Not Pinning God Down: An Interview with Katie Manning, author of Hereverent

by Jessica L. Walsh

Katie Manning is quietly doing more in the literary community at any given time than I could possibly do, so obviously I asked her to do more by answering a few questions about her profoundly wonderful book Hereverent, now available. Read on for a recent poem that blows me away.

JW: The titles of the poems in Hereverent, each one based on the book of the Bible from which you drew language, are themselves a subject for so much contemplation. I noticed that “The Book of Baa,” based on Habakkuk, ends with “sheep”—a clever play on an important metaphor that peppers scripture. Proverbs changes to “The Book of Verbs,” suggesting a move from dispensing of wise tidbits towards action, something in keeping with the book’s effort to engage readers who have felt alienated by selective fundamentalism or misreading. Tell me about the process of adapting/creating titles in this collection and how it felt to play with what’s considered sacred language.

KM: Thanks for noticing these connections! The poem titles are all partial anagrams from their source books’ titles. I would most often create a list of potential titles. Sometimes I’d select one right away, and that would help me decide how to craft the rest of the poem. Often I would start with several title possibilities in mind, and I’d narrow down to one while I was crafting the rest of the poem. I always felt like there was a conversation happening between the title and the rest of the text.

As for how it felt to play with the language, the title of the book, Hereverent, is my attempt to capture and announce the tension of feeling like I’m doing something simultaneously heretical and reverent.

JW: God/the Lord endlessly surprises in this collection. At times, the Lord is a gentle, indifferent hermit (“The Book of Am”). At other times, the Lord is a mother (“The Book of Norms”) or a tyrant (“The Book of Jam”), just to name a couple of examples. Throughout, people seem unable to embrace what is holy; in fact, more than once, “they set fire to God” (“The Book of Icons,” “The Book of Bad”). After undertaking the sizeable task of writing Hereverent, how have you changed, if at all, in your understanding of the relationship between God and humanity?

KM: It’s easy for me to say that we need to avoid getting stuck in the same small number of metaphors for God (God as Father, for example), but it’s much harder for me to shake myself out of being stuck in the metaphors that have become ossified from overuse. The Bible does have other overlooked metaphors for God (Lauren Winner has a great book about this called Wearing God), and we can come up with more! I find myself thinking often about John Keats and his concept of negative capability, which is the ability to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I think people become overconfident that they’ve figured God out when they take the metaphors literally, and I’m much more open to sitting with the metaphors and not pinning God down or making God small.

JW: In your Author’s Note, you dedicate the book to anyone who has “had verses from the Bible used in harmful ways toward” them. Expanding on that, what do you hope these readers will take away from Hereverent?

KM: I hope the Author’s Note makes those readers feel seen and cared about, and I hope they’ll take whatever they need or want from the poems. I’ve discovered that these poems are a lot like a Rorschach test. I’m often surprised by how readers experience them and what they see. I was shocked when some early readers found the poems funny, but I loved that. Another dear friend who recently read the book said it felt like Jacob wrestling with the stranger, which is her favorite kind of biblical.

Since I began writing these poems in protest of using the Bible as a weapon, I hope that the book might cause some readers to reflect on how they might’ve used the Bible in harmful ways and to avoid doing that going forward.

JW: What are you working on now? What new projects or creative endeavors are coming your way?

KM: I’m always working on the next issue of Whale Road Review! This summer will be 8 years since I first called for submissions, and I’m still shocked that people send me such amazing work. It’s such a joy to edit this journal.

I’ve also been working on a new poetry project that riffs on Darwin’s work, especially animal observation, as a way to write through some traumatic events (spouse’s cancer, parents’ death, miscarriage, etc.). I have a dark sense of humor, so it’s heavy, but it’s not as entirely bleak as it might sound.

Here’s the first poem I wrote for the new project, which was first published in EcoTheo Review:

On the Origin

I find an old copy of Darwin’s

On the Origin of Species

among my father-in-law’s

Bibles and theology books,

and my own laugh startles me

in the empty house. We never

talked about Darwin that I recall,

but of course this well-read man

wouldn’t have been afraid

of the church’s favorite villain

after Satan and Judas. His faith

was never threatened by thought.

I once thought that to be saved

was to laugh at science—what

a shock to later learn Darwin’s

sin was observing turtles and

pigeons, flying squirrels and bats,

and realizing that all things

change. I know that I can’t keep

everything and that nothing I take

will be enough to fill what’s lost,

but I pick the crumbling book

from the shelf, wrap it in tissue,

and tuck it into my suitcase to save.

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