Brought to Book: Vona Groarke on the unbearable lightness of reviews

‘What has being a writer taught me? Precision. Restraint. Slyness. Envy. Thrift. The value of a good noun’

Vona Groarke’s latest book is X, published in February by the Gallery Press. She is also the author of five other award-winning poetry collections, including Flight (2002) and Spindrift (2009). She teaches in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Spring Tales by Kathryn Jackson, featuring that lovable rapscallion, Mr Bunny, alongside Engine Driver Eddie, and my favourites, Dr Upping and Dr Downing, two dentists with opposing views on the charms of a lollipop. (It was a gift from my sister Maree, and one of the very few books I owned. My daughter, Eve, has it now.)

What was your favourite book as a child?


Anne of Green Gables, of course (I lived on a farm). With Cornelius Rabbit of Tang running a close second. (Doesn’t everyone love a book about a townland up the road?)

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Anne of Green Gables and Cornelius Rabbit of Tang.

What is your favourite quotation?

“The truest poetry is the most feigning”. (Shakespeare, As You Like It)

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Probably Lily Briscoe from To The Lighthouse, who comes as close as any character I know to articulating creative risk.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

WB Yeats.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

Traditional print. Old school. I like a book that creaks and rustles and smells and is heavy – that enjoys its physical reality as much as I do my own.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

It might be Gerhard Richter’s Elbe. Or Seamus Heaney’s The Last Walk (with paintings and drawings by Martin Gale). Or the diary from the 12 months my two children were born. Or X, my latest poetry book, with its beautiful cover and layout, courtesy of Gallery Press.

Where and how do you write?

All over the place, and by longhand initially. Then, at a certain, self-determined point, it reverts to type.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

Consulting my thesaurus.

What book influenced you the most?

The Whitsun Weddings. Leaves of Grass. Field Work. Why Brownlee Left. The Tower. Geography III.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

Depending on whether it’s a girl or a boy, it would be Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or Kerouac’s On The Road. (Girls are suckers for a biker romp.) Or maybe I’d give them War and Peace: that’ll always look good on a bookshelf, I reckon, when you are 18.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

How To Stay Young?

What weight do you give reviews?

These days, ounces, though it was probably pounds at one time. (There’s not as many of them around as there used to be.)

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

That will depend on where book buyers go, surely. To Paradise Island, I hope, with large mojitos on the house and a full-size orchestra playing the soundtrack of South Pacific interspersed with The Smiths’ greatest hits, just to keep it real.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

I’m sure poetry is immune from trends. Unless you count prose poems.

What has being a writer taught you?

Precision. Restraint. Slyness. Envy. Thrift. The value of a good noun.

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

Since it's a dream anyway, can I have fictional characters, please? Elizabeth Bennett (for proper jokes); The Wife of Bath (for improper ones); Tristram Shandy (for pranks); Philip Marlowe (for the suave); Hamlet (for discernment. Plus, I think he'd get on nicely with Elizabeth Bennett); Graham Greene's Aunt Augusta (for the divilment); Oliver Mellors (for frisson); Mrs Ramsay (for comfort), and J Alfred Prufrock (so the rest of us can feel well-adjusted and comparatively slick).

What is your favourite word?

Cleave: it means both to split or cause to split and to adhere. I like a word that can look two ways at once.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

Either the 1641 Confederation of Kilkenny (Rebellion! Religion! Royalty! Power!) or the Vienna Secession– specifically, Amalie Zuckerkandl, the subject of Klimt's ultimate shimmering portrait in 1917, who died at Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942.