Interview with poet Nessa O’Mahoney
Hello Nessa and welcome to writing.ie. You’ve been around the writing scene in Ireland for a while now. What was your first publication?
My very first publication was a story in Ireland’s Own. I haven’t written a short story since.
How did you move on to poetry?
I come from a journalism background writing press releases and articles for businesses. My parents, in an inspired mood, gave me a creative writing course as a birthday present. It was at the Gaiety with Roger Gregg. He pushed me to have a go at writing poetry and I thought, this is it! Fiction was too close to the journalism; poetry was utterly different.
I found myself writing about my godmother. She was the family carer, spent her life caring for others and she had died of cancer about five years before. I remembered going in to her bedroom to see her toys, dolls in beefeater outfits and costumes from all over the world. I thought it was odd, a fifty year old woman having kids’ things and I described this in the poem, the sense of waste. Looking at it 20 years on, it was a judgemental poem. As I was writing, there were tears streaming down my face. But at the same time, the clinical part of my brain was thinking about the size of the poem, the look, line endings and words. I was intrigued that you can have these two parts of the brain going at the same time, which I didn’t get writing insurance press releases.
Combined with that, was the fear that I’d transgressed. Writing about family was like contraband. My writing class really liked it and when I showed it to my mother, she said I’d really caught her.
Do you remember your first poetry publication?
The writing course was in 1994 and in 1995, I got my first real break with Windows Publications, run by Heather Brett and Noel Monahan. They published a selection of my poems in the anthology alongside some other poets including Michael D Higgins. I did my first reading at the launch in the Irish Writers’ Centre. It was an experience. One of the other writers read a story involving cunnilingus. My parents had come along to listen and I thought they’d never let me write another poem!
How did your first book come about?
I wrote a lot; you’re in a hurry if you start at 30. My first book, Bar Talk happened quite quickly, published in 1999 by iTaLiCs Press. This reinforced the illusion that publishing is an easy business. I only have one copy left. I’ve been looking for spare copies in online stores.
Incognito Magazine, edited by Chris O’Rourke, published some of my poems in 1997 or 8. He was an ex-postman with a background in drama. Each magazine had a great launch night with all sorts of razzamatazz. He approached me and we put together a collection from the poems I had.
How did the editing process work?
Chris didn’t edit the individual poems; he put the poems together, this one works with this, there’s a gap here. He identified a subliminal concern of mine about being an old maid that I hadn’t written about. I wrote some to fill those gaps. Having him read my poems was useful; there is an objectivity missing in yourself when you’ve been with a group of poems for a long time. Ideally you would use good friends whose judgement you trust but it’s a big ask to read 60 poems.
What happened after that?
The first few years were very exciting. I got a lot of opportunities early on – a trip to Sicily, 2 weeks travelling and reading. For a while, I took a pay cut and worked on my writing on Monday mornings. Boy did I manage to produce stuff! It was my time. I went to work at the Arts Council. [N1]
My second collection Trapping a Ghost came out with Bluechrome in 2005. The middle section imagines finding a diary that cover my grandmother’s civil war romance. it’s about 50% true and 50% imagined.
And you went back to college
Yes, that was a major decision. I did a masters in Norwich in 2002 and then had three years living in Wales working on my PhD. I met my partner, went on loads of great walks, and, because I was working on my verse novel I was reading every existing verse novel out there. I had to write about the process of writing it, while I was writing it. It probably heightened the self consciousness of the writing of process, not a very good thing really. When I’d finished, it took some time to clear the head and to get back my writing spontaneity. It gave me an ambition to try writing larger stuff.
Tell me about your verse novel
In Sight of Home came out with Salmon in 2009. It’s an imaginative history of family research, someone else’s family history actually. It tells the story of an Irish woman who emigrates with her family to Australia in the 1850s; there’s also a framing narrative featuring a 40-something 21st century Irish poet living on Anglesey.
I was invited by the University of New South Wales in Sydney to read at the Sydney Writers Festival when the verse novel came out. They had set up a John Hume institute in the University of NSW and I had completed year’s residency with the UCD counterpart..
I have a different relationship with writing now – it’s far less about performance (doing) and less about visibility. I think that only the tip of the iceberg of people who are writing and publishing are performing. There are phases when writers are not seen at all. Maybe there is not enough space for the limited number of opportunities there are to read. And newer fish make the most bubbles in the pond.
Now, I’m a part time teacher. I spend 10 months of the year doing nothing else, marking essays, putting in the hours to support the writing. I have July, August and some of September.
Where do you teach?
I teach creative writing at the Open University and Oscail DCU distance education, the Irish Writers Centre and other places. I would usually say yes to anything offered. They’re usually one off contracts and not a reliable source of income. But whatever I’m doing is someway related to writing. Although I love teaching, I find it saps the energy I need for my own writing. But I love working with people. What I don’t like is grading papers.
Why is marking papers so large a part of the job?
The teaching is institutionalised. I have to set assignments with a marking structure and the work has to be assessed. Something that gets a high mark, that is academically good, may not be published.
When I did my PhD, I realised that you can get a good pass mark, but it may still be a failure as a creative work. Academically you would be adding to the story of knowledge. But the criteria they look at, voice, register, characterisation, don’t necessarily result in a good creative, publishable work. The two things don’t go hand in hand; people go in with false expectations. A writer might get a 1st class grade but it doesn’t mean that someone will publish their work. What the period of study does do, however, is get you into the habit of producing.
How does your love of reading affect your poetry?
It’s all about the story telling, the narrative arc. That’s all poetry did for hundreds of years, tell the story. I read much more fiction than poetry. I’ve just finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. She immerses you into the period. Mulishly, I won’t try and write a novel; I want to see how far I can push the poetry.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing a third collection by the end of the summer, hopefully to be published by Salmon. I’m grappling with writing about my grandfather. His life history is a classic story – WW1 in the British army, sent home wounded where he joined IRA. Then in the north of England, he shot a policeman in the ear and was sent to HMS Parkhurst. He was released under the amnesty, joined free state army and was wounded again in the civil war.
I’m mentoring with an American student at the moment. That’s something that could be developed in Ireland. Poets who have gone beyond the workshop stage, emerging writers working with experienced writers, who has the objectivity. They do it with the Jerwood Prize in the UK.
That’s an interesting idea. It wouldn’t suit everyone.
No, you need a mentor who has been there before, who possesses openness and generosity and isn’t going to mould the writer to write like them. I think it should be in the remit of the Arts Council. They should nurture new writers as well as supporting the old names. There’s a lot out there for the optimistic starter and some for the bitter old hacks at the end, but the support for writers in the middle is missing. If they provided the funding, the transaction between the mentor and student would be one step removed. Perhaps the Irish Writers Centre could organise it.
Thanks very much, Nessa. Here are some links for some of Nessa’s poems.
Guardian poem of the week
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.