Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Interview with poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Welcome Doireann Ní Ghríofa to emergingwriter.
1st question: How did you first get into poetry?

A wonderful anthology was gifted to me in my teenage years. Edited by Niall McMonagle, it was titled  'Real Cool - Poems to Grow Up With' and the cover featured a teenager wearing the sort of tall Doc boots that I would have coveted in my grungey days of the mid-1990s. 

The selection leant towards Irish poets: Paul Muldoon,  Rita-Ann Higgins, Paul Durcan, Brendan Kennelly, but it was here too that I first read poems like Sharon Olds's 'The Moment', Denise Levertov's 'Leaving Forever' and Adrienne Rich's 'Aunt Jennifer's Tigers'. A particular poem that blew my teenage mind was 'The Pattern' by Paula Meehan, a poem that I am still in awe of. I wasn't writing poems yet but with this book, my mind was split open to the wonders of poetry. Beware giving this book to teenagers - it's a gateway drug.

I’m not familiar with Real Cool. I’ll have to look up some of those poems. Well chosen by Niall then. So what happened next? Did you just start writing away for yourself? When did you start sharing?
I didn't begin to write for many, many years after that, not until after I'd finished college, gotten a job, had my first child. I was a voracious reader all along though, and I think that really tunes the ear to language. I was 28 writing my first poem and like many people, for me, it was grief that sparked that initial writing impulse.
I began to write every day and before long I had a poem or two published in journals. Then I was shortlisted for the Emerging Writer Award at the Oireachtas literary awards, which was a great boost. I kept writing daily until I had a manuscript and then I sent it to the publisher of my favourite poet, Biddy Jenkinson (Coiscéim), fully expecting a rejection. I was thrilled when the editor, Pádraig Ó Snodaigh, rang me to accept my work and that manuscript became my first book of poems, Résheoid. Another book, Dúlasair and a bilingual chapbook,  A Hummingbird, Your Heart  from Smithereens Press followed and then I started writing in English. Dedalus Press published Clasp, my first book of English poems, earlier this year. At the moment I find that poems are coming to me in Irish again...

So you started writing in Irish? How much of your life was in Irish?
Much of my primary and secondary education as well as my work life has been through Irish, so it was natural that my first two books (Résheoid and Dúlasair) were both in Irish too.

Where did you grow up?
I'm a proud Clarewoman! I led a very bookish childhood in Clare, many of my fondest memories relate to the library in Ennis. Edna O'Brien was a writer that I would have been very aware of as I grew up. She was often spoken about and I read her books in fascination. I understood from a young age that this was a woman of bravery, that a life in writing demanded both courage and grit. Not a bad lesson to learn early!

I've often wondered about the difference when writing in two languages. Do some themes/images/memories fit better in one language than the other? Do you write exclusively in one language for a while and then, for whatever reason, switch?
In terms of the shift between languages I've often wondered the same thing, but I'm afraid it's as much of a mystery to me as it would be to anyone else. For a long time I wrote exclusively in Irish, then I wrote bilingually (with a first draft growing simultaneously in Irish and in English); I also spent a time writing only in English and for the past while my poems have been only in Irish. This is more troublesome as I've never had the privilege of a translator so writing solely in Irish means that I'm creating a lot of translation work for myself in the future... but self-translation is an interesting exercise, it requires me to examine my work through a different gaze,  to deconstruct and reconstruct it again. Translation is always a challenge.

