by Kenneth L. Field
If someday they take the radio station away from us, if they close down our newspaper, if they silence us, if they kill all the priests and the bishop too, and you are left alone, a people without priests, each one of you must be God’s microphone, each one of you must be a messenger, a prophet.
Óscar Romero, July 8, 1979
I recently completed a chamber opera entitled, “Romero: God’s Microphone.” This was a four and a half year journey from conception to completion. As it turns out, this period also coincides with a spiritual journey of my own. Rather late in life, I decided to return to my music composition background which started in my teens at Interlochen Arts Academy – a private arts school in northern Michigan – where I graduated from high school. Many years later, shortly after completing a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Santa Barbara in 1997, I married my wife, Rafaela, who was finishing her Master’s degree in Latin American & Iberian Studies. Two years into our marriage we ended up in the Los Angeles area where I was leading a worship team consisting of drums, acoustic guitar, bass, and vocalists at a small church in Pico Rivera. The roots of the worship music was mostly from the Vineyard Christian Fellowship and a few songs I had written myself. The style ranged from reflective to rock-and-roll. Rafaela was teaching history at two local community colleges (and playing drums for the worship team.)
As my involvement with music increased, I realized deep down inside that there was an unfulfilled longing. I was being drawn back to my classical/art music roots. My hope was to compose music which spoke to both the intellect and the heart and to also bring to light social injustice and prejudice. I craved musical expression that was deeper and more intellectually satisfying and challenging than the praise and worship songs I was leading every Sunday morning. But I was burdened with guilt because I felt that the musical expression I desired to create was too esoteric to make any real difference to those who were suffering.
Around this time my wife and I were given a book that brought some clarity to my confusion: Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water. Her premise was that there was no difference between Christian and non-Christian art. Good art is good art. And what I mean here by art is not just the visual arts, but all art – painting, literature, sculpture, music, etc. For me this new understanding meant that worship and praise music was not on a pedestal or somehow more blessed than any other kind of music or art. This understanding was very weak or almost non-existent in the Protestant tradition that I came from. For me, this insight opened up a new vista for me and allowed me to set aside my guilt. So I applied to California State University in Fullerton with the hope of getting a graduate degree in music composition. Despite not having an undergraduate music degree, I was accepted, and started classes in the fall of 2001.
This new understanding of art also led to an in-depth exploration of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy where the interaction between art and faith is better understood. One of the best examples of where art and faith meet is in the concept of the Eastern Orthodox ikon. An ikon in the Eastern Orthodox understanding is not just a painting of a Jesus or Mary or a saint. An ikon is a window into heaven. One common misunderstanding is that the Eastern Orthodox pray to ikons, but this is not true. Rather, they pray through them. They are not the object of prayer but rather a means to facilitate prayer.
One of the benefits of this investigation into Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism was that it allowed me to step into the shoes of the other and see the world from a different spiritual perspective. I discovered that there was a oneness that was the Church, but that over the centuries it had divided into multiple traditions. These in turn grew, matured, and split apart even further over time, resulting in manifold factions, branches, and identities. So that now, individuals have become so rooted in their own cultural/religious traditions that they are unable to see beyond their place of identity and accept the differences of the other. The outcome of all this is that religious traditions and denominations that grew from the same source dismiss each other as not being true to the faith. We are no longer brother and sisters but competitors – even enemies. Rather than finding common ground where we can stand together, we use our belief system and doctrine as a badge to identify what club, branch, or sect we belong to. If our badges don’t match, we are at odds and the result is disharmony – not unity. My spiritual journey has led me to reject the outside pressure to categorize myself. It has challenged me to accept the other and seek common ground.
In the spring of 2003, I graduated with an M.A. in music composition. Shortly after this Rafaela was accepted in the Ph.D. program in the history department at UC Santa Barbara, so we moved back in the fall of 2004. With my music degree behind me I struggled (and still do) to find the right expression for it. Then in the spring of 2010 I came across a call for chamber opera scores. If your work was selected, it would be performed. The idea was to send a ten minute excerpt fully scored and the complete libretto – which is the sung text and storyline for the opera. I had six weeks to finish this enormous task. What would be my subject? What would the opera be about? Most operas revolve around heroes and heroines, lovers and cheaters, sexual liaisons and murder. Not quite the subject matter I was interested in. But the one idea that interested me was that the hero or heroine almost always dies in the end. Then I remembered a movie that I was introduced to while Rafaela and I were still dating: Romero starring Raul Julia in the lead role. I had never forgotten how the movie had impacted me. At the time, I was more interested in China than Latin America. (Rafaela soon changed that.) But the story of the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero had struck a chord in me. With my wife working on her Ph.D. with an emphasis in Latin American history, I had the perfect go-to person to help me with my research on Óscar Romero. I read about his background, I read his homilies, his weekly radio addresses, his diary, and the details surrounding the last few weeks of his life. I found out he liked to listen to Marimba music to relax, so I made the marimba one of the central instruments in the opera. I read about a life-changing encounter that a nun named Eva had with Romero and made this into one of the scenes of the opera. I was able (somehow) to finish the libretto (in its initial form) and the opening ten minutes of the opera and submitted it to the competition. After a few weeks of anxious waiting I found out that my work had not been selected. I inquired why my work had been rejected and the answer I got – much to my surprise – was that it was too violent. They were looking for something with a more pleasant, lighter topic – or perhaps less challenging. Romero went on the back-burner.
