Annabelle Moseley has authored nine books, including several poetry chapbooks, two full-length poetry collections and a young adult fantasy novel. Her most recent book is a double volume of poetry: A Ship to Hold the World and The Marionette’s Ascent (Wiseblood Books, 2014). Among other distinctions, Moseley was the 2009-2010 Walt Whitman Birthplace Writer-in-Residence. She was born on the North Shore of Long Island and currently resides there with her husband.
Describe what you are doing in these poems, their themes, why you chose these topics to write on.
A Ship to Hold the World and The Marionette's Ascent is a double volume of poetry. The title of the first half honors Noah. His ship held the only remaining life, all the world, while the tempest raged and that world was tossed. I imagine Noah's family, their various personalities tested by long days as the seas raged.
And just as Noah's ark was filled with a cross-section of personalities and emotions, A Ship to Hold the World is an ark in its own way: holding the various emotions and stories of some of the most compelling voices from Scripture: Cain's bitterness, Delilah's shame, Salome's remorse.
I wrote these poems....as Dramatic Narrative meets Midrash. I had a dynamic acting teacher who introduced me to [dramatic narrative], the practice of making up a backstory beyond what is written for the character one plays.
In a course on the Old Testament, I came across the ancient Hebrew tradition of Midrash, a type of exegesis, or interpretation, of sacred texts. Midrash fills in the blanks and imagines “what might happen if...” in important moments of scripture, creating a work of theological creativity that often yields new insights.
One example is my poem, “Miriam Witnesses Moses' Adoption,” which imagines what might have happened next when Moses' sister, hiding among the river reeds, saw her brother's rescue from the Nile.
In The Marionette’s Ascent, Marionisa [is a] brash and brilliant "everyman" marionette who finds herself on a Dantean journey through purgatory, hell and heaven: a toy room, a hotel and a church, respectively. Her ever-present strings remind us of the sufferings and sacrifices of each our own lives and, ultimately, of the cost of
Who are some Catholic or Christian poets, essayists and fiction writers you respect and admire? Why? (The term “Christian writer” is an admittedly dubious title—what is the requirement to be called such?)
As a great lover and teacher of C.S. Lewis, I draw inspiration from the writings of Peter Kreeft, the C.S. Lewis scholar. I love the work of Richard Rohr. And I cannot say enough how much inspiration I have drawn from Ron Rolheiser's work. On more than one occasion I have been moved to begin a poem after reading his essays. I see the requirements to be [a Christian author] as twofold: self-identify as Christian and being an author whose work reflects Christian themes, rooted in stories of sacrifice, sin and redemption.
What led you to choose Wiseblood Books as your publisher?
I am impressed by Wiseblood's mission statement to "foster works that find redemption in uncanny places and people; articulate faith and doubt in their incarnate complexity... and suffer through this world's trials without forfeiting hope.” My work, which I was finding hard to categorize, fit the mission statement perfectly. The truth is, there are hardly any publishers of poetry books open to themes of scripture and faith, especially if the faith is Catholic.
If you can choose, what poem in each of these volumes do you find indispensable?
In the first volume, A Ship to Hold the World, I find “Salome's Crown for John” indispensable. It is the one that elicits the strongest response when I give readings and the one that surprised me the most when I wrote it.
...Some of his blood smeared on me
as I was tending him. Now there's a font
inside me where was once an aimless sea.
I was baptized tonight, and now I want
to love what I have killed, sent to the knife.
I dance for what I lost. I dance for life.
In the second volume, The Marionette's Ascent, I find “The Marionette in Church” indispensable. The marionette has complained earlier in the collection about having lidless eyes, that they should “always have the humane option to be closed,” that she sees too much. Now, in this poem, she finds herself alone in a church, left behind in a pew after a puppet show. As she studies the stories depicted in the stained glass and watches the crucifix hanging above her, like her, “attached to wood, but by such different ties,” Marion makes a vow: “I promise: here I'll sit, all night with him; I've finally found a use for lidless eyes.”
Who are some of your writing influences?
Shakespeare, Dante, Saint John of the Cross, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Flannery O'Connor, and C.S. Lewis.
Who are a few personal influences in your life that inspired your writing career? How did they do so?
When I was six years old, my father, an English teacher and Professor of Speech, sent one of my poems to Newsday, Long Island's newspaper, and they published it. It thrilled me and I told him I wanted to be a writer. My father was so proud when I won first prize in the Walt Whitman Birthplace Children's Poetry Contest in 1990. I remember his taking pictures, and beaming as the poet William Stafford, who was Poet-in-Residence that year, presented me with my award. That was one of my last memories of my father. He died unexpectedly just months later. I was 11.
My grandmother's brother, Fr. Thomas Brady, S.J, liked to take long walks through the woods. On one of his visits, he presented me with a canvas bag filled with birch bark he had gathered during one of those walks. “Here,” he said. “Write your poems on these.” I was just a kid, but he took me seriously, just as my father had.
Do you have any hopes for what your poetry might do, as a sort of artistic or cultural force? Do you simply write because it is just a part of you, whatever future outcomes may be? Or, simply, why do you write?
Why do I write? I'm an Irish-American, for starters! Ireland has a long history of Bards, celebrating words through epic poems and good stories. The words from people who matter to me stay with me. I write to celebrate that we all have a story to tell and we all need good words, words full of life, to inhabit us.
