|Digital Watercolor - 2008
with Erik Richardson
Eve Anthony Hanninen,
artist, poet, writer and editor
of The Centrifugal Eye
discusses the mysteries in mysticism with
poet, writer, teacher, mathematician;
he's one with both eyes looking to glimpse the bigger picture.
The Illusion, Mysticism and Fortune Issue
EAH: When asked what issues you like to talk about, the first thing you said was, “The
Big Picture.” How do your observances of The Big Picture affect the way you write?
I think my tendency to approach writing philosophically is both the thing that helps me most, because it creates a strong
motivating pull, and the thing that hinders me most, because it makes it so hard to stay rooted in concrete detail.
EAH: Some people consider the ability to stand back and observe the overall akin to being omniscient — certainly
many would call it visionary. What would you call it?
ER: For me, the attempt to see
the big picture is shaped by my background in philosophy (which includes a B. A. and an M. A.) and by my solidly Catholic
faith. I think as humans we don’t ever actually see the whole picture, so we never really get anywhere near omniscient.
However, I think trying to see the whole picture is at the heart of what makes us human.
perhaps it’s also what helps us to interpret the universal experiences of being human. Or to identify predictable human
behaviors. In your estimation, is this informed insight, or foreknowledge?
ER: I think one of
the most amazing things that trying to see the big picture does for us is to constantly show us that there are always surprises
and always new pieces that don’t fit into our previous ideas. That can give rise to frustration, but even more importantly
it gives rise to a sense of wonder, and if anything can help to create the kind of mindful engagement that pushes us toward
a more mystical view of the world, wonder can. At that point where we start to open our minds a little more, I think there
is a kind of intuition of how some patterns take shape.
EAH: Do you believe in precognition?
ER: I’m not sure if I believe in it, but I don't disbelieve it either. I try to keep an open mind, and
have a limited boundary around what we can / should pretend we're “certain” about, personally and, more so, humanity
in general. I think we — as a whole — tend to jump to certainty about a lot of things a lot sooner than we are
justified in doing. The history of science is, in a way, a chronicle of just such overeagerness. This stretches from the ancient
period when world-class scientists were certain that the world was flat, to the middle ages when many prominent scientists
were certain — against Galileo — that the earth was the center of the universe, and into current research, where
scientists are “certain” that the miracles of the Bible have to somehow be explicable in terms of empirical science.
EAH: Allowing a bit of uncertainty to have a place in your life might leave you open to new possibilities of seeing
and understanding, I would think; it’s the idealistic support behind most things considered mystical. How has mysticism
played a part in your life?
ER: A lot of my perspective in this regard has been influenced by
my study of mysticism both Catholic and Eastern. Having studied Eastern philosophy during my undergrad and into my master's
program, I have a pretty strong sense that there is a lot more going on beneath the surface of our everyday world than we
In fact, a lot of my Catholicism is rooted in exactly that sense that you can have things that
change (like the bread and wine during Communion) without seeing it, or that are interconnected even though they seem separate
on the surface (like the community of believers). Think of Gothic cathedrals, where you see an entire vision of the world
as a dream-like state with angels and demons caught in stone like a giant 3-D Polaroid®. The ancient and
medieval thinkers — especially the saints and mystics — were able to look past the surface and see these things.
It's just that a lot of people have forgotten how to look at the world around them fully, so they miss clues that there is
more going on than meets the eye.
I think you will find it very telling that I just launched a print poetry journal
for young people called Signs and Wonders, which focuses on that sense of a divine presence just below the surface
of the everyday world — a sense expressed by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that "the world is charged with the
grandeur of God."
EAH: What was your impetus for creating Signs and Wonders?
One of the most beautiful things about being a teacher is seeing that, like the saints and mystics, children still have their
minds open to the kinds of knowledge that grown-ups dismiss as (mere) imagination. Seeing those glimpses come through in their
writing over the years has made me realize that they are some of the most qualified poets among us. That realization gave
rise to a summer workshop for kids on the basic elements of writing poetry. I got such great feedback that the energy sparked
the idea I had of turning the whole thing into an ongoing project that would give kids a chance to publish their own work
and to read the work of other kids like them. Hopefully, a few adults will read it too, and reopen some of the closed-off
rooms in the mansions of their minds.
