Martha 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 Americas 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.
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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 dont have a writing schedulemy 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 poetrythat is, my metaphors about metaphorto 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 days plans are the norm. Business meetings are often scheduled as just drop by. Ill be around. Whether one is working, fishing, dancing, or drinkingto name some of the cultures most passionate activitiesone 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 formulaone meant to suggest movement and balance, not fixed dualityclaims that God is one, and God is three. Another paradox within Catholicism is that some doctrine is infallible, yet ones 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 Weils 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 homes 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
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