Sinead Morrissey - In Interview with Declan Meade

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

This interview first appeared in The Stinging Fly, Volume 1 Issue 14. Read Part One: Becoming a poet.

After your time in New Zealand you decided to come home.

Yes. Travel had opened up my experiences both personally and poetically, but I really felt by the end of my time in New Zealand when I hadn't written in a long time, that I wanted my inspiration back. I needed to come home and settle in one place and write poems that explored deeper issues and that weren't concerned so much with travel. I didn't want to become a travel poet exclusively.

How did you react to being back?

It was such a different place from the place I grew up in, which is a positive thing. I'd always had a horror of ending up back in the Northern Ireland where I grew up. I'd never wanted to do that. But I'd missed the crucial years of the peace process and I was fascinated to come back and see Belfast under the peace.

My family had all moved on to different places. My family home had been sold when my parents got divorced so there wasn't the sense of going back into something old. Even though it was where I was from, it was still a new space for me. And it felt nice to just settle. I'd enjoyed the freedom of travelling, mostly, but there was always that tension of being somewhere which wasn't where you were from. Which can be a drain on your energy. Even though Belfast isn't ideal, I feel that now I'm there more of my energy can go into writing.

And how is it now being back and in a position to judge your own culture as it were?

I feel it shouldn't be a prescriptive thing that poets in the North write about the violence. But that works the other way around too. I was dreadfully upset when Peter Mandelson dissolved the assembly. I was terrified the whole momentum of the peace process would be lost. It was around this time that I got a job as editor of a Belfast-based website for tourists, and it was from this, as I saw it, ironic juxtaposition, that I wrote 'Tourism.'

It's an angry poem, a political poem. It wasn't about whether or not Mandelson had done the wrong thing. It was about the fact that the process had stalled in its wranglings, that the IRA had put Mandelson in that position in the first place by refusing thus far­ to decommission. It wasn't anger at one side. It was anger because there wasn't a combined effort by everyone involved to take this fabulous chance for peace and just implement it, for everyone to compromise and come into the middle ground. I took the fact that this wasn't happening as a personal threat. It's my future and it's my children's future. People were sliding back to the security of their original positions and not taking the visionary lead that was required.

That perhaps brings us to the question of the poet's role. What do you see that as being?

I was asked this recently when Radio 4 commissioned a poem for National Poetry Day in praise of something. It could only be forty-five seconds long. I wrote a poem called 'In Praise of Salt' which encompassed the slide to war with Iraq. Then Julian May asked me a few questions afterwards and said that out of all the poets, I'd written the poem most coloured by current events.

He asked how I saw the responsibility of the poet to deal with social and political issues. I think it's important not to prescribe what a poet writes about. You can't say that all poets should write about these issues. But you can't say poets shouldn't write about them either, that the lyric should somehow be held aloof from these things. Part of the reason I wrote about Iraq was that it was the issue most dominant in my consciousness during the couple of days I'd been given to write the poem. I was reading about it in the newspapers and I was talking about it with people I met, and so it made its way into my poem.

After I'd written it I was reading In the Chair, a book of interviews with poets from the North of Ireland. Being poets from the North, all of them were asked about the relationship between politics and poetry. Conor O'Callaghan said that political poetry was 'the last resort of the truly talentless'.

I was pretty taken aback by this, given the poem I'd just written. And of course if you're going to write political poems, if the politics becomes more important than the poetry, it's not going to work. The poetic integrity of the poem has to be the primary thing, but just to say you then can't write about these issues, well I don't even know if he meant it that way. Or what he meant by 'politics'.

If you took it literally it would knock out Tony Harrison and his wonderful cormorants poem about the Gulf War; it would knock out all the poetry of the Great War; it would knock out Auden's poems of the 1930s. As long as the integrity of the poem is intact, and the poems work as poems, I don't think you can argue either that poets should be engaged politically or that they shouldn't be. I have opinions on a range of different political issues. They are part of my personal make-up and so they find expression in my poetry.

RS Thomas, who you credit as one of your early influences, was a very political poet.

Yes, he was political but that wasn't the aspect of his poetry I was interested in. It was his exploration of science and religion and the divine, the relationship between people and the divine. I was fascinated by his dark language and by his degree of scepticism. Even though he wrote religious poetry, it's sceptical religious poetry. There's a relentless questioning.

There is a presence of gods and angels in your poems.

Yes, mostly in my first collection. I'd been going through a hard time when the poems of the first book were written. My parents were splitting up, my mother moved to New Zealand without telling me, I had no idea when I was going to see her again. The house was sold. I went to Germany and, initially, it was exposing. I didn't know anyone. I didn't yet have fluency in the language. I was incredibly lonely for the first few months.

It was all very scary, yet I felt I had some kind of protection. I felt connected to spiritual help. So that came through in the poems. It's not conventionally Christian, and I would hate for it to be read in that way. There are several reincarnation poems, for instance, and in 'My Grandmother Through Glass' I've made up my own idea of an afterlife. I wasn't brought up religiously, my parents were members of the Communist Party, I never attended church as a child or was baptised or christened. But at this time in my life I did develop a spiritual sense.

Anyway, the first collection was reviewed in Metre as the work of a 'scary religious fundamentalist', which was such a shock. Religious fundamentalism seemed so outside my experience. I hadn't expected to be read in such a narrow way. Granted, the first book came out at a time when angels were extremely popular, so writing about angels was a bit crass and tacky. I'd be wary of mentioning them again. So I can see some justification for the vociferous line the reviewer took, even if I think he oversimplified what I was saying in order to make my book fit his own agenda.

