Clara Burghelea interviews featured writer Tracy Gaughan

Clara Burghelea: You write both fiction and poetry. How do you negotiate the two writing roles?

Tracy Gaughan: 

Truthfully, I never know what I’m going to write until something possesses me.  A line, a thought or a feeling might come in the shape of a poem, or sometimes, a character might pop up and say: ‘Hello. I have something to say’; then I know I have a longer narrative on my hands.    I began my writing life as a poet and wrote my first fiction piece only a few years ago.  Overtime though, I’ve found going beyond the confines of a poem quite liberating.  Poetry improves your ability to conceptualise the world and on a formal level, teaches economy of language.  However, writing in long form prose allows you to inhabit language in diverse ways, providing opportunities for expression and articulation of meaning that differ entirely from poetry.   My poetic impulses drive my prose and vice versa.  So, I suppose I’m more comfortable identifying simply as a writer and I move between genres depending on mood and subject matter.  ‘Be plural like the universe!’.  That’s what Pessoa said.

Clara Burghelea: How did you become a writer?

Tracy Gaughan: 

I first started writing as a teenager.  I was bullied in secondary school and had a dreadful time there.  As a result, I really had little interest in learning.  But then, something wonderful happened and – in the words of Pablo Neruda – ‘poetry came in search of me.’  It came in the form a small poem, Base Details by Siegfried Sassoon.  It was a world war one poem (curiously), condemning the indifference of some to the suffering of others and it resonated with me.  I sat with it for a long time before considering writing a version of my own and it was during that process that I suddenly, and maybe for the first time, became conscious of myself.  Or of some part of myself at least, that could be immune from my tormenters.  I felt as though I had something of my own that I could nurture, some place I could express me; be me without fear.  I’d found the friend my words were looking for.  And while finding myself in poetry, I was also losing myself to it.  Diving into those aesthetic moments alongside Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.  That was the eighties and all these years later, I’m still lost to the reading of it, lost to the writing.  

Clara Burghelea: When do you know a poem is finished? 

Tracy Gaughan: 

A poem is like a garden in a sense, there is always work to be done and it may take some time to mature, but just how much landscaping are you prepared to do?  Writing poetry is hard.  Some poems work but most do not.  You must just keep going, changing tone or mood, intensifying metaphor etc.  Writing is a solitary occupation so sometimes feedback can be invaluable, and I often run a poem by my writer’s group or ask my sister Evie, who is also a writer, to cast an eye over something I’m working on. I’m not sure that a poem is ever finished but as a rule, if it’s no longer keeping me awake at night then I’m happy enough to let it go out.  Not always in hat and tails but definitely with its shirt tucked in! 

Clara Burghelea: How do you handle rejections?

Tracy Gaughan: 

Publishing is competitive and everyone gets rejections, even award-winning writers.  It feels terrible but it is a part of every writer’s life.  A rejection has the dual effect of making me want to quit altogether and try harder.    The standard rejection letter was developed to let people down and move on.  It is not personal, so I try not to take it that way. My work may simply not have been a good fit for a journal or not suited an editor’s tastes.  I do make a point of reading and re-reading rejection slips.  When you’re disappointed, it may look as if ‘unfortunately’ is the only word on the page.  However, sometimes an editor may include an additional note, suggesting they might be happy to consider new work in the future and this can be very encouraging.  It’s a tremendous validation of course, if an editor wants to publish you, but the work is more important.  Acknowledging this and valuing yourself first and foremost as a writer, can go a long way to helping you deal with those rejections when they do come in.     

Clara Burghelea: What are your bright poet-moments? Do you call it inspiration or a visit from the muses? What about the inspiration for Sappho and Aristotle and your take on Aristotle’s analysis of rhetorical genres? 

Tracy Gaughan: 

For me, the creative process comes under the umbrella of attentiveness or soul-attentiveness, to be precise.  All poets are attentive.  We are attuned to the mystical workings of the inner, outer and other worlds combined, which explains why those bright moments can come at any time.  I don’t consider muses in the modern sense but in terms of their role in antiquity as sources of knowledge, as goddesses of the arts.  They found their way into Sappho and Aristotle vis-a-vis a short anecdote I’d read in Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies.  In the passages about Sappho, it was revealed that Aristotle, the revered father of western thought, slept with her poems beneath his pillow.  Sappho’s influence was significant, yet she has often been maligned, as have all women throughout history, particularly intelligent women.  And this reminded me of the fact that representation of the world is the work of men.  They were the first historians, they ‘held the pen’ as it were and attended only to what they found significant, completely neglecting the experiences of women.  And so, the poem is not only a love poem in the sense that it envisions male and female unity, but it speaks out against the misrepresentation of women in society and their erasure from cultural history.  In answer to the last part of your question, Aristotle’s Rhetoric is principally a treatise on the purposes, means and styles of speech and forms the basis of contemporary rhetorical theory.  He was trying to understand why it was that logic alone could never win an argument.  People are influenced by other factors, such as an orator’s credibility or ethos; also, pathos, one’s ability to draw on the emotions – the art of persuasion in other words.  Rhetoric is a public art and it can influence and shape opinion.  On the one hand this can lead to improvements in civic life, however, people can also be deceived.  Men have done a pretty good job of persuading women that they contributed little of cultural significance prior to the twentieth century.  How often have you heard people say that they never knew anything about such and such a female author, artist or architect?  Furthermore, in this post-truth era of Trumpian disinformation, persuasive rhetoric in favour of fake news, undermines legitimate news, which damages democracy and creates public doubt.

