Sunday, May 01, 2011

Interview: Poet and Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes of New Hampshire...a conversation with this blogger...
by Peter Menkin

  • I notice in going over the interview with United Methodist Minister and poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes that a lot of the theme in these questions, and answers, have to do with a poet’s work. It also has to do with, To whom are you speaking, and Pastor Steve says in so many words, It is more about who is speaking with me.
  • (I help people to live with heart, connect with God, and practice gentleness, gratitude, trust, courage and love.)

The poet is a contemplative man, and I think the reader will agree that the Facebook friend whose current Parish is New Hampshire, USA (Bow Mills United Methodist Church) and who will be moving to Massachusetts, USA in July (St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Acton), has a conversation with God going in his life. This Billings,Montana man who went to Rocky Mountain College, and Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California is married to Beth, and sometimes speaks in terms of aphorisms in his Facebook postings. Here are three of those:

  • People love to ask, “What would Jesus do?” as if they know. But Jesus consistently did what no one expected!

  • Steve Garnaas-Holmes Yes! People are not going to come for our programs. They’re going to come for deep relationships, for vibrant living, for joy, for love, for transcendence. It’s the heart. The heart shared by a whole community who live as if they’ve just been resurrected. Hearts strangely warm. Unless we’re madly in love with God, they should pass us by.

  • You see? We are one. We weep each other’s tears and sing each other’s hope. We are one. To be human is to be one with all. We are one.

We two spoke by phone on a Monday night in April 2011, 8 p.m. New Hampshire USA time: Steve from his home and this writer from his home in Mill Valley, California USA. As a towards-the-last-word of this introduction, a singular hallmark of Pastor Steve’s poetry is Christian hope.

Pastor Steve can be emailed at his Parish:

The interview is the second in a series of interviews with poets who write religious and spiritual poetry. Right now this writer has Pamela Cranston interested in being interviewed, a California poet who is an Episcopal Priest and former Sister in the Franciscan Order. Also the Washington State USA Lucy Shaw!! These two begin the section, Anglican Poets USA.

Your nominations for poets in the United States to be interviewed are invited. Anglican nominations are good, others of religious and spiritual inclination for nomination are encouraged, of course. Please note their name in the comments section of this posting. State a reason for including them in your list of religious and spiritual poets.


As a poet, when did you find you wanted to write poetry and begin to do so? As part of that question, the inevitable, Why do you write poetry? What do you find it has for you and others?

I don’t remember when I first began to want to write poetry. I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember. I can think of lots of reasons why I like to write poetry… but when it comes right down to it, I just love to write poetry.

A lot of the poetry I write is essentially prayer. I think poetry and prayer is the same thing. In that sense I don’t really write it for an audience, only for God. In a sense, I am my own audience.

Part of the wonder of poetry is the possibility of conveying that wonder to somebody else. Through the poem someone else might join in the conversation, with a different set of perceptions and questions or insights and experience.

Somehow their contribution to the conversation enriches me in the same way someone else’s prayer enriches me, even if I’m not aware of their prayer.

Have you a book of your work, or do you intend to have one published? (If no book in the works, make believe there could be so questions can be answered.)

Will you let us in on this news and tell us What thoughts you’ve had about a theme, or if there are particular favorite poems of yours that you’d like to see as part of the work? Meanwhile, where is your poetry published, mostly?

I do not have a book. I would love to. A lot of people urge me to publish a book. There are three reasons I haven’t. I enjoy writing poetry more than the work of getting a book published. It’s a matter of looking at poetry and writing to editors. That kind of thing.

I think I am haunted by a little bit of self-doubt, and I think, “Who would want to look at my poetry?” It kind of tugs at me. The third reason is I just plain don’t get around to it.

I’ve thought about putting together a book with some kind of theme. People have said I could write a book about my walking in the woods, or just about God, or reflecting on Biblical passages. The only place my poetry appears regularly is my blog, Unfolding Light. Rather than compiling a book on one them, I’d prefer one with more variety in it,with a theme that’s a little harder to pin down.

Where I first found your work was in the journal, “Weavings,” published by the Methodist Church (Upper Room Publications). How did you get started with that journal of spiritual writing? Please tell us why you like the journal, and as a Methodist Minister and poet who is currently assigned to Bow Mills United Methodist Church in New Hampshire, What does it offer a parishioner in its writing?

In fact, “Weavings” is one of the only places I get published right now. (Weavings is committed to exploring the many ways in which God’s life and our lives are woven together in the world.) The way I got started is that the editors asked if I would submit something, and I’ve been doing it for a little while. One of the things I like about “Weavings” is that they explore the spiritual life through spiritual writings, essays, stories and poems, in ways that are really honest and unflinching, and accessible to the average person–who are in touch with that kind of thing. It is not couched in special language.

