An Interview with Poet Annette Spaulding-Convy

“Annette Spaulding-Convy was a nun and she is a poet.”

This simple sentence by Hilda Raz encapsulates for me the beauty of Annette Spaulding-Convy’s book of poems In Broken Latin. There are the contrasting verb tenses that demarcate past from present, but also at some level suggest a kind of inherent bipolarity. There are the sensibilities we ascribe to the two vocations—nun, poet—which overlap in many respects and in others deeply diverge. There is the fact of the verb itself, the form of to be—the state of being or essence— which goes to the heart of who we are and how we live our lives.

Hilda Raz’s sentence is nestled among many vivid descriptors on the back cover of In Broken Latin, each of them accurate and well-deserved. As I read the poems in this collection, I affirmed again and again for myself their aptness: lurid, sumptuous, riveting, playful irreverence, deep thoughtfulness.

And yet, it was Raz’s unembellished statement that resonated most with my own experience of reading the book. When I finished the book, I was eager to interview Annette. I’m grateful to her for taking the time to answer my questions. I wonder how anyone who has not yet read In Broken Latin could resist doing so after reading Annette’s responses.

1. Talk about the intersection of poetry and faith in your life. When did you start writing poetry? When did you decide to become a nun?

In a high school English class, I became obsessed with Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T.S. Eliot, so the first poems I wrote as a teenager simply mimicked these poets in content and style (and I did not mimic well), so my initial poetic attempts were terrible. In college, I took a poetry writing course from a wonderful instructor and it was in this class that I found my own poetic voice, resulting in a couple of my poems being published in the college literary journal. Following college, I didn’t write poetry again until I was in my late thirties, when I joined a women’s writing group led by my good friend, Kelli Russell Agodon, here in Kingston. I began submitting poems for the first time in 2000, and after a few publications, decided to write a book about my experience in the convent.

I initially thought about becoming a nun during the years I attended a Catholic high school in the California Bay Area. The devotion and generosity of the nuns who taught me were an inspiration and I considered entering the convent because of their example. For a few years I struggled with my vocation, unsure if I wanted to make such a life-changing commitment. I entered the Dominican Sisters at age twenty-two and for five years I attended graduate school, taught high school, and lived in various convents in the Bay Area.

After leaving the order at twenty-seven, marrying, and having two children, I started several nonfiction pieces about my experience as a nun because I wanted to explore the contradictory feelings I had about the convent—the positive and negative aspects of religious life that I had neither completely defined nor articulated and which seemed to haunt me. After becoming frustrated with the straightforward prose attempts to tell my story, I realized poetry would be the ideal vehicle for expressing my interior struggle—symbol, metaphor, myth—the devices most used to articulate sorrow, religious experience, love. Once I began to formulate my story through poems, I found myself experiencing a certain clarity as well as a much needed catharsis.

2. I remember watching several movies about nuns when I was growing up. The Nun’s Story with Audrey Hepburn, The Singing Nun with Debbie Reynolds. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, with Deborah Kerr as the nun. The Trouble with Angels with Hayley Mills and Stella Stevens. The nuns in these stories were always beautiful. In your poem “When the Priest Stays for Sunday Brunch,” the nuns who serve the priest are slender and lovely while those not so attractive are relegated to the kitchen to wash dishes. There’s this intention by the church to hide the nun’s physicality in the habit, and then there is the duty of the nun is to strip away her vanity. And yet, there is inevitably the fact of the pretty young face and there is also the fact that we like the idea of the beautiful nun. Can you comment on this and how your views are reflected in some of the poems in your collection?

I recently watched The Trouble with Angels and its sequel Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows and I think Rosalind Russell, who plays the Mother Superior in both movies, pulls off one of the most authentic nun performances of that era. She had the walk, the manner of speaking, and the overall aura of many of the older nuns I knew, though her character, like most Hollywood nuns, wore make-up with well-tweezed eyebrows. A few years ago, I watched The Nun’s Story with Audrey Hepburn and I couldn’t help grumbling over the loads of make-up and the saccharin, flat portrayal.

In my book, and particularly in “When the Priest Stays for Sunday Brunch,” I wanted to explore the contradiction between humility and the emphasis of spirit over body with the ways in which societal norms of beauty were operative even in a convent setting. The poem about the priest servers is based on stories I had heard from the older nuns who were in the convent before Vatican II, which was the Catholic Church’s commitment to renewal/overhaul in the mid-1960s. I was struck not only by certain nuns being singled out who were “pretty” but how the pain from the grouping of “attractive” vs. “non-attractive” had lingered with some of these women for nearly twenty years.

