Geraldine O'Kane

An Interview

Colin Dardis

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Colin Dardis speak to poet Geraldine O’Kane about her upcoming debut collection, ‘Unsafe’, from Salmon Poetry.

Colin Dardis: In different social, political and even global circumstance, your debut collection, Unsafe, would have been launched at the Belfast Book Festival this June. Tell us about the alternative plans you’re been putting in place to help launch the book.

Geraldine O’Kane: It’s been a very stressful moment in time for a lot of writers who were to launch books, as well as my own debut tour being cancelled. It was my dream to launch at the Belfast Book Festival, so now it’s a personal low point for me. As the printers for the publisher closed during lockdown, I no longer have a specific date for publication; but I have been making some recordings of the poems from the book which you can find on Instagram. I am researching which festivals will run in late autumn 2020 and during 2021, and I’m currently searching for a place to physically launch the collection.

In the meantime, myself and David Yates are working on a poetry / dance collaboration in video form to promote the book until a live launch and performance can happen. David has a very artistic sense of creativity, I have worked with him on previous similar projects and am always astounded by how he can get to the heart of my poems. Roisin Monaghan wrote a gorgeous haunting song in response to the manuscript and we have released (on Instagram) a taster of the piece which will be performed when the live launch takes place - have a tissue handy. Watch this space!

I may do an online launch when the book is published. I have had a lot of anxiety around the use of online tools like Zoom, Instagram and Facebook Live: the thought of talking to what is essentially a blank screen fills me with dread so it may not happen; but that’s ok, everyone must look after their mental health in whatever way we can.

CD: You’re explored crossing-over into others mediums through your poetry, using meditation, and collaborating with visual artists. Do you see these ventures into other forms as a natural extension of poetry, or is it more about seeing how others react and respond?

GO’K: People always reflect that poetry writing is a lonely business. In one aspect that can be true: only you can write the poem, usually in a room by yourself. Collaborating with other artists takes the edge of that loneliness. I love to see others interpret my words and in turn I love to interpret others’ work. It’s a beautiful thing to let someone else put an ear to your piece and translate what it says, in that way everyone involved (including the poem) grows creatively. The poem is no longer flat words on a page, it moves, it gets rhythm, it gets serenaded! As much as I am a solitary person I enjoy people, I enjoy community, being part of something bigger than myself and collaboration fills that longing in me. I can’t play music, I can’t sing, I’m equally rubbish at drawing and dancing; collaboration is my only alternative.

Poetry can be meditative. I’ve always found the benefits of going to a poetry reading; many times because of my health conditions I’ve not wanted to go out and still turned up at a poetry reading, spent an hour absorbed in someone else’s life and observations of the world laid out in words before realising I’d entirely forgotten I was feeling unwell. In that sense I use poetry for personal meditation, for its healing effect.

CD: You’re known as a great advocate for micropoetry, being editor of the microjournal Panning For Poems, and your first chapbook, Quick Succession. Did you have to force yourself to purposefully write longer pieces for the Salmon collection?

GO’K: This is not my first manuscript: it has a predecessor which I would say contained around 75% very short poems, not quite micropoems but somewhere in-between that didn’t really have substance. That’s the thing, micropoetry is extreme immediacy: it’s like a hammer blow or a lightbulb tinging on in the mind of the reader, in a few lines you’re in the poem. Longer poems, you see an unfolding of layers with some sort of satisfaction at the end. In-between length poems can fall a bit flat, they lack the immediacy and the unfolding. I realised quite quickly this would not stand up as a collection. I’ve taken many poetry workshops and read a fair few books and articles to help me write longer pieces. Sometimes time is what is needed, to come to a poem repeatedly and ask it what it needs to say, look at it from every angle and viewpoint, find the flesh and then add meat to it. It’s been a long interesting journey. I still love micropoetry as a genre and am frequently surprised when I open my One Note and realise just how many micropoems I unconsciously written.

CD: Co-hosting a long-running open mic night, how do you feel this regular live engagement with poets helps inform your own practise as a writer?

GO’K: Inspiration is always a huge thing for me, it’s like when I go to the supermarket and there’s too many things to choose, I can’t focus, so end up buying a whole bunch of unwanted things. Co-hosting Purely Poetry gives me focus, there are so many individuals coming with their own take on life or life that is touching them in that moment. I like to write down words or phrases (when I can catch them) that inspire or trigger thoughts in me and take that home as a place to start researching a poem from. There’s something about live poetry engagement, I often get poems in a way that I haven’t or maybe wouldn’t if I was reading by myself from a page. Talking to readers about their poems and inspiration behind their pieces is always interesting, it gives me a renewed energy to go away and write.

CD: A lot of your poems are wrapped up in family matters, some light and casual, but some rather intimate. What are your feelings on sharing these stories with a wider audience than perhaps normally wouldn’t escape the boundaries of the family circle?

