Writer’s Block with Jessica Traynor

Sophie Grenham speaks to JESSICA TRAYNOR about childhood reading, The Abbey and political poetry …

 

Jessica Traynor is an award-winning poet, creative writing teacher and freelance dramaturg. Born and raised in Dublin, she was the Literary Manager of the Abbey Theatre, where she read hundreds of plays written by new and established talent. Traynor’s poetry has been published prolifically in anthologies and journals and broadcast regularly on RTÉ’s Arena. In 2009, she was chosen for the Poetry Ireland Introduction Series, and was the recipient of a Dublin City Council Literature Bursary in 2010. She won the Single Poem Competition at Listowel Writers’ Week in 2011, was named Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year in 2013, and received the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary in 2014.

Jessica’s plays have been produced by Anu Productions, her prose has been commissioned by The Salvage Press, and she has contributed essays to We Are Dublin, Arena, and the Women of Letters Anthology (Penguin Australia). She teaches and mentors writers through such institutions as the Big Smoke Writing Factory, the Irish Writers’ Centre and IADT.

Her debut poetry collection, Liffey Swim (Dedalus Press, 2014), was shortlisted for the Strong/Shine Award in 2015. Her new book of verse, The Quick (2018), has been held in high esteem by the Irish literary community ever since its release. Traynor’s conscientious words are a real privilege to experience; one encounters the surreal and the sinister, alongside the domestic and the human, with occasional jolts of sardonic humour.

Helen Mort has said of the work – “Visionary, luminous and haunted, Jessica Traynor’s poems are home to a host of compelling characters: witches, changelings, the spirit of Hildegard of Bingen. In The Quick, even the grotesque is rendered with subtle delicacy – a woman whose ‘lungs fold like an origami bird.’ These poems will give you goose-bumps.” 

Jessica Traynor lives in Ballybough, Dublin with her husband Declan and their daughter Abigail. She is currently the Deputy Museum Director at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.

The Quick (€12.50) is published by Dedalus Press and available from all good bookshops.

The Art of Spoken Word with Karl Parkinson and Jessica Traynor starts on February 27 at the Irish Writers’ Centre. For course details, visit www.irishwriterscentre.ie.

On home

I’m currently in the process of saying a long goodbye to the house in Ballybough where myself and my partner have lived for ten years, and our daughter Abigail has lived since her birth sixteen months ago. It’s a part of the city that inspired a lot of the poems in my first collection Liffey Swim. We live in a red brick cottage almost directly underneath a railway bridge. To the front of the house is a busy main road, to the back a surprisingly uncluttered skyline above the railway embankment. Coming up to Christmas we tend to drop everything and run up to the bedroom to wave at the Santa Express. I feel like the image of the old steam train in the midst of this slightly worn out urban landscape really sums up Ballybough – history jostling up through the cracks in the pavement. I’ll miss our local, Gaffney’s, for the old-man Guinness in bottles, and Kennedy’s in Fairview for coffees.

On roots

I was born in Tallaght, and when I was two we moved down to a house in Rathgar that had been in six flats. When we moved in, there were holes in the ceilings, rats, cockroaches, you name it. But it was a beautiful house on the square James Joyce was born on, with the kind of aesthetic features you just don’t get in modern buildings. My most tactile memory of the house is that halfway up the stairs there was a knot-hole in one of the balustrades that my thumb fit into exactly, as if it had been cut for me, and I would often sit there just holding onto the balustrade and staring out through the fanlight of the house, which was about eye-level from that far up the stairs. The house was sold when my parents separated and living in Rathgar was definitely the peak of our social mobility! Unfortunately, I’ve little reason to go back there now.

On childhood reading

Both my parents read to me as I was lucky enough to grow up in a book-mad household. The Narnia books and anything by Roald Dahl would have been early favourites. I think these genres still constitute the two ends of my adult reading spectrum – the metaphysical and the absurd.

