Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Publishing Poetry of the Spirit

A friend has written to ask why I chose to self-publish my anthology of poetry (Hierophany: Poems of the Sacred). The truth is that many people had been asking me for a collection, and I was having no luck with the small independent publishers here in Canada. It's discouraging to send your work out consistently and have it come back with "Lovely work. Unfortunately it's not right for our company right now" letters. I understand that this is part of the writing process, and I am not really as peevish as I sound to myself as I type, but...well, part of me is a little peevish!

I think it's not entirely because I am dubious about what else I will need to do to turn "pro", so to speak. Poetry continues to be a passion, and I continue to read other poets widely as well as occasionally getting up the gumption to submit to things. However, I am gradually recognizing a few things about getting published: one, the field is capricious. It's often just a bit of a crapshoot: who receives your poem, who reads it, who shortlists it, who just doesn't like your style or the way you put words together. Another reason is that I am rather cheerful by nature: I don't write a lot of I'm-depressed-woe-is-me poetry. Yet it strikes me that at least some of the post-modernist ethos is to revel in the dismal (or perhaps, as one of the Baha'i prayers puts it, to "dwell on the unpleasant things of life".) I am usually not a "dweller". Yes, I like the contemplative life, and yes, I tend towards the serious, but no, I am not a dweller.

My poems tend, however, to be a little "spiritual", and I think that doesn't go over well in 2010. I don't mean this in a self-help-guru-I-have-all-the-answers kind of way. I'm not (self-helpish), I don't (guru), and I don't want to pretend to know more than I do. But I do tend to want to lean towards the spiritual. I wonder if I should explain that a little?

There are some classic, and in some cases, quite popular writers (Rumi, Mary Avison, Lorna Crozier, Mary Oliver, Rilke) whose voices are spiritual. They may not be commenting directly on the spirit (although sometimes they do) but they imbue the words with the transcendent nature of longing, which to me is a spiritual condition. Exploring God, or whatever you might wish to call the Creator or the Universe or the Magic-that-makes-us-alive, is an essential component of their relationship with the world. It's beyond time-and-space. It's soul work. I love it; I love reading a poem by Rumi or Oliver and discovering that even back then, even now, there is someone who speaks my language and who has left letters to the world about spirit, in poetic form. This is also intimately connected to beauty, both in the Big Letter Beauty sense and in the small, macrocosmic, delight-in-the-beauty-of-the-world beauty. The poetic ability, it seems to me, is to take the time and place you find yourself surrounded by and make it, through your words, a time and place anyone can enter with you through the magic of your words, descriptive, narrative, and honest.

So if I am to write, I want to write from the spirit. And in this day and age, it's really hard to do well. Sometimes I hit it, and some of the poems in my own collection are ones which I feel leave a glimpse of the unblemished spirit within me, the part which has been untouched by all the mistakes I've made. For this is the thing: it's the human condition, it seems, to make mistakes and have regrets (or at least something like) but to dwell on those is also to deny the beauty of the power of redemption. And trust me, redemption is not a popular word in modern-day poetry, really, although there are a few authors who write themselves into that sacred space through beauty. That's the poet I'd like to be, and gradually, through patience, prayer, and some perseverance, she's emerging. I hear her voice whispering within, sometimes softly, and I want to recognize her and allow her to speak.

Annie Dillard did this in prose, of course, with that amazing work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs, whom I've just re-read, kindled spirit throughout Women Who Run With the Wolves...and Barbara Kingsolver consistently does it, works through words and the deep longing of the world to create beauty. Their works are redemptions, and they are not alone. And their poetry is lovely, too...but, there's something hesitant, perhaps, when we try to understand the numinous. I find that I have to wait for it, and sometimes it just flows into me like heat. Something kindled. Crozier said this; I listened to her at the Ottawa Writers' Festival a few years ago and she reminded us of the gift of immanence. Yes.

This is also kind of why I blog, too: not just to send letters to my parents (although that too) but to leave an exploration out there, something for both friends and strangers to ruminate about and perhaps share right back. So I published myself because I got impatient! And when you hope that what you have said can kindle something for someone else, find that resonance, then you want the words out there. If poets are given a gift (even minor poets like me!) then it's best to share it, and sometimes you just have to get it out there whether the literary powers-that-be think it's worthwhile or not. One acquaintance reminded me that there is value in following your passion.

So here's someone who said all of this better:

Word Fog

Words, even if they come from
the soul, hide the soul, as fog

rising off the sea covers the sea,
the coast, the fish, the pearls.

It's noble work to build coherent
philosophical discourses, but

they block out the sun of truth.
See God's qualities as an ocean,

this world as foam on the purity
of that. Brush away and look

through the alphabet to essence,
as you do the hair covering your

beloved's eyes. Here's the mystery:
this intricate, astonishing world

is proof of God's presence even as
it covers the beauty. One flake

from the wall of a gold mine does
not give much idea what it's like

when the sun shines in and turns
the air and the workers golden.

Rumi