Erik very kindly agreed to write some interview questions, and these are very valuable and very helpful to reflection on vocation and goal.
1. Steven, you are obviously keenly interested in and deeply knowledgeable of poetry. What do you expect from a poem? There are several things I expect from a poem--fresh, surprising, original language is one of the first; however it is not sufficient. The language poets and the concrete poets could all do language, but the poems rarely emerge from the merely experimental into the meaningful. What that requires is a moment of removal from reality. Every great poem should yank you out of yourself, even if only for a moment, turn you around and allow you to see what the world looks like from somewhere else. They are epiphanies. This can happen in a number of ways--through sheer force of rhythm and language or through startling imagery. The beginning of "Ode to a Nightingale", "My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense. . ." starts you on the course. Eliot was a master of this, "I have measured out my life in coffeespoons." "Mixing memory and desire" "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper." "I have heard the mermaids singing. . ." and so forth. Some poets were absolute masters at these moments. The best of Stevens, Pound, Eliot, Wilbur, and others move you to this new place. Sylvia Plath does it rarely, Anne Sexton more rarely yet. Overall I don't much care for modern poetry as it has largely become either utterly confessional telling me too much about the poet and too little about the world, or academic--intricate, ultimately meaningless word games and puzzles designed to appeal to other academics, but with no real resonances or meaning to the casual reader. It would be very difficult to memorize a single line of most modern poets--whereas poets of the Glorious 17th Century (of which see my obsesssion) this is patently untrue--their words and images are tremendously powerful.
2. Who is the most striking example of a Catholic poet that you can think of, off the top of your head? I mean Catholic in terms of spirit of the poetry, not in terms of the actual confessional status of the poet (for instance, I consider Rembrandt one of the great Catholic painters, in spite of the fact that he was a member of the Reformed Protestant Church). Please explain. I think of three right off, two catholic and one non. Richard Crashaw and Robert Southwell are both of the confession and tremendously Catholic in the range, nature, and depth of their poetic utterances. Richard Crashaw is particularly moving and interesting when one looks at the epigrams and the poems about St. Teresa of Avila. And of course, Robert Southwell is nearly the perfect anti-Puritan. Everything one might despise in the writings of say a Jonathan Edwards is turned on its head. The whole theology is there, intact, and utterly Catholic. But one who strikes me as strangely Catholic in themes and obsessions is Wallace Stevens. Stevens claimed to be an Atheist up until near his death at which point he joined the Church. However, all along, his poems show an interest in both modernist themes (The Blue Guitar) and with very Catholic concerns ("Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" and "Sunday Morning.") I can't read Wallace without thinking of him as the consummate Catholic Poet--he just remained ignorant of it for a long time.
3. In your field (modern science in general, and museum crowds in particular) you must be a rara avis as a faithful and devout Catholic. What are the conflicts that come up and how do you deal with them?
It actually presents almost no trouble at all because I am not a literalist and do not read anything in church teaching that demands a literal interpretation of the Bible. Therefore, I have no problem with the notion of evolution, but a tremendous difficulty with the idea that it is undirected--for example Stephen Jay Gould's contigency theory--which states that if one thing had been off just a little bit, all of evolutionary history would have been changed. Well, this is a philosophical specualtion, not a piece of science, because it is essentially untestable except within a logical framework. And within that logical framework it suffers because of Chaotic dynamics and the notion of "self-organizing systems" and systems redundancy. So I would argue that Gould's contingency theory is simply a marxist frame aroound a paleontological speculation. My frame is theist and Catholic. If evolution is the mechanism by which things came to be, and the prepoderance of the evidence suggests that it is so, I beleive that the whole path was directed and guided by God's gracious hand. That is to say everything that is was created through this mechanism and so God is the unique creator of all things. However, this is also not science and not a testable hypothesis. I have revelation to guide intellect, but science operates on empirical evidence outside of authority (in science, arguements from authority are considered the weakesst). Thus, what I believe and know to be true in the core of my being really has no bearing on the science. Scientists start with the null hypothesis--undirected--and most don't bother to search for any evidence that it may be otherwise.
So this long answer says basically that science is science and religion is religion. Another of Gould's theories or philosophical proposals was that of non-overlapping magisteria. That is to say that science cannot presume to offer the answers that religion does and when religion offers to answer the questions science asks it often ends up looking foolish. St. Robert Bellarmine's famous statement regarding the Galileo affair is appropriate, "The Church does not tell us how the Heavens go, but how to go to Heaven." I do think that Gould has something with the nonoverlapping magisteria--although I'd probably refer to it more as well-defined jurisdictions. Science can tell us if something is possible--cloning, genetic manipulation, utter destruction of everything in existence, but it cannot state whether that possibility should be acted upon. The problem in recent days is that pundits and blowhards like Francis Crick, James Watson, and Richard Dawkins overstep their bounds and think that they can make moral decisions on utilitarian principles.
Anyway, I've gone on at great length. Suffice to say that I have had almost no problem reconciling religion and science and it doesn't require sleight-of-hand or even any very rapid fancy footwork, simply faith and tenacity in the face of those who would like you to think otherwise.
4. If you could be any kind of tree… No, just kidding. The real question: has the writing of Teilhard de Chardin influenced you much? I do not mean this as a gotcha question. We all know that he had some iffy ideas, but he was deadly serious in his attempts to reconcile anthropology and theology. How have you interacted with his better ideas (that is, if you have given him some serious study)?
Not at all. This is one of those places, where unfortunately, the overlapping of the magisteria is such that I have been hard-pressed to figure out what to make of Teilhard. As you well know, he was intimately involved in the Piltdown Hoax, although he may have been unaware of the forged fossil evidences. This kind of involvement put me off of his other writings. In addition, I have to admit they have a kind of breezy new-age atmosphere about them that has been so readily embraced by nearly every fringe-element pseudo-science religious group around that it is very difficult for me to sufficiently divorce him from his effects. The long-term result is that I have not made any real effort to study his work.
5. What direction do you see poetry going in? Any particular poets that do it for you these days?
To paraphrase my favorite Episcopagan Bishop--John Shelby Spong, "Why Poetry Must Change or Die." I think there is a swing back toward more classical forms, more metered and rhymed material, but I don't know that the academic school of poetry hasn't so badly damaged the core of the genre that it might not ever recover. Poets like Rita Dove and Billy Collins do almost nothing to advance poetry. Dana Gioia, on the other hand, presents a wonderful, enlightening, and powerful rhythmic and poetic stance that is the harbinger of the return of the memorable. Like much of modern Art, if modern poetry does not change its long-term direction there is no real hope for its continuation. It has become in large part the reading of choice of a small portion of academia, with almost no popular base. But it can be redeemed from that and there are a great many poets working today who promise just such a resuce. As much as I don't care for Billy Collins, I find the approachability of his work promising. It is approachable and still above the level of mere doggerel. As for Rita Dove, once again, very approachable, fine stuff, just not normally transcendent. I like Linda Pastan and Maxine Kumin, both of whom write very approachable lyrics. I've gone on too long--basically the direction of modern poetry largely depends on whether it can once again find a large popular base. I'm hoping it can, but I don't really think it likely.