Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Grainne Tobin

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

The Uses Of Silk

Gráinne Tobin

grew up in Armagh and lives in Newcastle, Co Down where she used to teach in Shimna Integrated College. She is involved in the Of Mouth reading series in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. Her books are Banjaxed, The Nervous Flyer’s Companion (Summer Palace Press) and The Uses of Silk (Arlen House). She has contributed to the anthologies Word of Mouth (Blackstaff Press) When the Neva Rushes Backwards (Lagan Press) On the Grass When I Arrive (Liberties Press) Washing Windows (Arlen House) Something About Home (Geographies Publications) Metamorphic (Recent Work Press) and Female Lines (New Island).

The Interview

1. When and why did you begin to write poetry?

I sort of had several beginnings.

I wrote the first poem when I was nine, and mostly what I remember about it was that I approached it as a technical problem. Children often do this. I assumed poems had to rhyme and I knew there was something else but I didn’t know how it was done. I asked my mother ‘How do you write a poem?’ and she very sensibly said the minimum: ‘Some people give every line the same number of beats and some give them the same number of syllables’. It wasn’t to do with self-expression but experimenting with the form and the sound effects. I meant it as an ordinary how-to question like ‘How do you make toast?’ She was so easygoing about it, even though she knew plenty about poetry and could have been tempted into the trap – she was a teacher – of going too deep, too soon. No big fuss.

In my teens I had read more poetry, knew it was special for me and knew I needed to say complicated things to myself, so wrote poems in free verse when I was meant to be doing homework. And hid them, of course. When I was fifteen, a friend told me about her ‘seduction’ (we’d now say child sexual abuse) by her mother’s lodger, and the secret baby she had been forced to give up for adoption:  I was overwhelmed by the need to make a poem to contain the unbearable contradictions in her story and in my own response to it.

There was never a time when I didn’t want to write, and it was almost always poetry, not fiction. At university I gave up, swamped by a degree in English Literature and the shame of not being Yeats and the lads, but began again eventually and took it on properly later, when I was pregnant with my first child, and went on writing the odd wee thing, but kept it a bit private.

I began to accept my writing as necessary to me, and to work seriously on it, in my early thirties, when I became part of the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective, a women poets’ tough, warm self-help group that met for criticism and support every month for 25 years, in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. (The Linen Hall now has the group’s papers in its literary archive.)

My husband Andy Carden cleared the way for a breakthrough when our children were 4 and 7: he took them on a canoe-camping trip to Scotland in order to leave me three clear weeks off-duty to write. I went to stay with a friend in Northamptonshire who was out at work all day. I wrote a longish poem in quite regular quatrains. It had been building in me for a couple of years. Again, it was set off by the contradictions in an experience, this time tutoring a community centre’s creative writing class in adult education during the Troubles.

If you read Tillie Olsen’s book Silences you’ll see why it sometimes takes so long to begin claiming your own writing.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My parents. And like many another atheist, the church.

My father used to put me to bed with a story and night prayers (it was a 1950s Irish Catholic family) in our top-floor flat in Abbey Street in Armagh where we lived until I was five. We had some excitement with the Lord’s Prayer said by my father in Irish, which to me sounded fantastic, very rhythmic and weird, and there was a terrific final ritual before actually getting into the bed, where I’d stand on the crushed velvet bedside mat someone had given as a present, which had a picture of a tiger on it, and we’d both chant ‘Tyger tyger burning bright/In the forests of the night/ What immortal hand or eye/ Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?’ which was like a rugby haka or an incantation. I didn’t know what else it was until I grew up.

My mother and father were both teachers and readers, who themselves came from families which unselfconsciously enjoyed wordplay and conversation in the Irish way. I was the first of their seven children, so for a while I must have had them at my mercy for chat and nursery rhymes and stories.

As for the church… The sounds and images of the liturgy and Bible readings do stick to you and I was in my teens before Mass stopped being in Latin, so I lived within the wordy mysteries. My missal had a parallel text, which in both Latin and English read like poetry, and was a kind of magic. The beginning of the book of Genesis gave me gooseflesh. (‘The word was with God and the Word was God.’) The Family Rosary was a feature of our home life in the evenings in one phase of my childhood, and that too works as a sort of chant.

