I talked to Stephanie Conn about her first collection ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ (Doire Press)
PART ONE: THE POET
Paul: Where did you grow up and what was it like?
Stephanie: I grew up in Newtownards, County Down – a market town at the top of the Ards Peninsula, Northern Ireland. It’s about twenty minutes south of Belfast. Newtownards means New Town of the Hills and you could be in those small hills in five minutes. You could drive around Strangford Lough (National Trust) or be on a beach in fifteen minutes. I probably didn’t appreciate this when I was young. I have lots of memories of family picnics, walks in forests and playing on beaches. I lived in Newtownards until I started Stranmillis University College, a teacher-training college in Belfast.
Paul: Where do you live today?
Stephanie: I live in Ballyclare, a smaller, quiet town in County Antrim. It’s about 20 minutes north of Belfast and is about half an hour from the stunning North Coast. I’ve lived in Ballyclare for twenty years. Northern Ireland is a small place, so you don’t have to travel very far to get stunning scenery. It would be great if our weather was a bit better and we could enjoy it more often!
Paul: When did you start reading poetry? Who did you first read?
Stephanie: I have a vivid memory of owning a set of four small poetry books – one for each season. They contained short rhyming poems and bright illustrations. I was about five or six and remember reading them aloud in my bedroom. I have a few memories from my final year in primary school – reciting Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’, reading a poem describing city cars like beetles, and illustrating onomatopoeic words for a wall display.
I studied English throughout my schooling but found poetry quite difficult at times and struggled to relate to a lot of what we read. At A-Level, I liked Larkin and Yeats but I still dreaded practical criticism questions. In my late teens and early twenties, during a period of grief, poetry suddenly became relevant, in fact, it became a lifeline. I was at university and surrounded by young people spreading their wings, enjoying new-found freedoms and having fun. I felt terribly isolated and poetry delivered comfort. The fact that others had experienced this pain and even survived it, helped me feel less alone. I read much more widely when I started writing. I started with anthologies then moved onto individual collections. One poem led to another, one poet would introduce me to another and so on.
Paul: What about writing poetry?
Stephanie: I kept diaries and journals in my teens and jotted down the odd line of verse but it wasn’t until my mother was dying that I turned to the page to try and make sense of what was happening. She died when I nineteen. As I said, the poetry I read at this time brought some degree of comfort but it was another few years before those fragments developed into poems.
In my twenties, I wrote sporadically, juggling my job as a teacher and looking after my two baby daughters. In my late twenties I stopped working full-time and signed up for a distance writing course. I busied myself with writing articles and completing assignments. However, as I worked, I kept jotting down lines of poetry in a notebook. In the end, I set the articles aside and attended to the poetry. Initially, I only wrote when I was deeply moved or inspired. I wrote in total isolation for a few years, but then joined a writers’ group. This was a turning point. I wrote more consistently, received constructive feedback and started taking part in readings with the group. I guess I finally started taking my writing seriously when I started my MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s in 2010.
Paul: Which poets shaped or fed into your early writing?
Stephanie: I’m not sure if I would go as far as to say shaped but there would be influences of many poets including Frances Leviston, Elizabeth Bishop, Naomi Shihab Nye, Esther Morgan, Louise Gluck, David Harsent and Sinead Morrissey.
Paul: Do you have a favourite writer from Northern Ireland – poet, playwright or novelist?
Stephanie: I am a great admirer of Sinead Morrissey’s work and am very grateful to have studied under someone I hold in such high regard.
Paul: Your MA was at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University, Belfast. What was that like?
Stephanie: It was strange studying again after a decade and I felt a little intimidated by the young, confident students but it was the first time I felt I could really justify devoting time to my writing. It was great to receive feedback from a diverse group of writers and to be pushed in new directions such as writing in specific forms.
Paul: Who did you meet along the way?
Stephanie: My tutors were Sinead Morrissey, Ciaran Carson, Leontia Flynn and Medbh McGuckian. I did the MA part-time which meant I met and worked with more students and visiting American Fulbright scholars.
Paul: How did the MA help your development as a writer?
Stephanie: It allowed me to take writing seriously, to devote time to it (without feeling guilty) and to begin to develop writerly ambitions.
Paul: MAs are expensive. What you would say to anybody thinking about doing a creative writing MA?
