Luci Shaw is attentive to balance, cultivating both an active engagement with the arts in culture and the solitude necessary to listen and catch at language. Her twelve acclaimed collections of poetry include What the Light Was Like, Harvesting Fog, and the forthcoming Slow Pleasures. Her nonfiction includes Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit and The Crime of Living Cautiously. In all, she has written more than thirty books. The newest is a memoir tentatively titled View from a Steep Slope: Reports on the Exhilarating Adventure of Living Long Enough to Get Old. Her work has been widely anthologized, read on Writer’s Almanac and national television, and set to music. She coauthored several books with Madeleine L’Engle, including Friends for the Journey. She has been poetry and contributing editor of Radix and poetry and fiction editor of Crux, a publication of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she has served as writer-in-residence for more than twenty years. A charter member of the Chrysostom Society of Writers, she is also its current president. Luci was one of the first patrons of Image, a long-time board member, and now a board member emerita. She currently resides in Bellingham, Washington, with her husband John Hoyte, where she continues to nurture a wide community of artists. She was interviewed by Anne M. Doe Overstreet.
Image: What do you understand to be the role of the poet in current culture?
Luci Shaw: I’ve sometimes drawn a parallel between poets and prophets because both speak into a culture that finds it hard to listen. Both bear the burden of calling some aspect of reality to our attention.
Image: You’re currently working on a memoir about getting older. Tell us about that project.
LS: The book is tentatively titled “Views from a Steep Slope: Reports on the Exhilarating Adventure of Living Long Enough to Get Old.” My questions are the universal ones, without easy answers: Why am I here at all? How much does one individual life signify in the enormous swarm of human existence? Why does God keep coming and going? What is the nature of belief, and how is it that belief is still a challenge for a person of faith? Are my relationships expanding, and are they beneficial for anyone else but me? Am I getting wiser with age?
As a younger person I wondered what it was like to grow old. No one wanted to talk about it; there seemed to be a conspiracy of silence, as if to discuss mortality were too morbid, and irrelevant to the young. Now that I know more, I want the arriving generations to understand, sympathize with, and support their elders, and allow grace to characterize our interactions. And yes, there’s a certain melancholy that pervades some of these musings. I grieve for the house we just moved out of. I mourn friends who’ve “summited” ahead of me. But mostly I’m grateful for my rich life.
Image: You also have a new poetry collection forthcoming, right?
LS: Yes. It’s coming out from WordFarm in 2014. We’re calling it The Slow Pleasures. People seem to connect with that title. Maybe since it’s a bit provocative! It seems appropriate for this time in my life when lots of things seem to be going at a rather slower pace.
Image: Tell us about your beginnings as a poet. Has your poetry evolved from when you started?
LS: I know it must have. The longer you live and the greater your awareness grows, the more wide-ranging and comprehensive your vision of life and art must be. I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. I try to avoid getting stuck in any stylistic grooves. A poetic voice should evolve. Art is by its very nature experimental and exploratory, trial and error.
I look at an early poem and think, how did I write that at twenty-five? I’m amazed when it still seems strong and fresh. In the earlier days of my writing life, poetry wasn’t a very big deal in my circles, and the kind of quirkiness I loved wasn’t at all what was expected. When Listen to the Green came out in 1978, people of faith were not reading much poetry beyond devotional work (“meditations”) and hymns, particularly in my conservative Christian circle. It felt quite odd to be reflecting and hearing and seeing things that others didn’t seem to be finding value in.
Perhaps that’s why I persisted. I felt like writing creatively was a job given me at a time when few others were making those connections, or valuing the kind of perception good poetry can offer. I wanted to wake people up. I wanted others to notice what I was noticing.
My parents were a generation older than those of my peers. I was sheltered and rather lonely. In my childhood, my mom, who had Victorian attitudes about women and art, seldom admitted that I’d done anything worth doing. I got very little encouragement from her. My dad was different. He was enthusiastic and would carry scraps of early verses in his briefcase to show his friends. But loving and supportive as he was, my dad was an absentee parent. After serving on the foreign mission field, he became a popular devotional preacher around the world and was away eighty percent of the time.
