Leontia Flynn's Profit and Loss
The poet talks about her latest collection, gothic madness and celebrating ordinary things
There is an image on the cover of Leontia Flynn’s latest collection, Profit and Loss, portraying a group of birds flying westward. Over coffee in a friend's house in London (Flynn is house-sitting at the time of our meeting), the poet explains that the image ties in with the idea of events having a cyclical motion in life. It is a concept that informs much of her work, including the majority of Profit and Loss. Plus, boring as it sounds, she simply quite likes the idea of birds flying.
Or maybe the image relates the average bird's monumental migratory trek around the world for a scrap of food to a poet's life. 'I was thinking that if you calculated the hours you put in to writing poetry, and what you get paid, you would always be at a loss,' Leontia chuckles.
Profit and Loss is Flynn’s third collection. The book has already earned her a nomination for the 2012 TS Elliot Prize for Poetry, a prestigious trophy that comes with an added bonus of £15,000 in prize money.
The title of the collection is apt in the current economic climate. In reality, however, Profit and Loss is all about human relationships – those that fail and those that succeed – and the detritus of everyday life left behind as people and places come and go.
In the first section of the collection, Flynn uses the various addresses that she has lived in over the years as a means of putting her current life in perspective. Whilst in the process of doing this – revisiting those houses, both physically and mentally – she discovered new things about her self, her environment and her family.
'Suddenly you become aware of the ghosts in your house,' she says. 'The ghosts of family history became very present. I was aware of that difficulty, that weirdness in discovering it all again. It felt like I had found this dreamlike extra room in my house. It was like it was this whole parallel element of living that I just became aware of.'
Having children herself, Flynn says, made her acutely aware of her place within her own family tree.
'A couple of years ago I was moving flat,' she recalls. 'I was pregnant with my daughter at the time, and I remember hearing someone say that when you are pregnant, all the stuff that you heard from your parents or grandparents – which up until that point seemed a little boring and not particularly interesting – suddenly becomes very real. You can relate to it. You realise that is is all real, all experienced, and that it’s not just some abstract thing.
'I was aware that my grandmother had 13 kids, and that her first daughter died. That was just a story before. Up until that point I had been going through life as a sort of free agent for 30 years, and then suddenly this other life, this other dark element to everything, was just in my mind constantly. I often think that most family tragedies seem to come out of concerns with kids. I guess you could say that many parts of this collection are exploring the dark part of family life.'
The subtitle, A Gothic, conjures up images of high windows and darkened rooms, of the narrator hurriedly scribbling lines of poetry as the opportunity arises. However, Flynn says that, as she develops as a poet, she has learned to refrain from using the pen when an idea springs to mind, preferring instead to leave poems to ripen until they are fully formed.
'I increasingly write very sparingly,' she says. 'I don’t need to write poetry as much anymore. It used to be a sort of a very urgent need to be doing it all the time. That is something that probably comes with confidence and seeing what works for you; always experimenting in some way, formally and so on.'
While most of the poems in Profit and Loss may not, at least on first inspection, register with the reader as being of a particularly gothic nature, Flynn admits that gothic art and literature inspired her to follow through with some of her initial ideas for the collection.
'The poems themselves aren’t hugely influenced by gothic literature, as such, it is more the notion of being aware that gothic literature is a specifically female genre, often about madness and ghosts,' she explains.
Having become a part of the Northern Irish establishment (she currently lectures at Queen's University, where she also studied) Flynn is aware of the prestigious club that she has entered. It is one with a grand tradition, and with many great names etched on the roll call – from Heaney to Muldoon to Longley et cetera.
As a poet, however, Flynn is not afraid to speak her mind: and she believes that things have changed for the better in recent years. The form in Northern Ireland has opened up, she argues, and is no more stifled by the constraints imposed upon it by previous generations.
'Before you were excluded from Northern Irish poetry if you didn’t write about The Troubles,' she says. 'It used to really annoy me, because the ordinariness of life never seemed to be celebrated by poets. I certainly never encountered it, not in Belfast anyway.
'I would have liked to see people write about other non-Troubles related concerns, but people had to write about it really. There are some wonderful poems written in response to The Troubles, particularly by Michael Longley, some of the elegies he has written, and Heaney’s poems, of course.'
In the poem 'My Father’s Language', Flynn poignantly describes her father’s descent into Alzheimer’s: ‘His language rattles in its dearth of nouns.’ Even when language goes, says Flynn, meaning can sometimes be held, in small gestures, or in an inflection of speech. Sometimes, as a poet, all you want to do is stand up and scream.
'There is something funny about language and how it works. The words can go, but the meaning can somehow hold, as can the desire to communicate. So that poem was about trying to communicate with my dad with what he had left, whether it was nonsensical or literarily meaningless.
'In some ways I think that’s what poems do. There is a desire to communicate, but in a very round about sort of way. I think in poetry you go a funny way around the houses to get your meaning across. I do tend to make noises and sound effects sometimes, rather than use words. Poetry is always aware of this non-linguistic other part of itself.'