In a cupboard at home, I found an old primary-school poetry book from 1928, belonging to my maternal grandmother, with poems like Hiawatha and Goblin Market and Dover Beach: I read this repeatedly for years by myself. At primary school, I had little association between school and poetry. It was a private pleasure. The poems we came across were off-putting and the worst bit was choral speaking when the teacher told us to use our ‘best Sunday voices’ which meant putting on false RP English accents, to recite what I still regard as oul’ blether from Wordsworth about that ‘hoost’ of golden daffodils.

Things improved in my convent grammar school because we had interesting class anthologies such as The Puffin Book of Verse for Young People, which at the back had a dizzying extract from Whitman’s Song of Myself, which I used to read on the sly. In my teens I must have been at least as odd as many people are at that age – I was in the habit of sneaking off into fields alone, to read aloud privately from whatever poetry I could find, usually textbooks like The Albemarle Book of Verse, which was a bit avant-garde for a school book. It had daring poems about modern war, and Louis McNeice’s Prayer before Birth. That was a great favourite when I was about 15 and I recited it with huge conviction in a verse-speaking competition in Portadown. The adjudicator gave me low marks saying that at 15 I should not be choosing to present poems I could not possibly understand, which left me silenced, and outraged.

Encouragement with poetry at school depended on which teacher you got. I had a particularly dreadful elderly nun once, who knew little about the A level poems she was meant to teach us, and censored anything she thought improper. I was desperate to hide my own poems from her and so rejected an offer to join a poetry-writing group formed by a nice teacher in the parallel Catholic boys’ school, because I wrongly believed that this nun would also attend it. This group included Paul Muldoon.

When I was 17 the new Arts Council of Northern Ireland funded a touring show called Room to Rhyme, which had Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and the musician David Hammond doing poems and songs. This was electrifying. I think as a sixth former I may have been at this reading as part of a small school group but without nuns accompanying us, always a joy… Heaney’s poem Elegy for a Stillborn Child has remained with me all my life. It may have freed me to write my poem about that forced adoption. The stillborn child had been ‘a cartographer/charting my friend from husband to father’ and the stillbirth had left his friend’s wife ’Light as an empty creel.’ It was a woman-friendly poem, a version of my own friend’s story about the lost baby, and I think it was stored away for later in my mind. I’ve since come to acknowledge that for me, ideas about reproduction and fertility do hang around in the same messy mental attic space inhabited by poetry.

I don’t usually think of these things, so your questions are forcing me to see connections. I’ve had a lot of help, not just being introduced to the existence of poetry but also its lore and practice.  Back in 1980, I skived off a worthy few sessions considering exam syllabuses at a conference of the National Association for the Teaching of English to join the poetry workshop led by Rony Robinson from Sheffield instead. It felt like running away to join the circus: it opened the way for everything else. A few years later, the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective began and its dozen or so expert and demanding members spent 25 years introducing me to ever more issues in poetry, encouraging me to ‘fail again, fail better’ as Samuel Beckett famously recommended.  Later, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland gave me a Single Individual Artist Award, which sponsored me for some mentoring from Penelope Shuttle, which enabled me to stand back and look at my work from a different angle. Keeping the momentum going, persisting after you’ve got stuck at a standstill, is as important as starting.

3. How aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets?

When I was young, crushingly aware – and not just older poets, but male, and usually dead! Now I don’t feel dominated by even older poets (I’m 67 myself) or better poets, or even dead ones, because I am too grateful for what they give us, and I see them as pushing in the same direction as all of us, towards the understanding of life which can happen in poems. A biblical image recurs in my mind: we are all labourers in the same vineyard. Also, art is not all about levels of achievement. It’s something many people have to do, just to stay sane, whether what we produce is any good or not.

In my teens, I owned a couple of poetry books from Penguin, the Mersey Poets and Alvarez’s The New Poetry- requested birthday presents. I very much admired some of these poems, but they didn’t look like anything I could emulate. Urban, male and super-cool. At 17, when I went to my university entrance interview in Canterbury, I bought Brian Patten’s Notes to the Hurrying Man. It was the first time I became aware that such poems could be written. I felt liberated by the tone and language and subjects of those poems, Young Girl Raped at a Suburban Party for instance.

