Malcolm Guite is a poet and a priest working as Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge. He also teaches for the Divinity Faculty and for the Cambridge Theological Federation and lectures widely in England and North America on Theology and Literature. Malcolm works as a librettist for composer Kevin Flanagan and his Riprap Jazz Quartet, and has also worked in collaboration with American composer J.A.C. Redford, and Canadian singer-songwriter Steve Bell. He was the inaugural Artist in Residence at Duke Divinity School in the USA in September 2014, and ‘Visionary in Residence’ at Biola in Los Angeles in March 2015.
Malcolm returns to Gladstone's Library during our Gladfest literary festival 2nd - 4th September to talk about his new book, Parable and Paradox.
Before the festival, we spoke to him to find out more..
You were born in Nigeria to British expatriate parents. To what extent (if any) has your home life and upbringing informed or affected your writing?
I think that having had an African childhood has always given me a slightly different perspective on my life in Europe and the West, a sense of looking in on everything from another frame as well as belonging where I am. The deepest influence of my childhood was not geographical but personal: my Scottish mother had an inexhaustible fund of stories and poems which she would recite and draw on anywhere and everywhere, and I have inherited from her both the stories and poems themselves and a sense of how poetry as chanted and enchanting utterance is woven into everyday life.
Have there been any other major influences on your work?
Mostly the poets, the larger body of English poetry is like a vast echo chamber in which cadences sounds, phrases and atmosphere are exchanged across time between the poets. It was the sound and feel of Keats’ poetry that made me want to be a poet, though now I would say Donne and Herbert are stronger influences.
You’ve written hundreds of sonnets and reflections over the course of your career. Alongside your myriad other commitments, how easy is it to keep up the momentum?
I aim to keep a regular time for poetry and have a little hut in which to keep my trysts with the muse, but in practice I tend to write in sudden bursts. I was helped in the first book of sonnets, Sounding the Seasons, by the turn of the sacred seasons themselves; I would see that Epiphany or Easter was coming up on the horizon and would say 'well I'll need some poetry for that'. I try not to have long breaks away from writing poetry. I find that one poem summons another and I like to keep some momentum going.
You were ordained as a priest in 1990. You’re quoted as saying ‘being a priest and a poet feels a very natural combination.’ Can you expand on this?
As a priest I am called to enact and celebrate the sacraments and liturgy, inviting people through them to an encounter with the Divine. In a lesser way a poem is also a made and shaped liturgy: as they pass through it, the reader or listener can make new sense of their experience and sometimes sense to connection between heaven and earth. Shakespeare's description of the poet glancing from ‘heaven to earth and earth to heaven’ and 'bodying forth the form of things unknown' might also apply to the work of a priest.
How did you come to write your most recent book, Parable and Paradox?
Many readers of Sounding the Seasons had asked for some more sonnets, going beyond the feasts and festivals, perhaps to be used in ‘ordinary time’ and concentrating on the gospels and the teachings of Jesus. As I thought about this I realized that although I had spent along time thinking about what Christ had done for me and for all of us by his Incarnation, death and resurrection, I needed to spend more time, personally, sitting at his feet, as it were, and listening afresh to what he actually said and taught. Especially I felt the need to engage and wrestle with the more mysterious and intractable of his teachings, what are sometimes called ' the hard sayings, and writing these new sonnets seemed to me to be a good discipline for doing that. Parable and Paradox therefore contains a core sequence of fifty sonnets all in dialogue, in one way or another, with the words of Jesus, but it also contains a wider sweep, poems about ecology, about the use of language, observations of natural beauty, reflections on passion and compassion. But I felt that these poems are themselves brought to a new light by being placed alongside that central sonnet sequence.
What will your next work focus on?
Ah, I am planning something completely different! I am currently working on two poetic projects. One is a collection of ekphrastic poems, in collaboration with the painter Bruce Herman and the other, a much longer term project is a cycle of poems circling around the figure of Merlin. I also have the possible beginnings of a novel brewing somewhere inside me.
You utilize the web and social media very well. How important is that in this age?
One good thing about being a College chaplain is that you are kept up to speed by the younger and more tech-savvy generations. My Facebook profile was created for me, at their insistence, by the College choir, just as Facebook was taking off, so I'm used to it by now. I created my own Wordpress blog/website and the chief thing there was being able to let people hear me read the poems as well as reading the text themselves. When it comes to poetry though there is no substitute for having the book in your hand.
You’ll be reading from your new collection at Gladfest this year as well as thinking about William Gladstone’s approach to Dante. Can you give us some clues as to what to expect?
Gladstone loved Dante, and not simply in a detached literary way. Indeed, he wrote:
'The reading of Dante is not merely a pleasure, a tour de force, or a lesson; it is a vigorous discipline for the heart, the intellect, the whole man.'
I took those words of Gladstone’s as the epigraph for my own poetic sequence 'On Reading the Commedia' which is a kind of contemporary 'readers journal' in conversation with Dante's text and written in terza rima, Dante’s own poetic form. I will be reading one or two short pieces from that which I hope convey both the pleasure and the wisdom I have found in reading Dante, just as Gladstone did before me. I will also read from my new collection, Parable and Paradox, which ranges from poetry about the current ecological crisis through to celebrations of the seasons and of music, through to a sonnet sequence that wrestles with the challenge and mystery of the strange teachings that lie just under familiar sayings of Jesus.
Would enjoy this talk?
Most people I hope! It will be of interest to anyone who loves Dante or Gladstone, certainly of interest to anyone who enjoys poetic form and the contemporary use of metre and rhyme, and anyone who would like to approach an over-familiar religion from a new angle.
What are you hoping to find or take from Gladstone’s Library?
Just being there is helpful to me! It was at Gladstone’s Library that I wrote two of my central poetic sequences and it seems to be a place my muse is always haunting! I often come alone but this time I'm looking forward to good company and great conversation.
Have you looked at the rest of the Gladfest lineup – is there anybody you’re particularly looking forward to seeing?
Yes, and I’m already enjoying the pleasure of anticipation! I'm especially looking forward to hearing the novelists talk about their art and craft as I am trying a little experiment in novel writing myself, I am a complete beginner and still in the early stages. I'm looking forward to Francesca Haig's ‘How do you know if a novel is finished?' workshop and secretly hoping I can find someone to answer the question 'how do you know if a novel is even started?'
But I expect that the best thing will be the unexpected - the happy surprises!
Malcolm Guite is at Gladfest 2016, 2nd – 4th September. For more information on his event, please click here.
To find out more about Malcolm, visit his website.
Photo: Lancia E. Smith