Accidental Poet Mary Kennelly Talks About Finding Writing and the Silence of the Blank Page

Mary Kennelly is a familiar name on the poetry scene. She’s been involved in arts events in Ireland for many years, including Listowel Writers’ Week, taking to the spoken word tent at Electric Picnic’s Mindfield and the Brendan Kennelly Summer Festival. She is published here, there and everywhere. I was aware of her presence, but it wasn’t until her collection Catching Bats Takes Patience turned up in my postbox that I really began to get a picture of who she is as a poet. Her words kept me company on the journey to Electric Picnic and I was fascinated with this poet who made the ordinary seem both suddenly personal and extraordinary. The book rattled my curiosity and so here I chat to her about it, and what drew her to poetry.

If you don’t mind me saying, the title of your collection, Catching Bats Takes Patience, is particularly stirring, can you tell us a little bit about it and why you feel it is the way to describe this collection of work?

 I wasn’t happy with the idea that taking time to enjoy and appreciate my family and my life was something I would eventually get around to.

This collection was written over a particularly hectic period in my life. I was travelling a lot for work and trying to be a wife, mother and writer as well. I found myself putting off a lot of things that I really wanted to do, with the idea that I’d do it ‘when I had time’. I wasn’t happy with the idea that taking time to enjoy and appreciate my family and my life was something I would eventually get around to. This collection is really about stopping from time to time, getting off the merry-go-round and just enjoying the beauty of the ordinary moments we are gifted with over the course of a day, or a week, or a lifetime. I was watching a documentary about a tribe in Africa that were struggling through a drought and the village had to catch bats in order to augment their food supply. The idea that ‘catching bats takes patience’ summed up exactly that sense of needing to be able to stop and wait sometimes for the good things in life.

Can you talk a bit about the person behind the poetry? Who are you? Why do you write?

chasing batsI’m part of a large and lively Irish family, I am blessed to have a raft of siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts and — of course — my parents. You can find glimpses of them all over my work. I have a wonderfully supportive husband and three children who are kind enough not to complain when they find themselves written about in my poetry. I’m lucky that my family reminds me from time to time not to take myself too seriously. I come from North Kerry which is part of Ireland with a very strong and unique literary voice and tradition. I am following on in the footprints of such giants as Brian McMahon, John B. Keane, Brendan Kennelly and Gabriel Fitzmaurice. I’m also a secondary school principal and, again, the teachers and young men I work with have a way for keeping me grounded if I am ever in danger of thinking too much of myself or my work!

  • When did you first start writing, the themes you explore seem to span your entire life and give a sense of a life lived? Did you come to writing late in life? Do you feel there is always further room to explore the past or is there a point when you must move your poetry into the present?

He then told me not to worry, to let the words come when they would.

I have been in love with stories for as long as I can remember; crafting my own stories felt natural to me and I wrote a lot as a young child and as a teenager. Most of what I wrote was pretty awful, I think. I haven’t kept any of my old notebooks. Coming from a family of writers and poets made it more difficult to find my own voice, and I didn’t write creatively during my twenties. I worked as a teacher and also as the director of Listowel Writer’s Week, and the artistic director of the Brendan Kennelly Summer Festival. I was fortunate to count John B. Keane as a friend, and we were chatting together once when he asked why I wasn’t writing — I mumbled something about not finding time. He looked at me and asked me my age. I was twenty eight at the time. He then told me not to worry, to let the words come when they would.

“Don’t worry about writing until your thirties: you don’t have anything worth saying until then, anyway.”

I know that’s not true for everyone, but it was true for me. His absolute belief that I was a writer, and that my voice would come, did free up something within me that allowed me to return to writing. I’m sure it would have happened anyway, but that conversation did give me licence to wait and to write, each in their own good time — I carry that lesson with me, still. I seldom set out to write to a theme, be it about the past or the present. I have learnt to wait, to listen and to write what comes.

A lot of your work seems concerned with being a woman, whether it’s mother daughter or even just renegade shopper, what is it about this theme that fascinates you? Do you think being a mother changed your work?

poetry plunges the reader into the moment and then returns them to the ordinary and maybe the reader is changed, or maybe not

Perhaps I don’t have the skill to write dispassionately, the poetry I write is personal. That doesn’t mean that the poems are all personal to me. I listen, I look, I steal the moments I see around and fashion them into flashes of story. That’s what I love most about poetry: poetry plunges the reader into the moment and then returns them to the ordinary and maybe the reader is changed, or maybe not. I write about loss and disappointment, about change and uncertainty, and about love and family. I presume it helps that I am a mother when I write about motherhood but I’m not sure that being a mother myself is absolutely necessary. That’s the joy of being a listener, I get to hear and tell stories other than my own. This way of working is not for all but if I can avoid the pit of over sentimentality then it works for me.

