“And the winner of the 2019 Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith in Writing is… Susan Alexander!” A collective inhale rippled across the auditorium followed by the craning of necks. Where was she sitting again? A tall, slim woman rose from her seat, smiling from ear to ear, clasping her hands in delight.
Seconds later the arms of her daughter, smothering her in a hug of celebratory delight and shielding her from view as the crowd laughed looking on. Thanking her husband for being willing to leave Bowen Island, her daughter, and friends, Alexander stopped short halfway through her thanks. “And thanks to you, all my new friends,” she exclaimed to more delighted laughter and applause.
I could not have been the only other person who left the evening of Oct. 29 smiling ear to ear. Despite working on the last two iterations of the Ross and Davis Mitchell Award for Faith and Writing, this was my first time as an audience member as winners and shortlisted poets alike shared excerpts of their work and gathered for an evening of celebrating the gift of poetry to “grapple with transcendence and the divine.” Founded in 2017 on the eve of Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary, the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing curates the best Canadian authors and poets undertaking the work of marking the intersection of the divine through language.
I do not count it as coincidence that the prize has emerged in what feels like perfect accompaniment to the hardest two years I have borne witness to in the public sphere. The tone of public conversation seems at an all-time low. Respectful, nuanced dialogue appears to be an increasing rarity. In a glut of information age, reading occurs at breakneck speed, wolfed down for quantity rather than quality. We are always one tweet, news alert and New York Times featured political commentary behind. Poetry? Forget it.
I arrived at this year’s awards reception feeling tired in my spirit. I was carrying in my heart headlines on Syria, texts on tragedy, and two people dear to me who were failing to reach towards each other. Ducking into the Aga Khan Museum felt like taking a deep breath. I looked around and was suddenly smiling.
Five nervous, shortlisted poets met admiring fans. Students lined up, clutching their coats about them in awe, and friends bound by a mutual belief in the power of poetry greeted each other warmly. People stopped to speak with one another. I met a poet I’ve always wanted to encounter in person, the lines of my favourite work of his going past my lips in an embarrassed rush. It was all so warm, so honest, so fully present and un-instrumental. We simply enjoyed one another and the gift of words that we would perhaps never fully grasp, surrendering to their ability to move us closer towards mystery and in doing so, towards one another.
And that night, for about one still hour, I sat in the hush of a crowd of over 100 people who retained an unflagging belief in the power of language to move us towards one another. I listened as poets Heidi Garnett, Liz Harmer, Benjamin Hertwig, and Chantel Lavoie were honoured for their persistence in “hammering out new forms and new language to express the ineffable today.” In a world that feels increasingly fueled by the next pulsing tweet, text, and media advisory, time stood still and I celebrated the role of the bard in awakening each generation to both their fallibility and promise.
Later that night, as I tumbled into the hotel restaurant for a 10 p.m. dinner, dragging my carry-on behind me, I spotted Alexander, surrounded by her family, head propped up on her hands, a tired smile still on her lips in the corner. “Excuse me,” I heard myself saying. “I was there tonight. I just wanted to say congratulations again. I’m so pleased for you.”
“I am still walking on clouds,” Alexander wrote to me a week later. And you know, so was I, though they were clouds of a different sort. Enduring far longer than a headline, the words of the poets that evening had set me on a path of self-reflection on the state of my own soul and the way in which I allow words to amplify wholeness in my own life. Furthermore, I left with a recovered sense of how the poet is also the prophet, the bringer of truth, the opener of eyes, the Jacob’s ladder between holy mystery and pragmatic faithfulness—a language to which my heart, not just my head, responds.
This was the gift of the Mitchell Prize. Far beyond an awards reception, it served as a “thin place," a reminder of poetry as a tool to cultivate what great minds refer to as “properly ordered love.” Indeed, the poetry of that evening prompted me towards the wise adage, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
Think, pause, consider. Was I cultivating a life marked by the true, the good, and the beautiful? Unable to capture this properly last week, I found myself reaching for, what else, poetry. What was it that Emily Dickinson said?
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —