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James Matthew Wilson Lights A Candle

Poet and literature professor is helping launch a new MFA writing program firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition

Earlier this spring, the University of St. Thomas in Houston announced the founding of a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. What sets it apart is that it will be thoroughly Catholic, and led by one of the most gifted poets alive today, James Matthew Wilson, who is leaving Villanova University to help run the program. I’ve known James for some time now, as we became friends when I lived in Philadelphia. He is a deeply literate man, and a thoroughly orthodox Catholic. I sat in one of his Villanova undergraduate classes once, and saw that he is one of the most gifted teachers I’ve ever been around.

When he sprang the news about the new MFA program on me, I asked James if he would give me an interview about it when he had the time. He consented, and over the past few days, I’ve been sending him questions, and he’s been sending me answers. Talking with James about this program is important to me, because I spend so much time lamenting the collapse of the academic humanities. Here, for once, is some truly good — no, great — news.

The interview follows:


ROD DREHER: What is the new MFA program about? Why were you interested in it?


JAMES MATTHEW WILSON: The MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas is in some ways a first of its kind. Master of Fine Arts programs have been around for a number of decades, and they are often a wonderful opportunity for aspiring writers to hone and develop their craft, to achieve greater discipline and concentration, and to expand their knowledge of the canons of great literature and the philosophy behind it. Many of the conventions of contemporary literary writing are unsatisfactory and uninspiring, however, and much of the academy, as is only too well known, is hostile both to a classical vision of the liberal and fine arts and to a Christian vision of the world.


The result has been damaging and in two different ways. First, contemporary literature, which does have many strengths, is nonetheless impoverished of the spiritual and intellectual depth that makes books worth reading and which, indeed, makes books life-changing. Second, many persons, Christians included, who love literature and want to make a good work, find themselves pushed aside or excluded altogether in the contemporary literary world.


This damaging situation has been changing, and in some ways for the better. Over the last several years, many writers, both established and aspiring, have been attempting to restore greater breadth and depth and also a surer sense of formal excellence to contemporary letters. Our program will first and foremost serve to give those developments an institutional home. We want ever interested writer who cares about the craft and traditions of poetry, the short story, the novel, and good writing of any kind, to feel welcome in our doors.


But we want to establish that home in a distinctive way. Namely, we see the Catholic literary and intellectual tradition as a great, capacious, indeed universal vision, that embraces everything good in human history, thought, art, and literature and seeks to hold it together. The Catholic literary tradition embraces with delight the concrete, the particular, the “secular,” and, in a word, all that is Incarnate. But it also insists that those things are good in themselves precisely insofar as they belong to a larger order, the realm of the cosmos and of creation. In being themselves they reveal an infinity beyond themselves. Isn’t that what it’s like to see something beautiful? To read something powerful? We say to ourselves, “It is good that you exist!” And then we plunge in and realize that nothing exists alone, that one thing leads to another, and that beauty in particular leads us by its light all the way up to the foot of God’s throne.


Ours will be the first MFA program that roots itself in the Catholic literary tradition. We are at the service of the Church, but we are also at the service of the world. You don’t have to be Catholic to fall in love with Flannery O’Connor’s work; you just have to have a soul. We want to help writers create new works that will appeal to anyone with a soul. It seems strange to suggest that this is not the consensus vision of MFA programs in general, but I don’t think it is. For this reason I think many aspiring writers, who were previously uninterested in pursuing an MFA degree, will seek us out.


They may seek us out for still another reason. We are primarily an online, no-residency program. Most aspiring writers have other things going on in their lives. They have families and professions, but they want to write and publish a book. We aim to make that possible. And we aim to make it possible while approximating as closely as possible to traditional in-person, residential academic study. While our degree can be completed online, we will have residential opportunities up to twice a year. Writers are a lonesome bunch; many a writer does not even know another person who engages with the art. We want to help such people meet each other and help one another become better.


