Kerry Hardie

Kerry Hardie was born in 1951 and grew up in County Down. She now lives in County Kilkenny with her husband, the writer Seán Hardie. Her poems have won many prizes, including the Michael Hartnett Award for Poetry, the National Poetry Prize (Ireland), the Katherine and Patrick Kavanagh Award, the James Joyce Suspended Sentence Award (Australia) and the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry. 


Her Selected Poems (2011) was published by Gallery Press in Ireland and by Bloodaxe Books in Britain. Her seventh collection, The Zebra Stood in the Night, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2014 and shortlisted for the Irish Times–Poetry Now Award. Her eighth collection, Where Now Begins, is due for publication by Bloodaxe on November 12th, 2020.


Kerry Hardie is a member of Aosdána.


Q: You’ve been described as a “deeply spiritual” poet who nonetheless pays tribute to the “everyday and ordinary” aspects of life and the material world. Do you agree with this reading? If so, are there challenges to sustaining a spiritual perspective and consciousness in your writing (or more generally)?  


A: I find this reading very uncomfortable as I don’t think there is a division between what you choose to call the material world and the spiritual world—I think each permeates the other. I am interested in most religions as ethical belief-systems but I don’t seem able to ‘belong’ inside any one of them. This sounds very arrogant, but I think that a religion is not the same as a spiritual belief which can transcend any one individual religious system. Over the centuries most political communities develop ideologies that link them to the people they seek to govern and becomes its main religion. When the link becomes more negative than positive the religious system loses its impetus and people cease to love/need it. They then adapt the system, choose an alternative, or invent a new one. 


But a religion is not only an instrument for social order, it is also a myth-cycle in which to anchor the overwhelming human need to worship a transcendent being, whether such a thing exists or not. (An idea doesn’t exist in concrete terms but plenty of ideas are true.) For myself I believe that behind all the creeds there is something ‘nameless, indefinable and utterly transcendent.’ These words have been used to describe the concept of ‘Brahman’, ‘The All’, that developed in Hinduism around the 10th century BCE. 


So, no, to the second part of your question, I don’t feel the need to ‘sustain’ anything at all in my writing, I simply write about the world as I experience it. If something is utterly transcendent it doesn’t have to have a being at all and certainly not one that behaves in a way that is consistent with the thoughts of human beings. I am writing these words, but I am aware that I am speaking them only to other tiny beings who are such a very small part of what we think of as creation that we hardly count at all. 


Q: Your work is often breath-stopping in its attentiveness to lived-in places, partly (I think) because this attentiveness seems so easily to open up other kinds of sensitivity and insight. One poem unfolds a vista of “all as it is” in “Carlow, the ugly here and there of it, the damp-stained houses, / the sky over the beet plant sausaged with fat round smoke”, before stepping into a much more private form of portraiture: of a man “in the kitchen in the morning, / his vest, his thinning slept-in hair, the way he is in your life, / and you content that he be there”. Are you aware of this blend of elements in your work (the fluency between outward vision and inward understanding that seems to move through your poems)? And as someone who has lived in a variety of places, does poetry help you to feel at home?


A: I will start with the last part of the question. No, poetry definitely does not help me to feel at home anywhere, rather it underlines the oddness that is the fact of each of us carrying around this intense internal life while at the same time trying to more or less fit ourselves into an external world of rules and objects and habits and responsibilities. For me, poetry is all about the meeting of the internal world and the external world. Sometimes this meeting is a struggle, and sometimes it is a recognition of a sudden moment of harmony. Often it occurs when the internal world is utterly shocked or bewildered by what it is confronting, an extreme example being the work of Wilfred Owen when faced with what happened to a soldier fighting in the First World War…. So a sudden moment of harmony in lyric poetry is perceived as a ‘truth’, in exactly the same way as the moment of horrified perception. Poetry is intense, it is itself, it is not meant to ‘help’ anything, it is one aspect of the arduous work of a psyche coming to know itself and its response to the world in which it has its being. This is what makes it explosive, even when the subject is something entirely domestic and apparently familiar.


I think I have answered the first part of the question in answering the second.


