It is now properly oot…

As a by-the-way, After the apocalypse is now out on all those unmentionable global websites that used to sell books and now sell everything.

It is also available on our website here, so forget what I just said.

After all the hard work by lots of people to get the book into some kind of shape – the editing, the design work, the proof reading… and of course Si’s magnificent images – I think it time to take make grateful pause.

It is not perfect. A few errors slipped through. The print quality on the images has not totally passed the Smith test. Despite this, I am feel a sense of satisfaction that I have not always felt after a book has been completed. I think it is because this book, despite its limitations, is as honest as I can be. Its limitations are my limitations. If it carries any hope, any beauty- these are ones that I have lived through or am reaching towards. Also, despite the commercial nature of any project like this, the book was not written to sell anything. It started in frustration, anger and dissatisfaction with the world we have made, and ends in a great sigh of connection with the spirit that sings within us all.

I hope people will read it, but if you don’t that is OK. I needed to say these things anyway. More than this though, I feel a sense of responsibility towards the ideas that the book contains.

I stand by the anger. There is lots to be angry about. But we can not exist on anger alone.

I appreciate the pause that poetry gave me, the chance to ponder and reframe the way we look. But pausing is only the beginning of change.

And even if the book offers no blueprint for betterment (because I know my limitations) I think it carries some clues. It feels to me as if these are not my own insights, but ones I have discovered, almost by accident, in the margins of the scribbles I was making as poetry was forming. This is the gift of poetry – it takes is both inside ourselves and then, if we are lucky, it draws us towards new places.

Or perhaps it is nothing to do with luck. My contention is that if a solution is anything at all, it begins in the ‘theatre of the spirit’ (as Havel put it), or to put it another way, we first have to re-encounter the meaning of our lives as individuals, but even more so collectively. We have to remember that the human world we live in has been made by humans, so it is quite possible to re-make it.

In the next season of the life of this book, I hope to be bring together some actual ‘theatres of the spirit’, by putting together some gatherings where we read together and dream together. If you are interesting in hosting/attending then get in touch.

It is hard to choose poems from the book now. They are all fragments of a five year journey. But this one will do.

.

I want to live

.

I want to live in a world in which refugees are welcomed

As if coming home. As if the food they are given

Was cooked by their own mothers.

.

I want to live in a world in which people share what they have

With those who have nothing. Where fear of scarcity is foolish

Because we finally recognised abundance.

.

I want to live in a world in which love for neighbours

Made hedges and fences inconvenient. As if real estate

Is not real after all.

.

I want to live in a world in which guns are things for museums

Behind glass with suits of armour. Where tanks are

Used only to store liquid.

.

I want to live in a world in which nothing is expendable, as if landfills

were already full. As if bags of bolts and empty cans

Can be used again tomorrow.

.

I want to live in a world in which children are thrilled by birdsong

and gloriously appalled by black beetles. Where great adventure is made

Out of mountain and forest.

.

I want to live

Theopoetics 4: gathering some useful strands

This thing that we can loosely call theopoetics may not have one narrow definition, but that does not mean that we can’t describe it, both in concept and (more importantly) as a practice. As part of my own personal exploration, I have been gathering some of this material together and here is some of it, hopefully organised in a way that makes sense.

The bits and pieces here have been gathered from the web, both fixed pages, podcasts and videos. There are a few books out there which i have not read yet, and probably never will, because I am much more interested in theopoetics as a way to understand and shape practice, rather than as an intellectual exercise.

A piece of community art made by a wonderful group of people brought together by an experience of grief

Definitions

This is a paraphrase of the definition provided by ARC, whose webite is here.

Theopoetics is what happens when art/form/style/forms and intersection with spirituality, with a focus on community, change and embodiment.

It is about seeking to make the practice of poesis – the meaning making – one of the central parts of life.

It is not new. It is not ‘another way of doing god-stuff’ – rather it points to things that have always happened and always been part of religious practice.

Theopoetics requires that we have space in which to make our own spiritualities, which might be understood as a rejection of ‘monorthodoxy’, and the deliberate decision to allow a generous concept of orthdoxy, in which it is not true to say that there is ‘no such thing as rightness’, but rather that this is much broader than our prejudices might have led us to believe. This is not the same as saying ‘everything goes’, but it would suggest that our adventures are not just limited to one denomination, one tradition or even one faith.

