Welcome to The Craft, my new monthly series. It’s partly a way of celebrating and uplifting some of my favourite poets, and partly a way to justify being really nosy. I’m interested in how people write, in why they write, and in what inspires them.
I’m so pleased that Jane is my first guest. Jane was one of the first poets I came across when I started my poetry blog, four years ago now. At the time she was putting out some great prompts and offering generous and helpful feedback. Through those prompts I met a group of poets who led me to my favourite sites. I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to Jane for really taking me seriously as I took my first poetic steps – like Bambi on ice, clutching at a pen for support. And now she’s here again, supporting me as I take my first steps in interviewing someone else.
Jane has written a series of YA fantasy novels, and has just published two books of poetry, birds and other feathers and thicker than water. She is a product of the Irish diaspora. She was brought up in Yorkshire and educated in Manchester and London before moving to France to work in the wine trade. She spent fourteen years in Paris where she married and had four children, studied Irish for a year and taught herself Italian. Next move was to Laon in Picardy, a medieval gem of a town set in beautiful countryside, where her fifth child was born. She spent four years in Bordeaux, and now lives in a meadow in rural Lot-et-Garonne with her family, a Spanish greyhound and a posse of cats.
To give you a flavour of Jane’s writing, here’s a poem from her collection birds and other feathers. It’s about her mother’s mother.
She walked with the Eagle, my gran,
not the thin-lipped bishop
with his pointing finger.
She walked the Reek alone,
no ghosts to take her arm,
but the dark, roiling presence of the mountain stone
and the ocean waves that swelled in her heart,
with the voices of the loved and lost.
Her sorrow is part of me still,
though she flies now, eagle-high.
I was born with her tears in my blood,
like rain in the wild Mayo sky—
they will run in its tide till I die.
So, welcome, Jane – and thank you for being my first guest!
What does poetry mean to you? If you had to define a poem, how would you define it?
That’s a difficult question for starters! There are so many kinds of poem, different styles and written for different reasons. I would have said that a poem ought to transcribe an emotion to the written or spoken word using as many of the senses as necessary. Story poems that have protagonists who aren’t the poet still use emotion to set out the story rather than dialogue or prosaic scene-setting. But there are also poems that don’t convey any emotion at all, that rely on surprise, humour, shape or an unfathomable element for effect. Whatever the style, the common denominator is the message. I see a poem as a form of communication, a two way effort between poet and reader.
You’ve written plenty of prose – flash fiction, short stories, novels. What brings you back to poetry?
The music. In both reading and writing prose I ‘see’ the story, like watching a film. Poetry though, I ‘hear’, which probably explains why I am drawn to lyrical poetry rather than ‘witty’ poetry which often has no melody. I can’t sing, but I love music. Writing poetry is the closest I get to making it.
Kate Clanchy describes writing poetry as being part of a conversation with other poets. Are there particular poets you feel you respond to?
The kind of poetry that I am drawn to is in some ways like the novels I enjoy the most, escapist, with beautiful language, creating or describing worlds to explore. I don’t get much pleasure out of reading introspective stuff that takes the reader on a meandering/disjointed journey inside the writer’s head. I like the exploration of the natural and the mythical, emotion, writing that makes me weep. I can’t think of a contemporary poet that moves me the way some Walter de la Mare or John Masefield, Francis Ledwidge, or the best of them all, Yeats does. Seamus Heaney comes closest, and sometimes Mary Oliver. There are lines of Byron, Keats, Shakespeare, Donne, Coleridge, Shelley, Rossetti, Stephens that I love too. It’s a question of feeling empathy with what the poet chooses to write about and how he/she expresses it. Kipling might have written some rattling memorable lines, but it’s hard not to hear the jingo in the rhythm.
If you could only read 3 poets for the rest of your life, who would you choose?
Yeats and Ledwidge because of the beauty of their verse, and Shakespeare both because of the words and because reading his work is a journey into another era. There’s enough there for most lifetimes.
Do you have a writing routine?
I write all the time. After the birth of my third child, I started working from home and was in the ideal place (sitting in front of a computer) to switch to my own writing whenever I needed a break. Now the free-lance stuff has dried up, I can indulge myself as much as I want.
What about editing? How do you go about it?
I don’t. I ought to probably, and I’m sure real poets do, but I don’t. I write the poem and that’s it; done. Some poems with a strict form take time to tweak into shape, but I’m usually so pleased that I’ve finally found a world combination that works, that I don’t touch it again in case it all falls apart.
What sort of response do you hope for from your readers?
I hope the reader hears the same words that I hear and that they create an image similar to the one that is the backdrop I see. If I haven’t made others feel the way I felt at the moment of writing, there’s some connection not working.
You frequently write structured poetry, using a form. What do you think a form offers, as opposed to free verse?
As I said earlier, I ‘hear’ poems. I don’t get an acute visual image as I do with prose, but the words make a sort of music. A structured poem has obvious affinities with music, and it’s easier to get that song effect using a form with a regular beat. Most of us accept that when we sing a song, the words have to fit the tune. A poem-song should work the same way. I try to follow the music. There’s no reason why free verse can’t be melodic; we just have to listen to the words and how they sound together. Depends what effect you’re looking for, but that regular rhythm helps to make a line memorable, and a rhyme, I believe, can give it extra force.
How important is inspiration? How do you find your inspiration?
Inspiration, if you’re alive and curious, is there, in everything. I think we have to let ourselves find something to say about absolutely anything, in the same way that when you’re learning to draw, you should be able to find something interesting in every pebble or bit of junk in the road. I can be motivated by the sight of a kestrel landing in an oak tree on the lane as easily as by an old story, a memory or a family event. There’s always a new angle to be explored of even the most banal subjects.
Do you think you have particular themes that recur?
For the last three years I’ve lived in the countryside and very rarely leave these fields. I’m not sure how long it will be before the view and the cycle of the seasons begins to pall, but for the moment, it’s a fund of interest. The themes of growth and renewal often crop up, obviously birds are ever-present, the changing sky, life, death, but also roots. I think a lot about where mine started and where they’re going.
Do you ever feel blocked? How do you deal with it?
No. I always have an idea on the boil. With novels, the story is there, the film just waiting to be turned into prose. There will always be sections that feel like a slog, where I have to force myself to keep at it, but I haven’t ground to a halt yet.
What are you working on at the moment?
My writing is almost always drawn from or wrapped up in myth, and the myths I know best are the Irish and Norse. Apparently there’s no call for that kind of stuff. It’s Greek or nothing, so for once, much as I dislike the Greek myths, I’ve decided to go with the flow. The story I’m currently working on is based on the Minotaur myth, set at the end of the Minoan civilisation, the fall of Knossos to the Greeks and their new ideas that turned the ancient world upside down. It’s basically the end of lingering matriarchy and the takeover of patriarchy. I hope it’s going to be Greek mythy enough to please someone.
Who should I interview next? And why?
That’s another tough one. I’m getting to know a lot of new poets, so one of them would be appropriate. Andy MacGregor, for example, whose poems are very much rooted in the natural world. Another choice would be Yvonne Marjot who I knew first as a novelist, so her path has been similar to my own in that way at least. I’d like to hear how she works and why.
If you want to read more of Jane’s work, she blogs at janedougherty.wordpress.com and tweets as @MJDougherty33. And best of all, you can find her poetry collections here:
birds and other feathers