Saturday, March 10, 2012

Interview: Illinois Poet Tania Runyan reflects on her poetry and faith

In this interview with the American poet Tania Runyan we find
she is a woman of the Bible, among other things important...
by Peter Menkin

Poet Tania's most recent title:
'A Thousand Vessels'

This interview with Illinois Poet Tania Runyan is the result of sending an inquiry to Wordfarm Press in Washington State asking to see some works in published form of Anglican and Christian poets who they thought make good subjects for this series. Sally Craft, an editor at the press, sent a number of books to review. Though all were worthwhile and certainly enjoyable to read, it was Tania Runyan who stood out in this Religion Writer’s mind. Sally wrote in one email:
You might want to consider Luci Shaw, Jeanne Murray Walker, Paul J. Willis, Brian Dietrich, Tania Runyan and James Zoller–all poets that WordFarm has published or will be publishing soon. I’d be happy to send you samples of their books. I’d love to see your interview with John Leax, if it turns into a published piece. Poets and readers interested in the Wordfarm list can find the publishing house here and write Sally here. I had written Sally I was interested in the work of Paul J. Willis and John Leax, both of whom are Christian poets being considered for this same series of Anglican and Christian poets.
For those who wish to take a look at who Tania Runyan may be, go to her website here. Tania’s also has a Facebook page. That will give you a start prior to the interview itself.

Tania Runyan poet with husband on a hike (baby, too). The two have three children together.

  1. 1. In a phone interview from my home office north of San Francisco to your home in Lindenhurst, Illinois in January 2012, you said about your reflection on your poetry and its Biblical background that you are not academically trained in a seminary for Bible study, “…Just from my own personal walk of faith. Reading the Bible. I’ve been going to Bible study for years. These are my own personal grapplings with the scripture passage.” Tell us something of where you’ve been going for Bible study, if there are any particular poems that you consider truly representative of your own grapplings with scripture, and if there is a particular book of the Bible that you find interesting for your work, which one is it?
I first started attending Bible studies in college and have attended and led them through church off and on through adulthood. One of my Bible study teachers even became my husband! For an example of a poem in which I grapple with scripture, I sent you “Man is Without Excuse,” based on Romans 1:20:

Man is Without Excuse
Perhaps you could say that in Rome, Paul,
where the olive trees of the Seven Hills
strung their pearls of rain against the sky.
And yes, as I hike Glacier Park
with a well-stocked pack, I can welcome
God’s ambassadors of fireweed and paintbrush,
the psalmic rhythm of lake hitting shore.
But as the refugee trudges
from Mogadishu to Dabaab, is she to catch
a glimpse of antelope bone in the thicket
and intuit the sufferings of the Son of Man?
She wears her own nails and crown.
An Eden of lizards surges at her heels,
but she wonders at nothing
but the sore-studded daughter she left to die
on the road, and now, the baby
strapped to her back: six pounds
at one year old. He no longer cries
but flutters small breaths on her neck
like the golden wings of moths
she counts with worshipful attention.

With this poem I’m exploring my love-hate relationship with that verse. [I did it as] someone who loves nature and loves hiking, loves creation. But I think it’s hard for someone like a refugee in Somalia. If you’re fleeing for your life in a horrifying place, how do you find Jesus in creation? Writing about these passages helps me approach God honestly. Even if I don’t find an answer, I feel that dealing with these passages increases my faith just the same. I believe being honest with God increases your faith, even if honesty leaves you with struggles and questions unanswered.
  1. 2. There is a lot to say about the feminine view of Biblical material, and one book comes to mind when I think of your own passions and sense of the feminine in the Bible: Please tell us about some of the women you’ve chosen to write about in your book A Thousand Vessels, available from WordFarm in Washington State, USA.
With daughter.

