Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Dedalus Press

7 Questions on Poetry: Catherine Phil MacCarthy

  1. Do you remember how or why you started writing poems?

The arrival of my poems coincided with a period of change and grief in my early thirties. I was living in London studying Drama and Theatre. The place where I grew up became an imaginative nest. I crossed the city on the underground with lines running in my head: ‘My sisters were gone to a dance. / I could hear church bells tolling / three miles away. It carried me / to my knees in the dark, // unhinging the window latch / to open out the casement / on frost glistening in moonlight, / satin along a slate roof…’ (‘New Year’s Eve’ from the blue globe, Blackstaff Press, 1998). A line comes first, a second and maybe a third, and there’s a sound pattern and an image with an emotional tug beneath it, an idea that clarifies into an image. Drama is always about what can’t be said. The moment when language gives way to action. Poems often come from that dumb, wordless place. From wonder and joy, desire and anguish. Writing is a form of imaginative play. A sense of wholeness grew from that. I love reading and was a scribbler both at school and College. At UCC over ten years earlier, I heard Robert Graves, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Patrick Galvin read at the English Lit Society and talk about writing; and Michael Hartnett reading from Cúlú Íde in Limerick.

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

 Writing came to me over thirty years ago now – there were many favourite books and poems along the way. I love the opening Canto of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: ‘Mid-way on the journey of our life, / I found myself lost in a dark wood / where the way ahead was overgrown…’ The grotesque imagery, and the divagation on ethics in Purgatorio and the climbing of the mountain, are very compelling. The final lines of Paradiso are affirming of life – Dante speaks of ‘the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.’ I’ve read the work in the last year to create three poems in response to each book, for Divining Dante, a collection from contemporary poets, just published by Recent Works Press (Canberra, Australia), edited by Nessa O’Mahony and Paul Munden.

Kathleen Jamie’s Selected Poems is a book I admire. In her poem ‘The Stags’, a man and a woman walk high into the hills and come upon a herd of wild deer in the far glen: ‘their weighty antique-polished antlers / rising above the vegetation / like masts in a harbour or city spires.’ The subtlety of human/animal encounter is addressed – the mutual ‘civil regard’; a glimpse of ‘our shared country’; and the relationship. The poem weaves a paradigm that is acknowledging and celebratory of all three.

Emily Dickinson’s ‘To Make A Prairie’ is timeless – the lyric impulse expands here from the microscopic towards the infinite: ‘To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, / One clover, and a bee. / And revery. / The revery alone will do, if bees are few.’

  1. Visual art is an important presence in your most recent collection, Daughters of the House. Artists Sarah Purser and Marie Bashkirtseff feature in some poems, as well as figures like Wally Neuzil, model and lover of Egon Schiele. How do artists and art influence your writing? What about visual art compels you as a poet?

What compels me about visual art initially has to do with light, colour, shape, image, and texture, and that it is non-verbal. The escape from words. I think it has to do with a distillation of experience or essence that comes off the canvas or sculpture. Also, I admire the concentration on the process of making. Life drawing was important among the figures you mention. The giving of attention. Visual art develops observation as a discipline. Listening for a poem is a physical process too, and voice is a physical instrument.

In the summer of 2010, I handed over the manuscript of The Invisible Threshold to Dedalus Press. I sought a new direction, struck by the high level of emigration at the time and how people were suffering from the shock of the downturn. Economic upheaval, the loss of community, displacement.

I came across a book on Irish women artists called Journeys Through Line and Colour: Forty Irish Women Artists of the Twentieth Century (University of Limerick Press, 2010). The title caught my attention. I was interested in the circumstances of the life as well as the work. Why had many of them left Ireland to learn their craft? As a poet who has published continuously since 1989, I felt an affinity. It allowed me to think about how to stay alive as an artist. Daughters of the House includes many figures, including Sarah Purser as you mention, who went to Paris in 1878, to ‘learn a marketable craft’. She wanted to earn her living from portrait painting.

