Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Everyday Mysteries

By Leonard Gill

APRIL 12, 1999:  To hear her tell it, Kathleen Norris is something of a sneak and a thief: a sneak when it came to injecting poetry into the best-selling prose of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, The Cloister Walk, and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and a thief when it came to her own poems.

“I feel very free to steal from myself,” Norris said by phone before embarking on a two-month tour to promote the paperback edition of 1998’s Amazing Grace. “With Dakota, the original manuscript had some poems mixed in with the prose, and my editor said, ‘You’re a new author and this is going to be a hard-sell for the sales department. They will not want to see poetry in there. They think that’s the kiss of death.’ So I said, ‘A lot of these images and lines I really like. How ’bout if I just translate it into prose and they won’t know the difference?’ My editor said, ‘They won’t know the difference and it will be good, it will be good prose.’ So that’s what I did. I added modifiers to make it feel a little more prosy ... to get it past the sales department. I and my editor had a lot of fun doing that.”

Fun, then, for Norris and her editor, but a gift to readers, who since 1993 have charted the author’s progress back to her home state of South Dakota and “a homecoming” of sorts to the Presbyterian faith of her forebears. Reclaiming those roots, as Norris’ audience well knows, went by the unlikely route of a layperson’s perspective within the 1,500-year-old tradition of Benedictine monasticism.

Does she mind being type-cast not as poet but as writer on religion? No, except to make clear that she is writing not as “a theologian so much as a literary person and a storyteller.” And Amazing Grace, a loose lexicon of religious terms that have “engaged,” “attracted,” and “terrified” her, spells it out in language even an atheist can admire. Her goal through the use of such language? “To remove the patina of abstraction or glassy-eyed piety from religious words, by telling stories about them, by grounding them in the world we live in ....”

“I wasn’t trying [in Amazing Grace] to write a comprehensive guide to the Christian faith,” Norris said. “The book isn’t even specifically addressed to Christians. It can’t be because my editor is Jewish. I get letters from atheists saying it’s helped them understand some things, although they still think it’s a lot of bunk. The letters I treasure the most, though, come from readers from other religious faiths. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. Just talk about my own experience. Christianity from one person’s experience. Plus some historical knowledge of this and that. The broadest possible audience is what I’m trying to reach. Judging from some of the mail I’ve gotten, especially from Jewish and some Islamic readers, they’re interested in what I’m saying, that I’ve illuminated subjects, such as the Incarnation, which can seem really abstract and weird. Now they can say, ‘Oh, well, I see what she means by that.’ That’s my goal, and when it happens I’m really happy.”

That goal – back in the early 1980s when Norris left New York and returned, with husband and poet David Dwyer, to her grandmother’s house in Lemmon, South Dakota – didn’t necessarily sit so well with her literary friends, however.

“Religion is a subject that a lot of writers take very, very seriously. They don’t always write about it, but they engage with that subject very strongly,” Norris told me. “But I think the atmosphere has changed. Ten, 15 years ago, if you wrote about religion you were stereotyped and people might not publish you. That’s changed a great deal, and I’ve benefited from that. But I’m not the only one. There are a lot of writers out there writing about their faith. ... and I think it’s a real sign of health in our country that all this is going on, but none of it is commercially all that successful. Back in the early ’80s, though, people just weren’t talking about it. It was still like the last taboo.”

Last taboo, or in-house topic for disagreement? I asked Norris about her husband, an ex-Roman Catholic who has not joined her in refinding faith but who does make for a kind of shadowy presence in all three books as a sufferer from periodic, debilitating depression. Does he mind his portrayal inside Norris’ pages or his position just outside the margins?

“Sometimes people say, ‘Why don’t you write more about your husband?’ My husband is in the books exactly as much as he wants to be,” according to the author. “If I write something and he’s in it, I always show him. I say, ‘Is this okay, or would you rather I not say this?’ Because I don’t feel like I have the right to appropriate him. But he likes the idea of being a ‘shadowy presence.’ He’s an Irishman, so that’s romantic for him, I guess. I think we’ve struck a pretty good balance.”

Is Norris planning a fourth book of prose along the lines of her previous three?

“I’m going to move on now,” she said. “I’m going to write a book that won’t be specifically about religion as much. I’m going to write about that period when I didn’t go to church for 20 years, when I was on my own, a writer in New York City, very young, in my early 20s, foolishly sort of drifting. But I did have several wonderful mentors in the poetry world, and they kept me sane and they kept me from really self-destructing.”

And back to poetry. Does it figure now?

“The prose has kind of swept away the poetry ... but poetry is my vocation, my first love,” she said. “It’s my grounding. I keep returning to it. I’d be very unhappy if I stopped writing poetry altogether.”

Norris’ latest publication is an address she delivered to students at St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame titled The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work,” from Paulist Press. In it, according to the author, “I talked to these young women and wrote this little book about some of my experiences when I was in my early 20s, around their ages, the life choices you make. But I also put it into a context of respecting and honoring ‘the daily.’ The daily processes are what really count in the long run. Quotidian, everyday mysteries. If you can learn to see the value in routine and the routine things you’re going to have to do as someone in the work world, as a parent, a wife .... I talk about how I failed at this very much at their age, some of the stupid decisions I made. In a way, it’s a little more confessional than some of the other books I’ve written.

“The other books in this lecture series [are] pretty heavy-duty theology – feminist theology. But no one had ever talked about doing laundry or washing dishes. And I decided as a poet coming in that these were important, because poets really know the importance of little things. It’s time for someone, for feminists to start talking about the laundry. Everyone knows that it’s part of life and it’s a pain, but you have to do it.”

To see the grace in it, check with Kathleen Norris.

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