Jessica Traynor’s debut poetry collection, Liffey Swim (Dedalus Press, 2014), was shortlisted for the 2015 Strong/Shine Award. In 2016, it was named one of the best poetry debuts of the past five years on Bustle.com. She’s currently under commission by Poetry Ireland to work with composer Elaine Agnew and choirs from the four provinces of Ireland to create a thirty minute choral piece for performance in 2019. Her next collection is forthcoming in autumn 2018.
In 2016, she was commissioned by the Salvage Press to write a series of poems in response to Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal.’ The resulting art book was published in 2017 and a video on the making of the book can be found here. In 2016, she was commissioned by the Irish Writers Centre and the Arts Council to write ‘A Demonstration’ for the Easter Rising commemorations. The poem was performed in Ancient Rain (featured in the 2016 Dublin Theatre Festival and the Melbourne Arts Festival).
Q: Although acclaimed and well established as a poet, until recently your day job (so to speak) was in the literary department of The Abbey – an institution that has seen a wave of formal changes in terms of diversity and openness in the past two years, particularly in the aftermath of #WakingtheFeminists. Were you inspired by that campaign? And do you think a similar cultural shift is needed in the Irish arts in general? A recent Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, for example, seems notably laddish in its selection of contributors and poets surveyed. I’m also interested in the relationship between your editing (and possible writing?) of drama and your poetic work – how do these interact in creative terms, and also at the level of routine and discipline, for you?
A: I’m interested in the differences and the similarities in the plight of women’s work in the theatre and poetry worlds. In the world of contemporary poetry, especially in Ireland, I’m seeing a huge number of debut publications by women and I find that very heartening. However, the wider public perception of Irish poetry is still influenced very much by books like Soundings, which featured (I believe – Soundings was before my time) only one woman poet. There’s definitely a generational issue here, with many older academics being more conservative (and arguably outdated) in their choice of poets – it’s not only a question of gender imbalance, but also of the same poets being reeled out over and over again. I’m slightly suspicious of the business of academic publishing at the best of times and I think the Cambridge Anthology typifies its worst tendencies to fossilise the status quo. There’s a fantastic movement to recognise neglected voices from the canon led by Christine Murray, Kathy D’Arcy and Mary O’Donnell, and I hope that this will lead to redress. I think it’s equally important for more living women authors to be featured in these anthologies – the living need it more than the dead!
With regards theatre, I think the challenges for women are different. Waking the Feminists was a timely clarion call to the business to make changes, but I’m not sure I’ve seen many of the structural issues addressed. When I was working in the Literary Department of the Abbey Theatre, I was working with a large number of talented emerging women playwrights. Like the young women poets I’ve seen published, they were working away, honing their craft and meeting with many literary managers and representatives from various theatres. They were waiting for someone to take a punt on them – but many of the theatre companies they were approaching could only afford to foot one new writing production a year. The business of putting on a play is far more expensive than the business of publishing a book – around ten times more so. The financial risk is exponentially higher, as so many more creative levels are involved. There is also a swing away from traditional play-writing into collective theatre-making. This is fantastic if you’re a bright young college-leaver who has a group of talented student friends willing to put together a dynamic theatre company. But many playwrights (men or women) don’t have this community. Now, not only do they have to be excellent playwrights, they have to have a bunch of talented and influential friends ready to work with them.
And then there’s the issue of age. If you’ll excuse a generalisation, I think most artists hit their stride when they reach their 30s. They’ve spent their 20s experimenting and finding their voice, and by the time they reach 30-ish, they’re beginning to reap the dividends. In the theatre community, with its high costs and low funding, it’s far more difficult to break into the scene. And if you’re a solitary playwright, trying to build contacts, that involves a lot of late night networking. As a woman who has worked full time in theatre, maintained my own poetic output, has a long-term partner, a mortgage, a cat, and a baby, I can tell you firsthand you really start to accumulate these things in your 30s and that balancing them becomes a major challenge. Just about manageable if you have a community receptive to your work. Unbearable if you are still waiting for a theatre company to take a punt on you, and are trying to keep up with the latest collective straight out of the Lír Academy (no shade intended by the way - it’s not the fault of these talented kids)! I haven’t even begun to discuss the challenge for older emerging playwrights in their 40s, 50s, 60s – how are they supposed to get their break? Theatre companies are always looking for talent – it’s not like they want to avoid putting on good work – but there are so many more obstacles preventing them from making new work than there are in the poetry or novel writing sectors. The long and the short of it is that during my ten years working in the arts world I’ve seen women poets reach their 30s, get published and begin artistically fruitful (if financially unviable) careers. I’ve seen talented women playwrights reach their 30s without even a sniff of a production and give up.
