Fathom Mag

Poetry Is a Cathedral

A Q&A with Paul Pastor

Published on:
December 15, 2021
Read time:
10 min.
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Each line in a Paul Pastor poem represents an invitation.

Pastor’s writing forever remains in motion, inching further forward into the deeps—two paces beyond what feels tame, into the true wild of a forest. Three footfalls toward the clearing where curiosity crystallizes, if only for a moment. Four steps closer to God. 

And with each movement, Pastor gently raises his hand and gestures to readers. The signal is silent yet unmistakable. Come along. 

Win a copy of Paul Pastor's book of poetry, Bower Lodge.

All you have to do to enter is share this Q&A with Paul Pastor on Twitter. We will randomly choose two winners to recieve the book and an enamel pin showcasing the eye moth from the cover of Bower Lodge. If you want to skip to the chase and buy Paul's book, you can do that at the link below.

“Bower Lodge,” a collection of Pastor’s work, recently entered the atmosphere via Fernwood Press. These poems express a carved-into-the-marrow sense of possibility and wonder—everything can be known, everything seems ineffable. Like the boy Samuel, they also answer a holy call; Pastor’s words respond to “the voice in the / walls that has / been saying your / name for as / long as you / can remember, over / and over and / over again, with / heavy joy in / every syllable” (as he writes in “Question”). 

Pastor traded emails with Fathom—where “The Roof Slants, So the Water Pours This Way” and “The Tearing of the Green” first appeared. He discussed the “spiritual discipline of attention,” poetry as the whisky of literature, the notion that spiritual ascent originates in descent and more.

Danielsen: From the outside, there seems to be this ecosystem of curiosity and connection you’ve built for yourself. You’re a man of letters—and that involves numerous tasks and roles—and someone who seems deeply invested in the natural world around you. How does poetry fit into that ecosystem? What does it feed and what is it fed by? Where does it sit among all your pursuits?

Pastor: What a good question. Ecosystem is precisely the word for it. Bill Plotkin (a depth psychologist I much admire) speaks of the need for each of us to find our “psycho-spiritual niche” in the world, believing that each person’s personality is made to “fit” certain gaps in it. From boyhood, I have had the privilege of having my daily life play out much in fairly wild places, often with fairly wild people, and moving between such places and more domesticated ones as a matter of routine. The borderline between those has been where I “fit.” Those relationships influence everything I think, pray, write, and desire.

Poetry was the first writing I ever did, beginning as a disaffected high-schooler marooned in a depressed lumber town in Oregon’s coastal mountains. It is the only type of writing I have always done, and where I experienced both my first affirmations and my first rejections (both are blessed) as a writer. For twenty years I have written it, though often sporadically, and often (perhaps still) very poorly. It is the through-line, the thread that loops through all the rest of my very wide-ranging work. It feeds anything I do with words or verbal images. It is fed by the spiritual discipline of attention, by my attempts at naming aspects of life that cannot be otherwise described, because of their vastness, delicacy, or changeable nature. 

Poetry is sometimes thought of as an effeminate or flimsy form of writing—the “milk” of literature. Actually, it’s the whisky.

Poetry is sometimes thought of as an effeminate or flimsy form of writing—the “milk” of literature. Actually, it’s the whisky. It is distilled language, able to cover a maximum of ground with a minimum of moves, able in one line to draw together completely disparate elements—philosophy, history, ecology, theology, personal history, emotive life, mystic revelation, anything—into a single deft, echoing line, and flash on. Done well, it is sheer magic, capable of motion, complexity, and leverage that no novel, essay, or other literary form could possibly achieve. It is extremely easy to write. It is exceedingly difficult to write well. Poetry is a cathedral—the floor is low enough for anyone to walk on, the ceiling higher than anyone can reach. 

Where does it sit relative to my other pursuits? Well, the economics don’t really work for any kind of a viable financial “living.” Poetry that sells these days is largely limited to hip-hop lyrics and a few mega-poets (Oliver, Wiman, etc.). I expect I will make more money from a single magazine interview I conduct and place than from a year of sales from Bower Lodge. I invest a majority of my work time as an editor at a couple of Random House’s Christian imprints. I also have significant interests in non-fiction and spiritual writing, and am actively working on projects in those areas. I would say that poetry for me will always be a defining and vital part of my work, though I doubt very much that it will ever be the only thing I do. Still, it may be the most important, both from personal satisfaction and from its potential impact on the inner lives of a few readers. Poetry can haunt a life in the most blessed way.


