The real enemy in writing, the poets who slay me and do I really ‘roast’ my kids?
An interview with poet Anne Casey as her debut collection goes into its second edition
Anne Casey: Writing poetry for me has to somehow weave its way into the warp and weft of a sometimes chaotic pattern of daily life.
What inspired you to write poetry?
I think it was a kind of organic thing really. Growing up in a tiny seaside town in the west of Ireland, I was surrounded by poetry from birth. My Dad quoted lines of poetry to me every day of my growing up years. At get-togethers, people would do ‘rounds’ – you had a choice of playing an instrument, singing, telling a story or reciting a poem. I was always the one slinking in the background hoping not to be called on (…little has changed – I still find getting up to read poetry challenging, though it is a regular part of life these days).
The thing l loved most about poetry growing up in Ireland was this idea that you had to always look beyond the surface. We were taught that for centuries, poetry was used as a way of passing on coded messages. During times of war and subjugation, poetry became a vehicle to convey not just tactical information but hope in the face of cruelty and oppression. Poetry has long been used in Ireland to embed legend, and to pass on folklore and local histories.
A very brilliant Irish poet friend, Eleanor Hooker, recently shared the wonderful piece of ancient Irish folklore that poets possessed a poetry vein which filled with blood and pulsed with the metre of a poem as they wrote it. The ancient Celts, during times of interclan conflict, would send their Ard Filí or high poets to the front line first. Their role was to attempt to bring about a peaceful resolution through a battle of words and wits. Failing that, they were to bring back enemy intel! Poets held a special place in the culture.
With so much intrigue surrounding poetry growing up – from spymasters to coded messages – how could I not be drawn to it? By the age of eight, I had started penning my own poems (horrendous verses about spiders and pets and suchlike!). I rapidly came to realise the power at my tiny fingertips… Here were words on a page that could convey an idea and meaning from one mind to another as if by magic! I realised then that all I ever wanted to do was write. That was when my parents bought me my first typewriter – a Lilliput – and I was off!
By 11 or 12, I had discovered Emily Dickinson and there followed another spatial shift as I started to delve into the broader world of poetry beyond my Irish doorstep and to discover the vast inner landscape it occupies too. I continued to write through my teens, with the odd poem published in youth and community magazines. But by the time I was finishing school, with Ireland in deep economic recession, I caved to pressure and embarked on a more mainstream path.
Completing a law degree at University College Dublin, I was extremely conflicted. The call to write was profound. In the end, I found a compromise. I went on to study and work in media communications, which allowed me to write while following a career path that gave me enough money to eat and pay the rent – as a journalist and magazine editor. Later, I worked as a legal author/editor (*yawn! Apologies to any legal authors who might be reading) and media communications director, which facilitated my other great love – travel! This is how I ended up living 13,000 miles from my beloved west coast of Ireland – in Australia.
All the while, poetry continued to ooze out of the pores – decanted in tattered notebooks, onto the backs of beermats, on napkins – whatever was at hand when the mood struck. All long since lost, almost certainly for the better! It was only after having children, rapidly followed by the loss of my beloved mother to cancer – when my world shifted seismically – that writing poetry became an unstoppable force. I balk at calling it ‘therapy’, but writing really does help me to process what is going on.
What is your daily writing routine?
I hear writers all the time say that writing is about showing up to work – you sit down at your desk every day and you write. My reality as a poet couldn’t be further from that! Writing poetry for me has to somehow weave its way into the warp and weft of a sometimes chaotic pattern of daily life… It happens somewhere in between raising two busy boys aged 11 and 13 (…yes I drive the Mum-Uber), media consulting, being senior poetry editor for two university literary journals, writing feature articles and various community volunteering positions (for some reason, communications people are always in demand…)… oh yes, and if you’re ever in need of a meat pie, you can catch me on school canteen duty! But that’s life and I love it, and it feeds into my poetry in the most glorious ways… well, my sons may not agree. I am regularly accused of ‘roasting’ them in my poetry readings!
