Copyright © 1997 Mars Hill Review 7 Winter/Spring 1997 · Issue 7: pgs 127-143.
An award-winning poet, Kathleen Norris is the author of four books of poetry, including her most recent volume, Little Girls in Church. She has become better known in recent years for her two best-selling books, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), and The Cloister Walk (Riverhead, 1996). The former is a memoir detailing her move-along with her husband, the poet David Dwyer-back to her native South Dakota from New York City, where they had lived most of their adult lives. (She wrote about that experience in an anthology she edited, Leaving New York: Writers Look Back, which collects pieces by writers ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Bob Dylan to Toni Morrison.)
A recipient of grants from the Bush and Guggenheim foundations, Norris has been in residence twice at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. The Cloister Walk, which is more specifically religious than her previous work, details the author's nine-month stay in the abbey, experiencing the monastic life. Undoubtedly an unusual experience for contemporary readers, she writes of her time at St. John's in a matter-of-fact fashion, yet always with a sense of wonder and discovery.
She must speak the same way she writes, because those traits were evident in the lively, humorous hour we spent together for this interview. She speaks equally with intellectual clarity and simple forthrightness about such non-everyday issues as the importance of metaphor-almost as if she were carrying on a daily conversation with a postal clerk.
We met last year, while Norris was in Denver during her book tour for The Cloister Walk.
Mars Hill Review: Here's your opportunity to demystify the creative process.
Kathleen Norris: [in a high, affected voice] Well, I sit down with a piece of paper, and I look at it for a while, and I scratch my head, and yawn . . .
MHR: [Laughing.] In The Cloister Walk, you talk with some others in the monastic community about the subject of work. A sister says, "Our way of work should be different from the world's, in that we can start by nurturing the biblical imagination. Look at Genesis-when God works, God creates."
KN: When God speaks, God creates. She may have been using the word "work," but of course in God's case it is simply speaking-words that literally have life in ways we can hardly imagine.
I guess the poet is a pale imitation, as a "creator." As any writer who's ever tried to create a character knows, creating a real person is something that's beyond us. We can create characters who aren't real-which is again a poor substitute for the real creation that God made.
Maybe poets do have a kind of sacramental understanding of words and the world itself. We find that our way to God is through the ordinary, everyday things, and through writing about these things. And we use fairly ordinary words to do that.
That seems to be very incarnational. I mean, Jesus was a human being. So it's not much of a stretch to say that through ordinary human beings and ordinary language, we too might approach the divine and the transcendent-and find the transcendent in our daily lives.
I suppose that's what I'm doing as a writer-or trying to do-when I sit down to work. And it's not terribly mystical. Maybe it is, but that word-"mystical"-gets used as if it means something very special that only a few people can do. And I don't think that's true.
MHR: You write that it was hard to leave Minnesota, hard to leave the monastery. How true is Milosz's quote, that "language is the only homeland"?
KN: I don't know exactly. But I love that quote. I think it means a lot of things.
At St. John's I was immersed in monastic language, but I was also immersed in the language of the academic world. That's why I make a little joke in the book about deconstruction-because I've never heard anyone in the western Dakotas use the word "deconstruction" in a sentence. It just doesn't come up-which is probably one of the reasons I live there.[Scott laughs.]
KN: Really-I mean, the people there are fairly plainspoken. Which I like.
I'm not sure what Milosz means by that quote. But I know I felt like I was home when I heard country people talking. I knew I was away from the academic world. That was kind of what I meant in that passage of the book.
It was hard to leave the monastic liturgy. And it was hard to leave the incredible variety of nature-the birds, especially. We have a lot of wonderful birds in the western Dakotas, but we don't have a lot of the water birds. We don't have nearly enough water to have blue herons and all the others.
So, again, I don't know what Milosz meant. But I'll continue exploring it, because I love the quote.
MHR: Is it maybe what you meant when you said that leaving New York and moving to Dakota made you more human?
KN: [Grinning.] I don't know what I meant by that, either. Looks like you really ran into some things.
MHR: I think of the story you tell in Dakota about the photographer who was visiting there, saw the broad expanse of sky, and called a woman back on the east coast and proposed to her.
KN: He was from Boston. He was used to being surrounded by trees, hills, and buildings. He just could not handle all that open space. We see that a lot with people-that kind of "plains fever." The landscape panics them.
