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Interview: Alwyn Marriage, poet, publisher, environmentalist

08 November 2013

'I never doubted that God had a sense of humour. Just as well'

I was invited to be the Poet in Residence for the 10 Days arts festival in Winchester, which finished last weekend. 

I was working at the cathedral, which is bursting with art. I visited each month, met some of the artists, had my portrait painted twice by one of them, familiarised myself with the cathedral, and started to produce a poetry trail of my poems.

I was really inspired by the launch, mainly lit by candlelight, and about 400 people came. I very much liked Penny Burnfield's piece with human-size hangings of silhouettes of people on a sort of organza material.

During the festival I did two walk-abouts, led a writing workshop, and gave a poetry reading. I've been sharing my responses to the project through my blog.

I've done other residencies, and worked with the Ballet Rambert at Dartington. I've always danced - I used to go up to The Place - and I think poetry and contemporary dance are very near sisters.

At Dartington, we started with the dancers improvising while I wrote poetry, and then I wrote something and they improvised to that; so it went back and forth like a conversation.

Working with visual artists was very different, because I could write by myself in a quiet place, though there was little time for editing. Still, I was pleased with the poems. A little pressure is quite good for one, sometimes.

I think my poetry really does cover everything I experience in life. My most recent collection, festo: celebrating winter and Christmas, is more focused. The incarnation is of such breathtaking importance that I can express the celebration of it only through poetry. I have discovered that many people use poems from festo in preparing for services, concerts, and other events around Christmas, and that pleases me enormously. 

Poetry can indeed pay some of my smaller bills, but it brings much more than money. I've met wonderful people, and received the priceless reward of knowing my words can speak in the hearts of my readers or listeners. I very much enjoy giving poetry readings, especially as some of my poetry, even the religious poetry, contains humour, and I like making people laugh. 

In the mists of losing my faith in adolescence, I never doubted that God had a sense of humour. Just as well. You don't choose humour - it bubbles out of you, doesn't it? And how would we ever survive the Church without humour? My father was a great one for word play, and was very funny; so I suppose it gets into your blood, doesn't it?

I've been fortunate in always being invited to take up posts rather than having to apply. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I would have had any success at all if I had applied for work. I lectured in philosophy and aesthetics at Surrey University and Farnham College of Art, and edited the journal Christian for a number of years.

I was chief executive of two international literacy and literature NGOs - Feed the Minds and the United Society for Christian Literature - for nine years, and enjoyed the privilege of working with and for people all over the world.

I was particularly committed to women's literacy projects in Africa and Asia. It was wonderful to see teenage girls being trained, before going back to their villages after three weeks, to teach literacy to others; and I was also fortunate enough to double both our income and grants while I was there. Then I found myself working as an environmental consultant.

I'd always been concerned about environmental matters, always been careful about our footprint, but I'd never done any science. So, in my mid-fifties, I went to do an M.Sc. in environmental architecture and advanced energy studies, which involves quite a lot of physics. I really enjoyed it. It meant going regularly to the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales. It was such fun to be a student, designing buildings with electricity from the sun and the wind. I came back to work for the borough council, and started to give environmental lectures.

I'm now managing editor of Oversteps Books, after its founder, Anne Born, asked me to take over. I had a great deal to learn, but it's interesting and rewarding work. I find it extremely satisfying to help other poets make their mark, and I take great pride in the high quality of Oversteps Books. I've had it for five years, and done nearly 50 books for people.

None of us can save the world by ourselves, but if all of us do a little bit it will make a difference. The writing is the most important thing now, and the publishing house. But I'm still terribly concerned about environmental matters, and try not to despair. I try to encourage people that they can make a difference, and offer some hope.

I've been immensely blessed in my husband and daughters - the three most wonderful people in the world. The girls are now out in the world doing great things, one as a priest and the other as a senior academic, but we are still close, and spend as much time together as we can.

My mother died 12 years ago, and people still stop me in the street to say how much they loved and valued her. For the next 20 or 30 years, I'd like to be remembered for whatever personal qualities people find in me; but that certainly won't last for 100 years; so the optimistic answer must surely be that I'd be remembered for my poetry and other writings.

We used to tease my mother for always repeating that we have so much to be thankful for. I constantly find myself expressing the same sentiment, and that tends to dominate my prayer.

I'm generally a happy person, but I'm definitely happiest when my writing is going well. My family makes me happy, and I remember when the children were small and I saw them holding hands and talking non-stop to each other when we went out for walks, that had a very particular quality of happiness. I now have some gorgeous granddaughters to add to my sum of happiness. Loving and being loved are the deepest sources of happi-ness.

My father was a fine preacher. He was also a friend of Leslie Weatherhead; so, as a child, I sometimes listened to Leslie preach for 40 or 50 minutes, and found it pretty impressive.

I wouldn't call myself a preacher: I preach. It must be 40 years ago that I started. I suppose I'm very committed, I can think clearly and speak lucidly; and I wrote a couple of theology books which were well-received, and edited the best-selling Collins anthology New Christian Poetry, in 1990.

But I have a very strong vocation to the laity. I firmly believe that we are all called to be part of the royal priesthood. If I went and got ordained, I'd be betraying that side of the bargain with God. And I want to speak on behalf of the laity.

We like holidays exploring the wilder parts of Britain and Europe in our small camper van.

Music? Bach's St Matthew Passion, Messiaen's Vingt Regards and Quartet for the End of Time, Duruflé's Ubi Caritas. I read lots of poetry, including T. S. Eliot, John Donne, e. e. cummings, Paul Verlaine. Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, Iris Murdoch's The Fire and the Sun, a book about physics called The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which bowled me over so much that I kept lending it to people . . . and consequently lost possession of it (and still miss it) - these are life-changing books. 

The best sound? A blackbird singing on a spring evening.

I love the Sermon on the Mount. And also Micah 6.8, which for me sums up what it is to live a Chris-tian life: "What does God require of you? Only this: to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God." It's transparently simple and challengingly difficult. I particularly en- joy the ambiguity of the second clause, which can be translated either to love mercy, or to love tenderly.

I don't often get really angry, though there was a fair amount of anger mixed in with my grief over last November's Synod vote on women bishops. 

If I found myself locked in a church, my first choice would probably be St Peter, as he carries the keys. My second choice would be my husband, because he has a habit of leaving doors open. If he didn't on that occasion, he's the only person I'd like to be locked up with anywhere.

Dr Marriage was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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