Eleanor Hooker interview: in her element at sea

The poet discusses her challenging, strange and wise new collection, A Tug of Blue, Seamus Heaney’s influence and her role in the Dromineer Literary Festival

Eleanor Hooker: “Water as metaphor and motif works for me, as I imagine the bog poems did for Heaney”

Eleanor Hooker: “Water as metaphor and motif works for me, as I imagine the bog poems did for Heaney”

 

Eleanor Hooker has the sea in her blood. This was her father’s answer, when asked why the whole family were all drawn to the water, having grown up in Tipperary, one of the most landlocked counties in Ireland.

On my father’s side
I am part fish.
When I am dead,
return me to water.

That part of me
which is raven, on
my mother’s side
will submit
(From Ablution)

Hooker’s debut collection of poetry, The Shadow Owner’s Companion (Dedalus Press, 2013) was shortlisted for the Strong/Shine Award, and her poetry has been placed in several competitions, such as Poetry Ireland/Trócaire and the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Competition. With her latest volume, A Tug of Blue (Dedalus Press), Hooker has created a collection that is challenging, strange and wise – but which also has that indefinable thing – poems you feel must somehow have always existed.

The work touches on all stages of life, with a particular emphasis on memory, and bereavement – most notably the loss of her father. The poems come in an elegantly crafted sequence, the curation of a collection which is more than the sum of its parts. The poems are, like the poet’s mother/raven, and father/fish motif, borne through sea and soil, water and bird, in a transfiguration of the ordinary that makes Hooker’s words ring familiar and strange.

“Water as metaphor and motif works for me, as I imagine the bog poems did for Heaney,” says Hooker. Water runs throughout the collection, in the rain of memory, the struggle of capsizing, the adrenaline of rescue, and the panic of near-drowning. There are dark dream sequences of rowing in the fog, an outgoing tide of ageing and dying – out into the uncharted waters of death and beyond. The sea is mystery and mayhem. Even in love, the couple become the boat.

The sea is also very real. Eleanor Hooker has been part of the search and rescue team of Lough Derg RNLI for many years. “Being a volunteer helm with the RNLI is a huge privilege, in which I take great pride; I respect the water. There are times when the outcome is not always positive. On one particular occasion, after we recovered a person who had drowned, writing a poem helped me to deal with it.”

The physical urgency of a lifeboat mission pulses through The Shout, which in grimy, violent detail delights in the story of rescue.

One, two whacks on my back tell me
Crew are seated, feet in stirrups,
With an all-clear port and starboard,
I open the throttle, launch into the maelstrom

“I did a workshop with John Glenday last year and one of the poems he looked at was The Shout. I included metaphors that Glenday suggested I remove. To take the reader out on the boat with us, to let them see what we see – that was enough. He was right.”

In this balance of real and mystic are echoes of Seamus Heaney, to whom Hooker dedicates Watermarked.

At thirteen, my chosen poem Rite of Spring, though disallowed
in lessons, revealed the thrill of ambiguity in its suggestion
of the carnal; a stark rite of passage. Today, I’ll stow your verse in
the bow
of my craft, guard your Door into the Dark, a treasured first
impression.
I’ll row rhyme to the centre of October, then further into open
water
to catch a zephyr, to drift the lake’s cool-blue afternoon.
Here, a scribbled sky’s unstrung pearl slips through its border,
and, watermarked, mimics moon. There, a skein of geese assumes
the rusty air of the potting-shed door, their rising path oblique.
But, being no longer here nor there I must find you
now in Opened Ground, take up your Postscript and speak
your words to Clare’s wild shore where, due
west on Slieve Aughty, a stony up-againstness is halting
time at Bohatch Dolmen, where they appear, all standing
waiting.

“When I first read Heaney, aged 13, he was an established poet and on a trajectory to a star system where, I believed, great poets resided, and in a universe beyond my reach. The connotations of sex and even brutality in the poem Rite of Spring were not lost on me back then. I remember thinking – the water pump in this poem is female, and is being assailed. It was an awakening for me, and I recall being both uncomfortable and awed by the poem. I’ve never forgotten my first reading of it – the revelation that poems were not a place for the sanitation of language.

“His poetry may have flown, but Heaney remained firmly grounded, modest, kind and encouraging, of new writers especially. Whilst some poets share this spirit of generosity, many don’t. It’s good to have ambition for your work, it’s a necessary condition to be intelligent about it, but equally it’s important not to forget your humanity as your poetry finds its own trajectory.”

Hooker shares these qualities of generosity and support, having been integral to the running of the Dromineer Literary Festival, which was conceived in 2004, and is unique in setting and ethos, a place where literary stars and emerging talent can share a stage.

“Being a volunteer permits me a certain amount of leeway, autonomy over programming and approach. We take pride in our festival and set our standards high; it was gratifying to learn from the Words Ireland conference earlier this year that we’ve been getting it right – putting the artist at the forefront of our concerns, treating them with respect and dignity.”

The approach of the festival is “positively eccentric without being coy or counterfeit”. This is similar to Hooker’s poetry too – a kind of bright strangeness. Like Heaney, when she is controversial, it is not because of outside trends, or political posturing, it’s through her work, perhaps through subversion of form, or style. Poetry is the thing – with feathers, with fins, with longing, nostalgia and wisdom.

The poems in this new collection place her as seafarer and rescuer, as daughter and mother, but the subject is universal: the human heart in all its grit and glory. Her father once told her that as she grew older, the world grew smaller, and she would see farther. A Tug of Blue has a visionary quality. There is a gauze between the living and the dead – a sense that there is another world behind the words, in the ravens which swoop down from poem to poem, perching on the rung of a ladder, their shadows falling, a comfort or a warning. Take us with you, urged Glenday – and A Tug of Blue does, from the shoreline to the sea.

A Tug of Blue, by Eleanor Hooker is available from Dedalus Press and launches on November 8th at the Teachers’ Club, Dublin. Ruth McKee, PhD TCD, is a writer and editor @ruthmckee

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