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Ars Poetica by Patrick Cotter

Patrick Cotter

In a wide-ranging and thought-provoking ars poetica, poet, editor and festival director Patrick Cotter answers our occasional 7 questions on poetry.

Your poems are noted for their marked lack of sentimentality. Is poetry devoid of sentimentality merely a mark of emotional coldness?

Emotion-free poetry is the truest test of a reader’s capacity for empathy. A good reader can generate their own emotional responses to another’s existential predicament. A good reader can respond with feelings not predicated by supplied emotions in the text.

Fast emotion is as insubstantial as fast food or fast fashion. Sentimentality is unearned emotion and sentimental poetry contains emotions that come preprocessed and prepackaged.

Just as with about every other kind of commodity, there is a demand for prepackaging and preprocessing in poems, the prepackaging and preprocessing of emotions and ideas – as distinct from the kind of poem which provokes the reader to generate their own emotions, their own ideas. Too many poems are easily consumed and digested without effort – a phenomenon not necessarily connected to a poem’s comprehensibility, but to its incapacity to challenge (to surprise, I want my poems to surprise) the reader’s world view or emotional comfort zone, even if that comfort zone is built on a foundation of reassuring, reflexive, discomfort – such as that catered for by the misery porn constantly filling the hours on talk radio. Tolstoy was wrong to imply that all unhappiness is original and uncliched. Verse reeking and dripping with sentiment caters to this market, a market sustained by consumers with no capacity for Theory of Mind, who are not interested in learning of the lives of others, where those lives do not automatically reflect the inner life of the reader themselves.

Paul Celan’s ‘Espenbaum’ was a crucial early lesson for me in Ars Poetica. I first came across it in a poetry workshop given by John F. Deane for schoolkids circa 1980. In this poem Celan recounts his mother’s death without portraying directly the state of his own heart or mind in reaction to his loss. A sentimental treatment of this subject matter would not be about the mother’s dying but about the son’s self-pity. A self-pitying reader would find satisfaction in these prepackaged, preprocessed feelings. But that satisfaction would be as fleeting as that provided by a Big Mac.

An evolved reader receives more from a poem which describes the mother’s death in such a way that challenges the reader to imagine the undeclared feelings of the grieving son – it requires a more creative action of reading. The poem free of sentimentality avoids dictating an emotional response, rather, it provokes or evokes an emotional response, it is less manipulative. It is disengaged from the co-dependent mind, even if, occasionally, its subject matter is the co-dependent mind.`

You subscribe to the ‘no ideas but in things’ school of thought. Is this why there is so little presentation of argument in your poems?

Likewise ideas can come prepackaged and preprocessed. The successful poem of ideas is successful in spite of its ballast of ideas. If ideas have any true currency they can be conveyed in any form – an essay, a newspaper column, a radio documentary – as you like it. Ideas do not make a poem – language does, imagination does. The poem of ideas seeks to dictate the intellectual experience and response of the reader. The poem of ‘things’ prompts polyvalent intellectual responses. It facilitates creativity in the mind of the reader. It prompts original, individuated ideas in the mind of a skilful reader. The problem with most poetry of ideas is that the ideas are jejune, unoriginal, received, whose circulation is prompted by narcissism on the part of the author. Most poetry of ideas stems from the conscious part of the brain, the egotistic part of consciousness that gets by on, figuratively, 15mb of RAM, rather than the terabyte of experience and emotion stored in the brain’s (the mind’s, for those who believe in that outdated dichotomy) deeper reaches. Only the subconscious has access to those reaches.

By presenting the opportunity for polyvalent thinking, the poem of things, rather than ideas, can prompt different new ideas each time the same reader approaches it. The poem of things can be ambiguous. We know the best art is ambiguous, open to many interpretations – some artists aim to fake ambiguity through obtuseness, hermeticism. They never succeed. Sometimes true artists appear obtuse, hermetic. But they are not. Their mode of expression has been pushed beyond limits in pursuit of the truth, beyond the current limits of a given reader’s capacity to comprehend. But accumulated experience in life, in reading, eventually opens a reader’s mind to such comprehension.

An aesthetical pursual of this idea, of this argument, against ideas, against arguments in poetry has led me to conclude that content, in poetry, is a conveyance for form. But, acknowledging that content is a mere conveyance for form in poetry is not a recipe for treating content casually as a substance of no importance. On the contrary, content must have substance to adequately convey form. Content fails to convey form when it strays into abstraction and/or when content fails to acknowledge that it is encapsulated in form and that form is the medium by which artistic accomplishment is measured. Poetry fails when content is overprioritised to the detriment of sensitivity to language. Poetry fails when the content is so banal, inane or bathetic (which is not to say that the banal, inane or bathetic cannot be knowing subject matter for functioning content) that it fails to compel the reader to consume the form, no matter how successfully sonic effects might be executed.

Some philologists and philosophers may disagree, but I believe (a Jungian, trans-generational belief) that in the formulation of language, abstract nouns were preceded by their associated/associative adjectives. ‘Beautiful’ preceded ‘beauty’. The concept of beauty could not have been formulated without prior observation of the beautiful thing.  This is why in the first instance there is no idea but in things. Abstract language may be essential in philosophical or scientific treatises, but no treatise ever constituted art. The text you are reading now is not a poem, although various visual art school theorists would claim all one has to do to make a poem, is to assert an object is a poem. You can effortlessly guess what I think of that argument.

People who treat poems as repositories for treatises are mortal enemies of poetry, especially those masquerading as literary critics. Sociologists, historians and AgitProp merchants who have mined various poems for information do great damage to poetry by elevating in importance, useful-information-laden verses above more artistically accomplished poems which fail to serve their purposes. One could say they make a useful idiot of the poem, in the political science meaning of that term.

