Ní Churreáin is a poet from Northwest Donegal. Her debut collection Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017) was shortlisted for the Shine Strong Award for best first collection in Ireland and for the 2018 Julie Suk Award in the U.S.A. She is the author of a suite of poems about Dublin titled Town (The Salvage Press, 2018).
In 2016 Ní Churreáin was the recipient of a Next Generation Artist Award, presented by President Michael D. Higgins on behalf of the Arts Council. She was the 2017-18 Kerry Writer In Residence and the recipient of the inaugural 2018-19 John Broderick Residency Award from the Westmeath Arts Office. Ní Churreáin has been awarded literary fellowships from Akademie Schloss Solitude, Jack Kerouac House Orlando, and Hawthornden Castle Scotland. Her poetry is taught as part of the Writing Program at Florida Gulf Coast University.
The Yale Review surmised that “Ní Churreáin often captures a whole world of cultural and historical implications in a single, simple, but metaphorically rich image.” The Los Angeles Review of Books stated: “That Ní Churreáin can condense the prototypical life of a young Irish woman into half a page while sustaining the poem’s impact is testament to her ability as a storyteller, the vividness of her language, and the universality of the portraits she is painting....”
Ní Churreáin lives in Dublin. She is a member of the Arts Council Writers in Prisons Scheme. In 2018-19 she is composing a libretto for an upcoming opera production. Her second poetry collection is forthcoming. More information is available from www.studiotwentyfive.com.
Q: Your piece ‘The Scandal’ begins with a recognition in hindsight: that “the villagers did not unite / in outrage”, but carried on with their lives, gradually undergoing a “slow retreat from joyousness”, which the poem (I think) implicitly criticises or laments. I wonder if you feel this is a theme that runs throughout your work – the desire to map out and fill in the sometimes troubling silences that punctuate a life, whether individual or communal. I’m thinking even of your piece, ‘Laundry’, for example, in which despite having “no formal language to share [their] separate joy”, the poem’s persona and a man “who speaks no English perfectly” seem to reach a wordless understanding of one another’s experience – an understanding crystallised in the form of your poem. Can you comment on the interplay between poetry and silence in your work? I’m also curious as to whether the layout of your poems is sometimes intended to reflect this relationship, when you include gaps and breathing spaces as part of the syntax of a particular line.
A: Where I come from is a place that knows well the impact of social and economic voicelessness. It’s the island’s edge, a bogland slowly losing its own tongue. I grew up in northwest Donegal in the 1980’s, flanked on one side by the Atlantic, and on the other by a troubled political border. It was by most standards a wild, free experience of the world, though I still remember what it meant to cross the border at night and see a gun over the rim of a car window. I remember the queue stretched around the corner of the job center on dole day and the pale, almost dreamless faces of bored young men. I remember what it was to have a father living in a London bedsit, sending us back money each week and what was not written in those hand-penned letters.
Silence as a form of lament was all around me in that landscape. From the boglands I learned a great sensitivity for the hiddenness of things, for what might be buried in the dark. Inside the home, there was also the atmosphere of the unsaid, the potency of secrets. For most of my childhood my family was on the journey of adoption reunion, seeking to trace and connect with paternal kin. Later, I shared my home with kids of the fostercare system. The silence surrounding that which was literally too painful to express in words was everyday, and directly related to my ideas of domesticity, ancestry and roots. Even today, I still think of it as a violation of some mysterious code to literally ask or say too much.
In my debut collection Bloodroot many of the poems are shaped thematically or lyrically by an interest in silence. Often, I am drawn back to moments in history scarred by a sense of wordlessness. In exploring trauma, marginalised lives, the ways in which women and children have been made vulnerable by institutions of the Irish State, silence is troubling. And yet, as a tool of poetry, silence has a special currency, a richness by which all kinds of freedom become accessible. To enter into a poem’s silence is to unpack and reveal new meaning, independently of marks or sound.
