FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
TARA BERGIN: When I was a little girl in Ireland, my grandfather told me that a man named ‘Amergin’ – which is the Irish of ‘Bergin’ – was the first true poet of Europe. This made an impression on me and might have acted as a bit of a magic charm when, like many young people, I began writing poetry fairly regularly as a teenager.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
TB: As an Irish citizen I have long been conscious of the significance of language and the changes that happen to English when it is spoken by non-English voices. When I was seventeen I studied Portrait of the Artist for my Leaving Cert and Joyce’s mastery of the English language was a revelation to me. I was writing poetry then as well as songs, and the two remain very close in my mind even now. Traditional songs especially, when they are sung in a single voice and recorded simply, appeal to me a great deal and they have influenced much of my writing. Another big influence however is reading. It was only when I became a serious reader, after I enrolled at University as a mature student to study literature, that I became a serious writer. It was during this time that I published my first poem. I was thirty years old.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
TB: Writing poetry is a curious endeavour – for which doubt, uncertainty, solitude, and failure can sometimes seem like fundamental qualities. Being shortlisted for the Forward Prize comes as a completely unexpected and thrilling boost. I think that any writer would find it enormously encouraging.
FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
TB: When my first book, This is Yarrow, was published in 2013, I didn’t think of it as my ‘first’ book, but simply as my only book. I remember, when it first came out, someone asked how long it took me to write it, and when I answered ‘thirty-nine years’, they laughed and thought I was joking. But I wasn’t; I really did feel that I’d had my whole life to prepare for those poems. This second collection, which has taken about four years, came about in a different way. One simple difference was that I had begun to read my poems aloud in public, and this made me want to write poems that were enjoyable to listen to. So I started to write poems for the voice and the ear. But then the writing moved into a different realm, as I began to draw on other themes and ideas, in particular my interest in literary translation. I have for years been fascinated with the notion that a translated text is often thought to be a kind of illusion, as if that’s a fault, but I don’t see that it needs to be a fault. I am a great believer in the truth of metaphor, which I suppose is unsurprising for a poet. Translation – and all of its complications and tricks and traps – works well as a metaphor for a whole range of experiences.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
TB: There are some traditional songs which I admire a great deal, such as ‘The Lark in the Morning’ or ‘Mary Hamilton’. They use repetition and syntax, and simple, strong imagery to great effect.
Recently I have been re-reading Yeats’s Last Poems which are of course extremely powerful, and there’s one in particular that I go back to a lot, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, because the poet uses such ordinary words in a way that is devastating.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
TB: I’m writing what I think of as contemporary pastoral poetry, but I might be getting it wrong.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
TB: I sometimes tell my writing students to think about this statement by the Hungarian post-Holocaust poet János Pilinszky: ‘Each deficiency may become a creative force of high quality’. In other words, I urge them to draw not only on their strengths but also on their weaknesses, because I suspect that it is often those parts of us that we don’t like that can give us clues as to how to make our writing better.