Okla Elliott: “The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent”

The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent

by Okla Elliott

Editor’s Note: Our late Managing Editor, Okla Elliott, originally posted this article three years ago. It was his final post before he passed away. We are republishing this article in his memory. In the final year of his life, Okla took a deep interest in exploring spirituality, theology, and Catholic teachings. This article is a prime example of his great ability to investigate new ideas and understand their capacity for better expressing and illuminating his core values and principles.

.We do not generally conceive of Lent as a political or social matter. Its central purpose is a personal and spiritual one, but as the well-worn phrase instructs us, the personal is political. I therefore want to invite us all to think of how we might combine the personal and spiritual aspects of Lent with potential social gains.

According to a 2016 article in The Independent, the three most common things given up for Lent are chocolate, social media, and alcohol—in that order. And a 2015 TIME article offers similar findings. These are all personal sacrifices that do not have much of a social or political dimension. Giving up certain popular items such as meat does have a notable social impact. The environmental gains of giving up meat are significant, since the factory-farming livestock industry has several negative impacts on the environment, from inefficiency of food production to detrimental waste products.

I offer here a list of five options for what we might give up for Lent that can merge spiritual growth and social betterment.

1) I would strongly suggest the aforementioned meat option, since it has such a prominent place in tradition and can have such a positive social impact.

2) If possible, give up driving and use public transit instead. This will have a positive environmental impact, obviously, but it will also allow you to see the people of your city whom you might otherwise never encounter. Of course, this is perhaps an option only for those who live in certain areas, but you might be surprised how elaborate your city’s public transit is if you’ve never looked into it.

3) Give up eating out. At first this might not seem social at all, or even the opposite of a social option, but if you conceive of Lent as not only a negative notion of giving up, but also a positive notion of doing something good with what you gain by giving up things, then you will see that the several hundred dollars you save by not eating out can be used in myriad ways for social good. I would suggest donating to non-profits or your church’s efforts to help the poor. You could also use the money saved to do nice things for friends and family, which will strengthen your social community at the closest level.

4) Give up the convenience of plastic bags. Make the extra effort to bring a canvas bag with you when you shop, or if you’ve only purchased one or two items, don’t ask for a plastic bag. With an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans every year, to say nothing of the millions of tons in our landfills, reducing unnecessary use of plastic is of paramount importance.

5) Give up self-reinforcing thought. This one is a bit more abstract, but it is no less important. What I mean here is that if you’re a staunch Democrat, make yourself read several issues of a conservative magazine not with an eye for criticism but rather an urge to understand and empathize. And do the same if you’re a diehard Republican. Read some classics of liberal thought and really try to hear the concerns mentioned. The point is to bridge divides and to prevent hatreds between humans. If we can force ourselves to develop the habits of mind that reduce prejudice and living in our echo chambers, we have a much better chance of curing the ills of the world.

What makes the above choices good ideas is that the social impact in no way reduces the spiritual impact. Giving up driving to work in favor of taking the bus, for example, is a personal sacrifice just as much as giving up social media would be, yet it helps society more broadly in addition to the spiritual gains associated with the sacrifice.

And there is no need to limit yourself to the five options I offer here. Get creative and make your own list that suits your personal and social concerns. There are many ways to improve ourselves and the world around us, and doing one does not preclude doing the other.

[This piece originally appeared at PennLive.com and was syndicated to several other venues in 2017.]

 

About the Author: Okla Elliott was the co-founder and Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be from its inception until his passing in 2017. For more about his life and work, visit our memorial page. 

 

Image Credit: “Ash Wednesday” Julian Falat (1881)

“In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased” By Chase Dimock

.

In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased

By Chase Dimock

.

Five years ago, my father, grandfather, and I remodeled the bathroom in our family cabin. This was no luxury ski chalet or time share condo masquerading as a cabin. My great-grandfather built it himself in the 30s with the help of his five daughters and the boy scout troop he lead. Great-grandpa was not a master carpenter or plumber, so as we tore away the rotting drywall and jackhammered the cracked cement floor, we discovered an unexpected and unconventional layout of pipes. It was a map of kludges, improvisations, and applications of sheer brute force.

The more Dad and Grandpa studied how the pipes were fashioned and connected, the more it became clear that the success of the remodeling job became dependent on interpreting Great-Grandpa’s plumbing choices, and then predicting where the pipes would take us. They had to think like Great-Grandpa, and in the process, his cognition and imagination became reanimated. The pipes were a network of thought like the neural pathway of synapses in his mind. Debates between Dad and Grandpa over the next step in the project evolved into nostalgic appreciations of Great-Grandpa’s resourcefulness. They were once again enveloped in the creative vision of a man who built his own carnival rides and managed to keep a citrus grove thriving during the severe rationing of WWII.

