I think it was rather that poetry got into me when I was far too young to be intimidated by it. It was probably the musicality of a poem like, “Mise Raifteirí an File”, for instance, that drew me in. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by music as my mother was a piano teacher and had trained as an opera singer. My siblings played instruments, the violin and the guitar, and both went on to a lifetime’s active involvement with music. I was the eldest, and I think the assumption was that I’d take over the mantle of piano player. But although music is and always will be central to me, I kept being pulled towards words. As a child it seemed to me that poetry was music on a page, the best poems jumped out at me like heard tunes.
Because there was always music in the house, and I associated poetry so closely with music, I never thought that the avid reading or writing of it marked me out as being special or different in any way to my friends who had other, probably much healthier, interests. I had a couple of tiny poems published when I was about nine or ten and remember thinking how strange it was to see my own name in print underneath them. It felt as if somebody else had written them. It’s still like that sometimes.
I wrote all through my teens and early twenties and there is a box out there somewhere, full of my angsts and adorations. It went missing sometime in the late ‘70s and I hope it never shows up.
But for reasons of my own I never really considered submitting anything I wrote as an adult – until I joined a writing group and started sending out to journals and competitions simply because that’s what everyone else was doing. It was good for getting me to try to complete a piece of work instead of constantly revisiting it. I can quite happily spend hours moving a comma in and out of a sentence so deadlines are good!
I have heard it said that every poet be able to write in form, much as every driver should be able to parallel park. Do you find writing in form restrictive or liberating?
Whether it’s liberating or restrictive all depends on how you approach it. I know that if I were to sit down with the intention of writing a sonnet, for instance, that the impetus of the poem could be very likely ‘stopped’ because of that intention. At the earliest stages of a poem’s gestation, when it’s still extremely tenuous, I try hard not to impose myself too much on it. But unless one is writing Haiku – and that’s such an interesting consciousness – I don’t think anyone ever sits down with the shape or length of any poem already decided; that a poem is going to have say, four lines per stanza, six stanzas in total, or whatever. Even if you write in free verse all the time it just doesn’t work that way, does it?
However I do know that staying within the defined contours of a particular form has sometimes prevented me from getting distracted by a subject to which I’m perhaps a bit too close. If I had a poem like that buzzing around in my head somewhere, I might turn to form to see if it would free me into writing a poem that is centred, more honest. And it often has, so yes, that would be an example of form being liberating.
There’s that famous quote from Adrienne Rich about form being like asbestos gloves to be used for handling a difficult subject – and Anne Sexton said something similar – with which I would concur.
In an interview a year or so ago, Paul Farley said that, “Engaging with form – any form – means that there’s at least a chance you’ll say something you weren’t going to say.” I hope he doesn’t mind my quoting him verbatim here, but I remember reading that sentence, recognising the experience, and agreeing so wholeheartedly that I actually cut out the interview and kept it.
Again, with me it’s that intent thing – I might have a vague idea, more of a feeling really, and if I try it in form, sometimes the form just seems to take up the resulting poem and surprise me.
In the end though, the poem that wants to be written is invariably the one that will be written, irrespective of whether you’re using form or writing in free verse. It’s what falls out on the page that matters so it’s best not to have too closed a mind about it.
I also feel though that if you are accepting of the traditional forms, and can see why they have endured, you might be inclined to be more open and curious about other perhaps experimental ways of making your own poems.
Ultimately I suppose my view would be that if form is part of the armoury or equipment of being a poet – and it is – even if you don’t, or can’t use it, you shouldn’t abuse it. Some poets write in form, some poets don’t, and some poets do some of the time. And parallel parking? Most drivers can, and as you well know, I avoid it whenever possible…
How long were you writing before your first collection was published and how would you summarise the path you followed?
I’ve always felt that there is enormous pressure on poets to produce a first collection,but a lot of it can be self-inflicted. When your poems start appearing in journals etc. you get asked about a book until you almost feel obliged to declare that you’re working towards one. I probably said as much myself at times. But in reality I had so many other things happening – a family, a job that demanded a lot of my time and attention, and a contingent life – that I resisted allowing something as central and necessary to my own existence as writing poetry to come on board as any type of pressure.
All I really wanted to do was to concentrate on the poems as they arrived and to hone each one as well as I could. I published in magazines and won prizes for single poems but didn’t even think about a manuscript until I featured in a couple of full manuscript competitions. That was probably when I finally stopped prevaricating and decided that I must be somewhere in the vicinity of a book.