The ten women I explore in the book are Eve, Sarah, Dinah, Ruth, Esther, Mary the mother of Jesus, the woman at the well, Martha, Jairus’ daughter, and Mary Magdelene. I explore the experiences of marriage, love and birth, especially with women like Ruth and Mary. Faith and sacrifice with Sarah. Death and rebirth with Jairus’ daughter. The changing power of Christ with the woman at the well.
I have two poems from the Woman at the Well section that speak to that. In “Before the Well,” the woman is defined by degrading relationships with men. She struggles to find an identity outside of a man.

Before the Well
This man lying next to me is all
the men before. Hair and humid breath
traveling my body, perspiration dripping
on my breasts. He believes that I love
him. I wish I could awaken him
with whispers of wine and honey, fill the bed
with lilies and myrrh. I wish I could trace his lips
and feel something quiver in my blood.
Instead, I walk into the dark alone.
I close my eyes and imagine myself
beneath a canopy of apple trees, where nothing
touches me but the wind sweeping in
from the distant hills. Always clean and sweet.
Invisible and glimmering out of nowhere.

Lovely award winning book. Sketch of woman is poet's mother's drawing of her mother.

In “After the Well,” I explore how her sensuality and womanhood have now been renewed as beauty and freedom in Christ. So before the well, her identity and her body served no purpose but to fulfill the needs of the many men in her life. Here, the men have been awestruck by the identity and power of this woman and her newfound power in Christ:

After the Well

When she returned,
the men of the village
could no longer allow
their eyes to creep
into the hot, dark secrets
of her body.
She threw her shoulders back.
Her breasts and hips
took on the solid power
of granite carved
from the mountainsides.
And her hair was no longer
just a tangle of steamy pleasure
but spread across her back
like a stand of cedar trees.
The men couldn’t speak.
They watched her gather
the widows and prostitutes
and stretch her arm
toward Jacob’s well.
The women followed her,
slowly lifting the veils
from their faces
as her faded blue dress
swept before them
like the holy sky.

Martha in particular speaks to me because of my task-oriented personality, especially during this period of my life with younger children. On many levels, I have to be organized and on task. But I must also be able to sit at the feet of Christ. So it is a challenge for me.

  1. 3. At one point in our telephone conversation we spoke of female thought and passion in relation to the faith poem, and you said of your work regarding sensuous interpretation, “I think it’s beautiful. [I know you are referring to the man-woman relationship in passion, here.] And I think we’ve always conceived this notion of the Bible as a sanitized work, but it is actually quite sensual. I think part of the hard balance in trying to reach an audience with A Thousand Vessels is that people who aren’t familiar with the Christian faith, or who have a preconceived notion of the Bible, will balk at the sex and violence there. I am trying to show how the Bible portrays the whole spectrum of human experience.” As I recall, your poem about Adam is for my reading a sensuous work. This writer doesn’t want to paint you as a poet interested in the erotic, solely, but in this work you certainly capture something of the male-female relationship. “Really, I think this poem is about blame and regret. He is out working the earth now because he is cursed with the earth. He is mad at her because she started the whole ball rolling, and at the end of the poem he is wondering if he made a mistake, wishing that there was a promising relationship and life in the garden. They now have tension that they have to work through.” My question is this: Let us explore your intention of exploring emotions of blame and regret in a relationship. Please talk about that some.
In the poem [Eve] sees his gorgeous body working the ground, becoming the ground, as if retreating back to his origins. His sexuality is now completely disengaged from her. Meanwhile, he is looking beyond her for an imaginary woman who could bring that paradise back. But the reality is that they both need to live with the consequences of their actions, and nothing is going to bring them back to the garden.
He can look for this imaginary woman, but he is not going anywhere unless he moves forward and makes the best of his life. My friends and I are entering into the middle of life, and some of us are looking at regrets. How many kids we’ve had, and how many kids we’ve not had. (Laughs). …Reaching 40 and thinking about the choices in your life, it can be hard work to live with consequences, but it is also very freeing. To make that decision to face your life and make it as generous and loving and redemptive as possible—regardless of your past.
Adam and Eve faced regret, but they moved on, and that is the most important thing of all, moving on.
  1. 4. In following the number of readings you’ve done recently, this writer asks that you comment on your remark, “One thing that makes me different from most other poets is that I do not have a career in academia. I love my life and how I’m living it, but sometimes I do feel a little alienated from the poetry world.” Will you expand on this theme of the poet who is not on a staff as a teacher in academy and how you as a poet with an MFA in poetry, trained in academia, put together a writing life outside of academia? How does a poet learn to be a poet if not through ongoing academia?
Poetry book.