Where do you write mostly?
I write everywhere, Kate, everywhere! I don't have a writing room, I don't even have a desk, but I'm always writing, filling the quiet little moments of each day with words. I'm of that tribe of writers who write in the spaces around small children. I write in the car doing the school run, on the sofa, in the garden, in bed before I fall asleep, whenever I get a couple of minutes alone. My favourite spot to write at the moment is the kitchen table, a moses basket with sleeping baby at my elbow. My writing time is fragmented and scattered but I make it work because I have to. I hope I'll continue to write for many years, I'm curious to see where it will take me next! 
Your first English collection Clasp has been very well received. You have a lot of fans on my twitterfeed! How did it come about and what has happened since?
Thanks Kate, I'm glad to hear that people are enjoying my writing.
Beginning to write poems in English was like starting all over again in many ways: building up a record of publication in journals, seeking feedback on my work, giving readings, etc. It took a while to establish my work in English to a point where I had a manuscript of poems that I thought worth submitting. By mid-2013 I felt ready and consulting my bookshelves, I saw that many of the poets I most admire were published by Dedalus Press - Paula Meehan, Billy Ramsell, Grace Wells, Theo Dorgan, Macdara Woods, Jessica Traynor, Enda Wyley and so many more. My manuscript was accepted in November that year and I was over the moon. Pat Boran at Dedalus Press is such a wonderful editor. As a poet himself, he has a great ear for the pulse of a poem and a very keen eye. I learned a lot through the editing process. I feel extremely lucky to work with him; I've nothing but great things to say about Dedalus Press! The book itself has been widely reviewed and I've been very pleased with the response.
Clasp was only published a few months ago, but in the meantime I've been working on new poems (many as Gaeilge so far). I've also been focusing on a translation project, working to bring the poetry of Caitlín Maude to a wider audience. I've translated many of her poems and it has been both inspirational and exciting, delving into her writing so closely. So far I've placed her poems in Poetry Ireland Review, Cyphers, Translation Ireland, Modern Poetry in Translation and on RTE Radio One. She's a wonderful poet, and I'm very pleased to champion her work. It's a privilege to be allowed to do so and I'm very grateful to her family for permitting me to work with her poetry.

I don’t know anything about Caitlin Maude or her poems. What can you tell us about her?
She was a fascinating woman, a gifted poet, playwright, actress and sean-nós singer. She died tragically young in 1982, leaving a substantial body of Irish poems. TG4 broadcast a wonderful documentary by Aoife Nic Cormaic several years ago which is available on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clC-v_nBoCM

You have managed to get a lot of reviews.
My only strategy with reviews is simply to release the book into the world and cross my fingers. Whatever will be, will be. I find that there's a lot to learn from a review, different readings of the book can illuminate the work in a new way. Reviews are a gift (although they can sting, and when they do it's best to suffer in silence!) Dedalus have been brilliant in terms of distributing the book for review. I'm so grateful to each of the newspapers and journals who chose to review my work, particularly as there has been so much written of late on the difficulties for women writers in having books reviewed.

Your collection was accepted in November 2013 but published a few months ago? Is that normal?
A year and a half to two years between acceptance and publication would be standard across most genres in publishing, as far as I know. For me, that time was spent developing the manuscript as a whole and strengthening individual poems, sourcing cover art, arranging the mini book-tour around various literary festivals, etc. Time well spent. Congratulations on your own forthcoming book!

Thanks, The Space Between is coming out with the lovely people at Doire Press soon. It’s slow to hatch.
It sounds like you've given your book time to mature Kate; that can only be a good thing. Doire Press have published such vibrant collections - I particularly enjoyed 'Keeping Bees' by Dimitra Xidous and 'In a Hare's Eye' by Breda Wall Ryan. I'm looking forward to reading 'The Space Between', I have your chapbook from Moth Editions so I know your work well! Congratulations!

Thanks very much. OK, last question. When I was struggling to choose which poems to put in my collection and which to leave out, someone said to look at each poem, and decide that if someone selected this poem as the one to remember from the whole collection, would you be OK with it. So, which poem from Clasp would you choose to be the one you would be happy to be the only one that someone would remember?
What an interesting final question, Kate! Hmmm... I have a soft spot for 'The Horse under the Hearth' (in The Irish Times here) It's a poem that audiences respond very positively to both in the book itself and at readings, so it engages on the stage as well as on the page. I absolutely love engaging with audiences through poetry readings, it's such a pleasure, so it's vital to me that my poems resonate in both private and public settings.

Thanks Doireann for agreeing to be interviewed. I particularly enjoyed the sequence of Cork City poems in Clasp. 
Thanks for such an interesting interview, Kate, and the best of luck to you with 'The Space Between'!
Clasp is available to buy online at Dedalus Press or at your favourite independent bookshop. Thoroughly recommended.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual poet, writing both in Irish and in English. Among her awards are the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary 2014-2015. Her website is here.

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