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7 Questions on Poetry: John Kelly

John Kelly photo by John Minihan - Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

Do you remember how or why you started writing poems?

The very first poems were written in the classroom. They were set tasks. Commissions if you will. The teacher would instruct us to write a poem about an elephant, or the moon, or a summer’s day – something along those lines. I wrote one about an old man looking out the window at the snow, and it was pinned up on the wall. In fact I handed up the same poem the following year in the next class, and it made the wall again. The first poems of my own, not written under teachers’ orders, appeared at the big school. They were nonsense, of course –very heavy on symbolism – like automatic writing dictated by some eejit with very similar interests to my own. Things improved a little in my final year. My mother bought me a typewriter, and that brilliant little machine finally put manners on me, and on the poems too. From that point on they seemed to have a shape, and small of degree of sense about them. Discipline had somehow slipped in the door and, the following year, one was published in The Irish Press. It wasn’t Dante but it was a start.

Who are a couple of your favourite poets and why? Have you a favourite poem?

I have very mixed feelings about my schooling but I will always be grateful to my English teacher – Mr. Lavin – for introducing me to Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. These were the poets that I responded to most and I’m still in awe of both of them. Wordsworth was another. I recently re-read a huge chunk of The Prelude and it’s quite astonishing. I also discovered a few poets down the back of a shop called Hall’s in Darling Street. These were mostly Gallery books and that’s where I found John Montague and Frank Ormsby. Frank is from Fermanagh and that was significant for me. I still think he’s a wonderful poet.

My favourite poets? All of the above. I’d add to the list Elizabeth Bishop, Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Pinsky and Tracy K. Smith. I don’t have a favourite poem as such – it all depends on where I’m at – but I keep sending people to a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called ‘Cross That Line’. I’d love to write a poem like that.

Music and visual art are important presences in Notions. How much is your poetry guided by these other art forms? Is it important to be open to influences outside of poetry when it comes to writing?

I’m pretty voracious when it comes to most art forms, and I suspect that everything I read, see and hear feeds into the writing. Of course I have to edit, but it’s all there, or not there, somewhere. I feel strongly that whether you write or not, you should be open to as much art and beauty as possible. I’m constantly and very deliberately trying to educate myself, very conscious that when I left university I knew very little about anything. A law degree is a good degree, and it gave me certain useful skills, but it’s not the sort of grounding that suits my approach to life. So I usually have about four books on the go. At this moment it’s Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Graves’ The White Goddess, the sermons of Meister Eckhart and Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I know that might sound like heavy-going but actually it’s a real pleasure. Frankly, I should have read these books years ago and, these days, I devote my time, almost exclusively and without apology, to the big stuff. Keep learning and finding new perspectives. Don’t ever stop.


In your poem ‘Antonyms’, you mention Anthony of Padua, ‘patron of the lost thing’. Many of your poems attempt to use words to reach some absent other time, place, or person. To what extent do you think words are capable of bridging those gaps, recovering the ‘lost thing’?

I might make a better job of it if I were a pianist, but words are what I use. And yes, a word or a sequence of words can land me right back in a time or a place in exactly the same way that a piece of music can. I was always interested in language and had some sense of its capacities. Growing up in the north I also had that extra awareness of language as code, signal, nuance, diplomatic gesture, sly dig and all the rest of it. I would have been very conscious that the language of the BBC reporter was not the language of the locale; or that the allotted name of some new housing development had an obvious wrongness to it. I also think of the words my parents used in everyday life – the expressions they used and the very particular characteristics of the how they spoke, and people still speak, in my part of the world. I cherish all that, and I’ve always had a sense of it, and an appreciation for it. That said, I’m not an anthropologist.

What I’m more interested in how these words, and words from altogether different worlds, can spark the magical or mystical dimension of poetry – the part that surprises the writer when they all begin to interact, and their various meanings start to ignite each other.