By saying "more human," I probably meant "more down to earth." My writing was very cerebral-I was very cerebral-when I lived in New York. You can get caught up in living in what I call the "literary hothouse" world of New York. Almost all of my friends were other writers. It was a very artificial world. So when I went back home to Dakota I rediscovered my family roots, where people have all kinds of interests besides writing.
I think my story is not uncommon. Larry Woiwode has talked about his early years in New York and writing in a more cerebral vein. So, in a sense it's more human just because it's broader. In a small town, for instance, I know the lawyers and the police and the garbage men and the supermarket checkout clerk, and they're all real people. They're not just jobs or abstractions. In a sense, that's a broader picture to live in.
And maybe it's more human, in that it's not [in a clipped, affected voice] an "ar-ti-fi-cial lit-er-ar-y world." Yes, those are real people too, but they're often pretending not to be. There's a lot of artifice there that you don't find in a small town.
MHR: You can't put on too many airs in a small town.
KN: Yes, you can't pretend. And it's that way in the monastery too. It's a humbling thing, because if you put on airs, people will tell you so.
But you if put on airs in New York, no one will even notice, because they're doing it too.
Not always, but it's certainly true. I was in my twenties then, so what did I know? It was great fun, but I'm glad I left when I did. And became more human.
Of course, Thomas Aquinas would probably say something totally different. He wrote all of that work on what it means to be human-fascinating stuff. I'm certainly no scholar of Thomas Aquinas-I'm anything but that-but I believe he meant that when we become more human, we also become more in touch with the divine. He was a very incarnational thinker in that sense. For us to be more comletely human and less pretentious, would be to be more in touch with our divine nature also.
I can't believe I brought this around to a discussion of Tomistics. My Dominican friends would be so happy!
MHR: Has your poetry always reflected some kind of faith, at least in a questioning sense?
KN: For a long time I think I was basically a secular poet-if there is any such thing. I certainly wasn't conscious of religious themes in my work. I was not interested in religion. I was educated in the sort of classical liberal arts tradition, which doesn't pay a lot of attention to religion, or at least doesn't take it very seriously.
Bennington College is a very secular environment in one way. They're a radical school, because they've always treated the arts with the equal weight of all the academic disciplines. They have a great respect for the arts, which is, in a sense, a spiritual observance. I mean, the arts really do have a great spiritual component. But going to school there, I just never thought about religion and church.
When I finally started writing, I had some poems published in literary presses. Then I began working on poems and articles that were more specifically religious. Often I saw I'd written something that wasn't religious enough for conventional religious magazines, but was too religious for literary magazines.
MHR: There is a big chasm.
KN: There is-although, actually, I think literary magazines are doing much better now at being open to religious pieces than mainstream Christian magazines are. They've opened up-and you can find some very good religious poetry even in places like The New Yorker. Yet I don't think that's true in a lot of the Christian periodicals I see.
[Picks up a copy of Mars Hill Review and begins thumbing through it.] Now, this magazine looks very interesting.
MHR: My wife knew your work from before Dakota. Long ago she bought a copy of your poetry collection, Little Girls in Church.
KN: You never think books of poems will get noticed, but they do. There is an audience for them-somewhere out there! It's just cleverly hidden. There's a New Yorker cartoon that says, "Poetry is a tough dollar." And I think it is, increasingly so. It certainly hasn't gotten any better since I became a poet.
MHR: Let's talk about the calling of the poet-a subject you address in The Cloister Walk. You quote Walter Brueggemann as saying, "A sense of calling in our time is profoundly countercultural." He says this in the context of service.
KN: He said that in a book he wrote about the prophets. It's a lovely book, very interesting. I like him as a writer, and I've learned a lot from him. He's one of those scholars and interpreters who can write in plain English. I like a lot of what he says about the prophets especially, and about the psalms.
MHR: How should this idea of service to community move you as an artist?
KN: I'm not sure. I think privatization is one of the real problems in our culture. You see people doing it especially with religion. They have an attitude of, "I've got mine."
When you hear people talk about a "personal spirituality," often what they seem to mean is "private spirituality." I think a lot of the rejection of institutional churches seems to come from that. People just don't want to trust other people with their spiritual lives. And sometimes for good reason-maybe they had bad experiences as kids.
