Publisher achieves his quest: anthology of 'faith, doubt and wonder' is launched
In the beginning – well, the late 1990s, in fact – publisher Todd Swift, pictured, found himself in conversation with a Catholic priest, Father Oliver Brennan, pictured below, about poetry, and the human search for the spiritual. Brennan, a parish priest in Armagh, was interested in weaving poems into his homilies during Mass. They began to meet regularly to develop the conversation, and eventually put out a call in 2012 for poems by people of all faiths, or none. Four years and more than 2,000 submitted poems later, the admissions window for The Poet’s Quest For God anthology was shut “reluctantly” earlier this year.
As a result there are more than 300 poets, from the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, India, Australia and beyond, in the anthology, published by Eyewear, and billed as "21st century poems of faith, doubt and wonder", which was launched at a well-attended evening at the London Review bookshop in Bloomsbury on Thursday night.
Swift gently admonished the doubters – “ye of little faith” – who had begun to wonder if the book would ever appear, before he introduced 19 poets who were reading that evening. He also offered up, if not quite a promise of immortality, then the possibility that poets’ names may live on longer in a cherished anthology, than as a result of their own individual collections.
He said: “The poets in this book do not necessarily believe in a god. We challenged poets to work towards the possibility of a god.” He added: “We were told that no one wrote God poetry any more. And now it appears that almost everyone does.”
Swift declared that other books of religious poetry often didn’t include agnostic and atheist poems, “and I think that’s ridiculous”. He was proud of the feminist content in the collection, with many of the poets assuming, that if God existed, She would be a woman. And although The Poet’s Quest for God was co-edited by a Catholic priest, there were poems in the anthology that “really take to task the Catholic church”.
Among the poets who read, Penny Boxall’s ‘St Giles, From a Window’ reflected on the church’s bells, “each one shouting out / so that traffic almost stops”. Geraldine Clarkson said the collection had indeed been long awaited, “but maybe this is the right time for it”.
Maura Dooley, pictured left, said that, when asked whether she still believed, replied: “It comes and goes.” Luke Kennard, whose poem ‘All of which was maybe too much to go into on our first social engagement, but I felt like we had an affinity’ qualified as the longest title in the anthology, said he had been raised in a low church tradition, and then married into the Greek Orthodox church: “Everything you were told is symbolic is suddenly literal.” The poem begins: “You’re as bad as the last Unitarian I dated,” and concludes: “I am the heart’s estate agent. I know the cuffs of my trousers / trail unholy water wherever we go. I know. I know. I know.”
Poet and publisher Alwyn Marriage said she had edited a collection of new Christian poetry which had proved a bestseller for a while, but hadn’t been reprinted. She conceded that it had not had the epic weight of The Poet’s Quest for God, which at 457 pages must be close to that of a tablet of stone. Other poets who read from the anthology on Thursday night included Shanta Acharya, Michael Bartholomew-Biggs, Edward Doegar, Tim Dooley, Kieran Goddard, Sarah Law, Erica McAlpine, Leona Mdelin, Dante Michaeaux, COP Nield, and Omar Sabbagh. They read in alphabetical order, apart from Tamar Yoseloff, who delivered her poem ‘Illumination’ first rather than last. Rodney Wood, pictured left, restored the natural order of things by winding up the evening with ‘This World Too Will Pass’. It finishes with these lines: “I know that one day I shall rise from my bed / and see the dazed and dreadful face of God / waking me to another life.”
Like many independent presses, Eyewear has had financial problems. Todd Swift descibed The Poet's Quest For God as a "remarkable, historical document", and added: "If people don't buy it, we can't survive as a press." I was going to list all the names that I recognised in this impressively produced anthology, but quickly lost count. At £25 it is a hefty price, but is a similar size to the Bible, and could sit next to it on the bookshelf. And whoever claimed that the quest for God came cheap?