Lance Larsen Interviewed at Meridian

Award-winning poet Lance Larsen is the editor of Literature and Belief, the literary journal of Brigham Young University, where some of my poems have been privileged to appear. In this 2003 interview, he discusses writing and faith with Doug Talley at Meridian Magazine, a publication of Provo College in Utah. Highlights:

MERIDIAN: Do you see yourself as tending toward melancholy, and if so, why?

LARSEN: I don’t see myself as being melancholy, at least not unusually so. G.J. Nathan once said, “Show me an optimist and, almost without exception, I’ll show you a bad poet.” Why? Because bad poets don’t usually wade into trouble; they don’t dive. If the scriptures and classic literature can be trusted, and I think they can, only trouble is of much interest. At heart I’m a romantic—but a romantic who believes that visions aren’t worth much if they aren’t tested by everyday living.


MERIDIAN: …Do you, yourself, see the poems as largely autobiographical, or were you trying, instead, to speak from a persona, a fictionalized voice?

LARSEN: I love what Philip Levine says about this: “Why be yourself, if you can be someone interesting?” Like Levine, I’m always making things up in my poems. Exaggerating, telescoping, cutting and splicing.


MERIDIAN: Tell us how your faith, and anything about Mormon beliefs in particular, has influenced your poetry and your approach to your work.

LARSEN: At times I have written very directly about my Mormon experience. I’ve written at least four poems about the sacrament, a poem about collecting fast offerings, and poems about a church court, baptism, and a baptismal interview. More often, however, my poems are infused with my beliefs in a more subtle way. In a review of Erasable Walls, one reviewer refers to this belief as “the gravitational pull of the divine” one can feel “along the margins of the text.” Nicely put, I think. This is how most poetry makes its argument, through the back door, as it were. Not by pounding the pulpit, or lecturing, or proof texting from the scriptures.

Read the full interview and sample poems from Larsen’s collection Erasable Walls, a finalist for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, here.

“The Approach” and Other New Poems by “Conway”

My correspondent “Conway” has been very prolific this summer, writing poetry inspired by the books and printouts I’ve sent him: T.S. Eliot, Alexandre Dumas, Stephen Dobyns, and even yours truly. Conway is the pen name of a resident in a maximum-security prison in California, where he’s serving 25-to-life for receiving stolen goods under the state’s draconian three-strikes law. Here’s a selection from his recent work:

The Approach

The Sky offers empty promises
smiling with toothy clouds
blades hiding in the invisible wind
pushing forward an orgasmic rain
wide open mouth, stuttering-n-drooling
over the gloriously ravaged land
polished and preened for the dance
electric frustration crackling
instinctive thunder cackling
destructively loud vibrations cuss
at all of mother nature’s fuss
primping for her approaching sun
another beautiful day begun…



Smell the dust circulating
rumble of gears, chattering wind
pushing past shadows of patience again
pressed faces on clear glass, melted sand
trapped & strapped as time flails
crouching in concrete jails
tumbling hearts in a coin-op dryer
hoping tears will gratify
those moments that pass them by

seasons march with unseen smoke
dawn breaks down upon the broke
strung up tight in spider spun cords
sung all night by distraught mothers
and those muddy misplaced others
pretending to be alive…

One of their pastimes in prison is the “poetry war”, challenging one another to come up with poems or raps on specific topics, often in response to a previous poem by the challenger. I had sent him this ballade I wrote in college, which was inspired by Richard Wilbur’s Ballade for the Duke of Orleans:

Ballade of the Fogg Art Museum
by Jendi Reiter (1990)

The squat museum’s walls decline in plaster;
black iron gates like screens before it rise,
given by graduates now turned to dust or
some more profitable enterprise.
Inside the vaulted halls, the street noise dies
the way the light too fades, as filtered through
too many windows, till the sight of skies
uncovered seems forever out of view.

Upon the wall the carving of some master
hangs as it did over centuries of cries
seeking the aid of this tired saint whose lost or
disputed name was once a healing prize;
saint of the mute, saint of the paralyzed,
of cures some true and some believed as true,
all that their less than truth and more than lies
uncovered seems forever out of view.

