Award winning Irish Poet Victoria Kennefick speaks to Tracy Gaughan

Award winning Irish Poet Victoria Kennefick speaks to Tracy Gaughan

Victoria Kennefick’s pamphlet, White Whale (Southword Editions, 2015), won the Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition and the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, The Poetry Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Copper Nickel, The Stinging Fly, and elsewhere. A recipient of a Next Generation Artist Bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland and of a WORDS Ireland Fellowship, she also co-hosts the Unlaunched Books Podcast. Here she speaks to Abhaile Editor, Tracy Gaughan on creative innovation, authenticity in writing and what makes poetry so compelling.

Ordinary language raised to the Nth power?  A synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits?  What is poetry and what does it mean to you?

Not for the first time I will defer to Emily Dickinson from her letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1870) in The Letters of Emily Dickinson to help me answer this:

“If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

This interpretation feels right to me. I think when poetry works, readers, or an audience, have a real and physical reaction to it – those gasps you sometimes hear at readings, for example. If poetry is the art of paying attention then I think it is the recognition of this in another person, this shared act of observation, which makes poetry compelling and arresting, even shocking, as Dickinson describes it. I’m not sure I can quantify what poetry means to me, except everything. As a highly sensitive child and teenager I remember being flooded with relief when I read Dickinson, Kinsella, Yeats, and Wordsworth, and later Plath and Sexton, because they seemed to share my feelings somehow, they saw what I saw, and beyond of course, but I felt that we had a similar sensibility perhaps. Poetry is like finding my place at the table. 

You’ve spoken previously about growing up in a relatively bookish household.  Do you remember any stories or poems from your childhood reading that might have influenced your development as a poet?  Is there anything that surprised you about yourself when you first started writing poetry?

Both my parents valued and enjoyed the written word, especially poetry. They had a catalogue of poems learned off by heart from school. My uncle still quotes long sections of Shakespeare and Keats, the influence of their teacher father and my grandmother who was definitely a secret poet. This all had the effect of making poetry very alive and present for me, part of our conversations as a family. My Dad loved Robert Service in particular and all those very structured ballads with strong rhyme and narrative, while my Mom is a romantic and loves Yeats, Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Keats, predominantly lyric poetry. This is a mix that has definitely had an influence on my work. My older sisters too plied me with books, fiction and poetry for birthdays and Christmas, and my patient little sister was, and still is, my first reader.

When I started writing poetry I focused on nature, I remember being mesmerised by the poem ‘Silver’ by Walter de la Mare, that beautiful imagery, ‘Slowly, silently now the moon/ Walks the night in her silver shoon.’ It has everything, sibilance, personification, simile and I was hooked. I tried to recreate the same effect in my own poems; cherry blossoms were a favourite theme. I did steal too, or what we now call ‘creative modelling,’ from TV shows and other books. I was quite the magpie. My younger sister caught me out on it all the time recognising the theme of a show we had watched the previous day. Little word thief!

In marking a poem’s progress, American poet Billy Collins has said that he sets aside known coordinates while also following his desire to get lost.  How do your poems develop?

This is a great way to describe it. My favourite way for a poem to be born is when I am gifted it. As a child, I thought that creativity was accessible through a huge iridescent cloud that floated above everyone and that it was watered daily by all the poets, artists and writers who had existed before. I believed that anyone could access this pooled creativity if they chose to, but most people went about their business with their umbrellas up. When I can, even now, I very intentionally try to close my umbrella and let the drops fall. It doesn’t always work of course, but sometimes a poem arrives, usually before I’m going to bed or just about to drift off to sleep. It often doesn’t feel like my poem when it comes like this, but rather one that was floating around, waiting to be written. More often than not though, writing is a painstaking process of fiddling and humming. Reading aloud. Humming. Cutting. More cutting. My process is a constant interaction and conversation between these two states of being as Collins describes it.

Who are you speaking to in your poems?

When I write a poem, I am usually talking to myself! I imagine readers later on, of course, when it comes to the form the poem takes, line breaks, rhythm and so on, but initially I am often reaching back to speak to my younger self, maybe trying to help her, explain things to her, tell her it’s normal to be confused.

You were the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship in 2007.  Can you tell us about this experience?

As part of my PhD research, I had the opportunity to spend time in Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, the alma mater of Flannery O’Connor who I wrote about as part of my thesis along with Cork writer, Frank O’Connor, and Emory University in Atlanta. I had never been to the South before and was so fortunate to spend time there. I was made to feel very welcome by the academics and staff in both institutions, as well as the students, but had a very strange feeling throughout as if I existed in a movie. I think we’re so immersed in American culture, ritual and symbolism that it was a rather surreal experience in all. Creatively, it was a revelation too. The Special Collections in both universities were a treasure trove of material. It was very humbling to have access to them and to see O’Connor’s papers and letters, not to mention drafts of her work. The farm where she lived, just outside Milledgeville, Andalusia, is a very special place and one I think of often when I try to find the headspace to write. O’Connor suffered from the debilitating autoimmune condition, lupus, so wrote for two hours a day because that was all her energy reserves allowed, but it was every day at the same time. I am in awe of that focus and commitment. Going to Georgia and walking in O’Connor’s footsteps taught me so much about the creative process, as well as facilitating the completion of my PhD thesis in 2009. I am so grateful to the Fulbright Commission and hope that it can continue its brilliant work despite the uncertain political landscape.

