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 fiction writers you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
lives in Belfast. She began writing as a child in Sion Mills, County Tyrone, winning a UNESCO medal for a book of poems in 1979 at eighteen. She studied English and History in Trinity in Dublin and did postgraduate work in UEA and UU. In 2005 she was awarded the Master’s in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. She has won various awards including the Ireland Chair of Poetry Prize in 2007; the Strokestown International Poetry Prize in the same year and in 2013 she won the Fish Short Memoir Prize. She has received support from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in the form of Individual Arts, Aces and Travel Awards. In 2008 she was commissioned to write a poem on the Crown Bar in Belfast for a BBC documentary and some of her work has been translated into German. In 2017 she was awarded the Ireland Chair of Poetry’s Inaugural Travel Bursary for work on Anne More, the wife of John Donne. ’ In November 2018 this poem was runner-up in the Coast-to-Coast Single Poet Competition for a stitched limited edition, created by artist Maria Izakova Bennett in Liverpool. In January 2019 a long poem ‘Strabane’ was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in ‘Conversations on a Bench’ and has just been published by Arlen House with photographs by Malachi O’ Doherty. Her debut collection, The Work of a Winter, published by Arlen House Press, Dublin in 2018 is in its second edition. She taught Creative Writing with the Open University for ten years and teaches English in St Dominic’s Grammar School in Belfast.
‘Strabane’ is currently available to hear on the
Iplayer on Radio 4 extra – for 25 more days from today and this is the
link to it. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000t57l in case you want
to add that to it.
1.When and why did you start writing poetry?
I started writing as a child around 7/8. I’ve two little poems that my parents saved – ‘Umbrellas’ and ‘Jack Frost’ – suitably decorated! But what surprises me is that they are poems – with stanzas and lines and rhymes – so I had a strong sense of what a poem was even at that age and I don’t really remember where that came from. It’s also funny to discover in these early interests that stayed – I collect umbrellas! – and I find that happens when I look through my notebooks – I can see the seeds of poems there years ago that eventually find a way into a work.
We lived outside the village of Sion Mills in County Tyrone and my father was principal of a small country primary school in a nearby village. It was a lovely place to grow up with fields and a river to explore and my father loved gadgets so I do remember him ordering us reel-to-reel tapes of nursery rhymes that he’d play to us so perhaps some of that stayed in terms of influence. He also played piano and sang things like ‘Molly Malone’ to send us to sleep. So we also had a fairly eclectic cultural mix of very RP English in the nursery rhymes and then the old Dublin song.
Because we lived in the countryside, when I was a teenager I was writing frantically and seriously. I had to travel twenty miles to school each day and back so we didn’t really go out and I loved studying so writing poetry was very much mixed up with my O and A Level studies and when I was 18 I sent a little book of poems – really just a gathering up of things I’d written at that stage – into a competition run by UNESCO on the theme of ‘The Year of the Child’ and won! This meant going to Stormont, the government seat in Northern Ireland, to collect an award from a local broadcaster called Harry Barton who said that my poems reminded him of the work of Helen Waddell. This meant little to me at the time, since I’d never heard of Waddell, who was a classicist and writer originally of Presbyterian Ulster stock, but she has become a kind of muse to me in later years and I’ve come to love her work and so that was one of those happy things that happen unbidden in writing that give you a boost or a connection. I do love that aspect of writing.
1.1. Why has Helen Waddell become ‘a kind of muse’?
I think Waddell became a kind of muse when I was much older and finally started to read her work and to read about her and there was an immediate connection with her voice – so in some sense Harry Barton had had some kind of intuitive sense when he made the comparison. The first thing I read was her Peter Abelard – her novel on the relationship between the medieval philosopher and his lover Héloïse and what I loved was the modernity of the voice despite its description of lives from such a distance in time – it was so visceral and sensual and so fresh and poetic too. And so I read her other work, The Desert Fathers and particularly her translations of early Christian Latin poetry – The Latin Lyrics and she did become a touchstone. I found out later that she lived years earlier very near where I was living in London in Primrose Hill. So when I started to write, her work, combined strangely with that of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish writer, was a big influence since Singer too was often reimagining worlds that were gone – in his case the shtetl of Eastern European Jewry. And so my first poetry and much of it since was involved in writing historical voices particularly from the Elizabethan period because of another love which is Shakespeare and Donne.
