Poet Monica Corish discusses, among other things, her extraordinary new book ‘A Dying Language’, which will be published by the Irish Hospice Foundation Press. Poems from the collection have won the North West Words Poetry Prize and been shortlisted or commended for a number of awards, including the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. They have been published widely in Ireland and the UK, including in Poetry Ireland Review.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I started out studying science. After graduating from college I travelled in Africa. Later I trained as a nurse and worked in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Angola. In 2005, the same year that I moved from Dublin to Kinlough, I developed chronic cervical and lumbar disc injuries and had to give up nursing and working overseas. Now I am a full-time writer and writing workshop leader.
You will be launching your new book ‘A Dying Language’ at this year’s festival. Can you explain the theme to us?
In May 2011, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Because my sister and I are trained nurses, we, along with our siblings and extended family, were able to care for her at home until her death in November 2011. For six months I travelled every week by train from Sligo to Limerick, writing my way through those journeys, coming to terms with what was happening, making sense of the changes in my mother, the strains in our family, and my own reactions – the writing of the poems helped to contain my grief.
In the year following my mother’s death I realised that, although the poems are very particular to one death, one family, one set of relationships, they also have a universal quality. It has been suggested to me that the collection describes a particularly Irish way of death, and I can see how that might be true.
Was the process a difficult one, meaning was it actually difficult to craft the work, to mould it?
Writing the first drafts wasn’t difficult. During a harrowing season of my life, the writing – a kind of intensive, intentional journaling – gave me some ease. But crafting the first drafts towards completion was challenging – I knew it would be hard to be objective about this material. I was fortunate to receive generous funding from the Arts and Disability Forum to be mentored by the poet Gréagóir O’Dúill. Gréagóir and I worked intensively over a nine-month period, scrutinising each poem together, tempering, tightening, exploring where I was holding back, deciding what could be stripped away. It was a rigorous process that strengthened the collection and sharpened my editing skills. I’m deeply grateful for the experience.
Finding a publisher was also a challenge. Although I did well with individual poems, I could not find a poetry press that was willing to take on the full collection. (Doghouse, the press that published my first collection, closed its doors in 2014.) It might have been different if I was a better-known poet, with an established, dedicated readership. One publisher told me honestly that, while he found the work strong, he believed he would not find an audience for it. So I was delighted when the Irish Hospice Foundation Press agreed to publish the book. After all the waiting, I believe this may be the best possible outcome.
The process of caring for a dying parent is an intense one. How do you think it changes a person?
I think it depends entirely on the individual, her or his relationship with her parent, her relationship with illness and death, and the type of death the parent experiences. An unexpected or tormented death is a very different thing to a death that is expected, even embraced.
So I can only speak for myself: I felt very blessed to be able to care for both my mother and my father at home in their final months and days. (My father died in July 2013. His death was very different to my mother’s: less of a tragedy, more expected, even welcomed by him, after a chronic and debilitating illness of many years’ duration.) It wasn’t all easy by any means, but the residual tangles and snarls of our child-parent relationships burned away, and we came into an easy place together. Now that they’re gone I don’t feel “sticky” around them; I feel washed clean.
I suppose I’ve become more familiar with Death as well. There is a poem in the collection, “Give Me the Death I Need”, that begins with the lines:
I want to be able to hold death
tenderly, like a baby.
To say it’s only death, old friend,
I can’t say I have arrived there, but I’m closer to that stance than I was before I cared for my dying parents.
What poets do you admire and why? Which writers inspired you to write?
I didn’t start writing until I was in my thirties. Soon afterwards, I came across Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “Rogha Dánta”, translated by Michael Hartnett. It was a lightbulb moment for me, the realisation that a woman I identified with could be a poet – an Irish woman, writing about a life and a world that I recognised. Studying for the Leaving Cert, our poetry textbook was “Soundings”, and Emily Dickinson was the only woman poet in the book. While I loved her poems, Emily’s life was not one I could imagine for myself – too reclusive, too strange, too far away. Our English teacher, Miss Hyland, also introduced us to Sylvia Plath’s poetry. It was powerful, different to anything I’d heard before, but there was such tragedy there – this was definitely not a life-story I wanted to emulate. I love that Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill always seems to be enjoying herself, at play, even when her poems are sorrowful or fierce.
And now? It changes and shifts with time. The poets on my bedside table these days are Rumi, Carol Anne Duffy, Mary Oliver, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sinead Morrisey, Mark Doty… Why these poets and not others? Because something in me resonates to their words, but is also surprised and challenged, pointed in new directions; or perhaps for the same reason that I prefer apples to oranges. I also love a good anthology: anything out of Bloodaxe, or compiled by Niall McMonagle, is sure to be a delight, and a doorway into new poets.
When writing, do you have a particular approach? Is there a system attached to your professional day?
No. If I can – if I’m in a spacious period in my life – I will spend a few hours in bed in the morning, scribbling, reading, rubbing word-sticks together, hoping for fire. If a piece sparks I will work on it further, get it into the computer, bring it to my critique group, see how it develops over time, maybe send it out to a magazine or competition. But I’m not a systematic person – unless I have a deadline, in which case I can be fiercely systematic – so many pieces, both dross and potential gems, languish in the notebooks. At other times, when I’m busy doing my taxes, promoting workshops, worrying about money, everyday hassles, then the river of words can go underground. But I don’t fret any more – I know it will come back.
You are in relationship with another writer, Tom Sigafoos. Do you discuss or critique one another’s work?
We do – we are very fortunate. We are each other’s first, gentle, ideal reader, but we are also robust in our critiques of each other’s work. And we are both good at knowing when to completely ignore the others critique!
You are very much involved in community work. Describe how you approach giving a lecture of a course on writing? Is it stressful or nurturing?
The method I use in my workshops is called the Amherst Method, developed by Pat Schneider and described in her book “Writing Alone and with Others”. It’s a tremendously nurturing way of working, not only for the workshop participants but also for the workshop leader. I write with the group, read my work, take the same risks they do. Occasionally there are stresses that grow out of group dynamics, but these are rare.
What I do find stressful is promoting my workshops. If I never had to engage with social media or digital marketing again, I would be a happy woman. However, needs must – writing workshops are my bread and butter. If I won the lotto I would still lead some workshops, but I would absolutely pay someone else to promote them.
How important is funding and recognition to a writer?
They have been immensely important to me. Funding buys me time to concentrate completely on writing, or on compiling a collection, and that is a pure delight. I feel very fortunate to live in Leitrim, where the Arts Office supports a valuable range of funding and other initiatives – it’s not like this in some other counties. As for recognition – whether it be in the form of awards, publication, or readers’ responses – it lets me know that I’m not just talking to myself. Also, success breeds success – one form of recognition opens the door to others; being published in a prestigious journal or winning a prize can greatly increase the chances of receiving a bursary; and contrariwise.
Talk us through a typical working week
There is no such thing.