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Interview with poet, Grace Wells

Writing.ie | Guest Bloggers | Poetic Licence

Kate Dempsey

Formerly an independent video and television producer in her native London, Grace Wells moved to Ireland in 1991. For some years she taught creative writing and facilitated biography workshops for people with special needs. In 2001 she became Literature Officer with the South Tipperary Arts Centre, and for the next three years co-ordinated ‘Impressions, the South Tipperary Literature Festival’.

Her first book, Gyrfalcon, a novel for children was published by the O’Brien Press in 2002. It won the Eilís Dillon Best Newcomer Bisto Book Award 2003 and was selected for the International White Ravens Catalogue 2003.

A second children’s novel Ice Dreams was published by the O’Brien Press in 2008, and One World, Our World, a Development Education, information and story book, was commissioned & published in 2009 by Irish Aid on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Since 2007 she has regularly reviewed Irish poetry for Contrary, the University of Chicago’s online literary journal, The Stinging Fly and for Poetry Ireland Review.

In 2009 she became Writer in Residence for Kilkenny County Council, and has since then continued to work for Kilkenny Arts Office and Library Service, and for County Waterford Arts Office facilitating creative writing classes and providing mentoring for upcoming writers.

Wells has read at numerous Literature Festivals and been broadcast on RTE. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in a wide number of journals. Prior to publication of her debut poetry collection, her work was short-listed for a number of awards and took third place in the Patrick Kavanagh award 2007. She facilitates creative writing classes for adults and children and is a member of the Poetry Ireland, Writers in Schools Scheme.

Her debut collection of poetry, ‘When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things’ was published by Dedalus Press in May 2010. It won the Rupert and Eithne Strong Best Debut Collection Award and was short-listed for the London Fringe Festival New Poetry Award.

Hello Grace and welcome to writing.ie. How did I first get into poetry?

I don’t exactly remember. I think I have probably been secretly writing poems all my life. It began to crystalize into something serious in my early twenties when I accidently discovered the work of Canadian poet Annie Cameron. She produced these very witchy, outspoken, Lesbian, feminist poems—and I was entranced. I didn’t know such honesty was allowed. She gave me permission to write. Around the same time, a friend gave me Raymond Carver to read. He was equally honest, and wrote quite shocking scenes of domestic dysfunction, but with an aching beauty that really paved my road into poetry.

That was a long time ago now and my work has moved quite far from its original impulses but both those writers gave me strong, unshakeable foundations in what I do.

What have you been doing as Kilkenny writer in residence so far and what plans do you have?

I’ve been working with Kilkenny County Council since 2009, so by this point, we’ve done a bit of everything. I began by holding one-to-one mentoring sessions with anyone who was interested. I met with about 70 writers. I was also teaching creative writing, prose and poetry, in several county libraries. The scheme mutated in 2010 so that other facilitators were leading the workshops, and the mentoring morphed into my working intensely with 16 people. The following year that was reduced to 8 mentees. I’ve seen huge progress in a lot of writers in that time. I’ve also seen the whole writing community come together and create their own opportunities as a result of the scheme.

Kilkenny has a regular open-mic night now, and most literary events are very well attended because there’s a huge feeling of connectivity and support between writers, it’s been great to have been part of that. I’m not sure what will happen in the future with Kilkenny, but County Waterford Arts Office were impressed by the scheme and took on aspects of it themselves, so now I’m mentoring writers inDungarvan Arts Centre.

What is your opinion on the debate about whether writing can be taught at all?

To be honest I haven’t followed the debate very closely. I’m a little dismissive of the any hot air on the subject because I’ve been taught & I teach. At workshops I’ve learned tools and disciplines that are invaluable to me.

I come down heavily on the Yes side of things. But I’m more of the opinion that writing is facilitated. As teachers we’re here to draw out other writers’ Voices. The more confidence I can give an emerging writer, the better their work flourishes.

