Kerrie O'Brien

An Interview.

Maeve Mulrennan

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Dublin based poet Kerrie O’Brien had a busy 2016 with the release of her collection Illuminate, published by Salmon Poetry and, four weeks later, the launch of Looking at the Stars, a limited edition anthology of Irish writing she edited which raised €22,000 for the rough sleeper Team of the Dublin Simon Community. Maeve Mulrennan spoke with her just after her reading in the Turner exhibition in the National Gallery, Dublin.

Speaking about the title of her collection, Illuminate, Kerrie says that the title came prior to the overall concept for the book, and points to the her use of light, fire and hopeful imagery. The collection has been well received, with writers Sebastian Barry and Joseph O’Connor both putting Illuminate in their 2016 ‘Books of the Year’. Sebastian Barry, writing for the New Statesman said that Illuminate is a ‘potent and hopeful painting of the self’. Rather than finding this acclaim to be a pressure, Kerrie says that ‘praise from established Irish writers that I look up to and respect is great and if that’s all that comes of Illuminate then I’m happy!’ She goes on to say that she was aware of Barry’s respect for her work: ‘A few years ago Sebastian Barry approached me about my work; I don’t know how he even knew about it. I think my poems resonate with older readers, as a lot of it is about the lived experience of grief, family, legacy and lineage. With writers in particular I think it appeals to them. Those themes are timeless and universal – it’s what speaks to me most right now and I seem to be speaking to a different generation at the moment.”

Even with poems that address grief in its raw, early stages, hope is inherent in Illuminate for example in her poem ‘You Come To Me’ one of the poems in Illuminate that is set in Paris. Her poem Wish, which was published in the Irish Times, received positive feedback from readers, despite, or probably because of, its acceptance of death. Kerrie admits that she is quite a private person who finds public readings difficult, which contrasts with the personal tone of her work. ‘When you write about things that happen to you and about deep emotions which are your actual emotions it leaves you quite vulnerable. It’s easy write it off or dismiss as it as confessional, but I find it honest and something I believe in. Wish was published in the Irish Times two years ago – it was this tiny poem – one of six that I sent in. A lot of older people contacted me about it, saying that they cut it out and it’s on their wall, or that they want it read at their funeral. I’m honoured that it has an effect on someone’s life, that a poem can live on. It encouraged me to believe that I was on the right track with writing that spoke from the heart. You Come to Me is based on a private, beautiful moment with a friend who gave me permission to publish it. The idea that the dead are always with us can provide comfort in grief. If it resonates and communicates solace or hope for someone reading it that’s amazing.

Many people became aware of Kerrie’s work through the Irish Times Hennessy New Irish Writing, where the poems BudHennessy IT Hemingway, and Flamingo were published. Bud, although one of the oldest works in the collection shares the same hopefulness as new works and also connects with the collection’s book cover. Again, Kerrie received positive feedback from readers, with people telling her that they cut out and saved the poem from the newspaper or in one case, sent the poem to their heartbroken daughter. The honesty of the work ensures that the reader trusts in the writer’s hopefulness.

Family legacy and celebrating the everyday feature in Illuminate, but so does a wider cultural legacy, with Kerrie writing poems featuring JW Turner, Rothko, Louis Le Brocquy, Hemingway and Beckett. Her poem about Turner’s work is what led her to giving a reading in the National Gallery in January 2017, during the annual exhibition of the romantic artist’s watercolours and sketches. The poem looks at inspiration, with the poet’s grandmother and the artist Louis Le Brocquy both inspiring Kerrie’s engagement with the Turner works in the National Gallery. ‘I used to go with my Grandmother to see the Turner exhibition every January, when the light is at its best so as not to destroy the delicate work. My family have always been encouraging me to visit galleries. The poem explores creativity and inspiration. The older I get the more I appreciate Turner’s work. With the sketches you see the artist’s perseverance and hard work leading to mastery in the larger paintings. He was constantly developing, chasing light and perfecting colour techniques. I was there once and saw Louis Le Brocquy, then in his 90s, totally in awe in front of paintings that he must have seen so many times before. My poem looks at how we inspire each other and never get bored of exploring the creative impulse.

Kerrie’s interest in inspiration and creativity is being further developed for her second poetry collection alongside chaos and destruction. She is greatly interested in what she calls Louis Le Brocquy’s ‘blind year;’ where he destroyed forty-three of his paintings. A trip to Paris and an encounter with Celtic head sculptures gave him the inspiration needed to keep creating – out of which came his famous heads series. As part of the 25th anniversary of Francis Bacon’s death, Kerrie is also developing a triptych of poems relating to the Francis Bacon studio which was acquired by The Hugh Lane in 1998 and opened to the public in 2001. One hundred slashed canvases were found in the studio and reveal much about the artist’s process as well as the tension between creativity and destruction. Like Le Brocquy, Bacon was also self-taught. Kerrie is currently in the research phase of a project featuring both artists. The Bacon studio is now, like his work, part of his legacy, showing the chaos of creativity and the psychological impact of destroying what one has created.

