Shann Ray: Art as a healer of the world

Spokane writer and Eastern Washington University MFA graduate Shann Ray Ferch’s collection of stories, American Masculine, was selected last year for the prestigious Bakeless Prize and will be published this year by Graywolf Press. Ferch, who writes under the name Shann Ray, grew up partly in

Shann Ray Ferch, Bakeless Prize winner

Montana, where he was part of a family basketball dynasty, and now is a professor at Gonzaga University. He lives in Spokane with his wife and three children. His stories and poems have appeared in McSweeney’s, StoryQuarterly, Narrative Magazine, Best New Poets and Poetry International.

He answered these questions via e-mail.

Q: How long have you been writing stories, and how long a journey was it to this point?

I’ve been writing short stories since 1993 or so, though very haltingly for the first ten to twelve years.

Finally, I was accepted into Eastern Washington University’s MFA program, and the first few years there were very difficult for me because I needed to break myself internally in order to see more clearly what the professors were trying to help me see. I took six years to complete a strange and beautiful hybrid, a dual master’s in poetry and fiction. It happened basically by accident. Because of my life being filled with the grace and chaos of family and work, I chose to take only one class per term in general, which eventually meant I had most of the classes in poetry and most of the classes in fiction completed.

I loved the writing and thinking process with Jonathan Johnson, who was like some type of powerful angel to me, so I just decided to see if I could do a thesis in poetry with Jonathan and another one in fiction with Greg Spatz.

Meanwhile, I was sending out stories and getting rejected constantly for some years. I remember the day the first story was taken very clearly. I was in the Gonzaga mail room by myself. I opened a letter from the South Dakota Review. It looked like any other form rejection so I put it in the pile. A couple of minutes later I looked at it again, probably wanting more punishment. I saw then the letter was an acceptance. I cried, for quite a while, in fact, right there in that mail room.

The next story to be accepted was “The Great Divide,” taken by McSweeney’s. Another moment that really overwhelmed me with gratitude. The story emerged in a class with John Keeble, and emerged further in a class with Jonathan. I then added those pieces to a previously written piece, and on Jonathan’s recommendation sent it to McSweeney’s. Neither of us, I’m sure, thought it had a chance. Six months later I heard back. There was a very unique and transformative reflection process with Eli Horowitz, then managing editor at McSweeney’s. I passed my revisions by Jonathan, worked the story in a pattern of multiple revision rounds, and McSweeney’s accepted it. I traveled down to San Francisco for a reading with them at Modern Times. A marvelous experience with Dave Eggers and other writers… Peter Orner, Stephen Elliot, Julie Orringer, Salvador Plascencia. There, Dave Eggers and Eli informed me they had nominated it for Pushcart. The story did not get in, but was later (just this year) chosen for the second McSweeney’s “best of” collection.

Those first two stories began the road I’ve followed this past seven to 10 years.  As for dates, the stories in American Masculine range from 2002 to 2010. There were a couple gaps of two years or more when no stories were taken. One of those gaps was recent, and painful. For me, a beginning writer, those gaps cause so much self-doubt, and often cloud my eyes about the work: why am I doing this, what is the meaning of art in an individual’s life, can I answer to the call art has placed on my life, am I able to give something meaningful to life as it has given such meaningful things to me, do I believe, do I hope, how do I work with despair, what is the nature of desolation? The difficult times remind me of how humility and love for others, in fact service of others, is required when seeking to live in reality—the difficulties return me to true and essential things such as holding my young daughters and giving them the deep care they deserve, living a life of gladness with my wife, and considering the beauty of God and responding to this beauty.

When poet Michael Collier from the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference called to tell me American Masculine had won the Bakeless Prize, it was about 10 years since I entered the MFA program at Eastern, and the call was a culmination of many good but also hard-fought years. I was with my family. We were in the kitchen together. I cried again, this time with my wife. Our three daughters danced around us.

Q: You are a poet and fiction writer, but in your day job, you are a professor of leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University. You and your wife have three children. You also had a celebrated career as a prep and college basketball player in Montana in the 1980s. How does your creative writing fit into your life – both practically, in terms of having the time and focus, and in a more abstract sense, in terms of the ways the different parts of your life relate to one another?

