Today I am honored to be able to share with my readers a Q and A Session with Grace Wells.
Formerly an independent video and television producer in her native London, Grace Wells moved to Ireland in 1991. For some years she taught creative writing and facilitated biography workshops for people with special needs. In 2001 she became Literature Officer with the South Tipperary Arts Centre, and for the next three years co-ordinated ‘Impressions, the South Tipperary Literature Festival’.
Her first book, Gyrfalcon, a novel for children was published by the O’Brien Press in 2002. It won the Eilís Dillon Best Newcomer Bisto Book Award 2003 and was selected for the International White Ravens Catalogue 2003.
A second children’s novel Ice Dreams was published by the O’Brien Press in 2008, and One World, Our World, a Development Education, information and story book, was commissioned & published in 2009 by Irish Aid on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Since 2007 she has regularly reviewed Irish poetry for Contrary, the University of Chicago’s online literary journal, The Stinging Fly and for Poetry Ireland Review.
In 2009 she became Writer in Residence for Kilkenny County Council, and has since then continued to work for Kilkenny Arts Office and Library Service, and for County Waterford Arts Office facilitating creative writing classes and providing mentoring for upcoming writers.
Wells has read at numerous Literature Festivals and been broadcast on RTE. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in a wide number of journals. Prior to publication of her debut poetry collection, her work was short-listed for a number of awards and took third place in the Patrick Kavanagh award 2007. She facilitates creative writing classes for adults and children and is a member of the Poetry Ireland, Writers in Schools Scheme.
Her debut collection of poetry, ‘When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things’ was published by Dedalus Press in May 2010. It won the Rupert and Eithne Strong Best Debut Collection Award and was short-listed for the London Fringe Festival New Poetry Award.
1. As this is irish Short Story Month year III, please tell us who some short story writers you find yourself often returning to are? Who are some lesser known short story writers you would suggest to us? As a teacher of creative writing, if a student asks you to name three of the best ever short stories, what would you tell them?
I really enjoy Kevin Barry, he is a hugely powerful and entertaining force and it’s wonderful to see where his mind goes with each new story. I’m also very drawn to the writer, Nuala Ni Chonchuir who has a bright, youthful energy and a real sense of verve. And you simply have to read Claire Keegan because she has such a wonderful way with language.
Fortunately I’ve never had a student ask me to name the three best ever short stories—how could anybody answer a question like that? But I’ve worked with Faulkner’s ‘Barn burning’, and Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’ because I think they’re both really strong and memorable pieces. My favourite short story ever is Carver’s ‘Intimacy’. I don’t say that for any reason of literary merit or short story excellence, I’m just blown away by it as a human being. At one point the narrator’s ex-wife says “We were so intimate I could puke” and every time I read it, I’m just stunned; the line contains so much, and the story holds so much of Carver’s life that I find the piece endlessly fascinating and endlessly moving. I’ve been in those kind of dysfunctional relationships myself and I am always deeply impressed by Carver’s honesty.
2. I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection). It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey. Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American. There are rude sayings like “God Created Whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world” and “Without Guinness the birth rate in Ireland would be near zero”. What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?. It seems to me from my reading of Irish short stories that few important conversations or events happen without drinking. In your time outside of Ireland, do you see drinking to have less of a role in daily life than in Ireland? Do you see any differences broadly speaking between drinking habits in London versus Dublin?
In many ways I lead quite a reclusive lifestyle so I’m not witnessing the alcohol culture first-hand. I have two teenage children—factually my son just turned 20—and through them I have a sense of the kind of abandon that exists around drink. I grew up in 1980’s London and those were not tame days by any means, but drink just wasn’t the same kind of issue as it is here. It’s an endemic problem in Ireland, there’s no denying that, and I feel any young Irish person has to go through some kind of baptism by fire, where they work out for themselves their own relationship to alcohol.
People here drink to extremes, but the psyche of Ireland is dense with extremes, the landscape is extremely beautiful, the weather can be extreme, the music is extremely potent, the collective history is extremely painful, not just the hundreds of years of colonialism, but the consequences of the catholic church, of partition, of the domination of women up until very recently. I feel the Irish psyche is carrying a lot; it’s very sad but not surprising that people have to immerse themselves in something extreme as a coping mechanism.
