A Sermon Under the Pastures
An Interview with Nathan Poole
One of my oldest friends, David, grew into adulthood with me and became my pastor. However, our first shared love was literature. Long before we sat on a church board together, we travelled to Italy and stood on the banks of the Arno, marveling how the river shaped Dante’s imagination. Lately he told me over coffee, acknowledging a special providence of books arriving when they do, that he’s glad he read Dante before Calvin. “The imagination is such a powerful doorway to the heart,” he said. “The Mystic Rose was more important to my becoming a Christian than TULIP.”
Over another coffee David admitted, “In all the books I read for seminary, I was moved to worship once, reading Bavinck.” I wonder why in all of those hundreds of seminary books contemplating God, why more authors didn’t make the move to apprehend, as Bavinck distinguished, rather than comprehend God. To my ear, this has the ring of Emily Dickinson’s dictum: Tell the truth, but tell it slant. Or else God’s own suggestion: I will put you in a cleft of the rock.
Of course, I don’t want to throw out the dogmatics—Dante sat under catechisms—but fiction can expose the dispositions of our heart, those hidden hypocrisies which we quietly justify, and with time, will corrode the community around us. Something our children will grow up to rightly abhor, as many of us reaching adulthood, have discovered.
I read Nathan Poole’s Silas when my sons were toddlers. I was in the middle of a parent’s revelation that my children are not extensions of myself, but they have their own personalities. They will always be a mystery to me, and largely to themselves, with wills of their own, reacting to their environments. I realize that’s a parenting platitude. But Poole’s story, about a boy nurturing a talent that he feels he must keep hidden from his father, let me see myself anew as a father. In his story, I saw the long term effects of my heavy hand, but he also let me imagine a new way of tending a child. At the time I read the story, I noticed that Nathan was leading worship at a church. I wanted to know how other writers might explore faith, so I picked up his short story collection Father Brother Keeper. Published in 2015, the book was selected by Edith Pearlman for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction. Nearly all of the stories have been placed in significant literary journals, and range from historical fiction set in the deep South, to contemporary reflections on race and the environment. I deeply recommend it.
An Interview with Nathan Poole
Seth Wieck: When I first came across your work in 2012 your author’s bio mentioned that you were leading worship at a recently “planted” church. You were dividing time between writing, ministry, and construction. I think many of the readers at Fathom have split time between vocations and will understand those particular difficulties. With that background in mind, I’d like to briefly discuss vocation. As far as I know, you’re no longer involved in “vocational ministry?”
Nathan Poole: No, not formally. That seems like another life now. I suppose I have been blessed to live two different versions of a life with two different callings. I did that music stuff for a decade. That was my bachelor life, and I think I used it well, as well as I could, I guess, trying to serve a community. Though I still write music, arrange hymns, and sometimes play in a band, when I can, that sort of thing. Music has always been a way for me to connect to my spiritual side, and still is.
SW: In an interview, you stated that at some point in your formation, words like “God” and “Tree” suddenly became insufficient, that you needed a more “meaningful encounter” with those words. We’ll come back around to “tree” momentarily. For now, let’s focus on “God.” Many people (especially of Protestant backgrounds) come to a crux similar to yours, but choose seminary as a way to breathe life back into the word “God.” I’m curious how you stood at that crossroads and chose the path of fiction rather than something more systematic.
NP: It’s interesting you ask this question. It was the systematic that lead me to fiction, and fiction that breathed new life into my faith, not the other way around. I graduated from college with a degree in psychology and was planning to become a counselor within the Judeo-Christian framework. I had a scholarship to attend a local seminary. I was studying Greek, New Testament theology, that sort of thing, before starting my counseling courses.
It’s wild how quickly that experience altered my theology. I went in there thinking Matthew wrote Matthew, you know what I mean? And that surely, somewhere, Christ declared himself a member of the Trinity, and probably used that exact word. Ha. To discover he didn’t even use the word Χριστὸς, (savior/messiah) totally blew my mind. I didn’t even understand that the Nicene creed was largely in response to Arian theology, and is very peculiar in its historic context, in the leaps it takes, I mean—on a side note, I now find myself in agreement with some of what Arius had to say—This is all to say, I had been living in a very sheltered, evangelical world.
What’s also funny is that this transformation happened in a place that no one would consider a “liberal” seminary. It was ecumenical, extremely conservative, and still, you can’t avoid these things when you really start to look at the text head on, and not just as a thing to draw three takeaway points from on a Sunday morning. I discovered lots of ways in which my evangelical faith was unorthodox, nonsensical, even antithetical to the spirit of the Christian faith. And then other thinkers moved in on me: Simone Weil, Tom Wright, Karl Barth, Merton of course, and now Peter Enns, Peter Leithart, to name just a select few, they came along, and helped me get right in the head about it all. I began constructing an answer to the most basic question, “What is scripture? How should we read it?”