Stephanie: I saved up for the MA while I was still teaching full-time. I think it depends why you are doing it and what you want from it. You don’t need a degree to be a writer. I had been writing in complete isolation and didn’t know a single writer so for me it provided space and time to develop my writing and see if it was something I could take further. I was doing it out of interest, not to further my career and people often asked why I wasn’t doing the MA in Education.
Paul: You have been very successful in poetry competitions. Do you have a particular approach or attitude to competitions?
Stephanie: I never set out to write poems for competitions and never write with a competition in mind. I submit to journals more regularly than I enter competitions. I have been awarded Arts Grants. This leads to accountability. As well as producing the poems themselves, I need to show evidence of submitting my work and hopefully having it published or placed in competitions. It’s a welcome push to get the work out there in a given time frame. If I’m honest, I enter competitions with the hope that I might get placed and can then report back to the Arts Council. I don’t expect anything and winning is always a shock and a thrill. I am very grateful for my competition wins but I know how subjective the process is. It’s always affirming to know your work is connecting with others.
Paul: To what extent do competitions help you revise and rethink your poems, provide an incentive and useful deadline? And to what extent are they are distraction from placing your work in magazines?
Stephanie: The short answer is they don’t. I don’t write for competitions. If there’s a competition at a given time that I would like to enter I will chose a poem that fits the theme, or in the case of there not being one, I’ll choose my best work at that time. Competitions aren’t a distraction to submitting to journals, I do both, and more of the latter. A few of the poems in the collection were placed in competitions but the majority were published in journals, magazines and e-zines. I enter few competitions these days; the bulk of the work is submitted to journals. In practical terms, competitions cost money and I’m increasingly trying to place work in magazines that pay me!
Paul: Which competition success are you most proud of?
Stephanie: That’s a difficult one. Competition successes have meant different things to me, for example, I was delighted to win the Yeovil Poetry Prize because Esther Morgan was the judge. I’m a huge fan of Esther Morgan’s work, so the fact that she had read and rated my work was such a thrill. Winning the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing was all the sweeter for being so completely unexpected. At the time, I knew almost no-one in the huge crowd and was attending on my own. I almost fainted when they called out my name.
This win gave me a wonderful boost as it came at a transitional period in my life. Having become ill in 2013 and following a year of tests, investigations and scans, I was finally diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. My life changed dramatically; my busy, activity-filled days of teaching, studying, writing, running a home and looking after my children came to a grinding halt. For six months I could barely get out of bed. Over time, as I began to adapt to life with a chronic condition, I returned to the page. Writing was something I could still do, and in the wake of my former life, could commit to. And then there was winning the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition, which I will speak about later.
Paul: How many years of writing did it take to feel that you were ready to publish a collection?
Stephanie: The first collection took around four years to write and is a combination of work from my MA manuscript and work inspired by time spent in Tasmania. Doire Press had an opening in late 2014 and it seemed the perfect time to send off the manuscript.
PART TWO: THE BOOK
Paul: Your first collection, The Woman on the Other Side [reviewed here at Headstuff] was published in 2016. How did the book come about?
Stephanie: The first collection developed one poem at a time. I didn’t set out to write a book. One poem led to another and sequences emerged. As the volume of work grew, I entered a few chapbook and pamphlet competitions. Having my poetry shortlisted and highly commended, encouraged me to keep developing the work.
Paul: What are the key themes of the book?
Stephanie: Journey; explorations of physical and internal landscapes. The book takes the reader on a geographical journey but it is the emotional landscape I am most concerned with. The notion of who we are ‘on the other side’ of our experiences and our relationships.
Paul: Could you tell me a little about Doire Press?
Stephanie: Doire Press is an award-winning press based in Connemara, Ireland, publishing poetry and short story collections, with an emphasis on emerging writers. I’d been aware of the Press since entering their chapbook competition in 2012 and had watched them go from strength to strength. I had read their poetry books and been to a few Doire Press readings – it was not just the poetry that impressed me but also the relationship Lisa and John had with their poets. I had no hesitation in submitting my work and was delighted when they accepted the collection.
Paul: How did you go about structuring and sequencing the poems?
Stephanie: In many ways the poems ordered themselves – there seemed to be a natural trajectory when looking at the work as a whole. I moved a few pieces when there seemed to be a better fit and dropped work that felt shoe-horned in.
Paul: What was the editing process like? Who did you turn to for input?
