Jessica Traynor

An interview

Colin Dardis

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Colin Dardis: Hi Jess, and congratulations on your new collection, The Quick. How important was it to you to be able to continue your relationship with Dedalus Press?

Jessica Traynor: I’ve had a great time working with Dedalus Press and I was delighted to be able to work with them again on a second collection. For me, a strong editorial input is paramount, as although I have a fantastic writers’ group of other poets that I work with, you need a fresh eye on any collection as it comes together. Pat Boran is a great sounding board for ideas. I think the continuity of working with one publisher creates a small island of stability in an otherwise chaotic world.

CD: This is your second collection, following on from 2014’s Liffey Swim. Did you experience the dreaded ‘difficult second album’ syndrome when putting it together, or was it relatively easy to draw from your body of work?

JT: In a way it’s just nice to have the challenge of the ‘difficult second album’ – poetry can be such a precarious business that it’s a privilege to be able to publish a second collection at all. But I made some conscious decisions about the kind of collection I wanted to publish, or perhaps more accurately, the kind of collection I didn’t want to publish. I tried to liberate myself from a need to please, to create something pretty, as I’ve felt for a while that there is a darker, perhaps more burlesque, aspect to my attitude and worldview that I had been suppressing in favour of more traditionally lyrical themes and subject matter. Bearing this in mind, when the time came to gather the collection together, it was mostly a process of omission – removing the poems that, though they might have been well received, or published in higher profile journals – didn’t fit the collection’s themes. Doing this felt a little bit dangerous and kind of excitingly cavalier, but, as Lola Ridge put it, ‘Write anything that burns you.’

CD: There are references in the collection to the infamous John Charles McQuaid, past Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, and overseer of the Catholic Church’s handling of adoption practises. How did Ireland’s abortion referendum and the Tuam Babies mass grave scandal impact on your writing?

JT: All of these things affected me hugely. There was an urge to try to synthesise this history; much of which (as with McQuaid) affected my family directly. In 2017, on her induction to the Hennessy Hall of Fame, Vona Groarke said, ‘If you want to change things, stand for election. Poems aren’t part of that.’ This statement brought me up short, as I had spent the preceding few years worrying about not working hard enough to try to say something real or relevant with my poems, to give shape to the preoccupations and narratives that had been shaping my daydreams in the midst of the social upheaval that surrounded me. I understand Vona’s statement – there needs to be a personal realm of expression protected from the requirements of the outside world, and any work that becomes dogmatic or didactic must be interrogated. However, while I recognise this, my own personal anxiety around writing work with a political bent is that women are still not, in Ireland at least, really allowed write political poems. I say this while recognising the work and success of Paula Meehan, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Sarah Clancy, Elaine Feeney, Doireann Ní Ghríofa and others who have chosen to engage with history and politics and current affairs. While the work of these women has been recognised, and rightly so, I still read reviews that seem to question their right to their anger – the very propriety of it. I can’t remember ever reading a review of a male poet that asks these questions. Imagine, for example, a review of Derek Mahon that questions whether the anger in a stunning poem like Ecclesiastes is, well, a bit inappropriate, unseemly, not his to own. Hard to do, isn’t it?

CD: You also seem influenced by the plight and experiences of displaced people, particularly children (there are thirty mentions of ‘child’ or ‘children’ through the book); or perhaps is it the psychosocial displacement that occurs between childhood and adulthood that interests you more?

JT: Well noticed Colin! I had no idea that there were so many mentions of children. To return a little to the subject of the last question, there’s nothing worse than a chopped-up news report that claims to be a poem. The job of the poet is not to report the news verbatim, but I do believe that it is the job of the poet to reflect the world in which they live in fresh and surprising ways. And we are living in a world of displacement – of displaced people, of frighteningly shifting ideals (I see a drift towards a suppression of civil liberties in both America and the Middle East), and of millions of lost children. How to reflect these vast displacements in poems that don’t read like a list of miseries? I think the answer with poetry is to always to follow the thread from your emotional response to the wider world back to its root in your heart. And we all suffer our own small displacements; even in the most uneventful lives, the world picks us up, spins us around, and dumps us in unfamiliar surroundings. So, in poems like ‘Nimrud’ and ‘Calais’, I try to use small personal and familiar traumas as a window into that wider lived human experience.

