Playing With Light and Time: Maura Dooley talks to Karen McCarthy Woolf

KMW: The Silvering is your fifth collection. It feels as if there is a consolidation, thematically and formally, in terms of how the work brings political, personal and ecological strands together – the poem ‘Still Life with Sea Pinks and High Tide’ springs to mind as one that is emblematic of that approach. Were there things you wanted to achieve here that you feel you’ve got to grips with in a way that may have eluded you in the past?

MD: I think that as we get older the things that we care most about become clearer. So maybe it’s inevitable that they occupy the poetry either more blatantly or more secretively. At the same time, there are matters, places and images I deliberately return to. The four characters Casey, Cullen, Ward and McKeogh, for example, who I’ve written about a few times, began as an observation of a certain generation of Irish working men living away from home. Immigrant labour. Now and again I wonder how they’re doing and go back to them to find out.

KMW: Yes, these poems start in 1969, fast forward thirty years to 1999, and now in The Silvering bring us right up to date in 2016 – one might think of them as a very concise, Irish version of ‘Our Friends in the North’! – as a social and political barometer. Forgive me if the answer is obvious, but are the characters entirely fictional or based on real people?

MD: They are fictional but based on some of the adults I remember from childhood and the lives of friends and extended family. I’m very interested in the toing and froing aspect of diaspora families.

KMW: You also follow an election narrative across collections – starting with 1984 and the miners’ strike in Life Under Water (2008), then looping back to ‘Life and Land, Thursday May 3rd 1979’ as a companion piece to the brutally spare six-liner ‘Grass, Thursday May 7th 2015’ in The Silvering. I say ‘brutally spare’ because there’s a sense of fury that intensifies in that brevity – yet, in their chronological accumulation over the years, they combine to be a larger work of witness, if I might put it that way?

MD: ‘May 1997’ in Life Under Water was written after the Labour landslide victory, which for many people seemed a time of hope and possibility. ‘May 2007’ was written ten years on, after the Labour leadership election when Blair resigned and Brown took over; it’s a sigh of disappointment and embarrassment at my own naivety. The ‘1979’ poem was a commission from Carol Ann Duffy for an anthology marking the Queen’s Golden Jubilee (Jubilee Lines, Faber); each poet was given a particular year to write about or from. Mine happened to be the year in which I was first able to vote. May, in Yorkshire, and it snowed. Margaret Thatcher came into power. I took the snow as a sign of what was to come.

KMW: Amongst the anger, there’s also a ‘darkly silver trail’, running from poem to poem, and book to book, that suggests hope – if not in the political landscape, then in poetry, as an art form that can capture the emotional current of the times. Are you an optimist? And do you think that poetry is a possibility as an agent of political or ethical activism?

MD: I was living in Yorkshire in 1984 at the time of the Miners’ Strike. What is perhaps harder to see looking back now, as we do, from an historic perspective is the pure spite that was somehow mixed into the Government’s handling of what was a personal, economic and social disaster for whole communities. More than that though, it turned this country into a nation of people who think of ourselves now, in many different contexts, as Us and Them. It made me angry then; it makes me angry now. Is poetry useful in articulating that? Ian Duhig wrote stirringly, recently, in Poetry London about the necessity of bearing witness. The more recent ‘Grass’, after the 2015 Election, whilst it came from the same feeling of fury, is also about asserting strength from beneath. So yes, I’m an optimist.

KMW: The Silvering is your first collection since Life Under Water in 2008 and I was interested to read that you tend to write slowly. Is that consistently so, or does it depend?

MD: There are definitely times when it all feels more possible and happens more easily. What is that? Mood? Magic? My family, close and extended, is a big part of my life. I have children; I work. All of this takes time. Would I write more and write more quickly under different circumstances? I don’t know. Poetry is of central importance to me but it isn’t everything.

KMW: You’re a Reader in Creative Writing at Goldsmith’s and I wondered how your work as an academic ties into your writing life – as a positive force, and possibly also as a challenge?

MD: The students are great. Discussing writing with them keeps it ever vital for me, brings to my attention things I might have missed, sharpens my critical faculties. It gives me great pleasure. It takes up time; that’s simply a fact. Universities these days are administratively heavy and it is hard work but it is a privilege; I never forget that fact.

KMW: Given that academic writing and criticism tends towards a more extended mode stylistically, did you have to work at sustaining a simplicity of expression?

MD: Simplicity of expression has always been important to me. I want the poems to be complex but lucid and fluent to an intelligent reader who is not necessarily usually a reader of poetry. I work harder at that aspect than almost any other.

KMW: It’s good also to see lots of short poems in the book. I love short poems and think we don’t see enough of them – perhaps because they are so hard to achieve. This prompts me to think and ask about editing – whether you tend to write short, or write long and cut back hard?

MD: Some arrive as a shortish kind of lyric – that little run of dream poems for example – but that’s because they are just moments, glimpses really. I work hard to make them musical. Others are baggy with several different ideas maybe. Then it’s a matter of endless drafting to knock them into shape.

