I'm delighted to welcome novelist and poet, Nuala Ni Chonchuir to chat about her third collection of poetry The Juno Charm which has just been published by Salmon Poetry
I keep returning to the first poem in the collection, ‘Aubade for Extraordinary Life’, it’s a talismanic and beautiful love poem. I read it as almost a blueprint for the creative life. There's the stunning image outside the couple’s window that 'needs a witness' (‘I part the curtains and see a crow toss its wings/ into a hero’s cloak before sky-diving from phone wires’) and then the ordinary routines of daily life that 'say all about us'. Is this the place where the poet is balanced, in between both, nourished by both, paying her dues to art and living a life?
I think balancing art and life can be tricky, especially for mothers who write. So much time is taken up with running a house and a family it can be hard to carve out writing time.
The flip side of it is, of course, that the emotional needs of a family and living your life can provide great writing fodder.
I feel privileged that I am managing to do both and I wouldn’t be happy if the balance was off in one direction or the other. I’m always greedy for more time to write but I’m also a realist.
Aubade for Extraordinary Life
In the afterglow, I watch your bear-like doze,
snout tucked under one tattooed arm.
The dawn starts its chorus, needing a witness, so
I part the curtains and see a crow toss its wings
into a hero’s cloak before skydiving from phone-wires;
a cloud hangs like a balloon on a contrail string.
You father and mother me, sister and brother me,
though our heat and fervour don’t talk of that,
no, it’s not our nights that say all about us,
but our days and our nights, the hours dwindled
in the ordinary sharing and partings of life:
a dinner made together, lunches packed in schoolbags,
bedtime stories read, the call of each Monday morning
that sees you bound for the train, me to my desk.
All around it hovers our love, rich and sure as honey
lifted from the bee-furred heart of a sunflower.
You’ve published eight books at this stage, how (especially as a writing career isn’t particularly rewarding financially), do you sustain yourself, keep your momentum?
Well, the writing sustains me; I’m happiest when I have something to work on. And reading. And talking with friends who write – we help each other along. The lack of financial reward is one of the biggest downsides. You can be critically acclaimed and still earn a pittance – that is the fate of most literary writers and poets.
The poems in this collection are set in various places from New York, Quebec, Germany, to Ballinasloe. Is travel important to you as a writer? Does being the visitor keep the writer’s eye lively? And when you can't travel, is your art a ticket of sorts, a way of summoning the exotic eye through your poetry? (You bring Frida Kahlo to Ballinasloe in this collection.)
Yes, travel is hugely important to me. I will scrimp and save in order to get away for a few days. I have a low boredom threshold and experiencing new and different places really energises me.
And I love to travel while at my desk, so it’s fun to set work in far off places. I’m going to Paris tomorrow and I have a story-in-progress set there so it will be great to be in situ, soaking up the details.
There are so many voices in the collection and, for me, those different voices added a thrill, I never knew who I was going to meet, Frida Kahlo, van Gogh and his model and mistress Sien. The people who draw you to write about them, are those who 'posterity does not sympathise with'/' the ne'er do wells... How does that process happen, is it a matter of someone sparking your interest and the voice coming to be quite organically from that? Have you ever tried to write from the point of view of someone you didn’t like, or do you have to feel a sympathy?
There’s definitely a sense of being drawn to lame ducks or underdogs, and those who had interesting or difficult lives, devoted to art.
I guess, like every writer, I have passions and obsessions and I return to them (art, sensual love, fertility issues) over and again in my writing. The voice generally arrives with the first spark of an idea and moves on from there.
I love writing about nasty people. There’s a poem in The Juno Charm called ‘The End of Constance’ about a woman who, through deliberate actions, kills her rival in love. The poem is a confession about jealousy and murder but she feels justified. That was fun to write.
This is your third collection, was it difficult to decide the order of the poems, how did you decide what followed what? The opening and closing poems are very different in tone, and I love both. ‘The Writer’s Room’ is a great place to finish, irreverent and very funny. It's very satisfying to finish a collection with a smile. Then there's the poem Nineteen- Seventy- Two, a 4 line poem in the middle of the collection, about a bomb blast. Am I reading too much into it to say this poem is planted like an explosive in the middle of the collection?
It’s always a bit of a palaver putting the poems in some order. A lot of the poems are serious, dealing with pregnancy loss etc., so I wanted to open on a positive note. I ordered the book on themes: marriage and love, marriage breakdown; then I grouped the fertility and pregnancy poems. I wanted to end on a high too so I put The Writer’s Room at the end as a bit of fun, after some other lighter poems.
The bomb poem was not deliberately in the middle but I like your observation! It is one of a series of poems on Liberty Hall in Dublin – a building I love and which has been threatened with demolition by our unbelievably short-sighted planners. I find it typical of our ‘leaders’ that they want to level an icon. Sigh.
The poem 'Mute' fascinates me. (I've been collecting images on the myth). It begins quiet sensually, Leda suspects he's not a true mute, the language is that of purring, cradling, the tickle of feathers and then there's the change, the 'under stains on his plumage alarm you', then there's the ragged pain. I would love to know more about this poem, how do you feel about the myth? Historically it’s been an incredibly popular subject for artists, for the erotic possibilities in depicting a naked lady and a swan, (yet depicting a man and a woman would’ve been shocking:) and it is also a story of rape. The last line is incredible 'when he dies will he sing?'
I think as myths go, it’s fairly shocking and horrible. I wanted to write about date rape and it seemed a perfect myth to hang that on. I had been looking at the da Vinci painting and Leda is smiling in it and it really annoyed me, so that’s where the idea of her being tricked came into play.
The last line is where the woman tries to escape from her own head while the ordeal is happening. Mute swans are less vocal than other swans. The phrase ‘swan song’ refers to the mute and the legend that it is silent until its dying moment, when it sings one achingly beautiful song.
Those tender poems about miscarriage resonate with me, ‘An Unlucky Woman’, ‘Foetal’. In ‘Miscarriage and Dream’ the virgin comes to life, (‘took your unformed body in her hands and popped you in her mouth and smiled.') I think it’s wonderful that the woman takes the virgin from her catholic doctrine, takes her as she needs her and gains comfort. I suspect that’s what's always being going on :)
Yes, I’ve had three miscarriages, all of them devastating as the babies were much wanted. I had that dream the night of one of them and it comforted me a bit. I’m not religious but I value the BVM as a strong mother figure/icon.
What's next for you? What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on stories just now. I adore short fiction so I’m happy out. I have enough for a new collection. It features lots of mothers and sons and it has the working title of Mother America.
Reading The Juno Charm made me want to write and made me want to paint. I especially loved its honesty, there's no sense of holding back, it left me reeling with its sensuous freshness.
I’m delighted to hear that, Niamh. I love when books have that effect on me so it’s thrilling to hear that mine did that to you.
Thanks a million for hosting me. Next week my virtual tour takes me to Rachel Fenton’s ‘Snow Like Thought’ blog in Auckland, New Zealand.
Born in Dublin in 1970, Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway county. Her début novel You (New Island, 2010) was called ‘a heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times and ‘a gem’ by The Irish Examiner. Her third short story collection Nude (Salt, 2009)) was shortlisted for the UK’s Edge Hill Prize. Her second short story collection To The World of Men, Welcome has just been re-issued by Arlen House in an expanded paperback edition. The Juno Charm, her third full poetry collection, was launched last week in Dublin and Galway. A third launched is planned for Galway city in December.Nuala's Website