Rachel Coventry

An Interview

Colin Dardis

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Rachel Coventry was born in Edinburgh to an Irish mother and a Scottish father. Since then she has moved back and forth over the Irish Sea seven times. She lived in London for ten years but is now almost settled in Galway where she is studying for a doctorate in Heidegger’s poetics at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Her poetry is widely published in journals including Poetry Ireland Review, The Shop, and Cyphers. Rachel won the Galway University Hospitals Arts Trust Annual Poetry Competition in 2016 and was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Prize. In 2015 she was highly commended in the Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Competition. Currently, she teaches Economics and Philosophy on the Access Programme at NUIG. Afternoon Drinking in the Jolly Butchers is her debut collection. 

Colin Dardis: The narrative of the book moves from East London to Galway, and you yourself have moved back and forth many times across the Irish Sea. Would it be fair to say the sense of loneliness, of being an outsider – or indeed an outlier – influences your work?

Rachel Coventry: Yes. I was born in Scotland to an Irish mother and a Scottish father. We moved back and forward between Scotland and Ireland a number of times during my childhood. Wherever I was, I had the wrong accent. Then, when I was old enough, I moved to London where all the outsiders go. Eventually I came back to Galway. This rootlessness has undoubtedly influenced my writing. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. It may be a good thing. We are told that the writer is always an outsider simply by virtue of the fact she has to stand back a little from the world in order to gain perspective on it. I don’t know if loneliness is a part of this. Perhaps.

CD: Some of the poems in the collection serve as a warning against drug use, and we see the direct severe consequences of such. But some also seem to flirt with the allure of drugs. Is this the contradiction of the ex-drug user, the appeal/appal conflict?

RC: I didn’t intend for the poems to glamourize drugs or to serve as a warning against drug use. Drugs are just drugs. They are both appealing and appalling - that’s their nature. I think it is part of the poet’s job to get to the nature of things. I don’t think it would be honest to just describe the bleaker consequences of drug use. The poems are not there to carry a ‘just say no’ message. I personally don’t think that’s the job of art. To be honest, I didn’t really want to write poems about drugs at all, or at least I didn’t want people to read them. I didn’t necessarily want to admit to all of that. However, these poems showed up and it seemed important to honour them. The poems are based on events that happened a long time ago. I had practically forgotten some of the things described until they were staring back up at me from my laptop. I had a minor crisis about whether to read the poem The Lost at an Over the Edge event in 2016. After a lot of soul searching, I read it. After the reading, I could see how important it was that I did. It was not important in the sense that I admit my past transgressions to the world in order to get some sort of absolution. I don’t care about that. It was important because it was true and somehow my development as a poet demanded it. I don’t particularly want to give a defence of confessional poetry, but I think I needed to clear out what was hidden or inconvenient in order to move forward as a poet.

CD: There is a great sense of maturity and development in the poems, the idea of someone moving into something closer resembles a fully-realised adult (“in the cruelty of youth | I could get out”). Where these poems written over a lengthy period of time, charting this progression, or written from this grown-up viewpoint, looking back?

RC: The poems are written over a relatively short time; maybe four years. They are definitely written with the benefit of hindsight. I didn’t write any poems during the period I lived in London. I regret that but I don’t think I had the confidence to write poetry back then. When I did start writing, I think all this stuff was lined up waiting to be expressed. In some respects, this collection gives voice to the silenced self of my youth, albeit from a more circumspect perspective.

CD: In A subjective history of orchids, you write of “a bastion of male brutality”; Detail speaks of “Waiting for some man to play his ridiculous hand”. There seems to be a counterpoint between the beauty of nature and art, and the selfishness of men.

