The Afterlife of Moose

Exhaustion of names.

Freedom and truth in language and metaphor …

Two Years Old


Happy birthday, HoW. How does it feel to be two?

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Inspired by faith, Catholic businessman seeks to underwrite beauty in Catholic fiction

(This article first appeared in the August 23 issue of The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse)

The modern Catholic fiction writer has a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, he is expected by his fellow Catholics, at least those unfamiliar with the complexities of modern literature, to write simple moral stories where good wins out over evil, the princess is saved and happily ever after becomes the only acceptable conclusion to a story.

On the other hand, the Catholic fiction writer is also hoping to reach out to the modern non-Catholic and mostly non-Christian reader with the assumption that his story is worth hearing – and yet he must not say too much about the “R word” (religion) lest his readership begin heading in a panic for the exits.

The 20th century southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor puts the dilemma this way in her 1957 essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer:”

“Part of the complexity of the problem for the Catholic fiction writer will be the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and what matters for him is that his faith not become detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what-is. No one in these days, however, would seem more anxious to have it become detached than those Catholics who demand that the writer limit, on the natural level, what he allows himself to see.”

In fact, besides being pressured by secular and Catholic readers to fit into their own notions of what fiction should be, the Catholic writer’s row is made all the tougher to hoe because of the dearth of publishing houses willing to give Catholic writers a chance to show that they can write compelling, well-written and grace-infused stories for the Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

But Boston businessman Peter Mongeau is doing his best to make sure that the Catholic writer does find a voice within the milieu of today’s bestseller lists.

Fed a steady diet of good Catholic fiction throughout his life – including works by O’Connor, Graham Greene, G.K. Chesterton, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh – Mongeau has started Tuscany Press, a startup publishing company which seeks to provide the Catholic fiction writer a platform and the Catholic fiction reader a lodestone for quality storytelling. He’s also announced an annual prize through the press which pays winning fiction manuscripts in cash and publication contracts.

A graduate of Boston University, Mongeau received his master’s in business administration from Boston College. After working in New York City for a time in the investment field, he returned with his wife and four children to Boston.

Boston bookworm

It was in Beantown that Mongeau first got the itch to enter the publishing business.

Before starting Tuscany this past June, Mongeau had already founded Christus Publishing, a Catholic press which specializes in books on traditional Catholic spirituality, with a strong emphasis on Carmelite writers.

As coordinator of his parish’s book club, Mongeau became familiar with Catholic publishing and noticed a demand for books on Catholic spirituality – which led to his starting Christus. Developing plans to expand the number and kinds of Christus’ titles, Mongeau noticed the hunger for quality fiction.

“As I looked into expanding Christus, I kept running into two things,” he said. “First, that people were looking for Catholic fiction along the lines of Flannery O’Connor, Chesterton, Percy, and Graham Greene, the Catholic literary novels of the 50s and 60s,” he said. “Second, there was a dearth of modern-day Catholic fiction.”

Talent and treasure

Consulting publishers, literary agents and writers, Mongeau undertook an analysis of the publishing industry which led him to recognize an underserved market of writers and readers.

“I thought there was a definite need from a reader’s perspective in terms of Catholic fiction and from a writer’s perspective with people writing Catholic fiction but couldn’t get published,” he said. “So that’s how Tuscany Press was born.”

Mongeau also took his cue to start a Catholic fiction publishing house from the writings of Blessed John Paul II. Quoted on Tuscany’s website (, the late pontiff’s 1999 “Letter to Artists” encourages writers to use their talents to promote a culture of life.

“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art,” John Paul II writes. “Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable…. The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force.”

In Tuscany’s light

It was another Christian writer – Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky – who led Mongeau to naming his foundling press after the picturesque region of central Italy.

“Dostoevsky said that ‘Beauty will save the world,’” Mongeau said. “God is beauty and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been has been Tuscany. That’s why I chose the name – it’s where I found beauty. When I was out in Tuscany, it epitomized the beauty we have in art – and the beauty that God provided us in this world.”

