Eleanor Hooker speaks to Tracy Gaughan

Eleanor Hooker speaks to Tracy Gaughan

Irish poet and writer Eleanor Hooker speaks to Tracy Gaughan about angels and demons of creativity, what the sea teaches, and how myth and folklore guide her work.

Eleanor Hooker’s third poetry collection Mending the Light, and two chapbooks are forthcoming. She holds an MPhil (Distinction) in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. Her poems have been published in Poetry Ireland Review, POETRY magazine, PN Review, Banshee, The Stinging Fly, Agenda, and Poetry Review (forthcoming). Eleanor is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. She is a helm and Press Officer for Lough Derg RNLI lifeboat. www.eleanorhooker.com

Truth seen with passion?  The best words in the best order?  What is poetry and what does it mean to you?

At first, I thought of poetry as a safe place to house vulnerable, breakable things, a place where ideas got encrypted to prevent unauthorised access. That was a gateway thought that got me to my desk. I now know that poetry is capable of holding it all up to view – the breakable and the infrangible, the forcible and subversive, and by some alchemy, changing everything in the process.

Dylan Thomas believed that a good poem is a contribution to reality, that it ‘helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him’. Poems that achieve this often entail the worst words in the best order, or the best words in apparent disorder. Some beautiful flawless poems are perfect flat exhibits, the ‘best words in the best order’ poems, but I prefer to crawl down the dark messy passages of un-manicured verse, through to their lack of certainty, their approximations. 

Oscar Wilde said ‘All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling’ – truth and passion are many times poor bedfellows when it comes to poems.

I read poetry every day. It is an essential part of my life. For aeons, a myriad of beardy old heads wagged over the concept of the ‘aesthetic experience’. I can’t define it either, but I immediately recognise what it is when I read a devastatingly good poem – there’s a rush, a wish that you could read the poem again for the first time.

Dorothy Parker once quipped: “I hate writing, I love having written.”   What is your writing process like?  How do poems come to you and how do you develop them?

I used to write at the kitchen table, but more recently I found the perfect place down the house. I moved an old writing desk from another room, and from my seat, I can see the yard ahead through one window and the lake through another on my starboard side. There’s a powerful and positive vibe in this room and it’s where I’ve written some of my best work.

 “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.” Michael Longley

A new poem first arrives as a notion, or more frequently now as a phrase, stored in my mind or as a note on my phone. I think on it for a few days before I type a word into the computer. I research facts for certain poems, and even if the facts are not in the final poem, it’s important to know them. One of the notes on my phone is a quote from Peter (my husband): ‘Custard is a non-Newtonian fluid’. We were discussing inventing a mad vest filled with custard that could be used as a buffer against impact. I don’t know if it will ever make it into a poem, but I really liked the phrase and the discussion from which it came.

I try to get the first draft down in one or two days, followed by re-writing and editing, which can take weeks or even months. The process entails surrendering my ego and jettisoning phrases I think hotter than hades (often those are the very phrases that should be excised), so that the final poem may be profoundly different to the first draft.

Many of your poems, From My Hazel Wood, Nightmare, Nailing Wings To The Dead, for example, reverberate in landscape, myth, and folklore.  How important is your Irish heritage to your imagination and work?  How important is culture in general in shaping who we are?

My Irish heritage is deeply important to me and definitely influences my work. The way in which we tell stories, especially across generations, is evident in my writing. As a child, my Granddad told me stories about his life growing up in Kerry, the part he played in the War of Independence, and stories his Grandfather told him of the famine.

I love to read Irish myth and folklore, to observe how piseogs (which can be either a charm or a spell with evil intent), still inform our everyday lives. I like the sea-faring superstitions: that it’s unlucky to change the name of a boat, that dropping coins into the sea will bring a storm, that for good luck one should always board a boat from the right, and so on.

The idea of the ‘fetch’, a singularly Irish version of the doppelgänger, fascinates me and is a theme that runs through many of my poems.

In an attempt to influence policy in Ireland, British writers, from David Hume to John Stuart Mill, pushed a negative stereotype of the Irish as meagre, pugilistic and excessively reproductive and superstitious as a consequence of religion and ignorance. In the late 19C and early 20C, the Irish Literary Revival was born to establish a sense of national identity and pride. Yeats, Synge, and others achieved this largely by reversing the negative stereotype above and mythologizing the Irish peasant, customs, and culture.

Our folklore enables us to speak beyond the jurisdiction of politics, power, and the Church. In the unreal realm of the fairy and púca – but populated by recognizable people and rules – lies the opportunity to subvert norms, to speculate, and best of all, to believe in magic.

Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth is one of my favourite films. It employs all the fairytale tropes. In this film, the land of fairytale and reality (the Spanish Civil War) are equally brutal. The twin terrains lie so close to one another, that Ofelia must break the rules in both in order to survive the corruption of innocence. There is no happy ending, and therein lies the rub.

