Colin Dardis: Congratulations on your new poetry collection, Inside the Wolf. Your blog (niamhboyce.blogspot.com) is incredibly extensive, concentrating on other writers and your interest in literature, but there is only one entry for your new book! Would it be fair to say you find it easier to promote and shout about other writers than putting yourself forward?
Niamh Boyce: Thanks Colin. I never even noticed that about my blog, it might be true. I think it’s very easy to highlight other writers - I’ve a genuine interest in the work and curiosity about process. It’s often more fascinating to interview other people than to talk about your own work I guess! I haven’t blogged much this year at all. People don’t interact anymore, or comment – so as a forum, it seems to be on hold – which is a shame, because blogs provide a space that is a little more considered that the quicker, more interactive social media forums.
CD: Most audiences probably know you as a novelist, but you are certainly not without honours in the world of poetry either. Did the success of The Herbalist in 2013 bring about a shift in focus for your writing at all?
NB: If you asked me at the time, I would have said ‘no, not at all.’ But looking back, the success of The Herbalist did have an effect. Everyone was asking about ‘the next novel.’ I almost felt obliged to write one. Although as I said, I wasn’t conscious of that at the time. Collecting the poems for Inside the Wolf has refocused me. I’m not a happy writer unless I can explore shorter forms and poetry.
CD: Inside The Wolf is full of macabre imagery inspired by classic fairy tales, but there is also a lot of tenderness, especially concerning familial relationships: a child and her grandmother, becoming a mother yourself, regard for your own children. It must have been a conscious stylistic choice to juxtapose these elements; do you feel this helps to stress the qualities of each to the reader?
NB: When I was sequencing the poems initially, I looked at how they related to each other and grouped them thematically – art poems, fairy tale poems, more personal poems. I worked with the writer Grace Wells at the final stage, and she asked all the right questions of the collection - ones I didn’t quite know the answer to! I saw that the collection needed to unfold in the different way, not just as poems clustered around themes. With a little shifting, the collection naturally unfolded as a tale of its own, with its own life-cycle/journey – from child poems to woman/artist poems (as creator and created), to motherhood poems etc… I wanted to work with an editor, because I wanted someone to tell me what didn’t work, we all have blind spots. ‘Tell me what ones are rubbish,’ I asked Grace, ‘don’t let me make a show of myself.’ There was one poem I was very fond of, that she gave the heave ho. I kept sneaking it back in to the manuscript at different points, but it didn’t work anywhere and had to go in the end.
CD: Central to the collection is this running motif of Red Riding Hood, with of course the grandmother being devoured by the wolf. It seems the idea of the wolf could stand as a symbol for many things: old age, the stress of everyday life, people drifting apart, or the coming-of-age temptations put before an adolescent. What originally brought you to explore this tale in particular?
NB: The character of Red appeared in my poems many years ago. They were always short poems, and I never submitted them anywhere, but she never went away. I have always loved the tale and read any version I can get my hands on. It is a story ripe for subversion. I like playing with the motifs, the woods, the dangerous beast, the red cloak, the journey – which are all so rich with possibility. In Catherine Orenstein’s book – Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked – she writes beautifully about all the interpretations of the tale; ‘The Cross-Dressing Wolf’ is one chapter, for example. I use the tale as a metaphor. I use the tale the way some poets use form, as gloves to lift those burning hot things I dare not touch with my bare skin.
CD: A few of the poems make highly effective use of internal rhyme and consonance, such as The Bluebeard Tour, or Witch, shifting the cadence from the end of the line, creating a spoken word quality to each piece. Have you been influenced at all by the rise of spoken word poets in the Irish literary scene?
NB: I admire the work of many poets who are considered spoken word, like Sarah Clancy and Colm Keegan, but no, I haven’t been influenced at all by the spoken word scene. I haven’t had the opportunity to hear much, for various reasons. The ‘spoken’ quality probably arises from being so much in character, taking on the voice of Bluebeards Wife, of the narrator in The Witch.
CD: Regarding your writing process, do you tend to move in-between poetry and prose, or it is a case of committing yourself to one genre at a time? I imagine there would be some overlap regarding subjects and themes.
NB: That’s an interesting one for me – the process changes all the time. At the moment, I’m beginning a new long work, so I allocate a 1,000 words a day for that. Before I begin, I write a poem – each day, it doesn’t have to be a good poem, but I write it. This month, I’ve been writing a poem a day using Writing Poetry to save your Life, by Maria Mazziotti Gillan. The last four years were spent on the novel Her Kind (and working and rearing a family) so that took centre stage writing wise for those years. But saying that, a poem often just slips in, right there in the middle of a novel. ‘She done me in my blue dress,’ came to me like that. It’s a nice experience, I love being surprised by the work.
CD: In contrast to celebrating the creativity (as well as lamenting their treatment) of women such as Katharina Detzel, Agnes Richter, Frida Kahlo, you have the poems Teacher, which derides a painting of a woman reading whilst naked, and Mister Grey Hair, Yellow Teeth, Finish Me, regarding Titian’s Venus of Urbino. You are a visual artist as well, amongst your many talents: is writing a way to help right the wrongs you see in other fields?
NB: That’s interesting, as I read your question I realised I don’t really see them as separate fields, though of course they are. I’m interested, in those works, in the creator and created, the right to make art, the right to speak, who is subject, who is object – and see art and writing as very intertwined. I write from a mixture of image and voice.
As far as righting wrongs go - my writing does explore power, that very much interests me, especially in my novels, but I don’t write with an agenda. I’m not saying my work isn’t political, all work is political – who speaks, who is silent, who is represented – and of course, who is published. But I don’t write with an aim to right wrongs.
Yet, one of the things I am drawn to is giving voice to silenced or obscured people, women in particular. It is not my only theme but reoccurs often enough to be a theme. And I guess that is a corrective, a reaction to being force fed male only art, fiction, poems (and consequently point of view and experience) all through my education in the eighties and nineties. But it’s a theme that occurs naturally, something rich and vital worth exploring, not something approached with an eye to righting wrongs. As a reader, I don’t enjoy work that is didactic. So, for example, my poem about the ludicrous ‘nude woman reading’ trope was not written with an eye to correcting that - the inclusion of women artists in our major galleries is where that kind of wrong can be righted.
CD: Your poem ‘On this day a certain woman was consigned to the flames’ deals with the legend of suspected witch Alice Kyteler, who is the subject of your next novel, Her Kind. Was the poem a natural offshoot of your research for the book, or did the poem come first?
NB: The seed of that book, Her Kind, was another poem called Petronelle. It’s the name of Kytler’s maid, who slipped into the verse of a poem I wrote one evening. When I next opened my work in progress, an unrelated novel – I found myself compelled to open a fresh word doc and wrote the sentence ‘fine men in robes are coming to see me burn’ – which turned into a long prose poem about the Kylter case. Which, in turn, led to me putting aside that novel and beginning Her Kind. ‘On this day a certain woman was consigned to the flames’ came from a scene in the novel, one I didn’t use in the end, but couldn’t leave alone. So a poem sparked the novel, which in turn yielded another poem, and quite a few short stories.
Inside The Wolf (ISBN: 978-1987751116) is available to order now here via Amazon.
Colin Dardis’s collection ‘the x of y’ (ISBN 978-1912477142) is available from Eyewear Publishing.