A couple weeks ago, actually it was January, 2002, my buddy Skillen sidled up to me and said, “Three things, OK? One: ekphrasis.”
I said, “Gesundheit.”
He said, “Not a sneeze.”
I said, “A skin disease?”
He said, “No, poetry.”
I said, “Ekphrasis—poetry?”
He said, “About art.”
I said, “Ah”—(sounding like him, suddenly)—“’About suffering they were never wrong’”—
He said, “’The old masters,’ esatto.”
I said, “Gesundheit.”
He said, “Not a sneeze. Item two, OK? You teach it.”
I said, “Ekphrasis? I don’t…”
He said, “You will.”
I said, “When?”
He said, “November.”
I said, “Where?”
He said, “Orvieto.”
I said, “Gesundh… Orv…?”
He said, “Il mio posto favoriàte.”
I said, “But… Ma… Non parle… parlo…”
He said, “Non ti preoccupare. Insègnerai bene la poesìa. … In Inglese … OK?”
I said, “OK.”
So I got busy studying… ekphrasis.
(BTW, did you notice in my chat with Skillen there were actually only two things? With Skillen, there are always three things, even when there’s only two things.)
The next November I did disembark from a plane, a train, a funicular, and a bus—on a rainy night, luggaged and tiny and daunted beneath the duomo’s almost audible façade—
a façade—and an edifice—and a town—that would furnish 17 years, 34 seminars worth of looking, and of loading into language what light reveals of artists’ handiworks.
Skillen’s ekphrastic impulse was prescient. Since we launched that course in 2002, scores upon scores of books on the subject—on the encounter between word and image—have found their way into print and onto Amazon. (A recent title is Ekphrastia Gone Wild: Poems Inspired by Art. Is that subtitle a letdown, somehow?) Only did luminaries like John Hollander and WJT Mitchell beat us to the museum gallery punch.
A veritable charm of poets, an exaltation of marvelous poet-teachers, and a few prose-ists, have brought rigor, vigor and love to our writing workshop-on-the-tufa: among them Christine Perrin, Paul Mariani, Julia Kasdorf, Scott Cairns, Hannah Badia, Robert Clark, and twice last year Jeanne Walker—all writers of durable works AND of ekphrastic poetry, some of which can be seen on our anniversary website.
By my reckoning, 175 students have written 1400 poems that engage artworks both notable and humble, and respond to locales and vistas they know by heart and by passeggiata.
I’m almost done. The ekphrastic pairings on the stairs here and above us come from my poetry seminars over the years, in San Lodovico, San Paolo, and the Servi. The writers engage both very old and very new artworks, with varying formal techniques and ekphrastic strategies. When you look & read, you might remark those strategies—the difference, for instance, between a poem that thinks about the artist or her studio or her materials or her model—and perhaps one that attempts to construct a verbal equivalent to the image, through formatting, say, or syntax.
This summer I sifted through files and assemble a portfolio featuring one poem from each student in all of my ekphrasis classes; you can download this if you wish as a PDF. (I’ve printed up a copy; it’s somewhere nearby.)
And now, at last, a word about Matt and Sharona Doll.
My thus-far purple pen pales, peters out when I turn to acknowledge and thank Matteo for his continued commitment to this program we love, and to the ekphrastic endeavors that have been a part of it for so long. Poetry, painting, and their tangling in history are clearly highly favored in our curriculum and in our daily lives.
And in his. Here’s a guy who launches the day with poetry, connecting our dots to words wise and beautiful (saying “you KNOW this”)—reading Seamus Heaney or Thomas Merton or (“but first”) Mary Oliver.
Matt, we love you back, immensely. Sharona, Alesandro, Emmanuella, Karen, Becky, Emily (great friends who allow us a glimpse across the limits of ourselves), thank you for your commitment and your welcome. Add to them John, Susie, Bruce, and Z(ingarelli)—thank you, multo grazie for your work which has allowed us this opportunity for a lifetime.
Delivered September, 2018 at the reunion in the Barrington Center for the Arts.
This is a poet’s introduction, not a news story, but it’s got a lede, and I don’t want to bury it. The lede is this: that actions in our Florida state capital—certain capital offenses, chewed and digested—have rippled their way to the poems that Our Reader Tonight, our poet-at-large, brought to three thousand students in five sessions over the last two days at high schools near here.
Just yesterday morning, our poet reminded auditorium-fulls about blackface—opening for the students on a big screen an ancient primer on the technique of blacking up—the burning of corks, the grinding-of-them into powder, the adding-to-them of petroleum jelly… And the application onto the skin… “So easy for gentlemen, and ladies, too.”
