I just returned from the Calvin Festival of Faith and
Writing. This time around, I enjoyed the company of four people—two students, a former
student, and a fellow editor. I stayed with the latter two at a
bed-and-breakfast in Grand Rapids, while the students stayed with a host
family.
The parking lots at Calvin College, where the event took
place, were lined with banks of still-melting
snow. The locals seemed ready for warmer weather, some of which we were
blessed to enjoy.  
My friends all arrived on Wednesday (it started Thursday
morning), but I had to teach till 9:30 P.M. Wednesday night, so I took the earliest flight out the next morning. When I arrived at the Dallas airport, I ran into another former
student headed Calvin way. The festival provided the option of submitting a
manuscript for review, and she told me she’d landed an appointment. (On the way back we ended up on the same flight again, and she told me the publisher wants her first book!)
Poet Scott Cairns (@ScottCairnsPoet) spoke at the first
session I attended. His topic: “Writing as a Way of Knowing.” His poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry,
Image, and The Atlantic, and his most recent book is Idiot
Psalms: New Poems.
He read from some of his brilliant work. I’m not big on poetry, but I loved his stuff. 
Some takeaways:
In approaching scripture, rabbis have often sought out the
dark sayings, the difficult places, searching for truth rather than going after
the happy, motivational texts. Verses that have failed to fit their scheme,
they’ve pursued in order to have their “scheme” corrected. These scholars pore
over a difficult text, pray over it, and come up with a way to grapple with it. 

In Luke 22:44, we read that Jesus in Gethsemane “prayed
more earnestly.” Cairns asked what our Lord was doing before he got earnest?
These little “oddnesses in the text,” as he described them, can provide “much
fodder for pondering.” After making this observation, he read us his work, “TheMore Earnest Prayer of Christ,” in which he said the divine in Christ contracted
to an ache. In “Threnody,” a term for a
poem/psalm for the dead, Cairns imagined his deceased father appearing. The comment I wrote in my notebook about it was simply “Wow.”

I must get a copy of St. Isaac of Syria/Nineveh’s Homilies. Dostoevsky had a copy, and in The Brothers K Father Zosima’s beloved character
delivers lines straight out of St. Isaac.

Cairns’s favorite poets are St. Simeon the Theologian, W.
H. Auden, Coleridge, St. Isaac, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Eliza
Bishop. He exalted Frost for lines that say more than one thing: “Even the
syntax shifts when you change lines. What I think is an adjective isn’t one on
the next line.”

About poetry: A poem is that through which we gain a
glimpse, but not a conclusive one. That’s why we can read again and acquire
more. We aren’t even fully aware of ourselves. The thing about the endless life
(theos) is that we’ll be made holy. “Mostly I’m excited about that,” he said. “He is endless in capacity… He will always exceed us.”  

When someone asked, “Is there a point at which the
language becomes opaque, too dense, putting the burden entirely on the reader
to ascertain meaning?” he said, “That’s what we’d call bad writing. Poems are
not coded messages. The goal is not to crack the code… I want a poem to be a scene of meaning-making… Have your best friend
read it. If it makes no sense to that friend, that’s bad.” Poems should make
sense. 

Stay tuned for more stuff from the conference. 

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