Lone stained-glass windows stand, as if the vaster
church fell away and in the rubble lies,
disordered jewels, displayed as if they last were
no necklace, broken when the wearer dies.
Behind them a lit wall the hue of ice,
unchanging light that cannot prove them true,
the sun’s capricious grace that stupefies
now covered and forever out of view.

These corridors wish also to sequester
the wanderer in halls as dim and dry as
the echoes of dead theologians’ bluster
of strict dichotomies that like a vise
close round the listener, until he tries
to follow their imagined bird’s-eye view
of black lines, like this map, where all that eyes
uncover is forever out of view.

Like some grim doctor of the church, the plaster
bust of the founder means to supervise,
mute guardian of a world he tries to master
by over-studying what he is not wise
enough to love; a searching hand that pries
out each thread separately to find the true,
happiest when the tapestry they comprise
is covered and forever out of view.

Above this roof, a bird descends no faster
than snow through shining air, like some demise
so graceful that it isn’t a disaster;
to be a fallen angel would be prize
enough if one could but fall through such skies,
past autumn bursts of leaves’ bright mortal hue
which no recording hand can seize, which lies
uncovered now, then ever out of view.

A wasted hand preserves and petrifies
the gilded tree, flat heaven’s lapis blue.
The leaf must fall, the leaf must improvise,
uncovered now, then ever out of view.

In response, Conway wrote the poem below. It plays more loosely with the form but has an immediacy and passion that my old poem lacks. Round #1 to him!

Ballade of Arms Justice

by Conway


This prison squall defines disaster

how many doors of life must waste

Through corridors paint, white alabaster

statues risen — fall wine they taste;

dear ground bones have, fed budgets bill.

Minds’-eye blue sky, though still it lingers

upon thy heart and always will

it pays long arms, not sticky fingers…


Now here in thought, recoiled much faster

and left our freedom more in haste

These green suit goons design my master
keys that unlock, chains round my waist
and slop I cannot stomach still
we must digest this smell that lingers
until we’re sure we’ve had our fill
for long arms pay, not sticky fingers…

Those white house pillars, fake alabaster
have kept injustice-jackboots laced
we fear the blue steel beanbag blaster
upon the skin burned sentence placed;
It was against forefathers will
to plant, the prosecutions ringers
on the side that fights to steal
laws long arm pays, not sticky fingers…

Law keep your lies, you’re not my master
I cannot be easily replaced
My family reels from this disaster
your long arms pay not, our sticky fingers…

“Grateful, Thankful” to Literal Latte

The online journal Literal Latte has just posted their current issue, containing my story Grateful, Thankful, which won second prize in their 2006 fiction contest. This excerpt from my novel-in-progress finds Prue coping with the competing pressures of teenage sexuality and academic achievement. (Sex in bathrooms is becoming the King Charles’s Head of this book; it just seems to find its way into whatever I am thinking.) Here’s the opener:

I could have avoided all that trouble if only I had remembered the capital of North Dakota. Normally I took schoolwork seriously, but it had been a late night at band practice and I decided to give myself a pass on memorizing stupid places I would never live. I couldn’t see my mother moving us anywhere shotguns were more popular than cappuccino. I dropped my regulation #2 pencil and bent down to fetch it, so that on the upswing I could skim a peek at Ryan McFarrell’s test paper. He winked at me, those blue eyes wide under streaky blond surfer-hair (he’d just moved to Boston from Santa Barbara and hadn’t perfected our cold-weather scowl yet), and moved his elbow to give me a better view. His dimbulb generosity would’ve been enough to blow our cover, but what really tipped off Mr. Hollister was that we’d both spelled it “Bizmark,” like a corporate logo. That’s how my first moments alone with Ryan were spent on a bench outside the principal’s office. It started as a “meet cute,” but it didn’t end that way.

Read the whole story here.

Book Notes: Velvet Elvis

Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, wrote a popular and controversial book two years ago called Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. The cutesy pop-culture title, like Bell’s friendly conversational writing style, might lead you to dismiss it as a lightweight inspirational book to sell the gospel to Gen-X’ers. Don’t make that mistake. Velvet Elvis may just be the emergent church’s Mere Christianity.

