Most people know Shann Ray Ferch as a writer of short stories. His 2011 collection “American Masculine,” won praise all over the place for its stories that are “less centered on landscapes and overarching narrative, and more closely focused on relatives drawing blood with words, fists, or mere looks,” as a review on the A.V. Club noted.
They also know him as a Gonzaga University professor who teaches leadership and forgiveness studies. He’s also, we’re told, the guy you probably don’t want to go up against in a pickup basketball game.
He’s also a poet; he holds a dual MFA in poetry and literature from Eastern Washington University. So it’s no surprise, really, that earlier this year he released his first collection of poetry, “Balefire” ($18, Lost Horse Press).
He’ll read from “Balefire” and “American Masculine” at Auntie’s Bookstore, 402 W. Main Ave., at 7 p.m. Thursday. In a “Five Questions” interview, we asked Ferch about his poetry and his latest project.
Q. How long have you written poetry?
A. I dabbled in poetry in high school, lost touch with it then, and fell fully in love with it again when I fell in love with my wife, Jennifer. Later, I studied under Jonathan Johnson and Chris Howell at EWU and the hope and vulnerability and strength of living a life devoted to poetry came more fully into reality for me. So thankful for the places where poetry started to influence me like the influence of a beloved other: in high school with my English teacher John Sullivan, in family through my wife Jennifer, and in the creative writing program with Jonathan and Chris. I consider each of these apprenticeships a necessary and good form of listening to and learning from the heart of life, the beloved other, and humanity as a whole. The apprenticeship continues now in the poems of so many I cherish, such as Hopkins, Oliver, Alexie, Transtromer, Dickinson, Whitman, Silko, Alcosser, and C.D. Wright.
Q. When it comes to “Balefire,” did you set out to write a collection of poetry, or had you come to point where you had enough poems completed to make a collection worth it?
A. I set out to try to look more closely at the fractures of relationship in the world, between people and cultures, between the feminine and the masculine, between parents and their children. I wanted to understand those fractures, care for them, and see what mending looks like, and how poetry helps create honesty around fracture, and courage around the hope for healing. In the end, in a chance meeting some years after I’d studied with Chris Howell, he asked me how my poems were coming along and said I should keep giving time to them. I also spoke with Jonathan Johnson again, and just being in the presence of him, his life devoted to love and wilderness and poetry, shook me and made me reconsider the approach I’d been taking to poems. This inspired me to try to put this collection together. I’m grateful.
Q. Do you find your poetry informs your fiction, vice versa or a little of both?
A. In “Balefire,” much of my fiction directly informed these poems. In fact, I’d heard Chris mention that whole chapters of Cormac McCarthy (“Blood Meridian,” “The Road”) or Marilynne Robinson (“Housekeeping,” “Gilead”) could stand alone as poems. In “Balefire,” I looked at some of the fiction of my story collection “American Masculine” and re-envisioned some passages, but in narrative poetic forms, and then tried to find structural, emotional, and spiritual avenues to let the poems open more fully to the reader. I also worked on lyric poems of love, reconciliation, and atonement, and tried to compose poems that might speak directly to love, forgiveness, and atonement.
Q. What is it about poetry that appeals to you?
A. For me, it is nearly impossible to encounter great poems without being broken by them and given the chance to bloom anew. There is such attention and generosity in the poetry of the world. Great poems compress life to an almost unbearable density and then succeed in lifting the heart, mind, and spirit to new vistas of understanding and compassion. Consider this, from one of the envelope fragments of Emily Dickinson: “I am afraid to own a body/I am afraid to own a soul.” My wife, Jennifer, and I memorized these lines from Emily some time ago. When I consider relationships, marriage, family, friendships, children, and the great paradox of love and violence that exists in the contemporary experience of humanity, Emily’s words keep descending in me and opening into greater and greater depths. In 1968 after the Prague Spring, Jan Palach gave his life to help the people of his country (then Czechoslovakia) rise from oppression to a more free, more wise, and more loving experience of one another. In a purposeful gesture, he lit himself on fire, burning himself to death. He chose self-immolation in order to awaken his country from slumber. The people didn’t respond, but years passed and some few people quietly celebrated him and his courage underground. Twenty years after his death, and in my opinion largely in response to the poem that was his life, the Velvet Revolution became one of the most important moments in human history. As a poet, I hope to speak to that type of revolution, in the intimacy we encounter with others and the hope for intimacy between cultures and nations. In “Balefire,” the poem “The Gesture” considers Jan’s life, and can be seen as a central pivot of the book.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. A book of poems called “Ecstasy,” about the marriage bed beyond irony, beyond nihilism. I’m trying to enter that landscape of marriage that has been tested by fire over the years, and emerges with more buoyancy, greater forgiveness, and more beauty.
Not sure if it’s possible really, but I have a hunch a few people out there think it is and even report they experience it! Poetry books like C.D. Wright’s “Deepstep Come Shining,” Catherine Barnett’s “Game of Boxes,” and Mary Oliver’s “Thirst” are leading the way for me. I’m enjoying following where they lead, listening and learning. A couple of poems I’ve been working on from that project recently appeared in Narrative Magazine. For those interested in a look, they can be found here: http://www.narrative magazine.com/issues/ fall-2014/ecstasy-and-other- poems-shann-ray
Writer visits EWU
Eastern Washington University’s Visiting Writers Series will kick off on Saturday with Joseph Salvatore.
Salvatore is the book review editor for poetry and fiction for The Brooklyn Rail. He also has contributed to The New York Times Book Review.
His short story collection, “To Assume a Pleasing Shape,” was published by BOA Editions in 2011. He is an assistant professor of writing and literature at the New School in New York City.
The reading, question-and-answer session and book signing will be held at Boots Bakery, 24 W. Main Ave. The fun begins at 4 p.m. and it’s free.