Interview Questions: Poetry In Context

Last week I was working with some current UCD literature students, answering interview questions by way of research for a course dedicated to Traditional and Contemporary Irish Literature and Culture.

Those who contacted me wanted to focus their presentation on the feminist movement within the contemporary poetry scene in Dublin, and so I was very happy to get involved.

Here are a few of the questions briefly addressed, which is an unusual opportunity for me to provide some context to my writing and reflect on my experience as a poet.

What was your education like at UCD? Do you feel like it prepared you for the world in which you currently reside?

In my time at UCD I came to realize that contemporary poetry was the thread of literature that I wanted to follow. I had some fantastic tutors, between Colin Barrett for my Creative Writing classes and Nerys Williams, who was my thesis supervisor. I owe quite a lot of my initial inspiration to her, in addition to admiring her poetic work greatly. When I took my first class on American Literature with her at UCD, she read William Carlos Williams, and I remember it was one of the first time I ever felt a selection of poems hit me in the chest.

Ultimately my 2015 thesis examined the manifestation of performativity in 1920’s America, specifically through shifting gender roles and societal attitudes regarding the female body and sexuality, as exhibited in T.S. Eliot’s modernist poetics.

I enjoyed attending UCD greatly, it was my first opportunity to seriously pursue my literary passion, although I struggled with mental health difficulties at the time. I remember they had a great counselling service, with whom I saw my first counselor and began constructively managing my depression and anxiety.

Getting to college had been difficult due to certain social and economic conditions restricting access back home in Donegal, and so I relied heavily on my grant in order to attend. I also worked part time throughout my entire degree. It was difficult managing both work and studies, but I think that as a combined experience it helped me going forward as a writer who must work to support their art.

What is it like being a poet in today’s Ireland? What are the positives and negatives?

Mostly my experiences have been positive, and I really feel like I found my people in the Irish poetry community. Also as Dublin is a small city, it is great for meeting people and hearing about events. It can be a bit difficult getting started in the beginning however, when you might not be familiar with the scene. 

I am a big believer in channeling negative experiences and emotions into something positive and constructive, which partly led to the creation of the Not4U poetry collective.

Do you ever lack motivation to write? Are there any cultural reasons or societal implications that interfere with your ability to create content that you’re proud of?

This is a big mood. Yes, definitely. Although I write something pretty much every day, whether it be a line or a whole poem, I never feel like I’m doing enough. Nobody does. I keep a journal with me at all times, which helps, so I can always try to capture the moment.
The predominate aspect I really feel limited by in making creative work is monetary, largely due to the ongoing Dublin renting crisis; most creatives are forced to work much more than they’d like to, which leaves less time for creative projects.

“Autonomy in 8 parts” is one of your works that we are going to be reading to the class. How does it fit into your life and how does it portray parts of the Irish identity?

This poem examines the fight for independence and security in a city that’s often working against you. As mentioned above, carving out a space for yourself as a creative in the capital is an ongoing uphill battle, and this poem sought to highlight these struggles while undermining aspects of privilege. It was written predominately to express frustration, in a time where bodily autonomy in Ireland was not something we had.

We are going to be sharing your poem “Tidbit” in class. Before you came out, did you feel that identifying as LGBTQ+ conflicted with identifying as Irish? If you did, do you feel differently today?

This poem is very close to my heart. It’s about my struggle with being internally closeted and old catholic guilt, trying to be happy and present in my first proper queer relationship. Safe to say it was a confusing and frustrating time.
I never really had a structured ‘coming out’ experience. I had a shadow of an idea about it being part of my identity as far back as Primary School. Then in Secondary School it became normalized that kissing your female friends was something to do for fun on a night, just a bit of craic. Although obviously it would mean a lot more to me that that!

My close friends knew increasingly as the years went on, and I realized I was going to meet other queer people in college, so I was just really excited for that. It felt like the rest of my life was getting ready to begin, and I could finally realize all aspects of the person I wanted to be. From there I just began getting steadily braver.

In regards to coming out to my parents, I said little and began publicly campaigning for Marriage Equality on my social media, taking a stance as a bisexual person whom it would affect. I think a lot of people share that experience of coming out in this generation.

The lack of equal rights never detracted from my feeling Irish, although I was never particularly proud. However when Marriage Equality passed I did feel more accepted in my country, because it stood in the face of all the real life harassment and homophobia I had experienced.

In your poem #autumnaesthetic, you discuss body positivity and not feeling like you conform to cultural expectations. What would you tell your younger self today about feeling comfortable with your identity?

This poem was written specifically for inclusion in a charity publication with Bodywhys, a organization established to support those who suffer with and recovering from eating disorders.

To feel comfortable is one’s own body is something I wished I could feel for such a long time. Particularly when all the most powerful people I admired had learned to accept themselves and found strength in defying cultural expectations.

I often wish I could go back and comfort myself as teenager, I’ll never forget how hard it was. Being queer and closeted in rural catholic Ireland, with depression to boot, is not a good experience for anyone to go through. I don’t think I ever wanted to conform to cultural expectations, but I did want to be liked, as all kids do.
I am so comfortable with who I am and how I look, but it took a lot of work to get here. To know that it is totally fine to walk a line between gender expectations, and change day by day.
I owe most of my happiness in this respect to my progressive supporting friends and continued work on my mental health.

If I could go back however I would tell myself to hang on, that my people were coming. That the only person I had to fall in love with was myself, and that I didn’t have to shave any part of my body to be attractive!

What does it mean to you to be a woman in Ireland today?

Whilst I partly identify as female, there is a large part of my identity that feels increasingly fluid. In the past the women of Ireland have been too constrained by aspects of enforced identity and gender roles. Having lived through and campaigned for two referendums in my late teens and early twenties regarding my basic rights as a queer person who is able to become pregnant, I never want to be hushed, nor will I be boxed in. 
I have found so much freedom in queer culture and feminist activism, which helped me to accept parts of myself that maybe other people didn’t like or that I’d been having difficulty with.

Do you see yourself as part of the change in how poets and poetry are understood in Ireland? How do you want to influence the poetry scene?

Largely I feel as if my contributions to the poetry community are tied up in the discussion of stigmatized topics e.g. mental health, social conditions, housing crisis, economic/class struggles, addiction, autonomy and the queer experience.

Thus, the representation of marginalized voices and the creation of safe spaces were the foreground for establishing the NOT4U Poetry Collective, which was founded alongside my friends and fellow poets Eva Griffin and Rosa Jones.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/NOT4Ucollective or Twitter: @not4ucollective

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One thought on “Interview Questions: Poetry In Context

  1. Hello Jess,

    Thanks for connecting – have you read ‘Pilkars of the House’ am anthology of Irish Female Poetry? l’m a bit outside the poetic loop November by Sean O’Brien l loved and Epithalamium by Nick Laird is in my kitchen cupboard door…

    I’m carpet shock and you’re the rail.
    I’m Memory Foam Day on Price-Frop TV
    and you’re the Lord of Misrule who shrieks
    when l surface in goggles through duckweed

    Regards,

    Kathy Cahill 3wallsgalkery@gmail.com 0872399664

    Like

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