Photo Credit: Pauline Dennigan
Victoria’s debut pamphlet White Whale (Southword Editions 2015) also won the Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition and the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet.
Hi Victoria. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your pamphlet White Whale last year. You’ve said in the past what unifies these poems is not only their recurring use of sea imagery, but also their attempts to grapple with notions of loss. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on what it is that makes poetry such a suitable genre for expressing and consoling grief?
Thank you so much. I have so many thoughts on this subject. When my father died, and this loss consolidated and compounded previous losses I had experienced in my life up until then, I was, if you pardon the expression, at a loss. Literal language failed me. I couldn’t understand how the world still turned even though my father was dead; a huge part of me was divorced from logic.
There was also a sense of inevitability that I too would die and I was terrified of confronting that truth. So I read poems. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t focus on longer pieces of fiction; I couldn’t focus on anything much. I found it difficult to experience the reality of grief on a daily basis, for me it was like a debilitating illness without any cure or treatment.
Poetry is a suitable genre for expressing and consoling grief because it explores the emotions of those left behind, what it really means to remain after a loved one has departed. Grief is a desperate and exhausting business but poetry talks about the real experience of grief that we often aren’t able to talk about; perhaps it allows for this conversation more than any other form.
In a few lines, sometimes in only a few words, poems can contain those feelings that can overwhelm those who have suffered a loss. ‘Grief’ by Stephen Dobyn uses a single metaphor in its first stanza:
Trying to remember you
is like carrying water
in my hands a long distance
across sand. Somewhere
people are waiting.
They have drunk nothing for days.
The best poems are precise about these feelings; they can say ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ or ‘Stop all the clocks.’ I think that poems can plead in a way that we may wish to, but as those left behind we dare not to. It is this ability, to be direct and say it straight out, but also to make music out of it, make meaning, that poetry does best in these difficult circumstances.
Childhood memories and family feature in quite a lot of your work too (I’m thinking of poems like ‘Iron Dragon’, ‘Zero’, ‘Ballycotton Pier’, ‘Lent‘, and ‘Swing‘). Do you subscribe to the idea that autobiographical poems like these are not only preserving and reconstructing memories, but also striving towards a liminal state that keeps them forever in the present?
I think it comes down to loss again, particularly in relation to the poems in the pamphlet. I want to create something artful, that has worth and value. I am driven to record moments of memory, crystallise them like flies in amber, though I know that it’s impossible.
I find living so ‘trippy’ to be honest. My early memories seem very reliable, but there are large pieces since I became an adult that have just broken up like islets and drifted away. I scramble to record the bits I can still remember. And yes, in White Whale, I wanted to preserve memories of my Dad, to keep part of our relationship alive somehow, because our relationship isn’t over. I am still his daughter; he is still my father. I can’t make new memories with him, but I can explore existing ones.
I try to record this feeling, the loss of minutes, days, years, to thread these little beads on a chain that lead up to now; but while I want to explain myself to myself, and situations to myself, artistically I want to move beyond the autobiographical, to something more universal and applicable. Yet, what gets me to the page initially is the desire to figure things out, to turn my life into a narrative that makes sense to me. To tell myself the story of myself.
I find that comforting, the chaos of the world makes me anxious, and I know I am not alone in that. So as a poet, I work not only at trying to put order into this narrative for myself, but also to create something useful that is beyond me, that rather conversely has nothing at all to do with me and allows the reader to enter the discourse and make it their own.
A liminal space is exactly the term for the place these poems inhabit. I think these memories will be forever in the present for the person experiencing them, but it will hopefully be their own memories that the reader encounters; we share so many common memories.
You’ve been quite active in the writing community in your area through your involvement with events and organisations like Listowel Writers’ Week and Kerry Women Writers’ Network. How valuable have you found these experiences in your development as a writer and do any particular highlights stick in the mind?
