Vona Groarke: ‘If you want to change things, stand for election. Poems aren’t part of that’
‘Poetry’s response must be to remain true to itself rather than rush into rhetoric," says the poet, who tonight will receive the 2017 Hennessy Hall of Fame award for outstanding contribution to literature
Vona Groarke: tonight she will receive the 2017 Hennessy Hall of Fame award for her outstanding contribution to literature. Photograph: Ed Swinden/The Gallery Press.
“Slogans drive me crazy,” says Vona Groarke. She’s talking about divisive catch-cries like “We want our country back” and “America first” and whether with democracy under threat poetry has a responsibility to become political.
“I’m tremendously interested in politics but I come out in a rash at the idea of being a political poet. If you want to change things, stand for election. Go on and do it. Put yourself out there and fight your fight. But don’t think writing a poem is part of that.”
Since her breakthrough in New Irish Writing in 1993 when she won the Hennessy Poetry and Writer of the Year awards, Groarke has emerged as one of the most formidable poets of her generation. Her six collections with the Gallery Press, culminating last autumn with Selected Poems, shimmer with haunting rhythms and formal brilliance. Her work has appeared in Yale Review, the New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Boston Review and the Guardian. Tonight she will receive the 2017 Hennessy Hall of Fame award for her outstanding contribution to literature.
“What is the value of lyric poetry?” she asks. “Is there a place for it to be just itself?” We meet in a Dublin restaurant, just around the corner from Trinity College where she first struggled to find herself as a writer. “Must poetry be louder, must it be more active, more politically and socially engaged? I can’t bring myself to believe that the answer to this is yes. Poetry’s response must be to remain true to itself rather than rush into rhetoric. Poems shouldn’t be about getting a point across.”
She ruefully recalls joining a street protest in Manchester, where she has lectured in poetry for the past 10 years. “Everyone was chanting ‘Heigh ho, heigh ho, Donald Trump has got to go’. Several things bothered me about it. The automatic full rhyme hurt my ears, and the sense of it offended me even more. What do you mean by that? That you want a re-election? But you can’t have that. And have you had a look at Mike Pence recently? So why use language that you know is empty of meaning?”
She laughs. “I realised then I wasn’t very good at protests.”
The value of words means everything to Groarke. “Language is hugely important in and of itself and not just as a vehicle for communication. Attention to language can change the experience of life.”
The strength of her poetry is its ability to avoid being compromised by ready labels. Her 1994 debut collection Shale (1994) shows the influence of Elizabeth Bishop in its formalism and idea that a poem is what is on the page and nothing more, but this hasn’t held her back from personal nuances. Her recurring themes of houses and interior spaces, on the other hand, achieve a sensual intimacy without ever straying into so-called confessional poetry as embraced by Anne Sexton, for whom poetry seemed a form of ongoing autobiography.
Putting poetry into that or any other category, whether of gender, ethnicity, nation or religion, diminishes it. “It’s a way of saying the story of the poet is more interesting than the poetry, which is not the way I see it. I don’t think the story of my life is particularly interesting. I live a life that would be familiar to thousands of my age. My biography is not that interesting or unique. All I do that is different is being a poet. In so far as it is distinctive, it is the thing that makes me.”
Groarke grew up on a farm in Ballymahon on the river Inny, a Co Longford town outside Athlone with one of the widest streets in Ireland. “There was a ring fort on our land. To sit in the middle of it you couldn’t help but imagine other times and people. Near us was Oliver Goldsmith’s parsonage, a stone structure not lived in any more, just like The Deserted Village.”
She was enthralled by her mother’s stories, an American whose grandmother had a boarding house in Manhattan on the edge of Harlem. “She had been very close to her grandmother and never stopped missing her. She loved to talk about those years. They became part of my imaginary landscape, a vibrant place teaming with life and maybe more real to me than living on a farm.”
Groarke’s father was a solicitor with a practice in Longford town. “We were a legal family. So I think language was always there, an awareness of the potential of what words mean and how they are defined and interpreted.”
Although born in a nursing home that was once the family home of the 19th-century writer Maria Edgeworth, she laughs off any literary link. “Thousand s of others born there could make the same claim.” She never lived in Edgeworthstown, nor in Athlone, which she evokes in a brilliantly sustained 138-line river poem Athlones (Juniper Street, 2006) that flows with multiple memories and associations. “It was where we went for the big shop or meal out. It was where we went to do something special. It represented glamour.”
She began writing poems at primary school. “One of my teachers came to a poetry workshop of mine years later after Other People’s Houses (1999) had been published and produced a copy-book with first poems. Mine was My House. Although I always loved English I don’t think I ever thought I would be a poet. If somebody had taught me how to write a poem and if I had been able to produce a complete poem from the get-go I don’t think I would ever have become a poet. It was by writing badly and trying to write better that it happened. I sort of fell into it.”
Fortnight published her first poem and soon after she sent a poem about Newton’s telescope to me at New Irish Writing in 1993 that demanded to be published. It prompted Peter Fallon at the Gallery Press to accept her first collection, Shale. She has been published by Gallery ever since.
Poets have to take other jobs to pay bills. She took up teaching posts with her then husband Conor O’Callaghan at Villanova University – an experience that inspired An American Jay (Spindrift 2009) – and then Wake Forest University in North Carolina where their children Tommy and Eve went to school, deep in a conservative America where classmates were allowed carry semi-automatic guns. For the past 10 years she has taught at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.
Her Selected Poems has a Martin Gale painting of a bird’s nest on the cover. “There’s something about the idea of a Selected that you’re pulling poems from all different places, a bit like the way a nest is constructed.” The 58 poems range from the obliquely political Imperial Measure, triggered by a letter from PH Pearse about providing meals for the insurgents, to the touchingly familial Maize and Tonight of Yesterday (Flight 2002), dedicated to her children.
Although not all in the same style, they flow almost like a single piece. “Choosing them was an opportunity to look back and take stock. You wonder what are the things that are left for you to try that you have not tried before.” She smiles ruefully. “Perhaps a new book will tell me.”
Ciarán Carty is editor of New Irish Writing, which appears in The Irish Times on the last Saturday of each month