#29 Surprised by Joy: Poetry about Faith and Happiness 2018
Surprised by Joy, November 14, 2018
The late Anya Silver and several other poets discuss the landscape of joy amidst suffering in their personal and public lives. Joy, distinct from happiness, can be a form of religious practice. They explore questions regarding what cheapens joy, how Christians view joy and how to “balance the scale” of joy and pain in writing.
- Christian Wiman, Joy: 100 Poems
- Jane Kenyon, “Happiness”
- Anna Kamienska
- James 1:2–4
- Trung Pham
Jennifer Holberg (host): [00:00:00] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
On this episode of Rewrite Radio, we celebrate the life of poet Anya Silver, who died in August 2018, by featuring her final panel at the Festival of Faith & Writing.
I’m Jennifer Holberg. I teach in the English Department at Calvin College. With Jane Zwart, I co-direct the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing.
In this episode of Rewrite Radio, four poets from different Christian traditions read their work and discuss how they seek to incorporate profound joy in their poetry and to explicitly address God as the source of their rejoicing, even when happiness is hard-won, even when it happens in the midst of suffering.
A Grammy nominee, Barbara Crooker is the author of eight books of poetry, including the forthcoming Book of Kells. Her writing has received numerous awards, including the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, the WB Yeats Society Award, three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships in Literature, and 49 Pushcart Prize nominations.
The director of the writing center at Taylor University, Julie Moore is the author of Particular Scandals, Slipping out of Bloom, and Election Day, a chapbook. Her poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Her fourth collection of poetry, Full Worm Moon, was released in March 2018.
Tania Runyan is a poet and educator. Her poetry collections include Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature. Runyan’s guides How to Read a Poem, How to Write a Poem, and How to Write a College Application Essay are used in classrooms across the country.
Anya Silver was the author of four books of poetry: The Ninety-Third Name of God, I Watched You Disappear, From Nothing, and her most recent book, Second Bloom, published in 2017. Anya’s verse was also published in many literary magazines, including Image, Harvard Review, Georgia Review, Crazyhorse, Witness, the Christian Century, and Prairie Schooner. Her work was also included in Best American Poetry 2016. Selected in 2018 for a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, Anya was a much-loved professor in the English department at Mercer University. In 2015 she was named Georgia Author of the Year in the poetry category. Having been living and thriving with inflammatory breast cancer since 2004, Anya passed away on August 6, 2018. We loved having her at the Festival—and we will not see her like again.
Here’s “Surprised by Joy: Poetry about Faith and Happiness” from the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing.
Anya Silver: [00:0003:58] This is “Surprised By Joy.” We’re going to discuss writing about happiness. I just want to introduce the panel members. What we’ll do is each of us will get up and say a little bit about how we write about happiness, what enables us to do that, and then read a couple of poems. These are phenomenal poets back here.
My name is Anya Silver and I’ve published four books of poetry, my latest with Poiema Press, Second Bloom. I just was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry and I teach in the English Department in the Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.
Behind me are Barbara Crooker, who is the author of twenty collections of poetry, chapbooks and full length. Her latest book, The Book of Kells, was published by the Poiema Series of Cascade Press in 2019.
Julie Moore’s most recent collection of poetry, Full Worm Moon, was published just last month by Cascade Press in the Poiema Series. She’s also the author of three other books of poetry. She teaches at Taylor University.
And finally we have, and certainly not least, the marvelous Tania Runyan who is a freelance writer and the author of eight books, including What Will Soon Take Place, what she just read from this afternoon, it was great, her most recent collection from Paraclete Press. Thank you all for being here. We’ll go in alphabetical order, so Barbara you’re up.
Barbara Crooker: Thank you all for coming. I’m wondering if any of you recognize me because I’m the character Joy from from the Pixar movie, Inside Out. [laughter]
I’m probably the only person who dyed her hair for the Festival of Faith & Writing. When Anya asked if I would like to participate in this panel I told her I would do this. She doesn’t remember it. She double dog dared me. So, for those of you who don’t have children, grandchildren, and didn’t see this movie, this is an animated movie about the emotions. So there’s Joy, Sorrow, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. These are all characters. Each of them is living inside the head of a young girl, running the emotions board as if it was a video game. At one point, Sorrow becomes so sorrowful that she’s overcome and she stops doing her job. Perky Joy, Amy Poehler, figures “Who needs sorrow? Everyone wants joy. I can do this job without her. What could go wrong?” Well, everything goes wrong. In the end, Joy—and the other emotions—learn that Sorrow’s purpose is to induce empathy and that all of the emotions are equally valid and they all have to work in sync with each other.
This is what informs my writing. I’m someone who perhaps has had more than her fair share of sorrow. My first child died, then my first marriage fell apart, I nearly lost my third daughter to a traumatic brain injury, my son to autism. I’ve lost my parents and now I’m losing my friends. To quote Zora Neale Hurston, I have been in sorrow’s kitchen and I licked at all the pots. But I write about joy. Be joyful, says Wendell Berry, even though you have carefully considered all of the facts. I take that as my writing model.