Even since I made that remark during our first conversation, my life has changed. I’ve made so many more connections to poets and editors. I don’t feel so isolated anymore. One reason is I’ve been spending so much time with social media. Yes, Facebook and Twitter can take up a lot of time, but the community of writers I’ve found there can be invigorating and encouraging. As for surviving, I’ve found so many ways to stay employed with my impractical writing degrees. (Laughs) I taught high school, and when I began having kids, I started tutoring students privately. I’ve been doing that for nine years, and I really love it. I tutor students in reading, writing, and the SAT and ACT (both college admission testing). I advise them on their college application essays.
Once my youngest is in school, I’m planning on doing more freelancing. There are plenty of things I’ve put together outside of academia. I will admit, sometimes I get intimidated when I’m with a crowd of scholars. But my academic friends are very generous with their time and support.
As for learning to be a poet, it requires a lot of reading and writing, just doing the work. When I talk to young poets, I say at this point in life, it’s all about experimenting and having fun with language. Really, all poets at all stages should never lose that excitement and fervor for words. But young poets should not worry about when or where they are going to be published. They must love words, play with words…and I think as a young writer, that is what I did. I just had a lot of fun. I’m still a young writer. A young writer could be 60 years old. Really, we should never stop growing. I hope I will continue to improve and evolve.
At the recent Odyssey Arts Festival at Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Ilinois, I had students write about the Georgia O’Keeffe painting, “Red, Yellow, and Black Streak.” I was trying to show them that anyone can sit down with a work of art for inspiration, explore it with their senses, and produce some fresh and beautiful writing. The poems were written in groups. The point wasn’t to come up with a cohesive masterpiece, but to explore the possibilities of language.
Here are a few examples of lines and images students created. They were hungry, I suppose, and imagined a lot of food in the O’Keeffe!

A swath of caramel heat consumes the air.
The wind carried a scent of cinnamon.
Swirling masses of passionate nutmeg.
Rolling clouds of lemonade.
The wind dragged the waves across the land.
Spaghetti bombs permeate the horizon.
Seagulls fly into the papaya sunset.
  1. 5. In our very good–and for me and my purposes of this interview revealing comments in our initial background phone conversation–you talked some of your own Church experience: “I wasn’t really raised in the Church. I didn’t start going until I was a teenager. For the most part, I have attended evangelical, contemporary-style churches. Currently I go to New Hope Christian Community in Round Lake, ILLINOIS. It’s part of a denomination called Converge, and Converge used to be General Baptist Conference. It’s a pretty new Church, 2 years old, about 200 people. My husband and I are very involved with the music team.” The question: In what ways has your Church experience influenced your own view of God and you’re living the Christian life. Have you found something especially poetic about the worship experience you’ve had at your Church? Importantly, as a poet who is a person of faith, is there a special way your work influences the faith life of your children’s upbringing and lives, for you have three: ages 9, 6, 3.
As far as the first question about my church, I would say the most beautiful aspect is that people can enter the doors without fear of being judged. There are people there with criminal pasts, addictions, and deep hurts. I can honestly say that the love of Christ is felt in that community. A personal story: Last year after surgery, I found myself with a paralyzed vocal cord. It was a hard time for me, and I was able speak audibly just days before a scheduled poetry reading. I had been worried about the reading, and so many people from my church came, even those who aren’t really into poetry, and packed the coffee house. I felt so loved. That is an example of how our church functions as a loving fellowship.