  1. One focus of your work is the ‘natural’ world within the context of climate change and the Anthropocene. Your poem ‘Night Sky’ imagines the possibility of a world where ‘sometime / we are not there, // gone without trace, / planet earth, an empty house, / as the face of night prevails…’ (The Invisible Threshold). Could you comment on the challenge of effectively bearing witness to the climate crisis through poetry?

On my wall hangs a poem of Dennis O’Driscoll’s, ‘On Being Asked for Directions’, written in his own hand. The last lines are: ‘Poets…have no idea what / the ultimate destination — / let alone the destiny / — of their poems may be.’ The lyric impulse moves from the self, to the wider world, and beyond. Poems may bear witness to the

climate crisis, as you say, and focus attention, celebrate both the fragility and

awesome beauty of the earth as they have for centuries; and create a vision for a world in greater balance.

Alice Kinsella editor of Empty House (Doire Press, 2021), speaks of the poems and essays in the anthology as ‘a call to action.’ In the introduction to 100 Poems to Save the Earth, (Seren 2021), the editors write: ‘Poets call us to stay awake, to find the words to describe how it feels, to sing to what hurts, to reach out, to attend more closely and with more care, to each other, and to all our fellow species, to see all things as our kin.’

Recently, I’ve written a micro-essay on Women and Nature for an issue of Atlánticas, the Spanish journal. Nature has been an important strand in my poems from the beginning, a place of solitude and sanctuary, of sexual awakening, sometimes of threat and danger. The idea of ‘threshold’, the space between two worlds, became a holding pattern in The Invisible Threshold, and poems that reflect on the environment and ecology are a strand. As individuals and citizens, we can respond to the climate crisis and to quote Greta Thunberg, ‘once we take action, hope is everywhere.’

  1. What process do you go through to write a poem?

I may be looking at Sarah Cecilia Harrison’s Self-Portrait (1889) at the Hugh Lane Gallery, for instance. What I am seeing is my daughter at the kitchen table one morning, dressed for work. Poems arise from moments of observation, and reflection. The process is intuitive and involves listening. Once the poem delivers itself, I speak it over and over, listening to the sound pattern and when that comes clear, I use parts of the poem that are working and the evolving form, like a tuning fork, to key lines that I’m struggling to fix. Uncertainty and doubt are always there. Every new poem is a beginning. The word ‘stanza’ comes from Italian and is a room. And verse comes from ‘versare’, the verb to pour, or to shed – so it has the implication of catharsis, to shed an emotion – as well as to turn, as in turn a line.

  1. The past is a constant presence in Daughters of the House. In the opening poem, a shop selling leather goods on Rue Lacépède in Paris reminds the speaker of her father ‘choosing a belly-band for a horse / at Carews, William Street…’, her mother sewing a new dress, and the Book of Kells. The present is overlaid with layers of personal and cultural history. Historical figures including Maud Gonne, Michael Davitt, Mary Yore and Sarah Purser occupy the pages of this collection. What do you feel is the impact of history on your work?

When does the past become the past? Daughters of the House reflects on creativity – the giving of life whether it’s to a pair of shoes or a painting, an Aran sweater, a baby, or the making of a State. The figures you mention are inspirational for the lives they led, as well as the work they created and for their exemplary courage.

I came across a postcard of a photograph (1887), in the National Library, Kildare Street, of the O Halloran family, a mother and three daughters, Honora, Annie and Harriet from Lisbareen, near Scariff, in County Clare. The eldest son Frank was living in America, and when the eviction order came, he returned to help out. The title poem narrates that event. Yes, present and past connect in many poems, as you say.

The research brought me to the post-famine period and the history of the Land League. And to the nationalist movement – the journey towards Home Rule first and then independence. My father was born in 1903, so he was living in the same Ireland as Michael Davitt. My mother was born in 1916. Her aunts and uncles and his emigrated to America, and Australia. The working title was Songs of Place and Displacement. That gave way to Daughters of the House.

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

Read across time and across languages, even in translation. A friend gave me a translation of a poem from Old Irish (‘Scél Lem Dúib’) earlier in the year, and it speaks as clearly now as it did over a thousand years ago.


See biographical details and books by Catherine Phil MacCarthy here


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