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Elaine Feeney is the kind of poet I want to be when I grow up. I remember the first time I saw her read, and the second, and the third. She has that remarkable ability to blow you away each time, even if it’s work you’ve already heard. She brings an honesty and integrity to the stage that is contagious. Not to mention that she is as accomplished on the page as she is on the stage. She has three collections of poetry: Indiscipline (2007, Maverick Press), Where’s Katie? (2010, Salmon) and The Radio was Gospel (2014, Salmon). If all that wasn’t daunting enough, she’s currently working on a novel. I caught up with her before her headline show at Lingo.
I love the humour, the political angles and also the undercurrents of love and warmth in your work, can you talk a bit about blending these or if perhaps that’s just what happens?
It’s often said that most poets speak in character to some extent or another. I am very aware of the times I am speaking in character, and I use a first person narrator to speak. It’s an angle at the moment that interests me the most, and I have great freedom when I write this way. I tend to make a better connection with a wider audience when I write someone else’s narrative. I spend a lot of time watching/listening to humans interact. It is a facet of writing, sound, language, gesture etc. that interests me most.
I think all humans are political, at least the political world would have you believe, or inflict this on you, and each of us in our own peculiar way eventually marches to this tune, whether it’s complicit, as agitator, or an escapist or whatever way you have actively chosen to live your life.
On a more personal level, in the explorations of self and my personal journey, I explore the undercurrents of love and lust, human survival, the notion of self without the political constraints, the notion of cycles and how we begin and begin and begin again.
I have a very dark sense of humour; it mirrors my understanding of humans as intensely dark and private affairs, and fractured beings, with utterly mad concocted public personas. I’m not sure if my voice is a mass-production of all these things. I do have a very defined sense when I sit to write a piece now, of who I’m putting forward and why.
It isn’t always so unambiguous to me, sometimes my work comes in madly chaotic spurts, uncomfortable intrusions, poem ideas often come at me, quite brutally out of nowhere, and I’ll write them, and I may never be able to fully explain them, and sometimes they leaving me feeling really uncomfortable and awkward. Naked almost. I’ve tried of late to control this better. No doubt I’ll return to a state of this murky flux some time soon.
I think a lot of young poets struggle with the idea that they might not be able to support themselves on poetry alone, do you think teaching has been a balanced way for you to get your poetry work done? Or is it always tough to find balance?
There is absolutely no way that I could survive on poetry alone. There is no way I could survive without poetry either, but for very different reasons, and some times I reason with myself that it doesn’t matter, and other days it is the only thing that matters. It’s an indulgence. You couldn’t support yourself in any semblance of a ‘typical’ life on writing alone, for most writers. I have a family and I’ve always believed, in owning your own home, as an individual, not in a couple, and entirely supporting yourself. That is my balance, when I achieve this on a monthly basis, in that cycle of survival, which oddly seems to come down in months in my head, and sometimes seasons, I feel a sense of calm, and I allow myself into the indulgence of writing again.
I could spend my whole life searching for balance, to realise that I will never succeed in finding it. So I don’t bother.
That said, my children have to live with a mother who is a writer, who for all intents and purposes lives in her own head a substantial amount of time, and sees things like soccer runs and drama runs, and shoe shopping and lunch making and nail clipping, and lots of other inane activities as a drain on her writing or wine time. To counter that, I don’t believe I can ever find balance. On a personal level, I think balance is for people who are numb, who practice a form of ritualistic mindfulness that hypnotizes them, and then they succeed. I am not critical of these people, I am only jealous. For me, the only balance is in chaos. I have to accept this as my lot. If I do Yoga or Mindfulness or any of that balancing stuff, I start to hear voices and I cannot relax. I love active sports, when I’m so busy concentrating, I can’t think. I could spend my whole life searching for balance, to realize that I will never succeed in finding it. So I don’t bother.
For such a young poet you have done an awful lot, do you set goals or do you wait till a natural amount of work/time has occurred before you bring together a collection?
I have nowhere near enough done. But I’m shit at that balancing! Yes, I’m goal orientated. I still see myself as a massive let down to all the ideas I have and all I could or should have said and done by my mid thirties. I have a new collection ready for 2016. But I’m being patient with it, and it’s been kind to me. I only seem to ever measure my life in my failures and what I have not achieved. Sadly.
I know you were very ill last year – has this had any transformative effect on your work, do you think life ends up moulding the poet?