Then this morning at breakfast our poet read about our state secretary in the New York Times.
The Times, which aren’t a changin’, not enough.
Even before the object lesson, we knew: Our man’s poems are news that stays. For seven years he was devoted to the daily work of recovering personal histories from previous centuries, histories that resonate personally now—for him, and for us; for readers of The Times. What he made from them was Olio, a chronicling in poetry—part performance, part documentary, part eavesdrop, part blueprint—in new forms that first engage the reader’s volition, and then step out from the sewn sections into volumes that stand, and deliver.
To encounter these poems is to remember that their speakers—Blind Boone, Box Brown, the McKoy sisters, Edmonia Lewis—each of them troubled this actual air with larynx and embouchure, with sound waves that are rippling out yet, diminished but factual, toward Ultima Thule—and that the sensibility, the instrument that catches – and renders – and returns them to us must be very fine, indeed.
Indeed, it is.
And prescient, too.
Tyehimba Jess is a native of Detroit who lives and teaches now in New York City. His first book, leadbelly, won the National Poetry Series. Olio, his second collection, won the Pulitzer Prize.
It’s with great pleasure and gratitude, Tyehimba, that we welcome you to our stage tonight.
-Delivered in January at the 2019 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Tyehimba was brilliant and warm & welcoming to students, festival goers, and to me.
A highlight from this festival is an event that only I and Dr. Blaise Allen get to witness—which is when, in sequence, two poets step to a lone mic in front of a thousand sullen students—and read, and perform.
I could have said, “perform magic,” seeing as how these poets can turn student rabbits into rabid tigers.
—or maybe said “perform surgery,” on account of how these two stand up to stimulate the internal organs of empathy and recognition and resolve.
Is it too soon in my intro for all this?—to say these two poets perform a thousand acts of justice and mercy and salubrious upbraiding—in high schools?
Well, that is what they do—to those “thousand sullen students.”
They perform, they perféct, they deliver, they detonate certain time lapse detonations.
They make, of those students, a thousand splendid suns.
I said “two poets.” It’s true I could have said “raconteurs, rhapsodists, scops, bards, balladeers.” I say again: two poets, who assess from the page, and arrest from the stage, with throat & tongue, and timbre & timing & gesture—in form and moving. How express and admirable.
I say móre: the just poet justices; keeps grace—with sass; vibe; sauce.
I said we “get to witness.” I could have said we “get in the midst of”—“get mixed up in”—because to engage their poetry with eyes & ears is to engage it with skin, and follicle, and capillary. Even tear duct.
As I have seen, and you will shortly know.
Please welcome them to our stage.
-Delivered at the 2018 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Aja Monet (above left; her poem “The First Time” is here) and Elizabeth Acevedo (above right; her poem “Hair” is here), brought brilliance to schools and the festival stage.
For the last couple of days, while the poets in Old School Square were workshopping and craft-talking, our two guests tonight were word-cajoling in high schools around Palm Beach County.
This is proper & fitting, because for the last half-score years, while we-all were on vocation, so were they—
vocationing—verbally, vocally, day-in and day-out, in theatres and gyms like this one all around the world.
And yesterday, while our new president was trumpeting in the streets, children in those same schools were dying – with laughter, and holding their breath, and handling words at once true and kind—
kind because vulnerable, and therefore full of power and authority.
Watching our guests from a fold-down seat didn’t just make me want to be them—
to imp my wing on their wit and talent and savoir faire—
watching them made me mindful of,
grateful for those first permissions we all felt to love a poem—
to “belovéd a poem,” by Simic, or Perillo, or Roethke—and hear that voice that spoke up from the page, to us.
That’s what our guests are always up to, gig-after-gig,
voicing live from the stage what is scary, and scandalous, and scanned,
and granting permission to folks-young-as-we-were to speak—
and that in poems.
Here’s a little video of a student slamming a poem for them after one of their shows…
(Kidding—we have no screen here. But it happened.)
Legit now: Mason, Scott, hanging with you has been a highlight for me this week.
Year after year, you
bring the Mayhem Poets, you
get mayhem, poets.
Please welcome them to our stage.
-Delivered at the 2017 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Scott Raven and Mason Granger (l to r), two of The Mayhem Poets, regaled a couple thousand students with poems like this one (“What You Want”).
