Feature Poet:
Alexander Levering Kern

Alexander Levering Kern is a poet, educator, interfaith leader, and Quaker chaplain who serves as Executive Director of the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service at Northeastern University in Boston. Editor of the acclaimed anthology, Becoming Fire: Spiritual Writing from Rising Generations, his work appears in publications such as Spiritus, CONSEQUENCE Online, Georgetown Review, About Place Journal, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Friends Journal, Spare Change News,and anthologies from Tiferet Journal, Main Street Rag, Pudding House, Ibbetson Street, and more. He is founding editor of Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality and the Arts (www.pensivejournal.com) and may be reached at a.kern@northeastern.edu

For more on Alex’s work, visit https://www.northeastern.edu/spirituallife/about/.

Soul-Lit co-founder Deborah Leipziger conducted this interview.

Soul-Lit: Who are some of the poets you admire and who have inspired you?

ALK: An excellent question, Deborah. You and your Soul-Lit co-founder Wayne-Daniel Berard are definitely on the list!  

Generally, the poets who inspire me fall into two categories: the many poets I don’t know personally but whose work I love and whose live readings I relish, and the poets who have been my teachers, mentors, and fellow travelers. It’s a long list! 

In the former category I would include Wendell Berry, Lucille Clifton, Robert Cording, Carl Dennis, Brian Doyle, Ross Gay, Joy Harjo, Juan Felipe Herrera, Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Jane Kenyon, Stanley Kunitz, Sydney Lea, Philip Levine, Li-Young Lee, W.S. Merwin, Marilyn Nelson, Betsy Sholl, Gary Snyder, Gerald Stern, William Stafford, Charles Wright, Franz Wright, and Adam Zagajewski.  

Among those poets I’ve heard read or perform their work, I’ve loved Daniel Berrigan, Rita Dove, Regie O’Hare Gibson, Mary Oliver, Alicia Ostriker, and Tracy K. Smith. Among the ancestors, I return often to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; medieval mystical texts and Quaker writers; the spirituals and the blues; Dante, Eliot, Neruda, Pessoa, Dylan Thomas, and Whitman. I also find great spiritual companionship and solace in Basho, Buson, Issa, Li Po, and Tu Fu.  

In the latter category - inspiring poets who’ve been teachers and workshop leaders - I am deeply indebted to Gregory Orr, Martha Collins, Bruce Weigl, Fred Marchant, Martín Espada, Nadia Colburn, Afaa Michael Weaver, Danielle Legros Georges, Mark S. Burrows, and Donna Baier Stein. 

Soul-Lit: This is a brilliant list! Several of these poets are Soul-Lit poets, including Afaa Michael Weaver, our very first feature, and Danielle Legros Georges.  And thank you, for your kind words. We in the Boston community are blessed with a wonderful community of poets: the Bagel Bards, for whom I am grateful as that is how we met as well.  

You recently co-founded a new literary magazine, Pensive. Tell us about Pensive and your vision for it.

ALK: Pensive has been one of the unexpected gifts of COVID-times. When staff and students at Northeastern’s Spiritual Life Center started dreaming of this journal in January 2020, we envisioned an online forum that would celebrate powerful global voices in spirituality and the arts, both established and emerging artists. We hoped Pensive would deepen the inward life of the spirit and express a vast range of religious, spiritual, and humanist experiences. We hoped to embody a shared vision of a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world, to advance meaningful dialogue across differences, and to challenge systems of structural oppression. This is a tall order, for sure, but one that our Northeastern students and global contributors are tackling beautifully.

For me, working with these students and colleagues in COVID-times has been a privilege beyond what words can express. When we all transitioned to remote work in March, we were not certain that Pensive would come to be, yet we carried on, meeting each week, reading thousands of submissions, and growing closer than we ever imagined possible. 

Soul-Lit: Pensive has been a blessing and gift for us all in these dark times. The inaugural issue is terrific: inspiring and illuminating. Thank you to you and the entire team at Northeastern. What does it mean to be “pensive” in this time of crisis?  

ALK: The word “pensive” comes from root words meaning “think, weigh, ponder, consider.” Often it has sad or sorrowful connotations, but to me, “pensive” suggests a mindful, contemplative, compassionate way of being in the world - looking deeply into the suffering all around and within us, and opening to the astonishing beauty and power, Light and Life, that dwells at the heart of things. 

To be pensive is not to be passive in the face of the many crises that confront us - the pandemic, systemic racism, assaults on democracy, climate change…. Instead, pensiveness suggests a careful, prayerful, creative response to life as it is and a thoughtful consideration of how it might be. Our terrific Pensive co-founder Dola Haque captured this spirit when she said at our October launch event, “To be pensive is to be actively engaged in deep thought. That is what we invite you to do [ as readers]... to be critical of the world around you... to question history, authority, and power... to challenge structural oppression in all its forms, now and always.”

Soul-Lit: It’s wonderful to see Pensive poets gathering on the page and virtually to take on systemic challenges. There is such a need for spaces which allow us to share both our vulnerability and courage. What is the role of poetry in the midst of a pandemic?