While Mongeau is banking on beauty being a bestseller, he also wants to sweeten the deal for writers – by attracting them to Tuscany with a literary prize. With cash awards and publication in the novel, novella and short story categories, the Tuscany Fiction Prize has four criteria, Mongeau said.

“Is it a good story? Is it well written? Does it capture the imagination of the reader? And does it have the presence of God?” he said. “If a book doesn’t have these four things, it’s not going to be good Catholic fiction.”

This last criteria – the presence of God – Mongeau acknowledges, isn’t a matter of making sure God is a character in the novel so much as the writer sees in a fallen world a possibility for redemption. He stresses that the Catholic imagination seeks to bring God to readers “symbolically, subtly and deliberately.”

“The Catholic imagination takes into consideration the whole world as we know it, as we live it, as we believe it,” he said. “God is present in the world and events don’t just happen. There is a God, a living God who is active in the world in which we live.”

The deadline is Sept. 30, he said, and already he’s being inundated with manuscripts in all three categories.

“The prize is there to encourage writers to take up the craft of writing Catholic fiction and stories, to promote Catholic fiction and to recognize the talent when it comes along,” he said.

Rewriting the market

Optimistic about the success of Tuscany Press, Mongeau said the publishing world is vastly different from what it was before the so-called information age dawned.

“The barriers to entry are lower today in publishing than they’ve ever been,” Mongeau said. “Technology has provided the ability to start a publishing company on short dollars. While it’s still significant dollars, it’s not like it was years ago. The industry has changed dramatically in 15 years.”

In those 15 years, Mongeau said, the advent of online distribution through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and the creation of e-book platforms – Kindle, Nook and I-Book – have led to an explosion of independent publishing houses.

“The distribution channel alone has changed dramatically,” he said. “If you’re selling books through Barnes & Noble, Amazon and electronically [through e-books], I’d say you have over 50-60 percent of your distribution channel. Plus you have global worldwide distribution that way also.”

In addition, it goes without saying, Mongeau said, that Tuscany Press is also taking advantage of the social media empires to spread the word about Catholic fiction – including Facebook, Twitter and a blog which Mongeau maintains on Tuscany’s website.

“We have to go out there and prove that Catholic fiction works, and is written well, and there is a market for people to buy Catholic fiction,” Mongeau said. “But we do believe we can do this.”

For more information about Tuscany Press or the Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction, call (781) 424-9321 or contact Peter Mongeau at

The Prophet Speaks

And genuflecting to the shoreline,
Unsheathing meaning in Lushootseed,
He chiefly paints on water: more than
An ancient oak, his lush shoots seed
The acorn’s fire; his tongue is bladed,
An oar that cuts the sound, though faded:
I give these words to future chiefs,
Who know the dead will speak beliefs
Beyond these flames: once more with water
And mud, with feathered fin again,
With web and spider’s tale, let pen
Produce the vessels, let the potter
Rebuild Seattle’s house of words;
Let beards entangle clever birds.


River Ghosts

River Ghosts from 50 Hour Slam on Vimeo.

more here

Not a Cartoon Moose

Not a Cartoon Moose from 50 Hour Slam on Vimeo.

50 Hour Slam encore screening info.

Whispers of the River Ghost

More here

Included among the over one hundred poets represented here are Wendell Berry, Mark Jarman, Jeanne Murray Walker, Dana Gioia, Jonathan Potter, Martha Serpas, Luci Shaw, and Robert Siegel.

The River and the 50 Hour Slam

So there was this make-a-six-minute-film-in-fifty-hours contest thing …

and there were secret ingredients that had to be incorporated into the films …

and one of the secret ingredients assigned to some of the teams was my poem “The River”

and now you get to vote.

(P.S. My favorite is The Birthday, but I’m rather fond of River Ghosts and Not a Cartoon Moose as well.)

Review of House of Words

John Liem

Review of House of Words by Jonathan Potter

Spokane: Korrektiv Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1439258033. 94 pages.

