When we were kids growing up in Ireland, my mother told us that she had once gone out with a fellow who was an artist. “Why didn’t you marry him, Mammy?” we asked her. “Then we’d all be artists.” My father, who was none too pleased, left the house in a huff. My mother said her family didn’t think much of her old boyfriend. “An artist, is it?” they said disdainfully. “Sure, that fella couldn’t draw a week’s wages!”
Artists and writers were all very well for the rich but “the working poor,” as my mother was fond of calling us, could not afford to indulge in that sort of thing. My parents were avid readers, it’s true, and they loved stories, plays and poetry, but it was important to be realistic and not to be getting “notions” about yourself.
I was a reader long before it occurred to me to write. As a Dublin child, I read to escape the din of daily life with its rules and restrictions in favor of an imaginary one of my own choosing. The only things I excelled at were spelling and sulking, the former through a natural talent for language, and the latter because I wanted to be “special” in a world that did not encourage self-centeredness. My parents were talkers and storytellers. My father especially spoke in similes although he would not have known that term. My mother’s talking was like breath itself, rhythmic and unremitting. I developed the habit of being elsewhere, of escaping reality with a book.
I studied the great Irish and English poets in secondary school but I don’t recall reading anything by a living poet or writer. I learned to memorize and love Shakespearean speeches and Romantic sonnets but no one suggested that I try my hand at writing poetry myself. Like the angels who were sent on special missions from God to man, poets and writers were a different species from the rest of us, and creative writing was not part of the curriculum. Outside of school, however, changes were taking place. I discovered the Liverpool Beat poets, the hip books of the Sixties, and the music of Bob Dylan and I fell in love with all that was alien and at odds with my parents’ beliefs. I was, in my mother’s words “contrary as a bag of cats.”
Much later in America, after I had acquired some perspective on my upbringing, I recalled those Irish voices and turns of phrase I loved and began to write them down as a kind of homage to all that I missed or had failed to appreciate along the way. I also wrote because I needed to find a way back to the life I had wanted as a teenager—a life of passion and excitement and discovery. It wasn’t their fault that my parents had more practical ideas.
Still, for many years, although I had long since rejected religion, I felt as if I only wrote when I thought God’s back was turned. As if I was sneaking in through the tradesman’s entrance of the Big House. When I was finally admitted to academia (though as a lecturer and not a tenured professor), I felt like a servant who had been promoted from the scullery to the dining-room. Or a poor relation, admitted on sufferance to the home of her wealthy kinsfolk.
These days I write more consciously and willingly. Sometimes I trick myself into writing to escape more daunting tasks like arranging dinner-parties or washing the kitchen floor. More often I write to expunge the memories and images I have been carrying around for years. When I succeed in putting those moments down on paper, I feel liberated from them in both positive and negative ways. It’s as if I’ve stepped outside those experiences and have objectified them so that they are no longer a part of me. I still ‘own’ them but they no longer own me.
My motivations for reading and writing have also changed over the years. When I was young, I went to poetry for wisdom. Now I know that it’s not what a poem does with its mouth that matters; it’s what it says with its eyes. I can’t remember who coined that phrase but it’s one of my favorites. To be a writer, especially a poet, is to have a love-affair with language. And love, if it is to last, had better include playfulness and a healthy sense of irony.
I became a writer because it turned out to be the only thing I was any good at. But the real reason—I can finally acknowledge it—is this: I was a lousy Irish dancer.