Poets, Christians, and Not Wanting to Be a Poser

OSH crossLately, I’ve been pretty deep into words. Having been writing for years – essays, academic writing, and technical writing – I’ve always longed to write words of beauty and powerful metaphor, rather than direct explanations and carefully constructed arguments. In high school, some of the more brilliant kids I hung out with wrote poetry, and I always read their words with a sense of wonder. If only I could write the things on my heart, I thought, it would be so healing, so transformative. I was a musician and dancer, so I’ve always had the mind and soul of an artist, but longed to put to the page the images of beauty, pain, and awe that regularly danced across my understanding.

I read poetry – loved reading poetry – but when I would pick up a pen and start to write, it all came out wrong… Too corny. Cheesy. Trite. I’d get two lines in, scribble out what I’d started, crumple the page, and give up. So, I kept dancing, played flute, and channeled my artistic pursuits into performance, while continuing to write the kinds of academic papers that dazzled teachers and floated my GPA. I was not a poet, not a creative writer.

Over the past few years, though, the urge to find words that convey the nebulous and numinous has grown louder and more persistent, and I’ve longed for coaching and teaching to help me break through the structures of academic writing and tap into a more fluid, imagery-laden, and heartfelt style of writing that more closely matches the insights and experiences of my heart. Through a series of near-magical coincidences, I ended up attending the Into the Fire writer’s retreat in late-May, sponsored by The Sun Magazine, an event intended to serve as instruction and inspiration for those seeking to improve their skill at creative personal writing. From Joe Wilkins, I learned about writing evocative prose, and from Frances Lefkowitz I learned how to allow my distinct, personal voice to flow into my writing style.

My favorite workshop of the weekend was on “hovering,” in which the amazing poet Chris Bursk led activities to teach us to linger over moments, allowing our words to circle round, ambulate, and drink deep from each feeling, each experience, before moving on to the next scene. While I didn’t write any poetry in his workshop, I wrote phrases, sentences, and brief pieces that used words to paint in ways I’d never done before. I came back from the workshop to discover that when something would be bearing on my heart, I immediately wanted to write, and to my surprise, what landed on the page in those moments of urgency were lines of poetry rather than prose.

And yet still I have a hard time calling myself a poet. I’m not sure if what I’m writing is any good. I don’t know what makes good poetry or bad. I know what I like to read, and I know what comes off my fingertips when I sit to put my heart into words, but feel a bit of a fraud to say I’m a poet, or that what I write is poetry. I’m finally comfortable calling myself a writer, but a poet? Isn’t there some external validation you must pass before adopting that word for yourself? Some confirmation that what you’ve written passes muster, meets the standards?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my spiritual journey. Over the years, there have been a handful of key traditions that have played a bigger part in my journey than others. While my current practice is greatly informed by an adoration of nature and penchant for digging deep into the scientific workings of the universe to find metaphorical, spiritual meaning, one of the greatest influences on who I have become and how I worship rests in the years spent deep in the mystical, liturgical, compassionate, and progressive Christianity I experienced through the Convent of Saint Helena and a handful of small, Episcopal churches. Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church has found itself subject to great tension and difference of opinion about what constitutes the Episcopal tradition and what practices and beliefs can rightly be called Christian.

With those voices added to many conservative, rigid, and intolerant voices organizing in their efforts to dominate discussions about “true” Christians and Christianity, there simply came a point where I didn’t feel like I could lay claim to the label any more. No matter how compassionate, gentle, and progressive my Christ is, if all the other voices seem to be saying I’m not a Christian, that I’m wrong, there simply came a point where I was okay with that. I don’t need a label to practice my connection; I’m not attached to being called, considered, or seen as a Christian, particularly when some of the more vehement and bigoted Christian voices today rest firmly on the centuries of violence and oppression that have stained the institution of the Church for much of its history.

Do I still find power in the chant, liturgy, and community of the organic, progressive, feminist Christian church? Definitely. Attending Eucharist or any one of the daily prayers – even listening to them online – opens up channels in my spirit that aren’t tapped into by any of my other practices. Do I still yearn for deeper knowledge and understanding of the socially progressive radical Jesus – the one who dined with the marginalized and loved without bigotry? Yes, definitely. These questions are easy. The harder ones, more complex and unresolved, are these: Could I be in community with Christians, even progressive ones doing the work as I understand it, when “Christian” is a word that in my mind has become so powerfully associated with bigotry, patriarchy, and rigid, unforgiving morality? If I decided that I’d like to pursue participation in that community, can I stand firm in the face of rejection by the more conservative elements of Christianity, authentically claiming the interfaith nature of my practice and its deep, ecological roots as well as progressive Christian practice as I know and understand it? At what point do you accept someone else’s interpretation of the tradition as normative, and to what extent can we (feminists, progressives, radicals, and social justice activists) redefine, reinterpret, and represent a new, more open Church? When we do, who is listening?

I don’t really need to think of myself as a Christian, any more than I need to call myself a poet. They’re labels, useful only to the extent that they describe the goings-on of my heart, my practice, and my expression. For now, I’ll keep doing me. I’ll write prose when it flows and lines of (maybe?) poetry when that’s what pours forth. I’ll dig in the dirt, burn incense, swim in rivers, dig my toes into the sand of the oceans, write love poems for mountains, and pour out offerings onto the sacred earth of the forests. And I’ll read scripture, chant Psalter, pray, read writings of medieval mystics, and be bold to say the things that I might not be able to say in a community of like-minded people – not anymore, not yet. And I’ll try – really try – not to get hung up on the labels that I hesitate to adopt, and focus instead on living, learning, and growing in my own connection to Spirit.

For now, I welcome reading recommendations. Who are the feminist theologians within the Christian tradition you feel are doing powerful work? Who is tying in ecological awareness in a meaningful, powerful way? Who is doing interesting work reconciling their other interfaith practices with their Christian backgrounds?