Martha Serpas’s poetry explores the intersections of our spiritual and physical lives with our environment, specifically in the Louisiana bayous near New Orleans and Galliano where she grew up, a region marked both by natural disasters and the oil industry. Drawing on her work as a hospital trauma chaplain, she often shows how our neglect for place can influence how we experience life and death. Her body of work includes four award-winning collections: Côte Blanche (New Issues, 2002), The Dirty Side of the Storm (Norton, 2007), The Diener (LSU, 2015), and Double Effect (LSU, 2020). Her most recent book turns to personal history, injecting her poems’ usual focus on the divine and the ecological with the Cajun French language and culture of her home region. She also appears in the 2012 documentary Veins in the Gulf, in which she interviews engineers, environmentalists, and fishermen on the disappearing bayous of Louisiana. She currently teaches poetry at the University of Houston, where she completed her PhD. She also earned degrees in writing from Louisiana State University and New York University, as well as a master of divinity from Yale, where she has returned to lecture on theology and poetics. She was interviewed by William Littlejohn-Oram.
Image: Your poems often engage with this idea of “double effect,” which is Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine that an action may still be morally permissible even if it has a negative, unintentional secondary effect—killing someone in self-defense being his main example. And Double Effect is the title of your most recent collection, in which you apply this notion to humanity’s effect on the environment, and also to your own story. Can you talk about wrestling with this idea as you wrote this book?
Martha Serpas: I came to understand double effect not through the example of self-defense but through what medical ethicists call the “last morphine dose.” When a patient is dying, there will come a time when there is no other way to relieve the pain except morphine, even though you know morphine will hasten death. Since your goal is not to bring death on but to relieve pain, administering the morphine is the morally permissible action you should take. The conditions Aquinas laid out are still relevant in medical ethics. They can help us decide when an action is acceptable. Simply put, the good of your action must be primary and must outweigh the negative effect. Aquinas offers a whole series of additional questions to help us determine the right action. Is there any other option? Is the goal to save one’s life, not to take the other life? Augustine did not find killing in self-defense morally justifiable, but Aquinas did.
In writing those poems, I thought of the ways, loosely, that double effect plays a role in the environment. For example, in an early draft there was a preface about how wind both increases coastal erosion and works against it. It increases the loss of sediment, but by combing out dead grass, it also encourages new growth, which holds the soil together. I also thought of the double effects in my own life. For example, mood disorders are associated with greater creativity. Maternal deprivation is painful and tragic, yet it incites more self-reliance and autonomy.
Image: You were raised in the world of Cajun Catholicism, which has its own language and culture. How does that relate to your writing?
MS: Catholicism is syncretic, for good and for ill. Where Catholicism shows up, it tends to incorporate local culture and indigenous belief systems. And so, it has its own double effect. In one way, religious imposition is a tool of colonialization. In another, it preserves local culture that could have been completely wiped out by the invasion. That’s true in Cajun culture, through French and Spanish Catholicism (the Spanish had their time ruling in Louisiana also). Cajun Catholicism is very practice-oriented, very sacramental, not doctrinal. And family is at the center of Cajun culture and church life.
Cajun Catholicism has an interesting history. For example, in the early settlements, there weren’t many resident priests. Priests would ride through the parishes on a circuit, performing marriages, saying Mass, doing whatever was needed. In the long lapses between these visits, women would often say Mass. It wasn’t considered a sacrament, but the people came to see the practice as their worship. You’d go to la Messe Blanche de Madame LeBlanc—at Madame LeBlanc’s house—and she would say the liturgy so that, when the priest came, everybody would remember the prayers. Historically, Cajun Catholicism is a female-led religion on a grassroots level, and it remains female led with respect to sacramental preparation, catechism, et cetera.
As for language, I’m fascinated by the Cajun language. I did not grow up speaking French per se, but I would sprinkle my English with French and with Cajunisms, which are translations of Old French into English. Cajun French, or more properly Louisiana French, didn’t develop in the same way the French language did elsewhere in the world. And now, there are great efforts to preserve it. When I’m home, I speak with an accent and sprinkle my English with Cajun French again, and so do the people I’m with. In this newest collection, I really wanted to honor what I consider my native tongue.
Image: Fascinating. Are there are a couple of examples you might highlight?
