Irish Poetry Now
As I write this, I’m staying in a bungalow in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland. It’s a small seaside town with a pub—Grace Neill’s—which claims to be the oldest pub in Ireland (circa 1611). (I’m certain this title is hotly contested and debated.) Donaghadee has had such luminaries as Van Morrison, Peter the Great, and even Keats walking through its streets, one time or another. On a clear day, you can see the far shores of Scotland.
I took a short bus ride in to Belfast this past week and met up with an amazing poet, Sinead Morrissey, at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queens University.
Sinead Morrissey was born in 1972 and grew up in Belfast. She is the author of three previous collections: There Was Fire in Vancouver (1996), Between Here and There (2002) and The State of the Prisons (2005). Her awards include the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Eric Gregory Award, the Rupert and Eithne Strong Award and the Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize. The State of the Prisons was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and both Between Here and There and The State of the Prisons were shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. The State of the Prisons was also shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Prize and the John Llewellyn Rhys Commonwealth Literature Prize. In 2007 she received a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Her poem ‘Through the Square Window’ was awarded first place in the UK National Poetry Competition the same year. Sinead Morrissey is lecturer in creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Queen’s University, Belfast.
It was a Friday afternoon when I caught up with Sinead at the Seamus Heaney Centre. On the following day in Dublin, her latest collection (Through the Square Window) was awarded the Irish Times Poetry Now Award.
The other collections shortlisted for the prize were: On the Night Watch by Ciarán Carson; Spindrift by Vona Groarke; The Sun-Fish by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin; and Peter Sirr’s The Thing Is.
I asked Sinead a few questions and also if she might read a poem for us. Here’s Sinead reading “Matter” (from her latest collection: Through the Square Window):
[Paul Maddern, a poet and archivist, was kind enough to record Sinead reading her poem for us. ]
A Mini-Interview with Sinead
Brian: I’d like to single out two poems from your second collection (Between Here and There), simply because I think they rock and should be widely anthologized: “Jo Gravis in His Metal Garden” and “To Imagine an Alphabet.” They are two vastly different poems, and yet, there’s something about the construction of the world and how it is made new and strange within these places which resonates somehow between the two. The collection itself begins with the first poem set“In Belfast” and then stretches to places like Tucson, Arizona and Gifu City, Japan. Can you talk about the challenges that travel places upon you as a writer?
Sinead: The collection Between Here and There is ‘stretched’, as you put it, between vastly different places: Northern Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, and Arizona. The title itself is meant to suggest that the real concern of these poems is not so much the specificity of place, but the liminal feeling of suspension that occurs when you find yourself in an alien environment. Which may be why you can sense similarities between the two poems you mention above (though I’ve never thought about this before), one of which concerns a sculpture garden in Tucson and the other the origin and history of Japanese Kanji. Both poems deal explicitly with the construction of new signifying systems as well as new worlds. The danger of writing out of travel of course is that you’re writing out of a tourist’s perspective. You can be arrogant, appropriative, and just plain wrong in what you say. My focus is usually (or at least I hope it is) my own sense of disorientation and reorientation within the space of the poem itself.
Brian: Your latest collection (Through the Square Window) has recently won the Irish Times Poetry Now Award. And I can see why—it’s a phenomenal book. Among the things we haven’t yet talked about here is the idea of form. Can you talk a bit about how you approached the line in this most recent collection?
Sinead: There are long-lined poems in this collection— ‘History’, ‘Telegraph’, ‘Augustine Sleeping Before He Can Talk’—but not as many as my previous collection, The State of the Prisons, which was much more devoted to seeing how far the line could go before it collapsed. Through the Square Window has more variety: I’ve never written the tiny-line poem successfully, with its held-breath effect, but there are shorter-lined poems here (‘Storm’, ‘Cathedral’, ‘Matter’) as well as poems doing intentionally odd things with the line. ‘The Hanging Hare’, inspired by a Don Paterson poem from Landing Light, has a seven-lined, centered stanza which increases towards the middle and decreases again towards the end – not a concrete poem per se, but one which attempts to convey the pull of gravity on a hanging object, an irrevocable straightening out. Similarly ‘Ice’ has a short-line, followed by an even shorter line, in four, thirty-line stanzas. The poem’s about the ice storm that hit Canada and the northern states of the US in 1998 and which lasted for five days. I wanted the poem to both sound like, and look like, ice, so there’s a deliberate expansion and contraction of the line, within an extremely tight parameter. I wanted it to visually crackle. One of the things that most interests me as a poet is the marriage of form and content, the idea that you begin every poem from the ground up, like creating a unique architecture for each utterance. I’ll experiment with whatever I can – the line, rhyme, rhythm, white space, punctuation – to see what happens.
Brian: This leads me to a tangential question—with each new book, do you set challenges for yourself? Or, does each poem set its own challenges? Or..?
Sinead: Each poem is a challenge – absolutely – in the way I’ve described it above. And it’s equally (if not more) a challenge of form, as a challenge of idea, or expression. And then there’s the massive challenge of a collection. I think of my books as discreet projects (I’m sure most poets do), which generate their own momentum. As soon as a number of poems crystallize around a given theme, (travel in Between Here and There, confinement in The State of the Prisons, childhood in Through the Square Window), I can work very quickly – a poem or two a week. But until that happens I am painfully slow, and I am always stumped once I finish a book and fall into unnerving, total silence for about a year. And after the silence, I’ll write badly for a while too. I’ll fill notebooks with dross. And then there’ll be a breakthrough poem, eventually, and then I’ll be inside the language once again.
Brian: Would you mind talking some about the artwork chosen for the covers of your books (or any one of your books)?
Sinead: I’m lucky in that Carcanet have allowed me to pick the covers for all of my collections. I’m still in love with the cover of Through the Square Window, a black and white photograph entitled Girl About to Do a Handstand taken by the British street-photographer, Roger Mayne, in 1957. First of all because the girl could have been my mother, who’s English, born in 1948, and who also went around in badly hand-knitted cardigans, with a little grip in her hair. Second, because it fits so perfectly with the childhood theme of the book. But most importantly of all because it’s an image which back-foots the viewer: when you first see it, she looks either about to preach, or as though she’s just been shot. When you read the title, her outstretched arms and bowed head resolve themselves again into innocence. But the shadow’s still there. It’s meant to be a troubling book too, about children’s precarious grip on the world they’re born into. The double resonance of the cover maps onto that ambiguity perfectly.
Sinead’s books are available from Carcanet Press and at Amazon.com. For more interviews and reviews, here’s a link to her page on the Carcanet Press website:
Brian Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon and lived abroad in South Korea for a year before serving for seven years in the U.S. Army. He was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000 with the 10th Mountain Division. Then in November 2003 he was an infantry team leader...