Science and the humanities, it turns out, can make fine bedfellows.
When a writer has done as much reading over the years as has Stephen Perry (yes, we’re related), in every field you can imagine, it's perhaps unsurprising that his first published book of poems awakens readers' minds in unexpected ways. Perry's Questions About God, in fact, uses language in idiosyncratic ways that touch the brain, the heart, the gut, and more.
Readers and critics have written enthusiastically about the book (see Raves here). Here Perry speaks for himself:
Q&A with STEPHEN PERRY:
Q: Questions About God is your first published book. What took you (or the world) so long?
I was willing; it was the world that was playing hard-to-get. It’s ridiculously difficult to get a collection of poems in print – I had some near misses with Penguin, Johns Hopkins, and several contests. I had poems accepted by most of the top literary magazines, The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, North American Review, Virginia Quarterly, The Yale Review, and more. I was lock-step marching to what I thought you were supposed to do. I got pre-blurbs from famous poets like Billy Collins.
But none of that sleight-of-hand worked. This major push was all for my first book of poems, titled Homecoming. In the meantime I was writing poems for another, Questions About God, which I thought would never ever find itself in print because of its subject matter. But it was exactly that contraband subject matter which got it taken by Humanist Press.
When I’m writing, my main audience is the poem itself. I don’t care whether what I’m doing is salable or not. I try to be faithful to whatever that particular poem is demanding of me. Blake wrote: “If a fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” I still believe that. But, of course, it comes from his “Proverbs of Hell,” which should give one pause.
Q: Does each poem have a story of how it was written, or did you write regularly and revise, or toss “what didn’t work” and start anew? In other words, describe your creative process.
I sit at my chair in front of the computer waiting for something to happen. I try to write slightly faster than I can think. That way the subconscious takes over and does its thing. I try to live in the poem, see distinctly what’s happening, amble around, activate all my senses. I especially listen to the music as it’s being made. I imagine it must be similar to a jazz musician improvising. Except a jazz saxophonist, say, is obligated to get it right every time. I throw an enormous amount away.
All artists have different ways of working, and you find yourself acquiescing over time to what works best for you. In an interview I did with the brilliant poet J. D. McClatchy, I cited this passage from Fellini:
“I must be ignorant of what I shall be doing and I can find the resources I need only when I am plunged into obscurity and ignorance. The child is in darkness at the moment he is formed in his mother’s womb.”
I was ravished by this, and McClatchy appalled: “But as for the rest of what he says—I’m horrified! …Without some sort of plan, a poem can lose sight of itself, run out of steam or into whimsy.”
Q: You use the word God a lot in your poems, and the word prayer here and there. How does that fit with your beliefs?
Einstein used the word God a lot too, but always as a metaphor. “God does not play with dice.” But he was always careful to explain:
“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can change this.”
What Einstein ultimately meant by God was the sum of all the natural processes in this majestic, marvelous, incredible universe of ours. Now this is a magnificent concept!
How I use “God” depends on the poem. But I’m always aware of an amoebic, changing figure that is behind all religions’ gods. This too is a metaphor.
Q: You make blatant fun of many religion’s beliefs and rituals in these poems. Are you an atheist?
I’m an agnostic. Does the Irish goddess Sheela-na-gig exist? Does the Indian Chinnamasta? Our familiar Christian God, with His own peccadilloes? I don’t know. I suspect their likelihood is about the same as Cymothoa exigua speaking in tongues though.
That said, I include in my book gods from a wide range of world mythologies—from Greek to Judeo-Christian, from Hindu to Buddhist, even flirting with American Indian Blackfoot lore. But I really wanted to go beyond these to a grand synthesis of science and myth in a celebration of the natural world and universe, even extending what Joseph Campbell called the monomyth. (Pretentious? Ambitious? Nobody’s saying I succeeded.) Ah, but usually we’re so provincial! Campbell once jokingly defined “myth” as “other people’s religion.”
Q: Do you naturally think allusively, or are all your poetic allusions to sometimes obscure real or mythical events a result of reading so much nonfiction about unusual subjects?
Yes. I don’t need to strain for allusions; they’re just there. A result of reading extensively in all fields. I’m insatiably curious. I do keep commodious notes in my computer and have thousands of books scanned or collected, so I can look things up quickly, without interrupting the flow when I’m composing. On my Twitter profile I describe myself as a devotee of the Pleasure of Finding Things Out. This is a sly allusion to a book of short works by Richard Feynman, one of my favorite human beings ever.
The title of “Hare’s Ballocks” is an allusion. It refers to an unusual orchid. The word “orchid” itself is derived from the Greek Orchis which means “testicle.” Besides its assisting the bunny imagery, I simply relished its strangeness.
In “Monologue,” there are allusions to e. e. cummings, to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (his book Wind, Sand, and Stars), and even to Elton John’s “Your Song.” Incidentally, sometimes my flawed narrators get their quotations wrong!
Q: Some of your poems are quite personal, even sharing what seem to be genuine details of your own life with your wife. What’s your take on art vs. the privacy of yourself and others?
Dispositionally, I have no boundaries whatsoever. Sometimes, I’m surprised when others have them. To be fair, I do try to honor other folks’ sensitivities and change names and references so a real person is not aghast at seeing him- or herself in print. It’s more in the job description of the succubus to seduce mortals in order to produce monsters.
In one poem I didn’t want to change names or obscure identity. But it worked out. I found alternative names whose original meaning were more appropriate to the poem as a whole. For instance, “Cecilia” comes from the Latin Caecilia, the feminine form of the Roman family name Caecilius, meaning “a member of the (legless) lizard family.” It also derives from the Latin caecus, meaning “blind.”
And, of course, my greatest pleasure was knowing that St. Cedilla is the patron saint of music for Catholics. Isn’t that delicious in counterpoint to the meanings above?
I don’t believe, as Faulkner declared in a Paris Review Interview:
“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art… Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
I’d draw the line at three.
Q: What are your hopes for this book?
Q: What are your hopes for this book?
I have no hopes.
Don Marquis observed, “Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”
After years of talking to an enormous stone, I’m astonished when my work falls into the hands of readers who appreciate it. And extraordinarily grateful.