Poetry Ireland Introduction Series |6| Elaine Cosgrave

Elaine Cosgrove was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series 2015. Recently, she read at the New Writers’s Salon as part of Listowel Writers’ Week. Her work was ‘highly commended’ in the 2014 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize. She has an MPhil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin.

So can you start by telling us a teensy bit about yourself? You know, any interesting tid bits?

No worries at all. I was born and raised in Kilross, Sligo, and we moved to Leitrim (pretty much to the other side of Lough Gill) when we were 10yrs old. I’ll be turning 30 at the end of this year which I’m equally excited and apprehensive about because I haven’t ‘settled down’ yet. Interesting tid bits? Hmmm. I have a twin sister which seems to interest people quite a lot but it’s a normal part of my day-to-day existence. As a result, I interchange between ‘I’ and ‘We’ when talking about memories. Lemme see. Another tid bit relates to Yeats—this being an interview about poetry and all, and he being the ‘Godfather of Sligo Hip-hop’. It’s was Yeats’ birthday recently (13th June), and this 150yrs birthday shebang is going on all year—the house I spent all my teen years in, looks out over ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, which is an unremarkable and very small looking island on a remarkable lake, Lough Gill. The house has been up-for-sale since February. If anyone’s interested, holler.

What made you turn to poetry?
[pullquote] How and why people communicate fascinated me as a kid because I was so shit at it [/pullquote] I always loved words—speech rhythms, their tones, sayings, witty remarks, jokes and puns, the fun of getting along with someone—how words could change the landscape of a person’s face dramatically in a second; the connection and disconnection of them. How and why people communicate fascinated me as a kid because I was so shit at it, and it continues to fascinate me now.


My first remembered encounter with poetry was a dreadful one. My mum sent my sister and me to Speech & Drama lessons with this grey-haired lady who was renowned for her churn-out of Feis winners in the area. She had a bit of a Lady Gregory vibe off her as it happens. I was a desperately bad mumbler who talked out of the side of my mouth—didn’t know how to annunciate and project voice at all. We were sort-of rough too, a bit wilding. To learn and recite ‘The Stolen Child’ by Yeats was our first task at Speech & Drama, and I hated every moment of the experience. Eventually, we refused to go anymore, but I continued to practice the speech exercises on my own time, in private. I was barely able to make a peep in the company—horribly shy—of those I didn’t know so I guess, typically, books, TV, visuals were of great appeal.

[pullquote] I thought poetry was that; what mature, wise adults read, and so I dived into it [/pullquote] At 12, we were no longer eligible for the children’s library in Sligo town, so we applied for a library card for the Adult Library. I felt so grown-up walking in there, and sought out what I assumed to be the most grown-up section I could find—like when you’re underage in a bar and trying to pick out the most sophisticated beer to drink in order to mask your pure naivety, set on acting inconspicuous—and I thought poetry was that; what mature, wise adults read, and so I dived into it. Pretty LOL considering what I know now—that most adults wouldn’t choose to read poetry at all. Anyhow, the Librarian must have thought I was such a proto-boho eejet. Joking aside, I loved it. I loved the curiosity of it—the staccato-like delivery, the visual and musical aspects, the unknowable being exciting and welcomed (in contrast to the regiment at school of having to rote-learn, know and being a failure if you didn’t know something). Poetry and literature really lit a good feeling.

How long have you been writing and what has the Poetry Introduction Series meant for you?
I wrote my first poem aged 13, and it was called ‘Wildflowers’, and then I lost myself for the teen years writing a ton of terrible ‘woe-is-me’ Smashing Pumpkins inspired lyrics. I first started to write in a more serious, craft-orientated way in 2010.

Being selected for the Poetry Introduction Series was a great thumbs-up in terms of a broader, more national sense—merit from a more publicly known organisation to keep on with what I’m developing and doing, and it felt really great. I was especially interested in Theo Dorgan’s workshop, as I felt my performance side was a disaster, and I was a fan of both his work and his style of delivery. He was awesome—a good mix of practical advice and philosophical flourishing. People’s ears prick up at ‘Poetry Ireland’, the name of it. A couple of doors opened as a result that might not have opened for a while without it on my writing C.V. Occasionally a cynical side of my mind wonders if it is the collection of names/titles on your C.V. (I graduated from Trinity last year) rather than the work itself that matters in the world, but that’s just our sycophantic conditioning I guess. Pure jubilation took over anyhow, tweeted/ Facebooked et al, and I let myself just enjoy the ride of it. All in all, I was buzzed to be part of a group of poets whose work I admired, and to hear the excellent poems of others who I hadn’t come across before. The reading series was so much fun!

