Meet the Poet |3| Doireann Ní Ghríofa

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Doireann Ní Ghríofa, an award-winning bilingual poet, currently holds the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary awarded by Paula Meehan. Her most recent book is Clasp (Dedalus Press, 2015).  She will appear at Cúirt 2015 alongside Elaine Feeney on April 24th at 6.30pm in the Taibhdhearc Theatre. 

So your new collection is coming up, tell us about that and what led you to this one?

I feel like I’ve been building to this book since I started to write, and many of the themes explored here have been touched on in my earlier work – ideas of palimpsest, how the past imprints itself on the present, in the fabric of both rural and city life and how we choose to interpret or ignore that in our daily lives. While writing the poems in this collection, I was very interested in the liminal, in those floating moments that choose us, or that force us to choose which way to turn, and it’s only when we look back that we can see them for what they really were. I wanted, in writing these poems, to examine ideas of small everyday joys, of birth and death, of sex, of loss, joy, and desire. I wanted, as well, to write poems of sisterhood celebrating the continuity of our shared experiences as women across generations.  There are poems of greater ambition and scale here too, where I really tried to stretch myself as a writer: two long sequences, one multi-voiced persona piece based around urban city life, and one long circular poem based in the environs of the industrial school at Letterfrack. They were both challenging and rewarding to write.

What do you think makes this collection different from your others, do you think each collection needs to show an evolution of sorts and do you think this one does?

I do feel a sense of progress and evolution is necessary between books; it’s only natural really, in that there might be years between books and that sort of evolution reflects a development of the writerly voice and intellect. I feel it with this book, particularly stylistically and conceptually.

I have been hugely concerned with voice and individual experience in my earlier work and in the exploration of techniques like ekphrasis and persona poetry; in other words  I spoke through masks a lot, but in this work I’ve allowed myself to slip out from behind the mask a little more.

For you, when is a collection ready and what process do you go through in coming to that decision?

This book reflected a huge change for me, as it was a turning to a different language, and as such necessitated finding a new publisher who’d be willing to take me on. I’d sent small samples of my poems in translation to English publishers a couple of years before, to no avail, but in retrospect, I’m glad of this. When I felt like I had assembled a coherent collection of poems in English (Autumn 2013), I searched through my bookshelves and made a list of all the Irish publishers I thought might take an interest in it, and Dedalus Press were the top of my list. On my own shelves, I saw that they had published Paula Meehan, Billy Ramsell, Leland Bardwell, Theo Dorgan, all poets whose work I greatly admire. I knew that Pat Boran, the editor at Dedalus Press is a sharp poet in his own right whose poems I found impressive, and knew that he’d understand what I was trying to achieve with these poems. So I put Dedalus at the top of my list and sent them my manuscript, fully expecting a rejection letter, but by November, it had been accepted. I was thrilled! I didn’t send this book anywhere else, I was extremely lucky that my first-choice publisher took it on.

What would you say was the breaking point for you in terms of becoming a poet? Did you wake up one day thinking – yup! poetry is for me, or did you slowly fall into it?

Poetry entered my life as an epiphany when I was in my mid-twenties. My grandfather had been taken very ill and I had travelled to Dublin to be near him. We had a deep closeness, he and I. In the middle of the night, the family were all called to be at his deathbed but as I had my baby with me and no-one to take care of him, I couldn’t go.

So I was putting the baby to sleep in a relation’s house when all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, an entire poem came to me. In Irish. In rhyme. About Clare Island, a place that I had never been. It was unbelievably strange and even as I ran around the house searching for pen and paper, I found it bizarre. But, I wrote that poem along with some others that night, and I wrote again the next night, and now I find myself five years later with poetry as an important part of my days. Life can be very strange.

Still, every day is a fresh becoming. I feel very strongly that I am still a Learner of poetry [L plates and all!], and I adore that about writing, that there’s a constant learning involved in committing yourself to this craft. I love it. We must take it seriously, this act of becoming, of investing in ourselves as writers, we must make time in our days to immerse ourselves in our art and allow ourselves to work and learn from it.

