Interview: Poet & Priest Pamela Cranston talks about poetry, God, Bible, and Faith
by Peter Menkin
Poet and Priest, Pamela Cranston. Photo by G. Paul Bishop Jr. in Berkeley, CA. Comment: Other poems in Coming To Treeline are more spiritual than the poem about Noonmark. You might do well to re-read: "The Blue Boat" or "Storm Over Gothics Mountain." Honors Thesis: Eremeticism in the Anglican Tradition: A Historical Survey of the Past Twenty-Five Years. M. Div. with Distinction, CDSP, CA. Church Army Training, USA. Former Anglican Franciscan Nun, USA.
This is an interview with California poet Pamela Cranston, who has also written a mystery novel. She writes in an email: “Both books: The Madonna Murders andComing to Treeline are still in print – the easiest way to get them is via Amazon or Borders on-line. The book distributor is Bookmasters Inc in Ashland, Ohio.”
Hopefully, the reader will agree that Pamela Cranston is an engaging and interesting woman, who as a poet has grown so much in these past years–so one well-known Western United States poet told me. Her sense of the Almighty, tastes in Biblical writing as literature and her thoughts on religious ideal, and some of her views of the 21st Century Church are touched on in this interview given by her over the phone June, 2011 from San Francisco’s East Bay to the writer’s home north of San Francisco. We spoke for an hour, when the Chaplain for the Episcopal Church USA had to leave to attend to someone.
1) The poet, it seems, can have a vision of heaven. In the work, “Rosebush in Early Summer,” published in The Pacific Church News, you write:
If heaven exists, I do not think
it is a place of fluffy clouds
and, God forbid, mawkish hymns.
Maybe it’s more like a glowing garden,
ravished by roses more fire than flower,
Will you be kind enough to elaborate some on your current and even past vision of heaven? This especially in light of prayers in The Book of Common Prayer that end with offering, “everlasting light…”
I think I should be clear, it is certainly not a place of fluffy clouds. It’s not a place. At most, it might be a dimension. But no one knows. The only thing one can say safely is that heaven is where God is.
When I am counseling them [hospice patients], I don’t tell them what I think. My job is to elicit their own responses to questions like: “What will happen to me after I die?” “Do you believe in heaven?” The Book of Common Prayer reading does not evoke anything in me, not at all. It doesn’t speak to me. The poem [Rosebush in Early Summer] does not speak literally, it is just a metaphor. I do not have a literal picture of heaven. Heaven is where God is.
2) Among your poems, one I like most is a statement, really a journey that elicits a sense of nature and place. It is a poem grounded, and you as poet are with feet on the ground in what this writer thinks of as a landscape work. The writer Thomas Merton admired his father, a landscape painter in Europe, and I believe caught the faith of knowing something about the land, especially landscapes, in his descriptions. The ones I like most are found in his autobiography, “A Seven Story Mountain.” In your quest poem, “Searching for Nova Albion” that the Anglican Theological Review published, please tell us something about what you like about this poem, and how for you the ecology and natural sense of the world as expressed in description and place has meaning in people’s lives.
The poem, a quote:
I drove past burger joints and bookstores,
theaters and boutiques,
past remnant groves
of redwood trees rapt in contemplation,
past oyster beds bubbling by Tomales Bay,
past depressed dairies sailing on the open moor,
ghost ships splintered by the muscling mist,
to the furthest curb of Marin County.
It is a quest poem. I went on a quest to find Drake’s Bay and try to see it, because Drake’s Bay is the place that the first Anglican service in North America (Mass, also known as Eucharist) was celebrated. So I wanted to go there and experience it. I did a little research into it and explored about the nature of Drake’s Chaplain, and tried to imagine what it must have been for him to travel half way around the world from England to visit this uncharted territory. How they saw untouched nature–all those tons of otters, flocks of birds by the millions. And try to think of that newness, that untouched wilderness unlike what we have now.