Writing can be lonely, especially in a relatively rural community like County Kerry. It is a stunning place to live with so much to offer, but I do miss the intellectual and artistic nourishment of being able to attend regular cultural events like plays or readings that cities can provide.
That being said, there are some wonderful venues here that serve the community so well like St. John’s Theatre in Listowel and Siamsa Tire in Tralee. It is vital for me to support these organisations and the Arts in County Kerry in general, and in turn, these groups have been generous and encouraging in their championing of me and my work.
Listowel Writers’ Week in particular is a great event to be involved in. I have made so many friends as a committee member and have met so many great writers. I had the opportunity to interview Eimear McBride after she had won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award and that was very exciting. I had just finished A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and was, and still am, in awe of her talents.
Other highlights include running the annual New Writers’ Salon with my good friend, the prose-writer and editor, Noel O’Regan, and introducing American poet and Pultizer-prize winner, Gregory Pardlo at this year’s Festival was an honour. He gave a brilliant performance. I am very lucky to have such opportunities.
I understand that Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton made a big impression on you when you started writing poetry in your formative years. I’m curious what poets, books or movements have inspired or influenced you in more recent times?
More and more I am influenced by writers living in the United States. I have always been drawn to American Literature, to its energy, and now to its diversity and range. It’s very exciting to read poets like Gregory Pardlo, Jericho Brown, Ocean Vuong, Diane Seuss, Terrance Hayes, Fanny Howe and Sharon Olds to name but a few.
I am particularly intrigued by Olds at the moment, as my new work explores personal issues and I am fascinated and impressed by how she manages to write so intimately and specifically, and yet her work is so artful, generous and open. That is a great and rare gift.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have enjoyed or are looking forward to this year?
I recently read as part of the Transatlantic Poetry Reading Series as a guest of Bare Fiction magazine. The series is run by Robert Peake, an American poet living in the UK, and it is a brilliant way of hearing poets from all over the world read live.
The episode is available to watch on the Transatlantic Poetry YouTube channel.
I am also reading at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Thursday, August 25th with Tara Bergin and Stephen Sexton as part of a Poetry Ireland showcase at the Spiegeltent. It’s part of a later night strand called ‘Unbound’.
I am also very pleased to be one of the readers performing as part of online event, The Poetry Extension, the brainchild of poet Natalya Anderson. There will be readings on August 31st and December 8th from a whole host of exciting poets. I am thrilled to be among those reading in December.
I am also very excited that my poem, ‘Smell Dating’ was selected by judge Julia Bird as one of the winning poems in their quarterly themed poetry competition. It appears in the Summer edition of The Poetry Society’s Poetry News publication.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
The poem I’ve submitted is ‘Zero’ and it’s from the pamphlet. The reason I selected it is because it highlights so many of the issues we’ve discussed, particularly the connection between loss and the desire to document that loss in some way, oftentimes through the mode of autobiography.
This poem is a deeply personal one. It is about a friend of mine who died in tragic and accidental circumstances when she was sixteen years old. She was a bright spark, such an exciting and vibrant person. Many people read this as a love poem, and in many ways I suppose it is.
At readings, it is a poem people often speak about, again because even though it is very much autobiographical it (hopefully) moves beyond that and speaks to their own feelings of loss and grief.
Our houses were twins once,
side by side, squinting over the valley.
I’d watch them from below,
imagine their windows opening to touch.
You’d pretend to run away forever,
when really you hid in overgrown grass,
dark eyes glinting above bleached weeds.
You made me tell your parents you were lost.
We attended separate schools; on the bus home
I sat up-front, a heavy bag denting my thighs.
You stayed down the back, your satchel dangling
like a hollow eye, my name in Tipp-Ex on the strap.
That spring the funeral bell moaned for you,
rolled around our valley like a crazy marble,
shattering the windows of our houses,
lace curtains signalled through broken glass.
No one hides in the grass, my name’s flaked away.
I spend the summer of my sixteenth year at the disco
watching the shadows of others
press together, flatten themselves against the wall.