Sinéad Morrissey Interview
Sinéad Morrissey was born in Portadown in 1972. She grew up in Belfast, and became the youngest ever winner of The Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1990. At the time of this interview in September 2002, she had published two collections with Carcanet Press, There Was Fire in Vancouver (1996) and Between Here and There (2002). She was at work on her third collection, The State of the Prisons, which was published in 2005. She has since published a further two collections with Carcanet: Through The Square Window (2009) and Parallax (2013), which was awarded the TS Eliot Prize in January 2014. Sinéad was appointed as the inaugural Belfast Poet Laureate in 2013. She teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University Belfast.
What is your first memory of writing a poem?
My first memory of writing a poem is when I was about eight. A teacher brought in the poem 'From A Railway Carriage' by Robert Louis Stevenson. The one that mimics the rhythm of the train: Faster than fairies, faster than witches. That was the first time I'd come across a poem - my first introduction to what a poem was. The teacher told us to go home and write one of our own and I just found it easy, I could make it rhyme. I got such a thrill out of doing it I was hooked from then on.
You say you were hooked. How did it progress from there?
The next stage was coming across 'The Raven' by Edgar Allen Poe. I became obsessed with this poem as soon as I heard it, and learned it by heart to recite to anyone who'd listen. And then my father bought me Poe's Collected Poems. I started to write all the time - in class, between periods, on the bus on the way home. I also joined a Speech and Drama group at the same time. I was exposed to a lot of different poems in that group, getting up and reciting them, something I really enjoyed. I kept writing and then when I was eleven I got a prize in the Irish Schools Creative Writing Awards for a terrible poem called 'The Famine from the View of an Absentee Landlord.' It was doggerel: 'How troublesome these peasants are!/Starving so they say!/But what am I supposed to do?/Give them a rise in pay?' Awful, but I got this prize, a Highly Commended certificate, probably just for taking the view of the landlord rather than the starving peasants. My Mum brought me down to Dublin on the train - it was my first time down in Dublin - and John F. Deane, who'd been a judge, was holding an afternoon of Creative Writing in the hallway of a bank - I have no idea where it was now. He talked to us all. This was a very significant moment for me - to get this recognition. He said that everybody in the room had talent and that we all had to write something every day, even if was just a diary entry. I was at an impressionable age and I took what he was saying as gospel. I continued writing and I got a prize in that competition every year until I was eighteen. That always propelled me forward and then when I was eighteen I got the Kavanagh Award.
Tell us about the Kavanagh Award, how that came about‹even to enter it at that age.
I know it was a bit mad, wasn't it? A friend of mine, Jim Clarke, told me about the competition and gave me the application form. He said to send off the poems I'd been writing, so I did. I sent in twenty poems, poems I'd written through my teens, they were all very dramatic. When I was fourteen I fell heavily under the dangerous spell of Sylvia Plath, like so many teenage girls with literary aspirations. Now I think of the Kavanagh poems as being far too Plath-influenced, though they probably had a valuable, raw quality about them. I wrote poems about films I watched and cried over as a teenager Vietnam (Platoon), Cambodia (The Killing Fields). Plus poems about anorexia and mental illness which are about as far outside my personal experiences as anything could be. Anyway, I entered and then completely forgot about it. I'd started studying English and German at Trinity. My mum rang me one night in my digs in Churchtown and told me I'd won. I nearly fell over. Even though I decided not to publish the poems, and held back for another five years, it was still a powerful vindication. I see it as a tremendous stroke of good luck, very early on.
How was the whole experience of winning?
I went up to Monaghan for the weekend. It was extraordinary. The people who run the weekend were lovely to me. There was a ceremony on the Sunday when we all went round to the grave and they asked me to read a Kavanagh poem standing there in this bleak, winter-solstice landscape just as the sun was going down. I read ‘Epic’ of course. They'd just had this new stone erected on the grave, and it was still being held up with string while the cement dried. Then they gave me the cheque for a thousand pounds.
That was a lot of money for an eighteen-year-old back then.
Yes it was. I gave some to my brother and I gave some to charity. It seemed like this enormous amount of money. I'm slightly embarrassed by the Kavanagh thing now. I'm thirty and I'm still introduced as "the youngest ever winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award" everywhere I go. It was so long ago.
Just to go back a bit, you said your father bought you the book of Poe's poems, what was the reaction of family and friends to the fact that you were writing poetry?
