Fridays with Friends: Dr. Ordway takes a walk

Image of Holly Ordway by Kevin Belmonte
Image of Holly Ordway by Kevin Belmonte

Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the Chair of the Department of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University and the director of HBU’s MA in Apologetics program, which focuses on cultural apologetics. She has a doctorate in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, an MA in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Dr. Ordway speaks and writes regularly on literature and the role of imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the work of CS Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

She is also a dear friend of mine and a regular contributor to All Nine. I recently had the privilege of interviewing her for our Friday with Friends series.

Dr Holly Ordway. Photo copyright: Lancia Smith,
Dr Holly Ordway. Photo copyright: Lancia Smith,

Kelly Belmonte: What/Who/where are your consistent sources of inspiration?

Holly Ordway: For my poetry, I find that close observation of the physical world is a source of inspiration. My most successful poetry often happens when I see something that strikes me in some way, and I try to attend to it in such a way that I can put words to it, and discover why that image is striking or significant. It might be the rain falling on a street in Oxford, or a goldfinch perched on a twig, just outside my window; I try to capture just the right words to show what I see. As I do that, I try to connect that image with an idea, to explore the meaning of that image. Because I believe that the universe has meaning, I think that these connections are not arbitrary; I try to find, or discover connections, not create them.

I think that my source of inspiration may have something to do with seeing, or trying to see, what Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘inscape.’ (Here is a definition.)

I also find walking to be an activity that is particularly conducive to inspiration – or at least in certain circumstances. The ideal walk is one that has a reason, whether it is a practical reason (walk to church or the grocery store) or just for pleasure (walk to visit an interesting location), and whose route has interesting things to look at, whether buildings or nature. Walking gives me something for me to do physically, and looking at the scenery gives me something to do mentally, such that I can ‘mull over’ ideas without any particular pressure. It might be ideas for an academic paper I’m working on, or for a poem, or to think about something I’ve read… the activity of walking seems to free my mind to wander and to make connections that it might not otherwise make, if I were sitting in front of a computer trying to make those connections!

I’ve learned to carry a small notebook and pencil with me, or (more recently) to use my iPhone to jot down notes. I’ll stop wherever I am – dodge into a doorway on an Oxford street, find a fallen log to sit on in the woods – to get my idea or image down in words. Nine times out of ten it might not come to anything, but the tenth time makes it worth all the others.

KB: What artists (musicians, poets, painters, photographers, filmmakers, etc.) are you following/do you recommend? (i.e. Who are your faves?)

HO: Surprisingly, I find this a difficult question to answer. I read pretty widely, and I find it difficult to put my finger on specific authors who are influences, or to give a list of favorites without it getting very long. If I were to name one poet who has influenced me the most, it would be Gerard Manley Hopkins. His poetry has helped me learn what Christian faith is, and how to understand suffering, and how to be a poet. I also admire him as a person, for his integrity, his sensitivity, and his perseverance. He used to get really depressed when grading bad exam papers… It’s interesting, how much of a role Hopkins has had in my life, really! As an Anglican, I used to lament the fact that he’d gone from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism – “Too bad we couldn’t keep him on our side!” Then I followed him across the Tiber, so Hopkins has had the last laugh… I’m still learning from him, and probably always will.

My favorite contemporary poet is Malcolm Guite, which is interesting because he’s also my friend and a great influence on my own work (both poetry and academic work). But even if I only knew his work, I’d have the same view. Malcolm has done something tremendous in his recent work Sounding the Seasons, which is to bring the sonnet sequence back to life in the 21st century, and at the same time to revitalize poetry as an aesthetically powerful, honest, non-ironic way of engaging with the Christian faith. Too much contemporary poetry is exclusive, inward-focused, and frankly obscure. Malcolm has been an influence on me to show that it’s possible to write the kind of poetry that I think is worth writing, and that I want to read. He also challenges me to do my best work and not accept second best, not use the trite image or clichéd phrase, and to find my own voice.

But I see that you’re asking about favorites, not just influences. That makes it easier. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, for sure. The Lord of the Rings is one of the most important books I’ve ever read; it’s a book I go back to again and again. Shakespeare – my favorite plays are Macbeth, Hamlet, Henry V, and The Winter’s Tale. Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels. The novels of Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, and P.G. Wodehouse. In more modern literature, the wacky and delightful novels of Jasper Fforde, and the equally off-beat novels of Tim Powers. Also, my imagination has been (and continues to be) nourished by medieval literature – not so much any particular work (though Beowulf is a favorite) but rather the overall feel of it, the world of Anglo-Saxon literature.

At the GK Chesterton Library with David Baird, Michael Ward, and Malcolm Guite
At the GK Chesterton Library with David Baird, Michael Ward, and Malcolm Guite

KB: How can readers of All Nine get involved in what you’re doing?

HO: If readers are interested in what I’m doing, they can follow my work online and join in the conversation as well. Readers can visit my blog, Hieropraxis, where a number of talented writers join me in writing about literature, culture, and Christianity. They can find me on Facebook, and find Hieropraxis on Facebook as well, and follow me on Twitter. Also, they can buy my book, Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith. Finally, readers who are interested in apologetics and culture can check out my work at Houston Baptist University by visiting the School of Christian Thought’s blog.


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