Interview with Tampa Press Director Richard Mathews about LOVE NAILED TO THE DOORPOST

POET RICHARD CHESS DISCUSSES HIS FOURTH COLLECTION

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Poet Richard Chess and the University of Tampa Press have had a long relationship: a few of Rick’s poems were published in Tampa Review 1, the first issue under our new name, back in 1988, and now it’s 2017 already and we’re about to release Tampa Review 54. We published Rick’s second book, Chair in the Desert, in 2000; Tekiah followed in 2002 (a new edition of his first collection, originally published by the University of Georgia Press), and then Third Temple in 2007. Now we’re happy to be publishing his newest collection, Love Nailed to the Doorpost, about which Judith Baumel has said: “Read this book. Now. If you are reading my words, stop. Enter the room of this book, kiss the mezuzah on its doorposts and prepare to be dazzled.”

As the official publication date approaches, Rick sat down with Tampa Press Director Richard Mathews to talk about the new book, what he’s been up to, and what 2017 will bring.

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Mathews:  First of all, can you say a little about the upcoming event that will also mark the official book launch of Love Nailed to the Doorpost?

Chess: On March 23, The Center for Jewish Studies at UNC Asheville will celebrate its thirty-fifth anniversary. I’ll also be celebrating my twenty-fifth year as the Center’s director. I’ll be speaking at the event, discussing a few poems by poets we’ve hosted at the Center over the years: Yehuda Amichai, Jacqueline Osherow, Peter Cole, Taha Muhammad Ali. I will also show some video clips from readings and talks going back to 1992 and include a poem or two from my new book in my talk. The title of the talk is “On the Border: Defining, Defending, Protecting, Crossing, Erasing, Transcending,” and I’ll be looking at literal and figurative borders—political, geographic, cultural, religious, and linguistic—and how they alienate us from one another and connect us to one another. We’re expecting a big crowd. It should be a wonderful evening, and I’m hoping folks will be inspired to buy the new book!

Mathews: The variety and focus of work in the new book is surprising and impressive, even to those of us who have known your work well over the years. Can you talk a little about how it came to be?

Chess: Since publishing Third Temple, I’ve become a regular contributor to “Good Letters,” the blog published by the folks at Image journal. I contribute a thousand-word (or a little less) piece to “Good Letters” about every eighteen days or so. I’ve been writing for them for six years now.

Writing for “Good Letters” has enabled me to discover a new voice and style of writing. It has been one of the most exciting developments for me as a writer at this stage of my life. A good number of the pieces are lyrical prose, more like longish prose poems. Some (but very few) are straightforward narrative, analytical, or argumentative pieces of prose. I’ve also written some about my experiences as an educator, looking in particular at ways I’ve been integrating contemplative practices into my teaching.

I am also very active in two other networks that have some bearing on the directions in which my writing and teaching have moved in recent years. First, I’m involved in a national movement exploring the use of contemplative practices in higher education. The organization is called “The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.” It is the umbrella organization for the “Association for the Contemplative Mind in Higher Education.” I have been on the faculty of ACMHE’s summer seminar in contemplative curriculum development, and I have presented regularly at their annual academic conference. This organization has really become my professional home.

My work with this organization grows out of my own commitment to a personal contemplative practice discipline. I began my daily meditation and related contemplative practices in a Jewish context, participating in two cohorts of the sixteen-month-long Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training Program, a national program. My engagement with contemplative life—in Jewish contexts and academic contexts—has been a transformative experience for me over the last 8 years or so—since the publication of Third Temple.

I am a leader on my own campus of an initiative to integrate contemplative practice throughout university life. I’ve also been developing courses that I teach, mostly in the honors program, on topics connected to contemplative practices, including spiritual autobiography and poetry as a spiritual practice.

I have no doubt that my writing has been deeply informed by these new developments in my personal and professional life.

Mathews: Are we seeing all of these strands brought together in Love Nailed to the Doorpost?

Chess: Yes, directly and indirectly. These strands, I think, inform the way I move and think through a number of the poems and pieces of lyrical prose. These experiences have also opened my eyes to certain subjects that I don’t think I would have explored if it had not been for the practices in which I’ve been engaged as an educator, a Jew, and a writer.

Mathews: How did you settle on the title?