Words are alive. They contain multitudes and some are so loaded that they can plant a very deep charge in a poem. So yes, words are capable of bridging gaps to things, and to people, and indeed to former editions of yourself. But words can also bridge the gap to things that have yet to be discovered and this really appeals to me. It ties in with my reading. I’m very interested in the spirit of poetry. I feel that it’s one with the spirit of religion, astronomy, quantum physics and everything else. It’s all one thing.

Do you think that engaging with journals and magazines, through publication and/or subscription, is an important part of being a poet today? How valuable are journals in getting a sense of how new poems are working or failing to work?

I published in quite a few magazines and journals when I was a student – and for a period afterwards – but when I finally, decades later, got around to thinking of a collection I decided that I wouldn’t drive myself to distraction in that regard. That said, I did send poems to the Irish publications that I really admired. To get an opinion and, with any luck, a blessing was important in me finally attempting a first book. These magazines were even more important as I completed a second book. Their editors have been both first readers and first editors of the new poems, and while poetry is obviously a solitary activity there does come a point – a quite desperate point – when you really need someone to say, yes this is a poem and it works. Or the contrary. The gap between books is necessarily a long one, but momentum can really become an issue if you feel isolated. The magazines and journals, whether it be a yes or a no, are really crucial in that regard.

On that note, how do you know when a poem is finished, and how can you tell when it works?

That’s a really interesting question. I’ve made the mistake many times of thinking that a poem is finished simply because it sounds like it’s finished – perhaps there’s some sense of sonic satisfaction about it – but then after a period you realise, if you’re lucky, that it’s not ready at all. It may simply be the case that you haven’t yet written the last verse. I think perhaps the best you can do to stress test a poem is simply to read it aloud. If it sounds OK then you might be on to something, but it’s still probably very wise put it away in a drawer in a darkened room. Forget about it for a while and then come back to it. So in answer to your question, I’m never entirely sure when a poem is finished, or if they’re ever finished. That said, once something is published I tend to leave it alone.

If you had one piece of advice to give to young or beginning poets, what would it be?

I’m the last person to give advice to anyone. I went about everything arse-ways and bar-ways. I made a lot of mistakes. I got stuck, I got distracted and I took a lot of wrong turns. But maybe consider the advice that I didn’t take thirty five years ago. Trust the poems and trust yourself.

 

See also: John Kelly, biographical note and publications

 

 

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7 Questions on Poetry: Mary Noonan

Mary Noonan - Dedalus Press

How/when did you start to write?

I’ve loved poetry for as long as I remember – Keats was a favourite when I was a teenager. I did a BA in English and French, and relished the immersion in literature in both languages. I’m still grateful for having had the opportunity to study poetry in Anglo-Saxon and in Middle English at UCC. I went on to do an MA on the plays of Synge and Beckett, and then went off to Brussels to work as a translator. I returned to London seven years later to do an MA in French, and a PhD, both in the area of French drama. Drama was always in the mix, along with the poetry – I think they’re quite compatible. I wrote poems when I was a teenager, and very intermittently in my early adulthood. And then no poetry for a long time.

I had been teaching French literature at UCC for a number of years, and writing and publishing literary criticism, mainly in the field of contemporary French theatre. But when my mother died early, in 1998, I started to write poetry. I don’t know why it coincided with her death, but it did. I started going to weekly workshops in Cork, led by the poet Gregory O’Donoghue, and for a number of summers I attended the week-long poetry summer-schools at the Poet’s House in Falcarragh, Donegal. Then I had a few poems published in magazines, and some breaks came when The Stinging Fly selected me as their ‘Featured Poet’ in November 2006, and I was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions in April 2007. That’s how I got started. I’ve never been tempted to write a short story, much less a novel. I’ve no idea why my creative instinct takes the shape of poetry.

How important is the sound/music of what you’re writing? How much, if at all, are you guided by ‘received forms’?

