Interview: Mia Anderson priest, winner of the Montreal International Poetry Prize

29 November 2013

'My poem - I calculated it - each word was worth $109.33'

The Poetry Prize is a phenomenal labour of love by some movers in the literary scene in Canada, and supposedly the biggest purse in the business, though this, in its second year, was a "mere" $20,000. This is not the sort of cheque poets are handed as a rule.

My poem - I calculated it - it's outrageous if you look at it this way, but each word was worth $109.33. It is called "The Antenna", and is dedicated to a clergyman of the Church in Wales, Mike Endicott. Mike is a blind healer. My husband and I were on Bardsey when Mike was leading a retreat, and we got to talking about expectancy. He used the image of the antenna. I ran with the image, but it had a long gestation period. We were last on Bardsey in 2007, and the poem wrote itself in 2011.

I began to write crawling into bed beside my mother. She was probably writing at the time - she was a poet - and I probably clamoured, in my five-year-old eagerness, to be taught how to "do that, too". But my writing went on the back-burner for many years while other things sizzled.

Where can you read it? Appetite (Brick Books, 1988), Château Puits '81 (Oolichan Books, 1992), Practising Death (St Thomas Poetry Series, 1997), and now The Sunrise Liturgy (Wipf & Stock, 2012). "The Antenna" will come out next year in a book published by Cormorant.

The fact that there is such a long tradition of poet-priests in the Anglican Church is not nothing. I wish someone would figure it out. Our Church turns out Donne and Herbert and Traherne, Euros Bowen and R. S. Thomas, and Rowan Williams, David Scott, and on and on. There's something there about the nature of our, well, our sense of the holy, and of priesthood.

I am most in line with the nature poets of any country - say, Henry Vaughan. There are two or three Canadian poets I feel especially close to, and whom I think of as tilling the same field or waiting the same wait in the landscape as I do: Don McKay, Tim Lilburn, Jan Zwicky. To whom now I add Australian Mark Tredinnick, my predecessor in the Montreal Prize.

This thread of ecological or nature mystic "whatchamacallit" is caught, for me, in the saying attributed to Catherine of Siena: "The path to heaven runs through heaven, and all the way to heaven is heaven." It is that growing sense of the immanence of heaven. I gasp and grasp at bits, and try to get them down.

I was singing in a fine church choir, all that remarkable Anglican liturgical music, and I had a call. Really. No vocals, just a kind of imagining - of Christ dressed in a flimsy, greyish, loose-hanging shirt and floppy trousers. He was sort of see-through, moving swiftly down the chancel just ahead of the procession with the humeral veil, taking the reserved sacrament to the aumbry, and I got given the words: "Now what're you going to do about it?"

A while later, a year maybe, came another sentence: "I should be a priest" - which, I can tell you, I did not believe at that point.

I'm retired now; so my only ministry is my poetry, so to speak.

I was a shepherd for years. Loved it. Love goats, too. We had an old-fashioned, all-sorts mixed farm for pleasure. Tom was still teaching philosophy then.

I love to run. And I'm learning the harp. Ever since I heard Osian Ellis play when I was in the Ludlow Shakespeare Festival company, I got the bug, but have only just scratched. I've loved singing in choirs. I love to dance.

When I was very young, raking leaves with a friend on the street, we both thought it would be neat to be architects. We created very habitable floor plans with our raking.

Pretty early on I knew I would be an artist - but which sort? First term at university did it: we "freshies" were required to wear sandwich boards declaring our name and college or whatever, and halos on our heads made of foil-wrapped coat-hangers. You were not allowed to take them off except to sleep, and I had a dance class to go to across town by streetcar. I didn't go. That was how theatre won out over dance. It lasted for the next 30 years.

Because Tom's children all live in another province, and none of them speak French, coming here to visit us is a sort of yearly pilgrimage for them. My brother is about to make the same pilgrimage. He has a rare cancer, Waldenström's disease, which he has quite stunningly overcome for years. I've almost ceased worrying about it, as he just goes on being active and creative and zest-ful.

I wouldn't be who and where I am now if it weren't for a life lived with Tom. Mind you, he wouldn't be where he is now except for a life lived with Mia. Who'd have thought we'd end up on the Québec shores of the fleuve St-Laurent? My appointment to ministry in Quebec City did that for us.

Things unfold, and when you look back, you see how this or that seeming misfortune made room for this or that transition to this and that blessing. The pattern repeats. So I have serious hesitations about regretting. But sin one always regrets, yes? All that sloppy threadbareness and bad backhanded weaving. And yet . . . I'm reading wonderful Denys Turner's wonderful book on Julian of Norwich, and being struck anew with Julian's "sin is behovely."

I don't give "being remembered" the kind of thought I used to. When I was a very young actress, I thought I would become Dame Mary Anderson. Oh, the folly! First, I was a Canadian, not a Brit, and we don't do Dames. Second, I suffered a name-change, because at the time there was another Mary in the Actors' Association. But, third, I imagined being recognised in my lifetime for doing something well. I no longer think that's realistic.

Influences? Rowan Williams. His theology has formed my theology. His modelling of the Christian life lived and prayed is still the lodestar that guides me. That wouldn't likely be so if I hadn't served my internship with him while training for the priesthood. I would add Sarah Coakley, both the theology and the person.

My favourite place is here, in my home beside the fleuve, a few feet from the tide going in and out, and my house built like a body with a pair of arms reaching out for the shore and ready to rock us to sleep on its waves.

For a long time, I said that Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections was my favourite book. Then The Cloud of Unknowing. Then Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses. I loved Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses: does that sound counter-intuitive? And I oughtn't to leave out the most well-worn books, like The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer.

I take the fact that I wrote a poem called "The woman taken in anger" as evidence that that little snippet of Jesus's dealing with the Pharisees surrounding the woman taken in adultery continues to fascinate me. The writing on the ground, doodling or text or gnome or code, maybe poem, the waiting, and the silence. Least favourite? I do a lot of huffing, "This can't have been got down right," because the words describe God in a way I'm not prepared to think God is - like wrathful.

What, me angry? You mean when my husband tried to wash out my housepaint brush in the laundry sink and then abandoned the task? Or totally losing it when I see politicians do politick-speak on the television - when I hear yet one more sanctimonious "We have been perfectly clear. . ."

I'm happiest when the sun rises across the fleuve, winter, summer, fall. I wrote a book about it. In one of its poems I said: "If I were a doctor I would treat my patients With sunrises."

For me, prayer isn't about anything, or for anything, most of the time. It's a state more of being in "what is" than in "what should be". I call it "indicative prayer".

Whom to be locked in a church with? It would be a toss-up between Julian of Norwich and St Melangell. Julian might be more communicative, but Melangell might be better for me. She's a Welsh saint of whom not a lot is known. Tom and I visited her small shrine in the folds of Pennant Melangell, in Powys, and I came away with a slim volume of poems that recent poets have written about her, The Hare That Hides Within, which has meant a great deal to me. If we were locked up together, I doubt she'd break her silence much. Why should she? But, being there beside her, I might hope to pick up a bit of what it is that she learned from all those years alone in the rugged landscape, on her knees or digging for food or staring at the stars. I would hope to be renewed in my own practice of kneeling in rugged landscape, and digging for food, and staring at the stars.

The Revd Mia Anderson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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