Stephanie Conn

An Interview

Moyra Donaldson

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A former teacher and graduate of the MA programme at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Stephanie Conn won the Yeovil Poetry Prize, Funeral Service NI prize and the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing. She has read her work locally, nationally and internationally. Her first collection, ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ is published by Doire Press and was shortlisted for the Shine/Strong Award for best first collection. Her pamphlet ‘Copeland’s Daughter’ won the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition and is published by Smith/Doorstep. 

Moyra Donaldson: Hi Stephanie – I’m interested in your roots as a poet. What attracted you to writing poetry and how did you start?

Stephanie Conn: I always enjoyed English at school, but I often couldn’t relate to the poetry I studied. That all changed during a period of grief. My mother died when I was in my first year of university and poetry suddenly became relevant; it offered comfort and hope. I started jotting down my own lines around this time, mainly to try and make some sort of sense of what I was experiencing.

Over the next few years, a couple of lines, here and there, developed into full poems. In my twenties, I wrote poems when inspiration struck but teaching full time and the arrival of two babies, meant that didn’t happen all that often. When the children were small, I stopped teaching full-time and part-time work allowed me some extra time to write. I eventually plucked up the courage to join a writing group and that was a turning point. I wrote more consistently, received constructive feedback, started taking part in readings with the group and submitting work to journals and magazines. A few months later I attended my first John Hewitt Summer School – the programme was wonderful, and it was inspiring to see so many people taking their writing seriously. I committed to do the same and decided to apply for the MA programme at the Seamus Heaney Centre, QUB.

I’m an introvert by nature and perhaps that is why I was attracted to writing. I often feel I communicate more effectively on the page than I do in person. I have always been a keen letter writer. I can take my time with writing, consider exactly what it is I want to say and how best to say it.

MD: Your new collection, Island, expands and extends the subject matter of your Poetry Business prize-winning pamphlet, Copeland’s Daughter. Both are concerned with the history of your family and its connection to those small islands off Donaghadee. How did it feel to be writing about your ancestors and how much research did you do?

SC: I write about the Clegg family, my ancestors on my father’s side. Growing up, my mother was the one who told us stories about both sides of the family and used to tease my father that he couldn’t even remember the names of his aunts and uncles, let alone details of their lives, and that was partly true. My mother would show us photographs and tell my sister and I about my grandparents’ generation. I knew little of the previous generations who had lived on Copeland Island. On Sunday drives my father would point to the islands and tell that was were we came from but, as a child, I wasn’t particularly interested.

When my mother died at the age of 46, she took all that family knowledge with her. I was still a teenager when she died, so I was more interested in my own life and the future rather than the past. However, as the years passed, I regretted not having paid more attention to the stories she told us growing up and I was struck by the fact the lives of those who had lived on the islands and their way of life, could soon be forgotten. I was determined to find out what I could before it was too late.

I quickly became hooked. The more I discovered, the more I wanted to know, and was intrigued to think of my great-great grandmother living her whole life on a tiny island and as a mother of two daughters, could hardly fathom the notion of her having nine children. I became more and more curious about how she might have felt about the various aspects of her life.

I was able to use census materials, birth and death certificates, but it was difficult to uncover the experiences of the island people. Newspaper archives focused on the shipping accidents which were fairly common at the time. Occasionally my ancestors’ names would appear in a newspaper article, for example when the Mermaid sank off the island, in 1854, my great-great grandfather Richard Clegg put up some of the crew and the three passengers in his barn until they were able to be taken to the mainland the next day.

Books like Peter Carr’s ‘Portavo’ and W.G. Pollock’s ‘Six Miles from Bangor’ helped to give some insight into what life would have been like. Much has been written about the Scottish islands but there is little in the way of literary record for the Copeland Islands. ‘As Luck would Have It’ a memoir written by Molly Campbell, includes a short chapter of the months she lived on Copeland Island and this provided additional insight that informed a number of the poems in the collection. I used what factual information I could find and then had to let my imagination do the rest.

