Ebb and Flow

An interview with Sinéad Morrissey

Claire Savage

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As we wait with bated breath to see if a new poet laureate will take over from where Sinéad Morrissey has just left off, The Honest Ulsterman catches up with the popular poet as she closes the book on a rather hectic year…

For writers, putting words on a page is a daily challenge but for most, life often does its best to thwart such efforts. Berating herself over missed writing moments is not, however, something that our inaugural poet laureate is in the habit of doing, as for Sinéad Morrissey, writing is rather cyclical.

“I don’t write all the time but then I’ll go into a period where I’m writing a lot,” she says. “Then that will speed up, when I’m writing all the time, and that’s always just so special. I think it’s a matter of balance.

“After I have written intensively, I don’t want to write for a while – there’s a fallow period. Then I start to feel fraudulent and feel really frustrated. I’m beginning to feel really ready now to start writing.”

Having published four previous collections - There Was Fire in Vancouver, Between Here and There, The State Of The Prisons and Through The Square Window – with Carcanet between 1996-2009, it was Parallax (2013) which finally saw Sinéad scoop the coveted T.S. Eliot Prize this year. Coincidentally, it also happened as she took on her poet laureate role.

The prize-winning collection – which picks apart how we perceive people, places and objects in myriad mediums – was the result of one of Sinéad’s intense writing periods.

“I had a year off work in 2012 and I had, I think, 10 poems that I liked,” she says. “I’d written quite a lot I didn’t like. Ten poems finished since Through the Square Window (2009) wasn’t a lot in three years, but then I got this year off and started writing on the day of my leave, at 4am, and it was just like that for the whole year.

“I finished Parallax at the end of September. Just being able to spend day after day in the study writing was so rare and private. Everything clicked and one poem generated another. I felt in a very special kind of place.

“When I finished Parallax I had a commission to write an updated cantel of Don Juan. I went out to Japan for nine days and came back and wrote this long, long rant about the Euro Crisis. It took three months and that was really fun. I finished that in January. So, February 2012 to January 2013 was just amazingly creative for me. I haven’t really been able to write much since.”

Her time has, however been put to very good use over the past 12 months, as her laureate role saw Sinéad engage with a huge variety of people with an urge to put pen to paper. Her last official day was on June 2 and it is, of course, a role the poet is keen to see continuing on.

“I felt really honoured to represent the city and honoured to be associated with the mayor and his tenure,” she adds. “I think he’s been amazing – he’s been so positive and so great for the city.”

Describing Belfast as “a poetry-rich place,” Sinéad says there was “such enthusiasm for poetry” everywhere she went over the past year.

“The poetry scene is really buzzing and alive at the moment. Just the openness and receptivity towards it was something that took me by surprise. Lots and lots of people were excited about participating.

“I think there is this idea which persists, that poetry has lost its audience and isn’t relevant. I don’t think that’s true. This year I saw just how much brilliant work is going on in the city with literature and engaging people. I would like to thank Ruth Carr in particular for her amazing work.”

Of course, Sinéad hasn’t just been inspirational to members of the public as poet laureate – she also continues to encourage her students at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, where she is reader in creative writing. As a student herself, she saw early success with her poetry and added further flavor to her efforts by travelling to Germany, then Japan (where she met her husband Joseph) and later, to New Zealand.

“I had very itchy feet,” she says. “I had this real travel bug in my late teenage years and early twenties. I wanted to travel and experience different countries - and living by myself.”

Having become fluent during her year out in Flensburg, Germany – teaching in a school as a foreign language assistant - the young Sinéad went on to do the same in Japan for two years. The experience naturally influenced her writing – both positively and negatively.

“The first year was very positive - very open and very influential,” she says. “To feel so different and feel so free. I kind of see my Japan poems as my beginning. But the second year was the exact opposite. I felt very down not being in an English-speaking atmosphere.”

Making the decision to move on – this time with Joseph – Sinéad’s next trip was to New Zealand. Here the couple acquired permanent residency, with a view to making their life there, but homesickness and the announcement of the Peace Process inevitably drew Sinéad back home.

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Describing the news of the Peace Process as “hugely exciting,” she says returning to Northern Ireland was “like a relief”.

“I do feel quite grounded and feel very happy since I came back to Northern Ireland. There’s no tension between where you are and where you’re from, so your energy can then go into other things. I think of subjects individually and place and travel isn’t something I write about nearly as much. To some extent, it has been replaced by history. That’s become a really rich scene to me.”

Indeed, Sinéad’s PhD centred on 18th century fiction, specifically, during the French Revolution, and looked at the portrayal of servant characters in novels from that time.

“My thesis was saying there was something distinctive about how servant characters were used,” she says. “It was so politicized. There was an atmosphere of hysteria.”

Given her preference for addressing current affairs and topical content in her work (her poem In Praise of Salt for example, was about the slide into war with Iraq), does Sinéad think all poets should highlight social and political issues?

“I suppose that’s what interests me more, but I wouldn’t say that all poets should do that. I’m just not that interested in writing about myself! I’m more interested in writing about photographs or the Soviet Union.

“I’m very attracted to a poet like Louis MacNeice, who wrote the Autumn Journal masterpiece. He was writing about what was happening that day in the news, so it’s not only engaging the world, but it’s also journalistic.”

Meanwhile, with Parallax described by the TS Eliot judges, as ‘politically, historically and personally ambitious,’ with ‘beautifully turned language’, it might leave a poet a little apprehensive about approaching a new body of work…

I try not to think about that!” says Sinéad.

One might next ask the prize-winning poet how she picked out the perfect combination of poems for the collection. How does she know when a poem works and does she, like so many writers do – show her work to others for feedback first?

“I just show Joseph,” she says. “He’s my one person. I do have a sense myself when it’s not good though. I think you have to be really strict. No matter how much you want it to be good, you have to acknowledge that. It’s quite clear, I think, when a poem just has no life in it. It doesn’t really come alive. When I haven’t written for a while, after I start again, it’s awful.”

Citing two of her favourite poems from Parallax as A Matter of Life and Death (“I didn’t know it was going to be about what it ended up being and so that feels particularly ‘given’”) and Puzzle (“one of the neatest”), Sinéad says it is the interplay between form and content which hooks her interest in writing poetry.

“The energy of that is what enables me to write. I think I love Parallax because the form and the content of it just clicked so well.”

With her hectic year of poet laureate duties now over, Sinéad is left with a diary still booked up to the brim, but is beginning to feel the itch to write again. Explaining that she currently has a list of 15 titles on her whiteboard at work, she says these will be the starting-off point for her next poetic adventure.

“If I sat and faced a blank page, nothing would happen. I do get little ideas – a spark around something – I often get a title but I have no idea then what the poem’s going to be. But I need something to go on. I need a hook.”

Before delving back into her writing, however, Sinéad intends to enjoy the summer with Joseph and their two children, Augustine (7) and Sophia (5), which will include a long-anticipated trip to Russia.

“That will be really exciting,” she says. “I’ve never been and have written endlessly about it!”

As for the next chapter in Sinéad Morrissey’s writing life, well – amid all the writing she intends to do, America also beckons with a book tour, family life abounds, students await and engagements continue. As she says, “It’s just a question of balance.”