GO’K: If I’ve written about a certain scenario,  it’s because it has had some kind of impact on my life, and the writing has in some way allowed me to process how it affected or changed me as a person, whether the situation was good or bad. If a poem ended up in the collection, I’ve felt that it may help someone else to know that they are not alone in experiencing situations; sometimes it’s just enough to know that. I did a TEDx Belfast Talk in 2015 called ‘The Age of Innocence and Experience’,combining poetry I’d written whilst both myself and my mum were dealing with various mental health issues. She gave me permission to tell her story which was intertwined with mine, in the hope we could promote the power of creativity to forge resilience.

CD: The title ‘Unsafe’ feels almost dangerous in itself, bringing to mind immediate preconceptions of domestic abuse, of prejudice and discrimination, and perhaps even of poor mental or physical health. Did you approach putting together the collection with some of these themes in mind?

GO’K: I’ve lived with the poems a long time and sometimes I forget that no one else has seen them written down in a collection together. So when I got some blurbs back, I was a little bit surprised at the feelings they had regarding the poems: words like ‘shock’ and ‘trauma’ but also ‘resilience’ and ‘empathy’. I’ve never wanted to shy away from the issues people want to sweep under the carpet, so to speak. I come from a small village and a generation which was affected by the previous generation’s personal sacrifices, where nothing was talked about openly and only in times of hardship or anger would you find snippets of situations that must have really affected their inner lives. I feel my generation had a duty to open conversations, to say it is ok to be honest and open even about the really horrific and intimate tragedies of life because that’s the only place the healing can begin.

The collection had many different working titles, but when it came to placing the poems and reading them as a whole work I decided Unsafe was the best description of how I felt in that particular time in my life. This collection was written mostly through my twenties and I was only beginning to find out who I was as a person, what my beliefs were and that I could use poetry as a way to creatively be an activist against violence and discrimination by talking about it. We all have mental health, and it’s a good habit to look after it and nourish it, an easy way to do this is to reach out and connect with others with similar experiences. Poetry can be that connection.

CD: Before we even met, I published one of your poems in a little zine called Speech Therapy, which must have been about thirteen years ago now, and would have been around your first forays into poetry. Now, you have your debut full-length collection with one of the most well-known publishers of poetry in Ireland. How would you sum up your poetic journey over the past number of years?

G’OK: You were my first publication fifteen years ago in 2005! Other than a vanity publication when I was eighteen, but I don’t feel that counts. Previously I’ve said this is not my first manuscript; in fact if you take my poetry journey starting at thirteen years old there is a manuscript of teenage angst poems, which touch heavily on feelings of suicide and mental health, but lack any maturity. Then there is the second manuscript of mid-length poems with no substance and now we have the full collection. It was finding you and Speech Therapy that really started the notion of being a Northern Irish poet. Before that I was a member of the online forum My Writers Circle and it was the most enriching experience, you gave critical feedback on at least three other members’ poems before you posted a poem of your own. Many of the writers were published widely or already authors and gave really good constructive criticism. Had it not been for this group I never would have started working the poems; before that, serious editing never really occurred to me.

I grew through my teens in a small town and was dealing with health and mental health issues. I didn’t realise it at the time but I had led quite a sheltered life and it would remain so until my early twenties. That’s when music started to play a big part in my writing life. I came late to the music party, growing up listening to Pop and Irish Country. When a friend introduced me to Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Nirvana, Green Day, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen  - at home we never had Sky, I didn’t know MTV was a thing – but my mind was blown, these deeply raw lyrics, words that moved me, that’s how I wanted to write. I joined that Belfast Writers website, again a place to give and get feedback on poems and where we first met! I found there was a vibrant community of poets and Belfast and they ran open mics, slams and talked about getting poems published, all practically on my doorstep. I couldn’t believe it, after years of people talking about ‘that thing you do’, here were actual people who actively wanted to talk about poetry - I was in!

When you decide you want to be published, no one tells you the amount of work you have to put in to get there. The hours you spend reading journals to see if your poetry fits, writing cover letters, putting together suites of poems that may work in a publication, only for 90% of what you send out to get rejected. To begin with rejection is tough, but you get used to understanding that not everyone will like your work, just as you don’t like other works; it doesn’t mean it’s bad, just not to their taste. I have grown exponentially as a poet since moving to Belfast, co-hosting Purely Poetry, meeting and making friends with creatives from all disciplines. In turn, these moments have allowed me to find who I am as a person, which naturally feeds back into the poetry. I feel in the past few years I have done some of my strongest writing to date, I have moved away from the self to explore the world around me. There are less poems coming but they are much more impactful.

‘Unsafe’ is forthcoming this summer from Salmon Poetry