The poetry in my Eng Lit degree course was enticing but very male-heavy and all English degrees then were about criticism, not creation. I felt all the poems had been written already, and better than I could ever do it.  In the University of Kent at Canterbury circa 1970 the poetry society seemed full of very clever, confident men, although I realise now they were as young as I was and not much more than boys. They saw themselves as the inheritors of Charles Olsen and Robert Creeley et al. There was an imaginary boys’ club for them to join. I didn’t know much then about contemporary modern poetry, especially poetry by women, and had no sense of foremothers. This was just before the Women’s Liberation Movement started and although I’d always known myself to be a feminist I really did struggle to get free of the culture of the time: it meant a lot then that there was nobody whose poetry life I could imagine as like my own. Wordsworth? Yeats? Hardly. Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney were only ten years older than I was, but even then they seemed venerable, awe-inspiring and godlike. Inspiring, but not in my world exactly. I was in England at the start of the Troubles but was separated from life at home and the poetry of those times appeared to be happening in Boyworld.

Gender exclusion wasn’t something I could protest about then, because I hardly acknowledged it; I’d never agreed with the idea that women were not men’s equals and I didn’t look easily cowed, being gabby and opinionated ( I’ve had complaints) but this background level of humiliation was contaminating the very air I breathed. For a long time I was not writing, having internalised the prevalent misogyny and turned it into a sort of personal shame. It seemed you would need a big ego to pursue writing for publication. It’s a false belief.

The Word of Mouth Poetry Collective in Belfast was an antidote to this unjustified but persistent sense of not quite being entitled to make poems or seek publication. We were working against the unexamined societal belief that approval from women did not quite count, whereas approval from men was the real thing. In the 1980s and 90s it felt as if there was little respect for women’s poetry in Ireland, and Word of Mouth was often mistaken for a community group rather than a literary one. This attitude has changed, but only recently I was told by a woman who had taken part in a heavy-duty writing workshop that when she joined it and saw that participants were female, she had worried that it would be ‘full of housewives’ and not serious about poetry. We are the people we warn ourselves against.

I was cured of the shame by Joan and Kate Newmann, who set up Summer Palace Press and were also members of Word of Mouth. They approached me about publishing my first collection. I don’t think I would have had the brass neck to submit it, unsolicited, to publishers. The dominating presence of the imaginary older, male, legitimate poets took a while to fade, but I am very grateful that Joan and Kate had faith in my work when I wouldn’t have felt able to claim it against opposition.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I usually feel terrible, thinking I have done nothing and written nothing and have nothing to show for my time. This turns out not to be true when I look in notebooks and find all the drafts waiting to be typed up and finished. It’s an occupational hazard and many experienced writers of poetry admit to something similar. I really admire the very productive types like Simon Armitage who wrote his Seeing Stars book in the rest breaks from plugging away at his version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

It’s only now, after much experimentation, that I have got to the point of finding a workable routine which allows me some fixed writing time. On days when I’m at home I have a minimum of two hours, 11am to 1pm, which my beloved and I are referring to as Ringfenced Time, on the analogy of protected, ringfenced budgets for particular purposes in the public services where we both worked. I mix metaphors in thinking of it as an air-pocket of time. I do not want to call it writing time or poetry time in case I paralyse myself and jinx the whole thing, as I have done before. Having a routine involves having to trick my own dottier guilty tendencies into leaving me alone. Even mentioning the hope of doing some writing tends to make me sabotage myself and get into a tizzy in case I can’t write, or it’s not good enough, or taking this time means I am taking it from something or someone else. Ring-fencing 11am to 1pm means I have guaranteed time to be near my laptop, notebooks and poetry books. It feels invigorating even on days when I’m just reading poetry, or doing late revisions of poems, or poetry admin, like preparing to take part in a project such as Poetry Jukebox https://twitter.com/poetryjukebox. (Writing the answers to your Wombwell Rainbow questions counts as half-way to admin). At other times in the day I might go back to the work if I have the chance and inclination, but these two ringfenced hours mean guaranteed, uninterruptible poetry-thinking time.

After two hours of intense creative work I am often at the end of my useful writing energy anyway, because this kind of concentration can be like a trance state. I need breaks. I use the Pomodoro Technique, with an actual plastic tomato timer, to make myself move so my joints don’t stiffen from locking into position for too long. And I get very cold! I think it is because these bouts of hard thinking make me sit still as a hunting cat. I know a writer who sits in his sleeping bag, typing. I have extra woollies for writing, and occasionally a rug, like a Victorian invalid.