If you clicked over here from Facebook or Twitter, you are probably wondering why I am beginning a remembrance of Okla Elliott with an anecdote about plumbing. My Great-Grandpa died well before I was born, so the experience of a man’s resurrection through exploring his handiwork was only secondhand. I could see it in Dad’s and Grandpa’s faces, but I could not feel it directly. In August 2017, when I took over As It Ought To Be following Okla’s untimely passing, I finally experienced this phenomena first hand.

As the new Managing Editor, I have been combing through nearly a decade of articles on As It Ought To Be. This has meant figuring out formatting, style, and organization as Okla had established them, and charting how he evolved in these ways. I’ve read through all of the posts Okla authored from the beginning of the site to his final article about Lent and its political and social possibilities posted just weeks before he unexpectedly passed. Just as the plumbing revived the spirit of Great-Grandpa for my father and grandfather, so too has editing and organizing As It Ought To Be kept Okla’s voice as a writer and thinker perpetually resonant in my mind.

Although I have known Okla since right around the founding of As It Ought To Be, one tends to forget how people were when you first knew them. You don’t always remember them as they ended either. Rather, you remember people for their established role in your life and you preserve them in that stance. You build a home for them in the structure of your existence, and when they die, that’s where they stay, beautifully enshrined in your memory as a witness and an ally. This would be the Okla of 2010-2014, when we were grad students drinking Bushmills, debating Sartre, and geeking out over the genius of Professor Cary Nelson. Like so many published here on As It Ought To Be and in many of his other creative endeavors, he encouraged me to expand my mind, amplify my voice, and apply my sense of reason and empathy toward engaging with the world’s social issues and political problems.

Reviewing Okla’s writings and editorial work has reacquainted me with the younger, wildly ambitious Okla, and introduced me to the older, more circumspect Okla with whom I wish I had spent more time after I graduated and bounced around the country. As I edit the site, I find myself more and more thinking like Okla, most notably in the joy I take in providing a spotlight for the work of my talented friends. And yes, like my Great-Grandfather’s patchwork of pipes, Okla left plenty of ingenious kludges and creative engineerings for me to smooth out as I have begun to archive the site. I’m slowly putting together more organized and navigable collections of past articles while considering how to preserve his vision through necessary remodelings and additions for As It Ought To Be’s progress into the future. This year, that meant moving to the new As It Ought To Be Magazine site, primarily because his password for renewing the domain registration passed with him.

Throughout this process, one nagging worry has loomed over me; memory is malleable. Every time we remember something, we change it. We access it differently, and then add that moment of access to the memory. It’s as if every time you play a tape, the ambient noise of the room in which you played it is added to the song. I worry that the act of remembering distances us from the original affect of its experience to the point where we can no longer access it directly. Men and moments become replaced by their mythologies, and while this is how we carry them into the future, a part of me wants to reach back and relive moments that have not been codified into a monument.

I challenge myself to remember without memorializing, knowing this is nearly impossible. What can I remember that is authentic to the moment in which it happened, and not just a generalized narrative my memory has woven out of collected experiences? I remember Korean tacos, extremely cold walks around the library late at night, how he liked living in on-campus housing even though the apartments looked like Cold War era bomb shelters inside. I remember when he went with me to a memorial for teenage LGBT victims of suicide and I cried uncontrollably.

I remember that over one Summer, he lost a considerable amount of weight, and when I returned that Fall, he seemed so much smaller than I remembered him. But after a few minutes of talking, his stature immediately inflated back to feeling ten feet tall. I guarantee that the majority of Okla’s friends misremember how tall he actually was because his personality enveloped every room he entered.

Although I am fortunate to have not lost many people close to me, I have learned that after someone dies as a biological organism, there are several other layers of their being that die at different intervals. Obviously the most painful is the loss of their presence. The second most dreaded is the moment when nothing new will come from them. If you can keep uncovering new things about them posthumously, one of the most beautiful parts of their life remains operational. That layer remains alive. In the memoir Maus, Art Spiegelman plunges into deep despair when he learns his father had burned his deceased mother’s diaries. The idea of reading new words and experiencing new ideas from his mother promised to bring her back to life, and their burning further cemented the painful reality of her passing. The fact that artists like Prince die with huge catalogs of unreleased material eases the grief of their passing.

Managing As It Ought To Be has kept Okla very much alive for me in this sense because I am constantly coming across something he had crafted that I had not seen before. It’s been oddly Proustian at times. I’ll come across something Okla drafted or edited, and a certain phrase will suddenly trigger a memory, reminding me of a time we discussed this topic, or just a momentary visualization of the expression on his face that I know he had as he wrote it.