In ‘The Scandal’ there is a deliberate non-naming of the events at the heart of the poem, which I felt was essential to evoking the spirit of a small, rural community. There’s a particular quality to the silence that exists in rural Ireland, a strange intimacy. Similarly, ‘Laundry’ is a poem about intimacy and deals with how close relationships are forged in settings that feel other. This poem is read sometimes as a love poem, but really it draws upon my personal experience of building sibling relationships with strangers. On the page I use space around and between words to suggest silence, loss, lapses in memory. In my recitals I also use silence to conjure the bodily self and explore the nature of my relationship with the audience.
Q: The question of silence in your work also suggests that poetry can be as much a matter of silence-breaking as it is of lyric expression – each mode inflecting and informing the other. In their differing ways, writers such as Seamus Heaney and Adrienne Rich have explored the many kinds of redress which poetry allows and demands – moral, political, linguistic, etc. Is this impulse (towards redress) an important one in your writing?
A: As a poet I have no real say over what drives a poem forward, or what the poem itself want to achieve. My first responsibility is always to truth and beauty for the sake of truth and beauty, and after that the poem takes on a life of its own. For ‘Six Ways To Wash Your Hands, Ayliffe 1978’ I visited the Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home in Westmeath where my grandmother gave birth. I knew only that I wanted to write something. I filled my notebook with observations on the physical site – the walls, the wild growth, the colours of the landscape. It came as a total surprise to find that the poem, which rushed urgently from me within a matter of hours, wanted a dialogue with the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation.
"Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt," Joyce said. A poem, of course, is not a placard, or a chant (and neither do I feel that the poet is in some way obliged to contribute to political or social commentary), and yet a poem is transformative by nature. It seeks to create a moment of change in the world. More than any other literary form, poetry connects the human body to the power of silence, rhythm and breath. To make a mark or a sound with your own physical self, how can that not be political?
In Bloodroot, redress is everywhere, and includes the redress of space, the redress of wordlessness, the redress of historical injustice. There is also a kind of early redress of how the self might be perceived in coming out as a young female writer. To do so is to run the risk of being labeled angry, overly politicised, intrusive. We’re still not beyond giving female writers a slap on the wrist. We still hold female writers to different review and critiquing standards. So, in this way, before the poem even began to take shape on the page, I was compelled to consider the feeling of redress.
In very different ways, Heaney and Rich have taught me much about the craft of writing, specifically the process of unshelling a poem’s core. This is a process I’m very interested in and one through which I have learned a high regard for brokenness and repair. I think of myself as a dismantler, akin to someone who tinkers with radios. It is the job of the poet to count syllables, break lines, separate text into verse: to strip, part and pare language down to the bare bones. It is the job of the poet, as I see it, to take apart what we think we already know.
Q: While we’re on the topic – and thinking of poems like ‘Cult’ or ‘Family Law’ – are there specific traditions of silence (even violence) in Ireland that your work consciously sets out to counter and expose? Reading Bloodroot I couldn’t help but think that one of the literary aspirations of your poems may be akin to what campaigns like Justice for Magdalenes have aimed for in civil society. Can you comment on this analogy, and on the political background and direction of your poetry more generally?
A: For much of Bloodroot I was simply feeling my way blindly ahead from poem to poem, which is to say that I did not have any conscious plans to expose or counter specific themes at all. In fact, I spent a long time during and after my M.Phil in Creative Writing composing poems about nature, the beauty of the wild landscape and romantic love. Yet, over time, questions began to reveal themselves: what is it I am being called to say? What is it I am afraid to say? What is it in me that wants to be heard? In Bloodroot the first silence I managed to break was my own.
