Irish poet, Leeanne Quinn speaks to Tracy Gaughan about literary history, art as consolation and why she never lets herself away with anything in her poems.
You are an Irish poet currently living in Munich. What sparked the move? What is the literary scene like over there and is there anything about the Germanic tradition that inspires you?
We moved here for work purposes. My wife is an academic and the move came about as a result of an opening at LMU Munich. Academia can be a precarious job so we always knew we would probably have to leave Dublin at some point. Munich is a beautiful city though, with a long literary and cultural history. The literary scene here is very vibrant, especially in relation to poetry. The Lyrik Kabinett houses the second largest collection of poetry in Europe and holds regular events and readings. Then there’s the Literaturhaus which hosts the annual Munich Literature Festival, which like a lot of other events is cancelled this year due to the pandemic. In terms of inspiration, the title poem of my second collection engages with the German Expressionist poet Jakob van Hoddis and his 1911 poem ‘Weltende’. I’ve also been reading a lot of German poets and German language poets, and making my own translations as a way of learning the language. I’ve been translating – or trying to translate – the poetry of Inge Müller, whose work appears direct but is deceptively complex.
Can you reveal some of the facts of your life, such as: when and where you were born, what you’ve studied, what sorts of books you read as a child and which ones influenced you most?
I was born in Drogheda, Co Louth. I grew up there and in Monasterboice where we later moved as a family. I didn’t read very much as a child. My sister was the reader in our household. I much preferred to be outside, and the outdoors had a much greater influence on my imagination at this point than the world of books. I found books quite terrifying and the experience of reading them claustrophobic and overwhelming. It wasn’t until my teens that I came to really enjoy reading. I had to play catch-up then on all the books that my sister had read. I studied English at University. I did my undergraduate degree at University College Dublin. I went on then to University College Cork for a Master’s degree, and then back to Dublin where I studied for a PhD in American literature, on the work of Philip Roth.
When did you first encounter poetry? Has writing taught you anything about yourself that hadn’t occurred to you before?
My first encounter with poetry occurred in school. I loved poetry. Herbert and Hopkins were my favourite poets in school. Aside from Emily Dickinson, I had very little exposure to women poets in school which I think was still sadly typical of Irish schools in the nineties. It wasn’t really until university that the full lineage of women poets was made fully accessible to me. I took an undergraduate seminar on Irish women poets with Dr. Moynagh Sullivan and that really changed so much for me. I also started reading a lot more European and American poetry at this point. In terms of what writing has taught me, it has probably made me much more aware of the obsessive nature of my personality, but I think this is very helpful as a writer because you become completely engaged and absorbed in the process, to the point where you are almost no longer present.
From Wordsworth to Snyder, there’s always been a strong connection between walking and poetry. ‘My pace provokes my thoughts’, Edward Hirsh wrote in 2011. And, I note that you walked all 800km of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. Can you talk a little about the experience and how it facilitated your writing. Also, you mentioned taking Louise Glück’s A Village Life, along with you. Why that book?
When I set out on the walk, I knew that a really challenging physical experience lay ahead. There was a heatwave the month we walked which generally meant starting your day at 4am so you could reach the next destination by midday, before it became too hot to walk. That heat, and the changing landscape of the walk is something that has really stayed with me. I didn’t write at all during the walk, I became a bit adverse to note taking. Maybe because I wanted to experience it in its immediacy. Afterwards, when I arrived home, I did write up some notes and a few poems about the walk. I’m really interested in Hirsh’s quote that pace ‘provokes my thoughts’. I run a lot and many of my poems have been worked out or even finished on long runs. Another thing I became very interested in after the walk was women and walking, historically and in the present day. I’ve just started reading a new book on this by Kerri Andrews called Wanderers: A History of Women Walking. Walking poses a very different challenge if you’re female. Your perception of the landscape is often quite different, for instance, the first question you might need to ask yourself is, is this a safe landscape for me? After I returned from the Camino I read about an American woman who went missing on the walk and it later emerged that she had been abducted and murdered. That really left me feeling quite desolate. So there’s really many aspects to my thinking and feelings around that whole experience. As for the book I brought with me, I love Louise Glück’s poetry so this wasn’t a difficult decision. The UK edition had just come out with Carcanet that summer and I couldn’t wait to read it. When I think back now the poems seem almost etched onto the landscape of that walk.