The poet herself.

My husband and I are on the music team and of course love the musical aspect of worship. But the people are the most beautiful part of the worship experience.
I don’t think my work impacts my children now. They are a little young for the poems themselves. When I was pregnant with my first child, I had these romantic visions of myself reading Shakespeare to her and having her grow up in this very poetic atmosphere. Honestly, it hasn’t really happened! I will say we never have a TV on in our house. Books are important. Music is important. Maybe I should, but I don’t sit and read poetry to my children. They read their own books, and go their way with them.
  1. 6. This has been an enjoyable interview for me, and I’ve liked your work very much. It is surprising that you’ve been recognized by poetry groups with some prizes and awards. Tell us about some of those and what they’ve meant to you and what they represent.
The most important awards have been the Book of the Year by The Conference on Christianity and Literature and a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Literature Fellowship. The Book of the Year was very shocking because it was for a chapbook, Delicious Air. What was great about that award was it launched me into a network of Christian writers. That’s when I came out of my isolation as a writer and a Mom, and it was the first significant recognition I got. It led to some editors soliciting work and brought me into that community. The NEA was a very big shock because I pretty much applied for it because a professor of mine suggested I get practice applying for grants! I took her recommendation, but I had absolutely no expectation of getting a grant. The grant has given me time to write and connect with other writers. For me, both awards were like God saying to me, keep doing this poetry thing. So I have taken that seriously.
  1. 7. As this interview comes to an end, please talk about what hasn’t been asked or covered and make any comments or give any question and answer not covered here.
I just want to encourage readers to make poetry a part of their daily lives. It’s hard in our busy schedules, but just take a moment to listen and let the words wash over you. The words will connect you to what’s really important. They will give you a window to the Spirit. The reading is worth it.


Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit by Tania Runyan

I am not made to pray. I close my eyes
and float among the spots behind my lids.
I chew the name God, God, like habitual
gum, think about dusting the shelves, then sleep.

It is hard to speak to the capital LORD
who deals in mountains and seas, not in a woman
rewashing her mildewed laundry while scolding
her toddler through gritted teeth. I should

escape to the closet and kneel to the holy
singularity who blasted my cells from a star.
I should imagine the blood soaking
into the cross’s grain, plead forgiveness

for splintering my child’s soul. But the words
never find their way out of the dark.
Choirs and candles shine in His bones
while I doze at the door of his body.

First appeared in The Christian Century

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Blessed are you, woman,
doubled over in the bathroom stall
awaiting your miscarried child.

Blessed are you, weeping
constellations of all-night vigils
on the shot-up university campus.

Blessed are you, soldier,
rubbing the phantom
of your amputated leg,

and you, small boy, huddled
in the closet with a handprint
on your face—bless you.

Bless the vice in your stomach,
your throat stripped raw from crying,
the shoes you fling across the room.

Bless the rain you curse for falling
so easily outside your window, the chair
you collapse in after a night of pacing the halls.

Bless the food you cannot eat,
the hair you cannot wash,
the God you cannot pray to.

Bless you who want to forget
it ever happened but feel the grave
rising to asphyxiate your heart.

Bless you who want to dive
into the grave and feel nothing
but the simple weight of the earth.

Blessed are you who damn
these words, who send them to hell
with your sorrows.

Blessed, yes, even you.

First appeared in Innisfree

Buried With Him In His Death

We fought for one more sputter
of the old life. Even though a breeze passing
over your sieve of skin could send you
screaming, you muscled up your diaphragm
to whisk more air into the fire.

I held my own terrors to my chest:
failures and brush-offs, cancers and crashes,
all the anxieties I had grown to love
heaving and cracking like your ribcage
until we both gave out.

