Leanne O'Sullivan interview with John Hoppenthaler
You’ve burst upon the Irish poetry world with a good deal of acclaim. About your first book, Waiting for My Clothes, Billy Collins has written, “What is remarkable about Leanne O'Sullivan is not that she is so young but that she dares to write about exactly what it is to be young. A teenaged Virgil, she guides us down some of the more hellish corridors of adolescence with a voice that is strong and true. For that alone, she deserves our full attention.” And Belinda McKeon, writing in The Irish Times, exclaims that “O'Sullivan's voice sounds with striking confidence and originality. . . . These are poems not just of what it is to be young. . . but of what it is to be alive; vividly, vibrantly, vulnerably so.” Heady stuff for a poet in her very early twenties. What was the experience of dealing with so much initial acclaim—and the expectations that go with it—like? In a recent interview in Verbal Magazine, we’re told that you had difficulty writing new poems for a period of time after the publication of Waiting for My Clothes; might that have something to do with such expectations, both those of others as well as your own?
I hope I don’t sound disingenuous, but it didn’t seem like acclaim or anything over the top was going on. Having my first book published felt lovely and quiet and supported. I think it’s always an unrepeatable time in a person’s life to see your first poems published in a book, but I certainly didn’t feel like a Virgil, but more the teenager! I was still in college at the time, just entering my final year of undergraduate studies and that took up most of my mental space.
After the publication of Waiting for My Clothes I did have a year where I wasn’t writing much at all, certainly nothing that I would have wanted anyone to see. There was an element of pressure from myself, of course, but I wonder if that will always be there with every new poem—is it something that I will always have to put aside, be brave about, and just write through it? I’ve come to know my pattern though, and I definitely have periods where I am not writing. After I sent Cailleach to the publishers I didn’t write again for another year. Maybe that’s my fallow season—a time for re-generation and new ideas. I need something to move me when I write, I can’t force it at all, and I’m definitely all for hibernation!
Waiting for My Clothes is an intensely personal collection, where Leanne O’Sullivan is in the foreground of the poems as both poet and subject; in that volume, you write honestly and compellingly about your own battle with eating disorders. In Cailleach: The Hag of Beara, the confessional “I” is collapsed into the mythic “I.” Could you please tell us about the different direction of this book? The poetry is often erotically-charged, and the voice of the poems is in a different register. Using mythology as a jumping off point for poetry is certainly not rare in Irish poetry; what new ground do you see yourself as exploring in these poems? Is part of what you’re after the “resurrection and resuscitation of old local myths which have not had the currency of national sagas,” as Patrick Cotter claims in a blogpost?
During the year after my first book was published I was doing a lot of reading for college and for my own pleasure. I was re-reading and re-discovering poems and books that I had read at school, because a lot of it had seemed to go over my head at the time. I came across a translation of the 9th century poem “Lament of the Old Woman of Beare” and felt immediately drawn to it, mostly of course because I come from the Beara Peninsula in West Cork where the mythical remains of the Cailleach are today. I thought of stories I heard, topographical features that she had a hand in making and my own living Cailleachs! I wanted to write about the ordinary, rural woman and describe her experience in terms of both traditional and modern society, giving the feeling for the basis for what may have become the later myth. When you are from a small place, it’s easy to see how things can be blown out of proportion!
I’m not sure if I uncovered new ground for poetry in general, but for myself it was a rewarding experience. It took about two years to write the poems, and I had great fun with it while also feeling very creative—‘I’ could do anything. Mythology is not something fossilized, or something kept hermetically sealed. It’s not hidden in a dusty museum cabinet. It changes in the mouths of the people, and this was how I heard it, how it happened in my imagining.
As a poem represented in this month’s Congeries, “Valentine,” demonstrates, the erotic love poem is a particular strength for you. Can you talk about this sort of poem in the context of contemporary Irish poetry? Would it be accurate to say that such poems are rebellious and work against erasures enforced by religious and other traditional social forces?
I don’t think a poem like “Valentine” does any work as a rebellious piece of writing, and certainly not in the context of traditional Irish poetry. There has always been a deep vein of sensuality running through Irish lyrical poetry of relationships, and I feel that I was possibly in touch with that. I devoured the poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhaill, Michael Longley and more when I was in school and writing out of the body seems natural to me. I also loved Sharon Olds! I fell in love when I found her books.
“Valentine” was written before any of the Cailleach poems were thought of, and is another poem where the ‘I’ is a different character to myself. It was part of another series of poems about a woman in history, and I loved the idea of writing a character in a poem. But by the time I was writing this any religious regime was quickly losing its grasp on me. The Ireland I grew up in was completely different to the one my parents knew when they were in their twenties. It didn’t occur to me that a poem like “Valentine” was subverting or religious morality. . . Sex and the City was already doing that for my generation!