Robert Pinsky says that poems are musical scores, to be performed by the instrument of the body. The lungs, ribcage, larynx, the tricky tongue and shaping mouth (some of you heard Kevin Young mention embouchure), the resonators of skull and nasal passages, upheld and amplified by the diaphragm—all these concert together (with pitch, posture, and pulse) to release a poem’s music—
And I haven’t mentioned the face, its members express and admirable as a portable Mummenschanz.
Well. Our guests tonight would seem to agree.
What do you need to know about them? Little to nothing, I expect.
Should you know that Marc Kelly Smith invented the poetry slam at a Chicago bar in 1984, and that he’s been doing it nonstop ever since—a three hour set at the Green Mill every Sunday night, the longest running show in Chicago and poetry slam history?
Does it matter to you that, though there are manifold films/CDs/books about slam, Marc has kept on resisting the co-opters and franchisers with a sweet old-fashioned belief that poetry SLAMS BEST on the fringes, in real bars, in real neighborhoods, in gatherings of the original and inexpert?
Does it make a difference to you that, over the last two days, our man engaged a couple thousand high school students, embodying how a shy person can trust and venture LANGUAGE—and that he got all of them performing, and dozens of them up on their feet, mics into their hands, their voices fat in surround sound?
Should you be forewarned he doesn’t think of himself as a slam poet?
—or that, even so, he’s complained publicly about effete poems feebling forth from page or stage, so that this week our chevalier, Miles Coon, may have greeted him with, “Why am I bringing you to this festival?” (But, of course, he did—a tribute to both.)
—or, finally, that after the Duhamel–Lux–Shapiro reading on Tuesday, this man, who seems never to need a printed page to bear The News, exclaimed, with his slightly Chicago vowels, “That was fantastic. So good, that if I’da heard dem when I was young I wouldn’ta had to invent slam poetry!”
I don’t know if that stuff matters to you now as he approaches the stage. And truth is, you’d get it all for yourself; so this intro is just me glossing the goods beforehand.
Here then, more chastely: Following on thousands of performances in nightclubs, concert halls, libraries, universities in venues worldwide, he brings his malleable, effectual, appealing self to our precincts tonight.
Here is all you need to know.
Welcome, Slampapi—Marc Kelly Smith.
-Delivered at the 2016 Palm Beach Poetry Festival.
Having learned a lesson earlier, I hope to carry fewer coals to Newcastle in this introduction of the poet Dominique Christina.
The catalytic Dominique Christina, I might effuse.
But you will shortly write your own superlatives.
What, then, will suffice for me here?
A few instances, perhaps:
—OK, for instance, Dominique Christina didn’t begin, hadn’t thought of performing a poem until six-or-so years ago. She was writing poems—her first, best love. Then some-smart-one said, “Dominique, you should stand up and say these things.”
—for instance, what was she doing then but teaching English, to students with certain troubles who, but for the grace of Dom, were headed down and out, maybe away, maybe for good. A dozen years’ worth of alleged incorrigibles have leapt to her high bar, looked for her kindly lash, and got her good graces in the classroom.
—for instance, when regarding a stadium-full of high schoolers, like she did this week, she will not stir the sanctioned myths of sweetness and light, will not denigrate or prevaricate thereby. She will cut what matters, cut quickly to your matter. Hear me: Were you there, you would watch 800 embodied aspirants writhe, and recognize, and rise to their feet at her accurate beck and call.
—and for instance, you would watch them come boldly forward to meet their provocateur, to touch and hug her, and be hugged hard in return, and to take selfies—yes—
—and (for instance) what MAKES them crowd into the frame with this secret sharer, this slinger of dark-and-bright, is nothing like what compels a pic with Beyonce or Bruno. What is it that compels? It is what she tells them in words and non-words: “You are magnificent. The world needs you. And you gotta SHARE you.” For that we all get in line.
Jamnasium, I tell you (for final instance) that nobody I know of has better intuition, quicker reflex, agiler access to what must inflect a poem’s passage. Or to what will bring the cowed student to her feet, and then to the stage (by a reliable tug on the wrist, and arm round the shoulder blades), there to speak her own truths.
These rarities the slam world knows—she’s a champion five times over—
—and tonight, we will relish our own instance of this coalescing—of grace and impulse, of verve and conviction, of pith and moment.
Dominique, come now and read us your scripture.
-Delivered at the 2016 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Dominique regaled 2600 students with this poem (“The Period Poem“), among others. You should click to it.