Danielsen: The opening line of “Touching the Horizon” rings so true to me: “Until we name, we stay unnamed / until we give, we are ungiven.” Poetry is so intimately connected to the Adamic act of naming—giving language to emotion and existence. How did you experience that reflexive relationship between naming and being named while writing the poems in this book?

Pastor: Well, I experience that relationship in two ways. The first is very concrete. Language is a means of screwing handles into the world. Name a thing properly (true to its interior nature), and you can pick it up, so to speak, or hang onto it. The poetry of Bower Lodge consistently reflects my inner life and its images, particularly during a five-year period (between 2014 and 2019) that contained monumental, “soul-initiation” moments for me. I can’t speak about it effectively except by means of symbolic language that gives us a handle that we both can grasp. How can I communicate to you the power of a dream? This process of saying the unsayable is “being given,” to use the words of “Touching the Horizon,” and (like a horizon, which is by definition untouchable), allows us to do the impossible. It allows us to share an inner life, even if very briefly or imperfectly.

That brings us to the second, more abstract, aspect of this relationship. Simply put, poetry is magic, in the old sense. For most oral and tribal cultures, there is little functional difference between a poet or bard and a magician or “wise man.” (For a favorite view of this, read the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, which at one point features sorcerers duelling by means of poetry in a sort of pre-modern rap battle.) The very word for a book of magic—grimoire—comes from the root of our English word “grammar.” Setting aside superficial or superstitious contemporary responses to this concept, we find something perennially true: language does not just say, language does. 

Poetry has the ability to alter human consciousness by means of words. It can blind you. It can make you see. It can bind a person for life sheerly by means of mental suggestion, or help set them absolutely free. That is not an overstatement or an exaggeration. It is why bad poetry carries a capacity for true and visceral evil—mental bondage—and why good poetry is taught as the backbone of knowledge in all healthy cultures. The Druid’s education involved twenty years of memorizing traditional verse. Why? Because it gave them the mental pattern to understand—to the point of accurate prediction and interpretation—the workings of the world. It overlaid words on the disparate parts of reality, and along those words the mind could run, and see itself from many vantage points.

But our culture is too slow to listen so, and too quick to speak. As writer Alan Moore has observed, we have channeled the poetic, magical power of language and word-weaving into either triviality or advertising. The magicians today largely pimp their muses for little shots at money or fame, binding the minds of our people to habits of inner discontent, insensibility, pettiness, vice, and greed. Christians too often imitate this, with even our popular spiritual writing nearly always plump with doctrine but starved of soul. 

This is wicked, backwards, false naming. It can only be opposed by naming of a better, truer sort, done with humility and the force of the surrendered will, in the name of Christ Jesus. In spite of its many faults, Bower Lodge attempts to do this.

A significant theme of all my work is the idea of “holy darkness.”

Danielsen: “Nine Kinds of Blindness” is one of my favorite pieces here, and formally different from most of its companions. What spurred that particular poem, and how did the progression from one to nine reveal itself? Were there more "kinds" left on the proverbial cutting-room floor? 

Pastor: I like that one too! It is an unusual form for me—the “list poem.” It began simply as a need to observe the truth held in the final line—that too much light is functionally the same as too much darkness. Both render sight impossible for midways creatures such as ourselves. 

A significant theme of all my work is the idea of “holy darkness.” This is deeply Christian (in fact, it is the starting place of Judaic and Eastern Orthodox theology), but there is a bizarre discomfort that many Christians, particularly Protestants, feel with it. Perhaps it is a side effect of the common spiritual triumphalism that has poisoned us. We are so addicted to the idea of being “overcomers” that we miss, often totally, the means by which we overcome: identification with Christ in his death and burial. In this way, the “light” can blind us.

There were no other kinds left on the floor. I think these are the only types of blindness that are possible.