In the convents of the pre-Vatican II Church, the nuns wore full habits, covered their hair, and of course, didn’t have access to cosmetics. By the time I entered the order in the mid-1980s, the nuns in my community were no longer wearing full habits, but modified versions (knee-length white dresses and short veils), and a number of nuns were choosing not to wear the habit at all, opting for lay clothing. What I observed was a tension between those who wore the habit and those who did not, as well as an interesting dynamic among the nuns who wore lay clothing—nuns with wealthy family members wore modest but gorgeous skirts, blouses, and shoes from Nordstrom or Macy’s, while other nuns used their small stipend to find clothing at Goodwill. I remember being frustrated and confused by this undercurrent of inequality and status, because one of the reasons I had entered the convent was to make an anti-societal statement about the emphasis on “looks” and the rampant materialism of the 1980s.

As I further reflect on “When the Priest Stays for Sunday Brunch,” I think another element at work in this poem is the inequality between nuns and priests in terms of the power structure of parishes. Many convents and schools in which the sisters taught (pre-Vatican II) were connected with parishes run by priests. The sisters were not in positions of leadership but found themselves in a subservient role with very little input on decisions that affected their convents and schools. What better way to keep the parish priest happy after he said mass at the convent—young virginal women pouring coffee who were as stunning as Raphael’s Madonna portraits. And I wanted the privileged tasks of the “pretty” nuns to contrast with the more menial jobs of the “less attractive” nuns, who according to spiritual tradition, were actually in a greater state of grace because they had no cause to be vain. This level of contradiction and hypocrisy still gives me a headache.

3. One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Feeding Stations of the Cross.” Some of the things that come together for me in this poem are the ideas of fasting, cleansing, nourishment both physical and spiritual, and a bodily sense of self. Also, I love the little “recipes” in the poem with their robust, even aggressive verbs and the last lines that leave you stunned, smiling or both. I’m including one here for the readers.

Pope Lady Buns

Scald milk and sugar
Add yeast and flour until soft
Punch down
Cut into ladies
Poke in currants for eyes
Let rise

Talk about the inspiration for the whole poem and why you structured it the way you did.

This poem began to take shape when I came across an article that mentioned how Clare of Pisa, a nun who lived in the 14th Century, would mix ashes in her food to mortify herself (mortification of the flesh and suffering being viewed as virtuous by the Church). The ashes obviously made her food unpalatable, and, therefore, Clare barely ate and she became dangerously thin, but according to the theology of the time, she became holier. This intrigued me because several poems that I had already written played with this idea of medieval women saints who mortified themselves in the extreme by wearing nail belts, refusing food and water, scrubbing their skin with lye and how these saints have been role models for Catholic girls for centuries. I connected this idea of mortification with the nuns and young women students whom I knew were anorexic, bulimic, and/or cutters.

Around the same time that I discovered the Clare of Pisa article, I came across an amusing website of specifically Catholic recipes for various saint feast days and holy days. Some of the recipe titles jumped out at me and screamed for inclusion in the collection: Virgin Martyrs’ Chiffon Dessert, Christ’s Diaper Cookies, Pope Lady Buns, Dry Bones Cookies, and Virgin Dinner Knots. I wanted to write a poem incorporating the idea of dangerous fasting practices with these recipes and I also wanted to include snippets of experience (being scolded at the dinner table for not eating everything, one of the very thin nuns fainting during mass, forgetting to fast on Good Friday, a friend telling me she won’t eat in front of men).

In thinking about how to organize these disparate elements into a poem, I knew that I needed a pre-existing structure to give me focus and to deepen the symbolism, so I landed upon The Stations of the Cross—14 scenes depicting Jesus carrying the cross, being crucified and entombed. These scenes (paintings or sculpture) can be viewed on the walls of most Catholic Churches and on Good Friday before Easter, there is a ritual of meditating in front of each scene or station. For instance, as Jesus is carrying the cross, he falls three times (stations 3, 7, and 9), so in my poem, sections 3, 7, and 9 are the recipes that I chose to include and which, in terms of fasting, represent “downfall.” Section 6 of the poem reads: And some days when I faint, a fat nun finds a crumb / of doughnut on her kneeler, tucks it zealously under my tongue. This section corresponds to the 6th station, which depicts Veronica offering assistance to Jesus by wiping the sweat from his forehead as he carries the cross. Utilizing the structure and the symbolism of this devotional practice, I was able to intertwine and unite my scattered ideas into a single poem.

