North Dakota Bridge Builder
A priest and poet make connections in North Dakota
By John Schuessler
Open spaces and dark comedy may come to mind at the thought of North Dakota, but what about bridges? Probably not, even with 5,000 of them spread across the state.
The Rev. Jamie Parsley is a North Dakota bridge builder of sorts. As the state’s associate poet laureate, his bridges are made of images, history, words, and relationships rather than hardened steel and concrete.
Fr. Parsley stays busy making connections as priest, teacher, and writer in the state where he grew up. The first of his seven books of poems was published when he was 22. Fr. Parsley received degrees in fine arts and theology and was ordained a priest on 2004. He was an assistant at Gethsemane Cathedral in Fargo until last month, when he became priest in charge of St. Stephen’s Church, Fargo.
He has served as the Bishop of North Dakota’s assistant for communications since 2005, and has taught theology, ethics, philosophy, literature and writing at the University of Mary in Fargo since 2003.
Four years ago, North Dakota’s poet laureate Larry Woiwode designated Fr. Parsley as an associate poet laureate to ensure that the state would continue to be exposed to “the living arts,” Fr. Parsley explained. The position received formal recognition from the governor.
Being a poet laureate in North Dakota “means being a face for poetry in state that people elsewhere might not think about as a state that produces poetry,” Fr. Parsley said. He speaks at schools and gives poetry readings wherever people will have him—at retirement and nursing homes, in churches and parks, and in libraries and hospitals.
One of his roles is to inspire people to reach out beyond the bounds of the state, he said. “I’ve been amazed by how surprised people are to find someone form North Dakota who writes books that people outside of North Dakota are reading,” he says.
He especially enjoys visiting schools. He helps students try their hands at poetry and discover poetry in the lyrics of songs and other writings.
“A lot of farm kids never considered poetry in their lives,” he said. “I hope they come away seeing that there is so much more out there, rather than just dead white men writing in a certain kind of rhyme.”
Fr. Parsley’s latest project, completed this summer, is a book of poems about a 1957 tornado that killed 12 people, including his mother’s cousin and her husband. Fr. Parsley said the story had been “under the surface since I was a boy,” but few people talked about it, much less wrote about it. In writing Fargo, 1957, Fr. Parsley conducted extensive research into the lives of each victim. Some suffered injuries that eventually took their lives. His mother’s cousin was in a coma for 2 ½ years before she died. He learned about the “tragic, sad life” of another person who the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo.
Fr. Parsley considered writing a book of non-fiction, but that more critical, “stand offish” approach wouldn’t allow him to “get into the story in the same way,” he said.
“Poetry deals with the emotions, and certainly mine deals with spirituality in it,” he said. “There is this Scandinavian/Lutheran mentality up here in North Dakota—let go and let God. I wanted to explore that spirituality and do it true justice without making it trivial or trite. Poetry allows you to let people be how they are.”
He continued, “A lot of people don’t like talking about their spiritually. I can’t write poetry without it. Poetry is a way to articulate spiritual depth. Job wrote gorgeous poetry convey the depths of despair he went through.”
Fr. Parsley compared writing a poem to preparing a sermon. “Certainly there is a similarity between the sermon and a poem, in structure and the goal to convey something deeper than straightforward words can do sometimes. The problem is sermons sometimes can’t wait around for inspiration.”
Not surprisingly, he finds beautiful poetry within the liturgy. “Poetry is important even if the congregation might not realize that what they are praying is, in fact, poetry,” he observed. “There is certainly one of the reasons I am so attracted to Anglicanism and The Episcopal Church. I love the liturgy and I love the poetry contained within the liturgy.”
“I love The Book of Common Prayer because it is one of most profoundly spiritual books and poetic books written,” he said. “Of course, why shouldn’t it be? Look at its authors. Most of them were poets. If you open The Book of Common Prayer to the Eucharistic prayers they are, quite simply, poems—beautiful religious poems that wonderfully profess our faith. And of course The Book of Common Prayer is chock full of scripture. And what is more poetic than the Bible?”
“What I like about being an Anglican poet and priest in the tradition of Donne and Herbert and Vaughan and Thomas is that relationship between literature and faith,” Fr. Parsley said. “We have a long tradition of using fine poetry in helping us to worship God. But personally I find that poetry becomes the primary expression of my faith, as it did for Donne and Herbert and Auden. In my poems I am able to struggle, to vent, to rage, to calm myself, to nestle inside my faith. Others might have journals, or might resort to proselytizing to help them process and express their faith. I have poetry. And for me, poetry suits me in just the perfect way to help me make sense of what I believe and what I long for spiritually.”
John Schuessler is Managing Editor of The Living Church.
by Jamie Parsley
Unlike one aunt
who caught the Spirit,
was born again and spoke
in tongues, we couldn’t
praise that way.
Holiness, for us,
was something subdued.
It came up from
within us slowly
and made us
quiet with contentment
rather than shout for joy.
This was the other extreme
to the depths we went into
in those long hot days afterward.
From that despair that made us
bite the insides of our mouths
to the fist-clenching exuberance
we found bubbling up
from within us,
in no articulate way—
it was somehow
going to be all right…
or at least as close to it
(from the unpublished book of poems, Fargo, 1957 in remembrance of a tornado that killed 12 people)