When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
Though I didn’t write my first poem until I was forty-four, poetry has been part of the soundtrack of my life since childhood. My father quoted lines from Shakespeare, Yeats, Longfellow and the Book of Psalms as he went about his farm work. My mother gave me The Book of A Thousand Poems when I was five and taught me to recite ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’. We learned poems by heart in both Irish and English at primary school and I discovered Kavanagh, Dickinson and Hopkins in secondary school. Later I studied literature and philosophy in college but it wasn’t until my thirties, while immersed in training and working as a psychoanalyst, that I found myself turning to poetry for solace and ballast. Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’, Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mossbawn 1. Sunlight’, and Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ ignited my desire to find ways to express what seemed inexpressible.
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.
I was thirty-four when my partner gave me a copy of Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems 1966-1987 and dedicated it “To help you along the road towards the poetry in you’. It took me another ten years to find what she had intuited but when I wrote my first poems on an Open College of the Arts course it was as if I’d found an underground stream waiting to come into the light. From then on, I carved out more and more time for reading and writing poetry. In the beginning, my writing took me back to the farm in Co. Roscommon where I grew up. Each poem was a discovery as I found myself writing of family, loss and the natural world. I did numerous courses and began to publish in poetry journals. Each acceptance was a milestone that gave me the encouragement to keep going. There were lots of rejections and disappointments along the way but I also won a few prizes and began to read my poems in public. The MPhil in Writing at the University of South Wales was a turning point. Though I was still working full-time in health and social services I travelled to Glamorgan every two months over two years for intense workshop weekends with Gillian Clarke, Philip Gross, Tony Curtis and Stephen Knight. It was then that I began to call myself a poet. Three years later on a beautiful evening in July I received one of the most welcome emails in my life; Neil Astley’s confirmation that Bloodaxe would publish my first collection in 2015.
What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
It means the world to me that A Change in the Air has been shortlisted for the Forward Prizes. I am deeply honoured by this recognition of my work and I love that it will lead to my collection reaching a much wider audience.
Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book.
A Change in the Air is both a continuation and a departure. I have a sense of poems speaking to each other across the three books, celebrating the beauty and resilience of the natural world while exploring the complexities of human emotions and relationships. Yet, as the title suggests, this collection is also a departure, approaching new subjects in new ways. Over the past five years I (with my brothers) have been caring for my mother in her developing dementia. Poems in the opening section reflect on this time with my mother, exploring memory loss and the existential dilemmas it evokes. The theme of memory, story-telling and existential threat continues through the book in poems treating the mining heritage in Wicklow, famine in counties Roscommon and Wicklow and one family’s experience of the First World War. A creative collaboration with ecologists and environmental activists in Wicklow inspired poems about nature restoration. The response to this work strengthened my belief in the power of poetry to engage hearts and minds for the work required to protect species and habitats. The impact of Covid-19 inevitably influenced the collection, particularly a sequence of poems inspired by life in the Wicklow uplands during lockdown. An invitation to write poems marking the centenary of the border in Ireland led me north-west where I met women from diverse communities on both sides of the border. These conversations inspired poems of hitherto untold stories. The past decade has been a time of national reflection on the social and cultural changes in Ireland since the establishment of the State. Such change entails the push and pull of progress and resistance in our personal relationships as well as in the public sphere: this is reflected in A Change in the Air.
The poems that mean most to me are those inspired by my mother in the beginning of the book and the love poems to my wife towards the end. Another poem that is particularly dear to me is ‘Spalls’, the last one I completed for the book, which explores change, mutual acceptance and love in the relationship with my parents.
Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
Among the many, many poets I admire, the ones that stand out are Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Seamus Heaney, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost, Charlotte Mew, Eavan Boland, Kathleen Jamie, Michael Longley and Patrick Kavanagh. I value their poems distilled to the essential drop; so musical and vivid, subtle and reticent yet intimate, and, because of all these qualities, memorable.
What is next for you as a poet?
There’s a certain freedom when a collection is completed and making its way out into the world; the freedom of starting all over again, writing one individual poem after another with no idea of how they might come together in the future. I’m working on a sequence of poems around the theme of biodiversity loss and another sequence inspired by women who played a significant but mostly overlooked role in the Irish agrarian protest movement of the late 1800s. I’m looking forward to a residency in Killarney National Park with a view to writing poems inspired by the wildlife there, including the recently reintroduced white-tailed eagle. And in the coming months I’ll be busy with readings from A Change in the Air in Ireland, the UK and the US.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
Immerse yourself in poetry – read, write and listen. Join other poets in reading groups and workshops to learn and develop your practice. Be prepared for lots of rejections along the road to publication and beyond. Begin again with every new poem. Sometimes a memory, an image or an emotion catches us like a briar snags a jersey – follow the snag. And when you need encouragement and inspiration go back to the poets and poems you love.