An Interview with Poet Christopher Lewis
For author and poet Christopher Lewis, writing is a way of life, and has been for decades. But for this productive wordsmith the impetus to follow the movement of his soul has been an equal summons he could not ignore, and his own spiritual journey has guided and goaded his pen. The result for his fortunate readers is a splendid synthesis of craft and spiritual vision, with a particularly Orthodox ethos. Over the years, he has produced a great collection of writings, including three major plays, a novel, an epic poem, several short stories and longer verse narratives, and dozens of shorter poems. He was published several times in the early 90’s in Epiphany Magazine and the magazines City Canticle and Tight, all Bay Area publications that are no longer in print. Anaphora Press is very pleased to be the publisher for his first book, a collection of poems entitled Mysteries of Silence.
Christopher lives in lovely Port Townsend, WA, a Victorian-era seaport town on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, lush greenery, and the oceanic playground of the Puget Sound, plenty of natural inspiration is at his fingertips. He is an ordained Sub-Deacon in the Orthodox Church of America and worships at St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church with his family. Christopher is available for poetry readings at churches or bookstores in the Pacific Northwest.
What is the first piece you can remember writing?
I still possess little rhymes from childhood:
The moon is such a lovely sight,
It brightens up the night.
And when you see it in the day,
You almost think you’ll fall away.
Of course it is natural for children to make poems. I encouraged my own children to do so, and the result is delightful. My grandmother and great-aunt, although they were educated in a one-room country school in Mississippi, were quite literary, often reciting poems from their school days. My sister and I stayed with them for a few weeks in the summers. I passed time at my great-aunt’s typewriter writing simple rhymes, telling stories that would only interest a child.
Where do you find inspiration for your poems and stories?
There remains a certain amount of mystery around the origins of inspiration. In the years of adolescence, my own troubled sense of identity, with no idea of what I was trying to say, was the boiling cauldron out of which lines of poetry would leap. Like many authors, the things that trouble me most deeply continue to fuel the need to write.
But I also feel a deeper sense of responsibility in writing. As a sensitive reader, I am aware of how thought and feeling is shaped by what one reads. The doors to the heart and soul are often more open when one reads than at other times; people often approach a poem or story with an unconscious desire to be fed. I began to think about this responsibility when I was in high school, and I began to approach great writers with the assumption that they were the fathers of wisdom. Later, I began to become aware of an intense and unexplainable drive, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. When I began to realize, to my unhappiness, that not everyone shared this burning desire, that not everyone wanted to talk about what I wanted so desperately to talk about, I was driven into the solitude of writing.
I have never been cynical about inspiration. I have always believed in it. Even during the brief period of my youthful existential atheism, I believed absolutely in the need to discover the truth.
The different perspectives of ancient and medieval world views were a revelation to me in my college years. I plundered through texts of medieval mysticism. I also encountered some of the real perils of occultism. One writer who profoundly altered my views on the ancient world-view was the metaphysician Rene Guenon. Oddly enough, the treasure that I found in all this search was prayer. Out of necessity, I learned to pray for authentic guidance; and then, I began to pray for inspiration. This has never been a disappointment; and it continues to lead me into ever deeper considerations of what I am actually doing, in writing and in seeking life.
Finally, it must be said that without discovering Orthodox Christianity and all that it offers, my search for knowledge and inspiration would have ended in disappointment. It also must be said that this is what the heart and mind of the entire tradition of Western literature, and even World literature, has been crying out for.
On your stories, do you work them out before you begin writing, or do they unfold as you go along?
This is a very interesting question. Rarely have I taken a story already known in order to retell it in my own manner. This was the practice of the ancient bards; their purpose was to keep the old lore alive. It is astounding how Shakespeare and Chaucer could present stories already known to their audience and unfold them with such detail and drama that one feels he never really had heard it.
I suppose that since my drive in story-telling is to explore the interior nature of man in the modern condition, I tend to let stories unfold in their own way toward the classical catharsis, whether comic or tragic or something else. Character development is so much an interest that it can have a major influence in plot development toward conflict and crisis, and unexpected resolutions. I am not interested in the story unless I know that the ending is going to leave me breathless, even though I may not know what it is going to be.
I usually begin a story around some vivid scene with feelings unexplainably powerful for me – maybe just a scene, maybe just a person in a certain pose with some question or purpose. Often these will occur in dreams that seem to waken unknown questions. And so I want to know what happens. It is as though I begin watching this story unfold, and am simply asking questions and recording the answers that come from I do not know where. Long hours of thought and silence might lead to a single page or paragraph. I have found myself laughing or crying, so suddenly and vividly have new situations occurred.
On the other hand, I might fill pages with notes outlining plot possibilities and character or even thematic development, before writing a few lines of narrative. But never do I know exactly what I am going to write when I sit down to do so.
Who are some of your favorite poets?
Ancient great ones: Homer, the Beowulf poet, the Russian Song of Prince Igor poet. Virgil, Dante.
English: Chaucer, the Gawain and the Green Knight poet, and of course Shakespeare. Pope could sing. The Romantics. Yeats was too influenced by the occult, but a true poet.
In early American poetry, unlike most contemporary critics, my respect for Longfellow is unlimited. Whitman. I have a taste for E. A. Robinson’s narratives, even though they can be a little creepy.
Modern poets: Eliot. Robinson Jeffers. Hart Crane. Auden, Roethke. Jim Harrison.
What do you think of modern poetry?
With a classical and Christian Orthodox leaning, I might be expected to be critical of modern poetics. But in the context of the modern materialistic mentality, the ability to enter poetic thought and experience is freedom. When a person stops to consider, when he sees with new eyes, when he allows wonder, when he allows feeling, he begins to remember what is important.
I have confidence in the muse, in the natural process of thought unchained from habit, in the heart. And I think that the tremendous versatility of modern free verse has proved its ability to let thought wander free, to ask questions, to let phrases of thought weave new patterns of beauty. Discovering new rhythms of thought in this manner can lead poets closer to the original experience of poetics, closer to the originality of song. In general, I find contemporary poetry exciting, especially as I see so many poets thinking in ways that would never occur to me!
Of course there are excesses and dangers, and there is bad poetry, too. Some “free verse” is too prosaic, and is not verse at all. At the opposite extreme, discovery of the incantational power of verse can be extremely dangerous, depending upon what or whom is invoked by it. The influence of Robert Graves and his neo-paganism has been deadly. Unfortunately, this is becoming more popular.
How does your faith intersect with your writing?
You know, I don’t know if I could answer this without seeming to use platitudes. How does one re-learn to believe in anything in our age? Even that is perhaps not a valid question, since belief is never learned, and belief may not even be the right world. Is it possible to believe in inspiration? Is it possible to experience inspiration?
If St. Simeon the Myrrh-Gusher of the Holy Mountain, and Joseph the Hesychast in our own days, spent years in a cave learning the secrets of prayer, what am I going to say about my own experience? The visionary experience of such people fueled the inspiration of Dante and Milton. The Divine Comedy’s prototypes were the visions of St. Adaman and St. Walafrid Strabo; and Paradise Lost was shaped by the Hexameron literature, or “Six Days of Creation”, by St. Basil and also by St. Ambrose, as interpreted by Augustine.