“Lemons”: “A yellow sun, splashed lavish light on the garden, A bright bloom of a morning full of possibility. I was away from home teaching, when one of the poems peeled back the thin rind of memory, and there I was, back in the maternity ward when my firstborn died. I remember how white and cold the room was even though my friends brought flowers, irises, roses.”
I was hollow, a fruit that had been pulped for juice, leaving nothing but a shell, no flesh, no seeds. Thirty years later, my daughter’s globed stomach and then, there was Daniel, shining and puckered in the moony glow of the delivery room, rinsed with light from another world and a new day. Dawning.”
The next poem is one that I wrote when I was in residence in Ireland. When I was there, I fell in love with magpies. Okay. We don’t have them in the east. And I wanted them to show up in a poem. So I did some online research about magpies, including folklore about magpies. They’re really stunning black and white birds, if you don’t know them. So they’re both light and dark. This poem is the result.
“Magpie on the lawn, and I am transfixed by its exotic look. Stark, black and white feathers, jutting tail, strut like a peacock on the glittering grass that spills a handful of emeralds before him. One is for sorrow, the old nursery rhyme goes, and I look for a partner, hoping for joy. Oily feathers gloss purple and green, snowy shoulders, chest and wing tips, motley and pied. He doesn’t need the rest of the spectrum, the gaudy rainbows, pennants and flags. He knows the world is black and white. See him swoop, searching for treasure. Bottle caps, gumwrappers, pennies, the glitter the rest of the world discards. This gray day brightens because of his antics. And look, here comes joy winging to join him, just when I thought it was no longer possible.”
That’s going to be in my new book. Thornton Wilder has said that one of the duties of the spirit is joy, and so I try to take that seriously. This poem was written on a writing residency in Virginia, but it’s a post-9/11 song.
Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crows chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there’s left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn’t cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it’s all that we have, and it’s never enough.”
When I taught Sunday school, one of my little guys figured out that whenever I asked a question, Jesus was always the right answer. [laughter] When I was driving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to do some readings, I was listening on my CD thing to Frank McCourt, the Irish writer, reading from his book, Teacher Man, where one of his students wrote “Yes” was the best answer to every question. Which is, I think also a great line.
And also this poem really relates, and maybe ties things full circle a bit to the very first session when I came on Thursday, with Kwame talking about saying “yes” to everything: when the world says “no,” you say “yes.” So I’m going to just end with this one. And I want to wish you all joy within your life and within your writing journey.
“Yes”: “Yes was the best answer to every question. So I said yes to everything. Yes to the green hills rolling out ahead, yes to the hay field tied up in rolls, yes to the clouds blooming like peonies in the sky’s blue meadow. The long tongue of the road, lulling out before me, yes to the life of travel, yes to other life at home. Yes to the daisies freckling the ditch, to the sun pouring down on everything like Vermeer's milkmaid and her endless jug of milk. Yes to the winds that pull the clouds apart like taffy, then turn them into a classroom of waving hands punched into fists. Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Thank you. [applause]
Julie L. Moore: [00:13:23] How to follow that? The first word out of my mouth will be something along the lines of lamentation. During Lent this year, my church focused on lamentations as a means of longing for resurrection. As the weeks went by we mourned over injustices and losses, nearly unspeakable, remembering Emmett Till’s young body beaten to death because of racism, because of a lie that decades later, a white woman confessed to. Current police brutality and an inequitable criminal justice system, physical illnesses and pain. And in general everything we lack.
As Christian Wiman says in the introduction to the new anthology of poems he has edited, an anthology aptly titled Joy: 100 Poems, “The one abundance you can count on in this life is lack. An artist need not go looking for it, much less empowering it unnaturally by laying her gift down in front of sadness like a sacrifice. If anything, a modern artist might have to lean the other way, might have to seek out and sing her moment of happiness and joy if only to balance the scale.”
And indeed such is the state of contemporary literature sometimes. We do and must write about these injustices and the suffering of so many. Their voices should be heard, and we must not live in our own sentimental, sanitized realities, oblivious to what others experience, if we happen to somehow escape injustice or suffering ourselves. Yet the pendulum does sometimes swing too far. As one of my former colleagues used to teach her poetry students, there are actually two sides to the coin of sentimentality. One side is that Pollyanna vision we work tirelessly to avoid as writers of literature. Yet the other side doesn’t seem to get as much air time: angst’s obsession with pain’s never ending tales. I’m not sorry for the pun.
Anya and I have talked a lot about experiencing that kind of reaction to our poetry because we’ve both detailed in our previous books and present books poems of suffering and especially physical suffering. And we’ve both had editors respond to our book submissions with comments along these lines: “Why are there poems of joy and beauty amid poems of your suffering? That seems inauthentic or sentimental.”
And yet, we respond by saying, “Hello? That’s not really real life either. That doesn’t seem to be the lives we’re living.” There has been a long history in fact of poetry wedding melancholy to beauty, pain to joy. We don’t have to look any further than, for instance, Ezekiel. The Old Testament prophet, whose book presents us with a glorious example, an example my pastor noted during our season of lamentation this year. That scroll Ezekiel ate, the one that tasted like honey? If you go forward a few verses, you find out that scroll was made of words of mourning and of woe. So imagine that. Ezekiel eats lamentation and it tastes sweet.