1.2. I find Singer has an ‘otherworldly’ feel to his stories as do Donne and Shakespeare.
Yes, I think that’s it – they all take you to other worlds and also our own world – that’s the magic that it’s both strange but also the same. I first read Singer the year he won the Nobel Prize – Radio 4 serialised The Slave – that was 1978 and I was 17 and I was just entranced by it. Like the Waddell, it was so earthy, so strange but also so recognisable to a girl who was living just outside a village in Northern Ireland in a community that was both still rural and still religious. So, when Singer describes Jacob sleeping in a byre with the beasts I could smell that byre! That lead to a long journey into Yiddish literature – I went to East Anglia after Trinity planning to do a PhD on Singer. I was looking at how each of his books was modelled on an existing form of writing within Jewish history and mysticism – hence The Slave was based on the books of the Lurianic kabbalah and Satan in Goray on the shtetl community books that kept lists of the dead of the Chmielnicki massacres and so on. But I was unhappy in Norwich and part of me was still yearning to write and most of my friends were doing the Creative Writing Masters there so I moved to London and eventually left the PhD study though it still took me years to seriously come back to writing.
1.3. What do Shakespeare and Donne give you?
What Shakespeare and Donne give is access to the very beginning of modern English so it’s to a time of great richness and excitement in the language – hence all the new coinages in Shakespeare. You can see the large number of Latinate usages – meanings coming in directly from Latin. I love when you find words like ‘lucubrate’ in Donne’s letters, meaning ‘ to study by candlelight’ or in Macbeth ‘incarnadine’ – ‘ to turn the sea red’, in reference to the bloody hands. But there is also a sense of the language giving access to the time itself, to history. So, for example, when Shakespeare has Enobarbus say in Antony and Cleopatra that Antony, ‘for his ordinary, pays his heart./ For what his eyes eat only,’ and you go to the notes and discover that the ‘ordinary’ was a daily supper served late in London and was flourishing in Shakespeare’s time and a great place to pick up news and gossip. But this kind of knowledge is being lost. The Arden notes when I was studying myself were brilliant, but I find now when I order the Arden for my students that the detailed notes are now pared back and much more basic. The Arden Shakespeare used to be a kind of Talmud with the text and underneath a whole history of English critics and commentators talking to each other about meaning across the years and I loved that.
What all of this does is to create a kind of plasticity in the imagery used – probably the richest use of metaphor in the language and so it’s a good place to learn your craft as a poet – to be immersed in all of that richness.
2. How aware are and where you of the dominating presence of other poets?
I think I was very lucky as a child writer and then during the period where I was learning about poetry, in that one of those dominant writers was Seamus Heaney and so it was a very benign influence. My parents took me to hear Heaney read in a small hotel in the Waterside in Derry in 1977 so I was 16 and doing my O Levels. He was touring with Derek Mahon in a tour called ‘In Their Element’ and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland produced an accompanying booklet – which I still have somewhere – signed by both of them to me but devalued doubtless by my teenage doodling over it. But that reading was so important for me since I was just completely enchanted by Heaney especially. I remember it as a small back room- those so beloved of Ciaran Carson – and hearing the words in semi-darkness so that you became completely focused on them- which is still how I prefer to hear poetry! It was magical and it was my introduction to Heaney. I’d hear him read after that year- after- year in bigger and bigger venues in Dublin, Norwich and London and he was so important to my writing. I think I was lucky because what I heard in Heaney – and in Friel too in the plays – was my own language and my own place. He was my parents’ generation but the world he described was that of my childhood growing up in a small rural mixed village in the North during the Troubles. And so that was the gift that is so important – to see your own world as the possible subject of poetry. He stays a touchstone – if I have difficulty or lose confidence, I go back to him because his genius was the integrity of the subject matter and voice and yet the complexity of what he does with both. Despite his brilliance he always made me feel I could write!
