Kate Dempsey on The Space Between: poetry beyond words

‘I think that a poem is more than the sum of its words. And a person is more than the words her or she is saying. The meaning is in the space between’

The title of my debut poetry collection, The Space Between, is taken from a line of my poem, Reaching Agreement.

Your lips move but I'm hearing
the way you taste the space between your words,
phrasing so there's something more than silence,
an emphasis pregnant with promise.

I chose this as a title because I think that a poem is more than the sum of its words. And a person is more than the words her or she is saying. The meaning is in the space between.

I have been to a lot of readings in Dublin and around the country – there are lots of festivals and events if you keep your eyes and ears open. This poem was inspired by a reading in a warm room with a good-looking novelist. I found myself drifting off, listening not to what he was saying, but how he was saying it, his body language and obvious passion with which he delivered it.


Once I’d chosen The Space Between for the title, I realised that there were lots of spaces between things that I was exploring in my poems. I have poems that look at the space between parents and children, between lovers, between friends. I spent a lovely hour once in the coffee-shop at the Horse and Jockey watching and listening to a group of elderly ladies who obviously met up frequently for a chat and catch up, enjoying a coffee and a slice of cake. I wanted to celebrate that in a poem, that long-standing friendship and support and pleasure. How wonderful to have that to look forward to. It’s not all dementia and loss.

I run the Poetry Divas, a collective of women poets, with Tríona Walsh, Barbara Smith and Maeve O’Sullivan. We read our poetry at events and festival and love to blur the wobbly boundary between page and stage. We are well published but strongly believe that poems are meant to be heard as well as read. We alternate and work off each other, so I’ll read the poem such as An Agreeable Afternoon and someone else will have a poem with cake as clothes. And then someone else will have a poem about a coat or baby clothes and so on. It’s infectious how each poem can chime into the next.

The most recent poem in the collection, Unintentional Installation, was written when I was in Dingle last year with the Poetry Divas. We had a gig at Feile na Bealtaine. We went for a walk in the rain to an art exhibition in the monsignor’s garden and there was this wheelbarrow... so I wrote this riff on the William Carlos Williams poem, The Red Wheelbarrow.

I work full time in an office in Dublin. My co-workers were surprised when I announced that I had a book coming out. It’s not that I kept it hidden, but poetry doesn’t often come up in conversation. Spreadsheets? Yes. Films, sport, weather, families, books even, but not poetry. But I have to say, once my secret life was out in the open, they’ve been positive and curious. Now to get them to buy it and read it! An ideal Christmas present, I say, for the difficult aunt.

I live in Maynooth and commute into the city centre on the train. It’s a 40-minute time I have to myself. That’s where I often start a poem; I jot down lines in a notebook. I stare out of the window or listen to other fellow commuters. I steal ideas. At the weekend or evenings or when I’m travelling for work, I open up the notebook and try and read my handwriting, type the rambling thoughts on my laptop and see what I can find. Some poems have a full draft within a few days and some take considerably longer.

The collection has been a long time in the writing. The oldest poem I wrote maybe 15 years ago, my first published poem. It was in the same issue of Poetry Ireland Review as a poem by Seamus Heaney. What a thrill. It’s about changing the toilet roll, among other things, and it has been used as an example in creative writing workshops that you can write a poem about any subject!

Lots of experienced writers say they cringe when they revisit their first book, or even disown it. That made me very slow to put my hand up and say I had a full collection of poetry and it was ready to be published. I’ve been lucky enough to have lots of the poems published in Irish and British journals as well as a couple in America and Germany. I’ve won competitions and was nominated for the Forward Prize for a single poem as well as for the Hennessy New Irish Writing award so even I had to believe that it was time to find a publisher.

I was very lucky to link up with Doire Press. They’re based in Galway, John Walsh and Lisa Frank. They have an astute eye and produce lovely books. In 2013, the collection Accurate Measurements by Adam White was shortlisted for the Forward Prize, which really put them on the map. They put out a call for submissions of 10 poems and I tweeted a question whether they would prefer a theme of love, death or science. They asked for science so I gathered some of my science-y poems and sent them in. I’ve a physics background so science creeps in to quite a few poems. They asked for a full manuscript and said yes.

The Space Between will be launched on Monday, November 23rd, at 6.30pm by Irish Times poetry editor Gerard Smyth in the Irish Writers Centre in Parnell Square, Dublin 1. All welcome. I'll be reading at various places around Ireland too in the next few months. The book can be bought directly from Doire Press here with free P&P worldwide. It is hoped to have it available in some independent bookstores too.

Kate Dempsey is from Coventry and studied physics at Oxford University. She lived and worked in Britain, the Netherlands and Albuquerque, New Mexico before settling in Ireland. “From the kitchen table to the Periodic Table, from dancing cows to drunken poets, Kate Dempsey puts our loves and lies under a powerful microscope,” says Iggy McGovern, poet and professor emeritus at Trinity College, Dublin. “In poems that sparkle with an indignation tempered with good humour, it is ultimately consoling to know that love conkers (sic) all.”