When a poet-friend “tagged” me for The Next Big Thing, I didn’t think I’d do it. It felt a little like a chain letter and I recall not liking the pressure chain letters contained. But I guess I’ve softened and come along to the point that I’m posting some reflections on the questions The Next Big Thing asks. I’m under no illusion that this book will literally be “The Next Big Thing” but I hope these reflections might help give my blog readers a better sense of what this new book holds. Gospel of Dust comes out in mid-June from Main Street Rag Publishing. I’m content and pleased with the shape the manuscript took. I hope readers will appreciate it too.
What is the title of this new work?
It’s titled Gospel of Dust. This title tries to blend the idea of a “gospel” which means “good news” with the image of “dust” which so effectively speaks of our mortality. I remember vividly as a boy, going to church on Ash Wednesday and having the priest make a cross of ashes on my forehead with the words: “Remember, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Those are some strong words. They’re also true. So how can this be “good news?” I hope a mindfulness about mortality can be “good news” because it can compel us to live more deliberate and generous lives. I don’t think we need to be saddened by our mortality. We need to be fired up by it so that we live– really live.
Where did the idea come from?
For most of my life, I’ve been moved by religious images. They were often central to my writing. For a time, I needed to get away from them as I strove to heal some old wounds. Recently, that healing has allowed me to return to these spiritual and religious images and they’re still quite powerful to me. The pieta image, for example. That image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, holding his dead body after it was brought down from the cross, that image is so powerful for me. Also, I very much wanted to celebrate people who lived good lives. So the opening section of the book, “The Human Gospel” contains poems about heroes of mine: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, David Kato, among others. In some ways, I wanted the book to carry an echo, although faint, of the old Catholic Sacramentary, that book with prayers for holy men and women, prayers for the dead, all that.
What genre is this book?
Poetry. All poetry. It holds four sections: The Human Gospel: This section contains poems about people who have lived good and holy lives. The Pieta Gospel: This section is made up of poems drawn from the mother and son image as well as poems that show women in a dignified and holy way. The Written Gospel: This section holds poems drawn from specific parts of the actual gospels. The Ritual Gospel: This final section contains poems using the images of rituals, poems about historical events as rituals. An example in this section is a series of poems called “When Riot Is A Ritual.” I’m fascinated by the idea that famous riots in history hold a kind of ritual life in them. This section of the book also has three series of poems “If Tupac Shakur Was A Priest,” “If Cool Disco Dan Was A Priest,” and “If J. Alfred Prufrock Was A Priest.” I take these three different people and imagine how they would approach some of the ritual elements of priesthood: blessing, consecrating, baptizing. I hope it works!
Compose a one-sentence synopsis of this book:
Gospel of Dust tries to explore the “good news” of lives lived deliberately and generously.
How long did it take to write the first draft?
I’d say the poems that became the first draft were written over the course of about two years. There are a couple of poems that are much older but they’ve been revised and included.
Which was the hardest poem to write?
At the end of the book are two very personal poems, “Altar” and “Gospel of Dust.” These poems were hard to finish because they are so personal. I wanted to make sure I got them right. I hope I did. Also, the poem “Hammering on Rocks” is a poem about Nelson Mandela. I had a hard time with the rhythms in this poem. I like the form it’s in now but it took a while to get it into this form.
Who or what inspired you to write this?
As I wrote above, the power of these images kind of kept at me. I wanted to do something with these images because they are so meaningful to me.
What else might interest a reader in this book?
I think the contemporary appropriation of these religious images might be of interest to people. When people hear there’s a series titled “If Tupac Shakur Was A Priest” they often are a little intrigued– like what could that be about? I’ve seen the same reaction to one of my favorite poems in the book “If Mamie Till Was The Mother of God.” When people have heard only the title they often wonder where that poem might be going.
Finally, I want to recognize that some of these poems got good help. I know writing is largely a solitary act. But it’s not entirely a solitary act. A friend and poet Melanie Henderson helped a couple of these poems into the shape they now have. Also, friend and poet Jericho Brown helped me with the “When Riot Is A Ritual” series. The book is dedicated to my partner, Robert, and also to Judith Anne Beattie, Jane Pitz, and John Gerber. They were people who supported me with advice and friendship when I was in the seminary and when I was in Holy Cross. All of them, in varied ways and at different moments in my life helped me to write this gospel.