When I was teaching high school, a student was failing English due to personal struggles at home as her parents were having vicious fights almost nightly. I gave her extra credit to help her pass. The task I assigned was to memorize “Hope” by Emily Dickinson. She recited it perfectly, word for word and then said, "I'm glad I have this poem in my head now. It's good words that I can recite in my mind when my parents are fighting and all I can hear is them cursing at each other."
C.S. Lewis said we write to know what we believe. I write to know not just what I believe, but also to celebrate life and transform pain into purpose.
God Himself communicates to us through the written word and Scripture teaches us: "Whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is lovely... think about these things."
On that note, in my own writing and acting, I am less and less inclined to see the arts as some kind of "active force" for social change. Simply, they seek to get at a truth, to say or present things the way they are, and let what may happen happen. I am pretty much totally right on this, aren’t I?
You know what I like best about your observation? Seeking to get at a truth rather than trying to create broad social change. That change may or may not occur but we can't set out for that purpose unto itself. I think the arts are meant to be intimate in their impact, cor ad cor loquitor, heart speaks to heart.
C.S. Lewis said "You read to know you're not alone." In a similar way, I write partly to let others know they're not alone.
At the end of "Edenʼs Serpent in Vegas," you explain an alternative view of the serpent, rooted in the Hebrew word nachash. This helps the reader better understand the angle your poem is taking. How do you balance the desire to let the poem speak for itself, and giving the reader clues to explain some of its more obscure images?
The key is writing the poem so that even if the explanation of the word “nachash” was not there, the poem would still stand alone. And "Eden's Serpent in Vegas" could easily stand on its own without that explanation. However, I chose to include it because learning the meaning of that word is what led me to write the poem. Since the layered meaning of an obscure word delighted me, I enjoy letting my reader in on the pleasure.
In some of your poems, "Delilahʼs Defense" and "Villanelle for Jephthahʼs Daughter" to name two, you make use of a rhyme scheme. This is out of fashion today. (Or is it? Is it so retro it is quite in fashion now?) Is there any part of you that consciously uses rhyme to "bring it back," or simply to buck convention?
I have always been of the opinion that any tool available to the artist may be employed. I write free verse and form, and both please me. But as anyone who has ever read Shakespeare knows, there is nothing like cadence to inspire and seduce the ear.
It must be noted that there is a literary movement called New Formalism and there are a good number of talented poets whom I know and respect writing in form today. There are quite a few respected literary journals that seek and publish form. What I love about form is that it is difficult, and I do it well. Form is difficult, because it provides willed constraints: and in that way the poem created becomes, when it is successful, a pearl.
What pleases you most about fleshing out these bible stories with your imaginative renderings? What moved you to do this?
I like spending time with and fleshing out the emotions and colors of these epic stories that, in the Bible, are often written succinctly without a lot of extra detail. If people can be reached by, as you put it, the "utterly human aspects" of these stories it might be a an inspiration or a balm, whichever they need most.
Bathsheba, in the lovely poem of the same name, helped along Davidʼs "interlude" with her. She bathes behind a screen each day. Knowing the King watches her bathe, she parts the screen one day to let David see her fully. The poem ends on a lovely conflicted note, particularly the last line: I asked him if I should lie down. His nod/ was like a whole note, eager as a psalm/ I was the prayer he pressed between his palm. Lord is this good stuff. Tell us about your inspiration behind this poem, and what you like about it.
I'm glad you like that poem. I described it as I imagined it happened. The story of David and Bathsheba is a very complicated one (as most human journeys are,) filled with conflict and pain and passion, and I wanted to evoke the passion of lust in the same poem as the passion of prayer, to show the saintliness in the sinner and the sinfulness in the saint.
Characters in your poetry sometimes have a conflicted relationship with God. Do you yourself even interrogate God, and at times find him wanting?
I have interrogated God a few times, in moments of my own overwhelm, but in the end, I have not found him wanting. It is only myself who is wanting; not God.
The week after my father died, my mom and I were living with my grandmother as we were too devastated yet to go home. It was a Sunday, and my grandmother and I left the house; she was taking me to Mass.
"I don't want to go to church. I'm mad at God." I said.
A long silence followed.
Finally she spoke.
"I'm mad, too," she said. "Let's go to church and we'll tell him together."
Something like a window opened within my soul at those words, something that allowed me from that moment on to have a more authentic relationship with God.
Some of this emotion and the accompanying epiphany enters the "Job" poems in my book.
The response poem, "God Answers Job" begins:
You say I don't know loneliness. What, Job,
you've never seen the chasms between stars?
Mend yourself, now. Follow my command.
(I'm pierced in ways you'll never understand.)
In your bio on the back cover of the book, you describe yourself as an "award-winning poet" and "Long Island Poet of the Year," among other things. All of us working in the arts do this kind of self-promotion. Is it incongruous for we Christian artists to do this? Why not be more humble, and let our work speak for itself? Thoughts?
No, it is not incongruous at all. I consider it friendly and polite, a way of introduction. Not to mention that my publishers have always required it. Also, poetry has the power to intimately connect with a reader, to make them feel, to laugh out loud or shed a tear. I would find it rude to put such potency in the hands of a reader without some introduction. See the bio as a glass of wine poured before the intimacy good poetry allows.
As Christian artists we have a responsibility not to place our light under a bushel. In a society where social media, television and the web dominate the free time of most, where the number of people who actually read books is decreasing exponentially, where the number of people who will read anything with a Christian theme is even less, I think anything we can do to help our publishers get the work out there is a responsibility worth undertaking.
Further information about Ms. Moseley and her work can be found at www.annabellemoseley.com.