The Craft 2: Siobhan Mac Mahon

Introducing Siobhan Mac Mahon. I’ve known Siobhan for many years – she’s a great friend and a wonderful poet. However, we only really know each other in real life! I’ve got a blog and I do Twitter. Siobhan is on Facebook and YouTube and Instagram. There’s not much overlap!

Siobhan Mac Mahon (MA Creative Writing) is an award-winning Irish  poet who has been writing and performing her poetry for over twenty years. Siobhan has collaborated extensively with other artists to create Spoken Word projects, combining poetry with music, dance and with film and has been awarded Arts Council funding twice for her collaborative projects. Much of her work celebrates the Sacred Feminine and our deep connection to the Earth. Winner of WOMAD Open mic and the Ilkely Lit. Open mic, she has performed widely in the UK and in Ireland, some highlights include: the Southbank Centre, London, Stanza Poetry Festival, Wicklow Arts Festival – Ireland, The Brigid of Faughart Festival, Mountshannon Arts Festival, University of Vienna – Austria, Artemis International Festival – Spain, 100 Thousand Poets for Change, Italy, as well as numerous venues in Yorkshire. Shortlisted for the Hennessey New Irish Writing Poetry award 2018, She has been published both online and in print, most recently in a Bloodaxe/ Raving Beauties Anthology – Hallelujah for 50 Foot Women, the Irish Times and in Skylight 47.

I was lucky enough to do a live workshop with her just before lockdown started last year, and did a second one over Zoom during lockdown. Her workshops are very much like her – warm, inspiring, nurturing and a little bit wild. 

Let’s start with a poem:

Advice for my Daughter

They will try to keep you small.
They will warn you about the dangers
of being too loud, too clever,
too wise, too ambitious.
Too much.
They will mutter words,
darkly, under their breath, such as:
strident and over-emotional,
hormonal and over-sensitive.
They will threaten you
with ancient memories
of asylums and burnings,
they will issue dire warnings
about upsetting the apple cart,
about gaining a few pounds,
about dressing like a tart.

Ignore them all.

Don’t play by their rules;
you’ll never win.
Make up your own rules –
tip the whole feckin cart over,
make cider from its sweet juices,
throw a wild party,
invite your sisters
and your brothers,
put your red dress on
and dance until dawn
on the dying embers
of the Patriarchy.
Speak your beautiful mind,
flaunt your wild wisdom,
be a brazen hussy
with the truth
that you know,
encoded in your DNA.
Hear generations of women rising
from their forgotten graves
applauding you;
clapping their bony fingers in delight.

Go on girl get up
on your high-horse –
you’ll have a magnificent view from there.

I haven’t seen you since just before lockdown! In terms of writing, what have you been doing over the last few months?

I’ve been doing a few different things over the last few months. During the lockdown before Christmas I began really using Instagram as a platform for my poetry. I am very much a Spoken Word poet and Instagram is a great way of getting my poetry out there, especially in these times when we can’t perform to live audiences. I filmed the first poem from my local woods and said I would post a poem every second day during lockdown – from the woods. So, that was that! – hail rain or shine I filmed all the poems from the woods, which added a whole other lovely dimension to the videos, bringing nature and the changing season into the project.

And are you working on any projects at the moment?

For the last few years I have been travelling to Dundalk in Ireland to perform my poetry at the wonderful ‘Brigid of Dundalk Festival’ which takes place around the Celtic Spring festival of Imbolc, meaning ‘in the belly/womb’. Much of my work is a reclamation and celebration of the Sacred Feminine and of our deep connection to the earth. Brigid is revered in Ireland as both Goddess and saint. She is Goddess of  healers, poets, smiths, childbirth and inspiration. Her name means “exalted one” This year, of course we can’t gather in person, so I am in the middle of getting some new poems finished and working out how best to pre- record the poems for the festival, to make it feel as ‘live’ as possible – so I’m going to have to master a few tech. skills!

What does poetry mean to you? If you had to define a poem, how would you define it?

