Sinead Morrissey - Interview with Declan Meade

Part One: Becoming a poet

This interview first appeared in The Stinging Fly, Vol 1 Issue 14. Read Part Two: Returning to Belfast and the challenges of the future.

Sinéad Morrissey was born in Portadown in 1972. She grew up in Belfast, and became the youngest ever winner of The Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1990. At the time of this interview in September 2002, she had published two collections with Carcanet, There Was Fire in Vancouver (1996) and Between Here and There (2002).

She was at work on her third collection, The State of the Prisons, which was since published in 2005. Like its predecessor. it was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Also in 2005, Sinéad shared the Michael Hartnett Award with the poet and novelist Kerry Hardie.

What is your first memory of writing a poem?

My first memory of writing a poem is when I was about eight. A teacher brought in the poem 'From A Railway Carriage' by Robert Louis Stevenson. The one that mimics the rhythm of the train: Faster than fairies, faster than witches. That was the first time I'd come across a poem. The teacher told us to go home and write one of our own and I just found it easy, I could make it rhyme. I got such a thrill out of doing it I was hooked from then on.

You say you were hooked. How did it progress from there?

The next stage was coming across 'The Raven' by Edgar Allen Poe. I became obsessed with this poem as soon as I heard it, and learned it by heart to recite to anyone who'd listen. And then my father bought me Poe's Collected Poems. I started to write all the time in class, between periods, on the bus on the way home. I also joined a Speech and Drama group at the same time. I was exposed to a lot of different poems in that group, getting up and reciting them, something I really enjoyed.

I kept writing and then when I was eleven I got a prize in the Irish Schools Creative Writing Awards for a terrible poem called 'The Famine from the View of an Absentee Landlord.' It was doggerel: How troublesome these peasants are!/Starving so they say!/But what am I supposed to do?/Give them a rise in pay?

Awful, but I got this prize, a Highly Commended certificate, probably just for taking the view of the landlord rather than the starving peasants. My mum brought me down to Dublin on the train, it was my first time down in Dublin and John F Deane, who'd been a judge, was holding an afternoon of Creative Writing in the hallway of a bank. I have no idea where it was now.

He talked to us all. This was a very significant moment for me, to get this recognition. He said that everybody in the room had talent and that we all had to write something every day, even if was just a diary entry. I was at an impressionable age and I took what he was saying as gospel. I continued writing and I got a prize in that competition every year until I was eighteen. That always propelled me forward and then when I was eighteen I got the Kavanagh Award.

Tell us about the Kavanagh Award, how that came about, even to enter it at that age.

I know it was a bit mad, wasn't it? A friend of mine, Jim Clarke, told me about the competition and gave me the application form. He said to send off the poems I'd been writing, so I did. I sent in twenty poems, poems I'd written through my teens, they were all very dramatic. When I was fourteen I fell heavily under the dangerous spell of Sylvia Plath, like so many teenage girls with literary aspirations. Now I think of the Kavanagh poems as being far too Plath-influenced, though they probably had a valuable, raw quality about them.

I wrote poems about films I watched and cried over as a teenager: ­Vietnam (Platoon), Cambodia (The Killing Fields). Plus poems about anorexia and mental illness ­which are about as far outside my personal experiences as anything could be. Anyway, I entered and then completely forgot about it. I'd started studying English and German at Trinity. My Mum rang me one night in my digs in Churchtown and told me I'd won. I nearly fell over. Even though I decided not to publish the poems, and held back for another five years, it was still a powerful vindication. I see it as a tremendous stroke of good luck, very early on.

How was the whole experience of winning?

I went up to Monaghan for the weekend. It was extraordinary. The people who run the weekend were lovely to me. There was a ceremony on the Sunday when we all went round to the grave and they asked me to read a Kavanagh poem standing there in this bleak, winter-solstice landscape just as the sun was going down. I read 'Epic' (of course). They'd just had this new stone erected on the grave, and it was still being held up with string while the cement dried. Then they gave me the cheque for a thousand pounds.

That was a lot of money for an eighteen-year-old back then.

Yes it was. I gave some to my brother and I gave some to charity. It seemed like this enormous amount of money. I'm slightly embarrassed by the Kavanagh thing now. I'm thirty and I'm still introduced as 'the youngest ever winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award' everywhere I go. It was so long ago.

Just to go back a bit, you said your father bought you the book of Poe's poems, what was the reaction of family and friends to the fact that you were writing poetry?

My father especially was incredibly supportive. There were no literary antecedents in the family. My dad thought I had talent, you know, as fathers do. I also got good advice from teachers in school. My friends just knew that I did this. We didn't really talk about it. It felt like a very private thing. It wasn't something I felt the need to talk about.

And then moving forward again to your first collection, how did the relationship with Carcanet come about?

When I was in third year at Trinity I was in Michael Longley's Creative Writing Group and one of the other people in that group was Justin Quinn. He had sent poems to PN Review and Michael Schmidt had written back saying that he'd publish his first collection. After that I took a year out and lived in Germany, in Flensburg, and I was corresponding with Justin. He suggested I send poems off to Michael Schmidt. I certainly wasn't thinking of getting a book out, but I sent a few poems to PN Review.

I think it took quite a few weeks, but on my 22nd birthday­ neatly in Flensburg I got a letter from Michael Schmidt saying that he liked some of the poems and disliked others, but that he would publish some of them in the magazine. A few days later I got another letter from him saying that he'd reread them all and liked them and that he was going to publish all of them, and that if I had a book, he'd publish that as well.

And was he making suggestions about the work at that stage?

