Martha Serpas Interview: Elegy as Activism

Martha Serpas Interview photo of white woman's headshot
Nadia Colburn // August 16, 2022 // 6 Comments

Nadia Colburn: Hi Martha, so good to be here with you. How are you doing today? 

Martha Serpas: I'm doing well. It's good to see you.

NC: Good, I'm delighted to be here with you. I'm going to do a little introduction and then we'll get started. Martha Serpas has written four volumes of poetry, including The Dirty Side of the Storm, and most recently, Double Effect. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, and Southern Review, and has been anthologized in the Library of America's American Religious Poems. A native of Bayou Lafourche and active in efforts to restore Louisiana's wetlands, she co-produced Veins in the Gulf, a documentary about coastal erosion. Martha teaches in the creative writing programs at the University of Houston and co-directs the Scripts program at the University of Houston's College of Medicine. She is also a hospital trauma chaplain.

Thank you again for being here with us. You’re in Oregon for a semester off now, right? 

MS: That's right.

NC: And then most of the time you're in Houston and teach there? 

MS: In Houston and also in Louisiana as much as I can be.

NC: Nice. So in your life … you have these different locations that you're part of and different activities that you're doing, and a lot of your work is actually about these kinds of double-ness or multiplicities…But before we go into your poems and your books, I'd like to start by asking you about your childhood. What do you think in your childhood prepared you for doing the work that you do today — working as a poet, as a chaplain, and at the new program that you're starting at the College of Medicine?

MS: I grew up on this bayou, as you mentioned, Bayou Lafourche in Southeastern Louisiana, which is about 80 miles south of New Orleans. It’s a Cajun community, a mix of ethnicities, that began as a group of exiled Acadians. My parents were born and raised only 30 miles away, but for a tight-knit community, that was almost like being a bit of an outsider. I was born there, so it doesn't have quite the same effect on me that it did for my parents. 

I had a strong connection through the Catholic church. I felt through the sacraments and through the emphasis on community and social justice work that I grew up with a strong sense of belonging. I'm thinking of some friends who once asked me, "How could you be a feminist and belong to the Catholic church?" And I said, "Well, how could you teach in the university and be a feminist?" 

For me, the images of female divinity in the church were so important. Cajun culture is, like most, very patriarchal, but I saw images of female saints all around me like Joan of Arc, Saint Anne, Saint Lucy, who showed the Sicilian influence of where I grew up. I don't think I would have become a poet without the emphasis on the sensory aspects of reaching the Divine. 

NC: I love that you get the sensory aspects of the Divine partly through poetry. Can you talk a little bit more about that? It’s just so beautiful. And what sensory aspects in particular? 

MS: Well, as part of the mass, the incense and bells and later, for me, the chanting, the physicality of communion, which really related to the physicality of the land and water for me. I perceived the Divine through the gulf and through the bayou and through the marsh. Even the vestments of the priest and the clerical colors were related to the seasons. I was able to take those in as a contemplative experience. I just don't know what would have befallen me had I grown up either without that or in a very stark worship environment.

NC: There's so much richness in that kind of environment. You've been talking about the church and the landscape, so what then was your introduction to poetry? Where did that come in? 

MS: Nobody's asked me that in a long time. I think the liturgy has to be credited as a route to poetry, but I had a 4th grade teacher who was really young and really creative, and so I think it was at my Catholic elementary school. I thought she was really inspiring. And then I smile because when I was in junior high school, I also had a teacher who had us write poems as part of the curriculum. And a lot of students didn't want to write poems, so I wrote poems for them and sold them for a dollar, and for a long time that was the best money I made as a poet.

NC: Yes. [chuckle] That's a good gig you had going. So the church, the sacred, the physical, the sensual, the landscape, and poetry—that's been consistent throughout your work. For people who don't know your work, maybe we could start with reading a poem. And I also want to read, if it's okay, your “Author's 12-word Bio” right at the beginning of your most recent book, Double Effect: "Bayou, waterway cut off on its original source and fed by runoff." 

So these questions of source, what's feeding, what's runoff, how things are connected, what's the past, what's the future, are central to your sense of self and also run through the whole work. Can you read that second poem in the book titled “Contrition”? I’d love to share that poem with readers.