[Reprinted with permission from the 2012 edition of Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature]


“These pages turn / to Ash, with love,” says, in full, the dedication of Jonathan Potter’s debut collection (vii) — a pun with purpose. This tiny sample accurately represents the whole: ardent, eloquent, the work of a poet with an ear for multiple meanings and an eye for an elegant (and often loaded) line-break. House of Words contains, by my count, seventy-one poems, encompassing sonnets, sestinas, and free verse, heights of joy and depths of guilt and the false equilibrium of everydayness, to name only a few of the book’s many modes. But the seven simple, though multivalent, words of its dedication introduce the two linked themes that, singly or together, touch every one of its poems: language and love. A poorer poet might make such common themes look barren and banal. Potter shows instead how perennial they are, by collecting poems that all, somehow or other, deal with a few specific aspects of language or love that concern him especially. And since the poems are all highly personal (in an inviting way, not self-absorbed), and since they were written over many years of the fortysomething poet’s lifetime, the book has a subtle narrative flow. House of Words is not only a poetry collection, but a decades-spanning montage memoir of Potter’s relationships with two beloveds: a woman named Ashley (the “Ash” to whom the book is dedicated) in the here-and-now; and God Himself, always just beyond grasp.

Many poems in House of Words allude to the Bible — sometimes with a wink (“Adam donned a hard hat // while Eve snuck off … / … for repeat / bargain matinee viewings of / the Bergman film in black & white– / that famous chess game with death.” “Death,” 53), sometimes with absolute earnestness (“The willows are our years now numbered nine. / Our love has roots that drink from Cana’s wine.” “The Willows,” 92). The Bible provides the links between Potter’s themes of language and love, and between these themes and Potter’s use of language to express his love for Ashley and for God: If John the Evangelist taught the truth, then God is both Word and Love, Logos and Agape, all-comprehending Intelligence and all-benevolent Will. And if the Book of Genesis is right, God made man in His image: God gave man the task of assigning human words to the creations of the Divine Word; and directed humans to love, in imitation of the Divine Love, by creating the species as male and female. Lofty doctrines, supremely beautiful and ennobling, consoling and satisfying — if true. But the possibility that it is not true has always haunted believers, Potter included. And in recent centuries, certain assumptions of modernity have made Christian doctrines appear, if not less credible, then less comprehensible in the first place. That the world is fallen, Judaism and Christianity have taught for millennia. But lately, the very vocabulary with which they would diagnose the problem and prescribe a treatment has become debased.  Potter sketches his own impression of this predicament in “The End of the Twentieth Century” (45). But two historical figures appear briefly in this collection, indicating the nature of Potter’s project: Søren Kierkegaard and Walker Percy, the 19th-century Protestant philosopher and the 20th-century Catholic novelist he inspired. Both men tried to describe and correct the problems of their times. (Indeed, this book’s publisher, Korrektiv Press, which Potter co-founded, takes its name from a work of Kierkegaard — see One of the epigraphs, from Percy’s The Moviegoer, describes a boy whose “monotonous speech gives him … the same advantage foreigners have: his words are not worn out. It is like a code tapped through a wall” (3). Another, from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, reconciles the belief that “God is love” with seemingly contradictory evidence: “[I]n the temporal world God and I cannot talk together, we have no language in common” (57). Through gentle puns (as in the dedication), Potter points out that our mother tongue is a code, a system of signs — and signs signify things. Potter also frequently alludes to the names God has given us, which we can hope to recover: “[Y]ou’ll find the well,” the poet tells his Godson after the baptism, “and when you get there you’ll dive down / and come back up with the secret prize / the golden egg with your true name inscribed” (“Note to My Godson,” 20). (For a deeper look at the themes of language and love in House of Words, see Joseph O’Brien’s review in the Mary, Queen of Angels 2010 edition of Dappled Things.)

