‘Oh, poetry! I thought it was a book’: how Martina Evans’s mother became her muse

‘That poetry is considered to be on or even beyond the margins has never bothered me. In fact, I am sure that is where I belong’


The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

Czeslaw Milosz

When Rockingham Press offered to publish my first collection of poems, The Iniscarra Bar & Cycle Rest in 1995, I rang up my mother and the conversation went something like this:

“Mammy, I’m going to have a book published!”

“A book?”

“Yes, a book of poems.”

“Oh poetry! I thought it was a book.”

But the fact that poetry is considered be “out there” – on or even beyond the margins – has never bothered me. In fact, I am sure that is where I belong. I felt it from the first time I went to the Torriano Meeting House in Kentish Town in the late eighties. The poetry readings were run by the inimitable John Rety on Sunday nights. John had an intense and generous personality and he was a Hungarian Anarchist and anybody could read. The group sometimes included an elderly, unrepentant Stalinist. All were welcome. And the rest of the world went by.

Real publicity was scary when it came with my first novel. The morning of my launch, one of my brothers rang up to ask me if I had any sales figures yet. I couldn’t understand it. Didn’t he know that all I wanted was to be good? I wrote because I loved literature. My heroes weren’t best sellers; they were shy poets like Emily Dickinson. Or not so shy but definitely poor, like Patrick Kavanagh.

I wanted to write just two slim, poetic novels like Kavanagh, then devote myself to poetry. But once you have an agent and a publisher, the general opinion is you shouldn’t stop. When I said I preferred writing poetry, people were aghast. “But there’s no money in poetry!” they would cry and I wondered where the money was in writing prose. I hadn’t seen much. Soon they were saying, “ah but you have to write a big book” because that was the fashion. No one could really explain what it was apart from the fact it had a big impact. In other words, we’re back to sales again.

I missed poetry. To me it was like flying, totally exhilarating. Writing prose began to feel like I was doing a never-ending Leaving Cert. And my stories kept turning into poems, leaking away any hope of the big book. This happened most dramatically in 2010. My agent was bemused when I replaced a 100,000-word novel with the slim prose poem that became Petrol (Anvil 2012). “It’s a good idea,” my agent said kindly. “But now go away and write that novel!” “But I thought it was a book,” I said and I meant it. Petrol was over now. I’d written the kind of book I like to read myself – intense, concentrated.

All Alcoholics Are Charmers, the title sequence of my second poetry book, began life as a novel. It was fiction but that can be a problem because some people believe poetry is straight autobiography, not the “supreme fiction” described by Wallace Stevens.

Poems are not journalistic reports from the Front of memory, they are a performance or an event, a work of art shaped with plenty shovels of poetic licence. Poets play with words and you can’t separate the music from the meaning. It’s hard to explain sometimes. When All Alcoholics are Charmers was launched in Waterstones of Cork, my mother kept turning around to address the audience while I was reading to assure them that my father was a very quiet man and only had a half pint once a week with his friend Pat Shea.

And it was true. My father was a quiet unassuming man and certainly wasn’t an alcoholic. He bore no relation to the character in the poem. Although he probably drank more than one half pint a week. I have a childhood memory of standing with him drinking under the drum of rain on our galvanised bottle-shed, both of us with a heavy “flagon to the head”. In his case, Woodpecker’s Cider and in mine, Cidona. But maybe it only happened once. The latest findings of psychologists reveal that our memory tells us stories just as James Joyce said years ago, “Imagination is memory”. When students ask me what’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction, I’m hard pressed and have to change the subject. Or fall back on Oscar Wilde: “Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true”.

Quite a few people thought that Petrol was a memoir even though my father never had three wives like the father in Petrol. Thankfully, having passed on, my mother is spared having to explain that one.

After the launch of All Alcoholics are Charmers, my mother sounded a bit annoyed. I thought it was the business with the alcoholic father but she said, It wasn’t myself that said it. It was her friend. As Peggy Loony said to me, what a book you’d write Mrs Cotter, if you sat down to write one with your interesting life! And she was right, as mothers often are, eventually. From beyond the grave, my mother is taking over my books.

Facing the Public, my first collection after her death, was the first serious haunting. “Is that it now?” someone asked, as if writing a book is some kind of detox. And I hoped that maybe it was but she is back in force in my new book, Burnfort Las Vegas, which is full of her stories, her voice and opinions. Low Key is a monologue based on a conversation I had with her in the 90s. She was in full spate praising the gentry when she inadvertently let slip a story about a lord beating his wife. She stopped when she saw my face. “Oh, you’re gong to write about this, aren’t you? Well, that’s it, I’m not saying another word.”

And of course the story haunted me until I wrote it down in her voice. Half a story became something more as it allowed me to burrow into the spaces between her words.

Poems ask questions, they are tunnels into the seam where memory meets the unconscious or the underworld. Margaret Atwood said we write because the dead want blood. In my case, she’s absolutely right.

Her obsessions become mine. She thought my father’s brother Tommy was the last word in glamour. Uncle Tommy went to night school! Oh yes! And he wore chocolate-coloured gaiters. You don’t know the real man. In the 70s I wasn’t that interested in Uncle Tommy, a old cranky fellow in a flat cap when flat caps weren’t fashionable. But he’s all over my books now.

In 1998, I wrote an article for The Irish Times and a photographer came to Burnfort to take a photo for the article. All the way from Dublin, cried my mother, as she dashed past me in a cloud of Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew, with a long string of pearls jangling in front of her slimming coat dress. The photographer – who hardly came all the way, he must have been conveniently in the area – said, I’ll just take Martina with the child if you don’t mind. I carried Liadain out in my arms and we sat on the priest’s wall in Burnfort and I had a lump in my throat.

My mother drove me mad, often reduced me to tears. And I could see the photographer could not be stopping to photograph every Irish mother who crossed his path but I really wanted her to have her photo in The Irish Times. Maybe because deep down even then I knew that my writing voice was indebted to hers.

The last few weeks, I’ve been listening to a 1950s recording of Hamlet on Broadway while I chop the vegetables. It has the best and funniest Polonius I have ever heard. I don’t know who the actor is, but every now and then I play choice bits to my daughter and we fall around the kitchen laughing. And something uncanny is happening, I keep hearing my mother.

She was a woman who loved wise sayings and she believed in listening hard to educated people. Hamlet has contributed great numbers of quotes to the English language but she must have soaked them all up. Polonius, Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius – I realise that she was quoting them daily. Or what it really feels like is that they are all quoting Mammy. Did she know?

She confided in me that she never went to secondary school and was hardly sent to primary school as she was kept at home to work. She was ashamed of this in the way people are often wrongly ashamed of things beyond their control. I wish I could tell her how wise she seems now, far off in time in the kitchen behind Burnfort Bar, tapping her little finger with the breadknife, speeching as she would say herself from Hamlet the Dane.

Burnfoot Las Vegas by Martina Evans is published by Anvil, priced £9.95. It has been shortlisted for The Irish Times Poetry Now Award 2015. Read John McAuliffe’s review.


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