MS: Sure. 


Bless me, Bayou Lafourche, for I have sinned. 

It's been a thousand years since my last confession. 

My sins are… leaving, the way the River did, 

swerving for the City, pulling her braid free 

of Labadieville and the Cheniere. Her dark humus.

 Her rhythm. Her variation and velocity. 

Engineers girdled her with levies and weirs. 

Penned her in their whorehouses. Drunk on their crude concoctions. 

I am heartily sorry for whatever drove her away, 

for whatever drove me away now here, cross-legged 

on the batture, with you, who perhaps have suffered most, 

deprived of all that suck and spoil. 

What from my penance? This hopeless desire 

for you lying here with duckweed in your hair 

and cypress needles across your brow?

Oh my heart, if I let you witness, don't tell lies about me. 

Oh heart I've had since I was tucked warm and wilful 

inside my mother, flutter as if only down line the scale.

NC: Thank you. It's beautiful, really beautiful. And all those elements that you've been talking about are in that poem, including the rich musicality of the language. We feel the river’s shapes through the language's shapes, and you're writing to your hometown, which you leave, but go back to in the poems, establishing that connection between past, present, and future. This poem is full of multiple feelings at once. The book’s title “Double Effect” is getting at that multiplicity. Could you tell us a bit about how you chose that title?

MS: I took a palliative course in my studies as a chaplain, and boy, my ears perked up when someone was presenting on what's called Last Morphine Dose, the ethical conundrum of wanting to relieve a dying patient of pain and yet knowing that that dose of morphine is going to bring on death more quickly. And I learned that it was the writing of Aquinas which we still base that ethic on, and that he wrote a doctrine of “double effect”: basically a series of questions one has to ask oneself when trying to make a moral decision. Well, what he was writing about primarily was self-defense. For example, it's good for me to protect my life, but the taking of a life is an evil. But if I ask myself all these questions about whether there's another option and whether the action is proportional and whatever, the moral thing to do might be to kill the other person to preserve my own life. And that is really the basis of most of our self-defense laws, and frankly, I think we get into trouble when we stray too far away from Aquinas.

But in any case, I played fast and loose with that idea, of there being two effects to one action that seem opposed, but both belong to that action. For example, hurricane winds can cause and exacerbate erosion and destroy marsh grass. That is destructive. But they can also clean out dead grass from the marsh and encourage new growth, which holds the soil together and works against erosion. And the same winds do that at the same time. That's fascinating to me.

NC: Yes. Interesting. We tend to think of things in terms of either/ or, polarities. We live in a very polarized culture. We want these strict divides between right and wrong, and us and them, and good and bad, and so often it's complex. But the tone of much discourse these days is not very complex.

One of the things I go to literature for is for that complexity, for being able to hold multiplicity at once, which your book is also investigating. And so that brings me to a line in the poem that you just read, where you're saying, "Forgive me for leaving." It seems like there are some positive effects of leaving, and that it’s a choice you would probably make again. But it’s a complex decision: Your connection to the past as well as commitment to the future has a double effect.

MS: Yes. I hadn't thought about “Contrition” in just that way, but I see it — enhancement through distance, right? We just can't have any perspective without allowing ourselves some distance. And so I wouldn't be able to have seen the culture in the land if I hadn't left.

NC: And I think you talk in the book also about a complex relationship to your mother and a kind of mother figure that's not always present and maybe neglectful, and the damage of that, but also about how that leads to resilience, perhaps not unlike how those strong winds are eroding but also strengthening the land at the same time.

MS: Absolutely. Well, the gulf is a maternal force for me, and the marshes too. There is the theory of the “good enough” mother. You have the mother who comes running every time the baby cries and raises a dependent child, and the mother who neglects her child and raises an insecure one. The ideal, then, is a good enough mother. So reading about that, that theory of mothering, got me thinking more about exactly what you were talking about. The pros and cons. My sister and I talk about being latchkey kids and how self-reliant we are in some ways because my mother taught. She taught English. She was also kind of a Victorian style mother, in the cliched sense of Victorian. So, yeah, all of that is there.