Practice

Like many theological movements, it perhaps started in reaction to a concern about how we have place some forms of theology on pedestals, particularly seeing it as an intellectual journey. In this way of doing theology, art, if used at all, is merely metaphor through which we encounter intellectual truth. This kind of theology tends to be white, male and controled within the acedemy.

BUT, within theopoetics, the act of creating art is itself an epistemology (which is another way os saying that it becomes a different kind of knowing. Or perhaps a way of understanding the limits of our own knowing.

Perhaps we can also say that the process is as important (if not more important) than the product, or the object that is created. The act of making resonates with memories/hopes/hurts/loves that we feel within our bodies as much as we name them consciously.

It might be about helping us engage with our present or about letting go of our past, letting the spirit connect with the Spirit…

We are describing art here as a spiritual discipline, in which we make things out of our community and our shared experience as well as individually. In this we consciously value both creativity and co-creation.

Art might also been seen as prayer…

…or protest…

…or as a way to be hopefully consciously engaged with our own culture, our own location.

Embodyment

I have heard this word used for some time now, and have at times felt threatened by it. Perhaps this is because I have never been particularly comfortable with my own body. As a young man, my religion taught be to hate my physicality, particularly my sexuality, which was almost always to be supressed and was a source of shame. I was always taller than those around me, and often overweight, which, when combined with a crippling lack of self consciousness meant that my escape was into my head – to the worlds I could create, or have created there by others. Like many of us, I learned in a deep subconcious way that my body was not to be trusted, that it was ugly and that the best parts of life were lived externally, intellectually and even excarnately, via the on-line world that increasingly characterised my being. Add ot that, my body is older now, with all the changes that brings.

To hear the word ’embodyment’ being used as a spiritual practice is in stark contrast to the religion I inherited, but that is not to say that there were no embodyed experiences. I grew into a relgion that was charasmatic, with ecstatic ‘moves of the spirit’. People were ‘slain’ or shaken from head to foot. People danced. People shouted. As I reflect on that from a safe intellectual distance, it is interesting to me that in order to move beyond the intellectual straighjackets, the mostly middle-class white English people I grew up amongst needed some kind of holy-spirit madness to give them permission to engage their bodies with mystical experience. My memory of much of this is that I watched from the outside, playing musical instruments, disturbed and slightly embarrassed by much of what I was seeing, desperate to look like I belonged. Other people were fully caught up in these experiences. I thought there was something wrong with me because I was not.

So what does embodyment look like to me now? I think it has to start with small things. I have to first stop trying to force an experience that years of conditioning (and my introverted personality type) have taught me to avoid. There are many practices such as exercise, meditation, centring, etc that might be able to help me, but the one that I have found most useful is… art.

As I create (for example as I begin to contruct a poem) a lot of the work takes place within my head. My chosen medium is after all the written word. However, increasingly I seek to go beyond the bounds of my understanding and to attend to what is happening within my body. For me this often begins with my emotions. As I write it is not at all uncommon for me to weep or to discover that I my heart is racing and my teeth are clenched.

In writing poetry, I am also seeking to connect. This is really hard to describe, but anyone who writes as much as I do will know that there are times when you are not writing the poem, rather it feels as though you are recieving it. These moments are not intellectual so much as mystical. They are a bodily response to something that feels beyond my body. I would always resist describing this experience as being ‘given to me by god’, because who am I to say where inspiration comes from? Rather I am happy to say that I sought connection to the deeper parts of my body which are themselves part of the great becoming.

Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com

Poetics as radical engagement

To throw in another buzz-word, we might also say that poetics is concerned with Intersectionality – theopoetics as a way towards a new place. Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. It is perhaps not suprise that theology made on the margins through art would have this as part of its DNA.

Perhaps we might also see embodyment itself as a radical practice, in that the body has long been a place of suppression. Power and prejudice is aimed at, and felt by, the body. To deliberately reject these powers and say that this is MY body, inside of which MY art matters, and MY understandings of the living god matter- this is itself a political statement.

This also resonates powerfully with the idea of ‘pre political spaces’ in which change is dreamed and rehearsed, and in which ideas about change start to form and find cultural momentum. I wrote about this here.