I envy those writers who have a daily routine starting ‘I get up at six and write seven drafts before breakfast’. Novelists seem to do much better with the daily routine – or that’s my excuse anyway. Lyric poetry means kindling a fresh fire in the grate every time. Although I’ve been writing for many years, most of these years have been very busy with teaching and family responsibilities, and even after packing in the day job I found I had to learn to claim my time as my own. There’s also laziness, of course, as poetry is like swimming in that I’m always entranced once I’m in, but the bit where I stop doing other things and set off with a swimsuit and shampoo and a towel seems off-putting. Even Yeats said, ‘All things can tempt me from this craft of verse.’

Since 2005 I have started every day by writing a journal in bed, because a bereavement counsellor insisted that this was essential for my continued emotional health. She was right, and it feeds my poetry because it allows me a daily moment to be selfishly but harmlessly introspective, to download the psychic detritus, and stay a bit saner. It also keeps me in the habit of writing.

5. What motivates you to write?

The unending weirdness of the world.

6. What is your work ethic?

Guilty, overconscientious. I tend naturally to be inefficient but if I agreed to produce something, I would feel very bad if I over-ran the deadline. Workshops and readings are a serious obligation and I prepare properly for them. I am distractable, so have to set up systems not to forget to do things. You do have to trick the Muse into visiting. She’s skittish with business talk and needs to stay playful. There is always a tension between duty and instinct.

I retired from my teaching job a few years ago so people who are not writers keep asking me how I am enjoying ‘doing poetry full-time’. It’s alarming as it sets off my mad guilt reflex: if I have retained one thing from my Catholic childhood it’s the tendency to a bad conscience, the sense of never having done enough. I write slowly. I edit to the twentieth draft. I’ve been on writing retreats when people have asked whether I ‘got a lot of writing done’ and the answer is always no. I can put in many hours for a single-page poem, and there have to be gaps in the work as well, so I can think about other things before coming back to take a different angle on it. I was delighted when I managed a whole finished poem in an intense week of full-time writing. I often need to look sideways, to sneak up on the poem while whistling and gazing in the other direction.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I think the influences from poetry read before the age of twenty are so embedded they aren’t distinct. My head is full of quotations and rhythms from poems, but I don’t use much rhyme, for instance, though the poems I read as a child always did. The frisson from something like Browning’s Pippa Passes remains as a breeze behind poems of mine like Counting Children, I think.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

This is the hardest of all your questions because there are so many current poets whose work I enjoy, and some whose work I am convinced is of good quality, but whose sub-genre of poetry is just not my cup of tea. I think a reader’s or listener’s response to poems is more a matter of preference than a competition for scorecard points. It’s like musical taste: if you are a traditional pub-session fiddle player you might respect experimental music without turning to it for pleasure.

I subscribe to the Poetry Book Society which means having work by someone fantastic like Raymond Antrobus or Andrew McMillan arriving through the letterbox, when I might not have come across them before. Scotland has loads of stars, such as Kathleen Jamie whose books are just dazzling.  I’ll mention a few obvious Irish favourites off the top of my head, though that makes it a rather white-faced list. Sinead Morrissey and Leontia Flynn and Colette Bryce come immediately to mind. Very different poets, all from a generation after mine in Northern Ireland, all with that lift-off quality where a poem quietly takes you up and somehow puts you down somewhere else by the end. From the other side of the border, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, who’s just finished her stint as Ireland Chair of Poetry, writes terrific, properly levitated but grounded poetry. Vona Groarke can’t write a boring stanza. Her verbs alone are worth the detour. And of course, there is Eavan Boland, whose poems are strong and beautiful, and who has used her prestige to open up poetry for all women writers in Ireland, with or without academic credentials. Frank Ormsby from Belfast is writing better than ever now after a lifetime of publishing poetry, and seems to be doing a late-career Matisse, simplifying, playing, freeing his work from formality. And then there’s Ruth Carr, Moyra Donaldson, Damian Smyth, Paul Maddern, Jean Bleakney, Maureen Boyle, Matt Kirkham, Olive Broderick, Maria McManus, all within a 35-mile radius of where I live. The younger poets attached to the Lifeboat and the Tangerine magazines in Belfast are terrific too. This place is heaving with good poetry!