I think it’s important not to bring out a first collection until you’re ready for it, and at that stage I still didn’t feel that I was. Maybe it’s just me, but I always say that once that book is out there you’re going to have to live with it.
At that stage I had a manuscript into which newer work was being slotted in while other poems died a natural death or just fell by the wayside. Then I had a year in which I was continuously writing poems that seemed to belong more to a narrative that was emerging. I found that while I still had everything worth keeping from the original manuscript, including some of the very early poems, the collection had completely shape-shifted.
When I submitted it for the Kavanagh Award it had thirty-something poems, one of which I decided to take out of the eventual, published book.
That’s the long answer – the short one would be that I took my time!
You’re working on your second collection now, many poems of which you started on your MA in Queen’s Belfast. How many would you already have published in magazines first before you decide to collect them in a book? How do you think a second collection is different to a first, typically?
I like to leave a poem to ‘set’ before I begin to think about submitting it. I could be walking around doing something else altogether when an alternative way of saying a line might randomly strike me, and it’s very frustrating if the poem is already out there walking around in the wrong shoes.
I tend to use my writing time for actual writing and when I’m not actively engaged doing that, I organise myself into sending out mode. There is a completely different energy required for deciding which poems to send where, writing covering letters and then proceeding to either the post office or the ‘send’ button.
But I think it’s important for poems to have had a life of their own in the magazines before they are collected. It’s good if a poem can sit comfortably beside poems by other poets and it can give you a feeling for what is working, what isn’t, and what perhaps never will.
Of the poems in ‘Snow Negatives,’ the majority had appeared in journals. With the newer work I’ve magazine published quite a few and am currently living in hope for the others! I wouldn’t set myself a quota or anything like that but it’s nice to have some publishing credits in there.
As regards the difference between a first and second collection, I always think it’s a bit like what bands used to say years ago about that much-mythologized second album. For the first one, it’s like you’ve had your whole life almost up to the point of publication to produce the work, while with a second or subsequent book it’s done a little bit quicker.
What would you say that writing non-fiction pieces for Sunday Miscellany takes from and gives to your poetry?
If I’m facilitating a workshop or a class I always re-iterate that old maxim about ‘frisking’ every poem for the superfluous word and the duplicated or redundant image because it’s something I always do myself. Even when I think I might be finished with a poem, I always hold it up and give it several good shakes to see if anything falls out! My least favourite poem is the ‘baggy’ one and it really doesn’t matter to me who has written it; I’ll read it with my mental red pen working overtime all the way down the page. If I find that I’m writing one myself, and can’t prune it, I’ll step away from it and let it go stone cold before I approach it again.
I would apply the same principle to any piece of writing, whether poetry or prose and I wouldn’t see that either one detracts from the other. In fact, writing poetry is
probably very good exercise for saying what you want to say in a non-fiction piece that has to have a clearly defined word limit. In return, I often find that the clarity of thought and precision of imagery needed for a successful piece of prose can only have a favourable influence on whatever poem I might be working on. The two disciplines compliment each other most of the time.
What advice do you have for new poets?
My advice to anyone beginning to write poetry would be:
- I know it sounds obvious but if you are writing poetry, you have to read poetry. Read the journals, print and online, and you’ll have the excitement of being struck by a poem by a particular poet and you’ll remember the name the next time you come across it. You might even go out and buy a full collection by that poet. Poetry journals and publishers need all the support that the writing community can offer. If you are writing, don’t forget that you are part of that community.
- Join a good writing group or workshop. And don’t switch off or shuffle pages when someone else’s poem or story is under discussion. If you fully engage with the constructive criticism being offered, you’ll learn more for your own work.
- No matter how busy your life is, try to set aside some time every day for yourself in which to write. Take control of some small corner in your home, then shut the door behind you and just get on with it.
I’ve recently finished working on the manuscript of my next collection so, for the moment anyway, what’s done is done and I think I can move on a bit. But I still have to decide on a title for it!
I’ve started to make poems that feel very different to anything I’ve done before and am taking each one as it comes. I’m also writing prose and that’s always something I enjoy doing.
Thanks Enda. Here's a link to the first collection, the highly recommended and accomplishe Snow Negatives published by the Dedalus Press.