Taking his cue from N.T. Wright and other scholars of the “New Perspective on Paul”, Bell wants to restore our sense of the Bible as a living narrative, an ever-evolving interpretive tradition in which we are called to participate, and he does this first of all by situating Jesus within his Jewish rabbinic heritage. Modernism has entrapped Christians into basing Biblical authority on a shared pretense that the text’s meaning is objective and transparent — as if we were saved by the correctness of our propositions, and not by reliance on God’s grace. Interpretation is inevitable, and only our fear of being wrong (the essence of legalism) makes us unwilling to take responsibility for our reading of the Bible.

Bell’s genius lies in showing that the rabbinic hermeneutic is much closer to the postmodernist vision of open-ended, polyphonic interpretive communities than to the modernist dead end of “inerrancy”. Although he makes these points much more humbly and winsomely than I just did, he’s caught flack from evangelical critics because of this. Mystery makes some Protestants itch.

But enough of me, let’s go to the videotape. Here’s Rob on why interpretation is not a dirty word:

Could there be a more basic verse? “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Who could possibly have any sort of problem with this verse?

And how could someone mess this up?

What could be complicated about loving your neighbor?

Even people who don’t believe in God and don’t read the Bible would say that loving your neighbor is a good thing to do.

A couple of questions this verse raises: How do we live this verse out? What does it mean to love? What isn’t love? Who decides what is love and what isn’t love?

And what about your neighbor? Who is your neighbor? Is your neighbor only the person next door, or is it anyone you have contact with? Or is it every single human being on the face of the planet?…

So even a verse as basic as this raises more questions than it answers.

In order to live it out and not just talk about it, someone somewhere has to make decisions about this verse. Someone has to decide what it actually looks like to put flesh and blood on this command.

And that’s because the Bible is open-ended.

It has to be interpreted. And if it isn’t interpreted, then it can’t be put into action. So if we are serious about following God, then we have to interpret the Bible. It is not possible to simply do what the Bible says. We must first make decisions about what it means at this time, in this place, for this people. (pp.45-46)

…Now the ancient rabbis understood that the Bible is open-ended and has to be interpreted. And they understood that their role in the community was to study and meditate and discuss and pray and then make those decisions….

Take for example the Sabbath command in Exodus. A rabbi would essentially put actions in two categories: things the rabbi permitted on the Sabbath and things the rabbi forbade on the Sabbath. The rabbi was driven by a desire to get as close as possible to what God originally intended in the command at hand. One rabbi might say that you could walk so far on the Sabbath, but if you went farther, that would be work and you would be violating the Sabbath. Another might permit you to walk farther but forbid you to do certain actions another rabbi might permit.

Different rabbis had different sets of rules, which were really different lists of what they forbade and what they permitted. A rabbi’s set of rules and lists, which was really that rabbi’s interpretation of how to live the Torah, was called that rabbi’s yoke. When you followed a certain rabbi, you were following him because you believed that rabbi’s set of interpretations were the closest to what God intended through the scriptures. And when you followed that rabbi, you were taking up that rabbi’s yoke.

One rabbi even said his yoke was easy.

The intent then of a rabbi having a yoke wasn’t just to interpret the words correctly; it was to live them out. In the Jewish context, action was always the goal. It still is.

Rabbis would spend hours discussing with their students what it meant to live out a certain text. If a student made a suggestion about what a certain text meant and the rabbi thought the student had totally missed the point, the rabbi would say, “You have abolished the Torah,” which meant that in the rabbi’s opinion, the student wasn’t anywhere near what God wanted. But if the student got it right, if the rabbi thought the student had grasped God’s intention in the text, the rabbi would say, “You have fulfilled Torah.”

Notice what Jesus says in one of his first messages: “I have not come to abolish [the Torah] but to fulfill it.” He was essentially saying, “I didn’t come to do away with the words of God; I came to show people what it looks like when the Torah is lived out perfectly, right down to the smallest punctuation marks.”

“I’m here to put flesh and blood on the words.” (pp.47-48)

…Now the rabbis had technical terms for this endless process of forbidding and permitting and making interpretations. They called it “binding and loosing”. To “bind” something was to forbid it. To “loose” something was to allow it.

So a rabbi would bind certain practices and loose other practices. And when he gave his disciples the authority to bind and loose, it was called “giving the keys of the kingdom”.