I see that you’re a seasoned performer of your work? Do you feel more comfortable on the stage or page? Are the poems more alive in one of these arenas? Do you have stock poems that you feel work better for a live audience, why is this?

mary
Mary with Gabriel Fitzmaurice and a big Liberties sign in the background

The one thing every writer has in common is the silence of an empty page. We’re all sitting in a room somewhere trying to bring the stories in our minds to life in a way that does them justice. Flashes of inspiration are a gift and a joy when they strike, but writing is about putting your bum on a seat and your fingers on a keyboard. Repeatedly. I don’t think about an audience when I write, I think about the words coming together to create a feeling or a story. Having said that, there is something very special about reading your work to a live audience or seeing you work on a shelf in a bookshop. Perhaps because my poems are born in isolation there is a sense of joy when they get their day in the sun.  I don’t have a set list of poems to perform; of course, some lend themselves more to being read in a live setting than others. I do try to blend in lighter poems with poems of loss. What I enjoy most is not so much the reading itself but when, from time to time, I meet someone or get a letter or email from someone who tells me that one of my poems touched them or travelled with them for some reason.

I think my favourite line, which sums up a lot of the tone of your work is in Dear deceptively simple. “Your Poetry has only truth – /And what is there to learn from that?” I marvel at the honesty of your poems and think their truth is what makes them special, I get that the poem is a sort of jibe at those that think clever poetry is good poetry, but there also seems to be a less assured voice under it? Or am I imagining things? Do you consciously choose to just bare the truth?

Again this goes back to how I write, because I don’t know of any other way to write. I write story poems that work best when they are reflections of the truths I find around me. Sometimes my poems are raw but, as I mentioned, I don’t think about the eventual audience when I write — I just try to tell the story that I need to tell. I’m often not satisfied with the result, and many of my poems undergo numerous rewrites and I have a very sizeable rejects pile.

Who would you mark as your influences and what would you bring from your reading of them into your work?

I’m a fairly voracious reader and I’ll read anything. I love books that are stripped back in tone and allow the idea to shine through.  I have loved poetry for as long as I can remember. I remember reading ‘A Small Light’ by my uncle Brendan Kennelly when I was around ten and falling into a different world for the first time. My English teachers in Secondary School, Mary McGuillicuddy and Mai Langan, brought poetry alive for me through my teenage years. I loved my time spent with Shelly, Donne, Sassoon, Kinsella, Heaney and others. I was fortunate enough to meet many great writers such as John B. Keane, Bryan McMahon, John McGahern, Colm Tobin, John Connelly and Michael Collins and poets such as Gabriel Fitzmaurice, Ann Egan and of course my father Paddy Kennelly.  What all of these writers have in common is the strength of their narrative voice.

How important do you think it is for the poet to read other’s work and be active in the poetry community?  I’m only asking because you seem to be a fairly active member of the literary world and I am wondering how you feel that helps/hinders your work?

Truthfully I don’t find time to be as active in the literary community as I would like to be.  When I was younger and just starting out to write, I would try to cut myself off from outside influences when I was actively writing. That’s not something I do anymore, I think my work is enriched by conversation with other writers, artists and musicians. For me it’s not a case of being influenced by others, but inspired. At least, before I return, once again, to the solitude of my writing desk.

Do you see poetry as a career or a calling, and on that note – where do you see it taking you?

I really don’t think of poetry as a career or a calling. In a lot of ways I’m an accidental poet. With a father and an uncle who are both published poets I really didn’t want to write poetry, but poetry is what happens most often when I sit down to write. I’ve been very lucky as a writer, I’ve had generous mentors such as my father and uncle, John B. and Gabriel Fitzmaurice. I’ve also been lucky with the people I’ve worked with along the way, like Rebecca Carroll and Brenda Fitzmaurice and with my publishers, particularly Liberties Press. I’m not sure where what lies ahead but that is a gift in and of itself.  I’m currently working on my fourth collection with the artist Brenda Fitzmaurice and it’s a bit of a departure from my previous collections.  For as long as I can write I am happy to follow where it takes me.

You can visit Mary Kennelly’s  website at this link and buy her beautiful collection here. You can also hear Mary speak about her work on Radio Kerry at this link.

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