Colin Dardis talks to Ruth Carr about her new collection, Feather and Bone, which focuses on the lives of Mary Ann McCracken and Dorothy Wordsworth.
Ruth Carr was born and lives in Belfast where she is a freelance editor and tutor. She was joint winner of the Maxwell House Bursary Award in 1981 and in 1985 edited The Female Line (Northern Ireland Women’s Right Movement, Belfast). She compiled the contemporary women’s fiction section in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing IV-V (Cork University Press, 2001) and was a co-editor of The Honest Ulsterman for a number of years.
A founder member of the Word of Mouth women’s poetry collective, her work is included in their anthologies, Word of Mouth (Blackstaff, 1998) and When the Neva Rushes Backwards (Lagan Press, 2014). She has two previous collections, There is a House (1999) and The Airing Cupboard (2008), both from Summer Palace Press. In 2015 she was runner up in Mslexia’s Annual Poetry Competition. She is co-organiser of an occasional reading series, Of Mouth, in the Linen Hall Library, Belfast.
Colin Dardis: Hi Ruth. Your new collection, Feather and Bone, was recently published by Arlen House. How did the connection with the publisher, Alan Hayes, first come about?
Ruth Carr: I had met Alan years and years ago, in fact so long that I had forgotten I had met him. At one point, he approached me about reprinting The Female Line – this is decades ago – and at that time, I thought it was more important to have a new anthology of women’s writing coming out; but nothing came of that. Really, once I got Feather and Bone together, a very slow process, I had sent it to a few places; but it was through the Belfast Book Festival that I met one of his authors, Órfhlaith Foyle, and she said, why not try Alan? So I sent it to him in June 2016 and didn’t hear anything for a long time. In between that, we have Alan up on a panel discussion of publishers for The Female Line, but we didn’t discuss anything about the manuscript. But in January 2017, he got in touch with me to say he was interested in publishing it, and also some other women poets from the North.
He had liaised with me in December as he was bringing out a surprise anthology in tribute to Eavan Boland, in which Nessa O'Mahony and Siobhan Campbell were editing essays on her work. He wanted to accompany that with the Washing Windows? Irish Women Write Poetry anthology, a tribute to the work Boland had put in early on, in the seventies and eighties, to encourage women to write and take their writing seriously. So Alan asked me to contact a lot of women in the North to contribute to that, and there was a great response. There are women writing here, and no one really south of the border knows they are writing. So that’s how it developed; I was published along Maria McManus, Medbh McGuckian, and Maureen Boyle – her first, long-awaited collection. It evolved unknown, unexpectedly, but that’s the beauty of life, I suppose.
CD: You had that launch in December 2017 with Medbh, Maureen and Maria; how important was it to you to stand alongside them and be presented as a powerhouse of local women writers?
RC: I have to admit, it wasn’t planned by any of us, it was planned by the publisher, who does called himself a feminist publisher, so there may be a reason for that! I think we all enjoyed the process, because we were coming at it from different stages of our own writing, which was quite exciting. At a result, we are going to do several readings, to share resources and send out to different places. It’s interesting, as our books are quite different, and I like to think our connection is that we are all poets, rather than we are all women.
I think there is some confusion around how awareness has been raised, because it’s much easier for women to get published that it was – although it’s not easy for anyone to get published, given bookshops and costs. You need to resort to online publishing, as with the good old Honest Ulsterman. It’s changing times; I’m glad there is this raised awareness, but I think it’s only one of many that are needed. How many people of different race are published in Ireland? To me, it’s not all about women, and feminism shouldn’t be all about women: it’s about equality. It’s about fair shares, am far as I’m concerned.
CD: Do you think there has been a sea change because, women historically being ignored in publishing, publishers are now wanting to be seen to promote more women?
RC: There may be that reaction, a reflex, because of things like Fired! There is a concern that you have to have a sort of balance, and if that’s what it takes, if it’s out of necessity, then that’s not a bad thing. But it’s not a terribly altruistic thing. I have very mixed feelings about it: I think it’s all good, but I think there isn’t any one right way. I didn’t sign the pledge for Fired!, not because I don’t agree with it, but because, if I’m going to bring out a women-only anthology, I feel there should be many anthologies. The thing about an anthology is that it sets out its criteria; it could be all about nature, or women who had had babies, or men who have tried to commit suicide, you see? An anthology has to be judged by its criteria, so you could say if I’m bringing out a women’s only anthology, then it is not really balanced. So I think there is room for many, and the more, the better. It’s a bit like psychiatry: it’s only as good as the psychiatrist. Editors have a big responsible, and often that is not taken terribly seriously.
