and her poetry
by Peter Menkin
Here is the interview done with American poet Luci Shaw, of Washington State in the Northwest. This is another in a series of interviews with Anglican and American poets. (Luci Shaw is an Anglican—attends Episcopal Church in her Washington State.)
She decided to respond to questions by writing answers, and this interview reflects her request so that she could email her answers. She did so and the answers were received October 1, 2011. At 83 years old, with 30 books to her credit, she’s finished another work that she hopes to see published about what it means to get to be older in years. This writer asked her a little about the subject of her book proposal, and herewith the interview.
- 1. In your poem, “Mary Considers Her Situation,” there is a simplicity and at the same time reality to your statement about her as Mother of God. One question that so many poets are asked is what is their muse that brings them to write about a certain subject? That is my first question, but more, what is there about Mary as a figure in the story that captures the eye of your imagination? Will you share something of this vision and faith with us?
I find in Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her willing involvement in the drama of Incarnation, an almost infinite world of possibility for reflection and poetry. My collection, Accompanied by Angels, includes many poems about this ordinary, extraordinary young woman. She can be viewed from so many different angles.
I have always seen her as a model, to both women and men, of active participation in the work of God no matter how tricky or risky it appears to be. She said Yes to being pregnant with God by the Holy Ghost, well knowing what that might do to her reputation as an unwed mother. She considered the call of God on her to be paramount.
She is also an example to all of us who wish to know new birth and growth in our own lives. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8, particularly in Eugene Peterson’s translation, I read:
“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us. It’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We are also feeling
the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting.”
So, Mary is our example of fruitfulness. She also shows us what active submission of the finite to the Infinite looks like in an ordinary human being. She herself incarnates that obedience in a way the whole of Christendom remembers, if we reference all the religious art that features her through history.
In my poem, “Mary Considers Her Situation” (which will be featured in The Christian Century during Advent, 2011) I tried to be Mary, to get into her experience first-hand, to feel what this shocking event would evoke for her emotionally. I used the simple language of an untrained teenage girl. And her first thought, “What will I say to my mother?” echoes what an adolescent today would ask herself before the amazement of the moment overwhelms her. And then, the reality. She will be “split” both physically, in birth, and split from the rest of humanity by her unique role.
- 2. When I get in a conversation about getting older, and I am coming to my 65th birthday in October 2011, I try to admit to them and myself that this is a new stage in my life. But most people with whom I speak talk about aging and getting older as something to avoid, and their response is always, You are not so old. If I speak of someone in their 80s, this same kind of person says, They are not so old. I wonder what they will say if asked about someone in their 90s. My question for you because your latest book proposal is on getting into the later years of life, and you yourself are 83, what are a few of your thoughts and even poetic imaginings about aging? Is it such a fearful thing that so many of us must deny that getting old is even old at all?
Getting older is so universal, so inevitable, so impossible to avoid unless you die young, that it is surprising to me that so many are in denial about it. The common view of aging is that it is a state of weakness, pain, passivity and immobility in which meaningful life has ceased to exist. The book I have just written is a demonstration that the opposite is possible. That spiritual and emotional growth and insight can happen. That the accumulated wisdom of a life-time becomes available for younger generations as the “senior citizen” continues to engage in the community.
Undoubtedly getting older has its downsides. Energy declines, bodily infirmities appear and multiply, memory may weaken, but the essential spirit of creativity and joy can still survive and flourish. My strategy is to stay aware of the wider world through reading, films, music, and the company of kindred spirits of any age. Most of my closest friends are decades younger than I am, but our age is not the focus of conversation, or our common ground, and even the issues on which we differ make for lively intercourse. Disagreements can be enlightening and widen the view!
- 3. As someone who has lived in the great Northwest of the United States, Washington State, speak about some of the things that you like about the area where you live? Tell us how long you have lived there, and how you feel about being someone who lives and works in their own home? Do you find where you live a place of nurture and support as a poet?
