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Doubt, faith and art: Three poets write it out (Includes interview and first-hand account)

Three poets are grappling with doubt and faith in Christianity through different expressions of poetry. America’s Cortney Lamar Charleston, who’s just finished his first manuscript, demands justice amidst racial violence and gender discrimination. Canada’s Mark Wagenaar examines lapse in faith and an every day search for epiphany. England’s Luke Kennard finds humanity on a very bumpy road to redemption. Each poet is taking a risk with their writing in an arena where they say it’s not exactly cool to be Christian.

In his poem, ‘Feeling Fucked Up‘, a response to the death of Walter Scott, Cortney Lamar Charleston says, “every day they kill my God just a little bit more.” The poem offers points of reflection on ruthless violence by law enforcement officers on unarmed civilians, but it also suggests that there are conveniently different Gods presiding over the privileged and the underprivileged. Charleston’s poem asks important questions about racial violence and injustice, but it also asks how an artist like Charleston himself can maintain faith at all in a society where racism, gender discrimination and child abuse is often shrouded by corrupt institutions.

“At this juncture in my life, I’d say my faith is on rather solid ground,” says Charleston, whose poetry appears regularly in Rattle and Connotation. “At least, I’m comfortable with it at this point. That being said, I’m not sure my ‘faith’ necessarily resembles what comes to mind most immediately for many when they hear, or read, as it were, the word. I grew up as a Baptist in a sanctuary full of black folks, and I will always be that same ‘church boy’, but as I grew older and asked more questions and sought out better answers, I began to look at God less as a rigid construct and more as something we evolve toward: this has been the revelation of my own personal relationship with God. How’s that for Protestantism?”

Charleston adds that his faith informs his work, and vice versa.

“I certainly think there’s room for expressions of God or faith in poetry, just as there is room to discuss racial violence, gender discrimination, homophobia and any other myriad of topics. Faith, or non-faith for that matter, is part of our larger human experience, and our trials and triumphs with it deserve to be documented along with everything else we’re living through, both painfully and with joy.”

Artist and researcher Crystal Bennes says religion is as prevalent today in artistic expression as it is in our history books.

“I would question the idea of the present world being ‘largely secular’,” says Bennes, an art historian and poetry editor of The Learned Pig. “Just to take one example, the most recent set of data (from 2010) from the Pew Forum finds that 84% of the world population holds some religious affiliation. Assuming, however, that Western states are largely secular, as a second point, it seems to me that the idea of the secular must always be understood in relation to the religions. That is perhaps an obvious point, but when we talk about, for example, a modern, secular state such as France passing a law to ban the wearing of all conspicuous religions symbols in public schools, it’s clear that the two remain deeply interconnected. There’s so much more I could say about this, but to get back to the relevance of artistic expressions of faith in today’s world, I would say, yes, of course they have a place. Inasmuch as artists are interpreters and producers of culture – operating in a kind of feedback loop of absorption and influence – so long as religion continues to play an important role in contemporary culture, it’s both unsurprising and inevitable that artists should continue to be attracted to these ideas. I also suspect that many artistic minds are in thrall to the historical traditions of their disciplines, and given the long-standing roles of the church as institutional benefactor and religion as creative inspiration, it surprises me very little that artists and writers should remain drawn to both.”

For Wagenaar, whose poems often appear in The New Yorker, his Christianity is about close examination of inner and outer turmoil amidst social injustice in order to find epiphany.

“I live in a region where the bible was used to justify slavery once upon a time,” says Wagenaar, winner of the 2015 CBC Poetry Prize and author of the often deeply spiritual The Body Distances, forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press in late-March. “I now live in Texas. I’ve lived here for five years. I now have a brother in Louisiana; my mother and father are in Georgia now. And yet we’re all originally Grimsby, Ontario residents. So, I’m bringing an odd perspective to a region that Flannery O’Connor called Christ-haunted. It’s a region that I’ve found to be very much haunted by its history in terms of the kind of racial violence it’s seen.”

Wagenaar adds that his experience teaching as a doctoral fellow at the University of North Texas has challenged his faith in unexpected ways.

“I’ve been searching since my 20s for a home,” says Wagenaar. “I’ve been missing my home. I’ve seen my spirituality unfold in fits and starts. The degree and fervency has waxed and waned in terms of my belief and in terms of my prayer life, for example. I’ve wrestled with doubt, and art that wrestles with spiritual doubt is something that I appreciate. I’m thinking of Hopkins’ ‘Terrible Sonnets’, for example, or that ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ that St John spoke of. I felt like I’d had not one dark night but several dark nights in New Jersey, Virginia, Iowa, Utah… Just knowing the violence that the region has seen is one of the things you wrestle with.”

Wagenaar says he feels it’s most important to listen to his students, many of whom bring poems depicting race relations and gender discrimination to class.

“I’m coming to the table as someone who’s just willing to listen. Someone who’s tried to explore those spaces, and I think that is a risk. I maybe try to make myself vulnerable to students who are going to be sharing their work and who are going to be vulnerable.”

