Alice Kinsella was born in Dublin and raised in Mayo. She was educated in Trinity College Dublin and NUI Galway. Her poetry has been widely published at home and abroad, most recently in The Lonely Crowd, The Irish Times, and Best New British and Irish Poets 2018. Her work has been listed for competitions such as Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Competition 2016, Jonathan Swift Awards 2016, Cinnamon Press Pamphlet Competition 2017, and the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize 2018. She was SICCDA Liberties Festival writer in residence for 2017 and received a John Hewitt bursary in the same year.
Q: Your video-poem, ‘In Our Hands’ was released in October, 2017, and paints a justifiably scathing picture of Catholic Ireland (church and state) from the perspective of a woman whose reproductive choices and general self-perception it sets out to control. Can you elaborate on the political context for this piece, and what motivated you to write it?
A: This is a tough one. The Catholic Church, hypocrisy, and abortion, is a much bigger topic than poetry. I’m not sure I can give a succinct answer but I’ll give it a go.
I’m a political person, but I’m not a political poet. I think political poems are incredibly important, but I have tried in the past to keep my own politics out of my poetry for fear that I’d lose my mind. I usually write quite personal poems, looking at love, loss, grief, philosophy, all the usual suspects. The onslaught of political opinions and arguments that breaks out online wears me down, and if I can avoid it I will. But I, like most people, have a breaking point. And for me that breaking point is hypocrisy. Especially if it’s related to the Catholic Church.
That poem is about Repeal the Eighth. It was written before the referendum was announced. I can't quite remember what exactly sparked the writing of it, most likely it was accumulation of things. It's definitely not an all-encompassing poem in regards to Repeal the Eighth. It's very specifically about people using Catholicism as an excuse to oppose repealing the eighth. I'm all for freedom of religion. Absolutely, believe what you want to believe, practice what you want to practice. Freedom and autonomy are very important. Someone could do with telling the Catholic Church that. In this country the church has a history of controlling everything. I get angry that they dare to assume a moral high ground on this issue, as if thousands and thousands of women children haven't died in Ireland because of the Catholic Church.
I keep seeing those posters, those "love both" posters. When people who are pro-choice are painted as baby murderers, those doing the painting seem to forget our country’s track record when it comes to caring for children and pregnant women.
In 'In Our Hands' I reference Anne Lovett, the Magdalene Laundries, The Tuam Babies, Savita Halappanavar. I could have mentioned industrial schools, Joanne Hayes, or coming right up to date, the thousands of children that are homeless in Ireland today. If you want to love children, love the ones that are already here.
I’m not telling anyone they have to be pro-choice, everyone has the right to their opinion etc etc. what I am saying is don’t be a hypocrite. Don’t pretend that pro-choice people are evil and that before we came along Ireland was a safe place for women and children. This poem is political, but it’s also personal, it comes from a place of anger, but more than that it comes from compassion.
Q: I’m also interested to hear your thoughts on the video poem per se. How does it relate to printed page poetry, for example? Is it a new art form, a medium perhaps uniquely suited to ‘poetic activism’, so to speak?
A: My knowledge of video poems as a genre is limited. I’ve only done two so far, and both of those were originally intended for the page. I’m primarily a page poet. The poem part of a video poem is audio; I think the current popularity of video poems has its roots in spoken word.
There’s a lot of debate on whether or not page poetry and spoken word poetry are really different. During this debate someone usually gets their feelings hurt. I think they’re different, but that doesn’t mean one is better than the other. Poetry is about communication, and spoken word poems and page poems communicate with their audiences differently. A reader will have more time with a page poem, so the poet can take the luxury of being a little more complex in their sentences. A spoken word poem tends to have lot of emphasis on rhythm, rhyme, and delivery, which is a skill I hugely admire. I’d also say that a page poet can write a spoken word poem and vice versa.
I think video poems are great: they access a wider audience, give the opportunity to collaborate with other artists. I can't make a video myself; I've so far made video poems with my dad, who's a photographer. I'm lucky that we have very similar aesthetics artistically. I think I’d see 'In Our Hands' more as a poetry video than a video-poem, if that makes sense? A music video adds to the song, but it doesn’t mean a song is inseparable from its video. 'In Our Hands' was written for the page, and I developed it for video when Choicebox approached me asking if I had something suitable. As a new art form… I think video and poetry together have definitely increased in popularity because of social media. As technology moves forward so does art.
Poetic activism, as you call it, is probably a large part of the increase in popularity of poetry in recent years. People view and share videos that talk about issues that are important to them. Poetry can get across a point in an articulate and appealing way. We're very lucky that we can enhance a poem with visuals and sound in this way, and make it more appealing to a wider audience.