Stephanie: Many of the poems had been written as part of my MA, so there was lots of editing as I went along, following workshops and tutor feedback. A lot of the poems in the collection had been published individually in magazines and journals so by the time the manuscript was ready there wasn’t a huge amount of editing left to do.
Paul: You dedicated the book to your late mother, June. Could you tell me a little bit about your parents and their influence on you and your interest in poetry?
Stephanie: When I was nineteen, my mother lost her ten-year battle with cancer. She had just turned forty-six. Even though she was ill on and off throughout my childhood and teenage years, she was one of the most positive people I ever met. She was a very intelligent woman with a sharp wit and wicked sense of humour and people adored her. She loved language and would write riddles and funny poems for all sorts of occasions. My love of words comes from my mum. My father is a man of few words and not much of a reader. He much prefers to be outdoors in the garden or on a golf course. My dad retired last year and since then we’ve had a few ‘poetry roadtrips’ travelling to readings and festivals. It’s been lovely to spend quality time together. We also visited Copeland Island together when I was doing my research and he was able to share stories about visiting the island as a boy.
Paul: The front cover features a beautiful photo of a gate and avenue of trees in the snow. How did you choose the cover? Are you a lover of snow? Is this place somewhere special to you?
Stephanie: It was a picture my husband took in the snowy winter of 2010/11. The gate and pathway are at the top of the road we live on yet I‘d never taken it under my notice. I suppose I was taken with the transformation of something so ordinary and I do love lanes leading off into the unknown.
Paul: The back cover talks of your concern with ‘the light and dark of our lives’. What does this mean to you?
Stephanie: We encounter loss in life, we live with grief but there is still beauty, there is still meaning, reasons to go on, new experiences to embrace.
Paul: Moyra Donaldson suggests that you take us a on ‘a geographical and emotional journey by way of painters, poets and personal experience’. Could you tell me a little about these three subjects?
Stephanie: Poets – It’s extremely important for writers to be readers, and to be reading widely, reading across the ages as well as contemporary poets. I love to discover new poets and do so all the time. I find it impossible not to respond to some of this writing, and the lives of these writers, in my own work. Painters – This is similar to the work of poets. I am in awe of what a painter can create, what they can communicate without words. I am moved by works of art and feel the need to respond in my own small way. Personal experience – I rarely write straight biographical poems but my personal experience comes into my writing to a greater or lesser extent depending on the individual piece. When I am incorporating personal experience into a poem, I tend to write in retrospect, for example, I spent time in Holland when I was twenty but wasn’t writing about it until my mid-thirties.
Paul: Medbh McGuckian suggests an obsession with ‘inner leanings’. What did she mean by this?
Stephanie: The inner workings of Medbh’s fantastic mind are a mystery to most of us.
Paul: What do you lean on?
Stephanie: I lean on the people I hold dear, and to solitude.
Paul: The first eight pages of your collection introduces us to your experience of learning Dutch. Why did you learn it and what was the experience?
Stephanie: At teacher training college I had the opportunity to study and teach in Holland as part of the Erasmus Scheme. One of the stipulations was to complete a language course before we left. It did not go well!
Paul: It seems like it was a formative experience since it also gave you the title for your collection?
Stephanie: It was. My mother had died in June and we left for The Netherlands the following January. I was in the first throes of grief, haunted by life and death questions. I was questioning just about every aspect of my life – study, career, relationships. I was living in a house full of students who were enjoying new found freedoms whereas I could barely drag myself out of bed. It was also my first experience of living in another country, experiencing another culture and looking after myself. It was an intense time.
Paul: Do you enjoy pronouncing Dutch words and did you get to speak much on your travels?
Stephanie: Ha! The Dutch people had better English than we did and wanted to speak it all the time. Even the primary school children wanted to practice their English when we went into their classrooms. My Dutch did not develop much beyond the language lab back home.
Paul: You are also interested in Russia’s literary landscape. What drew you to this?
Stephanie: At A-level and during my degree I had not encountered Russian writers. Mebdh McGuckian introduced me to the work of Marina Tsvetaeva – I loved the poetry but was also intrigued by her life. She lost her mother as a teenager so there was a parallel there. Her diaries are fascinating.
Paul: Indeed, Alan Jude Moore mentions your series of poems to Marina Tsvetaeva. Could you tell me about the series and about how her work has inspired and informed your own?
