Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently A Deed to the Light (University of Illinois Press) and New Tracks, Night Falling (Eerdmans). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Atlantic Monthly, Christian Century, American Poetry Review, Georgia Review, Image, and Best American Poetry. She is also an accomplished playwright, whose scripts have been performed in theaters across the United States and in London. Her essays have appeared in Image, as well as in the recent anthology The Spirit of Food (Cascade Books). Her awards include a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, eight Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowships, and the Glenna Luschei–Prairie Schooner Prize. For twenty years she served as poetry editor of Christianity and Literature, and is currently on the editorial boards of Image and Shenandoah. She is a professor of English at the University of Delaware, where she teaches poetry and script writing workshops as well as courses in poetry, theater, and the English Renaissance, including study abroad courses in London. She also serves as a mentor in the low-residency MFA program at Seattle Pacific University. She was interviewed by Luci Shaw.
Image: You’ve been working on a collection of essays. The theme is your lifelong wrestling with your fundamentalist upbringing. While you’ve left that world behind, you’ve never merely dismissed it. Tell us about the experience of writing and collecting these essays. What kind of reckoning took place?
Jeanne Murray Walker: It’s been a very long process, six or eight years. The reckoning has been with the problem of how to speak, finding the voice, the tone. It’s very easy to be dismissive and even funny about that subject matter. You’ve left fundamentalism behind precisely because you’re critiquing it, and that kind of critique can be facile. It can be cruel. But that’s not the way I feel. I’ve been trying to find a voice that expresses my deep affection toward fundamentalists. They loved me and took care of me in many ways, including with food. They love to eat, and they love to sing, and for me those two things were terribly important. They still are. Some of that is missing in the wonderful relationship I have with a new church—new, that is, since I was about nineteen years old. I have tried to find a voice to explain that I love the fundamentalists I knew, and that I love the Episcopalians I know now. I’m standing somewhere in the middle, shouting: Talk to one another! Listen to one another! You’re both good at different things. You’re strong, and you need one another. I guess I would say the same things about Catholics and Orthodox and various other kinds of believers. We’ve been through a period of fracture for four or five hundred years, and now it’s time to put ourselves together again and try to stand together.
Image: You mentioned singing and food. Church potlucks were a big part of that world, right?
JMW: Yes. And we did not cook in the church kitchen; we brought food from our own kitchens. It was “from my kitchen to your mouth.” I had been in many of those kitchens, when I was staying overnight with friends. There was a saying in our church that all the adults were responsible for all of the children. It was a version of that adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” They were all responsible for feeding all the children, but it wasn’t just about food. It was support and love. Lots of energy got poured into us as children. But the food was particularly interesting, because how each family cooks is very personal. We kids used to go over to the potluck table, peek under the tinfoil, and say, “Oh! Mrs. Wolsey brought her scalloped potatoes!” We had our favorites. It’s really about communion, sharing food together.
I recently wrote an essay for an anthology about food. It’s about shopping at Produce Junction, where I buy vegetables and fruit in large quantities, very inexpensively. You can get ten zucchini for a dollar. It’s one of the few places where I see people of all status groups and financial means and ages and ethnic groups together. It’s on the border between the suburbs and the city of Philadelphia, and it draws people from many neighborhoods—Orthodox Jews, African Americans, Chinese, Arab women in headscarves, business people dashing in during lunch hour, mothers of toddlers, teenagers. I think of Produce Junction as a kind of expanded international communion with many people who are brothers and sisters in some way. Food preparation starts at Produce Junction. We talk about recipes. We’ll be standing by one of the strange vegetables—kohlrabi or something like that—and someone will ask, “What do you do with this?” And someone will say, “You just boil it,” or “You bake it,” or “You put some butter and salt and pepper on it, and it’s great with tomatoes.”
Image: I’m thinking of your background and where you are now. Is the food that you receive for your soul and spirit in the Episcopal Church of a different kind than in the church of your early years?
JMW: I think the orthodoxy is pretty much the same. We could have said the same creed in my Baptist church. What’s different for me is that the symbols are much more available and visible. In my Baptist church there was a kind of literalism and an absence of symbolism. It turned out that I needed symbols. The literalism (the belief in the literal inspiration of every single word of the Bible) was something that puzzled me by the time I was sixteen years old. I didn’t understand it anymore because so many of our hymns were brilliantly metaphorical. You couldn’t take a lot of their words literally, and I understood that that was brilliant language. The literal kind of biblical interpretation clashed with the hymns. Nobody seemed to understand the questions I had, and not only that; I couldn’t really figure out how to ask the questions. But I don’t think the substance of the faith was so different; I think it was the manifestation, the way people worshipped, that was different.
