presenting Poets, Poetry, and more…
A Conversation About Places And Times
with Arthur Turfa
Which experiences from your childhood and youth shaped you particularly into a person you are now?
I am a second-generation American of Hungarian, German, and Belgian ancestry who grew up outside of a mill town in the Monongahela Valley, south of Pittsburgh, PA. I remember hearing foreign languages and accented English everywhere. On our vacations we traveled to interesting places. During my high school years, my father was unemployed twice because of the steel industry’s decline, and we had to move. I found woods near Philadelphia, too, but the time I spent there felt like my own immigration. And I had to learn about myself, first in high school, then at Penn State University. By then I was writing poetry—and did so, albeit with less frequency, until I went to my first Lutheran parish in Virginia. Although I have traveled far and wide, I am never far from the Monongahela Valley. The woods, hills, rivers and “cricks” have given me an appreciation for nature.
Which books did you read in your youth? Any favorites?
As a child, I read biographies of famous people in a children’s series, and the We Were There series describing a young brother and sister in the middle of historical action. Another favorite book of mine was John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Since high school I have admired W.H. Auden. His use of simple language to express complex thoughts has always impressed me. In various styles, he wrote about his times. His religious views permeate his works, but they are not too obvious. He was grounded in the classics but still lived in today. The Shield of Achilles is a stunning example of that. Other poets whom I read were Eliot, Yeats, Rilke, Goethe—the latter two in the original German. I could also read Baudelaire and Rimbaud in the original, though with lesser ease. Along the way I found other favorites.
Please describe your experiences with writing, from youthful attempts to the publication of Places and Times in 2015.
In high school I discovered poetry—first through lyrics, which I tried to write. Then I read all sorts of authors and started writing satiric verse, though eventually I found it easier to write reflective, nature-based poems. During 2004-05 I was on military deployment in Germany, where I finished my research. My dissertation was about historical and religious issues from the late Renaissance to the Early Modern era. Prepared under the auspices of Drew University, it was published in Germany. By 2007 I switched gears from scholarly writing back to poetry. As for my styles, they vary. Sometimes I rhyme, sometimes I do not. I have written sonnets, sonnet cycles, multiple-piece works, and shorter ones also. I try not to be beholden too much to style, but I do have strong preferences.
How do your professions of an educator, pastor, and writer influence one another?
Any two overlap, but not all three. Pastors always have to be ready, and in the military there is less time. Sometimes you have only a few minutes or hours to prepare for something. What carries over to my writing is that I make good use of short periods of time. Not that everything is a gem; but what I write is usually reworked rather than thrown away. Liturgical worship has a sense of drama, and the liturgy itself has poetry. Lutheran tradition has a wonderful collection of hymns, some of them are excellent poems. Being licensed in the Episcopal Church, I have come to love the Book of Common Prayer. Pastoral visitation can be the source for poetry; Hopkins knew this. Theology is trickier but it too can be turned into poetry.
I have taught a lot in parish ministry. In education I often use pastoral skills to see what is going on in a given situation, and try to help the student or colleague. Also teaching language spurs my creativity. Having been bi-vocational for decades, many experiences from my careers find their way into poems.
Any particular themes that recur in your writing?
I constantly explore the places and people who have helped me evolve into the person I am now. At this time in my life I reflect back on those who were important to me—especially as they pass away; and on the extraordinary good fortune I have enjoyed. Perhaps poetry is a way not only of giving thanks, but also of making good use of what I have.
Nature—especially woods—have always been for me places of beauty, exploration, adventure, and reflection. I enjoy being with a group, or being alone. There I can imagine all sorts of things, reflect, and simply be awash in the beauty. Oddly enough, I never went camping until I joined the Army. A beautiful landscape, face, or moment will also find a way into poetry.
Some people wonder why I am not a “Christian writer”. Over the years I have delivered hundreds of sermons, and written dozens of columns or articles for newsletters. I regard myself as a Christian, more specifically Lutheran writer, who is at home with Anglicanism. Religious themes permeate my writing, but it is neither blatantly obvious nor confrontational. Occasionally I seem to surprise people—in a good way—with what I write. That pleases me very much.
I am also interested in foreign language acquisition. For recreation, I love to travel, work out, read, and relax.
How did your travels shape you as a person and writer?
Most of my travels have been for pleasure or study, some for military reasons. This way I learn new cultures or deepen my appreciation for a culture. I meet new people, make friends, and this broadens my perspectives. Especially Germany has become my second home. That experience was much more than reading Goethe or Rilke. It imbued me with a culture, or I should say cultures, since there is a wide variety there. Not everyone has been blessed to travel as I have—seven times to Europe, once to Asia, once to Mexico, several times to Canada, and as many as 41 States. Hopefully others can travel vicariously through my writings.
Please talk about your book Places and Times.
The book contains my reflections on where I lived and how that prepared me to become the person I am today. There are things I could experience only in certain places. I also look back at the careers I have had and am grateful for the results.
The original title was Places and Times, Reflected. Somewhere along the line it was shortened, and I did not argue. As for the book’s cover, it features a painting by the amazing and talented artist Carol Worthington-Levy, who’s been a dear friend since the 8th grade. She and her husband went to Italy, and gave us a print from Assisi, which inspired me to write poetry after about 20 years of inactivity in this field. My wife Pam suggested I use something by Carol for the cover, and there it was!
What are your writing plans for the near future?
Right now I have a second poetry manuscript, which I intend to market soon. I am in the process of submitting it and entering contests. Between that and the first book, I have to limit my on-line presence—I am a moderator at three Google+ communities. Also, I am working on a Young Adult novel about my childhood. Names changed, to protect everyone! I am reaching out to local and regional bookstores, and continue giving readings and doing signings wherever I can.
I also enjoy mentoring other poets and writers, largely because others have taken time with me. I intend to pass it on as long and far as I can.
Any words of wisdom for other writers?
To writers of any age: read, experiment, and write. Live life to the fullest, using your talents, and you will have more to write about than you can ever imagine! And avoid self-publishing! Nowadays anyone can publish, but the downside is that cheapens the concept of publishing. Nothing compares with someone else thinking that your material is good enough for publication.
Writing and marketing my book has been a wonderful experience. I have met many talented and nice people.
Where can the readers find more information about you and your writing?
May 22, 2016
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