Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Maria McManus

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.

Available Light

Maria McManus

was born in Enniskillen and lives in Belfast. She is the author of Available Light (Arlen House, 2018), We are Bone (2013), The Cello Suites (2009) and Reading the Dog (2006) (Lagan Press). She has collaborated extensively with others to put literature into public space. She is Artistic Director and curator of Poetry Jukebox, an on-street audio installation of contemporary poetry.

Twitter: @maria_mcmanus @poetryjukebox @LabeLLit

POETRY JUKEBOX: Belfast’s Changing the Message! @poetryjukebox
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS- Song of Myself – Closes 23rd September 2019 EMAIL: poetryjukebox@gmail.com



The Interview

1. What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?

In mid-September of 2001, I went with a friend to Rathlin Island for a writers’ festival organised by the Ballycastle Writers. I’d never written anything to that point; it was an experiment and a fun thing to do and we were bluffing our way; no-one would know we didn’t write.

I’d been looking for something for a while; I’d been responding to some restlessness in me that had been hovering waiting for attention for years.

In 1996, post-ceasefire and pre the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, we’d moved our small family of two daughters, then aged four and nine, out of Belfast to a village on the Co. Down coast. We were in some optimism that peace would sustain and that we could be somewhere that the girls could grow up slowly, that my (then) husband, could leave his job in community development and set up his own business, and I would take the heft of being the anchor of the family by holding a job with a regular income to support us in the transition and beyond. We got two weeks exactly, of some hedonistic sense of freedom.

Into this scenario, the news that my father from whom I had been estranged, had become terminally ill. He was to die a year later and the aftermath of these series of events was seismic. We’d sold our house. The business deal on the new property hadn’t come to fruition but we expected it would and took a chance anyway. The marriage had been under some strain and a radical solution was called for – the stakes were high, there were children involved and I desperately wanted a family life. I gave it everything I’d got.

Grief called everything into question and put everything under compression. I was still reeling, looking for anchor points in those years between 1996 and 2001. My response was to work harder and study more: it is a delusion of conditioning that these are the responses to suffering – we are lead to expect that – marriage is hard and needs work; you need to step up and take responsibility; if you work hard, you will get there… and other such guff; life decisions shaped by introjects. The result was that I basically spent five years painting myself further into a corner, over-achieving, putting myself under increasing pressure and feeling more and more angry, dissatisfied, sad, frustrated, confused, burnt out, exhausted and trapped. I didn’t like the person I had become. I look back now and think I was slow to learn, but I also understand that ‘when we don’t know, we don’t know.’ I did what I was able for.

As I was finishing a master’s degree, I promised myself that I would do something just for me when I had completed it. I needed time and space and I needed to find a place of refuge for myself and in myself; I’d go as far as to say I needed a sense of self. And to play.

When I went on the writers’ weekend to Rathlin in 2001, it was just after 9/11. The world was newly strange, and newly uncertain. The British Navy was on military manoeuvres in the Irish Sea at the far side of the island. The world order itself had been shaken to its core. These things heightened the sense in me that life itself, my own life, was urgent. I was bolting into my life. I didn’t know that then. I thought I was just gone away out of my normal life, to bluff, to play, to be off the leash a while, to be away on an island for the weekend.

Even now I find it difficult to articulate how pernicious the overlay of growing up through the Troubles was, or how difficult it was for me to make sense of my own life, and desires and to begin to know or understand the purpose of it . It strips and suppresses a sense of self to such an extent that it is toxic – we as individuals should be grateful for every small thing ( and I am), but correspondingly that one has no right nor entitlement to ‘better’ ( and we don’t necessarily), but it also chokes aspiration, and it snuffs out possibility, along the way; it becomes part of something deep and toxic that keeps us stuck and immobilised from creating a new way of being on the world. I felt I didn’t really know what was good for me, nor what it was I needed.

