interview: Paul Quenon
today, we’re posting an interview with Br. Paul Quenon, a monk at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. i recently went to visit Br. Paul with two friends for an incredible day of hiking, tree climbing, discussion, and reflection. Br. Paul took us to Thomas Merton‘s hermitage where we sat together, did some writing, read from Merton’s journals, and prayed together. i’ll be writing about this fantastic experience in a post to come, but wanted to share his advice and challenge you to write a haiku this week. feel free to post it if you’re so bold! -Dave
when you picture someone reading your poetry, how do you see them? what do they think about, wear, and do? or, maybe a better way to say it: who do you write for?and how do you see your writing nourishing others?
When I write I see the reader as faceless, because I become faceless in writing. To be faceless is to forget yourself, and discover freedom of not having to be your usual self, to conform to your familiar persona. In writing I respect the freedom of the reader. This means not leaving any barbs or snags of cliché or pat phrases, ploys I might imagine will grab their attention. This would be the language of predefined people who have prefabricated ideas. Poetry is meant to get everyone away for that, myself to begin with.
how do you use poetry as a practice for spiritual exploration, discipline, or growth? can you offer any practical advice or sure-fire practices for folks interested in allowing writing to inform their spiritual discipline?
I almost daily write a Haiku during the time of my meditation, which is usually in the morning. It helps to crystallize and define the gift of the moment, such as I experienced it while sitting quietly outdoors. The advantage of this is that it helps keep me clear of fuzziness and vagueness. The disadvantage it has is that it can distract from the simple task of resting in the moment. But since I tend to get distracted anyway, I deal with a constructive distraction.
A daily Haiku moreover serves well as a small training in writing. Nothing strenuous. More like touching your toes every day to keep in shape. It is not much of an exercise, but better than not being able to touch your toes at all.
when you approach your desk, journal, computer—where ever it is you tend to create—what are some of the processes you use? what’s going through your mind? tell us about your habits of writing, no matter how quirky, mundane, strange, or small.
Since I have no need or ambition to make a living through writing, I write when the spirit moves me. Living the monastic life is my vocation. Writing is a kind of surplus, an overflow of contemplation that occasionally happens to me. An avocation. My mind just happens to take that inward turn now and then, and I write things down. There is no publish or perish drama. My regular job in the monastery is cooking for the monks and guests. A real job. Writing is a leisure activity for me. An activity that is work in its own right, but more like jogging or swimming, it is refreshing work because it is a break from the routine of life.
when you go to revise work, how do you typically go about it? are there best practices you follow?give some wise instruction for those of us ready to get cracking on revision!
I never publish unless I have run a poem past two or three other poets. If not poets, at least astute readers. And I might let a poem ferment a year or two. No pressure to publish. Surprising what develops when you come back after that long a time. A poem is like fine wine, it must sit awhile. We cultivate cheese for a living at Gethsemani Abbey, and timing here is much the same process. It takes weeks and months. There is a craft in knowing how to time a poem, because like yeast or mold it has a life of its own. I have to respect that. I know I’ve done well when a revision makes a poem to be more of itself. I bring it down to what I really meant to say to begin with.
what’s the best advice you can give to a person just beginning to write, struggling to write, or feeling stuck? what’s something you wish someone had told you starting out?
My novice master, Fr. Louis, known as Thomas Merton, told me to read good poetry before writing. He could recognize immediately when a writer was not much of a reader. Emulation and imitation is not bad for beginners. Your own voice will emerge because it is the only voice you have in the last analysis. Merton’s voice was influential for me early on. Most recently it is Reiner Rilke and Emily Dickensen. Dealing with better poets, even memorizing their works, has greatly improved my style.
would you like to share a poem you’re working on or have recently finished and comment on how it was written in light of the comments above? if so, please do so below…
To follow a master of poetry is not to imitate. If I start with a preconceived idea of a poem it will be a bore to write it, and it will be double bore for the reader. The influence sets a direction, but you take up the path and discover things along the way. The influences are recognized as an afterthought more often than forethought. Here is a poem that embodies both:
I ended my most recent book, Afternoons with Emily, with a poem that reflects three influences. It was inspired by a poem by Billy Collins, “The Trouble with Poetry” where he complains about hard it is to stop writing poems because rabbits they keep popping out. This made me reflect on what it might be in fact to write my last poem:
My Last Poem
When I write my last poem
it will not say good-by
to poetry, but hello to itself,
will heave a glad sigh
it got into the world
before the door closed,
will look to its companion poems,
that it might have place
among these orphans,
that they might reach out hands
in company to go together
into oblivion or into memory,
or to some secret cove
where eternity sits,
from time to time, and reads.
The second influence is the final scene in Berman’s The Seventh Seal in which Death leads a string of villagers along a hill top holding hands.
The third influence is Rainer Rilke, who would likely come up with the romantic image of eternity as a secluded reader at leisure with the written works of time. If no one else reads me, there is still nothing lost.
Br. Paul Quenon has been a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky for 53 years . He has published four books of poetry, most recently Afternoons with Emily with Black Moss Press in Windsor, Ont., and soon an anthology, Monkscript Two, with Fons Vitae in Louisville.
Paul recites and sings poetry seven times a day by profession—namely the ancient psalms of the Bible, in choir with several dozen other monks. This sets the bar pretty high for a boy from West Virginia who came to pray and work and read all about God in a monastery, which makes a natural breeding ground for poets.