Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week writer and teacher Odessa Charon has joined us to discuss the work of Brian Doyle, fateful encounters, and the divinity that surrounds us in our everyday lives. Thank you for reading and, as always, we hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: What was your first experience with Doyle’s work?
Odessa Charon: There was a Literature professor I had, when I went to college in the eerie lowland expanse of Ohio. This professor was a mentor and confidant. At the time, I was struggling with my mental health, oscillating between severe depressive and manic episodes. I had begun processing a CPTSD diagnosis, while still living in a dorm room where I experienced a deep trauma. I felt Godly entities had deserted me. My brain was a consistent threat to my existence. Art and spirituality no longer fed me. Life did not inspire.
One afternoon, forbidden spliff already between my lips as we wrapped up a class session, this professor-guide called me into her office before I could rush out the door to get stoned. Without words, this professor pushed a photocopy of Brian Doyle’s prose poem, “A Sin” across her cherrywood desk. Intuitively, she knew it was exactly what I needed, in the midst of tumult.
Never before had I read a piece which so defiantly shirked conventions of formatting. “A Sin” echoed my own writing style and mental health at the time; swirling, hypomanic thought processes, free of punctuation unless absolutely necessary. Yet Doyle grounded his works in what is true and unchanging. While brain chemistries and emotions are fleeting, Brian Doyle wrote words rooted in the grace(ful/less-ness) experience of humanness. In both his writing style and the Divine love, hope, anger, and confusion he spoke to, I felt held and inspired.
AH: In our correspondence, you mentioned a life changing experience with Doyle. How has he inspired your work?
OC: Around the time of being gifted “A Sin,” I was introduced to Martin Heidegger’s theory of thrownness; the feeling of having-been-thrown into the world. After a particularly transformative psychedelic experience, I became acutely aware of my own place on this Earth. Shattering like tectonic plates, a stagnant piece of me shifted. Meditations within this dark night of the soul forced the realization that I was living in a pattern of dissociation. While my internal world was going through a death-life cycle, I understood I would never reach the “life” stage, unless I left Ohio. Portland, Oregon intuitively called to me. I knew no one there, and had never visited.
If you have ever spent an extended period of time in Portland, you may have noticed the extreme “portal” that that place is. Living in that part of the Pacific Northwest grants access to elements of spiritual awakening which are incredibly specific to the land there. Everyone, and I do mean that, I came across while living there was on some kind of pilgrimage towards something larger. Portland breathes in those who are ready for that journey. For me, it was exactly where I needed to be. Coincidentally, Brian Doyle also lived and taught there.
Before I decided to leave my college in Ohio, I decided to tour Portland, just to be sure I wanted to move there. Spiritual knowingness is one thing, but logistics are a whole other. On a whim, sitting in my campus dining hall, I emailed Doyle at his University of Portland address. I asked if we could meet, just to chat about his work. I explained that I was not a reporter, or any kind of professional in the literary word—just a nineteen year old fan, processing a phenomenological awakening. We could get lunch, or coffee. He responded, “I don’t have meetings over food, but you’re welcome to come to my office.”
We sat in his university office for an hour. We reflected together on how a Midwest landscape of seeming nothingness can inform an ecstatic experience (he related it to Jesus in the desert). I processed moving away from my Jewish religious background (“when you’re nineteen, it’s important to discover what you actually believe in”). Between students dropping off essays, Brian Doyle and I processed religion vs. spirituality vs. the mystical (in his words, most organized religions are “smoke and mirrors and performance”). We spoke of how to write, and why (“because you need to”). We laughed, too. Brian Doyle was an insightful, perceptive man, profoundly connected to the Great Unknown, as much as he was a humorist. If it doesn’t bring you joy, he said in some other words, don’t do it.
That meeting inspired me to embrace mystery. My creative work is a chimera and oftentimes, a shapeshifter. If I were to force it into one genre, or one format, I would lose my magic and passion. In a way, he gave me a sort of permission, for sacred embodiment. Before I left Brian Doyle’s office, he gave me one of his own copies of Grace Notes. On the title page, he inscribed in his winding handwriting,
“To my friend Odessa—
With laughter and prayers and my regards on your work—
best wishes for light and for fun in it—
Something to note is that Brian Doyle passed away from a brain tumor, about seven months after we met. I am forever in gratitude for his lessons, his impact, and his presence.
