Shape Shifting

An interview with the poet Moyra Donaldson

Darran Anderson

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Darran Anderson: Can you explain what drew you to the title 'The Goose Tree'? It seems like a marvellously surreal image.

Moyra Donaldson: Before bird migration was understood, and because Barnacle Geese were never seen to nest in Europe, a belief developed that the geese grew inside Barnacle shells. The shells were often found on driftwood, so it was thought that the barnacles were attached to branches that fell into the sea. You can read about it in old documents such as Gerard’s Herbal and the 12th century Topographica Hibernica.

There was something about this myth that appealed to me in terms of the ‘mystery’ involved in writing a poem. It’s not a logical process; where poems come from has not yet been scientifically explained or understood, just like those 12th Century geese. It is also a comment on the human imagination – if you don’t know the answer, you can always make it up.

DA: In ‘Exile’, you write “What ground is mine / if I would govern myself? / Where is my country / if neither bogs nor gantries / speak of me?” Do you think, for all the advancements, we have a more uncertain sense of identity than our grandparents? Is this a good thing? Is part of the writers role (if writers have roles) to find or cultivate a space of our own?

MD: Reading and writing has always been a way for me to cultivate my own space and to explore my own identity. My mother and her family held, and hold, very strong and deeply felt religious beliefs. I grew up with the ‘troubles’ as a constant backdrop to my life, with all the questions, political, personal and emotional that came with it.

On a personal level I found myself unable to accept the given certainties that were so much a part of my parent’s and grandparent’s lives. Over the years I have carved out a place for myself where I feel reasonably at ease and the peace process has certainly helped to allow this. I have a growing sense of home and I think my writing both enables and reflects this.

In a general sense, my feeling is that there is now less certainty for everyone in terms of identity. Both locally and globally, a lot of old sureties are shifting under our feet and no matter how much we might want to cling to what we knew and grew up with, we are all having to deal with change, and in the process discover who we might become. That can be a frightening place to be in. Writers can reflect on and give voice to these changes and the emotions that they bring with them.

I have also had to find my own place to stand as a female poet, trying to express women’s perceptions and trying to connect with visceral creativity, with the physical reality, rather than the protected theoretical male canon. My mother was a strong woman, aspirational but frustrated. There is a tradition in Northern Ireland of strong women; I stand on the shoulders of that.

DA: At the risk of diminishing the mystery involved in the creative process, is there a method you use when composing a poem? Is it a case of remaining open to influences from outside or building from scratch? Does it come suddenly unexpectedly or through deliberate concentration? Or indeed is every poem formed in a different way? How active or passive a process do you find it?

MD: Every now and again I fear that I have totally forgotten how to write a poem. I can’t remember or even imagine how to do it or how to even start. Fortunately that usually doesn’t last too long, but I suspect that it happens because I don’t have one particular way of doing it. Poems come to me from different sources and in different ways. Sometimes it’s from my interest in a particular subject, for example from the obsession I had with the 18th Century while I was writing Miracle Fruit, or anything that sparks my interest, like the concept of ‘freaks’, or fractals or self-mummification, or any number of other random things.

Other times it’s from a theme I’ve been given, like the recent poems for my collaboration with photographic artist, Victoria J. Dean on the theme of Dis-Ease.

Sometimes it’s an image or a memory or a phrase that stays in my head and other words and images come to join it until it coalesces into something more solid and a poem emerges. No matter where it originates, from a conscious choice of subject, or from the unconscious mind, a poem takes deliberate concentration at some point or another. I work very hard on every poem, trying to make it the best it can be, quizzing it and shaping and reshaping. I really enjoy doing it, but I don’t find it easy.

Only very occasionally does a poem arrive fully formed, and that is more often than not the result of a dream, like the poem Nest, in the collection The Horse’s Nest.

DA: I was struck by your poem 'To Pacify the Past' and the recurring tendency in your writing towards examining the past. Sometimes it’s sorrowful; the “talking to the dead” of ‘Silences’. Sometimes it’s funny; “1973 / I’m existentialist” from ‘Emma, Leonard and Germaine’. Is this facing and expressing the past cathartic? Does it help us live with our ghosts (including the ones still living)? Or is it more a sense of understanding where we are now and how we got here?