The challenge for me was the courage to speak up about the loss of all this…to have the courage to protest the loss of these great species and the natural world as we know it by the destruction of civilization. It starts out as a quest poem and ends up as a protest poem.
3) What is it about your life that led you to become a Franciscan at one time? Will you speak to us about that part of your life, and something of what attracted you and changed you so that you became a Franciscan? It seems you’ve a taste for the religious, to whit this excerpt from your poem “Carriers of Strange Fire” published in The Pacific Church News.
Bright stubby flames leapt like orange mice,
quickly nibbled the black cake
of macadam road
and nearly engulfed the three young men –
but unlike Nadab and Abihu,
Priests of Aaron, Carriers of Strange Fire,
they were not consumed.
And I thought, who doesn’t long
to steal the sacred flame? To carry Grace
like a silk purse in one’s back pocket?
I was not raised particularly religious or as a Christian. As a child everyone went to church, and as kids we went to the local Congregational Church, which I rejected when I was 12 or 13. When I was in college I had a big conversion experience, through an Episcopal Priest who had the gift of healing. I was baptized as an adult at the age of 20, and it totally changed my life.
So I dropped out of college and went through some ministry training and ran a national poverty program through the Episcopal Church. It was a volunteer program for the Episcopal Church [like Vista]. During those years in Manhattan, I began to read a lot. So I was reading the mystics, I was reading Merton, Charles De Foucauld, and had a passion for working with the poor, and a life of prayer. I also had connections with the Catholic Worker Movement on the lower east side. I was also working with some Anglican Franciscan Brothers. It was through them I learned they had a first order of Sisters that wanted to start a house in America. So I went to England in January 1974, and became the first 1st order American Franciscan Nun – then I came back to California and helped start the first house in San Francisco.
What attracted me was to live a life among the poor and to live a life of total prayer.
4) This from a review by the poetry editor of Blueline, Stephanie Coyne-DeGhett:
“Coming to Treeline: Adirondack Poems begins with exertion. Pamela Cranston plunges us into the Adirondack geography of experience, memory and spiritual connection by first hiking us to the peaks that define it both regionally and spiritually. Three poems in, we have bush-whacked Haystack, climbed Marcy and clambered down Dix. We find ourselves poem-hikers watching moonrise over Noonmark…”
Are poets moongazers? Sometimes I think so, for they are unusual in their practices. And by moongazer, I mean you look to see the spiritual in our world here on earth, or things that are real like the moon. I have heard the Kingdom of God is here on earth as it is in Heaven. That there is no separation between the two is my understanding. For how can one on earth as a poet be both part of this earth and find the spiritual in the landscape and the land itself, the place where one is.
My first answer to the first question again, Heaven is where God is. That means that in the Buddhist perspective there is no separation, there is no natural or supernatural. So the trick is how you find God in the natural. Theodore Roethke, talking about miracles, once said, something to the effect: Miracles don’t happen so much through the supernatural, “but by taking down the barriers”. So that is we have to learn, both in Christianity and Buddhism–the Christians mystics all say this—that we have to open our eyes, to clean our hearts. So you learn to have a double vision. In other words, to be able to see into the (as Gerard Manley Hopkins said) “inscape” of things. The mystics talk about it. Julian of Norwich talks about it: how everything is clothed in the Goodness of God…She uses a very homely metaphor: “Just as the body is clothed in clothes and the flesh is clothed in skin, and the bones are clothed in flesh, so are we clothed with the goodness of God.”
So the challenge is, how to live it. How do we live it?
5) In a paper you gave called “Poetry and Priesthood”, you quoted Dr. L. William Countryman from his book The Poetic Imagination:
If Anglicanism survives, it will be by the grace of God communicated through the spirituality of the poets. (Emphasis in boldface words by the poet.) “The poets [Dr. Countryman speaking] summon us to the reality of God’s presence, to the surprise of grace. In so doing, they are telling us to abandon idolatry, to abandon fundamentalism, to allow no sacred thing, however venerable, to stand on the level of God’s own self, given to us in grace.”[i]
For me as a poet, I find this statement tremendously exciting. As an Anglican priest, I find it rather unsettling, however inevitable (given the continuing institutional decline of the Church of England and the Episcopal Church) this spiritual transformation may be.
