21 June 2010

Interview with Audell Shelburne

This is the thirteenth interview of the ”Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. Please leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

Interview with
D. Audell Shelburne
via email
1 May 2010

IA: Please tell us about yourself. In what media do you create or perform? Do you also teach? Are you also a student? Please talk about yourself as an “artist,” student of the arts, and teacher of the arts.

DAS: I am a professor of English at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a small school in central Texas. My training and education positioned me to teach early modern British literature, particularly Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, and so on, but I have been a generalist for most of my career, teaching rhetoric, early and late British literature, and some American literature. As the chair of the department for eight years, I usually taught courses that needed an instructor, whatever they happened to be. Then, about a decade ago, I inherited additional tasks, editing Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature and directing the annual Writers’ Festival. At that point, I decided I needed to understand more about contemporary poetry, and I started attending festivals and workshops. I started focusing some of my energy on writing poetry and figuring out how to make a poem work. I guess I have succeeded to some extent because this April I was honored to be the judge of the Austin International Poetry Festival anthology, Di-verse-city.

I have also written many poems, but I am slow to send them out because I feel that I am still developing as a poet. Still, I have had some successes in the past five years. I have placed poems in some good journals, such as descant and Borderlands. I have placed others in smaller venues, and have done readings at various festivals and conferences. As a poet, I tend to start with a good line or a good image. I let that drive the poem wherever it should go. I like word play and intelligent language. I try to create poems that engage the reader in some conflict, perhaps a story, a character, an image, a paradox, or whatever. I once was working with a poet who rather arrogantly said something like “I’m not above having my poem mean nothing.” I want my poems to mean something. I want them to prompt thoughts and evoke feelings and stir up something in the reader.

Note by IA: Here is one of Audell's poems:

Ab Ovo
Easter 2009
He lived for Friday,
knew Saturday
might never come,
prayed it wouldn’t
but understood
the crux of the matter.
When darkness fell
and earth quivered
who knew finished
meant just beginning?

As a teacher of poetry, I often teach the introductory sections of literature. My students typically hate literature, but especially poetry, when they begin the course. They commonly talk about the dreaded high school teacher or class that turned them off the whole enterprise. They often speak with disdain about the waste of effort and time. Most of them regard it as an unnecessary evil in the world of education, and would readily deny it any standing in the so-called real world outside the university. In other words, they unwittingly parrot the major complaints of the Puritans in Sidney’s Defense of Poesy. And I try to counter those complaints and charges with experience, teaching them fun, challenging, difficult, exciting, dangerous, and wonderful poems. I show them clips of the Favorite Poem Project, helping them meet real people who value poetry and find meaning in it. I show them my poems and encourage them to write their own. I have them imitate poems that they like, parody them, expand or extend them in new ways. I have them analyze and explain them. Some gain an appreciation. A few fall in love. Most seem unchanged by the experience for now.

But I don’t blame my students. Their responses are reflections of our world and our society. Hard times of war, terror, and economic collapses have prompted legislators and administrators alike to fall back on their typical strategies, cutting classes, expanding class sizes, reducing budgets, finding “financial exigencies” to justify their disdainful policies in spite of all the studies and research that shows how essential arts and letters are for real education to occur. Even when their prized empirical data shows them people [who study humanities] become better at business, law, medicine, or whatever, they find it too easy to cut the costs in humanities and arts. Even when the income journals and spreadsheets can demonstrate that humanities and arts are self-sustaining in the university, the time-honored tradition of subsidizing the fancy science gadgets and pretending that football earns money (which it only does at a handful of institutions) continues. So it isn’t terribly surprising that a student wouldn’t find value in a poem. Our society rarely does so.

Still, some do. Still, we must do so. As a poet and as a teacher, I do my best to help people discover the joys and values and meanings that stem from poetry and the poetic experience.

And it isn’t entirely hopeless. I enjoyed participating in the Austin International Poetry Festival last week. Several hundred poets came to Austin to read from their work during a four-day period. The readings went through the day and late into the night at multiple venues across the city.

It was fun and exciting to see the interest.

IA: What topics tend to recur in your work?

