from Poetry Ireland Review 118
from Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 120
Were you a strange child with a taste for verse? I still am.
Do you too dislike it? Not the idea of it. Not the best of it. Not the impulse. But let's face it, most of what calls itself poetry is god-awful. Writing a good poem is hard and it's hardly ever accomplished. It's important to dislike the mediocre, self-important, cheaply-made, insincere or spineless poem, because only then can there be imaginative allowance for the extraordinary one.
Who is your favourite character in a poem? The speaker of Philip Larkin's 'Going'. There's courage for you; courage to see, to feel, to be fearful, and still to ask a hard question, and to ask it elegantly.
If you could die and come back as a poem, what poem would it be? John Donne's 'The Sun Rising'. 'Busy old fool, unruly sun': oh, all that glamour and ploy.
Someone offers you € l,000,000 to never write again: What is your response? I'm Irish: haven't you ever heard of the 'empty formula'?
Have you ever glued pages of a poetry book together? God, yeah. Tight as my lips are now.
It's the centenary of the Easter Rising: does this fact matter to you and if so, in what way? Less and less. (It's December, after all).
If someone described you as a political poet, what would your reaction be? That depends. If it were a politician, for example, I'd aim for the head when I threw my ballot box. And yet. I have just written a book about being, as much as anything, a middle-aged woman: I defy anyone to say that's not a political gesture. And yet. I tend to run from the word 'politics'. I'm for words with a bit more truth and energy packed in. But words, I know, are political tools, and they don't shuck that off because they choose to hide out in a poem for a while. Let's say, then, that I'm not a political poet, but even a poet with her back to politics will still face the way it does.
Would you rather be the poet or the poem? The poem, of course, silly. The poet may stand behind the poem, but the successful poem won't care. It needs nothing, least of all my continued fumblings and mutterings. Wouldn't that be an ideal state, to need nothing anymore?
If you could pick a time to be dropped amongst the three best poets alive at that moment, when would it be and who would they be? Now. When poetry isn't sequestered into privileged corrals. (Or at least, not always and necessarily). Now. When so much good work has already been made, and it seems a tall order to be fresh and stylish and crafty and wise, and to admit you have to be. The stakes are high. But look, there's the Carson Family, Anne and Ciaran, striding out to the microphones. And Louise Glück and Alice Oswald are tuning up a storm to raise the dead. Here comes everyone! What a gig! And I can't see the half of it. Surprise me, do.
What's your worst poetry habit? The word 'that'.
You've arranged a date for 8pm, but it's 8.10pm now. You're working on a poem and it's going well. What do you do? Hold on a minute, the poem's 'going well'? But doesn't every self-respecting poem go badly, until it doesn't go anymore? Badness is more interesting. Now I've created a problem, and I can't just get up and leave without solving it, or trying to. So, I'm going to stick with the poem. He'll know where to find me, if he wants. But that poem will slip through my hands like rain, if I don't see it through.
Have you ever carried a poem by someone else around on your person? If so, what was it? I've carried books in my bag, and lines in my head; rarely whole poems, not even my own. I've learned not to over-estimate headspace capacity.
A family member says, 'You should write a poem about that.' What do you do? I like to think I pull a wet herring from a specially sealed bag kept for such occasions, and use it to slap the person's cheek while explaining that poems are not anecdotes and that probably the least important aspect of any good poem is what it is about. But of course, I don't. I smile and play dead, imagining a very quiet room in which I forage for myself, and no one serves me subject matter, on a swish or a bockety tray.
If your best poem were a weekend away, where would it be? A B&B in Ballymahon. In February. In flagrant rain.
It's a good poem but it's forty-one lines long and the competition with the big prize specifies a max of forty: what do you do? Hang the prize. The poem's the thing, and it imagines its own rules.
Have you ever used a poem to seduce someone? If so, what poem was it? (And did it work?). I'll plead the fifth dimension on this one (as a man once did in a US court. And then he disappeared).