It would seem appropriate to finish with a poem. Unsurprisingly, my last book has gathered much of my poesis, or my theopoetic journey. More than this, it has also hugely benefitted from Si Smith’s poesis, as in the image above.

This poem is my truth for today;

I choose goodness

I caught a glimpse today

Of my capacity for goodness

I thought it gone away

But there it lay

Like a laughing flapping fish

With its mouth wide open

For despite being the epicentre of my own unfolding event

I still know what it means to love

Despite all my callow grasping

I know what it means to give

Despite my tendency to measure myself and find you wanting

There is joy to be found in your victory

I am a man full of holes

But it did not all leak away

I am broken

But I am not destroyed

Today, I choose goodness.

And I call it love

Theopoetics 3: In which Michaela shows us how to do it (but has no interest in pompous theologcal terms!)

Michaela made a piece of art the other day…

We have been thinking about the shocking ‘othering’ that has typified our nation’s response to the world wide refugee crisis. There are of course many beautiful exceptions, but by and large here in the UK, we do not make the outsiders welcome. Rather we fear them, label them and export them even if they manage to climb over our high walls. How can we, insignificant and insulated as we are, respond? How can we express our outrage in a way that is meaningful? How can we look deeper? How can we invest in the hope of change and the progression towards something better?

There are lots of active ways of course- getting involved in protest or seeking to offer some kind of direct support to those in need, be it financial or physical. These things are a vital part of any change process.

But there is another component. How do you shift the zeitgeist? How do you start to change wider opinions? For this, we need to engage in the ‘theatre of the spirit’. Here we need our artists. We need our theopoets.

Michaela is one of these, but she would look at me very impatiently if I suggested it to her. She does not waste time on theological ponderings, being too busy with other things.

She took a poem I wrote, extracted her own truth from it, and made this;

It features a woman wearing a head scarf with one foot in Syria, planting a young shoot in the UK.

She is mounted on a plinth with a large map.

The poem I mentioned is this one;

Gods

Sometimes I fear that we were given only empty promises

by a far-away-god who casts knowing glances while

We wind towards inevitable destruction like unregulated clocks.

The god of love, who will watch most of us burn.

The god of grace whose good folk gorge whilst others starve.

The god whose justice is skewed and whose faithfulness is unreliable

The god made entirely in my own image, and

Both of us are broken.

.

But sometimes, just beyond the spectrum of visible light

I glimpse the afterglow of a different god

Who is in all things, but is not enclosed

Who is in everything, but in not exclusive

Who is above all things, but never aloof.

Who is below all things, but never debased

Who centres himself everywhere

but lacks circumference.

Who confounds all those who seek to constrain

Where she might be recognised.

.

(In the whorl of every new born finger and

every uncurling leaf.

Deep in each fossil hiding in the old stones

Used to build mosques or cathedrals

The god who waits in Aleppo dust like ancient seed

The god knows the weight of the ocean

But measures it in love.

On being confronted by this piece, our reaction is not intellectual alone, it is also physical and spiritual. This is the nature of art. This is the nature of theopoesis.

(And I am very proud of my wife!)

Theopoetics 2: defining a butterfly..

Yamabe no Akahito (active 724u2013736), One of the Three Gods of Poetry From the Spring Rain Collection (Harusame shu016b), vol. 1 by Yashima Gakutei is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

One of the problems we have in trying to grapple with theopoetics is that it is almost impossible to define. Certainly there does not seem to be one single definition. You might argue that this kind of amorphous, pliable, porous approach is typical of many other post-modern ideas, typified by the retreat from hard-edged scientific truth, which is often understood as an instrument of power and control. You might be right.

But why do I gasp when I see a flight of swans or geese heading south as the winter approaches?

I return to the idea of ‘the poem’. I know there is a danger here as theopoetics is NOT about poetry – or not only about poetry – but hear me out. Remember that one third of the Hebrew bible was written as poetry, and that poetry has formed the bedrock of other religious movements, most notably the great Sufi writers of the middle east.

Here is the question though; what is a poem and where is its power? Or to put it another way, where is the truth of a poem and what use is it? You could also ask, who decides WHICH poems are important?

I would argue that there are many ways to answer these questions.