Given that you juggle the two languages – do poems come to you in one or the other? I can’t even imagine writing in Irish? It really fascinates me that you do both…do you sometimes have to write a specific piece in English or Irish and are you conscious of that decision when you make it, or is the process more natural?

A poem for me communicates an idea and a mood, yes, but is often fundamentally an act of playfulness with language. I always know right at the beginning of the process which language a poem will be written in, or whether I will write it in bilingual side-by-side versions. For me, each poem suggests itself in the language it wants to be written in, simple as that!

I don’t know why I keep saying process, but here it is again! Would you say there is a rite of passage or a sort of process for a young poet to follow in getting their work out and all that jazz? What was your own road?

I don’t know if there’s any single path or rite of passage in becoming a poet, and my own path is so odd and convoluted that I don’t think I could speak on anyone else’s behalf!

For me, personally, I started to write in Irish, and had some individual poems published in Irish language journals, and then a draft manuscript of poems in Irish was placed second in the Emerging Writer award at the Oireachtas literary awards, so that when I came to a point of finishing that manuscript and sending it to a publisher, the editor was already aware of my work. I published two collections as Gaeilge with Coiscéim, and then a bilingual chapbook with Smithereens Press, followed by this new book of English poems from Dedalus Press. So my path has probably been quite different from that of other writers, as I hop from language to language!

For me, journal publication has been important as a confidence builder. I was particularly thrilled when I had poems accepted for The Stinging Fly and The Irish Times.

 What I would suggest to anyone wishing to turn to writing as a way of life, is to try to live with it each day. Read as much and as widely as you can. Write a lot. Be gentle with yourself, but push yourself too. If you give yourself to your writing and really commit to it, it will enrich your life and nourish you.

Who would you mark as your influences? Why?

I’m a bit of a bibliophile, I live and breathe books. I read and re-read the poetry books on my shelves until they are falling apart. I’ve never really had a writing mentor, and I’ve never had the opportunity to study creative writing in college, but I have felt greatly nourished and stimulated intellectually by my reading life. I’ve taken the process quite seriously in terms of exposing myself to challenging reading, and the result has been that I’ve have self-educated myself as a poet.

Ruth Stone has made a huge impression on me, I adore her work. I greatly admire younger generations of American poets too, particularly Laura Kasischke, Brenda Shaughnessy, Traci Brimhall, Frany Choi and Natalie Diaz. I credit Poetry Magazine with opening my eyes to a whole world of poetry, particularly since Don Share took the helm as editor there. The poems I read in Poetry Magazine each month definitely challenge and influence my work.

I love the online journal Prac Crit too, both the essays and the poems they feature give me enough intellectual material to keeping me ticking over for weeks.

In terms of Irish poetry, Michael Hartnett has probably been my biggest influence. I‘m a huge fan of Biddy Jenkinson’s writing, as well as Paula Meehan & Leanne O’Sullivan. I’m an admirer of fierce young Irish poets who excel in twisting language in strange and exciting new ways like Miriam Gamble, Billy Ramsell, Ailbhe Darcy, Kimberly Campanello, Cal Doyle, Séamus Barra Ó Suilleabháin, Stephen Connolly, Paula Cunningham, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh and so, so many more that I don’t have space to list them all. I attended a reading by Sarah Hayden and Rachel Warriner as part of the Enemies project last year, and the verve and velocity of their performance still lingers with me; they blew me away and made me wish that I could write as strongly as them.

I suppose I am quite isolated personally, in that I live a solitary writing life, free of most of the social writing events and groups that I hear about, but I’ve been deeply lucky to cultivate friendships with some other young writers (mostly of fiction) whose correspondence gives me hope and kindness and encouragement every day. I’ve learned a lot about committing a life to art from these correspondences, so that’s an important influence too.

Have you met any of your poetry heroes and how was it?

I nearly fainted the first time I met Paula Meehan. Seriously, I was all jelly-legged. I have been an admirer of her work for years, and I just felt so overwhelmed when I met her that I very nearly swooned. She’s just so, so cool.

