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Ultimate Concerns: Interview with Paul Oakley

May 29, 2010

Ultimate Concerns

An Interview with Paul Oakley

“I write poetry, yes, because I love language art on purely aesthetic grounds but also because poetry (in its broad as well as specific senses) provides the only possibility of saying something meaningful about the Ultimate.”

Paul Oakley was a familiar name in the Read Write Poem online community. We Write Poems decided to put Paul into our interrogative room. (Shhh…in case you’re wondering, it’s just a room we put people in so we can force them to talk about themselves and their poems.)

Paul, were you back recently from some kind of seminarian retreat?

I was in Chicago for intensive classes. My seminary is in Chicago, but its program has been redesigned for distance learners like me, who are now in the majority. In addition to online work, directed activity in the community and in the congregation, and lots of phone conferences, at various times through the year seminarians from across the US and Canada converge on the seminary for intensive classes. Each class requires a full semester’s worth of graduate-level work while concentrating all the seminar hours together into a single week. All you’ve got is focused into one single thing till it’s coming out your pores. It’s an amazing way to learn and grow – and exhausting!

How did you come to be in this vocation if I may ask?

I grew up in a perhaps overly religious family and felt the call as a pre-teen. My older cousins all assumed I would be a minister (in the American sense of the word). But life unfolded differently than I expected, and the call looked very remote for many years. In fact, I spent two decades completely estranged from organized religion. Five years ago I moved to a new town and joined a fellowship that was just beginning. Then, after just five months, the primary organizer and donor was murdered. That forced me to choose between two paths: either pull back and forget about it or commit to the survival and growth of this new congregation. I chose the latter, and the rest, as they say…

How does your vocation as a seminarian influence your poetics? It seems to me that you tackle the theme of God but do it in such a subtle, not too explicit way.

Part of the seminary experience is intense introspection and self-examination. Another major part involves everything – and I do mean everything – being fuel for intense theological reflection. Sometimes it’s like therapy on steroids. Pass the tissues! There’s always a lot of stuff churning through your mind and emotions, and that’s very good for a writer.

I do tackle God themes – with license, of course because, like a rolled canvas, every truth has to be stretched and reframed for each new audience. In my poem “Etcetera Aretecte“, I play with the notion that every human notion of God is inadequate. So I propose finding God in the something more symbolized in the conjunction “and” joining those inadequate names:

Our blind eyes twitch and flutter,
vainly looking for something more,
but touch with fingertips
unaccustomed dots,
feel with stubborn hands
inadequate names of God
conjoined by an adequate conjunction.

With the indictment we hear a sacred word:

That poem was built on the back of an exchange of poems with Neil Reid, whose initiative started We Write Poems. My poem that he responded to was titled “And“. In it I pondered the relationship between the scientific Big Bang and the orthodox Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo:

with no one to watch it
if it had an observer
say, some intersex savior
it would be everything at once

Oh yea, I remember that poem. Coming back to “the notion that every human notion of God is inadequate,” I find that an interesting approach. Paul, as a man of God, do you struggle with a lot with how one can possibly believe in a God? Do you perhaps see writing poems as a way to come to terms with believing in God?

You ask the hard ones! Well, first off, I’m a religious liberal. I do not believe it is necessary to believe the literal truth of a narrative for it to do its redemptive work. The question of who or what is God has frustrated some and rewarded others for as long as humans have had a God-concept. I believe that all the arts originated and still thrive in the play of rearranging aspects of reality as we know it to touch on what we can otherwise only feel but never understand. What reality pre-existed human ability to sculpt a Venus of Willendorf or statue of Baal? Before we could compose a hymn to the sun? Before the Code of Hammurabi or the Ten Commandments? Before Christian creeds or the Yigdal? It was probably dance where the divine was first expressed, without a clear theology – only experiential reality unmitigated by language. All the arts seek both to touch the untouchable and say the unsayable, to take us back to that direct but inexpressible experience at the dawn of human consciousness. Back to God.

If we look at God as symbolizing the ultimate source and destination of reality rather than as merely a superhero from a set of revered ancient texts whose stories still shape our culture, then we can realize just how little we can say in expository human language about God. If we conceive of God as pre-existing creation, what sense does it make to portray God always and only as male? Sex and gender are part of the created order our myths tell us came from nothingness. The Judeo-Christian tradition, emerging in times of patriarchy, naturally saw as male such power as God represents. But life forms without sexual reproduction are also part of the created order, as is the far more prevalent presence of the only metaphorically living cosmos of stars and galaxies. Why should not God be seen by a cat as a special type of cat; by a rock as a rock, and so forth? If all creation, not just humanity, can be spoken of as “in the image of God,” as I believe it can, then it is amazingly artificial, even so partial as to be false, to conceive of God as (only) male or human-like.