I always felt an outsider. We were British, part of the Empire. Not Canadian. Not American. Wherever we lived I was sent to good private schools, but secular social life was seen as carnal, not “spiritual,” and was not approved of in my family. This sense of being apart, not living as other people lived, was ingrained in me from a young age. I was also a girl—not the treasured son and heir of the family in that British setting. I wasn’t expected to go to college. I was supposed to be a nurse or something else useful, something that would prepare me to be a good wife. To try to keep this flame of poetry alive—because it wouldn’t go away—I had to write in a kind of isolation.
Image: You must have started at a very young age.
LS: As far back as I can remember I was writing little verses, small snatches. This felt so natural I just assumed it was something normal people did. When I got to high school I found it wasn’t so. I did win a few poetry prizes, but my education was ragged because our family moved around so much, from country to country. When I got to college at Wheaton, I found that, amazingly, everything changed: creative writing was valued. When I declared English lit as my major, my parents cautioned my faculty advisor about “not disturbing my missionary vision.” But that was their vision, not mine, and I dove into literature like it was a swimming pool. It was wonderful, a relief, a burst of light, a kind of resurrection, to mix the metaphors.
Image: Who have been your most effective teachers and guides?
LS: I think my greatest mentoring relationship was with Clyde Kilby, my English professor at Wheaton. He was a wise teacher and friend to just about everybody. He and his wife didn’t have kids, so they gave themselves to their students, feeding them Mrs. Kilby’s famous apple turnovers and hosting seminars in their home. Even after he retired and went back to Mississippi, we talked on the phone a lot. And I was the last one to talk with him before he died of a stroke.
Dr. Kilby was a deeply encouraging guide. When I was a junior in college, he once asked for a research paper on some aspect of the course he was teaching (perhaps on the metaphysical poets). I got carried away and wrote a long poem. Instead of giving me a D or an Incomplete, he wrote a large A on the poem with a note saying, “Send this to The Atlantic tomorrow.” I loved that kind of rule-breaking freedom he gave. I still have some of those early poems with his distinctive penciled comments and suggestions. That was his way of challenging me and moving me along, and it continued after I got married and started having kids. My youngest daughter, Kristin, has Kilby as her middle name. He became the honorary grandfather to our children.
The other large influence on my life, though it was more of an ongoing companionship than a mentoring relationship, was my friendship with Madeleine L’Engle. Although she was ten years older, I became her editor and close friend. It was a mutually flourishing relationship, and it opened up so many windows for us both.
And it was a challenge to my faith. She was from the far left and I was from the far right, and we had to find common ground. We found our disagreements and discussions mutually enriching. She widened my acquaintance with the world of literature and art, and introduced me to a lot of “her” people, just as she was being read and loved by “my” people.
Image: While most people who read your poetry tend to view you as a poet writing about the natural world, I notice that there is often an element present of a made or crafted thing.
LS: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think you’re right. I love the process of making, of things coming into being. Which is where the word poem comes from—from poiema, that which is made.
I was with my son in Thailand a few months ago. He is a fine surgeon working for a humanitarian agency. In his spare time, he whittles spoons and other objects out of wood—knives, handles, bowls—things that are both useful and beautiful. I find this pleasurable to watch, and wrote a poem about it. I like to observe with an eye that goes beyond the surface and tries to figure out what’s happening inside. In the case of my son, I think whittling is not so much a hobby as a way of spending his time creatively outside of the clinic and the OR; I think it allows him to process things mentally. He also is a fine poet. Somehow there is a wholeness to the combination.
And the whole earth is a made thing! It bears divine fingerprints. Whoever makes a new object or entity imprints it uniquely. The made thing absorbs something of the originator’s spirit. We heard Lynn Harrell play an Elgar cello concerto one evening. As he made music, the music was making him. His whole body and soul were integral to the piece and its performance. The cello owned him; instrument and artist were one.
Image: Are there subjects that you find to be off limits?
LS: Any theme depends on how it’s treated. Both good and evil need to be depicted for what they signify, as do violence and healing, perversion and propriety. Poetry is what’s in the trash, under the rug, beyond the line of horizon. It’s the friend whose son has aids, whose daughter is marrying a loser, the lake that is stocked with farmed fish. It’s the wind walking on water, the bare prairie in winter, spider silk in sunlight. A poem is so much more than the sum of its words. What makes a work interesting is being able to watch the poet’s line of thought develop imaginatively, noting the contrast between light and shadow; metaphor is often the indirect, yet miraculous way of perceiving that.
