Jendi to Read at Housing Works Cafe in NYC, Jan. 18 (Program Change)

I’ll be reading my poetry at Housing Works Used Books Cafe on Thursday, Jan. 18, in an event sponsored by the Saint Ann’s Review. Housing Works is located at 126 Crosby Street. The reading starts at 7 PM. Find out more here. My co-readers are now Hugh Seidman, Nelly Reifler and Sara Femenella.

Hugh Seidman is the author of six books of poetry, including Somebody Stand Up and Sing (Western Michigan University, 2005), which won the 2004 Green Rose Prize. His first book, Collecting Evidence (Yale University Press), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize (1970). Nelly Reifler the author of See Through, a collection of stories. She codirects the reading series at Magnetic Field in Brooklyn with Jonathan Dixon and is a regular columnist for Nextbook, a Jewish literature and culture website. Sara Femenella is currently an MFA candidate in Poetry at Columbia University. And I am, well, me.

Saving Jesus (Episode 1): Less Filling, Tastes Great?

My church has begun a series of classes using the Saving Jesus program, a DVD-based small-group curriculum that aims to free Christianity from the prison of conservative doctrinal rigidity. Tonight’s class took a few pokes at traditional understandings of original sin and salvation, and suggested that the “faith” that saves us is relational trust, not possession of correct belief. That reminded me of my initial aversion to the doctrine of justification by faith, when I learned about it in a high school history class. It seemed to be God rewarding the toady; it takes far less effort to mouth the approved ideology than to live a good life. Faith as offering of one’s self, as trusting God’s unseen powers and intentions more than my own visible ones — now that’s a real challenge.

All of this reaffirms, for me, how fruitless it is to oppose faith and works. One of the points made on tonight’s DVD was that Jesus doesn’t force healing on us. We have to step forth and be willing to admit that we need it. This is an action, maybe the most dramatic and wrenching action we’ll ever perform. It’s much riskier than mere agreement with doctrine. Yet paradoxically, we are not allowed to say that we saved ourselves through action. The work of faith does not belong to us because there is no separation between us and it. To say my faith, my talent, means that there are two: the ego and the object it possesses. I have not wholly given myself over to the work, but stand apart from it so that I can use it to reinforce my pride. To the extent that I overcome this separation, I am acting (writing, praying, repenting) in and through faith.

It would be a shame, though, if we closed the faith-works gap only to open up another one between theory and practice. If the anti-intellectualism of the Right is refusing to admit that Biblical interpretation must be informed by personal experience and discoveries in secular fields of knowledge (stay tuned for a post on how the distinction between Biblical and secular knowledge is itself anti-Incarnational), the anti-intellectualism of the Left is bashing creeds in order to exalt “practice”. (Whereas I am clearly an intellectual because I write sentences with more than 50 words.)

My minister tonight went so far as to say that we are saved/healed by the act of trusting, regardless of what we call the object of our trust — Jesus, God or the Life Force. That’s just willpower, not Christianity. Jesus didn’t die to teach us the power of positive thinking.

Faith without works is dead (James 2:20), but we are justified by faith alone (Romans 3:28). One of the many things this means to me is that doctrine is worse than useless unless it leads to a wiser, more fruitful spiritual practice. However, it’s also not enough to say “trust God” while discouraging examination of our beliefs about who God is. I’m not saved by belief in the Creed, but my experience of salvation is inseparable from the concept of God contained in the Creed — a God who doesn’t expect me to become perfect on my own, who loved me enough to die for me. Where my efforts come in, and it’s a task I fail at every day, is to appropriate that gift of grace so that I can actually live as if “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Such salvation isn’t conditioned on what I believe, but if I don’t believe in it — if my doctrinal posture precludes it or makes it irrelevant — how can I receive it?

Christians Writing and Reading the Forbidden

As a writer, my obligation is to tell the truth as I see it. As a Christian, my obligation is to honor God. You wouldn’t think those two would conflict. The problem may lie in those words “as I see it”. As a fallen human being, I can’t be entirely sure that what I see is the truth. (Nor, for that matter, that my actions really honor God.) Is honest intention enough?

I’m working on a novel that is taking me to some pretty strange places. Places in my head, for now, but no less dangerous for all that. These people are doing things that I’ve generally been too sensible, uninterested or afraid to do. At the moment, they’re having a lot of non-marital sex, and describing it in words that the New York Times is still quaint enough to refer to as “obscene gerunds”. The central love story in the book, the one that’s most likely to end happily (if they cooperate), is between two gay men. While I’m not shielding my imaginary friends from all the consequences of their poor impulse control, I’m also letting them enjoy themselves in the short term, rather than imposing immediate punishment from above.

Am I, as a Christian, allowed to write a book like this? Are other Christians allowed to read it?

My characters drink, swear, commit adultery, have one-night stands, choose rock ‘n roll over doing their homework, and otherwise follow what they think is their bliss because the gospel is not just for people like me who don’t find any of those things appealing (except swearing — I am from Manhattan). I see the beauty and joy that they are seeking, the genuineness of their quest for a life beyond rational self-interest, as well as the insufficiency of their answers. Just because you could read my life story without blushing doesn’t make me less sinful than they are. They did, after all, come from my subconscious.

Perhaps I’m rationalizing my inappropriate fantasies, like a porn addict who argues that otherwise he would have to rape women in real life. All I know is that as I write, I’m constantly praying that God will reveal the truth through my work. I could assume I already know God’s truth, and impose it on the narrative like a Procrustean bed. That’s how I’ve always worked before, and my work became more lifeless the more I strained to make it “Christian”. It’s far scarier and more delightful to step out into the abyss, hoping that if my writing rings true to my experience of the world and human psychology, it will also end up at God’s doorstep. If Christianity is true, it has to work in the real world, not a world between Thomas Kinkade pastel book covers where moral judgment is always swift and visible.

