Betsy Sholl's poem "The Harrowing" is published in Image issue 73. This web-exclusive interview with Sholl features questions from readers of Image.
Q: How do you connect with secular readers?
A: Part of me wonders if, when it comes to art, these distinctions between secular and sacred really apply.
A poet has to write from a point of exploration, a sense of not knowing, not having an answer to whatever question(s) the poem raises. Adrienne Rich says in one poem, “If you know how the story ends, why tell it?” Of course, as believers we may feel we know how the big story ends in a broad sense. But we don’t know the specifics; each situation is unique in detail, each experience involves the unknown, something to discover. So as a poet I write out of my human vulnerabilities and questions, out of a humility that considers the unknowns, and from that vantage, if I am writing honestly and listening well, I should be touching human dilemmas that are shared by others. The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam talks about words as sound, physical sound, with meaning lagging far behind. “What’s meaning but vanity?” he asks. “A word is a sound—one of the handmaidens of the seraphim.” That’s not the usual perspective, but it’s one to keep somewhere in mind. Art isn’t primarily instrumental, or utilitarian. It’s about creating an experience for the reader to have, one that opens up something in the reader’s own psyche. Art should be bigger than the artist’s intention.
John Donne appeals to readers who aren’t believers because he opens up those great paradoxes and passions for us, across all dividing lines. And then there are those great “religious” paintings whose makers may have been at best skeptical, at worse unbelieving pragmatists eager to get a stipend from the church…. Nevertheless, they poured themselves into the paintings and their work moves us.
Q: I’m curious about your taboos. Do you have any? Is there anything too nostalgic or personal or domestic, etc—that you wouldn’t write about?
Alas, my mother would say I have none. But I’m sure I do. The biggest ones are probably the ones that are unconscious—the material that something in me never lets come to the surface. Those of course are beyond my knowing. There’s also a range of experience I don’t write about because I don’t know how, or haven’t found an entry point into. It may be that I don’t have an emotional grasp or distance yet. Sometime it means there has to be a counter subject for those experiences to play off of or against, some second element that hasn’t occurred to me.
For any writer there are subjects that we’ve already written about exhaustively, so before we take them on again, we have to remind ourselves that the process needs to lead to something new. Writers need obsessions, that’s what we write out of, but we have to keep making them new. So I worry at least when too many birds, dead fathers, or even too many jazz references come into my poems—am I just repeating myself? When it comes to domestic or personal subjects, I guess for me they have to tap into something bigger, they have to lead to a larger vision or some kind of gravitas. Anything can do that—laundry, gardening, whatever. But if the larger element isn’t found, then the poem feels too small.
I do have a rule for myself not to write out of bitterness or contempt. And I am careful now—I wasn’t always—to not write about people who might not want to be written about. Beyond that I try to make sure I have a decent number of poems with no first person pronoun. That’s because there was a time when I didn’t know how to write a poem without an “I” in it.
Q: As a poet who is wary of personifying nature, how do you prefer to approach the natural world in your work?
The truth is I do personify nature—I’ve compared crows to muttering old men, or sea elephants to slugs in spandex…. I think the issue isn’t that we can’t approach nature through metaphor or simile—maybe that’s the only way we can approach it. The issue for me is personifying nature without recognizing or owning the fact that we’re doing it. I think that to put human gender on mountains, for instance, or to assume what the natural world feels, thinks the same as we do, is to diminish it, to dismiss its otherness. It’s a form of projecting that can blind us to what is actually there, making the natural world into subspecies of us, and thus in fact keep us farther away from it. That doesn’t mean we don’t see ourselves in nature, but that we need to be careful to own the tenuousness of those insights, and to let the natural world be bigger and more mysterious than our experience of it. People use the natural world to make every argument possible: for God and against God, for beauty and for a harsher competition, etc, etc. My concern is to step back and at least look at what we’re doing. Maybe the work is to really study, observe, and to write about our experience, clearly as our experience, not as though that experience is nature itself.
Q: How has your work evolved throughout your life? What changes, and what has stayed the same?
One thing that changes is level of skill. There were things I just didn’t know how to do when I started writing—how to use sentences in a variety of patterns, how to make a poem move without me being in the center, how to discuss difficult subjects without exposing the people involved. Hopefully, I will continue to evolve in terms of skill and subtlety, emotional depth.
One thing that I think has stayed the same is an interest in writing about people who are often neglected by society. Also I have always tended to alternate between what for me, at least, are more buttoned-up poems and looser ones. I get to feel things are too constrained and try to write more loosely; then I begin to feel the poems are slack and undisciplined and go the other way.
I think I write a lot less about myself than I used to. Well, all poems are about the self who made them, on one level, but I try to look outward more, to be an “eye” some of the time, rather than an “I.” I’m still trying to find ways to talk about spiritual matters in ways that are open, that surprise and bear some gravitas. I have to throw out a lot of drafts because they just aren’t good poems. Speaking of fiction writing, Flannery O’Connor says that a Catholic novelist still has to obey the rules of fiction in terms of plot, characterization, etc. The same holds for poetry. Doctrine and liturgy gain power through repetition. But in poems there has to be an element of the new, of seeing through one’s own unique perspective and language. Along with these elements there’s a quality of intimacy that’s hard to come by, a voice that speaks of or to those deepest concerns takes a lot of time and listening.
Q: I also live in Maine, which earlier this year was polled as the least religious (or at least professed Christian) state. Having lived here on and off for almost 40 years, this does not surprise me. Yet in Maine’s silence, hard beauty and traditional ethos of humility and survival, I find a tremendous sense of Christ’s message. Big question: How has Maine affected you as a poet and a person of faith?
Maine has been good to me in many ways. I have found a community of writers here, and a space to work that mixes solitude and community. I think many artists come here because of that mix. What we may miss in terms of the greater stimulation in a larger city, we may get back in terms of working conditions and less self-consciousness.
I think Maine has given me the two geographical elements that feel essential to my psychic landscape, my inner geography: the ocean, the coast with its salty fog and endless vistas, and the city, a small one it’s easy to get around in, but a city nevertheless. I grew up on the New Jersey shore, and being on the edge, being able to look out into an enormous and mysterious vista is crucial to me. It’s a kind of giant altar at which I can kneel. At the same time, I love the mix of people that a city provides, the ability to interact with people from different places, with different persuasions and needs. I’ve even come to love winter—it’s spareness, its solitude, and the Lenten quality of being stripped down to essentials. When spring comes, who can resist? But I often work best in those quiet darker months.
I was surprised to hear Maine was the least Christian state. Geez—think of Live-Free-Or-Die New Hampshire or all the great old lefties in Vermont. I think it’s true that a lot of Maine values reflect Christ’s message—humility, helping neighbors, bearing one’s burdens without complaint, a kind of salty truthfulness and plain-spokenness…. People in Maine seem grounded, maybe the artists tend to be more genuine, less pretentious than in many other more hip places. Poets are happy to meet up because we work in isolation.
There are, of course, believers everywhere and, somehow or other, by patchwork, trial and error, one finds the community that nourishes one. As much as I love Jesus, I don’t love a lot of religious clichés, facile theology, and the assumption that religious conservatism and political conservatism are one and the same. Maybe some of that Maine hard-nosed realism has rubbed off on me. I’ve lived in Maine now nearly thirty years, so in terms of how it’s affected me it’s hard to tell what’s Maine, what’s time, what’s a sort natural unfolding of life and faith. Some mornings I step out of my house and the salt is so thick in the air it makes me happy all day.