3. In one of his most remember radio addresses to the nation, Irish President Eamon de Valera said “The Irish genius has always stressed spiritual values. That is the characteristic that fits the Irish in a special manner for the task of of helping to save western civilization”. I somehow have come to strongly feel this through my readings of Irish literature. Do you think there is still truth in what de Valera said? In her Trespassers: A Memoir (my source for this quote, Julia O’Faolain suggest this may have been part of a Fascists agenda so I guess we are to take this as a two edged sword of some kind. There is no specific answer for this question-I am just seeking your reaction.
One of the wonderful things about Ireland is the fact that Spirituality is very present. People are really alive to the matter of spirit—however they want to understand that. Spirit is still on the tongue here, people say things like ‘See you next week, God willing’, or else they practice Reiki or attend angel workshops or talk about the pre-Christian goddesses. There’s an on-going engagement with the spirit of the land. And the Irish are full of spirit and emotion, all that side of people’s personalities is not closed off and shut-down in the way that it is in much of the rest of Europe. I flinch when I read de Valera’s comment because I think O’Faolain is right and there was a very successful agenda at work that kept people enslaved to church-thinking for most of the last century. That enslavement is largely-speaking gone now and Ireland is in a kind of spiritual crisis because it doesn’t have an honest church on which it can rest its head. But nobody is closing down their spirituality, they’re just finding other ways to express it than through organized religion. I don’t feel there’s any chance of Ireland’s spiritual impulse saving Western civilization, but I know that if people are interested in experiencing a spiritual landscape, there is no better place to do so than Ireland.
4. The Fall of Celtic Tiger, the Irish Economy,has caused a lot of pain and misery. Is there a positive side to this? what lessons for the future can writers take to their work? has it in any sense brought people closer to values other than consumerism? Is it just another day in the life of the Irish?
Ireland isn’t just experiencing a recession, or an end to a tiger economy, the country has entered a very long prison-term brought on by the banking crisis. It’s hard to see a positive side to this and year by year we are going to experience deepening difficulties associated with cut-backs, a decline in services and increased unemployment. If you factor in climate change, world over-population and peak oil, then the future looks very challenging. I have a theory that we all have to be like the musicians on the Titanic, and play on with as much grace as we can while things get more and more difficult on the ship.
Again Ireland is a good place to be in a difficult situation, the landscape is still very rich, the traditional culture remains strong and the Irish know how to endure, it’s what they’ve done for centuries. When I first came to Ireland I took the Slattery’s bus from Victoria station in London. And standing there in the bus queue at 6 am, I was aware of already being in Ireland. Total strangers had turned to one another and begun talking, checking in with each other, wanting to know how everyone else was. That kind of spirit will see Ireland through a lot.
How all these things effects writers is anybody’s guess, there is such a variety of work being written here at the moment and for now the literary scene and the writing community are still vibrant, there are a lot of writing festivals and events going on. I think there are so many forces at work on writers at the moment, things like Facebook and marketing—writers are no longer individuals who withdraw from the world in order to explain it, they are being forced to become readily-available celebrities. Commodities. I think that’s a much more worrying force at work than the demise of the Celtic Tiger. Writers have always written even in the worst of times. But to write and to be simultaneously engaged in maintaining a full-on social-media presence? That’s asking a lot of our sanity.
5. A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart
Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if he Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read? One of the most references poets is Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life. Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life? why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse. (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)
Any poet, writer or artist, needs order and discipline. I would say that the greatest impediment to being a fully-functioning artist, is a chaotic life. An amount of personal chaos may offer up some good material, but if you want to get that material onto the page, then you need to know the desk will be there, the silence will be there and that you have the regular time to attend to your work. My advice: avoid chaos, it is not your friend.
7. Tell us about the Poetry Ireland program for schools,please. What are some of the biggest challenges the program faces and what are the most rewarding aspects of the experience.
The Writers in Schools scheme enables schools to bring in visiting writers to give workshops, lectures and tutorials to students in both primary and secondary schools. The writer will get a set fee which the school pays half of, and the rest comes from Poetry Ireland. It’s a great scheme and over and again you can see direct benefits to emerging writers. Sometimes writers just go into the schools for a short visit, other times they’ll do a residency over a number of weeks. Recently I did an 8 week residency with some girls who had been hand-picked by their teachers because of their interest in English and in reading and writing. The residency was hugely successful, at the end we finished with a reading, and it was enormously moving to see how the girls had become poets.