But both the Jewish and Christian religions are extremely communal. They are people, not an individual. Pentecost is a group experience. The individual is important, but not the whole picture.
I think that's important for me in terms of religion. It was one of the reasons it was necessary for me to join a church congregation and not just take the monastery as my community. It couldn't be my community fully, because I didn't make lifelong vows there.
As a poet, though, I think when people are genuinely called to the arts, there really isn't anything else they can do. And it is a powerful calling when it manifests itself. But again, I don't like to talk about that too much, because it tends to mystify it. And that's not the point at all.
I think art is truly a calling. And writing mirrors the Christian tradition because you do it alone-you write by yourself, with the TV off, and you're really quite alone. It's a very individual discipline. You write in solitude, and words come out of silence.
At the same time, the writing is always a dialogue with the reader. There's always another party-at least, in my mind there is-and in some sense the reader completes the work. Often the reader will say, "I found this here, and this is what it meant to me." That may not be what I intended, but it could be a wonderful use of my work. All sorts of things happen once the reader enters the picture. So it is a communal activity.
I'm not sure how that translates in terms of responsibility toward my subject matter. Of course, I tend not to have a lot of shoot-'em-ups in my work. The sex-and-violence stuff is not a major theme for me. But it does come up-because sometimes I have to decide whether or not to use a certain swear word.
I figure if I'm quoting a truck driver, he's not going to say, "Oh, dastardly deed"-he's going to say something else. So if I'm quoting a someone like that in, say, an interview, or in a piece of fiction where I think a vulgar word is effective, I'll use it. Otherwise, I'll find ways around it. I try to write for a fairly general audience, and not do things that are simply going to alienate people, whether they're Christians or not.
MHR: You discovered the "communal role" of the poet when you moved back to South Dakota and started doing poetry readings.
KN: I went into public schools as a, quote, secular poet. Occasionally I went into parochial schools, where I would use the Psalms. But in the public schools I used nothing but basic secular poetry-everything from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to Denise Levertov, sometimes Galway Kinnell, Shakespeare-whatever worked with kids, kindergarten through twelfth grade. I'd read some of the classic things, some of my own things, even some of the kids' things as they began to write. It was all a wonderful playing with words and poetry.
And I very quickly realized there was a terrific spiritual dimension in all of this. Whenever I gave the kids an assignment-such as, "Write something and compare it to this or that"-they would pour out their heart and soul. I got back some incredible revelations of who these kids were and what their lives were like. Sometimes it was painful. And sometimes it was just glorious.
My favorite paper was by one little girl. I have no idea what the assignment was. It wasn't to write about the sky, and it wasn't to write about God. It may have been to write about color or nature, I don't know-I tended to give very open-eneded assignments. Well, she wrote down, "The sky is full of blue and full of the mind of God." When I looked down at that paper, I said to myself, "Ah, I think it's going to be a good week." Under my breath, I said, "Whoa!"
I think she was in fourth grade. She was a black girl, and her family was stationed at Minot Air Force Base. I think she was in awe of the North Dakota sky, because her family had been transferred fairly recently from a base in someplace like Louisiana. She must have been in shock at the sight of the sky and the expanse of North Dakota. She looked out the window and saw this big blue sky, and it really fascinated her. So that's what she wrote.
I read that line to the class and told everyone how beautiful I thought it was. I didn't talk about God to the kids, because it was a public school. But she wrote it, and we read it, and we celebrated that she had written this beautiful line. There were some incredible outpourings like that one.
I did that kind of work for about ten or twelve years, and in some ways it was a form of ministry. At least, I began to think of it that way. I was evangelizing for poetry, if you will, and the human imagination.
MHR: Here's something interesting. You talk about the secret sort of bond that exists between clergy and poets.
KN: We live in a town so small that the poets and ministers have to hang out together-which probably has been one of our greatest gifts.
When I lived in New York City I was surrounded by churches. In fact, I lived half a block from Union Theological Seminary. But I never went across the street-both literally and in other ways. I just wasn't interested. It was very easy to keep those worlds separate then.
But my brother is a minister, and my grandfather and great-grandfather were ministers. So I always have had some appreciation for what ministers do, and for how hard they work, especially in these small towns where people rely on them for so much.
