Grace Wilentz grew up in Greenwich Village, New York City. She has published poems in The American Poetry Journal, Cyphers, The Harvard Advocate, Magma, The Irish Times and The Seneca Review.
She moved to Ireland in 2005 to study the Irish language and became an Irish citizen in 2015. Last year she published a chapbook, Holding Distance (Green Bottle Press, 2019), and received a bursary from The Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaíon. She has taught Creative Writing at UCD and now lives in the Liberties of Dublin.
Her first full collection, The Limit of Light, was published by The Gallery Press in Autumn 2020.
Q: Am I correct in saying that you grew up in Greenwich Village, New York? And now are living in Ireland full-time. Can you comment on what brought you to Ireland originally, and also on the poetic ‘journey’ that may have accompanied this decision and trajectory? For instance, I’d be interested to hear whether you think your transatlantic experience may have equipped you with a more eclectic literary tradition and milieu to draw on than you might otherwise have had.
A: Yes, those are my roots. My dad ran a bookstore in Greenwich Village during the beat scene and my mother was a sculptor who taught sculpture and anatomy at NYU. They had a lot of respect for Irish culture – I remember a rubbing of Yeats’ grave my dad made, and my parents’ old guidebooks and stories about spending time in Ireland. My father also knew the Clancy brothers from his time at a pub called The Lion’s Head, just a few steps down from Christopher Street.
My first year in university, I had to fulfil a language requirement. My university offered almost every language imaginable so I decided I would study a language I might never have the opportunity to learn again. Reading Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill in translation led me to start studying the Irish language. The year after, I travelled to Dublin for the first time to improve my Irish, and to spend a summer reading Ciarán Carson, Marina Carr, Brian Friel and John Banville. I felt so happy here and hoped to find a way to stay, though I didn’t meet a single person who could understand the Ulster Irish I’d learned in the US. I returned to Cambridge, and wrote my junior thesis on the work of Medbh McGuckian before travelling back to Ireland again this time as a student at Queen’s in Belfast, making trips to Ballycastle Beach. Fifteen years later, I am now an Irish citizen.
In terms of my own work, I draw from the richness of the Irish and American tradition, and try to see if I can play a useful role as a kind of poetic cross-pollinator.
Q: I don’t know if you’d agree with this, but it seems to me that your poems register and communicate a desire to make things whole. In one piece, having “painted the front gate black for the summer, / emptied the boiler’s full tank of water”, your poem’s persona is “left with all this love / and nothing to do with it.” I wonder if this might indicate something of your understanding of poetry’s purpose and importance: the poem filling a gap, or making something from the residues that life (a memory, or even a person) leaves behind. Where does your writing come from, and what does your creative process usually involve (assuming you have a consistent process)?
A: That’s a beautiful question. The poem you’ve quoted, ‘Summer Accomplishments, After Death’ was very organic in how it came about. If I am being honest I feel like this sonnet just wrote itself. Its strength is in its simplicity, its listing, its careful attention; it also captures the sometimes welcome distraction that can be found in all the administrative and manual tasks that accompany loss. I think that poem tries to capture the heavy lifting of trying to process grief, and the acute feeling when the unmistakable absence is felt again. It’s also about the difficulty in locating and knowing oneself without the familiar mooring of the one you love. It is essentially a to-do list, that somehow captures part of the experience of a life in which there us suddenly a lot of unwanted space. But you are right, there is a striving for wholeness in my work, and a belief that some traumas in life are unavoidable, but if they can be said to offer any ‘pearl’ it is probably resilience and wisdom.
Q: It may sound like a strange question, but I wonder if you find any consolation in poetry, as a reader and a writer. I’m thinking of another piece of yours, in which you see the “sense your life made” once now running “ahead of you – / a wild pony pulling its trap, / a startled child at the reins.” Perhaps I’ve missed the mark, but it occurred to me that by expressing such (apparently irrevocable) panic and loss, the poem strangely manages to put a kind of order on these experiences, placing them in a field of understanding that makes them at least potentially more bearable. Can you comment on this – either in relation to the poem above, or as a possible theme in your work more generally?