There is an old Creative Writing adage – do not describe the branch of the tree, describe the shadow thrown by the branch – just so with ideas – do not describe the idea, describe the situational set-up where the idea may arise – thus contributing to the creative potential for a reader in their encounter with a text. If a reader can generate no ideas of their own by reading of a situational set-up, then they will be the sort of individual incapable of generating original ideas in life. An exemplary poem for simply illustrating this point is Miroslav Holub’s deservedly, oft anthologised, ‘The Fly’ (in George Theiner’s translation). Nowhere in the poem do you find arguments or statements to the effect that ‘life is cheap and ephemeral’ or that ‘war is vainglorious and cruel’, but nevertheless those are ideas (which you are left free to agree or disagree with) impossible to come away without, after a reading of this poem, which consists of a simple narrative constructed on a light scaffolding of listed things.

Photography is a major presence in Sonic White Poise – you reference specific photographs by Frank Espada and Bill Brandt, and the names of cameras and other photographers crop up throughout the collection. What is it about photography that interests you as a poet? Do you think there is something that connects photography and poetry as forms or practices?

Most of the photographers who prompt many of my poems I do not acknowledge to the reader. I believe the reader should retain the right to approach those photographs (if they ever come across them) and view them without their interpretations being influenced by my own. In referring directly to Bill Brandt’s East End Girl Dances the Lambeth Walk, 1939, I am involved in something additional, I am not simply recording a narrative prompted by the engagement of my subconscious with the photograph, I am giving a record of my act of thinking about that photograph – the process of that thought, which is distinct from the thought itself. I examined Brandt’s photograph (not for the first occasion) at a time when Syrian refugees flooded (a deluge which engulfed no one, no matter what xenophobes might claim) across Europe, as German Jews had done in the years, months before Brandt’s photograph was shot (Brandt, himself, if not exactly a refugee was at the very least a pressured German immigrant to the UK). These Germans had fled to a space which was subsequently bombed by the people they fled from. They jumped from one fire to another, lit by the same taper. I was imagining our contemporary space – to where Syrians were fleeing – as a place awaiting its own impending conflagration. The poem must suggest these ideas, not declare them as unbendable facts.

Most of the poems I write which are prompted by photographs contain narratives not necessarily imagined or intended by their photographer. A picture can speak a thousand words – so the old shibboleth goes – but I believe, not all thousand words at once and not always the same words at different times. A photograph can speak 200 words when you view it one day, 500 words more when you view it another day and so on. Wait some years until you view it again and you may find it says something completely different to you, as it would to a different person sitting alongside.

I don’t agree with John Berger’s confederacy of accomplices and collaborators way of approaching an image. I saw a filmed exchange between Berger and Jean Mohr in 1988 where Berger in the self-rightous tone of J’accuse, said: “You are completely wrong. Look again!”  Berger’s Way of Seeing merely proposes an alternative orthodoxy – an orthodoxy in contention with opposing, more reactionary, hierarchical orthodoxies, but a new orthodoxy all the same, where Berger’s programmatic way of looking imposes a particular interpretation on subsequent viewers, an interpretation informed still by received ideas.

I say abandon all preconceived ways of looking, Berger’s or anyone else’s. Surrender the image to your subconscious. There will still be an element of preconception which stems from your own experience of being in the world, but it will be a unique experience born of your own uniqueness as a living, feeling, thinking entity. It is only your subconscious which is unique. Your conscious self is forged (as a bank note is forged, not as a sword is forged) by received opinions, programmatic education, inculcation by control freaks and power mongers. Even a palimpsestic mess of unrelated inculcations, imposed on the calculations of your prefrontal cortex, is still just a forgery of a true self. A writer’s so-called voice is just their subconscious revealing what it knows. Sometimes writers of true genius, in spite of themselves, unknowingly allow their subconscious to leak out between their elegantly regurgitated received ideas. They think their appeal and genius is manifested in the elegance of their regurgitations, but, of course, they are mistaken. As I have said, the successful poem of ideas is successful in spite of its ballast of ideas. Rather than speak further here about my creative interaction with photographs I would direct a reader to this earlier article:

And in this article I relate how my contemplation of a certain work of Leni Riefenstahl’s was one of the starting points for my poem ‘Dinka’:

Ghost housemates, a peacat (a peahen-cat hybrid), literate dogs and an array of other surreal elements appear in Sonic White Poise. What compels you to write about the absurd and the surreal? What can surrealist poems do that other poems can’t?

Surrealism is the perfect vehicle for individuated truth because it circumvents Social Realism which is the main vehicle for received ideas and the imposed interpretation of reality used by Capitalism, Authoritarianism and groupthinkers to reinforce conformity and intellectual serfdom. Prevailing power structures and displacing new power structures cannot be maintained without conformity. Power structures limit the parameters of thought with Social Realism. The word ‘absurd’ needs to be reclaimed by individuated dissenters the way ‘queer’ has been by the LGBTQIA community, the way the ’N’ word has been reclaimed by people of sub-Saharan descent.

The absurd is not a corruption or distortion of reality. It is not a defective perception of reality, it is a valid, dissenting presentation of reality, of the truth which contravenes the dictatorship of groupthink. It works against the chimera of change created when one variety of groupthink is displaced by a different variety of groupthink. It does this by provoking an individuated intellectual and emotional response untainted by received ideas and fast emotion. An individuated response allows space for nuance, for self-truth, for constantly-changing and adjusting self-truth informed by personal experience and the subconscious. This is why great art has different things to say to you at different times of your life.

