Geraldine Mitchell is Dublin-born but has lived on the Co. Mayo coast, west of Louisburgh, for twenty years. She is a Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award winner (2008) and has published three collections of poems, most recently Mountains for Breakfast, which came out in 2017. Her previous collections are World Without Maps (Arlen House, 2011) and Of Birds and Bones (Arlen House, 2014). Mountains for Breakfast was the focus of an exhibition, ‘Mind Has Mountains’, a visual response to her work by four artists, shown in Westport and at Cúirt International Festival of Literature, Galway, in 2018. Geraldine has also written two novels for young people and a biography.
Q: The American poet Gary Snyder once said, “I try to hold both history and the wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things…”. Is this an idea that speaks to your own work and approach to poetry, do you think? And if so, how so?!
A: The words that jump out at me here are ‘true’ and ‘measure’. ‘True’ because for me truth is the touchstone of poetry, however mad the language or thought associations, it has to ring true, have some sort of integrity. And ‘measure’ because right now I am involved in a project run by the Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar bringing together visual artists and writers on the theme of benchmarks. So how we map or measure anything – time, emotions, climate change – is a question that’s trotting around in my head. Snyder’s bracketing together of history and wilderness is particularly pertinent as I am looking at things like the Keeling Curve, which I have only just learnt about, the historical measuring of CO2 emissions. A useful instance of benchmarking if ever there was one. I am concerned with how we respond as poets/artists to the looming environmental catastrophe. Having written a series of very gloomy ‘end-of-the-world’ poems, I am now thinking that a celebration of what we are set to lose might be a more effective way of working. All that under the illusion that poetry reaches the sort of readership which has any power to change our suicidal course…
Q: A necessary illusion, perhaps! I could be mistaken, but it seems to me that your poetry draws a great deal of its focus and power from the theme of memory – and not just the theme, but the acts and the physical sensations of memory as it shapes a life, for which ‘the poem’ serves as a kind of receptacle. Is this in any way close to the mark? I’m thinking of pieces like ‘How the Body Remembers’, or ‘Nocturnal Visitors’, in which, “blind fingers skimming // the skin of my face”, wraiths arrive at the threshold of the poem, looking for an “an entry point” into the present, “a way into the light.”
A: Stanley Kunitz said ‘Memory is the poet’s writer in residence’, and although I have always been on my guard against falling into the trap of relating a personal memory in short lines and calling it a poem, I do, of course, draw from that well like most other poets. (Or did, I don’t think it’s happening so much now). For me it’s about allowing a memory to transmute into something bigger or at least ‘other’, something ‘memorable’ for the reader, through language.
I can’t explain the notion of the poem as receptacle you refer to, people and events wanting to get back into the world of the living through a poem. Part of it comes from that very physical feeling you can get in a dream/nightmare – the ones you have to wrestle to wake up from, where the people in the dream seem to have very real physical presence. I guess one’s hope always is, with memories, to achieve a poem that strikes a chord with the reader’s own experience and sensibility. The other reason for the massive place of memory in my third collection, Mountains for Breakfast is, of course, my husband’s memory loss. Watching a powerful mind crumble, seeing chunks fall off and drift away, isn’t something you’d wish on anyone, something we all rightly are in terror of.
Q: I’m also keen to know whether there are certain landscapes (or any specific associations with the term “wilderness”) that are rich for you, poetically or personally. I ask because, on first glance, your work seems swept with the light of the West of Ireland, but also, in other ways, spans the globe – offering readers a “world without maps” that stands open to (sometimes painful) discovery, from Ireland to South Africa to Palestine.
A: I have been coming to this part of Mayo since the mid-eighties when I was still working in Spain, freelancing as a journalist in Madrid by that stage, having opted out of a secure future teaching English in the French school system. I can’t explain my bond with the landscape here, 10 km west of Louisburgh. All I know is that I fell for it, like falling in love, when I came for a holiday with my young children and some friends in 1984. Sight unseen, I bought an old cottage over the following winter, a few hundred yards from the house we’d holidayed in. And here I am, 35 years on.