Image: Did you take communion frequently in your Baptist church?
JMW: I think it was once a month. We drank from little individual cups, which were miniature and a delight to hold. And then I was the child of somebody who had a role: my mother was a deaconess for long periods of time, and we kids would go watch the deaconesses washing the communion glasses together. We had fun doing that—a lot of people laughing and talking in the church kitchen. But in the Episcopal Church, the symbolism of one chalice is wonderful to me. It doesn’t seem like a very important detail, but it is significant. I love that we have crosses that we can look at. I need that physical reminder. In the church that I’m in now we have all kinds of physical reminders of spiritual realities. They’re dramatized. I see and smell them around me.
Image: You were an English lit major at Wheaton College. Did something in your college experience encourage you to become a writer? A person, a teacher? What led you to further studies and a teaching career for yourself?
JMW: I have been fascinated by language ever since I started reading, which was fairly early. And it didn’t matter a whole lot what I was reading. Dick and Jane seemed interesting to me because of the very idea that you could vacuum letters off the page into your imagination and make pictures of what was going on. That someone could hand you a piece of paper with writing on it and change your world seemed so incredible that I wanted to learn how to make sentences beautiful and make them fit together. It seemed that the possibility of writing down what I imagined was something I could take on. I wasn’t able to paint or draw. I later found out that I wasn’t good enough at music to make that into a life calling, but I could write, and it did become a calling. While I was at Wheaton, Helen DeVette was incredibly important to me. I had just given up the violin; I put it under my bed and stopped playing it. I had been practicing sometimes three or four hours a day, and I was very good, but not good enough. I took a creative writing course, and Helen was instantly enthusiastic and generous—in the way she frequently was, as I look back, with many students’ work.
She sent off what I wrote to an Atlantic Monthly competition. She sent it in fiction and poetry, and I won first place in both. Nobody had ever won two first places before, so the Atlantic made a rule that the same person couldn’t win in two categories anymore, and they sent me off to Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. Helen got a scholarship, too, and came east with me. Bread Loaf School of English changed my life; there’s no question about that. I met John Frederick Nims there, and he became a lifelong mentor to me.
Image: Wheaton fostered a number of writers during that time. Why do you think that was?
JMW: Wheaton was a wonderful incubator for ideas and writing. I think part of it was the students as well as the faculty. There was an incredible ferment of thought and wild new ideas—some of them from the head of the philosophy department, Arthur Holmes. Students would sit around in the literary magazine office and talk. We didn’t take drugs; we didn’t need to. There were many of us walking into this new, open meadow of ideas together, and suddenly we weren’t lonely, as we had been in high school. I remember the first time I set foot on Wheaton’s campus as a freshman. For pre-freshman discussions we had all been assigned the same books, for instance John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. We were excitedly talking about the book, and I began to think, Everybody here is like I am! Everybody’s interested in this. How can this be? This is astonishing!
Image: In the 1970s, one of your contributor’s notes said that your interests included tennis, a small kitten, home arts (i.e. decorating on a shoestring), and developing a sense of humor. I know a broad vision is tacked together from particulars, but how would you describe your subject matter now?
JMW: In this last book of essays I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between parts of my life: fundamentalism, food, my mother’s long slide into Alzheimer’s, memory, and reading. In poetry, I am probably becoming more meditative. I’m interested in what lies below the surface and ways of getting at that. I’m a little concerned about the speed in the culture. I’m more than a little concerned about the violence in the culture. I recently challenged a bunch of undergraduate poetry students to take twenty-four hours away from their electronic devices. I told them, “I will do it with you, and we’ll talk about what happened, because in order to read poetry, you need silence and you need to dwell in the poetry in a deep way.” None of the students has taken me up on it. It’s such a radical proposal that I’m not sure they even took it seriously. We’re on Google a lot—I’m on Google a lot—and we speed-read everything. The students hardly know any other way of reading, because what they read online is not meant to be consumed slowly. I am trying to write the kind of poetry that dwells and goes deeper. How to do this is a craft problem. You have to figure out how to use metaphor in ways that puzzle and refract meaning. This is related to what I was talking about when I said that symbolism and actions in worship are important. These things are tied together. I think to some extent writing is an act of faith. You launch yourself off into some wild space that you’ve never been in before. Maybe we all do that with our questions about our life and our death, the ones that poetry has always talked about. Love-and-death is the underlying subject of great lyric poetry.
