Interview with Irish poet Enda Coyle-Greene
An interview with Irish Poet, Enda Coyle-Greene, February 2010
by Angela Gardner
What’s your association with the Vincent Buckley Prize, I’ve heard it’s
interesting, could you tell me about that?
My association with the Vincent Buckley Prize is very much of a personal, rather than a professional nature. As you know, it’s awarded biannually and is offered alternatively to enable an Australian poet to visit Ireland for a month and an Irish poet to visit Australia. One evening in 1998, I was reading at The Irish Writers Centre in Dublin. Also reading that night was a poet from Melbourne, Aileen Kelly, who was that year’s recipient of the Vincent Buckley Prize.
Afterwards, I was outside on the steps talking to a friend when Aileen passed by on her way out and stopped to tell me that she’d liked one of my poems in particular – “Pineforest” – if I remember correctly, she asked me for a copy. At the very last minute I scribbled my phone number on the back of it and she called me the next night. We met up in town the following evening, exchanged addresses and began to write to and, eventually, email each other. We also regularly exchange books. I send her Irish collections and anthologies that I think she might like and she reciprocates with books by Australian poets. At the moment, I’m reading ‘Motherlode – Australian Women’s Poetry 1986- 2008’ Edited by Jennifer Harrison and Kate Waterhouse, which I’m really enjoying. It’s so good that I only allow myself to read a poem or two from it every night.
We have also exchanged our poems and her advice is something I treasure. I’ve always listened to her, even when I didn’t want to! She has been a true friend and mentor to me over the years and I wholeheartedly recommend her most recent book, ‘The Passion Paintings- Poems 1983- 2006’ published by John Leonard Press. I suppose, in a way, I should thank the Vincent Buckley Prize for inadvertently arranging that we should meet!
You won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2006 with the manuscript of what
became your first book ‘Snow Negatives’. Obviously that prestigious win
must have given you confidence but did it put you under any pressure to
write more or faster or get on immediately with the next manuscript?
Yes, winning the Kavanagh award did give me a certain amount of (very quiet) confidence and ‘Snow Negatives’ coming out within a year of it, almost to the day, was great too. Those poems were written over quite a long time – I wanted them to have had a life before being collected, in journals etc, and was never in any rush. I really can’t understand why anyone would want to hurry the process, I mean, writing poetry to me is a craft, and like any craft there has to be an apprenticeship served. I was very glad that I took my time in the end. I felt that the book, ‘Snow Negatives’ was true to the spirit of each of the poems within its covers and that each of those poems had earned a place there and that I could stand over them. If a book had happened years ago I doubt if I’d feel that now!
By coincidence, I held the first copy of ‘Snow Negatives’ in my hand on the evening of my very first day on the MA in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, Belfast. As a result, I had nothing at all in reserve to bring to class, so from the start, everything I wrote was new. I had wonderful tutors, worked with poets like Sinead Morrissy, Medbh McGuckian, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson and Leontia Flynn and had stimulating classmates from all parts of this island, and the rest of the world. I felt that I learned so much from everyone I encountered during the course of the MA. Yes, I suppose I’d already served my ‘time’ as an apprentice, but putting an academic slant onto it was something I found hugely enriching.
I concentrated on what I was meant to be concentrating on at any given time, went from assignment to assignment, and just got on with it, never thinking of the work as the whole it might turn out to be in the end. The MA had been something I’d wanted to do for quite a while; not doing it had felt like unfinished business. At the end of the two years I handed in my dissertation, in essence, the manuscript of another full-length collection. It was pressure, yes, but of a completely different sort. It never felt to me as if I was consciously trying to follow-up ‘Snow Negatives’ but of course those new poems are starting their own lives now, so we’ll see what happens.
Snow Negatives contains poems that respond to the visual, in particular
to photography and painting. Is this coincidental or do you seek out this
Well, I’m close to an unusually large number of people who are either photographers or painters – I’m not quite sure just how that came about, but I’ve always had a keen interest in the visual arts. I love paintings that seem to catch a moment as it happens, and that’s what a poem should be doing – cornering the essence of a thing, the small detail that defines it. Of course a photograph is literally a moment, frozen and, over the years I was working on the poems that became ‘Snow Negatives’, certain photographs leapt at me from the pages of newspapers or journals and simply wouldn’t let me go until I’d translated them into poems. The same was true of certain paintings. The poems came about because I needed to know what happened next.
I don’t know if I necessarily seek out a connection between the eye and the mind but I’ve noticed that I tend to hear music that way too. I come from a musical family, on both sides, and music has always been an enormous part of my life. Quite a few of the poems in ‘Snow Negatives’ were sparked off by hearing a piece of music, or a particular song that kept buzzing around in my head somewhere before emerging as verse. I think it’s probably just a matter of being open to influences from other art forms, allowing one to bleed some of its colour into another.
Tell me something about what motivates your writing, how you work
and/or what your current writing projects?
The motivation for my work is more of an instinctive thing – I don’t think “I must write a poem” as much as feel that I should be writing one. I don’t feel right, connected, balanced, unless I’m working on something and if, for whatever reason, I have to take time out, I notice it.
Until lately I worked out of a tiny, cluttered room, but over the past few months I’ve had some work done on my house to give me a more defined space in which to write. Several times a year, I drive north to Monaghan, to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, which is like a second home to me. I’ve also spent a fortnight at a writers and artists residence in Bavaria, and this summer just past, I spent two weeks in almost total isolation on Achill Island, at the Heinrich Boll Cottage. I’m happiest when all I have to do in the morning is to get up and write, and getting away like that helps me to cope with having to work under different circumstances. Having said that, I know too that sometimes I work better when I’m under pressure – time constraints, or whatever. I don’t think it’s very good for me though, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to other people. It’s probably not very healthy!
As regarding how I work – each poem is arrived at differently- some are “gifts” but they’re rare.
Others are “found” in something otherwise mundane; one or two have just “poured” straight through me onto a page, they’re the miraculous ones. Mostly, it’s a process of putting the words down and chipping away at the edges until what doesn’t matter pares off.
For an example of that, I’d cite the first poem in ‘Snow Negatives’. “Roadkill” had ambitions to be an epic – at that time my mother was seriously ill, everything was I thought, weighted with huge meaning and I felt as if the poem should reflect that. As I worked on it however, the poem got smaller and smaller and, in its own way, ended up as a metaphor for the whole act of writing poetry itself. Those “tenuous, inked legs// skittering away” are as much about my preconceived notions of the poem as anything else, something I didn’t realise fully until after I’d finished writing it. I think the poem that wants to be written eventually gets written.
At the moment I’m taking a deep breath after the MA, Christmas, and all that building. I’ve started to send out the new poems to journals and have had some accepted already. It’ll be interesting to see how others will see them. They’re being tested, but that’s a necessary part of the process. I’ve also done quite a few public readings recently and have several more, hopefully, coming up in the future.
Thanks for talking with me. I look forward to reading the new book you were working on when I met you in Ireland.