I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside,
To the sounds of crowds and smashing glass…
“Derry”, The Whole and Rain-domed Universe
To enter into conversation with Colette Bryce is to be drawn into a life marked not only by an Irish Catholic childhood, with its pleasures as well as its vivid memories of the Troubles, but also that of the poet who manages to survive and flourish in a world increasingly geared towards financial gain. Although previous works have often looked back to her early days for inspiration, her latest collection, The Whole and Rain-domed Universe, was short-listed in 2014 for the Forward Prize; it is the first in which, now in her forties, Colette seems to have been able to reflect upon and delve more deeply into the horror and significance of the Troubles and how they affected Irish families, including her own. She was Writer in Residence at Dundee University from 2002 to 2005. This interview took place 25th October 2015 at the Dundee Literary Festival.
Susan Haigh: Colette, it’s a great pleasure to welcome you back to Dundee after a long absence, to read from your most recent collections. The three years you spent as writer in residence at the university (now over a decade ago) will be remembered by many writers here, including myself, as a turning point in the development of their writing, whether poetry or fiction. Those years were probably a time when you saw your own star rise in the world of poetry. At that time you were shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and won the National Poetry Competition, amongst many other accolades. Then you were for some years editor of a major literary journal, Poetry London. How do you look back on that time in Scotland now, from the point of view of your development as a poet?
Colette Bryce: Sue, coming back, I’ve felt something like a ghost walking through the streets of Dundee and I’m having all sorts of memories. The Dundee Literary Fellowship was a very old residency. Many other poets had gone through it before me – Sean O’Brien, Anne Stevenson, Kathleen Jamie, John Burnside, Don Paterson. There was a flat attached to the residency, and I used to joke about a Mr Bleaney dent on the wall above the bed, from the Larkin poem. To be given that kind of support is a key moment for any writer. It allowed me to give up the day-job, a milestone in anyone’s development. I’d published my first collection and I’d been working in bookselling and was at that point of frustration where I couldn’t continue to work the long hours and also develop as a writer. It was becoming impossible. I applied for the Dundee residency and felt very fortunate to get it. Yes, it was enabling for me at that time – it gave me a bit of an income and allowed me to concentrate on my poetry.
SH: We got to know each other quite well as writers at that time and I had the impression you were moving forward very quickly in your own field. Give me some idea of what you have been doing since then. I know you were editor of Poetry London. What else were you doing in terms of poetry?
CB: It’s a long time to cover… ten years. When I left, I’d just published The Full Indian Rope Trick, and I followed that up with Self-portrait in the Dark. I was given a residency at Newcastle University for two years. And you’ve mentioned the four years as an editor at Poetry London. You and I know that editing work can be all-consuming, but it was quite exciting at the same time, to be in that editorial chair – there was an interesting new generation coming through, so that was very energising. I learned a lot from my fellow editors there. I only left Poetry London because it’s hard to keep writing alongside the editorial work; the administration in particular can be endless. So after that I took a year off and focussed entirely on my new book, The Whole & Rain-domed Universe. In an ideal world, poetry editing would be paid in normal terms, so you wouldn’t have to spend your remaining time earning a living elsewhere, at the expense of your writing. With arts funding the way it is, it doesn’t quite add up. It’s a shame, because editing and writing do go hand in hand for me. More so than teaching, for example.
SH: Can we go back to the very beginning? Your childhood provides inspiration for quite a lot of your poetry. When did you decide that you were going to become a poet – a professional poet? How did you make it happen? You were in a huge family of nine children – I imagine you found it impossible to find a space of your own, a quiet corner.
CB: You’re right – what I love about poetry is that it’s a quiet place to go. Mentally, it’s a room of one’s own. And perhaps it was growing up in a crowd that made me crave that. Like most teenagers, I wrote poems occasionally, but there was a very clear point at which I started to write and that was when I had just finished my degree. I was in that vacuum that occurs when you finish university, not quite knowing who you are or what you’re going to do. I had a very unnamed desire to write but I didn’t know in what form. I knew I had a need to write, but I also had a great fear of it. Something needed to happen to allow me to begin. At university I’d only read the poets of the past and the only contemporary poet I’d heard of was Carol Ann Duffy. And the thing that happened was that I found my way to an Arvon course run by Carol Ann Duffy at Lumb Bank – a beginners course. I thought, I’ll try this. And that was the point at which I started. I suppose I was looking for someone to say ‘It’s OK to do this.’
SH: I think a lot of young or beginning writers feel the same. They need something to enable them.
CB: Sometimes you need permission from another writer, in whatever form that takes. I really believe in Arvon courses – and of course they predate the whole creative writing industry. They used to be the only thing you could do to find some kind of connection.
A Northern Irish Childhood
SH: There are two major themes – growing up in Derry during the Troubles clearly influences your thinking to this day. The other one is your family in those early days. How do you remember those times now and what is the place of poetry in your memories, if that makes sense? In your latest collection I feel you’ve gone much more deeply into the past. Are you aware of that?