The following year Rafaela accepted a faculty position in the History Department at Whitworth University. In the fall of 2013, our family had the opportunity to go to the Costa Rica Center (an extension campus, now closed, for Whitworth students) where Rafaela would be teaching a full load. I was teaching one class but I needed something more to occupy my time. So I brought my Romero score and music notation software thinking I might have some time to work on it. The decision proved to be fortuitous. On the first full day I walked into the men’s public restroom at the Costa Rica Center and there on the wall was a large painting of Óscar Romero. There he was – staring right at me. That painting in the men’s bathroom was like an ikon for me – a window of transcendence. So I started looking at my score from three years before.
A few weeks into our family’s stay at the Costa Rica Center, all the Whitworth students, assistants, and faculty participated in a week-long trip to Nicaragua. We all hopped on a public bus and rode the eight hours from San José, Costa Rica to Managua, Nicaragua. On Sunday morning we visited a base community church – a Catholic Church that was formed during the Nicaraguan revolution in the 1970s. We were all struck by the fact that there were only a few older men in attendance – the congregation consisted mostly of older women and their families. We surmised that most of the men had died in the revolution. The church welcomed us with open arms and even invited us to take part in the Eucharist – even though most of us were not Catholic. There was no priest. A woman led the service and administered communion (which is practically unheard of in the Catholic Church at large). Although my Spanish wasn’t that good, I was deeply touched. After the service ended we were mulling around the small church. On the back wall were three framed pictures: one of Pope John Paul II kneeling before a shrine to Óscar Romero, one of Pope Francis, and a poster of Óscar Romero commemorating the 18th anniversary of his death. March 24th of this year marked the 36th anniversary of the day he was assassinated while celebrating mass.
As I looked at this display in the little Nicaraguan church, it was at that moment I realized Romero was already treated as a saint in Central America. There are even songs sung in the church service about him. All this had been happening years before his recent recognition as a martyr by the Vatican. On May 23, 2015, 35 years after his assassination, Óscar Romero was beatified in San Salvador, the first step towards being recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
About eight weeks after our trip to Nicaragua we all went on another side trip – this time a week-long trip to Cuba. While we were in the San Salvador airport, waiting for our connection, I was stunned when I noticed a large painted mural in one of the airport concourses: it was of Óscar Romero – in the very city where he had been gunned down by a government-sponsored assassin. This mural was for me another ikon. And it was a sign that the example of Romero was there to stay in El Salvador. Death could not keep him silent. And in a way it fulfilled his words:
I have frequently been threatened with death, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. I say so without boasting, with the greatest humility.
Óscar Romero, From an interview, March, 1980
Between our trips to Nicaragua and Cuba, I arranged for a room where I could write privately. I started working daily on the opera. I threw out most of what I had written in 2010 and started over. The initial attempt was framed in a modernistic musical idiom – very dissonant and much harder to grasp conceptually due to the lack of a key center and few memorable melodies. This avant-garde musical style is usually not as well received by the general public. So I decided that I would stay closer to the tenets of minimalism – known for its repetition and more pleasing harmonic style. I wanted something that would quickly draw people into the story rather than alienate them before the story even began. The libretto, the lyrics or storyIine of the opera, had been completed in 2010. With only a few minor changes and some needed editing, I finalized the libretto and moved on to the music. With the private room, I was able to spend one to two hours a day composing mainly on weekdays. This continued for a number of weeks. I have probably never written so much music in such a short period of time – almost 40 minutes worth. I was able to finish nearly two-thirds of the opera while I was in Costa Rica.
Upon our return to Spokane in January of 2014 and our re-entry into the American lifestyle, it took a number of weeks before I got into the habit of writing again. And with some valuable input and editing from Paul Raymond and Brent Edstrom – both professors in the Music Department at Whitworth – I was able to put together a final draft of the opera in October 2014.