Practically, the writing hours for me are from 10 to 1 at night. Everyone is in bed.  The house is quiet. The quiet is tangible and the writing emerges from quietness.  In quietness there is attention to sound and the music of the words, the rhythms of sentences. Listening. I think of these moments as prayerful, and the lyrical nature of poems and prose, as prayers.

After my mother and father had some tumultuous years, the family came to believe in each other more fully and experienced some much needed healing by seeking a congruent family life in the context of belief in a power greater than ourselves. I was about 10 years old and from that point, when formerly my family was largely agnostic or at least functionally atheist, we began to listen and seek to understand in an entirely new way. The difference was palpable, and in our case, the family certainly would have disintegrated without that difference. The Christian tradition, though I realize it has been very painful for some, was a true power to us and in fact made us more grateful for each other, and better able to live for each other.

From there, I grew up on the Psalms, from my mom, and the Proverbs, from my dad, as well as many other sacred passages. The gifts of these writings were unspeakable and they remain with me now and I hope they never leave me.  Literally, they were like water or air. Words with such astounding rhythms and such deep resonance, I fell into them and they gave me the freedom to live and move. Words like: many waters cannot quench love… love is stronger than death… surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life… to those who seek He gives understanding, He gives wisdom to the wise… He knows what lies in the darkness, and light dwells with him… love is patient… love is kind… love protects, hopes, endures… love never fails.

I couldn’t really comprehend the complex beauty and unique balance of kindness and power that exists in the lived experience of such words, but I could hear the words, and hear the integrity to humanity that existed in the music of those words. So at night, there is an affinity with darkness and a respect for light that form a complex paradox in which I become more quiet and more grateful and better able to listen. This is what opens the door to the writing for me, and carries it on into the day. Van Gogh said, “The lanterns are burning and the starry night is over all.” His vision reminds me of the writing life, and the life of the wilderness that is Montana, and the two are often one to me even when composing poems or stories at night in my own kitchen.

Abstractly, there is an elegant discipline associated with the upper levels of any sport, just as there is in art, so basketball has been a physical echo of writing for me. My brother and his amazing work ethic, which resulted in an eye-popping 45-inch vertical and great times together in March Madness and beyond, helped inspire me to try to give as he did, whole-heartedly, to the sport. (Ed: Video shows some highlights from Shann and his brother, Kral; serious dunking starts at about 4 minutes.)

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUsQWrdqTJQ

Psychology and the very intense road of pursuing the PhD in Psychology, and then the crucible a person enters to be licensed as a psychologist, and finally the soul work of walking together with people through their great desolations and their profound triumphs… this informs everything good and courageous as well as everything dark and disarmingly grave in the human spirit. Psyche, in its original definition, means “breath, soul, life.” So psychology is very much like art, though the medium then is the heart and soul of the person. Again, I think Van Gogh said it best: “The greatest work of art is to love someone.” In turn, in loving well, I believe art is given its most ultimate expression. So in an abstract sense, the concrete experience of loving and being loved in my family and with so many people around me who have given kindness and beckoned my own kindness, as well as my ongoing experiences in psychology, in basketball, and in everyday life… all of this draws me to consider with gratitude the nature of art in my life, and art as a healer of the heart of the world.

Q: Your collection used to be subtitled “Montana Stories.” That state has a rich literary tradition. Do you see your work as fitting into the context of “Montana literature” in any way? Is Montana literature distinct in any ways from literature specially?

What a place. I love Montana!  To grow up in a state whose name means mountain, or mountainous, it’s like living in a dream of wilderness in which you see a bald eagle atop an autumnal cottonwood over a wide river, the tree like a pillar of fire at the water’s edge, the bird glistening black and white, gold in the beak… and then you wake and realize it’s true, you did just see that very thing… as I did only a few short months ago.

To me, Montana literature is home. Among the many abiding loves: A Fish to Feed All Hunger and Except by Nature by Montana Poet Laureate Sandra Alcosser, The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Labors of the Heart by Claire Davis, Wallace Stegner’s story “Buglesong”, Wildlife and Rock Springs by Richard Ford, Thistle by Melissa Kwasny, The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, Winter in the Blood and Fool’s Crow by James Welch, the story “Mahatma Joe” by Rick Bass, This House of Sky by Ivan Doig, Homestead by Annick Smith, We are Not in This Together by William Kittredge, Another Attempt at Rescue by Mandy Smoker and I Go to the Ruined Place, a collection of human rights poems Mandy Smoker edited with Melissa Kwasny. Also, a chapbook of war poems by my grandfather’s brother.