Much of the effect of poetry is achieved through sound, whether it be mellifluous, dissonant or somewhere in between. Poetry capitalises on the resonance of words, their ability to sound in the echo-chamber of the mind, to trigger auditory memories. I think it’s something to do with the transmutation of voice into writing. And the voice is such a primitive part of the self – our connection to a voice is maybe our first psychic connection. Heaney once said that poetic technique involves the poet’s discovery of ways to ‘raid the inarticulate’ (Preoccupations), and our relationship to sound, and to voice, opens a channel to that primitive self.

I wouldn’t say that I systematically check my poems for sound, though I know I should. I like the thought of Yeats pacing the boards on one of the upper floors of Thoor Ballylee, intoning loudly and repeatedly, driving his wife and children crazy! It’s certainly good to read a poem aloud when you have a draft, your ear will usually pick up when something is jarring. And early public readings of poems will always tell you if a poem is working or not. As regards poetic forms, I love reading sonnets, villanelles, sestinas and ghazals, and marvelling at the poet’s skill. But I don’t generally practice them myself, whether through lack of skill or application, I’m not sure. I do occasionally practice ‘home-made’ forms though, creating formal challenges for myself within poems.

What’s your process of writing? Do you have a favourite time/place/practice?

My process is fairly haphazard, I’m afraid. I don’t have a routine as such, for writing poetry. As I work full-time as an academic, I fit the poetry around that. If a poem strikes, I’ll write it out by hand first. I used to write on loose A4 sheets, but have graduated to large notebooks. I tend to write at the dining-room table, as the room is bright and cheerful. I’ll usually do a couple of hand-written drafts before I type the poem on the computer. The summers are better than the winters for me, as I have more time then. It’s a question of clearing enough head-space to allow the poems in. Having said all that, my practice has been completely thrown by the death, in 2018, of my partner, the poet Matthew Sweeney. I’ve written little since his death. You become a ghost in your own life, hanging around on the outside of it and feeling a little bewildered by the things that used to come naturally: reading, listening to music, writing poems. The poems took fright, and disappeared down a long tunnel. One has to hope they’re still there somewhere, composing themselves in the farther reaches of the mind, and staying safe until they’re ready re-emerge. It’s one of the more terrifying aspects of artistic creation: how fragile it is, how unbiddable.

At what point do you start thinking in terms of writing a book rather than just writing individual poems?

I’m not sure I have a clear answer to that. The first collection (The Fado House, Dedalus Press, 2012) was about 10 years in the making, the second book, Stone Girl (Dedalus Press, 2019) took 7. I guess after the first collection, one is always thinking in terms of the next collection.

When I have 30 or so poems I believe would stand up if challenged in a dark alley, then I feel I’m well on my way to the next book.

What about journals and magazines? How important are they in getting a sense of how new poems are working or failing to work? Do you subscribe to any publications?

I would say publishing in magazines and journals is part of the trajectory of most poets. It’s a good way of testing the poems, and it’s reassuring to get the validation of editors and readers that publication brings. My heart always does a little skipping dance when a poem is accepted, and there’s that thrill of knowing that your poem is out there, moving around in the world. Of course, it can be painful too, as there is the inevitability of regular rejection. And waiting times have got much longer! When I started out, 20 years ago, 3 months was the maximum wait time, and many publications got back within 6 weeks. Nowadays, it’s more like 6 months. So it’s a slow and sometimes distressing process, with occasional rewards.

Over the years, I’ve subscribed to many magazines, but as the house was quaking under the weight of paper, I had to cut back. I currently subscribe to Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Review, The Stinging Fly, The Moth, The Well Review and Agenda.

Who are a couple of your favourite poets and why? Have you a single favourite book of poems?

