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.