Chess: Choosing titles is not my strong suit! Not long after the publication of Third Temple, I published the poem “Mezuzah.” As I was putting together the work for this new book, I began to see how love was a recurring theme throughout. The whole idea of love being nailed to the doorpost resonated with me. The title refers literally to the mezuzah that Jews hang on the doorposts of their houses. A mezuzah is a little case that contains a piece of parchment on which is written some passages from Torah, including the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your might, and all your soul.  The mezuzah is hung at an angle on the doorpost. The orientation represents a compromise between two rabbinic opinions: one that says the mezuzah should be hung vertically, the other that says it should be hung horizontally. Support for both can be found in the sacred texts. So, the rabbis compromise and hang it on an angle. Compromise seems to me to be a necessary move if one hopes to remain married for a long time. Compromising can be a way that two people “meet” each other and form something new out of that “meeting.” I’m not talking about literally meeting. Not even exactly meeting halfway. Love is something that moves, that grows, that changes. It isn’t something that we think we can command or force ourselves to feel. And yet, there it is, commanded, and fixed in place on our doorposts, a reminder that that’s how we should act at home and in the world: in a loving way. It’s a challenge. The most important challenge. There’s no escaping it. It’s nailed to the doorpost.

Mathews: Can you think of any memorable personal anecdotes involved with the writing of the book that might be of interest to readers?

Chess: Well, one of the first prose pieces I wrote that led to the lyrical prose pieces in the book was for the Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training Program. There were about fifty of us participating in the program, and as a part of it, each of us had to write an interpretation of a passage from the Torah. The interpretation was supposed to be written through the lens of mindfulness meditation practice. And it was supposed to include instructions for a meditation practice suggested by the particular passage from Torah on which we were writing. Of the fifty-plus participants, I was one of the only people who wasn’t a rabbi. Needless to say, I was quite intimidated about interpreting Torah for a group of rabbis, most of whom I had hardly spoken to because every time we were together in person during the sixteen-month program, we were together for a silent retreat! The participants didn’t have opportunities to talk to each other! But, this exercise helped me work through some of my insecurities about my limited knowledge of rabbinic literature and commentary. More importantly, it helped me gain some trust in my intuitive and personal responses to Torah. While the most lyrical pieces of prose I have wound up writing sound way more like poems than they do like the prose I wrote during the JMTT program, the one piece of writing I did in that program cleared the way for me to begin the journey during which I discovered this new way (for me) of writing.

Mathews: What readings or signings are coming up that you’d like us to mention?

Chess: I’m working on scheduling some readings and workshops out West for this summer. I’ll be doing an event in early June at the commencement ceremony for the Judaic Studies Program at Portland State University. At the end of June, I’m doing an event with my friend Danny Maseng at his community, Makom LA. I’m also in talks with friends in Seattle about setting up readings and workshops there. Basically, I’m hoping to fill June with readings and workshops from Seattle to San Diego. And, I think I’ll be coming to the University of Tampa to do some things with the Center for Faith and Values and the Honors Program and the Writers Series, probably in February. I’ll be scheduling readings in North Carolina and closer to home for the fall. I’m happy to go anywhere to do a reading and/or lead a workshop or two. Check out my website for a more complete sense of what I can offer. ( www.RichardChess.com )

Mathews: Congratulations again, Rick. The pre-publication praise has been tremendous, and we are very proud to be publishing such a rich, honest, and transformative fourth book.

Chess: Thank you!

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Love Nailed to the Doorpost is available from the University of Tampa Press
in both hardback and paperback editions.

 

 

Dancing With Words During National Poetry Month

My latest piece for "Good Letters." It describes and reflects on some work I'm doing with my students at UNC Asheville in an honors class on poetry as a spiritual practice.

Here's an excerpt from the piece:

My writing exercise was intended to challenge the students to read our alphabet as a visual language, and then to write a poem based on the translation of the letters of our alphabet into a visual (other senses, too) language. When we discussed their experiences of working on this exercise, many students reported that they couldn’t find any sensible connection between and among the words into which they had translated the letters in their original poems. They faced chaos.

But, as many reported, over time, they were able to create some order out of chaos. Bingo, I said! That’s Genesis! That’s the human experience represented by the story of the creation of the material world as told in the book of Genesis. Before the creation of light, according to Genesis, the world was in a state of tohu va vohu: chaos and desolation. In completing this assignment, the students became creators of an ordered world out of chaos! To get there, the students had to activate these capacities: attention, effort, openness to change, patience, humility, discipline, trust.