Your wife is helpful and encouraging of your poetry work. So I understand. Can you tell us in what ways she helps and supports you? Also, this writer is doing a series of three interviews with Bishop’s Wives, the first done. Tell us as a husband, What your wife does also in your Church? Is there a special role she fulfills, or work she does as a Pastor’s Wife?

At home with his wife Beth

Actually, Beth doesn’t have much to do with my poetry at all. She is my reality check and my anchor in a lot of ways. My poetry is a thing I do on my own. Like she plays the piano and does Spiritual Direction. We have worked together many times, and that is a fruitful partnership there. We really complement each other well. At the moment we are not working together, but she is a great consultant to have on board.

There is always the inevitable and somewhat worn question that is a favorite of people who ask questions of writers and poets. I think it remains a good question, and fair game to ask, Where do your ideas come from? And to expand on the question, What seems to be your theme in the recent poetry you’ve been writing? If it is liturgical, or Biblical, or some kind of inspirational theme you think your own parishioner’s need or want, please give us a little detail or anecdote.

I don’t usually write poetry for Parishioners: I write for a wider audience or a different audience. Some of the poetry I write is in the [Church] newsletter. I don’t know that there is a theme as much as there is intent. Especially when I write for Church folks, I write with the intent of engaging them in the reality of God in their own lives…to pay attention more deeply. Sometimes that is directed towards scripture; sometimes it is just inviting them to look at their daily lives in a fresh way: inviting them to see more deeply.

Poetry really comes for me out of prayer. It is fair for me to say my poetry comes from God, in the sense that my prayer life comes from God. It’s listening. Poetry is 90 percent paying attention, and ten percent taking good notes. All of the work of the writing and crafting of the poem is just ten percent of it. I think it is a matter of listening, listening to God.

It seems you read your work aloud. That’s a guess, but should be in the realm of possibility. Where usually do you read? Where may someone find your work on the internet? Or in New Hampshire and elsewhere? Sometimes reading aloud to people or even to oneself help the poet craft his work. Do you revise very often a single work, and are you ever inspired to find an encouragement to change a poem after having read it aloud? This writer does? To share something with you my Facebook friend, a poem can be nine years old and have stayed with me all those years, still to be revised. Is so the same for you?

Do you work from pen and paper, or use the computer or typewriter solely?

Have you a mailing list of friends or associates who you “write for” and who are a kind of help or sounding-board for new poems?

As you know, I like to write poetry to express my own sense of religion and respond to liturgical and inspirational matters, including our Church (Episcopal) prayer book or the Bible. I find I do my writing of poetry first to share with friends, many from Church. Is Church an inspiration or aid to your own sensibilities as a poet in ways every day–other than the specific writing of the poems? It is for most of us who attend worship, but what of the poet, is there a special inspiration? Even in the words of prayers or readings?

You ask about reading poetry aloud. It’s really true. It’s their sound, not just the words and their meaning. I enjoy the music of poetry, the actual spoken words. One of the most pleasurable expediences writing a poem I ever had was once, late at night, lying on the floor. Working with the sounds of the words was actually physically pleasurable, like eating bread. There is something of that with what I am doing with poetry, let the sound be the poem and let that be the reality of a poem.

(Here is that Thanksgiving poem):

It does not take—although
it could—our breath away,
this warm November day
that should be dense and dark;
instead it gives.
The park is washed: a tide of light
leaves the day’s bright spine
exposed, the clear sun beached
upon the evening’s shore,
reposed where children each
reflect it, young and pure.
How is this day not old
and grey, but yet a bride,
lap full of wedding gifts,
all tied with gold, with light?
It lifts our hearts, too cold,
and too soon winterized,
to watch our children run
in ribbons through the gold,
the bright gift
wrapping strewn, untidy sheets of light,
across the afternoon,
not innocently laughing
jewels into our laps
until our arms collapse,
and we are warm. How can
this laying on of hands
of light, so late, be right?
What are we to remember
of this gilded not-november
miracle of days?
The oracle of praise
this day of Magi lays
abiding at our feet,
the reason given
for tidings of light,
light piled against the trees and benches,
against our legs and feet,
against our thoughts of sleet:
God has no oughts, but gifts.
This is our tithe: let light
be more than interlude,
life little more than this—
delight and gratitude.

There are some poems that suggest themselves as done, but a lot of poems stay open and I keep working with them. I sometimes work with them years later and see [them] in a new way. There may be a specific problem that I can work with that vexed me. A poem can come off in

Weavings Vol. 26.2

60 minutes or twenty years. There are some poems that never finish: they keep growing and suggesting new things.

I use whatever I’ve got. I use computers, I use pen and paper. I write poems on the back of envelopes and napkins. I write anywhere. Sometimes I’m sitting in the house, or out walking. If I don’t have any paper I have to work it out in my head, like on a bus.

