Following the publication of Wish in The Irish Times last year, readers got in touch with Kerrie O’Brien, saying that her words had given them solace in the face of death. One woman said she wanted the poem read at her funeral. “I think that’s my purpose as a writer,” O’Brien says, “to write about truth, death, heartbreak – those universal themes which speak to people and awaken something within them.”
Poetry in Ireland, from its ancient oral roots to its contemporary blossoming – performance poetry – has been both darling and prodigal, establishment and counter-culture. Writers argue about what it is, what it’s for, but some poetry manages to reach through all of that, and does what the best words do – touch. O’Brien’s poetry has a way of exposing the elemental, with a purity that speaks the real thing.
I want to have the blessing of a deathbed
In a house that is a shrine
To all the favourite parts of my life
I want to thank the well-loved bark of my body
For all it has done
I want my spirit to go out
Like a laughing child
Running through the fields
And all along the white sands of the sea
Ready for anything
O’Brien’s early work owes much to a broken heart; the rawness and vulnerabilty of her first collection, Into the Blueness, is painfully truthful. Sensuality and eroticism are common threads, as is an exposure that must carry some risk. “It was always intimate confessional work that attracted me to poetry – poets like Sylvia Plath, Frank O’ Hara, Sharon Olds, and contemporary poets like Eduardo C Corral and Andrew McMillan. I never set out to write sensual poetry but it seemed to be what came naturally. You’re very vulnerable putting that kind of work out into the world – but I find it’s often the most truthful, intimate pieces that speak to people the most.
“The process has changed for me over the years. When I was younger I’d just write whatever I was thinking about. Now it’s much more focused – I tend to think of a concept before approaching a poem, and write a few pages of ideas, lines and imagery; a lot of the time I will decide on a last line for a poem and work towards it. Sometimes the idea for a poem can be at the back of your mind for a few weeks or months – I’ve learned to become more disciplined about exploring ideas when they come.”
I hold it like a wounded thing
Too close and breathing
An old story
That will not hush
We are made of such things –
I carry it
Because it happened, it happened
And what am I without it
O’Brien’s novella, Kind of Like Soft Creatures, was shortlisted in the recent Penny Dreadful competition, and she plans to turn it into a novel soon. Often poets struggle with longer pieces, or find greater affinity with the short story. O’Brien is comfortable with both poetry and long narratives, but her process differs entirely.
“Any writing I do with poetry – journaling edits, shaping a poem – is all done longhand. When a poem is nearly finished I type it up and that changes everything again. Many poems are abandoned, but you can usually find something within a draft – a line or an image – that can open up into a whole new poem. This became an issue in writing Illuminate [her next collection] – I had lots of ideas for different pieces that I really thought would work, but some of them just wouldn’t form into solid powerful poems. I think, as with all writing, it’s about persistence.
“With prose I find it much easier to race out a thousand words, and edit it the next day. Poetry is a completely different way of writing and thinking, much slower and more difficult; so much depends on how things sound out loud, the shape and flow of the language. As much as I enjoy writing prose, I ultimately find poetry the most fulfilling art form.”
Although O’Brien doesn’t write political poetry, and doubts she ever will, she believes that poetry has the power to change things. This is something she hopes to do with Looking at the Stars, a poetry anthology she is curating to raise money for the homeless: “I think it’s a complete disgrace that homelessness has become so rampant in Ireland and that the Government is basically ignoring the problem.”
Currently her plan is to do an independent print run of 500 copies, with contributions from both established writers and people in the service of the Simon Community, with every cent going to the charity. Already she has a pledge of €700 towards printing costs, and huge support and practical help from The Munster Literature Centre, Poetry Ireland, Unesco Dublin, Books Upstairs and Dubray Books.
There is an ache and a simplicity about O’Brien’s writing that gets to the heart of things, with clarity and depth. Her phrasing doesn’t miss a beat, in lines that open up, flower-like. If much of O’Brien’s earlier work is about pain and loss, Illuminate, her new collection, is more spiritual, and full of hope. The themes that run through it are the concept of oneness, and the transcendent nature of art and lineage. From the Latin illuminare, literally “upon light”, the title is beautifully apt: “A lot of the imagery includes fire, stars and light. I had the title in mind before the majority of it was written. I wanted to visualise a collection that was filled with light – like a rose unfolding.”
Kerrie O'Brien's Illuminate (Salmon Poetry) will be launched on October 6th in Books Upstairs, Dublin. If you'd like to get involved with the Simon Community anthology, get in touch @kerriepoetry
Ruth McKee, PhD Trinity College Dublin, is a writer and editor, nominated for the Hennessy Award 2016, and is represented by Ger Nichol @ruthmckee