MS: If we are riding in a car together and stop at a store, I might ask if you want to “get down,” which means get out of the car and go into the store. This phrase is a holdover from the French for getting down from a carriage. Please understand that Cajun French is a mostly oral language. I saw the words in my head spelled as I heard them. For example, I heard “blesséd,” which means wounded, as “blazéd,” which I thought meant stoned, as from smoking pot. I thought blazéd must come from “lit.” I just learned that what I wrote in the poem “La Pélican dans Sa Piété” is technically wrong—blazéd for stoned—but I couldn’t write “blesséd” and expect anyone to hear or picture anything but grace. Sometimes these mistakes in usage or diction turn out to be fortuitous for poems. Another example: “honte” means embarrassed. I would never spell it that way because I picture “haunt”: “Y’all, I was so haunt!”
Image: Are there poets who have influenced you the way Cajun Catholicism has—poets whose work you’ve absorbed at a deep level? Who have shown you how to appropriate language like this?
MS: Influence is a curious thing. Some people will tell you they continue to be influenced throughout their careers. I feel imprinted by Yeats, by Anne Sexton, by Elizabeth Bishop, but I also feel that shaping is closed now. I’ve been inspired by everyone from Donne to Whitman to Louise Glück to Franz Wright. I can’t say a current poet has helped me work from my Cajun language. C.D. Wright might have, as she incorporates her own regional dialect, but she didn’t for some reason. I feel somewhat out on my own with English that is also French, and French spoken in English.
Image: For poets who bring other languages into our English poetry, there seems to be a tiptoeing between how much of the other language we include and how much remains in English or gets translated. Have you thought about whether there is a double effect in trying to blend languages in a poem?
MS: That’s a great question. I hope to get more and more comfortable with that fusion. The language of my formal education, especially my higher education, is part of my personal dialect. There are many of what we used to call twenty-five-cent words, even jargon, that I am utterly taken with—because of how the words sound and what they mean: soteriology, hermeneutic, apokatastasis.
Etymology is also a catalyst for me. I’ll give an example that’s got my attention right now: “encounter.” We’re trying, in medicine, to get away from military language. One “battles” cancer. Something “invades” your body. You “fight” a disease. These connote violence and war, especially unhelpful when that “fight” seems lost. The word “encounter” has a vestige of being adversarial, even though we don’t always use it that way. I think you would agree that “I encountered this man on the subway” creates different expectations about what happened than “I met this man on the subway.” In the medical field, people talk about a “patient encounter.” I’d like to see that evolve into something like a “patient interaction.” Both words have a sense of coming together, but “interaction” sounds more intentional, connotes more agency, and has a certain equality.
Another overused word that bothers me is “interrogate.” “We’re going to interrogate the relationship between this and this.” According to the OED, to interrogate is to “ask questions closely, aggressively, or formally,” and it comes from the late fifteenth century. It developed to connote questioning by police, and I think it’s still got an echo of aggression. It’s about asking questions with a particular outcome already supposed. I much prefer “inquiry.”
I’m really taken by these kinds of things—etymology, very specific language for flora or fauna. And I’m also taken with Cajunisms. Sometimes it does feel like straddling two worlds. The double effect may be the good of preserving and recognizing a language, its use in getting at truth, and the extra consciousness required in my efforts at composition, which inhibits the direct writing of the poem.
Image: You’ve been a hospital trauma chaplain for fifteen years. Could you tell us about that work?
MS: I was drawn to chaplaincy when I was in divinity school, I but didn’t have the time to pursue it until more than a decade later. I began part-time clinical pastoral education in 2007, and after seven years I completed my training and continued to practice at Tampa General Hospital, a major trauma center and safety-net hospital. The chaplaincy program there is unique: we are part of the trauma team and also respond to calls in every unit of the hospital. I was responsible for identifying patients, contacting family, arranging body viewings, attending life support withdrawal—I was involved in all facets of care. I learned that the job of a chaplain is not to comfort but to accompany people into their pain so they can begin to heal. I still go back to Tampa General when I can. The level of trust the program has earned enables chaplains to work with every team in the hospital.
Image: How has your work as a chaplain influenced you as a poet?