And honestly, I probably have to say that I think I did an injustice with my parents with your first question, because they were absolutely the cliche pillars of the community, my father the attorney who did pro bono work for anyone who needed it, my mother teaching for 30 years and being revered as an excellent teacher in our community. Certainly my mother's influence on my becoming an English teacher and becoming a poet is nothing I should have glossed over.

NC: Of course, and you've talked about coming from a Catholic tradition of — I don't know if this is the word you use —  but liberation Catholicism…

MS: "Social justice" is what I use. Liberation theology, absolutely.

NC: It sounds like you really grew up in a family that was doing social justice work, and now you're doing service work.

MS: I definitely feel that both the church and my parents set me on that path, and it's hard for my students to understand, when we talk about it, the church I'm talking about. I was in Louisiana, right? 

I'm supposedly in the conservative South. I never heard political homilies; I never heard the word "abortion" from the pulpit; I never heard "homosexuality" from the pulpit. All I heard was a preferential option for the poor, creating love and harmony in your family, and then spreading that through the community and practicing the sacraments. It was all practice-based, it wasn't doctrinal, and my students are really surprised by that.

NC: It's really nice to just remember that again culture is also not uniform. I love your question: "How can you be a feminist in the university?" The church can mean so many different things. I know you have also written about just the way the South sometimes is mis-viewed as a monolithic, conservative place when actually there are all kinds of cultures within different landscapes. And that's something that I think is also related to what's happening in your poem: showing the complexity, the richness of a place.

MS: Yeah. The South has its culpabilities and its responsibilities to bear, absolutely. I also think that a lot of other regions' responsibilities and culpabilities get outsourced to the South, and I think it keeps a certain self-awareness at bay in other places like, "Well, that happens worse over there, so I don't really have to examine my own community or my own attitudes."

NC: Can you maybe talk a little bit about how poetry has helped you to be more self-aware? Because I know that's something you and actually the two of us have talked about before, that kind of attention that poetry invites us to engage in.

MS: First of all, poetry is my contemplative practice. It is the one place where I experience ego dissolution. Well, okay, maybe not the one place, but the main place I experience ego death and feel like I'm really just a conduit and  have access to that timelessness and freedom that brings true spiritual peace. I can look up and six hours will have gone by since I've been working on a poem. That's a joy. 

NC: So what's your process of writing like? Intensive, clearly, but do you write on a regular basis? Do you have some seasons when you write more? Do you write and then put your poems away for a long time and come back and revise? How does it work? 

MS: That's interesting. I'm used to the earlier part of your question, but not the latter. This is going to seem simple on my part, but I remember going to a presentation on spiritual and mental health and writing, and the presenter talked about himself as a seasonal writer and having to accept that. And that was amazing to me in terms of feeling a lot of consolation, because I'm beyond the seasonal writer. I just work and work and work on something, and then I don't work. I think as I get older, it's more difficult for me to take advantage of the settled-ness that maybe when I was younger, I could. What I mean by that is, before I could get on the train a lot easier than I can now. 

Do I write things and then come back to them? I usually write something and then I stick with it until I feel like it's done, and then maybe when it's going to go into a book or it's going to be published, maybe I'll tinker with it a little bit, but no major revision. I keep everything fairly organized on my computer, but every now and then I find something that I abandoned, and I'm surprised at myself that I had. 

I taught a class once and found out that none of the poets in that class kept drafts. I thought, "Oh my God, I can't even imagine such a thing." I don't keep paper drafts anymore, and honestly I really should. I feel bad about using the paper, so I don't keep it. So the draft's not physically on my desk to really remind me that I have it. But these guys just put a poem up and make changes and press "save.”  And then the next day make changes and press "save.” That would terrify me.

NC: I have copy, copy, copy, copy, copy in google docs. [chuckle] But sometimes there's an energy in that first version that I kind of edit out, I dull it down by making it make more sense, and it's exactly where it doesn't make sense where there's energy.

MS: Right.

And the recognition that a poem, much as it takes us out of time, exists very much in time.

The poem that I wrote yesterday has some essence to it that is not the same as today, and boy, isn't that the whole crux of trying to revise, is that I want to recognize that there was this confluence yesterday, and I hate to say honor, but honor that. And try to discern where maybe some of the missteps and snags are in that and rewrite them. That is the difficulty of writing poetry, I think.