You’re a total twitter fiend/addict (apologies!) do you think social media is a help or a hindrance? I like the way it makes poets more sociable and builds a sense of community – but does it have its drawbacks? Did you consciously decide to build a social media platform or did it happen by accident?

Hah! I actually laughed at the term ‘social media platform’! Nah, the whole twitter thing happened far more haphazardly than that for me. I think it’s about two years since I joined, and honestly, even though I fell into it backwards, it’s been brilliant. It’s opened my eyes to the work of a lot of different poets internationally, to a lot of different styles and techniques of poetry. It’s also put me in touch personally with lots of poets whose work I admire, and it keeps me up to date with their latest poems, so that’s interesting too. 

My main usage of twitter is as a megaphone to roar encouragement to my peers from the side-lines. Writing can be such a solitary, grey world, and sometimes getting a few small words of encouragement can really brighten a day. As I mentioned, I read a lot, so I’ll often tweet about novels or poems that I’ve read and enjoyed. I am quite a positive person ‘in real life’, you’d only really hear me talk about music/films/books that I loved, and I get some flak online for being positive… but that’s just how I am in life, I talk about things I like and try to ignore the crap stuff. As far as I can see, there are plenty of people covering cranky/mean-spirited/poor me/bitter points of view, and that’s their prerogative. I’m much more content focusing on the good rather than the bad. I find the cyclical nature of ego controversies in the weird world of Irish poetry extremely boring (“Here we go again…”), and the ‘mute’ button on twitter comes in handy at times. Some people love to argue, complain and dwell in negativity — I’m not like that. I like to use it as a place to practice kindness, and for the most part I’ve been really lucky in that others have shown me and my poems great kindness there too.

Do you carve a specific time into your day to write? Or does it come naturally?

Necessity means that I have to make time to write on the hop. My days are busy so if I was to be overly precious about having a specific writing/thinking time, my poems would never be written. I’ve had to be creative in carving out time for my writing. What works for me at the moment is to keep current drafts of all my poems in progress in email folders on my phone, so I always have my work to hand, and then I work on them in any small window of time I get alone. At the weekend or in the evening when I can grab a longer period of time to focus on the works in progress, sit down and edit furiously, shaping the poems, and then they’re back in the drafts folder on my phone to be read and reread and edited further and polished until I feel ready to share the work with others.  I find that the more years I write, the longer I spend with each individual poem. I don’t feel any pressure to rush them out in the world anymore, although like a lot of people, I definitely made that mistake in the past.

What poetry can you just not stand and why?

I’m sure it’s a matter of taste, but honestly, I am not a fan of being roared at. This sort of poetry bores me, and I blush on behalf of the writer. ‘Poems’ that are half-formed and artless to the point that they cannot stand on their own two feet, so they must be screeched loudly at an audience… It’s not for me. I tend to avoid events like that.

Is there anything you feel you would never write a poem about? That is too personal? Or is poetry an open book to explore life?

Interesting question! Poetry, for me, really is an open book to explore our perception of life. It gives us an inimitable voice to portray what life looks like through our own unique window, and to share that perspective with others. So, no, for me, nothing is off-limits… although it hinges on how much courage I can muster at the time of writing each poem.

Where do you see poetry taking you?

I see poetry leading me further along the same path, and I am content with that. For me, poetry is an introspective art that allows me both to explore and examine elements of my own lived life and reading life, and also, through reading poetry voraciously, to taste the experiences of others.

Has being a poet – had an impact on other parts of your life?

Yes, it has helped me through trauma and sorrow and joy. In fact, a favourite poem of mine ‘Train Ride’ by Ruth Stone, has helped me through just about every feeling imaginable, it’s a poem I return to again and again in good times and in bad.

If you’d like to meet Doireann or see her read from the collection, then Clasp will be launched as part of Cork World Book Festival on April 23rd and at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin on April 27th. She will also appear at Cúirt 2015 alongside Elaine Feeney on April 24th at 6.30pm in the Taibhdhearc Theatre.

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About Author

Alvy Carragher

A Pushcart nominee, her first collection is forthcoming with Salmon Poetry (2016). She writes and illustrates the Award-Winning blog With All the Finesse of a Badger.