Image: Do you think the instant access to information we find on Google (helpful as it is) is shortcutting some of the work of research and thinking and discovery that preceded it, when we had to go to libraries and look things up in massive tomes and make observations and annotations on paper? What do you think these changes in ease and rapidity and access have done to our thinking?
JMW: I’m deeply grateful to have so much information available, and I don’t want to give it up. On the other hand, I recognize a quality of addiction in myself. There’s also a virtual quality to some of what I do now. I used to hold a pencil and write on paper, and some of the paper actually had little chunks of wood in it. I would buy cheap paper, and I could feel the texture of the pencil on the paper in my body. What I do now is type on keys, and all the keys feel the same. I’m not as close to the alphabet as I was, if you want to put it that way. There’s a virtual quality now, even to writing. You type one place and it shows up on the screen at a little distance. There’s such speed, and the addiction to the speed. It’s possible to use these computers and devices wisely, but it’s very difficult for us. A person has to be extremely thoughtful and disciplined, and I’m working on that.
These electronic devices that let us do everything simultaneously—talk on the phone, use the computer, speak with somebody in the room—make life go by faster. Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t paradoxically what we are trying to do: get rid of our lives because it’s so hard to live and make wise choices and be aware that we’re going to die. Those things are hard to deal with. I sometimes think that these addictions to speed are a form of denial.
Image: Science often figures in your poems. Is there something about the language of science that offers you a source of analogies? What’s the relationship between science and poetry?
JMW: I do read physics—popularizations, you understand. I’ve often had the impression while I was reading that I understood the words, but I couldn’t paraphrase them or explain them to anybody else afterwards, which means that I probably didn’t really understand them. But what they imparted to me was a vocabulary, which is fascinating to anybody who’s interested in language. At some level I’m a poet who is just flat-out interested in language, but surely another reason I read physics is that it is another way of talking about the mystery that I also see in poetry. Last week I was sitting in my office with a senior chemistry major who is in the introduction to poetry class because he needs to take a humanities course. He was explaining for an hour and a half how the tree on the mall outside my office window that looks so solid is actually made up mainly of space, and how things work at a minute level of atoms. I suspect that the reason I’m so interested in listening to him is that there lies at the heart of chemistry and physics what we discover as poets: The world is mysterious. It is best described in metaphor, which yokes together two terms that are both alike and unlike. This brings me back to John Henry Newman’s book The Idea of a University, where he argues that all the disciplines are talking about the same mystery, the same physical world, and the same spiritual world. They’re talking about this reality in different languages, and that’s why all the disciplines are necessary: they’re different ways of looking at one reality.
For many years I gave poetry readings at the Academy for Lifelong Learning, our off-campus facility at the University of Delaware. Many people who attend classes there are physicists and chemists who have retired from DuPont and Hercules and some of the other chemical companies in the state, and they all want to take poetry classes. They love to read poetry; it is like their second life. There is a kindred spirit between some scientists and poets.
Image: Who are your favorite poets now?
JMW: Tomas Tranströmer, Pablo Neruda, some of the old metaphysical poets. And I can never leave out Shakespeare. Shakespeare has been a life-long romance for me, which is odd because when I was at Wheaton he was a required subject, and I told Clyde Kilby that I would not take the class. I went to his office and asked to be exempted. He asked why, and I said I didn’t believe that anybody could be as great as people said Shakespeare was. In his great wisdom he said, “Okay, you don’t have to.” They made me take Shakespeare at a Jesuit institution where I went for my master’s degree, and I instantly fell in love. It’s not that I hadn’t read Shakespeare before, but there I was forced to read ten or fourteen plays. Since then I have never been far away from him. I just went to see As You Like It at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Sam Mendes for the Bridge Project. It might as well have been written yesterday.
I’ve gone through waves with other poets, falling in love with them and reading them for years, carrying their books around. There was a long Wallace Stevens phase. And Theodore Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop and James Wright. Robert Browning for a long time, and George Herbert. Before that was a long time with John Donne, and many of the other metaphysicals as well. I keep coming back to those old poets.
Image: What about Hopkins?
JMW: Oh, I love Hopkins, and I believe that he of all the Victorians has lasted the longest and been oddly relevant to contemporary poets in a way that Browning and Tennyson (who were much more famous in their lifetimes) have not.
Image: Have you had significant mentors? You mentioned Helen DeVette at Wheaton, but since then, do you look to certain poets to inspire or nudge or challenge you?
