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Róisín Tierney on The Spanish-Italian Border

Posted by Arc, 27th February 2014

To celebrate the launch of Róisín Tierney's debut collection, The Spanish-Italian Border, I spoke to her recently about the writing of the book, winning the Michael Marks Award and other related thoughts...

What leads (or drives) you to write poetry?

My father writes poetry, and although he hasn't published much we did occasionally hear a poem of his read out on the radio when we were kids. It was helpful to grow up in a house where it was normal to put pen to paper whenever you wanted to express a particular emotion or situation. I also had a good primary school teacher, Mrs Talbot, who introduced us to writing poetry when we were very little. I remember my first poem, written for homework, was modeled on Joseph Mary Plunkett's I See His Blood Upon The Rose. My mother sat by my side at the dining room table and helped explained the rhyming pattern. So it was useful to have a family that believed writing a poem was a good thing. And then of course in Ireland, poetry is generally held in high esteem, even if not everybody reads it!

In secondary school, again for a class exercise, I co-wrote a poem with another girl - and it was later published in the Irish Times. So that was an encouragement. But later, in adulthood I was very clear that I needed to widen my own reading and polish my technique before attempting to publish. I was lucky enough to attend Michael Donaghy's wonderful workshop at City University, and that really led the way to writing to a professional level.

What leads me to write a poem now? Well, like most writers, I don't lie around waiting for inspiration, but actively set aside time and space to write. That said, a little psychic intensity can only be good for a poem. Something that touched you twenty years ago, can easily resurface as a poem. If the original image/event has the intensity, it will also have the momentum to resurface years later, albeit in a re-worked form. Though perhaps we will never know exactly how a poem comes into being. Wasn't it Michael Longley who said "If I knew where poems came from, I'd go there."

Can you describe the journey the book took to reach its published form?

This is my first full collection, and I initially found it very difficult to put a manuscript together in any cohesive form, as the subject matter varies so widely. Then I hit on the idea of dividing the book into two parts, with many of the Spanish-themed poems in the second half, and more of the rural Irish, biographical poems in the first half. That seemed to give it a better structure. But of course, many of the poems have had their own individual trajectory before finding their place in The Spanish-Italian Border. As a writer, it is helpful to have had your poems published in a various poetry journals and magazines, before bringing out a full collection. I found poetry competitions helpful too, and several of the poems in the book have won prizes. I like competitions, because they are generally anonymous, and therefore it is a completely even playing field. If a poem is chosen, it is because the Judges liked it, and not because they know you! I have also had some poems published in pamphlet anthologies, and a small collection of my own poems published in pamphlet form by Rack Press in 2011, Dream Endings. That pamphlet went on to win The Michael Marks Award in 2012, and I suppose it was at that point that a few publishers expressed an interest in possibly bringing out a full collection.

Who were you reading when you wrote it?

That's a difficult question to answer, as some of the poems in the book were written many years ago and some are more recent. So obviously I was reading many different poets during that time. Indeed, I was even running a reading group for a couple of years, and we tended to concentrate on different Irish, British or American poets each term. That type of conscious reading list was very helpful, for all of us, I think. I like Heaney very much, and Frost and Bishop, so I suppose that places me. I also like Lorca, and Machado. My Irish is only very basic, but still good enough to appreciate the poetry of a bilingual poet like Paddy Bushe. More recently, Seriol Troup, Chris Beckett, Daljit Nagra, David Harsent, Kathleen Jamie. I loved Maurice Riordan's most recent book, The Water-Stealer, and Division Street by Helen Mort.

Which poem do you think is the lynchpin of the collection, for what reasons?

I'm not sure, but perhaps the title poem, The Spanish-Italian Border. I got the title from a friend and co-poet, Simon Barraclough, when he jokingly suggested that we set up house together and support each other in our writing careers. He was always dreaming of living in Italy, and I was not far off moving to Spain, so I replied 'How can we live together, when you want to live in Italy, and I want to live in Spain?' He laughed and said; 'We'll get a house on the Spanish-Italian border...!'

Well it struck me as funny, as well as interesting, the idea of going to live in a non-existent place, and in the process, having to learn a non-existent language. And I suppose many of the poems in the book deal with the porousness of language, and the un-fixedness of place, or at least of borders, of all kinds, psychological as well as physical.

How would you like the book to be received by readers?

First and foremost, I would like them to find it enjoyable! And perhaps to have their curiosity piqued by some of the references in it. And to experience a different take on gypsy/tinker life, to imagine a tramp trying to rescue two dead girls, to contemplate Hokusai's many names, to gain some pleasure out of our constant striving to make a 'dream ending' for all our stories, and hopefully to enjoy the sound of things, the music of language and languages.

What do you think is the role of poet in our society?

Well the role of poetry in our society has been much debated, and I think well answered by the likes of Heaney, and his assertion that poetry makes things happen, that it can be a positive force in the world. I think it is in our nature as human beings, with our complicated and fluid relation to language and story, to constantly re-tell the world back to ourselves, both the literal world, and the world of the imagination or what some would call the unconscious. I think that is the function of art, and that it brings us pleasure and widens our understanding in so doing. As for the role of a poet? To write good poetry, I suppose!

Roisin launches The Spanish-Italian Border at Enitharmon Press Bookshop, 10 Bury Place, WC1A 2JL on Tuesday 18 March at 6.30pm. If you'd like a reserve a place, please contact roisintierney[at]

Katy Evens Bush talks about the book on Baroque in Hackney