Elaine Gaston

The Ballycastle poet on launching her debut collection on Doire Press and using language to confront the everyday complexities of North Coast life

For Ballycastle poet, Elaine Gaston, poetry is like completing a puzzle – finding the words you want and then working at them and shaping them into something meaningful. It is, she says, a process like kneading bread, and something that she finds 'very satisfying'.

Her forthcoming collection, The Lie of the Land, subsequently pins together poems penned over the past four to five years, but also including work produced by Gaston throughout her writing career. Published by Doire Press, the collection will be previewed at this year’s Belfast Book Festival, where Gaston will read alongside fellow poets, Breda Wall Ryan and Robyn Rowland, on Tuesday, June 9.

The collection will also enjoy its official launch in Ballycastle on July 3, when acclaimed Belfast poet, Medbh McGuckian, will introduce the work. Says McGuckian: 'Elaine Gaston writes as truthfully and tenderly as Heaney about sorrow, love and the difficulties and joys of developing out from a narrow Ulster experience to embrace the whole world as home.'

The Lie of the Land fuses childhood reminisces with the themes of adult loss and has been described as 'intensely moving, sometimes humorous.' Drawing on a range of poetic forms, including sonnets, terza rimas, sestinas, palindromes and free verse, Gaston presents a collection rooted in the north coast and in Belfast, exploring 'the intimate connections between language and landscape.' 

As a current recipient of an ACES Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Gaston – a part-time arts officer and drama/poetry teacher – used this to bring her work to completion.

'I was working on the collection and then I got the Arts Council grant to complete it and bring it to publication standard, so that’s been great,' she says.

'In terms of what I write, I like all different forms of poetry. I like free verse and form, and I also like playing around with things. Denise Levertov said, "the poem finds the form".

'What I find is that as I write, the subject or the poem suggests a form. That could be free verse or a sonnet or something else. I do think it’s important to work with both free verse and poetic form.' 

Having grown up close to the north coast, Gaston later worked in the theatre in England for 10 years. When she returned to Northern Ireland, she subsequently ran the former museum arts centre in the city and is still involved in the local arts scene in her arts officer role. Up until recently, she also lectured in creative writing at the University of Ulster, and is a keen supporter of local writers, regularly attending workshops and readings.

Her next literary event will be her appearance at the Belfast Book Festival, which will showcase an array of poets, novelists and short story writers from June 8-14.

'I’m really looking forward to reading with my fellow Doire Press poets,' she says. 'I’ll be previewing The Lie of the Land and I think we’re all quite different in our styles, so it will be a good mix of work.' 

The Lie of the Land is not, she adds, a fully autobiographical work, although there are traces of truth in some of the poems. Indeed, Gaston uses a range of voices in her poetry, experimenting with both narrative style and form.

As for her own poetic preferences, she has been inspired over the years by many different writers.

'I was very inspired by black American women writers such as June Jordan, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde and Ntozake Shange,' she says. 'I obviously grew up with the traditional Irish and English male canon and there are poets there that I love, but when I came across these writers, they just struck me.

'There are lots of writers I really admire – Carol Ann Duffy, Sinead Morrissey, Leontia Flynn, Joan Newman… Joan was an original member of the Belfast Group and she’s a very fine poet and has done a lot for poetry. Also, Seamus Heaney – when he died, there was a real sense of grieving in the street. He was just that exciting thing, where he appealed to writers as well as people who didn’t normally read poetry. I really do admire poets like him.' 

With her debut collection drawing on personal and universal themes such as love, loss and childhood memories, Gaston says her next collection may well focus on her travels. Indeed, in between living in England and settling back home in the province, Gaston travelled widely and is sure to have many memories to draw on for further inspiration.

In the meantime, she’s also currently writing a series of monologues – stories about teenage pregnancy and how to deal with that in Ireland – as part of another Arts Council funded project.

Having previously been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2014, Gaston also received a commendation in the National Poetry Competition and a special commendation in the Patrick Kavanagh Award.

Meanwhile, her poem 'Push-Bike' was made into a film by the Poetry Society and premiered at the Poetry International Festival at the Southbank, London last year. She’s also been published in a variety of poetry journals.

London-based and former Cushendall poet Anne-Marie Fyfe describes Gaston as a poet who 'confronts equally the everyday complexities of north-of-Ireland life… all in language that is taut, direct and moving.' By all accounts then, The Lie of the Land is subsequently a collection to await with anticipation.

Elaine Gaston will read at the Belfast Book Festival on Tuesday, June 9 at The Black Box, Belfast and will launch her collection at Ballycastle Golf Club on July 3.