  1. Form, meter, rythm, technical matters. (In other words, all the things I hate to think about when I write poetry!) You can decontruct a poem down to individual parts and miss the point entirely
  2. The experience of WRITING the poem. For me this often a visceral experience. If I shake with anger, or weep real tears then I know I am writing something that matters. This does not make it a ‘good’ poem – or does it?
  3. The subject matter of a poem is important … or is it? I love poetry that is prophetic and speaks truth to power, but a poem can be about anything and still relate to the greatest human issues.
  4. Then there is the READING of a poem. They are often like swans in flight in their ability to make me gasp. Many do not, so I skip past them. There are technical and content reasons why some grab me more than others, but I feel this first in my body, as a physical reaction. It is like a spiritual narcotic.
  5. The truth of poetry is almost always ambigious to some extent. This is the nature of language – it often contains layers of meaning, and poetry mostly makes this less clear, as a deliberate practice, employing similie and metaphor not to explain as much as to open up spaces. We project truth on to poetry as much as we extract it.
  6. Some poems have been ‘adopted’, almost like official anthems. The meaning of these poems has almost always been obscured or distorted. Consider Blake’s ‘…and did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s…”
  7. There is an open question for me about how we read scripture-poetry. The apocalypse of John? The beatitudes? The majestic poetry of Isaiah? Should we be allowed to read these differently or should we treat it ALL as poetry even? If so, how does this change the way we approach the text? Do we diminish it, or do we make it more true?
  8. Finally consider how poetry at school tends to be suffocated by the educational imperative.
Poetry in Motion by Ian Paterson is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

All of which is another way of saying that creative spiritual experiences of the kind we might describe as theopoetical will ALWAYS be difficult to define. Perhaps this is the very heart of their usefulness. In an age of sectarian cerainties we need ways to once more be confronted with mystery and unknowing, which is the very heart of mysicism. But this is certainly not about the absence of meaning. It is about the pregnancy of the moment when we sense a connection being made to what some (but not all) call god.

Theopoetics invites us to focus on the how. The doing. The shaping of the thing. The heartbeat. The physical reaction. The beauty of it. The love that inspires towards action.

What this looks like in practice is as varied as… poetry.

Theopoetics: exploring new theology (part 1)…

My contention is that ideas matter. Consider how our current UK government has taken inspiration from certain ‘think tanks’ to apply a philosphy of extreme liberal economics. Ideas, when operationalised, can change the world.

Theological ideas have a particular kind of power as they have god (or gods) on their side. Even whilst we are witnessing the decline of religious participation in the western world, theology remains a powerful force for good or ill, dominating the discourse at the heart of the politics of the most powerful nation on earth and forming the fracture lines of many a hostile border.

On an individual level, many of my friends have been going through a period of deconstruction, when they have questioned much of the theological underpinnings of the faith they inherited. My own deconstruction journey into this territory is writ large across the whole timeline of this blog. But deconstruction is only ever part of the process. A friend said it like this recently in an e-mail;

I am certainly in the time of that journey where I am looking for those trustworthy guides … I know that deconstruction does not fill me up with anything, it only warns me against what I know I do not want to become. So, finding meaning is what I hope for.

Trevor Williams

Where do we start then? Whom do we trust to lead us? Where are the apostles, the prophets, the authors we need to read, the preachers that we need to listen to?

Perhaps more importantly though, can we trust our own hearts to lead us? This takes courage, but it also takes a certain kind of self-compassion, accepting that we do not have to be perfect. We do not have to get it all ‘right’. The measure here (as in the beginning of it all in Genesis chapter 1) is not purity, but goodness; goodness that embraces the inevitability of failure as well as the hope that we can do better.

In previous post (which I cannot find, but I’m sure I talked about it somewhere before) I confessed to applying these three things to my own search for meaning.

  1. I acknowledge those whose teaching/writing/leadership has inspired me, consciously holding on to those things I inherited that is ‘good’. These act like signposts or filters or channels through which I measure and encounter the new
  2. What sings in my soul? I have decided to trust my own embodied reaction as a guide for accepting and adventuring. If I read something or encounter something and it lights me up emotionally/physically/spirituality (even intelluctually) then I will pay attention.
  3. What is useful? By which I mean the degree to which ideas contribute towards my understanding of peace love and justice. If they do not seem immediately useful in this regard, I am not necessarily rejecting them as ‘wrong’, rather I am far less interested.