 Surrealism/Absurdism is a way for an author to convey one’s truth without ramming it down a reader’s throat. A poet should be authoritative in voice – not authoritative in statement. Authoritative statement (in art) is for mansplainers (of whatever gender) and individuals who believe in imposing their views on others or imbibing their beliefs from others. There is a qualitative difference between opinionated facts and truth, one which many reactionaries (of left, right or centre) refuse to recognise. They are driven to apoplexy at the mere suggestion of its existence. Such people dismiss surrealism and the absurd as mere whimsy, in spite of the fact that almost all cultures began by conveying their truth through myth and folklore steeped in absurdity and the surreal.
Poets under the boot of the imperialist experiment of the Soviet block learnt to write aslant to the reported, mitigated, official version of reality; not just to elude detection of their dissidence, but to defy the authorities’ demands for clear as glass communication, constrained within certain ideological parameters. To write work which was polyvalent in meaning (nuanced, as most of the absurd is) was to deny the imposed ‘facts’ of the oppressors, without seeking to impose an alternate orthodoxy. 

There are many schools of surrealism, the way there are many schools of socialism and just as the best socialisms are pragmatic and undogmatic, adjustable and non-prescriptive, so too are the best surrealisms not constrained by formalised manifestos like Surrealism with a capital ‘S’ is.

As both a poet and an editor of a literary journal (Southword), 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?

Essential to learning how to write well is to read well. Poetry journals come in all shapes and sizes with different aims, ambitions and aesthetic stances. There are established journals of national importance such as Poetry, Poetry Review and Poetry Ireland Review which are recognised as journals of record, ready to publish established acknowledged masters alongside mid-career and promising or accomplished emerging poets. They reflect the development of poetry in a nation over time and can inform canonical-attempting instruments such as anthologies. Poetry journals are a way for commissioning editors and festival curators to become aware of many new voices. As a festival curator it is impossible for me to buy and read every collection that comes out, especially foreign (American, Canadian, British) collections. I’m grateful as a curator and reader of poetry to have had the chance to discover curated, new voices through the pages of Poetry, the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, but also through many provincial journals. Arguably, any city large enough to have a major art gallery ought to be home to a literary journal. Such institutions present major names, remotely located accomplished artists, with locally located accomplished artists. Crucial to the individual development of an artist is the Anxiety of Influence. By following closely the achievements of peers and fellow denizens and desiring to match or exceed their accomplishment one can become a better artist oneself.  There are always those poets who are content to spend the whole of their creative lives waddling around the paddling pools of ‘starter’ poetry journals. Such journals are essential in the literary eco-sphere. One needs affirmation at all stages of our career and to be published in such outlets during one’s apprenticeship can be essential to receiving the succour required to persist. But ultimately one should push oneself to graduate to swim in the more demanding open seas. There are so many poetry journals no one individual can claim to be blocked in their advancement by a particular editor. The most freedom exists in writing in the English language, there are so many journals in so many places. Even in a world which can be swept by the demands of emerging ideologies, or which you may believe to be constrained by gatekeepers, in the Anglosphere there are enough journals with independently-minded editors to provide a home for all kinds of accomplished work various in intent and aesthetics. I’m grateful to the many editors who have rejected my work. On most occasions, I’ve learnt that the poems needed further work, pushing me to develop my craft, making me the better poet I am today than ten and twenty years ago. A poem I had published in the London Review of Books had been rejected in a rawer form, by the same editorial team three months before they accepted it.

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

The most crucial lesson I learnt (as a writer) by judging competitions and editing journals is that most work sent out into the world is unfinished. A poem steaming towards accomplishment is often derailed by a clunkily sounding line, an unintended cliché or a bathetic turn of thought. Bathos can be banished only by maturity and the constraining of narcissism. Clichés are like constantly invading lice that keep coming and need to be caught and squashed by constant vigilance. One thing for poets to be aware of is that cliches are formed of not just well-worn locutions but of the combination of a noun with its expected verb. Must that dog ‘bark’? Must that liquid ‘drip’? If they must they better be doing something else unexpected as well. What can pass as non-cliché in prose can count as dead language in poetry. In a poem language must be made new. A major challenge is to make the new believable or truth-sounding. And if the sound is not working rarely is the sense. A poem lax in sound is almost always lax in thought. When I was a young writer I thought the ‘well-made poem’ was an instrument of conspiracy wielded by a patriarchal establishment seeking to exclude everyone else from their club. It is hard to accept that one is not yet accomplished in one’s craft. There are many accomplished poems which do not qualify as ‘well-made poems’ but they are much harder to write because it is so difficult to judge if you have written one from your own subjective viewpoint.

Subjectivity is not such a problem if one aims to write sonically effective lines. I find a poem is finished when I can no longer change the sound of a poem. I find writing poems in regular stanzas and rhythms helps to hunt down the word or syllable which is disrupting the sound. If one has an aesthetic preference for meandering lines, uneven stanzas, one can always reset the lines after one has hunted down and replaced the individual clunking words while drafting in regular stanzas. But I still manage occasionally to send out poems which are not quite finished. As the poem is waiting in its submittable queue or desktop slushpile for the editor to get around to it, I’ve found myself making more and more edits to it. It helps to wait months and years for a poem to settle but most of us are in too much of a rush for that.

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

I actually have two pieces of advice.

