Gaynor Kane

An interview

Colin Dardis

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Colin Dardis: In ‘Memory Forest’, you explore the issue of death, whether sombrely, or finding humour, being flippant or allowing it the gravitas it often deserves. Why did you decide to use this as a unifying theme for the collection?

Gaynor Kane: Several years ago, I sat at my kitchen table, one Friday afternoon, to begin a really difficult conversation with my parents. I’m an only child and something, the specifics of which I can’t remember now, had happened to prompt me to want to ensure that I knew the details of their final wishes – burial or cremation, church service, hymns, coffin type and flowers, etc. As it turned out, it wasn’t difficult or awkward. My parents lightened the mood by making fun of themselves and we laughed together. For example, my Dad said that he had really fond memories of being an Anchor Boy and would like the hymn ‘Will Your Anchor Hold’, and then performed a very rousing version with marching arm movements. Though, I realise now as I listen to a version on YouTube, that the choice was not as outrageous as I thought at the time, as the lyrics ask ‘Will your anchor hold on the floods of death / when the waters cold chill your latest breath?’. My Mum got a bit carried away with her instructions and asked would I have Daniel O’Donnell sing at her memorial service.

Then, more recently, as we approached my father’s eightieth birthday, I asked him how he wanted to celebrate it and he said he would like to have his wake, so that he’d be there to enjoy the stories people would tell about him. Shortly after that I wrote the poem ‘I want to be awake for my wake’. Then, as I talked to people about the idea of writing about funeral wishes they would open up to me and tell me their own ideas. I collected these and some of them became poems. People seemed interested in it as the topic for a collection and many people encouraged me to write it. They also recognised the need to make sure that these instructions are made before death. I hope that this collection might help readers to have conversations with their families, especially if they have very specific wishes.

The book also includes rituals from across the world which I decided to apply to local settings. So, for example, the poem ‘Famadihana’ portrays the Madagascan tradition of turning the bones, a process that include the exhumation of loved one’s remains, rewrapping in cloth, accompanied by music and dance, before reburial, in the local setting of Belfast’s Dundonald Cemetery. As I continued to explore the topic, it struck me that when people are dealing with loss, and in those darkest days of grief, they use humour as a coping mechanism. So, yes there are a range of voices, feelings and thoughts in ‘Memory Forest’ including flippancy and comedy, which I hope portrays a little of the complexity of the subject.

CD: How has the initial reception been to the release of the collection?

GK: Prior to publication, I asked four well-known poets for feedback, including Mary Montague, Isabelle Kenyon and Sue Burge. These comments went on to be used as the cover blurbs. I was astonished and delighted by the positive reaction. Sue Burge said the collection would “have a broad appeal to many readers”. Yourself said, “direct and defiant, these poems mix grim pathos and good humour to find a mood beyond bereavement, where there may be suffering, yet it still feels good to be alive”. These acknowledgments, from other poets whose work I greatly respect, helped to somewhat reduce the fear you feel putting your work out into the public sphere where it may come under criticism. I was terrified, and worried a great deal, about how the chapbook would be received. I’m always anxious about what others will think about my poetry and this fear was even more so with ‘Memory Forest’ because the majority of poems are not in my own voice.

However, I was very lucky to hold two successful book launches, one in EastSide Visitor Centre and the second in Bangor Carnegie Library. At the first launch Karen Mooney followed a short introduction with an interview that allowed for a relaxed discussion about the book and its topic. Afterwards, lots of people commented that it had been a great format and they enjoyed it being different from a standard book launch. Karen’s interview also included questions regarding my writing life and the community which supports me and the cover art and internal illustrations. The cover and centrespread are by artist Bonnie Helen Hawkins and there are also four illustrations by local artist Tommy McMahon. I’ve received numerous compliments for their artwork and people seem to appreciate how illustrations and poems complement each other.

At the second launch the introduction was made by Mary Montague. Mary gave a very articulate speech which included an analysis of the collection and commentary on the poetic tradition it follows. She said:

“Audre Lorde has described death as “the final silence.” However, Memory Forest challenges this characterisation; personhood, the singular self, is not annihilated by death. The dead, the-soon-to-be-dead, and their witnesses are all given voice. Funerary ritual becomes a synthesis and culmination of the individual. We are the inheritors, and our dead are not forgotten. This sense of continuance evokes comfort and celebration, as well as sadness. And while grief, loss and mourning are inevitably present, what also emanates powerfully from this collection is an intimate sense of connection: between different times and traditions; between old customs and new rituals; and between family and friends, different generations and indeed different species.”

CD: You’ve built up a great relationship with your publisher, Hedgehog Press, bringing out a micro-pamphlet last year, this current chapbook, and a full-length collection to follow. The editor has said you were “top of my list” of poets they wanted to work with. It must be fantastic as an emerging poet to have a publisher so solidly behind you, wanting to help establish your name.