With the recent news of Óscar Romero’s beatification I feel an urgency to share his story. When he was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, he did so at a turbulent and complicated time in Salvadoran history. He was considered by the government and the Catholic Church hierarchy to be a safe choice. Trained in Rome, it was assumed that he would not make waves. But under Romero’s watch the political situation evolved in such a way that a strong state, backed by a traditional oligarchy and a strong military, became increasingly repressive towards a population that demanded freedom for workers to unionize and demand better wages, access to healthcare, and freedom of the press. After Romero’s death the situation worsened and escalated into a civil war that didn’t end until 1992, claiming tens of thousands of lives.
Not long after Romero was appointed, it became clear that he was not going to be the Archbishop the government and Catholic hierarchy wanted. Only a month into Romero’s tenure, Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest with whom Romero had become close friends, and two others who were riding along with him were ambushed by paramilitary forces. The three were shot and killed while returning in a Jeep from Aguilares where Father Grande spent most of his time ministering. The death of Father Grande changed Romero. He took the time to personally meet with his parishioners and to listen to their stories and concerns. He traveled extensively throughout El Salvador and heard their stories about oppression, murder by government allied forces, and all the men and women who had disappeared and never returned.
Rather than side with the oppressor, Romero sided with the oppressed. He was simply following the example of Jesus. And this did not go over well with those in high places. Over the course of the next three years, five more priests were assassinated by forces siding with the government and countless civilians as well. Every Sunday in his weekly radio address Romero would preach the gospel and call for peace. And everyone had radios and everyone listened.
Then on March 23, 1980, a Sunday, in his homily at the Sacred Heart Basilica in San Salvador (the largest church in El Salvador) he asked each soldier to follow his conscience and not shoot to kill his fellow Salvadorans, even if he was ordered to do so.
In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people who have suffered so much and whose laments cry out to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God, stop the repression!
Óscar Romero, From his homily of March 23, 1980
Archbishop Romero had to have known that he was likely signing his death wish by asking the soldiers to disobey the orders of their commanding officers. The next evening, March 24, he was celebrating Mass at a small church in San Salvador called the Divina Providencia Chapel. That night he read the gospel passage which was from the church calendar for that week.
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
John 12: 23-26
As he was raising the bread and wine to heaven and calling down God’s blessing down upon them, a single shot was fired from outside the open doors of the church. It struck Romero square in the forehead. The bread and wine fell, the body and blood of Archbishop Oscar Romero was spilled on the floor of the church. The seed died. The nuns wailed. The assassin walked away and was never found.
Retelling the story of Romero in opera is for me one way of being God’s microphone. His story is just one of many that needs to be heard. The opera actually opens with Romero’s assassination and then flashes back to a few weeks before his death. In addition to Romero (whose role is sung by a tenor), the list of characters includes an apparition of Father Rutilio Grande (a bass), a Carmelite nun named Eva (a soprano), and the assassin himself (a baritone). Many of the words the Romero speaks are words that were actually spoken or written by Romero himself.
The small ensemble that accompanies the singers includes a string quartet, a contrabass, a piano, two marimbas, a percussionist, and a brass trio. There is also a chorus of four nuns and four paramilitary soldiers. The chamber opera lasts just over an hour. I am currently pursuing avenues to get the opera performed in whole, but it is more likely at this point that smaller sections or arrangements will be performed first.
Whether you consider yourself religious or not, the example of Romero cannot be ignored. He knew what was required of him and he did not flinch. Romero followed the example of Jesus. He stood up for the poor, the oppressed, the rejected, and the ostracized. He called on those who remained after his passing to be “God’s microphone” – an allusion to his weekly radio address. 36 years later, we are still called to be God’s microphone. We are called to speak the truth about injustice and prejudice, even though it may hurt us. May we all have the courage to follow the example of Romero.
