The Monthly discusses the joy of writing with Margaret A Sands, runner up 2021 Seamus Heaney Awards for New Writing

What are your earliest memories regarding writing, or being interested in poetry?

My earliest memory is a vivid visual imprint of Narin strand and Iniskeel Island beyond from the hillside at Portnoo where I lay, as a five-month-old baby, in a cot by a window overlooking it for three weeks. I see and feel this image with a surge of happiness every time I lift my pencil to write. It’s very green, yellow, blue and bright. It seems to get me into the zone to think deeply, which is key to creative writing. I mention it because it must somehow be connected with my deep love of Ireland, which is nearly always the backdrop to my creative writing.

My earliest memory regarding being interested in poetry is my father, John Joe’s voice reciting from W.B.Yeats’s poem “The Song of The Wandering Aengus” to me in our walled garden:

‘’And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun’’.

W. B. Yeats

My father spontaneously recited snippets of poetry and integrated it into his daily conversation. The focal point of our four-hundred-year-old historic old planters’ house in Loughbrickland, was the huge glass-fronted bookcase at the top of the wide staircase. I can still hear its doors un-snib and creak open and smell the old hardback books, many of which were volumes of poetry. My father spoke poetry like he relished it, like it was a delicious taste on his tongue. I find it quite delicious too!

Were you supported in your endeavours at home or at school?

At home in Loughbrickland, my father, John Joe, who was a teacher and his two sisters, Rosaleen and Frances and my mother Averil, all encouraged me in education, reading and writing. They valued it very highly. My primary school teacher, John Lennon, was encouraging to me, in the same way as my father was. They were great friends and so had a hand in it together, I should think!

At Secondary School in Lurgan, I was a boarding pupil in the convent which was extremely hard on a child who was so bonded to her family, home and nature. However, during the school day, I had such an inspirational drama teacher in Muriel Grant. She encouraged me in speech and drama, entering me in many individual and choral poetry competitions and under her tuition, I achieved a first-class honour in the grade 8 Speech Training Trinity college exam. I have an A level in English literature.

At St Mary’s College, Queen’s University, Belfast, my main subjects within my Bachelor of Education were Dramatic Art and English. I had wonderful lecturers in Dominic Burns, Jim Brankin and Dr Brian Hanratty. They introduced the modern Irish Short Story form to me too, which I love, as I find it very poetic. I wrote a short story and a poem and had them both published shortly after graduating with commendation in a B.Ed. degree. I subsequently went on to achieve commendation in a DASE and later, I took a MA.

St Mary’s College, Queens University, Belfast

How did you maintain your interest?

Sadly, I was unable to write during the middle years of my life as I was a fulltime teacher, a single mother, an intensive care foster-carer and a self-employed business manager. However, in my career as an early years teacher, I was a drama and English coordinator, so I was always hunting for good quality poems and literature for the children. When I semi-retired 5 years ago, I attended some classes held by the fabulous poets Ruth Carr and Moyra Donaldson among others at Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast and I slowly started to write again. I write increasingly more now as my responsibilities to the other aspects of my life decrease.
I have, however always undertaken as a joyous treat for myself – a quiet, close and contemplative reading of 3 poems per day:

‘’At the still point…there the dance is’’ (T.S. Eliot)

and I have always taken time to enjoy Ireland’s nature, flora and fauna, which is undoubtedly my primary muse:

‘’Where the bee sucks, there suck I.’’ (Shakespeare)

Why such a connection to Heaney?

My greatest joy is that I still hear my father’s voice reading Heaney’s stunning poetry and discussing it with me, like it was some wonderous thing, of great beauty and of vital importance. Heaney was deeply connected to Irish nature, culture, traditions and history and so was my father. Heaney was a teacher during the NI Troubles and so was my father. I connect them in my mind, I love the connection and the connection nourishes me.

I never write without pictures of both Heaney and my father on my desk. Before I begin I always say with a wry smile, ‘’Hello Daddy. Hello Seamus. Here I am again!’’

Where to now?

I have 100 new pencils. I intend to write them down to the stubs.

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