When I was asked to start this program, I said yes right away. I know there is a good number of contemporary scholars and intellectuals trying to build up alternative institutions of liberal learning that can stand apart from, and even athwart, the present intellectual, political, and bureaucratic decline of the academy as a whole. As important as the liberal arts are — and they are the most important possible thing — we are no less in need of institutions that support the fine arts: the making of new works that continue and deepen our tradition, that keep the past alive by making something new. My whole life has been given to defending and advancing both the liberal arts and the fine arts and to showing how integral they are to one another. Here is my chance to put that life on the line, as it were, for the sake of building something new.


Speaking of building institutions, my colleague Joshua Hren started Wiseblood Books from scratch seven years ago. It’s now a flourishing small press inspired by John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, where the Sainted Pope calls us to discover “new epiphanies of beauty. I myself have an imprint, Colosseum Books, with the Franciscan University Press, and we published new poetry and books of criticism that exemplify the spirit we aim to spread through our new MFA program. Sam Hazo, Andrew Frisardi, and Maryann Corbett have appeared or will appear in our poetry series. We have just published two monographs on Dana Gioia and Rhina P. Espaillat. The MFA program will collaborate with Colosseum to produce a new literary journal. That will serve to give our students some experience in editing during their time in the program. I won’t go into the conferences, retreats, and summer institutes that are also in the works, but I wanted to emphasize that this program is part of a broader project to renew literature, to broaden its readership, and to bring new works into publication.

A lot of readers are going to be startled by your claim that this is the first MFA program rooted in the Catholic literary and intellectual tradition. What about all the Catholic universities in the country?


Well, it actually is reasonable that there have not been such programs before, but we need to consider why. Many Catholic universities have MFA programs. I am a graduate of one. But the programs themselves may not be informed by the Catholic mission of the university in any noticeable way. Many MFA programs have faculty who are Catholic, and in the work of some of those faculty you can discern the influence of Catholicism on the writers. And sometimes those two things overlap: Valerie Sayers taught at Notre Dame for decades. Ron Hansen teaches at Santa Clara, a Jesuit university. They are both Catholic novelists — and Ron is an ordained deacon of the Church. I do not wish to give the impression that there is a total absence from such programs of Catholic influence or inspiration.
We aim to do something a little different. Our workshops will operate the way the workshops of any reputable MFA program do: the center of the workshop is the students’ own work and we simply seek to learn the craft by understanding that work and by trying to discuss it and make it better. Most MFA programs simply ask their students to choose this or that graduate seminar to take alongside the workshop. Here’s where we do something better. We’ve designed a coherent, unified curriculum specifically intended to help writers see what has been done and to envision what can be done with the vast landscape of the Catholic tradition. All our students will learn the craft of literature, but also the philosophy of art and beauty that help us to understand how art works and why it has the power it often has. They will also learn both the classics of the western tradition and take seminars focused on the Catholic presence in American literary practice, the (western) European Catholic revival — and beyond that, to study the Catholic presence in eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. The main focus is the tradition nearer to hand, because our focus is on helping artist develop the tradition that’s closest to hand, but we also aim to comprehend the whole. The result of this curriculum will be that our students will acquire the kind of rich, unified knowledge of literary practice, philosophy, and theology most suitable to a practicing writer. They’ll be well prepared to work in teaching and publishing as well.
Looking at academia from the outside, it has seemed to me that one good way to destroy your love of literature is to study it at an American university. How fair is this view? And how has this “we murder to dissect” approach to literary study manifested itself in creative writing programs?

