Real Work: Interview with Terry Cahill


Dana Colcleasure, blue...
Dana Colcleasure

Escape Into Life: Terry, in September you led a poetry workshop at a Male Spirit Retreat at LaSalle Manor in Plano, Illinois, in connection with the Shem Center for Interfaith Spirituality. Was this the first time you had attended such a retreat? Or do you often present poetry workshops of this sort? Meaning, to men? And with the spirit or spiritual attentiveness as a topic or grounding. 

Terry Cahill: I have done the kind of poetry facilitation I did at the Male Spirit Retreat every year for over a decade at Marwood, a Rites of Passage camp for teenagers at which I am a counselor with Terry Kinsey, who also helped lead the Male Spirit Retreat with Joe Kilikivice. I have done this for adults only one other time. What I try to do is set up an atmosphere that demystifies poetry as some lofty pursuit for the rarified and then create little exercises that loosen up participants and help them stop trying to make important points, but rather tap their inner life and give it expression. This is mostly done by PLAYING with words, letting one word lead to another lead to another without worry about the outcome.  And it is truly a joy to me to hear the surprises—the new word juxtapositions and leaping lines—that come from this. And then, as we build toward the participants’ personal lives, hearing them give expression to the things that are so difficult to explain, that are actually not explainable in a narrative form. 

EIL: Basel Al-Aswad, who attended the September retreat, wrote his first poem in your workshop, which we presented here at Escape Into Life as a journal poem, meaning one at the beginning of its drafting process or valuable primarily as personal expression. Basel’s son, Chris, who founded EIL, wrote a lot of poems in his journals.

Terry Cahill: I can have the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I hear one of these [personal] moments as I did when I heard Basel say, “The time has arrived, the gathering is over” at the close of his poem. Somewhere I read that poetry is making beauty out of sorrow. Basel surely did that. 

EIL: I see that you are a clinical social worker and a certified senior alcohol and drug counselor, helping employees in the workplace. Do poetry workshops ever become part of the work you do with workplace behaviors or helping people with substance abuse problems? If so, how? If not, do you see any parallels in what you do for a living and giving poetry workshops at retreats? 

Terry Cahill: My writing life and my work life are separate. However, as Wendell Berry says in “The Real Work”: 

          It may be that when we no longer know what to do
          we have come to our real work,

          …

          The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

          The impeded stream is the one that sings. 

I now have three Fridays a month off from “work” to do my real work. To sit all day in my study and work on my poems, sometimes reflecting on just a line or two for hours, brings both frustration and great joy. The joy is in the complete and utter surprise at what comes up out of me into a poem, that something unformed and gestating within passes through my body and mind and catches form in words I’d never before considered. That is great pleasure. And of course frustration, too, when I am stuck. 

EIL: What about your own writing life? Do you write poetry primarily as personal expression? Or with the intent or hope of publishing? 

Terry Cahill: Poetry has been a part of my life since I was young. Maybe the fact that my father was a high school English teacher on the south side of Chicago had something to do with that. I also remember falling in love with “Birches” by Robert Frost in sophomore year of high school. Anyway, I have been writing poetry consistently since the mid 1980s, and, though mostly for the sake of creating in and of itself, have also published several poems. Over the past three years, I have been going back over all I have written to edit/craft and, when finished, plan on being more intentional about publishing.

EIL: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about writing or poetry? 

Terry Cahill: Thanks for being curious about poetry and my relationship to it. Writing poetry brings me back to the source. I do it alone. And feel reconnected.

EIL: Thank you for connecting with Escape Into Life! 

Via Basel: Male Spirit Retreat at EIL 

Wendell Berry’s “The Real Work” at The Writer’s Almanac 

Wendell Berry at The Poetry Foundation

More art by Dana Colcleasure at EIL