This weeks interview is with 2017 Dermot Healy Award Judge Vona Groarke. Vona has published seven collections of poetry with Gallery Press, the most recent being X (2014) and Selected Poems, awarded the Pigott Prize for the best book of poetry by an Irish poet in 2016. Her book-length essay on art-frames, Four Sides Full, was also published in 2016. Her poems have recently appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares and The Threepenny Review. A former editor of Poetry Ireland Review, she currently teaches poetry at the University of Manchester in the U.K.
Describe your approach to writing. Is there a routine/ritual? Not really: I write whenever I get the chance, but ‘getting the chance’ tends to involve quite a bit of preparatory reading and thinking and daydreaming, so there’s quite a bit of space needed between living and writing, a generous buffer zone.
How have you seen your own poetry evolve over the years? ‘Evolve’ seems to suggest some sort of creeping improvement or development, which I’m not sure I’d want to claim. It changes, I like to think, book by book. Otherwise, I doubt I’d see the point in going on.
Have you ever been surprised or shocked at what you have written? If I’m not surprised by what I’ve written, I strike through or delete it. I’m not interested in finding out what I already know: poetry is not about affirmation. For me, the surprise is the fun of the thing. That’s what keeps the work worth the effort (if it is), the not knowing what comes next.
What are you particularly proud of in terms of your work and career? That I’m still requiring my next book to be better than my last, and that I’m actively working towards that.
Which poets do you return to? And which emerging poets are your ones to watch right now? It’s a good time for poetry. I’ve lately enjoyed many collections by both emerging and established poets, including Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wound, Rachael Boast’s Void Studies, Jacob Polley’s Jackself, Anne Carson’s Float, Denise Riley’s Say Something Back, and Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, among others.
How has teaching affected your practice? Do you think it is good for poets to have other work? I don’t know that I know anything about what’s good for poets. Well, maybe that it’s best if they don’t go hungry, or sleep in hedgerows or on the streets. (They’re marvellously like non-poets in that respect.) Teaching means I have an income, it’s as simple as that.
Literary journals are both struggling and thriving currently. What is your take on this, how important is the literary journal in its physical format in modern times? It’s hugely important that aspiring poets read good poetry, and most good poetry, even these days, still comes to us via (initially) magazines or journals, and then (eventually) through books. There’s no substitute for print medium when it comes to poetry, nothing that knows half so well how to respect the physical dimensions of a poem, its materiality and selfhood, or indeed, its independence from the poet and the poet’s person, which is so necessary.
What does acknowledgement in the form of awards/prizes write-ups mean to you as a poet? It’s nice when / if it happens, but it doesn’t much help with the real business of solving the next poem, or the one after.
As a judge, what will you be looking for in a winning poem? Without wanting to impinge on a poet’s personal style, what advice would you give to poets wishing to enter this year’s award? The most successful poems tend to balance a sense of their own inevitability with another, competing a sense of how formal and linguistic choices have facilitated that inevitability. They are successful and compelling because they pay attention to the mechanisms of their own coming into being. They listen to themselves and they see themselves on the page, and they are alive to the ways in which energy moves through them. They’re not reports or verdicts, and they tend to be more interested in procedure and process than in proving some point or other, or having opinions or advice. So, my advice to poets would be: keep your focus on language always, and don’t feel overly committed to a narrative standpoint – let sound and imagery do their (important) jobs also.
What are your thoughts on Dermot Healy the writer: Although I was always very happy to see Dermot at a festival or event (he was always a kind man, and could be wicked good fun), I’d say I was more of a fan than a pal. I consider Dermot Healy to be one of the great prose stylists of our time. I use extracts from his work to show students how it’s done, how you can move swiftly across narrative moments, without having to sacrifice sensitivity or depth of feeling, or psychological insight. I love how inventive he is with prose, how he makes the gaps between speech and narrative description declare so very much. But he wasn’t far behind in terms of poetry. The last time I saw Dermot was at the Athlone Writers’ Festival in October 2013, when we read and were interviewed on stage together. Afterwards, he showed me a translation from Irish he’d been working on. It was beautiful, with the light touch and lyric grace typical of his poems. Something that Dermot could do, that so few of us can do, is be funny in a poem. Dermot, really, could do it all. His work stands as special, accomplished and sophisticated, knowing exactly what it was for, and how it would get there. There’s not a writer I admire who doesn’t admire and learn from it, and enjoy it to the hilt.