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Brett Foster

The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination

A conference-goer's report.

In February, a wide range of spiritual and literary types—writers, readers, editors, and thinkers largely consisting of Roman Catholics but not entirely—gathered at USC's Caruso Catholic Center and Doheny Memorial Library for readings, workshops, lectures, roundtables, and panel sessions, all devoted to and exploring a particular future, that of the Catholic literary imagination. It's a pleasure when, having taken the trouble to reach a conference, you arrive, have your mind and spirit stirred for a few days, and are reminded freshly why you love the thing you do, and feel admiration and affection for the people you have known, or have just met, who enjoy doing this same sort of thing, too. And when a conference is really good, as this one was, it stays with you—memories and highlights of those few days leave a vivid imprint upon you, weeks and months later, and maybe longer.

Dana Gioia, the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at USC, and Gary Adler, Director of Research at USC's Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, both deserve great praise for making this conference happen. They tirelessly searched for money to make the event a reality, so much so that there were no registration costs for participants. Blessed are the plan-makers, risk-takers, and fund-raisers, for they will merit much applause. What's more, Dana and Gary were seemingly omnipresent hosts, giving visitors directions to upcoming sessions, participating in multiple sessions themselves, and making helpful announcements when those sessions ended.

Traveling from home prevented me from attending the conference's opening event, a Thursday-night plenary reading by Julia Alvarez. I did manage to attend Paul Mariani's "Art of Poetry" class early the next morning. Mindful of the thirty or forty Catholic high-school students in the room, assembled in their diverse uniforms from their area schools, Mariani gave a warm and capacious talk about his own growth as a poet and the resources he has found in poetry—as much a series of life lessons as literary lessons. Later in the morning, Villanova scholar James Matthew Wilson led a session on the same topic. It was a tour de force, and I plan to steal many a thing from the eight-page handout he distributed. Wilson discussed, among other things, how poetry is the paradigmatic art form, and how poetry's virtues have differed from age to age—that is, emphasis shifted from ancient tale and stately rhythms to private reading and interior states. In addition to giving a primer on versification, he introduced rhyming and its effects, referring to the "Stabat Mater" and other Latin hymns. He concluded with a consideration of poetry as opposed to mere verse, drawing upon the poet and critic Yvor Winters.

After lunch, Paul Contino eloquently introduced Tobias Wolff, describing Wolff's fiction as not a "pious celebration" but instead "focused on our struggling." Wolff read his story "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs" to a packed chapel, and reflected upon how his reading of The Jesuits of North America informed that story's climactic scene. (He writes about this in an essay in the collection Tremor of Bliss: Contemporary Writers on the Saints, edited by Paul Elie.) Kevin Starr gave a plenary talk afterward, and a late-afternoon session on the "state of Catholic publishing" featured editors from Ignatius, Loyola, Paraclete, and University of Dayton presses offering insights into today's complex print- and digital-reading landscape. These presses and others also had booths in a tented common area. Browsing, I learned of Orbis Books' Passion: Contemporary Writers on the Story of Calvary and of a conference to be held at the University of Notre Dame in late October, "Transcending Orthodoxies: Academic Freedom in Religiously Affiliated Universities." James Matthew Wilson's The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry was also available, one of several well-designed books by Wiseblood, a relatively new publisher. Friday's activity concluded with the novelist Ron Hansen, who read excerpts from his enduring novel Mariette in Ecstasy, somehow enjoying already its 25th anniversary.

Saturday provided another full, rich day, the last of the conference. Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, Paul Mariani, and James Matthew Wilson participated in a "Poets in the Twenty-First Century" session, with a fine young poet of that vintage, Malachi Black, present in the audience. (A new professor in San Diego, Black benefited from the conference being virtually in his backyard.) O'Donnell spoke powerfully of her Sicilian parents and their Catholic faith and traditions, at one point quoting from Augustine's Confessions: "Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you." Incarnation, she continued, is the soul of poetry, which consists of story, song, and symbol. She spoke of how she writes with her "whole personality," adding that "a writer is never more fully herself than when she is in the act of writing." She also read from her poetry volume Saint Sinatra, after which Dana Gioia announced that there was a Frank Sinatra Museum quite nearby on USC's campus. O'Donnell suggested an immediate pilgrimage!