Montana literature is too big and exquisite and hardy and lovely for me to really comprehend. I’ve felt loved and taken care of by the women and men who write from Montana. I’ve learned so much from so many great Montana writers. I hope these stories honor their legacy.

I believe Montana has a distinct and rich literary tradition because the people are as luminous as the mountains and rivers. You can’t be around Montanans (or immersed in a poem or story by a Montana writer) for very long without experiencing the heart of the wilderness, the courage required to give more than one takes, and the gratitude of being in the presence of people who hold a quiet power.

Q: Your stories — at least a couple of those that I’ve read — wrestle with issues of race, and the place of Native Americans in particular. What draws you to that theme?

Having lived some of the most cherished years of my childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeast Montana gave me my love for basketball, great friends, tons of laughter, and a sense of the resilience required in the wake of the atrocities the Cheyenne people experienced, and experience, as a result of the American West’s version of “manifest destiny.”

With my research on leadership and forgiveness at Gonzaga, my experiences living on the Cheyenne reservation brought me back to my own Czech and German heritage and the massacres of Nazi Germany against the Czech people, and the resilience that exists throughout humanity, to heal and in fact not just survive, but live and forgive and even thrive in the wake of atrocity.

Q: The title of your collection is American Masculine. Do you have something particular in mind about men and the “masculine” in your stories?

One could say an extreme mediocrity exists in much of the masculine in America today, characterized by emptiness, impoverished relational capacity, an overblown or under-developed sense of self, and a life with others that is often devoid of meaning. Such men are filled of things like excess television, excess video games, excess sexual focus, emotional shallowness, and the man’s agenda at the expense of others. No words for feelings. Violence. Privilege for privilege’s sake, which results in decadence, and in the end decay, and finally death.

The Western world, which in bell hooks’ terminology, is inherently white, supremacist and patriarchal, is currently experiencing this decadence, decay, and death. The great psychologist of the 20th century, Carl Jung, gave a clear and also fear-invoking expression of the masculine and the feminine. In Jung’s conception the masculine is symbolized by the logos, which he referred to as the power to make meaning, to be meaningful, and to be experienced as meaningful by loved ones and by the collective humanity around us. Not the super-rational Western man, incapable of emotion and in fact regret, but a man who lives deeply, loves well, and is well loved. A question then rises, how many men do you know who are experienced as meaningful in their relationships with women, with their children, with others?

I think we can branch Jung’s typology out and encounter some of the current complexities that exist in human relations by noticing that all of us have both masculine and feminine within us, and the extent to which we hide or subdue either of these, we suffer. Jung himself pointed out this tenacious aspect of human fallibility, that when we deny our faults, we are consumed by shadow.  When we are consumed by shadow we in effect project our shadow onto the world with harmful results—we refuse to take responsibility for life and in fact block others rather than inviting them to help us change and become more whole. To be more whole is to be more capable of honoring the feminine and the masculine in ourselves.   In order to heal our fear of our own shadow, and heal our inability to love and serve life deeply and well, we must have two things: insight and good will. In the language of family, we need understanding and love. Understanding and love, according to Jung, are what humans are meant to receive and give.

Jung conceived of the feminine as the eros,  a womblike existence that gives peace, the life-giving sacrificial essence willing to undergo almost anything in order to preserve life, the wild mystery at odds with all who might try to come against the the child, the family, or the future together. For me, Mochis comes to mind, the Cheyenne woman warrior whose ferocity is legendary. After the Sand Creek Massacre in the late 1800s in which the U.S. Cavalry slaughtered Cheyenne elders, women and children and mutilated their bodies, Mochis took up the ax and fought as a warrior and killed many for 15 years until she was captured and shipped by train to Florida where she died. My mother comes to mind, with her bravery and her heart of irrevocable forgiveness, and my wife with her vitality and her essence that is more fire than water. Not to mention my Czech grandmother.  In our family, we call her the Great One.

