Shanti Weiland’s Sister Nun and the Zen of Typing
Shanti Weiland earned her Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi and has been an Instructor in the Department of English since 2008. Her book, Sister Nun, recently appeared from Negative Capability Press in 2016.
Did the poems in Sister Nun create a theme for you, or did you envision a theme and then begin to write?
In 2010, I was hanging out in a friend’s pool, on what was probably the last reasonable pool-day-weather, and lamenting that I felt stuck in my writing. I also felt stuck in my life. She recommended that I write some poems from a distinct character’s perspective. I didn’t think that I would write an entire book about Sister Nun, but I did write four poems from her perspective that semester, all of which are now included in the book.
I created the Sister Nun character with isolation in mind. It is Sister Nun’s loneliness that pushes her to live her post-convent life so expansively. Anything is better to her than feeling “safe” in an ill-fitted cage. Even a life of sequestered spiritual development cannot move Sister Nun. She feels an urgency to strike out, with both clumsiness and grace, to find herself.
After I witnessed the potential for connection, and for alienation, in the grief that followed the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado, I decided to write a whole book from Sister Nun’s viewpoint.
How has your poetry changed over the years? If you reread your poetry from ten, fifteen years ago, does it seem like a different person who composed those poems?
I think the speakers in my recent poems have more at stake. Maybe it’s because I’m in my 40s now, and I feel the weight, and the balance, of middle age. I can empathize with both the angst and energy of the youth, and the frustration and stability of the older generation. However, neither experience is fully mine, anymore or quite yet. I feel a stronger pull toward mortality and yet, a long way to go. Sometimes, I feel comforted by the ending of Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” I suppose this response would have sounded depressing to my younger self. I wonder how it will sound to my future, older self.
In “Nun Assumption #2” the words “like the dead / in springtime” stood out to me because the associate was so unexpected. When discussing the dead, a reader would usually anticipate something like “in winter.” Do you agree that quality creative expression, whether a novel or poetry, surprises the reader?
Yes, I think it has to evoke surprise. There is a place for the comfort of predictability. I think we all crave the expected, at times. However, to truly evolve as a writer, and as a reader, one must allow the surprise. I say, “allow” because I believe that life provides daily surprises, but most people fight those intrusions with dogmatic thinking or by erasing the intricacies of the experience. When we read, we usually look for expansion or for comfort, but rarely do the two co-exist.
What determines whether or not a poem is finished?
For me, it’s different every time. Sometimes, I just know, intuitively, that the poem has found its ending. Other times, all I have is the ending, but I don’t know yet how it begins. Once in a while, I read a poem again and again. I listen for what is missing. Then, I put it away, and when I revisit the poem later, I realize that it was finished all along! I suppose there’s some kind of allegory in this answer!
“Temp Job” is about Sister Nun trying to find Zen through a repetitive “temp” job. This seems both humorous and true. Have you ever had a job you enjoyed unexpectedly?
Yes, I actually did, and it inspired me to give Sister Nun this temp job! When I was an undergraduate, I worked for UC Davis’ Conference Housing Department. We scheduled summer conferences and put up the attendees in the dorms and provided them with meal plans. I’m sure the job would have been much simpler if it hadn’t been for some of the attendees’ inevitable flakiness. However, there was one part of the job that I loved: typing the meal tickets. I didn’t have to deal with anyone; I just put the tickets in the electric typewriter, programmed it, and pressed the button. I did this for each individual ticket, and it was great because nobody bothered me, and when I was finished, I had a nice, neat pile of meal tickets to show for my trouble. Eventually, they made the girl who was terrible on the phone do that task, and I was back to dealing with complicated room assignments!
The other part of “Temp Job” was inspired by a story that my high school art teacher told us about a man he used to work with in a ceramics studio. The man was a Vietnam Veteran and would turn his potter’s wheel around to face the wall so he didn’t have to interact with anyone. In my poem, “Temp Job,” I combined my teacher’s story about his co-worker with my Zen-like experience with repetitive typing to create a conflict between two different modes of finding peace.
“The Monster They Made, Part III” features my favorite beginning: “Sister regrets the month she gave up / cheesecake. The lost inch around her waist / was not worth it…” Do you feel that it is harder or easier for humorous poetry to compete with darker subject matter for prizes, placements in journals, and other forms of recognition?
Your question reminds me of a reading that I did in graduate school. After the reading, another graduate student approached me and said, “Your poetry is funny. I’ve never thought of poetry as something that could make me laugh.” Oftentimes, I think that people see poetry (and poets) as dark and brooding. One of my poetry professors, DC Berry, told us that all poetry is either a comedy wrapped in a tragedy or a tragedy wrapped in a comedy. According to that theory, all poems are humorous, on some level. There’s a poem in the book Funny by Jennifer Michael Hecht called, “Are You Not Glad?” that includes a knock-knock joke: “Orange you glad? No, I’m not. I ate the berries. / I was hungry. I was young.” I think that humor is most effective when the darkness is just behind the door. As Mark Twain wrote: “The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” We laugh—at least in part—to make our pain bearable.
I am not sure if humor hurts or helps one’s chances of recognition. Perhaps the line between humor and darkness is not as wide as we think it is.
What is most difficult about writing poetry that people may not realize?
I think there are two main challenges. The first can be overcome in a classroom, where you learn how to clarify your thoughts and to provide layers of meaning in your lines and word choice. That part is like walking a tight rope. It requires concentration and practice. The second challenge cannot be taught: following your intuition no matter where it leads you. That part is like allowing yourself to fall off the tight rope with no safety net. Are you going to fly, or are you going to go splat? Many writers have commented on this vulnerability. Ernest Hemingway said writers should “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” Natalie Goldberg, in Wild Mind, declares the same sentiment in a different way: “Go for the jugular.” I read her book when I was 18 years old, but I was far too young to be that brave.
I know people write poetry for all sorts of reasons, but for me, if I can’t “give it up,” I don’t want to do it.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
It’s probably a tie between “Don’t waste your energy on people who don’t care about you,” and “If you don’t understand the behavior of an institution, it probably has something to do with money.” Perhaps, these two are connected?
What are you working on currently?
I am currently working on another poetry manuscript, which I expect to finish this summer, called, “How It Happened.” Its narrative is not quite as linear as in Sister Nun nor is its speaker a specific character. I’ve divided it into three sections: one that deals with ideas of the past; the middle, which focuses on the present (and the idea of the present moment); and the last section that imagines the future. The manuscript can be thought of as a photo album of relationships (romantic and platonic) that emerge from the understanding of familial experience and the balance (and, at times, incongruent nature) of religion and enlightenment.
I also recently started a literary blog called, The Poets That You Meet, that discusses poetry and also features interviews with people who are writers, musicians, wine makers, and even a real estate agent. I am interested in helping people to understand poetry better and to find poetry in places they didn’t expect. I post on the first Wednesday of the month, around lunch time.
In March, I started a web corner called, Online Enlightenment. Also, on the first Wednesday of every month, I publish a piece of literature, art, or a musical composition that expresses the artist’s understanding of enlightenment. With the work, the artist includes a few paragraphs that connect their work to that theme. There are so many people who are currently doing amazing work to strengthen the best that America has to offer. I wanted to contribute to these endeavors by publishing artistic expressions that focus on optimistic goals, ideas, and states of being. Resistance can serve as an important tool in change, and so can tuning in to the spirit of the optimism we wish to foster. The momentum of the latter is what I hope to share on Online Enlightenment.