DAS: I am a pretty typical poet: I tend to write a lot about death, love, and relationships. I suppose I’m a Romantic in most ways, using life experiences and transforming them into an aesthetic effort. Even the most autobiographical of my poems, however, undergo some radical transformation as they take shape on the page. I’m perfectly happy to change, for instance, the color of my child’s eyes in a poem if the poem needs me to do so. When I’m writing, I’m after a poem and some truth, not a photographic historical accuracy. I’ve been told that my poems are often witty or clever. People usually intend that as a compliment in spite of the potential for that trait to become a dismissive or pejorative. I really love paradox. I like characters and conflicts. Many of my poems tend to have a narrative structure, perhaps compressed and concentrated but still narrative. I find myself working within and against archetypal patterns. Although much of my work is Christian at heart, I try to keep overt elements at a minimum. Ideally, I’d love my most Christian poems to appear in the best journals without causing an editor any reason to second-guess her decision to accept the poem. I want the poem to be so good that the editor and reader don’t have to raise any alarms about some ideological or philosophical assault.

IA: What specific techniques do you use?

DAS: I typically work in free verse. I have never had the ear for strict meters or the patience for strict form. I can appreciate some of that still, even in contemporary work, and I know some formal poets that can dazzle me with their efforts. But it doesn’t work for me as a poet. I’m probably just too lazy or too busy or something. For me the fun comes from finding the right form to fit the right words, discovering the way to say something so that it works as a poem.

Here is another of Audell's poems:

People pretend
science and faith
are at odds
but even Newton, Einstein,
Wittgenstein, Vonnegut
and the Pope
knew the first law
was for Adam, Eve,
and the apple
to fall
at the same
to fall
until acted
by another.

IA: What theories inform your work?

DAS: I think I am influenced as much by Neoplatonic leanings, such as Castiglione’s The Courtier, as I am anything. But I admit that I find much value in the emerging democratic spirits in the Romantics. Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads and Shelley’s Defense of Poetry are central to my view of poets and poetry. Sidney’s Defense is too. In that sense, I’m seriously out of date. But I have also read Fussell and Strand and Boland and so on. I suppose it shows a lack of awareness or a lack of knowledge or both, but I honestly can’t name a particular theory that informs my work more than another.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?

DAS: I don’t. I suppose I could claim to be part of the Metaphysical school or something, but that’s just me being silly. I admire the connections between body and soul that I find there, and I dream about finding ways to create poems with those layers of meanings. But I don’t count myself as part of that or any other group.

IA: What do you know about the current state of the arts?

DAS: In some ways, I am so isolated and insulated from the larger movements of arts that I cannot speak to this question. My artist friends seem to be relatively happy at the moment, if that means anything. I find that a little curious since I have heard of many budget cuts and reductions in funding for various art projects, but they do seem happy.

IA: If you have a religious point of view: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular arts?

DAS: This is a difficult and important question. As an editor of a journal that made the decision to include the subtitle (Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature), I struggle with this difference in every issue. My largest complaint as an editor of a Christian journal is that writers and poets seem to think that the label “Christian” is an excuse to submit mediocre work. Part of the difficulty is that so much religious poetry exists that much of it starts to sound (or be) cliché. I don’t think I can read another poem that declares “The grass is green, / the sky is blue, / so praise God.” While I am ready to affirm that they are and we should, that’s not poetry. Even poems that echo the Psalms or Hopkins have trouble because that’s not poetry for today. For me, the difference in the sacred arts has more to do with attitude and orientation. It starts with an assumption that holy and divine aren’t delusions. It resonates with the understanding that meaning and form, beauty and truth, goodness and justice, are part of something remarkable. It remarks on it. It finds ways to enlarge our awareness and understanding of it. I love Hopkins, Milton, and Donne, but they finished their work a while ago. I really don’t want to see pale imitations of it now. Still, I am encouraged by some exceptional poets who work with Christian themes, images, and perspectives. Angela O’Donnell, Larry Thomas, Alan Berecka, Walt McDonald, Sherry Craven, Anne McCrady, Barbara Crooker, Jacqueline Kolosov, Scott Cairns, Jeanne Murray Walker, and Kelly Cherry are some of the names of poets that come to mind. They are doing interesting and innovative things. They are avoiding the clichés and making some good poetry.