I find it amazing how many pastors never seem to feel the need to get into the how of inerrancy. As if what and why are all there is to it. If you don’t start with that question—the how— you don’t have my attention at all. You’re preaching around an elephant and pretending it’s not there, which is nuts. Real love and devotion, both to God and to the community around you, begins with that question, acknowledging it, at the very least. (I’m aware while writing this that Rachel Held Evans has just passed away. She was someone who understood why that question was the path of love. It’s sad that we have lost her at such a young age but I’m grateful for her.)
It was around that time in seminary that I started reading some of the writers who I had stayed away from for too long, those writers who strongly activate faith in their work; there’s a lot of them of course, but to name a few, Dostoevsky, O’Connor, Percy, Mauriac. I didn’t want to read that stuff before. I only wanted to read what I thought was avant-garde, and I put known Christian writers well outside that category. I was scared they wouldn’t be any good, honestly. And that was the last thing I needed. That’s so ridiculous to say, I know. But as I finally began reading those writers, really reading them hard, something shifted in my consciousness and identity. It occurred to me that I had found a calling, not my singular calling, but at least a significant one, which was to move beyond propositional language, that’s where meaning seems protected, whole, in its prime, in narrative. This sounds like a truism, I think, so as an example of something that guided me towards that calling, I was reading Crime and Punishment.
There’s a scene when a sensualist, loutish character named Svidrigailov is having a dream. He dreams that he finds a five-year-old girl lying in the cold wet beside a wardrobe out on the street. He brings this little creature to his apartment and removes her clothes and puts her in the bed for the night. She has a fever, he discovers while checking to see how she is sleeping, and then she turns, as figures in dreams tend to do, into an older woman, with a sexually suggestive, even predatory laugh, beckoning him to join her. Outside his apartment, the cannons on the fortress are firing, warning St. Petersburg that a flood is coming. And then he wakes.
It is a horrifying and beautifully rendered passage. Those cannons, the rising water, the ungovernable darkness of Svidrigailov’s imagination, turning the innocent helpless child into a prostitute, it shows him an essential truth and it speaks to our souls as readers, those spiritual gardens. It warns us about what we sow there. We are more than creatures driven by pleasure, a premise Svidrigailov tested, and then repented of at the last moment, as is typical of fiction. That scene will cause any human to have a moment of wakefulness. The knowledge it can transfer directly to the reader, without any rhetorical gambit, and the things it acknowledges about our nature as people, immense, unspeakable. It’s not just cautionary, it makes contact with a larger mystery, and asks us what we will do with the wolves in our own consciousness.
SW: I have a friend who is now a former pastor. At one point, he was burned out and he said he wanted to leave ministry and tend bars. Another friend replied, “That’s the same impulse. A bartender is still a pastor.” Do you ever see your work in stories as serving some sort of pastoral role, expressed in another vocation?
NP: Well, yes and no, depending on what you mean by pastoral. I never served as a pastor in the traditional sense, so I didn’t need to decontextualize what I was doing after. I think I knew in seminary that the pulpit and pastoral shepherding wasn’t for me, for all the reasons I have just mentioned. I have always worked on the margins, I guess, through suggestion and experiential epistemology. Music is very suggestive, and though I took the theological aspects of modern hymnody seriously, I still felt compelled to use music as an opportunity to move past platitudes and discourse, to try to create a space where shared experience between people could be primary and immediate.
I do see my work in stories as an extension of my earlier work in hymnody, which is the yes to your question. They are both a quest for the distillation of life into a response. That’s all good fiction is, in the end. Like the poet, Sidney Lanier, who was also a musician in the church, “I find that my soul is merging itself into this business of writing.” There is something pastoral in this, I think. The desire to share insights and joy.
SW: Now, let’s return to that word “Tree,” sort of. Trees show up in a lot of your stories. I don’t want to belabor what they might symbolize, so we can pan back from that word “Tree” and talk more generally about nature, or creation.
Nature appears in your sentences with what Christian Wiman might call a “lunatic acuity.” I estimate that falls somewhere between Cormac McCarthy’s voluminous taxonomy and Marilynne Robinson’s quickened vocabulary. For example, this passage from your Year of the Champion Trees:
“Its crown was tremendous above the canopy, greedy of light, having it first in the newness of morning, newness like the first hour of the world and then feasting in that newness without shadow through the long day.”
There must be fifty passages like that in the book, which indicates to me that you have a practice going here, this openness and attention, reverence and expectation isn’t the result of merely waking up in a good mood and writing a story. I wonder then, can writing stories function as a practice, like meditation?
NP: Yes, of course. I think it was Paul Auster who said that he is a common everyday neurotic until he is holding a pen. That’s absolutely true. I meet my maker when I’m writing, and my best self.
But in the quote you mentioned earlier, about finding the words “God” and “tree” insufficient, what I was speaking to was a kind of cultural hegemony. It’s a metaphor, for me. I need to explain this, I’m realizing now: There was a moment in my life, when I was out walking my dog, that I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was surrounded by trees, but that all I had to understand them was a singular category, “tree.” As in there’s a tree, and there’s another tree. It made me sad. And yet, in spite of the fact that these life forms were not only sustaining life on our planet, and the most ubiquitous form of life there is, I had no way of differentiating one from the next. It occurred to me that I would like to be able to call them by their names.
