Travis Helms is the author of Blowing Clover, Falling Rain: A Theological Commentary On The Poetic Canon Of The ‘American Religion’(Wipf & Stock). His poetry and prose has been published, or is forthcoming, in Image Journal, Poetry Northwest, Slushpile, New Haven Review, The Austin American-Statesman, North American Review, and Book 2.0 among other venues. He was the inaugural William W. Cook Frost Place Fellow, runner-up for the John Kinsella / Tracy Ryan Poetry Prize, and winner of the Arthur Sale Poetry Prize. He is founder + curator of LOGOS, a liturgically-inflected reading series that congregates in-person and online, and an Executive Director of EcoTheo Collective. Travis lives in Jackson, WY with his wife and daughter, where he serves as an associate priest at St. John's Episcopal Church. Links to his online publications can be found at wtravishelms.com.

Emy diGrappa (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emy diGrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why we learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why?

(00:38):

Today we're talking to Travis Helms. He is an Episcopal priest, poet, and author. Welcome, Travis.

Travis Helms (00:45):

Thank you, Emy. It's such a delight and honor to be with you.

Emy diGrappa (00:49):

Well, when I was reading your bio... Well, and thank you for saying that. When I was reading your bio, the author of Blowing Clover, Falling Rain: A Theological Commentary on the Poetic Canon of the American Religion. So I thought that was interesting, one, that you're an author and you've written a book about poetry, and how did that become part of your work as an Episcopal priest?

Travis Helms (01:16):

Oh, that's such a fascinating question, and I know that the subtitle of that academic book you mentioned is a real mouthful. I remember giving a copy of it to my beloved mother-in-law one Christmas, and she said, "Trav, I think you've got to translate this subtitle for me. It's just a little bit cumbersome." But that is a book that came out of the doctoral research that I undertook on four American poets, beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, and then extending to a couple 20th century poets. And really this project was an extension of a line of inquiry that I began exploring as a master student at Yale Divinity School when I was being trained as a seminarian to try to explore the ways in which poems are able to uniquely embody or perform spiritual truth. So if you think about it, Emy, we've got these great mysteries that I think priests and scholars and artists are always attempting to explore with our limited intellect, these great questions of grace and truth and beauty and the nature of the divine and our intellects can only get us so far.

(02:38):

But I believe that works of art, and in particular poetry, which I define as language aspiring to the condition of music, is able to give us an emotional experience of the ideas that they're trying to convey conceptually. So it can give us a felt experience of grace or anguish or wonder in ways that more sort of academic writing can't. So I tried in that book to just show how a couple of the poets I love the most are doing that work of performing spiritual truth. And I feel like as a priest as well, that so much of what my work involves, especially from the pulpit, is trying to help people have a felt experience of the divine, of the sacred, you could call it the divine or wonder or beauty or quantum weirdness, but whatever this deeper reality is that we can't explain away through our senses or scientific analysis. So I feel like poetry accomplishes that work, and it's what I tried to do in my ministry as well.

Emy diGrappa (03:48):

That is a wonderful explanation. Let me go back a little bit further because that sparked another interest. What religion did you grow up in in your house?

Travis Helms (04:00):

Yeah, so I was born and baptized into the Episcopal church, which is the American expression of the Church of England or the Anglican tradition. And so I was brought up in the life of the Episcopal Church, which is such an interesting denomination because it comes out of the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation. So it's got the beautiful intricate worship service that you might find in a Catholic church and the sacraments, but also this spirit of questioning and reinterpreting the truths of the faith for every new historical period and in every new context.

(04:46):

So the Episcopal church has been ordaining women since 1976 to the priesthood and openly gay, lesbian, and transgender clergy since the early thousands and has a real sort of social justice element to it in a lot of ways. So I was brought up in the Episcopal church, and I've always said that I think that there are probably as many different ways of approaching the divine or embodying faith as there are individuals on the face of the globe. And I'm sure that if I were brought up in another tradition, I might have followed a path toward becoming a rabbi or an imam or a shaman. But because I was brought up in the Episcopal church, priesthood seemed the best way for me to traffic in transcendence.

