Our poetry editor, S. Rosemary Zimmerman, and our editor-in-chief, Rebecca Starks, recently spoke with Issue #3 featured poet Terry Minchow-Proffitt. Here’s what he had to say about his poetry, his faith, and the connections between them.
What inspired you to write this set of poems? Did you begin with The Seven Last Words, or did one of these poems lead you to them as a way of structuring your thoughts and experiences?
I’ve long been drawn in by The Seven Last Words. I was a Baptist pastor for 27 years. Being more liturgical Baptists, we’d revisit those words each year, either throughout Lent or during the Good Friday Tenebrae Service. After I retired, I was invited to teach a class on the Last Words during Lent 2013. I decided, as my personal discipline, to try to write a poem a week on each Word. I’m a slow writer, so I was well into the season of Easter before I’d finished the cycle. After letting them sit for awhile, I returned to rework them intermittently. The most recent and final revision occurred when your editors at Mud Season offered to workshop them with me. So here they are.
Inspiration is a big mystery to me, but there’s something real about the cross that cuts to the chase and draws me in. I’m not referring to elaborate atonement theories, though there’s some very exciting atonement theology happening these days, much of it prompted by the insights into mimetic violence by René Girard. But what strikes me most is the notion that God is willing to become the crucified instead of the crucifier, the notion that that reality is best known as Suffering Love. As a Christian, I believe we’re called both to receive and embody such poignant love as passionately as we can. I’m drawn in by the experiential aspect of this notion.
Your question ties together two poles of how inspiration might work for me. In these poems I began with The Seven Last Words because they seemed to promise a way of structuring and deepening my sense of God’s presence when life turns particularly dark and meaningless. Laurence Freeman once put it this way, speaking of Jesus: “His continuing presence within the absence created by his death is the gospel’s essential message.” That about says it.
You’re a retired pastor. In this set of poems the connection between your faith and your poetry is explicit, but do you see a deeper connection between the two? Do you think you approach poetry differently because of your faith?
Yes and no. Integration and wholeness (integrity) matter a lot to me, so I hope that there’s an abiding connection between the poems I write and my faith. While I believe faith informs my writing, I also hold that all persons have some type of faith, some notion that they trust for their life’s sake, whether explicitly religious or not, and that such trust distinguishes them in their journey. Theologian Paul Tillich spoke of this as an “ultimate concern” in his classic Dynamics of Faith.
So I believe all poets approach their writing uniquely, based on how transformed they are by what they trust to be most true, good and beautiful. For example, I don’t believe that Mark Strand claims to be particularly religious, certainly not Christian. But his “Poem After the Seven Last Words” in Man and Camel is s stunning witness to faith. He might not say that poetry is prayer, as I would, but when I read these I feel as though I’ve entered prayer.
The Seven Last Words are the seven phrases the Bible records Jesus as saying on the cross. Exploring these phrases in these poems, how did you navigate the weight of church traditions that have been laid on them over the years?
Of all the disciples, Thomas is the one I feel closest to. I’m a transplant to Missouri and have adopted the “Show Me” motto. I resonate with Thomas’ refusal to take another person’s word for what matters most, to want to see and feel it firsthand. And yet, when the risen Jesus comes to him in the upper room, we’re never told that he follows through on Jesus’ invitation to trace his wounds with his fingers. I like to think that, once in Jesus’ presence, Thomas dropped his demands. In fact, the real blessing, John’s Gospel says, comes to those how have not seen but believed. I count myself among these blessed souls who have never had the chance to meet Jesus in the flesh. I have come to faith largely through the faithful witness of others. I listen to their stories and learn, seeking to sift out what my mind and heart can abide as real.
All the gospels have been edited and revised by primitive Christian communities and other unknown, unnamed scribes along the way. So The Seven Last Words, though in the classic sense continuing to speak across the ages, weren’t necessarily last. Scripture is not journalism, but communal, embodied witness, words arising out of the risk of a lived faith. This captivates me. I love that these words have the early church’s fingerprints all over them. Such accretions and redactions are in keeping with my thoroughly incarnational sense of God. I’m called to be both discerning yet open with my faith. By the way, it also reaffirms for me that writing is indeed revision!