My father especially was incredibly supportive. There were no literary antecedents in the family. My Dad thought I had talent, you know, as fathers do. I also got good advice from teachers in school. My friends just knew that I did this. We didn't really talk about it. It felt like a very private thing. It wasn't something I felt the need to talk about.
And then moving forward again to your first collection, how did the relationship with Carcanet come about?
When I was in third year at Trinity I was in Michael Longley's Creative Writing Group and one of the other people in that group was Justin Quinn. He had sent poems to PN Review and Michael Schmidt had written back saying that he'd publish his first collection. After that I took a year out and lived in Germany, in Flensburg, and I was corresponding with Justin. He suggested I send poems off to Michael Schmidt. I certainly wasn't thinking of getting a book out, but I sent a few poems to PN Review. I think it took quite a few weeks, but on my 22nd birthday neatly in Flensburg I got a letter from Michael Schmidt saying that he liked some of the poems and disliked others, but that he would publish some of them in the magazine. A few days later I got another letter from him saying that he'd reread them all and liked them and that he was going to publish all of them, and that if I had a book, he'd publish that as well.
And was he making suggestions about the work at that stage?
No. I wrote back and told him I didn't have a book but that when I did I would publish with him. He was so enthusiastic about my work. Then I came back from Germany and I spent my final year in college putting the first book together. Then I met him in Manchester in June after my finals and we went through the manuscript. He suggested changes in a few poems which I was quite happy about. I'd broken the manuscript up into subsections and he said I didn't need to do that, just let the poems flow. He's very diplomatic. I met him again of course for the second book. There were things he wanted me to do and I would agree, and there were other things and I wouldn't agree. He was fine with that. He lets you have a degree of autonomy. He wanted me to take out 'An Anatomy of Smell' and I refused; I thought that was one of the strongest poems in the collection. He thought it was laboured. But the discussion was quick and easy.
Do you put a lot of thought into the structure of your collections?
You can't predict what you are going to write the next poem about. It's only when I've got a body of poems together that I can look at how a book might be structured. With the second collection I wrote the second part‹the Japanese poems‹first. They were the poems I wrote immediately after the first collection. I went to Japan the month after that first meeting with Michael Schmidt. 'Goldfish' was the first poem. I wrote most of that sequence during my first year in Japan and then I got sick and I stopped writing. I went to New Zealand and I couldn't write. I came back home and I couldn't write for the first year I was back here. So there was a big gap between writing the last part and the first part. I then had to assemble the first part of the book. I wrote knowing that these poems were going into the first part of the book.
So you had a particular idea for this first section of the book?
While I had the idea that these poems were going into this first section, and I knew they were going to deal with certain subjects‹writer's block is a big part of those poems‹it wasn't so clinical; I wasn't saying: Now I'm going to write the second poem, the third poem, the fourth poem. Nothing like that.
Tell us about how you write a poem.
I write very differently now from how I did up until the writing of that Japanese sequence.
Well, how was it then?
It was much more inspiration-driven. I would get first lines and I would just start writing. It would be more a matter of listening and then the poem would just flow onto the page. I'd have to go back and rework it, but the body of the poem would be written pretty quickly and the voice would be very, very clear. Since the writer's block I've never had that clear voice, I don't know if I ever will again. It just stopped. I haven't been inspired to write since. I've had to develop a completely different way of writing. It's much more like chiselling away, of something emerging, rather than having a clear direction at the beginning. There's much more labour, more craft involved. Within that process the poem isn't going to work, unless something, whatever it is, takes over and the poem starts to move.
So do you now sit down and force yourself to write?
I have to make time to write a poem, to clear a space. It's quite scary facing the blank page like this, every single time, with no idea how the construction process is going to go. Then again, aspects of writing like this can be less scary than inspired writing. When the voices stopped, when I stopped being inspired, I was terrified because I'd always written under inspiration which is something I couldn't control. I couldn't control when it was going to happen or what it was going to tell me to do. When that was taken away, I felt I had no inner capacity to write a poem. Since then I've got this whole new approach in which I can create a poem through an act of my own will. The fear has diminished. I feel more in control. I'd love the voices to come back but I can't make them.
Do you have any theories as to why they went away?
Maybe I just grew up. It was just so clearly defined, in that I got food poisoning and my thyroid function collapsed, and from that point on I couldn't write like before. But maybe it was just about being twenty-four as well. When you're young emotion is so pristine and intense, it can drive a poem. Maybe as you get older, emotion doesn't have such force.
Travel has been very important to you and your work. How do you feel about writing poems about these other places and the danger of being seen as a tourist poet?