CB: You’re right that I’d touched on my personal history before, here and there, in the first few books. I’ve perhaps gone more deeply in the latest work in a way I wasn’t able to before. But then, it’s taken a long time to write – the poems didn’t all come at once. They came over five or six years. The poems lead the way in that respect – as a poet you have to follow where they want to go. You’re feeling around in the dark to some extent.
SH: I remember the image of the soldiers stacking their rifles under the hall table during a raid….
CB: That poem can seem quite surreal, but that’s exactly how it happened. One of the reasons it’s taken me until I was in my forties to write about these things is that you worry they might sound too dramatic. Or more the stuff of journalism. But sometimes life is like that.
SH: You don’t make them sound traumatic or dramatic. You make them sound as if, in a terrible way, they were part of everyday life. Didn’t you feel it was unusual as a child, to have a soldier come into your room in the middle of the night?
CB: Well, as much as I can remember, it was also quite exciting to be raided. I was very young at the time so I didn’t really understand what was going on. We were raided at a particular period of the Troubles when they wanted to pick up every young man in the area. So the bin-lids would go, the women banging them to warn you that the Saracens were coming. It was a common enough occurrence in our neighbourhood.
SH: All your poems have a very personal background to them, but the ones about Ireland and your childhood seem to have a very dark thread running through them.
CB: It was a pretty strange time, you know, viewed with a bit of distance. It was a specific historical moment that I grew up in. And at the time it was our normality. But it was a very abnormal kind of society to grow up in and that affects your view of the world. So yes, there is undoubtedly a dark seam there.
SH: And what about family life – was it affected by what was going on out in the street?
CB: Yes, of course. The chaos and the violence outside did filter into the domestic space, and I think that comes through in the recent poems. In the area where I grew up there was a lot of activism. There was also a lot of unemployment and despair, and all the social problems that go along with that. It was a sort of distressed society.
The Writing Life
SH: Colette, you are very much your own poet, with your own style and voice and I don’t see clearly which other poets have influenced you. But I would immediately know your voice, recognise your influence in the work of other poets.
CB: I’m glad you think that, Sue, it’s what any poet strives for. But when I think of over twenty years of reading poetry, so many poets have influenced me. Of the late greats, a particular favourite would be Louis McNeice. There’s something about his musical intelligence that he manages to marry with a certain directness that I’ve always loved. And then there’s Sharon Olds, to go back to what you asked about the family. Sharon Olds had such clarity in writing what she needed to write about her family in order to address the past. Reading her for the first time, as a young poet, was a revelation.
SH: Do you think writers write in order to be able to deal with tensions in their lives?
CB: I think that might well be true, but it’s not the only reason. Poetry for me is a way of understanding the world, a way of thinking. You’re constantly peering through these tiny portholes to find out what’s going on, in a way that perhaps you can’t get access to in other ways of thinking. The poem is the result of that thought process.
SH: Can we talk a little bit about the process of creating a poem. Don Paterson is your editor at Picador; how far is he involved in the process of that and of getting a collection together?
CB: Don has a very light touch and I’ll see him when I’ve got a collection more or less together. Then he’ll cast his eagle eye over the poems – he’s a very good line-by-line editor. He’ll point out bad lines or where an image isn’t working. Sometimes he’ll point out that the poem is too long, that it could lose some lines. Don has a fantastic eye for a poem, that razor-sharp intelligence that can focus right in on the problem. What I appreciate about him is that he’ll identify the problem but he doesn’t attempt to tell you the solution. I’ll go away and think about it. Eventually we get to a point where I feel that the poems have settled. The discussion process can make me re-examine a particular poem and stand back from it. That’s a good thing to have to do. Sometimes we disagree on details because we’re very different writers and that’s healthy.
SH: It’s difficult to make a living as a poet outside the world of universities, yet you have consistently avoided becoming too embroiled in the world of Academe, which can be very, very limiting for any writer, in terms of time, if nothing else. How have you managed that?
CB: I’ve been thinking about that recently. When I started writing in the early 1990’s, the Academy and the creative path were unrelated. No one would have advised you to stay in the university if you wanted to be a poet. It was seen as the antithesis of the writer’s life. And all the poets that I read and loved had not been writing out of academic departments, so it was never something I would have naturally pursued. But there has obviously been a dramatic shift in the culture since then and the academic career has become the orthodoxy very, very quickly in this country; it’s followed the American model. But there’s something about marking a poem that’s not good for the soul. So yes, it’s very difficult to make a living and increasingly that’s the kind of work offered to poets. Going back to the residencies we talked about earlier, it occurs to me that I was the last person to come through the Dundee residency, something that had been benefiting poets for a long time. And I was also the last poet to benefit from the Northern Arts Fellowship. The Queen’s University residency was another famous bolt-hole for poets. I feel very sad at the demise of these – it’s a great loss to the arts. Poets could get on with their work and encourage other writers, without obligation to teach or present your art as ‘projects’ or ‘research’. For poets coming after me, these residencies had been replaced by a job, often permanent, which stops the flow for others. And of course, being a poet has always been a merry dance to avoid a ‘job’, because poetry is your work.
