Judith Dupree is with us today chatting about her recently published book of poetry that focuses in an unusually prescient way upon the losses we face in our complex society. Welcome to Reader Views.
Juanita: Judith, you have written a lovely book of poetry. What inspired you to write “living with what remains"?
Judith: Well, I’d offer a pot full of reasons, but the over-riding one is decidedly my mix of hope and despair: an anticipation that buoys me constantly – but, always eating at it, my grief over the unraveling of our world.
And, as a citizen of the “first of the first-world" peoples, my nibbling sense of shame. So many factors impel it: our dysfunctional cultural mindset (“In greed we trust. "), our political rabidity, our increasing polarization and “dismemberment. " This covers a lot of different aspects, but all of the causes are interrelated, of course. We are watching our environment unravel, and know deep down that we’re all participants – each of us has received the “charge" to live differently (“Less is more") in light of what we know, and to address the convoluted issues that pertain. We rarely do more than shake our heads and point fingers, and fuss about it all (or deny it) – trying to live comfortably with that “elephant in the living room. " Or the oil tanker in the swimming pool? That’s a major aspect of my need to write this book. I guess you could call it a jeremiad of sorts? Anyway, there’s a lot of yin and yang in the book.
Juanita: Why do you think so many people are in denial over the unabashed dysfunction plaguing these times?
Judith: Ah, another pot full! I have to say this: it is hard to be “human. " It is difficult to lift one’s head and look beyond one’s own needs and yearnings, and absorb the harsh realities that lie around us – and respond to them sensitively, effectively. That alone significantly accounts for the “ostrich effect. " (The poor bird got a bum rap with this one!) Playing into that are our individual prejudices and pretensions, both of them largely unrecognized or unacknowledged, and of course our fear of anything that threatens our steady course through life. We don’t want to be challenged in such dreadful ways! We don’t want to know that life is so tenuous, and that we have harsh choices to make – particularly because the right choices were not established by our fathers and their fathers. If we can blot out future woe (as did our political/corporate grampas) and cling to what we have with tenacity, maybe we won’t lose our grip on it. Close your eyes, click your shiny red heels and spin! We have lived largely in Oz.
It’s scary – growing up, for us grownups. Add to this stew a ladle of self-indulgence that has congealed into greed. Our corporate mentality, our CEO complex. Them what has, gets. In spades. And, finally, considering all this (and all I’ve omitted), we don’t really want to know that God, to whom we pay such pallid lip-service, is watching us . . . and, only if we choose, watching over us. Which are two far, far different matters. If we don’t believe this, our elaborate fig leaves won’t shield us. (Nor will the emperor’s clothes…)
Juanita: Is this a book of Christian poetry and if so, will it only appeal to a Christian audience?
Judith: It is indeed “Christian" in context; I am a disciple of Christ. But that isn’t or shouldn’t be an impediment to the reader. Alongside that foundation, and predating it, is my response as one member of humanity to the whole of it. I have always experienced, perhaps as a basic instinct, a deep sense of the woundedness of mankind. Long before my overt spiritual awareness began, I fed upon works of past writers – their acute observations and laments and their dreams of something better, greater, than what they saw before them. Rumi comes to mind. The Greek philosophers, of course. And Latino poets. I literally inhaled their “expirations" throughout my college years, and have spent a lifetime sorting and shifting, adopting and adapting. And when the message of Christ became more than intellectual persuasion, it all gelled. So – to ask about the “appeal" of this work, I’d say “Read it as the cry of humanity itself. " In writing some of this, I felt that I was standing naked before the world, saying “Shrug it all off – all the filthy rags; let’s go skinny-dipping. " (And this from a rather old lady!) We are all in this together, and I suspect we’ll sink or swim together, ultimately. I believe, therefore, that this is not merely “a Christian book" in the sense in which we often weigh and measure concepts. I don’t write with that concept as a focus.
Juanita: What is the theme that ties your book of poetry together?