I am quite aware that this list is contentious. I have spoken about it to a number of friends, and some of them have been troubled by it. It may also be incomplete – for example, Trevor, in the e-mail I quoted from earlier, suggested adding ‘beauty’ to the list, something which was interesting because it resonated with a new (to me) idea I have been adventuring with called theopoetics (more on this later.)

After all, a quote from Jean Vanier has stayed with me for years about how we encounter god in all that is beautiful and all that is broken so I have no doubt that a certain kind of beauty opens me up inside… perhaps this is indeed a reliable way to encounter the divine.However, this seems more than contained within my number 2 because beauty often sings in my soul. It might be a different song to yours, but it sings loudest for me when mixed with brokenness, because there I think we find god. This is why encountering Steve Broadway’s portraits of steet sleepers was so powerful at this event;

I mentioned this word theopoetics. I confess, my initial interest was because I assumed this to be describing some kind of mash-up between spirituaity and poetry, something which sounded right down my street – after all, this has been a well trodden path for centuries so such a word seemed potentially useful. However, it turns out this was wide of the mark. I needed to think bigger, much bigger.

Lets start with the etymology of the word;

Theo; meaning ‘of god or deities’.

Poetics from poiesis, meaning ‘the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before’ or more simply, ‘to make’.

So what we seem to be describing here is the process of making god.

To many of you this might sound like heresy. After all, this might mean that we are describing ‘making up’ god. Dreaming him/her in to being. Creating our own creator. Well, perhaps this is exactly what we are indeed describing.

Before you become too outraged, consider this; all our concepts of god have come from somewhere. Within the Christian tradition I come from, we base (almost) all of these on propositional truths extracted selectively from the bible. The way we read this bible becomes the primary, and some would say only, way to understand who god is, what he wants us to do and what the future holds for all of us.

But we only do this because people have previously decided that this was the best way to do things. This was the god they made for us, in the form of his written words. I don’t say this to dismiss the god we have inherited, just to point out that everything we think we know about him or her has been imagined by someone, sometime.

Kind of reminds me of Pete Rollins’ work, which I talk about here.

Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com

But back to this word, theopoetics. As far as I am able to understand, those who have been exploring this as a concept are comfortable with the idea of making god, but more than this, they are less concerned with the ‘what’ questions of faith (i.e., all those propositional truths wrapped up into doctrine) and more concened with the ‘how’, by which I think they mean the process by which we encounter god in the midst of our lived experience, in the mess of what we are becoming. The idea is to focus on the aesthetics of this experience, and allow this to shape us.

In other words, rather than getting too worked up about defining what is ‘right’ perhaps we should just explore it together using whatever activities and tools that will be most helpful to bring us closer to the divine and hopefully to turn us towards acts of love and compassion.

Particularly, art and creativity, because these seem the most helpful of all, as they allow us to be fully embodied and present in the moment of encounter. Of course, there are other ways (including the study of the bible for example!) but theopoetics encourages us towards full body encounters with creative, immersive artistic expression.

As a poet, this sings in my soul and opened a window for me, which I intend to explore further on this blog. It also resonates with the three ‘tests’ I applied above;

  1. It has grown from a tradition I recognise, and is anchored to principles I find compelling, not least a concern for social justice and a concern to give a place for mystical experience through art and creative engagement
  2. It excites me, by opening up some new posibilities inside. Something is singing in my soul
  3. It might yet prove to be a useful way to think about how spirituality might shape the world towards good.

More to come…

Disruptor…

disruptor noun

a person or thing that interrupts an event, activity, or process by causing a disturbance or problem.”the film follows his evolution from Hollywood star to political disruptor”

a company or form of technology that causes radical change in an existing industry or market by means of innovation.”the company is becoming a major disruptor in the healthcare industry”

BIOLOGY a thing that interferes with or significantly alters the structure or function of a biological molecule such as a gene or hormone.”several drugs show promise as DNA disruptors in cancer cells”

The pandemic was itself a disruptor, but it has perhaps also made us more likely to promote disruptors to positions of power. People like Cummings (above) and the boss who dissapointed him, Johnson.

