“Spoken Word and Spirit’s Breath”: Interview with Elizabeth Dodd

Among Winter Cranes
The Quarterly of the Christian Poetics Initiative
Vol. 2 Issue 4
Autumn 2019

“Spoken Word and Spirit’s Breath”: Interview with Elizabeth Dodd
By David Mahan

The most recent ‘Special Issue’ of Literature and Theology (Vol. 33 Issue 3, September 2019) focuses on the meaning, promise, and challenges of theopoetics for literary scholarship today. Among the contributors, Dr. Elizabeth Dodd explores this subject through her innovative piece, “Spoken Word and Spirit’s Breath: A Theopoetics of Performance Poetry”. Dr. Dodd is currently Director of Studies, Centre for Formation in Ministry and Lecturer in Doctrine and Theology, Arts and Culture at Sarum College (UK).

DM: Thank you for being willing to share some reflections on this fascinating study, Beth. In describing your work in this article as innovative, which it surely is, I am curious about what sparked the connections that you draw between poetic performance and spirituality, even thinking of such performance as ‘liturgical’? 

ED: It is a commonplace that there is an element of charm, even magic, to poetry. Whether you go back through the bards of ancient Britain, Homeric literature or ancient shamanic practices, it is often assumed that the first poets fulfilled a priestly role. A lot of contemporary performance poetry is quite self-conscious about its ritual roots and proud of the ancient oral traditions with which it is connecting. I use the term liturgical rather than ritual to signal my theological approach to the topic, rather than an anthropological or sociological approach. I have a particular interest in poetic performance because of the way it connects with reflections on the performativity of language and the idea that poetry, to adapt a phrase from W.H. Auden, ‘makes something happen’. In the context of a public gathering, particularly one that carries the weight of collective grief, or protest, or community formation, the performativity of poetry becomes something I think of great importance for the theologian as well as the literary critic to reflect on.

DM: So poetry as an ‘art of the public space,’ so to speak, which does certainly resonate with one of its deepest traditions. Do you also see this as a helpful way to think about theology, to which poetry considered in this way makes a contribution? Academic theology in particular can sometimes have a rather cloistered frame of reference, despite efforts to develop a ‘public theology.’

ED: I think the contribution goes both ways. The performance poet reminds the theologian of the power of words to speak truth and to transform the world, while at the same time being embedded in culture and politically encoded. On the other hand, theological investigation doesn’t let poetry get away with gestures to the transcendent that are superficial or tokenistic. The theologian will always want to dig deeper to discern the spirit that accompanies the words.

DM: I have heard some complaint about a tendency to approach the intersection of literature and theology with too much of the former – especially in its theoretical paradigms – and not enough of the latter. I think we all would agree that a ‘conversation’ between literature and theology best captures the mode we seek, thinking of conversation in the strong sense for which Mark Knight has advocated (see his Introduction to The Routledge Companion to Literature and Religion). As you developed your thesis did you feel this kind of tension, and how did you attempt to navigate it?

ED: Coming at this topic as a theologian I did feel the risk of an imperializing approach to the arts. Although I don’t think that a poet’s opinion of their own work should be the only standard for interpretation, I do think it carries weight. I would want my reading to be something that they would at least recognize, and would love the opportunity to discuss it with the poets concerned! In the case of Kate Tempest I drew on her use of the imagery of breath in the collection, ‘Hold your Own’, and on her allusions to the prophetic role of the poet in her poems and interviews, as a basis for my own reflections on prophetic breath. In the case of Tony Walsh, a.k.a. ‘Longfella’, I was relying more on the context of performance and the reception of his work. I don’t see the conversation between literature and theology as necessarily shouting across a chasm, and am particularly interested in those places where the concerns of both intersect, where they might even be considered as in competition, as Matthew Arnold thought they would be. Here the differences are more nuanced, the resonances significant and the potential for mutual transformation may be at its highest.

DM: I love that image, of this conversation not consisting of ‘shouting across a chasm.’ Of course, that sense of distance, as well as imperialistic tendencies, can come from both contemporary literary scholars and theologians alike. Affirming that theologians studying literature would want their reading to be something that literary scholars ‘would at least recognize,’ how difficult do you find it to get a hearing from the latter, to persuade them that theology can have a transformative effect on literary scholarship? This gets at the nature of the concern I raise – that theology needs to be diluted or presented in terms of literary-critical categories in order for its contribution to be recognized or appreciated.

ED: Perhaps it is just the research circles that I move in, because of my interest in metaphysical poetry, but friends of mine in English literature departments at least recognize the importance of religious literacy for their work. They also report that current undergraduate cohorts demonstrate a growing interest in what from a theological perspective might be termed ‘ultimate concerns’ in literature. This I think leaves an opening for the theologian, who is well qualified to provide the tools to conduct a conversation at this level. There remain big differences in vocabulary and in the kinds of questions being asked of texts, but I think there are areas, such as ritual, performativity, textual authority and tradition, or the religious or spiritual context of textual reception, where theology and literary criticism are not diluted but rather enriched by each other. 

DM: I introduce your work above by referring to Christian poetics as the ‘larger context’ for theopoetics, but perhaps the inverse is true. Admittedly, what we mean by ‘a Christian poetics’ is itself an ongoing conversation. If we construe some of the elements along the lines of Christian theories of literature or Christian reading practices— neither of which would be applicable exclusively to ‘Christian’ works of the imagination —then how might theopoetics provide a helpful context for this inquiry?

ED: Theopoetics began with a strong interest in poetry, from scholars such as Amos Wilder and Stanley Hopper, but has expanded well beyond this to consider creative practice more generally as a way of thinking with, through and about the divine. Taking poetry in its broadest sense of poiesis, an act of making, theopoetics connects with the materiality of poetry, its substance and form, whether on the page or in the ear. Theopoetics provides theologians with the resources to discuss poetic practice as itself theological or spiritual in a broader sense, and as such it has an important contribution to make to a Christian poetics.

DM: Would you include among these resources something along the lines of a theology of the imagination, which intersects with both? 

ED: Yes I think theologies of the imagination have an important contribution to make to a Christian poetics, although I wonder about the priority they inevitably give to image (imago Dei) over, say, voice (‘the voice of the Lord’).  I think a theology of creation/creativity is also essential for the development of a Christian poetics and, related to that, a theology of the word – that is where I think recent work on theopoetics, in the work of Catherine Keller, Richard Kearney and Heather Walton, among others, is particularly insightful and relevant. 

DM: Lastly, returning to your article and poetic performance, do you have plans to extend this line of study, and if so which questions or issues are you particularly interested to explore further?

ED: The broader project that this article relates to comes under the heading of lyric theory and Christian theology, working towards the development of a theological lyric theory. I am currently looking into the English lyric tradition from a theological perspective. I am keen to include performance poetry under this heading, as well as the contribution of different poetic cultures such as dub poetry and hip hop. I think these traditions give a different perspective on the English lyric, and on what it might mean to do theology lyrically.

Elizabeth Dodd
Lecturer in Doctrine and Theology, Arts and Culture
Sarum College

David Mahan
Lecturer in Religion and Literature
Yale Divinity, Institute of Sacred Music

Image Credit:

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Momoyogusa = Flowers of a Hundred Generations.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-cb13-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99