Medbh McGuckian on Sex Appeal and Poetry

Before her Aspects reading, the poet seeks inspiration from Beyoncé

Medbh McGuckian is searching for flowers. Or plants or trees or orchards. Nothing to do with the Troubles, but something to suit a reading in the walled gardens of the North Down Museum.

Performance isn’t the problem. Nerves disappeared in the 1980s, and she enjoys presenting poetry after learning to ‘really trust the piece you’re reading'. But the flowers, the flowers!

‘When I read some of the stuff I sort of go, "My god, it’s so heavy",’ she says. ‘You’d wonder could people possibly be interested in it. It’s a wee bit dated, especially stuff about the Troubles. People don’t want to be dragged back into the old dark past.’

McGuckian’s poetry, including her most recent collection, My Love Has Fared Inland, has long since matched motifs from the natural world with challenging imagery drawn from journeys through the interior landscape.

But she’s been able to combine the stuff from the head with the stuff from the heart. And luckily, she explains, ‘I’m coming down with stuff about gardens. It cheers people up, especially in Autumn.’

Performances, then – or more humbly, readings – are an opportunity to share and to entertain. McGuckian prepares far more carefully than she used to ‘because people expect more'. Even if she’s feeling a bit mopey she maintains that poetry readings should be a night out.

She has learned from others in recent years. In addition to loving the big three of Irish verse – Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley – McGuckian says it’s incredible to hear American poets reading aloud.

‘They’re very bright people and they’re very, very clever,’ she explains. ‘Sometimes even if the poem isn’t terribly good they can make it sound good.’ Particularly impressive are Jorie Graham, Tess Gallagher and Sharon Olds, all of whom have read in Ireland in the last year. ‘The American women are very powerful.’

While she knows the big three of Irish verse personally, she’s less familiar with the big three of American pop. Interestingly, and with unfeigned curiosity, she asks who Beyoncé Knowles, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna are.

‘I’m totally cushioned from the contemporary world,’ she says. ‘I should know them, because they’re probably wonderful.’ But female poets, she says, would have a hard time filling the Odyssey Arena.

‘You would have to be very beautiful, I think. Pop stars have the advantage of being extremely sexy and young and attractive and very erotic, I’m sure. Most women poets tend to be rather dowdy, rather droopy. Even masculine, some of us. We couldn’t possibly compete.’

It’s clear that McGuckian, when it comes to contemporary femininity, has more in common with Pam Ayres than Pamela Anderson. Ayres has a fun poem entitled ‘Sexy at Sixty’, which sums up the loss of allure in a lady’s Autumn years: 'If a toy boy enquires, I'll say, hah! Hard luck squire! Where were you in ’73?'

But female poets can indeed be enticing. It’s all in the voice. ‘Tess Gallagher, even though she’s in her late 60s, would still be very seductive,' adds McGuckian. 'She has a beautiful voice.

'Now the voice, the reading voice, you can play around with. Sinéad Morrissey has a beautiful reading voice, very unusual, and Leontia Flynn. They’re in their 30s, so they still have that kind of pull.’ And with a self-deprecating giggle: ‘At my age you just have to hope for the best.’

McGuckian laughs that she’s written too much poetry, ‘far too much of it’. In contrast to modern Northern Irish poets like Flynn, whose Profit and Loss has been praised for its humour and style, McGuckian says that her own ruminative style ‘has gone out with the Titanic'. She thinks, too, of retiring, but knows herself better than to believe she can give up writing.

‘It’s an ongoing struggle, honest to god. I’m coming round to the age where I wish I could retire from everything. Just retire and not be a poet any more, just have everybody look at you and say, “She’s retired. She’s not going to do anything”.

‘But I’m totally addicted to it. I have to do it. I’m giving myself more time than I used to. I used to write feverishly. I used to go, "Oh, I haven’t written a poem this week, I’d better write one.” Now I’m going, "Well I haven’t written one this month." But it’s a great gift and it’s lovely to do it. Sitting writing a poem is the most enjoyable thing I can imagine.’

The euphoria of completing a poem, however, can be short-lived. ‘Once a poem’s written it’s like a bottle of wine,’ she explains. ‘It doesn’t last very long. And once you’ve finished it, you can get very depressed.’

Poetry, for McGuckian, is a way of auditing her experience, of giving shape and clarity to life’s drifting events. Of late there has been much grief, with the loss of the Queen’s University critic and teacher, Michael Allen, and her own mother. These absences form the emotional backdrop for her forthcoming collection, The High Caul Cap.

‘At the stage I’m at, so many people are dying. People of my age and younger.’ Her contemporaries, too, are facing the challenges that come with age. Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain articulates his first stroke. There are three poems commemorating well-known figures, including David Hammond and Colin Middleton.

‘It’s hard for somebody of Seamus’ calibre,’ says McGuckian. ‘It must be hard for him to write poetry now. But he’s going to go on writing. He’s got a poem called ‘Keeping Going’, and that’s what he does.’

So too will McGuckian. The writing, the readings, and the search for the words. And occasionally a poem arrives as if by magic. ‘It doesn’t happen very often,’ she says, ‘but it happens. Sometimes you get into a really heightened mood and the poem will just write itself. You’d have some kind of idea what you’re doing, but there are moments when you feel you’ve been lifted up into a different dimension.

‘For me that happens once in a blue moon. Most of the time you’re just struggling along and using the wrong part of your mind to do it. You’re using your intelligence and your language centre, when you should really be using your heart.’

Medbh McGuckian reads in the walled garden at the North Down Museum, as part of the Aspects Irish Literature Festival on September 22. The High Caul Cap is forthcoming on The Gallery Press.