DD: In her poem, “Ennui,” Stella Vinitchi Radulescu refers to Rainer Maria Rilke as her “father up / in the sky.” If there is any poet who embodies the mission of Orison Books it would be Rilke, a man who strove to write from inside the most terrifying angels. There is that famous passage from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge that begins: “…Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) – they are experiences.” Could you begin by channeling Rilke and speaking about the poems you have published at Orison Books as experiences?
LH: “Sit down, angel,” Radulescu also writes, “I am desperately alive” (“heart heart heart”). Like Rilke, Radulescu’s intimation of the danger and sublimity of the divine does not prevent her from speaking with and to it on the most familiar of terms—asserting a spiritual equality (and equivalence?) with even the highest manifestation of being. And, as with Rilke, Radulescu’s poems ought to be considered “spiritual” not primarily because of their subject matter, but rather because of their ability to suggest and embody a mode of being that is outside the ordinary. Her work is deeply experiential in this way.
Contemplating a broken ancient sculpture of Apollo, Rilke concludes, “You must change your life.” The greatest spiritual art is that which offers us an aesthetic experience that leaves us irrevocably changed. Orison Books’ goal is to discover and champion this kind of literature. One of our latest books, Jordan Rice’s Constellarium, is a fine example of this. Rice’s poems sometimes delve into explicitly religious and spiritual subject matter—often from a critical standpoint, in fact—but that’s not what makes her poems “spiritual,” in my mind. The spiritual aspect of her poetry is that it, as Fatimah Asghar has so insightfully noted, makes us contemplate “the body inside”—the fundamental and mysterious grounds of being rather than the superficial and readily apparent ones.
DD: In an interview with Asheville Grit, you note: “The mission of Orison Books is to publish spiritually engaged poetry, fiction, and non-fiction books of exceptional literary merit, and to promote cultural conversation around the intersections of spirituality and literature.” Can you explain how Orison Books came into being and how the cultural conversation that you mention has unfolded in the year or so that the press has existed?
LH: I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, and while I struggled deeply and persistently with that ideology from a young age, I only evolved away from it relatively late in life—in my mid-twenties. In the intervening years I’ve come to see fundamentalist ideologies of all kinds as pernicious and dangerous, whether they’re religious, political, or philosophical. I remain unwilling, however, to sacrifice religious and spiritual traditions altogether, simply because I can no longer advocate a fundamentalist interpretation of them. After all, for millennia the mystics of both the East and the West have interpreted their religious traditions in experiential rather than dogmatic ways.
As with all human artifacts, our religions are full of both ugliness and beauty. In recent decades, it seems to me that American literary and intellectual culture has overcorrected in response to the negative aspects of religion, and has risked ignoring the vital importance of the spiritual life. Simply because one can’t subscribe whole-cloth to a religion, ought one discard its moral insight, its metaphysics, its pathways to transcendent experience? Is humanism possible if deprived of transcendent values and experiences? Can we not read religions more like literature than like legal contracts, as profound cultural poems rather than divine writ? And might not religious traditions, like poems or paintings, contain elements of genuine inspiration from a mysterious source—the duende or the divine—mediated through human consciousness, with all its imperfections?
One important model for me in developing Orison Books’ mission was the wonderful American Public Media radio program “On Being,” hosted by Krista Tippett. The show’s wide-ranging interest in spiritual and religious traditions is exemplary of how one can lead a life of genuine spiritual curiosity and openness, gleaning beautiful truths and possibilities from a vast array of sources, without subscribing to an ideology. I dreamed of a literary press that could model a similar approach in contemporary literature. Orison Books is my attempt to build that, alongside wonderful collaborators, supporters, and of course authors.
The cultural conversation that I hope Orison Books helps contribute to and inspire is in one sense ineffable—a gradual accumulation of individual conversations around our books, and around book reviews, profiles of the press (such as this interview!), and various other phenomena that ultimately elude any efforts at cataloguing. But it also involves discrete public events such as author readings, gatherings hosted by Orison Books, and potentially an annual conference—which I hope one day to be able to organize, although this is still in the “dream” phase.