John and I have lived in the Pacific Northwest, just south of the Canadian Border, for about fifteen years. Bellingham is not a large city, but being a college town with a great independent bookstore and a flourishing Episcopal Church has made it a place of satisfaction and fulfillment for us. We love sailing, tent-camping, gardening. I love the opportunities for photography in this town on the shore of Puget Sound with its islands and pebbled shores. Within an hour’s drive is Mt. Baker, snow-capped year-round, and Washington’s Cascade Range as well as the Coastal Range of British Columbia. In contrast to California where we lived for eight years, the landscape here is green and the soil rich. We have lots of rain (the reason for all the green!) and rain forests, but moderate temperatures both summer and winter.
When we moved here we built a home on the edge of a ravine flanked by tall cedars and ferns, and my study opens on a flowing stream. I like to say that I write best to the sound of running water! I love having my writing space at home, with all my books, my walls ornamented with winged creatures—angels, icons, engraving of birds (by Barry Moser), and one gryphon.
This town teems with artists of every kind. I have lots of poet and writer friends, and a local poetry group which meets sporadically. The bookstore has a Literature Live program that allows me to do public readings. Some of my writer colleagues live elsewhere but we stay in touch on the internet.
- 4. Sometimes we think that poetry about rhymes, and I notice that your work is not a work of rhyming for the sake of rhythm, but is a work that, nonetheless, sings to the reader. Is there something in the Bible that inspires your work, or brings to mind the poetic sensibilities that you bring out in the way of language in your own writing? What in the New or Old Testament sings for you? If you were to give some advice to young people of what to look for in developing their own work as a poet, even those in high school, what would you say in brief to them?
The poems I write seem to choose their own style, either formal or free. I find the iambic meter the most natural, echoing the human heart beat. Usually a phrase will arrive, from God knows where (literally) and I make a note of it and see where it is leading, or how it might develop. Words and phrases also jump out at me from the printed page of whatever I’m reading and demand to be used.
That is the art—the awareness of a possibility. The craft comes in the shaping of the idea or image, with its own rhymes, and assonances, and rhythms. I read new poems aloud, to test for line breaks and stanza breaks, but also for music and accessibility. My poetry is usually not “difficult,” though it may be dense and take several readings to unpack. (By the way, I haven’t written 30 books of poetry; rather 30 books in different forms, though never fiction.)
I have gifted poet friends with whom I workshop on line and in person, who read and critique my new poetry before I submit it for publication in a literary journal, or publish a new collection. I do the same for them. Several sets of skilled eyes and ears are an amazing help in perfecting a poem.
My advice for young poets? Avoid “poetic language” and dreamy generalizations. Paint a picture with vivid details for your reader. Let verbs and nouns do most of the work, using modifiers sparsely. Work for both inevitability and surprise in your writing. Read the work aloud to test it. Read lots of good poetry by others so that language and angles of insight get into your bones. Buy books of poetry to sustain the industry.
- 5. Talk to us a little bit about what appears to be an autobiographical work, “Leaf, Fallen?” What do you look for it to evoke in a reader, and what is it about the shortness of life you saw that resonates so that came to your mind in your own later years; and do you sometimes meditate on the many years passed and the years to come—even the end? I know this is a tough question, and to ask a poet to speak in an essay or expository manner seems almost a waste of time. But you are an essayist who has 30 books of poetry to her credit. Will you also tell us about your essay and expository writing, and how a poet comes to her subjects, those you’ve published? I am also fascinated to know more about your book proposal now at your agent’s about being in one’s senior years. This question seems a question of reflection and even a kind of savvy wisdom we expect of our elders—with hope. Yes, I do ask three part questions. So if you like, take each individually if you don’t find them related enough in their theme to make a fourth response.
I wrote the poem “Leaf, Falling,” as a recollection of my mother, who lived to be 99 ¾. As I get older myself, I’ve developed more of a fellow-feeling with her and a greater sympathy than in my youth. My brother and I were born, her only children, in her late forties, and she lived her life through us, a kind of proxy existence. She was a devout Christian, but legalistic to the point that our youthful explorations in faith and relationships and activities shocked and angered her. Her love was demanding enough to be crippling, and she was prone to depression, which colored our relationship negatively. My father was a totally different personality, bold, loving, risk-taking, a lover of art and poetry, and I carry his genes!
The poem uses the imagery of a leaf in Fall, because of its color, fragility and inevitably limited life span. My mother lived in Canada and I would travel from the States to the nursing home where she lived the last 30 years of her life. From age 70 on she would warn me of her imminent decease every visit, though she outlasted all her siblings and in-laws.
