A few months ago, I stumbled across the article, What’s poetry doing on a page like this?, by Matthew Gambino, director and general manager at CatholicPhilly.com. Matt wrote, “My aim is to point out poets writing right now about life as we are living it, in all its messiness. I’ll shine an inviting light on contemporary poets who are painting beauty, laying down wisdom or gifting a sense of hope.”
His words resonated with me right away. There aren’t many diocesan media outlets that are champions of poetry, so I was impressed. I was curious how Matt came to love poetry and asked him a few questions about it.
You recently added a regular poetry column to CatholicPhilly.com. What was your inspiration to do so?
There is good and bad in any age, but these days I sense a great deal of anger, fear and anxiety that is resulting in a coarseness of speech and attitude, and to some extent, an ugliness in our culture. There is beauty in contemporary poetry, and beauty is a counter-balance to all the negativity. I want to identify some contemporary poets who are producing enjoyable and sometimes challenging poems, who might help people see the beautiful amidst the degraded, to draw nearer to the light than the darkness.
The idea for the Catholic Poetry Room at IntegratedCatholicLife.org was conceived at about the same time as your poetry column. How do you see the Spirit moving in the field of poetry? Are there are areas of Catholic art in which you see the Spirit moving?
I can’t speak about Catholic art in general or even Catholic poetry specifically, since other people are more qualified. I am a believing Catholic, and what I want to call out is good, moving, beautiful poetry whether it’s written by Catholics or not, and whether it deals with Catholic themes or not. I prefer to cast a net broadly into the deep, seeking beauty and meaning from wherever it comes. In that sense, I trust that the Holy Spirit continues to move unabated through the world, through our culture and, yes, our art. If this is a time when we desperately need beauty, I am sure the Spirit is already moving through artists, writers and all people of good will (Catholic or not) to help us see the goodness of life in these times. I only hope to feel the wind move, and do what I can do.
What is your personal history with poetry? At what age did you first begin reading it and/or writing it?
I have written poetry my whole life, and looked at the world in a lyrical sense, noticing the odd, the beautiful, the funny—signs of the spirit of creation. Life sure got busy after I married and started a family. When my daughters were little, they and my wife would sleep in on Saturday mornings. Before the day and its demands stirred, I crept out of the house on those mornings quietly with a notebook, a pencil and a book of poems, and went to a local coffee shop to write for an hour or so. It’s a pattern I continue today even as the girls are grown up. With all the poems I’ve written, you’d think I’d be published by now, but no. I place a higher premium on the work of the thing, the joy of the process, than the product for all to see, even if no one ever sees it. I’m okay with that.
Why is it important for a Diocesan newspaper to write about poetry? Why is it important for the ordinary Catholic to read poetry?
It’s important for a diocesan newspaper to report on Catholic news, share the Gospel and inspire people to make connections with each other and all creation. That’s the three-fold mission of the site for which I work: to inform, to form and to inspire. Poetry’s brevity, use of metaphor to suggest a point and ability to draw us from where we are to where we might go is tailor-made for Catholic media. It is an ideal way to accomplish that mission and should be a regular feature of newspapers, magazines, websites, and other media.
Now, you don’t need to read poetry for a good, fulfilled life. But along with eating your vegetables, paying your bills and taking time to meditate, poetry can enrich your life. It’s brief, it’s cheap (visit your local library) and it can add a level of enjoyment—and an appreciation of beauty—to your life.
Who are some of your favorite Catholic poets?
If a poet’s content and style evokes certain Catholic images and words, fine. If not, that’s fine too. The most important thing for me is, do I enjoy it? I certainly enjoy the work of Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, Austin Smith, Adrienne Rich, WS Merwin, James Wright, Thomas Merton, Jane Hirshfield, Terrance Hayes…I could go on. Their work won’t appeal to some, while others will love it. Many poets are producing poems right now that I admire for their technical skill, but I don’t enjoy them. Hats off to those folks, I hope they keep on writing. It’s just not for me. But for anyone, there is a poet whose style or thematic content will appeal to you. It’s a worthwhile journey to find the ones you like.
What can we expect from future poetry columns on CatholicPhilly.com?
I hope to identify contemporary poets and review their works published within the last year; those who can add goodness to our world in a way that I can grasp and enjoy, and others might as well. Yes it is highly subjective, but it’s my column, right?
Visit CatholicPhilly.com to follow Matt’s columns on poetry.