Let me answer that question in two ways, first with reference to our program, and second, at a more general level.
We have designed a program that will help our students to see things whole, but from the specific viewpoint of makers — of practicing artists rather than disinterested scholars. One aspect of the program Joshua Hren and I are particularly excited about is the kind of essays and non-fiction prose this curriculum will help our students cultivate. The average graduate seminar has nothing to offer an MFA student. Even at its best, most advanced scholarship in literature pursues fairly arcane questions far removed from, not to say totally indifferent to, what most people love about literature. Because our seminars are integrated into the MFA program and are not part of a traditional literature department, they will also have the specific end of cultivating our students as writers. We want to revive the tradition of literary criticism as what you might call a lay, amateur, or simply human endeavor. The best literary criticism has, traditionally, been itself of great literary value. Think of Johnson’s Lives, Hazlitt’s memoirs on his first acquaintance with poets; think of Wordsworth’s, or Arnold’s, or Tate’s, or Winters’s Eliot’s essays in criticism, or O’Connor’s “Mystery and Manners.” These are nothing other than the mind of a master of the craft entirely focused on understanding the nature and the workings of that craft. Consider also the role that reviews play — they are the real foundation stone of criticism. We aim to help our students master these absolutely essential kinds of critical writing, which are important for the flourishing of literature, and we aim to leave aside the more specifically academic sort of criticism, at least to the extent that it does not enter into the living tradition of literature.
My early experience was that MFA students, aspiring writers all, and doctoral students, future professors had nothing to say to each other. The scholars looked at the thoughts of the writers as impressionistic irrelevancies, and the artists became kind of philistine in response, expressing contempt for every kind of scholarly observation. Both these positions are wrong. Good writers should form the capacity to writing in an interesting and lively manner about writing, and they can do so as long as they keep in mind, first, their own orientation to the making of a new good work and, second, the irreducibly social nature of literature which is represented by the intelligent lay reader who will welcome something new as long as it is good.
There’s much to be said of the contemporary academy and almost all of it negative. One consolation I sometimes take is that many of the most arcane and intellectually irrelevant movements in modern criticism simply find no place in the undergraduate classroom. It’s not that the professor wouldn’t go on and on about “Renaissance self-fashioning” or the “panopticon,” or the “subaltern,” if the opportunity were afforded; but, often enough, it’s task enough just to help students see how pretty are the last two paragraphs of The Great Gatsby. There simply isn’t time to do anything else. But this consolation only goes so far. As years have passed, fewer contemporary scholars of any kind seem to have even a residual sense of the beauty of things. Literature is already a dead thing to them. How far this extends I don’t really know. I think a lot of professors who teach literature from a stridently ideological perspective really do admire the works they teach, but they have a guilty conscience, and so they try to convince themselves that the beauty they can’t help but admire is justified because it has something to do with “justice.” And of course it does have something to do with justice, even if not in the way they think it does.
As I said a minute ago, I think literary criticism in the traditional sense of the term has played, continues to play, and ought to play a role in the life of every writer and of every reader. The challenge is to avoid two kinds of perversion. First, there is the perversion of pedantry, where what is studied or discussed could find no possible place in the normal, essential human activity of understanding reality and making our souls adequate to truth and to God himself. But, second, there is the perversion of ideology, where the scholar’s concern is neither with the good of the work studied nor the human good of knowing the truth and being transformed — saved and set free — by it. In that case, the work itself gets pillaged, plundered, and raped in the name of some political agenda that brooks no competition: all must be subordinated to its politically transformative aim.
The great poet, philosopher, and biologist Goethe spent a great deal of time contemplating what Wordsworth later expressed as “we murder to dissect.” Goethe believed human beings should study the natural world — be believed in biology. Study was essential. But there’s a kind of study that reduces living things to a corpse so that they may be the better dismembered and analyzed, and then there is the study that by the power of imagination seeks to seek things in their fullness — and not just the fullness of this or that moment, but in the whole drama of their existence. For Goethe, to use the imagination to imagine a spinner seed growing up to a maple tree and, in reverse order, to trace backward from the full-grown maple to the sapling and the seed — for him, this was a contemplative and imaginative act by way of which we entered into the divine mystery of nature and became better, richer, more thoughtful human beings. When we reject pedantry and ideology, we do not reject thoughtfulness. In fact, we save thoughtfulness from its abuses.