Your favorite spot on earth is the lobby of the National Theatre in London. Partly because you have to work so hard to get there. Partly, also, because of the lives you’ve lived there, which you still carry in your body. And partly because of the most assured overthrow that awaits you each time you finish your white coffee and head toward the ripple seats.
* * *
One winter, for four months, a play of yours ran at a dingy dinner theatre up in Georgetown, Mass. You’d directed it, too, and built the set, all of it. For four months, as I said, on weekend evenings you climbed into the loft behind the tables and ran lights and sound, while patrons ate thawed chicken parmesan. Sitting up there watching the crowd, you rode their laughter to a kind of pinnacle. Have you been happier? Give me my sin again.
* * *
For years you’ve been herding students toward theatres, the National, and the Traverse and the Pleasance—for plays and musicals, but also for pantos and foolery, for marathons and acts without words. The lights, the urgency onstage reflect off their eyes and their teeth. They grab your arm. Afterward, you all stagger out to a table of spring rolls, to lick wounds.
You take them to these things so they can be flabbergasted, and confused, and confirmed. So they can see what it is we humans care about, and how to care about it not wisely and too well. You take them to be offended. Give us our sin again.
* * *
You attend an Episcopal church. You go there, sometimes, because Andre Dubus, after being hit by a motorist, could manage that, only that. He wheeled to the mass. Sometimes you think of Dubus in your pew, and of theatres. How being at the living theatre can feel like being at a living church. How our faith before the stage is as real and necessary as anyone’s who’d get out of a boat and walk. How we face each other, and agree to believe together.
And when we do, when the show is right, everyone, every single one, is healed of their sniffles and coughs, and we float bodiless and rapt until the script lets us go. Almost a holy edifice, you say. Who are these priests, these prophets? Sarah Kane, I have ears to hear.
-Why not read some pages in Peter Brook’s The Empty Space?
Dear Ms Peters,
I type this with a latte to hand here on one of the National’s high outside balconies. Moments ago the courteous Dominic at the stage door sent me to you through this portal.
I’m a teacher and writer, and since 1995 I’ve brought 350 college students from a hamlet north of Boston (USA) here to London to see shows at the NT. Our tally of seen shows exceeds 100. Yesterday we added Angels in America to the list.
—a production we will never quite get over. Neither will forget the opening of The Bacchae, or the final moment of Iphigenia at Aulis. A hundred-hundred moments that lived first for us in the ripple seats live in us yet, and have livened how we do theatre, how we teach writing, in our small liberal arts school.
When we lay over in London on our way to other Europes, we queue early and stay late under your roof. Conversations with Simon Russell Beale, Patrick Marber, Caryl Churhill, Jeremy Irons, Wallace Shawn, Desmond Barrit, Rita Moreno, Michael Frayn, Christopher Hampton, Judi Dench, William Houston, Emily Watson, Anna Chancellor, even John Gielgud (who came with Dame Judi to see Ian Holm in Lear)—these never leave us, and inspire gratitude still.
We cherish the sweet, savvy tour guides who’ve shown us backstage and front, mentioning the reason for the seat color in the Olivier. We remember jazz on the concert pitch, and the green AstroTurf (as we call it) of Watch This Space, and the bracing shows (with Chiwetel Ejiofor & Andrew Lincoln) in the Lyttelton foyers.
—and the hours we spent kindling with other lovers like us in and around your concrete crucible of lifetimes.
All of this to say: your address is our favorite on earth, and your commitments have improved our days.
In another year or so I expect to be granted a sabbatical from teaching playwriting and poetry. I have no greater wish than to find my way back to your address, for some shorter or longer period. There is no place I’d rather be.
Could I volunteer whatever I have for any need or purpose of yours? Requiring no pay, only a backstage pass to satisfy Dominic, I could write toward a “Making Of” account, like those on Humble Boy and Bacchae that I give my students. Or perhaps I can assist in useful ways with your growing online archive, a resource I access often. Or sign me up as a tour guide, and pay me nothing to enrich as I’ve been. Do you need a diarist? An assistant to a dramaturg? Someone to make copies or phone calls for the New Work Department, or set out chairs and water for Al Senter-and-guest? Or even a fellow to field oddball offers like this one?
If so, I’m your man.
And it needn’t ding a single budget line, because I’ll still be in the pay of my usual employer, a college that’s seen fit to invest in our annual pilgrimage here to the South Bank.