Q: Watching 'In Our Hands', I was reminded of another poem of yours, ‘Nativity’, in which a young girl is instructed not to touch “or desire to touch” the figurines in a Christmas crib, although “He can / and will / because boys / will be boys.” The poem ends memorably by fixing the reader’s attention on “the adoring eyes” of a broken (female) figurine “now gazing / into nothingness.” Is this a common impulse in your work, do you think – to bring broken experiences (and sometimes the unspoken social rules that helped to produce them) into a space of general acknowledgement? I’m thinking of the pieces above, but also a poem like ‘Pillars’, referring to the so-called “pillars” of a rural “community”, although “we didn’t notice them crumble / and we’ll soon forget they’re gone.” Or your more recent poem, ‘When’, written for International Women’s Day 2017, which pointedly revises Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’: “When you can say the words that are not listened to / But keep on saying them because you know they’re true”.
A: Yes. In a word. Everyone’s a bit broken. When I’m writing, I try to find the common link between the poet and the reader. Poetry is about making the personal universal. There’s an element of voyeurism in reading a lot of poetry. To see so intimately into the lives of others. We do this to understand, to feel echoes of our own lives in them. There’s a lot of consolation in poetry, knowing that we’re not alone.
I’ve always had a huge interest in giving a voice to the voiceless. I think literature in general, but for me poetry, has the ability to get people to put themselves in another’s shoes. It facilitates empathy, which I think is an incredibly important part of human nature and it should be nurtured. For this to work in a poem, for me anyway, the poem has to come from a very personal emotion or idea. Accessing the broken parts in myself is the only way I can do justice to communicating with the reader. I do find myself drawn to what you call broken experiences, though I’m not entirely sure if I realised that before now… perhaps that comes from a desire to bring these scenarios to light, or perhaps it’s just because these are the experiences I most relate to.
Q: You’ve also been known to dabble in drama - and more than dabble: your play ‘The Passing’ was launched at the Liberties Festival in 2016. Is this an ongoing creative interest of yours, and will we be seeing more of your dramatic work in future? Do the demands of writing change when you switch from poetry to drama (or, is there a ‘switch’ involved)?
A: I love drama. Seeing my work come to life on stage that first time was such a rush. The collaborative aspect of drama in particular is a real draw. Once you hand over a script to a producer, director and actors, it isn’t really yours anymore, it’s incredible watching a producer, director and actors get passionate about the play.
I have such respect for everyone that works on a play, actors in particular, I’ve seen how emotionally invested they become in their characters and the story. I know I could never act, and their talents just astounds me. It becomes something important to everyone involved, and that’s a really lovely feeling. At the moment my first full length play, currently called 'Violent Desires', is in development with Blacklight Theatre Company. It will be a part of their New Writing Symposium in June of this year. You can follow Blacklight here: https://www.facebook.com/blacklightproductions.ie.
It’s very much a work in progress. My two short plays went from page to stage quite quickly, which was exciting, but I’m also enjoying having the time with this play, with these characters, to develop them as much as possible. Poetry and drama are very different. A first draft of a poem can be written very quickly. I find I plan more with drama. There’s also the element of fiction vs. non-fiction. Poetry tends to be quite autobiographical, whereas with drama I can indulge in the characters and their desire to misbehave.
Q: Finally, your pamphlet Flower Press is forthcoming from The Onslaught Press in Oxford. Congratulations! Can you tell us how this came together (including, for example, the process of editing and compiling your manuscript into its final form)?
A: Thank you very much! It was, if memory serves me correctly, June 2016, that I decided I had enough poems to start looking at a collection. I totted up the poems that I was proud of, and had about eighty poems. I then ping-ponged over these poems for months and months. It was January 2017 when I compiled what would become Flower Press. I submitted that manuscript and in May 2017 it was accepted for publication by The Onslaught Press.
Flower Press would never have happened without feedback from other poets. It’s an invaluable part of putting a book together, finding readers you trust with your work to give you honest feedback. My editor, Mathew Staunton, was incredibly supportive and helpful with the editing process. He really understood what I was trying to do with the book. I’m very lucky to be with The Onslaught Press, from day one I felt like Flower Press was in safe hands.
Flower Press is an odd little book. I hadn’t intended it to be my first collection. I was writing a very different collection, but the poems from Flower Press started to form a very separate narrative. It started as a pamphlet, I think it was twenty poems when I first sent it to my editor. As it evolved through editing it became twenty-five poems. It’s somewhere in between pamphlet and collection, length-wise. I was worried about this being a little unconventional, but then I realised that this was a book I needed to write, and it’s the length it needed to be. I’m really pleased with how it turned out.