Ragan Courtney has been writing poetry since his school days and had his first poem published when he was just fifteen. Since then, he has written, directed, and performed in numerous plays, musicals, and pageants, including the widely-performed Celebrate Life!. A graduate of Louisiana College and The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, Ragan Courtney has the ability to turn faith and doubt into a pilgrimage through the words that make up his plays and his poems. Ragan lives in Houston with his wife, the singer Cynthia Clawson, where he continues writing, directing, and consulting for theatrical productions.
All of your poems in Holy Ghosts take an honest look at death and grief. What were you hoping to achieve with this collection?
I am drawn to subjects that are philosophical or spiritual in nature, subjects that do not have easy answers. This book was guided by my personal experiences with the deaths of family members, friends, congregants, and myself.
As a younger man, when my mother died, I did not allow myself to grieve because hundreds of friends and family (almost all were churchgoing folk) said, “we should not grieve as those without hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). I understood their words to mean that a good Christian does not grieve. That was a mistake, and reality—plus a little therapy—helped me see the error of my ways.
Then I had an out-of-body experience during a near-fatal heart attack. Technically I was dead, the doctor later told me, but I was still thinking. Even though I saw no one, no light, and no family beckoning me home, I was deeply aware that I was not alone, so I did not have even a fleeting moment of fear. I realized that there is life. Death had been conquered. I think the purpose of this book is to comfort people by reminding them what eternal life is. It is the gift of being, and it comes from a Creator who gives that gift lavishly to his children.
You’ve worked with a number of different artistic mediums before. Why did you chose poetry for this subject?
As most people of faith will testify, poetry, with its language and metaphor, is often the only way we have to communicate the mysteries of love, faith, and God. What else is Holy Scripture except truth expressed through stories and metaphors?
How else can one communicate one’s heart’s longings except through poetry? It is not as though I had a choice if I wanted to communicate about spirit, beauty, and mystery beyond the physical world.
What was difficult for you when dealing with death from such a variety of perspectives?
The overriding challenge to writing anything is to be as honest as one can.
The fact that death happens daily as part of the cycle of life is not something that is particularly easy to assimilate into our worldview. Yet here it is, again and again. We experience it repeatedly from so many directions.
Realizing that we are not alone on what seems a terribly sad journey gives us the understanding that death is part of the life cycle and that life is something we celebrate. It is truly good news when we come to hope and believe that Christ has conquered death once and for all.
How has your faith played a part in these poems?
I long to write and live my life about Jesus. But faith is something that I have come to as I have walked the road before me, tripping and stumbling most of the way.
The day I felt the most alone, defeated, and hopeless was the same day I realized that I was not alone, not defeated, and not hopeless. It was the day that I determined to end my life. In that precarious situation, I remembered something I learned as a three or four-year-old that had faded from memory:
Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong.
They are weak, but He is strong!
And upon the truth in this lyric (dare I say, poem) I have grown my faith.