The entire universe is waiting to be written about, welcoming, opening its doors to reflection and understanding or attempts to enter mystery, even the disturbances of violence and ugliness and falsehood and broken promises. We live in such a changing, complex, intricately formed universe. Every part of it deserves to be brought to our attention.
To grasp a fleck of that beauty and meaning, to form a symbol (a “putting together”) or parable (a “throwing together with”) and oppose it to the diabolical (“a tearing apart from”) is the task of the artist. I can present an intricate image to you and you can receive and understand a thought through your own frame of reference which, because it is specific to you, enriches it and adds a new dimension to it. Each viewer, each reader joins in the creative action by responding and adding to the human pool of perception. Although each may find her own interpretations, as human beings we have enough in common that those things are readily received.
Image: So, this bringing together of the made world and the natural world in your poetry—is it something you’ve deliberately cultivated?
LS: There is very little in the way I work that I would say is deliberate. Anything may startle me into a poem. I can’t say to myself, “This is a day to write poetry. I’m going to sit down at the computer and go at it.” I doubt if that happens to most poets. That’s not how it happens to me. On the fly, sometimes when I’m really busy with something else, I’ll be struck with an idea that wants to go somewhere. And that becomes the most important thing in the world at that moment. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but I do think the Spirit is there to suggest and hint and remind, as long as I’m open to listen. I have a tiny notebook in my purse. At the market I jot down key words to remind me what I was thinking as I shop for green peppers; if I don’t record it, it might evaporate. It’s hard to retain those fleeting images or ideas or phrases that come unbidden into my mind. But I’ve learned that paying attention to those moments is especially vital for me.
At our Episcopal church, I participate in healing prayer during Communion. Somebody may come and kneel at the altar, weeping. Often they don’t know why they’re weeping or how to verbalize it; they don’t quite know what to say, what to ask for. In this also I have learned just to trust the Holy Spirit to give me the wisdom to know how to pray. And I’m not voicing my own wisdom at such times. I feel like a sort of pipeline. It’s another way of paying attention to what is being given me from beyond me.
Image: Could you elaborate on your understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role for the artist, especially the poet?
LS: Because this is a theological mystery, we’re not meant to understand it. But we are supposed to listen and learn to recognize the work of the Spirit when it’s happening. I’ve always thought that the Holy Spirit is my muse. I like the fact that the Spirit is holy breath, and that this breath carries my ideas into words, from my mouth into the air and into someone else’s ear. Sometimes this happens during a poetry reading—there’s this freedom in speaking. But it’s not automatic. When a speech goes flat and is not quite coherent, I wonder where the Holy Spirit went.
The same applies to writing. When I’m writing something down, I’m taking something that’s flowing through me. I’m fixing it onto the screen or the page where it can keep growing. When Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his friends before his crucifixion, he promised that the Comforter would lead us into “all truth.”
The word “Comforter” also implies an advocate. In other words, the Spirit has our back and he’s propelling us in the direction in which we’re called. It is thus part of our vocation—that we learn to recognize and understand that the work of the Spirit is God’s work. I’m not trying to divide up the Trinity, but I think it’s important to realize that when Jesus came, he was the logos, the word enfleshed. When the Spirit was given, that word was freed to spread and flourish. I find my deepest spiritual joy is responding to the messages that seem to come almost from outer space, or as someone once said, “From God knows where.” I view that as the work of the Spirit. When I voice the Latin maxim Dic mihi musa (“Speak to me, muse”), I’m asking for divine help.
Image: When you start a poem, do you know where it’s going? Do you find things in your head that you didn’t know were there?
LS: I have a magnet on my file cabinet that says, Write to learn what you know. So often the physical jotting of words in a journal or on a screen is like a key opening a lock. We know more than we know. When that door is opened, we find unsuspected treasures that can become available to others in our writing. This is a mystery. Because words and ideas have been recorded for centuries, they are available to enlarge our own thinking. We can connect with the words of the great writers of the past—Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Dante, Donne—because they were written down and preserved. It is magical to realize that their ideas are still flying, reaching over hundreds of years into our lifetimes, and as we read them, their revelations are transferred into our modern minds. I just wrote a poem inspired by a saying of Tertullian, an early church father, about birds, and the cross they make with their wings when flying.
