To coincide with the publication of her second collection of poems, Map of the Last, later this month, poet Enda Coyle-Greene answers some questions on the writing, and reading, life.
How or when did you start writing poetry?
I can remember exactly when I started writing. I was in primary school, about seven or eight years old, and Mrs Ryan asked us to write a story about a haunted house. When she handed the stories back a day or two later, she went right around the room before telling me to stand up. I was a very quiet, shy child and thought I’d die of fright. But then she praised my effort for the language I’d used, and for the ‘style’ of the piece – I’ve never forgotten that word – and it was like one of those cartoon, light-bulb-over-the-head moments. I remember thinking, “I can do that.” I’d been reading anything I could get my hands on since an even younger age, and always turned to the poems first in any new schoolbook. After that day I wrote stories, and increasingly, poems but never for a moment that that I was doing anything remarkable or special.
I just wrote. I had a couple of little poems published in school magazines etc. (a highlight was ‘Junior Press’!) I continued to write but kept the poems to myself. It was only when I got into my early thirties and joined a writing group that I started to think seriously about submitting any of my work anywhere; even then, it was another few years before I actually sent anything out. I have my own reasons for that…
What is it attracts you to poetry rather than to prose?
Its musicality certainly accounted for my initial attraction to the first poems I came across as a child and to my interest in poetry as an art form. I grew up in a home where music was part of the air we breathed. My mother taught piano, in the house, and she also studied singing. My sister played the violin and my brother the guitar.
I was sent into town for piano lessons because my mother thought it would be better for me to have an outside teacher. My father couldn’t play anything but was passionate about classical music, especially opera, which he used to play, very loudly, to in every free moment he had. I still love to be able to ‘hear’ a poem, even as I’m reading it quietly. Whether that happens because of metre, language, the breath of the line, or a combination of all of the above, doesn’t especially matter to me.
I love paring everything back until, hopefully, less turns into more. I know that’s important in any kind of writing, but the combination of the compression of language, the possibilities of the line, and the actual physical space a poem takes up on the page makes it an almost tangible object and I love shaping that object.
There are a lot of ‘loves’ being thrown around here so I suppose the short answer would be to say that I love poetry. I enjoy reading and writing prose very much too, but the difference between working in poetry and prose is, to me anyway, like the difference between walking and dancing: both are highly enjoyable but dancing has that added element of music.
Do you think poets have a responsibility to engage with the issues of the day? How do you think a poet contributes to her/his society, given the comparatively small ripples made by most poems?
I don’t think a poet has a responsibility to do anything other than write the best poetry that she/he can write, be kind to other people and animals, and to try and live a decent life. I’m not sure if poems are ever really ‘about’ something, to me they’re more of a way in to it. But if the issues of the day impinge on a poem’s landscape or narrative, if they insist on being there while the poem is being written and are central to the poem’s emotional honesty, well then yes, they should be engaged with, and as fully as possible.
As regards how a poet contributes to society, I often think that the best we can do is to hold up a mirror for a probably very uninterested world to look into. But I’d hope that in telling the truth, slant or otherwise, there’s something else glimmering away there that might be saying something useful about the times we’re living in now.
If you hadn't chosen to write poems what other artistic activity might you have been drawn to?
Where do I begin? I have several visual artist friends and am always in awe of what they do. I’ve been known to spend whole days in art galleries. If I had money I’d buy paintings. Come to think of it, any of the few paintings I have were bought when I didn’t actually have any money. Music has always been central of course, but the guitar defeated me utterly and all those piano lessons never stuck. There were a couple of bands, years ago, in which I was supposed to have been the singer, but luckily for the world we never got out of the garages! I studied ballet when I was very young and absolutely lived for it. I have to say though that during all the time in which I was actively engaged in all of the above, poetry was always there too as a constant, nagging presence. I didn’t choose it. I just eventually gave in.
Do you have a favourite author/poet, and why?
That’s difficult to answer because there are so many and the list keeps changing. Poets and poems mean different things at different stages during a life but increasingly I find myself going back to my first loves. If pushed though, I’d have to say Shakespeare. It began with ‘greasy’ Joan and her pot – first read when I was a little girl – and it’s just gone on from there!
I also love Auden, Yeats, Hardy, and Kavanagh, for the same reasons I suppose. I met them when I was too young to be intimidated by them and they’ve stayed with me.
What book of poems would you bring to a desert island with you?
That’s even more difficult. On a desert island I’d need more than one voice to keep me entertained so I think a good, fat anthology would be the only thing worth having.
I especially like ‘Staying Alive’, edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books). There are others in the series but this is my favourite. The range of poets included is very broad and covers almost every era up to and including the present day. I’d get up every day and select or invent my own narrative or emotional pathways through the poems to keep myself from going mad with boredom.
What book are you reading at the moment?
I always have a novel or a collection of short stories, a non-fiction book and a stack of poetry books beside my bed, so book will have to be replaced by books, I’m afraid!
I’ve just finished reading ‘Swimming Home’ by Deborah Levy and am about to start into ‘Quiet – the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ by Susan Cain.
It intrigued me when I read the reviews because to be written, or read, poetry needs peace and quiet and it’s getting harder and harder to find either.
I re-read poetry books constantly. It’s like listening to music, recognising the tune but hearing something different on almost every listen. I have poetry books on shelves all over the house but I’ll suddenly think of one I have to read now and then I’ll go and get it and place it on the pile beside my bed.
Some there at the moment include Hart Crane’s ‘White Buildings’, ‘Elegiac Feelings American’ by Gregory Corso, ‘Poems of Louis MacNeice’ as selected by Michael Longley, and an absolute favourite, ‘Mercian Hymns’ by Geoffrey Hill. These are older books (I love old books) bought second hand or received as gifts. But there are also more recently published books there too, like ‘New Light for the Old Dark’ by Sam Willets, ‘The Wrecking Light’ by Robin Robertson, ‘The Invisible Threshold’ by Catherine Phil McCarthy, and ‘New Selected Poems’ by Carol Ann Duffy.
Map of the Last by Enda Coyle-Greene, alongside No Return Game by Tom Mathews, will be launched at the Irish Writers' Centre, 19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1 on Monday 21st October 2013 at 7.00 pm.