Elaine in quite the poetic setting!
Elaine in quite the poetic setting!

What do you hope to explore through your poetry?
I have a concrete idea of where to start—ideas notebooks/phone notes jotted down and so on, but no idea of where they will go. So in a way, I have no inkling of what I hope to explore until I start exploring. For example, I put ‘transport strangers fall asleep on you’ into my phone yesterday after a guy fell asleep on the bus beside me and his body hung slightly over into my space. When he woke-up he was embarrassed and apologised to me. I just laughed and said it was fine. There’s something in that moment. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, until I start to write and think it out. Is it the strangeness of the moment that I find appealing? Is it because it’s funny when strangers fall asleep on you? It is because strangers look at their most vulnerable/peaceful when asleep on public transport? I guess it’s that ‘something’ that I always hope to explore through my poetry.

Are you currently working towards a collection? Can you tell me all about that, what you want to focus on, and where you’d like to be published?
I am working towards a collection. I started it off the back of my end-of-year portfolio. Probably re-working it a bit too much at this stage. I edit and re-edit almost obsessively. Knowing when to just let it be is a skill in itself. The poems revolve around central themes of reverie (re Gaston Bachelard), thawing, and oscillations.
I have a wish-list of highly established publishers but realistically, I know there’s no real point in approaching them because I don’t fit their profile of who they usually publish. I’d love to be published by a juicy, innovative, fresh publisher. Ideally, I’d like my first collection to be a package—a 12” with recordings of the poems, a printed A5 booklet of the work inside the sleeve, and then an access code that unlocks an online interactive digital poetics version of the text+sound… my imagination has gone wandering with this idea.

Do you think poetry is for a niche audience or do you think social media is opening it up to new possibilities?
[pullquote] Most people would prefer to clean the house than go to a poetry reading[/pullquote] I think people who read poetry collections and who actively go to readings are a niche audience. Most people would prefer to clean the house than go to a poetry reading. Many people who go to poetry readings with their poetry-loving friends find them incredibly boring. A couple of people find they’re shocked at how much they enjoyed it because poetry was so boring in school. I don’t think ‘Poetry’ itself has a niche audience as many people turn to it in times of sadness and joy – weddings, funerals and so on. In that sense, it has a very wide and varied audience at specific times. Social media seems to make it easier for those who aren’t a part of the niche audience online to stumble across a poem in their feed, or see a tweet a friend may have re-tweeted and so on. YouTube is a big opener for the spoken word scene to wider audiences. What social media has opened-up are the possibilities for poetry to find new mediums to work with and within—apps and poetry are ripe for a sweet friendship I feel. I can’t wait to see how newer technologies advance the way poetry can/could be presented.

What would you say has been the biggest influence on your writing? or who has been? or both?
Music is probably the biggest influence as are visual forms such as film, photography. Physics, structures and what is going on in the world—newspaper stories—influence also. I listen to different types of music to help get going what type of energy/ tone/ rhythm I want the poem to build itself around. Been reading loads of Anne Carson lately so I expect that will influence at some stage.

Have you had, or do you have a mentor?
Not sure how to answer this one so I’ll go at it from the ‘official mentors’ side first. I was a student of poet Mary O’Malley for a semester during my undergraduate degree, and then a student of poets Gerald Dawe and Paula Meehan during my time on the MPhil in Creative Writing in Trinity. We also had a ‘Practice of Writing’ seminar whereby a writer would come in and speak about their practice each week for a semester. I also attended classes with poets Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar DuMars in Galway in 2008/2009.