We discovered in this little town that, for the most part, they were the only people who had big collections of books we might want to read, besides the public library. When I got interested in religion, I could find all sorts of wonderful theological works and reference books in these ministers' libraries. And they would be interested in our collections of poetry. My husband studied classical Greek, so we've got a lot of the classics, a lot of poetry, a lot of history. We have a pretty good-sized library.
We started out simply getting together with clergy for warm lunches and saying, "Oh, have you read Rebecca West's book about Yugoslavia?" "No, I haven't. I'll borrow that one from you, and you can take this book on the Psalms from me." It began that way, really-as a mutual survival thing, in this isolated little town. Then obviously, it developed into something much more. I ended up joining a church! I still can't believe it.
MHR: Here's where the tension comes in. You write: "Historically there's a wariness, but there's also a trust. We both believe in the power of words to change the human heart." You also write that "poets believe in metaphor-and that alone sets them apart from many Christians, particularly those who are educated to be pastors and church workers."
KN: In Dakota I'm telling a very personal story, talking about a particular town. And I certainly know a lot of clergypeople who appreciate metaphor and deal with it beautifully.
But that one little chapter in The Cloister Walk is about something else. I'd gotten so sick of the liberal wing of the Christian church deciding that certain metaphors were politically incorrect, or theologically incorrect, or liturgically incorrect, or whatever. As a poet, I don't really care who it is that's saying I can't use a metaphor, whether they're conservative or liberal. I'm interested in using as many metaphors as possible.
I don't know what the problem is. I think it's a certain clergyperson or professional church worker who somehow has been educated with almost no sense of language. A recent example is the Oxford Book of Psalms, where the editors actually think they can substitute the word "night" for "darkness." As a poet I find that almost incomprehensible. It's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. I don't care what the reasons are. Those two words are simply not a good translation for each other. And yet all these highly educated people were thinking they could do that.
I find this very sad, because it means that the Christian tradition has turned away from its own poetic roots, its own poetic language. Now we have people coming at language with other agendas that just don't work.
So, that chapter was my little blast of steam. But to be a defender of metaphor in this day and age is always risky business. We've lost so much of our sense of what metaphor is. Of course, the image of darkness simply comes from nature. And what I'm saying in that chapter is, if we pretend we can't use the word or image of darkness, then we're trying to live in our head and not the natural world.
I think it's unfortunate that a lot of clergy are educated to live in their heads and not in the natural world. The natural world is where all the good metaphors come from. Jesus himself uses so many of them-the mustard seed, yeast, all of these things that were a part of everyday, ordinary creation. When you start turning away from that, and finding all sorts of intellectual reasons why you can't use this word or that word, you're really in big trouble.
MHR: Somebody in Portland hooked up with my wife on the Internet and told her about your workshop on the Psalms.
KN: That was Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. They have the Collins Lecture Series-which apparently is quite popular in the Portland area-and they invited me to come do a program.
I was lecturing and reading from my book at night, but they also had a program in the day. Our group was made up of about fifty to eighty people. We met in the church's meeting room, which had wooden floors and good acoustics.
We sang some Psalms out of the Episcopal hymnal, and I recited some Psalms and talked about them. Then I read portions of my essays on the Psalms, and we had some discussion. It was a wonderful afternoon-partly, I think, because we were doing nothing but talking about poetry. To just step off the street and spend the afternoon doing that was obviously a relief to the people there. And it was fun for me.
The new Presbyterian hymnal has some great settings for a lot of Psalms. I discovered that at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian camp in New Mexico, because we don't sing them much in our congregation. At Ghost Ranch-where we had another group of about fifty people-a woman volunteered to play the piano. We started and ended every session with a hymn-sing-just singing different Psalms from the versions in the Presbyterian hymnal. If we could have done only that for the whole session, we would have been happy. We simply didn't want to quit.
MHR: At the beginning of The Cloister Walk, you bring up the practice of lectio divina. When did you recognize your need for "spiritual reading"?
KN: One of my monk friends says he thinks I've probably always done spiritual reading. I've always gotten so much out of reading that, in a sense, it probably has always been one of my deeper spiritual disciplines.
