Martha Serpas
November 2008


Martha SerpasMartha Serpas is a native of Galliano, Louisiana. She received degrees in literature and creative writing from Louisiana State University (B.A.), New York University (M.A.), and the University of Houston (Ph.D.) An interest in the intersection of poetry and belief led her to study at Yale Divinity School, where she earned an M.Div. She has written two collections of poetry, Côte Blanche (New Issues, 2002) and The Dirty Side of the Storm (Norton, 2006). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, Southwest Review, and in the Library of America’s anthology American Religious Poems. She has taught at Yale Divinity School, the University of Houston, and the University of Tampa, where she is currently an associate professor of English. She is poetry editor of Tampa Review. She remains active in efforts to restore lost Louisiana wetlands by working with organizations like the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary Program. In 2006 she began clinical pastoral education at Tampa General Hospital and continues to work there part-time as a trauma chaplain. She lives with the fiction writer Audrey Colombe.

*          *          *

Statement of Poetics

What Simone Weil writes about prayer, that it is “absolute unmixed attention,” is also true of poetry. Both are joyfully, and sometimes grievously, in the moment and all consuming. I don’t have a writing schedule—my practice is as far from an opus dei as I can imagine; however, writing poems is my regular form of meditation. I return sometimes begrudgingly and then gratefully to the kneeler/cushion of the chair and a private liturgy of stressed and unstressed language.

I attribute my metaphors about poetry—that is, my metaphors about metaphor—to my Cajun culture and my Catholic upbringing. Cajun culture takes place in the present tense and in a landscape not quite water and not quite land. Spontaneous visits and revision of the day’s plans are the norm. Business meetings are often scheduled as “just drop by. I’ll be around.” Whether one is working, fishing, dancing, or drinking—to name some of the culture’s most passionate activities—one is encouraged to be completely present.

From Catholic practice, I became comfortable with paradox and adopted it as my primary access to truth. For example, the Trinitarian formula—one meant to suggest movement and balance, not fixed duality—claims that God is one, and God is three. Another paradox within Catholicism is that some doctrine is infallible, yet one’s individual, informed conscience should trump all other ethical sources when discerning the best action in a particular situation. It follows that this seeming contradiction is meant to guard against dogmatism and hubris.

Passion for language is a creative force in both poetic and theological endeavors. We are inescapably embodied and indebted to our senses; to convey any experience is to rely on sensory description. Yet poetry is not a representation. Its power is conjured between the audience and the poet, as between a Cajun band and the dancers, between the liturgy and the participants, and between the fertile and destructive powers of the Gulf of Mexico until each pair is indistinguishable from its mate/opposite. Poetry is both vehicle and tenor at once.

In my poems, I have borrowed from Simone Weil’s writings on decreation. The loss of my homeland, the disappearing Louisiana wetlands, is the site of my most recent poetry. The land and the people embody theological longing: Tragic destruction is required for new creation. The dissolution of the land corresponds to the dismantling of the self, which, for Weil, is a necessary suffering to achieve union with the Divine. I try to conjure my home’s sounds and colors in the immediacy they still hold for me, a paradox of abundance and loss existing in the same time and space, not a representation of a part of the temporal world, but a transformative reality.

Back to PoetryNet