You won the Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition and the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet for White Whale (Southword Editions, 2015) a collection of twenty-one poems on the theme of loss, more specifically the loss of your father. How has the pamphlet’s success affected you personally and professionally?

I’ll never forget receiving the mail from Pat Cotter, the director of the Munster Literature Centre, on a beautiful sunny day at Listowel Writers’ Week to say White Whale had won. I was ecstatic! It felt like the pain, loss and grief my family suffered, and still do suffer because grief is most certainly a process, was being acknowledged and transformed into a way of honouring and remembering Dad. I was so guilty writing the poems because at the time I worried about using Dad’s death as ‘material.’ I cried every time I wrote a word about him, but I persevered because it helped me cope with the anguish I was experiencing, it gave me a purpose and allowed me to remember him in a safe space. I am so glad that the pamphlet resonates with readers; I learned so much writing it, putting it together, and after it was published about the process of compiling and publishing a collection. It taught me so much about being honest in my writing because readers were so open about their own experience of loss in return and I felt relieved and less alone. It is a high point in my writing life to date, I have had so many opportunities to read at different events, contribute to anthologies, teach and give lectures because of the pamphlet. I am much more deliberate about my work since its publication, more aware of emerging themes across poems. 

Your poems are figuratively distinctive:  The Talk, Smell Dating, A Decade, Cork Schoolgirl Considers the GPO, and the persona emerging from your poetry has been described as being both defiant and vulnerable.  Would you agree with this approximation?  Is writing an act of vulnerability?

Writing is certainly an act of vulnerability for me and a powerful one as a result. As a younger person, I struggled with communicating my feelings clearly, or even articulating to myself what they might be. I was afraid of how people might respond if I were more direct. My early poetry is very circuitous and opaque because of this, unreadable almost! I think Dad’s death was the catalyst for a change in me as a person, I am completely different now in uncountable ways and therefore my writing had to transform. I couldn’t hide anymore, not that anyone cared I was hiding per se, only that it must have been incredibly frustrating I imagine, it certainly was for me. I hope that my writing now reflects my willingness to be authentic. The defiance might be a mechanism by which to allow the vulnerability to exist, a little protection perhaps. There is a balance to be reached of course, and I am in no way suggesting that my work is autobiographical necessarily, but the essence of it has to be real and believable in its intention. 

Ambiguity versus accessibility? Should a reader have to work hard to solve a poem?  Is difficulty the ‘trouble with poetry’?

I think poems find their language, their form, their readers and that it is all very subjective. I enjoy reading a wide range of poets and they all have so much to offer in terms of style and substance. A reader will work as hard if they wish to, if a poem is compelling, they will find a way into it, or another reader will. And difficulty can be positive and challenging. Either way, you can always stop reading! I think the real issue is that poems cannot be ‘solved,’ that is the most damaging misconception, and I say that particularly as someone who teaches poetry to teenagers.

Excluding New Formalists, contemporary writers often eschew rhyme and tend to associate poetry with feeling and not technique.  However, the practice of traditional verse forms, tuning the ear to rhyme and iamb can sharpen a writer’s skills.  What are your own views on writing in form?

I ponder this often but I think that these choices are not mutually exclusive. A form can hold the most intense emotions just as a poem in free verse can have its own internal form or rhyme. There is a balance to be reached between form and feeling in every poem, no matter how structured or not it may be, and the poem dictates that. For me, the feeling decides the form, but it has also happened vice versa. I love reading more formal poems and about poetry forms, just as much as I adore reading free verse. When it’s done well, form almost dissolves as a result of the power and success of a particular poem. I think contemporary writers are endlessly innovative when it comes to experimenting and pushing the boundaries of form and rhyme. Recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Jericho Brown, in his book, The Tradition, introduces his invention called the duplex. As Candace Williams explains in ‘Gutting the Sonnet: A Conversation with Jericho Brown,’ in The Rumpus, 

“The duplex is a new form that renders the musicality and structure of the ghazal, the sonnet, and the blues on a single plane. The poem starts with a couplet of two distinct lines. The second line is repeated and a new line is added, and then repeated until there are seven couplets of nine to eleven syllables each.”

I find that very exciting because in The Tradition the form supports and amplifies the potent themes Brown explores. I’ve experimented with a few sonnets in the past, and form and rhyme are something I am trying out with newer poems.

Minutiae blossom in your poems.  Nightbaby, for instance, a recent Poetry Day Ireland pocket-poem where you capture the maternal moment which for poet-mothers is perhaps also the lyric moment.  Has motherhood provoked new inventions in poetics for you?