Reposting his article on Lent a few weeks ago reminded me of the arguments we used to have over religion. In grad school, he was an ardent atheist. He could not believe that I could maintain my faith given how terribly the church has treated some minority populations such as LGBT people. This was a completely valid argument. He knew that this was the most contradictory and fragile element of my professed beliefs, and like any philosopher challenging what seemed unreasonable, he aimed directly for it. And yet, I knew he was not trying to disable me. Rather, he was sparring with me. If I was going to stand on this principle, it needed to be swifter and more resilient. After many of our debates, my ideas came home bloodied and bruised, and sore in the morning, but became far stronger in the long run.

In the final years of his life, Okla became receptive to the teachings of the church. Inspired by the new pope, he began writing about theology and social justice. I regret that I never had the chance to revisit this topic with him. What did he read or hear that spoke to him? I hope someday I’ll get the opportunity to read his unfinished writings and begin round two of our conversation.

 

About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College LiteratureWestern American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday MagazineThe Lambda Literary ReviewModern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, Hot Metal Bridge, Saw Palm, San Pedro River Review, and Trailer Park Quarterly. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.

 

More by Chase Dimock: 

Letting the Meat Rest: A Conversation With Poet John Dorsey 

Leadwood: A Conversation With Poet Daniel Crocker

First-Hand Accounts From Made-Up Places: An Interview With Poet Mike James

“The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent” By Okla Elliott

The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent

by Okla Elliott

Editor’s Note: Our late Managing Editor, Okla Elliott, originally posted this article two years ago. It was his final post before he passed away. We are republishing this article in his memory. In the final year of his life, Okla took a deep interest in exploring spirituality, theology, and Catholic teachings. This article is a prime example of his great ability to investigate new ideas and understand their capacity for better expressing and illuminating his core values and principles.

.We do not generally conceive of Lent as a political or social matter. Its central purpose is a personal and spiritual one, but as the well-worn phrase instructs us, the personal is political. I therefore want to invite us all to think of how we might combine the personal and spiritual aspects of Lent with potential social gains.

According to a 2016 article in The Independent, the three most common things given up for Lent are chocolate, social media, and alcohol—in that order. And a 2015 TIME article offers similar findings. These are all personal sacrifices that do not have much of a social or political dimension. Giving up certain popular items such as meat does have a notable social impact. The environmental gains of giving up meat are significant, since the factory-farming livestock industry has several negative impacts on the environment, from inefficiency of food production to detrimental waste products.

I offer here a list of five options for what we might give up for Lent that can merge spiritual growth and social betterment.

1) I would strongly suggest the aforementioned meat option, since it has such a prominent place in tradition and can have such a positive social impact.

2) If possible, give up driving and use public transit instead. This will have a positive environmental impact, obviously, but it will also allow you to see the people of your city whom you might otherwise never encounter. Of course, this is perhaps an option only for those who live in certain areas, but you might be surprised how elaborate your city’s public transit is if you’ve never looked into it.

3) Give up eating out. At first this might not seem social at all, or even the opposite of a social option, but if you conceive of Lent as not only a negative notion of giving up, but also a positive notion of doing something good with what you gain by giving up things, then you will see that the several hundred dollars you save by not eating out can be used in myriad ways for social good. I would suggest donating to non-profits or your church’s efforts to help the poor. You could also use the money saved to do nice things for friends and family, which will strengthen your social community at the closest level.

4) Give up the convenience of plastic bags. Make the extra effort to bring a canvas bag with you when you shop, or if you’ve only purchased one or two items, don’t ask for a plastic bag. With an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans every year, to say nothing of the millions of tons in our landfills, reducing unnecessary use of plastic is of paramount importance.

5) Give up self-reinforcing thought. This one is a bit more abstract, but it is no less important. What I mean here is that if you’re a staunch Democrat, make yourself read several issues of a conservative magazine not with an eye for criticism but rather an urge to understand and empathize. And do the same if you’re a diehard Republican. Read some classics of liberal thought and really try to hear the concerns mentioned. The point is to bridge divides and to prevent hatreds between humans. If we can force ourselves to develop the habits of mind that reduce prejudice and living in our echo chambers, we have a much better chance of curing the ills of the world.

What makes the above choices good ideas is that the social impact in no way reduces the spiritual impact. Giving up driving to work in favor of taking the bus, for example, is a personal sacrifice just as much as giving up social media would be, yet it helps society more broadly in addition to the spiritual gains associated with the sacrifice.

And there is no need to limit yourself to the five options I offer here. Get creative and make your own list that suits your personal and social concerns. There are many ways to improve ourselves and the world around us, and doing one does not preclude doing the other.

[This piece originally appeared at PennLive.com and was syndicated to several other venues in 2017.]

 

About the Author: Okla Elliott was the co-founder and Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be from its inception until his passing in 2017. For more about his life and work, visit our memorial page. 