The accolades continue to find you. Congratulations on recently having been awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, which is administered by the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing based at Trinity School of English. It is a €10,000 award that recognizes your achievement and promise as a young poet. In its 35th year, the Rooney Prize was established by Dan Rooney, chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to encourage young writers of promise. Previous to this, in 2009, you were the recipient of the Ireland Chair of Poetry bursary, nominated by then professor of poetry, Michael Longley, who praised your “technical enterprise and unembarrassed imagination.” I was struck by the story of how your life as a poet came to be, a life fostered by the fact that one of your teachers, Paddy O’Conor, brought poets into his classroom so that students like you could have the opportunity to write poems under expert tutelage. This rarely if ever happens in high school classes in the United States; it rarely happens that poetry by living poets is even included in the curriculums of most schools. I’m wondering if you see yourself as trying to inspire other young poets as you’ve been inspired. Do you see these honors you’ve received as opportunities for you to keep this spirit of poetry in the schools alive? Do you think you’d be where you are today had it not been for the opportunity Mr. O’Conor’s love of poetry brought to your class?
It didn’t happen too often, but we did meet the odd poet, and sometimes the very odd poet! Paddy was a star and did so much work to encourage us as young writers, including arranging visits and workshops, and allowing time for creative writing in the classroom. Any curriculum can deaden the imagination, if it’s taught right! I’m not sure if I believe that completely, but as someone who was never academically minded I needed an alternative. Any child wants encouragement and also to feel that there is a place for him/her in the world, even if you have to dig it out with your fingernails. I was incredibly lucky to have met my teachers, and I don’t doubt that I might have followed a different path, but one that would have probably come back to poetry, stories in one form or another.
I love working with young people. It’s lovely to be the different person they see once a week to talk about poetry, life. And it does help to be able to say to them, “Yes, I make some kind of life with poems, there are so many possibilities”—but what inspires them are the poems. Do you know Heaney’s poem “Mid-Term Break”? Or Boland’s “Quarantine”? I did some of these poems at school and couldn’t wait to find more and more of them. They meant everything to me.
Later, of course, Brendan Kennelly, too, played a large factor in your poetic development. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Brendan Kennelly is an angel of a man and someone whose poetry is very dear to me. He taught me—clarity, clarity, clarity.
What are you up to now? What’s next for Leanne O’Sullivan?
I am writing at the moment, in fits and starts, but something is coming together, or will hopefully, at the end. I have the bones of a third collection there, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m very much looking forward to taking part in the Solas Nua festival in Washington,DC early next year. Other than that I’m happily teaching and taking part in our wonderful literary culture here in Ireland.
It softens between my palms,
sheath to my fingertips, as I hold it.
Darling, sometimes I know what love
is for, when we lie together undressed
and I hold myself still across your body,
fevered waters rising from your skin
as if any second you will overflow,
flood to the cascade edge of the world.
I hold you down, clamp of salt and bone,
undoing the knotted wrack of your limbs.
You lie wide-eyed, jaw hanging open
as I drink you slowly with kisses.
When the morning rises up from beneath us,
you hear the street clatter, far away and calm.
My love I promise forever flowers will decorate
your breakfast table, colour will flow
from your rooms, and when your friends
begin those market-place rumours remember
how at night you bring your face to mine,
and run your fingers through my wild, red hair.
Remember I am your wife and all the tremulous
waters that run from your mouth are mine.
Your skin turns blue in the river mists,
when the sky is blue, but this is the liquid
come-and-go tracery of you beyond the corridor.
You stand there like the ghost of yourself
telling me things with your hands.
O love, your voice trembles softly down the glass
and refuses to be still, like evenings when the river
rose in a hush of deep clearing, I followed
the patterns of your skin as they were swept away.
IM Ted Seer
The dark smell of leather and metal heat
from the gleaming, half-opened door,
where we’d be hiding and pressing buttons
in our uncle’s car. I imagined him driving
it across the Irish sea, or fairies pushing it
along over seaweed in the summer night,
surfacing over whirlpools and strange fish,
the roof glittering like a mink’s smooth back.
Down the voiceless line shells and gravel
being swept along, shuddering in the cord
as we’d practice his slight London twang -
quick flints of vowel and common ground
when he’d approach from the small kitchen,
and when he left, gravel, static, quiet, the sea.
Photo credit: Donal O’Sullivan