So my daily writing routine goes something like this – wake>>shower [jump out of shower to jot down idea on phone]>>take kids to school (picking up four missing items on way to car)>>clear emails>>check deadlines>>do urgent work>>walk dog [start poem on phone]>>eat sandwich in car to school pick-up [jot another line at ‘Kiss and Ride’]>>ferry kids between activities [pick up poem poolside at kids’ swim squad]>>supervise homework [add another line or two to poem]>>feed ravenous boys [delete a line of poem]>>don bio-hazard suit, unpack and decontaminate school lunchboxes, gym-bags etc>>find dog staring dejectedly at empty food-bowl>>feed dog [while adding back one line to poem]>>pack school lunchboxes>>pretend to watch the latest rave TV thriller on Netflix while actually dabbling on social media on my phone in between gasping over and retweeting stumbled-on poems alongside my husband who is also pretending to watch the latest rave TV thriller on Netflix while actually scanning headlines and reading sustainable energy research on his phone in between catnaps >>shoo child back to bed and rummage through house at 11pm looking for impossible item urgently required for school tomorrow ‘but they only told us today’>>sleep [can’t sleep]>>finish poem>>sleep.
Not every day of course, but if a poem is happening, this is how. Over 90 per cent of my poems are written on my phone on the fly. They are usually in close-to-finished form by the time they get to my laptop. Meanwhile my husband and I ‘watch’ a lot of Netflix rave tv thrilllers by making up most of the plot twists when asked by the other what is going on. And, umm… maybe I do ‘roast’ my kids just a little bit…
What motivates you to write?
Perhaps unavoidably, due to my Irish roots, political resistance is a strong suit for me (Trump has given me quite a bit of material!). To a certain extent, the things that make me mad, make me write – human rights, the environment. I truly believe in the power of words to effect change.
Personal experience plays hugely into my writing. My first book, where the lost things go, published by Salmon Poetry in 2017 (with sincere thanks to managing director Jessie Lendennie) and now going into its third print/second edition, was inspired by a single poem – In Memoriam II: The Draper. First published by Ciara Kenny, Irish Abroad editor at The Irish Times in January 2016, this poem was driven by my grief at the loss of my mother and the eternal ache of the immigrant.
In fact, The Draper was my first poem to be published as an adult. Despite having fallen in love with poetry so young, my career had taken off – life, travel and emigrating to Australia had intervened. Those idle scratchings in tattered notebooks and on scattered bits of paper had all been lost in the constant toing and froing of life – both work and family taking me back to Ireland up to five times a year and to all sorts of other places in between.
After The Draper first appeared in The Irish Times, something extraordinary happened. It went a bit viral. It was the fifth most-read item across all categories in the paper that day. It resulted in a furore of social media and related commentary. I had people tracking me down via my website, email, LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter, Facebook… strangers from America, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, the UK, Canada, Europe… all telling me the same thing. How they had connected with the grief, the guilt, the displacement in that poem. It still brings me to tears – that realisation that poetry can connect people so profoundly regardless of distance, time or culture.
Thanks to this and some surprisingly wonderful feedback around the same time from leading Irish critic, broadcaster and author, Ciaran Carty, when he shortlisted me for Hennessy New Irish Writing, I thought I might be onto something. A 10-year book publishing contract from Jessie Lendennie at Salmon Poetry a few months later sealed the deal! By then, I had amassed the manuscript for where the lost things go – a place to hold my lost things, remembrances from my childhood in rural west Clare as well as the odd scream into the void at political, environmental and human rights affronts.
As a mother, I worry about what kind of world we are leaving for the children. This often plays as a backdrop in my writing. Another key dimension is a need to connect with the beauty in the present. Technology has brought us all sorts of benefits, but connectivity is so disconnecting in terms of our being in the moment. A crucial aspect of poetry, I feel, is that it connects us with that sense of presence with the greater world – with humanity, with beauty – whether through art, nature, landscape or human interaction. Was there ever a time when we needed this more?
What is your work ethic and how does it impact your writing?
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a ‘doer’. I tend to be goal-orientated. I like to analyse the situation, work out what needs to be done and do it. I’ve never been a procrastinator, particularly with writing – if anything, I might be accused of being a little impulsive!
