January 8, 2015

from A CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS ANDERSON

Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson is a professor of English at Oregon State University, where he has taught literature and writing since 1986. He grew up in Spokane, graduated from Gonzaga University in 1977, and received his PhD in English from the University of Washington in 1982. He taught at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, before coming to Oregon. He is the author, co-author, or editor of fourteen books, including books of literary criticism, textbooks, a book of essays and a memoir, and two books of poetry. The Next Thing Always Belongs, his second book of poetry, was published in 2011 by Airlie Press, a writers’ collaborative, and he publishes poems widely in magazines and journals. Since 1997 he has also been an ordained Catholic deacon. He is active in parish and campus ministry, baptizing, presiding at funerals, witnessing weddings, preaching, leading retreats, and visiting the sick. He and his wife, Barb, the pastoral associate at St. Mary’s in Corvallis, have three grown children and two grandchildren. They live with their two dogs on the edge of the university research forest north of Corvallis. (website)

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Note: The following is excerpted from a 26-page interview.

FOX: You used the word “pure,” which it seems to me does reflect you and your poetry. Can you talk a little about that? 

ANDERSON: I don’t know, let me think about that for a minute. It’s obvious that I tend toward the plain style; the pure, simpler, more conversational style. I really don’t—well, in some cases I do—like “poetic” language. Most of the time I’ll start to read a book of poems and it just won’t engage me, and I don’t necessarily generalize that therefore that person is a bad poet, but I just read what I want to read. And I tend to be attracted to poets like Wendell Berry or Jack Gilbert. I mean, there’s a range of poets who will attract me … or Marie Howe, or Mary Oliver … who I don’t think are showing off, who are not just being “techniquey.”

FOX: Yes.

ANDERSON: They are not just machines who’ll—for Airlie Press, this collaborative press I was a part of, and in other cases where I’ve read manuscripts, I often will like the manuscripts that are rougher, simpler—I think you and I might have some of the same taste—so I’ll look at this and think, “Man, this is a good book but it leaves me cold, and this book is a little rougher but there’s something authentic about it.” So I’m able to write poems when I’m in that place too, and I trust my own simple impulses, my own joy, my own thanksgiving; when I’m not writing out of the need, however unconscious, to show what a good writer I am or how smart I am or—sometimes Christian poets struggle with this, too—how liberal I am: “I’m a Catholic, but I’m really liberal” or “I’m a Christian poet, but I’m a really good poet” [Fox and Daveen laugh]—when I just stop doing that and it comes out more simply. Often for me that leads to humor or a kind of jokiness; I don’t know if that’s a kind of purity. There are a lot of moods I have: I have a really bad temper, I’m actually quite skeptical, I really struggle with doubt, but usually my poems are not that way. The Next Thing Always Belongs—I love that title; it’s a kind of a Zen title, like “Oh, just let it flow into me,” and I’m not that way about 90 percent of the time, but that mood—and maybe that’s kind of a pure mood, a kind of simple, spontaneous, “things are what they are” kind of mood—is the mood that I have access to in my poetry. I don’t seem to be able to write about anger or violence in the same way that I’m able to write out of peace.

FOX: It seems to me that you come to simplicity in a relatively complex way. Would you agree with that or disagree? 

ANDERSON: Yeah. There’s a definition of parable that I like very much; it’s the root meaning of the word “parable” in Greek. I actually just found this the other day and thought of our interview. But the Greek meaning of parable is to put one thing next to something else. And I have a friend, a poet named Michael Malan in town, who’s very influenced by John Ashbery. And this was not my sort of style. I think I’m fundamentally a narrative poet—things happen to me and I write about them, like the poem in this issue of Rattle. These moments happen, the same kind of moments that I will write about when I’m preaching. But Michael introduced me to this “leaping style,” what Robert Bly calls a “leaping style,” and I just fell in love with that; it kind of broke me out of narrative, even though I’ve come back to narrative. 