It’s hard to pick favourites, isn’t it? There are so many wonderful poets, and one tends to gravitate to different poets at different times, depending on one’s mood or circumstances. For that reason, I could never single out a single volume. I’m currently reading Louise Glück’s Wild Iris and John Glenday’s Selected Poems. I’m very taken with both of these because of the quality of silence in their poems, their skill in ‘saying by not saying’. I’ve always loved poetry that is mysterious, but not mystifying. I’m a big admirer of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry, for its deep sense of enigma, and also for the sheer brilliance of the craft. I’m currently reading her Collected Poems. I recently re-read Jo Shapcott’ collection Tender Taxes, published in 2001. In this book, Shapcott appears to provide versions of Rilke’s French poems, but she has in fact created exceptionally powerful poems in English that speak completely in her voice and are redolent of her responses to her own environment. And yet, she retains much of Rilke, giving an English voice to the intensity of his (French) music. The result is quite startling: two poetic voices – each one uniquely resonant – calling to each other across time and space. Neither is dominant – one is not ‘carrying the other over’ into her language. But the contemporary poet is answering the call of the earlier poet, taking his words and reconfiguring them to give voice to a new music. Astonishing.

I love the poetry of French poet Valérie Rouzeau for its extreme linguistic playfulness, in the tradition of French surrealism and poets like Robert Desnos and Apollinaire. Vrouz (2012) is a stunning book of contemporary sonnets, and her most recent book, Éphéméride (2020) is a surprising calendar, exploring time, friendship and loss.

I’ve been trying to find ways to put a shape on grief, and I came across a fantastic collection by Victoria Chang, entitled Obit. Chang takes the form of the obituary and writes a whole book of them in order to distil the grief she felt after her mother died. When someone you love dies, everything dies – Chang has given stunning, lyrical expression to this bald fact.

If you had one piece of advice to give to young or beginning poets, what would it be?

The poetry world is a hard place to be sometimes, but in that it’s no different to the other arts. There are challenges, rejections, failures – and moments of satisfaction, and sometimes even something approaching joy. If you are a poet, none of the setbacks will stop you from writing poetry.

What will sustain you, and ultimately define you, will be your belief in your own poetry. Do everything you can to make this as good as you possibly can make it. This is mainly done by examining the work of other poets, by reading extensively the poetry of the past and of the present – reading is the royal road to writing, there are no short-cuts.

Developing your craft is a lifetime’s project, so be wary of complacency. You must keep reinventing yourself, be always on the ‘qui vive’ – take Bob Dylan as an example! Once you’ve given your creative best to poetry, you’ll be in a strong position to withstand the knocks and the shocks. Believe in your own work: you write the poems you were meant to write, the poems that no one else will write.

***

For a biographical note and links to books by Mary Noonan click HERE

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7 Questions on Poetry: Eleanor Hooker

How/when did you start to write? Did poems precede prose or vice versa?

When I was a small child, Dad would invite me to tell a story or sing a song for the family after supper. I would stand by him at the top of the table and recite my made up my stories and songs; it was a thrill to make everyone laugh. Though Dad wasn’t always impressed when, after listening to my stories en route to the seaside, none of my younger brothers or sisters would go in the sea when we arrived. It’s a role I’ve held in my family since then, to bring up the mood in the difficult times with a funny story.

Dyslexia wasn’t recognised as a condition until 1989, so when I was a schoolgirl, anyone who had difficulty with spelling or reading was considered a dunce. Left-handed pupils were also ostracised.  They would be relegated to the ‘Bad Row’, would be caned regularly and had little chance of progression. So being both dyslexic and left handed, I was automatically disadvantaged as my first school teachers couldn’t get past my poor spelling and grammar to read the essence of my stories and poems.

This might sound like a miserable Irish childhood story. It really wasn’t. I was bold. And rebellious. And I pushed back. One day, one of my teachers, who had a particular fondness for the cane, told the class she hated whistlers, that young ladies should never whistle. I whistled as loud as I could, which made the entire class snigger, and I got four whacks on my hand for my troubles.