Then there was the mess of prying us loose:
wailing women and splintered lumber,
flesh stubbornly sticking to the nails.
But what swift hands, that Joseph of Arimathea,
what purposeful footsteps crunching the ground!

He wrapped us in linen and spices.
Only the hapless world could think of packing
fifty pounds of aloe around a dead man’s wounds.
But we drank it in like deserts
until finally even the lizards scurried home.

I lay in the cave and wanted to touch you,
but my hands were no longer mine.
They closed in on themselves like daylilies.
The stone rumbled over the window of light,
and then our difficult rising began.

First appeared in The Christian Century

Life Outside
To punish me, Adam has taken over
the trees: Don’t touch any this time.
He lets the ripe fruit fall and dissolve
in the grass. I envy those flies
that just ride their wings into sweetness.

What do I say? I wish I could return to the tree
and turn away. I wish we could lie
naked in a field and nibble figs.
Now my stomach stirs like rocks
in a river. I can only wait
for him to pull a few roots and toss them
over his shoulder: Eat.

He is becoming the earth again.
It sifts through his hair
and settles in the creases of his skin.
His back ripples under the sun
like the mountains baking in the distance.

Sometimes, he stops and looks up,
as if a voice were breaking
through the trees. For a moment I see
his eyes, then they float over my shoulder,
as if another woman stood behind me,
beckoning him toward paradise.

First appeared in Willow Review

Mary at the Nativity

The angel said there would be no end
to his kingdom. So for three hundred days
I carried rivers and cedars and mountains.
Stars spilled in my belly when he turned.

Now I can’t stop touching his hands,
the pink pebbles of his knuckles,
the soft wrinkle of flesh
between his forefinger and thumb.
I rub his fingernails as we drift
in and out of sleep. They are small
and smooth, like almond petals.
Forever, I will need nothing but these.

But all night, the visitors crowd
around us. I press his palms to my lips
in silence. They look down in anticipation,
as if they expect him
to spill coins from his hands
or raise a gold scepter
and turn swine into angels.

Isn’t this wonder enough
that yesterday he was inside me,
and now he nuzzles next to my heart?
That he wraps his hand around
my finger and holds on?

First appeared in Willow Springs

The Birth of Cain
Pain, He warned. But how
could I imagine it?

I thought when the time came
I would steal into the myrrh
like a mother gazelle, my belly
a low moon in the branches.
A soft birth, rustle of leaves.
Suckling, sleep, stars.

But one morning I broke
like a thundercloud in a field.
A lion tore through my body,
and the lion caught fire.
Everything I was—forests,
mountains, Adam—everything
I had ever thought or spoken
melted in the rhythmic flames.

How could I move again,
to gather fruit and stones?
How could I become the mother
of the living, when the Lord
was unmaking me, burning me
back down to a bone?

First appeared in The Comstock Review

The Goldfish Pond
I like the dead one best,
my daughter says,

and follows a corpse
the length of her smallest finger
around the edge of the pond.

Among the water lilies
a dozen fish flicker and spark.
Look how pretty, I say.

But she is lost now,
bending so low
her nose almost touches
the scales.

He keeps looking at me.
I love him.

And she reaches into her face.

First appeared in Indiana Review

The Possession of Mary Magdalene
Pottery begged to be broken,
raked across her wrists.
Voices pulsed, God is sorry,
God is sorry he made you.
She scraped scabs
from her breasts—
God is sorry—
plucked eyelashes
and flicked them in the fire—
God is sorry.
And when she found her body
sufficiently fissured,
she drew her blanket over her like dusk
and sank into the steady hiss
of demons.

Follow the Nazerene
until he touches you,
a village woman told her.
Mary shook her head.
She had seen one of the touched.
The woman wrapped linen
around her wounds
until her body shone.
Strangers bellowed praises.
She wandered the roads
with a bewildered smile
well into the evening,
the fearful notes of her own singing
suspended in the dark.

First appeared in Confrontation

Poems Copyright (c) 2012, Tania Runyan

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