NC: It's kind of like the double effect too. [chuckle] Maybe I went too far with that, but it's such a good metaphor. There's always a give and a take in any revision. 

MS: In all things. And it’s so hard for us to embrace that.

NC: I love the revision process because it helps us see the multiplicity and it helps us realize, "Well, I could see it this way, or I could see it that way. And here's something I hadn't seen before.” Revision helps us find the different layers of meaning in a piece. But I have to put pieces aside for a long time and then come back to them to finish the revision. So it's interesting to hear how different poets work. When you're working on a book, do you already have the idea for the book that you're writing? How do you put your books together? 

MS: It's a curse to have an idea for a book, for me. The Dirty Side of the Storm will, at least at this point, be my favorite child, because I wrote without knowing what I was writing. And now I look at the end of my book Cote Blanche, and I can see that Cote Blanche was starting to turn towards loss of home, but I didn't see it then. In Dirty Side of the Storm it was solidly there. That book was finished before Katrina, except for one poem. Some people read it and say, "This is all about Katrina." And really it's all about destructive hurricanes. We've had a few before Katrina. But I didn't know then what I was doing.

And then in The Diener and The Double Effect, I started to have a sense of what I was doing in advance, and I'm actually hoping that whatever comes next is completely a surprise to me. Because I think that makes it, at least for me, easier to have that sort of conduit, ego-dissolution, sense of composition.

NC: I'm not a surfer, but I think it's like surfing. Letting go of control, but still having some control over your work. Asking yourself, "What do these poems want to do?” but also reminding yourself, “They're going to teach me and I have to listen." It's interesting how a poem can be prescient. You can write the Katrina book before Katrina, and it’s like, "Voila!" The poem is listening to the landscape and knows what's unfolding.

In fact, storms are such a big part of the landscape you’re writing about that they're happening in many of your books. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Hurricane Ida and what happened in your hometown, and what’s happening now? Was Ida just last summer?

MS: The end of August. It hit on the same day as Katrina did.

NC: Wow.

MS: It hit Grand Isle. The gusts were about 190 miles an hour. I had a little "beach shack". There we call them "camps". It was my childhood dream of having a place on the island, so I had this little 1950s place. It got lifted off of its piers and thrown 500 feet. It literally got picked up and dropped.

The front half of it is completely sheared, like it had been a piece of cake that got cut. In the kitchen, there's just nothing…it was only 400-some odd square feet. So there's no stove, no cabinets, no dishes. It’s all just gone. But then in the back of the house, it's completely dry. So clearly the storm was something akin to a tornado. But anyway, 100% of the buildings in the area got affected. I forget the percentage that were completely destroyed. A little further up the bayou, to my hometown, it was... I should say it is devastating. I just went to Grand Isle maybe a month ago, and it looked very much like it did right after the storm...

When I saw the overhead shots that the Coast Guard took, I couldn't believe it. It looked like Camille or Betsy, just so many houses completely destroyed. And so I looked for my little house and I didn't see it, and I could kind of see the slab and I thought, "Okay, it's completely gone."

The island opened up for a weekend. The town allowed  people to come pick up any essentials they could salvage, and I said, "Well, I'm not going to go because I'm just going to get in the way. There's nothing there, there's no point." And then a friend of mine texted and sent me a link to this article in the New Orleans paper. This guy was interviewed about the damage to his place, and he said, "And the poet's house blew 500 feet." [chuckle] That's how I found out that my house still existed.

NC: Wow.

MS: So what's the point of this? The point is, there's no end to the effects of this hurricane. People outside the levee system, primarily Houma Indian communities, were just completely wiped out. Once the water came up the bayou, it brought mud, fish, alligators, every kind of life you can imagine washed out of the swamps and the wetlands, and left  to die. And then people have two, three feet of mud in their homes. Truly nothing we see on television or read can convey what an environmental calamity this is. And we know this happens all the time, it happens with forest fires, it happens with tornadoes, it happens with drought. To say it's apocalyptic is really not hyperbolic.

NC: Right, and you said that house had been there since the 1950s. The storms are ramping up. Right? 

MS: Absolutely.