When it became evident that I was thoroughly unhappy, my parents moved me to a little country Primary School where my Aunt was a teacher and later Headmistress, and everything changed. The different teaching style, the engagement and encouragement seeded my love for the word and language. My stories and essays were never scored in red there, and it didn’t seem to matter in the least that I finished a text behind the rest of the group. I was fortunate that my secondary school had the same philosophy as this school, and I continued to thrive, but I no longer ‘wrote’.

I’ve read poetry and fiction all my life, but it wasn’t until our children were small that I returned to invention, reading them stories from my head, reading them poetry from books. It was so good to revisit the magical thinking of childhood, to revisit it with my own children, but without any of the tyrannies.

After school I trained as an Intensive Care and Coronary Care Nurse, and as a midwife, but still I felt a hunger for higher education so when our younger child was eight weeks old, I enrolled with the Open University to study the arts, and then went on to complete an MA in Cultural History.

My early poems were unsophisticated, soaked in sugar or pathos… or both. I recognised that I needed to learn how poetry worked, what was happening in a poem at the cellular level of language, so I read widely, including poetry, books on form and poetry of all genres and eras. I attended workshops for both poetry and prose, and then went back to school again to complete an MPhil in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin. I learned that to thrive, my own writing had to be authentic, had to come from a place of truth.

I write most days, either poetry or prose. I get cranky and anxious if I don’t get to my desk. I acknowledge that there is much more to learn and not every poem or story can be a success. James Dickey said “I need about one hundred fifty drafts of a poem to get it right, and fifty more to make it sound spontaneous” and I think that’s about right.

How important is the sound/music of what you’re writing? How much, if at all, are you guided by ‘received forms’?

Rhyme, metre, assonance, word echo and sound echo and all the elements on the page that support the music of a poem, are fully tested when the poem is spoken, so I speak my poems to check their musicality.

End rhymes work in form poems, but outside of that I’m not fond of them, there’s too much danger of dee-dum-dee-dum. Occasionally I will add a word to a poem to interrupt the music, to create a mental trip, to slow the reader down so that they fully consider the metaphor or image or whatever it is I wish to emphasise.

In my early writing, form poems checked my tendency towards volubility and verbosity, and were central to my education in received forms.

In January 2020, Kenneth Keating published an academic paper, ‘ ‘A tight memorizing chain of echoes’: the pantuom in Irish Poetry’ in the Irish Studies Review. In his essay Keating maps the pantuom form, from its origins in Austronesian culture through to its emergence in Irish poetry. Through close reading of my pantuoms and those of Anthony Cronin, Paul Muldoon, Nick Laird, Caitríona O’Reilly, and Justin Quinn, Keating builds an argument that, rather than representing cultural appropriation and distortion as evidenced by European colonisers of Austronesia in nineteenth and twentieth century, our poems are ‘attentive to the history of the form [and] foreground transnational cultural hybridity in an effort to not divest the form of its rich history and its importance in Austronesian culture’.

I found this extraordinary paper fascinating, as it pointed up the importance of knowing the origins of form in poetry and what it means to write in a particular form is not neutral, laden as it is with cultural precedent.

 

What’s your process of writing? Do you have a favourite time/place/practice?

I get to my desk at 8.30 a.m., after the first long walk of the day. I need my dogs to rest whilst I’m working before luncheon and for that they need a good run and I need the fresh air. I used to write at the kitchen table, but was constantly distracted by guilt over domestic chores.

I moved an old desk from a room we were restoring, to another room down the house. The light is perfect, there are two windows, through which I can see the lake on my right and the cobbled yard through the window in front of me. I’ve made good work at this desk, in this room.

I remember visiting Virginia Woolf’s writing shed at Monk House and thinking, how lovely it would be to have a writing shed like that. Lots of my friends have similar writing sheds in their gardens. We’re currently tidying up a tiny two room stone cottage in the woods here, so that I can go there to write. I used to think I could write anywhere, in the lobe of your ear, but that’s not the case, I was only making notes.

I listen to cello music when I’m writing, it’s calming and gets me in the zone.