When I was starting out in journalism in Ireland, I had the great good fortune to do some work with a Dublin journalist called Barry McCall. Barry was writing for all the big newspapers. He was a phenomenon – he just churned out the stories. One grey morning in a Georgian terrace office in Dublin in the early 1990s (which was rapidly clouding over from the constantly replenished cigarette stub stuck to Barry’s lower lip), as he assaulted a keyboard next to me, I asked him “How do you do it, Barry?”. His reply has stayed with me through all my writing years: “Just remember – the blank page is the enemy! Fill it up. Fill it with everything you know that’s relevant. Once you have the bones, go back and tighten it up.”
I love that – it makes complete sense to me. Before I even start writing, I will usually jot down an idea, some key words, or a couple of lines, sometimes sketch an outline. And that’s it then – you’ve made a start. You’ve got the blank page on the back foot.
As a journalist, editor or communications consultant, it’s easy. I’m drawing on 25-plus years of knowledge and experience. I am generally dealing in finite facts (no fake news here!). It’s a set formula – I sit down, do the research and I write. There is always a point when everything crystallises in my mind – let’s call it the ‘Aha!’ moment – that’s when I have the hook, the spin, the kernel, the angle around which the whole thing pivots. I edit a bit and it’s good to go.
So I guess all those years filling blank pages feeds into my creative writing too. The process is a little different as no one assigns me a topic. Poems always start with a strong feeling about something – whether it is an environmental or political issue, or a personal moment or experience. Most of the time, it’s something close to my heart, so I tend to know the facts pretty well. Exit research stage. But there is always an ‘Aha!’ moment – when a line or a phrase drops into my head. And I think “that’s it!”, that’s the angle. But I know everyone is different, and that’s the great beauty about writing – the diversity. That joy of picking up someone else’s work and letting it blow you away.
Once I start writing a poem, as with writing an article, it just flows. If it doesn’t, then I either let it go or file it for later (aka ‘probably will never happen’). The exciting thing is that I never know how a poem will take shape until it starts to emerge on the page (as I mentioned, nine times out of 10, this happens on my phone, on the run). In almost every case, I find that the content dictates the form. How the poem ultimately looks on the page is also very important to me.
Possibly because I was bilingual growing up and had a deep love of the Irish language and traditional culture (from age 11, I spent summers speaking only Irish on the Aran Islands), my poetry tends towards the lyrical. I also write song lyrics from time to time – so there is certainly some crossover. I’ve had songs recorded via collaborations with artists in the US and Australia, and there’s something brewing in Ireland too. I talk about form, the influence of my Irish heritage and my love of layering word meanings more in a podcast interview with Anna Forsyth, Founder of Girls on Key (this includes poetry readings).
My background in journalism and other more formal forms of writing (including legal writing and environment reporting) also most certainly bleed into my creative writing. Sometimes I will use a poem to condense critical facts into the smallest space possible. I think this can be highly effective in ‘resistance’ writing. My poem Recipe for a Giant Pickle is an example of this – it was published by Anne Elvey, managing editor of Plumwood Mountain press in Australia as part of an anthology to protest a proposed coal mine which would have devastating environmental consequences. The poem was recently performed by The Climate Guardians at the Biennale of Australia Art 2018. (You can read the poem via either of these links.)
Another example like this is my poem In one hundred days published by feminist journal, Not Very Quiet – thanks to founding editors, Moya Pacey and Sandra Renew and Anita Patel who was guest editor for that issue. There’s also my hybrid journalism poem presented as a till receipt, Thank You for Shopping With Us, published by Freya Marshall Payne at the innovative and edgy publishing platform, The Corrugated Wave.
I guess my political side is also influenced by the journalist in me – you can see this in poems of political resistance like the Metaphoric rise micro-poetry suite (my gift to Mr Trump on his inauguration day) and The emperor’s new nose, both published by Martin Doyle, Books Editor at The Irish Times.
Often also, I’ll be writing an article, and I’ll realise I have the perfect poem to cap that off. I included two poems at the end of I barely recognise my hometown, an article about personal grief and the ache of the immigrant, first published by Ciara Kenny, Irish Abroad Editor at The Irish Times (another one that went a bit viral actually!). Secrets, lies and home truths, first published by Michele Seminara, managing editor at Verity La Magazine, and The Lock Up, first published in The Irish Times, are other examples where I did this. They have all since gone on to be republished in various other publications.
Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Now that is undoubtedly the toughest question! I read so much poetry – both for myself, and as senior poetry editor of Swinburne University’s two literary journals, Other Terrain and Backstory (working with the wonderful managing editor, Dr Wendy J Dunn!). So I will answer that question like this – who are the poets who rip my heart out of my chest and make me watch it pulsing in the palm of my hand?
Irish poet and most generous of spirits who I am blessed to call friend, Eleanor Hooker, is a truly remarkable poet. She stops me in my tracks every time. This stunning film poem, produced by her very talented film-maker son George Hooker, is a great example of her work: Insight. Sinead Gleeson’s poem Kindling in Autonomy anthology edited by Kathy Darcy (New Binary Press 2018) is breathtaking too. I really admire the gut-wrenching honesty, but also the beauty, of Australian poet, Michele Seminara’s work – you can get a sense of it in this review by Cordite journal of her book Engraft.
Here is some other poetry that I love by poets who give me goosebumps (most of whom I have been privileged to publish!): Dead Bug by American poet, Tiana Clarke; Strand by Australian poet and critic, Felicity Plunkett, bind – a brilliant new collection by Irish poet, Chris Murray who also runs Poethead where you can read a vast repository of contemporary women poets’ work; Butterfly Lovers by Singaporean-Australian poet, Eileen Chong; Transparent by American poet, Maggie Smith; Exile by Australian poet, Michelle Cahill; Ceremony by American poet, Chelsea Dingman and I didn’t think I would die like this by Scottish-Australian poet, Ali Whitelock. I could go on and on. There are so many other extraordinary poets whose work whips the breath right out of me – if I’ve published your work, this almost certainly means you! I often retweet poems that slay me too.
Why do you write?
Because the alternative is inconceivable to me.
Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
My debut collection, where the lost things go, has recently gone out of print for the second time since it was first published in July 2017. The wonderful Siobhán Hutson at Salmon Poetry informs me the shiny new second edition will be out any day now.
My second poetry collection will be published by Salmon in mid-2019. I’m cutting back from over a hundred poems at the moment – my biggest issue is that, as I write more, the ones which fall within the theme get popped into the line-up, leaving me with the difficult task of selecting other sacrificial lambs! I know the point will come where I have to be ruthless, do a hard cull and close the chapter on that one.
Further along the horizon – possibly for the following book – I’m hoping to expand my research into Irish women and children who emigrated to Australia in the 1800s. I wrote a collection of 20 pieces as a collaboration with Australian artist Jane Theau for an art exhibition. The writing was published as Stitched Up by Swinburne University in Melbourne. I did quite a lot of background research – electronic archives, newspapers, official reports, births and deaths etc – and unearthed some extraordinary stories. I recounted a little of this in The Irish Times article mentioned earlier, The Lock Up.
Meanwhile there’s wake>>shower [jump out of shower to jot down idea on phone]>>…you know the rest.
Originally from west Clare in Ireland, and living in Sydney, Australia, Anne Casey is an award-winning poet and writer. Over a 25-year career, she has worked as a journalist, magazine editor, communications director and legal author. Anne is senior poetry editor of Other Terrain and Backstory literary journals (Swinburne University, Melbourne).
She has won or been shortlisted for poetry prizes in Ireland, Northern Ireland, the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia - including the Henry Lawson Poetry Competition 2018 - Traditional Verse (Australia); the Women’s National Book Association Poetry Competition 2018 (USA); Hennessy New Irish Writing 2015 and 2017 (Ireland); Cúirt International Poetry Prize 2017 (Ireland); and Bedford International Writing Competition 2018 (UK). She was longlisted for the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize 2018.
Her poems feature internationally in newspapers, magazines, journals, anthologies, broadcasts, podcasts, music albums, a stage show and an international art exhibition - Entropy, The Irish Times, Cordite, Verity La Magazine, The Murmur House, Papaya Press, The Incubator, The Honest Ulsterman, The Stony Thursday Book, The Australian Poetry Collaboration, Into The Void Magazine, ROPES, Autonomy anthology, Plumwood Mountain, Abridged, The Monologue Adventure and the Poetry Pharmacy, among others.
Book: where the lost things go at Salmon Poetry. Also available from bookshops including Kennys and Easons in Ireland, Angus Robertson, Dymocks and Gleebooks in Australia, and online via Amazon, Book Depository, Booktopia and Walmart.