MD: It’s probably a bit of both. Understanding and making shape of the past can surely give us more choice in the present, but I am also fascinated by the concept of ‘hungry ghosts’. I saw my mother become haunted by her past during her long drawn out years of dementia and since then I have felt it really important to feed my own ghosts, in the hope that they will rest in some kind of peace and let me do the same.

DA: I love the image in your poem 'Greba Cras' of “the monks, wrapping their cloaks / around themselves, becoming crows”. When I looked back, there are other incidences of metamorphosis in your poetry -  “In mad March, nights with a blood moon, / I slip into the skin of a hare” from ‘Changes’ for example. Do you think it’s important we retain the possibility of being transformed or escaping?

MD: I have always had animals in my life and feel a great connection to them, plus I think we all have a part of us that craves transformation. The idea of shape shifting is an ancient and very powerful concept. The shaman can become a crow or a wolf or a bear. Can move between worlds. For me it is the imagination that allows us to transform, escape, become transmogrified. We are not just human, in our imaginations we can go where we please, experience being ‘other’.

Central for any writer is the desire to create, to generate, to tell stories. As a reason for being, and in a strange way, as a responsibility. This desire to tell and to fantasise, recognises the human truth for most of us, that our lives are ' not enough' and we need to experience more than we could actually possibly live.

DA: There’s a sense of the mirroring of emotion and place in your poetry. Rather than places being haunted by people, it seems equally people are haunted by places. How important is landscape to your writing from Belfast streets to the wide open spaces?

MD: For me, emotions and places are very inter-connected. I recall a place and I can immediately recall the emotions I was feeling at the time, from a bed-sit in Belfast, to the garden of my parent’s house when I was a child, from a home town to a holiday house. It is as if the emotion and the place have become fused, and as if there is some kind of symbiosis between place and person. I believe that where we live and the landscape and stories of that place become part of who we are, as in my poem, A Local Tragedy. When I was growing up I felt very alienated from the place of my birth, but as I’ve grown older I’ve felt a new accommodation with Northern Ireland, as if the place and I have learnt to tolerate each other; and I have come to love the area in which I live, the Ards Peninsula. It is a place of great beauty, always shifting yet always solid. The history and landscape of the place feels like home to me now.

DA: At times, you resurrect figures from legend and folktales intriguingly in quite modern forms or from modern perspectives. Which mythic characters interest you most and why?

MD: Maybe these legends and folktales survive through the centuries because they use archetypes from the collective unconscious and so form recurring motifs in stories and poems. I enjoy trying to see their relevance to me and my life and to see how they can fit in the modern world.

As far as those that interest me most, it would be the seer, the crone; the beings, real or imaginary, that seem to belong half in this world and half in some other realm, shaman and angels; or those animals that seem to inhabit a place of mystery and legend, the bird, the horse.

In my Calvinist, fundamentalist family there was little magic, but there was some retention of folk lore, a memory of older ways and superstitions. I was taught to salute magpies.

DA: Similarly, a remarkable cast feature in your collection Miracle Fruit including Charles Byrne the Irish giant, Mrs Frame, William Walker, Mary Patterson and Gizel Stevens the Pig-Faced Woman. Was there a sense of reclaiming the unfairly forgotten or were they a vehicle for showing that we don’t change in terms of sidelining and fearing others?

MD: Again perhaps it is a bit of both. I work in a social work setting and sometimes it seems to me as if nothing really changes in terms of human frailty and folly and cruelty. The stories of the 18th century that I came across when researching the time, are the stories of the 21st century. Newspapers in the 1700’s carried the same kind of stories we read in our newspapers today.

By looking at these older stories, I found a way to write about things such as prejudice, domestic abuse, bigotry, as well as courage and resilience without using any material from my own everyday job.

It also felt good to try to give voice to some of these almost forgotten characters and to imagine what they might have to say for themselves.

DA: There’s a line by Leonard Cohen line that begins your book Beneath the Ice, “There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in”. Do you think it’s our flaws that make us human?

MD: Imperfection is what drives evolution, it is in the nature of everything, but it the context of my poetry this quote from Cohen was a reminder for me to give up on the idea of doing something perfectly. I found myself striving to write the ‘perfect’ poem and consequently at times I could write nothing at all for fear it wouldn’t be good enough. Giving up on the idea of doing something perfectly is very liberating.