DD: I’d like to talk a little bit about all four books Orison has published so far, starting with I Scrape the Window of Nothingness: New & Selected Poems by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu. Can you tell us about this remarkable poet and her collection?
LH: Stella is one-of-a-kind, as is her poetry. (Eleanor Wilner, in her endorsement of I Scrape the Window of Nothingness, aptly remarked that it is “daunting to even try to put into a few words a poetry that is sui generis….”) Stella grew up in Romania and began writing poems there in her native Romanian. As the atmosphere of oppression and threat toward artists and writers increased under the Communist regime, she emigrated in the early 1980s to Europe and then the United States. She speaks and writes in three languages—Romanian, French, and English. She holds a Ph.D. in French Language & Literature and taught for many years at Loyola University and Northwestern University. She has published poetry collections in Romania, France, Belgium, and the United States.
I first met her at the AWP Conference in Chicago in 2008, where I was helping staff the Asheville Poetry Review table. She and I spoke French together, and she gave me a copy of her gorgeous French collection Un cri dans la neige [A cry in the snow] (Editions du Cygne). I took the book home and read it, and was so struck by her poetry that I asked her permission to translate the poems into English. I’ve been working on translations of her French work ever since, benefitting from her input on the translations, and we’re close to completing a book-length manuscript.
Now, I’d like to clarify a point of confusion that frequently comes up: Stella writes poetry in three languages, but she does not translate any of her own work between the languages. So she has a distinct body of work in each language. The book that we published at Orison Books, I Scrape the Window of Nothingness, is a new and selected edition of her original English-language poetry—nothing in the book has been translated into English, but everything was originally written in English. I’ve published translations of her French poetry in literary magazines as well as in a chapbook from Q Avenue Press, and thus the confusion.
DD: How has your work as a translator influenced your own writing?
LH: To step into another language for a time allows me to return to English with fresh ears and eyes, more finely attuned to the sounds and structures of English because of the counterpoint of French. I believe that this sharpens my perception of the nuances of language, both as a writer and as an editor. I strongly recommend that any young writer who (like me) has a single native language intensively study at least one additional language, and spend time somewhere it’s spoken if at all possible.
DD: In reading Stella Vinitchi Radulescu’s work, I was interested in how her poems open a dialogue with American poets such as Wallace Stevens and John Berryman. I was especially taken by Radulescu’s poem “The Human Condition,” which chronicles her reading of The Dream Songs. I also see Stevens’ wintry footprints crisscrossing her work. Could you map out the affinities between Radulescu and these two American masters?
LH: I won’t do anything so thorough as mapping! But I’ll say that, in my reading, Stella’s poems demonstrate the influence of Berryman’s psychology and Stevens’ philosophy. Her work marries the linguistic distinctiveness and imagistic speed of Berryman with the profundity and playfulness of Stevens’ philosophical insight.
Other influences and allusions readers will note in her work include the Surrealists (both painters and writers), Ionesco, Akhmatova, Rilke (as you’ve already noted), Dickinson, Melville, Shakespeare, and Sappho.
DD: J. Scott Brownlee’s Requiem for Used Ignition Cap was selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison Poetry Prize. I was very impressed by this book. Brownlee builds a doxology from shotgun shells, wildflowers, and catfish. The dominant mode of the collection is elegiac and the poet combines the devotional impulse with a lovingly drawn portrait of his hometown of Llano, Texas. This collection also provides a nuanced portrait of lower middle class white people, the same population Claudia Rankine discussed in her keynote address at AWP 2016. I could talk about this amazing collection for hours. Could you give us some insight into the strengths of this collection?
