Poetry Reading Friday, January 27 Featuring Megan Snyder-Camp and Christopher Howell

If you live in or near Whatcom County, be sure to catch Christopher Howell and Megan Snyder-Camp’s reading at the Lucia Douglas Gallery in Fairhaven (1415 13th St.) on Friday evening, January 27, at 7:00 p.m.  This event, sponsored by The Poet As Art, a branch of the Whatcom Poetry Series, is free, though a $5 donation is welcomed if you can manage it.

Here’s more information about the poets, compiled by Jim Bertolino:

Christopher Howell was born in Portland, Oregon, and grew up on an ancestral farm which the city (and Highway 205) has now completely devoured. He was enrolled in the local public schools, and later attended Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, where he began writing poems, originally as a means of understanding poems his course work required him to read. The first contemporary poet he read with complete enjoyment and understanding was W.D. Snodgrass.

He was a Navy Journalist during the Viet Nam War and afterward earned graduate degrees from Portland State University and the University of Massachusetts, where he read deeply and productively from the work of W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, and James Wright—poets of the so-called “Deep Image” school. His principal teachers included Henry Carlile, James Tate, Maxine Kumin, and Joseph Langland. He was close to the late William Stafford and learned (and continues to learn) much from him, as well.

About writing itself he has said, “Poetry, for me, is the only means of reconciling the objective, everyday world with the inner life, the ego with the self. In that reconciliation, that enactment, it seems to me very like worship: a humane and primary response. If I felt otherwise, it would not be worth doing.”

The most recent of his nine full-length collections of poems are Memory and Heaven (Eastern Washington University Press, 1996), Just Waking (Lost Horse Press, 2003), Light’s Ladder (University of Washington Press, 2004), and Dreamless and Possible: Poems New & Selected (University of Washington Press, 2010). A new collection, Gaze, will be published by Milkweed Editions in February.

He has received two National Endowment Fellowships, fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission and the Washington Artist Trust, and three Pushcart Prizes. His work has twice won the Washington State Book Award. He was director and senior editor for Eastern Washington University Press from 1998 to 2010, and for thirty-six years has been principal editor for Lynx House Press, and in 2006 was awarded the Stanley W. Lindberg Award for Editorial Excellence in recognition of this long service. 

He has taught at the University of Massachusetts, Portland State University, Colorado State University, Willamette University, The Pacific NW College of Art, Pittsburg State University (Kansas), Whitman College, Emporia State University, and, since 1996, at Eastern Washington University where he is also Director for Willow Springs Editions.

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Megan Snyder-Camp’s first collection, The Forest of Sure Things (2010), won the Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse Book Award. She has received a 2010 Individual Artist Award from Washington’s 4Culture Foundation, as well as scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Espy Foundation, Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest’s Long Term Ecological Reflections program. Her poems have appeared in the Antioch Review, Field, ZYZZYVA, the Sonora Review, the Cincinnati Review, 88, and elsewhere, and have twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has taught at the University of Washington and the Richard Hugo House in Seattle, where she lives with her family. She is the Advisory Board Chair of Seattle’s chapter of the national literacy nonprofit First Book.

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On Saturday, January 28, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Chris Howell will teach a poetry writing workshop at Egress Studio. The charge for the workshop will be $50, and participants are encouraged to register in advance by calling Jim Bertolino or Anita Boyle at 398-7870 or by sending a check made out to Whatcom Poetry Series, 5581 Noon Road, Bellingham, WA 98226. Here is Chris Howell’s description of the workshop:

“Ezra Pound said that poetry is comprised of a variable and a constant.  There are all kinds of ways of interpreting this binary assertion; in this workshop we will think of it in terms of Image and Voice, their differential, their interplay, their effect on a poem’s movement and structure. Examples of how each facet may be made to work will be followed by corresponding in-class writing assignments and discussion of the resulting poems. Sounds serious, I know, but it will be serious fun, I promise.”

I hope to see you at the reading, the workshop, or both!


Call Me, Ishmael (A Current and Proposed Reading List) (Mythology On, and Off, My Bookshelf, Part 2)

Rembrandt, "Abraham and Isaac," 1634

Lately, I find myself in the familiar territory of Genesis 22.  This is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, the beginning point, say theologians, of monotheism.  It’s the story of God “testing” Abraham’s faith by commanding him to make a burnt offering of his beloved son Isaac, and of Abraham obeying. At the last moment, an angel stops Abraham, Isaac is untied, and a ram shows up to be used as an alternative sacrificial victim.

I’ve been obsessed with this story for many years, and for a number of reasons. Most viscerally, it speaks to the small child in me who was sufficiently terrified of her own father’s rage that she feared he would kill her. Intellectually, it makes me burningly curious as to the antecedents of the three major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) whose adherents consider this their foundational narrative. And spiritually, it provides a way of tip-toeing closer to the abhorrent, parallel sacrifice at the heart of Christianity, the one in which the all-powerful Father actually goes through with the sacrifice of his beloved Son.  I suppose that by trying to understand the originating moment of the three Abrahamic faiths, I can gain some understanding of the crucial moment of the particular Abrahamic faith that I camp out in.

