Elaine Feeney

An Interview

Maeve Mulrennan

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Elaine Feeney is a writer based in Co. Galway. She has recently returned to writing and giving public readings after a year-long sabbatical due to illness. She is published with Maverick and Salmon Poetry and has also appeared in literature festivals nationally and internationally. Elaine drew the attention of the publishing community through her success in poetry slams; and the reading and performing of her work continues to play an important role in her practice. She is a teacher in St. Jarlath’s Secondary School in Tuam, County Galway. I met Elaine a couple of weeks after she gave a much-anticipated reading at the 2015 Cuirt International Festival of Literature in Galway city.

Maeve Mulrennan: I prepared for this interview by listening to your work rather than reading it, and I was wondering about your poem, Mass, which you performed to the camera. Did you find that an intense thing to do?

Elaine Feeney: Colm Keegan told me that he was talking to Séamus Rutledge  about that poem, joking that it should have been nominated as the  poem for Ireland. There was no decent recording of it, so Colm recommended that I record the poem and put it on YouTube. It was a scary experience, I did it in my house, I put it out there and within minutes it got two thumbs down in the comments section – probably from the local bishops!

MM: I’d find that so frustrating! I’d love to know who those two people were.

EFMass is not supposed to sit well, people are supposed to find it uncomfortable. Some people think that ‘list poems’ don’t work and I agree to a certain extent, but this works as a list-piece. We had to listen to enough mass growing up, so this is the pay back. Some people are shocked when it turns nasty at the end, mentioning homophobia and how there won’t ever be a women’s mass.  It is easier to delude ourselves and keep going to mass.  When I see crowds going to mass it unnerves me.

MM: Is there an expectation on creative people to have an online presence, whether it is through YouTube or blogs?

EF: It’s great that art is more accessible and there is an expectation to have things freely available online. But print is still extremely important to me.

MM: There are some poems that you want to take your time with and read them yourself, or have them in a book rather than online or only in spoken format.

EF: I do worry that my work is on the internet forever though!

MM: I’m more wary of the permanence of print!

EF: You’re right about the permanence of print; sometimes I might be sloppy with things - like commas in wrong places- and want to change it once it’s printed. Dave Lordan recently published a fearless poem I wrote really quickly called Queer in ‘The Bogmans’ Canon’. I like how instant publishing online can be, and I tend to write  topical poems a lot quicker. I know when it comes to publishing that poem in print however that it will be laid out completely differently from how I published it. I edit a lot! My love poem, Little Picasso had about one hundred edits!

MM: I’d like to talk to you about the importance of Poetry Slams at the beginning of your career, and that they are perceived differently – publishing books are the milestones for a writer and we’ve already touched on the importance on print.

EF: Poetry Slams were a platform for me to share my work. I used to love listening to recordings of Bukowski,  Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas – they weren’t slam poets obviously but I learned alot from them. Poetry Slams have a dirty connotation in print world, someone said to me ‘take slam off your bio’ – it’s seen as a no-no in print. Slams were the first way for me to out my poetry – and the Salmon Poetry contract came out of it. Salmon were ready before I was! Not many slam poets make that move so easily. I followed in Rita Ann Higgins’ footsteps – and that was part of the big deal for me. If I had known in 2006 when IO had only done one or two Slams that Salmon would want to publish my work, I would have passed out! But it’s become normal life now!

MM: Were you attracted to Slams because you connected into the local scene or were you more aware of the wider context of spoken word and its history?

EF: I was not aware of the local scene at all. I was always searching for women’s voices in school and then University. I was looking for a female voice that would echo what I was attracted to in the work of Oscar Wilde and Dylan Thomas. I like Emily Dickinson, Fleur Alcock and Eavan Boland – but they were not saying a lot to me – I wanted them to say something to me - I was so egocentric in my youth!

MM: What do you think of Eavan Boland being on the Leaving Certificate curriculum?

EF: I get more out of her work now than when I was younger. She has a great poem about love, and the matter-of -act process of love changing with time and perspective. Poems talk to you at different times of your life. I remember reading a Rita Ann Higgins book in Easons – I was getting the bus home after college to go home do farm work, and this writer was from same place as my mother. I was pissing myself laughing, thinking, this woman is a legend! I read it all in the shop because I couldn’t afford to buy it. I couldn’t get enough of her satire. And she was writing this in Galway and I thought, how brave is this! Rita Ann was my awakening into the Galway poetry scene. The first time I met her I was fawning over her. I was pregnant at the time and she just wanted to talk to me about the baby. Although we did talk about writing later and have become friends, which would have been mind blowing to me ten years ago. When someone lives inside your head, and they don’t know it, it can be very strange.