Q: Your poem, ‘Creggan’, referring to the area on the outskirts of Derry city, describes “the all-but-forgotten feeling / of eyes-on-my-back” that “has come back” as you walk the street, carrying a pot of tulips that will “open white” (rather than red, as the poem’s speaker had hoped for): white, “the colour of this arms-length stand-off / that passes itself as pure enough for a future.” This last image strikes me as both emotionally and politically complex, and I wonder if you would unpack it further here. To me, for all its vividness and subtlety of observation, there’s an atmosphere of (perhaps painful) foreboding throughout the piece. Is this an accurate remark? And more broadly, how does the future now look for Northern Ireland and Ireland, in your view?


A: Yes, it is full of a painful foreboding, and that foreboding is even stronger in the final version as published in Where Now Begins (November 2020). I am aware of how badly most people don’t want to accept that violence based on the sectarian and nationalist feuds of the past may not be ‘over’ for good, and I share their reluctance. I think that most of us who experienced even part of the Troubles experienced them both in a rational political way and in an intensely emotional and entirely irrational way. When a settlement is reached it addresses political issues but cannot deal with the emotional ones so there is always the possibility that the settlement will be either too flawed to overcome the entrenched hatred that results from pain, or that the leaders will not be sufficiently inspired to overcome the hatred that is in them too, and will therefore go on the defensive. Thirty years is a long time. I feel it is necessary for a society to embrace some common policy of ‘collective forgetting’ or there is a constant danger of violence recurring. And you cannot legislate such a policy into being, especially when a society is committed to remembering in order to honour its dead. Perhaps nothing is ever ‘over’, until the monster that keeps rising up out of our psychic underworld has had its teeth pulled and—fangless—can recede into the past. I don’t know what it will take to pull those teeth—perhaps only mass emigration of one part of the community, as has been suggested by some political leaders. It has taken the Republic almost a hundred years to even begin to forget the bitterness left by the Civil War.


Q: On a somewhat related note, an earlier poem of yours (‘The Red Window’) records a time when “consolation has gone / and all we can do / is wait without hope / for the things that once spoke // to find voice.” To me, this seems to encapsulate one of the recurring concerns of your work: the urge to acknowledge the goneness of hoped for or once-loved experiences and places, their unconsolable absence from the present, and yet to recognise the ‘virtue’ (for want of a better word) of a tuned-in life, receptive to the rhythms and voices of a world that keeps on continuing: a world “[to] be entered / like sorrow, and passed through”, as you put it in another piece. Apologies if I’ve over-complicated things, but can you comment on this interpretation of your work  or offer an insight into the poems above?


A: I don’t really understand your question because I think that all living is about acknowledging the ‘goneness’ (your word) of hoped for or once loved experiences or places while opening to the new ones that constantly present themselves. All lives hold sorrow and most do not match up to the expectations we have been taught, or have allowed ourselves to expect. None of us are as important as we think we are. When I wrote ‘The Red Window’ sequence I had been immersed in the French poet, Follain, who wrote from a part of himself that could stand a long way back and record the passing of armies in the same tone as he recorded the significance of the fall of a button from the blouse of a peasant woman. There is an odd, golden light in many of these poems and yet they are also tragic. His writing is a tremendous act of acceptance. The really important lines in my Red Window series— ‘as living as shattered my life / letting the light shine through’—mean that living itself shatters the vessel of ourselves which then loses density and is no longer water-tight but porous to water and light. I think that this is the point of living.


Q: Finally, some poets I’ve spoken to have described themselves as readers first, writers second (and people, most of all!) – is this the case with you? Either way, I’d be glad to hear of any books, authors or artists you’ve encountered, recently or otherwise, that have influenced your approach to poetry, and perhaps to other things also.


A: Life is not static. I have a lifetime of reading behind me so different writers and books have influenced me at different times, but they change, and writers I thought were wonderful in my twenties now frequently leave me cold in my late sixties. At the moment I am trying to reread the books and writers I think of as ‘major influences’ in order to find out if they still excite me and ring as true as they once did. Many pass the ‘age’ test and some just fall off the shelf. Since I am in the middle of this process I don’t think I’ll give you a list. Perhaps I can add one later? But then again in 2 years or 2 months I may not agree with any of the stuff I have written above, so perhaps I should just date this Q and A session and leave it to stand for what seems to be now.

kerry hardie // september 2020