In fact, it was these related questions that initially propelled me, starting last year, to begin searching the ancient narratives, and the works of those who study them,  for clues as to…

  • Why God would “test” Abraham by asking him to “make a burnt offering” of Isaac
  • Why Abraham would consent to do so
  • Why Isaac would consent to be killed
  • Why God (or an angel representing Him) would stop Abraham at the last moment
  • Why a sacrificial victim (the ram) was still required to die after Isaac had been unbound
  • Why Scripture records nothing about Abraham or Isaac telling Sarah about this
  • Why Jews (who trace their heritage to Abraham through Isaac) and Muslims (who trace their heritage to Abraham through Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar, Sarah’s servant-woman) dispute which son Abraham actually offered up, competing for the honor of being the first victim sacrificed to The Lord
  • Why any person, ancient or modern, provided with a whole Mediterranean region full of other options, would choose this particular Lord to sacrifice one’s child to
  • Why this Lord must have been considered by some to be an improvement over the other deities already worshiped in the region
  • Why Christian theologians emphasize the many parallels between Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and Jesus’s sacrifice of himself, yet get themselves into astonishing doctrinal contortions attempting to explain why a just, loving God would require such sacrifice in the first place
  • Whether, given His apparently bloodthirsty and volatile nature, I can trust this God character who acts so generously towards me
  • Which of the charges on God’s rap sheet are historically accurate, and which are paranoid projections of human nature, and which are politically motivated alterations to the official record, and how I can tell the difference.

As you can see, I have a lot riding on possible answers to these questions.

As well, I’m eager to write more poetry about this fascinating, disturbing material and my conflicted relationship to it, and I’m looking for a different way in than my usual I-can’t-believe-we-believe-this-stuff approach. I’ve written numerous poems about the story of Abraham and Isaac (and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael) before, enough to make into a chapbook manuscript a couple of years ago.  This time around, I’m trying for a way to de-familiarize this story that I became so immersed in. Finding out more about what came before Yahweh (and the people who chose, momentously, to follow Him)–the gods and goddesses, their worshipers and their religious practices–is giving me a little bit of insight into the religious impulse in general, and into the specific cultures and beliefs (regarding, for example, sacrifice) that the nascent Abrahamic religions emerged from and reacted against.

I took the first steps in this project last winter, finding preliminary tidbits in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, which I wrote about here. Now that the holidays are over and my son is back in school, I’m pulling some more myth theorists off my bookshelf (and the bookshelves of some generous friends–you know who you are, and thanks!) and carrying them along as I circle back around through this thicket of questions.  In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be finishing up the three books I’ve been reading since last fall:  Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, Volume I; Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret; and Leonard Schlein’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess:  The Conflict Between Word and Image. I’ll post summaries about my eureka moments and perplexities as I continue reading each one.

If I can possibly restrain myself long enough to complete those three, the next readings I’d like to dig into are a couple of books by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire:  Reflections on Genesis and The Murmuring Deep:  Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious.  Apparently, Zornberg uses psychoanalytic theories, which warm my geek heart and stir my lit-crit soul, to interpret stories from the Hebrew Bible.

Then, I’ll move on to a couple of books I read long ago, Elaine Pagels’s Adam, Eve, and The Serpent and Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, looking at their explanations about the origins of monotheism. (Eventually, I hope to get to Volumes II and III of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, though it’s possible I may lose patience with his agenda of universalizing every local myth and practice by the time I reach the end of Volume I).

In the meantime, can you recommend any resources to add to my list? I’ll be grateful for suggestions on any books, articles, commentaries, poems, midrash, etc. you can point me toward that offer further interpretations or perspectives–especially very ancient or very current ones–on these many questions.

On Knowing versus Being “Baffled,” and Which One Is More Productive, with Sincere Thanks to Wendell Berry

I enjoy not being certain about most things. But on one burning issue, I’m impatient for clarity.  Last fall, a recurring preoccupation of mine re-recurred.  (It has to do with being horrified by the foundational narrative of monotheism; I’ll post more on this soon.) This resurfacing of an earlier issue sent me to some fascinating books on psychoanalysis, theology, language, and myth–a couple of which I’d read before, and one new to me–for some solid, or at least plausible, answers.

But then, I had the poetry reading to prepare for, and after that, the holidays were suddenly demanding my attention, and then, a visiting family member treacherously introduced me to the crime series Lie to Me, and I put my reading on hold. Consequently, having stalled in my quest for answers, I put writing about everything on hold.

Then, today, I happened on this tasty morsel from a poem by one of my favorite nature writers, Wendell Berry, that a friend had emailed me months ago:


It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

(From Wendell Berry, Collected Poems)

This lovely passage got me started again. Not on the reading–that will happen when it happens, in the slivers of time between everything else–but on writing, and particularly, blogging. I’d somehow, subliminally, talked myself into the perception that until I’ve untangled the whole knotty theological problem I’m confronting, I won’t have anything to write about it.  However, as I told my first-year writing students over and over for twenty-odd years, having everything figured out comes at the end of a writing project (if ever), not at the beginning of it. It’s in the process of writing that I can discover what I think and what I have to say.

This is, naturally, the first thing I learned in graduate school about how to teach writing:   writing is a means of discovery. How easy this principle is to forget, though, when what I’m after is an answer, an explanation, a nice, hefty chunk of certainty. But if I attain that certainty, what then? I’ll need to find a new problem to be “baffled” by, since, as Berry says, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”

As WordPress is reminding me in the lower right-hand corner of this page I’m drafting (and revising and editing and re-arranging and re-reading), “Just write.” Okay, I will.

More, and right soon,