NC: The destruction is completely of a different scale. In Boston, there's a seaport area where people are putting billion dollar investments in these buildings right on the ocean. But what about climate change? Do we think we're going to somehow go in and fix it? We're seeing the effects of climate change and no one's fixing it, no one's taking steps that need to be taken. And it's so amazing for you to be documenting this change in your poems because you're living it. 

MS: You're hitting on a couple of really important things. Firstly, I feel more an elegist than an activist, although they're really the same. Right? 

NC: That's so profound. Yeah.

MS: And it reminds me of Rabbi Tarfon, "You are not required to complete the work, nor are you free to desist from it." Even though my shack, my community is gone, I'm still required to try to raise awareness about what's happening. So that's one thing. And then if you think about, say, the people on Grand Isle, the obvious remark is, "Well, those people just need to leave. That island is gone." We're talking about three, four generations of people who have lived there. The land is the family. And yet we all have an interest in not rebuilding and instead trying to protect these areas that aren't sustainable. It's a conundrum, but it's what you were saying before — it all has to be felt and thought about at once in a compassionate way. Compassionate toward everyone and compassionate toward the planet and toward the other life. So it's not easy, but what we're allowing to happen without reflection is worse.

NC: There’s some people who think, "Oh well, it's just Louisiana," when we're actually looking at around 80 million climate refugees in 2021, and 200 million in the next 20 or 30 years. Around the globe, climate refugees are not able to live where they have lived for generations, where their families have lived, and where their culture is. Louisiana is not a unique situation, it’s the canary.

MS: Right. And this place has continued to feed the energy needs of the nation since the early 20th century. So there's a "take, take, take, abandon” aspect to this. That is related to the environment, it's related to class and to regionalism.

NC: I can't help but segue into your work as a chaplain, because poets so often write about the passage of time, mortality, the ephemeral nature of the world, but you're really doing that work as a chaplain, going into families and people at the end of life. What's the connection? And what's that work like? 

MS: You're also inspiring me to think about the person, if you talk about end-of-life, and if I'm focusing my thoughts specifically on the patient, then that patient is undergoing the most profound change that I have the honor to be part of — not  in any way as a catalyst, but just to accompany someone through that change. Then I apply that accompaniment to the family of the patient as well. That's my description of being a chaplain. It's just such an amazing honor what people will share with me in the moment. Or simply allowing me to sit with them while they wait.

NC: And you said that you think of yourself as someone who writes elegies more than performing activism, and that maybe that divide isn't even so clear.

MS: It's not.

NC: So what you yourself suggested is that being witness to these moments is itself a form of engagement.

MS: Yes. Maybe that's back to what we talked about in the past about attention, that this is a real deep awareness of what's happening in the moment, and any time we can accomplish that in any part of life, it's an opportunity for spiritual growth, spiritual connection. And so the accompaniment that's possible in chaplaincy is an example of that.

NC: We've talked about Simone Weil saying that unmixed absolute attention is prayer, and that's something that you find in poetry, in chaplaincy and in various forms of presence. Do you want to say anything more about your connection to Simone Weil's work, or to attention in its variety of forms? 

MS: I don't know if I'm more susceptible than most people, or whether it's equally true for all of us, but I find it's much more difficult now to remain in a particular moment in space and time, because I have to use technology so much. There's a part of me that just resists it. It must be awful to be my student, because during COVID I taught a class where I talked to people on the phone. I talked to students on the phone individually part of the time, rather than do Zoom or Teams, etc. 

NC: I like that.

I think we're in a moment where it's really all the more important to talk about attention, because concentrated attention itself is really at risk. 

Our attention is so divided; we are not even face-to-face anymore, and the pandemic just exacerbated that, so now we have all these disembodied faces on Zoom. So I love that you would pick up the phone and talk to people individually, because then at least you have a personal connection.

MS: Yes. Even just now, I saw that there was something in the chat, and so I had to attend to it, so I opened it. You're right here, it's only the two of us, and the message is an earlier message from you. There's nothing that could be in that chat that I couldn't ask you about right now, but I couldn't help it, I clicked on it. It was a message you sent a minute before we started. Then I couldn't figure out how to close the chat so it wouldn't be distracting. Now all of that probably only took 10 seconds, but it's 10 seconds I'll never get back. And 10 seconds I'll never get back of your presence. It's 10 seconds that's gone. And it might sound extreme, but I just have the kind of mind that I need everything to work towards supporting my attention and awareness.