Yes, I think so; this amount of sleep deprivation must have some positives! Much like a parent dying, the birth of a child is a very significant milestone. I was in shock for at least eighteen months and wrote very little. I had to hold tough because at times it felt like that part of me, of my writing life, that quiet little room I had so carefully curated, had disappeared. It’s scary, because you don’t know how you or your body will react to changes like this, no matter what they are. I think I learned from losing Dad that we do adapt to circumstances, no matter how life altering, so I tried to grab on to that, to be patient and find a new way to write. I notice that I am allowing in a certain lyricism which I had maybe deviated from after White Whale. I do that, push against what I’ve done previously, go somewhere new, and then come back to an altered landscape to try again. I think I am more aware than ever now of the poetry in everyday life, ‘Where ever life pours ordinary plenty,’ as Patrick Kavanagh describes it in his beautiful poem, ‘Advent.’ 

We recently lost poet and professor, Eavan Boland whose writings prompted a renegotiation of the national poetic tradition.  What do you think her legacy will be? Are there negotiations yet to be made as a female poet writing in Ireland today?

Like everyone, I was very saddened to hear the news of Eavan’s passing. On the day she died, I was struck by a tweet by the brilliant Irish poet, Ailbhe Darcy; I hope she won’t mind me quoting it here: 

“It took me years to realize it, or acknowledge it perhaps, but for some of us, at some point in our lives or another, she would be almost the whole context of us writing at all.”

I feel this is very true in the case of my own writing. Her legacy is incalculable; poetry, academia and cultural discourse in general is all the poorer for her loss. I was lucky to do a workshop with Eavan at the Yeats Summer School a few years ago and was struck by her generosity, with her time, her expertise, her empathy and her very entertaining anecdotes. We workshopped a poem each over that weekend in a class of twelve, but she promised to send us a detailed critique of the other five poems we had submitted. I didn’t expect to hear anything given how busy she undoubtedly was, but a week or two later I received a lengthy and beautiful email with each of the poems edited and critiqued line-by-line, and a huge amount of encouragement too. I was so touched and delighted; she really wanted to help poets find their way. 

Eavan championed the centrality of female experience, especially in any form of cultural discourse. She was still angry when I met her by how hard Irish women had to work to be heard and to redress the balance, often at the expense of their own creative process. Sinéad Gleeson has written about this in, ‘The profound deafness to the female voice,’ as has the tireless advocate for female poets in Ireland, Chris Murray, who curates the wonderful Poethead website, in her Irish Times piece in 2019, ‘Tackling the catastrophic canonical neglect of Irish women poets and writers.’ I recommend your readers seek them out on the Irish Times website and visit Poethead regularly.

The current pandemic has had an enormous cultural impact.  Book launches and festivals which are often vital sources of income for authors have been postponed or cancelled.  However, the podcast Unlaunched Books which you co-present with poets John McAuliffe and Sean Hewitt attempts to keep the literary discussion going.  Can you tell us a bit about it?  

The Unlaunched Books podcast aims to provide a platform for poetry books and pamphlets that were due to launch this spring/summer at the many wonderful literary festivals we have in Ireland, in bookshops and at conferences. Of course, due to the pandemic, these events were cancelled and John felt that a podcast could provide an alternative space for poets to showcase their new work, often years in the making, and for audiences to have the opportunity to enjoy these books, ‘hot off the press.’ The podcast places a focus not only on new books, but also on the perspective of festival curators who are trying to adapt to the crisis and support poets and writers through it, and poets who read and discuss poems that provide some solace or guidance in these challenging times. It’s been a fantastic experience and I’ve learned so much. I am very grateful to be part of it particularly because I get to gorge on all the new poetry every week.

Finally, what’s next for Victoria Kennefick?  Are you working on anything at present that you would like to share with our readers?

The lockdown has been very busy and I am grateful for the distraction. As you mentioned, my poem ‘NIGHTBABY’ was one of twelve selected for Poetry Day Ireland at the end of April. There’s a video of me reading the poem,

and the text of the poem itself, along with the other poems on the Poetry Ireland website and YouTube channel. One of my newer poems, ‘Hedgehog’ will feature on the RTÉ Radio Extra podcast, Keywords,  on the theme, ‘Common Ground.’ I also have a new poem forthcoming in a future digital issue of Banshee. Past episodes of our podcast, Unlaunched Books, are available to listen to at  and our next episode is due on Thursday 21 May. We were grateful to receive funding from Culture Ireland as part of the #IrelandPerforms initiative and recently hosted a live poetry reading featuring Colette Bryce, Tom French, Audrey Molloy, Susannah Dickey and Mícheál McCann. It can be viewed here: 

Other than that, I’m writing, writing, writing! Inspired by Flannery O’Connor I attempt to write every day and I’ve even made it to two hours and beyond on a few occasions. I live in hope of sustaining this!

Victoria Kennefick's pamphlet, White Whale (Southword Editions, 2015), won the Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition and the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, The Poetry Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Copper Nickel, The Stinging Fly, and elsewhere. A recipient of a Next Generation Artist Bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland and of a WORDS Ireland Fellowship, she also co-hosts the Unlaunched Books Podcast. Here she speaks to Abhaile Editor, Tracy Gaughan on creative innovation, authenticity in writing and what makes poetry so compelling.

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