Interview with Poet Jessica Traynor
Poetry was always something that was around, and part of family life. My grandmother was a big influence – she loved literature. She had to leave the civil service when she married and after having seven children, decided to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She was the first Irish woman to graduate from Central, and she came back to Dublin and began teaching speech and drama in schools in the inner city. By the time I came along, she was retired, but her house was full of old speech and drama primers that had rhymes like ‘I Do Not Love Thee Doctor Fell’ and ‘Antigonish’ in them.
I had a difficult start when it came to school and reading. I started young, having just turned four, in a class of much older children and was told by the teachers that I was stupid. My mum had to teach me to read at home, but once I got started, I devoured everything I could get my hands on, including all those speech and drama primers (skipping past the boring elocution bits to the gorgeous, mysterious rhymes). I got really hooked when we started reading poets like Robert Frost and Walter de la Mare in primary school – it was the atmosphere of this kind of work that really appealed to me, that sense of reaching towards something unspoken or unsayable. I was so excited by these poems that I depressed everyone at a big family party at age eight by replacing my usual (hated) party piece, ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ with a poem about a man who comes back to a house full of Unseen Listeners in a Yellow Wood after a long absence. The Listeners.
The Listeners is a poem that many people found inspiring. I remember it vividly and the picture on the page of the poetry book. Then you started writing?
I then started writing seriously bad teenage poetry at about age sixteen, and sharing the poems with a boyfriend, also an aspiring writer, who thankfully had the sense to tell me how terrible they were. This actually kept me going, as without the challenge I might have lost interest. I wrote all the way through college and then started sending stuff out after I finished my Creative Writing MA in UCD.
Tell me about the Creative Writing MA? Did you go straight there from college? How did you find it? What did you find hard? Most surprising?
I studied English with History at Trinity and then applied for a couple of Creative Writing MAs when I finished up. I’d developed a small portfolio over the years with the visiting Writers in Residence in Trinity (Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Paul Durcan) and it got me accepted onto the Creative Writing MA in UCD, where I worked with Éilís, Harry Clifton and James Ryan. There’s a lot of controversy over Creative Writing MAs – people seem to think writing is this absolutely inherent talent that you either have or you don’t – but I think that makes about as much sense as trying to play a piano concerto without ever taking a lesson. Talent is essential of course, but craft is important. Many writers with great talent who never have access to a programme which helps them find their own writing structure and discipline don’t manage to stay the course. I’ve also heard people say that these programmes churn out writers with no individual voice, but I would say that aping the voices of others is a part of the process of learning – you either get through it and transition to the next level or you don’t. And people are going to tap into a zeitgeist simply by reading what’s popular and successful at the moment in any case.
The Creative Writing MA was a fantastic time. I won’t claim that these courses will make you a writer, but when else will you have the space and time to spend a year reading and writing purely for your own development in the company of intelligent, successful and generous writers? I was lucky enough to get into my MA just before fourth level grants disappeared, so it was a win-win situation for me. I feel I learned a lot and would recommend a Creative Writing MA to any aspiring writer. It’s also a first step in creating a writing community for yourself – meeting likeminded people in the writing world who you can share ideas with. This community is such an important thing for any aspiring writer – not because you sit around praising each other’s dodgy poems, but because you are all at the same stage and can (and should) be honest with each other.
The most difficult part of the MA is the leaving of it – getting back to reality. But then, the onus is on you to keep writing and stay a part of some kind of writing community. It’s this mixture of hard work and self-motivation that seems to keep most writers going in the face of countless rejections.
Do you remember your first published poem?
I do indeed. I had two poems accepted around the same time. I can’t remember which was published first but they were ‘Moon Snake’, published in the Western Writers Centre newsletter, and ‘Black Horse of the Liberties’, published in the Stinging Fly. Both would have been late 2007, I think. It was really exciting to see them in print. They became these strange artefacts that seemed to hold some intrinsic value bestowed on them by someone else’s decision that they were worthy of publication – I think that’s the feeling you get when you first publish. It’s a high you keep chasing. Both of the poems made their way into my thesis for my MA which I take out and cringe over whenever I’m feeling too big for my boots!
Oh well that demands a why (the cringing)
I think most of us look back on early work with some sense of embarrassment. Although I did take out my MA poetry thesis after I submitted the final draft of the manuscript of Liffey Swim to Dedalus and had a look over the poems. What was interesting was that I could see that I was trying to tackle similar themes in the poems I’d written in my early twenties, but in what was probably a very artless manner. It’s good to still have those poems as a reminder that your voice may develop as a writer, but many of your preoccupations stay broadly the same.
That’s very interesting. I’ll have to go back and read some of my early poems.
So, next question. When I was struggling to choose which poems to put in my collection and which to leave out, someone said to look at each poem, and decide that if someone selected this poem as the one to remember from the whole, collection, would you be OK with it? Which poem from your collection, Liffey Swim (Dedalus), would you choose to be the one you would be happy to be the only one that someone would remember?
That’s a tough one. One of the most surprising parts of having the collection out there has been the reaction to certain poems. One in particular – Egrets in the Tolka – that’s been singled out for praise in every review is one I was sure wouldn’t make the cut and was editing up to the last minute. Others have been criticised in one review and praised in the next, which is always interesting. I think the poem that’s my personal favourite, that feels the most successful to me is Scenes from a Poor Town. It may not go down a storm at readings, but I think it’s the poem in which I’ve got closest to presenting something imagistic, something without authorial commentary. Of course, the choice of words and images are essentially comments in and of themselves, but there’s less white noise here, if that makes sense.