Stephanie: I set out to write a single poem but the more I read of her work and her life, the more fascinated I became, and a series of poems started to emerge, including a number of pieces that aren’t included in the collection.
Paul: You bring Vermeer into several poems. What do you like about his work and do you have a favourite painting?
Stephanie: I started looking at the work as he was a Dutch painter and couldn’t help but be moved by his detailed interiors. It’s the intimacy that appeals to me. ‘Woman Holding a Balance’ and ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’ are my favourites.
Paul: Actually, you refer to Vermeer, Klimt, Chagall and Hopper? Who is your favourite? If you could have an original painting by one of the four on your wall, by which artist would it be and why?
Stephanie: I remember visiting an art gallery in Amsterdam and buying postcards of the work of Klimt to stick on the wall in our student house in Leeuwarden. My favourite is Hopper and I’d love one of his original paintings on my wall! His work appeals to me for the same reason Vermeer’s does – the intimacy of it. I simply find Hopper’s paintings devastating (in a good way) and never fail to be moved by them. They contain so much emotion.
Paul: Do you paint?
Stephanie: At readings, I am often asked if I am a painter as people feel I create powerful visual images with my words, and suspect this comes from a background in art. Unfortunately, I haven’t an artistic bone in my body. That’s one of the reasons I write about the art – I am in awe of people who can create such wonderful work. Both my children are fantastic at art – it certainly didn’t pass down in my genes, but it delights me to see the work they produce.
Paul: What are your thoughts on ekphrastic poetry? What in your experience have been the challenges of writing poems in response to artworks?
Stephanie: Writing this book was, in many ways, a discovery. I didn’t set out to write a series of Ekphrastic poems. I would write a poem like Maria Annastraatje, Leeuwarden, which includes a memory of the Klimt postcards I mentioned above. In my research about Holland, Vermeer would come up again and again and I would write a response piece to his work. In Marina Tsvetaeva’s diaries she talks about the Alexander Naumov painting and that came into another poem. So they were individual pieces and then I discovered I’d actually written quite a lot of these types of poems. I haven’t found it a challenge but I haven’t been trying to follow any set rules. I know that some people read these poems as stand alone pieces whereas others will know the work or go and find it for themselves.
Paul: Do you always reference the original painting that inspired the poem?
Stephanie: I always have done. It feels like the right thing to do – these poems are very much a response to this work rather than original thought. Interestingly, I have written some poems recently in relation to the work of a very famous artist but these are less a direct response to the painting and more an exploration of a theme. The context is different and I do not reference the individual paintings in the same way.
Paul: You are also drawn to the planets and their orbits, to eclipses and comets. Could you tell me where this interest comes from?
Stephanie: I suppose it stems from all those life and death questions in my late teens and early twenties. Why are we here? What’s it all about? I love the mystery – all that we do not know, as well as new discoveries. I also find it fascinating how people have responded to these phenomena e.g. comets through the ages.
Paul: While the book opens with Holland, as McGuckian indeed says, it journeys on in the latter half towards Australia. What makes ‘Australia’ so distinct and unique for you?
Stephanie: I never had any desire to go to Australia, it was never on my to do list. We went to spend a Christmas with my sister-in-law in Tasmania and I absolutely loved it. Tasmania is a beautiful island and for me, a place of contradiction – Christmas decorations in the sunlight, penguins in the blistering heat, picnics on a beach where the next land mass is Antarctica; the stunning scenery of a former convict colony.
Paul: Do you have a favourite place in Australia?
Stephanie: As I said above, I love Tasmania but sailing out of Sydney harbour heading to Manley was a stunning experience.
Paul: Have you read many Australian poets or poetry magazines? What/who do you recommend?
Stephanie: Yes, when I was writing and researching the book I read some Tasmanian/ Australian poets and a couple of the poems in the collection were response pieces to work by Lyn Reeves and Louise Oxley. I also read work by Anne Collins, Sarah Day, Adrienne Eberhard, Gwen Harwood and Vivian Smith. I got to go back to Tasmania in September 2017 to read at the Tasmania Poetry Festival. I had the pleasure to meet some of the poets I’d been in touch with by email. I was also introduced to the work of other Australian poets – Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Young Dawkins, Emilie Zoey Baker, Dan Disney, Luke Wren Reid and Sarah Holland-Batt. I absolutely love Sarah Holland-Batt’s work. Sarah is also the Poetry Editor for the Australian journal ‘Island’.