God or the divine makes frequent appearances in my poems, but s/he doesn’t look like the bearded man on the Sistine Chapel ceiling or sound like the voice in the movie Exodus. S/he works with the doubts and inadequacies we know in the 21st century. In “Tetragrammaton“, I used a very abstract style for presenting this greatest abstraction of all.

In “Enlightenment“, I use the Tower of Babel story, repositioned in the story of industrial America, to reach the denouement:

Then one morning God bursts through
the shattered glass illuminating
unhabitable, broken emptiness…

Maybe it was day.

Heterodox” uses the tool of an irreverent style to look seriously at ways a variety of people who saw themselves as Christian defined Christ, ending with the main persona pleading to be allowed just to love Jesus without any of the defining narratives.

Who are your poetic influences?

Walt Whitman is at the top of the list. Then vying for second place are TS Eliot, William Blake, BH Fairchild, Mary Oliver, and Allen Ginsberg.

Any books that are seminal to the way you write poetry?

Definitely the Bible. The Bible provides stories where those steeped in “Western” civilization can make meaning in communication with those who went before. But more recent and in addition to the poets I mentioned earlier, three plays constantly inform everything I do: Peter Shaffer’s The Gift of the Gorgon, Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, and Eric Overmeyer’s On the Verge, or the Geography of Yearning. And one abstruse and lovely academic text informs my poetry in twisted and satisfying ways: Aidan Kavanagh’s On Liturgical Theology.

Do you tend to make allusions to Biblical and other myths in your poems? Can you elaborate about this aspect of your writing?

It’s not overt in every poem, but it is a frequent feature. For example, my poem “Angels and Samaritans” is almost totally constructed on extended allusions to biblical accounts of angels and on the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” “Foundational Myths” uses eight Bible narratives to count down to the New Year. The poems “Jezebel” and “Still Life with Yael and Sisera” both center entirely on the reframing and retelling each of a single Bible narrative. In “Death by Drowning“, on the other hand, my allusions are to pop culture and TS Eliot, and I only make a single short biblical allusion in the last couple of lines. As I mentioned earlier, the Bible stories provide a space where we can make meaning cooperatively with generations long gone. But anything that I and my readers can share on some level is also a locus for meaning-making mediated by our shared culture, including allusions to Greek and Roman mythology or any other set of myths that provide sufficient cultural traction. So long as they interest me. And I freely engage in creative mythology for poetic purposes, as in “Apostrophe“, which presents itself as a prayer to the moon, with creative mythic references to the relationship of moon to humanity.

There’s also a familial thread in some of your poems. Would you care to share about your family background and how it’s crept into your poems?

My recent poem, “Sotto Voce“, in a fairly prosy, story-telling style, tells the story of my mother’s embarrassment in telling about her great-great grandfather’s coming to America as a stowaway. I have written about a childhood memory of an extended family Thanksgiving gathering in “Chantilly” and about my relationship with my mother in “Lines written in my 50th year“. I mentioned earlier growing up in a perhaps too religious family. That experience makes everything to do with family fraught with tension and contradiction. Not that this experience of family is unique. It’s just mine. My parents were strict; the extended family a source of love and comfort. It was a wonderful childhood. But not just (pun intended).

I grew up knowing two of my great grandparents, and then over the course of about six years lost them, my maternal grandfather, and my paternal grandmother to heart disease, leukemia, brain cancer, and stroke. So in combination with all the funerals of church members that my parents took me to for as far back as my memory goes, I experienced several close family funerals before reaching high school. Death and I go way back. Indeed, my earliest memory is of the funeral of another great grandparent of whom I have no living memories. It has an effect…

I have not written poems about or using material about my three grown daughters, my sons-in-law, or my grandchildren. I love them dearly, but the relationships are complicated. Right now that’s just not where I go for material for my poetry. And when I write about my partner of nearly 25 years, I do so in prose, not poetry…

What do you think personally is your greatest passion – God or poetry – or is it more a happy cross fertilisation of the two?