The book, The Next Thing Always Belongs, that title from Richard Hugo sort of suggests this kind of leaping. But what I try to do is—right now I know that I have a poem to write—if there’s something here that I see and then there’s something that doesn’t seem related but somehow feels related, I put those two things together. I love birds and I’m taking a birding by ear and Audubon class, and we were yesterday listening to birds I’d never heard of—we have Virginia rails; what are those? We were in a marsh, and I was just stunned. It was a group of about a dozen of us, and the guides were pointing—we didn’t see them, we could just hear them. Barb and I just came back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and there were guides there and they would point to things just like the guides at this Audubon talk were pointing to things, and I thought, “Well, this is very similar.” So I thought, “Well, how do I get the birding class with the pilgrimage class?” And what popped into my head was that I knew that I wanted the last line to be “Jesus was here,” because that’s what would happen in the Holy Land—they would point to this rock and say, “Jesus was here,” and you’d have to imagine it. And I don’t know if this poem works or not, but in the birding class they would point and say, “Well, that’s a Cassin’s finch calling,” but you didn’t see it, you would just hear it. So what entices me—I want to write about that simply—“Jesus was here,” or the sound of a yellow warbler—“sweet sweet sweet,” I just like that language. Or the birding books say the marsh wren sounds like an impact sprinkler—well I just think that’s interesting. So somehow I want to put those two things together, and then the poem, when I put it together, it starts to mean something—I’m not quite sure what it is; I mean, what am I saying to myself here? I’m fascinated by people like Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver who can actually come out and say things—there’s wisdom and it’s stated, and how can you do that?

FOX: Yes.

ANDERSON: I mean, that’s partly what makes poetry work for people. I preached on the Ascension a few years ago and I used Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” and there are people in the congregation—we have 2,000 people on a weekend—who wouldn’t be caught dead at a poetry reading, and I had people you wouldn’t expect—janitors, others—come up to me and say, “I loved that poem by Mary Oliver.” And it’s because it’s beautiful. It’s deceptively simple. And she doesn’t—maybe one or two lines come out and actually express wisdom. 

I’ve experimented with writing psalms and they require simple language and a kind of parallelism, and I’ve read them at a few readings. But I just can’t quite do it, so for my poems to work there’s another voice where I approach the simple and I do try to say things, but I can’t say too much, and so it ends up being oblique. I have this poem in the book, “I have to admit that sometimes I don’t care about the historical Jesus,” and somehow in some way that’s connected to a Doris Day movie. Or in this poem I’m trying to write today—I was working on it today—“Jesus was here” is the last line and I need it to sneak up on you, but why can’t I just say it? If I were going to give a homily on that, I would start from “Jesus is everywhere” and I thought, “What would it be like to write poems for the congregation?” But I just can’t. 

There is an overlap, though. Like there’s a poem in the book called “Piper’s Dad,” and it’s just a narrative poem, where I came to read psalms to this dying man for a friend of ours named Piper, and he was a very bitter man—this is toward the end of the book—and after I left he came to consciousness and he looked at his daughter and he said, “You bitch.” That’s the poem, that’s “Piper’s Dad.” And I asked Piper if I had permission to read that. And I preached about this. 

… and he says two words to her,
in a faint croaking voice, “You bitch.”
Who knows what this man was thinking,
or what he was seeing. Maybe he wasn’t talking
to his daughter, maybe he was talking to Death,
but this is what he says, “You bitch,”
>and this is what his daughter does. She rises
from that chair, and she leans over that bed,
and she whispers in her father’s ear:
“Daddy I love you,” and that night he dies.

 

Now the big issue for me in the poem was, do I continue? Because I wrote these lines that I kept: 

Love is a great emptying out and losing.
Love is a rising from a chair, it is a leaning
over a bed, it is a whisper in a room and a word
in a room. The last thing this man
ever said was ugly and vulgar and mean.
But this wasn’t the last thing he ever heard.

 

And those lines are preachier and more explicit than I seem to be able to make work generally, but that’s almost exactly what I preached. So in that case the complexity was in the situation and then my obligation was to try to tell the story honestly, in as simple and plain a language as I could, and then to figure out the line breaks and the stanza breaks and so on. 

It’s that way in the poem “The Blessing,” in this issue, about blessing the bathtub—almost as soon as that happened I thought, “That’s a poem.” And so I wrote multiple versions of that. I just couldn’t get it right because I couldn’t explain, didn’t want to explain, what actually happened, where the little holy water bottle I used, the cap popped off—that’s not how it ended. And I was reading Raymond Carver, his short stories—I like Raymond Carver very much—and I thought, “Well, let me just try to explain exactly what happened at the end. Let me just tell it, like Raymond Carver.” And so I did, but even then I’m not—I mean, so this little cap and it’s like a Cracker Jack, like a prize in a box of Cracker Jacks, or it’s like the size of a dime … I don’t know, I still worry that that’s too ironic or too flat or I don’t come out and … it’s kind of the showing/telling thing, you know what I mean?