MS: “Hirudo Medicinalis,” from my collection The Diener, is a direct treatment of how the chaplain-patient interaction is like writing a poem. I also have an essay about perichoresis (the dance of the three persons of the Trinity) and this subject [see Image issue 75]. I think, more than anything, the present-tenseness of chaplaincy has really strengthened the present-tenseness of my poetry, and vice versa. There’s very little you can do to prepare for a patient or family interaction. It’s like every interaction before the current one is a muscle being stretched for whatever you might be about to hear or feel next. I think that’s true of both reading and writing poetry too—the intensity of it, the importance of being open to uncertainty. Becoming involved in a poem, allowing the lines to unfold, not knowing if there’s going to be a surprise, a turn, or deepening—this is very similar to being with a patient or family when I don’t have all the answers. Part of my job is to sit with them in uncertainty. It’s a big white space. The line is completed, but the patient or family and I have to hang in that white space of the moment, whether in the waiting room or the silences of extreme emotion or pain.
Image: Has this changed your outlook on everyday life—not just as a poet but personally?
MS: A patient visit is like a composition. The room is a blank page. I have to be receptive, to be open to what the patient and I create. The language of pain, of grief, of illness is peculiar to each person, and I’ve tried very hard to become a better listener. Listening—and obeying what I hear—is a step toward compassion and a requirement of poetry.
Chaplaincy is emotionally intense. There’s a lot of adrenaline involved. One minute you could be charting in an office, and the next your pager might say, “GSW 8 YOM ETA 2 MIN” (gunshot wound, eight-year-old male, arriving in two minutes). And that’s it. You have to be ready to grab a clipboard and go to the trauma bay and open yourself to the tragedy coming in. We know, though, that being cognizant of death helps us experience life more fully, like monks who meditate on skulls each morning. For a hospital chaplain, being around intense emotion, death, and sickness is a gift that comes with the position. Practicing keeps me cognizant of the fragility of each breath.
Image: You’ve talked about how Louis Simpson says a poet should try every day to be a poet, even if that means just sitting there and scratching your stomach. Poetry allows for silence, for as much time as it takes to find the right image. But chaplains don’t have that luxury. Have there been moments when you didn’t know what to say?
MS: I tend to have the opposite problem. I think I have the answers. If you come in with problem X, I suddenly believe it’s my job to solve that problem, which in chaplaincy is a particularly bad idea. Much of chaplaincy is learning to listen while staying in what you feel, as you help someone process or heal. I think “process” is too much about the head, and “heal” too much about the spirit, and a chaplain tries to deal with both, but we’ll go with “heal.” One of my teachers said that chaplaincy is like lancing a boil. It’s disgusting, but it’s guiding people to their hurt so they can heal.
I have to be careful how I answer some patients, because I don’t want to lie to them, but I also don’t want to spend time on my life or my agenda. I once saw an Irish woman of advanced age who was wearing a “Happy Birthday” crown. Her family had visited her earlier that day. She asked if I was married, and I said I’d lived with a woman for many years. I often hesitate over that question. Would an honest answer hinder our conversation? Would lying be better? Then she told me this story of falling in love with another woman in Ireland. And I realized her family didn’t know about this part of her life, and that sharing those memories was a gift for her. I was so happy I had answered the way I did. She may not have told me that story otherwise.
Another time, the diener (the morgue worker who cares for the corpse) had set up a body viewing, and I went in with a young woman to see the body of a very young man. She said she was his sister, but I knew as soon as she put her hand on his chest that she wasn’t his sister. She asked me if I believed in resurrection. I felt, in that moment, that I couldn’t deflect the question back to her. I had to answer. So I said something along the lines of, “I believe there’s life for all of us after this with God.” But she said, “No, I mean like Lazarus.” And I had nothing for her. It broke my heart. So I just stayed with her while she cried. We prayed in the end. It was brutal. It was awful. He was so young.
I used to have trouble praying for God’s intercession. Then I got over my own intellectual need for things to make sense. Now, I’m a rote pray-er, a scripted Catholic who can pray like a Pentecostal at any moment. In a prayer, metaphor is irrelevant and also vital. Theology too. Nothing depends on what my prayer sounds like, and everything depends on what my prayer sounds like.
Image: These different modes of prayer that you’re calling Catholic and Pentecostal—is that just a difference between scripted and extemporaneous prayer? Or is there more to the distinction for you? Are these two different ways of relating to language?