Image: Is that part of what convinces you that there is a divine element to writing? That it’s not entirely rational, this business of communicating through language?
LS: I’d almost call it super-rational. Human beings have evolved to this very high degree of consciousness and self-consciousness. Art takes this development a step further. Abstractions are wonderful but they need to be fleshed out, connected with the real, the down-to-earth, the tangible, the palpable. That’s something I think that poetry does especially well.
Of course, you may see one thing in a poem and I may see another. That is the virtue of metaphor and even of enigma. A powerful metaphor opens up a plethora of possibilities. Meaning happens. We put things together to make a mental pattern, a picture. All art communicates itself in terms that require a kind of facility for recognition in the viewer. Once again, that involves awareness, a sensitive attentiveness that can be fostered.
Image: Do you feel like that’s something you’ve been able to cultivate in different ways in different seasons of life, from times of drought to this recent outpouring of poems?
LS: I’ve had months when no poetry of consequence happened, periods when I felt dry. When the ideas stopped coming, for one reason or another; I wasn’t always sure why, though often it was when I was deeply involved in other work. I had this longing for the imaginative connections to reappear. And in good time, when I was ready for them, or when they were ready for me, they did. When I was younger I would get quite anxious about this. I didn’t want to lose the impulse, the capacity, the energy behind it.
But writing poetry has always brought such intense joy and satisfaction. I’d tasted something so delicious I wanted more. I’ve come to realize that there are seasons in writing—summer droughts and spring rains. Dorothy Sayers said that when she finished one of her Peter Wimsey novels (I think it was Gaudy Night) she felt “like God on the seventh day.” But there were six days of hard work before that. I know exactly that sense of wholeness, the joy that comes with fulfilling something that you’ve been made for.
Image: This current season has been productive, even though you have a lot on your plate.
LS: The current fruitfulness is beyond my understanding. It’s mysterious. Big changes are happening as I get older. My physical energy is being depleted. I’ve become a matriarch with an increasing tribe. After many years on the Image board, I finally kicked myself off, and I miss it and the team and being part of the splendid ongoing mission of Image. My husband and I have just moved into a new, smaller house—a major transition and the cause of some chaos as we sort and sift and pack and reorient ourselves.
But what has not changed is my need to be receptive. I find that no matter what I am reading—literary magazines or novels—or whether I am listening to the radio or watching television, something will catch my attention. I immediately go to my journal or my computer and get a few words down and then my mind just keeps receiving new words to add to that. Then of course there’s the fiddling around and crafting that goes into making those fragments into something that has a greater integrity or wholeness.
This outpouring is the way I am assured of the work of God in me, because it’s not planned. I know this doesn’t come just from me. I don’t want to sound terribly mystical or enigmatic, but this has been a very fruitful time in terms of my creative process. In the confusion of the move, often the only moments of sanity have come at my computer, experimenting with words.
This receptivity has been a rule for my life. Ever since I began writing serious poetry in college I have found that this happens to me instinctively and intuitively, this practice of noticing things, of making note of them, and then putting them together and establishing connections. I think my calling is to be attentive and to be aware. I don’t have to make myself do it; it’s become a habit.
I just read something from an article in the New York Times: “Composition is the arrangement of unequal things.” Very often those connections are between human beings and the natural creation we live in, diminutive and enormous, trivial and overarching. I do find my greatest sources of inspiration and excitement come from the natural world where such diversity is observable. And from the color green in particular. And from the seasons, both of the year and of the church. They all seem to work in harmony for me.
Photography plays into it. Practicing photography trains my eye to watch for or focus on an image that is significant or unexpected or beautiful. That attention, that sense of balance and composition can be learned, but I think it’s largely intuitive. I also think it’s important to read and to pick up other people’s ideas and test them to determine if they’re congruent with what is going on in one’s own process.