SH: It’s been said by a number of academics and critics that it’s not possible to teach creative writing, that academic courses are fairly ineffective in producing writers. What would you say to that?
CB: I have to believe what I hear time and again from people who have come through these courses – that they have got what they needed from them. The creation of a peer group seems to be one of the most useful aspects.
Writing and Shaping
SH: Tell me something about your writing process. Do you have a regular writing routine? What happens when you’re ‘on’ a poem? How long does it take you to put a collection together?
CB: It’s a bit like the pennies and the pounds. Look after the poems and the collections tend to take care of themselves. The work starts to gather in your folder. You start off with one poem, two poems and then suddenly you’ve got ten poems and they seem very precious. Then, whenever you’re up to about thirty, you might start thinking about a book. You start tuning in to the links between the poems, at what’s happening, because very often you’ll find there is something going on in this body of work. In some books more than others, but in this latest book there’s a very binding kind of atmosphere. I travel about doing bits of work as a freelancer and that disrupts the routine, but when I’m at home I’m fairly disciplined. I’ll be at the desk by nine o’clock and I’ll work through to six or seven. Not all writing of course, but correspondence, admin, all the other stuff. But there’s nothing I love more than being in an exploratory mode at the desk. I’ve got a few manual typewriters that I like. At the moment I’m on a 1950’s Remington Quiet-Riter. There’s something about a typewriter – free writing on it can bring up all sorts of things you can draw upon. I use a computer when I have work that’s already on the go, but to discover new things I use the pen or a typewriter.
SH: They do say that what comes out of a computer is not the same as what comes out of the end of a pen – or a typewriter.
CB: It’s not the same at all. But computers are obviously a godsend for novelists.
SH: Jackie Kay has described writing a novel as being like having a long illness. I don’t think poetry could be described in the same way.
CB: Perhaps poetry is like having short affairs. You’re absolutely obsessed for about a week, two or three maximum, then it sort of cools a little bit, you know. But it’s very intense at the time. The first flush of a poem might be a week and you’d be working on it pretty constantly; and then you let it sit for ages, but you’ll still tinker with it in the future. But the main business of solving of the problem of the poem will be done in a week or two….
Tradition and the Individual Talent
SH: Can I now go back to your time in Dundee? When you were writer in residence here you brought a whole generation of remarkable poets to read in Dundee – I can think of Kathleen Jamie, John Burnside, Don Paterson, Douglas Dunn, Paul Farley, Kate Clanchy, Nick Laird, Patience Agbabi, as well as local writers John Glenday and Bill Duncan. Which up and coming poets do you think will form a new generation of equal importance?
CB: There’s a very strong new generation coming through. I certainly noticed some excellent new poets coming through our pages when I was at Poetry London; people like Heather Phillipson, who is also a visual artist, and very well regarded in both fields; Liz Berry has done well with her first collection, Black Country. There are so many I that could name. I’ve just judged the Forward Prizes and there was a very strong field for the first collections, a terrific short list this year. Sarah Howe’s debut collection [Loop of Jade] is of great interest; and another first collection I’ve enjoyed recently was Beauty/Beauty by Rebecca Perry. I could probably name fifteen or so very interesting poets – not all young, but new writers. It’ll be interesting to see where they go from here, who needs and wants to keep going. There’s certainly no shortage of talent. And there’s less ageism now – two of the first collections on our short list, including the winner Mona Arshi, were by poets in their forties. Readers are less concerned with age than in how good the poetry is.
SH: It has been said by some prominent broadcasters, including Jeremy Paxman, that poetry has become too exclusive and that it should be written to be more accessible to the man in the street. Is that true and what did he mean by it and which poets might he have had in mind?
CB: Paxman was chairing the Forward Prizes when he said that, trying to stir up a little interest no doubt, but the ‘man in the street’ is a funny old thing to invoke because the truth is that not that many people read poetry. Those for whom poetry is important tend to be prepared to spend a bit of time with it; it’s a sort of slow-cooking kind of reading. In this way, poetry quietly thrives, against the odds. On the subject of accessibility, personally I’ve always sought to communicate in my work, and the poetry I like to read is work that is communicating something of life to me. I’m not so interested in how ‘clever’ the poet is; I respond to a bit of heart and soul in the work. But it’s hard to be accessible and not compromise any of the art; it’s a delicate balance and it’s what I love about poets like Louis McNeice, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Michael Longley, who have written extraordinary poetry which communicates clearly and powerfully. To make a poem communicate with both clarity and strangeness is very difficult. So worrying about the mythical ‘man or woman in the street’ is a red herring because this hypothetical person is statistically unlikely to be too bothered about poetry. People have all sorts of interests. Poetry is a little ‘indie’ kind of art and I’ve never felt the need to go round and proselytise about it. It’s always there, if people need it.
SH: Finally, Colette, what are you working on now, or what projects do you have in mind for the coming year?
CB: I’m working on a short poem – only thirteen words long. Every word in the poem is quaking at the moment, thinking it’s ready for the chop. It’s about one’s placing in the world. It might not even survive but I’m carrying that poem around in my head, quite happily, at the moment.