Notice what Jesus says in the book of Matthew: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

What he is doing here is significant. He is giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible. He is giving them permission to say, “Hey, we think we missed it before on that verse, and we’ve recently come to the conclusion that this is what it actually means.”

And not only is he giving them authority, but he is saying that when they do debate and discuss and pray and wrestle and then make decisions about the Bible, somehow God in heaven will be involved. (pp.49-50)

Rob has many other inspiring things to say in this book about salvation, grace, and our role in restoring God’s good creation. But don’t just take my word for it, buy a copy.

See also:

Book Notes: Proper Confidence
Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship is a must-read for Christians and others who perceive the sterility of the fundamentalism-relativism debate over the possibility of religious truth, but don’t know where to turn for a third option.

Book Notes: The Fall of Interpretation
The thesis of Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic is simple and revolutionary: The necessity of interpretation — the impossibility of unmediated, perspective-free experience of a text or an event — is not a tragedy nor a barrier to truth, but an acceptable aspect of being a finite creature.

Ned Condini: “In the Farmer’s Hut”

(after Federico Garcia Lorca)

When I feel lonely
your ten years still remain with me,
the three blind horses,
your countless expressions and the little
frozen fevers under maize leaves.
At midnight cancer strode out into the halls
and spoke with the empty shells of 
live cancer full of clouds and thermometers,
with its chaste desire of an apple
to be pecked by nightingales.
In the house where there’s no cancer
white walls break in the frenzy of 
and in the smallest stables, in the crosses 
      of woods,
for many years the fulgor
of the burnings glows.

My sorrow bled in the evenings
when your eyes were two stones,
when your hands were two townships
and my body the whisper of grass.
My agony was looking for its dress.
It was dusty, bitten by bugs,
and you followed it without trembling
to the threshold of dark water.
Silly and handsome
among the gentle creatures,
with your mother fractured by the village 
with one brother under the arches
and another eaten by anthills,
and cancer beating at the doors!
Some nannies give children
milk of nastiness, and it’s true

that some people will throw doves into 
      a sewer.

Your ignorance is a river of lions.
The day malaria clobbered you
and spat you in the dorm
where the guests of the epidemic died,
you looked for my agony in the grass,
my agony with flowers of terror,
while the voiceless fierce cancer
that wants to sleep with you
pulverized red landscapes in the sheets 
      of bitterness
and put inside hearses
tiny frozen trees of boric acid.

With your jew’s harps,
go to the wood to learn antennae words
that sleep in tree trunks, in clouds, 
      in turtles,
in the wind, in lilies, in deep waters,
so that your learn what your country 

When the roar of war begins
I will leave a juicy bone for your dog
at the factory. Your ten years will be
the leaves that fly in the clothes of
      the dead,
ten roses of frail sulfur
on the shoulder of the dawn.
Forgotten, your wilted face
pressed to my mouth, my son,
I will be alone and enter,
screaming, the green statues of cancer.

This poem is reprinted by permission from Wordgathering, an online journal of disability poetry. Ned Condini is a translator and a poetry and fiction writer. Chelsea Editions will soon publish his translation of Carlo Betocchi’s selected works, Awakenings. Among his other awards, he won first prize in the inaugural Winning Writers War Poetry Contest in 2002. His publications include The Earth’s Wall: Selected Poems by Giorgio Caproni, available from Chelsea Editions, P.O. Box 773, Cooper Station, NYC, NY 10276.

Old and New Friends in Charlotte

We had a wonderful trip to Charlotte, NC this past week, where I read my prizewinning story at the monthly meeting of the Charlotte Writers’ Club. Many thanks to contest coordinator Annie Maier, president Richard Taylor (editor of the Kakalak Anthology of Carolina Poets), and other club officers for making me feel like a queen for a day. My tech-savvy but overworked husband made a video of the reading, which I will post here as soon as I can prevail upon him to extract it from the camcorder.

The featured speaker at the meeting was poet and novelist Karon Luddy, another past winner of the CWC’s short story contest, who read a touching and hilarious excerpt from her new book Spelldown. Set in a South Carolina mill town in 1969, this novel follows a quirky, brilliant adolescent girl who is determined to win a national spelling bee, while coping with her father’s alcoholism. I am looking forward to reading my signed copy.

