Enda Coyle-Greene

Interview with Cherry Smyth
An interview with Irish Poet, Cherry Smyth, February 2010
by Angela Gardner


You’ve lived away from Ireland…does where you live give you distance?

They say you don’t know a border is there till you have to cross it.  I left Ireland aged 22, like many others, not intending to emigrate.  Living in London made me define myself as Irish in a way I didn’t have to in Northern Ireland and indeed in a way that was heavily contested by my being raised there as Protestant.  When I moved to New York, I became irrevocably European – there was little about the often reactionary Irish scene to enthrall me.  Through these displacements, it’s been vital to maintain links with Irish poetry through publications, websites, festivals and readings, whether in Ireland or through its diaspora.  Irish, American and Eastern European poets have been more influential than English poets, perhaps because their cultural/racial/sexual identity has been more at stake.  I’ve always identified with Irish writers in exile like Joyce, Shaw, Beckett, Wilde and Bowen.

Interestingly, mostly men and only Elizabeth Bowen seems to require her first name mentioned too.  It makes me realize how few Irish women living outside Ireland sustained their writing and profile – did they assimilate more through marriage or simply give up without the context in which to write?  There’s always the danger of straddling: not Irish enough to be included in Ireland, too Irish to be recognized fully in England.  But the distance showed me what I didn’t realize I knew and gave me the confidence to break the social and familial taboos that were necessary for my voice to develop.

Can you see the imperative of narrative or screen writing or the visual on the way you approach your own writing?

I studied and worked in film and I’d like to say that the formal structure of screen writing or the visual style of cinema has influenced my poetry but the story-telling impulse pre-dates those experiences.  If anything, film confirms what was already there.  What directors like Maya Deren, John Cassavetes or Ingmar Bergman inspired was a quality of emotional integrity, the drive to reveal a universal truth through the persistent probing of human frailty and strength.  I admired the unflinching aesthetics of ‘Festen’ (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) but can I bring the Dogme rules to my writing?  Perhaps my emotional candour and plain speech are ways to unembellish and de-romanticise emotional truth.  Anne Carson uses many of the conventions of cinema but never attains its immersive magic.  My poem ‘Il Deserto Rosso’ (after Antonioni, 1964), tries to import the visual desolation of the film to outline the trauma of sexual abandonment but this is a much more literal response.  While poetry aspires to the beauty and ‘framelessness’ of moving image, music and colour , to be stirred by words surrounded by silence or white page space has its own particular intensity which I cherish and can’t find an equivalent for.   I like the compactness and scale of the lyric as well as the roving experimental anti-lyric but I prefer the expansiveness of emotional and intellectual wonder to happen in my head and heart rather than in a self-conscious form on the page.  Formal innovativeness is often a new form of didacticism: look how centrifugal this poem is: feel it.

The question returns to narrative – a complex, ongoing question for many poets.  I see narrative as talking to others, and the more non-narrative forms I explore as talking to myself.  Both are important and necessary to my practice.  In some ways, narrative poetry, like figurative or representational art, accompanies you to the void, suggests that you will be befriended through it, while non-narrative work says, the void is all there is – get used to it.  How to get used to it?  Tell a story.


Your poetry often consciously explores relationships…what is it that appeals?

‘Because life is endurance, because love eases the labour of dailiness’. (Ellen Hinsey, from ‘Update on the Descent’, Bloodaxe, 2009.
Artist Oliafur Eliasson talks of the goal of art as being ‘seeing yourself sensing – being alert to yourself and surroundings’: intimacy teaches me who I am – its demands, flaws, failures and gifts.  What about the wonder of an eighty-one year old, heterosexual , retired businessman telling me he loves me?  Who says ‘thank you for being you’.  We have almost nothing in common and may not know each other were I not his daughter.  Aren’t these ordinary confluences of time and birth and love extraordinary?  Love and loss shape us, have always shaped our poetry.  How can you not write about the mystery of these interrelated things?  To paraphrase Marina Abramovic: ‘the deeper in you go, the wider out you reach’. 

Can you talk about the relationship between writing as an art critic and the very different craft of poetry?

Writing art criticism is the closest I come to being paid to write poetry by the word.  If a koan is something you answer with your whole being, entering an abstract painting requires that level of attentiveness and alert surrender.  Criticism is a seam between me and the artist’s lived experience, passed from one imagination to the next.  The artist needs my translation, no one needs my poetry. 

Helene Cixous in ‘Coming to Writing’ talks of the necessity of being able to receive the gift of life, whatever it is: ‘Receiving is a science’, she writes, ‘knowing how to receive is the best of gifts....Learning to let things give us what they are when they are most alive.’  Ideally, the work of art communicates the state of oneness (or lostness) experienced by the artist during its making, with all of its utmost vitality, its recovery from doubt and its blissful release from time and the body.  That’s what I tap into.  It’s familiar but it’s also not mine.  Writing art criticism is more like re-writing a poem – the text is already there, the terror has been faced by someone else.  I hope that being a poet, having faced the solitude and violent happiness of creativity, makes me a better critic.  I usually read poetry before writing a critical text to activate the permissive, elastic, sensory use of words.  It would be fascinating, in return, to see my poems being ‘read’ by an artist – through colour, line and form – and expressed in a language I cannot use. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished the manuscript for my third collection ‘Test, Orange’ to be published by Lagan Press in 2010 or 2011 and editing Issue 6 of Brand Literary Magazine, due out in March, 2010.  See www.lagan-press.org.uk.  See also www.cherrysmyth.com and www.brandliterarymagazine.co.uk

Sounds like you're very busy! Thanks for talking with me. I'm really pleased that the title poem of your new collection is being first published by foam:e. It was great meeting you in Ireland, and hanging out at the poetry events in London afterwards. I look forward to reading your new book 'Test, Orange'.