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Jane Clarke: ‘For months I was steeped in nature poetry from Yeats to the present day’

Hachette Ireland invited the poet to edit an anthology of Irish nature poems for illustration

You grew up on a farm in Roscommon and live in Glenmalure, one of the loveliest parts of Wicklow. How much did this inspire you to become a nature poet?

I didn’t consciously choose to write nature poetry but when I began to write in my early 40s it was in the natural world that I found the images to explore the complexities of what it is to be human. Though I was already living in Glenmalure, my imagination initially drew me back to the farm where I grew up. Over the years as I walked and got to know the fields, woods and hills around us the Wicklow landscape entered the poems.

Tell me about Windfall: Irish Nature Poems to Inspire and Connect, the collection you’ve edited of fellow Irish poets’ work.

Hachette Ireland invited me to edit an anthology of Irish nature poems for illustration by Jane Carkill. For months I was steeped in nature poetry from Yeats to the present day and I could easily have chosen another 70 superb poems. It’s a beautiful book which I hope will bring pleasure to a broad audience, including those who don’t usually read poetry. It’s also a timely book, drawing our attention of the wonders of the natural world around us at this moment of environmental crisis.

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Do you have a personal favourite?

One of my favourites is the late Frances Harvey’s Heron, a highly original evocation of this iconic bird.

“Windfall apples” are fed by miners to the Pit Ponies of Glendasan in your new collection, A Change in the Air. Did that inspire the title?

I love the sound of the word and it expresses the essence of the anthology as an unexpected and generous gift of nature.

A Change in the Air, your third full-length collection, is shortlisted for the T S Eliot Poetry Prize 2023 and the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2023. Tell me about it. How important is such recognition?

I am honoured and absolutely delighted to be on these shortlists. I felt happy with the collection myself but there is no knowing how it will be received in the wider world. I’m deeply grateful for the affirmation and for how it is taking my work to a much wider audience.

In 2016 The River was the first poetry collection ever shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Award, given for a distinguished work of fiction or non-fiction evoking the spirit of a place. How important is place in your work?

Place is at the heart of my work; I can’t write about people without evoking the place that shaped them and that they in turn shaped. In poetry of place, inner and outer worlds meet and find expression.

You’ve also written new poems inspired by nationalists and land activists Anna Parnell & Jennie Wyse Power. In Glasnevin from When the Tree Falls is featured in Croíthe Radacacha/Radical Hearts, a documentary exploring the hidden lives of eight female couples at the heart of the Irish Revolution and is read during tours of Glasnevin Cemetery at the grave of Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Grenan. Was this a particularly personal poem for you?

The dignified words on their headstone in Glasnevin Cemetery made me think of all the subtle and not so subtle ways my wife and I and our many lesbian and gay friends had to censor our love in the Ireland of the ‘80s and ‘90s. How much more courage it must have taken to live with your same-sex lover earlier in the century. And I wondered what it was like for these women who had risked so much for a shared vision of social justice to have to watch the independent State become increasingly more conservative and anti-woman.

Coracle, your new sequence of poems on biodiversity loss will be published by the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI) next month. Tell me more.

Over a year ago MoLI invited me to write a sequence of poems for their Unthinkable Project in which writers respond to climate change. The commission inspired a sequence of ten poems on the theme of biodiversity loss which is very close to my heart. The poems will be published in a pamphlet by MoLI Editions and I’ll read from it at the First Fridays event in MoLI on November 3rd, 2023.

You won an Irish scholarship to the Lester B Pearson United World College on Vancouver Island, Canada. Is that the same place Anne Enright went? What was it like?

Yes, Anne and I were there at the same time. The purpose of the college is to promote international understanding among young people from over 50 different countries. It was an exciting and intense experience which opened up the world to me at the age of 17.

You’ve worked in psychotherapy and as a coach. Tell me more.

In my 30s, I did a long and demanding psychoanalytic training in St Vincent’s Hospital. I gained an understanding of myself and others that has stood to me in my role as a poet as well as my former work as a facilitator and coach in health, education and social justice organisations.

Which projects are you working on?

Next week I’m starting a year-long project with the Burrenbeo Trust which will bring together artists, ecologists, farmers and rural communities in a journey towards better environmental stewardship. Our first event will be at the Winterage Festival today, Saturday, October 28th.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Emily Dickinson’s Homestead in Amherst, the Brontë parsonage in Haworth, Patrick Kavanagh’s Inniskeen, Yeats’ Tower and Eva Gore Booth’s childhood home at Lissadell.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

“If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.

Who do you admire the most?

For more than 40 years I have admired Mary Robinson for her leadership in the fields of human rights, women’s rights and social justice. Now I admire her all more for her advocacy on climate justice.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

I would pass a law requiring every government to prioritise the protection of the environment and climate justice.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility, edited by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young-Lutunatabua is about how to sustain hope through activism; Women Talking is the best film I’ve watched since An Cailín Ciúin; and Pádraig Ó Tuama’s podcast Poetry Unbound presents one poem at a time in the most accessible and engaging way.

Which public event affected you most?

The celebrations of Marriage Equality on Saturday, May 23rd, 2015; sheer joy swept across the country and all over the world.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

I’ve been fascinated by the beauty and mysteries of the Burren ever since my first visit as a child.

Your most treasured possession?

Our garden in Glenmalure, though you can no more possess a garden than you can possess another person.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

The Gorgeous Nothings, a full-colour presentation of the fragments Emily Dickinson wrote on opened-out envelopes; a gift from my brother in July 2014 to celebrate the news that Bloodaxe Books had accepted my first collection.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I’d prefer not to have dinner with my literary heroes: Elizabeth Bishop, Toni Morrison, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Langston Hughes, John McGahern. There’s something about the mystery of distance that I want to protect.

The best and worst things about where you live?

The best things about living in Glenmalure are the landscape and the neighbours. The only worst thing is that sometimes we are snowed in for too long.

What is your favourite quotation?

Poetry is “a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget” — Robert Frost

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Olive Kitteridge in the Elizabeth Strout novels.

A book to make me laugh?

Milkman by Anna Burns

A book that might move me to tears?

Milkman by Anna Burns

  • Windfall: Irish Nature Poems to Inspire and Connect is published by Hachette Books Ireland