Then there’s Keats’ “Ode On Melancholy” urging his readers alike to “glut thy sorrow on a morning rose or on the rainbow of the salt sand wave or on the wealth of globed peonies.” And what if the problem is enduring, perhaps, a mistress’ anger? “Well then,” he says, “Imprison her soft hand and let her rave, and feed deep, deep upon her peerless eye.”
So when Wiman notes that many writers feel as though joy is quite particular in its resistance to particularity, he echos French novelist Henry De Montherlant who said, “Happiness writes white. Impossible to describe, happiness is like a white page, with white words,” he thought. Thankfully many contemporary poets have challenged these notions, thus the reason for Wiman’s anthology in the first place.
Poets like Ed Hirsch, whose poem “Happiness Writes White” humorously, yet, as Hursh says, urgently, challenges the romantic prejudice by showing that happiness too can be precise. “Doctor,” he writes in his poem, “There’s a keen throbbing on the left side of my chest where my ribs are wrenched by joy.”
I was probably a little too naive and too stupid to realize that I was taking on such a big thing, in my first book, Slipping Out Of Bloom. But there is a poem in that book called “Joy.” And I wrote it and it appears near the end of the book, and again I didn’t probably know it at the time, but I was working on the balancing of the scales. It has an epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson as well: says, “The cup of life is not so shallow that we have drained the best.”
“Fireflies flashing over hip high corn. Breathe deep as if it’s the first time this joy unfurrels like a ribbon from the pith beneath your ribs. Witness dusk now, shading in corners of the sky, indigo shadows tunneling with the sun. Taste a miracle tonight, taste its sacred nectar. Hear the low whine of the owl. Hold the jewel of the night in your open hand.”
That came at the end of a book that detailed poems that really went through a year of tremendous physical suffering. And yet many of the Psalms came through in a different place, and a deeper, perhaps more rooted, joy because of those experiences.
Another poem I’ve written that explores joy is called “Full Flower Moon” and it is in my latest book, Full Worm Moon as Anya said was released last month. And this poem I actually wrote for the women at Safe Harbor House. It’s a halfway house of sorts in Springfield, Ohio that treats women who’ve been rescued from trafficking. It was based on Ephesians 2, where we’re told we are God’s workmanship, we are God’s poems, we are God’s poema. And yet, it really is a poem of joy, becoming who we’re made to be. And so it’s called “Full Flower Moon,” which is the name for the moon in May.
The moon tonight smells like linen,
clean & pressed, spreading
its blue fabric over not just May’s fields
but the willow by the pond,
the hens in the one-window coop,
the dog on the lawn,
poking her nose into the myrtle.
The sky tastes like a mug of tea,
warm & smooth with cream,
served at a welcoming table.
Should God suddenly speak,
the phlox would not be flummoxed
or the red-tailed fox baffled.
After all, green already
pulses through everything,
its rhythm in sync with this full
flower moon and the worm
below, writing a new word in dirt.
Would it really be so strange
if the still, small voice broke open
like a bulb between the earth,
then aired something sensible
as the strong stem lifting high
its lit lantern, signaling us
to join in, do what we were made to do?
Poets like Jane Kenyon, whose poetry had a great influence, and has had a great influence on me, also wrote poems on joy and happiness. In fact, she has a very well-known poem called “Happiness.” And those of you who have read Jane Kenyon know that she also in her life endured long periods of deep depression as someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But in her poem “Happiness” she compares happiness to a prodigal “who comes back to the dust at your feet, having squandered a fortune far away.” And her poem then goes through and chronicles all the different ways happiness appears to everyone at some point in their life, no matter their situation. So we know that there’s balance that's going on these poems. And yet there’s still this contemporary resistance to writing about joy and happiness as if all of it is sentimental, as if we go that direction we’re somehow not as intellectually rigorous as we should be.
And as Wiman notes again in his anthology, he says, and I think rightly so, “Clamouring after joy, and only joy, can lead only to fevered symolochora, an art of professional echoes and planned epiphanies, the collective swells of manipulative religion, the manufactured euphoria of drugs. We must write, but with great care, about joy.”
He also, I think, defines joy rightly: “Joy is what keeps reality from being sufficient unto itself, which is to say, it’s what keeps reality real. Since in this world of multiverses and quantum weirdness, where 95% of matter and energy we know only to name as “dark,” it is obvious that reality extends far beyond what our senses can perceive. So what in the world or what beyond the world is calling to us when we are called to joy? “It is true that the unknown is the largest need of the intellect,” wrote Emily Dickinson in a letter. “Though for it, no one ever thinks to thank God.”
So then I think of Stephen Hawking, who just passed away in his quantum physics and his atheism, which he eventually fully confessed to in 2014. “Science works,” Hawking said. And works so well, that he declared philosophy dead. He believed scientists had become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge, thus philosophical problems could be answered by science, particularly new scientific theories, which he said lead us to a new and very different picture of the universe and our place in it.