Be careful how you wield ambition. The supreme ambition should be to write a brilliant poem, but paradoxically the initial stepping-stone is to begin the writing process without ambition, because ambition breeds judgement. Judgement will kill the proverbial baby at birth. Judgement will create performance anxiety which causes writer’s block. One should begin to write the poem without expectation or judgement, one should begin in a state of play. What you write might be unusable, unfinishable, not worth finishing. But to judge something as unusable at the beginning kills creativity.  At a certain stage of the writing, on certain occasions a viable poem will begin to present itself. A poem which works, proves itself working as an organic whole in need of revision, a poem with a promise to interest other readers beside yourself. At that stage ambition and judgement should kick in, the ambition to finish a brilliant poem, using judgement to eliminate cliché, cacophony and bathos. One generates writing without ambition but one revises with ambition. Remember the ambition should be to complete the brilliant poem. The ambition to be a writer in residence, to set oneself up as a workshop leader, to be a social media-star, can lead one away from the path of being a writer of brilliant poems. Such ambitions are sirens with real power to lead us onto the rocks, because it is a sad truth that many curators and gatekeepers do not actually read the poems of the poets they work with – they choose poets by hype, they give awards to poets they know, they reward poets who share their political or religious ideals. But the poems of such writers have no staying power. Do you want quickly achieved, transitory, temporal renown or do you want to write a poem which will be still readable a century from now? The choice is yours.

When I was a young writer I believed that I had to become experienced in life for life to inspire me to good work. But most of us lead unremarkable, humdrum lives, the account of which others would find tremendously tedious. I would wish a tragic, ‘interesting’ life on nobody. Everyone deserves to have the comfort of a settled, trouble-free existence. Tragedy finds us out anyway but we should never seek out tragedy for ourselves or others, especially just to write about. A young writer should not wait for life to inspire them, they should practice generative exercises. Such exercises might generate publishable material only ten per cent of the time. But that results in far more poems than twiddling one’s thumbs waiting for life to provide inspiration. I fully subscribe to Picasso’s statement: “Inspiration exists, but it must find you working.”

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7 Questions on Poetry: Catherine Phil MacCarthy

Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Dedalus Press
  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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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.

Stone Girl by Mary Noonan cover - Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the worldI 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.

The Fado House cover. Mary Noonan. Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the worldI 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

poetry from Ireland, Dedalus Press, 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’.



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Roots, Rhythms & Revelations – Grace Wells on her Writing Practice

Grace Wells - Dedalus Press

Passionate, courageous, incisive, inspiring – poet and fiction writer Grace Wells answers our occasional 7 Questions on Poetry, and gets to the heart of what really matters in the writing life.

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

In my study I have a very endearing black and white photograph of myself aged four, earnestly grasping a pencil as I learn the alphabet. It lets me feel that I’m meant to write and that I have always been doing this, which I haven’t. From the earliest age, I wanted to write. As a child I made up stories for my siblings from playing cards, sending the kings, queens and jacks off on rather mundane adventures. I kept secretive diaries, and in school I wrote and directed plays. At thirteen I conceived a very poor dramatisation of Cluedo, and gave myself the part of Miss Scarlet—an archetypal blonde siren in a red dress, which I wasn’t but wished to be.

Writing was always in me but it wasn’t encouraged; I was supposed to get a proper job. My writer was forced underground until she percolated up again in my early twenties, swelling a murky pool of juvenilia, both poetry and prose. The two forms coexist in me like demanding twins. Both vie for my attention, but for the most part poems come as fleeting apparitions, rather as a badger or fox will suddenly run through your headlights at night, or an owl will miraculously wing overhead. Then the actual crafting of poetry is a bit like bonsai gardening, going in with minute scissors, pruning, shaping, clipping. Prose, in contrast, is gargantuan. It’s like carving the Bamyan buddahs, or a temple in a rock face in Persia. Several times I’ve had the experience of spending years chipping away at a longer work only to stand back and see that rather than temple pillars, I’ve carved a mill-stone around my neck.

So poems with their light touch and their sense of apparition, are always blessings for me—fleeting and enlivening love affairs, while prose is the hard work of a marriage full of irritations that must be continuously transmuted into love.

Several times I’ve had the experience of spending years chipping away at a longer work only to stand back and see that rather than temple pillars, I’ve carved a mill-stone around my neck.

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

I write by hand which fewer people do now. When we tell one another we write, our hands usually make a gesture. Most people air-type at an invisible keyboard which has me frowning. The rhythms of the keyboard are the zippy connections of the mind’s fastest neurons. They tend to show-off, to shriek, Look at me! But the rhythm of hand-writing flows through wrist, arm, chest, heart, breath. I find it more authentic, organic, ancient.

I have iron habits and quirks. Spiral-bound notebook, thick-enough paper, biro devoid of branding or slogan. I turn off the phone, become unreachable. Growl at unexpected visitors. If I’m on a residency I tend to drape scarves over the paintings I don’t like, and heft leaden furniture around until I’m satisfied that everything is just so. I like to position the desk by a window. If the desk-top is glass it becomes a camera obscura, birds drift across its screen. I like to look up, take in the outdoor world like a gulp of air, and then go back down into words.

At home its more haphazard, phrases and ideas come when they will: when I’m stepping out of the shower, or doing something domestic, or when I wake in the night, so I have pens everywhere, and my notebooks rove around like gypsies. But mostly I sit in my study at a rather blocky pitch-pine desk that my writer-friend A.S. King gave me before she left Ireland seventeen years ago. Its wood holds the memory of our young lives, and all of the stories that have happened to us since, so it’s very precious to me. It’s slightly hideous and Germanic, and might have been made by a gentle troll deep in the Black Forrest. I’ve written at it in many houses and under all kinds of duress, and its wide, solid top has been both a high-sea of adventure and a very safe space, a real shelter. At the moment it looks out into silvery-green willow trees. I watch their first buds open, their last leaves fall. I like that slow clock. And in contrast, there’s a fast-flowing stream behind my house, so I work within the sound and auspice of running water. 