LH: There’s something saintly in Brownlee’s compassionate eye. Whether he’s observing the people of his hometown or the plants and animals that populate that geography, his gaze is never divorced from his empathic impulse. His poems are narrative without ever becoming longwinded or losing the shapeliness and concision of their syntactic and rhetorical movements across the page. They are finely-tuned and lush with detail. They modulate easily from biblical cadence to rural idiom. They both praise “thirteen moonslick catfish” and lament the hometown veterans who commit suicide and the rural poor who cook “chemical psalms” of meth. Always the poems reflect, as Brownlee writes in “Ars Poetica with a Dead Dog in It,” his “affection for this fallen world.”
We at Orison Books are thrilled to have recently learned Requiem for Used Ignition Cap won the Texas Institute of Letters Bob Bush Memorial Award for a first book of poetry. It’s hard to imagine a more deserving book.
DD: Can you give some sense of the broad array of manuscripts that have been submitted to Orison so far? I’d like to know about the variety of ways contemporary poets (especially emerging poets) are writing the sacred.
LH: We’ve received many hundreds of manuscripts since we opened for submissions, primarily poetry and fiction manuscripts, but also non-fiction manuscripts and anthology proposals. I’m most familiar with the poetry submissions, as that is where I focus most of my editorial energy, and ask the genre editors (Karen Tucker, fiction; Nathan Poole, non-fiction) to head up the reading of work in their genres. I consult with them on any manuscripts that they are strongly interested in. I retain the final say over what we decide to publish or, in the case of the contests, name as finalists—but as I said, I rely on and trust our excellent editorial staff.
There have been no common denominators in the manuscripts we’ve seen. The range of work is remarkable, in terms of stylistic approaches, subject matter, and interpretations of our press’ spiritual focus. There simply is no common denominator. Some of the manuscripts reinterpret particular religious traditions; some of them draw imagery and ideas from an array of traditions; some create a surreal or allegorical world and never mention anything religious at all; some simply work to capture the strangeness of our existence and consciousness. It’s encouraging to see writers taking us seriously when we say that we’re interested in spiritually engaged literature “from a broad and inclusive range of perspectives.”
DD: Constellarium by Jordan Rice is another impressive collection of poetry. The book is heartbreaking and beautiful. Reading Constellarium, I was reminded of Marie Howe and Jason Shinder; like Shinder and Howe, Rice brandishes the radiance of ordinary words in a way that is angelic. For all the suffering and pain that is explored in this book, the last line of the collection sums up the mitigating hope that Rice’s words burnish, when she writes: “and she stirs in the light. There is no sorrow.” Although the collection chronicles the author’s gender transition from biological male to female, the collection reads as a spiritual allegory for all of us who seek meaning and belonging in an imperfect world. At the same time, poems like “Laser Therapy” and “Lost Body” let us see the struggles of a transgender person, up close and unvarnished. What do you find most compelling about Jordan Rice’s poetry?
LH: Even when speaking of trauma, violence, and familial or romantic turmoil, Rice’s poems remain poised, elegant, composed. As a poet, she is well aware that understatement is often more effective than hyperbole, and her ability to write with such restraint is one aspect of her bravery.
I also admire the way the poems engage in ontological inquiry mostly implicitly rather than explicitly. Rice doesn’t brandish fancy philosophical terms or gender theory—although she would be perfectly capable of doing so if she wished—but rather speaks honestly and modestly about the experience of fluidity, about what Trace Peterson in her endorsement of the book calls “the in-between and liminal experiences of consciousness.”
DD: Orison Books recently published The Divine Magnet: Herman Melville’s Letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Mark Niemeyer, with a forward by Paul Harding. This book is a treasure. How did Orison Books come to publish it?