My greatest passion is what we might call “The Ultimate” or “Ultimate Concerns,” for which we can comfortably use the vernacular “God.” But how can you talk about someone or something so completely Other? The only way is poetry. Theology that is worth its salt is poetic in its imagery and presentation, it is creative and builds an aesthetic reality people can comprehend and use. I write poetry, yes, because I love language art on purely aesthetic grounds but also because poetry (in its broad as well as specific senses) provides the only possibility of saying something meaningful about the Ultimate. Whether you write about sex, death, God, birth, nature, science, family or boxes, poetry that resonates with people always touches on the divine, whether intentionally or not.

You’ve also started a new blog. Would you like to talk about that?

Thanks for asking. It is the kind of blog that will appeal to only a small portion of the people who frequent my main blog, Inner Light, Radiant Life, so it made sense to give it its own space. I named it Night Prayers, and I intend, slowly over time, to use it to explore the Liturgy of the Hours. This is the seven (or eight) daily services that punctuate the Catholic monastic day and in usually abbreviated form, the life of various other churches, spiritual communities, and individuals. I first became interested in this traditional liturgy last spring on a trip to Ireland, where I attended Evensong in Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and in Christ Church Cathedral. My poetry will continue to be located at Inner Light, Radiant Life.

Paul Kent Oakley has lived most of his life in small-town and rural southern and east-central Illinois. However, he has also had the opportunity to live in: West Germany before the Berlin Wall fell; Communist Romania in the last year of Nicolai Ceauşescu’s dictatorship; Japan before its economic crisis; Jordan, when you still needed a second passport to go there if your first one held an entrance visa from Israel; and the New Jersey suburbs of New York City. He has had the great good fortune to travel widely in Europe, the Middle East, and Japan. He has degrees in French, English, Japan Studies, and Accounting and pursued a doctoral program in Comparative Literature for three years before thinking better of it. Paul is religious but does not believe it is necessary for everyone to be so. He is a seminarian training for ministry in a liberal denomination but also loves seeing the way people in different traditions make or express meaning, celebrate life, and commune with the Ultimate, both as religious and non-religious people. Paul lives with his partner and two big dogs in southern Illinois in a town of 16,000 people with not much but agriculture around it.

  1. May 29, 2010 8:34 am

    Thanks so much for the interview with Paul, whom I have met on my journeys around the “prompt circuit.” My husband was formerly Catholic, but left because of the church’s treatment of his lesbian sister – he was actually in formation for the priesthood! Now he is a pastor in the UCC, and our spiritual life is very much attuned with our life in general.

    Paul’s pool of experience, along with his abiding faith, have given us all a wealth of thoughtful, beautiful poetry. His work is unique. He makes you consider what it means to be not just a human being on this planet, but who you are in relation to The Big Picture, the universe.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to get to know my new friend even better! I close with a prayer for solidarity of all humanity, that we may understand we are all worthy – entitled to the same rights, including freedom from oppression, the freedom to marry, and freedom from war.

    Amy Barlow Liberatore AKA Sharp Little Pencil

    • Irene permalink*
      May 29, 2010 3:55 pm

      Thanks so much Amy for your sharing. Much appreciated. I learnt much from this interview. It is illuminating and in the way the thought that poetry as a way of expressing the divine is comforting to me. As is the religious liberal perspective.

      It makes me feel that the writing of poems is an important expression of who we are in relation to the universe. As is said by the American poet Ruth Stone: “Our writing comes out of the totality of what we are. Writing is the only interaction I have with the Universe.”

      I believe online poets find something of worth by being part of a virtual community, for the interactivity and encouragement that comes from without giving meaning to the work that comes from within.

      A public note of thanks, Paul, for such superb sharing and for your generous presence in the online poetic community.

      • May 31, 2010 7:40 pm

        Irene, thanks right back at you for conducting and posting this interview.

        The first poetic community I joined was Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides, and the closeness I have felt across miles, even oceans, has sparked me emotionally and creatively, as well as spiritually. The Internet is so much more than people give it a chance to be in their lives… so much beauty, cooperation, and love.

        Peace, Amy

  2. May 29, 2010 1:07 pm

    what a great interview with Paul…from his comments to my poems and others..I kind of felt this is where Paul is coming from…and i must say he is coming from a wonderful place….and I admire it….as an agnostic with more questions than answers I can truly relate….anyways I do not have much to say….Paul said so much…Thanks for this

    • Irene permalink*
      May 29, 2010 3:58 pm

      Wayne, thanks for leaving a note, and I also think the place where Paul is coming from is wonderful.

  3. May 30, 2010 12:14 pm

    Great interview! Good, interesting ideas.

