Christian Kerfuffles, Taking Offense, and the Poetry of Li-Young Lee

LyleeIn late October, I had the privilege of teaching two workshops at the Indiana Faith and Writing Conference on the campus of Anderson University.

The IFWC, originally known as the Indianapolis Christian Writers Conference, brings together writers of faith to help them develop in their craft and find opportunities for publishing. The director, Liz Boltz Ranfeld, is an Anderson English professor, an essayist, and the mother of two young children.

One responsibility Ranfeld hadn’t expected was answering to outrage over the closing keynote speaker, renowned poet Li-Young Lee. In the following conversation, I attempt to explore what happened, why, and what people of faith can learn.

Tania Runyan: What happened at the closing address?

Liz Boltz Ranfeld: For the first part of the keynote address, things were fine. However, when Li-Young started reading “The Undressing,” the audience became uncomfortable. [Read more...]

Trauma’s Not a Sin

anxiety_paintingRecently I ran across the following sentences in a status update and, in short, wanted to run over my tablet with the lawnmower:

“Sin isn’t very chic to talk about these days. Words like: brokenness, psychological issues, maladjustment, and trauma are way more palatable. But woe to us if we completely ignore sin.”

I copied and sent these lines to a friend to keep me from traumatizing, breaking, or otherwise maladjusting my device. “How are sin and trauma even in the same sentence,” I asked, “as if they are interchangeable?”

Because for generations, we’ve been told that they are. “Poor me” therapy-seekers engage in yoga, latte-drinking, simpering, and other chic, self-centered activities. If we just gave our kids good spankings when they were young, they would learn to examine themselves, fear God, and stop playing the victim.

“If only,” I finally commented on that post, “trauma were as easy as sin.” [Read more...]

Life-Saving Moments of Art

Drawing of a nesting hen In August, the musical duo Alright Alright, composed of husband and wife Seth and China Kent, performed in our living room for their last house concert in a series of a dozen across the country.

As the musicians (described as “piano-based folk Americana with a healthy measure of art-song/cabaret”) set up their lighting and cigar-box guitars, a number of children played outside in a tree house garlanded with flowers. Cicadas electrified the maples. Adults drank cheap pinot and dipped pretzels in hummus. For many, the next day would be the first day of attending or teaching school. Already, it was a bittersweet, beauty-haunted evening.

And then the couple sang.

With her rich, soulful voice and his tender harmonies, China and Seth filled our small space with songs about quirky lovers, a dying father, child soldiers, and Mary, mother of Jesus. Our usually empty living room couch and chairs radiated with an unlikely assortment of friends and neighbors who just minutes before had been strangers. The immediate, shared intimacy of participating in this music together was palpable: communion, healing, and worship.

[Read more...]

Not Your Mother’s Book Tour

Runyan imageIn my world, a typical book signing involves sitting behind a small publisher’s table at the annual AWP Conference book fair. Along with dozens of other poets throughout the day, I peer at passersby like a shelter dog whose time has run out. If I’m lucky, someone might stop to say hello, taking a complimentary butterscotch disc as they shuffle away without my book. “Got just one carry-on bag this year,” they’ll say. “You know how it is.”

The book signing I attended this week was different. In fact, it wasn’t really about books—or signing them—at all.

Jenn McAllister, otherwise known as Jennxpenn, is a nineteen-year-old YouTube sensation who started making videos about her teenage life several years ago. My twelve-year-old daughter, Lydia, and her friends follow Jenn and other millennial vloggers, like Super Woman, Taylor Oakley, and Miranda Sings, on their four-inch screens every day. So when Lydia and her friend Emma heard that Jenn was coming to the Chicago area for a signing, we had no choice but to take a ninety-minute road trip—on a school night—to see Jenn in real-life retina display. [Read more...]

How To Begin a Book

4270156619_bb2e54ca50_zI’m a bit Type A for a poet—or for what people perceive as one. I like to know when and where I’m going with my writing, and why. This is no apology. Without specific goals, I wouldn’t have written a thing since becoming a parent twelve years ago. I make the time and space to write, even perching atop an ottoman in the corner of a stairway to scratch out drafts in the early, nauseated hours of my pregnancies.

My projects are clearly defined. Explore Paul the Apostle with fifty poems. Grapple with the book of Revelation from Patmos to the Great White Throne. Write at least one poem week, unless it’s Christmas or something, until the project is “done.” Then revise with intense, almost physical focus, as if scrubbing a yellow ring from the bathtub. Inspiration? Who has time to wait around for that when the elementary school is requiring five start-of-the-year events?

However, when I flew to Image’s Glen Workshop earlier this month, opting to spend most of the week on retreat, I had no such plan. I knew it was time to start a new collection of poems focusing on the violin, one of my lifelong loves. But I had no idea how to approach it, how to even figure out how to approach it, or how long any of these undefined tasks would take. I just knew I was about to spend a week in Santa Fe with artists, writers, mountains, chocolate, and wine. At least a couple of those are daily necessities. [Read more...]