Kenneth L. Field graduated in 2003 with a Master’s in music composition from California State University Fullerton where he studied under Pamela A. Madsen. Previously he graduated in 1997 with a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California at Santa Barbara. For many of his works, Field’s linguistics background informs his music compositions. His 2002 work fifty seven one for sixteen vocalists is built upon waves of sound created from the different phonemes of the English language. The work was recorded in 2006 by The Kiev Chamber Choir and released on CD in 2008. In 2004, his work The Beatitudes, for tape, was presented as part of the Electrolune Festival in Lunel, France. This work’s sound source is a recording of the Beatitudes from the gospel of Matthew spoken in six different languages. Small snippets were manipulated in various ways to create this ten minute sound canvas. A work consisting mainly of guided improvisation, Baptism – a musical rite of passage – for Ean, was performed by ThingNY on Feb. 25 at SPAM v. 2.0 at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Long Island City, New York. A prerecorded version of his 2011 work, Saint Brendan and the Lyrist, for soprano and tape was presented March 5, 2011 at the CSUF New Music Festival in Fullerton, California. The sound source for the tape portion of this work were manipulated recordings of his son Brendan’s toys. In October of 2014, Field completed a chamber opera entitled Romero: God’s Microphone, which covers the event’s surrounding the last few weeks of Archbishop Óscar Romero’s life up until his assassination on March 24, 1980. Las Calles de La Habana (The Streets of Havana), for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano was completed in May of 2015. This work was predominantly inspired by his weeklong trip to Havana in November of 2013. It recounts the feeling of traveling the many streets of Havana and meeting and listening to the Cuban musicians in the Plaza de Armas. In December he completed a miniature for soprano and cello entitled, Unwind. His next work will be a song cycle for piano and soprano based on texts by Barbara Kingsolver, Thomas Merton, and Ernesto Cardenal.
You can find recordings of some of these works at: kennethlfield.bandcamp.com.
Photos 2-5 courtesy of the author. Photo 2: An early ikon of Jesus: Andrei Rublev’s Christ the Pantocrator, 1410
by Karissa Knox Sorrell
When I write, I turn my back to the saints.
We moved into a new home in August. With our home came the blessing of an extra bedroom in the basement, which became a guest room/office combination. When searching for a space for our Orthodox icons and home altar, my husband suggested this room. He arranged our icons to the wall across from my desk, which faces a window. A few times a week I sit there, looking out into my backyard, trying to churn out meaningful words while the saints stare at my back.
The past three years have been a time of unraveling. I have questioned the Bible, the reason why Jesus died, and if we even need to saved. I have faced my own damaged self-worth and realized that the church was, in part, to blame for it. I have fumed when seeing Christians and Christian organizations judge and belittle others. There have been Sundays full of tears over having to go to church and Sundays full of guilt for not going.
My faith is fluid and faint now, my questions and doubts finally outweighing the certainty of belief I used to have. Layer by layer, I have peeled away every skin of armor I used to wrap myself with. It has been a painful, lonely process, but now I find myself in a place of quiet. I’ve stopped raging. I’ve stopped agonizing over what I believe. I’ve mostly stopped writing about spiritual topics. Do I know what I believe? No. Do I think God exists? Maybe. Have I completely abandoned Christianity? I’m not sure. And yet, none of this bothers me as much as it used to. I, quite simply, have just gone still.
When my husband nailed our icons to my office wall, the sight of our saints threatened to push me out of the calm and back into the storm. I didn’t want to look at Christ, or Mary, or Saint Nonna, my patron saint. I didn’t want to look at my children’s saints, Mary Magdalene and Ephraim the Syrian. I didn’t want to be in their presence or to remember how dear they used to be to me. I didn’t want to recall the many times I had prayed before those icons or the sweet faithfulness I had when I first converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.
I still have not made peace with the saints. When I write, I turn my back to them.
The saints remain, though. They watch and wait, and perhaps, if they are real, they pray for me. For what are icons but windows to heaven, images we look through to find the meaning beyond? It feels like a beautiful concept, though I’m not sure if I believe it. Yet in that space, in that blessing of a place of my own in which to write, a creative spirit often finds me. For me writing is an act of birth and rebirth, over and over. The saints are my witnesses, and for now, that is enough.
Karissa Knox Sorrell is a poet, writer, and ESL teacher from Nashville, Tennessee. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Evening Body (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and her poems and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Relief, St. Katherine Review, Gravel Mag, and Two Cities Review. You can connect with Karissa at karissaknoxsorrell.com or on Twitter @KKSorrell.
by Andy Zell
As I write this, we are expecting our fourth child in a matter of days.
A few days before the birth of our third child, my wife asked me if I had looked into home births. She had come across a website called Idiot’s Guide to Emergency Home Births and thought I should take a look. I didn’t know why she thought her labor might be so quick. I blew her off and joked that I didn’t need to look anything up. Nothing to it but catching the baby. Easy peasy.
I never expected our third child to arrive so quickly. All of our children have been late.
The first arrived almost leisurely—my wife’s water broke in the middle of the night before any major contractions. We called and were told to wait until morning to go to the hospital. After my wife labored all day, we welcomed our firstborn in the early evening. Our second was induced after being more than a week late. This time my wife labored all night and we welcomed our daughter in the early morning.
The day our third was born we were informally timing the contractions. We had called my wife’s parents so they could start the all-day drive to come help us with grandparent duty. A good friend was coming over to watch our other two kids in the meantime. She had no idea what she was stepping into.
