Singer and writer Imelda May, brown eyes peering from beneath a dark fringe, is considering the freedom she finds in poetry, something she says can be elusive in modern songwriting. “All songs have to be three minutes now, but who decided that?” she asks. “With poetry, I don’t have to think of limits, or rhythm, and the subject matter can be anything at all. That’s the way music should be.”
She's been writing poetry for a long time but until relatively recently has kept it mostly to herself. We are sitting in a suite at the top of a smart hotel in Dublin's Liberties the place where May, long based in England, grew up. Like this area, the musician and songwriter is constantly evolving. The latest phase of this evolution – published poet – is now complete. When we meet, May has just taken delivery of two early copies of her first book of poetry, A Lick and a Promise, which is about to be launched by Faber Music. She is clearly delighted with the beautiful book, pushing it into my hands.
My bones are intertwined in the cobbles of the Liberties, it's powerful to me, it'll never leave me
“I want people to touch it and treasure it and show it off.” The cover illustration, a golden serpent, is by Dee Mulrooney and inside are 100 of May’s poems and several of her sketches, of feathers or flowers or the naked female form. The book also contains two poems by her father who is in his late 80s and two by her daughter, Violet, who is nine. “So the book represents where I’ve come from and where I’m going,” she explains.
All human life is in these pages: anger, sex, blood, tears, lust, feminism, love, heartbreak, birth, death, masturbation, romance. The poems are funny, earthy, evocative and always surprising. Roddy Doyle wrote the book’s foreword. He recalls discovering May’s poem, You Don’t Get To Be Racist and Irish, during Lockdown One, a poem she wrote in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. “The swagger, the pride, the humour, the honesty... Imelda May is a poet. A brilliant one.”
“I shed a tear,” says May about Doyle’s praise. “I’ve been a fan of Roddy’s writing forever.”
It feels suitably poetic that our view out the window is of the Liberties, a place that weaves through May and her poetry like the Poddle through this part of Dublin. “My bones are intertwined in the cobbles of this place, it’s powerful to me, it’ll never leave me. It’s an extraordinary place full of determined people.”
One of her earliest memories is of her mother, Madge, “an activist, but she’d never have called herself that” putting a placard in her hand and wheeling her in the pram to protest Wood Quay. Her mother, now in her mid-90s, contracted Covid-19 in hospital earlier this year after a stroke but is at home now “and like Lazarus at this stage”. Her father, Tony, is “an eccentric” still going strong “talking about trying white water rafting. He has plans, he keeps saying, I’m too busy to die”, she laughs and I suggest it as a title for one of her future poems. Both her parents appear in the book. The Dancer and the Dream is about the sacrifices they made to rear their family.
These poems used to be art she made on the side. It was her close circle of girlfriends in England who would call for her to recite one, margarita in hand, at the end of their nights out. Flicking through the book you can see why. The opening line of one poem called Dick is simply: “My ex is a Dick.” There’s another called Prince of Darkness Ditty about an egotistical, heartbreaker of a man who “walked away without remorse, the saint who had the horn”.
“My friends were always saying, ‘Why are we the only ones who get to hear these poems?’” One of them, GBH, which stands for Grievous Battery Harm, is about masturbation and the joy of sex toys. Like most of these poems, it’s even better when you hear May read it out loud in her lyrical, Liberties tones. She says she sent a vibrator to all her girlfriends for Christmas, she calls them her coven, with a note: “Because every witch needs a wand.”
I think it's only us and dolphins that have sex for fun and it's wonderful and beautiful and joyous
“One of my friends unfortunately opened that present in the foyer of a hotel with her future mother-in-law. Luckily her mother in law is a well-liberated woman and found it hilarious.”
There is another poem Night Stand which addresses the power of a transformative one-night stand, sexual experiences that can serve to move us on to another place, especially after a relationship ends. “Bury your head between my legs, pleasure to forget,” writes May. She has no qualms about writing about such intimate moments? “Why would I?” she wonders.