MD: American poet Billy Collins describes your work as deserving of ‘a high place in the tradition of poet as naturalist’, and I have noticed in your work a sense of close observation, whether it is of a painting, a relationship, a landscape. There is also a precise and exacting application of craft. Can you say a little about your process?

SC: I suppose, in regard to the previous question, because I was having to use my imagination to fill in so many gaps, it felt important that details of the island itself be as authentic as possible, for example, in relation to the landscape and the island’s flora and fauna.

In part, it comes from my own attempts to picture a scene vividly. I carried out the bulk of my research and wrote many of the Copeland poems over the autumn and winter before I had the opportunity to get over to the Island, so I was using detail to paint a clear and vivid picture in my own head, in an attempt to make the place real and multidimensional.

I tend to write slowly and carefully and am always editing as I go along. I’m not a writer who pours everything onto the page and then works to shape what is there, instead I will write a line or two, read them aloud and begin tweaking straight away until the line feels right. Of course, that line may end up not being right for the poem as a whole, but I start out working at line level before editing a complete poem.

I find it quite difficult to write in workshop settings for this very reason. Workshop writing requires you to write at a speed that rarely works for me. I might go away with ideas and a phrase or two and then develop those in my own time. I’m in awe of those who produce wonderful new poems in such settings.

MD: You completed an MA at the Heaney Centre. What did that bring to your poetry?

SC: Yes, I completed my MA on a part-time basis before I was due to return to full-time teaching. I was writing regularly by this time and had started to have individual pieces published in journals and magazines. I suppose I wanted to determine if I had a talent for writing poetry as well as a desire to do so. I hoped to receive more rigorous feedback on my work and hone my skills.

The MA allowed me to take my writing seriously and devote time to it, without feeling guilty about wasting time on a, so called, hobby when I had so many other things to do. I no longer had to justify locking myself away with a notebook, even to myself. That was an important step.

The fact I studied part-time, allowed me to work with lots of creative writing students, experiencing their different approaches and styles. I had the opportunity to work with several visiting Fulbright scholars as well as tutors, Sinead Morrissey, Medbh McGuckian, Ciaran Carson and Leontia Flynn.

The course itself, introduced me to the work of contemporary poets I was unfamiliar with and allowed my work to take new directions. Modules on form and translation added new skills to my writing toolkit and a research module, set the Copeland Island work in motion.

I learned the importance of being your own critic and how subjective feedback can be. For example, one tutor might point out how strong a particular poem was, explaining why it was the highlight of a sequence, while another might declare the very same poem to be the weakest leak in the sequence. I take all feedback on board but realise I have to make the final call on a piece.

MD:What is the balance in your poetry between memory and imagination? Do they feed each other?

SC: I’m fascinated by the notion of memory; how we remember and mis-remember, how a scent or a piece of music can transport us through time in an instant, how memory, however subjective, shapes us.

I suppose there is always an interplay of memory and imagination. One may outweigh the other depending on the work itself. In my first collection, I relied quite heavily on memory – for example, recalling my experiences in Holland as a student, of being a new mum, of spending time in Tasmania – however, conjuring the memory is only the starting point, a springboard of sorts. Very few of my poems are straight autobiography. My life and memories will feed into but not be the sum of the poem. Memory is one tool in my writing toolkit, but I don’t feel I need to be a slave to it.

The longer I write, the braver I become in fully embracing imagination. My most recent work definitely moves into the surreal and I’m enjoying the freedom that comes from following an idea in flight. ‘Island’ is very different to my first collection, and this new work is different again. I see that is a positive thing; it keeps me interested and hopefully will keep the reader interested too.

MD: Medbh McGuckian describes your work as having ‘a fiercely feminine perspective’. Is this something you are aware of when you are writing?