Judith: I’d say that would be an over-riding sense of both the sacred and profane. How they come before us endlessly. And how they rub against each other, how they both balance and unbalance each other. There is no phenomenon without its counterpart: thesis, antithesis. We walk through life on a tightrope, in a way, trying for steadiness. Truly, we don’t always recognize what “unbalance" really is. I have tumbled off the thin strand of reality many a time, of course. It is primarily a sense of the sacred that has held me in a kind of stasis, providing a point to fix my eye upon. Something to walk toward. All this is thematic for me. These poems are my walk, what I take with me, what I see ahead: The growing darkness, and the incredible largeness of life, and the wonderful stubbornness of the human soul toward renewal. And ultimately, the personalness of God invades, pervades, provides “shelter" for us when it gets rough.
Juanita: How did this collection unfold onto paper?
Judith: As I leafed through the growing pile, I felt something developing – mulching – within it. My personal manifesto, perhaps? A way of saying (with Martin Luther) “Hier Ich stehe!" Honestly, I was a bit scared to put it out there, with all the pain it contains. But it was the beauty of life – the holy antithesis – that gave me the push I needed.
Juanita: When did you start writing, and is this your first book?
Judith: I started writing when I started putting words on paper. Terribly, of course. My earliest efforts were simply ways of getting words to rhyme, which I thought was the whole of it. Throughout my youth and young adulthood, I blurped out occasional, rather innocuous or dreadful poems – love and existential despair, etc. . The usual. And I was seesawing between art (I did portraits. ) and writing. I loved both, but had no direction. I finally got serious about words when the Fearsome Forties loomed before me. Ultimately it gave me a book: Going Home, ©1984. My next book actually began in 1976, prompted by our BiCentennial – and I wrote at it sporadically over the decades, between other projects. It’s a long historical narrative – a prose-poem titled I Sing America – rather Whitmanesque. (I played on his title, but the content is much different. ) I didn’t feel it resolved coherently until about four years ago. It ends with 9/11. I sent out some review copies, and got a few fine comments, but never really marketed it. It’s in revision now, and I will release it through Quiddity Press when it’s ready. An unusual journey….
Juanita: Tell us about the cover of “living with what remains" and what it represents.
Judith: The cover picture on this book is simply an ancient, enormous dead oak in our small village. It is one of multiplied thousands in CA lost over the past few years to drought and disease. A common symptom of our times. This skeletal tree represented to me our centuries of “covering, " and how exposed we are now. Loss and survival again.
Juanita: What are some of your favorite gems that fill the pages of your book?
Judith: Well, beauty is famously in the eyes of the beholder, but the poems that haunted me most in the process are probably my favorites, if only for that reason. They may not be the best, of course. “Coveting It All" was one that kept urging me on, feeding my “greed" to experience and encapsulate nature. The poem “The Mantis" was a remarkable transcendental experience. My husband and I were both a part of it, and my sense of identity with all earth-life was truly affected. The poem I consider most awkward is also probably one that fits here: “Dear World. " I literally didn’t know how to put it on paper, and finally left it stumbling along to the end. One of my most poignant experiences was the finale of “I Bring To You. " It literally fell together before me. The owl, eyeing us with his unending “Whooo?" – as if we could answer him. As if we can answer each other.
Juanita: What would you like your readers to come away with after reading your book?
Judith: I guess to share both the shame (even vicariously) and the hope. Taking a long look at humanity and its frailty and strongholds . . . and stepping up to the benchmark that is always before us, seen or unseen: “Do unto others…. " That means to “do unto" those who are coming behind us, not simply around us. We’re leaving our grandchildren a potential disaster. If it is largely unavoidable, by now, let us leave a repository of hope. For me, it’s the Kingdom of God, an “inner territory" we desperately need to inhabit. “Blessed are the gentle, and merciful, and pure in heart, etc. , …for they shall inherit the earth. " And perhaps, Deo volente, they shall renew it. But it is my adamant principle that we try. Each of us, in some small, incremental way.
Juanita: Judith, what would you say to people that think ‘all hope has been lost’ for humanity?
