Investigating the sacred and profane
Writer Robert Bieselin interviewed William Rewak, S.J., chancellor of Santa Clara University, about his new collection of poems, The Right Taxi, on Nov. 14, 2012 in Kirkus Reviews. The full text of the interview follows. The Right Taxi was recently named to Kirkus Reviews' Best of 2012.
The mention of “religious poetry” might conjure somber sermons, staid devotions and, in darker turns, a few dashes of some good old-fashioned fire and brimstone. But for William Rewak, a Jesuit priest, godly verse isn’t nearly as dramatic, direct, or damning.
In The Right Taxi, Rewak’s debut collection of poems, religion has a much more practical, personal hold. The playful verse refers to martini-guzzling rhinos, a pasta-ordering egret, and a God who may or may not drive a taxicab. In short, it’s the type of “religious poetry” you might expect from a priest who also has a Ph.D. in literature and has served as a university president, chancellor, and poetry professor.
We caught up with Rewak, currently the chancellor of Santa Clara University, to discuss religion’s place in the magical and mundane, his relationship with both animals and death, and the inspiration for the subtle imagery that drives The Right Taxi. [After this interview appeared, The Right Taxi was named to Kirkus Reviews' Best of 2012 —ed.]
You mention in the book’s opening poem the nagging imp that impels and implores you to write. When did you start hearing it and what’s kept you from abandoning it?
Well, to some extent, that imp has been with me all my life, in some form or another. I remember my sister and I, in our early teens, creating a loose-leaf book about Roman gladiators: I did the writing, she did the pictures. But poetry developed into an academic interest, actually from my high school reading of Shakespeare, and I taught it for many years. However, I didn’t start writing it until I was 40. Definitely a late-bloomer in that regard. I could never give it up now, though there’s always the niggling fear, when I sit down at a blank computer screen, that it may give me up. When you find something you love, something that gives you pleasure, and something that wells up inside without your calling for it, you cannot walk away from it. The poem does indicate that there are deeper realities than art, so an artist who is aware of those realities—like Chaucer, for example, who at the end wrote his famous “Retraction,” or Gerard Manley Hopkins (a fellow Jesuit) who initially thought spending time on his poems was taking time away from serving God—might reasonably wonder if the “imp” is worth it. But art brings into relief the beauty and mystery of God’s creation, so, yes, the “imp” must be listened to.
The Right Taxi uses a significant amount of animal imagery—especially in the book’s rear third. Was it a conscious decision to include a recurring animal motif? If so, why?
I suppose, first, because animals have always fascinated me—I keep a collection of animals in my office. It looks like a Noah’s ark in there. But on another level, I do believe that animals are a fascinating part of the creation we inhabit, we are responsible for them, they are the companions Adam called by name in the book of Genesis. They are innocent, even at their fiercest, so they represent a kind of Eden we have lost. As Elizabeth Bishop says in her poem about the moose, they give us a “sweet/sensation of joy.” So it was definitely a conscious decision to ensure that they were an important part of the imagination of the book.
When you find something you love, something that gives you pleasure, and something that wells up inside without your calling for it, you cannot walk away from it.
In the book’s description, you note that “these poems find their meaning, ultimately, in a God . . .” yet the poems themselves don’t mention God outright as often as one might expect. Was it a conscious decision to keep the theme indirect?
It was. I wanted the reader to approach the poem without any preconceptions, to be caught up in the argument, or the personality, or the imagery, and then to be led to an unexpected consideration—the possibility, or even the certainty, that a transcendental reality suffuses our lives. If it comes unexpectedly, as a surprise, it makes a greater impact. However, I do write poems more obviously about God, about Jesus, about the events in the Bible, and some of them will appear in a second volume. My fellow Jesuit poets, Jim Torrens and Thomas Flowers, write beautiful religious poetry that is respectful, tough, and heart-wrenching, and I would like to follow their example. I’m jealous, too, of how Mary Karr and Franz Wright handle the realization of God in their lives. No pious sentimentality there! They remind me of Hopkins and John Donne.
You taught poetry and published many poems before deciding to release your own collection. Why the wait? Were the poems in The Right Taxi written with the book in mind, or were they collected from years of writing?