Paul: You have poems set in December, at Christmas and on Boxing Day. Do you like this time of year? I’m presuming that with the snow on the cover of your book that you do
Stephanie: Yes, and no. My mother always made Christmas a magical time of the year and it was a time of family get togethers. As a child, I always loved spending time with older relatives, looking up to older cousins or listening in on adult conversations. I have my own children now and like to make it a happy time for them too and still try to spend lots of time with extended family, over the holiday. Of course, it can also be a sad time, a time of missing those no longer with us. I like that we light up the darkness and short days with lights and candles. I’m a Capricorn with a December birthday – perhaps that’s why I feel an affinity with this time of the year.
Paul: You have a poem entitled ‘What We Pass On’ in which you try to let things go: stains, bruises, the echo of one hundred lies…and you give them to the sea. How did this poem emerge?
Stephanie: I suppose the poem grew out of my concerns about what I was passing on to my children. The notion that my own issues should not become their issues – that experiences affecting me should not, by default, affect them. An awareness of this and the need to let go.
Paul: Our oceans are already polluted and there is considerable concern about the impact of plastics. To what extent do you see these things you try to let go of as ‘a life’s litter’?
Stephanie: I think that is a very apt description. I think there is a lot to learn from life experience but I tend to hold onto things for far too long – and yes, they can then just become clutter.
Paul: Can the sea absorb these abstract and intangible things without any lasting damage?
Stephanie: On one hand – the sea, of course, does not have to absorb them – our letting go, our shedding, is enough. Then there is the theory that water has memory – but that is a whole new collection.
Paul: Your penultimate poem about the Phoenicians and milking snails is most intriguing? Could you talk about this a little without giving away the poem?
Stephanie: This was a poem that emerged from research by accident. I had been writing about bruises, plums, lavender – and was reading about the colour purple when I came across the information about the Phoenician’s extracting mucus from snails. It was fascinating, and I simply had to write a new poem.
Paul: How has the book been received? Have you done many readings?
Stephanie: The collection was well received and very positive reviews were published in journals including The Salzburg Review, The Luxembourg Review, The Incubator and HeadStuff, and its always good news when the book goes to reprint. ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ made the shortlist of three for the Shine/Strong Award 2017. The Shine/Strong Poetry Award is presented annually to the author of the best first collection of poems published in English or Irish by an Irish poet in the previous year. I’ve had the good fortune to read locally, nationally and internationally and reading at The Tasmania Poetry Festival was a highlight.
PART THREE: POETRY LIFE
Paul: You used to work as a primary school teacher? For how long did you do it? Do you still teach?
Stephanie: I have the chronic condition, fibromyalgia. It is extremely debilitating, and I had to give up teaching in 2013. I taught for fourteen years. I do, occasionally, go back into the classroom to facilitate poetry workshops.
Paul: I understand you developed and taught a literacy programme called ‘Passport to Poetry’. Could you tell me about this?
Stephanie: I taught in a number of schools and it became apparent that a lot of teachers were uncomfortable teaching poetry. Some simply didn’t like it, some found it difficult, others found it hard to ‘assess’. I’d seen first-hand what the positive experiences of reading and writing poetry could do for children and I wanted to move beyond my own classroom and take such experiences to more children. I worked with children in their own classes, as year groups, in afterschool clubs. I also worked with teachers, English co-ordinators and principals to develop lessons and resources for their own school. Helping to instil a love of literature was always one of the best parts of my job as a primary school teacher.
Paul: What were the biggest challenges in implementing the programme?
Stephanie: It was a one-woman show – so there was a heavy workload, but it was always worth it.
Paul: Is it still up and running?
Stephanie: Unfortunately not – but I worked with teachers and principals – so the foundations were laid in a lot of schools and I like to think that the programme has been maintained in some form and the ideas have been developed. I do still use aspects of the programme when I am facilitating in schools. I also know of programmes such as those facilitated in schools by Community Arts Partnership, so that is reassuring.
Paul: Since the book you have won the Poetry Business Book and pamphlet competition and produced a pamphlet ‘Copeland’s Daughter‘ in the same year as your full collection. What was it like winning the competition?