Emy diGrappa (05:36):

How old were you when you decide you were going to follow that path?

Travis Helms (05:41):

I always remember feeling very much at home in church. I can remember as a seven or eight year old looking around during a church service and noticing that people had their eyes closed. And I remember asking my mom what was happening, and she said, "Well, Travis, they're praying." And I asked what prayer was and she said, "Well, if you focus your heart and open your heart, you can not just talk to God, but you can actually listen to God and experience God as well." And even at that early age, I began to cultivate a little bit of a curiosity around what it might look like to help other people connect with the divine as just something I did with my life. So I think it was pretty early on, but then I was in the Peace Corps after college serving in Madagascar from 2007 to 2009, and that's when I really started to think about going to seminary and trying to make a career out of this exploration of faith.

Emy diGrappa (06:44):

So when did you graduate from seminary? Where did you go to seminary again?

Travis Helms (06:50):

So I went to Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, and I graduated in 2013.

Emy diGrappa (06:56):

Okay. Okay. And where did you start as a priest? So you don't become a priest right away, right?

Travis Helms (07:05):

No, you don't. It's actually a fairly rigorous process of discernment that an individual has to undergo. And so in addition to the three years of seminary training, there's a series of conversations that happen between a seeker or someone aspiring to the ministry and some folks that are both priests and deacons and non ordained people who just try to really just test the call and make sure it's an authentic one. And so I actually ended up going to England after graduating from seminary to pursue a PhD. I thought that maybe I felt more called to academic work, and that's where I undertook that research that became the Blowing Clover, Falling Rain book. And then the sense of call began to really clarify itself. So I moved to Austin, Texas in 2015, worked as a youth and children's minister for a year, then got ordained and worked in a traditional church context, and then actually served as a priest to the University of Texas campus for three years just until this June when I moved to Jackson, Wyoming.

Emy diGrappa (08:18):

So what brought you to Jackson, Wyoming?

Travis Helms (08:21):

Well, I've always had a love for this valley, which I truly feel is sacred. Two of my very best friends moved out here after college in 2006. So I've been coming out to ski for a number of winters. And then Jimmy Bartz, the rector of St. John's Episcopal Church actually had the same job that I had at UT. He was there in the early thousands, and I had come up as a summer chaplain in 2020 to help serve in the church for a month in July.

(08:57):

And then I helped curate a poetry festival last July here in Jackson, and we brought six acclaimed poets out for a weekend long festival. And so I had a chance to get to know Jimmy through that work, and we began exploring a conversation about moving me into staff on a permanent basis. And so we're imagining our way into some new ways of building community in the Jackson area using the arts and ways of getting out into the wilderness and cultivating meaningful conversations as a way of just building community in an imaginative way. So I'm excited to be undertaking that work with him.

Emy diGrappa (09:44):

So I understand your journey into priesthood, but what was your journey to become a poet and a lover of poetry?

Travis Helms (09:51):

That's such a good question. I really fell in love with poetry as a high school junior. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I was born in Texas, but spent most of my adolescence in Atlanta. And I can remember, Emy, feeling very bored during a history class, some discussion of post World War I diplomacy or something along those lines. And just flipping open my anthology of American literature and I came across a poem by the poet T.S. Eliot and called The Waste Land, and it was nine pages long and written in multiple languages. And I thought, goodness, this seems like an interesting thing to have written. And I tried to read it and had a tough time with it, but found a shorter poem by Eliot and read its opening lines that are, "Let us go then you and I, as the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table."

(10:58):

And it was such an arresting, striking image that I kept reading, I finished the poem and I felt, Emy, as if I were palpably shaking. It felt as if someone who'd been dead for decades and been able to communicate something of truth and meaning to me with an immediacy and intensity. And it was like there was an element of surprise and inevitability. I've never read that poem, but thought, oh yes, of course this poem had to have existed in the world. And I just wanted to do that for other people, find ways to use language to communicate as articulately and authentically as I can what's in my head and on my heart.

Emy diGrappa (11:49):

Well, that's interesting that it had that kind of effect on you and that you really instantly fell in love with the art of poetry and the art of the written word and how it does affect people. I think people find that in lots of different forms, whether they are a storyteller of history or a poet or anybody who uses language to express emotion, I think-

Travis Helms (12:23):

Absolutely.