JMW: I look at poets as models. For me it’s necessary to disconnect the poetry from the life of the poet. I think Rilke is a wonderful poet, and I’m still angry at him for the way he treated his children and his women.
But yes, I have had mentors. John Frederick Nims was one. I wrote to him until very shortly before he died. Dan Hoffman was another. And you, Luci, have been a wonderful mentor to many people, me included, over the years. You’re a very good older sister.
Image: Thank you. What quality gives a poem staying power? What makes a poem a classic?
JMW: Surely part of it has to do with whether the poet has been published in visible places. I think we have to say that some of it is luck; some of it involves who you know. And some of it is persistence. I’m with Tom Stoppard. In that wonderful play Arcadia, Thomasina laments all the lost works of art when she learns about the library at Alexandria burning. Think of the misfortune involved in losing all that work!
But I suspect what your question really means is, “Why do some poems sink into oblivion and others blaze two thousand years after they were written?” And you don’t just mean that they’ve been anthologized for years and years, but that they still come alive when we read them. Maybe the poems that last are the ones written by poets who can separate fashion—the fashion of their times—from what’s deep and human and common to all of us. If you can do that, and figure out a way to talk about it, what you write will be compelling to people in all ages. It’s a combination of wisdom about what’s important in craft and metaphors that are not just trendy.
Image: It’s always been a puzzle to me: What happens when you write a poem and send it out and it drops like a pebble into the Grand Canyon? What will rescue it and bring it to the point where people will talk with each other about it?
JMW: As a poet, you have to take care of your work, make sure that it’s published, try to keep it alive—and then you have to let it go, because it’s not in your hands. You can’t do anything more than be serious about it (not solemn, but serious) and wise with what you write about and go deep if you can. And then you hope for the best. You also have to be grateful for being able to live the life of a poet. It’s such a gift to be able to teach and read. It’s not putting on hubcaps. Reading and writing and teaching are what I wanted to do, and I feel enormously grateful for this life I’ve had, to be around lively student minds and have colleagues across the United States who I can e-mail or write letters to about reading.
Image: You live a literary life, but it’s also an earthy life. You’re a wife and a mother and a grandmother, and you have a home and you love to entertain and travel. These things play into who you are as a poet, right
JMW: That’s right, that’s where the poetry comes from. I began to understand when I had my first child that it’s not about abstractions, it’s about the body. You make 8,642 dinners before a child leaves your home, or something like that. That’s an awful lot of turnips.
Image: Several years ago we both worked with a group of Romanian poets in the university city of Cluj. What did you gain from that interchange?
JMW: Yes, we were invited by a group of Romanian poets to read our work and give lectures in 2005. Those poets’ lives are not privileged the way ours are, but they were very committed to one another and able to have exchanges on a profound level. They shared a love of poetry. The love of art in Romania felt more intense to me than in any other European country I’ve visited. That may be in part because of how difficult it’s been to live there, particularly under Ceausescu, who did such monumental damage. It’s ongoing damage, really, caused by the bugging of houses, the meddling of government in people’s lives, dictating how many children they could have and taking away most freedoms. While I was with those Romanian poets I had a keen sense of the gratitude they felt for the freedom to talk about poetry and to worship the way they wanted to. They have a commitment to art that I don’t see in this country. There is a saying that every Romanian is a poet. I came away thinking that’s true: they have a sense that there is meaning beyond the objects we buy and use. They don’t have the possessions we have; they’re struggling to put food on the table; they don’t have a very good health care system; but they share poetry, and they share faith, at a very deep level. I’m tempted to say at a deeper level than we do because they’re not distracted by so many other objects, but I don’t know whether that’s true.
Image: While we were there, we heard the Romanian minister of culture talk about how magnificent it was to have “a poetry of hope rather than despair.” Did you sense that in their work?
JMW: We did some translating together of their poems into English, which was a real pleasure, and we were able to get some published in American journals. One of the poets, Ionatan Pirosca, appeared in Image [Issue 65]. His poetry, like much of their poetry, is difficult. It’s been very influenced by French surrealism, and it is in many ways troubling poetry, and yet it is a poetry of hope. What I love about it is that it’s not an easy hope. Romanian poets are taking on some of the problems of illness, poverty, and the difficulties of faith, and working them through.
Image: You are proficient in several literary genres: poetry, drama, creative nonfiction, essays. Do you have a favorite way of writing, and can you switch easily from one to another?
