Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Allow me, for one moment, a soapbox.

The biennial Calvin College for the Festival of Faith and Writing, held last week, was an ideal venue for Image, a quarterly literary arts journal. Image seeks to publish artists and writers who struggle to “integrate faith, reason, and imagination” and showcases art which “grapple[s] with religious questions even when their makers profess no faith at all.” Greg Wolfe, founder and editor of Image, strongly disagrees with the modern assertion that religious art is an anachronism, and Image is the proof. As an arm of the Center for Religious Humanism, Image embodies the Renaissance view that religious faith is not incompatible with art, craft and belles lettres. The journal has published Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel Laureates, and more. Many of the writers, poets and speakers at the Calvin Festival have been published in Image, and many are friends.

I interned at Image for six months, a job Greg warned me should be avoided for those suffering “sentimental romanticism” about the literary life. He told me of the sheer grunt work involved in producing an arts journal that readers sit in their leather armchairs to digest at leisure. The industry, he said, is sweat and tears, phone calls about venues, blogs, menial work, thankless work. He told me to mull it over. He was right; it is a grounding which every book-sniffing literary idealist needs. “You can’t say I didn’t warn you,” he chuckled.

But for all the emails and the phone calls, the broken ink cartridges and mailing dilemmas, there was the vast rewards of looking through the slush pile, sending off rejections (which, for no good reason, was one of my favorite tasks), proof-reading, coffee breaks, meeting the wonderfully talented Image staff (Mary, the managing editor par excellence; Anna, financial & computer whizz, most likely to make a million dollars on a quiz show featuring television trivia; Dyana, poet, programs director and MFA co-conspirator; and Taylor, Image's new stylish assistant managing editor), watching something excellent take shape from suggestions around a table, introductions to other literary people and vigorous conversations on Eliot’s 4 Quartets, Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mauriac, and Battlestar Galactica. And on top of all this, Greg was kind enough to invite me to the festival to assist him at the Image booth.

The festival’s exhibition hall where we were based was set up was a strange pairing of more conventional popular Christian publishers with the less conventional and more ambiguous (Image). Our booth stood across from a publisher’s booth which showcased Christian fiction starring young Amish woman with curly hair and heart-shaped faces.

Image has a strict stance against artistic didacticism, and for those who have a decided concept of what “Christian art” is or should be, this may be startling. Image’s patron saints range from Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, John Updike and Cormac McCarthy, to musicians Stravinsky and Sufjan Stevens, and film directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Wim Wenders. Greg and I sat at the booth, talking to passersby about Image and the Seattle Pacific University MFA program (which he leads) and inviting all and sundry to our Friday night reception.

Greg kindly let me flit around to events that peaked my interest. From the poet Scott Cairns, who proved his vocation by using the beautiful phrase “my own smudged and recalcitrant nous*” in his opening keynote address; to the essayist Scott Russell Sanders, who spoke of writing into puzzlement and confusion; to the sparkling octogenarian Luci Shaw, whose poetry reading sent verbal flints sparking into the air; to Richard Rodriguez who thundered “If you want to write, be lonely! If you want to think, be lonely!” and Mary Karr, whose acerbic humor closed out the festival with wit and sharpness.

Among others, I was introduced to John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, and – thrillingly - to Thomas Lynch, whose book The Undertaking has been formative to my thoughts and feelings about death (and it's on my list of books you ought to read). Greg treated me to his Annie Dillard story, his friendship with Malcolm Muggeridge, and his own years at Oxford. (In case you think I floated away on some all-time book high, this heady education was tempered with nights comatose in front of the television at the hotel, guzzling coffee and watching Braveheart, Gladiator, and Friends re-runs.)

And of course, I came home with a hoard of books I couldn’t afford from Warren Farha at Eighth Day Books: a copy of Scott Cairns’ poetry, Recovered Body, the first volume of the Philokalia, a collection of writings from various early monastics and theologians important to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and George Steiner’s Real Presences.

I spent most of the time traveling to Grand Rapids and back reading the letters of Flannery O’Connor, a must-read for anyone interested in making art, or in the dialogue between faith and art. She is a sharp writer and her letters are a mixture of humor, earnestness, philosophical and artistic inquiry, and acid.

My time at the journal was challenging. I couldn't be happier. Many thanks to Greg for allowing me to help; it was a matchless opportunity.

And Hooray for Image and her twenty-one years! May there be twenty-one more to come.

*Many thanks to Greg's sharp editorial eye for the revelation that the hellenic-ly inclined Mr. Cairns meant nous, the philosophical Greek word for the intellect (mind, consciousness, reason) rather than noose, which is what I heard him say.

(Flannery O'Connor woodcut by Barry Moser, 1994; image of Greg Wolfe taken from Marriage Portrait by Catherine Prescott, 2008)


Anthony said...

What a privileged internship; it all sounds delightful. If I could wind back the clock, it is exactly what I would seek. Thank you.

Ian Wolcott said...

Excellent opportunity for you. I met Cairns once when he was under consideration for a teaching position at SPU. I was an English major there at the time. If you haven't heard the story of how that fell through... Well, it was a shame. One of the great missed opportunities of my academic career, I think.

Shelf of One's Own said...

I did hear about that scandal. I read the poem in question and found it beautifully written and provocative (of course); it's too bad the administration didn't feel the same way.