I think we can see today that often the masculine has tried to subdue and in fact overtake the feminine. The masculine is infatuated with a pseudo eros, an eros he himself has pumped up to proportions that amount to oblivion. That brand of masculine cannot face its own feminine, for to do so would shatter him and he would then have to integrate the feminine, honor the feminine and in fact truly love the feminine in order to be healed and whole. In like fashion the feminine has often usurped the masculine, setting itself against the masculine through bitterness, anger, and condemnation that amounts to giving the man pariah status, sometimes claiming not only in the core of relationships, but also at national and international levels, that the man is meaningless and in fact absurd.   That form of feminine cannot face its own masculine, for to do so would be too shattering and would then require the feminine to integrate the masculine, to take him in with care and enduring affection, to truly love in order to be healed and made whole. In my experience working with women and men as a systems psychologist for the past 15 years, we carry mutual disintegration in our hands.

The story collection, American Masculine, delves into the mystery some, and depicts men who are often desolate, void, violent, and at odds with the feminine and in effect, at odds with themselves. These men, like myself, and many men I know, desire to move and change and become capable of giving and receiving love. But to become humble sometimes requires being humbled. I know such men, whose shadows extend and do harm, and who have sometimes been graced to come into a deeper and more redemptive love, and who have wept at the beauty that exists when they let themselves be shattered and let themselves emerge from that long journey into something new. I admire them, and hope to be with them when the dawn comes.

Q: You write under the pen name Shann Ray, in honor of your mother. I wonder if you’d say a little more about her, and why you chose to honor her in this way.

My mom has always been the spiritual center of our family. The fire and the light.  Her laughter heals us. Her sense of love keeps us together. I’m thankful she’s had the boldness to live how she has lived. She also carries the music of the family, the love for music. She lives a poetic life in many respects by evoking the big truths like grace and honesty and simplicity and hope and an honest love for people, faith, and God. I admire her and love her and want to give thanks to her for everything she’s done for me. When we get together we talk about books and good food and we like to laugh together.

As a side note, a fact that always amazes me is that she grew up in Cohagen, Montana. Eight people lived in that town when I went there to visit her parents, my grandparents, in the summers as a boy. Eight. I still can’t believe that, and still the town had a store, and two bars! That’s Montana.

My mom’s name is Saundra Rae, and my middle name is Ray, after her. So I want to honor her because she gave me music, laughter, and love.

Q: What are you working on now?

I like to carry around a bushel of poems. I also like to carry a short story or two.  Usually these are folded into a book so I can pull them out in spaces that come up during the day, such as when I watch my daughters’ ballet lessons, or guitar lessons, or voice lessons, or while waiting for them after school. Current books I’m carrying: Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?, Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. At night, the writing hours have been going to a novel called Disciple of the Dog about an open-border L.A., and to a nonfiction book, tentatively titled Balefire: Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity.

7 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Nice. I love the idea of basketball as “a physical echo of writing,” and Shann’s discussion of masculine and feminine.

  • Sara says:

    It’s true — all you need in order to be considered a town in MT is a bar and a place to pick up the mail. Bonus points if the bar also serves as post office. ;)

    Anyway, obligatory “woo!” shout-out to Montana writers.

  • Rob Fairbanks says:

    Wonderful interview. As a friend of Shann’s for most of my life, I never stop being amazed at his ability to distill good and light even in the midst darkness and challenge. He is truly a Renaissance man. + he could dunk like a beast.

  • Rick Steltenpohl says:

    Shann is a remarkable man. He is talented, successful, and well-liked. Yet, he is humble and modest. I respect him the most for the way he loves his family. I wish Shann every success.

  • This sums what little I know of Shann up to a T: We are new Facebook friends. As a fellow writer, I sent a message to let him know that I’d received his American Masculine in the mail (I’m a member of The Nervous Breakdown book club). He not only thanked me, but then took the time to share the affect that reading my poem, “Fragments” had on him, and how moved he was from it. What a man, what a voice.

  • Thanks to David Abrams, I learned of and bought Shann Ray’s remarkable story collection. His students in my old hometown are fortunate indeed.

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