Travel has been important. It's been the central theme of both collections. I don't want to write any more travel poems, but travel was the dominant thing in my experience for those years. It opened me up to things I wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise. They were a real spur to writing; especially the shock of arriving in Japan, meeting this American and getting married. It was all very exciting. My poetry changed significantly, well I think it improved, from the poems in the first collection to the Japanese sequence. But the danger, as you say, is that you have a tourist's view of other places. There are all these issues about the extent to which you have a right to write about these other places in the first place. I try to write, not so much about these other places, but about my experience of being there. I was in Japan for two years. I did lead a certain kind of sustained existence there. There's a lot in the Japanese sequence about the isolation and disorientation of being in a culture that is not your own.
How would you characterise the changes in your work?
I think it became freer. The lines became very long and I had the urge to bring in descriptive detail in order to document what I was witnessing. The poems in the first collection felt very powerful to me at the time. I don't think, re-reading them now, that all of them successfully convey the same power I felt when I was writing them. There's more energy in the Japanese poems. It's like the voice became more flexible in order to talk about a wider variety of things.
Maybe you could tell us a bit about one of those Japanese poems, 'February'?
One of the striking things about Japan, and one of the things I found most difficult to cope with, was the fact that there's no grass. So much of the country is concreted over. We were in an apartment block near a railway station and it was surrounded by paddy fields. While we were there all these other apartment blocks were springing up and the fields were being cemented over and you could also see a mine eating into a mountainside from our kitchen window. Maybe I imagined it, but I thought I could see the mountain becoming smaller and smaller. The cherry blossom season is such a massive cultural event in Japan. The trees are different to the ones we have here. They're bigger and they bloom for a shorter time‹they are only actually in bloom for about three or four days. During that time families will go out and have picnics underneath the cherry blossom trees, and there are special songs for the cherry blossom season. It's a big deal. And I was struck by the contrast between this veneration of the cherry blossom and the environmental degradation that was going on at the same time.
In the poem there is this struggle to be generous?
There was a tension there, not wanting to be continually judging a foreign culture based on my idea of what is right and wrong, and still feeling outraged and annoyed. There didn't seem to be anything quite as generous to me as the cherry blossom that blooms. I was in a very depressed time and wanting to be that generous and forgiving of the culture I was in, but feeling angry and sickened too.
After your time in New Zealand you decided to come home.
Yes. Travel had opened up my experiences both personally and poetically, but I really felt by the end of my time in New Zealand when I hadn't written in a long time, that I wanted my inspiration back. I needed to come home and settle in one place and write poems that explored deeper issues and that weren't concerned so much with travel. I didn't want to become a travel poet exclusively.
How did you react to being back?
It was such a different place from the place I grew up in‹which is a positive thing. I'd always had a horror of ending up back in the Northern Ireland where I grew up‹I'd never wanted to do that. But I'd missed the crucial years of the peace process and I was fascinated to come back and see Belfast under the peace. My family had all moved on to different places. My family home had been sold when my parents got divorced so there wasn't the sense of going back into something old. Even though it was where I was from, it was still a new space for me. And it felt nice to just settle. I'd enjoyed the freedom of travelling, mostly, but there was always that tension of being somewhere which wasn't where you were from. Which can be a drain on your energy. Even though Belfast isn't ideal, I feel that now I'm there more of my energy can go into writing.
And how is it now being back and in a position to judge your own culture as it were?
I feel it shouldn't be a prescriptive thing that poets in the North write about the violence. But that works the other way around too. I was dreadfully upset when Peter Mandelson dissolved the assembly. I was terrified the whole momentum of the peace process would be lost. It was around this time that I got a job as editor of a Belfast-based web site for tourists, and it was from this, as I saw it, ironic juxtaposition, that I wrote 'Tourism.' It's an angry poem, a political poem. It wasn't about whether or not Mandelson had done the wrong thing. It was about the fact that the process had stalled in its wranglings, that the IRA had put Mandelson in that position in the first place by refusing thus far to decommission. It wasn't anger at one side. It was anger because there wasn't a combined effort by everyone involved to take this fabulous chance for peace and just implement it‹for everyone to compromise and come into the middle ground. I took the fact that this wasn't happening as a personal threat. It's my future and it's my children's future. People were sliding back to the security of their original positions and not taking the visionary lead that was required.
That perhaps brings us to the question of the poet's role. What do you see that as being?