A: I think I discover a lot about my own experience through writing it. This poem is very autobiographical. I lost both my parents at a young age; it felt completely unnatural, and I let that discomfort come through in the work. I hope to capture some elements of realism and authenticity about both love and loss. I’m open to the possibility that writing life experiences might help to integrate them somehow, through order or trying to make meaning where it might not exist.
Q: Part of the reason I asked that question is because I know you have considerable professional experience in the area of human rights law and activism; having worked in tandem with a number of UN bodies, you’re currently serving on the boards of the Irish Family Planning Association and Akidwa: Ireland’s National Network for Migrant Women. Can you comment on the relationship (if there is one) between your work in this field and your poetic endeavours? I’m also curious to know whether, in light of your human rights advocacy, you think poetry can not only make things whole, but also make things ‘right’? Can poetry serve a socially or politically remedial function– and should it be pressed on to do so?
A: The work I do as an activist is very political, but my poetry is less overtly so. It’s there in my work, but it’s not front and centre. When I do go there in a poem, I am usually enter the political through the personal. My ten-plus years working to realise sexual and reproductive rights and justice is there in some of the work in my first collection, The Limit of Light, in poems like ‘Late Night Restorative’.
That poem is about being physically exhausted from campaigning during the referendum, and going to a late night yoga class full of women. I was looking around and reflecting on the vulnerability and humanness of all of us during a period when the right to control our own bodies was literally up for public vote. Our constitution made it necessary, and I’m proud that we the people arrived at the logical and compassionate conclusion, but voting on the rights of people is, at a basic level, pretty wrong. Being the people whose lives hang in the balance is a trauma at a national level. No doubt this was true, too, for Ireland’s LGBTQ+ population during the Marriage Equality referendum. In the poem I am transported to my earliest days in the movement, taking helpline calls from women who needed to access abortion services abroad (the only legal way at the time). It is about being witness to all that unnecessary suffering, and how that never leaves you.
I think that if your work is of it’s time, it will bump up against some of the defining political issues for your generation. I think some political poetry can have its moment, and provide a really powerful rallying cry, but fade over time. Others endure. Generally I think literature is a wonderful way to connect with people’s innate intelligence, imagination and heart.
Q: I’ve asked a number of (perhaps unnecessarily convoluted!) questions about your aspirations and practice as a writer. But I’m also interested to hear something, finally, about what the years ahead may hold in store for your work. I understand you’re working towards a first collection. What does this process consist of, for you? And what have been your hopes and concerns as you’ve approached this project so far?
A: So, you asked me this in 2018 when I was working on my first full collection. That eventually became The Limit of Light (Gallery Press, 2020). It was also a time when I was putting in long days on the referendum campaign. I came home every night at a late hour and depleted from that intense and emotional work. But many nights I would find a sliver of time to sit down at my desk to work a little bit on my manuscript. I felt like I did so little in 2018, and at the time I was so sad about it, especially since two publishers had reached out to me expressing interest in my work. I sent them a sample, but knew I needed to do so much more work before I had a full collection-length body of work I’d be comfortable publishing.
At a friend’s suggestion, I tossed 10 poems into a pamphlet competition run by the Green Bottle Press and forgot about it. Towards the end of the year, they got in touch to say they’d like to publish my pamphlet. The following year, I was awarded a literature bursary from the Arts Council to finish my first collection. It’s funny, but in my life as a poet, whenever I feel like I fall of the horse, some opportunity opens up quite unexpectedly to help bring me back in.
It was a joy working with Jennifer Grigg at the Green Bottle Press to bring out Holding Distance (2019), and since them I’ve had great experiences bringing out my artist’s book collaboration, Parallel Studies (2020), with Éilís Murphy of Folded Leaf, and my first full collection, The Limit of Light (2020), with Peter Fallon at the Gallery Press. I feel like I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to work with people who genuinely believed in me, and who worked with me to develop different elements of my poetic practice. Now, I suppose, I am doing a lot of dreaming and indulging my play drive for some future projects, which may or may not pan out. My hope is to keep growing as a poet, and to stay close to the flow of ideas and to keep my eyes open.