MM: You poem Diaphoresis and an Irish girl’s New York Proposal juxtaposes two events; one personal relationship story and 9-11. Do you find it hard to work with those personal / public juxtapositions, and do you have an urge to connect the personal to something bigger?

EF: I think that as long as you are not doing it just to be pretentious it can work! It’s a metaphorical piece, but some people have asked why I use the word Diaphoresis and not the more common word – sweating. Sure what fun would that be? The poem portrays an insane relationship and having an Irish person in a new setting while bringing in my own background. I’ve worked these into a more structured poem. People are interested in the madness and chaos of the personal; no one wants to hear about lovely things!

MM: Regarding the use of uncommon words, up until relatively recently people in school would have studied Classics and Latin, it was normal to know things like that. Poems that had words like Diaphoresis or references to Greek myth weren’t seen as pretentious.

EF: Referencing for the sake of it can be a little obnoxious – it’s closing a door. Some people put them in and hang all kinds of things off them. The world is cyclical, and the classics come around every week in publishing in some form or another. My interest is in people and how we make the same mistakes over and over. The classics are useful; some writers do it well, with others it just shuts people out.

Hopefully the novel I’m working on isn’t pretentious! It’s called Tales From A Hospital Bed. The structure is loosely based on The Canterbury Tales.

MM: Who’s your favourite character in The Canterbury Tales?

EF: The Wife [of Bath]

MM: Yeah...ah she’s great!

EF: The starting point was having two modern female characters and trying to follow through on the tale idea. I studied The Canterbury Tales in University and I wanted to try something that was tale-orientated. It’s heavy with characters, and their stories. It’s challenging as the narrator is confined to bed.

MM: The Tales really shows the potential of narrators; you have the authoritative Chaucer-narrator, the unreliable Chaucer-Character that’s in the book, and then the overall narrative by bringing the Tales together in that order.

EF: I like messed up narrators! The narrator in novel is a single narrator, however a bit abstract and ranting. I showed some text to my husband and he thought the narrator was horrible! I like to think of the genre as ‘faction’. The title of the novel hasn’t been decided yet either.

MM: A lot of people refer to that as ‘creative non-fiction’ – there’s a David Sedaris thing going on, a close observation of someone’s thoughts and everyday events. It’s more prose than dialogue.

EF: Mine is quite dialogue heavy actually.

MM: It sounds like Cré na Cille.

EF: I was thinking of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, specifically where the narrator starts speaking to me! Also Shakespeare’s soliloquys, this happens too. It’s a bit Dubliners and a little bit Corrie. My mother texted me early one morning to ask after one of the characters. So it’s readable! She also thought for a female, the narrator was unusual, rough unusual!

MM: The only thing in Middlemarch that didn’t drive me crazy were the authoritative intrusions, where author reveals her own opinions.

EF: I’m enjoying the development of all the different voices and stories, and I’m working on shorter texts and making each chapter shorter. The narrator guides through the different tales, I don’t want to make the reader feel stupid, but sometimes it’s good to have a guide through; prose can be less instant than poetry {and vice-versa}.

MM: A novel is a huge investment of time; it must be an intense relationship for a couple of years?

EF: I’m beginning to like the characters, actually really like them, and hate some of them, but still like them. They’re human, and we all know the depths of the human mind. They are developing themselves. I worked out a whole plot for one character then realised they would never do it!  I think what was far more of an investment was taking a year out, not writing. It gave me time to read and be mindful about what I was reading.

MM: Are you able to write poetry and the novel at the same time?

EF: I either writer all the time or not at all. I’m either a fanatic, or I avoid it. For the last few weeks I’ve been working on a new series of poems, where I work through my parents’ relationship – I’ve never had both of them in the same poem until now. I’m inserting them into the strict structure of the Villanelle. I’m naturally a prosey-narrative-free-versey type writer, but with this there’s no rambling. It’s a constrained structure, but I’m really happy with it, and I think the resulting poems are better and more abstract than what I’ve written before. Well, they’re different. So I go between that and the novel, and I write some op-ed pieces. The Summer is when I will get to do more.

MM: How do you divide your time between writing, teaching, and family?

EF: Well my boys getting older; it was more difficult to write when they were babies. Although they are super busy too. They have very full lives. The students where I teach don’t quash my creativity. Their apathy is astounding! They thought that my poem Mass was ok, ya’know [shrugging heads] it was fine, but maybe I should write about war next time. They really make me work harder!

MM: When I’m writing grant applications,  my way of testing if it is going well or not is to imagine a teenager reading it and saying "Yeah, and? So what? Who cares about this?” It really makes you work harder!