Potter’s poetry is refreshingly clear — which is not to say that it yields up all its meaning and emotion on a first reading. It does not. But its recurring images are accessible, especially (though not exclusively) to a reader familiar with the Bible. To get inside this poet’s thoughts and experiences, we do not need to hunt him through the labyrinth of his imagination. The symbols to which he returns again and again are primal, or practically so, though charged with additional meaning by the Old and New Testaments: house, sky, fire, plant life, the turning of seasons, and — especially — water. This last occurs as a spring and a well, an ocean, and, most dramatically, a river.  In addition to repeating and recombining his main symbols to show off their different facets, Potter has a knack for noticing man-made things. He sees when they exist in or alongside the natural world and treats them indiscriminately, parts of a whole: The sky that the poet hungers to look at — “the blue and the gray of it, the white and the black” — contains “clouds that shroud / the birds and wires and jet airplanes… // … sundogs and moondogs and stars and satellites at night” (“The Sky,” 27). The interaction of natural forces and technology provides some memorable, fresh images for the action of grace: In “November Reverie,” the poet sits in the winter afternoon and wishes “for a word / that might function / like a solar panel, storing up the last of the light / for later use” (81). In “The River,” a deeply personal expression of the same thirst for God that Psalm 42 likens to a hart’s longing for streams, the poet confesses, “I need the power of the river / to flow through my soul, / to turn the turbines of my mind” (28).

God speaks, if at all, in the still small voice of little incidents, and the poet must himself be still to know Him. The poem that provides the collection’s title sets its tone:

Build me a house of words,
A house of how and why,
And I will live in it with you
Under the silent sky,
For we will tell each other
Things we would deny
And believe them by and by. (Untitled, 1)

The word “silent” occurs four more times in that poem’s brief remaining length. There is gentleness and music, but very little noise, in either the sound or the sense of any of the poems here. (Potter is, incidentally, a university librarian!) The stillness sometimes hints of agnosticism. Mostly, though, it refreshes the reader, sensitizing him to subtle epiphanies occasioned by such little things as “a dollar in the pocket / of a winter coat in summer” (“You and I,” 10), and heightening the impact of the occasional violent image or incident.

Potter saves his strongest language to describe his longing for the good things of creation, for Ashley, and for the supreme Goodness and Beauty of God: “Burn the lids off my eyes / with seeing,” he prays (“Psalm,” 6). Potter — like his hero Walker Percy, and the heroes Percy wrote — craves. Craving the color-changing beauty of the sky, the warmth of the last winter sun, the power and abundance of a flowing river (whether of water or of coffee), he wants to enjoy the goodness the created world can offer. Yet he knows creation cannot satisfy him, and so craves the Creator it signifies.

Absorbed in the earthly contentment of throwing baseballs at a basement target and ricocheting them off the walls — “fingering the seams, / eyeing the zone, winding up, unwinding, releasing” — the poet concludes, “Take me out to the ball game, that’s my prayer” (“Under Chub’s,” 68). In addition to this longing, Potter recreates grief, guilt, joy, recklessness, wistfulness, intellectual abstraction, and more, with originality. They all contribute to the grand design, since they all find their origin, their resolution, or both, in God. (Also contributing to the grand design are many delightful bits of puckish wit, seeded throughout the book, which shall remain unnamed so as not to spoil the jokes.) But craving — the desire for satisfaction in the present and longing for eternity — is the keynote and cornerstone of this House. It is a strong debut, a gentle corrective, an extended love letter, and a nicely wrought document of life at the beginning of the third millennium as an observant Christian.

Click, Read, Help


Naught ‘n’ Pot

Y’all are invited to a poetry readin’:

Doubt as an Avenue of Communication

I want to hang onto this comment of Angelico’s and the passage he quoted from Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, because I see it as key, possibly, to the unique character of Korrektiv. I re-quote it here as a placemarker for further consideration.

No one can lay God and his Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel justified thereby, it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words ‘Yet perhaps it is true.’ That ‘perhaps’ is the unavoidable temptation it cannot elude, the temptation in which it, too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief. In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication.

Could this serve as a formative piece of that Korrektiv Press manifesto or mission statement we’ve been casting about for? The fine print at the bottom of that gravestone?

Video Version