Why such a dark vision? Will you speak to us of Christian hope, and tell us where we may find examples of it in your own poetic vision?
“Poetry and Priesthood” was given at a symposium about an exceptional book, The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition,[ii] by the Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman, New Testament Professor at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA…”
Dr. Countryman was talking about the idolatry of the Church, how the different factions of the Church, the conservative, liberal, evangelical, catholic, broad church, pro-gay, anti-gay factions …all these factions are fighting with each other. As long as we cling to a hard-edged dogmatic perspective of each of these views, we tend to be idolatrous. These views are tearing the Church apart. What he’s saying is we must give up this idolatry to be true to God alone. So he says that, if Anglicanism is to survive in all of this conflict, it is because of the spirituality of the poets, which does not cling to idolatry, but to God him or herself.
So you say: “Why the dark vision?” That’s why the dark vision. Then you ask, “What does it say about Christian hope?”
Back in 1967 and 1968 Thomas Merton gave a retreat to a group of nuns, prioresses and abbesses, which was put into a book called the Springs of Contemplation. The question he asked those nuns back in 1968 was this: “What would you do if organized religious life were to disappear?” So today, as we contend with these battles in the Anglican Communion, I ask a similar question: “What would you do if the churches, as we know them, were to disappear?”
Merton had a couple of great lines in response to this. He said: “Stand on your own two feet.” And, “Give courage to the creative and imaginative members who need a compassionate community.” So, the question is, I’m hopeful because God is not going to disappear; the Church as we know it may disappear, but God won’t.
The challenge now is: How do we open up to the new way God that is leading the Church? How do we find that? I agree with Bill Countryman and Thomas Merton. It is only the creative ones in our midst who can find the way.
6) In a San Francisco Bay Area community newspaper it was said of you, “The Oakland author is an Episcopal priest, ordained in 1990 after attending Berkeley’s Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a stint in England [and San Francisco] as a nun.” What do you find in the Eucharistic prayers that reach you most, and hold in your estimation the most poetic language?
At the moment, I find I’m moving beyond the language to the actions of the Eucharistic prayer itself. The heart of the actions is four-fold: Take, Bless, Break, Give. To take, as in taking the bread; To bless, as in blessing the bread; To break the bread and to give it. In some ways, that’s really the heart of the Eucharist for me. One could do the whole Eucharist in silence, without words, with those actions.
That said, I’ve had a special affinity with Prayer C, which we jokingly call the Star Wars Canon. It has some T.S. Eliot in it, and was composed by my former teacher Howard Galley. (He was one of the editors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.) I also enjoy some of the other services, not just Eucharistic liturgies, in the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.
7) Of Bible stories and parts of the Bible, will you talk to the readers a little about where and what has caught your imagination, and which translation of the Bible attracts you most? For me, the Psalms are a favorite because they speak of our battle and struggles, and speak of our human emotions in relation to the Almighty one. I read them in light of Christ, so I believe. As well, the poetry of Isaiah, and even the tragic and telling poetic story of Job resonates with me. But of course, for writing, this writer hears that nothing is done better than the story of Noah. Your thoughts on the sections that currently attract you.
In terms of translations, at one point I studied the New English Bible a great deal. But actually found over time I like the NRSV—just because it feels comfortable and familiar. I also enjoy the footnotes in the Jerusalem Bible (but not the French to English scripture translation.)
In terms of parts of the scripture that speak to me now, I love the Psalms because of poetry. There are very powerful psalms – like Psalm 63 or 62. “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” (Psalm 62) Or the first line of Psalm 63, “Oh God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you” – from theBook of Common Prayer, which was done by Charles Gilbert who was part of our Diocese here [California Diocese in San Francisco’s Bay Area], many years ago. And I knew him.