I’m using the word process a lot because it is a part of ordinary life for me, part of diurnal life. A lot of thoughts come when I first wake in the morning; I let myself lie awake in bed for maybe an hour and just ponder, particularly if I’m preparing a lecture or I’m in the middle of writing a poem. I’m just in wait mode. I feel like an open basin, waiting for a bit of rain to fall, or a fountain to drench me with ideas, and how do I prepare myself to catch the water? I keep a journal on my bedside and make notes. Most of the poems start with a couple of phrases that I recognize need to go further.
Image: It’s always struck me that you have a very good sense of the balance that you need. You are involved in a lot of things. But I also know that you vigorously defend a kind of metaphorical garret: time and space where you step aside and are quiet. How do you manage that?
LS: That morning hour in bed helps. Anyone might think, “Oh, she’s just lazy. She doesn’t want to get up.” It’s not that at all. It’s honestly a time of enrichment and enlightenment for me. To have time alone, I sometimes take long solitary car trips and tent-camp in the woods for a few days with some good reading material—fiction, poems, essays. I dream and sleep and take photographs of ferns and water and fog and leaves with light striking through them. And at night the sound of a twig or a leaf falling on the tent, or dew settling, these become small interruptions that tell me how much I value silence because it isolates individual sounds.
Image: As you enter the next stage of life, I’m curious to hear what you feel your goals are and how things are shifting for you artistically and in your life.
LS: Well, I believe for all of us it will be the way it has always been: do the next thing, whatever that turns out to be, whatever opportunities present themselves. Allow for limitations. Get picky about choices. Learn to say no, except to challenges that will strengthen and enlarge. And I think people have to be more important than ideas or things.
But goals? Maybe I’m seeing things through a kind of screen, because the things that I want to do and love doing keep showing up. I’m very fortunate that I can live like that. I have an amazingly supportive husband who is willing to let me be that way. I cook and he does the dishes. He irons his own shirts. I lie in bed in the morning and he is up early, taking care of business. He supplies me with energy when I need it. He doesn’t find it odd that I prefer writing to vacuuming.
But I do wish I could walk the way you do. When I was younger and fitter I would think iambically as I walked. I’d find phrases coming to me with a certain measured beat, that iambic beat that echoes the rhythm of the heart. Ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum. I didn’t know where the words might go, but I sensed something primal, something like seeds that are being scattered and will send up shoots and fruit and flowers, leaves. That’s what the work of art ends up being: the product of those seeds.
Image: You’ve sometimes been a critic of the way technology speeds up our lives. What do you think we’re sacrificing?
LS: Space and time and quiet for reflection—which, I think, are essential for the growth of art. There’s a sense for some people that they need to be in a rich mix of things going on all the time to galvanize them. That’s not true for me. I need a lot of time, a lot of solitude. If we could banish the fear of “wasted time” I believe a quieter, more reflective life would benefit our souls.
The fact that my husband John, in the years that we’ve been married, has been gone a portion of every month, commuting to his business in California, has been fine with me. I can just be on my own and have time to think and write. I haven’t felt deprived. In fact I’m wondering what it’s going to be like when he retires and is here all the time!
I just wrote a poem about a little piece of soap which a dear friend who makes soaps gave me as a sample. Over weeks I’d worn it down to a little sliver. John didn’t realize its meaning to me, and he dropped it in the trash. I had been watching that little sliver of soap diminish. I didn’t want to throw it away. It was like a little leaf. I asked John to go through the garbage and rescue it. Incremental changes are important to me. I think of this as “the incremental life.”
If I can draw such trivialities to your attention so that you’re more aware of the small, insignificant things that make up a larger context, maybe I’m doing some good. Not just for myself, not just for the gratification of my own mind, but I’m calling others to closer attention to the rich mix of realities that make up our lives.
Image: As you think about the next generation of writers, do you have particular hopes for them?
LS: Because our language is shifting so rapidly, my hopes for the future are not prescriptive or predictive. Language has always been a reflection of culture and trends and themes, or a response to them, but in a postmodern world, I would love to see cleaner, more harmonic structure come back into favor. More music. I think Dana Gioia is practicing that kind of prosody. It seems like an important contribution.
But I wouldn’t ever want to limit experimental work, because that’s where originality comes in. I think that it’s important to maintain a connection—a continuing connection—with the natural universe. I would like to see poetry that celebrates advances in our environmental consciousness and contributes to that and fleshes it out a bit more. Many developing poets these days are urban, and their writing reflects the busyness and distraction and complications of city living, with its harsher realities. I would love to see a more celebratory poetry.
