The Monthly interviews writer and poet and the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award winner, Stephanie Conn.

What was the impact of winning the Seamus Heaney Award in 2015?

Winning the award was a complete shock and totally unexpected but it provided welcome validation. So much of the writing process occurs in isolation so it was great to know my work was connecting and communicating with others. I completed an MA in poetry 2013 and had been submitting poems to magazines, journals and competitions. I was beginning to have work published and placed or commended in competitions but winning the Seamus Heaney Award topped it all. I was already starting to take my poetry seriously but the win encouraged me to really commit to the work and the possibility of making a career out of poetry.

Prior to the winning the award I had been a primary school teacher but became ill in 2013 and was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia in 2014. The impact of the condition meant I could no longer teach but I could still write and work around the condition.

What happens after that?

My first book, “The Woman on the Other Side”, which contains the winning poem, had been accepted by Doire Press before I received the award and was published in 2016. It was shortlisted for the Irish Shine/ Strong Award for Best First Collection. “Island” was published in 2018 and my new collection, “off-kilter”, was published last month.

Do you now write full-time?

Over the years, many people have commented on my bravery leaving teaching to write full-time. That isn’t what happened. The decision was taken out of my hands. My illness forced me out of teaching but provided the opportunity to commit to writing – a positive result in a largely negative context. So it wasn’t the big brave step some people assume and it has taken me quite a while to build up the courage to say, “I am a poet”.

www.doirepress.com/books/poetry/feminist-poetry/off-kilter

Did the pandemic impact your shift towards writing full-time?

I was very lucky in that I had started a funded PhD before the pandemic hit so I wasn’t in the terrible position that so many writers and artists found themselves in where they lost gigs, book launches, festivals, teaching work and so on. I was able to keep working and to do so from home.

My PhD was by practice and so had two elements – a critical strand and a creative writing strand, where I had to produce a new collection. I was able to work between those strands, shifting when and as necessary, for example, when the creative energy wasn’t there, I could shift over to the critical side of things and work on that.

What was the underlying theory of your PHD?

Both the creative and critical strands were underpinned by a phenomenological perspective on illness that values the lived experience and raises the voice of the patient. I drew on multi-disciplinary illness theory and works by scholars such as Anne Hawkins, Elaine Scarry and Anne Whitehouse. Such work considers whether illness and pain can be effectively articulated in literature. I argued that poetry is particularly well-suited to expressing this reality. Within the medical humanities there have been calls to move beyond a traditional narrative structure to other literary forms which can better reflect the disruption of illness. Chronic illness is chaotic, uncertain, difficult and contradictory. Poetry can capture and express these realities.

These are the key themes of your new collection?

The new collection is called “off-kilter” and is informed by the chronic illness experience. Informed by, rather than being about that experience. While a number of the poems emerge from my own lived experience of Fibromyalgia, the book as a whole, moves beyond that personal experience.

The book is split into five parts and the themes differ greatly to those in my previous books. I was already ill when I published those previous collections but I actively avoided the subject in my work. Poetry and the writing process provided welcome distraction and escape from illness.

In this book that illness experience comes to the fore but from different perspectives. One section highlights experiences connected to the medical encounter and interactions with doctors and machines. The body is objectified, scanned, probed and also dismissed. Another section is inspired by the life and work of Frida Kahlo and explores the connections between her chronic pain, her art and the persona she presented to the world. In other sections I draw parallels between the sick body and a sick planet so there is quite a lot of eco-poetry in there.

Where to now?

I am busy promoting off-kilter and enjoying having the opportunity to be back in a room with people again. I’m also developing my freelance portfolio now that I have finished my PhD and have been doing some facilitating and mentoring – which I love. Then it will be on to the next collection. I have made a tentative start, with the support of the Arts Council of NI, and will have a wonderful opportunity to develop new work in France. I’ve been awarded a writing residency at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris where I will spend a month in 2023.

I’ve been working on the critical and creative work for the PhD for over three years so I’m excited to work on something new but also to have some down time. I want to catch up on all the new poetry collections I missed over the last few years – my reading was consumed with PhD material – to read novels and watch some films.

To see more of Stephanie Conn’s work see the following link – stephanieconn.org/

Upcoming launch events

  • Coleraine Launch of off-kilter, Thursday 2nd June, Riverside Theatre, Coleraine @ 7.30pm
  • Bangor Launch of off-kilter, Thursday 9th June, Bangor Carnegie Library, Bangor @ 7.00pm
  • Belfast Book Festival on 11th June.
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