You're given a choice: either every poem or no poem you write from now on must use the word 'I'. Which do you choose? Every poem. 'I' is probably the most dangerous and dynamic word at a poet's disposal. Introduce it into a poem and the game changes instantly. But I can see why people are wary of it, it's such a sly little thing. Two-faced. Half the time, it's not even interested in itself, it's just throwing shapes.
Your friend is depressed: what's the very last poetry book you'd give him / her? 'You Made Me Late Again!' by Pam Ayres. Can you imagine anything worse? All that jollity and metre, plus an exclamation mark!
Who will play the poet in the Hollywood adaptation of your last poem? Kathy Bates. Or Harvey Keitel (if the car insurance ads dry up, he might be available). Or what about Jennifer Lawrence? (The midlands accent might be tricky, but she's a versatile actress - the rest ought to be a cinch).
You're invited to read in a major festival: what are your top three backstage demands? A teabag. A kettle. Quite a lot of milk. (If they can lay on Liam Neeson to make the tea, that would be quite nice. Tell him Jennifer Lawrence will be there. And that she's fond of tea).
What's your current favourite word? Bolthole.
You're proud of the poem but know it will offend someone you don't even like: what do you do? Write it. Resolve to go out less. That should solve the problem.
Would you rather win the TS Eliot Prize or the Prize Bonds? The Prize Bonds. No poem I'd ever write in the future need know a thing about it.
Let's assume you're 60 and still publishing poems: what do you want to have achieved between now and then? 60? Good god, who writes this stuff? (Sigh). Well, then. A collection of poems that is way better than any I've published thus far.
Cyril Connolly said the true function of a writer is to write a masterpiece, and no other task is of any consequence. Do you agree? Yes. If possible. (Of course, the true function of a human being could be a different thing).
'The hard part is getting to the top of page l' - Tom Stoppard. What, for you, is the hard part? Time. And the finding of it. Not just for writing, but for the gradual levering of oneself into writing, that involves a lot of reading and looking out of windows and not answering e-mails or, heaven forfend, questionnaires. Either that, or the handling of the moment you know the whole thing's gone to hell; when I write and write and I simply can't get life into any of it; when it's vivid as a bowl of steam. When I am loud as stones in a bucket or when I'm just imitating myself. What an echo-chamber that can be. Getting out of that, that's the hard part.
If your ideal poem were an outfit, what would it look like? An indigo, bias-cut, crêpe de Chine evening dress with jet beading, fusible interfacing, honeycomb pleats and a running hem. All stitched by notions, of course. Which I'd wear with Converse or possibly, winklepickers. I'd be wearing language. And listening, every movement, to the gorgeous rustle of words.
What advice would you give to older poets? Read younger poets. Resist disappointment. Shed opinions and fixed positions. Try at least once to write something different to anything you've written so far.
Is there any question you wish you'd been asked here (that you'd like to answer now)? What on earth were you thinking of, answering this questionnaire?
And is there anything you'd like to add? (Since this is by way of a tooraloora, the editor might just allow some latitude on word count).
Blame Paul Lenehan, the publications manager: this was his idea. 'You know that questionnaire', says he, 'the one for The Rising Generation issue? For a final editorial, why don't you answer it yourself?' And so I have, mindful that an editor should always take the advice of such an excellent publications manager, without whose careful eye and even hand these past eight issues could have turned out a mare's nest.
But I don't think they did. We have published some good poems, which is no mean boast for a poetry magazine. Some smart, alert reviews. And interviews and essays that help to expand an understanding of what's afoot in our poetry.
It's been fun. I read many lively and well-turned-out poems, and others I enjoyed meeting, even if I couldn't publish them. So, thanks to you readers and subscribers; thanks to you poets and reviewers for being game; and thanks to you all at Poetry Ireland - together you made my tenure here an adventure, a good lark.
To incoming editor, Eavan Boland, I send an excited, anticipatory greeting, and a single cautionary note: beware of setting any questionnaires, now you see what comes of it.
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Poetry Ireland Review
Editor: Vona Groarke
Assistant Editors: Paul Lenehan, Daniel Tatlow-Devally, Sally Rooney