Interview: Luke Hankins on Poems of Devotion

Poems of Devotion

Luke Hankins is Senior Editor at Asheville Poetry Review and the author of a collection of poems, Weak Devotions, a chapbook of translations of French poems by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu, I Was Afraid of Vowels…Their Paleness and editor of Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets. This Sunday, December 9 at 5 p.m., at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, Luke will read selections from Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets along with other featured contributors: Malaika King Albrecht, Richard Chess, Morri Creech, Richard Jackson, Suzanne Underwood Rhodes, and Daniel Westover. Luke agreed to a quick interview to discuss the recently published Poems of Devotion.

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Tell me how the anthology, Poems of Devotion, developed from concept to final printed book.

Luke Hankins

In my final year of graduate school, I took an independent study course with the superb poet and teacher Maurice Manning, which essentially meant that I chose an academic/creative project and he offered input on and evaluation of it. I have had a strong interest in spiritual poetry for many years, so it was natural that I would choose a topic that reflected this passion. The essay I wrote for that class was an examination of a particular set of qualities that characterized many of my favorite spiritual poems, qualities which, in my mind, constituted a distinct mode of composition. The essay was an early form of what is now the introductory essay of the anthology, examining what I call the devotional mode in poetry. When I first wrote it, the idea of editing an anthology hadn’t occurred to me, but as I continued to revisit and revise the essay after graduate school, I felt increasingly that the compiling “poems of devotion” would make for a superb collection of poems. As an experiment, I began gathering poems that I would include in a theoretical anthology, and that’s when I began to feel a real impulse — a “call,” if you will — to bring these poems together in an anthology. I sent out a proposal to several publishers, and I eventually signed a contract with Wipf & Stock Publishers.

What followed was — well, let’s just say a year of very hard work! Gathering the poems I wanted to include was one aspect: reading widely, taking recommendations, spending long days in the library or in coffee shops with large stacks of books. But all of that, though difficult, was full of pleasure and felt deeply rewarding. The other aspect was obtaining — and paying for! — permission from copyright holders to reprint the poems. That process was often labyrinthine, frustrating, and, not least of all, expensive. But it was worth it. I’m very excited about the finished anthology, and am moved and challenged anew each time I read it. Truly.

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Maurice Manning is becoming one of my favorite living poets. At the public library, I discovered his book Bucolics and then had an opportunity to attend one of his lectures at Warren Wilson. But I digress. You beat me to the second question which is what did you learn most? Seems like the whole publishing side of the anthology was quite a classroom of experience. If you will, highlight one moment during that year long process that “felt deeply rewarding” for you.

Luke Hankins

I think approaching the copyright aspect of the anthology with a certain level of naivety in many instances worked to my advantage. People were more inclined to take mercy on me and my minuscule budget! But there were a few publishing houses who were absolutely unmovable, and I had to pay out my teeth, so to speak, to include poems I felt were necessary to the anthology. So I learned to rejoice in small mercies where they came, and to practice stoicism about what I saw as exorbitant pricing from some of the major publishing houses.

Regarding your second question, I wouldn’t want to try to single out one moment that felt rewarding. I’ll just say that the process of discovering poets I came to love, whose work I had never read or had only read cursorily, was one of the most rewarding aspects. Re-reading poets whose work has been very impactful for me was another aspect. Also, there was an overall sense of being blessed to be able to dedicate myself to an undertaking that felt like an important fulfillment of who I am. I felt that I was working with real purpose. I felt that I was doing what I was meant to do.

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One final question, what’s the biggest thing you hope readers take away from Poems of Devotion?

Luke Hankins

I hope that readers — whether religious or non-religious, theistic or non-theistic — come away with a conviction that the devotional mode is a powerful, ongoing, vital mode in literature. I believe in these poems and their ability to do just that.

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Maurice Manning’s poetry lecture summary and thoughts

As promised, some highlights from yesterday’s Maurice Manning poetry lecture.

The lecture centered on “Some Thoughts on Sympathy.” Maurice began by defining sympathy. First, it is not the “I feel your pain” emotion that is manipulative, fake and inaccessible — a show of feeling rather than creation of feeling (i.e. the desire that you feel me feeling your pain). Sympathy defined as honest feeling, common understanding — as in “two beasts bound together” like oxen — of suffering.

Maurice cited the Romantic period as the historical place where sympathy in literature is born — where the outward reaching heart surveys the humanity of the world and returns to the mind where it is changed, sympathetic, and reaches outward again. “Isn’t that what we seek in poetry, to be changed?” Maurice asked. From there he presented the two-step machinery of Romanticism — heart and mind cycle — using the physics examples of sympathetic motion in plucked strings and pendulum motion.

This is the part of the lecture where I was deeply engaged. He went deep into physics and linguistics to make the point that sympathy occurs naturally — it is part of our nature. It is the transfer of energy from one property to another, one person to another, from the page to the spirit. This is the kind of lecture that challenges me, resonates with me, makes me want to go deep. I’m starved for it.

Maurice used Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse” and Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” as examples of sympathy in poetry. After an in depth analysis of the linguistic patterns of “To a Mouse,” he concluded his lecture by stating that the poets he referenced found the self in these poems. “We’re always yoked to something…” he said. “The mysterious force of the poem stays with us even after we have closed the book.”

The applause was loud and seemed not to affect him as he paper clipped his lecture notes. As the applause subsided he quietly stated, “I guess it’s lunch now.”

Maurice Manning’s poetry lecture…

…was ARGH-sum!

I arrived at Warren Wilson College’s Fellowship Hall a few minutes early and waited for the earlier session to conclude. First one out the door was none other than Steve Orlen. I wonder if he read my prediction? More interesting, how did he make it from the front row of a packed hall to be the first one out into the bright, cold morning? He looked at me fidgeting with my gloves. As he fished a cigarette out of its package he told me I should put the gloves away and get in there so I won’t miss the lecture. I smiled, said thanks and headed into the bustling hall.

I’ll provide highlights from Maurice Manning’s poetry lecture later. Gotta get my mind back into work mode. Just discovered that after two rounds of proofreading the word “foreword” was misspelled on a manuscript that is en route to the printer. ARGH. So much for quality control. Then again, I’ve been looking at this manuscript for months and it wouldn’t surprise me if the author’s name is misprinted.

Did any of ya’ll out there make it to Maurice’s lecture?