Posted on Leave a comment

7 Questions on Poetry: Eleanor Hooker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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


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

 

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


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

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

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

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

 

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


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

 

 

Posted on Leave a comment

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?

Both.
 
***

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.
Posted on Leave a comment

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.