[Interview] Luci Shaw: Adventure and Ascent

[Interview] Luci Shaw: Adventure and Ascent

June 04, 2015

The best poets I find come from stumbling. Sometimes I find them in my path as I walk along unassuming, and sometimes they are hidden in rooms I enter when I am trying to find my way to another location. Luci Shaw came to me in that way.

I was trying to find a session at a conference and I got lost on the expansive campus. I wandered into the chapel at the Festival of Faith and Writing in the Spring of 2000 and heard Luci’s sweet voice reciting a poem from her latest book of poetry. It might have been the words she used, the images she summoned, or the stance she held at that podium, open and yet powerful at the same time. In any case, I was drawn in, and I stayed and listened and learned and maybe I cried a little too. Her poems cling to me, often finding a place in my heart that I hadn’t realized was in need of filling. I’m pleased to have had the opportunity this month to ask her a few questions about craft and form, adventure, struggle, and even social media.

Ruminate Magazine: The catalogue of your writings is immense; it’s hard to know where to begin! I thought we’d start with your book on the craft of writing, Breath for Bones. I know it is a collection of thoughts from a number of places—essays, readings, poems, to name a few. What was it like for you to bring this book together?

Luci Shaw: Actually, it was a long and arduous process. Over the years I'd given a number of speeches, and in writing for the public events I'd always had in mind, “Maybe this could go in a book sometime.” Because so much of my thinking and writing at that time in my life had to do with the partnership of creativity and faith, and how each bit of writing seemed to enlarge and connect with the others, I'd find myself cannibalizing a bit of one lecture to fill out a gap in another. And so on, until I ended up with sheaves of typescript and computer files that felt like large tangles of kelp, or an inextricable snarl of yarn. It felt un-usable, too ragged and large to be coherent. I didn't have the energy to sift and sort it out. And I had a lot of other writing projects going. The combo of limited time and energy resulted in a sense of quagmire.

I truly dislike the sound of my own voice on tape (high-pitched and squeaky) but I found that, quite often, when I was asked a question in an interview my ad lib intuition sort of took over and I'd say things I never knew I knew! And I'd recognize a concept that had been bubbling away within me, finally getting vented when I opened my mouth! I had a friend transcribe some of those early cassette tapes of recorded interviews and public speeches that I'd kept. So those too went into the cake mix. As the introduction to the book suggests: it's a compilation of lecture notes, workshop outlines, journal entries, interviews, essays, and poems.

My salvation in this conundrum was my skillful friend and wordsmith, Lil Copan. I gave her the unenviable job of “quilting” this mess into a book. She took three months out of her own busy life to accomplish the task. Technology was not as accomplished and helpful then as it is now. The completed project that she ultimately sent me on line had to be typed out, word by word, by another faithful friend working to a deadline. This all goes to show how my personal inadequacy was remedied in the community of friendship. These helpers were and are my heroes.

RM: In the book you talk about writing from “enthusiasm rather than discipline.” It seems to me that you find that “discipline” in the daily living out of life. Would you say that’s accurate? Can you talk a bit about that discipline and it’s role in the life of a writer?

LS: I'm not orderly enough to qualify as disciplined in any normal sense of the word. But I deeply believe what poet Paul Mariani once said in a classroom, “Your gift is your spiritual discipline.” In other words, if God has given you an ability, you need to build on it, sharpen it, refine, and practice it. Not to do so is to tell God that he was mistaken in you.

I've written all my life, mostly poetry, without much professional help apart from a couple of workshops at The Glen, (with Mark Jarman and Andrew Hudgens). Because I had the advantage of a semi-British education in Australia and Canada, which required me to read a heap of good literature and write long essay assignments, I learned how to carry an idea to its rational conclusion. (This is not how poetry works.) My parents kept me supplied with the classics in my youth. Being immersed in stellar language rubs off. It blessed me in my work as a publisher/editor and continues to help me on a daily basis as I write.

So, my poetry discipline? Listening, paying attention, getting an arriving poem or image into my journal and onto my computer screen—that's my discipline. It's never work. It's pure delight! I read voraciously and often a word jumps off the page at me, demanding to be used. I've written four new poems this week just by catching some images mid-flight and finding the words to fulfill the image, which takes off in unexpected directions. What I write writes me. I scan the morning paper for Associated Press headlines that ask to be poems—“Comeback for snowy plover.” “New sea star babies offer hope amid mass die-offs.”