Many of my own poems don’t have any overt connection to my faith. On a deep level, however, they are works that reflect life, reflect living in this world. Living life here and now, as we all know, includes scrapes and falls. That in itself doesn’t separate the sacred and secular, though. Instead, I think the boundary rests somewhere along the line of those assumptions about the nature and significance of the experience. It has something to do with the view of bodies, souls, or both. The overwhelming utilitarian and materialistic bases of secular life insist on body alone. The overwhelming fundamentalist leanings of many religionists insist on soul alone. I say it’s both body and soul, together, and I want my poetry to try to put the two spheres of experience together.

IA: How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?

DAS: I don’t know that I’m right about where we are, but I suspect that we got here after decades of ultra-conservative Christian capitalism and laissez faire, trickle-down economics. Poetry is largely a luxury, and as long as nobody is threatened by it, it will remain an innocuous pastime. But poetry is not the NFL or the NBA. Poetry is not Wall Street. Nor should it be. But, the shrinking budgets and rising costs seem to be squeezing poets and humanities professors more than they are people in some other sectors.

I suspect it stems from the attitudes so aptly summarized by President George W. Bush in his State of the Union Address (January 31, 2006). He wanted to keep America competitive, so he instituted programs to encourage math and science because those are crucial. He wanted 70,000 more high school teachers of math and science. He wanted 30,000 more professionals in math and science to switch careers and become teachers. Oddly enough, he simultaneously wanted students placing out of college by getting them to take more Advanced Placement in math and science. And, then, odder still, three paragraphs later he notes that many Americans are troubled by the direction of our culture and have “deep concerns” and “worry” about a world that lacks love and virtue. In other words, he succinctly summarized the a common current through much of human history: it sure would be nice to make more stuff and more money, and I just don’t understand why nobody understands true values any more. I think Jesus noted this habit of thought. I’m pretty sure Dickens nails it in Hard Times. It seems to me that if we wanted people to understand love and values, we might teach them some poetry, rather than spending our energy trying to find ways to for them to avoid studying Algebra and English in college.

I’m really not opposed to science and math. I believe education is about learning as much as possible of the truth about everything, including Organic Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Psychology, History, and Calculus. The difference for me is that you don’t eliminate the philosophy and poetics, because that is where you form character and judgment, where you learn to discern meaning and significance, and where you develop the ability to assess value.

IA: Where are we going in the Humanities?

DAS: I’m not sure. The recent series in the Chronicle of Higher Education was mixed about the outlook, and I share the mixed opinions. I see much to be hopeful about, but my cynical side is winning at the moment. I think jobs in the Humanities are scarce, and even when they are available they have lost status and stature. I think people are lacking any real voice for change, not because they aren’t speaking out but because the audience has evaporated. People are too busy listening to manufactured arguments about non-stories in the media. Meanwhile, I listen to people upset at the lack of education, the lack of values, the failure of society to teach people values, and instead of really attending to the failures, they hear the politicians offering cheaper, faster, more efficient educations. And saving money and time, we all know, is what education is really about. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with learning who we are as individuals, who we are as a people, and how we fit into this world. I don’t see much hope for us in the twenty-first century if we don’t pursue the real questions about ourselves, and as long as budgets and assessment data drive the direction of the Humanities, we won’t likely get very far into the inquiry. Instead, we can learn to read an actuary table or a periodic table, and we’ll know all there is to know about life in these times. Meanwhile, I keep writing poetry, publishing poetry, teaching poetry, and hoping that someone will join in.

And here is a final poem written by our interviewee:

New Beginnings
“We die and rise the same…”
John Donne, The Canonization

The night before the fall,
they had no way to know
winter would freeze
the vines, wither the fruit.
In their joy they had no
idea their sin would prompt
birthdays and funerals,
holidays and weddings,
any excuse to jazz
water to wine, toast fresh starts.

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