4. Were these poems hard to write? If so, were some harder to write than others? I’m asking more in the sense of content than craft, although of course, the two are intertwined. I’m particularly interested in issues of faith and feminism, solitude and engagement with the world, and spiritual fulfillment and the physical needs for food, sex and, yes, sometimes, alcohol—where they converge and where they conflict.

Yes, the poems in this collection were hard to write because I felt compelled not to end up with a book that simply ranted against the Church or was stereotypically sacrilegious or seemed intent on communicating certain injustices at the expense of any humor. One of my mantras as I wrote was “find the sacred in the profane and find the profane in the sacred.” It was important to me to convey my convent experience in an honest way that did not demean the genuinely unselfish lives of the nuns in my order, but rather acknowledged their commitment to social justice that was evident in their educational endeavors, assisting of those in poverty, advocating abolishment of the death penalty, participating in anti-war rallies, etc.

Another aspect of the book is my personal critique of the Catholic Church as a patriarchal entity and its stance regarding women, gays, science, politics, etc. Though these thematic elements could potentially lead to a serious, message-laden collection, I wanted a humorous/ironic thread to run throughout the work, so that even in the most disturbing, dark poem, the reader might be surprised to find himself or herself chuckling. I think the most difficult poems for me to write were those that deal directly with women harming themselves within the context of Church and convent in order to become “holy” or the “ideal” nun, who suffers silently and serves the world with a passive, sweet demeanor. What happens when a nun wants to identify so much with the crucified Christ that she is willing to cut herself and this is seen as “holiness” and not addressed as a mental health issue? I also feel that I took a bit of a risk in writing many of the anorexic/cutting poems in the first person because I know some readers immediately link “I” poems with the real life of the poet.

This collection not only draws on my personal experience, but on the hidden, desperate lives of some of the women with whom I became acquainted in the convent and the lives of some of the young Catholic women whom I taught. I wanted to give a voice to all of this underlying pain, whether personal or through association, whether it occurred in 1362 or 1950 or 1988. I am also intrigued by the interplay of the individual and society, and specifically how the woman who identifies herself as an introvert or contemplative (in the convent or not) interacts with the world, while maintaining her inner aloneness, her inner sense of being intact. It was interesting for me to explore this in my poems since I am a woman no longer living in a cloistered setting, who, nonetheless, still struggles with the intersection of self and community. I think the last few poems in the collection reflect my own battle to confront the part of myself who, at times, desires to be a hermit but finds herself a wife, mother, poet engaged inextricably with her family and her community.

5. What do you most want readers to take away from this collection?

I think I would be pleased if, after reading In Broken Latin, readers felt that they had gained insight into the human side of individuals who join a religious order in the Roman Catholic Church. A previous question dealt with the Hollywood depiction of nuns and I believe the sappy sweet and seductively innocent nun is not only a creation in the movies, but is a pervasive stereotype in the minds of many people who have no direct experience with individuals who have been in a convent or a monastery. I also hope that I have conveyed a historical sense of the mixed message that has been handed down by the Church in terms of spirit and matter, soul and body. On one hand, we’re told the body is a temple and should be treated as such, yet on the other hand, we see how bodily suffering is exalted and made exemplary. And spirit is always viewed as “better than” matter, rather than a more balanced perspective that celebrates each as equal aspects of our humanity.

The book is obviously based on my personal experience, but many poems are quirky, pointed, exaggerated retellings with imaginative additions—I chose the genre of poetry, not nonfiction, so, in a sense, I gave myself permission to fictionalize and create. I value the time I spent in the convent and value the fascinating, rich, sometimes painful experiences I had, especially on an interior level as I confronted my concepts of divinity and self, confronted my relationship to the world and why I desired to lead a life of service—genuine altruism or escapism? And lastly, I hope each person who picks up the book, will be able to relate to the themes because there is a universal element to our search for meaning, love, service, and some sort of inspirational power that is greater than our own selves. If readers read a humorous poem in the collection and experience a moment of darkness; if readers read a dark poem and experience a moment of humor—this would make me happy.

If you’re in Seattle, you can buy In Broken Latin at Open Books. Or buy it online from the
University of Arkansas Press, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.