Do you have any early memories of being drawn to writing generally and poetry in particular?
Writing was only letters to pen pals and compositions at school which I was quite good at. I remember staying through lunchtime in primary school on Wednesdays to finish stories of five or six big pages while the other pupils had written a couple of pages and then off into the playground. There was no poetry in our house and actually school put me right off it anyway — a combination of poetry I didn’t relate to, and pressure to memorize and recite or to read to the whole class.
Secondary years were up and down as there were a few changes including the first move to Australia when I was still thirteen. There was pressure to go to work as soon as possible so off I went to the local drycleaners (a lovely family business). One of my classmates told me later that the teacher had read my last essay to the whole class — I was surprised as I thought she hated me. It was I suppose about goals for the future. I wrote about wanting to be a nurse (of course) and my romantic notion of studying on the beach but I know I also said I wanted to have a painting hung in an exhibition and a poem published in a book (I’d written a handful of silly poems about friends). I was never a nurse but I’ve been in exhibitions and journals. I was a very good drawer and art was the main focus from childhood and into my thirties or so.
If you did gravitate towards writing and poetry at an early age were you supported either at home or in school?
Nah. I wouldn’t have been.
You moved to Australia shortly after the Troubles started – How did this impact your writing?
Bill (my late husband) and I arrived in Australia in December 1969. We didn’t spend a lifetime in the Troubles like so many others but of course that year had a big impact. I write quite a lot about place and displacement, belonging and not belonging, conflict and asylum seekers.
You have been described as an Irish Diaspora poet. Is that an accurate description?
Sure. I migrated to Australia a long time ago but I still feel a strong connection to Ireland. Someone said to me after my return from visiting Belfast in January, ‘… but this [Australia] is home …’ Yes it is I said but I’ll always be from Belfast. (Your origins don’t change.)
There was a point where I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere — too long away from Ireland but not here long enough. My Spinifex Press anthology Wee Girls: Women Writing from an Irish Perspective was likely an attempt to still be connected.
You have had a life full of varied experiences from your working life to where you have lived. How much has this informed your writing?
A great deal: Belfast, Wollongong on the South Coast and then Binalong in rural NSW where I’ve lived the longest, all provide backdrops or experiences which come through in one way or another. I have the beginnings of a manuscript which features a sequence of memories from Belfast — quite a few of them were inspired by the Ulster Folk Museum on a visit. I’m hoping something will come out of my recent visit to the Titanic Museum — you never know.
I began to focus on writing, though only playfully at first, when I was working in Canberra and doing a daily 100 km commute from Binalong. (Not unusual in these regions.) A chunk of the trip was by bus which because of course it’s higher than a car, gives you a different perspective, whether looking across the paddocks along the Barton Highway or looking down on people in the street going through the suburbs or the city. I wrote small poems which were glimpses of nature and people going about their day. I had a good time with that and I always get a poem if I am on a bus but that doesn’t happen so often now. It was also very akin to when I was trying to be an artist — I loved quick sketches on the go.
As Editor of a regional paper and one of the reporters before that, I had to write, edit and sub a lot of different material, from politicians’ media releases to police reports, human interest stories and community contributions — if they were too long for the space or a bit waffly, etc. I learnt how to be succinct and to get straight to the point which I use a lot in my writing. Also made me think about beginnings and endings.You learn so much from wide reading and the privilege of more general editing/mentoring of other writers. The latter forces me to pause and think more deeply about the text.
I started off as a shop assistant and I have quite a few poems from across both sides of the shop counter — see Two Lips went Shopping (Spinifex Press 2000). That theme still surfaces from time to time. Shopping centres are great places for poems.
What else … Commuting and also travelling through the regions for arts development jobs gave me a love of this particular countryside and its small towns. There are always amusing or special moments from changing skies to kangaroos and foxes giving you a nod or low-flying ducks or hawks swiftly passing your windscreen. The amazing Australian birdlife is irresistible. There is a lot of nature and landscape for that reason although I often bring some edge or other to those poems.
Part two of this interview is here