Could you say a little more about the Catholic intellectual and literary tradition? What makes a novel “Catholic”? And what kind of distinct writing would you expect successful graduates of your program — Catholic or non-Catholic — to produce? 
The fine arts force us to realize something that other kinds of doing and knowing don’t. There really is a one, best way to make a bicycle. Bicycle-making is a convergent problem, to use E.F. Schumacher’s term. Philosophy and Theology are in a certain sense convergent, too. There is one truth to which both disciplines give us a certain insight. There will be better and worse answers to the kinds of questions we ask in those fields, and some of the time there will even be a final answer that requires no further elaboration. But we have known that answer to many fundamental questions for millennia. Aquinas’s demonstration that human happiness is the contemplation of God admits no persuasive rivals (except of course the wholesale denial of there being such a thing as human happiness). But even when we know a truth of philosophy and theology it may be elaborated, nuanced, explored, and most certainly it may — and needs to be — represented to help us view it with fresh eyes. How much more is it the case, then, with the arts? We want a perfect novel, a perfect poem, but the perfect form of any of these will never be the last or final poem or novel. And, in fact, when we encounter a perfect work it will lead us to want other, different works to deepen, complement, refresh, or maybe merely ruffle our experience of the perfect. This is a long way of saying that one thing to be avoided is any pat definition of the Catholic tradition.
But we can certainly say a few things. First, and most generally, the Catholic tradition jams open the gates of reality; it insists that whatever you see with the eye of your body is only the tip of the iceberg of the world, and the world is the tip of the iceberg of the cosmos, and the cosmos is not even the tip of the iceberg of the Kingdom of God — much less God himself. Everyone who sees the secular not as “objective” and “neutral” but as provincial, narrow, and flat will recognize the value of our program — and will be welcome to participate in it too. I know a lot of Baptists who love O’Connor and Percy and Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, or Tolkien or Andre Dubus, or Elizabeth Jennings and Czeslaw Milosz. These are our patron saints, and the patron saints of those Baptists, too, so I know such people will feel at home with us.
What we are first trying to do is create a place where art with vision can take place: vision for the invisible and the way God hides in the shadows, but also people with a vision for the visibly supernatural, the way the whole world is filled with the grandeur of God. If not everyone has that vision, many do, and many who have that vision struggle to find a way to give it expression in good art. Our first task is to expand the canons of good art until they become adequate to the fullness of reality, including heavenly glory and the depths of sin.
Many people, including myself, talk about a specifically Catholic imagination, but that’s a broader and in fact a distinct category from the literary imagination. The Catholic imagination refers to what Coleridge meant by the “primary imagination,” that is, a way of seeing the world. The literary imagination refers to what Coleridge calls the “secondary imagination.” That is, it refers to the imagination we employ in the making of a work of art, to represent some part of the world. The weakness of our day is that the only aspect of the primary imagination, including of the Catholic, that the literary imagination manages to represent with any success are the things of doubt and suffering. All of that is important, very important, but it is not the whole of reality. So, we really want to create the conditions within our program where doubt and suffering and sin are well expressed, as it were, but so also is glory, the joy of holiness, and the humility and beauty of devotion. All these things can and need to belong to good literature. Present conventions make it easier for the darker side of things to find representation, and understandably so (suffering is a perennial theme of art). Our chief aim is to see that literature comes to represent ever more fully and in ever better, or at least new, ways the heights and the depths of reality.
Much contemporary literature flattens things out and pretends that there’s simply nothing to reality that needs the interpretation and manifestation of the arts. Dissatisfied with silence, artists then go hunting for new causes in the flattened, secular terrain of things, and so make justice an aesthetic principle to give themselves some sense of purpose, or at least something to talk about. We wish to restore the vertical dimension and with good reason. Even from the merely practical viewpoint of the artist, the vertical dimension of reality has always been the sole justification of the arts. For, the arts propose that being thoughtful, reflecting on a re-presentation of reality, is something worth doing. It’s only worth doing if there’s more to reality than surface.