Labor appeared to be progressing slowly. I went out to fill up the van with gas, figuring that our friend and definitely the in-laws would want to tote around the kids. I kept my phone on me. My wife sorted laundry, made lunch, and laid on the couch, trying not to make our two little ones nervous. When the friend came over, I showed her around the house, explaining the kids’ routines and how every little thing worked. Then my wife’s water broke.
She was alone in the bathroom and tried to call out to me. I couldn’t hear her. I was too busy explaining how all of the remote controls worked. Then she screamed, and we rushed to find her. Contractions were coming so hard and fast she could barely move or talk. She wanted to start pushing. Our friend wasn’t ready to deliver the baby and neither was I. I didn’t know what to do. Should I call the hospital or 911?
My wife somehow managed to hobble out to the car while I carried the small suitcase. I imagined having a police escort to speed us to the hospital, knowing it would never happen.
I gripped the steering wheel, trying to stop my arms from shaking. We had barely begun when another contraction hit. My wife screamed for me to pull over. She wanted to push the baby out. I switched to the right lane and started to slow down, but then I realized what that meant. It meant that I would have to deliver the baby by myself. I sped up and moved back to the left lane.
When we hit a red light, I immediately altered my course and turned right. When we hit another red light later I turned right on red and then took an immediate left into the parking lot of a fast food chain, cut through, and continued on the road to the hospital. A small part of me felt like I was in a movie chase, but without the suspension of disbelief. I had to speed to the hospital without breaking any laws.
Another contraction jolted her while I navigated the streets. “Ahhh! Pull over! I’m going to have this baby!” she yelled. Again I slowed down and then accelerated. I didn’t know what to do. If I made it to the hospital, then I would have made the right call to keep driving. If she had the baby in the car, then I should have stopped.
I pulled the car up to the emergency room doors. I ran in to tell them to bring out a wheel chair. When I came back my normally modest wife was stretching out of the passenger side of the car and taking off her pants so she could deliver herself of our child.
After what seemed like 15 minutes but was probably two, a whole host of people in scrubs came out with a gurney and lifted my wife onto it. They covered her with a sheet and hurried inside. I parked the car and then I raced inside. Someone pointed me in the right direction. I arrived to find my wife looking around frantically for me.
No one would check under the sheet to see if the baby was coming. Instead they fussed with vital sign measurements and an IV line. It seemed that the room was packed with people lined up along the wall. More people than needed, really. And still no one was ready to catch our son. Finally someone came down from the OB floor and with a push he was here. He was beautiful.
I’m a father, so this is merely an outside point of view on the birth of my third child. It doesn’t do justice to my wife’s experiences, especially how in the car she managed not to push when every instinct told her it was time to deliver.
I’m supposed to take care of my pregnant wife. Even the schlub played by Seth Rogen in Knocked Up gets his act together when the Katherine Heigl character goes into labor. He demands that the on-call OB follow the birth plan. He is her advocate when she is unable to make her desires clear.
I barely got her to the hospital in time. I managed to hold her hand during those last five minutes before our son was born.
Hours later, when describing the frantic drive to family members on the phone, I couldn’t stop trembling. I still felt shaken, on high alert.
So we’re having another baby any day now, our fourth. I think we’ll go to the hospital at the first sign of labor this time.
I think I know what to expect.
Soon after writing this, Andy Zell became the father of a fourth child. And yes, they made it to the hospital in plenty of time. He tutors writing part time, but mostly he’s a stay-at-home parent to their three preschoolers and kindergartner. When he finds time he blogs about books and life. Occasionally he tweets.
Photo credit: Andy Zell
by Jenn Rudsit
A book fair full of indie presses, literary journals, MFA programs, and tables covered in piles upon piles of books: paradise.
Mingling and talking to the 10,000+ people attending and staffing said book fair: my own personal hell.
Believe it or not, I hate small talk. My usual response to large crowds is to eventually disappear and find a quiet spot to hide. There’s usually tears involved. As I prepared myself for attending AWP, it was hard not to let my nerves as an undergrad attending a conference I knew very little about get the best of me. Being intimidated by intelligent people and their impressive work has always been something I’ve struggled with, an insecurity that’s kept me from fully engaging with or even seeing the important things I have going on in my own life.
Cue AWP. The book fair, the panels, the readings, the writers. Wandering the tables the first day, I was blown away by the sheer number of journals and magazines that exist all around the world. This is, I’m sure, a pretty basic observation for a first-time AWP attendee, but it was encouraging to see all the presses and journals represented at the conference, doing important, creative work in the publishing world. Each journal I talked with had their own unique way of interpreting the world via writing, spreading that lens through their journal and the work printed within it.
