I’ve been basking in the summery glow of new music from Sam Phillips and reminiscing about what happened two years ago.
In 2011, Sam Phillips visited Seattle, and was honored with the eighth annual Denise Levertov Award.
She performed a few songs, paused for an onstage interview by yours truly, and then performed again. It was a thrill to share the stage with a singer and songwriter who has inspired me, album after album, song after song, since I was 16 years old.
But I would have been there even if IMAGE had given the Levertov award to someone else.
And I hope I don’t have to miss any of the future award gatherings. The recipients are always inspiring, and the room is always packed with artists I admire and with patrons of the arts who demonstrate impressive discernment.
Denise Levertov, an extraordinary poet who died in Seattle in 1997, wrote in a way that was thick with mystery, beauty, and challenge.
On the IMAGE website, you’ll read,
Levertov, who spent her last years in Seattle, embraced the landscape and culture of the Pacific Northwest. Her identity as a Christian believer — a pilgrim whose faith was inextricably entwined with doubt — became another important facet of her work, particularly in her later poetry. The Levertov Award is presented annually in the spring to an artist or creative writer whose work exemplifies a serious and sustained engagement with the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Besides Sam Phillips, IMAGE has presented this award to Kathleen Norris, Thomas Lynch, Franz Wright, Madeline DeFrees, Eugene Peterson, and fiction writers Bret Lott and Ron Hansen.
Last year, they gave it Patricia Hampl.
This year, they presented the tenth annual Denise Levertov award to someone who is more than an inspiration to me: Luci Shaw.
Yes, we go to her poems frequently — for their beauty, their surprise, their insight.
Don’t just take my word for it. Read some of these, which were featured by none other than Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac:
– “Wrong Turn”
But Anne and I love Luci for more than her poetry. She and her husband John have been faithful friends for a decade. And they have generously opened their home as a refuge for us when we needed a place to rest and to write.
I could go on and on about Luci Shaw.
Her contributions to books by The Chrysostom Society, like Reality and the Vision, have had a tremendous influence on my faith and imagination since I was in high school. Her friendship with Madeleine L’Engle — specifically, her influence in prompting L’Engle to write Walking on Water — has also been a source of inspiration for countless readers and artists. And I highly recommend her books, whether they be poetry or prose. (Check out The Crime of Living Cautiously, Breath for the Bones, What the Light was Like, and Harvesting Fog.)
What a joy it was to listen to Luci’s inspiring speech last Thursday night. I wish I could share that speech with you.
Instead, I’ll share these wonderful pictures of the event last Thursday, with the permission of the photographer, my friend Kathleen Overby.
And I’ll now “hand the microphone” over to my friend Julie Mullins, the former program director at IMAGE.
This is the introduction that she gave at the event. And it is, unsurprisingly, excellent.
I first met Luci when I was the program director for Image. I was right out of college, and very nervous about running the logistics for my first Image board meeting. But as I talked with Luci one night over dinner with the rest of the board, I began to relax and feel more like myself. We shared our fangirl love for Coleridge and Keats, and everyone drank a friendly amount of wine.
Toward the end of dinner, when all of us were a little flushed, Luci ran her finger around the rim of her glass to make it sing, and we started up a small chorus of wine glasses at our table, right in the middle of the restaurant.
And I remember thinking, I’m going to like this job.
In her poetry, Luci Shaw offers us the gift of realizing that we have been walking around, muscling through the day, doing our tasks, without knowing how thirsty we are for more. It is in pausing, she shows us, and cultivating our attention for what is right in front of us, that we discover what it means to drink deeply.
As I prepared to write this introduction, I listened to a couple of poems I found online from Luci’s latest collection, Harvesting Fog. I felt again what I always feel when I hear Luci read — the sense of being stilled, and drawn into a Presence that breathes within every small thing. I hesitate to use the word “joy” here, because I am afraid of clichés. But I mean something like joy, a quality that feels surprising and fresh, yet somehow anticipated.
Luci follows in the tradition of poets who find the sublime in the particular, especially in the stirrings of the natural world. She shows us – gently, slyly – worlds of meaning in the humble and overlooked: the uncoiling filaments of a dried-up pea in a tea kettle, reaching into a latent resurrection. The spring thaw, which becomes a tribute to the malleability of all things, asking us to leave behind who we thought we had to be and shapeshift into new selves.
It’s this potential to stretch into metaphor that we need in some essential way, and not just in poetry — the suggestion that the things around us, and we ourselves, hold more meaning and beauty than the fact of our mere usefulness. This is what Luci brings alive in both her poems and non-fiction — the imaginative gaze that looks lovingly into the ordinary and finds the horizon of our longing, searching for a divine Love that answers us back.
Luci continually moves out toward that horizon in her own life. She manages a balance of activity and active contemplation that takes the energy of several normal people. It’s not for nothing that she wrote a book called The Crime of Living Cautiously, in which she tells the story of bungee jumping for the first time in her seventies. And her schedule keeps her traveling the country, speaking, leading writing workshops, and giving readings, because her instinct is usually to say “Yes.” Luci lives at the ready — ready to apprehend, to step into the unknown, and ready for a good joke. One of my other favorite moments with Luci was the time she and I and Mary Kenagy Mitchell raced giant adult-sized tricycles at another Image board meeting.
But Luci also cultivates stillness. She is an avid journaler, and I have heard her say that she wakes up most days, ears open, listening for the visitation of words. Prayer and poetry are folded into each other in her spiritual practice, making room for an image or phrase to announce itself.One of the great gifts of Luci’s presence is that she encourages and challenges others to live as fully as she does. She has been a mentor and spiritual friend to countless artists of faith, including me, people struggling to find space for their work, and sometimes, to explain to family and friends what exactly it is that they do. I like to think of Luci as a wise, yet hip, grandma in the arts — she has spoken courage to me, gentleness to self, and trust in the fruitfulness of leaping over the edge into the unknown, seeking out the radiance and darkness of the world and fashioning it into something new.
Luci is the author of ten volumes of poetry, and many books of nonfiction, including Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit. Her work has been widely anthologized, and her poetry has appeared in Christianity Today, Christian Century, Image, The Southern Review, Sojourners, and elsewhere. Her poems have also been featured several times on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. She is a founding member of the Chrysostom Society of Writers, and is a writer in residence at Regent College. And she is a talented wilderness photographer and a terrifyingly good Scrabble player.
Please welcome Luci Shaw.
And so we did welcome Luci Shaw.
We listened to her insights and her poetry.
We gave her a standing ovation even before she read her last poem.
And then Anne and I stayed as long as we could to talk with, and about, Luci.
Wish you could have been there. Hopefully, we’ll see you there next year.
And by the way, if you want to read more about Luci, read Anne’s interview with her in IMAGE No. 75… an interview that covers a wide range of subjects from Luci’s life and work. (I should also mention that Anne has written a particularly… um… steamy poem about Luci and John’s marriage. You’ll find it in Anne’s book, Delicate Machinery Suspended.)