The Shadow Owner’s Companion (Dedalus Press) debuted in 2012, soon followed by A Tug of Blue (Dedalus Press), a collection described as introspective, mysterious, and reminiscent of Beckett and Poe for its dark themes.  Do you, like Heaney, see ‘the dark’ as something you need to traverse in order to arrive at a ‘reliable light’?

In my daily life, I have a fairly sunny disposition. I put most of the dark into my writing, and in that way the centre holds. I don’t know if I’m working towards a ‘reliable light’, or even if I would recognise it if I saw it. Creativity is often dependent upon contradictory and competing forces, and like shadows, is formed when light is blocked by an object or body.

Expanding on that theme of darkness and considering it in terms of what motivates poetic creation, when inspiration comes do you think yourself favoured by the muse or possessed by the demon of creativity?  I ask because reading your poems, in particular The Present and Guardian Angel, you make reference to demons and I’m reminded of that line in Rilke ‘If I lose my demons, I will lose my angels as well’ and I wonder which attendant spirit inspires you most?

I would like to think I am favoured, rather than possessed by the muse. Yet, whenever I finish a poem or a piece of writing, I am haunted by the fear that I may never write again. So my angels and my demons are safe. Peter knows when I’m getting ready to write new stuff, I become distracted and restless if I don’t get to my desk.

Tennessee Williams said the same thing regarding his angels and demons. Tom Waits too.

As a child, I found the idea of an omniscient Guardian Angel really quite terrifying. As Calvin says to Hobbs about Santa, ‘who is this guy, friendly elf or CIA spook?’

I love the invention of the dæmon in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the idea that each character has an animal dæmon, a physical manifestation of their consciousness and conscience. The character’s dæmon shapeshifts until puberty, at which stage it becomes fixed.

As an adult, I fancy the idea of having a bad-ass Guardian Angel, who does his own hellish stuff, hangs out when I want, but minds his own business otherwise. No snooping. My poem ‘Guardian Angel’ was written after seeing Guy Denning’s drawings. It’s never clear whether he’s drawing imperfect angels or angelic demons. And I get that with respect to the muse – imperfect angel or angelic demon. Nietzsche warned ‘Be careful when you cast out your demons that you don’t throw away the best of yourself’.

How do you approach writing about someone else’s experience and how does research inform these poems?

There is an ethical obligation in writing, particularly when writing about real people, living or dead. Over the past year, with help from Professor Linda Connolly, I’ve been working on a highly sensitive piece of historical research from 1920s Ireland. One needs also to be cognisant of cross-generational hurt when looking at the past and although the story must be told, any poems that arise from this type of work must not intentionally cause distress.

Research can overwhelm a poem if you’re not careful. Poetry must always tell the story as poetry, not as truncated prose, and that’s the challenge.

You are a helm at Lough Derg RNLI Lifeboat station in Tipperary which gives you a very different relationship with the sea than most poets have.  Can you talk to me about your work there and how it feeds your vocation as a poet?

It’s enormously rewarding to be part of this lifesaving team of volunteers.  I feel fortunate to be able to contribute to my community in this way.

After a year of intensive training, our RNLI Station on Lough Derg went live for service May 24, 2004. I’m one of the original crew since that time seventeen years ago, and I still jump whenever my pager goes off. It’s a call to action. I drop whatever it is I’m doing and go immediately.

I’m a helm on the boat, which means I’m in charge and take ultimate responsibility for what happens out on a ‘Shout’. It’s a physically and intellectually demanding role. We launch in all weather, from howling winds, sleet and snow, and driving rain, through to blistering heat and sun.

From my experience as an Intensive Care nurse and as a midwife, I’m attuned to dynamic and unpredictable situations. When we launch, we already know someone is in trouble, and when we arrive to a stricken boat, we carry nearly 200 years of RNLI life-saving wisdom with us. No Shout is routine, there is always the potential for danger, so we’re on constant alert, vigilant for any sign that the situation is changing.

The relief on the faces of casualties when we bring our boat up to theirs underscores the duty of care we now owe to bring everyone, ourselves included, safely back to shore. In a howler, fear is a rabid creature that skits and spits across the deck of a listing vessel, and the people in trouble eye it warily. Two of the most important things we take on a Shout is a reassuring smile and the confidence we can fix the situation.

There is no pretense on the lifeboat. We encounter life and death situations, we need to know our craft, train to hone our skills, and work as a team to resolve problems we encounter on a Shout. Those imperatives inform my work as a poet – elements in a poem must be earned, you can’t fake it, your readers will know and your poem will lose credibility. And to be a better writer I read constantly, I observe the world around me, and continue to learn my craft.