One’s relationship to a physical landscape is the strangest thing – a lot of people feel freaked by the barrenness and ‘wilderness’ of where I live, but it has become so familiar to me it’s as if I engage in easy conversation with the fields and hills, the sea and the birds, when I am out and about. (Yes, definitely ‘for the birds…’). And this even though it is not at all ‘my place’ – I was brought up in respectable southside Dublin. The historical traces all around me here are of famine, clearances and emigration, yet somehow I seem to find in it some sort of consonant emotional landscape. This became especially apparent during my husband’s long illness before his death in 2015. My notebooks and the landscape became my most reliable companions in those seven or eight years, in the isolation of living with a person whose memory was going progressively AWOL. The drive along the southern shore of Clew Bay between home and Westport, or the road to Galway through Doolough, along the Killary and on through the Maam Valley, never ceases to soothe my soul.
All that said, I can also be fickle. I am nostalgic for some of the wilderness places I vividly remember from my time in Spain and I love going to the Pyrenean foothills where my daughter lives. The sea seems to be a big thing. Any of the places I have lived beside water – Algiers, Marseille, Barcelona and even the cliff edge house I spent five years in at boarding school in St. Andrews, Scotland – feed my writing self in some way or another. Several of the poems in Of Birds and Bones are to do with laying the ghosts of those five years of boarding school, seeing the place through adult eyes after so long.
Q: Your long poem, or sequence, ‘Discredited Form, Discredited Subject Matter’, combines the compelling strangeness of a dream diary with the lucidity and concision of more traditional lyric verse, each register (I think) flowing quite freely into the other. Can you tell us something about how this poem took shape? And more generally, I’d be interested to hear your take on questions of formal arrangement: are there certain rules/conventions/layouts you find helpful in structuring your work as you write, or do these mainly exist to be broken and made anew?
A: That long sequence came quite late in the construction or putting together of Mountains for Breakfast, which came out in early 2017. I have for years had the habit of writing first thing in the morning, from my bed (like Proust!!), starting by trying to put into words what I see out the window: Clare Island, day breaking, the sea, the gently sloping hill running down to it. Always the same, always different. Depending on the seasons and the weather, the light is never the same two mornings running, the colour of the sea changes literally as you watch. I had been reading a lot of Charles Wright since my husband’s death and I think it was his loose style and his wonderful way of mixing sharp observations of the natural world with deep existential musings (Louise Glück does something similar, but Wright spoke more directly to me) that gave me permission to leave the constraints of the short lyric behind. I already had some prose poems and have always been fascinated by (and played around with) the use of the ‘white space’, how some poets use it innovatively to huge effect while others seem to do it just for the sake of – and fail. John Burnside is one of my all-time favourite poets and his line-breaks and use of the page are so good. Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake came out in the summer of 2016 and that was no doubt another permission-giver, even though her brilliance sometimes leaves me a bit cold. I do believe in that way of poets influencing each other – ‘permission’ to push the boundaries, not copying but feeling that we can expand the range of our own voice in some new way.
Ilya Kaminsky says something along the lines of ‘to write poetry you must break the language…’. I admire his work. But I also think A.E. Stallings is amazing in her mastery of traditional form, while making her poetry so contemporary. I couldn’t do what she does in a million years! In general, I tend to shy away from the well-behaved. I think where my own work is concerned I am led by my ear – the music has to be right, even if that music is wilfully discordant.
Q: As you've touched on above, your poetry books are punctuated with references (and occasionally tributes) to other authors – from Derek Mahon and Charles Wright to John McGahern and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I take it you’re an avid reader, and not just of poetry! Which leads me to wonder: are reading and writing interrelated activities for you? And similarly, what do you make of the ‘Irish poetry canon’ as a concept – is it accurate, limiting, interesting, etc?
A: I’ve just finished The Testaments, almost in one sitting – partly because it’s such a page-turner, but also because I increasingly resent the time it takes to read a novel! – and a great essay on poetry and climate change by Karen Solie in the most recent issue of Poetry London. I’m re-reading Kei Millar’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. Without reading, no writing as far as I am concerned. Books are such a gift, a parallel world, an extension to our circumscribed, finite existence. I tend to buy new collections of poets I like and subscribe to quite a few journals. Poetryfoundation.org is a brilliant resource, too, and I follow their podcasts, as well as Kevin Young’s periodic New Yorker discussions online.
As for the ‘Irish poetry canon’ (yes to the inverted commas!), I don’t feel very concerned, nor have I a strong opinion. It’s a bit like a map made before the digital age. In a definition I read just this morning, that’s ‘a completed present that is mute about the unfolding of events in the past and that forecloses the future’. I guess the label ‘canon’ inevitably does that. I am simply grateful for poets that move and excite me whoever they are and wherever I find them. I’m always interested in new poets coming into print. I guess the thing is to remember it’s about the writing.