I’ve heard many women say that they had difficulty in thinking of themselves as poets because of being women, but I have to be true to my own experience and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t be a writer. I’ve wondered about that and I think one reason is that the first books put in my hands as a small child were the Beatrix Potter books and then most of what I read as a child and teenager were women – perhaps not poetry but – Alcott, Sewell, Bronte, Ingills Wilder, Montgomery – and of course within those books there were writers like Jo March and so it seemed an entirely possible thing to do.
It was true that at school our O Level poetry book, Choice of Poets, had maybe one female poet – I think it had Bronte poems – and certainly when I became a Head of English myself one of the things that was important to me was to change the ratio of male:female writers taught, since it was in a girl’s convent school where there were almost no women taught. But I would say still that the poems in that little anthology were also really important – they were the first poems I came to know and love in detail and they stay with me. Sometimes when I go back to them I realise how important they were and how they’ve come into my own writing in different ways – poems like Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’; Lawrence’s ‘Bavarian Gentians’; or Wordsworth’s ‘The World is Too Much With Us’.
When I was starting to write I found the women I needed – Paula Meehan, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Kerry Hardie – these were and still are – all important to me and I can still remember the excitement of their beautiful Gallery books.
Teaching in London, black poetry, especially from the Caribbean, became important – Kwesi Johnson, Zephaniah, Nichols and especially Walcott. And American poetry has always been important thanks to courses in Trinity and to the Penguin Book of American Verse – especially Carlos Williams; Plath; Olds; Haas.
So I don’t think I experienced the dominance of certain poets as oppressive – rather I found among or beyond them the poets I needed at different times.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
If only I had a daily writing routine! I’ve worked all my life as a teacher and so writing is not something I can do every day – teaching takes so much physical and mental energy but it is also creative so it uses up a lot of that energy too. I am always thinking about writing and about whatever poem or project I’m working on – usually more than one – and I do jot things down in a notebook as ideas come but sustained writing is reserved for breaks and particularly for time away at writing retreats. I go usually a couple of times a year to Annaghmakerrig – the wonderful Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan and then also to The River Mill – a new retreat opened in County Down by poet Paul Maddern and that’s when I get sustained work done. But it works well because the ‘saved up’ nature of it means that by the time I go to these places there is a momentum worked up and I’ll be eager to get to it.
When I am writing, the routine of the day tends to be starting with a walk in the morning and then reading. I always read my way into a poem – often reading all I can find by other writers who’ve worked on similar themes. And I’ll spend time with my beloved Oxford Dictionary. I’ve a brilliant two-volume version of it that came with the Encyclopaedia Britannica which my father bought for us as children and it’s brilliant since it is full of really arcane words and etymologies – so I’ll spend time collecting words around the subject and allowing the dictionary to lead me to new ones.
And then I’ll write! I’m a night writer – my best writing time is between 12 and 3 in the morning but unfortunately as I’ve gotten older I just can’t do that any more since it wipes out the next day but I will work until about 1.
I think there is almost nothing I enjoy more than writing – when I’m actually doing it. I love the sense of being immersed in a poem and since I tend to write long poems and often poems on historical subjects, there is a real enjoyment in having been submerged in the detail and the research and from that, starting to craft something. I read it aloud as I go along in order to hear the voice. I rarely use strictly formal devices but I almost always have a strong sense of what shape the poem wants to be in. Oh and Bach is the music I like for writing – especially the Cello Suites!
4. In “Strabane” how important was it to have the rivers running through it?
The river was always going to be important because the river runs right through the middle of the town so I knew it would be there and then the interviews for the Radio 4 programme, for which the poem was commissioned, done by the producer Anna-Scott Brown, brought that very clearly into focus because the river featured so strongly in the recollections of people from the town. There were stories of fishing, of skating, of flooding that recurred in the town’s history.