CD: Yourself as an editor, a mentor, a creative writing facilitator, you are incredibly generous with your time, always very supportive and helpful to up-and-coming poets, and even established poets. But has this been to the detriment of the advancement of your own career?
RC: I think it’s a lack of ambition on my part. (Laughs) Yes, one could say it is a female role to be supportive, and maybe that’s easier, and maybe I have been programmed that way. I do enjoy it, but to be honest - and this is not a good thing to admit, but it is honest - without getting the bursary from the Arts Council, I might not have taken myself seriously enough to do the research for this book. And it was a great experience to go off to the Lake District and down South, and read letters and research the two women’s lives. That was a great privilege to be funded to do that. I think that’s one of the best things about writing, giving you the time to actually devote to something. I don’t know how novelists write novels, I don’t know how people write quickly; I think it’s terrific that there do, but I am a slow writer. I do think I have let me allegiances to earning money and working as a tutor overshadow what I really love doing, which is the writing. And there may be a question of confidence too.
CD: Obviously, with Mary Ann McCracken, most of the research material is here on your doorstep in Belfast. Tell us a little about going over to the Lake District and reading up on Dorothy Wordsworth.
RC: The reason I got interested in the two women was because my elder daughter, who was in Scotland, suggested a few years ago that we met up in the Lake District for a holiday. So she booked us into a really old house at Hawkshead, where Wordsworth lived as a boy. He roomed there when he and his brothers attended school, and you can go visit there. All the boys were armed with penknives, and they hacked their names into the desks. Living there, and visiting Grassmere and Townend, where Dorothy and he set up house together, was fascinating.
While there, I realised Dorothy was born in 1701, Mary Ann McCracken in 1700, these two women who were mad keen on reading, inspired by the enlightenment, campaigned against slavery, and were devoted to a brother. I just found it very interesting to think of them both beavering away in their own ways, separately, with such different personalities, powerhouses, but very devoted too. It fired my imagination, so I wanted to come back and find out more. I was very lucky, because the next year, Pamela Woof, who is the President of the Wordsworth Trust, was doing this wonderful exhibition which I was able to go and visit. Woof tried to make the exhibition like an experience of Dorothy: she had birdsong in it, and these milestones on which were pieces of Dorothy’s journals, about all the people she met on her way. Her journals are not just about nature and observation: it’s about all the people that came to her door. She listened intently to people’s sad stories, and was very concerned about poverty, the way Mary Ann was. It was harder to get under the skin of Mary Ann, as she was so proper, and there is less written about her.
CD: Did you find you had to be more inventive in the telling of her story?
RC: Yes, and that was a big challenge. When you are thinking about real people’s lives and real history, you want to stick to the facts, but you have to be careful. It’s how you weigh up what you imagine, but you realise there is a part of you in it too. Once I had accepted that was the way it was, and that I would write in the first person, as well as the second and third person, it freed up the process, but was still a very slow process. When you do research, you get so stuffed full of information, you want to spew it out! You have to edit a lot; otherwise you’ll kill the interest with too much information.
Also, you’re researching families, and you realise all families are human, and have pretty nasty things as well as good things. You have to wonder how to handle that, and I went through a period of getting on a soapbox about it all. Then I thought, no, I’m not a judge here; I want to look at it more as a social anthropologist.
CD: Part of the intention of the book is to highlight the stories of Mary Ann and Dorothy over their more well-known brothers’ stories. You mentioned the Wordsworth Trust, have you had contact with any other historical societies to make them aware of the book?
RC: I’m just beginning to make inroads there. I’m been in touch with the Belfast Charitable Society, so I am hoping they will take the book! I see they are going to do a lecture on the anniversary of Mary Ann’s death, but I think they are wary of anything that isn’t purely historical. In a way, where I am coming from is quite new for Mary Ann, because she hasn’t really been represented very much as a literary figure. Stewart Parker included her in Northern Star, his famous play, but otherwise, there isn’t much. I did read with Jane Cassidy and Maurice Leyden, who have a great set of weaver songs around Mary Ann and that period. Plus I sent the book to Pamela Woof, who is really an academic; she said she enjoyed it and hoped it would bring more readers to Dorothy. So I was very pleased about that.
CD: Moving on to The Female Line which you edited, released in 1985: am I right in saying it was the first anthology of Irish women’s writing released since the 1920s?
