Colin Dardis speaks to poet, parent, artist and activist Ingrid Casey about her debut collection, Mandible, (the Onslaught Press, 2018), described by poet Jessica Traynor as a ‘vital addition to Irish poetry’. Casey has been writing poetry since 2015, and some prose, with publications in literary journals from Brooklyn to Kentucky, Dublin to Cardiff. She is a John Hewitt bursary recipient, amongst other accolades. Last year she also produced a groundbreaking short documentary on families living in homeless accommodation: www.throughthecracks.ie
Colin Dardis: Hi Ingrid, it’s been almost a year since your debut, Mandible, was published by Onslaught Press. With some time and distance, has your relationship with the poems changed in any way since the initial release?
Ingrid Casey: Yes, there has certainly been a softening in some of my writing, in the attention to dreamwork this past year and perhaps deeper memories but also the contemporary and where I am now. Foxes and totems are appearing, and here is a crossover with my prose as well. Elemental is met with the political. I feel stronger, like I have more mettle now to write. Exploring joyous feelings such as in my Queen poem which was shortlisted for the Allingham competitions (and is forthcoming in Banshee magazine, along with two others). I feel less angry, so the perspective has expanded which means I'm writing from a more elastic space. Interpreting visual images is something I'm considering; my publisher recently asked me to write a poem in response to an artist friend's collage, an exercise I'd done before with Visual Verse magazine.
CD: In Nobody Can be Atlas, you allude to UA Fanthrope’s poem, ‘Atlas’, which has the opening line “There is a kind of love called maintenance”. This seems to be a common thread, what one does to maintain capability and sanity, whether as a single mother, a woman, or a resident in Dublin.
IC: Mandible was written during recovery from an abusive relationship; it's a survival story. UA Fanthorpe's poem came to mind forcibly once when looking at a photo of my abuser flying a kite on a beach. It struck me that in high winds, with a tiny baby, toddler, and two other children in tow, I had taken that photo of the individual enjoying himself. That was also our last family holiday, before the axe fell so to speak. It summed up everything, the photo, about how co-dependent partners uphold entire worlds, for people who cause so much destruction.
CD: Your poem Inside the Beehive, there are no Bruises is a whirlwind charting of the breakdown of a long-term relationship, containing a striking piece of advice given: “try not to live your life in hatred”. How much was the writing of these poems an attempt to avoid, or at least explore, that potential hatred?
There was a one step forwards, two steps back element, a dialectic between righteous anger and an attempt to unravel it all. I wanted the message to be heard, that violence takes many forms. Nowadays, there are really great cultural conversations around consent, and at times during the writing of this book, it was like I being shaken awake to the fact that I had given permission to be brutalized in the most subtle and insidious ways. I was aghast, I suppose. So part of the energy of the book is about that; giving myself permission to acknowledge that my anger was entirely justified, and while agreeing that hatred can calcify the soul, that it was a necessary step in breaking free of the manipulative hold that person had on me.
CD: The theme of motherhood and family runs throughout the collection, with prolific imagery of pregnancy, childbirth and cradling. Did you move towards these as a natural response to the dissolution of the relationship, or had these always been a focus for your writing?
IC: Mothering has always been a focal point in my life; I was a parent really young, at nineteen. Certainly during the storms it did become an anchor though. You have a routine which needs to be adhered to, so you don't slip off the surface of the flat earth reality you've found yourself on. There's a joke in my extended family, that we are a matriarchy; my grandmother had ten children, and assisted with the delivery of the babies of rural neighbours. In fact these are themes that could be explored in the writing, for sure. I've never believed it was anything less interesting or that I would be shunned for writing about it, and I think with becoming a single parent, it's come into much sharper focus. It's my whole vocation, for these years really. Making art from your life, whatever your life may happen to be, is the rule I hope to live by.
CD: In some of the longer pieces - An Apology to my daughter, The Gambler misses his Mother, Samhain, etc. - we find sentences running into each other, continuing over many lines, blurring the lines between poetry and prose. Another poem is entitled A Sonnet with an added Couplet. How conscious are you of form when crafting a poem?
IC: When Martin Malone published my Rasputin poem in The Interpreter's House in 2016, he placed it sideways on the page because the lines were so long! I think the prose style pieces are either beloved of editors, or reviled. Anyone who knows me will attest to them being reflective of my verbal style of communication; in prose, my great loves are the meandering arabesques of magical realism. When form is all but flung out the window, perhaps the story or character is taking precedence. On the flipside of this, I've done the academic studies at undergrad level; I recall enjoying immensely comparing Heaney's and Milton's sonnets, for example. Then I discovered Neruda's sonnets, Carol Ann Duffy... I couldn't not try this form. There is a lot of room for improvement, of course, and when I examine my contemporaries, Irish and American poets who are using villanelle, ghazal... that's the joy of it. You are never not learning.