At AWP, I learned that if two people are passionate about something, they will always find common ground. Talking points are easier to access when you’re both geeking out over beautiful cover art or a creative new writing contest idea, no matter how awkward the two people are when it comes to talking. I learned that nothing gets writers more excited than the words “free books,” and that if you want to confuse people, calling your lit mag a “journal of witness” is one of the best ways to do so. I learned that there is a magazine for every type of writer, an outlet for all writers to establish a connection with readers, with the words they need to hear. I learned that AWP is not a place for stifling competition and over-aggressive networking, but a place for collaboration, for cool editors to meet up with their equally cool editor friends from other programs, at a place that only exists for four days once a year.
Most importantly, I learned that I know basically nothing about the world of publishing, the world I hope to enter when I graduate this May and head off into the “real world.” Which is a very intimidating thing to realize. But, armed with the twenty-something books I lugged back from AWP and my lanyard covered in buttons, I’m eager to learn more.
Stay awesome, AWP.
Jennifer Rudsit is a senior English major at Whitworth University
By Joshua Tuttle
My second AWP was even better than my first. Last year I was extremely nervous to explain what “a journal of witness” means to people standing at our booth. I was new to Rock & Sling, and I was at the conference with a group of seniors who had been part of the journal for years. This time, I was the senior student, with a pair of first-timers (one of whom actually was a senior, but she joined the journal late in her undergraduate career) looking to me for example.
The engagement from the community seemed higher than last year, which surprised me. I was not expecting that in LA, to have tons of people come up to our table and be genuinely excited about our Christian theme. I only had one woman say “Oh, never mind!” after hearing about it. I was so happy that our broadsides and covers seemed to make people so excited and joyful. There was one man who was talking to his friend, and he walked up to our broadsides and said, “See, people do care about beauty, we have to make sure to show these to Charlie.” I talked to them about it, and he said that Charlie was an artist, who had been discouraged because he thought the literary world didn’t care about beautiful things. That may or may not be true (I don’t think it is), but it was probably the best moment in the convention for me that our efforts had helped someone else take heart.
The literary community was more interesting this year as well, now that I’ve got more experience. I recognized journals this year, because I’ve had enough exposure that I am more familiar with the lay of the land. I also had a story coming out in an anthology—my first fiction publication credit—which meant that I was suddenly someone a publisher was coming up to my table to see me. Their booth—Three Rooms Press—turned out to be only a few tables down from us, so we kept seeing each other and there was much goodwill to be had. I did my first book signing, and my second most notable moment was when I saw someone walking around with Songs of My Selfie and got to say to them “Hey! I’m in that anthology! Yes, of course I’ll sign it for you!”
LA was also beautiful. I’ve never been there before, and it was nice to walk around downtown. I think once you stay in a youth hostel with plumbing that doesn’t always work, you can say that it “counts,” whereas just traveling to a city doesn’t always count. Walking a mile to find fruit was annoying, but it gave me a chance to see the city. I took my first Uber ride, and had to chase the Uber around the block because the GPS wasn’t accurate enough. I also took the bus, which is always fun to do in a new city. As it happens, the bus was very late, so I only did it once, but it was fun nonetheless.
by Lauren Klepinger
As the end of spring break loomed nearer, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would survive the next week. I’d spent eight leisurely days padding around my suburban home, adding on to the carefree first draft of a novel, eating home-cooked meals, and binge-watching Parks and Rec. (Homework? There’s a six-hour drive back to school, I can do it then!) But all too soon, I would be flung back into the breakneck pace of spring semester as a sophomore undergrad for the short space of three days, before being flung even farther, to my first AWP in sprawling Los Angeles, California.
There will be thousands of people, warned my professor/editor-in-chief and the AWP student veterans. It’s massive. You’ll try to take home way too much stuff. By the end of day three, you’ll want to hide under a table just to avoid social interaction.
And they were excited for this?
The three days of class passed in a whirlwind, and then I shipped myself off to a city I’d only visited for a few hours on Disneyland trips. I pictured crushing crowds, bags splitting at the seams with books, and smoggy air that would make me cough when I got off the plane.
Instead, what I discovered at the LA Convention Center was a vast room bustling with amicable people who were proud of their products and enthusiastic to champion the work of others. The wealth of new ideas and enthusiasm energized me, and I found it was the best feeling to light up someone’s expression by asking about their work, or coming back to their booth for a second visit.
Let’s not forget the panels. Sometimes they got me excited and thinking and learning, and sometimes they felt more like a pep talk than an academic discussion, but consistently the panelists displayed a camaraderie and mutual respect that I found inspiring. They referenced previous conversations, had a working knowledge of each other’s work, and built off of each other’s comments in a way that showed genuine investment in the topic and each other.
