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Chapter & Verse: The Rise of Irish Female Poets

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Despite complaint of a summer cold, poet Jessica Traynor is fresh-faced when I meet her, with a gamine hairstyle which gives her a distinct Audrey Hepburn vibe. Within minutes, we’re chatting about the current landscape of female poetry, territory Traynor, an established poet, knows like the back of her hand.

“I think in Ireland we’re still hooked into a certain kind of poetry – the lyric,” she says. “But there are other influences coming through in women’s writing. More American influences, specifically via people like SARAH CLANCY and ELAINE FEENEY, who are writing looser, more reflexive, energetic work that’s very much in dialogue with the American Beats, spooling a longer, freer line that has more of a narrative drive and the capacity to carry a little more anger. INGRID CASEY is one of the most original young voices to come out with her first collection. She writes in the vein of Sarah Clancy and Elaine Feeney: long-limbed, with really vivid imagery and inspiration.”

Anger has definitely played a large part in female poetry’s recent thematic movement. The last decade has seen recession, homelessness, mother and baby home scandals, and a campaign to legalise abortion in Ireland. Poets have long observed and immortalised the world around them, such moments in sociopolitical, clerical and medical history included.

“A lot of the time it’s simply women reacting to their own historical contexts,” Traynor tells me. “ANNEMARIE NÍ CHURREÁIN has done that, KIMBERLY CAMPANELLO has done amazing work with Motherbabyhome, and DOIREANN NÍ GHRÍOFA reclaiming historical voices. There is an anger to a greater or lesser extent in all these projects. It might not be didactic, preaching anger, but there is an anger that creates a dynamic. ALICE KINSELLA and DIMITRA XIDOUS are two of the best poets working on the body – they talk about physicality, but also the reality of sex.”

There’s a risk in poetry becoming isolated because it has a smaller audience. 

A writer’s life never exactly promised financial stability, but it’s nonetheless deflating that poets rely on arts grants, bursaries, prizes, writing residencies and modestly-waged day jobs. Traynor is certainly familiar with this reality. She was the Literary Manager of the Abbey Theatre for ten years, before becoming the Deputy Museum Director of EPIC. In that time she has published two critically acclaimed poetry collections: Liffey Swim (2014) and The Quick (2018).

Thankfully there are opportunities for poets to engage in interdisciplinary collaborations, through visual art, song, dance, theatre and film. The Salvage Press, an imprint of artist and designer Jamie Murphy, produces stunning high-end limited edition books of fine art, photography and prose. The press has commissioned poetry by Annemarie Ní Churreáin (Town), Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Nine Silences) and Traynor (A Modest Proposal).

“There are people who are doing amazing interdisciplinary work,” she says. “KERRIE O’BRIEN has always responded to visual art and developed her own visual art as well. There’s a risk in poetry of becoming quite isolated because it has a smaller audience. And often to respond to the challenge of financial income and finding and keeping work, collaboration is the best way to go about it.”

JULIE MORRISSY is a recipient of the Arts Council Next Generation Artist Award for 2018-19. She has lived in Montreal, Toronto, Minnesota and San Francisco. Her prose brings us through Europe and North America, giving us a cross-cultural experience with a unique edge. “There are a few up-and-coming writers who are changing the message slightly,” says Traynor. “Julie Morrissy I think is very influenced by the Northern American tradition to a certain extent. Slightly more avant-garde but always really engaging, witty, wry work. I don’t think anybody else is writing like Julie at the moment.”

Other names to watch are Susannah Dickey, Aoife Riach, Supriya Dhaliwal, Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, Nidhi Zak, Roisin Kelly and ERIN FORNOFF, an American spoken word artist who performed at this year’s Glastonbury Festival. “Erin Fornoff is blazing a trail as the non-traditional poet,” says Traynor. “Often we set up these false dichotomies between spoken word and page poetry. Her work is pristine on the page – it transcends that barrier. She creates this amazing sense of intimacy with the audience, so everyone feels like they’re being spoken to directly.”

Traynor and I couldn’t possibly list all the women who have made an impact lately, but it’s clear that we’ve never been so spoiled for choice.

The Quick by Jessica Traynor (€12.50, Dedalus Press) is available now.

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