The writers’ weekend impacted on me profoundly – here was something meaningful, here was a connection to my sense of self, and to others, though I had no idea really how far that would go, terms of what it meant ultimately.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

There was a ‘quickening’ in me at school, which I was mortified about and confused by. Poetry wasn’t hip, rather it was bewildering and dare I say it, perceived by me as largely pointless, and still there was a quickening. I’d count metre, wonder how a poem worked, wonder why it impacted. Poems were wild, and mysterious things, but to the adolescent me, they seemed a thin skin on my world. My world was a world of the troubles, of real poverty, of things broken beyond repair, of anxiety and fear, of life on the border, of militarisation and para-militarisation, of hunger-strikes and elections, and sectarianism and rage and death; absolute and inarguable death. I was also a girl. This was the 70’s and the 80’s. It was mad, destructive, terrifying and inescapable.

The poets we were reading at school were the usual suspects, Wilfred Owen, Wordsworth( William not Dorothy), Hardy, Tennyson, and Heaney. All of them were dead bar Heaney, and all of them were men. Nothing to see here, then…….. move along madam….’.

So, the ‘gate-way’ was school and the ‘dealers’ were Mr. Jones and Miss Reihill the English teachers , whom I regarded as largely irrelevant to my present, let alone my future. I gave up English at 15, and barely read a book for pleasure for perhaps another ten years.

My re-introduction came first with Heaney’s The Spirit Level – I actually brought my daughters on a wonderful holiday to Clare entirely on the back of reading Postscript on one of those long nights of insomnia that came in the wake of grief.

Then later, on Rathlin it was poets Joan & Kate Newmann, Heather Newcombe and Damian Gorman – I wrote my first real poems then, in 2001.

The sculptor Paddy Burns did a talk on that pivotal Rathlin weekend about art and its meaning. He said, “ I believe that art can save the world.’ That sentence changed my life. It impacted on me physically – as if I had been hit hard right in the solar plexus. Something shuddered right through me at that moment. It was bizarre and bewildering, but unmistakeable.

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

Not at all really. It was all mysterious and I was very detached – there was a fracture in my awareness and besides back then poetry wasn’t my world so, paradoxically my ignorance probably served me well. It has taken time to realise that what I am is a poet and to embody that. Back at the start of writing, I could jump in, naive and with no expectations of myself, no illusions of skill or lack of – I was just experimenting. I was just writing. I couldn’t get it wrong, because I had no expectation that I could get it right – so I was just doing it. I think I have only really claimed the title ‘poet’ in recent years – after I’d published four books, and after I’d stripped away all other wriggle-room about doubting or being tentative about that – I am the poet I am ,and will do what I can to be the best writer I can be now, and I will work with others to support them to see that, and be that, in themselves.

I am more conscious of the dominance of certain poets in the canon, and for example the corresponding exclusion of other voices especially those of women. I am involved with Fired! (Twitter @FiredIrishPoets & https://awomanpoetspledge.com/) because of this. Women have been marginalised within the canon of Irish literature for centuries. It exists as a fact. I don’t really have the energy for big fights about it, so I focus on a handful of things that we can do, in the here and now, to raise my own and others awareness of the work of those women and for us to be aware of each other’s work now. For example, we have devised a model for events – a poet reprises the work of an historically important but forgotten woman poet, and also reads something of their own contemporary work alongside it. In this way, we hear the old work and the new work. It functions as a type of hedge-school; a pedagogical approach to our own self-education. That model can be applied in any location and by different groups of poets. It has resulted in readings in Belfast, Dublin, Barcelona, Kerry, Cork and so on. It also made us much more aware of each other. I have made many new and important connections with other women poets through Fired!. It is important that we find ways to do things and not just get snared in a cycle of complaining – that doesn’t serve us well and dissipates the available energy. We also raise questions with festival programmers about gender equity – so the work of women also gets programmed, heard, published and supported.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I try to do morning pages and to get a walk every day. I am a morning person, so I try to protect the early part of the day for being alone to do research, to read and write. When possible, I push admin and meetings into the later part of the day, 2.30pm or afterwards. I also have come to learn that sometimes I need to take time off, and so I do. I give in to that too and just stop and don’t even try to write. There are just times I need to replenish myself and to rest. I need to remind myself that that too, is in service of the work. Walking is in service of the work. Reading is in service of the work. Engaging with the world, the environment, doing the garden, listening to music, spending time with loved ones, is all in service of the work. Not always, but often, there is a comfort in cooking, in chopping vegetables and ingredients, in making soup, cleaning the house, that is also in service of the work. I have begun to swim again and this is great for a sense of well-being, but somehow it also seems to help organise material. Nothing is absolute, but when I am working on bigger projects, I just keep life as simple and as routine as possible.