When I was with the Benedictines I discovered a way of reading the Bible so that the whole day became a dialogue with scripture. In some ways that was a remarkably Protestant experience. We would go to morning prayer, and we'd sing or recite three Psalms, then have a minute of silence after each one. You really absorb the words when you do it that way. Then we'd have a reading, almost always from scripture, followed by two minutes of silence.
After that, we all went about our business. I usually did another form of lectio. I'd read some other scripture book after morning prayer, which was another experience of meditative reading. With lectio, you don't read for content or information. You just read until words kind of surface within you-words that make you say, "I want to think about that for a while." Then you sit back and think about it. It's a very odd kind of reading, because it's not the kind we're trained to do. Actually, it amounts to a form of meditation.
Often, I would read as my lectio the passage we had just heard at morning prayer. Maybe something about it had struck me, and I wanted to see it in its context. So I would do a longer reading of it.
Then I would go about my work in the morning-writing, mostly-until it was time to go back to noon prayer. At that point we would have a hymn and maybe three or four Psalms and a very brief reading. Then we'd go about our business again. In the afternoons I usually ran errands and took care of necessities.
Later we came back for mass and heard more readings of the scripture. Then we went to have supper, and came back at seven o'clock for vespers, with more readings-again the psalms and biblical passages.
If you keep doing that-and I was there for a nine-month stretch-pretty soon lectio becomes not just sitting down and reading. It becomes the Bible verses that come to your mind as you're walking back and forth between your apartment, as you're doing the dishes, whatever. And that is a very ancient, monastic goal. It seems to be what those early monks meant when they said, after Paul, "Pray without ceasing."
They basically memorize the psalter. There's a Psalm that reads, "My soul will sing psalms unceasingly." I think a lot of monks and nuns know the psalter by heart, just because they go through it every three or four weeks.
And, you know, those words do appear when you need them. Yet it is all considered a form of reading. It's really wonderful-a kind of whole-body experience with the Bible that I had never anticipated. Being able to immerse myself in that for nine months was a powerful experience.
Of course, that's the experience that The Cloister Walk comes out of. I talk a lot in the book about Jeremiah and Revelation, because those were two of the many books we heard read straight through. I couldn't find a whole lot to say about the book of Romans, which we also listened to straight through, as well as the book of Hebrews. I didn't write about the more intellectual ones, although they were very interesting. After you hear Paul's letters read out loud, you realize they truly were letters and were meant to be read to churches.
So, there were discoveries even with good old Paul. [Grins mischievously.]
Hearing much of Jeremiah read out loud was probably the most powerful of those experiences. He's such a grieving prophet. I knew that all the prophets were sort of angry a lot, that that was their stereotype, anyway. But when you look at Jeremiah closely, you realize he's suffering real grief for his community. And that was very powerful.
MHR: You make quite an apology upfront in The Cloister Walk- although it's an appealing one-that you're going to be quoting a lot from the Bible.
KN: I still live in many worlds. I have a lot of writer friends, some of whom call me "Sister Strange," very affectionately.
Writing still substitutes for religion in their lives. Some are former seminarians who won't go near a church.
Many of them gave me little litmus tests, to find out if I'd become a Bible-thumping fundamentalist who was going to start preaching at them. They were all quite relieved when that didn't happen. And I was relieved when the litmus tests ended. For the most part, my experience has been mysterious to them. But the people who are my real friends hang in there, even though they're a little mystified. Maybe this book will clarify some things for some people.
I included that passage about the Bible because I spent so long outside the church myself-something like twenty years-and it's really not that easy to jump back in. I'm well aware of just how strange the Christian world can look to people who perhaps had a share in it as children and have an ambivalent attitude now-or to people who maybe aren't quite sure what they believe.
Sometimes they reject what they learned as children-and often rightfully so, because a lot of things kids learn about Christianity are vile. They're just not solid theology. A friend of mine calls this "warm body theology." Whoever has a warm body gets to teach Sunday school. That's not too good for the propagation of the faith, as it were. It's had some pretty disastrous consequences.
So I put that passage in there just to relieve people, in a way. Some of my writer friends have said, "You're quoting the Bible all the time." They can't understand that I'm not trying to thump them over the head with it, or to use it to prove a point, or to preach at them-all those negative things. I'm using it because, having experienced it deeply in the monastic world, the Bible has become a part of me. It's just there.
