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Things I Received at the Fordham Catholic Imagination Conference

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At the end of April I was given the opportunity to attend the 2nd Catholic Imagination Conference at Fordham University. This opportunity came at just the right time: with my graduation from Notre Dame just weeks away, and my post-grad plans drawing nearer by the day. In August, I’ll being moving to Oxford, Ohio to begin an M.F.A. in Poetry at Miami University.

This means that now, more than ever, I am thinking about what it will mean for me to be a Catholic poet. How I can best nurture my imagination? How I can seek out the intersection between my worship and my writing in practices and habits to learn over these next two years?

All the titles of the Fordham conference panels seemed like they had been written especially for me. They ranged from “The Art of Good Writing” and “Making Belief Believable” to “The Catholic Poet in the Secular World.” My deepest regret was that I could not attend multiple panels at once.

I received a lot of things during my two-day conference stint: two high quality boxed lunches, an endless supply of conference coffee, and a complimentary leather notebook. I also received: writing advice, a handful of business cards, book recommendations, and helpful information about what publications would receive Catholic submissions with a friendly disposition.

I received advice about how to be a good reader. In the panel entitled “Making Belief Believable,” author Mary Gordon spoke of the ideal reader as one who is, like Christ, “self-emptying.” Neither attention nor memory can be earned; rather, it must be gifted. And so, for Gordon, “the ideal reader is self-emptying and porous,” open to receiving the great gifts that come when we give our attention and our memory to good works.

Commonweal columnist Anthony Domestico also offered advice on this subject, commenting on how our readerly habits might grow out of our Catholic beliefs. He suggested that readers be generous: that we approach contemporary works with charity and love, with first the faith that it may shimmer with grace and splendor rather than initial skepticism.

I received a deeper awareness of the One who is the source of all our creative imagining, as time and time again the authors shared what they did not originally set out to create, what eventually came in to being. Carlos Eire told us, “I never intended to write a memoir,” or Mary Gordon shared, “I wrote about my mother—and I didn’t mean to.” There were constant, little reminders just like these of the God who knows the result of our creative processes even before we do. The God who sparks and guides our imagination towards poems, novels, and projects we could never have dreamt of ourselves.

I received practical writing advice about the power of detail and the power of embodied writing habits. In a session called “Form and Content: The Art of Good Writing,” Eileen Markey, an investigative journalist, explained the process of interviewing as part of her reporting. An interview, she insists, is not merely what her subject says, but, rather, all the details of the environment: how the room smells, what the weather looks like out the window, how her subject is sitting. It is the reporting of these details, she says, that results in the poetry.

In the same session, editor Jon Sweeney offered practical advice about the world of publishing, first taking a moment to empathize with those struggling with the process. “This is really solitary, frightening work,” he began, and suggested that those embarking upon the process of writing and editing find ways to make the process one that is tactile, embodied. He told the audience about a writer he knows who ties her writing habits to the daily process of caring for chickens: she writes in the morning after collecting chicken eggs then edits her writing later in the afternoon after feeding them.

I received real examples of Catholic imagination at play in the world: listening to readings from Ron Hansen, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, and Dana Gioia, among many others. In the panel entitled “The Catholic Poet in the Secular World,” I listened to O’Donnell share the Catholic tenants of her work. She spoke of the sense of ritual that pervades her poetry, stemming from a sacramental view of reality and the sense that rites and rituals are an essential part of being human. She suggested the power of Catholic symbolism. She was excited about the wealth of symbolic language that the Catholic tradition lends to its poets, playwrights, and novelists. She shared the importance of the work of attention to loving and intentional actions in daily, ordinary life—those encounters that allow us to participate in the transcendent love of God. Quoting Hopkins, she believes that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” This grandeur is glimpsed in the mundane, from cooking pork chops for dinner for her family to watching her mother undress at the end of the day as a small child.

At the end of this panel (perhaps my favorite) I raised my hand, asking three poets to give advice to a young poet seeking to nurture her Catholic imagination. The advice they gave was bountiful: they implored me, among other things, to read everything, to listen to the world around me, and to have patience. But the final thing they asked of me was to have hope. They reminded me of Hopkins: that now-esteemed poet who thought himself a failed writer, having never published a single piece of writing in his lifetime.

They asked me to hope, relentlessly, that fruitfulness will be found, even if it takes longer than my own little life. They pointed me to faith in the one who brings life out of death, to the grand hope that whatever treasure we may ache to receive for our written words is surely found in Him. When I received this treasure of practical writing and reading advice I also received a deeper awareness of God at work. What I really received was a good deal of hope. Hope for my own vocation as a writer, hope for the ways Catholic imagination is already blossoming in the world today, hope for the ways this work may continue, and hope in the One who gives us our words.

Featured Photo: Alan Cleaver; CC-BY-NC-2.0.

Madeline Lewis

Madeline Lewis graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in English and Theology. She currently lives in Oxford, Ohio, where she is pursuing an M.F.A. in Poetry from Miami University. She writes poetry about bakers, whales, and little plants, among other extraordinary ordinary things.