You know it’s what we call a first reader… someone we send a work to before we send it out to a public. The closest thing I have for that is my sister who lives in Montana where we grew up together.

Almost anything becomes an inspiration for me. Sometimes my poems have a liturgical feel about them. Sometimes specifically scripture and the church liturgy. But I would say just as often it is a piece of junk mail, or something I overhear. I do believe God speaks to us many places. Poetry comes to me in whatever places I encounter. It comes from all over.

What would you say to young poets?

To young poets, I’d say four things. The first is: pay attention. Look around. Notice stuff. Poetry is mostly listening, and partly taking really good notes. Let what you see be itself, without imposing what you think. Really look. Look with your eyes and your heart; look at what we usually miss. Look at what’s invisible. Listen to what people say, and how they say it, and what is unsaid. Feel what’s inside you and around you. You don’t have to have deep emotion to write poetry, just deep attentiveness.

Secondly: Don’t try to be “good.” Just be yourself. Don’t worry about how good it is, just pay attention to how true it is. Keep practicing this weird thing of matching up words with the world in and around you. It will take a long time until you’ve practiced enough to bother with that whole thing of judging whether a poem is “good enough,” especially for other people. Don’t bother. Just write for yourself.

Third. Write a lot. Write a bunch of junk. As long as it’s a bunch. Just write. Get it out. Practice writing. Practice paying attention to how you say things, and put your mind to learning–and keep going.

Four: Read a lot of poetry. Lots of different kinds. Not to copy, or to compare, but to whet your appetite, to see new possibilities, to learn from others– and to enjoy! Notice how they do it. Notice what happens in poems that you really like. See what can you learn from them.

Is there anything that you’d like to add, a question of your own or statement you want to make that I have not touched upon?

I don’t think so.


Poems by Steve Garnaas-Holmes, as selected by the poet and posted with his permission. All Copyright © Steve Garnaas-Holmes.

O Greening God, Spring be your praise!

Praise be these warming, gentle days,

the evening light that lingers more

each day beside her lover’s door,

the silent, ice-bound brook’s release

to sing its melody of peace,

and snow-bowed limbs, now free, that lift

their hands to thank you for the gift.

The lines of geese, mile after mile,

are monks processing up the aisle

toward the altar of their nest

while chanting psalms that we are blessed.

Your praise be sap in buds and roots,

the courage of the small green shoots,

the breeze from warmer bosoms drawn,

the songs of birds that thread the dawn.

O God of budding, birthing things,

all rising up your glory sings—

all bugs that hatch, all smells that waft,

all thawing, swelling, turning soft:

this is your praise, and may it be

as in the woods, so clear in me.

Emerge in me, O Lord, like spring,

that I may be the hymn you sing.

The glass of water says

The wind says, “Let me hold you.”

A cloud mouths your name in silent payer.

A bird intones an ancient chant,

“Beauty shadow you! Beauty shadow you!”.

You walk under the street light,

an angel with one wing,

and she says,

“You, too, have this gift.”

You cross the bridge,

patient on its hands and knees,

and it says, “Walk over my back

to your love.”

You go along the frozen river

and the black water moving underneath

says, “Already something in you

is arriving at God.”

The steps you climb say,

“Yes, the whole world holds you in its lap.”

The door says, “Go through! Go through!”

The wastebasket says, “I will relieve your burden.”

The glass of water, with a twinkle in its eye,

says, “Yes, it’s true. Beforehand,

long ago, we all agreed, all of us,

to bless you, and to go on blessing you.”


If I were an ox

and You my driver,

would I mind?

If love were my yoke,

would I balk?

If I walked a path

whose way I could not see,

whose end I could not know,

would I complain?

If I pulled a cart laden

with riches beyond my knowing,

bound for strangers,

would I refuse?

Oh, Driver, Brother, You

who set me free,

crack your whip of light.

Let’s walk this joyful road.

Autumn Colors

Autumn colors have an edge.

Shards of red and orange sparkle

through the cracks and splintered ends

of summer’s gentle arc.

Behind the green and murmuring veil of bliss

death speckles every leaf and bark,

and colors spark and hiss.

Leaves turn the shade of blood,

the shade of bread, then die;

they bleed and wash the trees

with broken colors,

shadows radiant and bright,

‘till all is gathered and dispersed,

‘till all is white.

Death’s season; passion’s colors:

these hues are loose,

and not at our command,

but still not unforgiving:

undomesticated shades

only at the edges of our living.

Faith is such a luminous surrender:

the red transfiguration of the tree,

celebrant with unexpected brightness

pouring life, unshackled, to the wind.

Listen at the garden’s edge, dear child

of life and death, to this rustling oracle:

that what we call a miracle

is often only wild.

This article appeared originally in Church of England Newspaper, London.

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