I’m not here to argue that neo-atheism to blame for the lack of literature exploring joy, but the connection between the two in our contemporary age is interesting. I’m also not here to endorse Hawking either, though, because I don’t think philosophy or religion is dead. Why would I be here if that were my position? And nor do I share Hawking’s positivist perspectives on everything science can do.
I happen to think philosophy, religion and science do share a common source, like John Henry Newman espoused when he wrote the idea of a university over a hundred fifty years ago, and noted that the true intellect is not a specialist who disregards disciplines other than his own but rather the scholar who understands and values all fields equally and spends her life seeking to understand the relationships between those fields.
I think this the role that joy can play in poetry, therefore; juxtaposed with the truth of injustice and pain, joy emerges, taking its rightful place in reality, balancing the spheres. So it is with the poetry I write myself and I’ll share two of these to end that go along with those themes. The first poems comes from the first section of my new book which details a really gut wrenching, and probably the hardest time of my life, when my twenty-seven-year marriage ended in really abusive and destructive ways. And you wouldn't think that a poem about that could possibly have anything to do with joy.
It’s called, “I Never Met A Flower That Yelled At Me.” I would say this is a hard-won joy in this poem, so you might want to fasten your seat belts.
“I never met a flower that yelled at me, her neighbor always says, explaining why every year he--.”
I should stop. I always forget to explain, this section of the book, I wrote in third person. There are a lot of different reasons for that, that I would love to talk with you about, but I don’t have time today. So I just want you to know that it’s written in third person. Okay.
“I never met a flower that yelled at me, her neighbor always says, explaining why every year he plants and hangs geraniums, begonias, impatiens, petunias even blue lubilia amid his blooming bulbs. She once sent sentiment to infect her too, the summer her husband leaves. So on the hottest day Ohio can muster, she faces the roses her husband sunk in soil ten years before. On the side of the house, they grow weed, loud. Even cantankerous saplings push through the bushes, silencing all the kind words in their red mouths. Everything has to go. As she digs, thorns and muscular weeds, thick with prickles, recite her husband’s remarks on her skin, scratching, clawing, tearing. I can’t commit to you a hundred percent, only seventy five percent. Shovel meets hits hard earth, again and again. Gasping for air, feeling her back spasm in protest, she clings to the wood handle. You’re too hardline, you want too much. She lets the sun scold her, lets the heavy air weigh on her shoulders, lets all of it, the whole fucking force of his question, ‘What do you mean I disregard you?’ fuel her resistance, her freedom to say ‘No, you and your furious mess will not stand, not here, any longer.’ In their place, she leaves behind what perennial peace she can. Pink asiatic lilies, purple coneflowers, and threadleaf coreopsis shining their favor without ridicule or question.”
That’s kind of my joy poem, that’s, “Hell yeah there can be joy after that.”
The last poem I’ll read is called “Milton,” and it’s actually dedicated to a former colleague of mine who teaches Milton and who teaches his great pamphlet against censorship, called Areopagitica. It has a quotation of that in the epigraph. This poem also is a poem of joy but it also came out of a very hard time because we were working at a place that was beginning to censor material that we were trying to teach, truth we believed in. The epigraph of the poem says, “Truth is strong. She needs no policies nor stratagems, nor licensings to make her victorious. Those are the shifts and the defenses that error uses against her power. Give her but room and do not bind her when she sleeps.” So “Milton.”
“Every morning long before sunrise, a single bird blows its tiny whistle. Not sparrow or dove or chickadee. A bird I cannot name scientifically. Its praise a whilofawhisp might sing if it ever got its wish, challenging darkness to a duel for striking other voices down. A signature tune insisting meekly, ‘Give me room and do not bind me when I sleep.’ I lie in bed listening to this native tongue, its will no act of God can bend or school of night can erase, gathering notes of gold in this unlikely place.”
Tania Runyan: [00:30:43]Good afternoon. I just want to say this is my sixth Festival of Faith & Writing. My first time was 2008; I haven’t missed one. The very first session I walked into, my very first Festival of Faith & Writing, was led by Barbara on akrastic poetry. [Barbara laughs]. So now here I am. It’s just such an honor to be here with her and these wonderful women.
The most important spiritual truth that I have learned and lived, in the past decade or so of my life, is that joy and happiness are not interchangeable. They are not the same thing to me at all. I define joy as an overall sense of peace, acceptance, well being even when circumstances are far less than happy. If happiness is a field of wildflowers, joy is the overall healthy ecosystem beneath.
The reason why this has been so important for me to learn is that I have struggled with anxiety for most of my life. I didn’t realize, I wasn’t diagnosed with it until I was an adult, but it really defined a lot of my youth as well. And I became a Christian as a teenager, and I remember in college, really struggling with some severe anxiety and trauma, just dealing with some stuff from growing up, and just feeling so guilty that here I was a believer and I was supposed to be joyful and we’re told to be joyful. It’s like a command. And I felt terrible all the time. I felt like I was doing something wrong. I felt like I was not living up to what it meant to be a believer. And you know we’re also told in Phillipians not to be anxious about anything, and I’m like well what am I supposed to do? [laughs] I’m not happy, I’m worried about a lot of things.