RC: More or less. I think it was the first Northern anthology of women’s writing, but not the first of Irish women’s writing.
CD: And what was your mindset at the time in what you wanted to achieve with the anthology? There are a lot of writers included that were published for the very first time, along with more established names.
RC: It came about because the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement was going to be ten years old. Avila Kilmurrayhad proposed we produce a little pamphlet of poems from Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian. They were probably the known poets of North and South, and I think there was some intention to link the North and South, which was lovely. I worked in the Belfast women’s centre at the time, and there was a tremendous lack of women being published in the North. I had looked in anthologies, and was aware of that when I was studying English at Queen’s, how few women were on the syllabus. Looking at the ratio of women to men, it was really poor. In most cases it was 1 in 12; the best was really 1 in 8. This was pretty shocking, so I suggested if we could get funding, an anthology of women’s writing. We thought to make it as wide as possible, so I put ads in all the papers over the North, and got on radio programmes, went around writing groups and so on. There was no Internet of course, so I was writing to the likes of Jennifer Johnston, Anne Delvin and Frances Molloy. No Mate for the Magpie had just been published, so I wrote to Frances’s publisher, and she said she would be more than happy to send a story. I got funding from the Equal Opportunities Commission, and some trade unions, and the idea was that it would be all-inclusive:so it would be first-time writers alongside recognised, established authors. We had a launch at the old Arts Council building on the Dublin Road, and it sold out within a month.
It was great then to go and do readings in places like Strabane, Derry, Dublin and all over the place, with people who maybe has never had that experience before. And some of them did go on to complete novels and so on, and this helped them, it was just a great opportunity. The most exciting thing was that the Guardian newspaper put a little piece in, and at that time it was really exciting. It was a great shot in the arm, because we realised we can do these things.
Then Alan Hayes approached me with Rebecca Peland, I think it was, an Australian academic who was teaching here in either Trinity or Galway, and then wanted to reprint it. But at that point, I felt there still wasn’t enough women in print, and we should really be following it up with a new one… but no funds for that. But thirty years on from it, I thought it would be good to have it as an e-book, just for historical access, for people to know it exists.
CD: So from there, you took over the editorship of the HU. Did you consciously carry over the objective that you wanted to promote more women’s writing?
RC: Yes, the Honest Ulsterman. Frank Ormsby passed it onto me, and I did it was Robert Johnstone. To be honest, to begin with, I was inundated with such a backlog, about three box loads of unopened stuff. But we definitely did want to highlight some women. Also, we had an issue which we gave to Ann McKay in Derry, which she edited, and it was a women’s issue, a beautiful issue in fact. We also brought out Kerry Hardie’s pamphlet, when she was still very much affected by ME. We did a few other pamphlets.
CD: Did you oversee Circumcision Party by Joan Newmann? I love that title.
RC: Yes, we did that, as her Suffer Little Children from Diamond Poets had come out. And definitely, there was more emphasis that women had a right to be in there. It wasn’t about being a club, which I think it tended to be, not intentionally. Often, when you are outside the club, you think, oh, they’re keeping us out. Actually, it’s because they only know each other and they keep each other in, that’s how it works.
CD: Is it not their responsibility to look outside of themselves more?
RC: It is, it is. But it’s like all of us, to be better human beings, but we don’t always practise it. You get so excited about the people you know, you forgot there are lots of people you don’t know, which are probably just as good. I remember reading some sonnets by Tennyson, and then seeing one in a magazine of his brother, who apparently was a great writer too, but who knows about him? But going back to the HU, whenever Tom Clyde took over from Robert Johnstone, we had a problem with ‘The Honest Ulsterman’ as a title, which we had sort of grown out of. It was James Simmons’s title, with all that he brought to it. Actually, we use to say that the only uncontentious word in the title was ‘the’. I think that’s true; what makes an Ulsterman honest? But ‘The Honest Ulsterman’ has a wonderful sound to it, so it has to be taken tongue-in-cheek.
CD: It is now ingrained in history, I suppose; when it relaunched digitally, I recall some debate and speculation that the title might change.
RC: Yes, and we changed it to ‘HU’, which didn’t really work, because everybody said “what’s HU?” But we did have ‘HU’ on the front, and we had a logo, but it was always The Honest Ulsterman. It could be full of women, and it would still be The Honest Ulsterman. You just have to take the humour and history of the title. Michael Longley used to call it ‘The Warhorse’, it had that sort of gruffness about it, soldiering on, which kind of reflected the people involved in it!