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February 11, 2002

Calvin Prof Publishes Poetry Book

Calvin French professor Otto Selles has always liked poetry.

Already as a high school student in Hamlton, Ontario, he read poetry and as a university student at McMaster he began to write it. But he credits, in part, his academic research work for really inspiring a more recent return to the art form, a return that has resulted in a new book, "new songs," that combines his poems with relief prints by his sister, Geraldine Selles-Ysselstein.

"I spent the fall of 1998 with my family in Geneva, Switzerland," says Selles. "My research there was often very difficult and I spent entire days trying to track down a single reference to a work my author indicated in his footnotes. I came back to Grand Rapids a bit depressed, and wondered on New Year's day of 1999, whether I was becoming a footnote to someone else's footnotes. So I decided to see what I could I do if I were to devote to my own writing a fraction of the time I spend on research."

Selles says "new songs" is a testimony to the value of writer Anne Lamott's motto "bird by bird."

"She says that if you have any ambition to write, you have to start somewhere and do what you can 'bird by bird' and write a word, a line, a poem, and then another poem; whether you have five minutes or five hours, you just have to get out your pen or pencil and write."

So "bird by bird" Selles wrote the 26 poems in "new songs." And for each his sister, Geraldine, a Calvin graduate who now lives in Arkell, Ontario, created a lino-cut illustration.

Although Selles says he didn't set out to write "Biblical poetry," much of "new songs" does in fact deal with Biblical and religious themes. For instance, "palm" (below) evokes various Biblical images for the word.

you hold me in the palm
of your hand
and I nestle
in a crease

you hold me in the palm
of your hand
raised to bless
and I fall
into the air

you catch me in the palm
of your hands
joined to pray
and I drink
sweat and blood

I hold your plam
open as a leaf
and I wave
that palm
as a branch

I hold that palm open
and I strike
with my palm
as a hammer on a nail

and you seize me with the palm
of your hand
as a nail holds
and will
not let go

In the preface to the book Calvin Theological Seminary President Neal Plantinga praises Selles for being interested in themes, not just in his reaction to the themes, avoiding self-referential point of view. "Selles," says Plantinga, "shines a light outward, and from various angles, so that we may see anew what has always been there, or see for the first time possibilities beyond our usual ken."

Perhaps Selles' gift for looking at things in a new light is to be expected from someone who begins his Sundays reading the comics where, he says, "I often seem to find interesting portrayls of pop culture and often surprising perspectives on heaven." In fact, such comics inspired a poem called "like what" that asks questions about heaven, using the language of "teenage mall-speak."

The book is broken into three sections: cymbals, lyres and strings.

The first section sees poems dealing with Christian symbols such as the cross, the palm, stones and even symbols more directly connected to Calvin College. One, for example, is called "my square inch" in reference to a famous quote by Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper. Another is called "tulip" and ostensibly describes the arrival of tulips in the springtime, while slyly refering to the TULIP acronym that summarizes the Reformed faith. "There is something depraved about a tulip," it begins, a not-so-subtle reference to "total depravity," the T in the acronym.

The second section deals with some of the Bible's anti-heros, folks like Goliath and Lot's wife and Judas. The final section Selles describes as a "mixed bag, but mostly about the struggles of a believer often portrayed through Biblical metaphors, allegory or literary allusions."

The book is published by Pandora Press, a small publishing house in Kitchener, Ontario. It is available through the Calvin College bookstore or on-line at

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
616-957-7069 (f)