Robert Strong, editor of the new anthology Joyful Noise: American Spiritual Poetry, discusses God, verse and America. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Robert Strong, editor of the new anthology Joyful Noise: American Spiritual Poetry, discusses God, verse and America.

When he was growing up, Robert Strong's religion was "a typical Northeast nothing-in-particular." As an undergraduate at Jesuit Boston College, Strong grew interested in how spirituality relates to peace and justice. He was a grad student in creative writing at a Buddhist school (Colorado's Naropa Institute); his doctoral studies led him to the Puritans.

The published poet's interest in religion remains literary: Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press chose Strong to edit Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry. The poems range widely, from ancient Native American songs and African-American spirituals to contemporary experimental verse. Strong, 38, visits Pittsburgh for readings from the new book, which includes work by several area poets. Strong spoke with CP from his home in Canton, N.Y., where he teaches at State University of New York.

How did you approach such a vast topic as "American spiritual poetry"?

One of the main impulses was, "Here's a chance to look outside the canon. How can I expand the definitions of 'American' and 'spiritual' and 'poetry'?" My criteria was mostly interesting poetry -- I didn't want to feel like "Oh, I have to have a handful of this type of person, and a handful of that type of person."

Why order selections by poets' birth years?

To give a progressive arc, because the transformations from beginning to end are kind of fascinating.

Such as?

In the middle of the 19th century, while the country is beginning to go through the convulsions that purged us of slavery, something amazing happens. We have Emerson, who came out of the Calvinist tradition. In 1832, he resigns as a minister, because the Unitarians are too strict for him, and he sort of goes and hangs out with the transcendentalists. The [he] writes what are essentially his essays on poetics, which influence people like Walt Whitman, who are fed up with the strictures that they've inherited for poetry. You have this incredible moment when everything changes.

Let's look at a few poems. Why include Carl Sandburg's "Grass," about grass overgrowing old battlefields?

Because it's so brutal. This is one of the themes that you don't see too much, the death work of nature. It's very hopeful, right?

Hopeful how?

The repetition of [the phrase] "let me work" -- you could see it as decomposition. We know that it's also fertility.

So it's kind of an omniscient point of view?

That's one of the possible readings. These horrrible places, with the passage of time they're just going to be a green field. Probably greener than others [laughs].

For a post-war poem, B.H. Fairchild's "The Deposition," a crucifixion scene, is strikingly straightforward and devout. Why include it?

This poem manages to take one of those central scenes of slavery, of the lynching, and both pay attention to history and bring it forward into its present moment.

[Fairchild's] a contemporary of you and me, and brings it forth into our moment, and makes the speaker complicit, right? So you have the Christ image, and the lynching image, and what I take to be these young American boys. It thematically brings together so much that's in the book that it kind of freaks me out.

How about Frances Richard's "Regmaglypt"?

It's "the big touch" poem, God putting his big touch on earth, via the detritus that he flings at us through the atmosphere.

Yet it speaks in scientific terms -- the names of minerals, multibillion-year time frames.

These things weren't explained in previous centuries, the world around us. As they become more and more explained, where do you go for that mystery? You get up to the frontier of science, and that's where the mystery exists.

How do the poems in Joyful Noise reflect changing conceptions of God?

There's a difference of quality between saying, "[God] made this horrible snowstorm happen," and saying, "This horrible snowstorm is of itself spiritual." There's no more triangle. It's a one-to-one relationship between you and whatever you are gazing upon.

Were earlier poets less likely to blame God for suffering?

When bad things happened, they knew it was the hand of God, but it was something he was doing to them, to teach them various lessons. When we [today] don't have that sort of direct Bat-phone relationship with God, then we can say, "Wait a minute, this doesn't seem like the right thing to do, sir."

How do poets reflect their times?

The poet's always just a little bit ahead of everyone else. It's not that they're seeing forward; they're seeing the present moment clearly. And then the next week we're like, "Oh, wow, they could see into the future." But it turns out that they were just paying attention.

Did this project make you redefine spirituality?

I went into this project thinking, "I'm going to learn so much about poetry, and about American spirituality." And I did. But what I really learned about was the process of putting an anthology together!

You're doing readings with some of the poets?

They're teaching me about the anthology. I had a gentleman here in Canton named Albert Glover. He read his piece and then he read a Whittier poem next to a Ginsberg poem. The Whittier of course is beautiful and polite, and the Ginsberg is raw and impolite. But they're exactly the same poem. I swear that no one at the bookstore that we were at had ever said "masturbate" so loudly.

What do you mean when you write, "All poetry is spiritual"?

Both spiritual practice and poetic practice moreso than prose, they're both at their core trying to articulate the ineffable.

So how did you narrow your selections?

With the contemporary poets, I didn't want to call up a poet and say, "Hey, I just read your spiritual poem" .. and be wrong! From what I know of writers, I would sort of lose that person to the cause. So [instead] I would ask poets to send five poems that they thought fit the description that I gave them. What was wonderful about that was that I received poems that at first gloss I wouldn't have put the label on. But they had. There's poems about origami, for example. But as soon as you read it under that label, you say, "Of course, this is wonderful."

With "spiritual poetry," how do you avoid being perceived as "chicken soup for the soul"?

People are so hungry for something that's not fluff, but isn't sort of telling them how to think. I contacted poets who I thought, "There's no way they will allow their poetry to be under this banner." [But] everyone was really excited about the project, probably because they perceived that problem: "I can't say, out loud, that this is a spiritual poem, because then it's going to get shunted into some other corner." [It's good] to have the book out and to have people be able to read it without the brown paper bag on it.

Robert Strong reads from Joyful Noise with contributors Toi Derricotte, Samuel Hazo, Romella D. Kitchens, Stephen Murabito, Ellen McGrath Smith and Philip Terman 7:30 p.m. Wed., May 2. Community House Learning Center, 120 Parkhurst St., North Side. Free. 412-381-4261.

Strong reads with Judith Vollmer Noon Thu., May 3. Pitt Book Center, 4000 Fifth Ave., Oakland. Free. 412-648-1453.

click to enlarge Robert Strong.
Robert Strong.

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