Judith: I’d say we don’t really understand hope. Hope is anything but “pie in the sky, " or a magic reversal or retrieval. It is a personal attitude-into-act that grows from one choice after another. It comes to us as an understanding – a whisper, soul-deep, that says “You can do this. " Or “DON’T do that. " And we know, really. We always have the choice to create hope, to welcome hope. One step forward, or back, and we’re on solid ground. Sacred ground. Something happens, something is effected and affected that is true and good – and we will recognize what we have actually done by this [perhaps] smallish choice. We will realize that it takes us forward – even if, perhaps especially if, we have “stepped back" from some slight precipice. (Precipices can fool us with their slanted depths!) An “inch" of life has been restored by this. Hope is restored by inches.
Believing and receiving on behalf of our better self, thought by thought, we can engender hope even in the midst of despair, and despite gargantuan loss. We move away from frantic survival into a kind of Genesis mode. There, others find us and come alongside, and we welcome each other as a part of this new creating. This is not fatuity; it is practicality and perseverance and preservation: the timeless Kingdom of God among us.
Juanita: What writers have been your inspiration?
Judith: Those I mentioned before, in my student years. Off the top of my head: initially I found a lot of fodder in Frost’s elegantly simple – and rustic – look at life and nature. His impact remains. Emily Dickinson, of course. Some of Millay’s work, particularly “Renascence, " written at so young an age! Denise Levertov – and Mary Oliver: stunning! Some great guy poets, known and unknown: Whitman was a break-through person, of course, for all who follow after. Contemporarily, John Leax (i. e. , Out Walking), a strong voice; Robert Wrigley, very accessible. And anything Wendell Berry says, poetry or prose. Solzhenitsyn, non-poet, for timeless reasons. And, among gifted unknowns, I have a poet friend in Oregon, David Kopp, who must be discovered. (He’s a book editor, busy churning out everyone else’s writing. ) There are a lot of Davids and Judiths out there. I’ve read a number of them, eager for their witness to life. (Small poetry journals are a rich deposit. Rock & Sling and IMAGE come to mind. They know good poets when they see them, and give them a hand. )
Juanita: Tell us about AD LIB and your endeavors teaching poetry and creative writing?
Judith: My motto could be: Make lemonade. You know the old adage. When it became apparent that I was on a lonely trail, and I failed too many times to count, I realized I was, in part, a symptom of a larger problem: The state of the arts in America. Too many good artists and writers struggle on for years without encouragement or recognition. Maybe I could pull together a small “outreach" to reach just a few of them, giving them something of a home base. We have, with Ad Lib, done just that for 10 years. We meet in the Colorado Rockies every fall. Nothing spectacular, simply people coming together to share their arts-journeys and gulp the lemonade, so to speak. A couple of speakers and workshops. The principle I mentioned earlier, “Less is more, " actually applies here – in a different context. There’s no shame in being in a small place with a large talent, when you have fellowship to sustain you. I try to celebrate God’s diversity and daily Grace in ways that mend and heal and offer hope.
As far as teaching poetry/creative writing is concerned, I have availed myself of offers to do this off and on throughout the past quarter-century – at workshops and conferences, in retirement homes and schools. Keeping the edges honed. Now I’m developing a full arts network in our county, which incorporates a number of fairly small and scattered villages. We’ll see where it goes, what we do together. Fun stuff!
Juanita: You and your husband have developed Quiddity Press, a small publishing company. Please tell us more, and how your readers can contact you.
Judith: Well, QP is another glass of lemonade. I really wanted to offer others like me a voice – a creative, low-key way of structuring a publishing experience. It is stalled right at the moment for lack of funds, primarily due to a need for someone with marketing skills (hardly my forte) to come alongside, part-time, and get our small [pending] inventory “out there. " If that should happen, we can continue to move forward. Check the web site: www.quidpress.com, and you’ll see what we want to bring to the table. Maybe someone “out here" can give us a new idea of how to make this Dream viable.
Juanita: Judith, thank you for your interview. Are there any last thoughts you would like to share with your readers?
Judith: Maybe this: We each have a reservoir within. Go skinny-dipping. Let the encumbrances sink. Find out what floats to the top, and be faithful to it. That’s where the Hand of God will reach you
Juanita Watson is the Assistant Editor for Reader Views http://www.readerviews.com