Yet I'm very careful how I quote the Bible. I was talking to a woman in New York who I know is very interested in Buddhist meditation. I quoted her a line from one of the Psalms-and I did it very consciously and deliberately, so she would know I wasn't proselytizing. The verse was, "Do not set your heart on riches, even when they increase." She was very pleased when she heard it, and said, "Oh, that's wonderful." I said, "Well, you can use it as a mantra. It's from the Psalms."
I did get a tough question from someone once, which I'll probably write about in my next book. I gave a reading at a Catholic college, and toward the end of the evening a woman raised her hand. I could tell she had waited a long time to ask me this question. And what she said was amazing: "I don't want to be offensive, but-I don't understand how you can get so much comfort out of a religion that does so much harm."
There it was. And I was so grateful. I told her, "That is a wonderful question. And I'm not offended, because ten or fifteen years ago I might have asked that question. It's a real one." I don't know that I answered it very well for her, but I tried.
Those questions are out there, and they're serious questions that people have. I'm hoping my books will open up this kind of stuff-the world of religion, that is, for people who might be very uneasy about it. But I'm not sure how much those people are reading my books.
I do get letters from people, though. Some are quite funny. They say, "Your book kind of makes sense to me. You talk about religion so it doesn't sound too bad." Others are very serious. A lot of people obviously have been through some intense soul-searching, and they want to get back in touch with their religious tradition but they don't quite know how.
MHR: You quote a wonderful definition of the scriptures by Paul Philibert, from his book Seeing and Believing. He says the scriptures are a "demanding ecology of thought, imagination, decision, and action, words that are awake during our rest and our silences."
KN: That's a beautiful quote. And it's from a lovely book that just came out from Liturgical Press. Basically he's doing a kind of catechism on the symbols of Christian faith. He's Roman Catholic-a Dominican priest-but I think a lot of what he writes is applicable to either tradition.
That quote struck me as one of the best things I'd ever seen for modern people. It's a quick look at what the Bible is, for people who meditate with it, who use it every day, whose lives are somehow grounded in it, but not in the stereotypical way.
MHR: It struck me as being a good definition even for a fundamentalist: ". . . effective in our actions, active in our reflection . . ." He just might say it differently-calling it "good old-fashioned conviction."
KN: Hey, I could tell Paul Philibert, "Now, if we could just get Jimmy Swaggart to say that, with the piano rolling in the background-" He'd love it.
That's the wonderful thing about the Christian religion. If you hang in there long enough and don't polarize yourself and get divided, you can see all kinds of connections between, say, the Protestant, evangelical side of things, and what the Roman Catholic priests say about the Bible. It's a nice world that way. I like to find similarities rather than distinctions. I think that's part of the poet's calling.
The Ecumenical Institute-this place at St. John's, which is a very good place for scholars and writers to go-is mostly made up of people on sabbatical from academic jobs. My husband and I made friends there with an Assemblies of God pastor who teaches at Fuller Seminary.
Now, my husband describes himself as a pagan. He was raised a Catholic, but he won't go near churches. And here I was, a Presbyterian Benedictine-obviously not quite sure what I was, either. And here was this Assemblies of God guy-Russ Spitler-and he turned out to be our best friend that semester at the Institute.
We figured out why. I learned all sorts of things about that tradition that I didn't know-for instance, that it's primarily an oral tradition. You don't write a lot down, you value the oral aspect of it. Poetry, of course, is an oral tradition too. So it turned out that we had a lot in common that was really good ground to build on. Yet that was the last thing in the world I expected when I saw an Assemblies of God pastor was going to be there.
It was such a treat to find a tradition I really didn't know much about and-from my stereotypes-I didn't think I had much in common with. But then Russ started talking about the orality. He's very sharp, just wonderful, a remarkably ecumenical fellow. It turned out he had a long history in the charismatic-Roman Catholic dialogue, and he knew some of the monks who were at St. John's.
There are a lot of things in the evangelical tradition that poets value. The orality is probably the primary thing. And there's a kind of spontaneity-the idea that you don't write things down right away, maybe; you hold off, because with the next line an inspiration might come. Poets work with inspiration.
I don't know that I'd ever want to say I'm "in the spirit," or that I "have the Spirit," because that seems really presumptious to me. [Laughs.] Now that I say that, I'll probably get a letter from someone.