Image: What advice would you give to a younger, newer writer about putting yourself in a place of receptivity?
LS: For any art to grow it needs to be tended to. Anything I’ve learned about writing has been because of lifelong immersion, of learning from failure as well as success. To a young person I would say: Read widely, absorb, grow your ability to listen, especially to listen to what your mind and spirit are telling you. Keep a reflective journal. I think that beginning poets tend to veer towards sentimentality; they think art is all about emotion. When you’re using words that convey generalized, fuzzy emotions you get a generalized, fuzzy poem. You don’t get a multi-layered poem of substance. I’ve sometimes said that a good poem results from both inevitability and surprise—that something has been waiting to be said, is almost foreordained, but it is said with a turn, a surprise that brings the reader a jolt of understanding.
It’s encouraging to hear young poets learning to shape their thought in language that’s not pedestrian, language that says something in a different mode from everyday speech. You want the rhythms of everyday speech in poetry, unless you’re writing very formal poetry, but you don’t want the content of everyday speech. You want to point out something singular, in a singular way.
I would like to see more poets reading their work aloud, and learning how to articulate poetry. I’ve heard too many graduate students who are pretty good writers, but they have no clue about reading their work in public. Part of it is inexperience, shyness, and self-consciousness, but another is that there’s a tendency among the young to slur the spoken language. Good poetry reading involves some drama, some pacing. Every word needs its own appropriate weight. Eye contact as well as voice contact. Language is so rich it deserves to be honored as it is presented. When the writer is moved dramatically by what she reads, that significance will communicate itself to the listener.
Image: You’ve touched on the importance of community for artists. What do you think community gives to you, and to writers?
LS: Oh, it’s essential. That’s why I so value the Glen Workshops, those annual communities of writers and artists who leap into each other’s work, who discuss and ponder and grow, both artistically and spiritually during seven intense days. You’re listening to readings together; you’re in touch with people who are working in the same field as you are. As writers we find common ground with painters and songwriters and dramatists and are exposed to a wide range of contemporary thinking and doing. And you don’t feel so alone; you’ve become a part of a family. And just like any family, there is great diversity in that togetherness. Having friends across a wide spectrum of experience and fruitfulness enlarges each participant in ways it would be hard to exaggerate.
Image: You’ve created other communities around you as well.
LS: When John and I, both widowed, were married over twenty years ago, we held monthly groups which we called Open Windows—venues for discussions on wide-ranging topics to do with faith and art—evenings in which questions as well as answers were welcome. When we moved to Bellingham we added over a hundred names to our database. Not all were church people. Not everybody came every time, but groups and individuals from our area or from Canada showed up on the third Sunday of the month.
And we covered such a wide range of subjects: literature, travel, history, music, humanitarian concerns—anything to stimulate our interest in the world of creative activity. We never ran out of good speakers or topics. It lasted at least twelve years here, and eight years before that in California. The scheduling became a bit burdensome, and we both regret having to drop it. We built up a lot of friendships that continue. Friendships that are built up around artistic pursuits and literature have, I think, a special place in the world.
Image: Do you feel at all driven by ambition at this point in your writing life? Did you ever?
LS: My view of ambition is a result of a lot of soul-searching and has to be balanced with the biblical concept of gratitude for a gift and the need for humility, a recognition that honor is to be given to God, and that to take all the credit to oneself is a kind of hubris. Yet, where would any artist be without a modicum of ambition—to do good work, to gain the respect of one’s peers, to be a model of an artist responsible to the original Artist?
Image: Is it too early for you to speculate about your legacy as a poet, a writer? Do you think about that? What would you like to see readers recognize as the shape or arc of your life’s work?
LS: Oh, it’s way too early! Only a significant span of years will allow a poet’s work to settle into the ongoing imagination of readers. Each of us leaves behind us a trail of work well or poorly done. Of course I want to do my best, for my words to carry weight, to honor the God who infused into me the calling of writing. Richard Lovelace once told me I was in the company of the metaphysical poets. That felt like a heavy mantle to wear, but I do feel a kinship with poets like Herbert and Hopkins. Is that a legacy? Others will have to be the judge of that.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.