Psalms are not the only thing, I think. I really like the healing miracles in Luke, just because they’re so archetypical. And some of the big stories in the Old Testament like Jacob wrestling with the Angel, and Moses and the burning bush.
When you are dealing with these big stories like Moses and the burning bush, or Jacob, or Paul’s conversion, or the story of Jesus walking on the water, all of these are archetypical. All of these may or may not have been real events, that’s not important. The important thing is getting under the metaphor. What I call, getting under the skin of the Gospel – to dig out the meaning for today’s experience.
I think in terms of the poetry and rhythm the Psalter is beautiful, as is the Song of Songs. The poetic language is quite beautiful.
7) What will you tell the young people interested in poetry? Speak to us a little with advice for the young poet.
First is to read a lot of poetry. And to really read it, deeply. All sorts of poetry, from Shakespeare up to Billie Collins. And read what attracts you.
Study it. Don’t be afraid, when you try to write, to imitate it. That’s how we learn. Slowly you will learn to hear your own voice.
My first published poem was written when I was 19 where I was floored by T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. So I decided in my freshman year in college to rewrite the poem line by line, meter by meter, rhyme by rhyme with my own words. Which I did. It took me three months. It was called the Love Song of J.C. Bilbo Hempstein. About hippies. It was published, and I learned a lot of by doing that. So gradually, in terms of writing, the challenge is to listen to your own voice. And to appreciate it, and then be willing to change and grow.
In the event I’ve left something out, please make a remark or comment here of your liking or need. Thank you so much for your time, and I am again happy to make your acquaintance.
No thank you. But thank you for asking me to be interviewed.
[ii]Poetry and Priesthood by The Rev. Pamela Cranston, was presented at a symposium with
Dr. Claire Fisher and The Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman, in discussion of his book, The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition at
Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California, February 8, 2001.
(Luke 1: 5-23, 57-79)It was not to Elizabeth (you realize)that the angel came,treading down the stair of muslin air thick with resined incense,but to Zechariah, her husband –the rural priest and pragmatist,doing his yearly turn of dutyby the altar in Herod’s Temple.His body froze, as Gabriel knew it would,when the vocabulary of Grace pouredlike liquid fire from his lips.(Angels always carry warning signsfor these events.) What he didn’t expect was a heart gathered against Good Newslike a clenched fist.Zechariah’s doubt turned his tongueto stone – was forced to gestatein its womb of silencenine months long, waitinglike the Rock of Meribahto be smitten, cracked openby his grief and the strict staffof the living Word.Only Gabriel knew how that tongue,once purified, would give birthto pure praise, poetryunstuttered – ringing prophecy –giving to his son, at last,the true namehe never foundfor himself.
Zechariah’s Annunciation, The Anglican Theological Review, Vol. 86, No. 2, Spring 2004.
THE TENT OF MEETINGNeither Moses nor the people of Israelexpected anything strange that day,as they watched his sun-scorched hand push aside the folds of white and blue indigo,as he stepped from the Tent of Meetingonto the hot sand (brown as singed roses)and walked through the Pillar of Cloud.Suddenly, his face gushed rivers of light,like another burning bush — so strongpeople had to shield their eyes from heaven’s dazzle. This is what happens when two people (or many) deeply meet —the windows of their eyes openand the flood-gates of their souls release. In the Tent of Meeting, God bathes the marrow of our being with golden fire,peeling back the shroud of our uncertainties. God’s utter kindness mends the fault lines in our souls.And you, dear friend, who always riseto meet with gentle courtesy,bear in you a matching light,normally hid by the cloak of discretion.But doesn’t recognition always comelike a tiny spear of lightening?(Cranston, “The Tent of Meeting”, new stanza)With love, a holy joy and awe,I stand at the door of my tentand repress the urge to kneel.And so, silently, I removethe sandals in my heart.