I think the solution to this is finding cheaper production models, and making greater attempts to pair playwrights with directors, designers, actors and choreographers when all are at the emerging stage (no matter what their ages). None of the above can hone their skills without productions.
Q: In 2017 you were commissioned to write a series of poems in response to Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’, a project that culminated in the strikingly designed reprint of that work from Salvage Press (featuring original lithographs by David O’Kane). Satirising “the present Situation of Affairs” in 1720s Ireland, in which the governing authorities profess that they “can neither employ [the poor] in Handicraft, or Agriculture… neither build Houses [nor] cultivate Land” to meet human need, Swift outlines an economic argument instead for the harvesting of children who are hungry and homeless for food. Were you unsettled by Swift’s text when you first accepted the commission? And what do you think his ‘Modest Proposal’ has to say to present-day Irish society (if anything)? I’m interested to hear what your approach to this project was, in other words, and how you found the creative process involved.
A: I was familiar with the text before the commission came about so I was excited by the challenge it posed from the outset. To be honest, it chimed with a drive in my work towards something a little more politically engaged, which I hope will be apparent in my next collection. I’d been struggling with this drive, because I tend to dislike work that is didactic, dogmatic, or that simply preaches to the choir. I was energized by Swift’s text because it’s such a spiky, ornery, grotesque piece – it’s the primal scream of a man who has been forced to debase his own reason to the level of those who can only understand violence and exploitation. I think it’s deeply unsettling, but that’s its extraordinary power. Reading it again and being challenged to channel Swift’s responses to today’s injustices was exactly the provocation I needed, and I’m very grateful to Jamie Murphy of the Salvage Press for choosing to work with me on the project. We all went to some pretty dark places in the project – Jamie allowed David to use his own children as models for some of the gruesome images, and I filmed a poem about selling 14-year-old children for breeding while 8 months pregnant (check out my Beyoncé moment at the end here). In my nine poems I addressed the migrant crisis, direct provision, the debate around the 8th amendment, Brexit, the housing crisis, and the numbing effects of consumerism. What surprised me in the writing of these poems is the number of echoes between Swift’s time and our own. We, of course, view ourselves as the enlightened products of a 20th century that survived two world wars and the most brutal genocides in history. And yet our essential moral makeup remains relatively unchanged – we fear our neighbours, we refuse to tolerate other religions, we refuse women ownership of their bodies, we preach about the deserving and the undeserving poor. I think Swift has far more to say to us today than he would have expected writing three hundred years ago.
Q: Strikingly (if you’ll excuse the pun!), your poem ‘Matches for Rosa’ is addressed to the spirit of the German revolutionary and Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg. You’ve also written a powerful tribute to the Irish humanitarian and rebel, Dr Kathleen Lynn, which ends with the imperative to “expect a demonstration”. What do you think is the importance of bringing these figures (their actions and beliefs) to a more visible space in our shared cultural memory? I’m curious also as to whether you feel that your poems were venturing into a thematic territory that remains generally unregarded in Irish poetry. How radical (how demonstrative) is contemporary writing in Ireland, in your view – and does it matter?
A: This is a very interesting question and one I’m not sure I have the answer to. The prompt to write on Dr. Kathleen Lynn came from the Writers Centre, who commissioned me to write a poem for her as part of the 1916 commemorations. I was delighted to be asked to consider her life and work as I think she’s a fascinating woman and an excellent example of a large sector of Irish society (women, Protestants, and Protestant women in particular) who were disempowered during their lifetimes and excised from the Republic’s history after the Rising. I’m glad you mentioned her humanitarian work as I think the founding of St Ultan’s hopsital and her tending to the city’s impoverished children was a far more revolutionary action than anything that occurred during the Easter Rising.