But I began to learn that worry and clinical anxiety are not the same thing. Happiness and joy are not the same thing. In fact, feeling like we must be happy all the time is really not even a biblical idea. A couple of verses that talk about joy: James 1:2–4: “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. Let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” There’s nothing about happiness in this verse. The joy is coming from the trials. 2 Corinthians 7:4 says, “I am acting with great boldness towards you, I have great pride in you. I am filled with comfort.” And Paul says, “In all our affliction I am overflowing with joy.” Joy and affliction are coexisting. Paul was not happy when he was being beaten and tortured in prison, but he was overflowing with joy.
Julie talked about sentimentality which is, I think the reason why we—Anya—came up with this idea for the panel, is that as believers we feel nervous, we want to write about joy but we don’t want it to be corny and cheesy. That's really the big concern. Sentimentality happens when we skim the surface of joy in the pursuit of happiness. I think a parallel would be the glow in the house of a Thomas Kinkade painting. That is a picture of happiness. But the true story is what are the rich emotions going on inside of that house.
And writing about joy has been very liberating for me, understanding that joy doesn't have to mean happiness. I can be honest about my emotions and circumstances. To me joy is about presence, regardless of what you are present to.
I’m going to read a few poems that explore some of these ideas. This is the “Joy of Presence”:
“Blessed are the meek. She is all we learn to forget. The woman approaching the edge of the health club pool. She wears her hair like laundry lint. Faded lycra, two cans, and orchids sag beneath her nipples. I imagine her going home to dump a can of Campbell's in a casserole while her husband barks orders from the football chair. She moves through the house without consequence, straightening an old lighthouse cross stitch in the hallway, rifling through coupons for half-priced oil changes. But this morning she is here. Her eyes take in the narrow lane of water as if it were the river of an ancient civilization and she plans to wrap her arms around time itself. She twists then stretches her modeled fingers to the rising dough of her feet. She catches my stare, arches her brows at me and jumps, gliding and breathing, gliding and breathing as I fade above the turning waves.”
My newest book is What Will Soon Take Place which is a journey through the book of Revelation. Revelation was written to the persecuted early church and I think it’s very important to read it in that context. And about the bigger picture, the joy of hope that comes during unhappy situations. So keep the persecuted church in mind as I read this.
It’s called the “New Jerusalem”:
“Alpha, Omega, it makes no difference. The heavenly city of God has come down. He makes his dwelling place in the muddy corner of your garage, the oncologist’s office, the space between paper and pen. Run your fingers along the foundation walls, studded with onyx and topaz. Bask in the jasper. Hear the gates squeak of pearl on gold. Pain and tears will pass away, but for now he bedazzles your blisters in tissue, saline and nerve, somehow, do you believe it? The neck of a kneeling man about to lose his head to the sand. He prays for water, just one last drink. The sword lifts, then springs bubble up in the dark.”
We’ve talked a little bit about how there can be joy in sadness. I think about Ruth and her relationship with her mother-in-law Naomi. It’s bittersweet; there’s much sadness and joy in their relationship. This poem is based on the classic Ruth verse, “Where you go, I will go, where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God.”
“Ruth Speaks To Naomi”
Really, there is not much to love
in this world. Maybe sparrows,
children laughing in the morning.
But—your God forgive me—
if I knew I had to sleep forever tonight,
my tired heart would survive it.
We are widows now, the shriveled leaves
that blow along the rooftops.
We are worth nothing
but the measure of loneliness
we can remove from each other
Of course I must follow you,
Naomi, from Moab to Bethlehem,
to the musty corner of our home,
where we will boil the grain and sweep the dirt,
comb each other's hair in the evening
and feel the coarse curls fall
between our fingers.
I’m going to end with a poem from my book, Second Sky, which deals with Paul and his writings. There’s quite a bit in his letters about joy. Joy is not always all that exciting either. Joy can be quiet and even kind of boring, especially when you are, you know, living in suburbia with three kids and the tasks of daily life, you seek and look for joy in any moment possible.
My reference to praying the prayer is, I have roots in evangelicalism, where you accept Christ by praying a prayer, not everyone’s familiar with that. “Put on the New Self”— and this is based on Colossians 3:10.
Twenty-five years after Praying the Prayer, when my new life was supposed to snap in place
like elastic, the smell of crisp store-rack cotton
propelling me to run with endurance
toward the finish line I could not see
I lie on the couch with a sour-smelling terrier
curled in the crook of my leg. Today
I will bathe him, punch through three K cups,
run a trumpet book to the grammar school.
No martyrdom here, no preaching in the streets,
though, tomorrow I might plant another bag of daffodils
so in April I can kneel in the gold
and think all things new once more.
But now I turn my eyes to things above
in the window. Squirrels gibbering in a canopy
in my backyard maple. I doze and wake
to their claws skittering down the trunk,
mentally etch the face of Christ in the bark.
He doesn’t need me. He wants me.
Neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, tired
nor on fire. I will slip into newness again,
fluff the shaking the shaking sodden dog in his name
as he drapes me with his soft and silent weaving.
