BY TEO MUNGARAY
I do not believe in a god. I don’t believe in a higher power or cosmic energy. I grew up in the Southern US to very Catholic parents surround by very Baptist schoolmates. When I was in high school, social media took off and everything was filled with OMG and #blessed.
I’m not sure when I stopped believing in anything. It may have been when I began gay conversion therapy (of which my parents weren’t aware until I was in college). It may have been when I realized how many people in my congregation believed I would go to Hell. However my belief disappeared, I maintained a façade of reverent Catholicism while I was at home. I began seriously writing poetry at that time, but I never touched on religion.
Nowadays, I have no secrets. My parents know I identify as "irreligious" (atheist, to me, has too many connotations and associations with communities I don’t support). They know about the conversion therapy they never wanted for me. When I write now, I see many lines come into my poetry mentioning a "god" of some kind. Lines in which I question existence, in which I apostrophize my pain, or in which I do address a higher power.
At first, I was confused, and then I was distraught. Do I actually believe in a god? Was I brainwashed by religion? Am I lying to myself because I think atheism is somehow ‘more scholarly’? Those kinds of questions haunted me. I would delete lines mentioning ‘the g-word’ and then put them back…then delete them again. I struggled with this predicament like I never did with my sexuality.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized my lines can contain this ‘god’ character without jeopardizing my (dis)belief. When I write poetry and I mention some form of god, it falls into two categories: a colloquialism like "My god" or "Oh god," or an address to a higher power that I want to name the Poetic God.
This isn’t a new concept. Epic poetry has been calling to gods and muses for centuries. However, the nuance is in a lack of spiritual power attached to that character. The Poetic God is a trope to which I address my existential idiosyncrasies. This God exists only in my writing as a thematic apostrophe linked to all the other poems that address a god. For someone that believes in a higher power, my lines may resonate for them as a genuinely religious exhortation. I encourage that. For me, their poetry referencing a religious god becomes my Poetic God.
Rather than feel alienated, I now interpret religious poetry as calling out to the greater archive of questioning. Almost all of poetry, at its heart, is a question. As a writer, I hardly make conclusions. Even when I state something outright, there is a sense of uncertainty. I love uncertainty. I love that it forces me to negotiate myself as a writer (and as a character in my writing) with the world. Uncertainty is restless and unnerving. Uncertainty is the Poetic God.
When my uncertainty came from misunderstanding my true intentions regarding writing a god into my poetry, I was fueled by a toxic intolerance for religion. This was primarily aimed at Christianity and it forced awkward rebuttals within my own writing. Anything mentioning a saint or Christ was followed up by a scoff and some kind of aside to establish my disbelief. What came from accepting the god character in my writing was tolerance and ownership. I no longer had to second-guess myself or reframe myself at every turn. I could read religious verse without panicking.
The Poetic God character doesn’t just work as a bridge between religious and secular verse. The Poetic God allows both parties to reach into spaces that the other might normally abandon. Secular verse can interrogate presence while religious verse can interrogate absence. The Poetic God can be used as a persona to invoke the supernatural or as a mechanic to eliminate it.
That said, maybe a god is just a god. In a world where we are constantly interrogating our identities, we are finding new vocabulary to describe ourselves and spaces to occupy. Many writers like me are balancing the idea of a god and a godless universe. The Poetic God might just be a reconciliation with my Catholic roots. It could be a way to write off my religious anxieties. I think, though, the framework of a literary god which facilitates engagement with a wider array of verse might be helpful. After all, sometimes what a poem really needs is a god.
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Teo Mungaray is a queer, chronically ill, latino poet pursuing his MFA at Pacific University of Oregon. His poems can be found in Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry, Prelude Magazine and The Bellevue Literary Review. He currently lives in Portland and is running out of space on his bookshelves.