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Interview: Martyn Halsall, poet

by
12 October 2012

'I get a bit wary when someone says: "The Lord has given me a poem"'

I recently retired from paid employment as a journalist. I review and edit poetry, and write in some form most days.

I took the classic route through local and regional newspaper reporting, and was fortunate to work for The Guardian for 17 years.

The pace was different. There was that phone call at half-past ten at night, when we'd gone to press, and you knew there was trouble: someone had something we hadn't got. Or coming out of a press conference and wondering if there was another story there that you hadn't got - always having to look over your shoulder. But, of course, sometimes you had something that the others didn't have.

One of the great moments was with The Church and the Bomb report, which we published six months before it was to be issued. There was no embargo on it; so we published it. All hell broke loose.

It was very exciting at the time, especially where the Church was doing good things, like appointing David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham. The Guardian was tremendously interested in him as a person. They'd say: "Thank God we've got a Bishop of our own now," and thought he was a tremendously prophetic figure, because he took the Christian debate into the marketplace, saying: "these are the big Christian issues" - left-wing in a societal as well as in a church way.

I later worked in Church of England communications. It was a geographical move from Greater Manchester to Cumbria, but also a change in culture. Instead of people ringing you up very politely asking if you would like to go Japan for them, you were faced with going to Blackburn or Morecambe on a wet night.

And a change of pace: I went to a meeting very early on in Blackburn, and a little writing job came out of the evening; so I wrote it up and faxed it in. They thought they were dealing with a madman: they were expecting it in the next couple of months.

But journalism has changed so much in the past 15 years - more than in the past 150 years. For younger journalists, work seems to be a much more static process. The pleasure for me was going to places you'd never otherwise go to. I enjoyed that tremendously.

Life in secular journalism was less costly - though travelling, family separation, and rivals' exclusives were all costs - than in the Church, which can be surprisingly discouraging of creativity, in work and faith. It's in danger of becoming an institution rather than a prophetic Church when people have a wrong view of their self-importance.

It's encouraging when the Church takes on its prophetic mandate, and does pioneering ministry. It has to shed a lot of its baggage, and become more poetic and prophetic in the way that it presents faith to a largely faithless community.

I've been surprised recently, within the debate over women bishops, about how the Church is often far less Christian in dealing with controversy than my experience of the secular media, where views were always contested, but usually with far greater grace, understanding, and good humour.

I am looking forward to working at Carlisle Cathedral for the next year or so as its poet-in-residence. The residency will provide a welcome focus. I would love to work with a visual artist or theologian, developing poetry in parallel with their explorations and creativity.

You lurk with poetic intent, and use the cathedral as a source of new work, reflecting in poetry its life and mission. It's journalistic in my view: you go along to things, talk to people, look at stories - factors that engage you as a writer. Begin with a detail - and get into it. That's one half of the job. And we'll have monthly meetings looking at poetry together and doing some creative work, based on the cathedral.

It's a new venture for the cathedral. Manchester has a poet-in-residence, the Revd Rachel Mann, but I'm not aware of any others. We'll try to find them. Various cathedrals have had them - Truro did - but we're not sure about the present. Here, we're working in the shadow of Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge, all those ghosts from our literary heritage, and Norman Nicholson, and other people who are about now.

"Imagination" has been a key word in initial discussions; so I hope to reflect the life and work of the ca- thedral in new poetry, and to encourage a community based around the cathedral in their reading and writing of poetry.

The four-line stanza is still around, but it's only one of a huge number of ways of writing poetry these days. There are different uses for poetry: some people want something positive, affirming, part of their faith, whereas other people might say: "I want something which takes me a bit further, makes me rethink aspects of my faith."

I get a little bit wary when someone says: "The Lord has given me a poem." It might be for them, but not for a wider public. Sometimes I write things that I wouldn't share with a group, or publish. Sometimes you show things to others. There are private poems and public poems. Poetic judgement is very, very subjective, of course. As writers, part of our responsibility is to say: "That was interesting, but it doesn't have much further life," or "There's something here, but it needs a bit of work."

You try to work in the context of people as people, treating the cathedral as a sharing space where all people's work is respected - not a literary agency.

Those of us who write as Christians should aim to reflect God's fascination for, and empathy with, his world, and in both journalism and poetry a desire for truth expressed intriguingly and creatively - to share new worlds.

Poetry, like the love of God, has tremendous potential for newness, for seeing the familiar differently, or, in Walter Brueggemann's words, for reimagining the world. The work of reading, thinking, writing, and revising is vital to enable an individual writer's process to achieve a fluent and empathetic product.

The more you think you know God, or about him, the more you realise how little you know, or how thin is your encounter. It has to be an experience of trust, based on the knowledge that God has always the greater experience, and the greater love of us than we can have of and for him.

My wife and daughters enrich my life more than I can say. Isobel, my wife, is a parish priest in rural West Cumbria, and our daughters, Anna and Rachel, who live in London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, are both involved in language teaching.

I was always interested in writing, and I wanted to be a student. I was born and brought up in Southport, a seaside resort, then in Lancashire. University was beyond me (though I attended two as a postgraduate); so I trained as a teacher, then gratefully found a job on my local paper, The Southport Visiter - still spelled with a final "er".

Hopefully, Isobel and I have been able to help each other realise our vocations, whether in poetry and journalism, or through priesthood, and to burnish each other's gifts to spread God's kingdom. I regret becoming stuck in church communications, and not moving into other forms of writing, and possibly teaching.

My favourite sounds are the Gaelic welcomes on ferries heading for the Scottish islands. The most reassuring sound to me is wind in churchyard trees - "the Spirit is with us" - and rain on skylights. We take our holidays in northern and western Scotland, particularly the islands.

I've been changed by books that established relationships between literary history and historiography, poetry and literary biography, prophecy and poetry, and novels that exult in rich language and fresh experience. Brueggemann influenced me by his writings on poetry and prophecy, the poet R. S. Thomas in his explorations along the faith-doubt frontier, and also Rembrandt for his searching humanity.

I'd choose 1 Kings 18 for narrative energy showing the power of God, and 2 Corinthians 5.17, particularly where the meaning is sensed as communal, a new world.

I'm angry about the injustice that keeps the majority of the global population in need, while the developed world passes by, complacent and obsessed with comparative trivia.

I find prayer hard, steep, often a route march into fog - yet a fog, a mystery, into which we are summoned to the waiting and the listening that is worship. I commend particularly those with problems and doubts into God's care; and I pray for the transformation of the Church and of the world into embassies of his Kingdom.

Poetry can also be prayer, as we celebrate God's world by interrogating its complexities.

After 15 years working in the Church of England, I'd quite like to be locked out of it, preferring a Cumbrian garden we know, for tea with a group of friends we have not seen for a while, and perhaps a special guest like Brueggemann.

Dr Martyn Halsall was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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