A poem, a prayer, and a martini for the rhino
Chancellor William J. Rewak, S.J., first came to the Mission Campus in 1970 to teach English. He served as President of Santa Clara 1976–88 and later as president of Spring Hill College and as minister of the Jesuit community at Loyola Marymount University. Now he’s published his first collection of poetry, The Right Taxi (CreateSpace, 2012), which was named to a Best of 2012 list by Kirkus Reviews. Writer Robert Bieselin interviewed Fr. Rewak for Kirkus, and we liked what he had to say, so we share it here. We liked it so much, in fact, that we asked a few more questions.
I. Robert Bieselin talks with Fr. Rewak
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 Gerald 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. Was it a conscious decision to include a recurring animal motif?
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.
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.
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.
These poems mention boredom several times and often use imagery of waiting for—or between—events.
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. 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 obvious, perhaps, the GPS I use to find my way home.
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.”
There develops a certain magical realism when you view the collection as a whole. Where does this come from?
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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II. Steven Boyd Saum talks with Fr. Rewak
You started writing just a couple years before you became president of Santa Clara. Was there something in that time that brought you to writing poetry?
Perhaps it was this: A couple years before I became President of Santa Clara, in 1977, I began to get more and more involved in administration and got farther away from the classroom, with its enjoyable concentration on literature. I began to miss the daily exploration of poetry. Hours were taken up with budgets and meetings and long-range planning. I needed an escape—or at least an alternative way to spend my time. So I began to experiment with the writing and found it relaxing. When I became president, it was even more necessary to find relaxation, a time apart.
Has the way you approach the craft of poetry—and nourish your work—changed over the years?
It was during the seminars that I taught at Santa Clara in poetry for engineers that I began to think about the imagination and how it is used. At first, I was a bit benighted and thought a course using the imagination would be something different and profitable for them; I soon came to realize their imaginations needed no prodding. Here were students who would build bridges and skyscrapers, who would hit computer keys to create new programs, new ways of ordering reality. Poetry was just a different context for their imagination. So how imagination works became an interest for me. At Loyola Marymount University, where I taught a course on poetry and the Catholic imagination, I enjoyed studying the different facets of that imagination—its sacramentality, its inclusiveness, its incarnationalism, its attention to the immanence of God—and all of that has gradually seeped, I think, or I hope, into my poetry. Yes, it’s certainly been a nourishment.
In terms of waiting, how much of that is, for you, a part of the writing process itself?
I’ve discovered I have to be patient: The inspiration is there or it isn’t. I can’t sit and force myself to write a poem every day, for example; if I do that, I usually just produce “words, words, words.” I’ve gone for weeks at a time with nothing, though it is ordinarily not that long. But suddenly a word, a phrase, or an image will grab my imagination, and I type it out and watch where it goes. And I finish one and jump into another one. It’s like a small river that slowly builds up behind a dam—and then the dam breaks with the pressure.
You mention “The Day” as being very explicitly about death. Can you share more how that poem came to be?
It’s very personal, but I will say this, falling back on Wordsworth’s line about emotions being recollected in tranquility: Three people had died in a period of three months—people I was close to. It was difficult. But it wasn’t until about four months later that I wrote the poem. It isn’t about any one of them in particular; it grew out of a groaning sadness I had experienced. And it almost wrote itself. The dam broke.
For you, what’s the relationship between poetry and prayer? Are they very different things? Or maybe it’s better to ask, Are they very different ways of relating?
Well, I enjoy reading religious poetry: Such poems are in themselves a prayer because they explicitly turn the mind and imagination to the things of God. But they are also vehicles because they allow us to leave the words of the poem behind and move on to moments of a conscious union with God, a resting in God. Apart from religious poetry, though, it’s the very nature of a poem to be a sign, to lead us to further meaning, to see what we have not seen before, to note that the dust of reality has flecks of gold in it. So the creation of a poem is itself a prayer, an acknowledgment and praise of something, or someone, lying at the heart of our experience. Any artist, in a particular time and place, is continuing what occurred at that first moment of the creation of the universe. And I don’t think poetry and prayer are different ways of relating; perhaps they are different phases of the same relationship.
Along with the sense of surprise and delight, there’s also this sense of epiphanies that come at a cost, or at least don’t seem particularly convenient in terms of their timing.
Epiphanies do have consequences. Ignatius Loyola had a searing epiphany at Manresa, and it changed religious history at the time, but he made sacrifices because of it. He could have led a grandee’s life in Spain, but instead he led a life of poverty, and willingly, in a small room in Rome. The trattoria owner has opened his doors to all comers, has invited them all to the feast. But such a Eucharistic banquet is ultimately sacrificial, isn’t it?
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