Pounded, dazzled, astonished, beaten and broken: Martina Evans on being a poet
As her Selected Poems are published, the poet reflects on her inspirations and obsessions (snakes in the bed, republican women and the Mammy of all Irish Mammies)
Martina Evans: When I gathered all the poems that I’ve written in the last 27 years and sat down to condense them for my Selected Poems, not many snakes made the grade but lots of Mammy poems did and the priests and the nuns and horses and London (I have urban poems now), cowboys, Elvis, gardens, the War of Independence and always lurking at the borders – half helpless characters dreaming of murder. I can’t choose my subject matter, it presents itself and then I do the best I can with it
Mostly we writers repeat ourselves and that’s the truth. We have two or three great or moving experiences in our lives – experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in that way ever before.
Then we learn our trade well or less well, and we tell our two or three stories – each time in a new disguise – maybe ten times or a hundred, as long as people will listen.
100 False Starts, F Scott Fitzgerald, Saturday Evening Post, March, 1933
When I read this essay 30 years ago, I was attracted in spite of myself. Even to a fledgling writer, this statement had the iron ring stamp of truth. I wondered if it could really be true and I was worried too about the criticism that might hail down on a blackguard poet who couldn’t or wouldn’t stop repeating herself.
There was the idea that young writers needed to get “all autobiographical stuff” out of their “system” – some kind of detox – before moving on to the ore of great writing. I hoped it would happen to me as moving across the Irish Sea in the late ’80s had transformed my ’60s and ’70s Irish childhood into a charged and buried Atlantis I couldn’t stop writing about. I was worried about cliches – my notebooks filling up with priests, nuns, boarding school stories and the Mammy of all Mammies. When would I be urban? When would I write about the “Ireland of today”? When would I be cool? I didn’t know. I wrote on, hoping F Scott Fitzgerald was wrong. When my father died in 1988, self-consciousness disappeared for a while. Why worry about subject matter? We’d all be dead soon. I took the plunge and sent my first poem out into the world – an unusually glossy poetry magazine called Celtic Dawn which I’d found in the Poetry Library on the South Bank.
The poem, which was immediately accepted, was called There’s a Snake in My Bed. It’s hard to believe now that I had no conscious inkling of the connotations of the title. I was remembering my childhood terror of snakes. Tormented by wrinkles and lumps under the eiderdown, I hardly slept a night in my north Co Cork bed. The magazine was edited by Dwina Murphy-Gibb and Terence Du Duquesne, who were based in a castle in Thane, Oxfordshire and this castle belonged to Dwina’s husband, Robin from the Bee Gees. I was invited to spend the afternoon there and met Robin himself and no publication since has been so surprising or glamorous.
I’ve written many poems about snakes since. I was always trying to get it exactly right, corral the words and nail the feeling for once and for all. Each time I hoped I was writing the snake poem to end all snake poems but they kept coming and they still do. I throw a lot of them away. When I gathered all the poems that I’ve written in the last 27 years and sat down to condense them for my Selected Poems, not many snakes made the grade but lots of Mammy poems did and the priests and the nuns and horses and London (I have urban poems now), cowboys, Elvis, gardens, the War of Independence and always lurking at the borders – half helpless characters dreaming of murder. I can’t choose my subject matter, it presents itself and then I do the best I can with it.
Once I had a student who couldn’t stop writing about breasts. Every class. He was blind which meant that I was the one who had to read his poems aloud. I was younger and more easily embarrassed then so I suffered the first few, hoping each one was the last. Eventually I had to take him to one side; the poems weren’t very good. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but could he please consider other topics? He said he would but every week I was handed a sheet of paper with more breasts. I went from a blushing, faltering reader to a white-faced, sarcastic one. Week 10 dealt with poems on character. The exercise was to write about a generally recognised “good” person in such a way as to reveal an unsavoury aspect of their character. “No breasts, I hope!” The shyness was well knocked out of me by now.
It was the last day of the course; one way or another the end of the breasts was nigh so I volunteered to read the blind student’s work first. And I couldn’t believe how his writing had suddenly leapt to the next level. Jesus walked across the desert to Jacob’s well. It was cinematic and particular. I felt the hot sand under my feet, the dry air. The Samaritan woman waited to fulfil her purpose, give Jesus his water. Jesus moved forward to accept his drink and while he spoke his parable, he sneakily brushed against her breast. Perfect. Subtle, human and so funny. The class burst out laughing, delighted.
The poet William Stafford said that he never suffered from writer’s block, he just lowered his standards and kept going. I never had writer’s block either because I’ve always had so much other work to do. Staring at the empty page would be a luxury. At least that’s what I said before I threw in my lot with republican women in the ’90s. Inspired in particular by the work of Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward, I spent years researching their role during the Troubles and yet I just couldn’t get under the skin of the fanaticism. Louise Ryan in her riveting Gender, Identity and The Irish Press, 1922-1937 (The Edwin Mellon Press, 2002) quotes the Bishop of Doorley who denounced them as “furies” at a confirmation ceremony in Castlerea. And for all my sympathy, I began to call them furies too. I resented them for sending me down a blind road.
But I was struck by the stories of children and teenagers caught up in the cross-fire of the Troubles. It looked like the republican women were the false start. But they hardly mattered that much any more when the new, surprising poems about young people in war poured out effortlessly in compensation. The poems were published in Facing the Public in 2009 and most of them are reprinted this month by Carcanet in The Windows of Graceland.
I went to a lot of trouble to forget the republican women who enthralled and blocked me for years. I resented the frustrating time I’d spent standing outside their time and place, fascinated and repelled. Every now and then I thought how great it was to be shot of them. But last August the forgotten material began to move again like the reptiles that crawled under the bedclothes in my childhood. I wrote for the first time as the mother of the furies, the fascination and repulsion working with me. When the protagonist immediately confessed to a desire for murder – I was home and dry, typing away, F Scott Fitzgerald’s words ringing:
When I face the fact that all my stories are going to have a certain family resemblance, I’m taking a step toward avoiding false starts.