Kerrie has several readings coming up in 2017 and is also giving a talk on literary activism in the University of York. Co-editing Looking at the Stars with Alice Kinsella made public the poet’s political side. While preferring not to write poems that engage in politics, Kerrie takes direct action in other ways. At the moment she is seeing the impact of the money raised for the Rough Sleepers Team of the Dublin Simon Community. The final amount of money raised was over €22,000, the original target being €15,000. The anthology was unique in that 100% of the retail price was donated directly to the Dublin Simon Community, with sponsorship from various literary organisations covering the cost of printing. From the start, Kerrie wanted the money raised to make a difference, with all the money going towards a specific project. Booksellers did not take anything for selling it. Looking at the Stars launched four weeks after Illuminate, and was put together in only six months. Kerrie and her co-editor, Alice Kinsella, are delighted at the phenomenal response, which saw the book selling out two days after its launch. Kerrie originally envisaged putting on a fundraising gig and aimed to raise €500. She was overwhelmed by the voluntary outpouring of support of literary associations and never had to ask for financial support.  It does bother her that it was underfunded literary organisations and underpaid writers that gave so much, rather than the government.

She says of the support from writers: “It’s a good collection done in a short time frame. The writers’ commitment really impressed me – for example I couldn’t believe that Donal Ryan originally offered an extract from his forthcoming novel. Colin Barrett was fully committed from the get go, sending me a new piece and saying “Let me know what else I can do”. I intended to have more female writers but the ones I asked had deadlines and had to say no. Joseph O’Connor was the first writer to come on board he immediately emailed me a piece. That gave me a lot of confidence to approach other writers. It’s really important that there are real stories from people like Paul Casey from Cork. There are real, heartbreaking stories in there.”

Asked if she was concerned that she was being labelled a spokesperson for such a complex problem, Kerrie explains that she was always clear to refer to the Dublin Simon Community for facts and figures, and that she was coming from the position of a writer wanting to raise money for a practical cause; for the Rough Sleepers team. The book received a lot of publicity and Kerrie found herself on RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland and Ryan Tubridy’s radio programme. While the experience raised money and was something to be proud of, Kerrie is aware that so much work needs to be done and is not sure if she could work in the area of the housing crisis full-time, but will continue to support Dublin Simon Community and similar organisations.

Previous to Looking at the Stars, Kerrie edited the Bare Hands poetry and photography journal. She hasn’t ruled out the possibility of editing another book and says that reading new work is always exciting. Kerrie agrees that the Irish publishing community is quite supportive, and there seems to be a lot of goodwill towards independent publishers such as Tramp Press. The circulation of literature, particularly poetry online and through social media makes things a lot more accessible. I was also aware that my research for interviewing Kerrie involved radio and newspaper archives and social media as well as her actual book. Kerrie agrees that it’s not just about promotion but accessibility, which poetry is benefiting greatly from. She says; ‘I began go to poetry readings when I was about 22 and it was a lot more underground than it is now, seven or eight years later. Events such as the Lingo Festival are thriving and I think the loss of Heaney, in a strange way caused a resurgence in interest around his work; we are realising now how much he meant and what it signifies to have a poet as a household name. I think it’s notable that there was no poem read at the American presidential inauguration this year; something that was started with the Kennedy inauguration.’

Returning to the theme of literature and visual art coming together, Kerrie is looking forward to reading Sara Baume’s second novel A Line Made by Walking, the title of which refers to a Richard Long artwork and also includes several descriptions of 20th century and contemporary artworks as well as having a protagonist who uses photography to explore her inner world plus Vona Groarke’s 2016 Four Sides Full, a personal essay, looking at framing in relation to artwork. Rather than using language to talk about or describe visual art, these works as well as Kerrie’s collection incorporate the power of visual art to create something new. She spent one year working in the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin at the same time as Sara Baume, and gained a lot from interacting with exhibitions on a daily basis as well as reading the gallery’s in-house books such as John Hutchinson’s The Bridge and also the array of journals and books made available to her. ‘Working there made a big impact on me and encouraged me to travel specifically to see art. I recently went to Vienna and would love to go to the Prado in Madrid.’

Kerrie is currently working on her French, having lived in Paris for a time and a recent return visit reigniting her love of the language. ‘I’d love to work with a French writer or artist, and recently had a poem translated into Swedish hearing it was fascinating.’

Last year Kerrie also made The Penny Dreadful’s Novella Award shortlist. For someone used to trying to get poetry published, novel publishing is completely different: Kerrie has been approached by six different UK agents as a result of being shortlisted. ‘The attention novels receive is such a different thing compared to publishers’ approaches to poetry. It was incredible to be shortlisted, I couldn’t believe it. I worked very hard and had never attempted long prose before. At this point, before I go into writing the next collection, I’m at the point of deciding what to do – concentrate on the novel, try for a job in the arts:  a lot is dependent on grants and residency applications.'

Kerrie aims to begin writing her second poetry collection later on this year. She is committed to readings in Ireland and abroad and is currently researching international opportunities for readings.