Ailbhe Darcy is a lecturer in creative writing at Cardiff University. She has published her poetry in Ireland, Britain and the US.
Imaginary Menagerie (Bloodaxe Books, 2011), her first book-length collection, was shortlisted for Ireland's Strong Award at the Poetry Now / Mountains to Sea festival.
A collaboration with S.J. Fowler, Subcritical Tests, was published by Gorse in 2017.
Her second collection, Insistence, was published by Bloodaxe in 2018 and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2018 and the Irish Times Poetry Now Award 2019.
With David Wheatley, she co-edited A History of Irish Women’s Poetry published by Cambridge University Press in 2021.
Q: Eavan Boland once said: “Good nature poets are always subversive…. Their lexicon is the overlooked and disregarded. They are revelatory poets. They single out the devalued and make a deep, metaphorical relation between it and some devalued parts of perception.” Do you agree? I ask because I instinctively associate this series of definitions with your 2018 collection, Insistence, pervaded by a witty, precise, often horror-haunted sense of a tarnished world in dark times.
A: Yes, I think I can get on quite happily with that series of definitions, thank you! However, I dislike the term ‘nature poet’ almost as much as I dislike the term ‘eco-poet’ – since no poet worth her salt would divide the world into such weird conceptual categories, let alone choosing to limit herself to only one of them. I think Boland, in the interview you’re quoting, is suspicious of that idea of the ‘nature poet’ too – or, at least, of the idea that a ‘nature poet’ means someone who writes poetry about nature. She goes on to say that, if we think that the point of nature poets is to write about nature, then we’re missing a trick: “The project in the nature poem is a revised way of seeing, rather than the thing that’s seen.” You could be writing about discarded polystyrene cups on the floor of University Park Mall and still be a nature poet. That’s the interview in which Boland describes herself as an “indoor nature poet” because she writes about the baby’s bottle and the kettle’s steam with the same attention as Frost writes about the dimpled spider holding up a moth.
Gripes about the term ‘nature poet’ aside, I think I might, at least sometimes, be an ‘indoor nature poet’ in Boland’s sense. In Insistence, I wrote about the silverfish on our bathroom floor and the frost patterns climbing up our window, knotweed and fungi and stink bugs, because these non-human things seemed like they might be able to carry ways of feeling and thinking that were hard to talk about in our own fallen patterns of language; but also because these were genuinely strange and lovely encounters I had, which I wanted to get down on paper. I think for me there’s always a tension between cataloguing the sheer gorgeousness and pleasure and hilarity of being alive in the world on the one hand, and telling the truth about the ‘dark times’ on the other.
The word ‘devalued’ in your quote from Boland is an important one. I suppose I still subscribe to my first understanding of poetry as a ‘rebel act’ precisely for that reason: because poetry, at its best, refuses to merely value what the wider culture has told it to value.
Q: For me, one of the many strengths of your work is its combination of a free-flowing linguistic vitality with a remarkable openness to (pop) culture and other artistic modes: your poems enthusiastically partake of a (media-saturated) reality in-motion, rather than pretending to hold the same at a descriptive distance. Your piece, ‘Ansel Adams’ Aspens,’ draws on the work of the eponymous American nature photographer; the film, The Terminator (1984), features in your poem, ‘Terminus’; ‘Telephone’ is dedicated to Lady Gaga; ‘Hair’ is partly a response to Alice Maher’s Andromeda… and the list could go on! Could you comment on this quality in your writing?
A: I suppose I think that “(media-saturated) reality in-motion”, as you put it so concisely, is just a description of what it’s like to live here and now; and lyric poetry is bound to attempt to adequately reflect that experience. But for me, personally, maybe some element of this is also generational. Many of the poets who were important to me when I was growing up seemed to assume that art, television, cinema and music were as important a part of the fabric of life as anything else – most obviously Paul Muldoon, but actually the work that first comes to mind for me here is David Wheatley’s Thirst, which I read and loved as an undergraduate student. I even loved its daft sestina, ‘Landscape with Satellite Dish’, which is an episode of the Simpsons in poetic form; but I especially loved the volume’s sense that we sleepwalk through the world, whether walking through our own kitchens, along wind-swept cliffs or the platforms of Parisian metro stations – ‘sleepwalk’ because the world has become dreamlike, because we have come to it belatedly, at a time when everything is already human detritus, everything has already been given human meaning, like in a dream where everything is a symbol of something else. That spoke to me deeply when I was coming of age. I was born in Ireland at the beginning of the 1980’s, so I grew up with such poets; but also I am part of that microgeneration, or bridge generation, which has come of age with the internet. I suspect that makes me deeply conscious of how rapidly and terrifyingly media saturation has intensified, how thoroughly everything has become at once art and novelty and commodity; but also deeply conscious of the utopian possibilities we glimpsed and lost along the way, and continue to glimpse and lose. Finally, I’m also a parent – as I wrote Insistence, the condition of being-a-parent was much on my mind – and of course I see how ‘growing up’ for my son means being inculcated into a culture through stories, images, film and so on. As a parent, I’m very aware that, in some sense, that’s all growing up is – and that, therefore, that’s all any of us are – a collection of encounters with art and culture.