Karon also read from her poetry book Wolf Heart and discussed how an author goes about choosing the right point of view for a story or poem. Her novel, for instance, was originally written in third-person past tense, but ended up in first-person present tense, because the heroine had such a strong personality that she wanted to tell her own story. Somehow my own novel has ended up with two first-person narrators, a third-person omniscient narrator, and poems by two other characters. Is this merely a sign that I can’t make up my mind, or am I the next Dos Passos? Time will tell.

The day after the reading, M. Scott Douglass gave us a tour of his one-man publishing operation, the esteemed poetry press Main Street Rag. Scott is a craftsman as well as a writer, taking as much pride in his skilled operation of precision machinery as in his literary achievements. He works hard to produce high-quality books at affordable prices. Some of my favorite MSR poetry books are Stacey Waite’s Love Poem to Androgyny , Richard Vargas’ McLife, and Anthony S. Abbott’s The Man Who. MSR runs several annual contests that are listed on their website; many runners-up are also published, more than is typical for a manuscript contest.

One Charlotte writer I didn’t have the chance to meet is John Amen, but this seems like a good time to put in another plug for his work, anyhow. He has a series of fine poems in the new issue of the e-zine Mannequin Envy. John edits The Pedestal Magazine, an online journal of art and literature.

When Good Art Happens to Bad People

Gregory Wolfe, editor of the award-winning literary journal Image: Art, Faith, Mystery, has a new blog that should be on the regular reading list of anyone interested in the intersection of the arts and religion. In his article In God’s Image: Do Good People Make Good Art?, published in the magazine In Character and linked from his website, Wolfe ponders whether creativity could be considered a Christian virtue, and how this understanding of the creative process differs from the Romantic cult of genius, in which the personality of the artist becomes conflated with the work itself.

As we all know, sublime art is often made by very flawed people, and vice versa. For some religious people, this would seem to undermine art’s claim to be a spiritually significant activity. Unless aesthetics are strictly subordinated to moral concerns, artistic creativity could be a gateway to idolatry, worshipping the powers of the self unconnected to God or community. Wolfe suggests a less egocentric model of creativity, where the artist puts the good of the work above herself and sacrifices her personal agenda (including her religious agenda) to the quest for truth.

So in what sense might we say that creativity is a virtue? Oscar Wilde, a creative individual if there ever was one, and an artist with his own share of problems, framed the question with his usual wit. “The fact of a man’s being a poisoner,” he once said, “is nothing against his prose.”

If Wilde strikes you as suspect in voicing this opinion, given his own notorious troubles, how about those two paragons of reason and rectitude – Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas? They provide a philosophical basis for Wilde’s position by distinguishing between two different types of human action: making and doing. Doing involves human choices, the way we exercise our free will. In the realm of doing – or Prudence, as it has been called – the goal is the perfection of the doer. In other words, in our behavior we are seeking to perfect ourselves as moral agents.

But in making – or Art, if you will – the end is not the good of the artist as a person but the good of the made thing. The moment that art is made subservient to some ethical or political purpose, it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda. Art seems to require an inviolable freedom to seek the good of the artifact, without either overt or covert messages being forced into it. And history demonstrates that it is simply a statement of fact (to paraphrase Aquinas) that rectitude of the appetites is not a prerequisite for the ability to make beautiful objects….


So where does this leave us? If creativity seems unequally distributed, can bring about destruction, does not intrinsically aid in the moral perfection of the creative individual, and has been tainted by the Romantic cult of genius, it doesn’t seem to warrant consideration as a virtue.

And yet there is something in most of us that accords a high measure of dignity and worth to the creative impulse. Nearly all the world’s religions are grounded in creation stories that also ennoble human beings as agents who perpetuate the divine act of creation by their own actions. In turn, each human action partakes in some measure of the supernatural powers of the creator….

The Christian poet T.S. Eliot put it this way in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” And the paradox is that in that displacement of personality, the true self is free to make itself known. Eastern religious ideas about creativity may be said to correct a number of unhealthy tendencies in Western ideas. Too often, Western thinkers have seen creativity in terms of concepts like “productivity” or “originality,” veering dangerously close to a kind of hubris, arrogating to themselves the role of God, who is the only one who truly creates out of nothing. But in the East, creativity is intimately bound up with a struggle to discern inner truth and the growth of the self. The stress here is less on production and more on attunement and the connections we sense when we practice a contemplative openness before being.