CD: There are two lengthy sequences in the collection, ‘Witches’ and ‘A Modest Proposal’, the second of which was written in celebration of Swift’s 350th anniversary. Could you tell us a little about the themes of each of these?

JT: Well, ‘Witches’ was probably the most fun to write. It’s a sequence that reflects on my experience of the fate of an older generation of women, and what the Ireland of the 20th century made of them. I grew up surrounded by intelligent, ambitious women, whose sole aim in life seemed to be to deal with problematic men. The men were ‘characters’, of course. The system served them outwardly, and crippled them inwardly. And the women were always angry, long-suffering, plotting their escape. And yet they didn’t escape. And by the time the divorce referendum came about, it was too late for them. And they became bitter and turned their anger and considerable intelligence inwards and against each other, and that’s what a witch is; a powerful woman in invisible shackles who has created a dark matter reactor at her core. Misogyny makes harridans of women and bullies of men. As a woman, sometimes the witches are there to save you, and other times they want to drag you down with them. Their power is seductive and they are great craic to be around. But it’s not an identity anyone would choose.

‘A Modest Proposal’ was commissioned by Jamie Murphy of the Salvage Press in 2016 to accompany a new publication of the original text and a series of drawings by David O’Kane. Jamie’s provocation was to try and imagine what Swift would be writing about now. 2016 didn’t disappoint with its rolling series of disasters; Brexit, Trump, the migrant crisis, the struggle to repeal the 8th Amendment. The sequence begins with a poem inspired by a taxi ride from Manchester airport into the city centre two days after Brexit, and ends with a grotesque banquet.

CD: ‘The Witches Hex an Enemy’ has a most delicious insult: “May your enemies shit on your grave until it becomes a blackened monument”. You also show similar disdain to Lord Haw Haw, reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s famous song to Margaret Thatcher, Tramp The Dirt Down. Is it difficult to display such unabashed wrath in poetry, yet still maintain an eloquence of language and form?

JT: I think Irish history is full of whited sepulchres and blackened monuments – one of our favourite things to do is to knock the latter down and pretend they never existed (see recent attempts to turn the Sean McDermott Street laundry into a hotel). When writing about the Irish state and its social dynamics it’s hard not to get a bit angry. But I think anger can be a dynamic force in writing and poetry, and it can be something to have a bit of fun with. There’s a certain glee in the catharsis a good hex can bring. And of course, Lord Haw Haw the historical figure may be dead and buried in Bohermore, but his spirit is still at large. It’s everyone’s individual responsibility to exorcise him and his kind from the airwaves. Of course, the challenge is to bring the same freshness and verve to angry writing as you would to the lyric mode. But anyone who thinks anger has no place in poetry has never read Queen Margaret’s curse in Richard III.

CD: You have a poem called ‘Poetry’ as part of the collection, which immediate follows ‘Using My Tongue’ learning to use words as weapons, asking “why is it a punishment to be a girl?” Is there a conscious connection here, commenting on how women have historically been overlooked and ignored in the Irish literary canon?

JT: Well spotted again. Yes, I think I was meditating on my own experience through a number of different lenses, both literary and personal. ‘Poetry’, I hope, will be taken in the wry spirit in which it was written. It’s certainly a nod to how damaging a monolithic (patriarchal) view of history and culture can be.

‘Using My Tongue’ was probably a more difficult poem to write, as for me it feels quite personal. These were two events in my childhood that had stuck in my mind, niggling away at me for years. It was interesting to finally write about them, as it was a revelation to realise how formative each event had been.

CD: You also currently teach an Introduction To Poetry course at the Irish Writers centre. How does teaching the class, and interacting with aspiring poets, influence and assist in your own approach to poetry?

JT: Working with aspiring poets reminds me to refresh my own frame of reference on a regular basis – to read new work and to become familiar with the kind of poetry that might be inspiring people to pick up a pen for the first time. And then discovering new poets with that faculty for saying something in a voice all their own, whose perspective is unique and surprising, is always exciting. It’s also important to dig down into the familiar principles of good writing, to go back to basics and interrogate those concepts again in the company of other people who share an interest. There’s always inspiration to be had there. The group dynamic itself is a boon, when writing can be such a solitary occupation.

‘The Quick’ (ISBN: 978-1910251454) is available for pre-order via Dedalus Press: The Quick

Colin Dardis’s collection ‘the x of y’ (ISBN 978-1912477142) is available from Eyewear Publishing.