Antler: when you picture someone reading your poetry, how do you see them? what do they think about, wear, and do? or, maybe a better way to say it: who do you write for? and how do you see your writing nourishing others?
MM: I remember reading an interview with Anthony Burgess and he was asked a similar question. He answered that he was writing for fifty-year old lapsed Catholic Englishmen with an interest in ideas and Shakespeare. In short, he was writing for himself. That also true for me, I suppose. I write the kind of poetry I’d like to read. Likewise, when I try to imagine people reading my poetry, I can only imagine them reading poetry as I write (and read) poetry: in a state of contemplation. It’s all a matter of being present to the presence behind the poem (if that makes any sense). I don’t know how else to read poetry. It’s a kind of chiastic movement in which I enter the phenomenon and it enters me.
Antler: how do you use poetry as a practice for spiritual exploration, discipline, or growth? can you offer any practical advice or sure-fire practices for folks interested in allowing writing to inform their spiritual discipline?
MM: Poetry—or maybe what Heidegger calls “dwelling in the poetic”—is for me a primary site for spiritual exploration. Again, it’s all about presence (parousia). It doesn’t only happen when composing poetry. It also happens to me in farming, in playing music, in liturgy.
I’m not so sure “sure fire” is a good term when it comes to writing poetry! The main thing, I think, is to get used to practicing being present to the world—seeing the world as-it-is—being present to language. I get into this state sometimes when I write or improvise on the guitar or prune a fruit tree. My wife tells me that I look different at those times. Physically.
Antler: when you approach your desk, journal, computer—where ever it is you tend to create—what are some of the processes you use? what’s going through your mind? tell us about your habits of writing, no matter how quirky, mundane, strange, or small.
MM: I don’t have a ritual or anything. Sometimes, if I don’t know what I want to write about, I’ll pick up a book—more or less at random— pull out a phrase and just start writing with whatever the line is as inspiration. Many of my poems having epigraphs started in just that way. At other times, I’ll just look around—at the pictures over my desk, out of my window.
Antler: when you go to revise work, how do you typically go about it? are there best practices you follow? give some wise instruction for those of us ready to get cracking on revision!
MM: I just play around with it until it feels right. I usually spend a week or two playing around with a poem in the initial stages, then I might tweak it a little some months later. Not too much. I’m not a real heady person for a philosopher! I’m more interested in the intuitive, contemplative realm in the practice of poetry.
Antler: what’s the best advice you can give to a person just beginning to write, struggling to write, or feeling stuck? what’s something you wish someone had told you starting out?
MM: The best advice: don’t worry about publishing. Worry about entering into the poetic dwelling. Life should be an entrance into being, that is, poetry. I really mean this. People who worry about getting published or MFAs or networking or whatever are entering into the world of neurosis and in danger of losing the poetic. It’s easy to get lost.
Antler: would you like to share a poem you’re working on or have recently finished and comment on how it was written in light of the comments above? if so, please do so below…
MM: I’ve have been working on a poetic essay in answer to Heidegger’s “What are poets for?” The essay is rather aphoristic. I write a lot of prose poems, so I guess this essay is a prose poem sequence. Here are three sections:
The invisible starts to shine through the visible when the beholder’s self-awareness begins to vanish—if only momentarily—at the horizon of beholding. A true reciprocal relationship. Heidegger, acutely aware of the presence of the absent in acts of language (particularly in poetry), reflects on this, writing,
“It is what brings all present and absent beings each into their own, from where they show themselves in what they are, and where they abide according to their kind…. It yields the opening of the clearing in which present beings persist and from which absent beings can depart while keeping their persistence in withdrawal.” Is Heidegger’s utterance metaphor? I do not think it is. The absent (the poet in the case of a poem) shows himself through the poem while the present (the reader) witnesses—and, indeed, is the vessel of, participates in—the clearing. This is presence, parousia, mysterion.
What do we meet through the poem as-it-is, the poem written from being and not from persona? We meet being. We meet an Other. This is a purely spiritual experience occasioned by the physicality of paper and ink. Paper and ink become the magic circle within which the angel appears. So much danger. Though filled with beauty, not every angel wishes us well.
There are varying degrees of the poetic-phenomenological encounter. Poetry anchored in the persona is clouded by distortion: clever, perhaps, but ultimately impenetrable to intentionality. Poetry anchored in the poet’s being, on the other hand, responds to intentionality, disclosing the poet’s own intentionality. An opportunity for communion. Some religious poetry—Herbert, Traherne, Vaughan, Milosz, Eliot, Gascoyne—strives for the Being beyond being. This opens the potential for another horizon’s disclosure.
I’m really interested in exactly what happens when we enter into a work of art. I learned this from the Metaphysical Poets. Scripture and some forms of religious or quasi-religious verse can have one kind of effect on us—nourishing, life-giving. On the other hand, other forms of “art” (they really can’t qualify as art)—pornography is an easy example—work on us like poison. Reading is an absolutely spiritual experience. So is creation.
Michael Martin teaches English and philosophy at Marygrove College in Detroit, Michigan. He is the author of two poetry collections, Meditations in Times of Wonder (Angelico Press, 2014) and The Book of Creatures (Franciscan University at Steubenville, 2014); a work of literary criticism, Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (Ashgate, 2014); and a forthcoming consideration of poetic theology, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to Poetic Theology (Angelico Press, 2015). He is also a musician and lives on a small organic farm with his wife and children.