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’.