8. You review poetry for several high end journals. I know you have many works you can post on, how do you go about selecting what to review? What qualities in a book of poetry by a new writer motivates you to review it. A positive review in a major journal can have a huge impact on a new writer so this is a big responsibility. I pretty much only post on works I like as I do not want to recreate in my mind the experience of reading a bad book. Even on my blog I try to avoid negative reviews of works by living writers, if you hated a book but you were assigned to review it, would you refuse the assignment, trash the book or hedge on your review so as not to hurt the author?
For a long time I focused on reviewing Debut Collections only; I felt that they never got enough attention and reviewers were always saying disrespectful things as if there was something inherently dirty about having a first collection. There is nothing more exciting than finding a bright, new voice and being able to tell other people about it. Sadly that doesn’t happen very often. All too often a journal will just tell you what to review, there’s no choice involved, but if I really don’t like a book I won’t review it and I’ll send it back. I like work that is fundamentally honest, authentic, a lot of Irish poetry is quite withheld, there’s very little ‘Confessional’ poetry being written here so it can be easy to come away from a poetry collection without learning much about the writer; that chills me. C.S. Lewis said: we read to know we are not alone. I think that’s the main thing I look for, writers who are open to exploring their humanity, vulnerability and inherent knack of mistake-making.
9. (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:
" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."
I think the term ‘fairies’ is unhelpful, I don’t believe in little winged-beings with magic-wands, no. But I feel the word ‘fairy’ is another term for spirit of place. When human beings gather in large numbers we have a habit of eradicating that spirit, fortunately Ireland is sparsely populated so the elements of air, water and earth are very strong here, you can still read their resonances, still feel what the Irish call ‘Otherworld’ presences. The landscape here abounds with what Rudolph Steiner called ‘elemental beings’. I think those are just the living qualities of water, of air, of earth and fire. We’ve become dismissive of those things because they’re not rational science, but everyone knows you feel better in front of a fire, fresh air is cleansing, being by water is calming, digging into the earth is deeply satisfying. I think the problem here is one of the terminology. If you’re looking for fairies, you won’t find them in Ireland, if you’re open to being moved by spirit of place, you’ll be blown away.
10. “Countries are either mothers or fathers, and engender the emotional bristle secretly reserved for either sire. Ireland has always been a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and of course, the gaunt Hag of Beare.” As I read this in Mother Ireland by Edna O’Brien I at once thought for sure the Philippines is a mother, even the country’s religion revolves around Mary almost as much as Jesus. Is O’Brien right, or maybe I should say is this still accurate? If it is true what are the positives to this?
I think that’s a very interesting question, it’s an interesting idea. Ireland was always traditionally female. Those female roots go back to pre-christian goddess-worshipping cultures. There are slight traces of that today if you go looking, but generally-speaking urban Ireland is as masculine as any other Western culture. Urban Ireland is patriarchal in the same way America and Europe are. So socially I don’t think that O’Brien’s statement is accurate. When you get out into rural Ireland, the landscape has a deeply female presence, but it has no coin in the culture.
11. It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, some with PhDs. Education is a great thing but is there a negative side to this, will it produce in few years a literary culture where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published. Will the day of the amateur writer who comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?
I believe there will always be writers who come from nowhere. All publishers really want to do is print really good books. It’s hard for them to do that because the number of really, really top class writers is quite small, and great books don’t just turn up every day. I don’t see writing programs as negative things. It takes us years to learn our craft and I feel a writing program gives a kind of shelter, and offers a safe space for us to be for a few of those years. A pianist has to play their scales, a writer has to cut their teeth by producing a lot of not very good material. I’m delighted to see all those programs. Will they produce more good writers—I don’t know, the writing life requires talent, determination and sheer luck. And luck is still one of those things that is out of our hands.
12. All I have read about Ireland and all the images I have seen on the net present a country of amazing beauty. How much does this saturation in natural beauty impact the writing of the residents? What is your reaction to these lines from Susan Cahill about the beauty of Ireland-”There is a hopelessness that a glut of natural beauty can create when there is a cultural and intellectual morass”. Is the beauty of Ireland is two edged sword? Does it inspire and defeat at the same time?