Poetry to me is a way of trying to express the magic and mystery of this extraordinary world we live in, to bring back stories and wisdom from, what the Irish would call  ‘the other worlds’ It is a way to wrap words around the invisible, the sacred, the numinous so that we may catch a glimpse of it.

Kate Clanchy describes writing poetry as being part of a conversation with other poets. Are there particular poets you feel you respond to?

There are so many poets I respond to and I have shelves of poetry books! I’m also involved in a very lively poetry scene in Leeds (online atm) and I love to hear poets read/perform their own work.

And if you could only read 3 poets for the rest of your life, who would you choose?

It would be very hard to choose only 3 poets – but, if I had to, I would have to include Paula Meehan, David Whyte and Mary Oliver.

I don’t have a writing routine– I keep thinking it might be a good idea! 

Do you have a writing routine? 

I don’t have a writing routine– I keep thinking it might be a good idea! 

What about editing? How do you go about it?

I am a very slow poet and will usually do numerous drafts. I find I need to leave poems ‘to rest’ for a bit in between drafts. If I begin editing a poem too soon after the first draft, my critical mind can be too forceful. I have learnt, over the many years I have been writing, to have a delicate (but rigorous) touch when editing. I find if I ‘go at’ a poem too much I can ‘kill it’ The final decision for any line or verse is always made by speaking it out loud, often recording the poem and listening back.

What sort of response do you hope for from your readers?

First and foremost, I hope to connect with the reader/listener.. I would hope that a poem will touch a chord inside the reader/listener, perhaps bringing them closer to something they already know deep inside themselves. I would hope that the reader/listener may feel moved: to tears, to laughter, to outrage at some social/moral injustice

I know you’re a great performer of poetry. Is performance poetry different to page poetry? 

Yes, I think performance poetry is different to page poetry. With performance poetry you are really dealing with energy, with sound, with rhythm and silence as much as you are dealing with words. It’s more like music and it is also a two-way thing, between you, the performer, and the audience, you both participate in the live experience. 

How important is inspiration? How do you find your inspiration?

Inspiration comes when it comes. It’s a gift, not something I can make happen. It’s more a process of clearing out the busyness of my mind which can then make space for inspiration to arrive. I find being in nature and trying to be present, rather than thinking, is often conducive to a poem ‘arriving’ Or taking a lovely long bath, or making soup! A poem usually arrives with just a few lines and I like to write it down right away and then leave it for a bit before I begin making a poem from the initial inspiration. 

Do you think you have particular themes that recur?

Yes, I definitely have recurring ‘themes’ I write mostly about the Sacred Feminine. Initially (over 20 years ago) I was I was trying to ‘find’ any hint or trace of the Sacred Feminine, I was scrabbling around in the dark trying to even language what I intuited deep within; that She even ‘existed’ So much of the Sacred Feminine has been banished and obliterated from our consciousness, let alone our culture and any of the patriarchal religions. So, my work was an unpicking of much of what I had learnt and imbibed. It was also very much a reclamation of the sacredness of the body, and of the earth and our deep connection through the body and through nature to the Divine.

Do you ever feel blocked? How do you deal with it? 

Sometimes I feel blocked and it’s often when I am trying too hard or when a new ‘voice’ is beginning to appear in my writing, which I am not yet familiar with. To unblock I walk in nature, make soup, garden in the Summer – just let it be for a bit….

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given? What advice would you pass on to others? 

I think one of the most useful pieces of writing advice I have been given was by my tutor during the MA in Creative Writing I did. I had written a strong poem which very much pushed my point of view on the reader and he asked me whether I could ‘allow space for the reader to enter the poem…?’ At first I disregarded what he said, thinking that I didn’t want to dilute the ‘passion’ of the poem – but then I began to grasp what he had said; the gift and value of inviting your reader in rather than bludgeoning them over the head with your words! And I discovered that  poems are, paradoxically perhaps, much more powerful when the reader is given space to ‘enter/participate’ in the poem.

If people want to read more of your work, where should they go? 

