A first poetry collection is, effectively, an autobiography, no matter how you try to disguise it. The second collection is more daunting. Do you break from your earlier style and tone? Do you open yourself to different kinds of subject matter? Do you use a theme, subordinate the world of the self to the overarching world of myth?
My first consideration was style. Which to use? Since my first collection, The Lucky Star of Hidden Things was published, I have been experimenting with various processes of composition – from the point of view of the observer, or with conversation, or the dream – so that modes of expression would suggest new possibilities of interpretation. I continue to be torn between writing with stripped-down simplicity and clarity and going for more imagistic, non-linear narratives that might not offer easy interpretation. What if I included both? And if I did, would the collection as a whole make clear what a single poem might leave obscure?
My second concern was for unity and cohesiveness. I decided that as long as the collection was permeated with interconnecting elements and textures, I could use diverse styles.
As Frost once said, writing is a process of discovery. My sister is an actor, and I have always been curious about her ability to inhabit diverse characters. In my second collection, I wanted to write persona poems, to engage with the psychic workings of each speaker, and also to see whether, in stepping into the voice of another character, the language, imagery and rhythms would remain identifiable as mine.
Thirdly, what about a mythic structure for scaffolding? Although I tend to avoid those too-often-reached-for myths, the idea of superimposing old stories to resonate with the present moment was appealing. I began to search for more obscure, little-known legends.
Unexpectedly, I found one when it was the last thing on my mind. I was on a trip to Paris, where the sight of some graffiti art on a wall in the enchantingly named La Rue du Chat qui Pêche (the narrowest street in the city), caught my attention. I did some research and discovered that the image was based on an urban legend about a cat that really had existed in medieval times. The story, which included the cat’s alchemist owner, a vigilante killing and the cat’s apparent reincarnation, generated the first poems. When I returned to Paris a year later for some follow-up research, I was dismayed to find that the art had been erased. That night, I dreamed that the cat had simply climbed down from the wall and returned to life, which triggered another poem, and another theme – that of the power of will to transcend one’s circumstances.
I was simply following my intuition, looking for resonances and implications that could be picked up by other voices, other stories. Those of medieval Paris and our current times began to overlap: the migrant experience, ‘holy’ wars, flights – literal ones, and those of the imagination, where memory would materialize like an astral journey. The world of the collection grew, inhabited by solitary individuals, in rooms, in a park or café, in the street, racing up a hill, in a cell. Some poems arrived with couples – human or ghostly, both historical and contemporary. Where were they coming from? Several of these individuals were frozen in inaction, while others, incredibly, overcame the laws of physics or gravity to cross to another realm. And other subtleties and associations began to emerge from these contexts too. For example, I am usually attracted to the tactile, the physical, real, concrete world, so I was taken by surprise to find myself in this shadowy, otherworldly realm. But I have been familiar with solitude, longing and loneliness too, and there is something in those experiences that evokes a sense of disembodiment. The ghosts that populate this collection simply came to reinforce, for me, the language of the body and its hunger.
I also used titled sections as a linking device and to move across elements, moods, locations, time frames, though I wanted to keep these as fluid as possible.
In the end, as I tend to be prolific, I found I had far too many poems. So, with the help of a few valued critical readers, I chose the poems I felt contributed to the overall arc of a narrative. I did what I’d recommend anyone compiling a collection to do: laid all the poems out on the floor, across the sofas, on the table, then chose my first one, and let it lead me to the next and so on, as in a conversation. Sometimes the connection was an image, a word, sometimes a tone, or atmosphere – fog, or rain, or fire. If one poem was too similar to another, I had to make a choice about which to leave out. Unsurprisingly, there was a dominant cat motif. I wanted to avoid overwhelming the collection with them, so I spread them out.
In putting together my second collection, I also learned something new about my creative impulses. I’ve discovered that I scavenge for images that evoke the mystery of how/why we are here. I also make associations between individual and landscape, between our minds and our physical bodies; our cultural and familial histories; our longings and our losses. Someone once asked me what my core concerns were, and I was unsure how to answer. Now I realize that what I’m seeking to portray, ultimately, is our interconnectedness: with each other, with our present and our past; with the animate and the inanimate; the mind and the body; with the universe.
I’m so grateful to the fisher cat for this journey. Hope I gave him an extra life – and hope he brings me luck!
(c) Afric McGlinchey
About Ghost of the Fisher Cat
About Afric McGlinchey
Afric McGlinchey is an award-winning Irish poet who was born in Galway, raised in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa and has since found her way to Cork via Limerick, London, Paris, Dublin and Spain. Her début poetry collection, The lucky star of hidden things, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2012, and translated into Italian. Her second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, was launched at the Cork International Poetry Festival in February 2016. She has been selected as one of the Rising Poets by Poetry Ireland Review. Afric lives in West Cork where she works as a freelance editor, reviewer and workshop facilitator.