Good art does many things – it can educate, empower, entertain. I like poems with a current of power rather than a pretty turn of phrase. Poetry might seem flimsy, only suitable for greeting cards or picture books. But poems are not all fluffy, delicate things.
Long-time subscribers might have read my first editorial for Christian Courier in January, 2009. “The rogue and the fool,” it was called, about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament. Remember prorogation? Me neither. Later the same month we covered the first inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama. Historic days.
Initially I shared the position of Editor with Bert Witvoet and Brett Dewing. My tasks were to assign and edit news stories, letters and columns. Mid-February I realized that the upcoming Easter issue would need relevant artwork instead of a news story for its front page. Mild panic.
Thankfully Bert had given me a list of occasional contributors that included, astonishingly, Cal Seerveld! The idea of emailing someone like Seerveld for help finding art felt excessive, like seeing if Margaret Atwood would drop in to proofread. But facing a blank front page is pretty good motivation, so I asked him (heart pounding) to suggest a painting. He graciously agreed, picking a Rembrandt and even writing a reflective meditation linking it to current events.
It was the first of many times that I’ve been bowled over, as Editor, by over-the-top-wonderful submissions to CC that show God must have a soft spot for bold, last-minute plans. Since then, twice a year, I’ve been responsible for selecting CC’s cover art. From van Gogh to He Qi, William Kurelek to Ovide Bighetty – we’ve featured famous artists from history as well as contemporary artists from around the world. Not all are people of faith. It’s exciting to connect with a living artist long distance, like I did last Easter with Ed de Guzman of Quezon City in the Philippines, saying “I’m Editor of a Christian publication in Canada. May we use your lovely painting?” After he said yes and the April issue was printed, Rose gamely mailed a few copies to this Charismatic Catholic Pastor in Southeast Asia. (You just never know where the paper might end up.)
Take another look
The recent Christmas issue of CC had a purple cover with a painting by Nicholas Mynheer over most of the page. His Joseph, Mary and Jesus were not resting in a bucolic stable but fleeing for their lives – homeless, footsore, leaning hard into the wind.
It was paired with a short poem called “Refugees.”
A bit of a risky choice, as it was neither overtly religious nor Christmas-related. The ink was hardly dry before I started getting feedback.
“Who is this guy?” someone asked.
“When I started reading this, I thought – Angela, what are you doing?!” someone else said.
The poem was written by Brian Bilston – the pen name for an enigmatic fellow known as the Poet Laureate of Twitter for his short, accessible verse. (For his bio, he told me to say, “Brian Bilston writes poems sometimes.”) You had to read “Refugees” twice: top to bottom it’s packed with angry refugee-crisis rhetoric. Read bottom to top, however, the argument is inverted: “Should life have dealt a different hand / These haggard faces could belong to you or me.” How we treat strangers is a profound theme in the Bible, though I don’t know if the poet is religious. I thought the poem was fantastic.
I sent it to Mynheer and he was delighted with the connection to his work. He has a whole “Flight to Egypt” series, saying that he’d always seen the Holy Family as representative of all refugees. That linked current events to Christmas in my mind, making it a strong combination worthy of the front page.
Of course artistic taste is subjective. The piece that catches my eye might not be one that appeals to you. So I wasn’t surprised when a CC subscriber phoned to say that the Bilston poem was not to his liking. I was curious as to why. Too political? Not religious enough? Not Christmassy? Nope, it was the format. “No need to do this upside down,” he said.
All the feedback was kind of fun. Art should stir up the emotions. You don’t have to love what I love, but I hope it makes you think. “Refugees” made me wince, shift around guiltily and then cheer. Pretty remarkable for 24 short lines.
Good art does many things – it can educate, empower, entertain. I like poems with a current of power rather than a pretty turn of phrase. Poetry might seem flimsy, only suitable for greeting cards or picture books. But poems are not all fluffy, delicate things. “Refugees” was a clever puzzle, an echo chamber of headlines, an indictment of every closed-off heart and a plea for immigrant-friendly foreign policy. For me it built up steam as it progressed, like a freight train that barrels towards you and then roars by only a few feet away – a lot closer than you realized when it was in the distance, way back at that first line.
Can poems carry clout, make a difference? Absolutely. That’s why they get banned. Chaucer for being too racy, Shakespeare for cross-dressing characters, Shel Silverstein for “encouraging bad behaviour” in kids – even Song of Songs before the age of 30 in some circles, lest it “kindle the flames of lust.”
We need more poets and artists bravely kicking us awake, pricking our consciences, sketching out new worlds with their work. Entertain us, sure. Give comfort where comfort is needed. But also educate, empower and challenge us.
“When I first read ‘Refugees,’ I was ‘shocked’ that CC would include it on the front page of the Christmas issue!” a reader from Vancouver, B.C., said. “Then, when I followed the instructions, I saw a whole other point of view and was blessed by its message of openness and inclusion.”
Beauty and excellence, a call for justice and for compassion – if all those elements come together in the 10 days we have to publish each issue of CC, then I’m pretty happy. It sure beats trying to cover prorogation.