Anya Silver: [00:44:06] You were all so fabulous. Anna Kamienska, Polish poet, wrote in her journals, “Joy: it’s not just a gift. In a sense, it’s also a duty, a task to fulfill, courage.”
I sort of want to throw away everything I was going to say today, but I’m not going to because just this morning I received news from my doctor that the nedicadic cancer with which I live may have progressed a little bit and I haven’t had a chance to talk to my doctor. But I sat in Kate Bowler’s talk today and just wept. Her conversation today. So, as someone who suffers from a chronic illness like I do and ultimately terminal illness, my default mode is despair. And so, for me to be happy, I have to practice happiness. It has to be active. I can’t just wait to be happy.
To me it is a religious duty and a task of faith. It’s a service of God and to my neighbor. It’s a recognition of the fortunes that I’ve been given along with the suffering, such as a fabulous husband and son. Writing is one of the main ways that I practice happiness. Writing poems that force me to express and acknowledge gratefulness, appreciation and joy because I might not do that if I didn’t write about it. And at the same time acknowledging my suffering because there’s no real joy without suffering as I think all of our panelists have said.
Side note: I think the acknowledgement of suffering is the essential part of what makes poems about happiness good rather than sentimental junk. I won’t insult Kincade, but maybe I am.
I have two Japanese concepts that I think of a lot. I mentioned one in my reading earlier. One is wabi-sabi, it consists of finding beauty in the imperfections of life including the cycles of growth and decay. So wabi-sabi sees beauty, not simply death, in the decaying tree stump, and it doesn’t just look for what’s pretty.
Recently Image Journal featured the work of Jesuit priest Trung Pham, who wants to see tenderness and fragility in the grotesque, deformed, contorted look of wounds. One can see wabi-sabi at work in the depictions of the crucifixion that transcend normal ideas of happiness in reaching toward, as Tania was discussing, a deeper beauty and a greater joy that arise out of suffering. Wabi-sabi is an artistic philosophy.
And related to it is kintsugi or kinsukuroi, which is concrete and refers to a form of pottery in which cracked or broken pottery is repaired with silver, gold or platinum. So rather hiding the flaws in pottery, kintsugi aims to make the flaws the source of the piece’s preciousness and beauty. So in terms of my writing I conflate beauty and happiness somewhat. A poem’s language and/or form, simply the form of a sonnet, can evoke happiness in the reader, even if the subject matter of a poem is mournful because there’s something beautiful, as Czeslaw Milosz wrote in one of his poems, there’s something beautiful in order. When we see order it makes us happy.
But more so in the case of my work, my poems aim to find joy in the brokeness and trauma of life, the joy that I feel as the gold lacquer and the wreckage of my body and in the literal disfigurement of my body through the loss of a breast. This approach is a form of faith for me. My faith in God is a God who suffers alongside human beings, who is in the MRI machine with me, who urges me to write about the comfort and joys that thread their way through my life.
So my poetry becomes a thank you to the suffering and redemptive Christ who coexists with the emotions of anger, doubt and betrayal, that God also wants me to express, whatever God wants, I don’t know what God wants, but that’s how I feel. If my poetry did not acknowledge the existence of the cracks and also my anger at God, my joy would be a cheap joy. I think of Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. To be joyful we need to acknowledge the anger and the doubt or it’s a cheap joy. So with that introduction, I’m going to read four poems, from each of my books because they’re all my babies and I don’t want to neglect any of them.
This is a poem I read at all my readings so some of you may have heard about it before. This is the first time I went back to church after having a diagnosis of cancer. I’d been away from church, but having a disease makes you surprisingly open to the idea: Maybe there’s something else out there. That’s one good thing about.
This is called “Persimmon”:
“I place you by my window so your skin can receive the setting sun, so your flesh will yield to succulents, lush with juice. So the saints of autumn will bless your flaming fruit. Because cancer has left me tired. Because when I visit God’s houses, I enter and leave alone. Not even in the melting beeswax and swinging musk of incense has God visited me. Not when I’ve bowed or kneeled or sung. Because I’ve found God instead, when I’ve crouched in bathrooms, laying back for the burning of my skin, covered my face and cursed. Persimmon, votive candle at the icon of my kitchen window, your four-petaled stem, the eye of God and the temple’s dome, dwelling place for my wandering prayers. I am learning from you how to praise. Because when your body bruises and softens, you are perfected, because your soul persimmon is sugar.”
I wrote that when I was so upset during church that I ran out to the bathroom. I collapsed on the floor, and I said, God if you exist, can you please come to me. And I felt God come to me, not in the liturgy, but lying and sitting in the bathroom. You never know when that will happen.
If you’ve ever been to a hospital you know that when you enter a hospital you sort of lose yourself. You’re put in a room, nurses and techs—I love nurses, by the way; that’s not antinurse—feel free to come in at any time, even in the middle of the night, flick the lights on, and take your vital signs for no particular reason. You can’t put the clothes you want on, you’re given food to eat you don’t want to eat. So you really lose a sense of identity. This poem’s about how joyful it feels to leave a hospital and become Anya in my case, again, become myself.