I’d say the most ongoing and sustaining mentorship has been from fellow emerging writers, my workshop mates from the MPhil; the more social mentorship gained from informal chats with the writing community over the years by going to readings, book launches, events; reading writers’ interviews online and so on. I was the co-ordination assistant from 2005 – 2011 on the International Writers’ Summer Programme at NUIG, directed by Moya Cannon and Michael Gorman, so that in itself was an unintended mentorship by osmosis—meeting all these highly regarded and fantastic Irish writers when they came in to speak to the students, hearing them read and talk about their craft, chatting with the students about their writing, reading their work. It was wonderful.

What do you hope to have done with your poetry in the next five to ten years?
I hope poetry hasn’t done with me in five to ten years! I hope to continue sending better and better work out into the world, it being read and enjoyed, and hope to continue developing the digital poetics side of the work.

What contemporary Irish poets are you impressed by?
Eeeek. What a tough question. There’s so many. Off the top-of-my-head, at this very moment, work has impressed, and whose work I’m (re)reading at the moment would be Billy Ramsell’s ‘The Architect’s Dream of Winter’, Leonita Flynn’s, ‘Drives’, Elaine Feeney’s ‘The Radio was Gospel’, Dimitra Xidous’s ‘Keeping Bees’. Been reading pieces published online by Michael Naghten Shanks and liked them a lot. Fellow Introductions poets’ work is awesome—very talented; they really made me want to up my game. I was really impressed by two poems Liz Quirke read at the New Writers’ Salon open mic a couple weeks’ back in Listowel, and a piece Christodolous Makris read at the gorse event.

Do you think Ireland is starting to move away from the “typical Irish Poetry” and move towards something more contemporary? Where do you see yourself in terms of that movement?
I’ll politely let others decide and answer where they see me in terms of contributing to contemporary poetry down the line, if ever. In relation to ‘typical Irish Poetry’, I love and admire a lot of—the tradition—so I’ll never dismiss that great work. I do feel there is a strong healthy presence of print journals, events, and online platforms that aren’t typical of the fáilte poetry aesthetic or touristic gaze subject matter presented on postcards and posters in gift-shops.

[pullquote] They eagerly reflect and value a desire to make sure contemporary poetry as it exists, as it is living now in Ireland is represented online, at festivals, and in bookshops alongside the more Department manufactured ‘typical Irish Poetry’ tag that has become famous commercially, and is a profitable asset to Ireland’s tourism [/pullquote] The Bohemyth, Bogman’s Cannon, The Stinging Fly, The Penny Dreadful, gorse, The Poetry Bus to name a handful are excellent for representing the contemporary poets. They eagerly reflect and value a desire to make sure contemporary poetry as it exists, as it is living now in Ireland is represented online, at festivals, and in bookshops alongside the more Department manufactured ‘typical Irish Poetry’ tag that has become famous commercially, and is a profitable asset to Ireland’s tourism. To think that Beckett’s poems have been claimed, and are advertised under that ‘typical Irish Poetry’ tag is sort-of heartening? The poets themselves didn’t make that ‘typical Irish Poetry’ tag—it was made for them and sold, and it is re-made every couple of decades or so. For example, there are a lot of women poets not recognised under this tag. So I guess, I hope that the next time they’re re-making the ‘typical Irish Poetry’ tag, it includes women poets, and multi-cultural poets, and poets who weren’t born in Ireland but consider themselves ‘Irish’. I’m not sure if the general international public can ever move away from how we are known to the world. A more ‘Quiet Man’ type of postcard friendly poetry may be favoured over say a more ‘Adam & Paul’ type of poetry abroad, and at home.

The issue doesn’t lie in contemporary poetry not being—or ever not—being out there; it has always been around at the same time as ‘typical Irish poetry’, as it is now. The issue lies in the balance of what is chosen to be pushed, and funded, to the fore-front of ‘Irish poetry’ by decision-makers at higher levels. Sometimes the poetry that speaks for and represents the less positive aspects of Irish identity and society (ones that burst the bubble of the green idyllic) may be overlooked because it is dangerous in terms of tourism. In terms of the tradition of Irish Poetry i.e. those who have come before us, I hope we continue their considered work in making interesting contemporary poetry. Long story short? There’s a vibrant ascent of poetry being created in Ireland by poets living here, or who have moved here—maybe a time will come when they are recognised as ‘typical Irish Poetry’. If that time comes, will they welcome this tag though? Who knows.

You can see an archive of Elaine’s work on her Tumblr account and follow her on Twitter @laineycos