The impulse for poetry is pre-verbal, ancestral even. Our language and what we feel compelled to do with it is at times, and at times not at all, within our control. In Bloodroot the spirit of the foremothers was with me throughout, shaping and guiding the book. More than aspirations of a campaign kind, the poems confront what in what my ancestry has historically gone unsaid. It was by the act of writing that I discovered the full extent of my connection with my paternal grandmother. In life, I barely knew this woman, yet on the page I was harrowed by my sense of her time in a Mother and Baby Home. When the time came for me to collate and arrange Bloodroot, the first poem I laid out on the table was ‘Protest’. Every other poem was potentially up for debate, except this one.
Is the poet ever fully prepared for what the poem presents? Is the poet ever fully willing? Certainly I was reluctant to write about violence. Perhaps the whole point is that what gets revealed in a poem is what elsewhere your conscious self is trying to ignore. ‘Cult’ was composed at the Cois Tine Residency in Cavan during a visit with composer Michael Gallen. In quite a dramatic fashion an ornamental head tumbled off the mantle one day. I began to think about the human head, about the violence done to my own head and to heads of women all through Irish history. I discovered that a Brigid cult once existed in Cavan and that according to legend a three-faced stone Brigid head, similar to the Corleck Head, is said to be dumped at the bottom of Roosky Lake. Before I could stop myself, I was layers deep into a poem about physical assault.
‘Family Law’ was written in response to a question from my god-daughter who went through a brief religious phase around the age of six years old, and who asked me one night as I was tucking her into bed: what do you believe in? Implied within her question, I thought, was the other question of what will keep you safe from harm? It was impossible for me to write the poem without exploring the thorny subject of the religious patriarchy and its relationship with the female body, beginning with a single rib.
Q: As you’re from Donegal, I wonder whether you feel the culture and landscape you grew up in has affected your approach to writing, and in particular your idea of what it means to be an “Irish” poet. Reading your work, it occurred to me that Irishness as a literary context may have less to do with a canon based around the likes of W. B. Yeats and James Joyce, and more to do with the articulation of suppressed experiences, and the acknowledgement of dispossession in its various (often gendered) forms. Another way of putting this might be to say that if “the one sure thing” we have “is memory”, as you suggest in your poem ‘House’, then your work deepens that certainty and broadens its scope by tracing our history (and your own life) right back to its bloodroots. Could you comment on this aspect of your poetry – where it derives its inspiration from, in every sense?
A: In my self language and landscape are absolutely intertwined. I find it almost impossible to have a conversation about my poetry without first addressing the question of where I come from. Something I’ve not yet mentioned here, but which is important, is the fact that Gaeilge was my first language. It was, for a long time, the everyday language of the home. That changed when the family began fostering children. It’s a very particular thing, I think, to lose a grip on your mother tongue under the influence of the Irish State. This loss, if not of the language itself, but of one’s confidence to use it, has certainly informed my sense of what it means to be an Irish writer.
As a creative writing facilitator, I’m nourished by work with the oppressed and/or suppressed voice. The workshops that I find most rewarding are often those within prison settings or with people in the care of the State. I believe that poetry as a discipline holds well the experience of lost perspective, of voicelessness, of what should or cannot be easily said. Given my own long obsession with the theme of source, I enjoy helping others connect creatively to a sense of origin. From the root, all power flows. When we go back to redream ourselves whole, we reclaim the orphan parts of human experience.
For me poetry has been a way of breaking out of gender, of challenging the ways in which I am being asked to perform my femaleness. ‘House’ was written as an ode to the woman who I knew as my paternal grandmother. From her I learned a great freedom of language expression that has definitely shaped my voice. In her company none of the usual rules about what it meant to be a girl applied, I was instead empowered to be a strong person by accessing the full range of my emotions. This was my first poetry lesson and one that taught me how to take ownership of my interior world. Even today, all these years later, when I want to focus my mind on the act of writing I close my eyes and invoke the physical space of her home. The site explored in ‘House’ is very much part of the memory life of my daily writing practice.
Q: What is your impression of contemporary Irish poetry right now, and how do you feel your work relates to this field? Have you found travel and transit (changing places) to be important to your writing process at all?