Furthermore, for centuries the poetic canon was dominated by male voices and a ‘woman poet’ was a paradox. What does it mean for women’s literature that Glück has won the 2020 Nobel Prize?
I think it means a great deal and it builds on Olga Tokarczuk’s win in 2018. Literary summations and literary histories are still often bookended by male names, in Ireland the trajectory is from Yeats to Heaney. I remember once as a postgraduate I was asked by someone to recommend a single ‘very good’ poem by a female poet to serve as a kind of token inclusion to a course on 20th century poetry that consisted solely of male poets. I was really struck not only by the fact that they wanted a singular example, as though the entirety of 20th century poetry written by women could be summed up in a single poem, but also by the qualifier ‘very good’, as though very good poems by women poets were an anomaly rather than a given. I think the vocabulary of praise used for male poets is often notably different than the vocabulary used when speaking about women poets. Things have of course improved in many respects, but I think full inclusivity still has some way to go.
Charles Simic talks about his poems in terms of chess, suggesting that they depend for their success ‘on word and image being placed in proper order and their endings having the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate.’ What do your poems depend on? What determines their success?
Poems, as you are writing them, can often feel like intricate puzzles or problems you are trying to work out or solve. I think my poems depend on alignment or a feeling of alignment, that all the pieces of the puzzle are where they should be and some sense can now be made of it. At the same time, I’m not sure if these comparisons can fully account for the mystery of poetry. In terms of success with a poem, this is an instinctive feeling – which I again identify with alignment. These two poles, alignment and misalignment, are really my guides. When something feels misaligned, I know the poem will not be one I keep. I know that I have let the poem down in some way and I’m left with a feeling of disappointment that I couldn’t do justice to the idea, the image, or the language of the poem.
In 2018 you had the opportunity to spend time on Achill Island as Writer in Residence at the Heinrich Böll cottage. Did you enjoy the solitude? How important are retreats such as these for writers?
My stay at the Böll cottage was an incredible experience, it really changed so much for me in terms of my writing. I had been working in an administrative job and had really been floundering in terms of finding adequate time to write. Despite trying to write before and after work there just wasn’t enough time in the day for concentrated periods of writing, periods in which I could write badly and know that I would have time to push through. Whereas in the Böll cottage my whole day was structured around reading and writing. Within two days I was again writing poems that felt right to me. I wrote a poem every day while there. Everything seemed to click back into place there. Achill is without a doubt one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. It’s breathtaking, and I didn’t mind the solitude at all. Our dog was with me for the whole stay, and then my wife came to stay towards the end. You don’t have to cut yourself off from your family to go there, unless of course you want to! But the importance of these retreats really can’t be overstated. Retreats push your writing to the centre, and for once everything else becomes secondary.
Which writer/s would you most like to have a coffee with?
I’m going to pick two. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Paula Meehan. Though I would probably be quite awkward and quiet in a situation like this, I would be very happy to sit and listen to their conversation.
You’ve published two collections with Dedalus, Before You (2012) and Some Lives (2020) and your work has been described as ‘clear-sighted’ ‘observant’ ‘pitch perfect’ and ‘challenging’ – are these fair approximations? How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer in the years between collections and are you happy with the way poetry criticism has perceived you?
I think the two books are quite different in style. I think with Some Lives I was more clear-sighted in terms of what I wanted from the poems and in terms of my overall sense of the collection. That said, the second collection was much more challenging to write. But I wanted that challenge, I wanted to push myself. With first collections you have no experience of having written a collection and you’re a little in the dark, I think, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely different to the experience and feel of writing a second book. So much happens between a first and second book, your expectations may change, your understanding of the process of publishing will have evolved, even your relationship to poetry may have changed and evolved. In terms of how the poems have been perceived I think it’s a privilege to have my poems read at all so I’m very grateful to anyone who reads them, and I always hope that they will find their readers. But once the book leaves you, you have very little control over how it is perceived. And you don’t want to drive yourself to distraction or despair by seeking out these perceptions. I think once the book is gone from you, while the hope remains that it will be read and positively received, and that readers will engage with the work, the priority once again becomes the writing and that’s where my focus returns to.
The lives of poets who lived and died in the brutal world of early 20th century Russia haunt your new book, Some Lives (2020, Dedalus). Can you talk a little about the genesis of this collection, your interest in Russian poetic culture and what it is about these courageous writers’ ability to express and resist trauma that spoke to you?