MS: Consider the rosary and Hindu chant. How different are those really? Both focus the mind to quiet it. Much Catholic prayer is rote. One understands the words and also loses them in a loss of cognition that enables metaphysical union. The sign of the cross is physical, instinctual. Much Pentecostal prayer is extemporaneous, intense prayer. It is physical, instinctual. I had trouble with extemporaneous prayer less because of my Catholicism and more because I spend my days focusing on the meaning of words. Tone trumps content. With the right cadence, you can recite Whitman or speak the lyrics to a song and achieve a higher awareness. Prayer sounds like prayer. Your questions are reminding me to practice what I teach my students: forget the words and follow the music.
Image: How have you seen prayer and poetry as related?
MS: Thinking about prayer and poetry as absolute, unmixed attention, after Simone Weil, is very useful. A lot has been said about awareness and openness. My response is simple. Writing poetry is the most genuine prayer I can offer. It’s the only time I lose track of ego and self. I’m sure you know. You look up and you’ve been working with one line for three hours! The poem itself, for me, is an icon, a monstrance that one is absorbed by and can transcend through. It’s a praxis. The lines are like rosary beads. Meditative attention to each one quiets the mind.
Image: Could we explore this idea of a poem as an icon or a monstrance? How do you know when your own poetry is functioning in this way? And do you see other poets who achieve this?
MS: To regard, to venerate, is to be willing to rest in awe. To gaze. The poem, as it is being conceived and written, is both the vessel and the focus of my awe. This is why, in a poem like “Hirudo Medicinalis,” I consider the hearer, the poem, and me (like the patient, the interaction, and me) to be in communion. In some form of transubstantiation, the poem is this mysterious perichoresis and is part of that perichoresis. See? The words are interesting but are also inadequate and absurd in light of the sublime experience of a real poetic communion.
Image: In Dirty Side of the Storm, as well as some of your other books, you’ve mentioned your efforts toward the conservation of the Louisiana bayou. What roles or responsibilities do poets take on in relation to the environments in which we live? Do we owe anything to our environments?
MS: First of all, I’ll quote Richard Hugo, who said, “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.” I don’t think a poet owes anybody anything, and it can be problematic to proceed otherwise. (Unless, of course, she owes everyone everything in a holistic sort of way.) I’ve had students come into my office and say, “I want to write about X because I should write about X.” But how are you going to be taken over by the spirit if you’re forcing it for some religious, political, or social reason?
With respect to conservation, let me give you an example. The oil industry, which is responsible for so much damage to the marsh (which they were contractually obligated to provide reparations for, and to repair the effects of their drilling, and that never happened), has abandoned all these drilling platforms across the gulf. Now those platforms provide artificial reefs, which is a good thing for biodiversity, but there’s still all that damage—a double effect.
The oil industry is destructive, but there is a counterpoint: had it not come to my part of Louisiana, I don’t think the culture there would’ve survived. Economically those cultures were built on trapping, which has disappeared, and trawling, shrimping, and fishing, which have lessened. Today, I don’t think those industries could have supported the community. Oil brought jobs—and mostly jobs where men could work something like seven days on and seven days off, allowing them to be home more often with their kids, picking them up from school or taking them fishing. In a culture that values family, that was a huge benefit to the generations of this place.
So the idea that the oil industry is just ecologically evil and all about money and has brought zero benefit is just not true. Now, whether the trade-off is worth it, whether the industry’s actions would qualify as a morally acceptable double effect according to Aquinas, I couldn’t sign off on that. But nothing is ever wholly one thing or another.
Image: Have you found ways of giving back to the natural world?
MS: I still look to Dirty Side of the Storm as my way of doing that. That book was pre-chaplaincy. I had written poems like “The Water,” “A Psalm at High Tide,” and “A Corollary” because the last poems in Côte Blanche were heading toward this loss of home, only I didn’t see it. In the best work that’s what happens. Something comes out, and before I know it it’s shown up in the newer work. After Katrina, I had all sorts of mixed feelings about my place and my work’s place. And a dear friend said, look, if you don’t write these poems, and even one person who might have read them and become more environmentally aware, and more aware of this culture and its sacrifices, doesn’t read them, that will be a great loss.
I hope the poems had some positive effect toward the recognition of my region—and through that, some consideration of the inextricable nature of good and ill. The poem “La Pélican dans sa Piété” in Double Effect merges the idea of maternal deprivation with the environment, and I hope it does more than just this. On the Louisiana state flag is the image of a mother pelican pecking her chest—we can talk about how that’s not anatomically possible—and feeding her chicks with her own blood. I feel like that’s Louisiana and the rest of the hungry nation. We’re damaged, because we’ve destroyed our environment to feed the rest of the nation’s hunger for oil.