LH: I was reading a wonderful book by the scholar Alfred Kazin, God and the American Writer. He has a chapter on Melville, and he quoted from some of the letters to Hawthorne. They were absolutely stunning—lyrical, humorous, passionate—and I had never even heard anyone mention them before. I started investigating the letters, and got a volume of Melville’s complete correspondence through interlibrary loan. It was readily apparent that Melville’s letters to Hawthorne were intimate and urgent in a way none of his other correspondence was. And I thought that if I—an English major and creative writing MFA graduate—had never heard of these letters, then surely neither had a large portion of the general literary public! Research revealed that no one had yet released an edition of these letters in particular, and that the volumes of Melville’s correspondence that had been published—all decades old—had been scholarly volumes aimed at a narrow swath of Americanists in the academy. I was thrilled at the idea of bringing out a volume of the letters to Hawthorne that would highlight the relationship between these two luminaries of American letters—a volume that, while suitable for the classroom, would also have a broad appeal for the general literary public.
I began searching for a Melville scholar who was interested in editing the volume, and was eventually referred to Mark Niemeyer, a Melville scholar who teaches American Literature at the Université de Bourgogne in France and who has edited and co-edited numerous volumes of Melville’s work both in the U.S. and in France. He was likewise enthusiastic about the project, and headed up getting permission to reprint the material from Northwestern University Press, ensured the accuracy of our text, provided footnotes, suggested and oversaw the supplementary Melville material included in the book, and wrote a superb introduction.
The final element we wanted to include in the volume was a foreword by a contemporary writer responding to Melville’s letters from a literary perspective. Our fiction editor, Karen Tucker, alerted me to an interview in which Paul Harding—a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist—expressed his deep admiration for Melville. We contacted Harding through his agent, and he was excited by the project. He wrote an absolutely gorgeous foreword to the letters (which can be read online at the Tin House blog here.
DD: The Divine Magnet is a short book, but it includes Niemeyer’s excellent introduction, Harding’s beautiful foreword, Melville’s ten letters to Hawthorne, Melville’s famous review, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” an excerpt from Melville’s long poem “Clarel,” and another short lyric poem, called “Monody,” which, arguably, commemorates Hawthorne’s death. The book brings together for the first time materials from the most intense period of this fascinating American literary friendship. What can writers today learn from this literary friendship?
LH: Human nature contains so many competing impulses. For the working writer or artist, prominent among these are the impulses to see our work as being in competition with that of others, or on the other hand being in conversation/collaboration. Melville beautifully models the healthier and more magnanimous impulse of championing and praising the work of one’s contemporaries. “Ineffable socialities are in me,” he writes to Hawthorne in one of his letters—and we would do well to imitate these “socialities” rather than the competition and jealousy that can so easily insinuate themselves into our minds and hearts. I’m not advocating an uncritical engagement with the work of our contemporaries. But I’m advocating an engagement that stems from magnanimity, generosity, and selflessness, rather than a sense of careerism or competition.
DD: In the letter from early May, 1851, Melville says, “It is a frightful poetical creed that the cultivation of the brain eats out the heart. But it’s my prose opinion that in most cases, in those men who have fine brains and work them well, the heart extends down to hams. And though you smoke them with the fire of tribulation, yet, like veritable hams, the head only gives the richer and the better flavor. I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head! I had rather be a fool with a heart, than Jupiter Olympus with his head.” Reading this, I was reminded of the poet Milton Kessler, who said: “The mind must love the heart.” Can you speak about the sometimes opposing claims of head and heart in contemporary poetry?
LH: I love what Melville says in the letter you quote here. Although he’s clearly in a humorous mood—as he seems often to have been when writing Hawthorne—his underlying argument is very serious. He’s suggesting that the intellectual work that people voluntarily take up ought not be seen in dichotomous opposition to the “heart”—that is, their emotional and aesthetic lives. Rather, the reason people pursue their intellectual fixations is precisely because they care so passionately about them. And here is a teachable principle for novice writers, because often the novice writer assumes that the best way to convey emotion is to replicate or exaggerate it on the page. This often leads to the kind of hyperbole that can make seasoned readers cringe. Poetry in particular is too often presented as mere “self-expression” in American schools. As long as you’re expressing emotion, you’re being “poetic.” To see an ancient craft and art so often reduced in our education system to a mere discharge of emotion is, frankly, shameful.