9. Why do you write?

In Heaney’s words from Personal Helicon: ‘to see myself, to set the darkness echoing’.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

This is usually a beginner’s question, so I will answer bearing that in mind.

First, become a reader. And then, just start writing. These days you don’t have to get permission from any gatekeeper. You can put your work online and reach readers or listeners that way. You can be an outsider-art poet.

However, if you want serious feedback from experienced readers and tutors who know a lot about skill in writing, look for a creative writing course that suits and supports you. You can join a writing group, or study writing in weekly sessions in adult education, or do it as an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. When I started writing, these courses did not exist. (An academic/poet once discovered I had never done a degree in creative writing and exclaimed, in amazement, ‘So you’re completely self-taught!’)

However, if you want serious feedback from experienced readers and tutors who know a lot about skill in writing, look for a creative writing course that suits and supports you.

The spoken word poetry scene is generally younger and noisier than page poetry, and can be a great way to get into knowing what you enjoy. Many poetry readings are free of charge and you can poke around, trying them out to find what you admire and would like to emulate. Even if you don’t like some of the poems, it can be encouraging to realise you could do as well or better. It can give you confidence in your own taste and judgement. Literary festivals can be a chance to hear poets read their work. The Cork International Poetry Festival focuses entirely on poetry. The John Hewitt Summer School in Armagh in the last week of July invites excellent poets and encourages anyone on a low income to apply for bursaries. 

As soon as you can, begin sending out poems to magazines and competitions. The websites from the The Saison Poetry Library in London and Poetry Ireland in Dublin both list opportunities to submit work. Most poems sent are not accepted, so expect this to happen and don’t be put off. There is only so much space in a magazine. Keep sending out poems. What one editor doesn’t want, another might.

Read a lot, and look for ways you’d like to write, techniques that give you as a reader the experience you’re looking for. The anxiety of influence is a genuine concern, but you just have to live with it and reading is an apprenticeship. Being original is a dodgy post-Romantic notion; nobody is really outside all tradition, and every writer, even the most experimental, learns from reading. It makes me shudder when I hear someone say ‘I don’t read poetry but write it’. You wouldn’t start playing the fiddle without having heard anyone else play it! (It may help to think of your poetry as like music, possibly progressing from bedroom singing, to practising the guitar, to garage band level, then to gigs in pubs, a tour, a recording contract. Or nowadays, YouTube.)


Becoming a writer isn’t really a thing, in my opinion. Michael Longley was reported to have said that saying you’re a poet is like saying you’re a saint, which of course would paralyse your writing if you took it seriously. It’s about what you do rather than what you are. Maybe being a writer as a job can be a thing, but it’s not a job from which most writers can make a living. You do need to earn somehow, unless you have a patron or inherited wealth. (Hollow laughter. This is one reason working-class writers have such a hard time.)  I spent my working life as a teacher, which I loved, and which supported my family, but which tended to drain the same tank of energy and creativity I drew on for my poetry. Nearly everyone who writes has to earn money to eat and pay the bills in other ways than by writing. Some work in universities teaching other people to write. (Marking assignments isn’t being a writer, though.) Some deliberately choose work that doesn’t drain their writing tank; the poet Jean Bleakney’s day job was in a Belfast garden centre. Kevin Barry, who is a wonderful fiction writer, spent six months living in a small caravan, reading rings round himself to learn how to write well enough for publication, devising his own crash course in fiction and writing his first novel, which he says was dreadful.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

My third poetry collection came out six months ago and since then I’ve been recovering, getting my head straight, looking after the writing muscles, trying to be patient with myself while I accumulate poems for a fourth collection. I’ve been part of several poetry projects, such as Poetry Jukebox  http://www.irishnews.com/…/13/news/ireland-s-first-poetry-jukebox-launched-in-belfast-1161120 and that’s always exhilarating, so I hope to do more collaborations. I am planning to get a grip on the online evidence of my work and accept a friend’s offer of help with putting together a Facebook author page and a modest website. I don’t actively seek workshop gigs because the paperwork takes too much writing time, but I usually accept them when I can, so there may be some this year. And I want to send out some bids for readings in festivals, along with two poet friends.

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