The Monthly speaks to Linda McKenna, CAP Poetry Facilitator, winner of the 2018 Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing and winner of the Listowel Writers’ Week Irish Poem of the Year Award 2020 – Part 1

Do you have any early memories of writing poetry?

I hated writing poetry at school. We were always given poetry writing tasks like writing a poem about the summer holidays or about Christmas and I just didn’t enjoy doing that at all. I was really bad at it. I was a very big reader and so I read and read much more than I would have written. Even in secondary school, I wasn’t a very imaginative writer. I was very good at analytical work, analysing essays or poems, but I wasn’t really good at creative writing.

How do you move towards writing then?

I did a degree in English and History in Trinity in Dublin. I did ty at that time try to write short stories. I also had an interest in writing radio plays because I really loved listening to radio plays on Radio 4. I wasn’t very good. I would say that when I was younger I had no interest in writing poetry at all.

Would you say that the school environment wasn’t very supportive?

I think that when I was in school there were certain laws for writing poetry. The poem had to rhyme. That was it. It had to rhyme. There was no sense that you could be creative with your writing or that the writing could actually be something that came from your ideas and thoughts. The themes and criteria were set by someone else and you had to write within that and you had to achieve a certain number of lines and include a certain number of images and of course, use metaphor, alliteration etc.

Nowadays when you see organisations like CAP (Community Arts Partnership) and ACNI bringing writers and poets into the classroom to inspire pupils to explore their creativity without the tyranny of having to turn out something that conforms to the ‘rules’, that is really incredible and so beneficial to both pupils and writers. There is so much more emphasis on expression rather than form and I think if that had been the case when I was at school I would have enjoyed creative writing much more!

When does the shift take place towards your commitment to writing?

I suppose in common with other people, when I had a big birthday any my son was looking at university places, I was conscious of needing to make changes in my life! I was  discussing things that I wanted to do with a friend of mine and we agreed to go to a Creative Writing class at Queens, and I really enjoyed it.

I started then to do online poetry writing classes, and I was encouraged by the tutors to keep writing poetry. I went to some face to face (back in the day when we did that sort of thing!) classes as well at both the Crescent Arts and the Irish Writers’ Centre.

One of the first courses I did was an online course with poet and tutor Kevin Higgins and that was a really good thing because you had to write a poem a week. I wasn’t particularly disciplined so that made me shift a little with regards a commitment to writing poetry

I suppose a real shift took place when at the end of the Kevin Higgins course, which lasted 10 weeks,  he suggested that we send work to various journals and that we all find an open mic to read at. I sent my work off to various journals and magazines and I found the open mic at Purely Poetry at the Crescent Arts Centre and discovered that I enjoyed reading my poems aloud. The atmosphere at the Purely Poetry sessions was so supportive and I can’t pay a high enough tribute to the support given to other poets by the wonderful Colin Dardis and Geraldine Dardis O’Kane!

Part two of this interview is here

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