 

Image Credit: “Ash Wednesday” Julian Falat (1881)

Our Neighborhood in Revere, MA

Our Neighborhood in Revere, MA

By Bunkong Tuon

.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of poems about the immigrant experience in America. Our late Managing Editor, Okla Elliott, featured Bunkong Tuon’s work on As It Ought To Be back in January of 2017. Okla was particularly concerned about the anti-immigration rhetoric heating up in America and he hoped to showcase the voices of immigrants on our site. In honor of Okla’s memory, Tuon has allowed us to feature more of his poetry about his experience as an immigrant from Cambodia to the United States.

.

Our Neighborhood in Revere, MA
(circa 1984 and 2008)

Listen, you have seen it before
in countless movies and TV shows.
No matter which city it is,
the markers are the same:

The sneakers on telephone wires,
the cracked sidewalks, the potholes
you try so hard to avoid
you almost hit the double-parked cars,
the graffiti on street signs and public buildings,
the apartment complex and family houses slumped
so close together that you can smell
your neighbor’s fried pork with rice,
where you can taste the lemongrass, fish sauce,
red chilies, and brown golden garlic,
as if your grandmother is cooking next door.
Houses where English is not spoken,
and the first image greeting you might not be Christ,
where you need to lift up the reservoir’s lid and pull
the string to flush the toilet,
where young men hang out on the front porch
with broken windows and no future.
An air conditioner sits on the brown grass.
A mother walks down the sidewalk,
with some of her children running ahead of her,
a baby in only a diaper, cradled to her chest.

You have seen it on the local news.
A young reporter staring wide-eyed
speaking with anxiety and concern
about a shooting that claimed the lives
of young bystanders, about a drug bust
where police found some untold
amount of coke, and you’re shaking
your head, wondering what the world
has come to, now that these foreigners
are ruining our America.

I was in the old neighborhood the other day
with my fiancée. Fresh from graduate school
studying postcolonial literature and theory
we went there to pick up some curry.
I scanned, trying to get a sense of the scene,
making sure the car doors are locked.
The streets, the smells, the sights reminded
me of the old days, the markers were all there,
but the people that I knew were gone.
Now there were Middle Easterners.
I guess the United States was no longer at war
with Southeast Asia.

.

About the Author: Bunkong Tuon is the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books, and a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly  He is also an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.

In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased

In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased

By Chase Dimock

.

Five years ago, my father, grandfather, and I remodeled the bathroom in our family cabin. This was no luxury ski chalet or time share condo masquerading as a cabin. My great-grandfather built it himself in the 30s with the help of his five daughters and the boy scout troop he lead. Great-grandpa was not a master carpenter or plumber, so as we tore away the rotting drywall and jackhammered the cracked cement floor, we discovered an unexpected and unconventional layout of pipes. It was a map of kludges, improvisations, and applications of sheer brute force.

The more Dad and Grandpa studied how the pipes were fashioned and connected, the more it became clear that the success of the remodeling job became dependent on interpreting Great-Grandpa’s plumbing choices, and then predicting where the pipes would take us. They had to think like Great-Grandpa, and in the process, his cognition and imagination became reanimated. The pipes were a network of thought like the neural pathway of synapses in his mind. Debates between Dad and Grandpa over the next step in the project evolved into nostalgic appreciations of Great-Grandpa’s resourcefulness. They were once again enveloped in the creative vision of a man who built his own carnival rides and managed to keep a citrus grove thriving during the severe rationing of WWII.

If you clicked over here from Facebook or Twitter, you are probably wondering why I am beginning a remembrance of Okla Elliott with an anecdote about plumbing. My Great-Grandpa died well before I was born, so the experience of a man’s resurrection through exploring his handiwork was only secondhand. I could see it in Dad’s and Grandpa’s faces, but I could not feel it directly. Last August, when I took over As It Ought To Be following Okla’s untimely passing, I finally experienced this phenomena first hand.

As the new Managing Editor, I have been combing through nearly a decade of articles on As It Ought To Be. This has meant figuring out formatting, style, and organization as Okla had established them, and charting how he evolved in these ways. I’ve read through all of the posts Okla authored from the beginning of the site to his final article about Lent and its political and social possibilities posted just weeks before he unexpectedly passed. Just as the plumbing revived the spirit of Great-Grandpa for my father and grandfather, so too has editing and organizing As It Ought To Be kept Okla’s voice as a writer and thinker perpetually resonant in my mind.

Although I have known Okla since right around the founding of As It Ought To Be, one tends to forget how people were when you first knew them. You don’t always remember them as they ended either. Rather, you remember people for their established role in your life and you preserve them in that stance. You build a home for them in the structure of your existence, and when they die, that’s where they stay, beautifully enshrined in your memory as a witness and an ally. This would be the Okla of 2010-2014, when we were grad students drinking Bushmills, debating Sartre, and geeking out over the genius of Professor Cary Nelson. Like so many published here on As It Ought To Be and in many of his other creative endeavors, he encouraged me to expand my mind, amplify my voice, and apply my sense of reason and empathy toward engaging with the world’s social issues and political problems. Continue reading

The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent

The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent

by Okla Elliott

Editor’s Note: Our late Managing Editor, Okla Elliott, originally posted this article one year ago. It was his final post before he passed away. We are republishing this article in his memory. In the final year of his life, Okla took a deep interest in exploring spirituality, theology, and Catholic teachings. This article is a prime example of his great ability to investigate new ideas and understand their capacity for better expressing and illuminating his core values and principles.