Could you talk to us about the inspiration for poem VI in particular? Did you worry that it might be controversial to bring together Christianity and the Holocaust in the way you do here?
The experience of writing these poems was quite intense. I “moved in” with each of the Seven Words, especially the sixth one. I was very ambitious, hoping to capture some sense of “It is finished” as it has been experienced in all sorts of crucifixions since Christ’s. I know that sounds arrogant, but it felt humbling and daunting, if anything.
I happened upon this obituary for Rabbi Schacter and was deeply moved by how he ran from barracks to barracks, racing against death to let the survivors know by his presence and words that they were now free. This reminded me of a story I’d read years ago by Elie Wiesel in his memoir Night. While in a concentration camp as a young boy, the guards made him and the other prisoners witness the hanging of a boy, then they were filed by at close range as the dying boy wiggled, his lack of weight prolonging his suffering. Someone behind Wiesel murmured, “For God’s sake, where is God?”
That’s when Wiesel heard this voice rise up inside him: “There is where–hanging here from this gallows.” As I said earlier, I have come to see God as the Mystery of Suffering Love, the kind of living love that rises up by absorbing pain rather than inflicting it. So the depth of such love is what I was going for here, much more than any conflation of the cross and the Holocaust. But because I did not want to offend anyone inadvertently, I ran it by a rabbinical student, a Jewish poet, and a Protestant theologian. They weren’t offended at all but struck by the confluence of the divine/human suffering, the never fully resolved mystery of all that. But I understand that any time you bring together Christianity and the Holocaust there’s plenty of room for misunderstanding.
What do you hope people take away from these poems?
I hope they underscore that God is with us, even when perceived as absent, that the absence and silence of God can be a profound place of divine presence that can be trusted with our very lives.
How do you hope someone who doesn’t believe in God might approach these poems?
I want to respect the integrity of my readers, but I don’t usually think of them in terms of believers and non-believers. It’s my experience that belief and unbelief, whether in God or humanity, wrestle in all our hearts. So my hope for those who don’t believe in God is pretty much the same hope I hold for those who do believe in God: I long for these poems to foster an abiding sense of love, even amidst inexplicable suffering and loss. That’s about it; the litmus test is love.
What are you working on now?
Now that I’ve had a few things published, I’m taking a step back and trying to see how my published works constellate. I’ve written much out of my childhood and youth in the Mississippi Delta of eastern Arkansas. Another cluster of poems orbits around day-to-day living and family life. Of course, there’s always the God-question poems. I’m hoping to figure out the best way to sort through and arrange these as a manuscript for eventual publication.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? Do you rely more on inspiration or steady work? What is revision like for you?
When I resigned from pastoring, I vowed to give myself seven years to pursue poetry. Five years later, I’m just beginning. I’m slowly learning the craft and growing by inches in my willingness to write consistently. It’s essential that I begin my day in solitude and stillness, primarily through centering prayer, then try to work out of that space. My work might entail reading my way into writing, or writing my way into reading. It all depends.
Monks have a rule, and this is mine. It’s the process that I pray will become the product, a way of staying true to a very demanding calling that I’m just now venturing into, much like a child, but during the second half of life! My primary mentor is the amazing poet and teacher Matthew Lippman, though I have a number of wonderful and patient readers who offer encouraging feedback.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” That comes from Robert Frost, but the poet who instilled it in me is Scott Cairns. His essay “A Troubled and Troubling Mirror,” found in Emilie Griffin’s A Syllable of Water, opened me like nothing else to poetry as discovery and to language as sacramental.
When did you start writing poetry, and what is the first poem you remember writing?
My first poem was written in college. It was about Dyess, Arkansas, my grandparents’ home where I spent much of my childhood and youth. You may know it as the hometown of Johnny Cash.