DD: Last year, I reread Moby-Dick. The first time I read the novel I was sixteen, so most of it went over my head. Rereading it as an adult I was most surprised by Melville’s humor. I see that same humor in his letters. For instance, Melville threatens to call the constable on Hawthorne if he doesn’t come for a visit; Melville also says that employing “a capital initial in the pronoun referring to the Deity” betrays “a slight dash of flunkeyism.” In reading these words, I thought of that poem by Hafiz where he says that he and God are like two giant fat people in a tiny boat. Melville’s humor led me to wonder what you think about humor’s place in the poetry of religious experience.
LH: Often our greatest human blindnesses arise from taking ourselves and our limited perspectives too seriously. Master poets like Hafiz and Li-Po, for instance, continually remind us of this wisdom.
Melville relishes in defying the dictates of piety (as anyone who has read Moby-Dick knows), whether with humor or with deadly ferocity. I suspect he saw piety as a mere mask for the true depths of human feeling and thought, which God—if God exists—surely sees through anyway. “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb,” he says to Hawthorne in one letter, and in another, “Shall I send you a fin of the Whale by way of a specimen mouthful? The tail is not yet cooked—though the hell-fire in which the whole book is broiled might not unreasonably have cooked it all ere this.”
DD: You’ve written quite elegantly on this blog about the uses of irony in contemporary poetry. Do you have any additional thoughts to add to your post from a few years ago?
LH: I’ll add that, in literature, irony has its uses, but I see it primarily as a symptom. I’ll let that metaphor speak for itself.
DD: This summer you will publish the first edition of the annual Orison Anthology. I was honored to have one of my poems chosen for that anthology. Thank you again for selecting my work. Can you tell us about the anthology?
LH: I’m really happy to have your ravishing poem in the spirit of Theresa of Avila included in the anthology! The Orison Anthology is Orison Books’ annual collection of spiritually engaged writing that appeared in periodicals during the preceding year, and we’ll be releasing the inaugural volume late this summer or early fall. It will be something akin to the now-defunct Best American Spiritual Writing, but with what I see as a broader purview and of course our own aesthetic leanings. I can tell you with confidence that it’s going to be a stunning assemblage of work. Contributors to the inaugural volume include Vandana Khanna, Carl Phillips, Alison Gopnik, Jane Hirshfield, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Molly Reid, Zeina Hashem Beck, Purvi Shah, Christian Wiman, Kimberly Johnson, Franz Wright, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Li-Young Lee, and many others.
DD: Speaking of anthologies, you have an excellent anthology called Poems of Devotion (Wipf and Stock, 2012). Orison Books accepts anthology proposals year-round. Are there any anthologies currently in the works, besides the annual? Can you tell us some of the proposals you’ve seen so far?
LH: Orison Books author Jordan Rice (Constellarium) is in the planning phase of an anthology of spiritually engaged poems by LGBTQ writers, which I hope to publish in 2018 or 2019. I also have an idea for an anthology of contemporary writing responding to the work of the mid-20th-century French mystic Simone Weil, although that will likely take some years to come to fruition.
DD: You are the author of a poetry collection, Weak Devotions (Wipf and Stock, 2011) and a collection of prose The Work of Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2016). How has your work as an editor and book publisher influenced your life as a writer? In what ways has your writing life, in turn, influenced your editorial and publishing work?
LH: I feel that, as both an author and a publisher, I have a practical grasp of Christ’s “golden rule”—“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you!” I strive to treat Orison Books’ authors the way I would hope to be treated by an ideal publisher.
DD: What is the most encouraging experience you have had as an editor?
LH: Every time I get to say “Yes!” to something I truly love, and help usher it into the world.
DD: What is the most encouraging development you’ve witnessed in contemporary poetry?