Paul Mariani, an accomplished biographer as well as poet, described how American poet John Berryman had played the literary pilgrim, visiting sites where Gerard Manley Hopkins had resided. He read from Berryman's Eleven Addresses to the Lord: "Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement. / May I stand until death forever at attention / for any of your least instruction or enlightenment." Even more memorably, Mariani read Hopkins' "The Windhover." Oh, wow, was it something to hear. He read it slowly and sonorously, not unlike some of those early recordings of Yeats, but without any hit of preening. Rather admiringly, savoring it: "AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!"

"The Church has taught me to see the world as it is," remarked James Matthew Wilson during this session. Poetry, he said, does not "retreat from the world to the chapel"; instead, it helps us to know the truth, and abide there.

Fiction took center stage on Saturday afternoon, in a session featuring critics Paul Contino and Mark Eaton, along with novelist and fiction-writer Richard Bausch. Contino began with a view of the critic as a handmaiden to authors, and he illustrated this function broadly, advocating for the Canadian novelist David Adams Richards and American writers Alice McDermott, George Saunders, and Wolff and Bausch, too. Bausch read from his fiction, and then reflected on a writer's higher calling. Writers, he said, at their best transcend the normal limitations of actual living. They strive to write with all of their intelligence, and the compassion of an angel. Eaton, sharing work from a forthcoming project on religion and American fiction since 1950, observed that as religion has become more pliable in modern life, it has also invited more self-reflection on the part of believers. He also helpfully distinguished between belief in propositions and belief as a continuing practice.

I took part in an "Ecumenical Perspectives" session at the end of the day. (I was told last year, upon being invited, that since I was an upstanding professor from Wheaton College, I would be on the 'ecumenical perspectives' panel! I had been looking forward to it since then.) My focus involved the teaching of Renaissance literature from inter-confessional vantage points, even in an evangelical setting. The more predictable Protestant presence in such a class, in such a place, of John Foxe, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton, and such, ought to be complemented by the lives and writings of figures such as Reginald Pole, Edmund Campion, and Robert Southwell, whose religious poetry in the 1590s made possible the later achievements of John Donne and George Herbert. I argue for this because it reflects better what the field of Renaissance Studies has explored and how its focus has expanded in the past 15 years or so. It also makes the religious complexities and tumult of the Renaissance era more approachable and convincing to students.

Marc Malandra of Biola University was also a part of this session, and he reflected on the place of faith, and his identity in the faith, in his own writing habits. He took a strong position on the freedom that should be felt by writers of faith. Malandra prefers to think of himself as a "Christian who writes, rather than a Christian writer," to avoid the possibly limiting attention or engagement that the qualifying description risks bringing.

Poetry continued to be a strong presence throughout the conference. Saturday afternoon saw a reading by several contributors to the anthology St. Peter's B-List, a collection of contemporary poems on the saints edited by Mary Ann B. Miller, and the conference concluded with a Saturday-night plenary reading involving Dana Gioia, Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, and Paul Mariani.

At some point during this conference, I took a few minutes to read a welcoming insert in the conference program, a letter from the Most Reverend Jose H. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles. Our focus, he announced, was "faith and its relation to literature and culture." For twenty centuries artists have been inspired and sometimes haunted by their search for God, and today artists of faith must speak with force and grace against attempts to "forget and reverse the incarnation." The archbishop continued, "The new evangelization needs new art and new artists. It needs stories and songs, poems and novels and plays, sculptures and architecture, paintings and symphonies"—art that is not satisfied with "temporary consolations and diversions." And if religious art is to be renewed, audiences of faith, for their part, must demand "an art that is truly excellent." To that, all the conference-goers, gathered in the parish of the literary imagination, said Amen.

Brett Foster teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at Wheaton College. He is the author of Shakespeare's Life, and has published articles on Shakespeare, Marlowe, Henry VIII, Renaissance Rome, and the sacred and profane in Renaissance literature. He regularly gives talks at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

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