Poet Richard Chess is the Director of The Center for Jewish Studies, Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences, and Chair of the Department of English at the University of North Carolina Asheville. He is also the author of three previous collections of poetry, Tekiah (1994), Chair in the Desert (2000), and Third Temple (2007), all of them available from the University of Tampa Press.
As the official publication date approaches, Rick sat down with Tampa Press Director Richard Mathews to talk about the new book, what he’s been up to, and what 2017 will bring. This is an excerpt of their discussion, but you can read the complete conversation with Richard Chess on Tampa Review Online.
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Mathews: The variety and focus of work in your new collection of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost, is surprising and impressive, even to those of us who have known your work well over the years. Can you talk a little about how it came to be?
Chess: Since publishing Third Temple, I’ve become a regular contributor to “Good Letters,” the blog published by the folks at Image journal. I contribute a thousand-word piece (or a little less) to “Good Letters” about every eighteen days or so. I’ve been writing for them for six years now.
Writing for “Good Letters” has enabled me to discover a new voice and style of writing. It has been one of the most exciting developments for me as a writer at this stage of my life. A good number of the pieces are lyrical prose, more like longish prose poems. Some (but very few) are straightforward narrative, analytical, or argumentative pieces of prose. I’ve also written some about my experiences as an educator, looking in particular at ways I’ve been integrating contemplative practices into my teaching.
I am also very active in two other networks that have some bearing on the directions in which my writing and teaching have moved in recent years. First, I’m involved in a national movement exploring the use of contemplative practices in higher education. The organization is called “The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.” It is the umbrella organization for the “Association for the Contemplative Mind in Higher Education.” I have been on the faculty of ACMHE’s summer seminar in contemplative curriculum development, and I have presented regularly at their annual academic conference. This organization has really become my professional home.
My work with this organization grows out of my own commitment to a personal contemplative practice discipline. I began my daily meditation and related contemplative practices in a Jewish context, participating in two cohorts of the sixteen-month-long Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training Program, a national program. My engagement with contemplative life—in Jewish contexts and academic contexts—has been a transformative experience for me over the last eight years or so—since the publication of Third Temple.
I am a leader on my own campus of an initiative to integrate contemplative practice throughout university life. I’ve also been developing courses that I teach, mostly in the honors program, on topics connected to contemplative practices, including spiritual autobiography and poetry as a spiritual practice.
I have no doubt that my writing has been deeply informed by these new developments in my personal and professional life.
Mathews: So we see all of these strands brought together in Love Nailed to the Doorpost?
Chess: Yes, directly and indirectly. These strands, I think, inform the way I move and think through a number of the poems and pieces of lyrical prose. These experiences have also opened my eyes to certain subjects that I don’t think I would have explored if it had not been for the practices in which I’ve been engaged as an educator, a Jew, and a writer.
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