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DA: In 'Applying Fuzzy Logic', you write “forget Aristotle and his either/or logic”. Do you think we see too much in binary terms, particularly in Northern Ireland?

MD: My sense of myself is that I’ve ever been able to think in binary terms. I’ve always felt ‘not one thing/or the other’, especially in terms of Northern Ireland’s rather simplistic tribal politics where you are expected to take sides. I’ve never been comfortable with certainty, with either/or thinking and feel as if I have always inhabited a much more nebulous space. When I came across the mathematical concept of fuzzy logic, it made perfect sense to me, the ‘what if’ theory of life, though there seems an irony that only after computers had been invented, capable of doing the millions of computations necessary, was this branch of maths made possible.

My feeling is that there are no absolutes; at least I’ve never been able to find one.

DA: It’s been said that translation is treason but your poetry seems to respond to other artforms, paintings particularly. How do you find these influencing your work and are there things to be gained, as well as lost, in translating ideas from one artform to the other?

MD: It was only in my forties that I began to really appreciate visual art. I love going to galleries and seeing paintings ‘in the flesh’. I didn’t understand how a Rothko could move me until I stood in front of one; the first time I visited the Van Gogh gallery in Amsterdam, I felt as if I had discovered windows into another world. I find painting and sculpture capable of deeply affecting me on a very visceral level.

I have collaborated on occasions with visual artists. It is a chance to allow both forms, written and visual to bounce off each other and stimulate ideas, and allows both artists to react to each other’s work. A fluid way of working which allows a subtle interaction. I’m not sure that I think a direct translation is possible, though I have on occasions tried to write the story behind a painting, as in the poem Stubbs at Horkstow, which is an attempt to explain the lengths the painter had to go to in order to create the beauty of paintings such as Whistlejacket. Sometimes artists have to look at the ugly, at what lies beneath, to look into the darkness to discover the light, in order to create a thing of beauty. Perhaps that is the job of the artist.

DA: The dark side of the Enlightenment is suggested in your poem 'An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump'. We know from Goya that “the sleep of reason produces monsters” but it seems there are nightmares too in a world which completely abandons the spiritual and the esoteric. Do you think ‘truth’ is as important as they suggest? Does it have a place in poetry?

MD: I became fascinated by the Age of Enlightenment, a time that brought massive changes in understanding and huge advances in areas such as science and engineering. It also brought great cruelties and suffering. It ushered in an age when knowledge was the holy grail, regardless of the cost. There was a view that has persisted to this day, that the rest of nature is there to be used, regardless of the suffering that might bring. I think perhaps only now are we starting to realise the cost of that attitude, morally and physically. I returned to re-read Blake and look at his drawings. I visited the Hunterian Museum in London and the work of this 18th century surgeon John Hunter, crystallised my thinking on the subject. Animals, the poor, the dispossessed were used for the advancement of knowledge as if they had no intrinsic value in their own right. Science has seen itself as all powerful, as the great panacea for all ills, leaving behind any sense of the spiritual. There must be a balance between ethics and the desire to know. Between knowledge and respect. It is my sense that we are gradually recognising the need for this balance.

I think that truth has a central place in poetry, but it is not the truth of absolutes. I believe there are many kinds of truth.

DA: Following from that, one thing poets seem to share with scientists is a focus on both the cosmic and the microscopic. In ‘12.05am New Year’s Day’, you write “I close my eyes and see the nebulae / of blood vessels, the galaxies of nerves”.  Would you say there’s a ‘poetic’ way, for you, of looking at the world and everyday life?

MD: I love the complexity and wonder of the world and the mystery of how and why it all exists in the first place. The older I get the more amazed I am by life. I’m fascinated by the interconnectedness of everything and by the complex nature of everything, from the smallest of things to the whole of the universe. Science has revealed so much that is wondrous. I enjoy ideas and how they can feed us, morally and emotionally, as well as in the physical world. I love the fact that we as humans have such a hunger to understand and to make sense, at the same time retaining a sense of wonder. I think that my ‘poetic’ way of looking at the world is an attempt to reflect the idea that magic and knowledge can co-exist. That one does not preclude the other.