were asking me about my poetry and my work in seminaries and how I put the spiritual stuff together. You're talking about a place where you're encountering the mystery, and that's where you are when you're with these patients who are in this place. They're dealing with the mystery of life and death, and that resonated with these clinicians who really don't want to. I would say, ‘Do you know about so-and-so who was a chaplain on their service,’ and they would say, 'Usually I don't stick around when the chaplain shows up.' The spirituality is associated with the death part, the part they can't do anything about as scientists and doctors. But when you're the patient it all goes together. Brendan has some really lovely poems about conversations with his neurosurgeon, and it's almost funny. You cross that boundary where you're not supposed to talk about this stuff and you start talking about it and then you find your people. That's really what we're hoping to do with this book, help that community find language to talk to each other, to talk about their own experience.
RG: It's incredibly meaningful and you come directly from it.
KS: Yes, and it was funny because Jackie asked me to undertake this project and I said sure, based on the work I'd done with Brendan. It was only when she told me the cohort is people who were diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 39, and I said, 'Oh, well, that would be me.' I hadn't really thought about myself as being part of a young adult cohort at 37. But the thing you need to know about where I was when I was diagnosed was I had a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, and that was all I could think about.
RG: Understandably. It's so interesting that your husband is involved in cancer research and then here you are with your own experience of it.
KS: At the time, nobody recommended that I do adjuvant chemo but I was confident because nobody's cells were gone over in as much detail as mine. Apparently they do that for each other at the National Cancer Institute.
RG: To be sure what's happening.
KS: That's right, and also I've always been very impatient. This is sort of another tangent with language about, 'Oh, you're so heroic, you're a survivor.' I was a privileged person who happened to get a mammogram at a time when most people wouldn't have even had a mammogram at 37. I had access to the best care. I mean, I was fine, and actually that's the factual scientific level. I was fine, I really didn't have anything to worry about. Some people might say, ‘Why make such a drama out of it,’ but my experience was very much the encounter with mortality and that was transformative for me.
RG: It all led you to where you are now.
KS: Absolutely, absolutely. It's where it began. I think of that time now, and every time I go back to the Passion story as a kind of invasion of grace into my own life. That's how it needed to happen for me.
RG: Do you have a favorite inspirational read, and if you do, is it the same as you had before, or has it evolved over time?
KS: I have a couple, and it does evolve. Evelyn Underhill's 'The Spiritual Life,' is one I go back to a lot, and her essay, 'Life as Prayer.' Thomas Kelly's 'A Testament of Devotion' is a book I return to maybe once a year that puts together the mystical life and the life of engagement with social justice and social concern, which is another big part of my life. We haven't even talked about that but he's a spiritual grounding for that. I've recently become a part of this intentional community, The Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross (SCHC). The letters of our founder, Emily Malbone Morgan, are another go-to for me now because she is very much a woman in the world who is also living the spiritual life and working this all out. Then another companion, Vida Dutton Scudder, who was a Christian socialist and very much a woman of the spirit, is also somebody I have been dipping into. She has a book of essays called, 'The Church and the Hour,' and then Esther de Waal, who is a writer and also a dear friend, has a book called, 'Lost in Wonder: Rediscovering the Spiritual Art of Attention.' It's a meditation and a retreat in daily life and it's sprinkled with poems, and some of the poetry is by another friend, a very find poet named Bonnie Thurston. Have you run across her work?
RG: No, I have not.
KS: She has a new collective work of poems from Paraclete Press that's really good. Bonnie and Esther are sort of kindred spirits. 'Belonging to Borders' is Bonnie's book. Esther has a book called, 'To Pause at the Threshold,' which is about the borders in our lives. Esther is a wonderful writer about faith and daily life but she's also a scholar steeped in the Benedictine tradition and all of her books are go-to books for me. I go back and read 'Seeking God' and 'Lost in Wonder.' I could go on about devotional books!
RG: You can send me a list!
KS: Martin Smith is another writer I really like on spirituality.
RG: I was thinking more about mysticism.
KS: I didn't really read mystics much! Teresa of Avila a little bit, but I haven't really dipped into the mystics. I keep wanting to go back to Hildegard. People who explicitly describe a vision, it's their vision so sometimes it's hard for me to connect with it. There's something about poetry that maybe elides that, that if I can kind of put my vision into poetry you might be able to catch a little bit of it. But sometimes some of Hildegard’s visions are so detailed that yeah, they're interesting, but they don't really touch me.
RG: That might be the way it's being presented, because you're just reading an account of how it happened. If someone else were describing it...
KS: Actually Barbara Newman's translation of her poems, of Hildegard's poems, 'Symphonia,' those resonate with me more, actually, and the music, the CDs, of people singing those poems are gorgeous.
RG: It's interesting when you talk about mysticism. I'm a songwriter, and other songwriters talk about it as well, where you feel sometimes like you are just reaching up into that 'Great Song River in the Sky.'
KS: Yes, yes!
RG: And you can pull a whole song down. One time, I would wake up mornings reciting some words and I didn't understand them, they made no sense to me. I Googled them and it turned out to be Psalm 98. Now, I don't know the Psalms like that, to be waking up and reciting them. I ended up writing a piece of music to it. You may be experiencing the same thing with poetry.
KS: Oh I think so! There was a wonderful moment in one of the Christmas at St. Olaf's specials years ago, they sang this choral piece by Randall Thompson that's just a sea of Alleluias. I don't know if you've ever heard it, but you should listen to it. Randall Thompson's 'Alleluia.' It starts very softly and then it swells and then it goes back. The choirmaster says to the choir, 'Imagine that this song is going on all the time, and all that you're doing is giving voice, providing passage so it can be heard.’ You're kind of plugging into the song, if that's what you're talking about. My poem, 'Evensong,' talks about an unheard love song singing all the time that the voices of the choir capture.
RG: I'm sure in your role as a spiritual director you have a lot to share with your students.
KS: It's interesting, I don't often use my poetry but I do think that the poetry and the spiritual direction come from the same place, and so does prayer. I mean, it's all about listening and paying attention, right? Listening to the story, and the poetry.
RG: Hearing is a very different thing when it's coming from a contemplative state.
KS: Yes, right!
RG: Kathy, I can't thank you enough. This has been extraordinarily wonderful and I've really enjoyed it. Please keep taking very good care of yourself, and keep writing your wonderful poetry!
KS: I’ve enjoyed it, too! I'm sure I’ll see that you've heard things I hadn't heard before, because we've gone pretty deep here and I appreciate it. I've really enjoyed it!
Kathleen Henderson Staudt, PhD, is Adjunct in Literary Art at the Henry Luce III Center for Religion and the Arts, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Adjunct in Theological Studies at Virginia Theological Seminary.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.