- Don’t do it because you want to be applauded for it.
- Do it, if you’re going to do it, because you have to.
- And don’t write fakes. Or if you do write them, don’t publish them. People will know, and worse, so will you.
- Live somewhere where you can have an intellectual life, and friends who care about the same things as you. But don’t spend all your time with them!
- Send out to magazines, and enter competitions, and don’t be surprised when you don’t get into the magazines and don’t win the prizes. Don’t be surprised, and don’t give up.
- When you get poems back, turn them round and send them to another magazine.
- Have mates you can compare rejection slips with over a pint, or several, and laugh about it.
- Read poems. You can’t, and shouldn’t, write poems if you don’t actually care about reading poems.
- I should probably say self-promote, but that s*** turns my stomach. I can’t stand it when poets hoor themselves about. We live in a celebrity culture; that doesn’t mean we have to contribute to it. I’m not saying poetry should be ‘above’ all that – it shouldn’t be, and isn’t, and if it were it would be redundant – but, well, it ought to have standards. And you want to get there because your work is good enough, not because you have some shiny website.
- Finally, (and this is Anne Enright’s wisdom, not mine): “Failure can kill a writer slowly. Success can do it much more quickly”. That’s one to keep in mind, I think.
Sunday, 6 November 2011
Thanks very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to writing.ie. Could you introduce yourself to the readers please?
My pleasure, Kate – many thanks for asking me.
I published my first collection, The Squirrels Are Dead, with Bloodaxe just over a year ago and just before I moved to Glasgow, where I currently live. I’m originally from Belfast. I work as a subtitler for a media company at the moment, though I’ve also been a university tutor in literature and creative writing, a bookseller, a barmaid and a pony-trekking guide. I love animals – I’ve got two cats and a horse, all of whom got bundled over the Irish Sea when I moved last year.
How did your collection with Bloodaxe come about? (a dream publisher)
Through a couple of things, I think. I’d been publishing poems in journals and magazines, and then there was the Eric Gregory Award in 2007 and the tall-lighthouse pamphlet, both of which will have put me on the radar, so to speak. There’s always a reading the night after the Gregory Awards are given out, and Clare Pollard was at that – she subsequently co-edited an anthology for Bloodaxe, Voice Recognition, which some of my poems were included in. So Neil Astley, the editor, had seen my work in there, and also in the pamphlet. I didn’t send a manuscript in the first instance; he got in touch and requested one. When I signed, I didn’t have a full collection – only about three quarters of one. It was another year and half or so before the book came out.
How did you get into poetry?
I started writing when I was an undergrad student in Oxford, though I suppose in reality it goes further back. My mum says that, when we were kids, my sister’s favourite bedtime books were stories, whereas mine – singular – was The Quangle Wangle’s Hat by Edward Lear, and that I didn’t care about the narrative so much as the sound of the language. So we’ll say it started with Lear. Eliot and Donne were the poets who made me want to try my own hand at it. But I wouldn’t say I started taking it seriously, or thinking I was anything other than terrible at it, until my early twenties, when I was a post-grad student at Queen’s in Belfast. There was a lot going on there – lots of inspirational people around, lots of events, and, crucially, a writers’ group, chaired by Sinéad Morrissey. After a year of procrastinating and being too embarrassed to show up in case everyone thought my stuff was rubbish, I started going to that, and I’ve never looked back, really.
What do you consider your highlights so far?
It’s a highlight for me if I write a poem I’m proud of, and that I didn’t know I was capable of writing. I think you have to work like that, rather than looking for bigger pictures all the time. And after all, individual poems are what it’s about; you don’t have anything if you don’t have poems that you yourself believe in. But there have been a couple of important turning points. Finding the group at Queen’s was one – I’d probably never have stuck at it if it hadn’t been for that, or only in a ‘I’ve written this and I’m putting it away in the drawer now’ kind of way. Then, I won an Eric Gregory Award in 2007, which led to me getting a pamphlet out with tall-lighthouse – my first publication. That was really exciting. And there was the day I opened my email and there was a message from Neil Astley. You can’t beat that on a Monday morning! More recently, I’ve been given a couple of travel awards, which I’m very much looking forward to using.
