What is your earliest memory regarding writing?
Because we were immigrants, my family and I lived in America, and later we returned to Donegal, so we were always writing letters. Letter writing would have been the writing that I did. We wrote long and detailed letters and we wrote a lot of them.
In the summer of 1972 I was given a diary and I started keeping a diary. I would write in that a lot of things that I could have never said to anyone in a face to face conversation.
Did you write poetry or stories?
I didn’t really write in school as I was always trying to keep my head down. My early education in America meant that I spelled words differently, I had different pronunciations and that made things very difficult. I used to say that American was my first language.
When I left school I did Catering and Hotel Supervision, and then I had my children and so I was at home for a while. It wasn’t until I was thirty years old that I looked at writing as something I might do more seriously.
How did that decision come about?
I was thinking that there was more that I could do with my life, and so I undertook a Foundation Study Course at Magee College, when I was studying English, the lecturer brought out a poem, “The Docker” by Seamus Heaney.
I had never heard of Seamus Heaney but the imagery in the poem really struck me; I didn’t need the teacher to explain the poem to me, it was instinctive and something changed within me at that time.
What happened after that experience?
I started writing, I started attending the Letterkenny Writers Group, which had a very gentle way about handling people’s work. There was no critiquing of what people had written. It was very welcoming. I would also go to the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry.
From there, I went to the Poet’s House in Falcarrragh in Donegal and because they were twinned with Lancaster University, they offered a Masters in Creative Writing which I was able to apply and be accepted for. I would drive for one hour two days a week to work on my Masters. It really was the only way I could have done it at that time.
After completing the Masters, I worked with Poetry Ireland going into schools, and later with Community Arts Partnership.
Through all of this, I met two people, Joan and Kate Newmann who published my first two books through Summer Palace Press.
You could say that there have been a series of fortunate events which have lead me to where I am now.
What were you writing about at that point?
Generally when I first started writing seriously I would write short pieces which were memoir pieces and of course I have expanded and developed my writing since that early period.
I do think I have maintained a sense of wonder about writing; that I am still always amazed when I start writing something and I watch it take shape as I work on it. That I think is very important, and I think that keeps you energised with regards your writing.
I think also that writing is something which develops its own dynamic and it is an outlet whether things are going well, or whether there are times of stress.
You work as a freelance facilitator. Is that difficult?
I am not the sole earner in my house so that does give you a little bit of leeway, but I have organised myself well, I have built up my network of contacts, I work in schools, in community settings, I am able to do a fair bit of facilitating of various projects.
And you have worked with Community Arts Partnership?
I do like the way Community Arts Partnership works putting working poets and writers into schools. I got involved because I had worked on a few projects in schools with writers Bernie McGill and Liz Weir and from there Jan Carson had put out a call for poets to work with CAP in the North West area. So that was how I made my connection with Community Arts Partnership. In fact a couple of years ago the school I was working with won the Seamus Heaney Award for Achievement.
I was very impressed with the way CAP was able to re-orientate the schools projects during the pandemic. To be able to shift gears and make that happen was very impressive.
I do like working in schools with young people and I approach that aiming to develop their creativity. I’m not so worried about spelling or the form but rather that they can express their own thoughts which is the approach, I think, that CAP starts with.
Does working as a freelancer give you time to write?
I do find time to write, yes, and I think it is something I would do anyway. Perhaps because it is my own community or perhaps because of the kind of community it is, but when I go out in Letterkenny, to the shops or the Post Office, people will ask me, “Are you still writing?” and I do think that interest has impacted me.
What inspires you with regards your writing?
I am very much inspired by things which are personal to me. And from there I am aiming to make what is personal to me have a universal theme so other people can relate to the poems.
I think mainly I am always trying to tell a story. I wouldn’t be someone who writes academic poetry or at least when I do try to work that way it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, so I tend to stick with what is around me.
I think because your experiences are always changing that I have plenty of situations which emerge as something which stimulates what I write about. I am also aware that I want to develop my craft and my technique, although I do think that having attended a lot of workshops and the process of doing my Masters have meant that I have plenty to draw on from those experiences.
You use social media to promote your work. Do you think that is an important part of the work of being a writer today?
I have my website, I work on podcasts and I have material on Soundcloud and Youtube. I think you do have to find ways to get your work out there to an audience and that means using whatever means is available to you. I do use social media and am always surprised when I get a response to my work through those channels. It is another example of something, getting feedback on your work, which keeps me wanting to continue writing poetry.
To listen to the work of Denise Blake please see the links below
Recording – Sunday Miscellany Live Show – the memory of an experience of meeting Seamus Heaney – https://www.rte.ie/culture/2020/0828/1161829-sunday-miscellany-my-seamus-heaney-story-by-denise-blake/
RTE Radio 1 – Sunday mornings – https://www.rte.ie/culture/2021/0111/1189010-sunday-miscellany-wearing-vintage-by-denise-blake/
Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny – The first 2 links Denise talks about writing and reading a poem:
You can hear the full series here: https://www.facebook.com/watch/159707227441795/408981487103080/