Emma McKervey won the 2015 PoetryNI/Translink Poetry Competition and in 2016 she was shortlisted for both the NI National Poetry Competition and the Bord Gáis Irish Book Awards’ Poem of the Year Award. In 2017 she had two poems highly commended for the Seamus Heaney Prize. She is also a professionally-trained musician, having played cello in orchestras, saxophone in various jazz ensembles and developed sonic art performance pieces with a range of composers, collaborating with dancers and theatre practitioners on both islands. A member of Women Aloud, Emma is from Holywood, County Down. The Rag Tree Speaks is her debut collection.
I very much enjoyed Emma’s poetry in The Rag Tree Speaks and so was delighted to pose some questions regarding her work, inspiration, motivation and process.
I very much enjoyed the musicality of your work in ‘The Rag Tree Speaks.” Do you feel your training in music helps you as a poet?
Very much so. Partly because of the discipline learning a musical instrument gives you, especially to degree level. There needs to be something of the obsessive about a person to really stick at the practice regime, to repeat a tricky phrase over and over for hours until it is right! I also played a lot of jazz so from that I learned about themes or statements – an intent I suppose – how to take that theme/statement/intent for a walk, and then bring it home again. These are skills which are very relevant to writing, not just a single poem, but to creating a body of work too. My time involved with music was in the end predominantly shaped by my experiences with experimental sound, with free improvisation. I was lucky enough to have a few very inspirational tutors, both here in Northern Ireland, and at Dartington College of Arts where I did my degree, who taught me not just to play but to really listen. To really listen to the shape of each sound and then to find the next perfect sound. That is the biggest influence on my writing – that training of the ear, the search for the right timbre of phrase. I write free verse but within that there is pulse and cadence and this results from the listening for the perfect timbre. Fiona Sampson’s collection of essays published by Bloodaxe, ‘Music Lessons’, explores very deeply the connections between her own experience as a trained musician (although in her case the training was much more formal and traditional than my own, in style and in content) and right at the beginning she talks about ‘thinking without words’ as a fundamental part of the musician’s process. When I mention timbre this is what I mean, the analytical consideration of the texture of sound, this is the strongest influence on my writing.
You reference mythology often in your recent work, is your history important to you?
Mythology is something I return to over and over. I am a Humanist so all mythology and religion is an equal source in my eyes, giving universal frameworks and reference points, so that by using them in my writing understanding can arise from a single phrase, word or name; it is the short hand to the human psychological and emotional condition. Mythology is the real DNA of the humanity, it is a map which is given by almost every culture throughout the world, with the same core learnings and archetypes. In fact I am currently reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell which goes so deeply into this – the extracting of the same mythological tropes from wildly different cultures and explaining them in terms of psychoanalysis. I do believe that humans are circadian, not only in our bodily rhythms, but in emotional rhythms too – in Nature, and its psychological parallel Myth, we find the answers – life, death, rebirth over and over again; we go into the deep dark woods/the underworld once and again, and nothing is learned unless that process is fully entered into, and what is learned is that it will happen again, and that language and art should be used to understand that path and not to cast further shadows. And with History one can also see the same patterns being acted out repeatedly. I am wary of talking too much about history as being from Northern Ireland it can be something of a rabbit hole, but despite my best efforts a little bit of Troubles bothering did manage to find its way into the book. There are enough people exploring that topic, and sometimes even saying things that need to be said, but I on the whole do not feel the need to join in.
Is a sense of place important to your work, and if so, why?
My poetry is always about my having asked myself a question and the poem is the route to the answer. I think most art functions this way, even if what the question asked is not always fully formed in the conscious mind. Place comes strongly into this as many of the questions I ask myself arise from landscape and the narratives attached, and much of my working out comes from being in the landscape, from walking and observing, the building of a psycho-geography, which of course ties back into myth. Every narrative devised to create understanding of one’s place in the world, both physical and emotional, is a little myth. When this is really inhabited it leads to a heightened kind of magic realism which obviously is not a space that can be lived in permanently, but really can enhance a walk in the woods! In my collection The Rag Tree Speaks are a couple of poems from time I spent in the Czech Republic a few years ago. We were staying in a little cabin by a lake in the middle of a vast forest and I was amazed at how much I started writing there. I think it came from being in such an unfamiliar landscape – I needed to write, to create these little myths and narratives in order to contextualise my own lived experience – to frame it – to bring myself to an understanding of an unfamiliar place. I guess much of art is that – the lived experience and the desire to observe oneself living that experience.
Tell me a little about your path to poetry?