.

We do not generally conceive of Lent as a political or social matter. Its central purpose is a personal and spiritual one, but as the well-worn phrase instructs us, the personal is political. I therefore want to invite us all to think of how we might combine the personal and spiritual aspects of Lent with potential social gains.

According to a 2016 article in The Independent, the three most common things given up for Lent are chocolate, social media, and alcohol—in that order. And a 2015 TIME article offers similar findings. These are all personal sacrifices that do not have much of a social or political dimension. Giving up certain popular items such as meat does have a notable social impact. The environmental gains of giving up meat are significant, since the factory-farming livestock industry has several negative impacts on the environment, from inefficiency of food production to detrimental waste products.

I offer here a list of five options for what we might give up for Lent that can merge spiritual growth and social betterment.

1) I would strongly suggest the aforementioned meat option, since it has such a prominent place in tradition and can have such a positive social impact.

2) If possible, give up driving and use public transit instead. This will have a positive environmental impact, obviously, but it will also allow you to see the people of your city whom you might otherwise never encounter. Of course, this is perhaps an option only for those who live in certain areas, but you might be surprised how elaborate your city’s public transit is if you’ve never looked into it.

3) Give up eating out. At first this might not seem social at all, or even the opposite of a social option, but if you conceive of Lent as not only a negative notion of giving up, but also a positive notion of doing something good with what you gain by giving up things, then you will see that the several hundred dollars you save by not eating out can be used in myriad ways for social good. I would suggest donating to non-profits or your church’s efforts to help the poor. You could also use the money saved to do nice things for friends and family, which will strengthen your social community at the closest level.

4) Give up the convenience of plastic bags. Make the extra effort to bring a canvas bag with you when you shop, or if you’ve only purchased one or two items, don’t ask for a plastic bag. With an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans every year, to say nothing of the millions of tons in our landfills, reducing unnecessary use of plastic is of paramount importance.

5) Give up self-reinforcing thought. This one is a bit more abstract, but it is no less important. What I mean here is that if you’re a staunch Democrat, make yourself read several issues of a conservative magazine not with an eye for criticism but rather an urge to understand and empathize. And do the same if you’re a diehard Republican. Read some classics of liberal thought and really try to hear the concerns mentioned. The point is to bridge divides and to prevent hatreds between humans. If we can force ourselves to develop the habits of mind that reduce prejudice and living in our echo chambers, we have a much better chance of curing the ills of the world.

What makes the above choices good ideas is that the social impact in no way reduces the spiritual impact. Giving up driving to work in favor of taking the bus, for example, is a personal sacrifice just as much as giving up social media would be, yet it helps society more broadly in addition to the spiritual gains associated with the sacrifice.

And there is no need to limit yourself to the five options I offer here. Get creative and make your own list that suits your personal and social concerns. There are many ways to improve ourselves and the world around us, and doing one does not preclude doing the other.

[This piece originally appeared at PennLive.com and was syndicated to several other venues in 2017.]

Kelly Cherry: Three Poems and an Interview

cherry-physics-for-poets-large

[The following poems appear in the limited edition hardback chapbook, Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press 2016), and are reprinted with permission of the author publisher. The interview was initially published in Inside Higher Ed.]

***

DNA

We scale a winding staircase
or swinging ladder like Jacob’s
in the Bible as if we might
ascend to eternity,

a state in which we’ll be
bionic and brainier,
with silicon chips. We’ll be
a new species: Homo

Wikipediens,
our minds digitalized,
able to access all
information and

we’ll persist forever,
or anyhow, not be dead,
not quite, though without
time, it must be said,

we also won’t be alive.
Yes, if you’re nostalgic
you may seek to disembark
from evolution, but

first, ask yourself whether
your child and spouse deserve
protection from disease,
death, and accident,

or can you let them go,
unique as they are,
irreplaceable,
into a place darker

than shadow?

***

SETI

Radio telescopes like massive elephant ears,
pricked to catch the least word or code
whispered across the universe, listening
in on the steady murmur of deep space, muffled
as if underwater. Do we hear the clash
of civilizations, formerly great nations
battling others for land, water, oil?
Oh wait—that’s Earth. Surely in outer space
we’ll find a species superior to our own.
Surely such beings are even now texting
urgent messages to us: We want
nothing to do with you. Humans, stay home.