A lover of green in any form, I’m also a lover of leaves in any season, as well as the glorious skeletons of bare branches. Most of my books reflect this trend!
- If you were to pick three of your books of poetry, or if you prefer, name three of your own poems you liked a lot—what comes to mind now is okay—tell us something about them. In a more cleverly put way, talk to us about the mystery of the poem that you find of your own making and why this offers a sense of mystery when speaking to you? Hopefully, this will help your reader gain insight into your poetry, and poetry in general.
My most recent book of poems, Harvesting Fog, came about when I read a factoid in The National Geographic—that residents of Lima, Peru, get very little rain but are surrounded by a constant, clammy fog. To get more water, these clever people hang nets outside on which the fog and dew condenses. They can wring out these nets to augment their supplies.
It struck me that this technique is similar to the way a poet develops poetry. An idea or image is waiting in the air to be snagged and collected and aggregated with others, that the poet collects and drinks from in order to send a trickle into a world thirsty for beauty and meaning. This depends, of course, on a connection with the transcendent, an awareness of “things unseen” from the hand of God, who as a Creator created us to create. A friend once remarked to me: “Your gift is your spiritual discipline.” Thus using one’s gift to write or employ one’s craft is a way of saying thank you to God.
An autumn-colored sky like
the color of my friend Mary’s
hair. Like the just-turning-to-flame
leaves on the vine maple
we planted only last year,
a gift surprising as
a birthday cake even though
it’s expected. The mangoes in
the wooden bowl on the table
matches a color that flashes
from the bird’s brilliant head
at the bird feeder. Even
the bright mesh of the ratty
pot-scrubber in my hand
is glory leaking through.
Poet Luci Shaw discusses her book, “The Crime of Living Cautiously”
The Luci Shaw Fellowship
The Luci Shaw Fellowship from Image Journal on Vimeo.
The purpose of the Luci Shaw Fellowship is to expose a promising undergraduate student to the world of literary publishing and the nonprofit arts organization, and to introduce fellows to the contemporary dialogue about art and faith that surrounds Image, its programs, its contributors, and its peer organizations.
Christian Century poems
Getting it right
Sep 14, 2011 by Luci Shaw
Jesus might have died
a dozen times before he died.
An incidental death—tetanus
from a nail, a splinter.
A baptismal drowning.
A drink from a tainted well.
A stoning, a sudden
push over the edge,
or a falling overboard in a storm.
A choking by a demon on the loose,
a bar room brawl
at the local pub.
So when it happened, it seemed
got it right. Right time,
for God to let it
States of being
Mar 23, 2011 by Luci Shaw
Stability is greatly
Why would I ever want to sit
still and smug as a rock,
confident, because of my great
weight, that I will not
Better to be soft as water,
easily troubled, with
at least three modes
of being, able to shape-
shift, to mirror, to cleanse,
to drift downstream,
To roar when I encounter
The green shiver
Apr 25, 2011 by Luci Shaw
The forest floor bleak, choked
with old leaves, winter wet. Against
the evidence, buds on the wild dogwoods
glisten, listen for a signal, lining up
for bloom-time—when to burst and who’ll
be first? Every year, it’s all according
to weather, the wait for the heat-throb,
wind fresh through the naked
birch trunks longing to get green.
The pressure’s on, like listening for a
starter pistol, finger on the trigger.
Spring is wound tight enough to let go
any minute. Overarching the ravine,
the cedars start their annual scatter of yellow
sexual dust for the next generation.
The clematis resists her tedium of cold and brown,
cancels her winter sleep with a vertical thrust
up the trellis, like a slow shooting star.
How can we help but hope, sprouts
urged to fulfill a kind of promise—
a covenant with the world that in unfolding,
leaf tips flaring up and out, woody hearts pregnant
with bloom and blessing, we will drink rain, light,
heat for our emerald living. We face the sun
full on—its lavish encouragement for cold to lift,
shift, and move away. Holding on, ready for
that shiver, a sliver of thrill like a jade thread
through a labyrinth, when within us
something fresh and green explodes.