KMW: I noticed that ‘Setting the Moth Trap’ is a poem made of a number of linked haiku. That makes me curious about your process – do you keep a journal? Or write haiku as an exercise – in the way a musician might practice scales?

MD: I was asked to write some haiku for a project based at Shandy Hall, Coxwold, home of Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristam Shandy and an active centre for the development of experimentation in writing. The poems take off from some of the species identified from moth-trapping in the gardens. I didn’t much like moths and I didn’t much like haiku. The enthusiasm of curator Patick Wildgust converted me
to both and even persuaded me to introduce a haiku workshop at Goldsmiths in partnership with Yamanashi University in Kofu, Japan.

KMW: I spent summer 2015 in residence at the National Maritime Museum, responding to an exhibit on migration and thinking about how to approach the associated macro-political complexities within the remit of lyric poetry – how to weave in something authentic and felt, without overstating the personal – something I think you do very seamlessly in your work. The poems carry their political freight lightly. I’ve been thinking recently that in these particularly pressing times, there seems to be more openness towards politically alert poetry in the UK right now
– and I wondered if that’s a sea change you’ve also discerned?

MD: Definitely. On line, particularly. The Poems for Corbyn pamphlet – poems my students are writing – the way that Warsan Shire’s poem ‘Home’ has been taken up and quoted in unexpected places – the response to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. But I don’t think it is surprising. We are living in very difficult, unstable times. Poetry has always been the form that people have turned to in extremis. It may be more overt again at the moment but it’s always been there. After all, it’s Chaucer who Patience Agbabi revisits in her wonderful Telling Tales collection. Tony Harrison, Douglas Dunn and Ken Smith were essential reading when I was beginning. Helen Mort, Imtiaz Dharker, David Herd, Hannah Lowe, Jackie Kay, Sarah Howe are different kinds of poets, all politically engaged in different ways. What a poet like Daljit Nagra (‘Did you make me for the gap in the market? / Did I make me for the gap in the market?’) has explored in his use of Punglish, or Ian Duhig has demonstrated in his melding of irony and scholarship, is the poet’s confidence to speak up and speak out. There is less conformity now, more space for different form, a greater variety of voices but there is also more competition to be heard. Language is powerful and if sometimes it is the only power we have to use, then we must use it well.

KMW: Thinking then about platforms, and the shape poetry might take in the future – do you think that the digital revolution might mean poetry reverts to its roots in orality, as people view and listen on phones and devices? That goes back also to the idea about simplicity of expression – I worked in radio for a while, and the rule is always to keep it simple, choosing Anglo Saxon words over Latinates for example. Perhaps the type of poem being written might change too?

MD: I think poetry and form changes all the time. Language is a truly lovely flexible thing and our need for it, use of it and pleasure in it will ensure that that is always so. I don’t believe that simplicity of expression necessarily equals ease of understanding. I’d hate to suggest that there should be rules of any kind, except perhaps for form – even then a skew-whiff sonnet can be just as rewarding as a regular one. I like to hear poetry aloud – whether that is performed or just read. But there are many different ways of writing and reading. Sitting quietly with a book, taking in the words in your own time, reading and rereading the same words so that their layers of meaning are slowly released; to me this is an essential experience. Paul Muldoon or Geoffrey Hill are the poets usually mentioned as needing the reader to work hard in partnership to unlock the nuances and allusions of the work. But any poem should be read with that kind of attention, even if some prove to be more worthy of it than others!

KMW: You’ve talked a little about coming from a literary family – and I wondered if you might expand on that here – in terms of how it shaped your habit as both a reader and a writer?

MD: Ah no, not a literary family, a family of readers. It was a busy house. My brothers are older than me and I took in a lot of their tastes and influences in music, poetry and books by osmosis. Our parents loved poetry, were of the generation that had a lot of poetry by heart. They gave each other poetry when they first met – the Rubaiyat, the Golden Treasury – ordinary enough stuff at the time, not just tokens though, they actually read them. My parents were ‘the common reader’; we went to the library every Saturday. They were born into poor Irish families in Swansea. Their key idea was that education is everything (It is!) but their reading and love for poetry was not aspirational in that sense. It was bread and butter – enjoyable, necessary for a healthy life.

KMW: That’s a vital distinction! Your poetry also references a lot of writers, from Thom Gunn, Alan Garner and Dickens to Walt Whitman and Robert Louis Stevenson. It feels like we get, to use your phrase, a ‘glimpse’ of personal narrative/autobiography too from the way you describe the relationship with particular books or authors?

MD: Yes, I’ve always done that I think – Asa Benveniste, Emily Bronte, John Berryman, Daphne du Maurier, Wallace Stevens – but don’t read too much into that! It’s usually just that something I’ve read has sparked a thought about something else – as Michael Donaghy put it, ‘the past falls open anywhere’. I don’t really have an agenda. I write about what turns up.