The best place to listen to/read my poems is probably on my Instagram account or my YouTube account (my website is currently down) I am so much more a performance poet than a written poet. Or just google Siobhan Mac Mahon poet and you’ll find links to my work/performances.

Instagram :Siobhanmacmahonpoet

Who should I interview next? And why?

Kathleen Strafford is a wonderful poet up here in Leeds (though she is American) and she runs a regular poetry night (now online) –  Runcible Spoon. I don’t have her e mail, but if you want to contact her I will get it for you.

The god kings don’t believe in death

The god kings gather their grave goods

a spearhead
a bronze arm ring
seven arrow heads

as if they can build a wall

a jade figurine
a clay jar containing herbs
a gold disc

between themselves and death

a pot of spelt
a terracotta figure of a horse
a silver leaf

as if they need to feed

a sheaf of flax
a woven blanket
a twisted torc

as if they need to serve

a leather purse
a bunch of keys
a jewelled pin

their souls on that long journey

a jet brooch
a bundle of poems
a lock of hair

but we look at their bones

a MacBook
a mountain bike
a paddle board
a Starbucks cup
an inflatable mattress
a Samsung Galaxy
a pair of trainers
a Big Mac and fries

and know that their souls starved.

For Brendan at earthweal.

Love is a bit like tea and tea is a bit like love

Love should be made afresh each day, like tea.
Does that sound too mundane? Consider now
the cup I bring up every morning, free
from thoughts about repayment, and then how
you put a cup beside me when I’m at
my desk and working hard, because you see
that I might need it. Let’s extend it out:
our teapot holds enough for the whole family,
and when our friends drop by we offer tea
to say “we love you, and we’re glad you’re here”.
We offer tea as comfort, sympathy,
as a small warmth, protection against fear.
Love’s measured not in words, but in our deeds –
I say “I love you” when I make you tea.

Ingrid over at Experiments in fiction has asked us to write a sonnet for St Valentine’s Day. Wierdly, she has given us the theme of “love”.

Tiger

Death is my sister
beside me, slipping
silent through
the jungle. She
sharpens my teeth,
polishes my claws,
and I lead her
to the red scent
of life, and
together we eat.

But now, I feel
her cold hands
measuring the
space between

my ribs, and soon
I will turn to her
and offer her
my throat.

For earthweal, where Sherry asks us to think about the world of big cats.

How do I write about war?

All I have is memories of memories –
like feathers, plucked and swirling –
the fires they lit at the end,
in places that had been kept dark
for years. Dancing. My father
handing over hollowed bread,
a telegram that broke a woman.

Bodies in the water.

The horses, being led away,
through the farm gate. Lost.

A city full of women. Children
without fathers, running wild.

A man walking. Feathers

that we grasp and grab. We press them
into wax, make wings of them

knowing that Icarus will fall.

Bjorn is hosting at dVerse, and asks us to write about war. I found this a difficult prompt. As I say, I only have memories of memories about war – my parents’ experience of WWII as small children, stories I’ve heard from that generation and the generation above.

Eagle Haibun – dVerse

I have always liked those old lecturns made in the shape of eagles. I like the idea that words will fly into the distance, that they will soar above us, that they have their own power. Give words wings, let them fly.

rising on sunlight
seeing the earth spread below
spotting a mouse dart

A haibun for Frank Tassone at dVerse, where our theme is eagles.

Spring in the woods

Let’s go to the woods. We should go now
because the woods are full of candles,
lit for a celebration. Small flames somehow
pushing up through thick soil, spangles
of red fire on dull brown twigs,
fat green candles, plump and swollen
gasping for life, waiting to be lit.
The woods are burning, green smoke rolling
over the hedgerows, just blurring those
sharp scratched winter lines. The woods are singing,
full of music. Don’t ask me how I know
I just know that we are candles, flinging
light across the space between us, light
that will burn and spread, flames that take flight.

This is for the earthweal prompt – a prompt centering on Imbolc, the start of spring, and all that energy. It’s my own prompt, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how people use it. I’m still wrestling with the sonnet – I think I’m starting to be able to think in sonnets, though I know my use of metre is a bit d