I hole up in my study for hours, and then escape outside. I’ll walk off with my notebook and write from the real world. It’s much easier to work with genius loci when you can actually see the features of a place, and watch how the light moves over each small detail. The actual is more intricate than the imagined and remembered. I like that accuracy. And I simply love being in the wild. Writing from within nature resources me, I’m befriended by root and tendril, nourished by the jerky little flutters of songbirds, soothed by the uncurling spirals of ferns in spring, and chilled by winter’s dark lattice of bare branches. It’s easier to chronicle the colour and behaviours of ocean waves when they are in front of you, affecting you, and it’s easier to write about your emotions by letting them speak through seen images and metaphor.

When you bring a nature-slowed eye back into the urban world, the built environment teems, you see the antediluvian lintels and paving-stones, the Bangor blue slates quarried in Wales, the green post-box bearing the initials of a long-dead queen, the dark crow that lands on it and caws alerting you to starlings chattering within a small forest of metal spikes designed to prevent birds from roosting. Brick and plaster and the way nature co-exist with us, offer up a ripe harvest. So I note things down and bring my bag of swag back to my troll-built desk, and tip everything out, and shape something.

I believe in the innate rhythms of voice. We don’t really have a word for that besides voice, but its our jazz, our soul-sound, our gift, our pace.

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

The musicality within a poem is vital to me, but not in the conventional sense. I know my limitations. I can change a tyre, unblock a U-bend, sew curtains, but I can’t tile a bathroom any more than I can successfully work with metre. I just don’t have the ears for it. But I believe in the innate rhythms of voice. We don’t really have a word for that besides voice, but its our jazz, our soul-sound, our gift, our pace.

So I read my lyrics aloud, listen to how they sound on my tongue, sense how they feel in my body. After recording the Jeeves books, Simon Callow said that Wodehouse’s prose ‘is like singing Mozart: the perfection of his phrasing is a physical pleasure’. Wodehouse wasn’t working within a ‘received form’, he was simply putting words to his own syncopation. Reading those phrases conducted Callow into an embodied experience of Wodehouse’s innate pulse. That’s the rhythm that interests me. One of the great joys of being a poet, is that you get to spend time with a broad range of differing syncopations, from spoken-word ebullients, to restrained academics, and voice-breaking novices just finding their tempo. Helping people to find their voice has been a large part of my life.

But for my own practice, the root of poetic rhythm rises out of stillness: the white spaces between stanzas. The in-breath where we absorb and process what we’ve just read. So much of a poem’s power stems from its pauses, the timing and reveals that tug us on towards a certain visceral response. Poetry is like masterful puppetry. And much of what animates its effect, is breath and pause.

Our current lives are so fast and stressful, if we’re not alert to that, we breathe in a shallow way and operate from a sympathetic-nervous-system in over-drive—completely disconnected from our powerful natural rhythms. But when poetry is read aloud, it can soothe our nerves, lengthen our breath, lower our blood-presssure, calm our heart-rate, and bring us back into the rejuvenating territory of our own stillness. Metre achieves that, but paced breath does too, so that’s what I’m exploring on one level.

But as someone who predominantly writes and thinks about nature and our environmental crisis, there is a further layer to this for me. When we speak or recite, we speak on the out-breath having first drawn in the fine threads of this earth—our planet’s embroidered atmosphere. As writers it’s time to be very conscious of that, to be aware of how our every spoken word is dependent on our living planet. I’ve had the luck to live close to nature and to see the myriad intricate behaviours of fur and feather, bud and blossom. In her health, nature creates the most exquisite patterns and form, music and cycles, and my work is often a dim tribute to that, an attempt to stand within her rhythms and see how they resonate within my writing.

I’d like to think that the more we reconnect to earth-culture, the more likely we are to re-sacralise nature, and truly address the calamity of losing her myriad manifestations and intelligences. So my quest is to write from within that extraordinary matrix. To offer up something that is both full of grief and celebratory wonder, because that is the rhythm of now, the waltz of sorrow and praise that we are all caught up in.

Ted Hughes once said that as an imaginative writer his only capitol was his own life. Forty years on, in a fragmenting world, where all nature’s small threads are unraveling, my only capitol is my creative response to the disintegrating rhythms of the natural world. And I have to trust that staying true to that, will in turn offer something to my reader, their breath, their stillness, their somatic pleasure.

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

There are so many ways to write a book of poems. I tend to collect up a body of about sixty poems and see what narratives and themes have constellated, and weigh up what’s good enough to go in. It’s kind of like that old children’s riddle: which is heavier, a tonne of lead or a tonne of feathers? A mathematical mind sees they weigh the same. A poet will experience the feathers as lighter. But when it comes to putting our collections together, we have to be mathematical and know the scruples of each lyric. If a poem is too light, it’s forgettable. It can’t stand up to multiple readings.

Poems can only go into a collection if they weigh enough. Unfortunately for me only three or four really good poems come along each year. So I’m very slow to think about forming a collection. But I’m okay with that. I’d rather wait. I don’t want to publish goose down. I’m looking for swan feather and peacock plume.

5. Who are a couple of your favourite poets (in terms of inspiration) and why?

I love Paula Meehan for her candour and poise, her combination of raw honesty and beguiling expression. And Pattianne Rogers for her capacity to write about nature in a way that even nature would stand in awe of. She weaves thick, intricate poems, dense with flora and fauna. And in contrast I love Mark Roper for his capacity to do the opposite, to simply open one natural detail and marry it to an unforgettable idea. I treasure Michael Coady of Carrick-on-Suir, and Thomas Lynch of Moveen for how they’ve taught me to look at place. I love the cool Northern poets, Olav Hauge and Tomas Tranströmer, for their snow light and fjord thinking. I’m indebted to Rumi and Hafiz for their poetry of devotion, and to James Harpur for keeping a spiritual flame alive within the modern word. I value Thomas McCarthy for his incredible mind, his passion for encouraging young writers, and his capacity to utilize social media as a space for fascinating contributions. I could go on. Rachel Hegarty, Sinead Morrissey, Eileen Sheehan. So many poets to praise and be grateful for.