Clara Burghelea: Much of the writing we have seen from you gives more than a nod to the most tragic events of human history. Do you think that we learn from our history, or are we bonded to our mistakes and bound to repeat them?

Tracy Gaughan: 

The latter.  I agree with writer George Santayana – he believed that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  The same goes for our personal lives too, unfortunately we are apt to repeat the same mistakes.  I suppose if we truly learned from history we would be living in a very different world.  When you think back to the destruction of Carthage, the first genocide over two millennia ago, and compare it to the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar, for example, what has really changed?  The death-toll certainly but what else?  Sadly, we are recognizably the same variety of humans as we were then.  We continue to afford great power to individuals, we betray our moral values, we fight wars, often by proxy, which protracts them; we rebuild walls, we plunder the earths resources. What vexes mostly however, is our enthusiasm for memorial and remembrance on the one hand and our collective amnesia about the past on the other.   Last year we watched president, prime minister and monarch solemnly commemorate the centenary of the Armistice whilst at the same time, oversee and incite unimaginable suffering in their own and other countries. 

Clara Burghelea: Tell us a little about your radio show, Westwords and the important of Audio as a medium for poetry in the 21st Century. Also, how do poetry and music blend in?

Tracy Gaughan: 

WestWords is an exciting project conceived out of a desire to bring poetry to the community.  Poetry, Neruda tells us, is like bread, to be shared by all, however, many people see it as something esoteric, which is a misconception and they generally tend to avoid it.  So, I sought to make poetry more accessible to people by pairing it with her sister art, music.  Poems were originally composed for musical performance, poets were troubadors.  They have an ear for language the same way musicians have an ear for music and employ the forms and rhythms of musical traditions such as jazz and hip-hop.  Therefore, it would not be unusual to hear on WestWords, a traditional verse paired with a contemporary composition – for example Robert Browning’s Meeting at Midnight alongside Sarah by Declan O’Rourke.  Rhythm is the energy of verse and so a poem can give new impetus to a piece of music and vice versa.  Many of my shows, incidentally, are available to listen to on mixcloud.  https://www.mixcloud.com/TracyGaughan/playlists/westwords/

Audio books are a rapidly growing area of consumer publishing and in an age where our time and attention spans are under pressure, audio is an incredibly important and powerful medium for poetry which, unlike children, needs to be heard as well as seen.  Poetry has an oral tradition and there are aspects to a poem which can only be captured with sound.  When something is read aloud it provides the listener with auditory clues such as changes in the pitch or pace of speech, pauses in speech, the poets emotional tone etc., which can enhance interpretation and understanding.  Granted that not all poets make great speakers, however if done skillfully an author reading his/her own work can add a new layer and bring a written artefact to life.  

Clara Burghelea: Where do you draw your energy from?

Tracy Gaughan: 

Love.   We learn who we are and gain energy by finding out what we love.   I love my family and friends and draw energy from them – life is tough and it’s good to have people in your corner.    I love nature, which both pacifies and invigorates me.  I love good art, literature and music which enlarges my imagination and refills my creative well.  I love routine and I’m energized by getting things done.  I draw energy from engaging with fellow creatives and writers, particularly those at the beginning of their journey.  It doesn’t matter at what age or stage one starts.  Sometimes it takes years unconsciously organizing ideas and experiences before we trust the pen to express ourselves.  The craft itself is energy giving.  It has saved me more than once.  

Clara Burghelea: The Third Battle of Ypres, has been immortalised by so many in terms of human loss, yet in your poem ‘Passhendaele’, you anthropomorphize the land, and then in ‘After Brandenburg’ you reverse this device. I am curious as to why you chose to do this? And do you feel it is a writer’s duty to find new ways to view events?

Tracy Gaughan: 

Novelty is better than repetition and every writer applies their own unique social treasury to the accumulated wisdom. It’s not only incumbent on writers to find new ways to view events but to find new metaphors to revitalize language.  We write in the presence of the past, but we bring our own contemporaneity with us.  So, Passchendaele was borne out of an amalgamation of three subjects that affected me in 2018.  The centenary commemorations of the ending WW1, the escalation of the #MeToo movement (that raises awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence against women) and environmental concerns.  I was haunted by archival footage of various European battlefields and probably more attuned to the land’s suffering because of the upsurge in coverage and debate about climate justice issues – Greta Thunberg had sat outside the Swedish parliament and begun her ‘school strike for climate’ campaign.  Concurrently, women were having to justify themselves in court in relation to the sexual harassment they’d suffered at the hands of male colleagues and employers.  So, the poem, as well as being a comment on the hypocrisy of commemoration, is also about giving voice to women who were not being heard and giving voice to the land that could not speak for itself.    Because, although our reasoning ego prevents us from seeing ourselves as part of nature, anthropomorphizing the land emphasizes the fact that we are nature too. When we hurt her, we are hurting ourselves.  The naturalist John Muir said that ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’  We are intertwined.   