  4. May 30, 2010 3:04 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful interview. Paul, it is nice to get to know you better. I have enjoyed reading your work!

  5. May 30, 2010 9:20 pm

    Glad to read such a spread of yourself, Paul. It’s fun to read how people with a strong faith and call to writing find the two aspects of themselves working together. A really engaging read.

  6. May 30, 2010 11:10 pm

    Thanks for this interview. Paul — directly to you — I was cautious when I happened upon your site for a number of personal reasons. But, I have been smitten by your poetry, as I would be smitten by any philosophy and mind so well versed in life and faith that it comes through your work as natural as breathing. Your poetry gives me an opportunity to take in that breath for a moment like I would try on a coat just to see if it fits. While the sleeve might be too short, the shoulder not quite right, I still enjoy the beauty of the cloth, the skill of the tailor. And, you teach me that it is possible for someone to have your faith and still respect others…no, you never said that. Your poetry says it. Thank you.

    • May 31, 2010 7:44 pm

      Linda, that comment about the clothing is so YOU! And speaking as “the preacher’s wife,” you know that I’m as saucy as the next girl. Isn’t it amazing the levels of soulfulness we each are capable of reaching, without thinking twice about our particular spiritual path or labeling anything?

      One of the finest painters I ever met said he was atheist. I have no reason to doubt him, nor did I appreciate his art any less. We’re all on this journey together, and Paul is the type of poet who shines a loving light on that fact.

  7. June 1, 2010 11:18 am

    I want to thank Irene for the care and sensitivity she put into crafting this interview. I hesitated at the idea of being interviewed because, just the same way we want our “real-world” work to be evaluated on its merits and not on the basis of some negative or positive personal feeling the boss may have toward us, I hope that my poetry either stands or falls on its own merits. But I was quite pleased with the direction this interview went. Thanks, Irene!

    Linda, you’re welcome to try on anything you want in my closet with never an expectation that you take anything home with you – unless it really is the right fit and truly to your taste. Thank you for giving me a chance despite your initial trepidation.

    Amy, I thank you for your words of appreciation and join you in your prayer.

    Wayne, Joyce, Mary, and Peter – thanks so much for your support and kind words.

    Our online community is very important to me. I appreciate you all.

    • Irene permalink*
      June 1, 2010 6:22 pm

      It was such a pleasure interviewing you Paul *wink*. I’m one of those who’s fascinated by the poet behind the poems and I suspect now I’m not the only one. None of that new criticism stuff I was taught. Formalism is fine and valid, but I think author and context can be usefully brought to bear on the form and the reading of a poem. The meta narrative interests me.

      I want to encourage others in the online poetic community to contribute to WWP by taking time to write and submit work that discusses poets and poems. It’s part of sharing. Email to the Article Suggestion tab on the left column.

  8. June 1, 2010 1:06 pm

    Thank you, Irene for this wonderful interview and thank you Paul for sharing the delightful person behind the poems I’ve been reading since day 1 of NaPoWriMo 2010. This conversation reminds me that the narrative behind many poets can be every bit as interesting as the writing itself. You’ve put into words what I’ve felt at the intuitive level, that the act of creating families of written words sometimes borders on the more visible and spiritual acts of creation. Thank you for sharing.

    • Irene permalink*
      June 1, 2010 6:25 pm

      Thanks for being part of this conversation, Mackenzie. You echo my sentiments and I like the idea of sharing and community.

  9. June 2, 2010 11:53 am

    Hi Paul:

    It’s interesting to see how it is on the other side of the coin. I also grew up in a religious family too, except much different from what I imagine yours to be. My father was restless, an endless searcher…we ended up attending Catholic, non-denominational Protestant, Assemblies of God, and Jehovah’s Witnesses services before my mother left him and took me with him when I was 11. Later, an aunt of mine claimed to have a salvation experience…but I saw the real her, her hypocrisy at home. Let’s just say she might have given the Devil a run for his money with some of her behavior.

    I think because of all of this I ended up breaking away from organized religion when I was 18, and with the exception of a stint here and there attending church, I’ve pretty much never been back. But I still very much believe in the Divine and have come to the same conclusion you have: “I do not believe it is necessary to believe the literal truth of a narrative for it to do its redemptive work.” Also, as you mentioned earlier, God is seen through different lenses by different people.

    This has been a fascinating look into what informs your poetics, Paul. Your work has intrigued me since I started coming to visit your blog, and I look forward to reading more.


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