FOX: Yes.

ANDERSON: And so I think what makes my poetry complicated sometimes is when the situation is complicated, or it’s my own ambivalence about how Christian to be. We just had some friends over last night for dinner, some people from the English department we’d not had over before, and we don’t entertain very much. And about six months before that we had another couple over, a new colleague we hired and he’s in his 30s. So we sat down to dinner and Barb made the sign of the cross and said grace and I was absolutely mortified. And I’m a Catholic deacon and it’s a Catholic house. 

Barb: It was a Catholic dinner. [Fox and Daveen laugh]

ANDERSON: It was a Catholic dinner, and it’s our house. And so at dinner last night I made it quite a bit worse, because as we sat down to dinner I said, “Well, we decided not to say grace,” and then I told that story and Barb gave me this dirty look and I thought, “When am I going to get over this tension I have about being a deacon, this embarrassment about it?” And I think sometimes what makes the poetry complicated is my own embarrassment about it. But ultimately what makes the poetry complicated, if it’s complicated, is—some literary theorists call this “the uncanny”—you know, my dog Lucy running away in that poem is kind of an uncanny thing, or I went outside on the front porch and I thought I heard geese but it was the woman across the street baby-talking to her dog. You think it’s one thing but it’s really another thing, and that to me is spiritual; when all is said and done, that’s what attracts me, what interests me, and a poem does allow me to get to that in a way I can’t in a homily. There are things you can say in a homily and things you can’t say in a homily, and there are things you can say in a poem you can’t—you know, there’s overlap there, but there’s sort of permissions and limitations, or exclusions and inclusions, in both.

FOX: It seems to me that even the ambivalence or perhaps especially the ambivalence is sharing yourself and allowing your readers to know who you are—whether you’re proud of it or ashamed of it. And it seems to me that’s a very important, perhaps the most important, aspect of poetry.

ANDERSON: Yeah, I like that very much, and I think that’s true, very true. Even though in another way what I experience writing poetry is a kind of objectivity because of the compression that a poem requires and because it’s grounded in an image and you’re trying to make the language work and so on, I feel a self-forgetfulness when I write a poem. 

A few years ago I had an editor interested in publishing a collection of my homilies. And the more I worked with her the more uneasy I felt about it, and eventually it didn’t work out—partly because I don’t have enough of an online footprint; I have a blog but I don’t have a website and I don’t tweet, and she wanted me to do that and you have to, even in Christian publishing. And she got what I was doing, she knew I was writing these short homelitical prose poems, but she wanted me to market them in a certain way that would involve me traveling around and leading retreats. It was a trade press but it was a Catholic trade. Basically, the publishing is no longer the key thing. You’ve got to be a name, you’ve got to promote yourself online, you’ve got to get yourself out there, you’ve got to promote your brand, and you’ve already got to have a following. And I went along with this for a while until I realized that this was what my spiritual director called “the angel of darkness disguised as the angel of light,” and I realized I just didn’t want to do that. And part of it was that I didn’t want to keep putting myself out there. 

You do that in a poem, you absolutely do that in a poem, but you do it in a different way. It’s almost like I’m writing poetry because I don’t want to explain myself. I don’t want to debate religion; I don’t want to convince liberals that it’s okay to be religious; I don’t want to attack conservatives—I just don’t want to do it. And so I was really relieved when she finally turned me down—I didn’t turn her down—again, speaking of purity, I would have gone, because I have this drive to try to get out there at the same time, but it’s an unhealthy drive, and poetry’s kind of a way of freeing me from that. So you do share yourself in a poem, you absolutely do, and I’m intensely autobiographical, and in my teaching I divulge things—we’re doing Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground in one of my courses at OSU right now and somehow I just told the story about how I met Barb in the band and it was her yellow miniskirt and her long red hair, and I forget how that came up, and I was telling my students this story. But in another way, it’s not personal. I mean, I tell my students that I’m a deacon, too, so I’m kind of continually putting myself out there. But more and more I don’t want to do that. I feel hugely freed from not writing that book and trying to promote myself, and from accepting that I’m just a poet and that’s what I’m going to do. 