Yet I know people for whom that's something very important. They feel strongly about it. I don't want to put them down. But I hesitate to talk about poetic inspiration, because often that's been used to simply mystify the process of poetry. As a result, I end up not talking much about inspiration at all.
But when Russ started talking about Assemblies of God worship services, I thought, "Yeah! It sounds like one big poem is being made." I saw a lot of connections that I never knew were there.
MHR: That connection on orality is profound, isn't it?
KN: Yes, I'm still thinking about it. I haven't written anything about it yet. Of course, the monastic tradition is primarily oral. And the great stories from, say, the fourth to the sixth centuries were completely oral literature. It had to be, because a lot of those people were almost completely illiterate. Then a few people got together and started writing things down, but that came much later.
Even now monastic people love to tell stories, but they don't tend to write them down that much. At monastic funerals you might hear things people have written in letters. But the storytelling is spontaneous. It just happens, like at the funeral dinner after the funeral. People sit and tell stories, and nobody writes them down. Occasionally I'll remember something and write it down. But I respect the fact that it's an oral tradition.
MHR: You talk a lot about the Psalms' emotional honesty. Your words here are, "The Psalter is pyschic, not theology."
KN: Well, I don't know-that word psychic . . . Now they have a Psychic Network. [Laughs.]
The sounds in the Psalms are so emotionally honest. I think in a way they're emotionally complete. They represent every single human emotion for good or ill. The desire for vengeance, anger, awe, sheer delight in God's beauty, the beauty of the world and in God-everything is there. Take jealousy. There's a wonderful psalm that says, "I'm not going to complain, God, when my neighbor has more than I do. But I'm really mad!" Then, boom-this whole psalm just sort of erupts from that. "I resolve not to say a word when all these nice things happen to my enemies. But..."
It's very human. And I guess I love it because it is the Bible's book of praises. It's very religious. Some of the Psalms have been used as religious poetry for five thousand years. But it's totally human also. It is the honest human standing before God-not pretending to be holy or better, but simply saying, "Here I am, and this is what I'm saying." It's a remarkable book in that way.
MHR: There's something else this Internet person brought up about your Psalms workshop. He quoted you as saying, "Depression is when you wake up and realize that the mirror you've been using to see your own face is gone. The need for God then transcends arguments about Father God or Mother God . . ."
KN: I'm not sure I said all that [laughs]. That sounds rather complete for me. I mean, it sounds very theological [laughs again].
I think it had to do with a line from Psalm 27. That's one of my favorite psalms, and I use it a lot. It says, "Though my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will receive me."
Of course, even if we have wonderful, loving parents, they do forsake us in the sense that they leave us when they die. But I think this image of God, if we've had good parental love from a mother or a father, is a pretty good one for us to hold onto. And if we haven't-if we've been abused as children by our mother or father-then maybe that image of God is harder to come by, harder to grasp. But it is still there for the finding.
MHR: In The Cloister Walk you write, "The daily praying of the Psalms helps the monastic people to live in a balanced and realistic way." How is that true?
KN: There are all kinds of play that go on between the psalms and yourself during the course of the day. You can be angry with somebody over something, and you might come across a psalm that speaks pretty harshly about judging others or being angry. Or, the psalm might even let you indulge in your anger for a minute. You might say, "Yeah! His tongue was like a wide-open grave, all honey his speech." But then you catch yourself and think, "Wait a minute-I can't really say that about him. He's not really that bad."
One of the most touching things a monk ever said to me-and I think it's in Dakota, not The Cloister Walk-was how important the Lord's prayer is to them. In the monasteries they say it three times a day-at morning prayer, at the Eucharist, and at evening prayer. Many Benedictines say it is a wonderful corrective to all the little insults and bigger problems that happen during the day. Three times a day you're talking to God, asking God to forgive you as you forgive others. That is a constant reminder of how to live in community.
MHR: Here's another quote from you, on the "discipline of poetry." You write: "The discipline of poetry teaches poets, at least, that they often have to say things they can't pretend to understand." That seems to be a problem with evangelical Christianity.