No one says this better than W.B. Yeats, in his famous poem “Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop”:

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.’

‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.

‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’

Then again, he managed to say it without any obscene gerunds….

Poem: “Prayer for the Used House”

For the housekeeper, for the housebreaker, for the
      steel balls of the wreckers,
For the grinders of glass and the sandwiches
       of dust,
For sugar in the morning and vinegar in the
      evening, brown tears on the green leaves,

For mice and water, pitted stones and 
      clicking wood,
For the caterpillars dying in beer like lords,
For the foundations and the gases,
A breath, but not two.

For the pattern-trapped, loitering on the ceiling,
The slow flies, faces in the afternoon dust-light,
For the dawn moon pressing its damp face against 
      the window, seeking a squat,
A sharp-lashed broom.

For the racket of morning, the sweet shell game of
      bodies cupped in salt,
For the gold belly of the lamp and the black trees 
      behind it,
Sinking, not yet sinking into the mountains blurred
      by shipwreck dusk,
A flattering clock.

For the old angels that fall from the trees, their dry 
      brown propeller wings,
Onto the poor lawn with its armpit tufts
And the dandelions’ foolish joy, and the mower,
For everything that ends, for us,
Let it be according.

            published in Alligator Juniper (2004)

Learning from Art’s Flaws

“Ars longa, vita brevis.” Quite often I’ve found myself unwilling to take risks with my writing because I’m afraid I simply have no time to write anything that’s flawed. Then fellow poet Marsha Truman Cooper gave me this invaluable little book, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The following words have become my touchstone:

Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork….

The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. (pp. 5-6)
Further on, Bayles and Orland explain that even good art will be imperfect, because it’s made by flawed human beings:

[T]o require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do — away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes. Believing that artwork should be perfect, you gradually become convinced that you cannot make such work. (You are correct.) Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit. And in one of those perverse little ironies of life, only the pattern itself achieves perfection — a perfect death spiral: you misdirect your work; you stall; you quit.

To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. (pp.30-31)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “Ring Out, Wild Bells”

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
    The flying cloud, the frosty light:
    The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
    Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
    The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
    For those that here we see no more;
    Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
    And ancient forms of party strife;
    Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
    The faithless coldness of the times;
    Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
    The civic slander and the spite;
    Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
    Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
    Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
    The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
    Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Give It Up!

Happy new year, dear readers. I was going to resolve to be more cheerful this year, but stories like this keep happening. Lawrence Downes writes in the New York Times:

The scene is a middle school auditorium, where girls in teams of three or four are bopping to pop songs at a student talent show. Not bopping, actually, but doing elaborately choreographed re-creations of music videos, in tiny skirts or tight shorts, with bare bellies, rouged cheeks and glittery eyes.

They writhe and strut, shake their bottoms, splay their legs, thrust their chests out and in and out again. Some straddle empty chairs, like lap dancers without laps. They don’t smile much. Their faces are locked from grim exertion, from all that leaping up and lying down without poles to hold onto. “Don’t stop don’t stop,” sings Janet Jackson, all whispery. “Jerk it like you’re making it choke. …Ohh. I’m so stimulated. Feel so X-rated.” The girls spend a lot of time lying on the floor. They are in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

As each routine ends, parents and siblings cheer, whistle and applaud. I just sit there, not fully comprehending. It’s my first suburban Long Island middle school talent show. I’m with my daughter, who is 10 and hadn’t warned me. I’m not sure what I had expected, but it wasn’t this. It was something different. Something younger. Something that didn’t make the girls look so … one-dimensional.

It would be easy to chalk it up to adolescent rebellion, an ancient and necessary phenomenon, except these girls were barely adolescents and they had nothing to rebel against. This was an official function at a public school, a milieu that in another time or universe might have seen children singing folk ballads, say, or reciting the Gettysburg Address….

Suburban parents dote on and hover over their children, micromanaging their appointments and shielding them in helmets, kneepads and thick layers of S.U.V. steel. But they allow the culture of boy-toy sexuality to bore unchecked into their little ones’ ears and eyeballs, displacing their nimble and growing brains and impoverishing the sense of wider possibilities in life.

There is no reason adulthood should be a low plateau we all clamber onto around age 10. And it’s a cramped vision of girlhood that enshrines sexual allure as the best or only form of power and esteem….

I thought of this article last night when we were making the rounds of First Night events in our New England college town. One of the highlights was a performance featuring children and teens from our local dance schools, all girls except for one boy of about eleven who gave a courtly, athletic performance of “Union Jack”. The young ballerinas were achingly lovely, reminding me that the beauty of youth is its infinite potential, shyly hidden even from itself, tragic because its promises can never be fully realized. (Yes, I know I’m only 34, but I do have gray hairs.)

And then the modern dance groups came onstage, doing the best they could with their graceless, aggressive choreography, to the hump-de-bump strains of Sean Paul’s “Give It Up to Me” (“From you look inna me eye gal I see she you want me/When you gonna give it up to me…So gimme the work yeah cause if you no gimme the work the blue balls a erupt yeah”) and The Knack’s “My Sharona” (“Such a dirty mind. Always get it up for the touch of the younger kind”). Children onstage, children in the audience. Of all the pop songs to choose, why these? For a town with a prominent women’s college, we do a good job acting like we never heard of feminism.