Paula Cunningham's Heimlich’s Manoeuvre

The poet's latest collection is a meditation on the joys of dentistry and her Omagh upbringing

'I think I always wrote, to figure things out,' muses the poet Paula Cunningham. Her work is, on the surface, quite personal. When Cunningham writes in the first person, the sense of connection between her and the reader is strong – you come away feeling as if you know her.

But, if her poems begin from an autobiographical source, they often move in a fictional direction, dictated by what Cunningham terms the 'language and the rhythms, the rhymes and the music of the poems'.

'Driving North', for example, describes a couple in a car, sounding the car horn each time they cross a border in Ireland, a practice that harkens back to an old flame. Other memories are evoked, family, friends and lovers. By the end, Cunningham has skilfully turned the poem’s focus towards the present, more universal moment, with an effortless ear for the flow of words and memory.

When talking about poetry and the craft of writing, Cunningham is thoughtful and even hesitant, as if still finding her way with words. Her poems, in contrast, are assured and forthright, covering a range of subjects.

Her award-winning new collection, Heimlich’s Manoeuvre, includes observations about growing up and living in Northern Ireland (she was born in Omagh), relationships of many kinds, evocations of the natural world and medical references.

This might seem a strange combination of interests, but Cunningham has been a qualified dentist since the age of 22 and she still works as such on a part-time basis. In 'Amalgam', she explores the dentist/patient relationship:

'I know eight hundred and sixty-seven people orally;
I ask them probing questions,
they open up to me.'

The poem goes on to describe how prospective patients send a family member for treatment first: 'To test / my mettle and if I’m patient / make a good impression.' A few lines later, she writes: 'I see them whole and will / them to smile again. I iron / out their inconsistencies.'

The connection between dentistry and poetry for Cunningham is language and communication. 'I have access to a word hoard in terms of anatomy and physiology and biochemistry, and all the medical sciences and medical history and so on,' she says. 'My fascination is with language, so that seems to me to be the bridge.'

One of the most accomplished poems in her latest collection is 'The Chief Radiographer Considers', which won the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. In it, an unnamed x-ray technician thinks about Pierre and Marie Curie, whose work with radiation ultimately compromised their own health.

Cunningham’s advance as a poet has been gradual and considered, moving from accolade to accolade. She submitted writing for a workshop in Dublin some years ago and was awarded a scholarship to take her work further, a validation in terms of how she herself perceived the craft and pursuit of creative writing.

These days, Cunningham sets aside time to write and regularly reads her work at workshops and events. Another collection of poems is on the way, though she doesn’t feel pressurised to produce it in the immediate future. But when the time comes, how does she begin a poem?

'There’s a lot of writing and re-drafting,' she explains. 'Very occasionally you get the gift of a poem that doesn’t need a lot of tweaking, but for the most part the exploration in terms of language and music and finding out what shape, what form, it wants to take is very much mediated for me through the process of re-writing.'

Cunningham also takes a certain delight in writing, quoting Robert Frost’s ‘no surprise in the writer’, and acknowledges that 'the actual writing is a journey and a negotiation through language, and as a writer, you’re surprised... It’s about being faithful with the language.'

Clearly, her journey as a poet has been defined by study, hard work and an approach to the craft of writing, and she also acknowledges the work and support of others.

She has mentors and sources of inspiration connected to the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, and has spent time at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, where associating with other artists has informed and enriched her perspectives

'What’s really interesting there is that you go and work really hard,' she adds. 'But each evening you meet with all sorts of creative people, and what I find interesting is the cross-fertilisation across different disciplines that happens there.

'There‘s a build-up of some sort energy in the house over the years, and you can plug into that somehow. I think I’m a little more courageous now that when I was younger, and I feel freer to write about whatever comes without any degree of self-censorship.'

Reserved and thoughtful in conversation and in person, Cunningham takes her risks with the poetry, almost as if to gently shock. Male/female relationships are particularly closely examined, as in her poem 'Because', in which she describes intimate details noticed when a man comes to stay: 'The way their water / falls, louder and unmuffled, / akin sometimes to music / or children’s laughter.'

Humour clearly is also important to Cunningham, and often her use of language is the source of what delights her – the juxtapositions of words, the sounds and again, the music. There is actually no title poem in the new collection; Cunningham had chosen the title before writing any poem of that name.

In the end, she wrote 'Gist', a poem which imagines how the Heimlich Manoeuvre got its name, as a man climbs drunkenly into bed beside his wife, throws an arm around her, hiccups and in so doing, dislodges her denture. The device flies out of her mouth, 'and rings on the earthenware pitcher'. In the final line, the poem’s title comes into its own: 'And young Mrs. Heimlich recovers the gist of her dream.'

Cunningham also writes prose and a story of hers, 'Different City Different State', appeared in a Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, alongside authors such as Bernard MacLaverty, Edna O’Brien and Colm Tóibín. It is in poetry, however, that one feels she is most comfortable and through which she has discovered her own best voice.

Heimlich’s Manoeuvre is dedicated to her father, Jimmy Cunningham. In the poem 'Hats', Cunningham describes a process of developing self-awareness, mainly through poetry, 'The year I tried on voices just like hats'. Far from self-regarding or stuffy, the poem is full of wit, as she rhymes through her options:

'Tore hat
Sore hat
Never-bloody-score hat
Can’t-take-any-more hat.'

She describes discovering poetry, her 'blessed hat', and the challenges this brings as she attempts to write like others. Paula Meehan is mentioned, rhymed with Brendan Behan in lines that roll with musical, repeated rhythms.

In the next stanza, she arrives at the point when the political and social climate changed, brought on by the ceasefires, 'And screaming like a banshee / My severed tongue grew back.' The poem ends with a poetic but chilling description of her father’s car being hijacked by men with hats, who ask him to spell the name (Omagh) of where he comes from, knowing that the 'h' will sound differently, depending on which side of the community he comes from.

The shifts in the major/minor key notes in the poem are breathtaking, identifying Paula Cunningham as a poet whose words can take her anywhere. Most importantly, she is a poet who takes us with her.

Heimlich’s Manoeuvre is out now, published by Smith/Doorstop Books.