(The photo of a young Flannery O’Connor was found at Southern Literary Trail.)
Two weeks ago a large group of writers met in Los Angeles for a conference titled “The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination.” We Catholic writers are usually pretty isolated—I had never been in the same room with any of the other Dappled Things editors before. Most of our business is conducted by email, phone, or Google Hangout. And there I was, chatting over a tessellated spread of books with Joshua Hren, our managing editor!
My journey began on Thursday with my husband coming home early from work. Sean and I spent an hour packing up the car with a folding crib, jars of baby food, a white noise machine, and everything else we thought a 9 month-old baby might require in a strange land. It’s about six hours from San Jose to Los Angeles, and even though we figured that little James would sleep most of the way, we had never taken him so far from home. He did sleep, fitfully, and by the time we stumbled into our hotel room around two in the morning he was wired. Grinning and panting like an energetic puppy, he bounced up and down in the portable crib while his parents stared in pained amazement. Somehow we all managed to sleep.
The hub of the conference was a large, airy tent that had been set up in a courtyard next to the Catholic Center at USC. Here we could make our first decision of the day: whether to greet a celebrated novelist or snag a cup of coffee first. (I may have gone for the coffee.) The walls of the pavilion were lined with journals and presses displaying their wares. Joshua Hren was representing Wiseblood Books and Dappled Things, and I am proud to report that his table was always surrounded with conversation and laughter. I got to meet Angela Cybulski, Matthew and Deirdre Lickona, and Joseph O’Brien, and we talked about everything from the controversial criticism of Yvor Winters to the terrifying stillness of the Mojave desert.
After lunch Tobias Wolff read his short story “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” This was a great reading which brought out the story’s funny jabs at academia, making the ending even more shocking. Later, in the evening, Ron Hansen read the opening of Mariette in Ecstasy. Beautiful contemplative fragments of description, like a “slab of bread dough” that “rolls as slowly as a white pig.” Shades of Hopkins’ nature journals, or Into Great Silence. The next day I thought of Mariette when D. J. Waldie talked about his fragmented novel of southern California suburbia, Holy Land. That book has been praised for revealing the unlikely Hopkinsian grandeur of suburban L.A., and it seems to me that this feat is both the vocation of every writer and something characteristically Catholic.
I was a bit nervous because my own panel was coming up, but it turned out just fine. I got to meet Mary Ann Miller, whose anthology St. Peter’s B-List was reviewed in Dappled Things, and Bill Baer, who created a journal I love, The Formalist. It turned out that all three of us wanted to talk poetry, and Bill’s talk on how he founded The Formalist made it easy for me to segue into my own thoughts on metrical poetry and our advocacy of it at Dappled Things. I did try to stir the pot a bit by warning against formal poetry that is too Augustan and rational—I prefer the weirdness of Hopkins and Yeats and Eliot. Mary Ann’s exploration of Catholic literary anthologies had me wanting a bunch of new books, and we had a lot of fun talking afterward.
Day 2: Sean and I ate breakfast with Earnest McBride, son of the civil rights activist of the same name, and he told us harrowing tales of his time as a Freedom Rider. He was at the conference as a journalist, and after playing with James and telling us his life story he headed for the Jesuit Literary Imagination panel.
I went to hear James Matthew Wilson, Paul Mariani, and Angela Alaimo O’Donnell talking about being a Catholic poet in the 21st century. James said many things that resonated with me, for instance: “It is no easy thing to write a devotional poem, to figure out how I might write a genuinely devotional poem that does not retreat from the world to the chapel, one that comprehends the world only because it has already seen the truth of the cross.” I, for one, have a planned sonnet sequence that I’ve barely started for this reason. He went on to explore why the Inferno is more popular than the Paradiso and to ask why we have a resistance to “poetry conceived in supernatural joy.” Paul Mariani’s lovely reading and explication of “The Windhover” and of John Berryman’s poems seemed to offer an antidote to such resistance, and Angela reminded us of how the “efficacy” of words in the sacraments has given Catholic poets an awe of the power of words even outside of Mass, confession, weddings.
Next, Barbara Nicolosi moderated a panel about being a Catholic writer in California. I was excited for this one, since Heather King, Carol Zapeta-Whelan (“Neighbors,” from the last issue), and D.J. Waldie would be there. A lot of love and reverence for L.A. and Fresno, cities that often get snubbed. The Spanish heritage of California came up a lot. And there was a lively discussion of being a writer in the shadow of Hollywood, how you tell people in L.A. you’re a writer and they say “What show?” (Incidentally, James Franco is working on a film version of D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land.)
After a reading by six of Greg Wolfe’s students, there was Mass, the gospel and homily being read by Ron Hansen, who as you may know is an ordained deacon. Finally, we ended with a poetry reading by Dana Gioia, Paul Mariani, and Angela O’Donnell. One poem of Angela’s sent that shiver and stinging of tears that I haven’t felt from a poem for some time:
“The best way to know God is to love many things.”—Vincent Van Gogh
What Vincent loved of sky he told the crows.
He taught them blue and the long note of want,
the rut and whorl of time that comes and goes,
God’s face in the field, drawn and gaunt.
What Vincent loved of earth he told the trees.
Their branches writhed like flames when they heard
how every leaf and bole at last is seized
and falls like olive stones and evening birds.
What Vincent loved of salt he told the sea:
the play and savor of the friends of Christ,
their sails taut, each mast a wood-crossed T,
the empty boats afloat on waves of light.
What Vincent loved of fire he told the fire,
then placed his wounded hand upon the pyre.
By the end of the conference I felt much more connected to my fellow Catholic writers and to the literary life in general. It’s fun to snark about literary conferences (I love Kay Ryan’s “I Go to AWP” with all the love my grinchy, introverted heart can handle), but this one was intimate, based more on our common love of Christ and Hopkins and O’Connor than on striking poses. I mean, I tried to be cool, but it’s hard when you have a nursing infant around.
Would go again.