***

Everything Lifted Off from the Earth

Everything lifted off from the earth.
Trees rose into the clouds, their roots trailing like bridal trains.
Buildings drifted starward.
A stampede of palominos flashed across the sky.

Then the people let go of whatever had held them back
and rose up, some slowly, some faster,
so that it was not unusual to pass or be passed by a friend or enemy,
but conversation confined itself to pleasantries.

The planet itself moved off its orbit, and many were afraid
that it might roll after them and knock them down like bowling pins,
but it dropped away in the opposite direction, becoming ever smaller,
a tumbleweed, a softball,

and the people kept leapfrogging into space
as if they were headed for heaven.

***

An Embarrassment of Riches

Kelly Cherry is the author of more than twenty-five books and chapbooks—including novels, story collections, nonfiction (essays, memoir, and criticism), translations, and eight full-length collections of poetry. For her short fiction, she has been included in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, and has received an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, and has won the PEN/Syndicated Fiction Prize three times. Her poetry has been widely anthologized and has earned her the James G. Hanes Poetry Prize and a position as the Poet Laureate of Virginia. Despite this impressive list of publications and awards, and for reasons I don’t fully comprehend, her recognition has not reached the level of, for example, Margaret Atwood (to mention another woman writer of her generation who also writes in every genre, is likewise prolific, and who ranks among my favorite writers). Obviously, Cherry is well appreciated and has many avid fans, but as one of those fans, I can never quite forgive the world for not offering her even more acclaim and readers.

I first encountered Cherry’s work while I was an undergrad, sometime in 2001, if memory serves. I was living in North Carolina at the time and reading Fred Chappell and David R. Slavitt with something like an obsessive’s necessity. Being the spunky kid I was, I approached Chappell and Slavitt to do interviews with them, and both were kind enough to accept my request. Those encounters led to future professional interactions with both and a lasting friendship with Slavitt. It also led to both men separately suggesting that I read Kelly Cherry. I went to the university bookstore and found The New Pleiade: Seven American Poets, which included Chappell, Cherry, and Slavitt, as well as R.H.W. Dillard, Brendan Galvin, George Garrett, and Henry Taylor. These seven writers had been friends for years, shared certain writerly predilections, and were all authors at LSU Press (which put out the anthology).

I was immediately struck by Cherry’s poems, which I loved, but I was also struck by certain personal affinities she and I shared. (I am, I must admit, that sort of reader who is always trying to find myself in the work and lives of the authors I admire.) At the time, I was nearing completion of my BA in philosophy and German, and so I was pleased to learn that Cherry had done graduate work in philosophy at the University of Virginia. And her interests include more than philosophy, ranging from Russian literature to Latin American politics to scientific research and more. And here again, I was struck by our overlap in interests, given that I have traveled to Russia out of an abiding interest in Russian literature, spent months in Latin America studying the language and culture, and was a physics major when I first entered college. Without lingering too much on these similarities of interest, suffice it to say that I began reading her work with an eagerness that has been richly rewarded.

Kelly Cherry has published with big NYC presses as well as prestigious university and small presses, and she has had a glorious career by any sane measure—awards, teaching gigs at top universities, grants and writers’ residencies, and so forth. Her career is one most writers will never approach. If anything, Cherry suffers an embarrassment of riches. Had she published only books of poetry, I think she would be more lauded as a poet than she is today; had she published only short story collections and novels, she would be more lauded as a fiction writer than she is today; had she resisted the urge to write critical essays and to do translations, her creative work would get more attention; and so on. The issue here is not, I think, that she should have limited her intellectual and creative energies in such an unnatural way, but rather that the literary and academic worlds need to adapt themselves to her model—not she to theirs.

I hope you enjoy reading the following interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it, and I also hope that if you haven’t yet explored Cherry’s work, you will now.

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Okla Elliott: You’re hard to pigeonhole as a writer, given that you’ve done fiction (both long and short), nonfiction (both creative and critical), poetry (both formalist and free verse), and translations. In what ways have each of these various enterprises informed the others? Do you think of yourself as having a dominant or primary genre, or do they all have an equal draw for you?

Kelly Cherry: I think of the genres as concentric circles, with poetry at the center. None is more important than the others, but poetry is the focal point, the heart. I’m also on record as saying that poetry reveals the actual world, fiction reveals the world of relationship, and nonfiction reveals the perceiving mind. And I’ve also said that the poem is about the line, the short story about the sentence, the essay about the paragraph, and the novel about the scene. These formulations are useful to me and I’m happy to offer them to students, but of course each of the genres differs from the others only in degree, and there are plenty of writers who delight in working at the borders. Yet emphasizing the differences makes transitioning from one to another easier for me.

I really love working in all these genres; I stay busy.