But my second collection was reviewed in Metre in exactly the same way, by a reviewer who, I suspect, never read the first collection and did his background reading on Sinéad Morrissey by going back to the initial review. His approach to the second book was: In the past Sinead Morrissey has been called a scary religious fanatic, it's not so obvious in this collection, but if you dig around a bit in the margins, then you're going to find it. He accused me, presumptuously, of sado-masochistic Catholic guilt, based on my name, and completely misread poems in the book as statements of scary Christian fundamentalism when they were nothing of the kind.

He interpreted 'To Imagine an Alphabet', which ends with the stag image, purely in terms of what the stag is about to say after the poem finishes, rather than on what the poem says on the page, and I find that baffling. He also assumed the references were Christian when they were Buddhist: the flaming heart of compassion, the stag as a holy Buddhist animal, etc. I felt that all the so-called fundamentalism was not on my side, and that the whole collection had been misread. But that's what reviewers do! (laughs)

Summon up your ideal reader then?

Well, you can't control the way the poems are going to be read. I would never want that to happen. You can't attach a footnote, by the way, this poem means this, this and this. The strength of poetry as art is that it can mean a whole variety of things to a whole variety of readers. That's what is so special about it, and that's why it can't be paraphrased. The ideal reader, however, is someone who doesn't come to the work with a pre-existing notion of what is appropriate subject matter, and what is not, and is someone who is prepared to read the book on its own terms.

To talk about the long poem that you read at the Dublin Writers' Festival and which has since appeared in PN Review, that was clearly a task you set yourself.

Yes, yes it was. I'd read 'Gold' by Elaine Feinstein, and I was so taken by it. It's an excellent poem. It's in the voice of Lorenzo da Ponte ­ Mozart's librettist for The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. She went into the character of a man from the eighteenth century. Da Ponte was friends with Casanova as well as Mozart and there are vivid descriptions of Mozart writing music. It was a wonderful window into that world. She did it so well and it was obviously completely outside of her experience as a woman in the twenty-first century, (though there are Jewish connections).

I was fascinated by that transition and I wanted to do something similar. I'd come across the character of John Howard reading William Godwin's Caleb Williams. Caleb is thrown into prison by his master where he suffers terrible abuses. Godwin has a footnote saying that if you think this account is fantastical, then read John Howard's The State of The Prisons to find out just how bad British prisons actually were. So I got out The State of The Prisons, before I'd even thought of writing a poem about it, because I was interested in seeing what prisons in the eighteenth century were like.

Howard's book was an unwieldy combination of spiritual vision, enlightenment philosophy and dull practicality. He was constantly making notes and measuring things, writing down exactly what prisoners had for dinner, exactly what weight of bread they would get, etc. When I heard that I got the residency at Hawthornden I wanted to set myself a task. I didn't want to just face the blank page. So I went with this poem as my task. I brought a few nineteenth century biographies of Howard with me. I set myself three verses a day, I worked hard every day and I got it done.

Was writing the poem a means of moving on from the work in the second collection?

Yes. It was a challenge to try something completely different. I'd never written a poem that long. I wanted to do it in rhyme. I wanted to do it about someone who had nothing to do with me; I didn't even really like him. It was an attempt to try and push myself forward. It was incredibly hard work. I'd set myself three verses a day, that would be from half nine to half six, and there were days I worked all those hours and I didn't have a line. It tended to go bad day, good day.

The next day I might get four verses instead of three but each one was written out maybe ten times to get the rhythm right, after the bones of it had been composed. The amount of material that I had to organise, the narrative line, the facts I had to bring in (I wanted everything in it to be true as far as I could ascertain) ­ all added up to the kind of poetic challenge I'd never attempted before.

And was there a point when the subject of his life became personalised to you?

No, no, I don't see any connection between me and John Howard. And that was the relief of it. I just put myself completely away in a drawer and got on with it.

That's very different from the poems in the first collection when you say you were working through your experiences. How do you see your work going in the future?

More in the John Howard direction, more of the external. Maybe I've gone full circle, back to using other people's experiences. I don't like the straight confessional. You can use your own experiences but you have to bring more to it than that, always. The 'I' is unstable and it transmutes.

You are becoming more interested in form as well.

Yes. I use a form more. It helped me a lot when I couldn't write, to set myself a form. If you're not writing out of this clear, inspired voice, then form can only help. If you are not using form then the impetus for the poem has to be very strong. I'm only really beginning to learn how to use form. I think it's a lifetime study. I'd like to work more and more within it. But form can also be a trap. You can find it impossible to write outside of that structure once you've got used to all the help it gives you. So I hope I can do both.

There are lots of interesting issues around form. If something is written in absolutely pristine couplets, it's very attractive, but maybe what the poem is saying is not attractive at all. It can dazzle if it's done very well but it might have a disturbing message. I'm thinking of a poem I read by Gregory Woods from his collection May I Say Nothing? The book opens with a little poem called 'Orpheus to the Men of Thrace' made up of five beautifully rhyming couplets. It's a shocking poem, intentionally so, consisting of advice on how to pick up young boys and have sex with them. It ends: take some money/for the reluctant are coercible./Oh, and their bodies are reversible. I'm fascinated by this poem and the issues it raises ­ I have an attraction/repulsion dynamic going on with it.

What future tasks have you set yourself?

I have poems written for the third book. With the new job at Queen's I have a lot of time for writing. If it all goes well, if I don't freeze up, the Queen's job should mean that I finish that quite quickly. If I can manage to produce anything close to what I produced under the same conditions at Hawthornden, well then I'll just go in and see what happens. I don't have a plan as to what I want to write poems about. I just want to go in and give it time and energy.

Read Part One: Becoming a poet.