Emy diGrappa (12:25):

Really trying to find a way to create that connection that you want people to have with what you're writing.

Travis Helms (12:34):

You're so right, Emy, and I think that poetry is all around us. I mean, it's embedded in song lyrics, it's in ad campaigns and political slogans. I mean, any time we're able to strike upon a memorable way of phrasing something so that it lodges in our subconscious mind and we carry it around with us, I think that's poetry. And often I think that so many of us are intimidated by the word poetry or the genre because of the ways in which it sometimes gets taught in elementary, middle, or high schools. We're taught that there's a certain meaning to a poem and our job is to try to decipher or to code what the author really intended. And I mean, at its essence, poetry is meant to be enjoyed and savored and delighted in. And so I think any time that we're playing with language and just savoring it in a joy inducing way, that's all poetry is. So I think it's all around us, but it gets a little bit of a bad rep by virtue the way that it's taught or mistaught.

Emy diGrappa (13:50):

Well, that's a good point, because when you start dissecting someone's poem and when they use words and then in order to get behind the meaning of what they were writing about, sometimes that ruins it.

Travis Helms (14:09):

Absolutely. It's like a poem can cast a spell, and we can absolutely, I think, dash or disrupt that spell by trying to get overly analytical about it. Robert Frost said a poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom. And I think we rush onto the wisdom part all too often rather than just delighting in a poem. And often, I don't even think of most poets know what they're trying to say until they've actually said it. I mean, the poets that I love and respect the most just follow the musicality of the language and just riff on interesting sound patterns and then start to ask whatever soundscape they've created, what it's trying to say, and then they revise toward sensibility or legibility. But I think that just falling in love with language and experiencing a little bit of that capacity for language to cast a spell or intoxicate is where we ought to be beginning.

Emy diGrappa (15:14):

I've even heard a lot of history scholars say that history professors, history scholars, because like you were saying, you were so bored in your history class. And really history is the story of people. And if we want young people to get involved in history, we have to stop teaching it like it's a document to decipher, but rather it is someone's journey and story. And that would be much more interesting and is a lot more interesting when you read a history book that is actually a story and not on this date, this happened and then this happened on this date. I don't like that. Anyway, that's my personal opinion.

Travis Helms (16:00):

Nor do I. And I think that we so frequently forget that fact that this is all about narrative. This is about us studying what has been and how events have unfolded as a way of making sense of this present moment and why we're here and where we could potentially be going collectively as a culture, as a society, as a human race. And just you're mentioning the importance of story, Emy, just makes me think too about how infrequently we pause in our daily lives to really attend to one another's stories.

(16:42):

And I wonder how much of the political divisiveness and polarization and misunderstanding that we're experiencing in our cultural moment might resolve itself if we could just slow down enough to really listen to one another and attend to one another's stories. So I know that our culture puts such a high value on efficiency and output. But gosh, I think that one of the things that arts and the humanities really invite us to do is to slow down and just attend more closely to the stories that are embedded everywhere in works of art and in each of our own lives.

Emy diGrappa (17:25):

Right. That's really true. And plus in this digital age, it's easy to get caught up in the drama and it's easy to get caught up in actually not paying attention to your own inner feelings about what is happening in the world because it's just coming at us in a very chaotic way.

Travis Helms (17:47):

Yes, in a chaotic way and in a way that is so fabricated also. I think about a lot of the college students that I would serve and have conversations with and how in so many social media accounts, you're getting a curated presentation of another person. You're not getting a full story with the vulnerability and the sort of imperfection and misshapenness that characterizes all of our lives and how that really just reinforces this skewed culture or perfectionism and comparison that we're all enmeshed in. And yeah, I just think that storytelling is so crucial and it's cool that a medium like this, that a podcast gives us a chance to tell a little bit of a story. And I know that so much good storytelling is happening in Wyoming as well, and it's exciting to be a part of it.