You’ve previously cited surrealist and mystical poets Vasko Popa and Tomas Tranströmer as influential as well as Seamus Heaney and Michael Hartnett – the wonderful ‘Insight’ in his memory, of course, premiering as a film-poem in 2017.   In terms of legacy, how do you think poets across the generations inform each other’s craft?  And, further, how do you think your writing has evolved over the course of your career?

Writers across generations inevitably inform one another’s work, as tutors and exemplars of the craft, but strong poets emerge with a clear, recognisable voice of their own. At the moment I’m immersed in the poetry of Eleanor Wilner, Maya Angelou, Linda Pastan, Nikky Finney, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Sylvia Plath, Patricia McCarthy, and Ruth Stone.

A poem is completed by its reader. When we no longer read a poet, there is a danger their work will fall into abeyance, exist in a state of suspended animation until it is enlivened again in the mind of a reader.

I think my poetry now is less afraid of itself. I pay close attention to line endings and I cringe when I look at line endings in my early poems. My gaze is more outward too. I might even be in danger of writing a truly happy poem one of these days!

Page poetry transmits a certain power yet a poem can feel especially alive when read in front of an audience. What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your written voice?  I know you curate a reading series, Rowan Tree Readings with your son, George – can you also talk to me a little about this?

If talking were an Olympic sport, I’d get a Gold for Ireland. My written voice is a controlled version of my speaking voice. One of my pet hates is that affected, constipated ‘poet’ voice that some adopt at public readings. It’s the poets’ version of the pianist weaving his body all over the piano keys, as if he needs a pee. I try to read my poetry as it stands, without affectation, allowing the words to speak themselves through me.

I was a founding member and Programme Curator for the Dromineer Literary Festival from 2004 to 2017.  When I retired from the Festival I wanted to create a small reading series, so George and I started the Rowan Tree Readings, so named for the magical qualities of the Rowan. I approached Maurice Earls, the owner of Books Upstairs, about holding the readings at his bookshop. Maurice, his daughter Luisa and their staff are an absolute joy to work with. The series is entirely self-funded and despite the modest fee, artists have always said yes. The readings take place on a Sunday afternoon, and beforehand we take the readers and musicians to the Westin Hotel for afternoon tea and a chat. Some of the poets may not have met before and it’s an ice-breaker. These readings are on hold until the pandemic has passed.

You’ve received many awards and commendations for your fiction.  Do you find you have more freedoms/permissions in prose?  What do you put into your prose that you leave out of your poetry? Is there a poetry time of day and a prose time of day? 

I love to write dialogue. There is great freedom in that, but you need to learn to listen. Prose has its own concerns: how much a sentence can carry before it sags, how to keep a paragraph liquid and moving, and how not to stack so many words that the paragraph chills and freezes in the story. I’m still learning, there’s so much to know.

For me, there’s no allotted time for poetry and prose, but if I start the day writing prose, I won’t write poetry that day.

Is there anything you wish you’d know about being a writer before you set out?  If you could do something differently as a child/teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would that be?

I’ve written creatively in some form since I was a young girl. I wish I’d had the confidence to have come out of the writing closet earlier, to have had belief in myself, and that my writing had value. That said, now I have years of experience to draw upon. And the fact is, I poured those creative urges into the creative lives of our children, reading to them, telling them stories from my head, taking them to galleries and to see plays. It’s a rare privilege to pass creativity to a new generation.

While I was still working in Intensive Care in the UK and pregnant with our youngest child, I enrolled on an Open University degree course. I went into labour at the introductory meeting, and when the course started proper, eight weeks later, Dr. Hoose asked the class ‘has the Irish girl returned’. I put up my hand. For the first six years of William’s life, I studied every evening and re-learned the art of essay writing.

Writing is a joy, but it’s also hard work that involves much editing and revision. The skill, tenacity, and determination required to achieve a First in my OU degree helped hugely in my writing life and my two subsequent Masters’s courses.

Lots of writers I know have influential advocates. I’ve never been good at courting advocacy, but I can see how it helps careers. So I keep writing, sending work out, dealing with rejections, celebrating success, and enjoying the companionship of my fellow writers.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Eleanor Hooker, poet and helm, dives into the ‘unmanicured’ places to find poetry, the way she saves lives as a helm. Great interview! I do love her admission to ‘jettison’ those ‘hotter than Hades’ phrases that may start the poem, but don’t make the final cut. A true professional.

  2. Wonderful conversation. I enjoyed this tremendously. And it gave me some ideas. I have been throwing out favourite phrases more often than I can remember. I learned this from a fellow poet who would take his ‘paring knife’ to poems and suggest painful cuts which made every poem strong.

    But I still believe in this: “At first, I thought of poetry as a safe place to house vulnerable, breakable things, a place where ideas got encrypted to prevent unauthorised access.”

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