As I child I spent most of my time in bookshops and libraries. Reading was my escapism. When I was 16, I received a book of Nan Goldin’s photography and in it was a poem called The Promise by Sharon Olds. I didn’t know poetry like that could exist – intimate, raw and beautiful. This was in the days before high speed internet and search engines and so my only real way of discovering more contemporary poetry was in bookshops and libraries and particularly through anthologies like Staying Alive, published by Bloodaxe. I studied History of Art in Trinity College and, as I suddenly had access to all the books I could dream of in the library, I spent many of my years there reading the collections, journals and critical studies of poets I had always admired – Frank O’Hara, Raymond Carver, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot. It wasn’t until my final year of college that I had the courage to submit work to Icarus and had my first poem published.
I kept writing and submitting to journals and competitions and then I decided to do a course on poetry in The Irish Writers’ Centre, which was a decision that ended up having a huge impact on my life. At the time the Centre was being run by volunteers. Thanks to Jack Harte, I joined the team and discovered the incredible literary community that existed in Dublin: the open mic nights, the writing groups, the poets my age. I was lucky enough to meet people who encouraged and inspired me – among them Sarah Griffin, Dave Rudden, Stephen James Smith, Erin Fornoff, Colm Keegan, Claire Hennessy, Deirdre Maria Sullivan, Phil Lynch, Jean O’Brien, Arthur Broomfield – without their enduring friendship and support I wouldn’t have completed Illuminate.
I cannot stress the importance of the Irish literary organisations, libraries, small press publishers and independent bookshops enough – places like The Irish Writers’ Centre, The Munster Literature Centre, Poetry Ireland, The Big Smoke Writing Factory provide crucial support for emerging and established writers; they allow communities to develop and flourish and provide a place for writers to expand beyond the isolation of the blank page. These organisations and the wonderful people who run them gave me countless opportunities as a young writer and I am thrilled to see that they are continuing to do this for the current generation of emerging writers.
I continued to write and work and travel, brought out a chapbook called Out of the Blueness with Lapwing, spent time in Paris and New York, and I continued to read contemporary literature. In 2012, I received an Arts Council Literature Bursary and got an offer to publish a debut collection but I didn’t think my work was good enough yet; I felt I was too young and that I hadn’t found my voice.
After working full time in the book trade for three years and letting my creativity take a back seat, I broke my foot in April 2015 and that’s what got me back to poetry. I was unable to walk for six months – that time and isolation allowed me to focus on my craft again and discover who I wanted to be as a writer. I began a routine of writing every day, thinking about the work and mapping out the tone and imagery that I wanted Illuminate to have. From February until May of 2016 I returned to Trinity Library where I finally put shape to the work and they became finished pieces.
The poems are an exploration of my family lineage, faith, grief, love and the transcendent power of art. Many of them explore the time I spent in Paris and the experiences I had there. I spent a long time editing the work and was lucky enough to have many writer friends to critique the manuscript and offer feedback before I finally submitted it. I’m glad I waited those four years to produce a collection that I am finally proud of – I knew I was capable of better, stronger work and it finally came in those months of recovery. And I’m glad I put my heart and soul into Illuminate. I decided to speak my truth in these poems and I find when you do that as a writer it resonates with people and can awaken something within them. Illuminate has been chosen as a New Statesman Book of the Year by Sebastian Barry and an Irish Times Book of the Year by Joseph O’Connor. If I had rushed a collection four years ago, I know this would not have happened.
In a way, even though it was awful at the time and the recovery was slow and difficult, breaking my foot was the best thing that could have happened to me last year. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be pursuing my passions now. Along with bringing out Illuminate this year, I edited Looking At The Stars, a limited edition anthology of Irish writing which so far has raised over €15,000 for the Rough Sleeper Team of the Dublin Simon Community. I will be working on a novel next and already ideas are coming for a second collection of poetry so I can’t wait to focus more on writing in 2017 and see where it takes me.
(c) Kerrie O’Brien
Exploring the concept of oneness and the transformative nature of art, these raw and powerful reflections on grief, faith and love will speak to your heart.
This is a work of astonishing beauty which truly illuminates modern existence.
“…a book of beauty and subtlety called Illuminate (Salmon Poetry). It is so clear, so bright and in no way self-regarding in its potent and hopeful painting of the self. By dark contrast, I have been scanning the permanent poems of John Burnside, the laureate of Late-Middle-Aged Man. There are lines in All One Breath (Jonathan Cape), for instance, that brand themselves into your brain with the fire of painful recognition. And yet it is also part of his genius to be ever alert to beauty, too.”
–Sebastian Barry, New Statesman, Books of the Year
Published by Salmon Poetry, Illuminate is in bookshops now, or pick up you copy online here.