ALK: Poetry serves many roles, perhaps as many as there are poets and readers. People instinctively turn to poetry in times of crisis. Good poetry is medicine for the soul - sometimes as emergency first aid, sometimes as palliative care.
Poetry invites us into quiet spaces - alone and with others- and into the healing presence of the Holy One within. Likewise, poetry can draw us beyond ourselves to experience the world as if for the first time, or to encounter truths other than our own. Poetry reminds of the enduring things that outlive catastrophe, and unites as people across divides. Lyric poetry, as Gregory Orr says, connects us with the Beloved, ones we have lost and ones close at hand, while narrative poetry can immerse us in stories - ancient and new- of struggle, healing, and liberation, stories that remind us of who we are.  

As the pandemic reveals grotesque racial and economic disparities - and widens fissures in our society- what Carolyn Forché calls “poetry of witness” helps us bear witness to human suffering, and to stand as witnesses for justice, healing, and peace. Whether ancient lyrics or contemporary hip-hop, poetry can be a vehicle for truth telling and holistic healing. It can invite lamentation and create communities of conversation across our solitudes. Poetry can spur creativity and radical reimagining of a post-pandemic world.  Like faith, poetry can provide a moral anchor and help us to make meaning in the face of the absurd. It can incite wonder, awe, even gratitude and joy. It can quicken our conscience, or invite us into healing spaces of silence and stillness, a sacred pause in the midst of our frenzy.

Soul-Lit:  How has the pandemic impacted your own poetry and creative process?
ALK: It’s been a paradox. Like many writers, I’ve found these horrific times to be extraordinarily generative. I feel guilty admitting this, because the space to be creative is a privilege that many of the most vulnerable in our society do not enjoy. In the poetry world, we’ve witnessed an explosion of online readings, workshops, freewriting opportunities, and prompts. While the pandemic has drawn me into new communities, social distancing has created the solitude required for creative work. For me, spiritual poetry is often rooted in particularity and place, and the pandemic has pushed me onto our second-floor front porch overlooking the world of Somerville, and into nearby forests and wild spaces where I do much of my writing and participate in the rhythms of nature and seasons, death and regeneration. 
Soul-Lit: You run the amazing Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service at Northeastern. Through this role, you have led teams of college students to Selma and other places in the South.  How do you see the role of poetry contributing to social justice? To the Black Lives Matter Movement?

ALK: This is an important question, Deborah. Thank you. After three decades of working in antiracism efforts (from the antiapartheid movement to BLM) and nearly two decades as a poet, I’m still very much in learning mode, following the lead of my teachers, elders, and rising generations. From what I’ve learned, I can say that poetry and cultural expression have been crucial in the struggle for Black liberation and in many movements for social change. Like religion, poetry has been a resource for resistance, resilience, and survival - a potent expression of identity in the face of white supremacy. Poetry serves as a mirror and magnifying glass, a compass and prod, as healing balm and bread for the journey, and as a language to speak the unspeakable. 

A poetics of liberation infuses Black preaching and worship, political oratory and music extending from the spirituals and the blues to the present day hip-hop revolution. There’s an extraordinary renaissance of Black poetry underway, as with poetry of witness more broadly. It’s important to note, however, that poetry need not be explicitly political to advance social justice; indeed, any writing that speaks of Life in a culture of death is an act of resistance. 

One final observation: from my experiences in Selma and Ferguson with students in 2015 to the recent marches following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I can sense a “movement poetics” at work. You can hear it in the voices of song and demand and incantatory chant, and in the silent minutes of kneeling for the departed. The very movement of marches is profoundly poetic, relying on a choreography of love and rage, breathing, feet, cadence, symbol, and the sacred power of saying their names.

Soul-Lit: Soul-Lit is dedicated to spiritual poetry. How does your tradition as a Quaker inform your poetry and your vision?

ALK: Good question. May I take a moment of silence before I answer that question? …. Seriously though, the Quaker experience of silent worship is in many ways akin to the process of making a poem. It involves centering down, inward listening, and expectant waiting for words to take shape. Silence is as essential to poetry as it is to life and contemplative prayer. Indeed, for me many poems arise from the silence of simply watching the world. The Spirit that inspires vocal ministry in Quaker meeting is the very same Muse who kindles poetry, or is at least a close relative!  
As radical reformers in Puritan England, early Quakers generally frowned on poetry and the arts. Nevertheless, Quaker writing is infused with biblical poetry, allegorical interpretation, and wonderfully metaphorical language for the indwelling presence of God in each person (called the Light, the Seed, the Inward Teacher or Guide). Like the poetry of witness, Quakerism emphasizes prophetic social action, grounded in the historic Friends testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity, integrity, and community. These are among the many themes that inform my poetry, whether I am conscious of it or not. 

At its root, the Quaker vision is inherited from the poets and prophets of the ancient scriptures: a “peaceable kin-dom” and “beloved community,” a world restored, made whole and well. This is the task of poets in our day, and of all those who glimpse another world arising from the ruins of our own.     

Soul-Lit: Thank you so much...for your work in the world, for your poems, and for your insights. This is what the world needs now: a sense of peace and calm alongside the fire and courage to fight for a more just and inclusive world.