It took me a long time to be able to write the poems for Some Lives. While the majority of the book was actually written over a two-and-a-half-year period, it took me nearly six years to get to that point of writing, to a point where everything came together for me and felt right. So the book, in that sense, has really been eight years in the making. I have long been interested in Russian poetic culture. I love reading poetry in translation, and I love literary histories and literary biographies. Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva were extraordinary poets writing in extraordinary times. Their styles differ vastly and I find the particular sensibilities found in their individual poetry so unique and appealing. I feel drawn to their work in ways I can’t fully articulate. Their lives, of course, are of huge interest. How could they not be? Such difficult and harrowing lives but yet poetry remained at the centre of these lives. This in itself is astounding.
Loss, memory and art are common themes in your work and in Cave of the Fir Bolg – your ekphrasis on Nano Reid – you traverse the landscape of myth. How important is your Irish heritage to your imagination and work?
I think we are all influenced by what has informed us. I suppose it’s how I understand myself linguistically and geographically, how I situate myself in the world, for want of a better compass. There are definitely things I love and hold dear in that identity, and things that I struggle with. Right now in Ireland we are in a period of commemoration and there has been such brilliant work done recently on reassessing Irish cultural and political history, especially in relation to women, and the appalling treatment of women and children by the Irish state in mother and baby homes, together with the sexual violence enacted on women during both the War of Independence and the Civil War. I have found this ongoing redress immensely important and affecting. You can love or loathe where you come from, but either way I think it’s important to interrogate and explore that attachment, or detachment as the case may be. My engagements with Nano Reid’s paintings have brought me into the heart of 20th century Ireland. The stifling atmosphere of the forties and fifties, how difficult it was to be an artist in the country at this time, how difficult it was to be a female artist. But Nano Reid’s work also brings me to the very specific landscapes where I grew up, the landscapes of home, the myths and lore of that landscape, which I recognise and love.
Your poems are replete with clarifying gestures and you seem drawn to moments of contemplation, like in Peculiar Alphabets, Could be or September for instance, where the secular experience of looking out a window has a reverential aura. Does writing have a spiritual aspect for you?
I think I’m interested in the elemental nature of things, and I suppose the spiritual has a tie to this. A lot of this has to do with a type of wonder and fascination with irreconcilable realities. The fact that we inhabit a planet at all is a strange thing for me to get my head around, that we are hurtling through space on a lump of molten rock and yet as humans our response to this reality has been to come up with a series of stratified political and economic systems designed to control and oppress each other. This seems like a really disappointing response to the actual intricacies and possibilities of the natural world we inhabit, to our place in it, and our place in the wider universe. So maybe that sense of reverence in the natural world, in the contemplative, is an attempt to get beyond this disappointment. I suppose art is the consolation, or even the apology, for all the bad we’ve done as humans. It offers an alternative, or at least tries to offer an alternative.
Would you agree with poet William Stafford’s suggestion that poetry has less to do with skill/intellect and more to do with having faith enough to daydream out loud? What advice would you offer writers?
I like the idea of de-hierarchising the intellect and maybe moving the focus to emotional and imaginative intelligences. I also know that poems take work, hours and hours of work, and if you’re not putting this time in maybe you are letting yourself away with something and in doing so cheating the poem a bit, or depriving it of the chance to be a better poem. So the advice I can offer is the advice I go by myself – don’t let yourself away with anything in your poems. The collections I admire most are ones where those hours and hours of work are present and identifiable in the very effortlessness of the writing, the work that went into achieving this effortlessness. These are the books I enjoy reading the most.
Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I have an obsessive interest in vintage mechanical watches. I read everything I can find about vintage watches. The watch I wear is over 70 years old. I love how it has a story that is completely unknown to me. I often wonder about the lives these watches accompanied and am amazed how they are still going strong after all these years.
What’s next for Leeanne Quinn? Are you working on anything at present that you would like to share with our readers?
I’m writing a longer sequence of poems now on the paintings of Nano Reid. Reid was born in 1900 and died in 1981. Her life spans such an integral part of the 20th century, not just in Ireland but in Europe also. She painted during most of the major historical events of the 20th century. I find this very compelling and I’m interested to see where the poems take me and how they expand outward from the paintings into the larger historical moment.
You can read a selection of Leeanne Quinn’s poetry here