Personally I don’t experience a sense of defeat from the natural beauty, but rather I experience something deeply inspiring. Actually I think it’s the cultural and intellectual morass that provides the sense of hopelessness, and not the landscape. I feel that human beings are becoming less and less communicative with their natural landscape—most Irish writing these days doesn’t connect to the land; it’s urban writing. That’s especially true of prose. Poetry is probably the last place where the landscape is being given any huge presence.
I once saw a very interesting artwork, a video, where the artist was standing out in a beautiful landscape shouting at it. He was saying things like, “I know you’re very beautiful but I just don’t know what to do with you, I feel disconnected.” I think he had captured something very crucial that is going on today. Most urbanites are disconnected from the natural world, and because of that the planet is being challenged. Irish poet Dave Lordan writes that there are ‘two last remaining parts of the world, the practically endless city and the practically endless desert.’ He’s right, and faced with a truth like that, I don’t believe we can have the luxury of hopelessness when looking at the natural world. We’ve got to think of its preservation over our own.
13. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular
poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”. I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature. It is interesting to me that the American short story writers most admired by Irish writers, like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter all came from the American south, the only part of American to be crushed in a war. Does defeat bring wisdom more than victory?
Defeat brings humility and the need to examine one’s pain. Those are helpful things for a writer. Victory and success tend to bring out the worst aspects of ourselves. I think it’s as simple as two energies, defeat means withdrawing and turning in, victory begets outwardness and a certain bravado. You need some kind of balance, to the victor go the spoils, by which I mean the victor is more likely to have won the desk space, the ink and the fountain pen. The defeated usually end up in some kind of slavery, and are then not free to express their art. But yes, I tend to think defeat, either on a national basis, or on a personal one, affords us wisdom and allows us to grow, however painful that defeat may be.
14. In teaching creative writing, what are the biggest challenges students have in expressing themselves.
The one thing I meet over and over again is people’s own ability to subvert themselves and stop themselves from writing. We are all ghosted by parents, siblings, teachers or friends who told us we couldn’t do this. I see a kind of inertia in people, a force that drags them down and forbids them their power. If I could invent a pill to heal that, I’d be happy. As a facilitator of creative writing I see my role as being like an onion, I’m there to draw the writing out of them. If I achieve that I go home in good spirits.
15. Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers.
There is a huge imbalance here in Ireland. Sometimes you go to a book launch for a new book of poems and you see the only people there are other poets. Often a poetry reading will have a very small audience. Yet there are thousands of people writing poetry and trying to get published. At the other end of the scale, the president, Michael D Higgins is a poet. And Seamus Heaney who won the Nobel Prize for Literature is a wonderful ambassador for poetry; his presence maintains poetry’s gravitas in the culture. Does it have a social role? No, perhaps not, but it has a strong cultural role. I think the two are different. In a normal social day on TV, the radio, the newspapers etc, poetry is invisible. And yet, if you go deeper into the culture and you know where to look, you see that poetry is thriving, it is hugely political and fundamentally important for the mind and the spirit of the country. But poets walk a tightrope, they have to keep themselves vital and relevant, and that isn’t always easy.
16. "To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical."-is this right? Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646). It is interesting to me in that not to long ago many white Americans viewed African Americans as very skilled at music and dancing but otherwise inferior and barbaric. Have you ever felt that as you are English by birth, that people were projecting an attitude like that on you without really knowing you first?
I was recently reading at a poetry festival in Newfoundland which is a place that many English and Irish emigrated to. Every single person I met asked me how the Irish responded to my Englishness. I was very struck by that because in Newfoundland people really wanted to talk about it—I’d say about fifteen different people asked me. Here it’s more taboo, no Irish person has ever asked me about those projections. But they are very present and sometimes they are hard to carry. I see it as part of a long story of healing old wounds that are still raw and in need of balm. My own children are half English, half Irish, and I think there’s something about the bringing together of two nations within the one human being that needs to happen; those individuals embody something of the two stories, the two cultures; their destiny is to carry two opposite natures, opposite histories and somehow bring them toward some kind of resolution. I think you see this kind of thing all over the world, wherever there is the need for healing between clashed cultures. We are all as Scott Fitzgerald said ‘boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’, we’re going forwards and backwards at the same time. We’re healing things we aren’t even aware of from the past, and we’re causing new problems for those who come after us!
End of Guest Post
My greatest thanks to Grace Wells for taking the time to provide us with such interesting and well considered responses.