“A lot of that [repression] came from religion and people wanting to squash that side of us but... we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have the desire to procreate but also to have fun while doing it. I think it’s only us and dolphins that have sex for fun and it’s wonderful and beautiful and joyous. There are moments in life when it ebbs and flows, like relationships do. And I think you learn more about yourself as you go along.” She says that sex “can be more fun as you get older, and you kind of care less”.
She describes herself as “naturally liberated” remembering as a teenager preparing to apply for art college going to a night class in life drawing in Trinity College. “My mum told me they thought I was going to come running home, freaked out... But I didn’t care... the body didn’t upset me. Why would it? They all found it hilarious in my house when I was bringing home these huge pictures, close ups of the naked body.”
May is constantly writing and doodling, she says. The poems were collated from all her scribbles on the back of bills and post-it notes. The book is called A Lick and a Promise after that very Dublin saying, when if she was in a hurry as a child her mother, wielding a damp flannel, would say, “C’mere, have a lick and a promise.” A quick wash in other words. “I will have to explain it more in England,” she says. “But I love the sensual connotations of it. I want people to have a lick and a promise of this book. I want them to open it and think, Oh, I will just read one more.” The book is a sensual, visceral read, divided into sections named breast, eye, blood and temple.
She has poetry books all over her house “and that’s why I wanted to make it beautiful. I want it to be left out by a bedside table, out on the kitchen table. I don’t want it to be on a bookshelf. Poetry should be out and around the place so people can give themselves a break, turn off the phone, decide to read some poetry for a little bit of beauty at the end of the day. It’s a better way to end the day than with technology or reading the news.”
She reads poetry widely but one of her favourite poets is Dubliner Pat Ingoldsby for his wit and accessibility. “I’m hoping my book might make poetry more accessible.” She says she thinks the way poetry is taught in school is wrong. “It took the momentum and the joy out of it. I wasn’t reading and hearing and feeling the poem. I was dissecting the poem before I got a love of poetry. But you can dissect it later if you want to, first you need to feel it.”
Even with songs and with my writing I decided to just cut the bulls**t and be a bit braver
The youngest of five siblings, Imelda Mary Clabby has been grafting hard for 30 years, since the days when the talented and driven teenager was playing gigs in the pubs of Dublin including Bruxelles. Taking the stage name Imelda May and adopting a retro 1950s image, she formed her own band nearly two decades ago, releasing an album No Turning Back before moving to London with her then husband, guitarist Darrell Higham. Her second album Love Tattoo – with the raucous hit Johnny Got a Boom Boom – marked her arrival on the Irish music scene after which Jools Holland featured her on his programme. She won legendary musicians as fans and, in some cases, friends – from Ronnie Wood to Bono to Bob Dylan and the late Paddy Moloney to Lou Reed. “I just like people who are great at what they do,” she says. “They aren’t all famous.”
There was much interest when she eventually ditched her trademark 1950s look – she once rocked the finest quiff this side of Memphis. The music and artwork on her last two albums, Live Love Flesh Blood and 11 Past the Hour – which features a stunning self-portrait photograph – felt more expressive, as though May the artist was finally getting full rein.
When I ask about something I’ve heard her say before, that she “hid” behind rock and roll and her bequiffed, rockabilly image she explains it by saying, “everybody has different versions of themselves”. She agrees the look was like a uniform but is keen to point out “that doesn’t mean it was fake. It was just very safe, like the way somebody who works in a bank knows that’s the suit everybody wants to see them in. And it works... but then you realise, actually, there’s loads of versions of me. So I am going to be all of them. Some days I won’t feel great, I’ll feel like wearing black and another day I’ll be a bit glittery. But even with songs and with my writing I decided to just cut the bulls**t and be a bit braver.”
She’s deadly serious about that. When last year record company executives brought up the so-called challenges of marketing an album by a woman in her 40s she railed against the ageism and sexism telling them it was “a sorry excuse for not working on the album the way they should. I also said they could kiss my 40-something-year-old ass as I leave this meeting... and I have a great ass.” The album, 11 Past the Hour, went to number one in Ireland and number six in the UK. She never got an apology but “they did send champagne”.
