Alchemy in Killadoon

Staying In

Poet Geraldine Mitchell

Ciara Moynihan

Ahead of National Poetry Day this Thursday, April 27, Mayo poet Geraldine Mitchell discusses her just-released third collection ‘Mountains for Breakfast’, the importance of poetry in her life and the function of poetry within culture and society.

Broadly, what themes are explored in your new collection?
‘Mountains for Breakfast’ deals with loss and survival, I guess. Loss of memory, loss of youth, of life itself. My work is never very jolly! The poems take a close look at mortality and the process of grief, but also at our extraordinary resilience, as human beings, in the face of all the big, inevitable losses. Like the poetry by others that interests and moves me, I hope this collection also invokes the mystery and wonder of our precarious existence in outer space, through close observation of a natural world we too often take for granted.  

The natural world continues to feature large in your poetry. How important is the place where you live to your work?
Apart from one poem (‘What the Threat of Thunder Does’), which is set in the south of  France where my two children live and work, and a couple of poems that evoke childhood memories, I’d say all the poems in ‘Mountains for Breakfast’ reflect, in one way or another, the couple of square miles around my house in Killadoon. It’s a landscape that is constantly changing under the influence of the ocean and its weather, and it’s what nourishes me and my writing: birds, trees, sheep, hares, the sea, the islands, the ever-changing sky…

Do you write every day, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
It was Picasso who famously said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” People say, ‘Oh, I could never be so disciplined…’ – but it’s not like that. In fact it’s the other way around. It’s the days when I am not writing or working on a poem in my head, or reading and thinking about some other writer’s work, that I feel aimless and uneasy.
Poetry is a sort of drug, and once you’re hooked there’s no shaking the habit. I do a lot of composing in my head while I walk, which I try to do most days, and have many, many notebooks full of jottings that may or may not end up in a poem one day. I am a fairly solitary person, which helps.

Do you have a favourite place to write?
Mostly at a window that looks out over Clare Island. There’s a particular configuration of hill, shore, sea and island that is burned into my psyche at this point, I’d say. The handy thing with poetry is that you aren’t necessarily sitting at your desk for hours on end. A lot is just happening in your head, so it’s a pretty portable art. That said, once the editing and tweaking stage is reached, you’ll find me hunched over my laptop at the window.  

How would you describe the role of poetry in your life?
Pivotal. Central. Vital. Mysterious. It asks all the interesting, tough questions but, unlike the various religions, doesn’t presume to give any answers. There’s consolation in good poetry, too, a sort of solidarity in our shared human condition, which I find sustaining. As Seamus Heaney said, “Poetry gives life a second chance.”

What do you see as poetry’s greatest contribution to society?
More than ever, at this time of ‘fake news’ and the massive distortions of language and outright lies we witness every day, either for commercial profit or political manipulation, it’s important to remember that, in poetry, truth and language go hand in hand. They have to. Words are poetry’s one and only tool, and the test of a poem is the truth of its language. I believe that the true use of words in a poem can perform a sort of alchemy, bring us to a new way of looking at the world.
As for how poetry contributes to society, I can only quote the American poet Gary Snyder, who says it way better than me: “The mystery of language, the poetic imagination, and the mind of compassion, are roughly one and the same, and through poetry perhaps they can keep guiding the world toward occasional moments of peace, gratitude, and delight. One hesitates to ask for more.”

Which Irish poets, contemporary and past, do you most admire?
A poem for our times is without doubt Louis MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’. Written in 1938, on the eve of a world war, all the signs of which were in the air but had yet to be declared. It is a powerful piece of work.
I hesitate to mention the names of contemporary poets that I admire – there are so many. My list would start with some great woman poets: Sinead Morrissey, Vona Groarke, Kerry Hardie, Moya Cannon, Paula Meehan, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin… I could go on. Michael Longley, Eamon Grennan, Sean Lysaght, Ger Reidy and John F Deane - are the poets, coincidentally all men, who immediately spring to mind when I come west.
But it’s important to keep our horizons open - now more than ever. Exciting poetry from all around the world is increasingly available thanks to the internet. The poetry scene in the US is especially vibrant right now and very interesting work is already emerging in response to Trump’s mendacious barbarities.

If poetry was not your calling, what art form would you like to immerse yourself in, and why?
I have never given this thought, but here goes. I love music. I have friends and family in the visual arts, including my daughter, Lisa Molina, whose work is on the cover of this collection as well as the last, ‘Of Birds and Bones’. I envy their way of seeing just as I am in awe of musical composition. I admire the stamina of novelists. But my answer, I realise, has to be contemporary dance. It seems to me to embody, literally, all art forms in one while reclaiming the beauty of the human body, too long suppressed in our culture. Its ephemeral nature seems to fit our times, too. But I won’t be immersing myself any time soon – unless I get a chance to start over!

‘Mountains for Breakfast’, by Geraldine Mitchell, is published by Arlen House. On Thursday, National Poetry Day, Mitchell will be on MidWest radio with John F Deane at 9.30am, while that evening, at 7.30pm, she’ll be reading at Books@One in Louisburgh with Ryan Vine, an American poet soon to be published in Ireland by Salmon Press, and Dublin poet Daragh Bradish. As a winner in Poetry Ireland-Butler’s Chocolate competition, her work will also be on display in branches of Butlers Chocolate nationwide.