Image: Your poems are ethically serious, but they also often have a feeling of revelry. Where do you find the line between poetry as a high calling and poetry as a sort of game? Or do you see such a line?
MS: It’s funny you say “game.” When I hear that, I think about how I want to read poetry that’s ahead of the game. This is a huge spiritual ask that societies make of poets, that they show us the future. But if it’s not worth seeing ahead to where you want to go, even if maybe you won’t ever get there, then what’s the point? I want to read poetry that’s about where I want to be and what I want to understand. I don’t want to reflect on right now without that right end. It’s fine, more than fine, if writing about the present is the calling of some poets and what some readers want. It’s important and necessary. But I want to read poetry that tries to push me past the momentary problem—especially when the solution seems impossible—and imagines what wholeness might look like.
Writing about wholeness certainly entails writing about fracture. But I want to be pushed to wholeness. That might be called epiphanic, but such poems are not always epiphanic, offering that sudden flash of revelation. Some poets and readers, you know, reject the epiphanic as always being an easy reach for closure. I don’t see it that way. In any case, I think writing toward wholeness is sometimes the opposite of epiphanic—in the same way that chaplains guide us through pain to restore or rediscover wholeness. There may be a steady, quiet determination in a poem toward some healing recognition without a sudden turn toward it.
I want to be ahead of the game, or try to be, even though it’s impossible. And I want to read poetry that’s trying to be ahead of the game.
Image: The end of Double Effect focuses on the speaker’s returning home, whether it’s returning to the language of childhood or being reclaimed by the natural world. Where is home for you? Is it a landscape? A language? Something more?
MS: That will probably be the chase of my entire life. Augustine says something like, our hearts are restless until we rest in God. I’m still trying to figure out where home is, and maybe that’s one of my motivations as a poet. But certainly the landscape I grew up in is part of that home, could be all of that home. The last poem in the new book, “There Was No One Thing in the World That She Desired” (a line from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), certainly could be my returning home. In fact, when I finished editing, I thought the book had gone in a completely different direction, about my not having children. “Beautiful birds, / they will never have broken wings.” I didn’t think readers would ever pick that up, but it might’ve been the impetus for several pieces. The poems themselves ended up somewhere I hadn’t anticipated.
Image: For me, the new poems have an air of hope about them. There’s a sense of reveling in life while we have it, of hope in language, the natural world, and the human spirit. So, I wonder—do you remain hopeful?
MS: I truly don’t know how to answer that. The only thing that comes to mind is that I think I write best when I write prospectively. The poems about my mother were written before she died. I could be wrong, but I doubt I’ll write poems about her now.
When I was a student, one of my professors said that in my work, “the living are in exile, not the dead.” I’ve appreciated that over the years, and I’ve continued to think about it while I write. Certainly I’d have to credit my Catholicism for that. Catholicism is wonderfully paradoxical. It says, “This is how it is” and “We don’t know how it is.” And I love that. One gets some guidance to meditate on, and then one must rely on the primacy of one’s own conscience.
Image: Can you tell us about what you’re working on these days, where you see your work headed?
MS: I was writing a long work about Grand Isle, the setting of The Awakening and a place of myth and memory from my childhood. A few years ago, I bought a very humble cabin on the beach there. Elevated eight feet and not even nine hundred square feet. It was built in the fifties and later moved to the lot and dropped at an angle to the beach so that two walls of windows looked out over the gulf. It was my private chapel, where I contemplated my gulf and all its paradoxes and complexities, my childhood, my family, my faith. Well, Hurricane Ida blew it away, blew it five hundred feet off its pilings. So home goes back to being a verb for me, like God. No more worldly idol to a local god.
Ida destroyed most of my hometown—the storm scraped fifty-five miles of coastline for over five or six hours. The news cycle has moved on, as it does, but the people there are still trying to live without power or water, are trying to clean up mud, repair roofs and walls and flooded rooms. The roads themselves were damaged, not just blocked by debris but needing serious repair. I will continue to go back to see what the double effect is. I see nothing life-giving yet, but I know it’s there in the mud, in the gulf, in the language, in the people.