Works with Soul: Dave Harrity

Works with Soul: Dave Harrity

April 05, 2012

Ruminate will be co-hosting a panel with our new friend Dave Harrity (poet and founder of Antler) at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing in a few weeks, so we thought this would be the perfect time to introduce him to you all. So, Ruminate readers, meet Dave.

RM: Tell us a little bit about your story, your writing, and your new project, Antler.

DH: First, let me say thanks to Ruminate for their interest in my little project, but most of all for making a much-needed space where seekers can come to ‘chew on faith, life and art’—I’m glad to have such pleasant ties with what I think is one of the best darn lit mags out there. Ruminate is sleek, readable, and challenging in all the right ways!

In my own life, I’ve been writing seriously for almost a decade, been teaching a little longer, and have always been attracted to poetry, prose, and practices that traverse the strange territory between faith and imagination—I’m interested in how people of faith use their language to open the door to the divine. But I think there’s a little more to that ancient practice than entering into the presence of the divinity, and the Christian faith has its own unique revelation for this.

For me, I’m trying to be still long enough for the opposite to happen. Daily contemplation and writing practice, prayer, and peace-making—all things that underscore our humble place in God’s world—invite us to that space where the divine’s presence already is in this world; I want to awaken to the reality that God’s language has come into the very moments in which we’re all being.

It’s very elusive, but worthwhile—it’s these practices I want to teach my children and students to engage, and ones that I’m hoping to engage when I sit down to write each morning. Sometimes I come close to something like it, I think, but mostly I just try to.

RM: So, then, where did you first see a real need for imagination and creativity in the religious communities you participated in?

DH: My perception in all this was and is something not so much seen acutely but perceived—invisible forces setting a compass needle spinning. But I’m also operating under the assumption that my needle is close to calibrated, and that’s iffy. To preface: I don’t have the answers, but am in a seeking posture, which means I’m working toward them. Though it pragmatically means I often turn out more questions than answers—tough break for me and a few others that might look to me for them, like students.

I see many contemporary-mainstream churches utilizing art that might be communal in scope but can’t be easily practiced alone, or even wholeheartedly as a group. Many—maybe most?—people can’t sing, paint, or play an instrument. It’s good to participate in these things as best you can, but that’s almost always felt passive to me. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

But language is the most common thread we share, and I think the task of a seeking believer is to be attentive to that language: our words are the best tools we have for writing the narratives or reciting the poems of our lives. You’re the only one with your voice, and I’d like to hear the timbre and pitch of that unique song directly, not just as a sound along with other sounds. And I’m less concerned with quality than honesty, though I know not everyone is.

The other issue—which I think is more serious—is that, often in the Church, art is only valuable as a tool for evangelism or expressing the power and grace of God, which is sad to me. Not the power and grace bit, but the only valuable bit. This kind of uncomplicatedness frightens me a bit because it lacks honesty and exploration.

It seems to me that collective, contemporary worship practices often leave out some important things that are strewn over the passages of the Bible, like asking tough questions, communal lament, direct address, or earnest doubt—all things a faithful seeker needs. In this way, art is being used by the Church rather than in the Church, or even as the Church.

Enter the idea and experiment of Antler (and sacred collisions!)—a teaching and resource platform aiming to help people interested in this intersection of faith and imagination find it, cultivate it, and allow it to change their lives and communities.

The organization offers web content I hope will become a resource for people of faith with a creative bent and I facilitate on-site workshops or private consultation to communities and individuals interested in using creative writing as a devotional practice for spiritual growth or formation. I love teaching people to dive into their natural talents with language and asking questions about our spiritual nature—giving them permission to allow their faith and imagination to collide.

RM: Along those same lines what was your "sacred collision between faith and imagination"? Why place creative writing at the center of your new organization?

DH: Thinking about, writing about, and trying to understand the Incarnation has been a sacred collision for me. I wonder what the implications of such a provocative claim should be to me on a daily basis—somehow ‘sin less’ seems crass and vague. I don’t think the Incarnation is ever about resisting, but about adding to, making new. I also don’t think it’s tough to see that Incarnation is ultimately an act of divine creativity—God revised in a concrete way.

I wonder how seriously I can take the Incarnation if I’m not willing to allow creative practice to shape my own life. So I go about the activities of my day after I’ve spent a bit of the morning in focused time of writing—making my words onto the flesh of paper. The more I practice, the more I see the world alive. And that vision gives me a joyful shiver. Because I’m in the world, I can make things come into the world out of the fragments of me I’m trying to understand. We can add to the world by creating—make it more rich, bring together all the pieces. We can all do it.

I wanted to create a platform that marries my interests, skills, and potential with the same qualities I believe all people have within. I’ve taught in a variety of settings and have had students of all walks of life and age. And I’ve noticed a trend: the practice of writing changes people. Engaging in creating something—even something very simple or small—marks a shift and ushers in something new.

RM: How do these creative endeavors deepen contemplative efforts and "flesh out" faith?

DH: Perspectives evolve. I started to see a real need for a fleshing out of faith as I had children, I think. So many things about your world change when kids enter it. I started to see how much my kids—who are just 11 months apart—desired intentionality, not just attention. Maybe that’s a good definition of what poetry is to me in some ways.

