Photo Credit: Isobel O’Duffy
Jane Clarke is an Irish poet who lives and writes in County Wicklow. Her poems have appeared in magazines such as The Rialto, The North, The Interpreter’s House, Ambit, The Irish Times, and The Irish Literary Review.
She won the 2014 Listowel Writers’ Week Poetry Collection Award and also the 2014 Trocaire/Poetry Ireland Competition. Her debut full-length poetry collection The River was published by Bloodaxe in 2015.
Hi Jane. Firstly, congratulations on the publication of your debut full-length collection The River with Bloodaxe Books last year. That must have felt like something of a milestone in your writing career. For the uninitiated, how would you describe the poems contained in the collection and the themes they explore?
Thanks for inviting me. Yes, publication with Bloodaxe Books was definitely a milestone in my writing career, an exciting and fulfilling milestone for which I will always be grateful.
I see The River as a collection of intimate lyrical poems exploring loss and change. The poems consider political and ecological questions, as well as the complexity of relationships, identity and belonging.
A lot of the poems in The River explore rural life on account of you having grown up on a farm in Roscommon. This has led to some to describe your poetry as Heaneyesque – indeed I believe Marie Heaney helped you with your book launch. To what extent do you feel your writing is steeped in and contributing to this rich Irish poetic tradition?
When I began to write it was the people, places and lives evoked and explored in the poetry of Heaney and Kavanagh that gave me both the permission and the inspiration to write from my own memories and to explore the beauty, brutality and constraints of life on a farm.
My writing is also influenced by Eavan Boland, Paula Meehan, Francis Harvey, Moya Cannon, Michael Longley as well as Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jane Hirshfield, Mary Oliver and so many others. I’m reading Jim Carruth’s beautiful Killochries at the moment and also the Albanian poet, Luljeta Lleshanaku.
I understand you also have a background in psychotherapy and are interested in how it resonates with poetry. What therapeutic qualities do you feel the reading and writing of poetry has, and do you see it relating directly to your own practices as a poetry writer and reader?
I find it interesting that people who don’t usually read poetry will turn to it in times of loss and grieving. Poems can’t give resolution or consolation but they can accompany, comfort and sustain readers like music does. The rhythms, the containment of form, the imagery that reaches beyond intellect, the depth of emotion behind the words; all of this combines to evoke both the familiar and the unknown.
Like poetry, psychodynamic psychotherapy brings attention to language, memory and the unconscious. It also considers the same fundamental themes: mortality and mutability, ambivalence and commitment, fear, hatred, love. It looks at the words and imagery we use and what they might mean for us.
It can help us to both more fully experience our emotions and to contain them. It can help us live with mystery and paradox. It also allows us to come to know our shadow, the source of at least some of our creativity. It seems to me now that, while I was training and working as a group therapist in my thirties, I was becoming a poet.
I found myself reading poetry in a new way and in my early forties I began to write. There is a similar sense of vocation involved in each; I soon realized that I couldn’t give enough to both and I chose poetry.
It’s interesting to find out different approaches and methods poets use in their own poetry writing. Do you have any set routine as such in putting together your own work from initial draft to finished product?
There are very few days when I am not engaged with poetry in some way but I don’t have a set routine for when I write; I weave it in and around my other commitments and interests, including my part-time work as a group facilitator in health and social services.
I prefer to read and write in the morning so I do try to guard that time as much as possible, even if it’s only the train journey to Dublin. Often I feel frustrated with whatever prevents me from writing but of course everything else I care about feeds that mysterious place from which poetry comes.
When I am between poems, I worry that I won’t be able to write another poem but then something I read or hear gets a question, a line or a memory going and I try to follow that. I am always grateful for that feeling of a poem moving into being and I have learned that even if it doesn’t become a good poem every attempt is worthwhile because it is the engagement with emotion, thought and the unconscious through language that matters.
Every poem is helped by a previous poem though that poem may not have found fruition. I belong to a monthly writing workshop. That is hugely important to me for motivation and feedback and also companionship in the daunting work of putting early drafts out there for inspection. Usually a poem goes through many drafts until I have a sense that it is ready. It may take years; I began the title poem of The River in 2005 but only finally completed it in 2013.
The process of getting poems ready to send out to journals is another important step in editing. It helps me stand back from the work again and to hone it more. Rejection by journals can be discouraging but it also pushes me to work on the poems again, to edit or sometimes to rewrite them completely or else to put them aside for the time being.
I regularly attend poetry workshops and I have been fortunate to work with many wonderful poets over the past ten years, who have inspired new writing, helped me edit my work and who have given me encouragement to keep going.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the diary you are looking forward to or are there any specific poetry goals you have set yourself?
As regards specific poetry goals, I want to continue developing my work and to write my way to the next milestone, which I hope will be a second collection. But I want to take my time and make sure that every poem earns its place.
In the meantime, I hope to continue doing readings from The River and new work. I’m delighted to be reading at Over The Edge, Galway in March and at Éigse Michael Hartnett, Limerick in April, and in Cavan Library in May. It’s a privilege to have an audience, whether on the page or in performance.
I’m delighted to be shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Awards 2016 and to be the featured poet in upcoming editions of two journals – Resurgence and Ecologist and the New Hibernia Review. I’m also looking forward to a special issue in April of Poetry Ireland Review, featuring 30 Irish poets who have published first collections in the last five years.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
In light of what I said about the importance of psychoanalysis to my writing, I have chosen a poem I wrote in memory of a gifted psychotherapist, Tom Hamrogue, who was my supervisor for most of my training. When I heard he was ill, I sent a much earlier version to him as a thank you.
Over time it became an elegy and his wife asked me to read it at his funeral. When I thought of his work, the metaphor of the forester came to me and the naming of native trees was an expression of his rootedness in Mayo, though he had lived most of his adult life in North London.
for TH (1948-2009)
It’s not between white cotton sheets
in a hospital bed that I see you
but walking the woods on the shores
of Lough Carra among oak, ash,
alder, hazel. You check saplings
for damage from disease or high winds,
build a wooden lattice, graft
new growth to a ragged limb.
I watch you prune severed branches,
repair torn bark to let the tree
close over its wounds. You step lightly
through wood sorrel and dried leaves,
an eye out for a badger’s sett
or the footprints of fallow deer.
Crack of a broken branch,
a merlin taking wing.
You can read more of Jane’s poems across at her website HERE.