GK: It’s wonderful and I will never be able to thank Mark Davidson, of Hedgehog Press, enough for the belief he has shown in me as a writer. I began writing poetry in 2015, at the age of 45, as an undergraduate of The Open University. I could never have imaged then that, within 5 years, I would have numerous poems published around the world and be about to release a full collection shortly after a chapbook and micro-pamphlet. When I’m filled with imposter syndrome (as I often am), I put it all down to luck and being in the right place at the right time. I joined the Hedgehog Poetry subscription club (affectionately named ‘The Cult of the Spiny Hog’) at its inception; I was member number four. Mark has created a member’s area of the website for us and he provides monthly writing prompts which often result in the winners being published in anthologies. As well as support for my poetry, Mark has taken an interest in my personal and artistic development and we have had some preliminary discussions about the direction that might take after we release my full collection.

I’m very lucky to have a solid and supportive writing community behind me also. I owe so much to others for their generosity in helping raise my profile and for the reading opportunities they’ve afforded me. I had the wonderful benefit of getting funding through the Support for Individual Artists Programme by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI). The grant allowed me time writing and editing at The River Mill and the opportunity of mentoring from Maria McManus. This experience has been invaluable and the recognition from ACNI has been very validating.

CD: There are a great many voices throughout ‘Memory Forest’, ruminating about people’s passing or their own, or just commenting on life. It’s sometimes tricky to determine when you are speaking directly, and when you have taken on a persona. How did you find blending other people’s views and morality with your own?

GK: The number of different voices is one of the things that worries me the most about this collection, and how it will be received by readers, but it was necessary in order to cover a wide range of traditions, cultures and last wishes. So, I have to hope that the reader will come to understand that every poem has a different, and possibly unique, poetic voice. I think readers dip into collections periodically as opposed to reading in one sitting, cover to cover, and so it should be less of a problem, perhaps?

The poem ‘Cinders’ is the only poem which documents my specific wishes. There may be others written in my own poetic voice that document a scene I’ve researched, like the behaviour of crows as they mourn the death of one of their own, for example. Once I started writing the collection, having an idea of the range it would cover, I found it easy to switch between personas. I would do research on the custom and then imagine how that might look and feel. As a poet, I can’t always write about myself, I have to put myself into other people’s shoes and show the world from their perspective. But I hope that I always do so with integrity and empathy.

CD: Perhaps this is a bit of a morbid question, but since we are dealing with matters of death and mortality: do you have a particular poem that you would like read at your own funeral?

GK: Thank you for making me think about this, Colin. It took me a while to choose a poem but I finally decided on ‘Starlings in Winter’ by Mary Oliver. It is a poem full of hope, in beautiful imagery, with a wonderful rhythm and I think it’s very comforting. I hope that it may reassure anyone grieving for my passing that I might now be ‘light and frolicsome […] beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings’. I think that would be a lovely way to be remembered.

CD: In addition to poetry, your website also showcases some of your favourite photography work. Is this an area you might consider developing more alongside your writing, or possibly merging the two together somehow?

GK: Perhaps! There seems to be more and more online journals accepting mixed media so I may begin writing micro poems to link with my photos, we will see. As a creative person, I enjoy capturing scenes and moments. Sometimes this is with my camera, other times it’s with my pen. I’ve also returned to painting. In the past I painted with watercolour, but I’ve started attending an abstract art class where I’m painting in acrylic. I’m hoping the abstract work will help loosen up my painting style. I would love to paint the cover of my next book but we’ll see how it goes. I might have to use the services of a professional…

CD: Can you tell us a bit about the full-length collection that’s in the pipeline: have you found any themes or a common voice emerging yet, and when can we expect its release?

GK: I would love to tell you all about my full-length collection, including what it is called but unfortunately, I really struggle with titles! I’m currently toying with the idea of calling it ‘Aren’t titles the hardest thing?’. Title, and joking, aside I can say that it will have a much more consistent poetic voice as many of the poems are autobiographical. It includes poems about myself, at various stages of my life, and family members including my husband and daughter, nieces and nephews, parents and grandparents. However, it also includes some historical poems either about events or ancestors that I have never met, along with a smattering of poems in other imagined poetic voices. The themes include nature, family and relationships, and place and setting.  The final edits are taking place and, all being well, you can expect its release in June at the Belfast Book Festival.

Memory Forest is available now from Hedgehog Press, £7.99, ISBN 9781916090859 

Colin Dardis’s new collection ‘The Dogs of Humanity’ is available from Fly On The Wall Press, £6.99, ISBN 978-1999598693