So often when I am gigging on St Patrick's Day, it hurts if I am honest, to look out into the crowd, it's upsetting to see them in leprechaun hats and drinking
The 47 year old is interesting on the anxiety, heightened now as we emerge from the pandemic, that comes with getting dressed for an event. “It’s very scary to actually just be yourself and turn up. I love people who just turn up in whatever they want to wear... my boyfriend does that which I love. He’s saying, ‘This is what I feel like wearing’, and I need to do that more because I get really anxious at times...”
May’s boyfriend of the past couple of years is the Irish musician and actor Niall McNamee. Since live music reopened they have enjoyed being on stage together singing the moving song they wrote during the pandemic, Don’t Let Me Stand On My Own. It’s a “nourishing” relationship, she says. “I can only be with someone who will stand by me and what I do... he’s very supportive.” May has also been acting and made her debut in the romantic comedy Fisherman’s Friends 2. Is that something she’d like to do a bit more of? “Definitely. I loved it.”
At home in the English countryside with McNamee and Violet, her daughter with Higham with whom she remains good friends, she says her home life is “quite normal”. She loves to cook and go for walks. She gets absorbed in nature. She has “a childlike mind”. At times during the interview, I can see her mentally wandering off course, her eyes flitting to the birds on rooftops outside the window. “Sorry I get distracted, I like to see what they are doing,” she says. “There is always something new to learn.”
In her poem Becoming, named after Michelle Obama’s book after May read it to the former first lady at an event – she writes, “I’m hungry for knowledge, but I’m full of it.” At the moment she’s delving deep into pre-Christian Ireland. Her drawings and jewellery are full of pagan symbolism. “I’ve always loved that, it is because it’s already in you, it’s just been removed from us over time, but it’s deeply entrenched in our bones and our blood and when you start to learn, it makes sense of so many things.”
Speaking of pre-Christian Ireland, I tell her I heard her talking to Joe Duffy on Liveline the day before, campaigning for Brigid's Day on February 1st to be made into a Bank Holiday. "I just rang him as a member of the public because when you want something done you ring Joe... it wasn't my idea and there'll be other ideas so it's good to throw them all out there. I love Brigid."
Recently, she made a documentary for Sky about literature and Ireland, travelling around the country talking to writers. “It’s been lovely,” she says. “I’m just so proud of this place. You know so often when I am gigging on St Patrick’s Day, it hurts if I am honest, to look out into the crowd, it’s upsetting to see them in leprechaun hats and drinking, and I find it quite offensive that they think that’s what it is to be Irish. Or that’s all it is. I love having a laugh, by the way, but I think we’re worth more than that. And so I was really excited to be part of this project. When you think about it, English is only recently our first language, and within maybe 50 years of speaking it, we mastered it. And we were the greatest at it all over the world. We nailed it.”
I'm sensitive and most artists are. A lot of people forget that. We undress ourselves in front of everybody
I ask her about growing older and taking more risks artistically. Her poem about racism, for example, led to a year of appalling trolling on social media, from people who often had not even read her poem. Was that difficult? “Yes of course because I’m an artist. I’m a creative. An empath. I’m sensitive and most artists are. A lot of people forget that... we undress ourselves in front of everybody.”
What’s her favourite poem of her own? “I haven’t written it yet,” she says stealing a line from Roy Orbison. I’m also dying to find out the identity of “the saint who had the horn”. “Oh, I’m never telling,” she smiles breaking into a filthy laugh that makes me wish it was 2am and we were off the record, having margaritas.
It seems to me that over the past few years Imelda May has been quietly mastering the art of what she described earlier as “just being yourself and turning up”. And when I ask what it feels like now, to be starting a new career as a poet and published author, she smiles again. “I’m just starting,” she says. “But then I feel like I am coming into my own all the time.”
A Lick and a Promise by Imelda May (Faber Music) is out now. Imelda will be signing copies of her book in Eason O’Connell Street, Dublin, on Saturday, November 6th at 12pm