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Medbh McGuckian Interview

Medbh McGuckian is a graduate of The Queen's University, Belfast with B.A. and M.A. degrees in English. She was the first woman to be named writer-in-residence in that university, where she now regularly teaches. Her volumes of poetry include Venus in the Rain and The Flower Master, which won the Poetry Society’s Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize. On Ballycastle Beach, Marconi’s Cottage, Captain Lavender, Selected Poems, and Shelmalier, The Soldiers of Year II and, The Book of the Angel, were all published in the U.S. by Wake Forest University Press. McGuckian lives in Belfast with her husband and four children.  



Heidi Lynn Staples was a recipient of the New Issues Poetry Prize for Guess Can Gallop, her debut collection of poems. Her second book, Dog Girl, has been selected by Carolyn Forché for publication by Ahsahta press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry 2004, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, LIT, Ploughshares,  and 3rd bed. 


HLS: How did you come to write poetry?

MM: I started as a child and wrote a lot in adolescence. I met Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson and started to publish after I finished University.

HLS: What’s your writing process like? I'm wondering how often you write; under what circumstances; starting with a word, image or idea; with or without coffee, that sort of thing.   

MM : My process. I don't see it as process. Sounds too recipe or technical. I want it or need it. Life gets disordered and choked with not saying to anyone as here only confusion words inadequate as tools of exploration. So, I clinically collect images, thoughts, ideas, series of words -- not single. Over a period. Then when I feel I have enough for a page of poetry. I sort them. I sift and shape. There is a dynamic between my state and the material. I have to be alone but not alone in the building. There are people, my family but not there. It takes an hour or so. Never any food or coffee. Usually night or sunrise if it is beautiful. A desk. A dictionary. For any odd words. It is all up to the dance and play of the words. I just fold them into sentences like puff pastry layers. It is fun. Sad too. The last poem I knew what I had to say but that is rare.

HLS: You said you most usually don't know where a poem is going. I have read some interviews with you in which you provide illuminating exegesis on the poems. At what point does this clarity on the work come for you?

MM: Maybe half way through writing. The last poem I knew before it would be for my mother because I had chosen phrases unconsciously that applied to her and was feeling a lot for her and so  it happened naturally. It is usually the present crisis. Although recently I have felt like writing a love poem for Gregory again which I haven't for ages. And when I see Seamus next week I know I will he does that.

HLS: What's your relationship to revision? Do you revise? If so, what toward? If not, why no?

MM: I hardly revise unless I was too tired when writing the thing and it was a mess. Then I cut and shear and sort but it is never a great success a B version. Peter my publisher says I write a cluster of poems around the same theme and only one is THE poem. If the moment of inspiration is right then it all happens properly or the poems curdle or set like a jelly or concrete. Just now I have one I want to go on but am not feeling well so no point in trying till I get the best circumstances. There is no toward I think. Either I do it then or not. I tried once going back to a set of words I had and chose completely different ones and a different poem emerged. But not probably any better a one. 

HLS: Do you read your poems aloud as part of your practice? 

MM: I like reading them to an audience or group not myself or earning them off learning life too short so ego. Some I read once ever only never again others I like to re-read sometimes they mean more. I had a very bad habit always of annoying people by reading new poems not in books where they could read them but now I think that is bad manners it always was but I got so bored with people reading me the same poems.

I mostly enjoy it and people are usually responsive. It depends where it is and who with. I enjoyed reading in Galway recently because there were some lovely people and one girl who said she was glad she had come.

HLS: What is the poetry scene and writing community like in Northern Ireland? Are there many literary journals and readings series? How many of these have ideological bents and/or political allegiances?

MM: As an elder practitioner I do not go to pubs or nightclubs where readings are held. Around the Crescent Arts Centre and university and drama centres, there is a performance element I do not participate in but our students do.

There is a writing group associated with the Centre and the English society at Queens which is long standing and many middle-aged women who would not otherwise be published attend. The literary journal the Honest Ulsterman has finished and The Yellow Nib produced by Ciaran here was supposed to replace it. There are no outlets for extreme republican or loyalist literature so there isn't any.

HLS: How does this scene interact with and compare to scenes in other parts of Ireland? 

MM: Dublin dominates the cultural map in the South.

HLS: What are your thoughts on the 'Celtic Tiger', the economic boom experienced in the Republic? How does it affect you in Northern Ireland?

MM: It is great for them they deserve confidence and affluence. But as always that makes them blind to our plight and they are building everywhere huge houses not in keeping with our heritage. 

HLS: What do you think of the category "woman poet" into which many people place you.

MM: Hate the term. Hate those two words together they are so unwomanly and unpoetic together they cancel each other out. "Poet" I don't like or "woman" or "man" none of these words although I have had to use them. "Female" not much better. "Poetess" actually I like the sound.

HLS: Do you believe, as some of the French feminists have it, in a feminine ecriture?

MM: I don't follow all the French feminist stuff. I find it strange. I do believe women have their own way of writing as they experience things differently, but I am not for dividing us from men.

HLS: Could you say more about how you think women experience things differently?

MM: I am reading a book of essays on John Clare and no mention of women in it much. I feel poetry is very traditionally blind to us. I would write about Clare very differently, not referring to what other men thought of him.

I also read a book about women in Ireland and how they were treated as beasts of burden. Two people walking one the man has shoes. A woman photographed carrying a child breastfeeding leading a donkey with a cart and another child she is well off! I do not sufficiently appreciate how close we are to that illiteracy and degradation.

Then to be always associated with sex and reproduction when we are thinking creatures. I just feel poetry is very primitive about its attitude to us. But it is our fault or mine for not explaining myself further. I feel my poems are beyond women but won't always be.

HLS: I read that you're working on a book now about women and poetry.

MM: My book is about my sister, mother and daughter: three women I know well who have suffered recently in ways I needed to respond to. My book I hope will concentrate on women and try to undo certain clichés about them. For example, I wrote one this week based on that book The Wrens Of the Curragh. Women slaved and had no lives in mills and factories and were accused of prostitution if they showed any sort of love. I just feel we exist still on a very animal level in this society. That is my experience.

HLS: What is your relationship to "the reader" as you write? How do you imagine her?

MM: Not as her! As my students. Trying to keep up with them. Not let them get ahead. Paul and Ciaran and people who I know will be concerned lest I get ahead of them! And really people 50 years from now if there is a world and they remember what Ireland was.

HLS: How do you find the teaching?

MM: I have a lot of American poet students right now which makes me more aware of our Irishness, maybe our narrowness. Also, I have had older students older than me from whose life experience I can learn. I find it interesting when students write about my own work they are all so different and especially Shane Murphy in Aberdeen who goes to such wild extremes to unravel my sources!

I have been teaching all my life but only recently how to write poetry. I like it when it is not too exhausting as it makes thing less isolated and students are so passionate and young. However, if it is in schools or people think they are wonderful and don't want to be criticised it can drain you certainly. I learn a lot from the intelligence of young people.

HLS: I've heard a bit about the escalation of violence of late there and am hoping that you haven't been directly affected.

MM: One always is directly affected but thank you it is quiet again just now...

HLS: Glad to hear you're all right. I apologize for my ignorance about the sort of suffering and struggle you endure.

MM: Look at what you people have endured!

HLS: I can think of many ways you mean that, but could you say more?

MM: Well I mean, just now, New Orleans, then Sept 11 back to the horrible civil war. So many from Vietnam and Korea. Your young sacrificed. How you all are tarred by the Iraq invasion. How hard it is to live freely in freedom.



 copyright © Medbh McGuckian & Heidi Lynn Staples