Enda Wyley is poet and children’s author. She was born in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin. She has published five collections of poetry with Dedalus Press: Borrowed Space: New and Selected Poems (2014), To Wake to This (2009 ), Poems for Breakfast (2004 ), Socrates in the Garden (1998), and Eating Baby Jesus (1993 ). She was the inaugural winner of the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and has received many Arts Council Literature Bursaries. In 2014 she was the recipient of a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship for her poetry. Her poetry has been widely broadcast, translated and anthologised including in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Women’s Writing and Tradition, Volumes 4 & 5, (2002 ) The Harvard Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry (2010), Femmes d'Irlande en Poésie, 1973-2013, and Lines of Vision (2014).
She has been the poet-in-residence for many arts projects and institutions, including The Coombe Maternity Hospital, Dublin, The Marino Institute of Education, Dublin, Dearcán na nDaoine/ The People’s Acorn, 2016 -2017 for Áras an Uachtaráin, Dublin’s Culture Connects, Dublin South East, 2017-2018 and The Bealtaine Poetry and Film Project 2018.
Enda Wyley’s books for children from O’Brien Press are Boo and Bear, I Won’t Go to China! and The Silver Notebook. Her poetry for children has been included in anthologies such as Something Beginning with P and Once Upon A Place.
Enda Wyley lives in Dublin. In March 2015 she was elected to Aosdána.
Q: It’s sometimes said that a great part of knowing how to write is learning is how to read. Do you agree with this? I mainly ask because it seems from your poetry that reading has had an important (and a creatively stimulating) place in your life. I’m thinking of a poem like ‘Room’ – dedicated to Nuala O’Faoláin – and of your first collection, Eating Baby Jesus, which includes pieces like ‘Poetry in the Making’ and ‘Wedding Gift’, a moving tribute to the American writer Raymond Carver. How has the work of other writers affected your own creative approach and interests over the years? And are there any writers at the moment whose work you’d recommend to aspiring poets (or indeed to other readers)?
A: This is a question that falls into a few parts. Firstly, I wish I could say I ‘know’ how to write but I don’t think I will ever have the supreme confidence or arrogance – whichever way you want to look at it – to say or feel that. For me, it’s an evolving lifelong process, the act of writing. Every time the blank page beckons and a new idea begins to mark itself there, I am simply hoping for the best. But yes, I agree, you cannot separate reading from writing. Though it’s interesting that you refer to ‘learning’ how to read. For me, reading has always been a natural thing to do. I am a curious person who loves the thrill of words and narrative and from an early age fell happily into the imaginative world of books. I was not alone in this – I came from a family of book lovers and the books we were reading were a seamless part of the fabric of our lives and conversations. Well-thumbed books were shared and chatted about but not in any convoluted, pompous way – they were as important to us as many other things in our lives. Friends, school, films… Top of the Pops. I am showing my age now!
In her recent lecture as Ireland Chair of Poetry, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin remarked that reading is a talent. And certainly, I do feel that my childhood years imbued me with the gift of reading. Even now, I would choose reading as an activity over the actual act of writing. There are such enormous pleasures to be had from entering the mind of another writer or poet and rooting your own imagination in their world. I get huge inspiration not just from poets but from novelists too. I am currently, for instance, enjoying the witty, wise and deft words of Penelope Fitzgerald’s superb short story collection, The Means of Escape.
I have found that as I’ve matured as a reader I’ve become more watchful of the grace and skill, the intelligence and empathy of the finest of writers. I love to observe how they write, the way they make language interesting. Their unwavering gaze at people and the way we live and think inspires me to keep writing.
Because first and foremost, a writer must be a reader. And yet, every reader must find their own path in the world of books and writers and so I would be slow to recommend. I have my own favourites – often single poems or lines from poems, or scenes from novels that are lodged deep in my memory and the rhythms of my life. They can be heart-breaking, tough but are word and sound pictures that have sustained me – Thomas Hardy’s woman calling, Edward Thomas on a train that stops at Adlestrop, Louis Mac Neice peeling an orange while snow outside falls, Sylvia Plath’s morning song of motherhood, Maxine Kumin rummaging in the coat pocket of her dead friend Anne Sexton, Eavan Boland on a bridge over the Iowa river remembering the early intense years of her marriage, W. S. Graham laying a poem at the ear of his love before she wakes, Heaney’s tinsmith’s scoop of love in Mossbawn. These are just some of the powerful poetic scenes that I return to over and over to be renewed by the masterful language and form of the writing – and ultimately by the emotions they arouse in me. I carry them with me, they are a part of me.
Q: For every sequence of (often captivating) love poems in your work, there seems always to be a counterbalance of pieces like the socially framed title-poem in your first collection. ‘Eating Baby Jesus’ trawls the daily exploits of a young school-child, “Gummo”, in inner-city Dublin (where you worked as a primary-school teacher until recently): “On a Monday mitch, for something to do, / Gummo crunched Alpen with Eucharist - a ten year old’s breakfast / of roughage and baby Jesus / creamed in a stolen chalice.” Can you tell us about where this poem came from, so to speak?
A: You mention two things here – love poems that I have written and my poem ‘Eating Baby Jesus.’
Love plays a central part in my poems. Not just in the many love poems I have written but in my general approach to making a poem and the emotional undercurrents that flow there. I am a huge advocate for celebrating the world and the people in it and though I draw on personal experiences, I reinvent these experiences, fictionalise them in away, and aim for the final piece to be universal, so that others can relate to it too.
