Writer’s Block With Alice Kinsella

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to ALICE KINSELLA about her escapes, FAVOURITE POETS and how MENTAL ILLNESS brought her to poetry …

Alice Kinsella is an Irish poet and playwright whose creative buds have not only bloomed, but are flourishing. Her debut poetry collection, Flower Press, is a potent book of twenty-five poems; full of heart, stunning imagery and raw emotion. Even though Alice has been active as a writer for a relatively short time, her words have quickly captured the attention of Ireland’s literary elite.

Sinéad Gleeson has called the collection, “intimate, lyrical and full of pathos, Alice Kinsella brings an otherworldly quality to the quotidian, in work that is unsettling and transformative. Flower Press is a debut of rare beauty, revealing multiple epiphanies and the power of the poet’s wielded pen.”

Katie Donovan has said, “Like the flower press of the title, this collection opens to reveal vivid snapshots of youth, replete with sensuous, rural ritual; and the awakening of unselfconscious love…”

Alice sought salvation in poetry during a particularly dark time in her late teens; an occupation that has soothed many a wounded soul over the centuries. The result is an elegant, compact composition of three parts – Bud, Bloom and Blood.

Alice’s words have appeared in publications such as; The Irish Times, A New Ulster, Banshee, Headspace magazine, The Fem literary magazine, Poetry NI Holocaust Memorial Anthology, Poethead, Icarus, Headstuff, The Galway Review, The Sunday Independent, Skylight47, Boyne Berries, Live Encounters magazine, and The Ofi Press.

In 2016, Alice was the assistant editor of Looking at the Stars, an anthology of Irish writing edited by fellow poet Kerrie O’Brien, to raise funds for the Rough Sleeper Team of the Dublin Simon Community. That same year, Alice’s debut play The Passing was staged at What’s the Story at the Liberties Festival, the Cruthú Arts Festival and the Temple Bar Culture and Arts Festival. In 2017, Alice was the SICCDA Liberties Festival Writer-In-Residence, she received a John Hewitt bursary, and The Passing was shown as part of the Little Shadow Theatre’s New Irish Playbook.

Alice Kinsella was born in Dublin, raised in County Mayo, and currently divides her time between Dublin, Mayo and Sligo. She has a BA (Hons) in English Literature and Philosophy from Trinity College Dublin and is currently completing her MA in Writing at NUI Galway.

Flower Press (€10.30) is published by The Onslaught Press and also available from Amazon.co.uk and selected bookshops nationwide.

On home

Currently I split my time between Dublin, Mayo, and Sligo. The meaning of home has changed for me in this last year. In Dublin I live in a sleepy estate in Dublin 5. I like to go into town, sometimes work in Trinity library. The Hop House is my favourite spot for food or drink. Books Upstairs café for coffee and quiet. In Mayo when not at home I love going for walks, Moore Hall near me or Old Head Beach in Louisburgh are favourites since I was a child.

My partner lives in Sligo and it has quickly become a third home for me. I’m sitting out in the back garden now in some rare Connaught sunshine. Sligo is incredibly beautiful, full of little cafés and galleries. We like to go to Ósta by the river for coffee, and on Sundays go out to Strandhill to the market, go for a walk by the sea, and lunch at Shells.

On roots

My roots, my family, my heritage is Dublin. Walking on Sandymount strand, the smell of horses in the liberties, the back lanes behind the estate, lucky bags and the singing of the ice-cream truck. Even after we moved we spent a lot of time in Dublin with family.

When I was five we moved to an old farmhouse in rural Mayo that my parents did up themselves. I was a very outdoorsy child. I climbed trees, stone walls, buildings, anything I could, really. I knew all the names of the animals and plants. When I think of there now I think of the sound of the seasonal stream trickling, the swallows darting in and out of the barn, the air when the leaves on the beech trees come out colouring everything green, turf smoke, the sounds of calves and lambs in the fields, crows and starlings. It’s a wonderful place.

On creating

I do most of my writing in Mayo. My home office is tiny and brilliant. One wall is all bookshelves. There’s a knock-off chesterfield in the corner that the cat constantly steals.  I have an old Ikea desk that’s come with me to every house I’ve lived in.

On the desk I have books relevant to what I’m working on, shells, candles, pens. Above the desk there’s pictures and postcards, just a select few, a postcard from Hayworth, a Rembrandt etching, a photo of my partner, some others. Behind the door there’s plans and sketches and lists. My crazy writer wall.

When I’m away I write on the move, in the library in Trinity, by the sea pretty much anywhere. So much of writing, especially poetry, is catching images and lines down when they float along. In that way the writing never stops.

