Feature Poet:
Wayne-Daniel Berard


Interviewed by Samantha Libby


S-L: Wayne-Daniel, I know you. You have always been a spiritual person; I imagine you came out of the womb spiritual. What was the point for you where spirituality and poetry met each other?

W-D: A dear friend and college classmate, Bill Rizos (who is a poet in this edition) showed me the power of poetry, in John Berryman’s volume, Love  & Fame. I was 19. It’s when I realized I could find spirituality in poetry other than something I was trying to write myself. I had found it in some prayers, I’d found it in some hymns, even though the form was kind of pedantic, but I hadn’t found it in any poetry in any way. Then I started reading other poets: Cummings, Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, the confessional poets of the 60’s and 70’s. I was a philosophy major in those days because I wanted to find truth. And I found more truth in poetry. I ended up having enough credits for a double major, in English and Philosophy, but Stonehill didn’t have a double major. So I stayed with philosophy, but I went on to get my advanced degree in English and Poetics. To me, literature encompassed the whole person, not just the head like philosophy, but the head, the heart, the spleen… (laughs).

S-L: Where did you get your PhD?

W-D: At URI, Kingston.

S-L: And how did you get from Stonehill to there?

W-D: I got married (the first time.) I started as a substitute teacher. Then I moved on; I was working in a special-ed room for a while. I was the aide. But I wanted to go on and teach, so I taught at Ursuline Academy in Dedham, a Catholic middle/high school for women; I was the only male on the faculty for a while. Very interesting! All the girls would come to me with their problems with their boyfriends. They weren’t going to go to the nuns (or to the women teachers who could have been nuns!) But I knew I wanted to go on, I thought college was where I wanted to be, I wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do without a lot of the restrictions that came with teaching in public or private high school. I got my masters at Bridgewater, I was married so I went summers and evenings; I did my MA thesis on the very spiritual, Arthurian poetry of Charles Williams, who was in that CS Lewis circle. And then, if I wanted to teach in college, I needed a PhD, so I went on to URI (I needed to stay close) and got my PhD there in Poetics. Eliot’s Four Quartets was the subject of my dissertation. It’s always been spiritual poetry for me.

I’m an ex-seminarian; you know that. I entered the seminary at 14 years old.

S-L: How did that come about?

W-D: I was a very spiritually-oriented young person, always was. I didn’t find the God I felt in my insides anywhere I was going, but I still tried to keep looking.

You know, I always had this incredible feeling of presence, inside and out, wrapped around me and holding my heart in its hand, and I could hear its voice, and I was always surprised that other people didn’t hear it and didn’t feel it.

I loved sitting in the empty church in the quiet. I wasn’t meditating in those days but loved this even more than Mass and that type of thing. So if you were a spiritually-oriented Catholic boy in those days (at least I thought I was a Catholic boy!), you’d go to seminary. (W-D later found his birth parents and discovered that his mother was Jewish.) And I wanted to do this as soon as I could, I wanted to get out of my neighborhood, I wanted to find people like me – spiritually- oriented people for whom this was a reality, a lived reality. So I went off to follow Saint Francis at 14 years old, to the Catskills in New York State…and didn’t find it.

I didn’t find the God I was seeking. I found a lot of rote practice, a lot of people going through the motions; I found two or three people who were really real about this in seminary life, but very few. You didn’t talk about God. They’d say, “Aw, come on! That’s for the outsiders!” Eventually I kept arguing and pointing out how this wasn’t happening, and they finally told me I should go home and think about my vocation!

So I did.

S-L: That’s good because you weren’t really meant to be a priest! So how would you define spiritual poetry now?

W-D: To me, spiritual poetry is something that links you in to something bigger than yourself, but not necessarily outside yourself. It doesn’t have to be “some God” out there; it could be a bigger reality, the universe within yourself. It’s a kind of connectivity even in the isolation, even when you feel very alone. Look at the psalms; they are beautiful, spiritual poems, and a lot of them are about how abandoned the writer feels. But it’s only because they have this sense of something out there that’s abandoned them!

So I would say spiritual poetry is poetry that can’t seem to dissuade itself of a connection to something bigger, within or without.

S-L: Would you call that connection God?

W-D: I’m very careful about calling that connection God. I think God is one of the names for that connection. I think sometimes you lose it in the naming.

In Jewish life, when I found out I was Jewish and started studying with Rabbi Alan Ullman, I learned the burning bush story and God’s name as Eyeh Asher Eyeh – or “I will be whatever I will be.” God as a verb, God as a process of becoming. I remember sitting in Alan’s living room in Worcester, which is where he originally taught, and going “Powwww! (head exploding noise) This is it! This is what I felt all my life.” This is what all the great mystics of any religion talk about. Including Francis of Assisi. This is it, yes, a process of becoming. And we are a process of becoming too, as God’s image and likeness, so any name or definition that might limit the process, I don’t want to have anything to do with.

S-L: Do you bring spirituality into your teaching?

W-D: I am a spiritual person. I can’t not be. I don’t bring religion into my teaching, unless I’m teaching religion. Spirituality in terms of the process of becoming and enabling the process of becoming, and shucking off the stuff that tells you, “Don’t become, don’t bother, it’s too hard, just float along like a cork on the water…” that’s who I am, that’s what I bring to everything that I do, including my poetry.  It’s why I co-founded Soul-Lit. In a way I think that’s what all my classes are about, no matter what the theme is.

S-L: I feel almost like the classroom is creating an opportunity for those burning bush moments to happen.

W-D: Oh, that’s good! Can I steal that?!