6. How important are journals and magazines in getting a sense of how new poems are working or failing to work?

It’s live audiences who are my most useful gauge as to whether a poem is working or not. When people are moved by work they queue to tell you. If someone comes up to me with tears in their eyes, I know I’ve achieved something. If I’m really on form at a reading there’s a perceptible silence in the room, there isn’t a chair creak, or shuffle. To create that for even a moment is a privilege.

And radio is really important for me too. The postman sometimes brings me these notes from people I’ve never met, who’ve reached out to me through RTÉ or my publisher, thanking me for a poem or piece of prose they’ve heard on the radio. I’m touched that I’ve compelled someone to sit down, and write their thoughts on a card, and spend good money on a stamp, and walk to a postbox. That spidery, handwritten praise is treasure to me.

The truth is, the way I measure the ‘success’ of a poem has changed. For years I promoted the journals and maintained subscriptions to a good number of them, even through the leanest of times. I used to love ‘The Shop’, which was full of fine poems. It was a real loss when it ended. And I’ve always scolded students and mentees if they weren’t subscribing to poetry magazines. How dare they not! Journals are the life-blood of this art-form. But for too many years I had to work all the hours God sent, I was raising my kids, putting them through college, teaching and mentoring at the coal-face of the poetry world, getting swamped by other people’s output, and having less and less oxygen for my own work. I didn’t have time to even glimpse at the journals. They stacked up by my bed unread.

And then when I did have the luxury of time for a bath, and remembered to take a journal with me, I often didn’t like the poems I was reading. Either I wasn’t grabbed emotionally, or the poems weren’t reflecting the state of our world and the depth of our environmental crisis. My taste just isn’t congruous with most of the editors of the day. There have been some really good environmental journals like The Curlew, Earthlines and Dark Mountain, which I’ve been proud to be in, but I resent how for the last thirty years, the mainstream journals have ignored the earth’s crisis, and not found it necessary to place themselves in the centre of a creative response to our precarious situation.

I’ve always scolded students and mentees if they weren’t subscribing to poetry magazines. How dare they not! Journals are the life-blood of this art-form.

Poets and poetry could have been the fulcrum of all the social and environmental changes that needed to happen. But we haven’t been. We took the wrong fork in the woods and followed the commercial-travellers down a well-trodden path, only for our art-form to get lost in the glitz of festivals, and lost in the house of mirrors that is social media and self-promotion. At the first whiff of hubris, I keel over like a canary in a cage down a mine and lose all interest. I fear that in the cacophony of our own trumpet-blowing, we are making ourselves ludicrously irrelevant, and are doing a massive disservice to poetry.

So I’m very wary about what I read. It’s important that I read for pleasure and nurture. My poetic muse is delicate; I’m careful to only feed it work that enlivens me, so I take word-of-mouth recommendations from Lani O’Hanlon, Fergus Hogan and Keith Payne, poet-friends that I trust, and I dive into their suggestions happily, hungrily. I’ll review work if I’m invited, and if I find it stimulating. But I rarely risk the journals now. In these challenging days we all need to know our places of sanctuary. If I’m happier with a seed catalogue than a poetry magazine, well that’s my sorry truth. Adrienne Rich said ‘there are times when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die’. It’s important I protect my poetic impulse, don’t numb it with deadening work, and continue to seek out poetry that enlivens and restores.

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

Coincidentally both the youngest writer I know, Molly Twomey, and the oldest writer I know, Dervla Murphy, come from Lismore, Co Waterford. Murphy is now eighty-seven. She began writing at thirty when she cycled to India. She has the most amazing courage, tenacity, force of will, and resilience of any person I have ever met. These are the qualities that every writer needs. Murphy appears to have them innately, but the rest of us have to grow these qualities and teach ourselves endurance.

For all the previous years of my life I would have answered this question very differently. For decades I poured absolute enthusiasm over every young, or emerging writer, that I met, urging them on into this profession. But I can’t do that anymore. Asked to offer one piece of advice to Molly Twomey, and I feel frozen, tight-lipped. I still sincerely believe that every writer must write. It is necessity. Being a writer is like having a mental illness, if we’re writing, we’re ok. If we haven’t time for our work, we’ll be somewhere on a spectrum between catatonia and mania. So we have to write. But would I send another beautiful, young person into this circus? No. I have seen too many writers crash and burn, their bright trajectories shot down by the unkindness of publishing and the generally inclement conditions of the writing world. It is too harsh out there for me to actively encourage anyone into this realm.

And as right-wing and neo-liberal politics gain more ground, it is going to be harder than ever to be poor— and most artists are poor, we scrabble around like elegant, cathedral mice seeking crumbs beneath the altar-cloth of capitalism.

And things are going to get harsher. These are serious times, we are in an environmental tailspin that may not be reversed. And as right-wing and neo-liberal politics gain more ground, it is going to be harder than ever to be poor— and most artists are poor, we scrabble around like elegant, cathedral mice seeking crumbs beneath the altar-cloth of capitalism.

Oscar Wilde said that when bankers get together they talk about art, and when artists get together they talk about money. We do; the lack of it, and the myriad problematical ways that lack manifests. And if we do have money, then we are likely to be time-poor without the quiet to work. All writers bear the wounds of that time-versus-money war. And though there are publishing contracts, competition wins, arts grants, and funding opportunities out there, they are usually chimeric what-ifs dangled in front of our eyes like carrots we rarely ever reach. If we do suddenly find ourselves with one of these lucky-tickets in our hand, it is likely to only avert yet another financial-crisis, and go towards paying bills that have amassed like sand-dunes around our small cove.

