“Poetry and the Spiritual”: A Workshop with Paul Piper

Saturday afternoon I attended a fantastic workshop with poet, librarian, and dog whisperer Paul Piper. Like the nature-writing workshop of his I took eight or nine years ago, this one, titled “Poetry and the Spiritual,” had participants reading and discussing a broad selection of sample poems. Paul, a kind and skillful leader, loosely grouped the poems into such categories as “prayer poems,” “ecstatic / love poems,” “wrestling-with- / investigating-God poems,” “apocalyptic poems,” and “encountering-the-spiritual-in-nature poems.” As you can imagine, I found this approach–and the poems, and the discussion of the poems–tantalizing and inspiring.

One poem I hadn’t encountered before, a Kwakiutl women’s prayer, especially fascinates me:

PRAYER TO THE SOCKEYE SALMON

Welcome, o Supernatural One, o Swimmer,
Who returns every year in this world
That we may live rightly, that we may be well.
I offer you, Swimmer, my heart’s deep gratitude.

I ask that you will come again,
That next year we will meet in this life,
That you will see that nothing evil should befall me.
O Supernatural One, o Swimmer,
Now I will do to you what you came here for me to do.

(From Women in Praise of the Sacred:  43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, ed. Jane Hirschfield, NY:  HarperCollins, 1984.)
I love the reciprocity of the relationship between the human and the salmon expressed here. This poem also resonates with mythologies around the world that tell of a deity who dies, feeds its people, and returns to do it all over again.

The two hours scheduled for the workshop didn’t allow time for writing exercises, so we agreed to draft poems on our own and then circulate them to each other by email. Although I write poems all the time that are spiritual, in both content and intent, I have to admit that this is turning into a surprisingly daunting assignment. Saturday evening, I did draft a poem, one I’m fairly happy with. But by Sunday morning, I realized that this poem, like most I’ve been writing the past couple of years, distances me pretty significantly from the subject of my personal faith. Instead of penning sincere expressions of my own faith / doubt / wrestling, I’ve been throwing my voice in persona poems spoken by scriptural and mythological characters, or writing ironic-voiced philosophical poems that engage theology intellectually, but not spiritually. To be sure, these pieces do fall into the capacious category of wrestling-with-God poems. Nevertheless, they reflect my hesitation to approach the subject of faith too closely.  Doubt, wrestling, skepticism:  these I’ve had a lot of experience (and fun) with in my poems. It’s the faith part I’m having trouble writing about.

Others in the workshop made great suggestions as to how to sneak up on the subject without scaring myself away. Paul described how he doesn’t set out to write a “spiritual” poem; he just works on a poem and allows his Buddhist practice and experiences of nature to influence what he writes.  J.I. Kleinberg pointed out the usefulness of humor as an approach, citing the example of a dog named Cooper who offers Sunday  “prayers” on the hilarious, poignant blog Odd, Good, True. I think these approaches will help me find some ways in to writing about, or to, Whatever It Is that I believe in.

My thanks to the folks at the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest for putting on yet another terrific writing workshop (I can’t imagine a more fitting or enjoyable way to raise funds for the contest, unless it involved chocolate), and to Paul Piper for his thoughtful, expert leadership of the session. I can’t wait to see what other participants come up with in their own poems.

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