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An interview with Janet Morley


It’s a pleasure to have writer Janet Morley on my blog as she shares her faith and writing journey, plus her recently published poetry anthology Love Set You Going is definitely worth adding to the Christmas list…

Tell us a bit about you and how you became a Christian.

I grew up in a very churchgoing family. Faith was an important part of our family identity, and I was enthusiastic – you might say that I was a competitively devotional child! Being part of the church choir gave me a love for the psalms and a fascination about what went on at the ‘holy’ end of the church. A big influence on my faith was my father, who himself was the son of a vicar – an older father who really grew up as a Victorian. My father not only taught me to read the bible every day, but he would set me and my brother the task of learning the (BCP) collect for the day each Sunday. This rather bizarre task for a child would later prove distinctly useful when I came to a grown up interest in writing liturgy myself. 

Like anyone who grows up surrounded by family devotion, there have been stages when I have needed to review and reclaim Christian faith and practice for myself, and indeed fight my father in certain respects to forge my own beliefs. (Initially he didn’t support the idea of women’s ordination). An important RE teacher at sixth form level helped me see how to integrate my heart and my brain in approaching the bible and what sort of set of texts it was. I struggled like many women with the patriarchal nature of what the Church has so often taught – but that pushed me into really exploring what has been hidden in our tradition which empowers women and others who have been overlooked.

These days I have reached a place of peace with what Christian faith teaches, while realising that the communities that seek to embody that faith will always struggle with very human politics. I love finding ways to intrigue and delight both children and adults by introducing them to the riches of our tradition, or refreshing their understanding of it.

You are a freelance writer and have written several books on prayers, liturgies and poetry anthologies. What do you most enjoy about poetry and why?

I think liturgical writing is rather different from poetry, although writing it may call on many of the same skills. Liturgy is aimed at the community, trying to articulate what the whole body of the Church can inhabit and say. It is ‘performative’, that is to say that we speak the words not just because we believe them, but in order that we may believe them. As such, it needs to use images and resonances that are public and shared by Christians. This is why it so frequently uses words or stories that come from the bible, and by using them it enables the congregation to embody in the present moment the overarching story of salvation which our faith teaches us. In many ways I think this is what ‘belief’ is – not an adherence to a set of propositions, but a willing agreement to place ourselves within the story, and be changed by it over time.

Poetry (and I don’t just include ‘religious’ poetry) has a different relationship with truth. It can be quirky and idiosyncratic about how it sees the world, and typically works best when it focuses on the detail of things in a telling way. It can be ironic, and humorous, and ambivalent (none of which moods work in liturgy). But there is absolutely no point in writing poetry if you are not trying to tell the truth, even if, in the words of Emily Dickinson, you ‘tell it slant’. Poetry makes the reader work for meaning – often several layers of it. It is spare and succinct, but you can’t hurry it. You often have to read it more than once, maybe out loud, because the sound or the tone of voice is crucial to the meaning. 

Can you share your experience of how poetry, liturgy and creativity can be a part of someone’s faith journey?

Well, see the answer above! Poetry is particularly good for exploring an individual faith journey, because it faces reality, within you and around you, and isn’t afraid to ask questions and to explore dark places. Because it can often overturn clichéd ways of seeing life, it can take you through the process of ‘unlearning’ what you thought you knew – about faith as well as about other things. And this is a vital part of growing in spiritual maturity. Some of our best religious poets have precisely used their poetry to explore their relationship with God – passionate and prayerful, but also sometimes angry or confused. It helps.

In your most recent book ‘Love Set You Going’, you share your own reflections and commentary on poems of the many different kinds of love including ‘up and down the generations’, ‘grown up love’ and love between ‘God and the human heart’. Why did you choose these themes? How did you select the poems to include? 