To write with any comfort, a young writer is going to need a trust-fund, or a patron, or a partner with a proper job, or a parent with some cash, but even with those supports, they will still be in and out of the dole-office cap in hand. And all of this will be just a little shaming, so it will be hard for them to hold their head high. All my advice now is going to sound like a dire warning: there probably won’t be holidays, or health-insurance, or a pension, and you are likely to have holes in your clothes, your shoes, your teeth and your roof, and this lack will drone on like the sound of a poignant violin, or a dirge that you won’t be able to block your ears against. Struggle and bitterness and your own sense of failure, will clack at your heels like shadows to be eternally fought against, knight-like as St George with his dragon, sword-arm perpetually raised.

And the worst part of all this is, that these material and psychological challenges will co-exist while you are grappling with the unconscious, the half-hatched, the just out of reach phrases and ideas that you are desperately trying to make concrete. Your writing will be impacted by your circumstances, and you will not quite create what you meant to, not quite fulfill your potential. But nonetheless you will offer what you can, bringing your finished poems and stories to the table like someone arriving at a pot-luck dinner with a pie whose pastry is just a little undercooked. You will offer it anyway and everyone will be very nice about it, but you’ll know in your heart your work could have been so much better.

And all of this will have ramifications and consequences for the people close to you. Your partner. Your children. And your parents—who will always be worrying for you and trying to rescue you from what they consider your folly, so you will need to be very determined, and ruthless as a card-shark, in order to bring all of these other people along with you on this uncomfortable ride. You will paradoxically need to have skin thick as elephant hide to ignore the impacts on your loved ones, and to withstand the constant arrows of rejection, and the barbs of bad reviews that keep coming, while you’ll simultaneously need to keep your pores open and gossamer-sensitive enough to write anything worthwhile.

And all of this will impact your mental health. So what one thing might I say to a bright, hopeful new writer of any age daring to enter this melodrama? For your mental health, you must write, and for your sanity you must defend yourself against the worst failings of this industry so you are not defeated by the obsessive competition and clamour for success that fuels this industry and divides writers from one another. Instead you must strengthen your writing-friendships, build peer-support, and only engage with structures that deepen your feelings of mutuality with other writers.

But having given that warning, I still have to say, write. Though your glass is always going to be half-full of money-worries, professional jealousy, insecurity and self-doubt, it will also be half-full of creativity, contemplation, observation, mystery and meaning. The prevailing wind of lack is also your updraft of freedom. However austere things become, you have to keep viewing your days as the most marvelous adventure. And your words will bring you to wonderful places and incredible people. So make it easy for yourself, buy nice notebooks, good pens, lure yourself on with enticing sugar-lumps of one sort or another. Catch your brain the minute it starts moaning and whimpering about how hard this all is, stop those thoughts, pick up your pen and push on as if you were Dervla Murphy cycling to India.

Remind yourself daily that the reason you write is not because you want success or fame, or even to earn a living from this patchwork profession, but because this is who and what you are, a writer prepared to face into the cycling alphabet of storms that are going to keep blasting our shores, while you courageously write into their gale, a silver river of words brooking your lips, and flowing on, moon-bathed through the dark.

Grace Wells has published two collections of poetry with The Dedalus Press, When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things and Fur.

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7 Questions on Poetry: Patrick Kehoe

Patrick Kehoe - Dedalus Press, poetry from ireland and the world

Patrick Kehoe, poet and arts journalist, answers 7 Questions on Poetry. His most recent collections of poems are Places to Sleep (Salmon Poetry, 2018) and The Cask of Moonlight (Dedalus Press, 2014).


Do you remember How, or When, or even Why you started writing poems (as opposed to songs, say, or fiction)?

I recall writing poems that were like company or friends to me, at St Peter’s College around 1972 in a blue notebook. I recall pleasure in particular from a poem I wrote about the evening sky changing in the month of October outside the study room windows into night. A great passage through dusk, twilight.

The poem was, I could see, close in its imagery to what I wanted, which engendered a peculiar satisfaction. Such versifying was predicated on the fact that I was conscious of being in boarding school for a five-year sentence and that my freedom was compromised. The view from the study room window was akin to Oscar Wilde’s ‘tent of blue’ as seen from the confines of Reading Gaol.

Five years is a huge block of time in the middle of your early adolescence. It was not relevant that you got home for holidays, you could not be philosophical about time passing quickly, as one ruefully is when one is much older.

So poetry was an imaginative liberation. It is strange that when you endure – or enjoy, as I sometimes did – those days, that one day they will seem so long ago, so much an afterthought.

Rather than doing my study, I loved watching the light fade and the way bits of cloud turned red and then lost the red, or yellow faded somewhere else. I put these visual elements into a poem called ‘Seasons at Saint Peters’ in my book The Cask of Moonlight. 

Do you have a favourite poet, or even a favourite poem? A poem you think everyone should read, even know by heart?

I recall in 1973/1974 my friend Eamonn Wall had a few of those Modern European Poets selections from Penguin which I wish they would reissue in exactly the same livery now 40 years on. Jiménez shared a volume with Machado, there was a selection of Mallarmé.

I have only two or three of such volumes but I am very fond of the first half of my Selected Eugenio Montale, the earlier poems, from Ossi di Seppia (Bones of the Cuttlefish) and other early to mid-period work. It’s a peuce-covered slim volume purchased in Copenhagen in 1977.


In general, would you say that you write to expand on an image or idea or to compress and focus it?


How much do you edit? How much do you know where you’re going and how much do you blindly feel your way?

It’s like a sprint to the finish and I know it will be a short sprint, i.e. a short poem, so there is no real pressure. Once done and let rest for a day or so, I realise I must go back to the start again and forget the sprinting. Rather, crawl on my hands and feet around the words as though they were obstacles, but also turnstiles letting me in when I select the right one.