OE: Your poem “Lt. Col. Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova” brings together two currents I’ve found in your work—the Soviet Union (and/or Russia) and science. You have written variously on these topics, ranging from poems about Einstein to a science expedition in Siberia (once again merging the two currents) to a story about an American woman in love with a Latvian man (back when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union), and other works as well, such as the chapbook Songs for a Soviet Composer. Why and how do these two themes intertwine for you? Why the fascination with them, either together or separately?

KC: I did meet a Latvian man—in Moscow to hear rehearsals of a symphony he’d composed—and we tried to get married. (I should mention that the story you refer to, “Where the Winged Horses Take off into the Wild Blue Yonder From,” which is now in The Woman Who [Boson Books, 2010] is not autobiographical; much in it has been changed or reimagined.) In 1965 nobody took us seriously; in 1975 they had us under surveillance, threatened him, woke me in the middle of the night with intimidating phone calls. This narrative can be found in my memoir The Exiled Heart (LSU, 1991). I was in Moscow in the first place because I love Russian literature. I wanted to see where my favorite writers lived and the people and places about which they had written. I had no fondness for the Soviet Union and was philosophically opposed to Communism; that just happened to be where the country was at that time.

Similarly, I’ve always been interested in science and in college took quite a number of courses in science and math. Sputnik went up and my parents developed the idea that I should become a scientist. That didn’t work out; I already knew I wanted to study philosophy and write, but I gave my parents’ notion a shot. Of course, I was interested in science the way writers are interested in pretty much anything: as something to write about. Sometimes I think those first three years of college were a complete and sad waste of time: I wasn’t learning anything I really wanted to learn. Sometimes I think that’s just as well: If I didn’t learn much about science and math, I learned to appreciate the methods and accomplishments of science and math, and that has meant a lot to me.

Currently I am working on two poetry manuscripts, one a book-length poem about a scientist, the other a collection of shorter poems about math and science.

OE: You mentioned philosophy as an early interest, and I know you studied philosophy at the graduate level and have written a collection of poems, The Retreats of Thought, where you think through various philosophical problems in the sonnet form. In what ways do you see philosophy and literature interacting—in general and in your own work? And which philosophers have most influenced your thinking and writing?

KC: I don’t think anyone’s ever before asked me exactly this, Okla, and I’m delighted you’ve brought it up.

The philosophers who probably influenced me most were David Hume and Charles Sanders Peirce. I was doing research for a dissertation on Peirce’s epistemology when I dropped out of the program (not for academic reasons). Hume was a wonderful writer and clear thinker. I found Peirce’s ideas of firstness, secondness, and thirdness fruitful and useful and admired his views on scientific method. I did not read Peirce as a semiotician, as I understand literature teachers often do, though I do like some of his formulations about the nature of language.

Another influence was Augustine. Not because of his religion but because his Confessions, when I came to write The Exiled Heart, struck me as the perfect model of a memoir. I also found his thinking about time fascinating, as reflected in two of the sonnets in The Retreats of Thought.

It is harder for me to explain how I see “philosophy and literature interacting,” because I have always seen them as interacting. I like novels of ideas. I’m partial to German and Russian literature, despite loving many books neither German nor Russian, because they discuss ideas. The American dread of boredom seems to me to stem from a fear of thinking. (Thank god for Moby-Dick.) The novel I most would like to have written is The Magic Mountain, unless it is War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment. Or an ancient Greek tragedy!

In any case, philosophy seems to me inherent in life, inescapable. Every day one makes dozens of decisions, and the process of dealing with them is philosophy. My brother once told me the only question that interested him was How. I replied that the only question that interests me is Why. (Of course he then nodded with big-brother sagacity and male superiority and said that Why is a ridiculous question. And I suppose that from some points of view it can be a useless question, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting, at least not to me.) (You now have an idea of what kind of family I grew up in, and maybe it was that environment that made me want to study philosophy.)

To return to my brother, it was a book he gave me for my fourteenth birthday that made me want to major in philosophy. I confess I am no longer much interested in analytic philosophy. I had a fair amount of that in grad school and can appreciate the hold it has on some people, but writing sentences or lines all day long inclines me away from it.

Finally, so far as poetry goes, how can philosophy not be a part of it? Well, yes, I know some poets strive hard not to ask philosophical questions, but to the degree that they succeed, in my opinion, the poem fails.

OE: You’ve openly identified as a southern writer in essays and in interviews, yet you’ve written about (and/or lived in) the Midwest, Russia, Europe, England, The Philippines, and South America, in addition to working with traditionally southern themes. What does it mean for you to be a southern writer? What advantages or disadvantages do think that category has created for you?

KC: Of course I want my work to be gladly received everywhere. Who doesn’t want that? But I do admire the way Southern readers celebrate Southern writers. Southern readers are wonderfully and helpfully loyal to their writers. I admit I’m not especially Southern all things considered, but I am Southern in some specific ways. I was born in the South, spent part of my childhood in the Bible Belt, and my parents told stories about their families, who lived in the Deep South. I have a finished manuscript of short stories set in the South; I haven’t sent it out yet.

