In April, Todd M. Aglialoro asked readers of this site, “What happened to Catholic fiction, and how do we effect its renewal?” This question — which generated over 100 responses — could be broadened: How do we renew Catholic literature? William Baer has been asking the same thing, and has been taking tangible steps toward providing a clear and convincing answer.
Baer was the poetry editor of Crisis from 2001 until this spring, as well as its film critic for the past three years. A professor of English at the University of Evansville since 1989, his prolific output includes three collections of original poems, three poetry anthologies, translations of sonnets by the 16th-century Portuguese poet Luis de Camões, a novel, six plays, and four collections of interviews with other artists.
“I always knew I wanted to write,” Baer explains. “It was always just a matter of how I would approach it.” He credits his early interest in writing both fiction and poetry to Edgar Allan Poe, and his enthusiasm for theater to his parents, who participated in parish and community theater in both the Bronx and Wayne, New Jersey.
Early in his development as a writer, he recognized a need to convey a clear moral perspective through his craft. “I didn’t think of it in Catholic terms,” he says, “but whenever I wrote something, I wanted it to be morally appropriate. Then my writing got more specifically Catholic as I got older.”
Like many other Catholic writers, Baer believes that faithful Catholics do not need to convey a specifically Catholic teaching through their art: “Their work can be simply entertaining; or it can be moral; or it can offer a specifically Catholic perspective. Catholic writers can do all sorts of things, as long as they consider whether it’s pleasing to God.”
Baer devotes considerable time and energy to helping other Catholics develop as artists. In 2006, he founded the St. Robert Southwell Institute; named after a 16th-century English martyr and poet, the organization aspires to generate a revival in Catholic literature by fostering the talents of writers between the ages of 21 and 30. The centerpiece of the Institute is its annual writing workshop, which held its third annual meeting this June. (I participated in the 2006 workshop.)
His own experiences and development as a writer inspired him to found the Southwell Institute. “I grew up in a world where Catholic artists were taken seriously, and you couldn’t even imagine that sort of thing nowadays. But it could change. I’m a big believer that small groups of people can accomplish great things.”
The writing workshops consist of 10 to 16 students and include daily writing groups, seminars on major figures like Dante and Shakespeare, and lectures from such guests as Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things. While previous workshops had been devoted to fiction and poetry, students this summer focused entirely on playwriting: The students wrote plays in the first part of the week and performed them at the end.
For now, Baer intends to focus on the annual workshops to establish a nationwide community of young writers. Once that community is in place, he hopes to start a press and even a literary journal. “Maybe other things like this will pop up, and other communities of writers will develop, and we’ll start to change things.”
The Southwell Institute is not Baer’s first attempt to change the literary landscape. With a handful of other poets (including Gioia), he has played an important role in rejuvenating the health of formal poetry in the United States. Like most of his peers, Baer wrote primarily free verse as a young poet, but even then he sensed that something was missing from his craft. “I wasn’t playing on the same field as all the poets I really admired,” he says, so he took the initiative to teach himself meter and form.
Still, there is more to his interest in form than the ways it strengthens the language of poetry. “I also feel that it’s more appropriate as a reflection of God’s universe,” he explains. “There are laws that underpin everything, and I’ve always felt that formal poetry is a beautiful reflection of God’s universe.”
He has also given outlets to other poets interested in form. From 1990 until 2004, he and his wife Mona edited The Formalist, a journal that offered a unique outlet for poets interested in practicing traditional modes of poetry. He currently serves as contributing editor for another outlet for formal poetry, Measure. His last two collections have consisted entirely of sonnets and ballads, respectively, and he has published a collection of interviews with major formalist poets called Fourteen on Form.
As both the quality and the quantity of his production indicate, Baer’s devotion to his faith has not prevented him from making significant contributions to America’s literary culture. “It really is a challenge for any Catholic in any field,” Baer concedes, “But I just had the attitude that I wasn’t going to worry about it. When I look back on it now, it wasn’t so difficult. God has taken care of me.”