What’s your relationship with ‘received forms’ (the sonnet, ballad, villanelle etc)? Are there other non-traditional form restrictions you place on your work?

All I know is my apprenticeship as a songwriter served me usefully for writing poems that generally try to sing in free verse. Reading some of my poems back, I note only odd corners and bits of them seem to sing, other parts are avowedly technical, as it were. Yet I suppose the pieces seem to fit in the end, the unmusical usages and the musical, it’s an oddly functioning alloy.

Have you ever been a part of a writing workshop and, if so, what do you think you gained from it. If not, is there any reason why not?

I went to a songwriting workshop once that Sonny Condell gave in Dun Laoghaire and cannot recall much, bar his explanation of how putting his guitar into different tunings prompted new songs.
John Martyn used to avoid standard tuning and it yielded similar results. I do not know how that applies to poetry, I think it doesn’t for myself, but it may be a paradigm for someone who experiments with different metrical forms.
As to any kind of workshop, I am sure they have proved very valuable to many a writer. The best workshop though might be the talented English teacher.

A great deal of your poetry is concerned with / based in, Barcelona in the 1970s. Is there something about that place and period that has a special ‘hold’ on you? Is the distance from it (in time and space) a help or a hindrance?

Is the distance from Barcelona a help or a hindrance? I love that question, it is a fundamental question with regard to poetry which involves any decent poet’s recall of childhood or youth. The distance is almost axiomatic, if that is the phrase, to the writing and the imaginative invention, so I suppose distance helps. Then again, I return to Barcelona every few years or so and it is like hauling in another net of fresh fish and the poems then don’t need to refer to some notional long ago at all. In my most recent book, Places to Sleep there is a poem called ‘Sant Martí’. Three years ago or so, on a short break in the city, I could walk around the district of that name, unfamiliar to me, around noon, say. I made the streets my own in writing by what I think is a reasonably commendable attempt to describe the colour of the light in March as it fell on those nondescript pale walls in a district, some distance away from the tourist end. The hotel was there, hence the poem, a pleasing serendipity to me. I find new inspirations each time. The hold is very peculiar to me, and yet I only lived there for two years. There was a definable trajectory though and it is important that I do not spell it out. There is in fact already sufficient narrative in quite a few poems. That trajectory began with trying to carve out a living in a city where you could not ask people a question about directions in English on the street, or ask for a meal in English in a restaurant. You had no choice but to take on the mask that speaking a foreign language involves. The mask makes you a different entity and I hope somehow that it is part of whatever I do in verse.

7 Questions on Poetry were answered by Patrick Kehoe.
See The Cask of Moonlight by Patrick Kehoe here.
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7 Questions On Poetry: Elaine Cosgrove

Elaine Cosgrove photo by Pat Boran - Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

Elaine Cosgrove, author of the much-admired debut Transmissions (Dedalus Press, 2017) takes part in our occasional series and answers 7 Questions on Poetry


Do you remember the first poem you wrote or what prompted it?

The first poem I remember writing was in my early teens about the wildflowers that grew around my house and a want to be like the wildflowers. I then lost myself for a few years writing terrible ‘woe-is-me’ Smashing Pumpkins-inspired lyrics. Lal!

How do you get started on a new poem? Is it a conscious effort or something you find yourself doing without plan or premeditation?

I usually start from an idea or an image or an impression or sometimes the skeleton of a poem jotted down in a notebook (or on my phone if I’m feeling self-conscious about whipping out a notebook in public). The poem will develop (or go nowhere) from these and usually for me takes about 3-4 dedicated sittings to get it going. So, for me, it is quite premeditated in that when work and life commitments are dealt with first, then I set my dedicated time to write, read, think, explore, develop, finish maybe 2-3 evenings a week, a weekend here or there, if I’m lucky. At the moment, routine is a bit wayward, but I know I’ll find it again. I adore being on buses or planes or trains because it is always a time I can give myself to develop work further – and let the mind wander.  

How important is music / the sound of the poem to you? Does it play any part in your writing process?

For me, music is a huge influence and the sound of a poem is very important. If I’m stuck in a line for the words I haven’t found yet, I’ll mark out the syllables I want, the rhythm I’m hoping for, and make a note of the tone I’m trying to find or leave a note to myself to listen to a certain song or read a certain poem for its musicality so when I come back to it I hope I have a better ear tuned in towards what I’m working towards. 

Do you share your poems with anyone before you decide they’re completely finished? (Are you a part of a writing workshop?)

I have a clutch of trusted readers I share new work with and vice versa. They give constructive criticism that is usually spot on!

How important to you is taking part in poetry readings and other ‘live’ events?

It’s important to take part I feel, and despite myself—the stage fright I have gotten to a much better place with—I am determined to enjoy them, and I do enjoy sharing poems with people, and I do get a rush of adrenalin the more I get past myself. I love going to readings and hearing writers, artists, musicians, scientists, historians etc. read and discuss their work or the work of others. 

Do you have favourite poets or favourite poems? 

Too many! 

What would you say your immediate friends/family thinks of you as a writer of poetry? 

Hmmm I’m not too sure but I’d say, in my humble opinion,… Overall, they’re usually pretty sound about it! Some care, some don’t care which is cool with me. Some think it’s interesting and others a bit daft; some delighted to let me get on with it. Some find it wildly mysterious and ask lots of questions which I don’t mind answering at all. Nothing is too silly to ask. Some want to read more poetry but don’t know ‘how to read poetry’ (even though we’re all experts in words in some way or another) so I might send on poems by other poets I think they might enjoy. 
7 questions on poetry were answered by Elaine Cosgrove.