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.
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.
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.
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 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.