On days when I’m too mithered to work, I read, and walk, and listen to podcasts on my walks. This year has been so strange. I don’t mind being solitary, it’s my preferred way to be, but when it’s enforced due to a pandemic, I long to get back into society. 

 

At what point do you start thinking in terms of writing a book rather than just writing individual poems?

Years ago, when I presented the first draft of my MA thesis to my Professor, he came back a little alarmed that I’d included everyone, from Jesus Christ to Schopenhauer in my dissertation. He liked the thesis, but worried the examiners might not, as typically they looked for students to specialise. In the end, it wasn’t a problem; I’d made a watertight case for their inclusion, that I could defend in a viva.

Generally, after three to four years writing, poets have sufficient poems from which to form a collection. I find when I lay out all the poems, themes and motifs emerge of which I wasn’t entirely aware when I was writing each poem. By the end of the selection process poems are huddled together by topic, colour or song. The ‘maybe’s’ are the saddest group, but I know pruning will make the book a stronger, more fruitful creature.

Unless there is an intention to write a mono-themed collection, I think it’s good to have a multiplicity of sounds and refrains. For good or ill, when I’m writing a poem, my best intention is only for that poem at that moment. If I think beyond that, the poem will show its contrivance like a petticoat dipping below the hemline. 

 

What about journals and magazines? How important are they in getting a sense of how new poems are working or failing to work? Do you subscribe to any publications? 


It’s essential to send poems out into the world. It’s also essential to know the journal or magazine to which you’re sending your work, before submitting to them. Without doubt editors’ decisions have a subjective element, so one journal might take poems rejected by another. However, if particular poems keep coming back, it usually signals that they need further consideration, editing or lay away.

That moment of absolute joy when a journal says yes to new poems never fades. And even if a rejection is brutal (editors who don’t use the standard ‘dear Jane’ should really think about what they write in their rejection notes), I allow myself a moment to kick a stone, then limp back to my desk to either rework the poem or send it back out elsewhere. After one particularly mean, hand-written rejection slip from a journal, I sent the poems straight back out, and they were all published.

Of course there’s nothing like that hum of approval from an audience at a live reading, or that deadening silence if a poem doesn’t hit its mark.


I find that I’m running out of shelf space, so I buy journal issues that include writers I like or am curious about, and subscribe to the hard copy/online editions of others. Journals often run on a shoestring budget, so it’s important to support them, and also, by buying the journals I am also supporting the writers they publish. Truthfully when Martin, our postman, delivers parcels of books, my husband jokes, ‘you know what this house needs…is more poetry books’.

 

Who are a couple of your favourite poets and why? Have you a single favourite book of poems?


My book shelves sag with poetry books by friends, by poets at home and from all over the world. I support poets by buying their books and reading them. The danger of lists is the risk of causing offence by omission.

That said, these past months of lockdown, isolation and family loss have taken their toll on so many of us. In the difficult times I’m so grateful not only for the extraordinary poetry of Thomas McCarthy, Leeanne Quinn, John Glenday, Jessica Traynor, Nessa O’Mahony and Martina Evans, but also for their friendship, communication and support these past months, and though she isn’t a poet, but an incredible scholar and writer, I include Linda Connolly here too.

Collections I get lost in all the time and definitely rate as favourites are: Eleanor Wilner’s Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press) and Linda Pastan’s Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998 (Norton)

I am currently reading Paula Meehan’s recently published As If By Magic: Selected Poems (Dedalus Press) and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s Collected Poems (Gallery Press).

 

If you had one piece of advice to give to young or beginning poets, what would it be?


Read, read, read like a mad thing, learn your craft, be kind – to yourself and your fellow writers, that’s important advice. Revise, revise and re-rewrite. Rejections can seem a hammer-blow, pick yourself up and get back to your desk. Whilst always being collegiate, strenuously maintain your independence, don’t get involved in cliques or coteries, don’t become anyone’s ‘pet’.