On creating

At the moment, I sit in my front room to write. It’s a long rectangular room that just about fits two sofas. It’s unusual in its layout as the chimney piece faces the window, creating a weird pinch-point in the centre of the room. I sit on the sofa facing the door, with the fireplace to my left and the window to my right. Through the window I can see the railway bridge and the tall houses across the road, and a lot of sky. The cat often sits on the window sill whickering at the pigeons that nest under the railway bridge. I chose this room to work in because it’s the most comfortable room in the house, and I like to work with a bit of noise around me – mostly the TV in the background. I know this sounds like sacrilege, but I hate the idea of shutting myself away when working. Everyone knows not to interrupt me when I’m in full flow, but I’m happy for conversations to be taking place around me.

The prominent features in the room are the small black cast iron fireplace, one of the only Victorian features left in the house (which was gutted by previous owners). Then there’s a bookcase (overflowing), two grey sofas and a Turkish rug which was once very lovely and is now very threadbare. For a chance of scene, I’d probably try to get to a Writer’s Retreat like the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, but never for more than a week – I like to write in short, intense bursts.

On her favourite bookshop

Books Upstairs, which I visit as often as I can! They’re true supporters of Irish and international poetry and a lovely oasis on a busy thoroughfare. I love their internet-free café too.

On her “To Be Read” pile

At the moment I’m dipping in and out of lots of books I got for Christmas: a number of poetry books including The Carrying by Ada Limon, The Buried Breath by Ciaran O’Rourke, Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith, My Private Property by Mary Ruefle and Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry edited by Rebecca Tamás. I’m also about to start Flatland by Edwin A. Abbot, an intriguingly weird-sounding hundred year old maths/science fiction novel. These all deserve a read because I’ve been hoarding them for precious moments of quiet – not easy to come by with a full-time job, a toddler and a lot of writing deadlines!

On escapes

Most weekends, we walk to the Botanic Gardens with our daughter Abigail, which is one of my favourite places in Dublin, especially the walled kitchen garden. Abroad, I love to go anywhere where it’s possible to take really long walks from one place to another. In past years, that’s been Wales, Devon, Transylvania. Anywhere green where I can feel the seasons.

On The Abbey

Ah yes, that was an interesting decade! I had the privilege of working with a number of brilliant playwrights and theatre artists. I was very green when I started, and it was exciting and a bit terrifying. A while ago, I was checking the holdings in the National Library and I had the very strange experience of coming across my name in the Brian Friel papers – a lot of small items like faxes and letters between myself and Brian around the 2008 production of Three Sisters – and it threw me right back into that time, being twenty-three and so scared I would mess up that I probably didn’t enjoy the experience as much as I should have. But I do have a lot of brilliant memories that will probably go into an autobiography at some stage – once the statute of limitations runs out!

On poetry

For me, writing poetry is a way of bypassing the conscious mind and plucking a kind of truth from the unfiltered psyche – a personal truth at least. It feels like a form of divination in a way, a way of finding logic in disorder, or at least communicating your true feelings on a subject. I’m not sure I could be without it.

I think reading poetry has the same effect: of activating the subconscious and an intriguing associative drift in the mind of the reader. Everyone’s associative drift is different; sometimes you follow the writer’s intention closely, and other times you follow your own path and construe your own meanings. I think this is why poetry’s very subjectivity is so liberating.

On The Quick

The seeds for the collection were planted by a desire in me to deal with the vexed question of the political in poetry; could I write about the things that trouble me without resorting to didacticism or sloganeering? We have a great tradition of Irish political poetry that deals with big, complex, historical/political ideas – Mahon, Heaney, Clifton to name a few – but I’m not sure that this kind of poetry is necessarily fashionable at the moment, in our introspective age. And I notice that we have had fewer successful women poets writing in this vein (with notable exceptions of course – Boland, Meehan, Morrissey and others). But what I really enjoyed most about writing this book was an exploration of “badness” in figures both historical and imagined, because I think of badness as a quality that can be both negative and liberating.

On what’s next

I’m lucky enough to have a few commissions in the pipeline, including a Swift-themed commission for BBC Radio, and a libretto for Galway 2020. Another recent commission from Poetry Ireland and Chamber Choir Ireland, An Island Sings, is a song cycle I wrote with music composed by Elaine Agnew. It will be performed by six choirs from around Ireland on March 24 at the National Concert Hall.

I’ll also be visiting The Yeats Society in Sligo, the Cork International Poetry Festival and Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway this spring to give readings from The Quick.

@SophieGrenham

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