Emmaus road remembered
My camera’s eye waits to catch and hold
small chronicles of glint and shape and shine.
The subtle shadings in its blunt black
box all hold their breath until
a kind of resurrection happens on a screen
as esoteric magic translates them into sharp details
to see again, and show to friends.
Trust needs to know that sounds and sights
and words imprinted later, tell truth
about that couple, part of a holy triad
walking, listening, stopping for evening hunger–
did they get it right when they remembered?
Was he a phantom of their grief?
After the sudden vanishing did they
play with the crumbs, wondering?
How carefully did they gather those husks,
memorials of loaf and life and
resurrected bread? And can we learn from them
how to feast on mystery, taking a loaf
from the outstretched hand of the Unseen?
|Psalm for the January Thaw Blessed be God for thaw, for the clear drops|
that fall, one by one, like clocks ticking, from
the icicles along the eaves. For shift and shrinkage,
including the soggy gray mess on the deck
like an abandoned mattress that has
lost its inner spring. For the gurgle
of gutters, for snow melting underfoot when I
step off the porch. For slush. For the glisten
on the sidewalk that only wets the foot sole
and doesn’t send me slithering. Everything
is alert to this melting, the slow flow of it,
the declaration of intent, the liquidation.Glory be to God for changes. For bulbs
breaking the darkness with their green beaks.
For moles and moths and velvet green moss
waiting to fill the driveway cracks. For the way
the sun pierces the window minutes earlier each day.
For earthquakes and tectonic plates-earth’s bump
and grind-and new mountains pushing up
like teeth in a one-year-old. For melodrama—
lightning on the sky stage, and the burst of applause
that follows. Praise him for day and night, and light
switches by the door. For seasons, for cycles
and bicycles, for whales and waterspouts,
for watersheds and waterfalls and waking
and the letter W, for the waxing and waning
of weather so that we never get complacent. For all
the world, and for the way it twirls on its axis
like an exotic dancer. For the north pole and the
south pole and the equator and everything between.
|Peace on earthIn the tops of the cedars|
ten crows are quarreling.
They do not believe in
conflict resolution. Now
they are flying off, glaring
at each other. Nothing
has been settled.
You need only to live near mountains
to feel in your bones what age looks like. Take
the sandstone cliffs along our Northwest shore:
looking out over pebbled beaches glinting
with sea glass, their faces staring down the ocean,
never as pacific as it sounds. These bluffs
have offered themselves without rest to
the winds, the waters—rising, falling fifteen feet—
the extraordinary tides, rips that tear
water from water, that scour the shores.
This windless day, I am joined with
the low shelf I am sitting on. Warm
from noon sun, it’s pitted into stone lace
by particles whirled by wind for a million years
in the rocks’ shallow wounds. Any small grit
will do, grinding at the stone face, digging deeper,
carving empty eye sockets.
Lines of barnacles like white dried flowers
grow at the waterline, footnotes
to weather’s virtuosity.
No one is watching.
Surreptitiously I lean left, touch,
test with my tongue the etched boulder
by my elbow, and taste the sharp salt of storms.
In that brief kiss I think I even sample
the ochre-gray tint of sands that once
laid down their duned lives
to become these rocks of ages.
This undistinguished, indistinguishable bird–
this prototype of insignificance —
this very moment’s sparrow at
our porch feeder—makes of his compactness
a virtue. From between the wires he pecks
the black sunflower seeds, neat head bobbing,
purposeful, economical, precise.
Watchful—peck and peek, peck and check.
I have seen scarlet tanagers, purple finches,
grosbeaks, red-footed gulls, even the arrogant
displays of peacocks. In his anonymity,
this small bird is who he is, his suit
brown-grey as damp dust, eyes bright beads.
This simple-ness, this pure unselfconsciousness,
this understated…this…Oh, the adjectives multiply,
but they are too large for this small one,
who humbles my own mud-brown heart.
Sometimes in my timidity I overcompensate
and try to sound large until I know such falsehood
is a betrayal.
He poises his nimble self to flick away, quick
as scissors—a cat, a squirrel,
my movement at the glass door.
I tilt my head for a better angle, and he’s gone,
off to his green barracks, hidden in the cedar branches
until, a minute later, his next feeder foray.