Interview #12 Annemarie Ní Churreáin
Annemarie Ní Churreáin, interviewed by Victoria Kennefick
Victoria Kennefick: I am so interested in where you come from, Annemarie, firstly from a geographical perspective—Donegal is a border county, at a remove from Dublin and the other cities in Ireland, and as such has a wildness about it that is intriguing, but from a political one in the sense that Donegal has, in many respects been neglected and side-lined to some degree. Does this geographical and political isolation of this location influence your work? What was it like growing up there?
Annemarie Ní Churreáin: Donegal, in the far northwest of Ireland, is a mysterious county and growing up there in the 1980s was a richly intense experience. I was flanked on one side by the wild Atlantic Ocean and, on the other side, by a troubled border with Northern Ireland. It was, for an imaginative child, a resonant landscape and it gave me great exposure to the relationship between story and place. I lived close by ‘Droichead na nDeor’ (‘the Bridge of Tears’), a famed farewell point for emigrants to America. When you live in a small, rural Gaeltacht community, you learn to live with the echoes and shadows of the past. I was fascinated by the house of The Screamers, a so-called ‘cult’ of free-thinking radicals who moved to Burtonport in the 1970s and who were into primal scream therapy. Once The Screamers left, The Maids of the Silver Sisterhood moved in until the 1990s. The maids, who believed in a feminine supreme deity, subscribed to a matriarchal system and lived by a strict Victorian code which, rather salaciously, included caning (of each other!). I have distinct memories of the maids, in long skirts and high lace collars, sashaying through town on Fridays. It was that kind of place. Strange. Christian stories were intermingled with the scent of something Pagan or ‘other’. At the same time, people there were mostly preoccupied with the very ordinary, day-to-day challenges of trying to survive. Donegal has, historically, been hugely neglected in terms of economic investment and from an early age I was alert to what language under pressure sounds like. My father cut turf, fished on trawlers, brought milk from house to house; my mother hosted Irish language students and, in the off-season months, knit Aran jumpers to order. That pragmatism has greatly informed my own creative practice today and I’m still inclined to take whatever raw material is at hand and to craft from it a thing by which I can survive. Poetry has always been, for me, an extension of the place I come from and its living culture.
VK: Growing up too in the Donegal Gaeltacht means that the Irish language plays a significant role in how you write in English. Can you share with us your history with Irish and how it has impacted and influenced your creative imagination, your poetry?
ANC: Gaeilge is my first language. It’s a songful tongue and it offers a deeply sensual perspective of the world, rooted in place and in a profound feeling for the human body as an interconnected thread of nature. Through that language I had access to mythology, song traditions and ancient ritual. My grandmother, Mary Thaidhg, instilled in me a great belief in oral storytelling and folklore. She was full of superstitions, Pagan cures and tall tales about her years as an emigrant in New York. She had a delicious talent for cursing. In Gaeilge the veil between reality and the magical world is often absurdly thin. Unsurprisingly, my writing in both languages today carries the distinct scent of where I come from, as a person who grew up speaking English as a second language, whose language is entwined with a pre-Christian landscapes and whose first entry point into language as a craft was far from libraries or bookshops and, instead, through fishermen, islanders, bog-cutters.
VK: Your latest collection, The Poison Glen (Gallery Press, 2021), explores memory, loss, secrets, and silence—as well as the mythology of a Donegal site known as the Poison Glen. Can you share how this collection came about? To what extent do you use research, site visits, talking to sources etc in your writing.
ANC: The Poison Glen draws from an auspicious beauty-spot close by where I grew up. It’s a site associated with a Fomorian giant, Balor of The Evil Eye, who is said to have locked his daughter Eithne into a tower on Tory Island and stolen her three infant sons. According to popular retellings, Lugh, the only surviving son, returned from fosterage as an adult to slay Balor by striking him in the eye and causing a poison to spill through the glen. It’s a story of family splits and wounds and in my version I was keen to acknowledge female viewpoints by inhabiting the voices of Eithne, Eithne’s handmaid, and Eithne’s mother.