I was very fortunate to have a mother and an older sister who both loved poetry. Both had saved their school poetry anthology books and passed them on as very treasured possessions to me. There was a real reverence there so that even as a young child of about seven or eight when I first started writing I felt myself to be doing something very different than simply playing or entertaining myself. I realised though as a teenager that being an introverted poet was not going to make me many friends so began taking music much more seriously – having a saxophone case in hand is much more interesting than clutching a clammy notebook. I rarely wrote after that until my early thirties, and then only sporadically. However when I was studying towards an MSc I made a fairly unconsidered choice to send a few poems to the university yearly journal and suddenly I was published. I began to think about it seriously after that, it was as if all the wonderment I had as a child for poetry came flooding back and I set myself on a strict regime of researching, reading and writing!
Who or what has influenced and informed your poetry most?
I knew very little about contemporary poetry when I started writing seriously myself. I had bought a copy of Dart by Alice Oswald as it was published whilst I was at Dartington College and I liked to sit by the River Dart having a visceral reading experience! When I woke up to poetry again about a decade later I found Leonita Flynn by chance really, plucking her off the shelf in a bookshop on impulse. I hadn’t realised it was allowed to write in so accessible a voice, plain spoken, it was a shock actually to find poems in a voice which was so familiar in pattern and cadence and written just 6 miles down the road in Belfast! When I first started writing I was writing about actual day to day happenings, little vignettes of people and situations I came across, but the writing really wasn’t making any ‘leaps’ (to reference Robert Bly). It was finding poets such as Paul Durcan who really helped untether the language, and to give permission to view the everyday through a slightly different lens.
Tell me about your writing process?
I tend to do a lot of research into a subject, tracing the etymology of each word etc so that when it is used it is absolutely used in the correct place. This can take some time, considering a subject and living with it. The actual writing though is fast. Walking often precedes writing, probably to build up a pulse, I devise the first line that way then have to sit down immediately and write the rest in one go. It all tends to come out at once then. Then it is put away for some time before bringing it out to type up and edit. Which all sounds very convoluted but it works for me.
Are you a member of a writing group, and if so how has this impacted on your growth as a poet?
I have never been a member of a writing group. I haven’t officially studied English since GCSE! At first this was just about pragmatic timings; I either had young kids to look after or I was working. As time has gone on though I really feel it would not have a positive impact on my work, simply because I have always been writing in isolation, and it really hasn’t gone too badly for me! I have been guest writer at a few writer’s groups though, and I know that the support they provide for individual members is fantastic, questioning the elements of a person’s writing that they may not have been aware of for instance, however I do have the uneasy feeling that over time this can slip into a house style and am not keen on making my work collectively. As an artist you are in charge of curating your own experience and the distillation of that experience can only be in your own mind. I wrote before about leaving time between writing a poem and editing it – that space creates a fresh perspective and hopefully a less involved and emotional eye that acts as an outside critic, you provide your own critique. However it is important to have people to talk to about writing, and I am a member of Women Aloud, which is a writing collective based mainly in Northern Ireland with members of all genres of writing. The group was put together so we can be each other’s own support network, and to provide a voice and platform for women writers in the North whose voices have historically not been so well heard. Together we won two Saboteur Awards last year and have been shortlisted again this year. But even with that I am still wary, I am still a slightly awkward introvert clutching my notebook at heart, inherently not a joiner, and as much as I love the friendships and connections which have resulted from being part of the collective, I am still very suspicious of any club that would have me as a member (to paraphrase that well known Marxism). I am not however a complete isolationist, I am fortunate to have a partner whose opinion about my writing I trust and value beyond anyone else and whose own work (he is a visual artist) I love.
What is most important to develop one’s own writing is reading and listening to other experienced poets. I mentioned Paul Durcan in an earlier question and (as these questions have been answered over a few days) I had the privilege of hearing him read in Belfast yesterday as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Watching and hearing him incant his work is worth ten thousand hours at any class or Writers’ groups. It is really through experiencing the masters of the genre in their natural element, especially when one is familiar with their work on the page already, that is the best way to learn, to witness how language lives and evolves. Open mic nights are great too when a writer is starting out, and there have been a few in Belfast which really helped me find my feet – Red Pill and Purely Poetry, but again, there is still the need to hear poetry when it is taken to the highest level by the great artists.
Tell us about your experience of publishing ‘The Rag Tree Speaks’ with Doire Press?
Doire Press had interested me for a while. They are an indie press based on the West coast of Ireland and have been steadily building their reputation for a number of years. About this time two years ago they had an open submission period. I plucked up the courage to send off a few poems, they asked for some more, and after a couple of nail biting weeks they came back and said they wanted to publish a whole collection! They have been fantastic at supporting myself and the other writers they publish – myself and three other of their debut writers, David Butler, Annemarie Ni Churreain and Kelly Creighton, were packed off on a tour of the island supported by the Arts Councils both sides of the border in late Autumn to promote our books which was an invaluable (and often hilarious) experience. They have a good track record of their writers being recognised in competitions and festivals here on the island of Ireland and I do enjoy very much being part of their stable. Lisa and John are a strong team together, and are empathetic publishers, still a small enough press to value the individual, but strong enough to pack some clout on the writing scene here!