SC: No, it certainly wasn’t something I was aware of when writing the poems. With the first collection, in particular, the poems emerged one by one, sequence by sequence, over time and it was exciting to see what resulted. It was only in looking at the work as a whole that I could see the themes that had emerged and that tied the work together. I was writing as a mother or daughter or wife, and was writing about other woman, such as the poet Marina Tsvetaeva but not with particular intentions of a feminine stance.

The process of writing for the Copeland poems was a very different experience. I did have particular intentions; I wanted to tell the stories of my ancestors and I felt it was very important that the female voices were heard. That’s not to say, the poems always ended up being the ones I set out to write, but I had definite intentions from the outset and then followed whatever avenues opened up, either through the research or the writing process itself.

MD: Are there poets who have had a particularly significant influence on your work? Who are the poets that you are currently reading? Who are the poets that you return to for the sheer pleasure of their words?

SC: In my first collection, The Woman on the Other Side, I wrote a few poems in response to the work of Marina Tsvetayeva, Frances Leviston, Lyn Reeves and Louise Oxley. Around that time I was reading work by Louise Gluck, Elizabeth Bishop, Sinead Morrissey, Eavan Boland and David Harsent, however I’m not aware of particular poets having a direct influence on my work. I read widely and that impacts my work but subtly, I think, rather than overtly. Perhaps, I am too close to my own work and readers might discern more than I do. I am fascinated by what reviewers make of my poems. On occasion, a reader might tell me they hear echoes of another poet who I’ve never read and when I check out their work, I can see why the reader has made such links.

I have recently completed a course with the Poetry School on grief, so I’ve been reading Mona Arshi, Fiona Benson, Denise Riley, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Deryn Rees-Jones. In my own work, I am currently writing about illness and have been reading Lucia Perillo, Pascale Petit, Polly Atkin and Anne Carson. I return again and again to Naomi Shihab Nye, Rumi, Mary Oliver and Esther Morgan.

MD: I’m really looking forward to seeing where your poetry goes next. Are you working on anything in particular at the moment?

SC: I’m currently busy with a Doire Press Cross-Border Reading Tour, ‘Island Secrets, Urban Lies’ with author, Rosemary Jenkinson, who is reading from her new short story collection ‘Catholic Boy’.

Once I get back to my desk, after the tour, I’ll be returning to my current work which looks at the experience of chronic illness, the perceptions around invisible illness and the creative output of those writers and artists who live with or who lived with this daily reality. These new poems are very different to my previous work and that makes the writing process all the more interesting. I’ll not just be looking at the ‘poetry of illness’ creatively but also critically, as I undertake a PhD in Creative Writing by practice at the University of Ulster this September.

I have a smaller project that has been on the back burner for a while. My ‘Canada’ poems will look at experiences I’ve had in that country, as well as responding to the work of Canadian writers and artists. I will be one of the first guests to stay at Paul Maddern’s newly opened writing and reading retreat, The River Mill, and will be attending to this new work there.

Plenty to be getting on with.

Stephanie’s latest collection ‘Island’ was launched at the Crescent Arts Centre on the 25th April 2018. It is available to order from Doire Press HERE.

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Moyra Donaldson is an award winning and critically acclaimed poet from Co Down. She has published six collections of poetry, Snakeskin Stilettos, Beneath the Ice, The Horse’s Nest and Miracle Fruit, from Lagan Press, Belfast and an American edition of Snakeskin Stilettos, from CavanKerry Press, New Jersey which was short listed for a Foreword Book of the Year Award. Her Selected Poems was published in 2012 by Liberties Press, Dublin and The Goose Tree, was published in 2014, also from Liberties Press.

Her most recent project is a collaboration with artist Paddy Lennon, Blood Horses, a limited edition publication of artworks and poems published in September 2018. Blood Horses tells the stories of The Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and Godolphin Barb, the three founding stallions of the thoroughbred horse. It also explores the profound link between humans and horses.

A new poetry collection, Holding to Air, is forthcoming from Doire Press in Spring 2019.