Backtrack to 2011: poets and literature fans orbiting Montréal’s Véhicule Press brainstormed the “Montréal International Poetry Prize” which, with a $50,000 pop for the winner, made headlines as the world’s most lucrative prize for one poem. Though the cash-pot this year dropped to a measly $20,000, the announcement of a second run sent poets across the Anglosphere scurrying for their word processors. The prize being blind, judge Don Patterson had no idea who the writers were and ultimately awarded it a stone’s throw away to a woman living two hundred kilometres northeast in the small, shoreline community of Pontneuf – to Mia Anderson: poet, wife, former actress, occasional shepherd and Anglican minister.
Her entry, “The Antenna,” stunned me at first read – it’s a delicate poem with a compassion that’s unwilling to ignore the complicated, painful nuances facing [un]believers when trying to encounter God. The title refers to the central metaphor, a spiritual “antenna” we have that helps us perceive the presence of God in the world, and the poem explores the moments of relative ease/difficulty in getting our antennae to work the way we want them to. Though while the joys of the poem are many (its language, irony, sincerity, surprising precision of image) there’s another unexpected treat in the form of an interview with Anderson hosted by CBC’s Jeanette Kelly where they discuss the poem and its context.
From the get-go it’s clear Anderson’s a poet writing in today’s artistic milieu: the brash collision of “high” and “low” topics (the mixing of jig-a-loo and the music of the spheres, for example), the reliance on free-verse form and the never-entirely-avoidable undercurrents of ambiguity/doubt (especially when addressing things closest to her heart) all point to her inhabiting-and-being-informed-by the postmodern world. Her voice can’t avoid seeming like a tailored aural image. She stumbles into awkward moments of self-promotion or melodrama, occasionally tripping as she strikes the artiste’s pose. She’s an ironic, self-promoting, twenty-first century poet. To the nines. But when it comes to faith she totally, totally gets it.
Beneath her hip/confessional trappings is an authentic woman of God, a woman who’s thought and continues to think deeply about the implications of mere Christianity in the modern public sphere (particularly relevant in light of recent proposals in Québec suggesting a limit to wearing certain religious symbols in civil workplaces). In the interview she and Kelly jump topics from philosophy to sheep midwifery to poetry to WD-40 to said music of the spheres to Anderson’s self-identified role as a priest in the Anglican community; through it all they end up orbiting a number of profoundly important issues facing anyone invested in the relationship between spirituality, art and their effects on public life – and it’s almost painfully hilarious to hear the ever-tactful Kelly navigate Anderson’s unavoidably theological tangents. Hilarious and completely, consolingly, human.
One of those many tangents, Kelly and Anderson’s discussion of what Don Patterson called “receivership” includes some pretty crucial claims about art and spirituality – particularly with how the creation of art can be seen as a kind of spiritual receivership, one utilizing the same aforementioned antenna. This’s a pretty big deal, because if it’s true then it means making art, no matter the intentions of the artist, their political beliefs, social leanings or attitude towards God, is in some way an act of grace that can’t avoid being suffused with the creative, life-affirming spirit of God.
Now get this – this’s on the CBC. Read: the Canadian BBC-wannabe; publicly-funded/politically-correct to the point of mediocrity. Here, a declaration of belief in anything outside the narrowly-defined (though certainly important) set of acceptable convictions doesn’t prompt outroar so much as an awkward silence where the embarrassed twiddling of thumbs is all-but palpable.
Anderson, as a postmodern poet, knows this and walks a thread-thin tightrope. She isn’t afraid of drawing links between her work as an artist and her history of unapologetic ministry in an established religion, but she frames everything in a language as universal as possible. Not a cake-walk by a long shot – but somehow she pulls it off, fascinatingly. Evangelization becomes an invitation, sermons become drama, prayer becomes an expression of our deep desire to come to terms with “what is so.” And, after a small aside about her history on the stage, she gets to the good stuff:
Anderson: What I would be doing in the pulpit would feel to me more like what I did in a poem than what I did in the theatre… I am preaching from the same source as [when] I’m writing poetry. Really, I’m not so much performing in the pulpit, say, as I am tapping into [...] where the receivership touches and trying to share it. Does that make any sense?
Anderson, through mine-ridden cultural territory, is trying to share (in a secular context) both that authentic ministry/preaching/sermonship should always be in touch with the Heart on the other side of the spiritual antenna and that the creation of art comes from that spiritual source – the same source as liturgy, ritual, dogma, mysticism and (excuse my Québécois) organized religion. In a single stroke, whether she realizes or not (and I’m sure she does), she’s saying, to all the self-professed post-Christian members of the literary/cultural elite, that by doing what they do – by doing what they feel in their bones they’re meant to do – they’re drawing close to something resembling prayer.
The trick here, same as in the poem, is dressing the language in a way that doesn’t come off as “too religious” for the regular Joe to swallow – and the way Anderson navigates that task alone makes the interview worth a listen. Though Kelly, in response to the quote above, can’t avoid an astute: “Yes, but you’re not referring to spirituality there?” Because of course Anderson is. But while she follows a well-worn train by avoiding using words like “spirituality” (the given reason: it’s hackneyed), for her it isn’t a license for flakiness so much as a search for language that does real justice to “what is so.” And maybe her tendency not to use traditionally religious terms is the fruit of a knowledge that her mission is to be outward-focused – rather than being a person who pats believers on the head, she strives to have at least one eye (and both hands) reaching out to the world.
And one of the most beautiful things about “The Antenna” is its effortless accessibility – it speaks into a deep, lived reality of people who identify as believers as well as those who don’t. Kelly observes, along with prize judge Don Patterson, that the poem isn’t about faith/doubt, conviction/flakiness or un/belief so much as this ‘receivership.’ Our ability (or lack thereof) to perceive God is obviously a huge part of the Christian walk and it’s easy to forget that our secular or spiritually uncommitted brothers/sisters sometimes struggle with receptivity all the same. And, while she certainly weaves touchier ideas like evangelization, liturgical responsibility and the viability of objective truth in to the conversation, what keeps the interview (and the poem) from shutting itself inside a theological ivory tower is the adamant concern for people, for questions like:
“Is He there?”
“Then why can’t I hear Him?”
“Am I even doing this right?”
The poem gives a voice and image (or, as Anderson says, “recognition”) to those who want to hear what God has to say but feel, no matter how hard they try, like they can’t get their antennae unstuck from that “old winged / fin socket.” They can’t tell if God’s ignoring them or if they’re just, well, incapable of tuning in. As the heartbreaking final lines say:
[...] they have heard of how it works
sometimes, how when the nights are clear
and the stars just so and the moon has all but set,
the distant music of the spheres is transformative
and they believe in the transformation.
It is the antenna they have difficulty believing in.
Here, ultimately, Anderson speaks powerfully into the experience of spiritual helplessness, of doubting not so much God’s goodness or His presence but our own ability to receive/make sense of any of it. The poet taps into a universal experience and places it within an explicitly spiritual context before planting said context into a poem utterly divested of Christianese. And so we’re all around the table: believer and unbeliever, hipster and romantic, Anglican and Catholic, secular humanist and religious minister, whatever and whoever, trying to contemplate what it means to be helpless in the face of such Goodness.