Yes, I can’t always tell which poems will go down well at a reading and which won’t. I’ve a couple of poems I love that just don’t work out loud. Having said that, some poems will work well in one environment and not at all in another. The audience makes such a difference. I suppose that’s why actors can do the same play every night and it come out different. So what do you have coming up?
Well I’m currently working on my 2016 commission for A Poet’s Rising, a project led by the Irish Writers Centre. I’m writing about Dr Kathleen Lynn, a fascinating woman whose positive influence on the development of our state extends far beyond her involvement in the Easter Rising. I want to make sure that my poem reflects her legacy as well as her actions at City Hall. All of the poems will be filmed and will be part of an app, so that’ll be an interesting new experience. And of course the calibre of the other poets involved – Eilean Ni Chuillinean, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Thomas McCarthy, Theo Dorgan and Paul Muldoon – makes it a daunting challenge, but one the I’m excited about nonetheless.
That sounds like a fascinating project, but hard. I find it very tough to write a poem to order. Even to a theme, unless I can adapt an existing poem.
Yes, it’s been a real challenge. I’m having to take a really different approach to the work, and I think the poem I come up with will be quite different from anything I’ve written before. I want to try and tell a story that’s a little more complex than revolutionary glory, and yet I want to write something accessible and communicative. There’s a first draft in existence, but it needs a lot of work.
The next few events on the horizon after that are readings at the Allingham Festival in November and at the Troubadour in London early next year.
Angela Carr, Dave Lordan and myself are also in the middle of our Autumn series of Double Shot at Books Upstairs. We’re delighted to be partnering with O Bheal and Over the Edge this series, and we even have some great guests lined up already for next Spring. The September event will be announced next week, so keep an eye on our Facebook page.
Tell me about Double Shot. What’s the thinking behind it?
The idea was to try and create a regular reading opportunity in Dublin for poets who may get fewer opportunities to read here. There are lots of regular gigs in Dublin for spoken word, acoustic music, performance poetry and this is a great indication of the health of the Dublin scene, but I felt we were missing the chance to see poets read for a little longer outside of book launches and festival appearances. There’s a bit of a gap there that we’re hoping to fill.
Dave Lordan had originally approached me about setting up a reading series, and now I curate and he MCs. After the first series Angela Carr came on board and does brilliant Web and PR stuff for us. It’s been great fun so far and we’ve some really excellent readers lined up for Autumn and next Spring. As we’re all pretty busy we only do seven readings a year – three in Spring, three in Autumn and a special Summer event – so we haven’t been able to say yes to everyone’s requests to read, but we’re hoping to create a reading series with longevity, so we’ll get there in the end.
What do you personally get out of attending poetry readings?
What I get is a totally different insight into a poet’s work. No matter how closely you’ve read the work in question, hearing it aloud will bring some different aspect to the fore – a tonal quirk you hadn’t noticed, a music you hadn’t quite caught on the page. And readings are important for poets too – that unmissable chance to demonstrate the intended tone and pitch of the work, to give your lines life and emotion.
Where do you write mostly?
I would love to tell you that I have a beautiful dedicated writing space complete with desk surrounded by bookshelves stocked with nothing but obscure contemporary classics, but in actuality I have my sofa and a banjaxed laptop (I spilled coffee on it) which me and my husband share. So I often fit my poetry writing in around sports live streaming or work away with the TV on in the background. We’re thinking of trying to convert our attic, but honestly I imagine I’d get lonely up there and would still spend most of my time on the sofa. And we’d probably still only have the one banjaxed laptop in any case.
In the photo you can probably just about make out some of the books I’m reading at the moment balanced on the arm of the sofa – Shirley McClure’s gorgeous Stone Dress is on the top of the pile at the moment.. There are also a few plays in development there that I’m reading for work.
I too write on a sofa, curled up unergonomically. For a change of perspective I sometimes sit on the other sofa.
The other sofa is my napping sofa so not sure how much work I’d get done there!
Thanks Jess, I think we’ll leave you there on your sofa, reading, writing and napping.
All day I have been practicing
small sounds of annihilation.
In the forest, not only the axe-men
hear the sound of falling trees –
me and the lyrebird stand in a clearing
mimicking the dok-dok of hatchets,
the banshee-wail of chainsaws,
speaking their words back to them
in our mangled patois,
because when the end comes,
isn’t some kind of conversation
the best we can hope for?
Jessica Traynor’s first collection Liffey Swim was published by Dedalus Press in 2014 and shortlisted for the 2015 Strong/Shine Award. She has been engaged by the Irish Writers Centre to write a poem on Dr Kathleen Lynne as part of ‘A Poet’s Rising’, one of the Arts Council’s 2016 commissions. Poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Abridged, The Penny Dreadful, Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Times and in the anthologies Hallelujah for Fifty Foot Women (Bloodaxe) and If Ever You Go (Dedalus Press). Her poems have been translated into Polish, Irish, Czech and Italian.
She was awarded the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary in 2014, and was named New Irish Writer of the Year at the 2013 Hennessy Awards. She works as Literary Manager of the Abbey Theatre. She blogs at https://jessicatraynor.wordpress.com/
KATE DEMPSEY runs writing.ie's Poetic License blog and is our poetry guru. She is a writer and a blogger living in Maynooth. She writes fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry and is widely published in Ireland and abroad, in magazines, anthologies and on the radio. She fits this around her family and a full time job, writing on the sofa, on the train and in that little coffeeshop on the corner.
Poetry can be a solitary activity and she appreciates the support she received from the online community, particularly when starting out. She is excited about continuing the dialogue with her blog here.