Emy diGrappa (18:52):

Oh, good. Well, I'm glad to hear that. So tell me about what does it mean when you say what is the LOGOS Poetry Collective? Is it a organization? Is it a collection of poetry? What is it?

Travis Helms (19:08):

Sure. So LOGOS is a reading series that I launched in 2018 while still living in Austin, Texas. And the idea was to try to find ways to artfully lovingly non dogmatically fold aspects of sacred ritual into the format of a poetry reading to create a way of gathering and sharing literature and poetry in particular that felt participatory and dynamic. Emy, I don't know if you've had this experience, but so often when I go to different literary readings and glittery events, it can feel so transactional, like you're just passively absorbing poetry or a story as an audience member, or you're just offloading it on someone from the podium. So the idea of LOGOS was to add elements of, we've basically map aspects of a Sunday church service onto the format of a poetry reading. So we begin, we have some moments of quiet and we have some responsive readings the way you might read a poem in church or a psalm in church to open and close the reading.

(20:26):

We have two featured poets and they would give a reading and then there's some conversation about the reading. And we launched this at a brewery called Lazarus in East Austin. So there would be a kind of communion aspect of tacos and libations toward the end of the gathering. And so during the pandemic, we translated the format onto digital, so have had LOGOS gatherings via Zoom once a month that are then live streamed to Facebook.

(21:01):

And so LOGOS is actually part of a larger nonprofit that I could direct with my friend Jason Meyers, who's an Episcopal priest and an amazing poet working in Houston, Texas. And this larger nonprofit we run is called EcoTheo Collective. And our mission is to enliven conversations and commitments around ecology, spirituality, and art and to celebrate wonder. And so we have a quarterly print in an online journal called EcoTheo Review. We also are institutional sponsors for a couple poetry competitions, one's for one for emerging Black poets and one for emerging Latinx poets. And we host an annual festival. It was in Jackson last year, and it's going to be in Austin this next year called The Wonder Festival. So you can definitely check us out online at ecotheo.org and learn more about those organizations.

Emy diGrappa (22:05):

Well, one of my questions, when you described the EcoTheo Collective, kind of the crosspollination between ecology and theology, it sounds like.

Travis Helms (22:19):

Yes, absolutely.

Emy diGrappa (22:21):

What is the ecology? What would you define ecology?

Travis Helms (22:24):

Yeah, so I think of ecology is understanding the way in which our lives as a human species are connected to and in relate with the more than human world, whether that's the sentient world of flora and fauna or the geographical world, just understanding our existence as being situated in this much larger narrative, this narrative of geological time and conditioned by geography. But what comes to mind for me personally is one of my favorite poets is an indigenous poet named Natalie Diaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for her book Postcolonial Love Poem.

(23:27):

And she talks about in a podcast interview with David Naimon about the difference between Western ideas of knowledge and Indigenous modes of knowing. And she says that Western ideas of knowledge are extractive. It's like, "Hey, if this has utility and value for me, then I want to take it and then it has meaning for me." And then she talks about how Indigenous modes of knowing are so connected with our relationship to the land. And so I think that that's really one of the things that EcoTheo Collective is trying to celebrate and explore and bring attention to is the ways in which our ways of being and knowing are connected to the more than human world and the natural world around us.

Emy diGrappa (24:17):

Wow, that's a really great explanation. Thank you for saying that, because it just made me curious because we do live in this beautiful landscape of Wyoming and lots of wide open spaces. We see that we have a really beautiful night sky where you can see the galaxy and just I think people who live in Wyoming really connect to the landscape and the white open spaces, the wildlife and nature in general. And so when I was thinking about it, I was thinking it's about how the wonders of the world are our spiritual connection. I was reading about when I was doing some research, I was reading about your EcoTheo Collective and just trying to think about how I think about that. And maybe it's different than you think about that when you think about those words and the way you combined them.

Travis Helms (25:28):

Yeah, maybe so. I mean, two thoughts are coming to mind. One is I just read the wonderful book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass. And she talks in that book about just conservation isn't enough. And she will ask her ecology students to reflect on whether or not the world loves them or needs them. And to think of the natural world in terms of reciprocity and almost this way of relating to the more than human world, like a beloved family member.