Also – when we first put in a proposal for the series ‘Conversations on a Bench’ it was a for a conversation on a bench in Belfast but since this was at the time of the whole Brexit debacle, the BBC came back and wanted something on the Irish border, hence the choice of Strabane which sits on the border between Donegal, in the Republic, and Tyrone in Northern Ireland. And it became clear that of course the rivers and all that is in them – the birds and the fish – flow freely across the borders we have artificially created and so that became a kind of motif both in the poem and the interviews. At the time I really thought it was, if any more was needed, evidence of the dangers of putting a border back where it had been actually been removed in recent years in Ireland. Of I think 13 interviews, there wasn’t a single one, no matter what the political or religious background, that thought Brexit a good idea – not of course that that made any difference in the outcome.
The river was also important since people’s stories showed the importance of the river for industry – it was the reason for the linen mill at Sion, the neighbouring village where I grew up and I’d not intended originally to include Sion but since so many people spoke of their families working in the mill, it gave me the chance to include those stories of the mill and of my Granda fishing.
5. How did you decide on the order of the poems in Strabane and The Work Of A Winter?
The ordering of The Work of a Winter was tricky since I’d waited a long time to put a first collection together and so the poems spanned a long time and had a lengthening line. My friend and poet Katie Donovan was a good reader who helped me think about ordering and it was my publisher, Alan Hayes, who suggested the rather unconventional step of starting a collection with a long sequence – going against all the advice of starting with something short and punchy. And so we bookended it with long poems and long poems that spoke to each other – the opening one telling stories of childhood acting as a kind of introduction and then images and themes in it recurring throughout and ending with a story which that first poem introduced.
The sequencing in Strabane was less complicated, since I used my own life and the stories connected to the town at various times, so it is largely chronological in structure.
6. What subjects motivates you to write?
I think history and nature are probably the predominant subjects and other subjects are also treated through them, particularly things that pertain to the life of women at different periods of history.
7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There are so many it is hard to know where to begin. I read a lot of prose and I love Maggie O’Farrell, Siri Hustvedt, Bernie Mc Gill, Curtis Sittenfeld, Nuala O’Connor, Sarah Dunant, Michelle Roberts, Jo Baker, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tessa Hadley and I’ve just read a wonderful first novel by Una Mannion.
In poetry I go back to Paula Meehan always and Kerry Hardie, Sharon Olds, Doireann Ni Griofa, Gillian Clarke, Peggy O’Brien and a particular favourite Martin Dyer. And there are all my friends and contemporaries – Jane Clarke, Siobhan Campbell, Katie Donovan, Maria Mc Manus, Mary O’Donnell, Sinead Morrissey, Eleanor Hooker and many more and then new poets I’m discovering and enjoying like Mícheál McCann; Emily Cooper and, Manuela Moser.
I like different writers for different things, but I admire those that are genuine, with integrity and without gimmick or ego.
I hate naming since I can’t name everyone and there are so many and I will undoubtedly have left someone important out but that gives you an idea of my reading.11. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I do quite a lot of mentoring both formally and informally, so I am involved in this question and the main thing, as many have said before me, is to read. Read and read as much and as widely as possible. And try to find your tribe – make connections somehow. This is what the main value of writing classes is I think – just finding your place and your support. I know many people dislike social media but actually ‘Writing Twitter’ is a very supportive place and important for information.
8. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I have found it almost impossible to write this year, as you know Paul, given that this interview started in January 2020 I think and then had a long pause in March 2020 with the first lockdown. I just couldn’t give any energy to writing or even reading at that time. The sense of fear and dread was so strong – though there was still a lot of the attendant work around writing – so I taught a few online courses and did online readings, but I couldn’t write. In September I found I could read again and then I had my first jab in February and that seems to have given me some sense of hope and so things are opening up again. There are some good things coming up. I didn’t manage to launch Strabane in the town itself because of lockdown and composer Una Monaghan has written a beautiful piece of music to go with the poem which we will hopefully be able to launch at some stage. I do have an idea for a poem about this year which is forming and I wrote my first new poem last night for an online submission, based, appropriately enough, given our earlier discussion, on Antony and Cleopatra!