Can I teach writers to edit their own manuscripts? Possibly not, I don’t know that many tricks that cut down the years required to hone our own skills. Can I teach writers to show instead of tell? Probably not without everything becoming very formulaic. Can I help writers develop their own natural powers and write manuscripts that best reveal their individual strengths—yes. For me teaching, or facilitation, is all about my listening for Voice. Get a writer’s Voice out, get it flowing well, and you cut down on the amount of teaching/crafting that needs to be done later.

Does that sound glib? It isn’t meant to. All I know is that yes, writing can be taught, but however it is taught or facilitated, we’re talking about a very long process of learning. One I’m very much involved with both as a teacher and as a student.

What poets would you recommend new writers read (and why?)

I think new writers need to find the poets they love. We need inspirational poets to pull us further along the road. Poetry is a very subjective matter, one person’s meat really is another’s poison. I love Paula Meehan and Raymond Carver but people need to read around to find what they love for themselves.

What I really think is that new poets should read poetry journals. Read them and SUBSCRIBE to them. Poetry journals constantly feed us with outstanding, memorable pieces. In them you can find the names of poets worth following up.

It’s essential we read and subscribe to the journals because they are our lifeblood. Journals publish our work and over time give us a publishing record that we can take to the larger publishing houses when our collections are ready. It always saddens me when student writers don’t read or subscribe to periodicals. Especially here in Ireland where there are so few journals keeping our industry afloat. All of them are run by very passionate individuals who constantly give of their time and energy. As poets I feel we have a moral duty to return some of that energy by supporting the periodicals with subscriptions. I subscribe toThe ShopThe Stinging FlyThe Moth and The North, which an English publication that I really like. I think The Shop most reflects my own editorial taste, and it’s always a good day when the latest edition comes in the post.

We need to know our contemporary industry, know who is writing what, and who is publishing what. In an American journal, I came across some fantastic poems by Shaindel Beers. In the back, her bio said she was poetry editor of Contrary magazine, so I sent her some of my work, and it was accepted. As a result, I’ve been reviewing Irish poetry for Contrary for some years.

It can be hard to get your hands on examples of poetry journals and decide which ones reflect your own editorial taste, but libraries are often willing to get periodicals in if you ask. Anyone going to London should call in at the Poetry Library in the South Bank Centre. They have shelves full of the latest magazines, you can just sit there and read for hours. I’m always hoping Poetry Ireland will be in a position to open a place like that here, it’s the kind of resource poets need.

How did you first collection come about – When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things (available to purchase here)?

I think all emerging poets are working on a first collection. I was no different to that. Over the years the poems collected up and gradually the wheat got separated from the chaff, the weaker poems fell away.

When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things has a largely auto-biographical narrative. The poems weren’t written in any sequential way (quite the opposite), but as they collected up, they asked to be placed in a narrative order. And as time moved on, the narrative story also developed.

It took a long time for the manuscript to find a publisher. Early on I had a number of very sensible rejections which allowed me the time to do more winnowing. One English publishing house sat on the manuscript for 18 months. More winnowing! Before they got back to me with a yes or a no,Pat Boran heard me give a reading in Bantry, and asked me if I’d like to submit my manuscript to Dedalus Press. After many grim years of gritted teeth, everything happened very fast.

What are you working on now and any plans?

I always have an amount of poetry on the go, pieces that I haven’t finished that I go back to and tweak. For me poetry is a slow process and my output is actually very small. I don’t mind that fact, I feel poets only ever produce 3 or 4 really good poems a year, the rest is usually second rate and can be confined to a drawer. Dermot Bolger once told a friend of mine, ‘Advice to a poet: write one good poem a year’, so I try and bear that in mind, I definitely think that where poetry is concerned, less is more.

In between my mentoring commitments, I’ve been working on short stories. I’m building something of a collection, but the work feels very raw. Besides which I write these incredibly long short stories, some up to 18 thousand words, and that makes them slightly redundant in a market place which increasingly calls for flash fiction and stories of less than 2000 words. The fact is I’m exploring my fiction voice, and seeing where it wants to take me, and sometimes that process is quite daunting.

 Thanks very much Grace and good luck with all your plans.

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