I am not afraid to die; I have no right to be. I think it might have settled my obsession with the Ego. And I am still an Atheist. Despite the awful year, I never once prayed to anything. Yes, it has transformed my poetry. I’m calmer now, and this helps. And I realise that I need to listen to myself a little more.
I have a terrible habit of comparing myself to other people in worse situations, and only allowing myself time-out, or a doctor visit when I have jumped through seven hundred imaginary hoops, so I was carrying around a serious illness for a while, thinking it was all work-related stress and that all I needed to do was fight it. And all the time I was killing myself slowly and unintentionally. I’m intensely stubborn. It also taught me, if in doubt, go straight to A and E! All life experience effects the writer. It would be absurd to think it doesn’t. Writers will deny this of course. It made me more aware of death.
How important do you think it is to have a sense of humility about what you do?
There is a deep and broad accumulation of the human experience that has gone before you, it lives far beyond and past you in places you can never entirely understand.
That said, learn your trade, know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, have respect for what you respect. But I think as a writer it’s important to remember, there is a deep and broad accumulation of the human experience that has gone before you, it lives far beyond and past you in places you can never entirely understand. Perhaps this is what you mean about humility. This I accept. This I respect.
Are you excited about your Lingo Gig with Hollie? Have you performed with her before? What do you think we can expect from it?
Well as excited as you can be sharing the stage with a superstar of words and performance poetry. I love her work and I think she makes an immediate connection, I don’t feel the same about, my own poetry, but this is ok. I just love her poem about Megatron and the female body after giving birth. I think in the mother sense, and woman to mother transition, we come from the same place. I am showcasing some new work though; one is more like a short drama, so I hope this goes down ok. You can expect Hollie to be polished and me to have a folder. I expect you can expect decent earrings too. There’s a pretty great green room in the Workman’s also, so if all else fails, we can have the LOL’s in there. I really admire and love the LINGO gang too, so I want to be good for them! They’ve invested a lot in me.
For me you were, and are, a hugely inspiring part of the Irish poetry scene, when I first started I found recordings of you and Sarah Clancy online and I was mesmerized… I feel like you opened doors in slam poetry and carved a new path for younger writers in the way you approached poetry… do you think you ever would have imagined people looking to you as a sort of shining light?
This is a revelation to me to be honest. It makes me kind of nervous. I hate when people rely on me, as I just know I’ll let them down. I’ve started having young college students ask to meet me, and tell me about how I influenced them just to ‘say it’ as it is, and I get so nervous for them, there is nothing easy in ‘just saying it’ in fact it can be a terrifying place. I had an experience recently where a Canadian student travelled to Ireland to meet me. I can’t help feeling I was a let down to her. But thank you Alvy, this is decent to hear. And I hope the light shines in the right direction. But being a poet is usually wracked with despair and failure, so I’m sure you might have different questions for me in fifty years and say WHY DID YOU NOT TELL US EVERYTHING IS A LIE?!
How influential was the slam scene to your career, I’ve heard people credit your grand slam wins before for your success, does it annoy you when (and not in your case – because you obviously have a book and work in both respects) slam poets get written off as a lower form of art?
What annoys me most are people who like bananas shouting at people who like apples better, because they are a somehow more wholesome fruit. It’s literally, bananas. And a waste of discussion time. Some performance poets are absolutely shit, but they tend to fizzle off. Some page poets are absolutely shit, but less so, because of the publisher’s sieve. This is the difference. What I’ve also noticed is the more brilliant the writer I meet is, or when I meet the ones I most admire, the less whiny they are about everything.
You’re part of what I consider to be Ireland’s most blasphemous poets (I sort of club Sarah Clancy and Rita Ann Higgins in that group with you) – do you think you feed into each other’s work?
I have very many more ‘beliefs’ that are my own construction, yet I believe they are not half as obscure as believing in old dead men sitting in clouds fighting things out, handing down a list of moral rules to me.
But let’s turn your question; I have been blasphemed for my belief system, which was developing since I was a very young child. And they are my beliefs. And I exist. I have not had my beliefs/needs safely and fairly met in any system other than my own very small family unit. I believe so strongly in inclusive education for atheists, I believe in a secular state while respecting all belief systems, I believe in women having control over their own bodies, their own dress, and choice, choice is key in all these areas, I believe in freedom of expression. I have very many more ‘beliefs’ that are my own construction, yet I believe they are not half as obscure as believing in old dead men sitting in clouds fighting things out, handing down a list of moral rules to me. This is absurd to me. But I defend your right to it. As I defend most choice.