On bookshops 

I love everything about Books Upstairs in Dublin. Independent bookshops do so much for writers and readers and publishers in Ireland. I have soft spots for so many: Gutter bookshop, Books@One in Louisburgh, Bookmart in Sligo to name just a few.

Books Upstairs is like a second home for me. Flower Press was launched there. I’d say every third book on my bookshelf comes from there. They have a café upstairs and the staff are just incredibly kind and generous with their time and all they do for the writing community.  

On her “To Be Read” pile

I’m dying to read Problems by Jade Sharma. Tramp Press are the gift that Irish readers needed and every book they publish goes straight to the top of my to-be-read pile.

My poetry pile is ridiculously high. I usually read a collection once through and then keep it nearby to dip in and out of for a few months (or years) afterwards.

The book I’m most excited to read that’s coming out soon is Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind on Fire. The subject matter is not just interesting, it’s vital, especially for an Irish audience. I’ve read Arnold’s work in journals. I’m a big fan of his style, humour, and sheer bloody cleverness!

On escapes

My Daideo is from the Iveragh Peninsula in Co Kerry. It’s my favourite place in the world. My family goes to Valentia Island most summers. My grandparents rent a house and the whole family kind of falls over each other for a couple of weeks. The bookshop, jumping off the pier, Glanleam gardens, the candle factory, all things I look forward to every year.

I was incredibly lucky to have a residency in Cill Rialaig artists’ residency this February thanks to Listowel Writers’ Week. It’s just a few miles from where my grandfather is from. I spent ten days in a refurbished famine cottage on a cliff edge. Every morning I took a cup of coffee out and walked up Bolus head, generally shooing some sheep back into the fields as I went. When the light began to fade I’d go in and light the turf fire and write for hours. I got so much work done. I’ve never felt more myself. I’d live there if I could.

On poetry

Poetry gives us truth, I think. Poetry is distilled. There’s no faffing in a good poem, no unnecessary waffling. You can get a proper gut punching epiphany from just a few lines of text. That’s still so amazing to me.

I was really tempted to use this entire answer to list favourite poets, there are so many! Mary O’Donnell, Liz Quirke, Elaine Feeney, Alvy Carragher, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Kerrie O’Brien, Hollie McNish, Denise Riley, Sharon Olds, Maggie Smith, Anne Tannam, Jessica Traynor, Melissa Lee-Houghton. It would have been easier to just send you a picture of my bookshelf wouldn’t it?

Incredibly clever women whose work is generous in ideas while also being intricate and beautiful. 

On process 

I think that writers are absolutely influenced by their personal life, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that work is confessional or for therapeutic reasons. Writing what you know doesn’t always mean autobiographical writing. Poets, I think anyway, have more control over what they’re putting across than they let on. It’s one of the reasons I love poetry so much. A poem may seem vulnerable and intimate, but you can bet the poet knew exactly what she was presenting when she published it.

Saying that, I have found writing incredibly helpful in that respect… it’s an ongoing internal debate for me, how much to give away…

It’s the wonderful thing about drafts in poetry. The first draft can be incredibly personal and raw, which is the cathartic part in my experience, and in subsequent drafts the poem can develop to say what the poet wants it to say.

On Flower Press

Flower Press is a narrative collection. It’s a story with a beginning, middle and end. It’s about the loss of innocence, primarily. It’s also about grief and guilt and the countryside and young love. A poet friend described it to me as “one long love poem.” He’s not wrong.

Mental illness brought me to poetry (though it doesn’t really appear in these poems). I was doing a lot of introspection at the time that the first poems in Flower Press emerged. Learning a lot about the subjectivity of memory, especially in childhood. That’s a part of what inspired Flower Press, how childhood shapes our adult lives. I was trying to solve an unsolvable problem, the poems were collateral in the beginning, and then they became the focus. 

What’s next on the horizon?

It’s been a really busy year, I’m looking forward to slowing down a bit. I’m finishing up my MA in Writing at NUI Galway. I’m reading at a couple of festivals over the next few months, have a few poems coming out in journals, and some other projects brewing.

The next book is preoccupying my thoughts at the moment. It’s my first full-length collection (Flower Press is only twenty-five poems). This collection is longer, more complex, and I can feel myself coming into my own voice more as the collection develops. I’ve been working on it for a few years and I’m in no rush with it.

I’ve been thinking about how quickly this all goes, life I mean. An idea that used to terrify me. We don’t get a second go around. That motivates me to do the things I want to do, and there’s so much I want to get done.

@SophieGrenham

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