Carriers Of Strange Fire
One day, driving to Olema, past torsosof trees sloughing their skins like snakes,I passed a controlled burn. In the ravine,thick white smoke banked above the red Manzanita,shouldering its way like an earth-bound cloudbent on some stubborn purpose.Suddenly, three bold firemen camepushing through the white screen.They strode across the charred-black field,each carrying a steel canister on his back. Like magicians, they waved their fiery wandsback and forth, torching the dry scrub.Bright stubby flames leapt like orange mice,quickly nibbled the black cakeof macadam road and nearly engulfed the three young men –but unlike Nadab and Abihu,Priests of Aaron, Carriers of Strange Fire,they were not consumed.And I thought, who doesn’t longto steal the sacred flame? To carry Gracelike a silk purse in one’s back pocket?Stargazers say the best way to see a staris to deflect one’s gaze to the side of it.The Godgaze of the heart never glimpses God direct. To see, we must glance away. God comes when we aren’t looking.Just as the three young men danced gailyin the fiery furnace, we too must learnto risk everything. Dare to dance blindlyinto the fire. Once inside,you will discover how the dark strange firecarries you.
BY PORTH NEIGWL BAY
(For R.S. Thomas: 1913-2000)
We drove down the long green spine
of the Lleyn Peninsula, past hard-bitten towns with soft names, smooth as melon in the mouth, nameslike Mynytho and Rhiwand unpronounceable Pwllheli.Your whitewashed cottage, clabberedas curds and whey, perched like a snowy owl on the lip of Porth Neigwl Bayabove a spare shingle of beachwhere the tide continually cracked its knuckles,gargling pebbles all day.Fishermen call this tiny Welsh cove‘Hell’s Mouth’ – an ironic placefor a poet-priest unable to utter a bad word.Legend says a lost village lies beneath this bay. When the wind and waves are right,you can hear the muffled bellsthrobbing in the sunken spire.I suspect you came to soakin the aged stillness here,to hear the silence ripened by the riseof ancient prayer, to catchthe hidden chimes ringing in the wind,licking the cold metal of your heartinto song.Pamela Lee Cranston (“By Porth Neigwl Bay, new stanza)Maybe you hoped to hear them toll the changes, even as your own soul finally learned how to undress itselfand put on the, for once, sweet cloak of Absence.By Porth Neigwl Bay, The Anglican Theological Review, Vol. 89, #2, Spring, 2007
ROSEBUSH IN EARLY SUMMER
A large glossy rosebush, studded with amber roses, posed coyly for me one day on a white-washed fence. From my first glimpse, their satin hands unfolded my startled heart.You could almost believe God was a baker shaping sugared rosettes for a wedding cake, was a farmer growing a crop of ruffled plums. It seemed as if the clumsy sun had dribbled drops of golden syrup, as if a flock of orange doves had fluttered down, as if Brahms had composed each bloomas a separate songwhich only children can hear.If heaven exists, I do not thinkit is a place of fluffy cloudsand, God forbid, mawkish hymns.Maybe it’s more like a glowing garden,ravished by roses more fire than flower,where angels do all the pruning,where slugs eat only weedsand where Christ, Himself, worksas head Gardener – this time,fully recognized.Rosebush in Early Summer, The Pacific Church News, Vol. 143, No. 3, Summer 2005.
THE GOLDEN STRING
I give you the end of a golden string,Only wind it into a ball,It will lead you to Heaven’s gateBuilt into Jerusalem’s wall. William BlakeIt takes some people a lifetimeto find the golden string,to hold the slender thread of lightin your open hand, gently as a baby bird, feelingthe pulse of life deftly pulling you forward.Some people, of course, have never heard of the golden string, or if heard, have not believed it and shut their earsto the nonsense of the unknown.Some have longed and hoped for itbut have so clogged the hallsof their heart, they never see clear to find it.No one can give you the golden string.You must search it out yourself.You must learn to let go, to free fall into that circle of solitudecalled waiting. Even your mastery and your prayer will burden you. Ambitionsnaps the thread instantly.Cranston (new stanza)When you die, if you wantyou can catch the end of the golden stringwhen it passes by, over and over,and you will discover it is the Golden Riveryou’ve been walking on all along.