Later in the essay, Wolfe discusses Dorothy Sayers’ aesthetic theories in her book The Mind of the Maker:

The artist makes things out of love, she says, but this does not imply some sort of jealous possession or domination over the work. Rather, the “artist never desires to subdue her work to herself but always to subdue herself to her work. The more genuinely creative she is, the more she will want her work to develop in accordance with its own nature, and to stand independent of herself.” For a writer this means giving the characters in the story free will, seeking their good rather than her own. It also means that as readers we can come to know, in some measure, the mind of the Maker.

The imagination works through empathy, which requires the artist to place herself in the experience of another – and thus lose herself. While the death of the self may appear to be a loss of control and individuality, the paradox of artistic creativity is that only through this openness to the good of the story and the characters who inhabit it can the maker discover meaning and order.

Read the whole essay here. Another good read from Wolfe’s website is his Religious Humanism: A Manifesto, originally published in Image #16 (Summer 1997). Here’s a man who understands why the Incarnation is so wonderful:

On the face of it, the term “religious humanism” seems to suggest a tension between two opposed terms—between heaven and earth. But it is a creative, rather than a deconstructive, tension. Perhaps the best analogy for understanding religious humanism comes from the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which holds that Jesus was both human and divine. This paradoxical meeting of these two natures is the pattern by which we can begin to understand the many dualities we experience in life: flesh and spirit, nature and grace, God and Caesar, faith and reason, justice and mercy.

When emphasis is placed on the divine at the expense of the human (the conservative fault), Jesus becomes an ethereal authority figure who is remote from earthly life and experience. When he is thought of as merely human (the liberal error), he becomes nothing more than a superior social worker or popular guru.

The religious humanist refuses to collapse paradox in on itself. This has an important implication for how he or she approaches the world of culture. Those who make a radical opposition between faith and the world hold such a negative view of human nature that the products of culture are seen as inevitably corrupt and worthless. On the other hand, those who are eager to accommodate themselves to the dominant trends of the time baptize nearly everything, even things that may not be compatible with the dictates of the faith. But the distinctive mark of religious humanism is its willingness to adapt and transform culture, following the dictum of an early Church Father, who said that “Wherever there is truth, it is the Lord’s.” Because religious humanists believe that whatever is good, true, and beautiful is part of God’s design, they have the confidence that their faith can assimilate the works of culture. Assimilation, rather than rejection or accommodation, constitutes the heart of the religious humanist’s vision….

With all these references to paradox and ambiguity the objection might be made that I am speaking in quintessentially liberal terms, refusing to state my allegiance to the particularities of the faith. In fact, the majority of religious humanists through the centuries have been deeply orthodox, though that does not mean they don’t struggle with doubt or possess highly skeptical minds. The orthodoxy of the great religious humanists is something that liberals tend to ignore or evade; it doesn’t tally with their notion that dogma are somehow lifeless and repressive. But dogma are nothing more—or less—than restatements of the mysteries of faith. Theological systems can become calcified and unreal—they can, in short, give rise to “dogmatism”—but dogma exist to protect and enshrine mystery….

So we arrive at yet another paradox: that the religious humanist combines an intense (if occasionally anguished) attachment to orthodoxy with a profound spirit of openness to the world. This helps to explain why so many of the towering figures of religious humanism—from Gregory of Nyssa, Maimonides, Dante and Erasmus to Fyodor Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, and Flannery O’Connor—have been writers possessed of powerful imaginations. The intuitive powers of the imagination can leap beyond the sometimes leaden abstractions with which reason must work. Because the imagination is always searching to move from conflict to a higher synthesis, it is the natural ally of religious humanism, which struggles to assimilate the data of the world into a deeper vision of faith.

Meet My Imaginary Friends in Charlotte, NC

“The Albatross”, a chapter from my novel-in-progress, has won the Elizabeth Simpson Smith Award for a Short Story from the Charlotte Writers’ Club. The award ceremony, where I’ll be reading my story and accepting a check for $500 that I’ve already spent, will be held on Sept. 18 at 7 PM at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 4345 Barclay Downs Drive, Southpark Mall, Charlotte, NC 28209. Come one, come all.