5. What motivates you to write?

I simply can’t not. I don’t find writing easy – in fact the more writing I do, the harder it gets, but I just press on. I have developed more capacity to let things emerge, and percolate and form. I pay a lot of attention to process and just have to trust that eventually the ‘thing’, the work itself, whatever it is that is coming forward for attention, will come in its own time. This needs patience, it needs persistence, it needs presence. I read a lot and follow my curiosity and interests.

6. What is your work ethic?

At some level, I am never off – something always seems to be niggling away in the brain and needing attention. I freelance entirely – which is precarious and far too anxiety provoking. There’s a need to be sensate all the time for opportunities which emerge for projects, and there is also a corresponding need to develop a robust filter so as not to be overwhelmed and feeling so anxious that every grant, residency, or project has to be applied for …… it can be difficult to tune to the right things and to know where and when to lean in to something – what merits energy and what should be left to just pass on by. It is exceptionally difficult for me to say no to projects and requests, and I suffer in doing it, but realistically I can’t do it all.

I coordinate a project called Poetry Jukebox – it is an on-street audio installation to put poetry into public space. This takes a lot of my time and focus, but it is a good purpose for me to connect with other poets and also to innovate to connect ordinary people to poetry- to connect the unexpectant to the unexpected in ways that make life meaningful, bearable, beautiful, real and fully lived. There is learning for me here about my own journey – poetry is one of the most meaningful things in my own life. It came so, like a bolt from the blue and it changed everything when it did. It has been my lifeline – a transformational thing. It is meaning, and it is the means of connection, to others and also to my authentic self. I believe in the power of poetry to speak to the self, and to be the voice of the self. My own journey of awareness is not accidental and is not only relevant to myself – poetry is a gift waiting for others too – for people too busy, too caught up with the strife of the world to be fully paying attention to what matters for themselves, their precious life, the people who matter to them, to be engaged and connected to the context and the environment within which we live.

Connection to one’s own life, to meaning, to context, to the earth is urgent. If we are connected, love comes, awareness comes, choice comes. My art form is poetry, but I think this is the urgent work of all art forms, and I believe that art can save the world.

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

At the moment I am curating a new edition of Poetry Jukebox, called Song of Myself ( after Walt Whitman) with d/deaf and disabled poets. The next edition will be on climate change and work on that is ongoing in the background – I am coordinating a project with Centre Culturel Irlandais to bring Poetry Jukebox to Paris in 2020.

I have a residency at the wonderful Armagh Public Library and I am collaborating on a project called Splendid Liberal Lofty with composer Simon Waters and artist Helen Sharp – my part in this is a public engagement project reviving the art of letter-writing to fill a void in the library when Archbishop Richard Robinson had all his correspondence burned after his death. We live in such tumultuous times as these that I want many people to write letters for the archive about the times we live in now – the climate crisis, Brexit and the border in Ireland, love letters, and everything from the confessional to the obsessional and back.

I have two commissions for a poem about the Armagh Observatory as part of a song-writing and poetry project which singer-songwriter Brigid O’Neill devised with the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society for their annual Heritage Angel Awards. The other commission is a poem about Priscilla Gotto, a Belfast woman who died in a military air-crash in WW2 – she will be commemorated this November. Finally, composer Keith Acheson and I will reprise Wretches, the libretto we wrote about the Belfast suffragettes and we will tour it to some venues in 2020. I’m busy!

One thought on “Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Maria McManus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.