KN: Really? I know it's a problem with biblical scholars. With scholarship you're supposed to have footnotes, to be able to defend your ideas, and so on. That's one of the problems I sometimes have with academics. They can treat poetry in the same way. For instance, they'll ask me to defend an idea in a poem I've written. I just look at them and say, "Huh? Did I say that? And is that an idea that I have? And is it mine? I dunno." I sound like a total airhead hippie around scholars, because it's a whole different approach.
But I wasn't aware of this problem you mentioned. What do you mean by "This is a problem for evangelical Christians"?
MHR: There's a quote by T.S. Eliot my wife likes to use. I'll try to paraphrase it: "The problem with writing by Christians is that we're always talking about how things should be as opposed to how they are."
KN: That's very interesting.
MHR: It seems like the act or craft of poetry imposes on you some form of truth-telling discipline, as opposed to truth-forming or truth-arriving as a goal. In other words, it would require you not necessarily to come to some kind of conclusion. It's sort of like the Psalms.
KN: Yes. The lamenting Psalms mostly end with the doxology, but there are some that don't. There's one that simply says, "My one companion is darkness." That's how it ends-which is not exactly a cheerful thing. But I love it when I come upon that Psalm in the office, because if I'm feeling really depressed, it helps. And if I'm not feeling depressed, I can pray it for somebody who is. It's a wonderful thing.
But let's get back to that Eliot quote. I can talk about my own experience along those lines.
I have a poem that was published in a chapbook but never in one of my major collections. It's basically a poem about temptation. It revolved around a woman who sounds as if she's being tempted into an adulterous situation. She's bringing comfort to a man-just common neighborliness, in the form of coffee or tea. And, if I remember correctly, she has been through a divorce or some sort of crisis. There's a sexual tension between them, with a clear attraction. The poem simply ends with this line: "God, or something, wants the heart."
That's the line that apparently offended one of the readers of The Other Side, which published the poem in their magazine. They got an angry letter that said, "How can you say that-'God or something'?" They acted as if I were putting down God by even writing such a thing.
The editor asked me if I wanted to comment, and I said I didn't. The whole thing struck me as funny. I'd been reading the early monastic writers, who take temptation very seriously. They think about the forms it takes, and about what to do when it appears. It's a very practical approach, but it's also very good psychologically. Their material on the different forms of temptation is simply incredible.
I thought, "These writers knew to take temptation seriously." But it looked to me like this woman who wrote the letter-who I assumed to be a Christian-simply denied that temptation exists. It was as if temptation wasn't biblical, wasn't anything. Which is kind of crazy. I think you could get yourself into lot of trouble if you actually lived that way. Basically, it's saying, "I'm a Christian, therefore I'm not going to be tempted." It's very strange.
It's pretty clear in the poem that the woman is going to decide not to enter into the relationship. She's sort of drawing back, because God is coming to her in her hurt. He's there in her mind, and she's thinking, "There's a choice here."
That's all the poem is saying. But this woman who wrote the angry letter apparently thought that if I was a Christian writer, then my poem had to come to a cheerful conclusion, that everything had to have a happy ending. As a poet I think, "Not necessarily."
My favorite reaction I ever got was from a conservative. It was in response to a story I told about an image of God that appeared in a dream. Actually, it was interpreted as an image of God by a minister who was helping me enter the church.
I talked about it in a very religious way in The Cloister Walk, and an excerpt had been printed in a Lutheran magazine. A woman wrote a very scornful letter, saying, "Her dreams do not correspond to Lutheran doctrine."
[Brief pause. Both break into hysterical laughter.]
Again, the editor asked me if I wanted to comment. I said, "The only thing I can think of to say is, 'Thank God for small mercies.' But I'm not sure I want to say that in print."
Of course my dreams don't correspond to Lutheran doctrine! I've never suggested that they ever could! God didn't make us that way-to make our dreams correspond to any doctrine. But there it was.
I remember telling that to Denise Levertov. She said, "You mean, there are such people in the world?" She marveled at that. I said, "Yeah, they're out there. And if you write anything that has to do with religion, you'll probably find them."
Now, with The Cloister Walk], which is so much more specifically religious, I get an odd feeling. I think you take your life in your hands when you talk about religion in this country. I suppose I'll get some negative responses both from some very conservative people and from some very liberal people. I think both ends from the politicized spectrum can jump on me, and probably will. But it will be interesting to see what they say.
[Looks pensive. Then grins mischievously.]