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Local poet and professor explores ‘ultimate forgiveness’

UPDATED: Mon., March 9, 2020

Gonzaga University professor Shann Ray’s latest book of poetry explores questions of suffering, love and healing in the wake of violence. (Vanessa Kay)
Gonzaga University professor Shann Ray’s latest book of poetry explores questions of suffering, love and healing in the wake of violence. (Vanessa Kay)

“What does ultimate forgiveness have to say to ultimate violence?” asks author Shann Ray in his latest book of poetry: “Atomic Theory 7: Poems to My Wife and God.”

The title “is a reflection of the complexity and gracefulness of atomic and subatomic structures that form the building blocks of the universe and of our DNA, especially with regard to light,” Ray said. “The number seven touches on the mysteries of forgiveness and the gravity of atonement.” In Judeo-Christian religious texts, the number seven signifies the perfection of creation and forgiveness – in Matthew 18:22, Christ tells his disciples to forgive transgressors “not seven times, but 77 times.”

With a nod to that number, Ray’s new work is a compilation of seven groups of 11 sonnets on interpersonal and national violence interpolated with illustrations painted by California-based artist Trinh Mai.

Mai’s collection of paintings represent a personal, generational family story of the harm and violence that took place during the Vietnam War. “It’s central to this book in its own beautiful, interwoven way,” Ray said. Throughout the work, and with the visual aid of Mai’s illustrations, Ray attempts to answer “the question of love and healing in the wake of ultimate violence.”

Ray wrote the book in full, then began the process of editing and sending it to trusted friends and writing mentors, including his beloved wife and daughters. After a few rounds of revisions, he began sending the book to a selection of poetry magazines – his previous works have been featured in publications including Poetry, Esquire and Poetry International.

One of the difficulties in finding a publisher for this particular work lay in the hope that Mai’s work would be printed in color. Resource Publications was up to the task. “I’m almost stunned that it all came together,” Ray said. “Mostly when you start something like this, you think, ‘Oh, no one will publish this.’ So I’m very grateful. Both that I was able to meet Trinh and that we were able to do this.”

Ray and Mai met through editor Kristin George Bogdanov when she printed their work closely together in an edition of Ruminate. This wasn’t unusual in itself, but the number of paintings and poems that Bogdanov chose to print was.

“(The magazine) took one whole section of 11 sonnets from the book, which is something they don’t normally do,” Ray said. “They had (my) poems enfolded by Trinh Mai’s paintings, (a series) that is keenly oriented towards war veterans.” The “beauty and power” of the paintings quickly caught Ray’s attention.

Though their work is one in the context of “Atomic Theory 7,” Ray’s poems and Mai’s paintings work just as well independently.

“If someone just looked at her art, and read about what she’s written about her art in this book, it would develop our ways of knowing each other in the world in profound and touching, intimate ways with regard to what can be our grace or our response to our collective trauma,” Ray said.

Ray, who’s won awards for his poetry as well as his fiction – the novel “American Copper” and story collection “American Masculine” – is also a professor at Gonzaga University, where he uses his real last name, Ferch. At Gonzaga, he teaches Leadership and Forgiveness Studies, both subjects which have greatly informed his previous academic and poetic works. Going as far back as his original doctoral research almost 27 years ago, Ray’s primary interest was in the essence of the forgiving touch.

“The poems themselves came fairly fast,” Ray said. The bulk of the work came with Ray’s research into intimate one-to-one violence all the way up to international levels of violence, as well as a great deal of research into atomic theory.

“All of that culminating with the idea that if we think of God, we think of someone who abandons us when we encounter violence,” Ray said. “But I wanted to look at it being we ourselves abandoning each other and violating each other and that the ideas of love or hope are a big part of what heals us in the context of violence.”

Offering advice to aspiring poets and writers, Ray simply recommends that one should contemplate the words of Vincent Van Gogh: “That there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

In other local poetry news

Author Kathryn Smith’s poetry collection “Self-Portrait with Cephalopod” has won the 2019-20 Jake Adam York Prize.

Smith will receive $2,000 and publication by Milkweed Editions next February.

Smith’s other works include the full-length collection “Book of Exodus” (Scablands Books, 2017) and the chapbook “Chosen Companions of the Goblin,” winner of the 2018 Open Country Press Chapbook Contest.

New book tells

downwinders’ stories

Activist Trisha Pritikin will celebrate the release of her new book “The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices From the Fight for Atomic Justice” at Auntie’s Bookstore next weekend.

“The Hanford Plaintiffs” is a compilation of oral histories gathered from Pritikin’s fellow downwinders and the testimony of 24 of the more than 5,000 plaintiffs in the Hanford Nuclear Reservation litigation. Alongside these accounts, Pritikin examines other national and international nuclear testing facilities, as well as the effects of radiation poisoning that she herself felt.

Karen Dorn Steele, the award-winning investigative journalist who covered the Hanford nuclear test site mismanagement and Atomic Energy Commission controversies, will introduce Pritikin.

The free event will be at 7 p.m. Saturday at Auntie’s, 402 W. Main Ave.

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