The book is a companion book to my first collection Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017) which references a family connection with the Irish mother and baby homes in the 1950s. My paternal grandmother was one of the women who was forced to give her child up for adoption and, as a consequence, my paternal family was split north and south of the Irish border. It’s a story that I remain fascinated by and one that resurfaces often in my poems. That silence around mother and child separation is a silence I often return to. All throughout my writing journey I’ve remained obsessed by the subject of ‘Irish’ identity and the cost, over time, of that forged identity on women and children. Writing has been an obsession with trying to figure out this story that feels incredibly personal. The beautiful thing about poetry is that it offers an alternative record of the past and, in my life, it’s been personally restorative to engage myself in a process of collective remembering with other families and groups who understand the narratives I’m trying to untangle. That practice of speaking to survivors, of conducting site visits, of visiting prisons and other state institutions, energises and roots me as a poet in the world.
VK: I recently came across a question on Twitter which asked if poets have signature words like Ocean Vuong with ‘teeth.’ It made me really consider the lexicon of language in my own work—does this resonate with you too? What are the words you work is obsessed with?
ANC: Probably the words that I return to most are the first words I learned to play in, words like ‘stones’, ‘roots’, ‘water’, ‘hill’, ‘earth’. In lots of ways there’s nothing exceptional about these words except for the fact that, for me, they offer portals into the subconscious self. Besides, as the writer Heinrich Böll once mused, “Behind every word a whole world is hidden that must be imagined. Actually, every word has a great burden of memories, not only just of one person but of all mankind. Take a word such as bread, or war; take a word such as chair or bed or Heaven. I’m afraid that most people use words as something to throw away without sensing the burden that lies in a word. Currently I’m obsessed with the word ‘if’. It’s a wee slip of a word and yet it has the power to fundamentally shift the entire premise of a poem.
VK: Many of our readers and contributors are working towards a first collection of poetry. Do you have any advice for them as they navigate this somewhat twisty path?
ANC: Poetry, by its nature, is a beastly thing. In my own writing I’ve found it useful to keep in mind this statement by Jane Hirshfield: ‘As this life is not a gate but the horse plunging through it’. For me that same thinking applies, fundamentally, to poetry. While essentially, I remain obsessed by the nuts and bolts of language, and enthralled by what the technical elements of craft can do; while this awe sustains me daily, in ways marvellous and profound, my first loyalty is always to a poem’s own animal heart, and to the belief that if I construct a gate in language, if I hold that gate open, there is this chance that a living, breathing mystery will plunge through. My advice is to read carefully, work daily and trust the lovely ordinary labour of wrestling with an image, a sentence, a word.
VK: You have facilitated numerous workshops, seminars and have been a mentor to many poets nationally and internationally—could you share with us a prompt that led to particularly interesting poems that our readers might like to try themselves? Or is there any prompt or practise that helps in bringing your poems into the world that you can recommend?
ANC: Unfortunately my style of prompting probably works best in the context of ritual, discussion or dedicated workshop time. I’m increasingly interested in workshops as sites of ceremony and as places for collective trouble-making. I’ve been thinking recently about a commentary offered up by the sage Biddy Jenkinson ‘The poet is by profession a trouble-maker. She must be independent to the point of eccentricity and is often, though not necessarily, as curst as a crow-trodden hen and as odd as one of the triple-faced monsters with which the Celts depicted Ogma the omniscient, gazing in all directions at once’. If I had to give one piece of advice, it’s this: do whatever you need to do to discomfort yourself in your poetry. The world is full of people who are prepared to take no risks at all. If you can, and it is safe to do so, be courageous. Surround yourself with the books of writers and poets who were not afraid to fall and pick themselves up. Write what scares you most. Make trouble.
ANNEMARIE NÍ CHURREÀN is a poet from the Donegal Gaeltacht, Ireland. Her publications include Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017), Town (The Salvage Press, 2018) and The Poison Glen (The Gallery Press, 2021). She is a recipient of the Irish Arts Council’s Next Generation Artist Award, a co-recipient of The Markievicz Award and a former literary fellow of Akademie Schloss Solitude (Germany). In 2023 she is Writer in Residence at the Druskininkai Poetic Falls Festival, Lithuania. Ní Churreáin is the incoming Poetry Editor of The Stinging Fly. Visit www.studiotwentyfive.com.