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Brett Foster

The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination

A conference-goer's report.

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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!

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