That’s my hopeful pitch. Now this:
Once, jogging to one of your shows, my billfold leapt unawares from my pocket somewhere between the Cottesloe and the base of the stairs from Waterloo Bridge. I realized the loss at the box office, and retraced my steps in a proper panic and haste. And there it was on the stones, fat with 900 quid, somehow invisible to all but me and bronze Sir Laurence.
Like so much that happens where you are—where I sit as I type—this little story is imbued with a grace, and is beautiful because it’s inscrutable and undeserved.
Will you keep me and my lucky wallet in mind?
Sincerely, with gratitude,
Mark Wacome Stevick
-A version of this was sent summer 2016, and this version last summer. No reply yet.
[from an interview conducted by Bryan Parys]
bp: You studied with Derek Walcott in grad school; how much did his tutelage affect your own work?
Mark S: Let me admit here for the good of my soul that I didn’t really know Derek’s work when I applied to Boston University’s graduate creative writing program. Or Robert Pinksy’s either. Just their names, which had appeared over poems I’d seen in Norton’s. I knew a bit of lore about Lowell and Sexton and Plath, and even Starbuck, but I also appreciated that their ghosts weren’t going to help me with my poems (James Merrill notwithstanding). What mattered most to me was that Boston University was only an hour’s train ride from my house. So my pedestrian (or commuter rail) motives were rewarded out of all proportion.
But what did Derek teach me? To rise at 5 and write for hours. To make the beginning of a line as vigorous as its end. To labor not merely for the line or word, but even for the letter. To write longhand. To read aloud both poetry and prose for their training rhythms—Edward Thomas, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway… One time Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky came in to argue with Derek about the poems of Thomas Hardy—whose work they all loved and which we all read aloud. These things Derek taught, although they’re not necessarily things I learned. I don’t rise, as he does, at 5 and write for any amount of time. But my work was affected by his tutelage. I became more accountable for each word or phrase in my poems, so they got shorter, denser, better. And Derek liked my poems, which allowed me to believe in them. When he told me to send them out to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, I went ahead and did it. Derek didn’t believe me when I said they hadn’t landed. “Show me the rejection letters.” I showed. “It doesn’t matter. I’d publish them.” So I put that in my pipe and smoked it for a good long time.
He was an extremely alert and agile reader of one’s stuff. Once I brought him a poem which I felt went awry somehow at the end, and when he got to that spot he started saying, “Oh no, no, no, no!”—while I was saying, “I know, I know.” And that’s all we said about it. I was pleased and gratified by our mutual un-enumerated horror. Then there was his most impressive reading moment.
bp: Which was?
MS: You’ve heard this before, and you’ve probably made fun of me for repeating it. But, OK, briefly: once in a sit-down in his office Derek was quietly reading a poem of mine, one that was composed entirely of eleven-syllable lines. On that first reading—the first time through it, mind you—he looked up from the line “and the black lacquer table is peeling,” and said, “Top, I think. Table top is peeling”—thus bringing my errant 10-syllable line into the poem’s overall pattern. I hasten unnecessarily to add that he did this without counting on his fingers, as anyone who hears this anecdote must do.
bp: I remember that story.
MS: I know you do—but it was kind of remarkable. A bit like “The Princess and the Pea” in its way. And now my poem includes a word “written” by a Nobel laureate. It appears unattributed, of course.
-The poem Derek amended is here. Bryan and I did this interview a decade ago. My friendship with Derek warrants an essay I hope to write.
2016 marks our 21st trip since we launched the UK Theatre course in 1995. We’ve had 345 Anglonauts.
In years of yore, we traveled right after commencement, and our sometimes chilly itinerary included places like Dublin and Galway (Ireland) and, in England, Bath (with its Royal Crescent and Pulteney Bridge—twin to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence), Stratford-Upon-Avon (home to three very different theatres and to the Bard’s crypt), Oxford (with a cooling pause at the Inklings’ Eagle & Child pub), and Cambridge (there to savor an evensong at King’s College Chapel)—and, always, London. Day trips have taken us to Salisbury (tallest cathedral spire in the UK—at 404 feet) and nearby Stonehenge (big gray stones; little red poppies), to Ely (named for its eels, and home for a decade to Oliver Cromwell), to Coventry (with its massive Graham Sutherland tapestry behind the altar of the 1962 cathedral, itself verging on the ruins of the Nazi-bombed 14th-century cathedral), and, in Ireland, to the Aran Islands, to James Joyce’s tower in Sandycove, to Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, chaste resting place for the 19th century’s greatest English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and to the village of Kinvara, where Dawn and John Sarrouf got engaged and began scheming up Elijah and Esme Sarrouf.