KMW: How lovely to discover ‘At Streatham Hill Station’ in The Silvering! Apart from that being my local train stop – so a landscape I know well – it also seems representative of the blur between personal narrative and a sense of literary history and geography in your work. I love the ambiguity of the Johnson quote that prefaces the poem ‘It is good to wander a little, lest one should dream that all the world was Streatham’. It’s hilarious yet also (in a contemporary context) hints at a poetics of inclusion – and by this I mean a conscious nod in one’s thinking that validates the local, the so-called ‘domestic’ scenario that plays out between mother and daughter. Have you felt a pressure, as a woman, to resist the autobiographical or familial, in a way that a male poet might not?

MD: I’ve struggled with that, having been reviewed early on as someone ‘writing well about the domestic’ and later called a ‘miniaturist’. Hmmn. I felt both terms diminished what I thought of as subject matter central to life. Some years ago I published a small poem called ‘1847’ in the voice of someone leaving Ireland in the years of the Famine. It’s not an especially good poem but Ruth Padel republished it in her anthology 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem. When her book was reviewed in the Spectator, I was singled out as ‘an atrocity-peddler’ – my purpose was ‘ to generate shock and income from a historical tragedy’ and reading the poem was ‘like watching a Jew selling Auschwitz lampshades to a Holocaust museum’. I’ve just checked those remarks, in order to quote accurately but I had no need to do so as they are seared into my consciousness. You have somehow to throw off these concerns and not allow them to censor your thoughts.

KMW: There are poems in the book that are attentive to the natural environment within an urban locale – eg the Tooting Common poems. I’m curious about that relationship, between the city and the land, the greenery we seek and why it feels important on a fundamental level. Well that’s at least the case for
me and I sense something similar at work in the
poems here.

MD: Yes, I moved from Yorkshire where our neighbours were three fields away to a flat in suburban London. I hated London for years. I missed the green so badly and I was a countryside snob despising the Commons that have come to mean a great deal to me more recently. I inhabited the city only temporarily in my mind for more than a decade. My children’s developing knowledge of the city, as they grew up, made me slowly unbend towards it. Part of that has been learning to understand the interplay between concrete and green urban space (the novelist Melissa Harrison writes very well about this). Slowly that green urban space – and the vital importance of it – has insinuated itself into my imagination. I live near Tooting Common. If you sit and watch, the world walks through it every day under those glorious trees.

KMW: That sensation of light and pause brings me on to the ‘silvering’ of the book’s title in the poem ‘Siglo de Oro’, which appears to function on many levels – within a framework of literary, geographical and cultural history as well as a meditation on poetry, the self, and time. Again, barely in eleven lines! Can you tell me more about it? I feel it’s very much a key to
the thinking behind the book.

MD: Well, ‘Siglo de Oro’ was the name given to ‘the golden age’ of Spanish art and literature, the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries but actually, here, the reference is more to do with the popular use of that phrase to signify a sweeter past. That said, I reference a later great Spanish language (Colombian) writer’s work. Buendia is the protagonist in Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. He dreams of a city of mirrors that reflect the world in and about it and when he wakes he decides to build such a place, Macondo. The inhabitants are revisited by their pasts, by hauntings and memories. The poem talks about mirrors and how they play with both light and with time. Many people have that experience of catching their own reflection unexpectedly and seeing their mother or father looking back at them. In those seconds memory and time itself concertina. We cover mirrors in a place of mourning and open windows so that a person’s soul can take flight and does not remain trapped behind the glass.

KMW: Time is definitely a theme on which your attention alights – and there are moments where it strikes a typically melancholy note. Perhaps that’s
the nature of it. Yet there’s a sense here that the secret is to resist and paradoxically embrace nostalgia in equal measure?

MD: It can seem like nostalgia but actually I’m just very interested in memory and time. I find it hard to separate the here and now from the past. ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’ the Queen remarks in Alice Through the Looking Glass.

KMW: Lastly, the book opens with an ekphrastic poem ‘Cleaning Jim Dine’s Heart’ – and I wondered about your relationship with visual art and the poem, which I suppose we might think of as an artefact in conversation with other art forms?

MD: In the late 1980s I took up a post at the Southbank Centre to start up the Literature and Talks programme. One of the first things I did was to reintroduce Poetry International. Initiated by Ted Hughes and Patrick Garland in the 1960s, it had faded away by the early 1970s. Programming Poetry International led me to immerse myself in work from writers from every continent. The Poetry Library moved to the Southbank at this time and was the bedrock of research but I also visited Poetry International Rotterdam annually and sat through days of readings in translation: from Swahili into Dutch or Taiwanese into Dutch, say, without much English translation available. How was that useful? I learnt a great deal from it about form, music, intention and style; the place of the poem and the poet within different cultures and – most especially – reception and audience. My time at the Southbank provided a golden opportunity to work across art forms – with dancers and choreographers, visual artists, storytellers, live art and performance. I was flooded with images and experiences, some of which pass over and away. Some of which, now, as a practitioner, I have yet to explore. I’m not especially interested in an illustrative response. I like your phrase, ‘an artefact in conversation’; that is certainly how I would see it.