(26:20):

And also, the second thing I was thinking of is there's a great tradition in the early church, the church mothers and fathers, the earliest theologians and spiritual teachers talking about the two books. And they would talk about the book of sacred scripture that has the presence of the divine somehow infused within it. And then the book of nature, that the book of nature shows forth something of the goodness, truth, and beauty of the divine force that brought it into being and that it's worth studying almost like a sacred text. And so I definitely have ways of thinking about ecology in a more theological mode as well. And I'm so grateful for that question and the invitation to consider that relationship more deeply.

Emy diGrappa (27:16):

Well, it's just something I thought about when I was going to your website and the EcoTheo Collective, and thinking about that and what that meant to me and just how we do try and build bridges, especially in the humanities, between critical thinking of why people do what they do and what is our relationship to the world. And as human beings, what's our human experience? The whole definition of the humanities is the human experience, whether it's literature or archeology or psychology. There's all different realms of how we experience the world. So it was interesting just to read about what you're doing and learn about it and learn about how you're going to move this forward as you live in Jackson. It'll be interesting, really interesting. What do you see for your future as a priest and a poet in Jackson?

Travis Helms (28:33):

Yeah. Oh, that's such a wonderful question to consider. I mean, I've got a number of commitment that I'm going to be charged to fulfill here as a priest in poet on the St. John's Episcopal Church staff. One is I'm helping sort of reimagine what our parish's family, youth, and children's ministry looks like. And I'm also just going to continue to do the work of LOGOS and EcoTheo as one of the co-executive directors. And we're hosting LOGOS events on the East Coast a couple times this year, and it's become a movable feast. So I'll continue to do that work. But I think some of the church staff and I are really interested in developing relationships and doing some careful active listening in the community to try to gain a sense of what type of conversations and connected and ways of cultivating community might resonate with Jackson Heights and folks in the wider Wyoming area.

(29:48):

I think that something like a LOGOS format doesn't necessarily need to be restricted to involving poetry as well. We could easily bring in a naturalist or a filmmaker or an entrepreneur or a mental healthcare professional to curate a meaningful conversation around how spiritual dimensions might be at work in any given field or area of undertaking a project. And so I'm curious about what it might look like just to gather people for meaningful conversations around spirituality and the arts, and then maybe to find ways just to get out in this more than human world with other people. I mean, our church has a wonderful outdoor ministry. We actually hiked up Snow King this morning, but finding ways to get out in nature and just build community and relationships is where we're at right now. But we feel unhurried about that and I'm just going to continue to be patient. I've only been in Jackson for about a month and a half, so I'd just like to get to know people and listen and learn and then of see what kind of possibility might want to present itself.

Emy diGrappa (31:13):

Oh, great. That's excellent. Well, good luck with that. How old is your daughter?

Travis Helms (31:18):

She is 11 months old.

Emy diGrappa (31:21):

Oh my gosh. Okay, good. She's tiny. She's just beginning. That's so fun.

Travis Helms (31:31):

I know. And I mentioned that the EcoTheo mission is to celebrate wonder. That's what it distills down to. And goodness, just spending time with an 11 month old feels like a constant sort of apprenticeship to learning more about wonder and just how to delight in everything that exists in life. And so I feel like I'm learning to open my eyes and open my heart a bit more just by spending time with this sweet girl.

Emy diGrappa (32:00):

Oh, that's beautiful. Well, it's been great talking to you.

Travis Helms (32:03):

Thank you, Emy.

Emy diGrappa (32:06):

I will definitely post your websites on your description and your podcast, but I appreciate all your time today. Thank you so much, Travis.

Travis Helms (32:17):

Oh, Emy. It's an absolute delight and honor. Thank you for all the work that you do to continue to build community around the humanities in Wyoming, and it's just an honor to be in this work with you.

Emy diGrappa (32:28):

All right. Thank you. I hope we meet soon.

Travis Helms (32:31):

I do too. Thank you so much.

Emy diGrappa (32:33):

Okay. Take care. Bye.

Travis Helms (32:33):

Bye.

Emy diGrappa (32:51):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why? Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org, subscribe and never miss a show.