In my daily writing—often while the kiddos are sitting at the table with me doodling in their journals—I started to see that there was a time in my life (when I was a child) where there were no accidents, or maybe better said, where every accident opened to something new; where every accident made something very real and very beautiful, only by the fact that it existed and I had made it. My kids have shown me that business of being a child-like is making the loveliest mess you can make. And I think that same principle applies to creating.

In my own faith, I think I’m starting to see that God doesn’t come to do something as simple as fix the little messes we’ve made—God comes to shepherd that mess into something complete, which is different than perfection, or even wholeness. And there’s more to the Christ story than just “getting saved,” though redemption is a huge part of the narrative. But if we leave it at that, we’re utilitarian to a fault, childishly self-centered, and blindly simplistic. For me, the get-saved scenario allows too much room for neglect of the world that “God so loves” and often lacks the compassionate intention I feel I’m called to cultivate from the everyday.

RM: What does that say about creative practice as a whole for you?

DH: God coming into the world has implications of revision that move beyond our individualized experience and affect our lives together in community—people should ‘get saved’ so the human community might be affected by faith, hope, and charity, not so that they can simply join Christianity and enjoy some perks. God is in the serious business of revision by helping us to re-vision the world toward something complete. To paraphrase a Saint—God won’t change the world without us.

For me, poetry is the best way to awaken to the divinity that’s both inside and around us and to prepare my spirit to bring God’s Word into the world—not in an imperialistic or combative fashion, but by way of seeking peace.

I guess—and I know there’s been lots of clamor about this lately—the upshot is that I’m just not certain that we have to wait for Heaven, that it can’t be quietly trumpeted into this world, into this moment, beginning with our everyday actions. I want a faith that isn’t just about the future, or the after-life, but also about the present, and the now-life. And even if Heaven can’t be brought here and is in the future, I feel called to make the most of what God has made in this world, not the ever-distant next one. “The Kingdom of God is at hand” might just be a reference to holding a pen…

RM: "Today outside your prison I stand / and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen; / you have relatives outside. And there are / thousands of ways to escape." are the opening lines from William Stafford's “A Message from the Wanderer," which inspired the name 'Antler’. These lines bring the promise of expanded horizons alive.  What is your challenge to those communities who have not yet started exploring the intersection of faith and imagination?  How do you encourage people for whom this is unfamiliar ground?

DH: William Stafford—my favorite poet, the poet who first opened my eyes to the potential of my own words—was a practitioner of writing every day. All people should do that, I think—how much more interesting the world would be, and peaceful?

I’ve adopted the same practice. I write about anything and everything—nothing gets left out, no matter how strange it seems. Geez, if you could see my journals… Almost every one of my little entries is 98% ephemeral crap and 2% interesting or remotely usable—not great percentages. Yours will be the same—it doesn’t matter; do it any way. And do it every day. And do it for about 20-30 minutes.

Often I hear people will say that they’re unsure of their abilities or don’t know where to begin. Stafford was also known for saying “lower your standards”—and that’s some of the most freeing advice you’ll ever hear. What you write each day doesn’t have to look or be “good,” it just has to be you—true to who and what you’re trying to be.

Need ideas? Here are some things you could do during writing time with low standards and nearly nothing to lose—pick a new one every morning: “journal”; describe what’s directly in front of you or out the window; describe anything near you using all five senses; make and tinker with a poem; rewrite something you wrote the day before, add and subtract; write down a memory from childhood, a family story, or a dream you’ve had; account for your experience over the past 24 hours; write down and answer questions you’ve been thinking about; write in the voice of someone else you know or have known and give yourself advice; go outside and sit in the same place several days in a row and write down the things you see—how does the world look different?; reflect and pray, be specific; write reflections on what you’re reading; write down something you overheard said and give it a back-story; rewrite poems, quotes, or anything that strikes, irritates, or astonishes you. That should give you a good head start. Email me directly if you want more to do or have questions!

Next, get with others in your faith community on Sunday morning and try something different. Instead of the traditional Sunday School lesson, come together for a workshop—read aloud and discuss what you’ve written in the previous week. How are you starting to see a small change in your spiritual life from these intentional creative practices? Heck, get together after your church service and use the verses from the service as a springboard for creative and reflective writing. Sit down and write for 20 minutes then share what you’ve written on the spot—no vacillating. Do creative writing exercises together. Make together. Nothing binds a community together like making something and sharing it. Again, if you want specific ideas, don’t hesitate to email me.

Most of all, remember that writing is quiet, intentional, and patient work. But it’s work where nothing is ever wasted. Everything you put down has some value, something to offer—everything gives some small redemption. Even if it just proclaims a way into the next moment of realization.

Dave Harrity is an author and teacher living in Kentucky. His next book, due out this fall from Seedbed, is Making Manifest: Everyday Incarnation, a book of devotional meditations and writing exercises for personal and communal creative writing practice. He’s also the author of the chapbook Morning and What Has Come Since which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a Kentucky Literary Award, and the Conference on Christianity and Literature’s Book-of-the-Year Citation in 2007. The founder of Antler, a teaching and resource platform devoted to instructing people in religious communities how to use creative writing as a devotional practice for spiritual growth and formation, he travels the country conducting workshops about the intersection of faith and imagination. He lives in Louisville with his wife Amanda, and their children Emmalynne and Elias. Connect with him directly at, on Twitter, or via email.

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