I think giving these women voices and making them central figures in poetry is an exciting way to take part in the dialogue of history. For me, it’s less about the should of it and more about my own desire to talk back, to ask why? I often think, in poetry, we tend to feel that personal reflection can only be filtered through the naturalist mode, when what has always interested me in poetry is its inherent weirdness, its mashing together of chronologies, its ability to speak to the dead. This was the spur behind ‘Matches for Rosa’ – the notion that John Berger believed on some level that Rosa Luxemburg wasn’t dead, that she couldn’t be. Isn’t that the perfect testament to the revolutionary spirit? There are a number of other Irish poets engaged in this kind of writing back in the voices of historical women – Jane Clarke and Doireann Ní Ghríofa to name two off the top of my head. There are also poets working in a political mode, such as Dave Lordan, Elaine Feeney, Annemarie Ní Chuirreáin and Sarah Clancy, and I think the vitality and urgency of their work has really shaken the Irish poetry scene out of its complacency in the past few years. However, I do think that Irish poetry as a whole is still a bit stuck in what I call the ‘misty lakes’ mode. I think we’re due a new wave of poetic voices who will say radical things in a manner that pisses everyone off, and I look forward to that!
Q: In your poem ‘eBay Auction for Antique Jewellery’ the persona imagines being happened on, “preserved… young beneath the photo’s cracked veneer”, at some point in the future, “free of context, / purely myself, whoever that may be”. For all the social and political resonance your work often holds, I wonder whether this idea might lie at the heart of what poetry allows and signifies, for you – the chance to preserve memories that might otherwise be lost or overlooked, moments which if held to the light can reveal the texture and motion of a life now gone (or nearly). I’m thinking of the poem above, but also the title-piece of your collection Liffey Swim, in which you see “at the edge of vision, my parents, / ready to join the swimmers, / gesture their cheerful farewells”, or ‘The Disappearing Garden’, where “opening your eyes / brings something like loss in reverse…the moment when everything appears.” Could you comment on these poems, and on this quality in your work? Do you think there is a particular connection between poetry and memory in your writing, each poem acting out a kind of retrieval (sometimes before the fact) of possibilities and experiences that are, by their nature, perishable?
A: I think this is a very good insight into what drives me as a poet. I am a strange, poorly socialized only child and I have to admit I spent a good part of my childhood contemplating the passing of time, all the minute daily losses that make up a life. Having said that, I was quite a happy kid. But I think I’ve always been aware that life doesn’t offer many chances to reflect on important experiences – they wash over us, change us in ways we don’t realise, and we move on. I’ve always had a slow emotional metabolism as well, which means that a particular event might become an obsession five or ten years after the fact. I don’t think I’m alone in this – it’s a coping mechanism we all employ to some extent. But I often find myself quite shocked at the notion of only having one life – how are you supposed to live a good life in only one life? This might sound completely daft but I think about it a lot. And a lot of the first collection, especially, was an attempt to gather up all those disparate, confusing, happy, traumatic experiences of childhood and young adulthood and put some order on them – something of a subjective order, as some of the poems deal with the memory of foresight, or a lack of foresight and how it shapes a life. My attempt to capture the essence of those moments is a kind of retrieval – hopefully for the benefit of the reader as well as myself.
Q: Lastly, congratulations on the recent arrival of your first child! I imagine she brought a sea of changes with her when she came?
A: It’s been a deeply strange and wonderful process. I was quite anxious coming up to the birth that I wouldn’t respond in the right way – that I wouldn’t feel the right way. Love of babies is marketed as this quite sentimental cutesy baby powdery kind of love, when really it’s something much fiercer and quite austere. I described it to a friend as like having your foot become sentient, having it cut off, and being made to watch it negotiate the traffic on a busy road – a mixture of wonder and fear. After the fist six weeks, when the baby’s personality begins to emerge, the love changes again into something more warm and fond. Abigail is watching me know from her bouncy chair, her eyebrows knitted in consternation. She has my eyes and the facial expressions of her 34 year old father. She’s funny and great company, and is losing patience with me as we speak. Time to sign off I think….