RC: I didn’t consciously set out to make this dichotomy. A subjective history of orchids is a poetic account of my femininity: part of that is the naïve feminism of my thirteen-year-old self, where everything was some sort of male bastion (which, of course, in the Eighties it was). But I’m not interested in making any hard and fast counterpoints. Women can be ridiculous, and beauty can be masculine. Recently, I’ve become particularly interested in the dynamics of female heterosexuality, with all its contradictions. I’ve just completed a sequence of poems on the subject of men. These poems investigate the tensions inherent in being a heterosexual woman. Some of these poems seem to contradict each other, but that’s fine. It’s not my intention to defend a position. I think the minute I adopt a particular position, I will no longer be able to write truthfully about a given phenomena.

CD: Collecting wood describes a poem as “Nothing but a blunt log thrown on top of a pile to burn”. That seems like a very jaded position for someone to state in their first collection!

RC: I suspect I was reading Heidegger’s essay On the Origin of the Work of Art when I wrote this. I’m writing a Ph.D on Heidegger’s poetics at NUI Galway and my research inevitably seeps into the poems. This poem is saying something about how some mainstream philosophical accounts of language cannot get to grips with poetry; how they may even have difficulty distinguishing between a shopping list and a poem. In particular, I’m talking about philosophical conceptions that see words as signifiers passively corresponding to states of affairs in the world. I like Heidegger’s richer and more active account of language. However, the poem is ambiguous. I do not think it is poetry’s job to make clear philosophical points. We have philosophy for that. Poetry does something else. The poem is also about making a fire with my friend in France. It’s about the artificiality of modern life; about how making a fire seems like a natural thing but, of course, we didn’t really have to make a fire, and how even the lake we were making it by was man-made. The poem makes a connection between artificiality and language, and this is a Heideggerian move. In the end, I think I’m saying there is something beyond this artificiality and that is poetry. But now I’ve taken twice as many words as there are in the poem and I’m not happy that this is even a good account. I can see what I intended the poem to do but I’m not sure how important that is now. But I love that you can squeeze so much into so few words though I have no idea how it happens most of the time.

CD: The idea of the multiverse and possible co-existing forms runs throughout the book: “near infinite versions of myself”, the poem Multiverse contemplating different versions of a couple, Electrification even seems to suggest boredom at all these possible stories and possibilities. Would it be fair to say you find intellectual comfort and refuge in considering such philosophical concepts?

RC: I went through a phase of reading anything I could about quantum physics. I found the subject fascinating. I particularly loved the poetic possibility of these theories. The title poem of the collection, Afternoon Drinking in the Jolly Butchers, is an example. While it seems quite mad to say that every time, we make a decision another universe pops into existence, it does speak to the idea that our decisions take us away from our past and the people we shared it with in a very emphatic way; that there is no going back. There is such drama in these theories, not to mention the fact they undermine the solid Newtonian universe. They provide such a good metaphor for the breaking down of old certainties and the sea-sickness which results. I’m not sure if I find refuge or comfort in intellectual concepts. I study philosophy so I’m not adverse to the abstract or the theoretical. I don’t think it’s a comfort thing. My questions are framed as philosophical questions. I want to understand things in philosophical terms. Maybe that is always about taming the world to make it more comfortable.

CD: Cataract IV is inspired by the work of artist Bridget Riley. Riley has stated of her work that “Colour presented a crisis for me. If you think of a square, a circle, or a triangle, no matter what size it may be, you know exactly what form you can expect to see.” Do you feel there is any homology between this stance and your own writing, to deal in fact, in time and place and people, without too much colour?

RC: I love this quote, it speaks to an almost violent need to comprehend. My poem is about how difficult water is to capture in words and how, ultimately, (my) words fail. Riley exercises such control in her work. It seems to me she fully overcomes her crisis with colour. Cataract IV looks pink from a distance but up close, it’s actually blue and red lines. Her work exhibits fierce control. I’d love to think there is a homology between my work and hers. If there is, it’s probably something to do with using philosophy or conceptual analysis as a way of ordering experience even though this is not so evident in my newer poems. For the moment, however, I can only aspire to her level of mastery.

Afternoon Drinking in the Jolly Butchers’ (ISBN: 978-1912561209) is available to order from Salmon Publishing.

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