Well when my editor asked me to plan an anthology of love poetry I did wonder why the world needed yet one more book of love poems! But most on the market just focus on romantic and erotic love, and actually life offers us and asks of us many sorts of love, and I’ve tried to reflect this. It was very difficult making my selection, because the pool of possible material is enormous. What I tried to do was choose poems which include the widest possible range of types of love but also to convey how love has its different moods and seasons. ‘Love’ as we experience it, is not just one thing. It changes over time; sometimes it goes wrong; there may be disappointments or ambivalence, as well as passionate engagement. And I believe that what we learn about love in our human relationships can help us deepen our love of God, in whom we live and move and have our being.

You have a wonderful gift to expound upon the beauty of a poem and explain it in a simple, clear way. In your opinion, how can a reader best interpret a work of poetry? Are there any techniques that you use to further your understanding of what a writer is trying to convey?

I owe a lot to my English teachers at school and university who helped me to tackle poetry and really try to notice how it works on my brain, my heart and my senses. I think one of the best tips is to read the poem out loud and see how it is asking to be read. Another is to try reading poetry with other people – I attend a regular poetry group and it is fascinating to see what others choose and also the different interpretations that emerge. Never forget that the ‘voice’ of the poem shouldn’t be simply assumed to be that of the poet him or herself; narrators can be ‘unreliable’ and that may be part of the point. Also, with a good poem, remember that you probably won’t nail down ‘the’ meaning. Usually there is room for continuing reflection, and the poem may return to you with some new insights when you encounter it again.

You have written books including ‘Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany’, ‘Our Last Awakening: Poems for Living in the Face of Death’ and ‘The Heart’s Time – A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter’. Can you describe the writing process from the initial idea to publication?

Actually these anthologies, which include commentaries, are very enjoyable writing projects. When I have the overall idea for the book, I go into a wide-ranging research phase where I am simply exploring what is out there which might contribute to the concept. I love visiting the Poetry Library on the South Bank – London’s best free space that poetry lovers can bury themselves in. It has everything.

Then I will start to draft a list of poems to include. I have to bear in mind the cost of copyright fees, so getting a balance of texts that are old enough to be out of copyright is important. I like to make sure that there is a good gender balance of authors. Then I will structure the list, perhaps having clear sections which suggest the order I should use.

Then I start taking each poem in turn and writing a detailed commentary. Usually this makes me realise why I chose it: occasionally I will change my mind about including it. At this stage I can easily just pick up the book draft and work on a single poem. (Often I wouldn’t tackle more than one poem in a day, certainly not more than two, because it’s important to inhabit each poem properly). Finally I will read everything through and prepare any introductions.

What inspires you in your own writing?

The bible, in all its challenging, infuriating and moving complexity. And my own life, loves, fears, hopes and friendships. And curiosity.

Who has most influenced your writing?

Well, obviously all those wonderful poets that I have chosen in my anthologies, but also the following: for clarity in expounding Christian faith in imaginative ways, John Bunyan, C S Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Rowan Williams, Monica Furlong and Mark Oakley. For commenting on complex poems in ways that are both entertaining and disciplined, the poet Don Paterson.

What would you consider to be the most challenging aspects of writing? How do you overcome this?

Well, you have to give it time – your best time of day, whenever that is. There is a lot of just sitting down and making yourself work at it until you get into ‘flow’. You have to sacrifice some other things in your life to achieve this, carve out the space in which to work.

Could you share some wisdom for any aspiring poets out there?

If you get an idea, or you notice something striking, make some quick notes if it’s not the right time to sit down and focus. Then try and do that at your earliest opportunity. You might find yourself scrawling phrases that don’t quite connect and then they come together after a while. Cut, cut, cut. Don’t try and include everything in one poem. Show what you mean, don’t spell everything out; don’t point the moral. Leave your draft overnight and then hone it in the morning. Then leave it; it’s probably finished. If you have a writer’s block, try bashing out an exercise, e.g. taking a genre like a sonnet or a ballad and see what you can do. Later, your own inspiration may come unbidden because you are in the habit of writing. Find someone you trust or a writers’ group who will give you constructive feedback.

Janet Morley is a freelance writer and retreat leader, who has worked for Christian Aid and the Methodist Church in the area of adult Christian education. She is the author of books of liturgy including All Desires Known. Recently she has published anthologies of poetry accompanied by her commentaries. She has six grandchildren.