In 2004 we switched to an August trip that included a week in Edinburgh to take advantage of the thousands of theatre, dance, music, spoken word, and nearly unclassifiable performances in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. There we see as many events as we can in one week: Jeff Miller manages three shows a day on most days (when he’s not supine in Princes Street Gardens). In the lee of the Castle of Edinburgh another engagement occurred, Norm and Jean’s, and soon after that spot was memorialized in a painting.
We’ve honed our approach, so we can offer a lot of culture for a little green. Classes occur in the morning, usually with a white coffee, often in one of the several lobbies of London’s Royal National Theatre, or in an atrium at the foot of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Students live in flats-with-kitchens in the hearts of these two capitols, and the afternoons are free for museum-going, Beefeater-watching, punting, shopping, picnicking—all of which are endeavored. Evenings find us in the front rows of the UK’s best theatres, in the living presence of the English-speaking world’s great actors—Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, Mark Rylance and Maggie Smith, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw, Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon—and some terrific young actors, too, whose performances mark them as tomorrow’s stars.
John Sarrouf adds: “We’ve written poems in the graveyard on the Avon-thru-Stratford; quaffed with casts at the Dirty Duck; sketched the courtyards of Kenilworth and Warwick Castles; interviewed WWII vets at Lewis’ house, The Kilns; candle dipped at Tintern Abbey; haunted open air markets in Portobello, Cornwall and Penzance; twirled late night pasta Bolognese at Denise’s Restaurant. We were in a West End theatre when John Gielgud died, and the lights were dimmed, and actors came on stage after the show to tell stories of his work and influence. We sat next to Tom Stoppard for the first preview of the revival of The Real Thing, which went on to win the Olivier and the Tony that year. We saw the Shape of Things, and History Boys, and Closer, and The Designated Mourner, and August: Osage County before they became movies.”
The two-week trip is a crucible of culture and conversation, one that inspires the leaders for another year of making art, and impresses some life memories into the still-soft sensibilities of the students.
-On this trip you can do an independent study in creative writing with me. It’s called “Writing the City,” and you’ll use London’s & Edinburgh’s cultural and artistic offerings as material for original compositions of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction.
See Molly Elias’s work at https://cleareyesfullpassport.wordpress.com/.
When they said unto me, “Mark Sargent is coming,” I said unto myself, Nice.
Then they said unto me, “The entire Bible department is at a conference: you have to introduce him.”
But don’t we want one of them at this moment?
-Like Mark Cannister: “Humanities aaaaaaand Mark Sargent, reunited and it feels so good, aha ha ha ha ha…”
-or Sharon Ketcham: “Pastoral care IS imagination, right? So is relationship??? Right?”
-or Marv: ♫ “Hiney matov. Our Father Abraham traveled from Ur. Our speaker Mark Sargent traveled from… wherever…” (Canister: Aha ha ha ha ha…)
-or Ted Hildebrandt: “OK, ok, you guys!—you and Mark Sargent are so, really Imaginative—ok—I just know Jerusalem, ok?” (Canister: Ah! Aha ha ha ha ha…)
Well, they’re not here.
For 16 years as provost at Gordon, Mark—hang on, when I was a student here I had no idea what a provost was: let me tell you it’s the chief academic officer, the person responsible for stuff that isn’t fundraising, student life or budget—so, stuff like curriculum, extra curricular programs, faculty, accreditation—OK?
—And Mark Sarg—hang on, when I was a student I had no clue what accreditation was: it’s the establishment of an insti-blah-blah just kidding.
So: Mark Sargent was our academic leader from The Year You Were Born to The Year You Got Your License. (And in The Year You Were Two, he hired me, which was good for me, but maybe not… so good… for you…)
I wouldn’t think it’s the easiest thing in the world to be a provost: all those constituencies to please, intellectuals so passionate about their bailiwicks, lots of moving parts—plenty of room for friction.
But Mark was good at negotiating all that.
—Probably because he was a literary guy. He himself had come into the academy in the humanities, as a literature prof, and like all lit profs he’d learned to value multiple perspectives, and to evaluate contending claims—and how to employ words “to their best advantage.”
And this served Gordon well: though always, at heart, a book lover, Mark here championed
-the sciences, backing green chemistry before it became the usual thing,
-and the social sciences, broadening the scope of The Center for Faith and Inquiry and JAF,
-and education, bolstering our graduate Education programs,
-and the fine arts, endorsing life drawing and medieval mystery plays and difficult films.