No. I wrote back and told him I didn't have a book but that when I did I would publish with him. He was so enthusiastic about my work. Then I came back from Germany and I spent my final year in college putting the first book together. Then I met him in Manchester in June after my finals and we went through the manuscript.

He suggested changes in a few poems which I was quite happy about. I'd broken the manuscript up into subsections and he said I didn't need to do that, just let the poems flow. He's very diplomatic. I met him again of course for the second book. There were things he wanted me to do and I would agree, and there were other things and I wouldn't agree. He was fine with that. He lets you have a degree of autonomy. He wanted me to take out 'An Anatomy of Smell' and I refused; I thought that was one of the strongest poems in the collection. He thought it was laboured. But the discussion was quick and easy.

Do you put a lot of thought into the structure of your collections?

You can't predict what you are going to write the next poem about. It's only when I've got a body of poems together that I can look at how a book might be structured. With the second collection I wrote the second part, the Japanese poems, first. They were the poems I wrote immediately after the first collection. I went to Japan the month after that first meeting with Michael Schmidt. 'Goldfish' was the first poem.

I wrote most of that sequence during my first year in Japan and then I got sick and I stopped writing. I went to New Zealand and I couldn't write. I came back home and I couldn't write for the first year I was back here. So there was a big gap between writing the last part and the first part. I then had to assemble the first part of the book. I wrote knowing that these poems were going into the first part of the book.

So you had a particular idea for this first section of the book?

While I had the idea that these poems were going into this first section, and I knew they were going to deal with certain subjects, writer's block is a big part of those poems, it wasn't so clinical. I wasn't saying: Now I'm going to write the second poem, the third poem, the fourth poem. Nothing like that.

Tell us about how you write a poem.

I write very differently now from how I did up until the writing of that Japanese sequence.

Well, how was it then?

It was much more inspiration-driven. I would get first lines and I would just start writing. It would be more a matter of listening and then the poem would just flow onto the page. I'd have to go back and rework it, but the body of the poem would be written pretty quickly and the voice would be very, very clear. Since the writer's block I've never had that clear voice, I don't know if I ever will again. It just stopped. I haven't been inspired to write since.

I've had to develop a completely different way of writing. It's much more like chiselling away, of something emerging, rather than having a clear direction at the beginning. There's much more labour, more craft involved. Within that process the poem isn't going to work, unless something, whatever it is, takes over and the poem starts to move.So do you now sit down and force yourself to write?

I have to make time to write a poem, to clear a space. It's quite scary facing the blank page like this, every single time, with no idea how the construction process is going to go. Then again, aspects of writing like this can be less scary than inspired writing. When the voices stopped, when I stopped being inspired, I was terrified because I'd always written under inspiration which is something I couldn't control. I couldn't control when it was going to happen or what it was going to tell me to do. When that was taken away, I felt I had no inner capacity to write a poem.

Since then I've got this whole new approach in which I can create a poem through an act of my own will. The fear has diminished. I feel more in control. I'd love the voices to come back but I can't make them.

Do you have any theories as to why they went away?

Maybe I just grew up. It was just so clearly defined, in that I got food poisoning and my thyroid function collapsed, and from that point on I couldn't write like that before. But maybe it was just about being twenty-four as well. When you're young emotion is so pristine and intense, it can drive a poem. Maybe as you get older, emotion doesn't have such force.

Travel has been very important to you and your work. How do you feel about writing poems about these other places and the danger of being seen as a tourist poet?

Travel has been important. It's been the central theme of both collections. I don't want to write any more travel poems, but travel was the dominant thing in my experience for those years. It opened me up to things I wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise. They were a real spur to writing; especially the shock of arriving in Japan, meeting this American and getting married. It was all very exciting. My poetry changed significantly, well I think it improved, from the poems in the first collection to the Japanese sequence.

But the danger, as you say, is that you have a tourist's view of other places. There are all these issues about the extent to which you have a right to write about these other places in the first place. I try to write, not so much about these other places, but about my experience of being there. I was in Japan for two years. I did lead a certain kind of sustained existence there. There's a lot in the Japanese sequence about the isolation and disorientation of being in a culture that is not your own.

How would you characterise the changes in your work?

I think it became freer. The lines became very long and I had the urge to bring in descriptive detail in order to document what I was witnessing. The poems in the first collection felt very powerful to me at the time. I don't think, re-reading them now, that all of them successfully convey the same power I felt when I was writing them. There's more energy in the Japanese poems. It's like the voice became more flexible in order to talk about a wider variety of things.

Maybe you could tell us a bit about one of those Japanese poems, 'February'?

One of the striking things about Japan, and one of the things I found most difficult to cope with, was the fact that there's no grass. So much of the country is concreted over. We were in an apartment block near a railway station and it was surrounded by paddy fields. While we were there all these other apartment blocks were springing up and the fields were being cemented over and you could also see a mine eating into a mountainside from our kitchen window. Maybe I imagined it, but I thought I could see the mountain becoming smaller and smaller.

The cherry blossom season is such a massive cultural event in Japan. The trees are different to the ones we have here. They're bigger and they bloom for a shorter time They are only actually in bloom for about three or four days. During that time families will go out and have picnics underneath the cherry blossom trees, and there are special songs for the cherry blossom season. It's a big deal. And I was struck by the contrast between this veneration of the cherry blossom and the environmental degradation that was going on at the same time.

In the poem there is this struggle to be generous?

There was a tension there, not wanting to be continually judging a foreign culture based on my idea of what is right and wrong, and still feeling outraged and annoyed. There didn't seem to be anything quite as generous to me as the cherry blossom that blooms. I was in a very depressed time and wanting to be that generous and forgiving of the culture I was in, but feeling angry and sickened too.

Read Part Two: Returning to Belfast and the challenges of the future.