I had this experience in Rome—we were in Rome on a pilgrimage, and I walked from the Coliseum to the Protestant cemetery to go to Keats’ grave—Keats is buried in Rome in the Protestant cemetery. We got there and the grave is over in the corner and there was a man about my age wearing a leather hat and a leather outfit and he was sketching the grave. People make pilgrimages there. And he talked to me—he was from Australia, a drummer in a heavy metal band, and he said, “I’m known as something of a poet in Australia.” But Keats’ grave says, the inscription says, “Here lies a young English poet whose name is writ on water”—doesn’t even mention his name. Of course it’s ironic, too, because we’re all making pilgrimages there; I mean it’s Keats’s grave, for the love of God. So he said, “Well, what do you do?” and I said, “Well, I’m a poet in Oregon—whose name is writ on water.” [Fox and Daveen laugh] And in a way I love that, and in a way I fear that, and that’s the self-revelation, right? In a way, I couldn’t believe that you wanted to come and interview me, and in another way, it’s like getting an MRI: I do not want to do it. It’s both at the same time, and so maybe ultimately that’s sort of what’s underneath poetry for me. And it’s what’s underneath preaching, because when you’re preaching, it’s not about you. Even if I’m sharing the story, it’s very much—to be a deacon is to be a servant to something else, and so I’m serving something else, I’m pointing to something beyond me, I’m a conduit for something beyond me. In the parish I don’t think people even see me anymore—I’m transparent. And I really, really like that. A few times in Italy, we’d serve at masses on these pilgrimages, so I got to serve in a mass at the Basilica of St. Francis—I preached at St. Peters. But in some of these places the altars are set up so that your back is to the congregation, which is pre-Vatican II. But these are…

Barb: They’re pre-1968.

ANDERSON: Yeah, they’re pre-1568—or 1368! [all laugh] And so our backs are to the congregation, and I like that; I like all of us looking at something else. And it’s that way in teaching, too, as you’re pointing to something else. Part of what was unsatisfying about doing readings for me, for this book, although I loved doing readings, too—or going to readings—is that it’s hard for me sometimes to think that the focus just isn’t on the poet or the writer. Ultimately that’s not true—the best poets and fiction writers and so on have that same stance, where you’re looking through them at what they’re looking at. But still it seems just really self-centered in a way, or at least it is for me—you know, my music, the music of my lines, has to carry the day, whereas when I preach, it’s ten minutes that leads into the Eucharist, and you can have a valid mass without a homily, but you can’t have a valid homily without a mass. And so it’s not exactly humility, but it’s my struggle with humility, or struggle with ego, that both poetry and the diaconate help me manage, even though they are both involved with that struggle still—and don’t keep me from trying to get published [laughs] and don’t keep me from trying to get better.

FOX: In writing about yourself and your life, I’m wondering if you have a situation I have, which is that I’m very open but some friends and family are very private. 

ANDERSON: Yes, that is really important for me, and it’s been important as a preacher, because I feel that part of my job as a preacher—I’ll start with preaching—is to be the eyes and ears of the bishop and to listen to what people are saying. One of the things a deacon does in the mass is receive the gifts, the bread and wine, that are brought forward by the congregation, and then he brings them up to the altar, and then a priest consecrates them. And I feel like that’s what I’m doing with their stories. I’ll listen to people, like Piper’s story in “Piper’s Dad,” and then I will offer those stories. But you’ve got to respect people’s confidentiality, and there are whole stories I can’t tell, and not just because of terrible things—I mean, you find out things you wish you didn’t know about people’s lives—but also the wonderful things, because it would embarrass them. I mean, the heroism—I get so upset when people attack all the hypocrites in the church and so on, and of course the church is full of hypocrites, and there’s always room for one more, but it’s also full of people who are acting heroically, taking care of aging parents and foster children, and all these things behind the scenes. And I do talk about those things as much as I can in a general way, but I have to protect people’s privacy, and so the way I do it in a homily is sometimes I’ll just ask permission, “Can I use that?” And if they said no I won’t use it. …

from Rattle #45, Fall 2015