LH: The immense variety. It’s encouraging to see the sheer number of people writing poetry these days, especially when their work diverges so widely, stylistically and formally. There may be little or no money in poetry, but the number of people engaged in this labor of love nonetheless is downright moving. The cultural tapestry that poets are weaving today is more representative of the actual population than it has ever been in history. Just consider how small a percentage of the population was even literate in previous centuries—due in large part to racial and class oppression—and much less had the leisure time to write or make art. The flood of cultural and literary production these days approaches the sublime. How ever will future generations sort through it all, along with what they’re making at the time?? But it’s marvelous to behold—something like the birth of millions of stars in one of our universe’s bursts of energy.
DD: If you could publish any dead poet at Orison Books, who would it be and why?
LH: What a question! The catch is that if said poet were not already published, what is the likelihood I would know of her? In which case, my response is Emily Dickinson. And I see no need to explain why.
DD: Next fall, Orison Books will publish Two Worlds Exist, the second poetry collection by Yehoshua November. This is the first collection of poetry you’ve published not directly informed by Christian spirituality, but it’s clear from your mission statement and from your prose that you want to publish the best spiritual writing from a broad variety of religious experiences. Do you have in mind any contemporary non-Judeo-Christian writers that you’d like to publish?
LH: We are most definitely open to perspectives outside the Judeo-Christian tradition—even perspectives outside any particular religious or spiritual tradition. Again, I’d like to emphasize that for us “spiritual” writing has less to do with subject matter than with the experience it offers the reader.
Just a few contemporary writers I admire from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition—or who identify with multiple traditions—include Vandana Khanna, Purvi Shah, Sherman Alexie, Tarfia Faizullah, Joy Harjo, Zeina Hashem Beck, Amit Majmudar, and Tamam Kahn. I also think of poets like Jay Wright and Nathaniel Mackey whose work explores African spiritual traditions, poets like Jane Hirshfield and Gary Snyder who—though American—engage deeply with Eastern traditions, as well as poets like Annie Finch who are involved in the Wiccan/Pagan tradition.
Keep in mind that while we’ve received submissions from a wide array of perspectives, we’re not interested in publishing a manuscript simply because it exemplifies a spiritual tradition or perspective. Literary quality is always our foremost criterion. Over time, we will undoubtedly publish work from an increasingly broad range of perspectives. But this can’t happen all at once! We’ve brought out four books so far, over the course of about a year . . . . Give us a few years, and I think you’ll see how broad our mission truly is!
DD: Anyone familiar with Yehoshua November’s first collection, God’s Optimism (Main Street Rag, 2010), knows that November is a poet of great inner light. Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect from this new collection? Are there any radical departures from his first book?
LH: Should we expect any “radical departures” from a poet who actively practices an ancient religious tradition? Certainly not! And it’s a good thing for us. We need no departure from November’s delicate, nuanced meditations on the harmonies and dissonances that a Hasidic father, husband, and professor experiences in 21st-century America. The inner light remains—burns bright.
Luke Hankins is the author of a collection of poems, Weak Devotions, and the editor of Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets (both from Wipf & Stock). His latest book, The Work of Creation: Selected Prose, was released by Wipf & Stock this January. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in numerous publications, including 32 Poems, American Literary Review, The Collagist, Contemporary Poetry Review, New England Review, Poetry East, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Chronicle, as well as on the American Public Media national radio program "On Being." Hankins serves as Senior Editor at Asheville Poetry Review and as a staff reviewer for Southern Humanities Review. He is the founder and editor of Orison Books, a non-profit literary press focused on the life of the spirit from a broad and inclusive range of perspectives.
Dante Di Stefano's first collection of poetry, Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry and essays have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere. He has won the Thayer Fellowship in the Arts, The Red Hen Press Poetry Award, The Crab Orchard Review's Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry, and The Ruth Stone Poetry Prize. He earned his PhD in Poetry from Binghamton University and he makes his living as a high school English teacher in Endicott, New York.