OE: You’ve published books with big NYC presses, university presses, and small presses—and you’ve done this over the course of a few decades now. How have you seen publishing change during your career? Which aspects are better and which are worse? (For example, what are your opinions about Kindles, online publishing, the proliferation of MFA and PhD programs in creative writing, etc?)

KC: Let’s see. I go where I have to go to get published. The dreadfulness of the contemporary publishing world dates back to the mid-sixties, but it was really around 1980 that corporate pressure drove the big houses into the smash or crash syndrome: books had to be hugely popular or were not worth promoting. Popular usually means less than serious, less than artistic. I know: lovers of genres will take issue with this, but I’m not denying that A Canticle for Leibowitz is a wonderful book. I’m saying that artistic merit is not what big publishers look for, nor can most big publishers today assess artistic merit, and certainly their sales divisions cannot. Nor can most big publishers even afford decent copy editors these days—or maybe they think grammar and punctuation don’t matter anymore. Now, I’m not dead against big houses—I wish one would take on my work and promote the hell out of it, because, like every writer, I would like more readers. But perhaps I know too much now: I know their promises are often empty, I know what matters to them is money, I know really excellent editors are rare and perhaps especially rare in a big-publishing environment hostile to the care and attention excellent editors want to provide.

The big publishing houses are primarily interested in young writers, but those young writers who fail to sell enough copies are then out on their collective ear. Is that any way to treat young talent?

University presses these days pretty consistently publish the best work. A majority of the writers I admire publish with them or with small publishers. I cherish the relationships I have with university presses.

Yes, I think MFA programs create certain problems, but I attended one and will always be grateful for the teachers who gave me time and interest and encouragement.

My husband has a Kindle and loves it. But he also reads real books. He reads whenever and wherever he can. I prefer holding a book in my hands but have no objection to somebody else’s preference for an eReader.

I don’t know what the future will be. I can’t guess at forthcoming technological advances. I do think we are in danger of a world in which every writer has to write, print, publish, promote, and maybe even write the reviews of his/her book. Just thinking about it exhausts me. As one friend has suggested, a serious, candid critic with a broad education who reads across big/small publishing lines might make a significant change in our culture. Let’s hope one such arises.

OE: There is constant debate over the best way(s) to become or improve oneself as a writer, with people variously championing or pooh-poohing MFAs and/or PhDs in creative writing. I, for example, have advised nearly every undergraduate writer I have taught to study abroad for a year and to take a wide range of classes from anthropology to philosophy to foreign literatures. What advice have you given or what advice would you give a young writer today?

KC: I second the advice you give to students, Okla. I also think students should know something about science and mathematics and history, and of course, they must be readers. Being a reader is more important than attending school, but it does help to attend school. I also encourage students to try their hand at different genres and forms and to make good friends who care about your writing, because there will be times when those friends will be lifesavers. And learn to revise. And learn to wait. Revising and waiting become easier as one ages.

OE: I know it is unfair to ask writers to assess their own work, but I am going to do it anyway. Which of your books do you think are your best and why? Also, a slightly different question: Which ones hold the nearest and dearest place in your heart?

KC: Like most writers, I think, I’m always most excited about what I am currently working on. I think my best fiction books are Augusta Played, In the Wink of an Eye, and We Can Still Be Friends (the title of which should have been either “American Minuet” or “Dancing with Ava Martel,” both of which were rejected by the editor). My favorites–because they were fun to write–are Augusta Played, In the Wink of an Eye, and The Society of Friends. Currently I have my completed story manuscript and am at work on the last story collection in my trilogy of story collections set in Madison, Wisconsin. A novel is in (slow) progress.

My best poetry books are probably God’s Loud Hand, Rising Venus, and The Retreats of Thought. But I think “Questions and Answers” in Natural Theology and “Requiem” in Death and Transfiguration are two of the best poems. Another collection is scheduled to appear in 2013 and two others are well underway. Right now those “two others” are my favorites (i.e., I am enjoying the process). The collection I most often read from these days is Hazard and Prospect: New and Selected Poems. In that book I assembled the poems according to theme and I’m glad I made that choice. But if I ever have a second opportunity to do a new and selected, I’ll construct the book chronologically, just to observe the difference. I think there would be a difference.

I feel fortunate and grateful to have had some of my nonfiction published in four books to date. I can’t really choose among those. The most recent was Girl in a Library: On Women Writers & the Writing Life. I am working on a nonfiction book about male writers (not to say that male and female writers are opposed but simply to carry through the structural composition). I have ideas for three more nonfiction books after that, but whether I can get to them remains to be seen.

The difficulty with this question is, of course, that time may change my response to it. But here, anyway, is how I assess my work at this particular point in my life.