Q: The last poem above speaks for those “who have shoehorned ourselves / into dream dresses, spooled Louis heels down fettled steps / to grooms”, and ends with the memorable (hair-)prayer: “Give us our brimstone. Be in our waking.” For me, this piece rhymes softly with another, ‘After my son was born’, in which the rupture and heaviness of a birth is likened to “the bomb” of 1945, after which “Americans swam / through their homes, eyes peeled, / picking up everyday things and dropping them / as though they were violated with light and pain.” Joy and dread, revelation and trauma, seem to have equal weight in your work, and often blend together, creating an atmosphere of strange, unsettling clarity. Why is this?
A: I fear that all of my answers to all of your questions will boil down to: “Because that’s what it’s like to be alive!”
Q: “We are not doomed yet”, according to ‘Alphabet’, a poem that immediately attaches to this quasi-consoling proposition an urgent imperative: “juggle the numbers”. In a world in which “drone deaths and dental dams, / online dating sites and death squads” seem to co-exist quite comfortably, the idea of human progress (and, indeed, durable poetic meaning) seems somewhat precarious. As a sequence, ‘Alphabet’ manages to be both panoramic and visceral in the vision it conveys: how did it come about, and what was the experience of writing it like?
A: You and I both know this: we’re all completely fucked. We’re already seeing the devastating effects of climate change; we’re already seeing that it’s happening faster, and triggering more unexpected consequences, than predicted. The headline in the Guardian newspaper three days ago was: WORLD STILL ‘ON BRINK OF CLIMATE CATASTROPHE’ AFTER COP27 DEAL. We’re fucked.
In 2012 I had a baby, whom I turned out to love very much. The baby had no idea that everything was fucked. The baby, who is ten now, still doesn’t really understand the full implications of climate change. Not really. But one day, he will. He will understand that I doomed him, by bringing him into the world.
I had my baby, and I was so happy. I was so happy. And I looked at my baby and I wondered: if my baby grows up and has a baby in his turn, is he going to be happy about that? Or is he going to know, for sure, how doomed his baby is?
‘Alphabet’ was my attempt to face up to all of that. I don’t get up every day and think about climate change; I can’t. I can’t face up to it, as I should, in my daily life. I should be gluing myself to things. I should be getting arrested. I can’t, for some reason. I’m a coward, or I love ordinary life too much. But I can, at least, say something true. And ‘Alphabet’ was my attempt to do that.
The experience of writing it was sometimes upsetting, and sometimes very lovely. I would choose a letter, and on walks in the Brecon Beacons, my husband and son and I would brainstorm lots of lovely words beginning with that letter. The abecedarian form, based on Inger Christensen’s form, offers a lovely way of revelling in language and ordinary life.
Q: You recently co-edited A History of Irish Women’s Poetry, published by Cambridge University Press. The volume is a landmark of scholarly commentary and co-operation in its own right, but it also seems significant in its timing, arriving in the aftermath of the #WakeUpIrishPoetry campaign and amid simmering controversy around the question of male dominance across the Irish poetry scene. Were you aware of these wider debates and movements while you were working on the volume above (and might it be thought of, in part, as an intervention)? How has your academic research in the area of Irish (women’s) poetry affected your own work and sense of craft?
A: A History of Irish Women’s Poetry was very much a conscious intervention. At the time we embarked on this project, many readers and academics were expressing disappointment at the scope of the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, which came out in 2018, because it failed to take advantage of the full range of the exciting scholarship done in the field of Irish poetry. I became involved with FIRED!, which was a movement to raise awareness in the poetry scene of the continued marginalisation of women’s work. For my co-editor David Wheatley and me, disappointment and frustration moved into a sense of realising how ripe the moment was for producing an authoritative guide to Irish women’s poetry, and how keen the appetite was for such a guide.
FIRED! was led by people like Christine Murray, Mary O’Donnell, Kathy D’Arcy and that group did various important things including a series of events where people got together to read women’s poetry from the past. One of the things we did was to create a pledge, which people could sign to say that they would look out for gender parity in their capacity as poets or event organisers or editors or whatever it might be. And there was a preamble that we wrote to that pledge, which ended like this:
The absence of women from our critical volumes, literary surveys and anthologies alters literary history and distorts the way we read contemporary women’s poetry, raising a question for readers as to whether Irish women writers existed or exist today in any number. What message do we want to send to our young or emerging scholars and poets? Will their contribution to Irish literature or literary criticism be deemed less valuable because they are women?
And I think, for me, A History of Irish Women’s Poetry became the message I want to send to young or emerging scholars and poets. It’s a letter to them, if you like. Because my hope is that, thanks to this book, those scholars and poets coming up will find it much easier to understand that women of all kinds did contribute plentifully and richly to the making of poetry in all times. And I think that the difference that makes could be huge in terms of the way Irish poetry is taught, the way Irish poets think of themselves, and the kinds of research scholars do in the future.
For myself, editing the volume deepened my awareness of how indebted I am to certain poets, perhaps especially to Eavan Boland, whose work I had tended to take for granted. I’m sure the work has also led me to new influences – but it might take a while for those influences to show in my own poetry. I’m a slow study.