Contest judge Meredith Hall, author of the memoir Without a Map, had these comments on “The Albatross”:

“The voice in this story is knockout wonderful. A child’s voice is always very difficult to pull off. Often a child’s voice is very sentimental, rosy, sweet, and we quickly become suspicious. More than that, the reader expects and needs greater wisdom and insight than a child possesses, but the writer must take care not to insert that adult sensibility into the child’s perceptions. Here, Prue is so smart and so direct and so hungry to understand her world, we are led along by her, and feel compelled by her interpretations of the human experience. She is funny, bold, irreverent, and absolutely heartbreaking.

“The writer has a strong sense of pacing, of the architecture of the story, and of the tension of the story. That she is willing to tangle with issues of faith as the child struggles to feel loved is a measure of the writer’s confidence. The handling of Christian dogma and its comforting promises, Ada’s atheism, and the girl’s willingness to try anything that will ease her loneliness and sense of loss is brave and convincing. I loved the writer’s audacity in allowing Jesus to speak, and so colloquially (“I’m the son of God, for Pete’s sake”).

“I noted many lines that surprised and delighted me: — ‘Would Ada die for me? I couldn’t picture it.’ — ‘An ocean stretched between my mother and me, icy and deep, and hell was on both sides.’ — ‘We weren’t a family. We were two mountaineers harnessed together over the abyss.’

“We understand immediately what is and is not the relationship. When Ada reaches across the car and comforts her daughter with more lessons on the patriarchy, we want to undo what she has said, to provide the mother’s talk the girl so longs for.

“Prue is a memorable character. Her coming of age in the absence of parental love is beautifully written. This is a terrific short story, and deserves a wide readership.”

Signs of the Apocalypse: Action Jesus

It’s almost too easy to make fun of Jesus kitsch, but if there were a Bulwer-Lytton Prize for the most delightfully awful representations of the J-Man, these statuettes at We Are Fishermen would win it. The hallmark of bad Jesus art is a belabored literalness that puts the big guy in situations that are anachronistic to the point of campiness. How will we know it’s Jesus unless he’s got the crown of thorns, the blissed-out smile and the white bathrobe? But dude…I know you have special healing powers, but you’re going to get seriously banged up if you fall off the motorcycle wearing that outfit.

This sacrilegious moment courtesy of MadPriest (who else?) who is looking for suggestions for items that would be banned from the Lambeth Conference gift shop. (The very existence of which is another Sign of the Apocalypse — come on, guys, good taste is the only thing the Anglican Church has left!)


Update: MadPriest’s equally mad commenters note that Ship of Fools has an extraordinary collection of links to tacky religious merchandise now on sale — enough to keep apocalypse-watchers busy for a long time. Armor of God pajamas? Alarm in a Crucifix? You laugh now, but don’t blame me when the Pale Horse and its Rider show up and you haven’t got a thing to wear.

Poems for September 11

Today is the sixth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Rather than add my own words to a subject that is nearly beyond words, I share below a winning poem from the Winning Writers War Poetry Contest that I judge every year.

by Atar Hadari

This is the season people die here,
she said, Death comes for them now.
Sometime between the end of winter
and the rains, the rains of summer.

And the funerals followed that summer
like social engagements, a ball, then another ball
one by one, like debutantes
uncles and cousins were presented to the great hall

and bowed and went up to tender
their family credentials to the monarch
who smiled and opened the great doors
and threw their engraved invitations onto the ice

and dancing they threw their grey cufflinks
across each others’ shoulders, they crossed the floor
and circles on circles of Horas
filled the sky silently with clouds, that chilled the flowers.

And funeral trains got much shorter
and people chose to which they went
and into the earth the flowers
went and no one remembered their names

only that they died that summer
when rains came late and the streets emptied
and flags flying on car roof tops
waved like women welcoming the army
into a small, abandoned city.

This poem won an Honorable Mention in our 2003 contest. I also invite you to read these poems that won awards in past years:

Melody Davis, The View from the Tower (2005 HM)
Stacey Fruits, The Choreography of Four Hands Descending (2003 HM)
Raphael Dagold, In Manhattan, After (2002 HM)