What, if anything, would you do differently if you knew what you know now?
You make it sound as though I know the secret of life, or have just returned from the underworld or something! Nothing, really, poetry-wise. I couldn’t have done things differently anyway – I can only write what I can write, and if other people like it, they like it, and if they don’t, they don’t. I’d not be able to style myself to a trend or anything; nor would I want to. Serendipity has always played me a good hand when it comes to important things: I went to Queen’s by accident, because it was in Belfast and I was going out with someone who wouldn’t move away at the time. It was the best place I could have gone, but I didn’t know that or do it on purpose; I only found out when I got there. Doing a PhD has got me nowhere in terms of jobs, but I wouldn’t not have done it for the world. It’s been the happiest period of my life to date, and the most productive. I wouldn’t have started smoking when I was 18 because I thought it looked cool. That’s the only thing I’d change with hindsight.
Which poets, living or dead, do you recommend people search out and read?
How long have you got? I’ll give you an abbreviated list, based on what’s got me ticking over the past couple of years, and on people I return to again and again. Elizabeth Bishop is one of the few poets I read tirelessly and whose brilliance I’m always surprised by anew. Janet Frame and William Carlos Williams blow the top off my head; also Edwin Morgan and Les Murray. I’ve only recently got into reading poetry in translation, so that’s (literally) opened up a whole new world. Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda and CP Cavafy are all excellent. With regard to more recent work, Sinéad Morrissey and Paul Muldoon rarely put a foot wrong. Well, Muldoon does sometimes, but only in the service of trying things that others wouldn’t dare to try, and saying things that others wouldn’t dare to say. I think he’s the most important English language poet of our time. I love Frances Leviston’s first book, and Meirion Jordan’s – both far too young to be as good as they are. Simon Armitage’s most recent book, Seeing Stars, I found exhilarating, political, deeply disturbing and absolutely right. I’m also a recent convert to Glyn Maxwell. Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet should be read by everyone, force-fed to everyone, poetry buff or otherwise. Finally, I’ve just discovered Ailbhe Darcy. Please read Ailbhe Darcy. I’ve only read a handful of poems – I haven’t had time to read the book, Imaginary Menagerie, yet, though it’s sitting on my desk waiting to be devoured at the first opportunity. The poems I have read are startling – startlingly good.
What advice would you give to aspiring, new poets?
Am I in a position to give advice? I think probably not, but if you’re asking, you’re asking.
What have you got coming up?
Well, I’m working on a second collection – that’s the main thing. I’ve also just completed a bit of a side project with a visual artist, Douglas Hutton, who’s based in Enniskillen. You’ll remember Douglas, Kate, as I think you’ve also written a poem in response to one of his paintings.
Oh yes. Douglas, I can only apologise...
He has an exhibition showing at Enniskillen Castle Museum at the moment, and I’ve written some poems to go along with the paintings. It’s on until the middle of February; the opening was last weekend. Beyond that, I’m just about to move to the Isle of Skye: my fiancé, who’s from Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, has got a one year Writer in Residence job at the Gaelic College there. God knows what I’ll do for work, but I suppose something will come up! And I have the travel bursaries I mentioned before. I won the Vincent Buckley Prize this year, which means I get to go to Australia for a couple of months in 2012, and I also got a Somerset Maugham Award from the Society of Authors, which has to be spent on foreign travel. I’m thinking Spain with that – Andalusia, land of Lorca – and maybe also Malta. I was involved in a translation workshop over the summer where I met and worked with a Maltese poet, Adrian Grima, with whom I’d like to collaborate further. So, a bitty year, but an exciting one!
I'm also on Poetcasting, which is a site that keeps recordings of folk reading. I've some poems in the first edition of Poetry Proper. And I've a whack of stuff - recordings again - on the Seamus Heaney Centre Digital Archive, which is the PhD project of Paul Maddern.
You’re very welcome. Good talking to you.