NC: I think it's really important that we have these conversations because there are billions of dollars going into making this technology addictive, right? There's a lot of documentation about clicking, liking. The way it's been set up is literally addictive for our brain. We're living in this time where we have this heightened technology, and something like chaplaincy work or a poem is really counter-cultural. It can seem like it's just a poem, but it's really important because it’s about where we place our attention. And the challenges to placing our attention are really part of this cultural shift that we find ourselves in.

MS: I couldn't agree more. I think I lucked out in a way. I just loved Macs, and I was on top of figuring out the next operating system — I basically was the unofficial tech person in my department. Then cell phones came into existence and I resisted for a while. And then Facebook... Well, it was Myspace first, but then Facebook came around. I wouldn't do it. I've never done it. I won't do it. Twitter, won't do it, Instagram, won't do it. TikTok, won't do it. And it's the best decision I ever made because I don't have to now try to break that addiction. A lot of my friends have just bailed on Twitter, on TikTok, and for them, it's like breaking an addiction. Well I never took the first drink. I know if I take that glass, that's it for me, I'm sucked in. It's over. So that's one thing that I did right. But the amount of screen time I accrue… I'm addicted.

NC: It's interesting also that at the beginning of the conversation, you talked about the physical connection to your spiritual tradition and to the landscape. When we're on a screen, we're not having that full-bodied experience that we then translate into a poem, which gathers all those physical sensations within the language. On the screen, it's two-dimensional. But I want to go back to the human body and the work that you're doing in the medical school with this new program you’re working in. Because it's, again, bringing all these different strands of the conversation of life that we've been having together, too. So could you tell us about this new program and what you're doing? 

MS: Sure. Well, it's a program related to narrative medicine, which has become more commonly referred to as "narrative health", which is becoming referred to as "narrative and lyric health"— to recognize that stories, particularly linear stories, won't capture the whole experience of a patient. We also need to think about snatches of metaphor and image and what the poetic brings.

I started working with medical providers around their writing their own stories and poems as a means of processing and means of, with palliative folks, preventing burnout. So fast forward to what's happening now in the medical school. The Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston has two doctoral students now serving as teaching fellows at the College of Medicine, and their jobs are to work with professors who are interested in integrating writing into their classes.

The basic premise of narrative medicine is that what doctors do is listen to stories all day and try to interpret them and base their diagnosis on them. Doctors do a better job when they're aware of their own stories, of what might influence their hearing and their interpretation of those stories, and when they learn to be sensitive to language, especially the language of other cultures and other socio-economic groups. They make metaphors to communicate conditions and treatments. Also doctors seem to be healthier themselves if they are able to read and write stories and poems in terms of processing, etc. So our two teaching fellows are going to help with that, and I'm there with them. It's really exciting.

NC: That sounds really great. I think there's so many studies now that show that writing is helpful for everybody, not just doctors, that it has noticeable, measurable health effects.

MS: Yeah. Well, one of the things we're going to do is put together an anthology of writing by medical students and doctors and staff and patients and community members. And we’ll also run writing groups where those folks can just drop in. So we'll have doctors listening to patients in a different context where they're equals and they're peers in these writing groups. I'm excited to see how that works.

NC: It’s beautiful, that translation between body and language and the transformation that happens in that translation. In the process of telling the story, the story itself takes shape. Right? 

MS: Right.

NC: And diagnosis is just a series of symptoms that don't have any real meaning until we can assign them some order, and then we can, we hope, cure them or heal them in some way. So that sounds like a really exciting thing to be a part of and I'm really glad to see that narrative healing is growing around the country as a field.

MS: More and more medical schools are incorporating narrative medicine into their curricula. Stanford's been doing it for a long time. Columbia has been doing it for a long time, NYU, Temple, etc.

NC: That’s great. I was thinking now would be a good time, if you have a new piece that you wanted to share with us, to do that.

MS: Yes, I would love to. This is a poem that I wrote before Ida. It came out of reading an Audubon Society pamphlet about birding on Grand Isle, which  is a major migratory spot. 