In The Body Distances, which won the Juniper Prize for poetry, Wagenaar explores the idea of the unexplainable.

“What I’ve tried to do in many of the poems within the collection is to use the body as metaphor, but also as ground zero for epiphany – examining phenomena that we can’t explain, examining miracle, examining unlikely odds. Using that as a staging area for the kinds of moral truths that close examination might produce.”

For Luke Kennard, a multi-award-winning poet from the UK whose fifth collection of poetry, Cain, is forthcoming in June from Penned in the Margins, being an orthodox Christian is about recognizing that all humans, regardless of race, religious faith or socioeconomic circumstances, are ultimately seeking opportunity for sanctuary and redemption. Kennard says he feels it’s sometimes unacceptable to be Christian among today’s poets.

“I think part of what I struggle with is actually having and trying to maintain a faith,” says Kennard, whose collection includes poems about interfaith dialogue and painful, personal childhood memories. “[It’s] a fairly indefensible position, intellectually and morally. There’s a lot that I completely disagree with in terms of attitudes to sexuality and gender. There’s a lot that I will never accept, which either means I’m one of the goats or that there are maybe more important things. The best sermon I ever heard was about 30 seconds long and was on the Sunday of Judgment. The priest stalked out of the iconostasis and spat: ‘In today’s gospel reading we learn that ultimately what we will be judged on are the times we have shown compassion to others. Nothing else. It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?’ and then stalked back again.”

The second section of Cain contains a unique and remarkable artistic feat: Kennard has used all 355 letters from Genesis 4: 9-13 to create 31 anagrams. Kennard explores how Cain is marked by God and sent off into a life of immortality. With encouragement from Crystal Bennes, Kennard also included a scholia – a Midrash – around the poems with an adjacent narrative which immediately draws the modern day reader into Cain’s story. The narrative is cynical, heart-breaking and hilarious, suggesting that we all have a stake in Cain’s search for forgiveness. While Christianity influences his work heavily, Kennard never limits himself to a singular denomination or religion in his research.

“There is such a tradition of anagrams within Hebrew. In the original Hebrew Bible, there are verses that are anagrams of other verses. It was hugely significant and it was a poetic form for the Jews. And for various Arabic cultures, that anagram was a poetic form in itself. I felt like that gave me some licence to run with it. At the same time it felt like I was doing something much more abstract and much more like I was verging on something that you wouldn’t even have to read. You could flick through it and go, ‘That’s interesting. Look what he’s done with the same 355 letters over and over again. I’m not actually going to fucking read it. Well done, Luke.’”

It’s an example, according to Bennes, of where art history and faith are continuously intersecting.

“You have, on the one hand, the challenge of the form. Anagrams are technically difficult. They require a considerable amount of work and rework. Perhaps even more so with Cain, considering the additional layers of transmutation – in both form and language – from, for example, Biblical verses to television scripts, and from archaic ‘thous’ and ‘shalts’ to the equally-odd, though decidedly less-archaic results of reusing all those ‘thous’. But, on the other hand, one of the ingenious things about this particular form is that it allows the reader to immediately comprehend what the work was and how it was done. To use a bad mathematical analogy, it’s poetry that solves the equation and shows you the proof at the same time… In ancient literature, where scholia have been very important, in works by Homer, Virgil, Horace, Pindar, and many others. [It is] an apt conceptual framework for [Kennard’s Cain] marginal notes, especially given the project’s Biblical origins.”

Reflecting on Bennes’s comments on faith having an ongoing place in art, Wagenaar suggests that his work, and the work he most enjoys reading, is every bit as much for non-believers, and that art is a healthy place for us to challenge all belief systems and institutions.

“There’s something in the back of my mind,” says Wagenaar. “Charles Wright says that the subject of every poem is the clock. Once you have time, you have mortality. I think that is the case behind, if not every poem, then an awful lot of them – the way of all flesh. I think there is a space where someone might interrogate that, even as a [non-Christian or atheist] looking in. I think that can lead to a kind of moral intelligence and a level of empathy that deepens. Frankly I think it extends someone’s potential artistic range. You’re less willing to deal with caricature. As someone in academia, I have to say that there’s a fervency of belief in a certain kind of politics that to me is every bit as intense and often unquestioning as the very worst kinds of religious belief.”

Charleston says poetry influenced by Christianity is worth a second look for any artist, and for any person examining social change, regardless of whether they believe in God or not.

“I’m certainly pleased that poets are trying to put mirrors up to themselves on all sides and interrogate how those images of self and the world in the background intersect, sometimes in a way that makes things difficult to discern with any clarity. That, in my opinion, produces not only potentially good art but important art: spiritually, emotionally, and socially. I don’t in anyway believe this is naiveté at play; in fact, I think it is an inherent wisdom at work. The unknown, as I see it, is what we all learn from that work and whether it compliments and nourishes our better angels. If we actually listen in that process, I’m optimistic in the results, but listening is a skill people don’t often fight hard enough to master.”

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