A few of the poems in that book go back to the early 80’s; It’s simply a group of poems I’ve written through the years that I thought would make a good collection, and could be grouped the way they are grouped, in the three thematic sections. It might be fair to say that all my poems were, and are, written with a book in mind, but until recently there wasn’t an opportunity to sit and do the planning. Even now, however, it has taken me well over two years to put the collection together. Life has a way of getting in the way of things you’d like to do because of all the things you have to do. I finally, however, did make a conscious decision to do something about it before the eyes get dimmer!
These poems mention boredom several times and often use imagery of waiting for—or between—events. Do you see boredom and routine as having a significant effect on your life or, in turn, your poetry?
It’s interesting you point that out. I think I would say there is a difference between waiting for something and being bored. Waiting is a condition of human life: We wait to grow up, we wait to see whom we’ll marry; I spent years waiting (and studying) to be ordained a priest. We wait, in a real sense, for death. For those who believe, we wait through what St. Paul calls the “groaning of creation” to arrive at a full birth of joy. But if we don’t understand that such waiting is a part of who we are, then we can become bored, we give in to the humdrum and routine, instead of using the wait-time to good advantage. It may be a trivial example, but I always carry a book with me when I go to the doctor’s office. Or the DMV. Or the barber’s. Whatever. And once in a while I sit and scribble a poem while I’m waiting.
In the same view, certain poems—"The Peg" and "A Piece of Rag" come to mind—honor minor items whose contributions are often overlooked. Were these poems written with spiritual considerations?
Definitely. Though in “The Peg,” for example, one need not find the same “beam” that I find there. For me, the beam is the strength of God, an ultimate solidity that upholds everything. But another reader may reasonably see in it the strength of his family, and another reader the love of her husband. Basically, I think all of reality is sacramental; that is, while being always actually “really real,” as my old philosophy teacher used to say, the things we touch and see and hear are signs of a deeper reality. And not only signs, they carry within them the spark of creation, the energy and grace that fires everything. We need not look to sunsets or the morning whistling of wind to find poetry; it’s also in the pens and pencils on my desk, the pictures on my wall, the needle I use to sew buttons on my old sweater. Or more obviously, perhaps, the GPS I use to find my way home.
You said you wanted to die on a bright day
that the soul is haunted by them; you said the day
the summer's light; but is there ever, finally, a day
into silence? You do not speak. No matter the day,
William J. Rewak, S.J.
Besides animals, boredom, and God, what were some other inspirations for the book's subject matter? Were there poets who inspired the style?
Well, to some it may seem ghoulish, but death has always been for me both a personal and literary interest. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this; we all have to confront it sooner or later, and it’s best to confront it before it arrives, unexpectedly, on our doorstep. I did my doctoral dissertation on the idea of death in James Agee’s work, and from there I moved on to the great Whitman elegy on Lincoln, his “Lilacs” poem. Donne’s holy sonnets, Emily Dickinson’s frightening “Because I could not stop for death,” Dana Gioia’s wonderful “Planting a Sequoia.” So it’s an important part of the book: poems on the death of my father and mother are there. “The Day” is very explicit, as is “The Practice.” Poets who have inspired my style? I’ve liked Denise Levertov’s ideas about the importance of the line and letting the poem grow organically. I’ve shamelessly copied A.R. Ammons’ later, couplet structure for many of the poems. I try to make them flow easily and seamlessly from line to line like John Donne’s “At the round earth’s imagined corners” sonnet, or Mary Oliver’s delightful “Making the House Ready for the Lord.”
As I mentioned in the review, there develops a certain magical realism when you view the collection as a whole. Where does this come from? Does this reflect your worldview? Is it a construct to allow for humor? Is it something incidental?
I like that term, “magical realism,” because it underlines what I’ve said earlier about reality having a spark of the divine about it. For me, it’s a theological position, and it affects my whole life, what I think, say and write. I believe in the Incarnation, that God became man in Jesus, that God therefore loved the human enough to become part of it. And that divinized everything; all of creation has been kindled by that fire. We carry that fire around with us, in us, and so everything is, yes, “magical.” Without losing any of the reality. It’s not incidental, it’s the center. And it does allow for humor. “The Egret” is a good example, I think, of how animals themselves are a part of this magic, that God’s kingdom is all-embracing, even for a rhinoceros who likes martinis.
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