EF: My own sons are really respectful [about my work and me in general, which is lovely and comes from my husband] but the students are very critical. I had one international student who was an amazing playwright, who emailed me and said “I didn’t like the way you taught literature”. We went back and forth about it for a couple of months. We ironed it out, he sees it all differently as he’s gotten older, and I gained great insight into how my students approach texts. I keep in contact with many students when they go on.

The education system can quash creativity though. I’m lucky I have a couple of colleagues that I can talk to about literature, but a lot of people can get caught up in the day-to-day and get  tired from dealing with adolescents. I do get dragged down by day-to-day sometimes. You can slip into having an extreme reverence for literature, and the students want to know why you are in awe. They can also bring you back fairly quickly with a spitball. When you stop and attempt to deconstruct it, maybe they’re right. Some people have perfectly fulfilled lives without ever opening a book [or so they think].

MM: You reference William Carlos Williams’ poem The Red Wheelbarrow in one of your works, Gaza –

EF: I thought at first, have I the right to write about this as I didn’t experience it myself? I felt the same when writing about church abuse. I did deliberate for a long time about how you go into someone else’s narrative. It’s so tender and raw.

MM: It probably doesn’t help that people perceive characters in poetry differently than in novels – there’s an assumption that the writer has had personal experience.

EF: I’m not coming from the same place as someone like Robert Fisk, or I haven’t survived war or conflict in my life, I have survived other experiences though. It’s the same empathy in some instances. I don’t have all the knowledge on the situation and I can affect no change. I heard a story, it’s kind of an urban myth, about a girl getting into a fight with a teenage boy, and there was an altercation, or in the case of my poem, a murder. I work with boys and see that anger is actually fear in most cases, and not an emotion in itself. I thought about how I was going to get into this story and thought of William Carlos William’s line, ‘so much depended...’  My poem is supposed to be simple. It looks at what affects change, and the hopelessness of the situation.

MM: It reminds me of the performance artist Dominc Thorpe’s work on redress – The Redress Board silenced so many people, and he has taken on the role of giving voice to something that he doesn’t have personal experience in and making it public. Being confronted with it can make people uncomfortable though.

EF: My poem The Polish Have Caused a Crash got abuse for being a very racist poem. They didn’t get that it is a satire – it’s holding up a mirror to absolute racism. But you can’t go into everything afraid, or with fear, they’re just words on a page. I don’t agree with censorship. 

Our current culture is in denial about racism and sexism. A lot of people think that there is no need for feminism anymore. It’s hard to think that when you have friends that are struggling as single parents or work in a school where the  patron is a bishop, and you know that ultimately you can never do his job, so is that what he thinks of you, as a second class citizen? Because that’s what I am in his eyes. But I’m generally not one for caring about what others think. Just think how many derogatory words there are for females.  There was great female enlightenment in Celtic times and then the cycle moved on. Women didn’t have basic equal rights in Ireland until 1970’s and we can thank Europe for that. Our constitution in part greatly offends me..

MM: Some people are in denial about this part of our history and look back with nostalgia.

EF:  The 2016 – 1916 Commemorations are revealing how guarded we are about looking back. Some things, like the proposed equality between men and women in the Proclamation of Independence should be looked at. It was very different from the female reality after the constitution was written. Just this morning I tweeted about the religious patronage of schools and of single-gender schools. The Equal Status Act is supposed to protect people from discrimination on seven grounds, but the Church’s role in education allows for discrimination regarding religious freedom and gender. The State should not condone a role that goes against legislation.

MM: Can you tell me what you are working on and what will be out next?

EF: Well there’s the Villanelle sequence, and I’ll be working on my novel for the summer. I cancelled a lot of readings last year because of my health. I’m just back from doing readings in Canada and of course there was Cuirt International Festival of Literature.

MM: At the Cuirt reading there was a huge sense that you were back and recovered. There was a great feeling of support for you.

EF: Support because I’m good or because I nearly died?!!

MM: Well sometimes people can be too nice to each other.....

EF: There was a personal sense of importance to that reading. I wanted to show new work. And maybe reveal a little more of the personal in my home city. Being sick and having to take time of made me see what I could lose–and that I still have more to say, it’s high time to start taking myself seriously. I’ve always been a bit self-deprecating. It comes from a place of anxiety and self-protection. But the  least I can do is engage [with my audience] -  I obviously like my own work so why would I be apologetic,; I was sorry on stage and was like a tic at times. I am sorry for everything, but this period has passed. No more apologies! Besides it’s disrespectful to my audience!

The Radio Was Gospel and Where’s Katie? are available from Salmon Poetry www.salmonpoetry.com