I'm fascinated by words and their derivations. Having had four years of high school Latin and French in Canada followed by a New Testament Greek minor in college gave me a huge advantage in understanding how words work, how they've followed the tortuous journey from one culture or period into another. This was something Madeleine L'Engle and I had in common. In her study in Manhattan we'd be working over one of her manuscripts (I edited eleven of her books) and we'd tussle over the meaning or use of a word. I knew just where the etymological dictionary was in her bookshelf. I'd pull it down and we'd pore over it to discover its roots and how it came into the English language. I use my massive OED in the same way.

RM: It’s apt to use the word “adventure” in the title of your memoir, Adventure of Ascent. You seem to find the adventure and the wonder in all things. Can you talk about this a bit?

LS: Yes. Absolutely. My dad was a missionary surgeon and explorer in the Solomon Islands when cannibalism was practiced. My brother and I were born after he was 60, his first children, which was one of his greatest adventures. He taught us to hike, ice-skate, sail, swim, climb cliffs. I come by the need to prove myself by attempting a new challenge. It's in the genes. One of my sons is also a doctor in a forest hospital in Burma. You may have heard of my bungee jumping. Right now, at 86, my adventures are not as showy, but the urge is still there.

And yes, there is wonder in everything natural for me. The wilderness­—God's garden. I love the drama of the seasonal changes. John and I love summer tent-camping though we've camped in snow from time to time. We have a sailboat berthed just south of the Canadian border. I married John for that boat. I love driving long distances on my own, and dread the day when I have to hand over the car keys. 

RM: You say in the book, “One of the consequences of aging is the feeling of no longer being totally in the loop.” That being said, you do keep a nice presence on social media. You seem to stay in the loop fairly well, I think (better than many writers and poets regardless of age!). What’s the draw to social media for you; is it this desire to be in the loop? Have there been drawbacks to it?

LS: I do enjoy Facebook, not for all the trivia but because there's often a challenging discussion thread that keeps me abreast of what some of my writer friends are thinking and talking about. I admit it can be a time-waster, and I do think there's an overabundance of “self-marketing” by those who do a lot of speaking and publishing.

A book that Jeanne Walker and I edited, Ambition, is due to be released by Wipf & Stock very soon. It's about the tendency most of us have to want to be special, better than others, even famous, and how that can easily become narcissism. Our ambition should be, as Donald Hall once said, on behalf of the gift we have been given rather than on our personal aspirations for celebrity.

But my favorite social networking happens when I'm physically present with a bunch of kindred spirits!

RM: My kids are always amazed that I’d buy a “whole book of poems” when one poem moves me. It seems to me that in this “iTunes” kind of art-getting environment, that has to feel daunting to the publishing poet. Have you encountered this?

LS: Why buy a whole book of poems? Because if one poem moves and speaks to you, perhaps more poems by the same writer may multiply and draw you further in! Every poem is an experience in itself, to be taken on its own terms. It's an opening into the mind of a writer who sees surprising things and wants to pass on the moment of enlightenment.

RM: No matter what I read that you’ve written, I find you always seem to circle back to nature in one way or another. Can you talk a bit about that?

LS: Nature and its beauty is a reflection of divine grace. I first experienced this as a camper in Ontario, Canada—as a canoeist, a swimmer, a dreamer in the Muskoka Lakes. This was and is the Good News of God's generosity. It boggles my mind that I can be a part of it, can celebrate it and call attention to its diversity—that I can work to maintain creation care.

I love being with people and have multitudes of friends and some very intimate and long-lasting friendships. There's a lot of rich interacting, giving, and taking. But after a while I need to withdraw and re-charge, replenish. Silence and solitude are vital for me. I'm part of a contemplative prayer group. I live in a part of the world known for natural beauty—mountains, beaches, lakes, ocean, forests—a landscape that is a natural restorative for fractured living, and reminder of the largeness of Creation. Just to be a part of this landscape settles and nourishes my soul and causes immense gratitude.


We’re pleased to be giving away a copy of Luci Shaw's book, Adventure of Ascent, to one of our readers. Write a comment below and we’ll pick a name and notify the winner on Friday, June 12. Congratulations to Becky Cotton, who will receive a copy of Adventure of Ascent by Luci Shaw!

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