AH: Why did you choose these poems specifically?
OC: I chose the poems/proem, “The best poem ever” (available on the Sundress Patreon); “A song of believing”; and “If we ever got to be what we so want to be” because they represent the mission of Brian Doyle’s work, as well as my own philosophy of living. All three speak to noticing the Divine in everything, everywhere. Life, as crushing as it can be, is also devastatingly beautiful if you open your eyes to it. In “a song of believing”, Doyle writes,
Look, I know all too well that the story of the world is entropy, things fly apart, we sicken, we fail, we grow weary, we divorce, we are hammered and hounded by loss and accidents and tragedies, we slide away into the dark oceans behind the stars.
But I also know that we are carved of immense confusing holiness; that the whole point for us is grace under duress; and that you either take a flying leap at nonsensical illogical unreasonable ideas like marriage and marathons and democracy and divinity, or you huddle behind the brooding wall.
Brian Doyle did not pretend that the inherent transcendency of life was all rainbows and ascension. He did not invalidate that this world is rife with heartbreak, and valid terror. The point is, you feel the fear, and do it anyway. Both hope and loss can be held at the same time. One may be more prevalent than the other at times, but it does not mean the light goes away. Personally, mindful awareness of duality is a lifeboat; it saved me, and continues to do so.
Both “The best poem ever” and “If we ever got to be what we so want to be” are also testaments to that idea. I have spent the last five years as an early childhood educator. This was not a line of work which I ever saw myself entering, but it has been a healing balm for my inner child. Working with children has further enlightened me to the idea that there is magic and mystery all around us, at all times. In “the best poem over,” Doyle and his child consider,
Maybe there are a lot of poems that you can’t write
Down. Couldn’t that be? But they’re still there even
If no one can write them down, right? Poems in
Books are only a little bit of all the poems there are.
Those are only the poems someone found words for.
Poetry, like Divine inspiration, like grace, are always accessible to those who can bring themselves to notice it. A core part of childhood, ideally, is the ability to play. Playing, to me, is a form of connecting with something much more intuitive and special, than the adult world gives credit to. As adults, play is a form of inner child healing. Play can also include writing. If we as grown-ups can embrace a childlike sense of wonder—if we could grasp the fluidity of art, emotion, and Godliness (whatever that means to you)—I believe we would all be much better off.
AH: What have you been up to lately (life, writing, anything)?
OC: Currently, I feel myself arising from a contractive state. I view life as a series of “contractions” and “expansions.” Contraction, like the physical pains of labor; expansion, as in the literal life that comes as a result. I moved to Portland, Maine (I must love port cities) in the autumn, and am still finding my footing here. I have a couple of friends, but no writing community thus far. It is cold as hell and being a teacher in a pandemic is… Yeah.
I love Maine and am grateful to be here. Physically and psycho-spiritually, I am exactly where I need to be. Is it comfortable? God, no. Is it aligned and worth it? Unequivocally, yes.
Soon, I am navigating a total career switch to the publishing industry. It is scary, to do a thing for the very first time. But that fear is so juicy, in a way. It is such a potent time for growth. Creatively, I am in a fallow period of working on my book, Nostos. I write trauma narratives, which tend to spill onto the page when they are good and ready. I trust myself and the process. Fallow periods are preparation. Divine timing never fails.
Brian Doyle was an American writer and educator. Doyle was the editor of Portland Magazine, taught at the University of Oregon, and was the author of several novels, poetry collections, and essays collections. He was the recipient of multiple Pushcart Prizes and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature.
Read some of his work at Orion.
Read about him at LitHub.
Learn more about his books here.
Odessa Charon (they/them) is a writer, teacher, and spiritual intuitive. Primarily through symbology related to Greek myth, they write from their own experiences of recovery from childhood abuse and sexual trauma. In support of them writing their first creative nonfiction book, Nostos, Odessa is a grateful recipient of a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant. Through writing and intuitive work, Odessa is a healing guide for brave souls, journeying to their own underworlds. Odessa Charon resides in Portland, Maine. They live with two witchy cats and the friendly spirits in their apartment. You can follow them on Instagram for thoughts on mental health and spirituality, at @odessaiswriting.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist, writer, and journalist. Her writing has appeared in Barren Magazine, Hobart, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief at both Mud Season Review and Juven Press. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com