This is the thirty-seventh interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.
Interview with Tania Runyan, poet
5 & 30 November 2010
IA: Please tell us about your poetry. For those who haven’t read it yet, how would you describe it?
TR: The closest I can get to describing my poetry, at least what I’m doing these days, is spiritual reflection. For the past few years, I have focused almost all my poetry on scripture, either directly or indirectly. I definitely don’t want to box myself in or write for a narrow audience. When a non-Bible reader responds positively to my poetry, I count that as a victory.
IA: Some of your poetry responds to current events, especially to tragedies such as school shootings or natural disasters. Do you believe that poets need to spend time with the newspaper, learning to be a voice for their times?
TR: Not just poets, but all people, should engage with the world’s events as a way to develop compassion and learn how to best meet the world’s needs. That being said, we can lose perspective if we spend too much time with the headlines. For every 100 people who die in a plane crash, 30,000 die of hunger and preventable diseases. But we don’t hear about the slow, daily suffering of many in the world; that information just doesn’t rake in the dough.
IA: Many of your poems do not shy away from violence, grief, despair. You seem to have found a niche, perhaps, speaking for anguished people, especially women. Have you always written this way, or has there been a change in your work? Was this an intentional choice, or do such topics choose you?
TR: For many years I wrote narrative autobiographical poems until I finally just got sick of myself! As an anxiety-prone person, I think I was afraid of going toward the violence and anguish in the world that haunted me and chose to stay with the “safer” themes of my childhood and adolescence. But these other topics did indeed call me just the same. The poem about the man torturing his dog was hard to write, and has even made people angry, but I couldn’t leave it. The same with my poem about the Amish school shooting. I couldn’t go on until I “visited the scene” through a poem.
IA: What other topics tend to recur in your poetry?
TR: Lots of scripture. My new collection, Simple Weight, is heavily informed by the Beatitudes, and my second collection, coming out from WordFarm in 2011, is based on women in the Bible. Currently I am working on a collection of poems based on Paul’s writings. Again, some hard stuff there. Jesus is just a lot more fun to be with, and Paul has both perplexed and frustrated me. Getting to know him through poetry, though, has helped me understand him, and, even more, myself.
IA: Congratulations on your recent NEA grant. Can you tell us a little about the process of applying for the grant, what its purpose is, and how you intend to use it?
TR: The purpose of the NEA grant is to provide writers with the means to produce more work. For some, that means travel and research. For others, it means opening up more time to write. For me, it's all about the time. I am a stay-at-home mom most days, working about 15 hours per week as a private tutor. It's hard to find quiet, sustained periods of time to write. The grant will allow me to pay for some childcare that will open up maybe an extra ten hours per week to write. This is huge. Now we're talking 15 hours a week to concentrate on poetry, rather than the paltry 3-5 I've been doing! Since my current manuscript project revolves around the Apostle Paul and his writings, there is also a possibility that I may use some of these funds to take a trip to follow his historical footsteps, perhaps to Greece or Turkey. But for now, I am focusing on the time.
IA: What specific techniques do you use? Forms, free verse, rhyme, specific meters, particular recurring figures of speech, certain structuring allusions or repetitions, uses of narrative, uses of time…?
TR: I write in mostly free verse, but it often feels anything but “free”! I agonize over line breaks and stanzas to the point of driving myself crazy.
IA: What theories inform your work? Do you think these topics, techniques, and theories are typical of those working in your genre? Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?
TR: I don’t think I adhere to any theories, at least consciously, and I honestly don’t feel very “up” on schools or movements (the result, I imagine, of residing in a house with three small kids rather than in academia). I do hope I can count myself among those who write honestly and provocatively about matters of faith, namely Christian faith. Writers who publish in journals like Image, The Christian Century, Ruminate, and Rock & Sling, for example, approach matters of faith honestly, even with a lot of doubt. Contrary to what some would want you to believe, a life of faith is not about easy answers.
IA: Congratulations on having your chapbook, Delicious Air from Finishing Line Press, named 2007 Book-of-the-Year from the Conference on Christianity and Literature! What do you think this award says about the kind of Christian poetry that works? What doesn’t work in contemporary Christian verse?
TR: Many of the poems in Delicious Air do grapple with doubt, as I mentioned before. They don’t necessarily adhere to the world of sparkly angels and smiling, down-home Sunday morning choirs. However, I want to make it clear that I don’t think struggle and doubt are more fashionable in Christian poetry; there is nothing wrong with joy! I just think it’s a lot harder to write about it. I often find myself focusing on doubt and despair, even if the poem didn’t start that way. Sometimes I wonder if a part of me still really needs to go to those places or if I go to those places because subconsciously I know it’s “easier.” One of my goals is to actually learn how to “do joy” in my writing in an original and provocative way. Some people may read my work and think that I am hanging onto God by a thread, when I really don’t see my life that way. Some writers of faith, like Paul Willis and Barbara Crooker, for example, do a wonderful job of revealing the joyous parts of life in their work.
IA: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular poetry as they are currently practiced?
TR: I don’t think there is a distinct line. Many of my poems come directly out of my own biblical reflection, but that is not always clear to secular readers. If the poem can touch them just the same, on a different level, I have succeeded, although I would love for readers who have given up on faith or who been hurt by the church to see God in a new, even healing, way. On the other hand, poems that would be considered “secular” by most often bring me closer to God. God works in mysterious ways, as the old cliché says, and so does poetry!