Find out more details about the exercise and read one of the student's poems here:

https://imagejournal.org/2017/04/10/dancing-words-national-poetry-month/

On the Border: Defining, Defending, Protecting, Crossing, Erasing, Transcending

On March 23, I gave the 2017 Phyllis Freed Sollod Memorial Lecture for the Center for Jewish Studies at UNC Asheville. We were celebrating the CJS at 35 as well as my 25th anniversary as the Center's director. Thanks to Kent Thompson and his video production team at UNC Asheville, we now have a wonderful video recording of my talk. I actually begin speaking at about the 40th minute. Before that, there is a general introduction to the evening followed by a video on the CJS at 35 produced by Marty Gillen. Then, Jay Jacoby's very sweet introduction of me. As I said, I begin speaking at around the 40th minute.

 

2017 Phyllis Freed Sollod Lecture Celebrating the 35th Anniversary of the Center for Jewish Studies Featuring Dr. Richard Chess - Chair & Roy Carroll Distinguished Professor of English and including a short film by Marty Gillen "The First 35 Years"

Love Nailed to the Doorpost

"Love Nailed to the Doorpost" is the title both of my most recent piece on "Good Letters" and my just published book of new poems and lyrical prose!

You can read the piece on Good Letters here: .

My book can be purchased through your local independent bookstore. Ours is Malaprop's Bookstore and Cafe. You can also order the book directly from University of Tampa Press. And, as always, it's available through Amazon.

You can read a short interview with me about the book at Tampa Review's blog.

I am in the midst of planning readings and workshops. This June I'll be in Seattle, Portland, and LA, and I'm hoping to schedule events in San Francisco and San Diego.

More details on upcoming events will be added to my website soon.

Thanks for your interest in and support of my work.

Peace,
Rick

 

The Next Abraham

The day after the women's march, I was blessed to be present at my grandson Abraham's bris. My step-daughter had invited me to contribute something to the ceremony, but in the days leading up to the bris I didn't have a minute to think about what I might contribute. On Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, while most of the family went to the march in NYC, I stayed at my step-daughter's house with her, baby Abe, his brother Hassan, and my wife. During a few quiet hours that afternoon, I wrote a poem for the bris. You can find the poem, "The Next Abraham," at the end of my recent post for "Good Letters," the blog published by Image Journalhttps://imagejournal.org/2017/01/30/the-next-abraham/. Enjoy!

Faith in Literature: A Festival of Contemporary Writers of the Spirit, Oct. 21-22, 2016

Faith in Literature
Festival Features Conversations for On Being

Two sold-out conversations with Krista Tippett, host of the public radio program On Being, headlined UNC Asheville’s first Faith in Literature Festival, jointly convened with the Wake Forest University School of Divinity with radio productions thanks to WCQS—Western North Carolina Public Radio. The two-day event from Oct. 21-22 brought together 14 writers of the spirit, whose work deeply engages—by embracing, complicating, or wrestling with—a faith tradition or spiritual practice. 

Rick Chess in conversation with Alicia Jo Rabins, Laurie Patton and Amy Gottlieb in the Laurel Forum.


Among those authors, poets and playwrights reading and discussing their work were poet Marilyn Nelson, a chancellor in The Academy of American Poets, and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, who received the 2015 National Humanities Medal from President Obama just a month before the event. 

“For many years, I’ve been dreaming of organizing an event that would bring together a group of first-rate writers who deal seriously and honestly with the spiritual and religious life,” said Rick Chess, a poet and writer who is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UNC Asheville, and author of Third Temple. “I don’t know what it’s like for other folks who take their spiritual and religious lives seriously, but I’ve always turned to the work of poets, fiction and nonfiction writers as part of my own spiritual and artistic life. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to feature the life of the spirit and literature in this festival.”

Conference co-organizers were Chess and Evan Gurney of UNC Asheville’s faculty, and Fred Bahnson from the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, with many partners and supporters.

Website Development

I am in the process of developing this website.  Also, because I am also learning how to work with Square Space some of the design elements may be a little messy.

Over the coming months, new material will be added. I will add info on other anthologies in which my work--poetry and prose--has been published. I will be adding and categorizing links to short essays I've written (more than 90!) for "Good Letters." 

Thanks for visiting the website, and thanks for your interest in my work.

New Book Coming in March 2017!

I'm happy to announce that my next book of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost, will be published by the University of Tampa Press in March 2017--just in time for the celebration of the Center for Jewish Studies at 35 and my 25th year serving as the CJS director. From time to time between now and then, I'll post on a poem on this page. Also, I will be setting up readings for the summer and fall. Stay tuned for announcements of dates, times, and places.