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Poetry helps seminary professor ‘stay awake in the gospel’ (UM News)

April 28, 2023

In many parts of the U.S., April is when spring reaches its full expression, offering an abundance of blossoming trees and flowers. April also underscores the beauty of the written word, being National Poetry Month.

Within The United Methodist Church are many poetry lovers and more than a few published poets.

One of the latter is the Rev. Harold “Hal” J. Recinos, professor of church and society at Perkins School of Theology, part of Southern Methodist University.

Recinos is a Renaissance man — a clergyman, scholar, activist and martial arts expert who has published 17 volumes of poetry, often drawing on his experiences growing up in a New York City barrio.

For a National Poetry Month feature, Recinos answered by email questions posed by UM News’ Vernon Jordan and Sam Hodges. The interview concludes with a Recinos poem, “The Veil,” that Jordan chose from several shared by the Hispanic Theological Initiative’s Open Plaza online platform.

What got you started reading poetry? 

I had a sixth-grade teacher who assumed the importance of teaching from multiple historical perspectives. She worked with largely Puerto Rican students to deepen both her and our understanding of the complexity of culture histories and knowledges operating in the school and the wider society. I was exposed to authors like Richard Wright, Piri Thomas, William Carlos Williams, Claude McKay, Jack Agüeros, W. H. Auden and Gabriela Mistral. As a 12-year-old growing up in the South Bronx, I was especially moved by two poets. One was Williams, a pediatrician and friend of Ezra Pound. 

Although Williams wrote in English, his first language was Spanish, and he had a plural cultural background. His mother was of French extraction and born in Puerto Rico; his father was born in England and raised in the Dominican Republic. I discovered Williams along with another well-traveled poet who has influenced me a great deal: Langston Hughes. I fell in love with poetry reading Hughes’ “Let America be America Again,” originally published in Esquire Magazine in 1936. The poem spoke to me about the American dream that my Guatemalan father and Puerto Rican mother would never know and the freedom and equality that evaded them. 

If you had to summarize the thrust of your poetry — what it usually addresses in subject matter, and the effect you hope to have on readers — what would you say?

I write to find the right words that will help me understand the barrio that gave me life. My work takes up the themes of dispossession, faith, border crossing and the longing for justice, progress and inclusion. I use poetry to describe the experiences of the poor, the working class, rejected Black and Brown humanity, refugees and undocumented human being — to give a face to the cultural, political and historical hills they climb. I examine defective systems of culture, politics, religion and social relationship with poetic discourse reflecting the predicament of people whose voices carry little social power. I would say my work aims to embody the poetic imagination described by Walt Whitman, in the preface to “Leaves of Grass,” who wrote, “The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.”

Poetry is, for me, a knot in the throat that rearranges my thoughts about reality into expressions of truths about marginality and the longing for the fullness of life. Poetry is a way to keep it real or, as William Carlos Williams put it, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet [people] die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

What are your poetry-writing habits?

Typically, I write early in the morning or late into the night in my study on a desk I rescued from the trash heap on the Lower East Side of Manhattan while a seminary student. Feelings begin to stir in me each day and I find it necessary to write poetry to say something about hope, to disclose the invisible and, in the deepest sense of apprehending scripture, to stay awake in the Gospel. 

Does your love of poetry inform your reading of the Bible?

As a poet, I am moved by the confession that in the beginning was the Word, but even more importantly that the Word became flesh in the stench of a stable. I would like to think that I arrange words in poems for the sake of a faith that finds the poetic voice of God in the Bible and in ordinary places in the world. For me, poetry is like scripture reading — a way to understand the interdependency of embodied human existence by providing space for a deepening of awareness about the human condition.

Do you use poetry in teaching seminary students?

I use poetry to teach theology in the classroom and to invite students to think about their lives in society. I use poetry to drive home the theological message that religious understanding should help us imagine new possibilities for human relationship not based on narrow perceptions of belonging. Students read Bible stories, poems and theological works to learn that it is vital to develop a spirituality that is inclusive, engaged and open to a life of solidarity with others in the world.

What advice would you give to a young person beginning to write poetry?

Poetry lives in us and my advice to young poets is to leap into words that will let you give expression to the joys and suffering of your culture. You may not finally offer a solution to the problems faced in society, but your description of the ground beneath your feet will heighten understanding in others and allow us to find a new path to lost Eden. 


The Veil

the veil was ripped

from east to west,

north to south, by

shouts and screams,

the cops and secret

service, in desolate

hearts and the loath

to be silent. the veil

was torn from top to

bottom before the

arrival of Christ on

Good Friday, ragged

by the white need to

beat, stomp, and choke

the life out of Black

and Brown America

like it has for years

in Puerto Rico, El

Salvador, Honduras,

Guatemala, Central

America and Africa. the veil was

torn today by press

clips, next week by

the decent people who

never talk back, for many

more years to come by

the poverty, hate, racism,

violence, toxic politicians

and brand name church

that never could see

Christ’s disfigured hands

multiplying five loaves

and two fish.

— Harold J. Recinos