“Leaving the Hospital”
As the doors glide shut behind me,
the world flares back into being—
I exist again, recover myself,
sunlight undimmed by dark panes,
the heat on my arms the earth’s breath.
The wind tongues me to my feet
like a doe licking clean her newborn fawn.
At my back, days measured by vital signs,
my mouth opened and arm extended,
the nighttime cries of a man withered
child-size by cancer, and the bells
of emptied IVs tolling through hallways.
Before me, life—mysterious, ordinary—
holding off pain with its muscular wings.
As I step to the curb, an orange moth
dives into the basket of roses
that lately stood on my sickroom table,
and the petals yield to its persistent
nudge, opening manifold and golden.
That’s a happy image of the end. So even if the poem’s not happy, so even if the poem’s not happy, that’s supposed to be an image of openness and happiness.
This is from my book From Nothing. This is a poem I read a lot. I really like it. It’s also about finding joy in a difficult situation. For any of you who are women who like lipstick, you know the search for the perfect red lipstick is really important. It can take up a lot of psychological time. I have actually found it, so if you need to know I can tell you. [laughter] This is about that. It’s called “Just Red.”
I stand in Walgreens while my mother sleeps.
The store is fluorescent and almost empty.
My father is ailing in a nursing home,
my friend is dying in the hospital.
What I want tonight is lipstick.
As pure a red as I can find—no coral
undertones, no rust or fawn. Just red.
Ignoring the salespeople, I untwist tubes
and scrawl each color on my wrist,
till the blue veins beneath my skin
disappear behind smeared bars. I select one.
Back in my mother's apartment, silence.
I limn my lips back out of my wan face.
There they are again: smacky and wanting.
[00:55:20] I’ll close with this poem because I want to have time for some questions and answers. This poem I need to explain a little bit about what it is. It’s inspired by a medieval book called the Colloquy by Aelfric who was a monk and it was written about 955 AD. The book consists of dialogues between people of different professions and a master or a teacher. But they were really used to teach kids Latin and they’re also spiritual lessons.
So this poem begins with an epigraph from this one section from the book by Aelfric, the Colloquy, and it’s called “Salture,” and it was someone who processed salt, which was very expensive in these days. So the master asks, “Salture, how does your craft benefit us?” Salture: “Everyone benefits a great deal from my skill. No one benefits from breakfasts or dinner unless my skill is present in it. Indeed all the butter and cheese would go bad unless I looked after it,” which would of course be true sorrow if that happened.
So this is a poem about the salture, about salt.
“Oh Lord our God, how delicious is your name. And glad is everyone who recognizes the world in the works of your fingers. Salture? You shall eat fish in summer and in autumn the garden’s bitter grains. You will brine the harvest for winter’s broth. And in spring you will sprinkle salt and herbs on the eggs of your fruitful hens. The treasures of the mines and the seas will be precious to you and the trees and vines. You will season all of God’s creation with joy. Order and radiance will follow your footsteps. The Lord will bless those who cure, who sow the tears of the sorrowful and harvest the feathered sheaves of peace. Blessed are those who preserve the earth for they shall be preserved.”
Thank you. [Applause]
Anya: [00:57:54] So now we have time for questions about writing poetry, happiness and joy.
Audience member 1: This answer may be different for all the individual sorrows, but when you experience something, a deep grief like the loss of a child or marriage, did you personally find it helpful to write about that right away? Or did you need space and time away from the subject before you could find joy and write about the joy?
Anya: I’ll say something first. I needed some time. The first poem I wrote about with cancer and a miscarriage that I had were not good. The poems that I had were not good so I sort of clung to Wordsworth’s idea of emotion, something in tranquility—recollect and tranquility. Personally I needed a little space. I did think it was good therapeutically to get all that out right away, and I did go back to some of that. But in terms of writing a finished poem, I did need a little bit of time.
Julie: My first two books detailed a lot of physical suffering that I and my family were going through. It was very helpful to write those poems as I was going through it. There was great therapeutic value to it. I never thought I would do anything with those poems. I thought they stunk, I thought they were awful. It wasn’t until I was through and on the other side, that I then could look back and see, oh there might be some value in that.
The loss of my marriage, that was a totally different pain, that was a totally different experience. I actually was told by my therapist to write about it. I was not writing at all about it. I was not making progress, and my counselor said, “You’re a writer, why aren’t you writing about this?” And I told her something I couldn’t even believe came out of my mouth, because if I had been sitting with a writer, I would know exactly what to say to that person, but there I was saying it. And I said, “I didn’t think I was allowed to write about my husband.”
So that was really freeing that that was a part of my healing process. I still didn’t know if anything would come of the poems. They started just as journals and getting things out, but it became a means of treatment as well because I was suffering from PTSD. And so rewriting even the scripts of nightmares, which is one of the poems in the book, that became one of the therapeutic approaches as well that we used to get me past those nightmares. It was the same one over and over and over again. So there was a delay for me. A different suffering, a different mechanism.
Barbara: Yeah, I want to elucidate on that. I have a series of poems on the death of a friend to breast cancer. I was writing those during the time and a book of poems about the loss of my mother, and again writing those during the time. I think we’re writers and that’s what we do, is we write. But the poems about the death of the child, I’m still writing that poem. I’ve been writing that poem for forty years.
