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Martina Evans: ‘When my main character Imelda becomes pregnant … even the ‘best’ option can be harrowing’

Author’s latest book The Coming Thing emerges from dual obsessions — questions about life and death and a compelling need to get the poem right

Martina Evans believes exile has enriched her life enormously.
How did the book come about?

The Coming Thing has been a long time coming. It has existed in previous forms — a story, a novel, a prose poem — before it finally found its present shape. Like many Irish women my age, the abortion referendum of 1983 had a huge impact. I’d instinctively always been pro-choice but there were many questions, many grey areas. In the mid-eighties, I took an Open University philosophy module entitled Life and Death, exploring the ethics of capital punishment, abortion, suicide and euthanasia, hoping for clear, black-and-white answers. I ended up with more questions — burning, fascinating questions that never stopped nagging me. When is it right to take a life? How come people who support capital punishment oppose abortion and vice versa? The passionate advocates for unborn children seemed to care little for living mothers and babies. When my main character Imelda becomes pregnant, she finds herself in a lonely place. Even the “best” option can be harrowing.

My first novel Midnight Feast, first drafted as a pregnant radiographer in 1991, was accepted by Random House in 1994. Looking back, it’s hard to believe how I made that jump — self-taught, without literary connections. Publication was a severe shock to the system because I was much more introverted than I realised and I had to produce another novel quickly for the second part of a two-book deal. I wanted to write about abortion but this was too soon. I was exhausted, working two part-time radiography jobs while taking care of a young child.

That rushed second novel always bothered me. By 2000 I had published five books — three novels and two books of poetry — I was desperate to slow down, to concentrate on the poetry I loved most. Radiography hours were hard to manage as a mother, writing novels had seemed a solution but then I discovered teaching creative writing was better. No travelling and when my daughter wasn’t at school, she sat beside me in class, drawing, drinking in all those stories.

The Coming Thing by Martina Evans: Punks and teenage poses in 1980s CorkOpens in new window ]

In that first decade of the century, I wrote much, published less. Concentrating happily on poetry, I realised that form acted, as Adrienne Rich said, like “asbestos glovesallowing me to handle materials I couldn’t pick up bare-handed…” I found myself drawn back to my old novel manuscripts, experimenting, transforming them into compressed poetry. New narrative poems emerged, Petrol, (2012) Now We Can Talk Openly About Men (2018), Mountainy Men (2021) alongside my poetry collections. The Coming Thing came out of two obsessions, those haunting questions about life and death but also an overwhelming need to get the poem right, to get it into a shape I was satisfied with.

Could you say something about your use of dialogue in The Coming Thing?

Frank Budgen wrote that James Joyce’s favourite instrument was the human voice. I’m also fascinated by the music of accents. It wasn’t until I came to London that I appreciated the beauty of the Cockney accent, subtle, alive, ever-changing like the population of London. Previously, I’d only heard actors “doing” terrible screechy versions which is why I always stick close to accents I know. Most imitators miss the subtleties by a mile. I’ve cringed with pity countless times, listening to someone “doing” their “best” Irish accent. Most of my favourite poets are actually African-American: Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman, June Jordan and Yusef Komonyakaa. Their use of the demotic, directness and bravery was a beacon.

How has exile influenced your writing?

It has enriched my life enormously, I needed distance in order to write and London’s rich multicultural population was a big draw. I met so many people when I was a radiographer. I loved talking to them, hearing their stories relayed in the music of their voices. Later, when writing for the Irish Post, I’d find myself saying that I’d X-rayed someone when I meant to say I’d interviewed them.

Do you think your 15 years in radiography influenced your writing?

I think it’s impossible not to be influenced by the work one does. Teaching was a continuation of that talking and listening and even now, I find myself sometimes calling students patients. I suppose we are all patients really! I didn’t study creative writing but teaching was a great education, especially in those early years of the century. It was a privilege to hear first-person accounts of the second World War in London, the heart-breaking stories of the evacuees, Jewish refugees or the haunting narratives of the Caribbean elders in my Hackney classes.

You’ve mentioned the influence of film in your writing and have described the 75 sonnets that make up The Coming Thing as film frames.

Well, film has influenced me a lot but as you said, 15 years behind an X-ray camera has influenced me too. The Coming Thing’s frames could be likened to the method of “coning in” or cropping an X-ray to improve an image, making it crisper and clearer. Boiling the story down to its essential images and sounds produces a kind of clarity, things finally clicking into place, something that never happens in reality. It’s seriously addictive, consoling — salvage from the wreckage of life.

Which projects are you working on?

Another narrative poem set in an X-ray dark room in a prison.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Keats’s House in Hampstead. Many times.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

Write your heart out — Joyce Carol Oates.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

Book: Trespasses by Louise Kennedy; The Family Plot by Clair Wills. Hereafter by Vona Groarke. Film: Saint Omer, director Alice Diop

The most remarkable place you have visited?

The Beara Peninsula on the Kerry side over the Healy Pass

Your most treasured possession?

A beautiful American poetry anthology, Illustrated Poems for Children, which my sister Mary brought me from New York in 1973. My love of American poetry began here with Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and many more.

  • The Coming Thing is published by Carcanet