A: Now is an exciting time for Irish poetry, particularly for young Irish female poets. The long road paved by our elder sisters has made it possible to develop a busy and dynamic practice as a poet. When I think of the work of Eavan Boland, of Leland Bardwell, of Paula Meehan, I think these are poets who made it possible for women like me to write the poems I want to write. There is extraordinary solidarity right now among female writers in Ireland. In publishing Bloodroot I was overwhelmed by the levels of support.
For sure, the digital revolution has illuminated the landscape of Irish poetry, opening up new opportunities for connectivity and exploration. But I don’t feel that page poetry is in danger of dying out anytime soon. The desire to make a mark with your self, to see that mark on material, that’s a very primal thing. Irish poetry is to my mind a kind of three-headed beast comprising the page poem, the poem best performed to a live audience, and the poem that shines in an online space. To try and measure the value of one against the other is beyond pointless. Perhaps a better test of a poem is how well it holds together over time. I am of the opinion, truly, that there is room for each type of poem. I am myself not especially drawn to recording for online media but some of my very favorite poets thrive in it.
The best thing about the poetry scene in Ireland is that the scene is so small. Equally, the worst thing about the scene is that it’s so small. I’d love to see more critical reviewing, less of a preoccupation with the traditional lyric form, and more scope for poets to develop professionally. In Ireland we still have a huge problem with the poet who takes their own practice ‘too seriously’. For this reason I admire poets who work hard and who expect reward. Travel is one way of broadening your horizons in relation to all these things. International residencies have been a constant source of fuel for me. In 2014, I returned from a 6-month residency in Akademie Schloss Solitude having lived and worked alongside 45 artists across various disciplines. It changed utterly and beyond my wildest dreams my relationship with my writing. If I had one piece of crucial advice for any would-be writers, it’s this – for a while at least, get off the island! Nothing you learn among creators from other cultures and backgrounds will harm your writing!
Q: I’ve mentioned a few names from the Anglophone ‘canon’ so far. Are there any writers or artists in particular whose work has had a significant impact on your work? Also, do you only write in English, or does Irish-language poetry also have an appeal for you?
A: I currently write only in the English language, though I draw heavily upon Irish language imprints in the physical landscape. Perhaps the poem that best exemplifies this is ‘The Kerry Foot’. It was written at Cahir Saidhbhín, a place that translates from Irish as ‘Fort of Little Sadbh’. In legend Sadbh was robbed by a spurned suitor of her human body and separated from her young child. It was this legend that helped me explore another story local to that same site, that of the 1984 ‘Kerry Babies’.
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is, I believe, one of the true champions of poetry in Ireland. Not only has she chosen to write in what is often regarded as the underdog literary form, she has chosen to do so in a minority language. All her life, Ní Dhomhnaill has stayed true to her tongue, though certainly she could have taken the easier path by working instead in English. When we talk of bravery in writing, of protecting the voice, of finding a way – against the odds – to continue writing poems, there is no greater teacher. I’m also a signed-up lifetime follower of Joyce, Heaney, Eavan Boland, Colm Tóibín, Edna O’Brien, Paula Meehan, Thomas McCarthy, Leland Bardwell, and I try to spend time too with lesser known voices, such as Madge Herron – a Donegal poet born circa 1916 who went to London and whose poems at that time were well outside the bounds of what was expected or maybe even tolerated of a female poet in Ireland.
In my thirties I’m revisiting the American poets I loved so much as a teenager: Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, the Beats. In 2014, I was awarded a Writer In Residence position at the Kerouac House in Orlando, and that experience reconnected me to many of my old American loves. I very much admire writers like Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson, who push boundaries and stretch form. But probably the poet who inspires me most today is Elizabeth Bishop, the writer’s writer, whose exacting sensitivity for detail is something I aspire to. In planning workshops or mentoring other writers I regularly turn to Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, and interestingly, Chekhov.