Anya: I do want to add, that sometimes writing helps you because it gives order to the experience. And so, writing about it is helpful for me because it puts me back in control of my life in a way.
Barbara: It also gives form and shape to the experience. I always feel it’s a double-edged thing. Therapy is therapy and writing and is writing. But the act of writing is therapeutic, so it’s both.
Audience Member 2: [01:01:40] My question kind of goes along with that. In The Art of Spiritual Writing, Vinita Hampton Wright has an amazing essay about public writing versus private writing and the difference between writing something out when you’re still going through it and it’s super raw, and the more public writing that might actually be helpful for people but that’s on the other side of it. So what percentage of your poetry and processing came out of the really raw experience, and how much of it was revised and filtered, and got published after you had kind of processed through it a little more? And how much revision went into your poems before they became public?
Barbara: I don’t do any private writing. I’m really writing for craft, for making an object, a found thing. Like a potter makes a pot, like someone who works in wood makes a beautiful bowl. The raw stuff might be the materials, but I’m always working on craft.
Tania: I tend, when I’m going through a stage of pretty deep anxiety, I tend to get paralysed. To just get my kids on the bus is a huge achievement and writing is the last thing on my mind. But I did, a couple years ago, when I was going through a really dark time, I challenged myself to do what felt impossible at the time. And that was, I wrote—this was not poetry—this was actually a post that I wrote for “Good Letters,” which is the blog from Image Journal. I wrote from the depths of what I was going through.
It was really really hard to do. But I thought, if I’m ever going to try this, now’s the time. I haven’t felt this bad in a while. I will say that the response I got from that, from people who were able to identify with what I was experiencing, was overwhelming. Which showed me that there’s definitely value to writing from those places of suffering, I just never feel like doing it. [laughter]
Julie: I would echo that. I don’t know how Ginsberg did it with the first thought, best thought thing, but I revise incessantly. Revision. There is a rawness at first, usually at the moment that I’m writing the poem at the first time and then I’m a little narcissist, and I’m in love with the poem, and I think this must be the Pulitzer Prize-winning thing. And then a week later I go, “And this thing stinks,” and the revision begins.
So it’s interesting because, when it is about something along these lines, there is that rawness for me at first. But at the same time the revision gives me the necessary distance from it, almost, to then craft it as Barbara was saying. The third person in my last book, the reason why I went with third person point of view is because first person was just excruciating. I just could never get enough distance in order to be so raw about it. So that was one reason, there were some other reasons. But that distance thing was really necessary.
Anya: I would just say that like, I revise constantly. Its like revision revision revision. Again, it’s a way of ordering the poem. You have the raw material of emotion, but then you’re looking at line lengths and rhyme and whether an image works. You look at the language, the words, the sounds. That’s what makes it a poem rather than a diary entry. I do keep a tortured diary which nobody will ever want to read. But for poems, revisions are extremely important for me.
Barbara: And while revision sounds like a lot of work and sounds really boring—
Anya: I love it.
Barbara: —the poet William Matthew said, “Revision isn’t cleaning up after the party, revision is the party.” [laughter]
Audience Member 3: I think this is the last question. So our section has monopolized the microphone. [laughter]
Anya: Go for it!
Audience Member 3: I wanted to ask about—I really appreciated that all of you brought through that the joy comes in the context of other, deeper things. My question is do you find yourself writing really dark, and then you tell yourself, “Now is time for some joy” or does the joy spring out of it? Do you search for the joy while you’re in the midst of the crap? That’s a technical term.
Barbara: Well, Robert Frost talks about poetry is a journey. I believe in this too. If you know where a poem is heading, that’s where you start, and then you see where it goes. I try at least to never direct the work but let the work direct me. You’re journeying through a dark woods with a map and you don’t know where you’re going.
Julie: Amen, amen, amen.
Barbara: We’re also all writing teachers. [laughs]
Julie: The poem I read about tearing out the rose bushes and planting flowers, that was something I lived through, that was something I did. That was a very angry poem in early drafts because that was pulling out the rose bushes and the thorns and everything. That was me getting my anger out. It wasn’t until much later drafts that I realized, “Wow, I pushed through it.” Tearing out the rose bushes was therapeutic too. And what did I leave in its place? All these beautiful flowers, that I had established some sense of peace and joy. So yeah there’s a sense in which joy can spring up, but there’s also another sense in which the joy is hard won. I appreciated what Anya said about almost a discipline of our faith that we work at joy too.
Anya: I would love to take more questions but it is 4:30. Thank you so much all of you for coming in… [applause]
Jennifer: [01:08:05] Our deep gratitude to Barbara Crooker, Julie Moore, and Tania Runyan. We give thanks for the life of Anya Silver. To paraphrase George Herbert, for all our sweet-sour days, we will lament and love. May she rest in song and rise in glory.
Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.
Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
You can find more information about the Center and its signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at ccfw.calvin.edu and festival.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes—and leave us review to help others find this podcast. Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more from the Festival archives.