I was asked this recently when Radio 4 commissioned a poem for National Poetry Day in praise of something. It could only be forty-five seconds long. I wrote a poem called 'In Praise of Salt' which encompassed the slide to war with Iraq. Then Julian May asked me a few questions afterwards and said that out of all the poets, I'd written the poem most coloured by current events. He asked how I saw the responsibility of the poet to deal with social and political issues. I think it's important not to prescribe what a poet writes about. You can't say that all poets should write about these issues. But you can't say poets shouldn't write about them either, that the lyric should somehow be held aloof from these things. Part of the reason I wrote about Iraq was that it was the issue most dominant in my consciousness during the couple of days I'd been given to write the poem. I was reading about it in the newspapers and I was talking about it with people I met, and so it made its way into my poem. After I'd written it I was reading In the Chair, a book of interviews with poets from the North of Ireland. Being poets from the North, all of them were asked about the relationship between politics and poetry. Conor O'Callaghan said that political poetry was "the last resort of the truly talentless". I was pretty taken aback by this, given the poem I'd just written. And of course if you're going to write political poems, if the politics becomes more important than the poetry, it's not going to work. The poetic integrity of the poem has to be the primary thing, but just to say you then can't write about these issues, well I don't even know if he meant it that way. Or what he meant by "politics". If you took it literally it would knock out Tony Harrison and his wonderful cormorants poem about the Gulf War; it would knock out all the poetry of the Great War; it would knock out Auden's poems of the 1930s. As long as the integrity of the poem is intact, and the poems work as poems, I don't think you can argue either that poets should be engaged politically or that they shouldn't be. I have opinions on a range of different political issues. They are part of my personal make-up and so they find expression in my poetry.
R.S. Thomas, who you credit as one of your early influences, was a very political poet.
Yes, he was political but that wasn't the aspect of his poetry I was interested in. It was his exploration of science and religion and the divine, the relationship between people and the divine. I was fascinated by his dark language and by his degree of scepticism. Even though he wrote religious poetry, it's sceptical religious poetry. There's a relentless questioning.
There is a presence of gods and angels in your poems.
Yes, mostly in my first collection. I'd been going through a hard time when the poems of the first book were written. My parents were splitting up, my mother moved to New Zealand without telling me, I had no idea when I was going to see her again. The house was sold. I went to Germany and, initially, it was exposing. I didn't know anyone. I didn't yet have fluency in the language. I was incredibly lonely for the first few months. It was all very scary, yet I felt I had some kind of protection‹I felt connected to spiritual help. So that came through in the poems. It's not conventionally Christian, and I would hate for it to be read in that way. There are several reincarnation poems, for instance, and in ‘My Grandmother Through Glass’ I've made up my own idea of an afterlife. I wasn't brought up religiously, my parents were members of the Communist Party, I never attended church as a child or was baptised or christened. But at this time in my life I did develop a spiritual sense. Anyway, the first collection was reviewed in Metre as the work of a "scary religious fundamentalist", which was such a shock. Religious fundamentalism seemed so outside my experience. I hadn't expected to be read in such a narrow way. Granted, the first book came out at a time when angels were extremely popular, so writing about angels was a bit crass and tacky. I'd be wary of mentioning them again. So I can see some justification for the vociferous line the reviewer took, even if I think he oversimplified what I was saying in order to make my book fit his own agenda. But my second collection was reviewed in Metre in exactly the same way, by a reviewer who, I suspect, never read the first collection and did his background reading on Sinéad Morrissey by going back to the initial review. His approach to the second book was: In the past Sinéad Morrissey has been called a scary religious fanatic, it's not so obvious in this collection, but if you dig around a bit in the margins, then you're going to find it. He accused me, presumptuously, of sado-masochistic Catholic guilt, based on my name, and completely misread poems in the book as statements of scary Christian fundamentalism when they were nothing of the kind. He interpreted 'To Imagine an Alphabet', which ends with the stag image, purely in terms of what the stag is about to say after the poem finishes, rather than on what the poem says on the page, and I find that baffling. He also assumed the references were Christian when they were Buddhist: the flaming heart of compassion, the stag as a holy Buddhist animal, etc. I felt that all the so-called fundamentalism was not on my side, and that the whole collection had been misread. But that's what reviewers do! (laughs)
Summon up your ideal reader then?