Stephanie: Getting the call to say I had won the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition was definitely the most surreal experience. Finding out that Billy Collins had chosen my work to be published was close to an out of body experience. I was quite literally speechless when I got the phone call to say I was one of the winners. I eventually spluttered my way through that phone call and then started to worry about my contract with Doire, given that the first book was only out. Thankfully Lisa and John at Doire were completely supportive and so the pamphlet was published and launched in June 2016 at the Jerwood Centre at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage.
When you consider the route many poets take, I did things a bit back to front. My first collection was published in March 2016 and my first pamphlet was published just three months later in June 2016. I had already started working on my second collection when my first was accepted for publication. The second collection was more tightly themed and when I came across the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition it seemed that the poems would work well as a pamphlet. . I had worried that the Copeland poems were too local, too specific and might not speak to a wider audience so to get the news that a former Poet Laureate had liked them was fantastic.
Paul: Billy Collins said the pamphlet ‘deserves a high place in the tradition of the poet as naturalist’. Do you consider yourself a ‘naturalist’? What does the label say to you?
Stephanie: Not at all, but I learnt a lot during both the research and my visits to the island and it felt extremely important to give an authentic sense of the island, so I’m very glad that that came across.
Paul: He went on to say that your poem ‘The First Lighthouse’ ‘should be read in every classroom’. That’s quite a compliment! Could you tell me a little about the poem, which actually opens the pamphlet?
Stephanie: That was indeed a wonderful compliment, especially to a former school teacher. This lighthouse was the first of three lighthouses built over the years and gave its name to the smallest of the three Copeland islands – Lighthouse Island. The ruins of the keeper’s house have been rebuilt to house a bird observatory and the island is now owned by the National Trust and operated by the volunteer members of the Copeland Bird Observatory. The current lighthouse is on Mew Island. I was intrigued by the life lighthouse keepers and their families would have led, particularly at this time.
The First Lighthouse (Cross Island, 1714)
Even then, the flaming beacon was old-fashioned:
lensed lamps had been available for years, yet
an open-fire blazed on top of the white-washed tower;
three storeys of island-quarried stone, picked
and carried on the convicts’ backs.
They built the walls two metres thick.
These twenty acres never did attract the sun;
there was no call for a mirror to catch the light:
Alexandria’s blue skies were little more than fables.
The people here had no time for sea-gods
who shepherded seals or speak of the past or future;
in these parts, that is better left unsaid.
This land lies three miles from the Lough’s mouth,
knows nothing of the Nile’s flat plains or
the limestone pharos, reinforced with molten lead.
But yes, the fires burned alike. An iron spindle,
twenty metres up, revolved beneath the brazier;
the hot coals kept burning by the keeper –
a ton and a half on a windy night;
the old donkey lugging the black stuff
up the hill from the moonlit beach.
Paul: David Tait who I previously interviewed, wrote a poem inspired by a lighthouse. What is it that fascinates you about them? Have you spent any days or nights inside one?
Stephanie: I guess it’s the solitary life of a single person or small group of people, that fascinates me. I have visited lighthouses but never stayed in one. Copeland Island is uninhabited now and the few small houses that remain are privately owned and used as occasional summer homes, so I wasn’t able to stay on the island. I did, however, go and stay on Rathlin Island, off the North Coast, for a week and wrote some of the Copeland poems there. Rathlin Island has three lighthouses.
Paul: In your poem ‘Testing the Theory’ you talk about an attempt to cross the Atlantic in a replica of a sixth century ‘curragh’. Could you tell me about these vessels and if the poem is based on a real event or imagined? Who is sailing? Stephanie?
Stephanie: It was a real event. The British explorer, Tim Severin undertook a number of legendary journeys. Some scholars believe that Latin texts tell the story of a seven-year return voyage across the Atlantic Ocean by St. Brendan. Severin decided to test the theory and built a replica of Brendan’s currach. Handcrafted using traditional tools, the two masted boat was built of Irish ash and oak, hand-lashed together with nearly two miles of leather thong, wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides, and sealed with wool grease. Between May 1976 and June 1977, Severin and his crew sailed the Brendan 4,500 miles from Ireland to Newfoundland, stopping at the Hebrides and Iceland en route. Severin wrote about his own adventure in ‘The Brendan Voyage: A Leather Boat Tracks the Discovery of America by the Irish Sailor Saints’.
Paul: Are you a keen sailor/boatswoman?