One often hears about the Catholic imagination as distinguished from the Protestant imagination, and that is a valuable distinction to make about which I’ve written pretty extensively. But Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic whose “Wise Blood” is in some ways a pretty exact portrait of Southern Evangelicalism. This is why we have to distinguish between the “primary” and “secondary” imaginations. Authors do not, or do not always, tell things straight. They don’t necessarily write about themselves or the world as they see it. The imagination is farther flung, more various, more exploratory, and also more curious a thing than that. In our present moment, the important thing is to recover culture and imagination from the anti-culture that has no place for imagination. We need, again, to recover spiritual and intellectual debt and also a sense that craft and form, doing a good job in the making of a work of art, is worth doing for its own sake and also because it is a way of discovering the order and drama of the world, of seeing the splendor of truth and changing one’s life in response.
In what ways will the Catholic tradition find expression in the program, exactly?
Well, to begin with, we’ll look back to the Catholic intellectual and literary revival of the last century in order to draw inspiration, but also to figure out what worked and didn’t work in such works and at such a time. Paul Claudel and Sigrid Undset have a lot to teach us. But we also will steep students in the longer tradition. Everyone will know Virgil, Augustine, Plato, Pseudo-Dionysius, Dante, Aquinas, Manzoni, Ratzinger, and others by the time they finish the program. They’ll be reading Charles Baxter and Marilynne Robinson, and Yvor Winters and Wallace Stevens, too, to name but a few of those who can’t really be said to stand somewhere in the Catholic literary tradition but who have offered great insights or representative works that every Catholic, that every serious artist, ought to learn. They will have read these great poems and stories and memoirs. They will also have a firm knowledge in the philosophy of art and beauty that the Catholic tradition and its antecedents give to us. You hear the word “literary theory” tossed around as a slur, and with good reason, because what passes under that label is often atrocious, unintelligible, vicious when it can be understood, and dull almost always. But accounting for how art works, and what it means for beauty to be a reality, a property of being as such, is something an artist benefits from knowing. It helps right the ship and orient it on a true course.
Finally, who is your ideal student? Not every believing Catholic, or Christian, who wants to write has the talent for it, and not everyone with the writing gift would benefit from the University of St. Thomas program. So, who is this for? 
We have a broad range of students in mind. We are primarily an online program specifically so that those who are otherwise engaged in family and professional life can carve out time and discipline for their writing. We hope that by founding this program, we’ll be making it possible for a great number of people with interest and talent but a shortage of time to fulfill their literary ambitions. But Joshua and I are pretty unusual characters in the contemporary academy and literary world. We think life in the Church is as good as it gets and the one path to sanctity. A great number of people, especially younger people, who are in a position to up and move for graduate school would do so if they could only find the right program. But, well, they can’t. We want to be the one program to which such people apply. They will know who they are; they’ll simply look at the curriculum we’ve designed and recognize immediately that we’re what they were looking for but had despaired of finding. We are working hard to make that possible for them, not just in terms of time but cost as well.
When I first met the poet Dana Gioia, almost two decades ago, we were talking about the poetry I was trying to write and at the end of the conversation, he said, “You shouldn’t be doing this alone.” He connected me with a writers’ conference and many good things followed from there. Many writers, as I said before, are trying to do their work alone. But literature is a social reality. It involves communication and communion. And so, most writers would benefit from our program simply because they’ll have a chance to talk shop with fellow apprentices to the craft. They’ll also get to learn from people like Dana Gioia, Abigail Rine Favale, Catharine Savage Brosman, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and other writers and scholars who are making significant contributions to contemporary letters. For some people, such contacts don’t matter. For most of us — even solitary people like me — they are vital and enriching.
I had a very good writers group in my own early years. In fact, of a group of five, all went on to have some kind of career as writers. We had two convictions: craft mattered and stories could change your life. We didn’t agree on much else and we didn’t agree on why encounters with beauty do what they do and are as important as they are. But we didn’t have to agree on everything to enter into communion on these important points. It was hard for me to find those fellows, years ago, and I bet it is harder now. Cultural decline has consequences, including the isolation of those people who don’t see the downward slope, grab a sled, and take the plunge. But amid the slough of despond, we also have a very vital intellectual and artistic culture here and there, in pockets. For those people we have started this program, and are praying they find us and join us.
Thanks, James, and good luck with the program launch.
Readers, if you are interested in finding out more information about the University of St. Thomas MFA program in Creative Writing, visit the website. 


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