All things considered, the common theme I drew from the conference was the sense of community the attendees had built. Writing can be a lonely profession—sit and write in your house, and send emails when necessary—but after years of collaboration, submission, and publication, everyone there had found a way to make writing a little less solitary. Our editor-in-chief met up with friends from all over the country, and I saw other pockets of community all over the conference. As an unpublished undergrad at her first AWP, I sometimes felt a little like an outsider, with no one to thank for debuting my work and no one to catch up with from years past. But the conference helped me see the potential for a vibrant writing life, and I look forward to developing that in years to come.
Lauren Klepinger is a sophomore English major at Whitworth University.
by Kathryn Smith
I’ve been saying the great blue heron is my spirit animal. I spot them in fields, lifting off above rivers, lanky wings flapping. I see them when I’m not looking for them. I see them when no one else does.
But now, as four common flies walk zig-zags on the window above my desk, I’m having second thoughts. Morning after morning, I sit as this window, the same view permeating my thoughts, the poems I attempt as I sit here. These flies return, too. They pace. They seem content. Is it possible to have a house fly as your spirit animal?
What is a spirit animal, anyway? Is it the thing you aspire toward or the thing that nags you? The animal that follows you or the one you dream about? In my first dream that I remember, a bear knocked at the door and I opened it. I was about 4 years old. The bear chose me among all the others. It picked me up and placed me on its back. I screamed and pleaded for it to put me down, but it wouldn’t. It was gentle. It did me no harm. So maybe that’s it.
The internet has a wealth of quizzes and lists of spirit animal meanings, but little on the origins of the term, expect, rather generally, that it’s “shamanistic” or comes from “indigenous cultures.” I took a quiz at spiritanimal.info that told me, in just 14 quick multiple choice questions, that my spirit animal is the owl. Its characteristics: “Intuition, ability to see what others do not see, announcer of change, wisdom.” I can find bits of myself in that description, though I balk at the lack of parallel structure. (Is there a spirit animal for grammarians?)
A Facebook acquaintance said she has not a spirit animal, but a spirit pestilence: the pantry moth. A good friend says hers are the half-dead wasps she keeps finding in her baby’s room. My sister says our joint spirit animal is a plastic Barbie horse named Dixie that we’ve been trading back and forth for more than a decade now, a toy from our childhood turned practical joke of one-up-manship, seeing who can decorate it more elaborately, who can deliver it to the other in the most unexpected way.
If I could cobble together an animal self, I’d say I have the heron’s patience (most of the time), its long neck, its loneliness, even among company. I hope for the owl’s wisdom, its prophecy. I aspire to the fly’s ability to find worth in uncommon places. O bear, what I wouldn’t give for your strength and confidence. O horse, for your drive.
When I was a kid, we had a children’s book about a lion that did not want to be a lion. Or rather, he wanted characteristics of all the other animals he encountered: the zebra’s stripes, the giraffe’s long neck, the peacock’s colorful plumage. He was granted his wishes, but when he saw his reflection in a pond, he laughed at the ridiculous creature staring back at him. He couldn’t recognize himself anymore. He wanted, then, more than anything, to be himself.
You can see the moral in this children’s tale. What’s harder is to live by the lion’s lesson. I want the good parts of me but not the bad. I want the strong parts, the skilled parts, the contented parts, but I want the fears and insecurities and shortcomings to fall away, covered up by something else’s feathers. Whether insect or avian, I want wings. I want hollow bones or no bones at all. Ease in the air, in water. These are things I lack. But really, they’re things for which I have no practical use. There’s no need, really, to dive for my food. I don’t need a horsey tail to swat flies from my rump. (Nor would I want one, if part of me is a fly.)
Maybe the Barbie horse is most like me, then. A few years back, my brother-in-law spray-painted it silver and cropped its tail short. My sister adorned it in feathers; I returned it in a hand-knit, custom-designed Christmas sweater. It is alterable, malleable, but still recognizably that horse from my childhood. It is like no other animal around.
Kathryn Smith’s poems have been published in Bellingham Review, Mid-American Review, Ruminate, Rock & Sling, and other publications. Her current obsession is creating erasure poems from the Psalms and from a certain congresswoman’s speeches. Find her online at kathrynsmithpoetry.com.
Marlena Bontas’s poetry appears in Rock & Sling 10.2. Of “I Slaughtered Your Horses,” she writes: “I believe there is a deep connection between faith and literature. The most obvious one is the Bible, as there is a great narrative built around the time before and after Christ.
The Book of Revelation is closely related to my poem, ‘I slaughtered your horses’, because it emphasizes the need to control and keep people emotionally needy.