Well, you can't control the way the poems are going to be read. I would never want that to happen. You can't attach a footnote, by the way, this poem means this, this and this. The strength of poetry as art is that it can mean a whole variety of things to a whole variety of readers. That's what is so special about it, and that's why it can't be paraphrased. The ideal reader, however, is someone who doesn't come to the work with a pre-existing notion of what is appropriate subject matter, and what is not, and is someone who is prepared to read the book on its own terms.
To talk about the long poem that you read at the Dublin Writers' Festival and which has since appeared in PN Review, that was clearly a task you set yourself.
Yes, yes it was. I'd read 'Gold' by Elaine Feinstein, and I was so taken by it. It's an excellent poem. It's in the voice of Lorenzo da Ponte Mozart's librettist for The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. She went into the character of a man from the eighteenth century. Da Ponte was friends with Casanova as well as Mozart and there are vivid descriptions of Mozart writing music. It was a wonderful window into that world. She did it so well and it was obviously completely outside of her experience as a woman in the twenty-first century, (though there are Jewish connections). I was fascinated by that transition and I wanted to do something similar. I'd come across the character of John Howard reading William Godwin's Caleb Williams. Caleb is thrown into prison by his master where he suffers terrible abuses. Godwin has a footnote saying that if you think this account is fantastical, then read John Howard's The State of The Prisons to find out just how bad British prisons actually were. So I got out The State of The Prisons, before I'd even thought of writing a poem about it, because I was interested in seeing what prisons in the eighteenth century were like. Howard's book was an unwieldy combination of spiritual vision, enlightenment philosophy and dull practicality. He was constantly making notes and measuring things, writing down exactly what prisoners had for dinner, exactly what weight of bread they would get, etc. When I heard that I got the residency at Hawthornden I wanted to set myself a task. I didn't want to just face the blank page. So I went with this poem as my task. I brought a few nineteenth century biographies of Howard with me. I set myself three verses a day, I worked hard every day and I got it done.
Was writing the poem a means of moving on from the work in the second collection?
Yes. It was a challenge to try something completely different. I'd never written a poem that long. I wanted to do it in rhyme. I wanted to do it about someone who had nothing to do with me; I didn't even really like him. It was an attempt to try and push myself forward. It was incredibly hard work. I'd set myself three verses a day, that would be from half nine to half six, and there were days I worked all those hours and I didn't have a line. It tended to go bad day, good day. The next day I might get four verses instead of three but each one was written out maybe ten times to get the rhythm right, after the bones of it had been composed. The amount of material that I had to organise, the narrative line, the facts I had to bring in (I wanted everything in it to be true as far as I could ascertain) all added up to the kind of poetic challenge I'd never attempted before.
And was there a point when the subject of his life became personalised to you?
No, no, I don't see any connection between me and John Howard. And that was the relief of it. I just put myself completely away in a drawer and got on with it.
That's very different from the poems in the first collection when you say you were working through your experiences. How do you see your work going in the future?
More in the John Howard direction, more of the external. Maybe I've gone full circle, back to using other people's experiences. I don't like the straight confessional. You can use your own experiences but you have to bring more to it than that, always. The 'I' is unstable and it transmutes.
You are becoming more interested in form as well.
Yes. I use a form more. It helped me a lot when I couldn't write, to set myself a form. If you're not writing out of this clear, inspired voice, then form can only help. If you are not using form then the impetus for the poem has to be very strong. I'm only really beginning to learn how to use form. I think it's a lifetime study. I'd like to work more and more within it. But form can also be a trap‹you can find it impossible to write outside of that structure once you've got used to all the help it gives you. So I hope I can do both. There are lots of interesting issues around form. If something is written in absolutely pristine couplets, it's very attractive, but maybe what the poem is saying is not attractive at all. It can dazzle if it's done very well but it might have a disturbing message. I'm thinking of a poem I read by Gregory Woods from his collection May I Say Nothing? The book opens with a little poem called 'Orpheus to the Men of Thrace' made up of five beautifully rhyming couplets. It's a shocking poem, intentionally so, consisting of advice on how to pick up young boys and have sex with them. It ends: "take some money/for the reluctant are coercible./Oh, and their bodies are reversible". I'm fascinated by this poem and the issues it raises I have an attraction/repulsion dynamic going on with it.
What future tasks have you set yourself?
I have poems written for the third book. With the new job at Queen's I have a lot of time for writing. If it all goes well, if I don't freeze up, the Queen's job should mean that I finish that quite quickly. If I can manage to produce anything close to what I produced under the same conditions at Hawthornden, well then… I'll just go in and see what happens. I don't have a plan as to what I want to write poems about. I just want to go in and give it time and energy.