JMW: I am a poet who sometimes works in other forms. I can’t write in two forms at the same time. I need to work in one or the other. I am fascinated by language in itself, and how it can become shapely in different forms. It has been a great delight to work in several different forms, but I am essentially a poet.
Image: You’ve been a teacher for many years. What has all this teaching taught you?
JMW: I’ve been able to read the same texts over and over, which is a joy. As a teacher you find yourself sifting out the important work and teaching that. The greatest gift of all has been the students I’ve known over the years, many of whom are still in touch with me. It’s been a wonder to see the differences between generations. Of course there’s no bright line between one generation and another, but they differ subtly. The student mind, the twenty-one-year-old way of perceiving the world, has shifted profoundly over the years, and I’ve been able to keep track of that. I don’t live only with my peer group; I live with people who are twenty-one and twenty-two. I go to class on Tuesday afternoon and it’s the only Tuesday afternoon we have. It’s our real life, and I talk with them about what they think about the text. The text is a meeting place for us to talk about what’s important. We sit with the work. We don’t talk about our lives all that much in class, but I get to see how they think.
I have many students who are now teaching other students. Occasionally I invite my students from the seventies and eighties and nineties to come back and do readings on campus, and they come to my creative writing workshops. Recently I listened to a former student who’s now in her late forties talk to my twenty-year-olds about the sonnet, and convince them to love it. I thought, what greater pleasure can there be? I’m the grandmother of these students. My student is teaching my other students.
As it happened, there were mostly men in that class, and they had come to that semester profoundly affected by rap and hip-hop. They had picked up all the metaphors. To read their poetry you’d think they’d all lived hard-drinking, dissipated lives, and I knew it wasn’t all true. Kathrine, who is quite beautiful, sat there demurely with her hair pulled back in a little bun and read them sonnets from her latest book. They said, “You know, those are really cool.” And some of them began to write sonnets after that.
Image: You’ve written a lot of sonnets. You had a sort of a sonnet mania for a while, where all you would write were sonnets. Isn’t that true?
JMW: I set myself the task of writing fifty sonnets. I felt that I had become rather prosy, and going back to the forms was a way of recovering my sense of precision, of meter, of how to compress metaphor, and how to work in a small space. It was a good discipline for me.
Image: You’ve written an essay on ambition, which I hope will someday become part of an anthology on that subject. You write about the part it plays in an artist’s life, whether as a drive toward fame that can become obsessive and toxic, or as a recognition that if we have a genuine gift we need to pursue it and allow it to flourish. What is your deepest ambition? In your life, in your work, in your writing or teaching?
JMW: I think my deepest ambition is to harness this fleeting consciousness, this reality that we think of as ourselves, in order to worship by writing. That sounds very different from what I mean. What I mean is that I think finally writing is an act of prayer, or certainly an act of faith. It needs to be done with increasing craft as you live. It’s not disconnected from the insights and wisdom a person gains as she grows older. I believe that consciousness, that awareness, that moral vision is where writing comes from.
It’s hard to talk about this. Finding language for it is difficult. Maybe that’s because the word ambition has a bifurcated meaning. On the one hand it’s about marketing and getting your work known. On the other hand, it’s about your desire, your mission. We’re ambitious to live at a level where we can write something that’s worth keeping, where we can say what we know, and know something more tomorrow than we knew today. The word works on two levels, and I think it would be false to abandon either. You absolutely must publish books and deal with marketing issues. I have a great time traveling, doing readings and workshops. I love it because I meet people, and I’m not sure it has to do entirely with practical ambition. Meeting people is a great way to learn valuable and deep things. Even after I publish a poem, I know more about it—more about its meaning and strength and weakness—than I knew before it was published. But there’s also a quieter level where I learn things and know things, and some of it has to do with suffering, with making sense of death and illness and accidents and war and natural disasters. What I hope is that I can say what I know, what I’m learning, on both levels. I can’t always do that, but that’s my ambition.
Image: When that happens, would you define that as a kind of success? When that authentic voice comes forth, when it has integrity and speaks to people?
JMW: I agree. Since no one can ever be sure what’s going to happen to her work, what I need to be happy with—what we all need to be happy with—is having a conversation with one another. We can have a conversation with Aristophanes and Saint John of the Cross and Emily Dickinson, and in some way this conversation will carry forward, and children will receive it. It’s part of what Wallace Stevens was saying in “Postcards from the Volcano”: we need to be faithful, to pass down information, to modify the discussion, because things happen to us that have never happened before, and every moment in history is important. That is success. That’s our project as writers. That’s our calling.