Truss and Kwarteng are a purer form of the same thing, at least in terms of their belief in an ideological solution to our complex problems.

All have since crashed an burned. I supect none of them are in the slightest bit repentant because most disruptors carry the whiff of the fanatic.

I confess that I too have been a disruptor. In a former life, I was tasked with the reorganisation of a mental health system. Finally, my long developed convictions (and perhaps prejudices) about what a mental health system needed to look like could be actioned. I had all the research, and I was doing things that were above all, right. The fact that many of these changes required massive disruptions to the way that the service had traditoinally done things – more than this, in the way they understood things – was a shame, but that was not going to stop me from trying.

There is a long story here which I will not engage with just now, but I too crashed an burned, but I do not regret trying. I just wish I could have been better at making things happen. I wish that those who resisted and complained had instead joined my wholeheartedly in doing things that I still think needed to be done and indeed will be done elsewhere.

But then, I am a disruptor. I would say that, right?

Changing institutions is notoriously difficult. Often they need to fall in to ruins before those inside will accept the need to rebuild them. I was trying to fast-track this process but lacked certain crucial skills because disruption alone is rarely enough, even if (as I like to think was the case with what I was attempting) you are on the side of the angels.

Consider the role of the old testament prophets, most of whom also crashed and burned. Their role is often misunderstood as being predictors-of-the-future, some kind of state soothsayers/fortune-tellers. It is better to understand them as holy disruptors, whose role was to speak truth to power; to call the kings and priests back to the calling that they had forgotten.

The role of the truth-teller in the Old Testament (or in the New Testament, in the example of Jesus) seems an important one in any change process. We need people to look at what is and shout loudly that ‘we can do better’. However Cummings and Kwarteng and me are not Elijah, Jacob or Isaiah. Not even close. What hope was there ever that we could bring about change that mattered? It is easy to throw stones, but you need someone to make new windows. It is even easy to preach compassion, but someone still has to get their hands dirty in the mess of other peoples suffering.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

We all have our favourite disruptor though. They tend to be the prophets from our tribe, who preach words that make us feel that we are right and that others are clearly wrong. In promoting our personal disrupt-saviours, we preserve the status quo. We allow the same sectarian factions to prosper. We fail to form any momentum towards change.

I think this was one of my (many) problems in trying to lead change in mental health services. I needed a skill-set that I lacked, around engaging, compromising, building relationships with others who were different from me and focussing on the hard work of fine detail plans. In other words, change, even if inspired by disruptors, then needs politicians, planners and completers. I was none of these things.

Ideology matters too of course, in terms of the values that underpin our disruptive instincts, but success (measured in terms of change) requires…

Starmer?

(Whose party I am a disruptive, disatisfied member of still, by the skin of my clenched teeth!)

More poetry…

I participated in a zoom reading with a couple of friends the other night to mark National Poetry day. It was a lovely evening, full of those tender moments that only poetry can bring. Like being held somehow.

It was recorded, so if you fancy dipping in to some poetry, I’ve posted them below.

I was reading poems (mostly) from my new book, which can now be ordered directly from here (as well as the usual Amazon behemoth and the like). 

Those who kindly pre-ordered their copies will be getting them soon too – we are waiting for a batch to arrive here.

Here are the two recordings.

Poetry reading for national poetry day…

We thought it would be lovely to host a poetry reading to celebrate national poetry day. It will be on Zoom, this thursday evening. It would be fantastic if some of you would join us!

It is really lovely to share this with my friends Chris and Vicky. I met them both through poetry, as we have worked on some other projects together down the years, but I have discovered that poets make very good friends. Their writing is very different, but shares a certain kind of space inside that moves me deeply. I very much look forward to hearing them read from their own work.

Apart from the obvious ego driven reasons for doing things like this, my hope is that together we can get below the skin of things. Poetry can be really helpful in this regard – it facilitates little spiritual journeys. Spiritual that is not in the religious sense, but more about seeking meaning, depth and transcendance.

Having said all that, I promise that there will be lots of laughter… and perhaps a few tears. What else is poetry for?

Grab a glass of wine, settle down and let words connect you. The event is free, all you need is the code for the zoom meeting, which I will ping your way if you express an interest.

There is a facebook event here which has the link too.