Sinead Morrissey was born in Northern Ireland in 1972 and educated in Belfast and Dublin. Her three collections from Carcanet are There was Fire in Vancouver (1996), Between Here and There (2002) and The State of the Prisons (2005). She won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1990, an Eric Gregory Award in 1996, and both Between Here and There and The State of the Prisons were shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. The State of the Prisons received the Michael Hartnett Award for Poetry in 2005 and has been shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Award. Here, Sinead kindly answers a few of my questions:
Mark Thwaite: Your book The State of the Prisons has been very well received and you were the Joint winner of the Michael Hartnett Award for Poetry in June 2005. Have you been pleased/surprised by the book’s reception?
Sinead Morrissey: I've been very pleased by the book's reception but I haven't been surprised. I knew as it was falling into place that it was my best book to date and I'm proud of it. The hardest thing about it is where to go from there.
MT: The State of the Prisons takes its title from the published findings of prison reformer John Howard and the long, eponymous poem within the collection is a history of both his public and private life. What first interested you in Howard?
SM: I first came across John Howard in a footnote in The Life And Adventures of Caleb Williams, by William Godwin. The hero, Caleb, a servant, accuses his master of committing a murder and is thrown into prison, where he is chained, forced to drink foul water and moulded bread and kept in shackles. The footnote is to to this effect: if you think this account is overblown, read The State of the Prisons by John Howard. Who says that England has no Bastille? So I did read it. It's a curious mixture of enlightenment rationalism - Howard loves lists, and making calculations, for example - and religious rhetoric. And as I went on to find out more about his life, the subject seemed crying out to be tackled. The terrible irony at the centre of his life is that while he worked to get people out of dungeons and torture chambers and into the clear light of personal redemption, his son, whom he had neglected, contracted syphillis and went mad. That irony is really the subject of the poem.
MT: Do you think poetry gives you any special advantages when you explore a life via it?
SM: You have the advantage of the monolgue, which gives the reader instant access to the mind of the speaking 'I', and you have the sheer drama of poetry to carry it. You need a dramatic life though, in order to make it work. The form is too heightened for anything else, over any kind of sustained length. And lives are long and messy, and poetry should really be the opposite to that, so there's a huge tension trying to put those two things together. That was the challenge, or one of them - keeping it working as a poem all the way through.
MT: Your Howard poem is very moving. Howard neglected his son terribly at the same time as he did such good work helping to reform the prison system. Do you forgive him this? Does your poem?
SM: Do I forgive him this? I've never thought about it like that. The poem was more an exposition of the facts, the hidden underbelly of his success. I didn't actually intend it to be judgemental one way or the other. He was very complicated, and his legacy was very complicated - and Howard knew that. I wanted to be fair to that complexity. Beyond that, it wasn't for me to decide.
MT: Tell us a little more about what lay behind your other long poem in the collection, the travelogue piece China.
SM: The British Council sent me on a train journey across China in November 2003. The journey lasted 21 days and took in six major Chinese cities. China is a document of that journey - nine windows on it if you like. And it was important to me that each window should be written in a different form. It was exhilerating to visit such an extraordinary country, and I responded to the place very strongly. Trying to pin the experience down in language afterwards was almost as exciting as the journey itself. Windows feature heavily - by necessity I think, as it was through windows that I experienced most of the country - and they are simultaneously windows, walls, and mirrors. I was being denied far more than I was being granted, but the glimpses were tantalising.
MT: War, to me, is never far from your thoughts in this collection ... but then nor are the themes of “flight” or “the body”. Do you explore these themes consciously or do you find themes recurring in your work almost “behind your back”?
SM: They occur behind your back, for the most part, and certainly before the collection has acquired any kind of conscious shape. After that they do become conscious. But that can be productive also - in a self-generative way. Yes, war, the body - wars on bodies. Flight was one of the last poems to be written and I knew almost immediately that it had to come first. The book had to open with that utterance.
MT: Is being a poet your day-job Sinead? If not, what is?
SM: It's my day-job. Or was my day-job when I was writer-in-residence at Queen's. Apart from two hours' teaching a week, I was being paid to write, and it was a wonderfully productive period. Now nobody's paying to me write, but it's still what I do, three full days a week whenever possible. I do freelance teaching otherwise, and help my husband, who has an organic foods business.
MT: Any advice for the budding poet/writer?
SM: Set aside time. And stick to it. Even if nothing is happening. It's out of labour that the easy things come and when they do, they're a gift. But you have to earn them with labour first.
MT: Are you a slow or a fast writer? Do you think and think and then write very quickly? Or do you write and then edit, edit, edit!? (Long-hand or via a computer?)
SM: I'm horrendously slow. And I write long-hand. And I edit and edit and edit.
MT: What are you working on now? What is coming next?
SM: I'm writing new poems but it's too early to see any shape to them. It's quite freeing writing without having a collection in mind. You can try on all sorts of new overcoats, just for the sake of trying them on, without having to buy.
MT: Who influenced you most as a poet?
SM: Before I was twenty-four, Sylvia Plath and RS THomas were big influences - in that order. When I was twenty-four I started to read Les Murray, and he's been a huge influence and inspiration. Particularly in his protean relationship to language and his ability to reinvent himself. He makes so many other poets look flat. Recently, I've fallen in love with the work of Amy Clampitt. I can't read that many people at a time, and I tend to go over and over work that I love, so I'm aware my focus is narrow. But the important thing for me is to read work I can learn from, and to have a deep relationship with that work.
MT: What is the best thing you have read recently? Who is your favourite author?
MT: Legion by David Harsent is the best thing I've read recently. And if I had to pick one favourite author it would be Les Murray.
MT: Has the internet changed the way you work/read? Do you have any favourite websites?
SM: Google has made researching certain details easier, though in some ways it makes information too easy. I still prefer books. And apart from email, I don't really use the internet much at all. I think I must be daunted by it, or feel that I don't have time. I feel guilty spending time watching television as well, so I don't do that very often. I have a fear of diffusing my energy in a sea of excessive information.