In many ways, this is the experience of Christians in the South, where the culture is saturated but not centered, in religion. They are offered one modality of faith, and it flattens the world. It propagates and prosecutes willful blindness, in the same way I once looked out onto a forest and just saw trees, trees, more trees. It’s not that I have a problem with the word “God” but that I wanted the experience of God to not be essentially gnostic, as in, God is in heaven and I need him in order to get there. I wanted to understand all the facets, the various ways God can be experienced, here and now. I wanted what the speaker in Maurice Manning’s Bucolics experiences:
keep track of you Boss you’re just
too many things at once…”
Please tell me you’ve read that book?
SW: One of your stories, The Strength of Fields is taken from a James Dickey poem of the same name. There’s a line in that poem:
“The dead lie under
The pastures. They look on and help.”
Weird question: We have problems, you know, universally as humans. This poem says the dead help. I’d like to enlist their help. Who are these dead and how does one hear their voices?
NP: I love this poem for its raw drama, which is rooted in the two worldviews it portrays in conflict. The first is the modern materialistic world, which clings to its “civic light decisions.” This is Dickey’s way of speaking to the illusions of safety and stability in modern America—the center of the empire, so to speak—where even darkness has been “solved” by technology and capitalism, and wild things have been driven to the outskirts. The “moth force” is our compulsion toward civilization and a sense of safety, the way the moths are drawn to light (sorry to state the obvious).
And then there is the primal world, represented by the fields, which contain the dead, and tended strength. They don’t help, in the way you’re suggesting. They help by simply being there, as a reminder. Memento Mori. They ask Mary Oliver’s question, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”
The poem seems to me to operate in the transcendental, romantic tradition. It follows the rhetoric of Hopkins, you know, “dearest freshness deep down things.” But it also strikes me as being heavenly influenced by Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” if not being a direct nod to Thomas, with its wildly inventive syntax, a sonic richness with internal consonances chiming. There are the stars. And the sea. And the fields. And the night. With mortality being the center organizing idea, the chains, as it is in so many poems.
In this way the poem responds to the human problem you mention with a very old spiritual answer, just as so many transcendental poems do, which is to say that God’s spirit is inherent in the richness of the earth, and can be found there, in the fields, in its wildness. It’s mystical. I should mention that it’s not perfectly transcendental, perhaps more bucolic, or pastoral. The fields are tended after all. Dickey doesn’t always go there. He can be dark and despairing at times, like Frost. That’s what I like about this poem. He doesn’t always get it right. But in this one he does, I think.
I chose it as the title of that story because the boys are driven out into the country by their mother. They are lying in the back of a truck looking up at the stars, after leaving the light polluted suburbs. And so the stars. The fields. Some sense of renewal. It struck me that I was under the poem’s influence while working on that story and so I thought I should use it as a title.
SW: The poet Scott Cairns, who is Greek Orthodox, maintains that “words are things,” not simply signs that point to things, and as things can be imbued with some sacramental ember. With that in mind, I read your interview with the composer John Luther Adams who is deeply concerned about the environment, nature, created things, if you will. You describe his music as a “profoundly physical thing”; “not impressionist like Debussy, but something closer to dictation”; a “radical rendering of the natural world”; and his music “goes beyond representation and enters these physical spaces.” Your excitement while interviewing him is evident, which made me think, “Nathan sees a correlation between orchestral music and fiction, or more broadly ‘words’.”
I wonder then, in your poetics, do you see “words” as capable of moving beyond representation and into the physical spaces, as Adams’s compositions do?
NP: Yes, in the sense that language is sonic first. A rock is not a stone. Even when we’re not reading out loud, when the language doesn’t become physically acoustic, it is heard with what Nietzsche calls the “third ear.” And so their representation is linked to their sound, which is rad, and anthropological, and once you start stringing words together you’re creating a tonal space, with various tensions, themes and recapitulations, much like music. I often listen to Arvo Pärt’s Summa For Strings before writing, just to remind myself of this. I want to demand it from my writing.
SW: I'd like to leave readers with an expectation for what we can expect from you in the near future. Would you mind giving us a heads up on some of your current projects?
NP: Yeah, I’m finishing a story collection right now. Should be done this summer. A story from that book is forthcoming in Shenandoah, so be on the lookout. I am also still plugging away at a novel, and hope to finish that up by the end of the year. The prologue to that book is up at Narrative, titled “Alluvium.”
SW: Finally, I have a pastor friend who is taking a sabbatical for some soul repair. He doesn’t want to crack open a commentary for three months. Do you have any fiction that you’d recommend?
NP: Well, the fiction that repairs ones soul is not always what uplifts. So it depends on what kind of repair job we’re going for. Ha. Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends is an incredible book, not dark, but honest. I found it riveting all the way through, and enriching, too. Lauren Groff’s short fiction has this effect on me as well lately. I always feel encouraged by her work, even though it deals with all the stuff of life, it strengthens me to read her work.
Cover photo by Alfons Morales.