Danielsen: I felt an accord between that poem—where, in the ninth type of blindness, “there is nothing but light”—and, later, “Prophecy” where Christ mercifully rearranges and restores all creation. Both poems are suffused with this sense of wanting to be overcome by God's presence. It’s an impulse that seems very in league with the mystics, and something I've felt. If that feels accurate to you, how has that desire been stoked over the years? Why was it important to put it down in words?

Pastor: Yes, I think we share the same feeling here. It is a desire to find our true place, to “fit” with the whole of creation and its Creator. I would describe it as mystic, but with the attentive direction more toward soil than sky, if that makes some sense. In my experience, one goes down to go up, at least in matters of the soul, and the energy often given to spiritual “ascent” is misplaced without a real and helpless “descent” that precedes it. This is one of the perennial spiritual truths. 

It is the language and feeling of this descent that is at the center of this collection, with the image of the Bower Lodge—a womb-tomb dedicated to this horrible dissolution and wondrous inward rebirth. That desire to clamber down among the roots of things has been stoked through conversation with kindred spirits (including in good books), through time thoroughly bumbling about my own “interior castle,” and through time lived outdoors. It is a sense of connection that unites all those experiences. 


Danielsen: The structure and soul of “Her Dusking Avenues” reminds me of the Mary Oliver line “only if there are angels in your head will you / ever, possibly, see one.” It’s this idea that we have to cultivate wonder, and that noticing begets a deeper noticing. How has the act of writing heightened your senses, and how has it brought everyday seeing and faith in the unseen closer together? 

Pastor: Oh, any comparison to Mary Oliver is a compliment! Writing is a spiritual discipline of attention. Seeking to write well demands honesty, and a dance of more than one kind of seeing. I don’t have much to add to that, other than to say that it is a slow discipline, and one where what is “produced” is often the least important aspect of what has been done through it.

I should note that it is very easy to think too much about this process. There is a degree of un-self-conciousness that must be cultivated by the good poet—the capacity to be carried off, to be lost in something much larger than oneself. Thinking at the wrong times about craft can hamstring that. Asking am I noticing nearly always means you are not. It is like trying to think about dancing while dancing. You will no longer be dancing when you do so, not really. 

The act of writing should be careful, simple, and somewhat shamanic. You are dealing with essences and spirits whenever you reduce a thing to its verbal symbol, and you are both expressing and manipulating your sense of their relationships as you arrange, compose, and revise. “Cultivating wonder” is true, but it is at best a side effect of the real work, which is to better reveal what is, and to encourage the beautiful and true organization of what is in the wider web of the world. 

Poetry, when it is true and beautiful, is also an act of honor.

Danielsen: I was struck by an underlying compassion in this book. How can writing a poem be an act of love and mercy—toward yourself and to the reader?

Pastor: I am glad the book felt compassionate. It truly is. 

One of the deepest human desires is to be seen. A poet’s work often is simply to bear witness to something—a moment, a feeling, a connection—that would flow away, unacknowledged otherwise. To do so skillfully and strategically is inherently loving and can even be merciful. It names a thing according to its most irreducible nature, and so sets it free, in the mind, to become itself even more. This is an act of belovedness and broad sanctification.

Poetry, when it is true and beautiful, is also an act of honor. When it is received by a reader as such, it completes its happy circuit—becoming something mutual and reciprocal. It is a relational act, and a joy.

Danielsen: I’m curious how it’s felt to take a step back and see all these poems in one place. Has it added any dimension of recognition—about your patterns or preoccupations, or about the work-in-progress that is the life you’re leading?  

Pastor: On one hand, it is very satisfying. On the other it is difficult—one sees the gaps when the work sits in one place. The gaps in my own talent and ability to express, the gaps in my inward strength or my wisdom. I suppose the opportunity at the moment of saying “this is done, and now I am to share it” is an opportunity of faith. To trust that Christ and the reader will bring to those gaps a merciful grace and a fullness that matches what is lacking in me. In this way, my prayer is that Bower Lodge becomes a different and unique book for every reader, as their own wounds and wholeness interact with the structure that is here. I think that can form something beautiful, something kintsugi-like. I think that is the moment where my poetry might truly come to life.

Aarik Danielsen
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He is a writer, editor, and curator concerned with the intersection of faith, culture, and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter or read more from Aarik on Facebook.

Cover image by Dario Gilonna.

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