The Woman on the Other Side
Ballyclare poet Stephanie Conn on how she turned words of comfort into an award-winning trade ahead of her debut collection's release
Having won the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing last year, along with the 2015 Funeral Services NI National Poetry Competition, Stephanie Conn is a name that is becoming increasingly recognisable. Indeed, the prizewinning Ballyclare poet has made a distinctive mark in the poetry world since taking up the craft in 2000, winning various awards and having her work published in journals.
Previously shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Prize and Red Line Poetry Prize, Conn was also highly commended in the Fool for Poetry Chapbook, Mslexia Pamphlet and Doire Press Competitions. It’s Doire Press which is now publishing her debut collection of poetry, The Woman on the Other Side, which launches on March 11 at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast.
Newtownards-born poet, Moyra Donaldson, will introduce the book at this launch event, and has described Conn’s collection as 'wonderfully wide-ranging, yet still retaining a sense of cohesion. This first collection concerns itself with the light and dark of our lives,' she says. 'We are taken on a geographical and emotional journey by way of painters, poets and personal experience, through memory, close observation and visual detail.'
A former teacher at Ballyclare Primary School, Conn is originally from Newtownards, and is a graduate of the MA programme at Queen's University's Seamus Heaney Centre. Although she studied poetry at school and university however, Conn didn’t fully connect with it until after her mother’s death when she was 19.
'Poetry suddenly became relevant through grief,' she says. 'I was at university and surrounded by young people spreading their wings, enjoying new-found freedoms and having fun... I felt terribly isolated and poetry delivered comfort. The fact that others had experienced this pain and even survived it, helped me feel less alone.'
Inspired by what she read, Conn felt compelled to write her own poems, which she did sporadically at first, juggling her job as a teacher and looking after her two baby daughters. She later stopped working full-time and subsequently focused more intensely on her writing, signing up for a distance writing course.
'I busied myself with writing articles and completing assignments,' explains Conn. 'However, as I worked, I kept jotting down lines of poetry in a notebook. In the end, I set the articles aside and attended to the poetry.
'Initially, I wrote when I was deeply moved or inspired and felt driven to create some sort of written record of the experience. I wrote in total isolation for a few years, then joined a writers’ group. This was a big turning point. I wrote more consistently, received constructive feedback and started taking part in readings with the group.'
Securing a bursary for the John Hewitt International Summer School in 2009, Conn then went on to complete her MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s, graduating in 2013. An award through Arts Council NI's Support for the Individual Artists programme followed in 2014, and soon after, her first manuscript of poems.
'In 2015, I was one of the recipients of a Career Enhancement Award to research and begin work on my second collection,' she says. 'The process of formulating and presenting a project that you must then deliver is great for keeping you focused and on task.'
The Woman on the Other Side fuses together poems Conn wrote during her MA, including poems inspired by the life of Marina Tsvetaeva, as well as work which grew out of her travels. The Netherlands features, as does Tasmania, where Conn spent a month in 2013, visiting family.
'It’s a beautiful island and for me, a place of contradiction,' she says. '[There are] Christmas decorations in the sunlight, penguins in the blistering heat, picnics on a beach where the next land mass is Antarctica; the stunning scenery of a former convict colony. Although I made some notes when I was there, I wrote all the poems when I was back at home.'
The collection, which took four years to write, takes the reader on both a geographical and emotional journey, though it is the emotional landscape Conn is most concerned with. 'The notion of who we are 'on the other side' of our experiences and our relationships,' she says.
As someone who suffers from fibromyalgia – a condition which causes pain all over the body – Conn doesn’t keep to a fixed writing schedule, as her health can often intervene. She therefore has a flexible routine which combines writing, researching, reading and editing. In between all of this, she also submits to journals and competitions, something which is important, she says, if you want to move your writing on from being a hobby.
'Most publishers expect you to have a history of publication before you approach them with a manuscript,' she says. 'You need a fairly thick skin to deal with the rejections that will inevitably be part of the submitting process. Initially I saw rejections as an indication that the poem wasn’t good enough. Now I realise how subjective poetry is. Poems that have won prizes have previously been rejected by other editors/publications.'
Always keen to discover new poets, Conn cites Rumi, Mary Oliver and Naomi Shihab Nye as some she enjoys, as well as Elizabeth Bishop, Sinéad Morrissey and Frances Leviston. As a former teacher and as a mother, she also thinks it’s important that children aren’t 'put off poetry.'
'I’ve seen first-hand what positive experiences of reading and particularly, writing poetry, can do for children,' she says. 'Helping to instil a love of literature was always one of the best parts of my job as a primary school teacher.'
Indeed, Conn previously developed the literacy programme, Passport to Poetry, facilitating poetry workshops for 7-11 year olds. With poetry, she says, words have the 'power to move you, transport you, enrage or inspire you; surprise and inform you, or leave you questioning just about everything.'
'It’s about creating something new,' she adds. 'I’m not very good at painting or cooking or sewing! I make poems and I’m proud of those creations.'
Stephanie Conn launches The Woman on the Other Side with Moyra Donaldson at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on Friday, March 11. The event is free to attend. The poetry collection is available now to pre-order from Doire Press at www.doirepress.com.