The rider on the black horse has this overwhelming power over others to control the rations of food, because he is holding a pair of ‘scales’ in his hand. This rider is also able to sustain ‘scarcity’. In my poem, I allude to control and scarcity, two themes that fit well with the portrayed father figure.
I’ve grown up in a deeply religious environment which shaped the way I write. When your life, as an adult, is dedicated to ‘God’, you have no power anymore over your own suffering. You only get strong if you pray and cleanse yourself of sins. My poem tries to deal with the theme of control that religion has over us. When we are dependent on a higher being to live our lives, we become weak and vulnerable. In a way, religion takes us back to when we were small and defenseless as children and our fathers took care of us. And, when we are defenseless, we give our power to somebody else. We become lost, confused, misguided.
I guess my main message is that love cannot be imposed on anyone. It has to be won, not conquered. However, if we are forced to love someone, it’s always good for us to ‘slaughter’ the ties with this type of love.”
Upon his Feast Day, January 25
by John Estes
In Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, Orpheus (the most square-jawed Orpheus ever conceived, played with pompadour by Jean Marai) is challenged by the admissions committee to the gates of hell to explain what precisely (there is no almost in hell, he is told) what it means to be a poet: To write without being a writer, he replies. In an interview Cocteau once expanded on this by saying, “A true poet does not bother to be poetical. Nor does a nursery gardner scent his roses.” But these types of sentences–“A poet is one who [blank],” or “Poetry is [blank]”–have been and will continue to be completed in many ways by poets, would-be poets, and anti-poets. It’s a sort of parlor game, writing about poetry, that many find more compelling than poems themselves. The poet, after all, is supposed to be writing poems. But these formulations, enchanting as many are, can be helpful. To mystify in the act of demistifying: that is one thing poetry can do, one might say. Ezra Pound kind of did: he called poetry “a raid on the inarticulate.” And certainly it was this naming function of poetry that St. Gregory Nazianzen valued, and I’m quite certain he saw no daylight between his work as poet and work as Theologian, the purpose of theology being, after all, the production of images which aid us toward an encounter with mystery. What makes him poet rather than polemicist, however, is not simply the manufacture of verse (many a poetaster can make that claim) but that he went seeking inwardly—in that foul rag and bone shop of the heart, as Yeats called it—instead of seeking succor and invective in numbers and syllogisms alone (although he could get his way around an enthymeme as well as anyone of his day).
Coleridge said: “The poet brings the whole soul of man into activity.” Whether that’s true or not, the question of the whole, or the capital-w Whole, is one with which the poet is intimately concerned, and what makes one a poet and not a philosopher is that the Whole is not an abstraction, but rather the immeasurable sum of all particulars, the entire visible universe that Conrad says art, if it is to be called art, must seek to render with the “highest kind of justice.” I will give you a new formula for the incarnation: the ephemeral made eternal. That’s a poet’s day labor. St. Gregory, unlike many then and unlike many now, knew there was nothing of the divine to be grasped except in what is fleeting; he trusted the body of language to shape and form that which is present but unseen. A fair appraisal of what’s made beautiful, I think. “We collect from various places,” St. Gregory writes, “a faint and feeble image. And our noblest theologian is not one who has discovered the whole—our earthly shackles do not permit the whole—but one who has got a fuller insight than another and gathered in himself a richer picture, shadow, or whatever we call it, of the truth.”
“The purpose of poetry,” Czeslaw Milosz posits, “is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.” We call St. Gregory the Theologian a poet because he wrote beautiful poems, but he wrote beautiful and lasting poems because he never sought to escape that vocation of personhood that is so readily, so easily abdicated. The seat of the person—the soul, the nous, he knew (as many of we moderns don’t)—is a maker of images, and he took great pleasure in his communion with that power within him. There: I have given away our secret. Here is a passage from Gregory’s poem “On the Soul,” where he depicts this act of poetic participation:
With these words he took a portion of the new-formed earth
and established with his immortal hands my shape,
bestowing upon it a share of his own life. He infused
Spiriti, which is a fragment of the Godhead without form.
From dust and breath I was formed, a mortal man eikon of the immortal.
For it is the nature of mind to rule over both parts.
Thus I have affection for one way of life because I am part earth,
while I have in my heart a longing for the other life through the part of me that is divine.
John Estes is author of three volumes of poetry—Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011), Stop Motion Still Life (Wordfarm, forthcoming) and Sure Extinction, which won the 2015 Antivenom Prize from Elixir Press—and two chapbooks: Breakfast with Blake at the Laocoön (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve, which won a National Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America. He directs the Creative Writing Program at Malone University.
Image from jesus-passion.com