CD: A number of the poems here seem to be looking for answers, partly to perhaps pave a way for your children, partly a natural response to life’s problems. Arabesque encourages you “to be like a child, to run free”; Martin Heidegger talks about being “open to each other like | lily pads on a summer's day”. However, in On Talking to a Humaitarian about Resilience, you allow one of these questions to hang, unanswered and foreboding. Should poetry seek to provide answers to its readers, or is it enough to just raise important questions?
IC: The goal, artistically, is to do both, in an imaginative way. Jessica Traynor's poem Calais is exemplary; political warning by way of The Pied Piper. That elemental core can be very useful when looking at the world as macro, but it can also work in confessional poetry. Uncertainty, discomfort, opening of chasms or prising open of fruits to get at seeds. Or to shore up what frightens us, or to satirise what we know to be absurd and wrong. But we also need beauty and succour, maybe as a form of prayer even. It's everything really, it's metaphysical. I like the idea of polyphonic voices. At the moment I'm editing an anthology of poetry by young Irish poets, which is being translated into Greek. When I read the introduction, by Spanish academic Manuela Palacios, I was struck by the fact that when you zoom out, there is a cultural moment, the voices are sort of making this beautiful organism seen, this Ireland that's being interpreted, without us perhaps realising, because we live it.
CD: You studied English and Philosophy at Maynooth University; how much do philosophical concepts inform your work, and what ideologies are you drawn towards?
IC: When I was a student, I think I didn't realise how my philosophy studies were going to influence my work. I had originally studied Fine Art, and then when I was doing my degree I was doing very well at English Lit, so that was my focus at the time. I loved to write, my literary criticism was coming up top of a class of four hundred students; the Professor was advising me to write novels. That being said, a lot of the philosophy we touched on involved aesthetics and feminist politics, so these did appeal to me a lot. We would have been looking at Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt. European women during the war years seeking justice and redemption. There was also a lot of food for thought with writers like Toni Morrison, Jean Rhys, Chimamanda Adichie and so forth too, though, so I never really separated the disciplines; for me, literature-as-philosophy is perfectly ok. Like when you think of the big angry poems about war, Zbigniew Herbert's Mr Cogito or Neruda's I'm Explaining A Few Things; I mean these are morally instructive, in perhaps a much more incisive and visceral way than a big critical tome could ever be. As I've got older and experienced a degree of poverty, I've leaned further to the left politically speaking. And this comes through in the prose I enjoy reading. June Caldwell, Karl Parkinson; the surreal and dirty and magical realism that informs/expresses suffering in particular.
CD: Last year you also co-produced the short documentary Through the Cracks, about the rental crisis in Ireland. Is this ongoing issue of homelessness something we might expect to see more of in your writing going ahead?
IC: I suppose I would love to see my work made into a poetry film at some stage, whether this is political activism or art for art's sake. I have been talking to a female director, Natasha Waugh, about the idea of making something out of the Greek anthology, so we'll see if that's a possibility at some stage. At the moment I'm continuing to work on prose and poetry, though I'd like to develop my mettle in terms of the prose stuff. In 2018, I proposed an art sale in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, following the notorious Belfast trial. This event was realised beautifully with the help of some very dedicated fellow artists (Kerrie O'Brien, Ruth McKee and so forth), and I sold two pieces at it. That was a wonderful opportunity to marry my first love which is art, with an important socially conscious political cause. Dublin is humming with politically engaged creatives; there was talk of projecting Through The Cracks onto a wall in the city, something I should look into again! I think, going forward, making visual art is something I have to expand upon; it predates language. I'll have two paintings in a group show at Inspire Galerie in Dublin, at the end of March, which is good. About activism, I did need a rest after such a busy year last year, but I'd urge people to watch and share the film, it's still available at www.throughthecracks.ie and is linked to the Uplift housing petition. We are showing it in Turkey in May, at an International Children's Right's film festival, so that's pretty cool too.
Jackson In The Pasadena Hills
Things rise behind his bones, acclivities, eskers, every
change of direction in the light settling eventually on his
hair, that golden helmet. He sulks; his brother is better at
art. It was told to him that metaphysics is like a tree, each
needle or leaf another ephemera, reaching breath from a
former discipline-branch. He understands the fourth dimension
to be a game, where roots are, cut under promontories, mirrors;
see lungs. How this was learned was by way of the forests of
America; the same sun fractalized Bridger-Teton spruces back
home. His warm head bends to clean dirt and unscuffed sneakers
with needles, plastic aglets. He thinks about how he doesn’t have
double-punched copper aglets, or folding brass aglets, and how if
the plastic falls off, he can use sellotape. He inhales the clean
air, makes a heart-wish to show the world his great Art some day.
This dappled place, these fractals all around.
‘Mandible’ (ISBN: 978-1912111565) is available for order from the Onslaught Press.
Colin Dardis’s collection ‘the x of y’ (ISBN 978-1912477142) is available from Eyewear Publishing.