By all of which I mean: he was championing the Liberal Arts.
Speaking of film, early on, Mark launched the Provost’s Film Series here, and during his tenure he caused-to-be-shown more than 120 films, by my count, each preceded by some provocative prose of his (maybe provocative is the wrong word)—and then followed by some thought-provoking discussion. (For CL&W credit.)
When he left to be Westmont’s Provost in his home state, I realized that he’d also done a ton of writing here—not just scholarly articles, but personalized pieces, to introduce new faculty, or roast departing ones, to offer congratulations on new babies or birthdays or anniversaries or attained degrees, to celebrate excellent teaching, and to memorialize the passing of dear colleagues.
Often, a friend of mine was heard to say, “Mark Sargent always writes things we wish we could have written.” Too true. Come to think of it, I wish he had written this introduction.
And now I’m nearly done with mine, except to add this: that I came to rely on the integrity with which he did his job—and to admire his “seemingly effortless artfulness, and playfulness,” to quote another colleague.
Earlier, I was hyperbolizing about great literature being one secret to his success. Hey now: great literature (and film) does train the imagination, strengthen the moral imagination, and thereby help us work out, with God’s guidance, a life that is worth leading.
Today I can’t think of anyone I’d rather hear speak to us on “Lives of Imagination” than Dr. Mark Sargent. Please join me in welcoming him back to Gordon.
-Thanks JL for the artwork.
I took Intro to Philosophy with Grady Spires during my freshman year at Gordon College in the early ’80s. Grady was jazzed by the subject, of course, which sort of got me jazzed, too, though it was clear that philosophy wasn’t going to be my dance partner. In class he would often play a bluesy version of “Rock of Ages.”
And Grady led 20 students (among them Dorothy Boorse and me) on a European Seminar trip through Western Europe in the summer of ’86. He got a nose bleed in the middle of the night in Nuremberg or Augsburg, and had to go to the hospital, where he lay around for a couple days while they tried to figure out the cause–and we soldiered on without him.
But my great Grady memory, the one I tell several times every year, concerns our arrival in Normandy.
We got to our camp site at Omaha Beach late in the day, and the weather wasn’t great, and we were all tired. I suppose because of the conditions, Grady decided we should find a local cafe for dinner. We quickly struck out: there weren’t many cafes around, or they were closed. We pulled forlornly up to a farmhouse with a sign promising food. An old-timer sauntered out to tell us that they, too, were closed. He tried a little French with Grady: no-go. Grady tried a little English: same. Then, Grady shifted into German. And the French fellow answered in German. And they suddenly began to converse IN GERMAN. The man tilted his head toward all of us stale, Keds-wearing students in the back seats and said, “Americans?” Yes, we answered.
Then he was booming something that meant, “Get out right this minute, you’re coming with me.”
“He’s making us dinner, let’s go,” Grady said. We all fell out of the vans and followed the man around to tables in his back yard, and his wife came out. They were going to fix us a huge meal of pasta and salad, and it was going to be free, and it didn’t matter that the cafe was closed–because we were Americans, and he would always welcome Americans, was viscerally grateful to our kin who had hit the beaches a mile away and liberated his village and his country. This he spoke to us in German, with Grady interpreting, as we sat to our meal, under-dressed and dumbstruck, with hands too small to handle what was being served up.
And he brought out a bottle of vodka, and poured himself and Grady a confident amount, and I briefly wondered, “Is Grady going to drink vodka with all of us watching?” And then they toasted and, thank God, Grady did knock back that glass, and did a patented Grady arm-shimmy and whoop, and our man poured them both a second, and Grady did his honorable best with that one, too.
Everything about Grady was equal to that moment. There he decided: Sometimes you grind grain on the Sabbath, or eat meat with publicans, or drink strong drink in the presence of your allies. Speaking German, by Omaha Beach, that’s what you do when you’re Grady Spires.
-There are a million great Grady stories. Some involve bottle caps.
Orvieto. A hilltop town between Rome and Florence, but so what?—good for you, Orvieto, enjoy your exotic hilltop self, but why would I go there? I already did the pulling-up-stakes thing, and am now settled in the dorm where God has shown me. Besides, they don’t speak English there, they mangia in Italiano cuesto. (Which actually means “they eat in Italian this.”)
Hey, I, Mark Wacome Stevick, teacher of poetry-writing in Orvieto, get you. Example?