My poem ‘Eating Baby Jesus’ was born out of a violent personal experience but also, I hope, shows an empathy close to love for the feral boy Gummo, and the bleakness of his world in a disadvantaged suburb of Dublin. I had been teaching in a very tough primary school and one day, while I was on yard duty, a brick was flung over the school railings. It split open the head of a Junior Infant child. Later, when I went back to my classroom, the priest had arrived wanting to know who had stolen the chalice from the church. When he left, none the wiser, I quizzed the class again. A young boy finally admitted he had stolen the chalice so that he could "eat all of the baby Jesus." Bumping home exhausted on the upper deck of the bus that afternoon – it had been a hectic day! – I began to scribble the poem on the back of an envelope. It was to become the title poem of my first collection – one which frequently ended up in the cookery section or religious sections of bookshops! But sometimes, it succeeded in finding poetry readers – and for that I am grateful.
Q: More broadly, I wonder if you could comment on the strand of politically inflected poetry that runs throughout your work. I’m thinking of pieces like ‘Two Women in Kosovo’ or ‘War’, which contrasts your own family’s lying half-awake at home with “the others, not forgotten, / their bodies battered, / their bloodied noses / barely touching.” Were these poems relatively difficult to write? How do they relate to your other work, which often celebrates and records (what seem to be) the intimacies of your own experience?
A: I feel the political is always at play in poetry and can be especially apparent in the most intimate of poems. It was a necessity for me to write ‘Two Women in Kosovo.’ I had read an article in The Guardian by Orla Guerin about her experience of meeting two sisters in Kosovo who had been gunned down in a café and then flung on a truck to be brought to a mass grave. When one sister realised the other was still alive, she urged her to take a chance and jump to safety. This article had such an enormous impact on me emotionally that I knew I had no choice but to write the poem and so I became a conduit for it.
The poem flowed quickly and easily. I had never been to Kosovo, but to go back to the idea of personal experiences, I drew on my own experiences as a sister to strengthen the poem – and hope that it succeeds not merely as a poem with a political theme but as a poem in its own right. But of course, that is for the reader to ultimately decide.
‘War’ is also a very personal, intimate poem. When I wrote it, I was a first-time mother putting my young daughter to sleep. But I was also thinking about those suffering in war-torn countries while we rested safely in our homes. For me the political and personal can’t be separated – they work side by side, often subtly. I see these two poems you have mentioned, ‘War’ and ‘Two Women in Kosovo,’ as simply part of my overall work and life.
For instance, ‘Socrates in the garden’ the title poem of my second collection, is about a homeless man traversing the city, from Séan Mac Dermott Street, finally ending up in the Botanic Gardens, where he receives relief from the pressures of his life by looking at the statue of Socrates there. This could be defined as a political poem, too, but I know that it could never have been written were it not for my own personal experiences of the inner city and the hardships of life there, through my work as a teacher working there. And so, the personal and the political are deeply connected and have often surprised me in the way that they can manifest themselves in a poem that I am working on. Another poem of mine, ‘ Mother’, works on both a personal and a political level too. While it is a sustained meditation about my mother, it ends with her "keeping me from the shabby coldness of this outside world" and putting "the last stitch on my coat", indicating that there is a challenging world to be encountered, beyond the intimacies and safeties of familial love.
Q: One of the most distinctive qualities of your poetry, I think, is its vitality and colour – its ability always to make present the experiences and desires (even the ghosts) of life as it passes, or after it has already. Is this a fair characterisation, do you think, of what poetry (and your poetry) is for – what it does and why it happens, so to speak? I have in mind pieces like ‘Magpie’, in which the persona sets out “to confer with you / my beloved things – / beneath a ceiling / that crumbles / and will someday fall”; or your poem ‘The Page Within’, in which “this page that fills is filling fast” with the sheer sensuous, here-and-nowness of the life you’re living. Your New & Selected Poems, similarly, ends with “this day’s three words: We Are Here.” What would you say is the main impulse behind your writing, that vitalises and impels it on the page? (A big question, I know!)
A: For me, poetry begins where ordinary conversation stops. And so, the initial impulse for me is to say what I find difficult to articulate – and to say it in a way which makes language interesting and goes beyond the everyday, while also reflecting it. The beginning stages of the making of a poem can be challenging. I am far braver in my life of poetry than I am in my normal life! As Elizabeth Jennings has said of poetry, it is "a discovery, the gradual building of a world." You may not know where you are going but you are determined to get there! I also abide by Robert Frost’s belief that poetry begins with "a lump in the throat." I am usually kick-started into writing a new poem by a rush of feeling, an immediate response to an experience, a place, something someone says, the look of a landscape, a memory, or a piece of art, a book, an article, or a poem I have read…. I could go on! I am always surprised by the way a poem can suddenly come upon me when I least expect it. Then I know I have to go with that feeling, that ‘here-and-nowness’ that you refer to. Loyalty to the poem itself plays a huge part in writing it. Beyond my writing it, I feel it will have its own life, find its own readers and almost be independent of me.
As a person, I am energised by being alive and I hope that vitality does transfer into the poems. When I write, I write quickly. But sometimes poems have been growing inside of me for years, so that when they finally fall on the page, they have been maturing for quite a while. I am never in any rush to complete the poem – if a poem ever is really completed! – and am happy to tinker with it for quite a while, before I feel it has reached a level that I can go with. Similarly, I don’t feel pressurised to publish books frequently . I like the poems to have the time to develop and also, I like to have time to read more and be inspired more. Although, I do very much enjoy the final stages of a manuscript when you are gathering all the poems and ordering them, seeing how they all play off each other – little creatures vying for attention!