I feel like I’m answering ‘no’ to a lot of these questions and I’d be leading a much more interesting life if I was answering yes! Alas, no, I tend to get seasick just looking at a boat!
Paul: What are you working on now?
Stephanie: I am in the final stages of editing my second collection which will be published by Doire Press in May 2018. I have also been working on new poems (which will hopefully go into the next collection) for the last few months. The new poems consider chronic illness and people’s perceptions of invisible illnesses – very different to my previous work.
Paul: Are you taking a particular approach to writing this new book? Does it have a particular theme or formal approach?
Stephanie: The new collection is very different to ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ and is tightly themed. It builds on the work started in ‘Copeland’s Daughter’ exploring the lives of my ancestors who lived on a, now uninhabited, tiny island off the coast of County Down. The approach to writing the second book was completely different. As I’ve said above, the poems in ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ were written over a long period of time. They developed poem by individual poem with sequences emerging along the way. The next collection was planned and heavily researched. My intentions were set at the beginning and the themes were there from the outset rather than emerging during the writing processes. Of course, there were still lots of surprises along the way, both within the research and when writing the poems and I always explored the avenues that appeared.
Paul: I gather that you recently attended an Arvon week along with Elisabeth Sennitt Clough (who I interviewed recently) aimed at poets in that supposedly difficult place between first and collections. How was the week?
Stephanie: It was a wonderfully inspiring and challenging week. Strictly speaking, I’m between my second and third collections but it seemed the perfect course for me. My second book is very different to the first and the poems for the third are different again. I’ve never written about something so personal before. I tend to write about my experiences from a quite a distance, in terms of time, whereas these newest poems are set firmly in the present I am living. The work has also taken some bizarre twists – there are several poems about poisonous frogs – so it was wonderful to spend a week considering this new work in the light of tutor and peer feedback, as well as new writing activities.
Paul: Is this in fact a difficult or challenging stage of your writing career? Are the uncertainties and questions any different to before?
Stephanie: Only ‘difficult’ in so far as I am veering from what has worked in the past but that’s not that different to starting out, or writing a completely different second book. I certainly do not want to be writing the same poems over and over again. That would be boring. I want to continue to develop as a writer, so I embrace the uncertainties and just keep writing. It is quite easy to get caught up in what a reader or editor might want but I just remind myself of that initial impulse, that I started out with. I write the poems that need to be written and the audience only comes into it much later.
Due to my condition, I am limited in a number of different ways and can’t keep to a fixed writing schedule, as fibromyalgia is so unpredictable. I need to have a flexible routine that combines writing, researching, reading and editing. I also have to accept that there will be days I cannot do any of the above. I make the most of my better days. This means I am usually ahead of myself and have ideas bubbling away in my head until I can physically get to my desk. I was already working on my second book when the first was published and with the second book due to be published in the coming months, I am already working on the next one, so to date, I haven’t had a ‘what will I do now?’ moment. I am also considering tying the third book into a PhD so am about to put together a proposal for that (as soon as I finish this interview).
Paul: What was the impact of the week? Did you write much those days? Has it taken you down new avenues of thought?
Stephanie: I think the impact of the week will be felt for a long time to come. I had completed the final edit on the second collection but came home and started making further edits in light of the course. The week gave me the confidence to embrace my current ideas for book three, and run with them. I did some new writing but have not yet had the time to explore it fully and I’d like to follow up on a number of new ideas that emerged that week, but I need to be patient and will look forward to returning to that work.
Paul: What’s the title?
Stephanie: I’m still struggling with the title – I can’t settle on one I love. The working title is ‘Island’.
Paul: Which are your poetry go-tos – websites, journals, online resources?
Locally, the CAP (Community Arts Partnership) and Arts Council NI websites and newsletters are great for staying up to date with events, funding news, new books etc. The poet Angela Carr puts out a comprehensive monthly list of magazines, journals, competitions etc, looking for submissions – it’s a fantastic resource. Twitter is a great way to stay connected and find out about all kinds of poetry news and opportunities.
Paul: What are you doing when not reading, writing or listening to poetry?
Stephanie: I am looking after the family, resting, floating, spending time with friends or walking the dog.
Paul: Where does the poem begin?
Stephanie: If only I knew! For me, it can begin in a hundred different ways and in the strangest of places.
Paul: What is your greatest luxury?
Stephanie: Health – days when I feel well. Getting away from it all, usually to write, and usually in stunning surroundings.
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