First time I’m there, my feet are fondling the firm cobblestones when a shiny Norwegian couple swings up and hits me with, “Mi scusi, dov’è il duomo?”—(“Where’s the cathedral?”)—Ok, good—but I, because I only listened to the “Sing Your Way to Italian” CD twice, can’t really break bread with them—so what do I do but don my Apology Face and explain:
“Non PARLI Italiano”—which I later realize means, “YOU don’t speak Italian.”
“I’m so sorry, you don’t speak Italian…”
So that’s why they went away snickering.
A funny story, and true.
But is it valuable?
* * *
M was a student from Messiah, a Mennonite. She wrote this poem about the crucifix that hung in the convent library where we had class. Here it is.
To the Crucifix
Jesus Christ I must confess
I’m staring at your chest again,
Your naked hairless body hung
Here on this wall again
Good God and don’t you know it’s
Got to be indecent.
High Christ I’ve cried so long for this pierced
Passion but popping up here
Now and again and forever
For Christ’s stake
An indecent eternity you bleed
One has only so much hair to
Bathe your feet in.
Christ I wonder if to relieve you
One took out one solid nail
That held your hand,
If your right arm dropped
Heavy across down the face
Of the sad glass clock
That fixes you,
The minute hand towards the
Swung a circle that would
Move you once
So we could look away.
K went to Houghton College. Most afternoons at 5:00 she walked to a service at a convent where the nuns are cloistered and silent but for the singing and prayers of their services. Once she took me. She said the Amens right with the sisters, and afterward they smiled audibly at her through the bars in the chapel. She told me those services might be saving her faith.
W was a Gordon guy, and he was constantly arriving home noisy and happy after some dinner or service or concert with his friends the Lardanis and the other charismatic Catholics—people who were so salty, so irrepressibly incandescent that the new Bishop of the entire region invited them to hold services in his private chambers.
And a couple days before that semester ended, something took me to W’s room. He was in there among a heap of clothes and books and scraps of poems, crying fat tears. And he didn’t kick me out, and I said something like what you’d try to say then, and after a while he said, “In my life I’ve never felt such belonging.”
In his life.
M’s poem is one that I’m glad got written. It’s honest and surprising and maybe a little worrisome. Honest like the woman at the well: “That chump’s not my husband.” Surprising like the woman who said, “Yeah, but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.” M’s poem reminds me that God loves problem children like Jacob and David.
—and like M, K and W, who were learning a new faith language in Orvieto. Or maybe adding new words and sentences and silences to the language they already speak. How do you get to the place where you fall in Love—where the Amens are finally true and truly meant? For them it was by pulling up stakes again and wandering, not commuting like Americans, but wandering like foreigners—
into white rooms pinned with crucifixes,
into chapels of communicative nuns,
or into homes where, though you hardly speak Italian, the table is laid, and you’re made to understand: Mangia. Eat. Mangia!
-Delivered some years back in a Global Education convocation.
For symposium this year, my public story class put together a podcast on appearance & reality. (Some of you came and told stories.) We all wrote essays about moments in our lives that touched the theme at different angles.
I got thinking about how sometimes pretending or acting As If can be a way toward truth, a way into feeling it.
Sometimes you don’t feel like praying, or saying thanks, but you do those things anyway and end up feeling grateful. Sometimes you don’t feel like loving your spouse, but you do—and then you do. Sometimes you really don’t want to love your enemy, or pray for them, but when you bring them before the throne they become a person, not just a name–historied and complex as you are, with things you can try to forgive, the way you hope to forgive yourself.
Besides Peter jumping out of the boat acting as if he could walk on water, the best story of this kind that I know is Corrie Ten Boom’s.
She’d been a prisoner in Ravensbruck concentration camp. After the war she traveled the world speaking about God’s forgiveness. At one such event a man approached her whom she recognized as having been one of the cruelest guards in Ravensbruck.
He told her he’d become a Christian—and then he put out his hand and asked her to forgive him for the things he’d done as a guard.
She couldn’t do it. Here’s what she writes:
‘Help, Lord!’ I prayed silently. ‘I’ll lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
Here are three of your colleagues, Nate Youndt, Sarah Henkels and Katherine Allison, to read excerpts from their essays—to tell stories from their lives. In Nate’s, he tries something similar to what I’ve been saying, but ends up with more truth than he’s ready for. In Sarah’s, a cousin’s reality is almost too hard for a family to bear. And for Katherine, one chance encounter changes the whole kingdom forever after.
All these stories bear out what we know, which is that truth is better than semblance, even if it’s hard, and hard to get to.