This theme of interconnection continues in After Brandenburg, where I use the land as a metaphor to represent a couple’s relationship.  I suppose it is not as straightforward as de-personification, as nature is a third person here, but rather utilizing the land in a different way to express a private history, not a public one.  The poem is a personal one about the end of a relationship that followed a visit to Berlin.  It’s about a separation, augmented by the titular image of the Brandenburg gate (which served as a symbol of division for almost three decades) and by biblical references to Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden.  What I’m also trying to capture is how severe even nature can seem, when we are feeling vulnerable and alone.  The more interesting point about your interpretation, however, is that in literary theory, Umberto Eco talks about a liminal author who works alongside the empirical one, and when I began writing the poem, my original motivations for how I would represent the land were unconscious.  So, your analysis and observations are fascinating to me and offer a perfect example of how a reader actively participates in making meaning in poetry. Remember Roland Barthes told us that the author is dead, and it is the text that speaks.  So essentially, with every reader bringing his/her own fresh perspective, meaning is not a fixed thing.  It is not an object hidden in the poem but more an effect to be realized through an interaction between the text and the reader. In other words, it is the reader that brings a poem to life in the act of reading. It’s one of those revered mysteries of poetry and even more intriguing considering your previous question about the finished poem.  It may be finished for the author, but only beginning for the reader.  

Clara Burghelea: What are you reading these days? What good music piques your interest?

Tracy Gaughan: 

I read across genres but particularly enjoy literary fiction.  I’ve just reached the finale of The Apple in the Dark by Brazilian-Ukranian writer Clarice Lispector, who is an unsung literary hero in my view.  Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red is waiting in the wings. On the poetry front, I recently discovered some translations of Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos who I am both enamoured by and envious of.  He does what all poets wish to do and that is to awaken readers to something beyond the mundane; to make language say what it has not said before.

Music is very important to me and as well as WestWords, I also present a late-night music show called westgoesblue. I’m interested in most musical genres including classical of course, but I also enjoy listening to neoclassical composers such as Max Richter and minimalist ensembles like Balmorhea.  World music is a big draw, alongside jazz and folk – who could live without John Martyn?   However, if I’m feeling particularly emotional, I head straight for Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen. 

Clara Burghelea: What are your future projects?

Tracy Gaughan: 

I fulfilled a dream recently when I returned to university to complete a master’s program in International Contemporary Literatures and Media.  That experience gave me the confidence to pursue other long held dreams and ambitions.  In terms of writing, it has always been an aspiration to publish a book of poetry, so my goal right now is to put together a collection of poems for this purpose.  I have similar hopes for my short-stories and now that I think of it, it’s been almost two years since I put the first chapter of my novel into a cupboard and walked away.  It would be a challenge but an awesome project to get stuck into this year.  I’m motivated to return to WestWords with a fresh perspective now also.  I’m always looking for new ways of making poetry a living presence in people’s everyday lives, so I would love to take it out of the studio and develop it into a kind of pop-up situation with live music and performance poetry.  My home city, Galway, will be the European Capital of Culture in 2020, so I’m hoping there will be lots of opportunities to take poetry and literature to the community in these novel ways! 

Clara Burghelea: What advice would you offer to an emerging/aspiring poet?

Tracy Gaughan: 

I think you develop your own praxes as a writer, but if you wish to progress from being an occasional poet to a professional one, that is, adopting a professional attitude, then you need to give yourself every chance to develop.  I would suggest reading good books and reading widely.  This will help you find your own unique style and voice.   Try not to compare yourself to other writers – we all have our own unique perspective.  Write regularly, both mentally and physically.  This involves planning a routine that works for you.  Early mornings, evenings, whatever it is, stick to it and protect it from other people and things that might be vying for your attention.   Revision is also important.  It separates the amateurs from the professionals.    Spend more time alone with yourself.  Be quiet and concentrate – let the inner voice become audible, as Wendell Berry would say.  Walk.  Mindfully, I mean.  Notice the snail, the hedge, the sparrow – there is magic in everything.  The mind wanders with the body, it produces thoughts.  Some of my best ideas and ways of structuring them come while walking.  Develop confidence, trust yourself and value your work.   Also, try not to operate in a vacuum.  Writer’s groups are not for everyone, but valuable to dip into every now and again.  The right one can offer opportunities for good feedback and criticism and you find out what your contemporaries are doing.  If you’re fortunate, you may even make new friends.  Most of all, poetry is an apprenticeship, so be patient with yourself.  Persevere.  You can do it!

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