MS: It said, "Park near the cemetery where there is a playground and picnic tables. Some of the best birds of the day have been seen here while eating lunch." That was wonderful. So that's the epigraph. The poem is called “Grand Isle Invocation.” 

Grand Isle Invocation

The warblers, vireos and thrushes fall out

          their three-day spring-break drunk

          into oak       and hackberry       They’ve stopped to see

if the island is still dying and since it is

          they continue on…

          (I too can be seen here      misplaced…)

Before I die a single live oak will catch

          their exhaustion           They will cubby

          like high-tops hung from the Loneliest Road

in America          They will sing the LSU fight song

         and take the 18-hour flight        the red-eye

                   back to Cancún

NC: That's beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. So now it’s time for my final three questions with which I always like to close. First, is there, in the spirit of sharing enthusiasms, a piece of music or a book or movie or anything that you have encountered recently that you love and want to share?

MS: I’ve started gardening, just growing a couple of plants. And in the process of paying attention to them, I started even being worried about them. And in this case, thank God for the internet, because I could try  to figure out what was wrong with my plants. "These leaves are brown," or whatever. I find gardening as meditative as walking my dogs, which has always been my favorite meditative activity. Physically active, as opposed to the writing of poems. 

No one who knew me would ever believe that I was growing things...

NC: I love it when life has unexpected twists. That's great. [chuckle] We change. That also answers my second question, which is, is there a practice that you want to mention that helps you to stay grounded or feel aligned? 

MS: I think that was my answer. My new thing that I've discovered gardening helps me with staying grounded.

NC: Then my final question: I like to broaden the circle, because it seems like you're in different parts of the world and teaching in different programs, but even within those programs we’re often in a kind of siloed world. And so I'm wondering, are there things that you do to reach different people and engage in things on a more structural level?

MS: I've really missed being part of my chaplaincy studies group. I've missed being a student, but a particular kind of student, a student in an environment that's about praxis. I don't know, I feel like theory has encroached upon my experience in the academy, so that I need a balance. There is a new organization that aims to provide this sort of continuing education professionalism for chaplains. So I've been keeping an eye on that and following that. In  the hospital I worked with people who were really struggling and who relied on really imaginative images. For example, there was one woman in a group who wanted ECT, and her family was really opposed to it. She showed me this picture she colored, and it was a robot made of stones. And I said, "Tell me about the picture." And she said, "This is the man of rocks, and the man of rocks told me that I should get electric convulsive shock therapy." This was really amazing to me, first that she shared it and also that this was her way of understanding her inner resolve. So through this chaplaincy organization, I discovered that there were training programs for chaplains to accompany people who are getting treatment with psychedelics for treatment-resistant depression and other conditions. And I thought, "I want to learn how to do that." I want to learn to be with somebody who's opted to, many for the first time, to attempt some alternate way of reaching some of the places you and I have been talking about. So that is a new idea for me, and I am pursuing getting trained so that I'll be able to do that when called upon.

NC: That's nice. So it's like entering a different circle of reality in some way. Thank you so much, Martha, for sharing your time and your experiences and your poetry. It's really been a pleasure talking with you.

MS: Thank you very much.

  • Hi Nadia,

    I appreciate this interview on so many levels. My son and his wife lived in New Orleans for six years, 2010-2016…and we did the drive down Grand isle more than once. A deeply unnerving as well as enervating journey…we just drove until the road ended in the water…convergence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf. I’ve seen those camps…and heard the ongoing debate about whether the locals “should be” rescued…as if this weren’t all the home they’ve ever known.

    Then…the “double effect”…which occurs throughout the paradoxes inherent in the New Testament parables. We humans are meant to embrace both/and rather than this incessant either/or.

    Her writing process…as someone who returns to revise…was also interesting.

    Such an intelligent and perceptive interviewer you are!

    Be well…I think of you often and read every thing you send. I’m currently trying my hand at fiction for the first time in my life…SOOO challenging. I also took up weaving in 2018…both have been great pandemic practices.


    • Cameron, I’m just seeing this now. Thank you so much for this beautiful comment and your thoughts! Also, wonderful to hear that you’re writing fiction and weaving. I hope to see you in person before too long, too. xox

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