EAH: You teach math and computing, don’t you? How does that relate
ER: That’s a great question, because I think a lot of people see logical things
like math and computing as living on the opposite side of our mental landscape from things like art and poetry. Oddly enough,
though, there is a tremendous amount of creativity and imagination that goes into mathematical thinking. Not only that, but
— like a lot of the best poetry — math is trying to capture a lot of amazing nature-of-the-universe kinds of ideas
and squeeze them into elegant, condensed expressions.
As it also happens, my poetry is often inhabited by mathematical
ideas, which blurs the supposed line between the disciplines even more.
EAH: Nice analogy between succinct,
poetic reflections and “elegant,” mathematical solutions. I’m curious to ask, then (exempting traditional
poetic forms), do numerical patterns ever influence the crafting of your poems?
it does a little in the number of lines, but not much beyond that. I think noticing the meters and feet and so on is more
of a left-brain exercise, and I try to focus on keeping the reader in the ideas in the poem itself where left-brain and right-brain
elements are mixed together.
EAH: Formal poets will likely argue against meters and feet being experienced
solely as left-brain stimulation, as it’s meant to mimic music — especially meter with variations. But I follow
your thinking in regards to the pursuit of writing free verse.
ER: I guess maybe if the musical
aspect of poetry had moved me more, I might have a different sense of it. To me it starts to overlap with writing song lyrics,
and while some of those can be very poetical, overall it seems too limiting.
EAH: Speaking of music, I think
there’s a correlation between math, music, art and writing, considering how creative process and imagination are required
amongst these disciplines. In a previous conversation, you mentioned science as one of your favorite topics. Music doesn’t
seem to inspire your writing craft — does science? For example, SF&F (science fiction and fantasy) seem to epitomize
the creative intermarriage of mystery and science with art — do you read or write fantasy?
Read fantasy? Since almost before I could walk. The dragons and elves never got me as much as the mythology element, though.
For me, the most captivating part was always the element of the story where the characters were trying to make sense out of
their world. Odysseus (talk about a fantastical story!) . . . Sigurd . . . I read some science fiction too, but the perspective
is much the same — I’m always much more interested in the big picture that is created than in the technical detail
or the character lines.
EAH: Right back to the big picture! Ok, so let’s look at the overall appeal of
mythology, fantasy, science fiction and religious mysticism for you, versus, oh . . . arcane metaphysics and supernatural
occurrences, let’s say — would you say you’re a believer in all things mystic?
I do believe in mysticism, but not in all of its varieties. In the same way that I mentioned I avoid drawing too small of
a boundary around “knowledge,” the way science tends to do, I also avoid drawing such a large boundary around
knowledge that it lets in too much. I have a rigorous standard for the kind of mystical stuff in which I'm willing to engage.
An easy dividing line would be to look at the kind of materials and writing that might be covered in a class at the state
university. Zen Buddhism? Yes. St. John of the Cross? Yes. Talking to crystals? No. Mind-body healing? Yes. Channeling aliens?
EAH: Fair enough. There are many realms of mystery, and how any of us choose to interact with and
interpret such phenomena is part of the popular draw towards mysticism, I suspect.
How about favorite poets, then?
Any of them you might consider the least bit mystical?
ER: Gerard Manley Hopkins, mentioned earlier,
some of G. K. Chesterton’s work . . . probably the most influential for me would be Pope, Yeats, and Seamus Heaney.
Heaney, in particular, does an amazing job of making the everyday point beyond itself.
EAH: Agreed; Heaney
Changing the subject somewhat, you’ve recently had a “not-so-everyday” event: you were a runner-up
for the Gahagan Prize in poetry — how did that feel?
ER: I had a chance to read a couple
of my pieces at a big, Irish cultural festival in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It wasn't a huge audience at the poetry tent, mind
you, but I got really good responses from some of the more seasoned poets in the audience, and the judging had been done by
some prominent faculty out of UW-Milwaukee (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), so it was pretty cool for me.
Any other writing goals forecasted for next year?
ER: I’ll be looking to have a collection
of my poetry published by summer or fall of 2009. Aside from that, my biggest ambition at the moment is to try to get the
current Wisconsin poet laureate to come down to the Catholic school where I teach to give a talk during our celebration of
poetry month in the spring. (Wish me luck!)