Linda McKenna

An Interview

Colin Dardis

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Colin Dardis interviewed poet Linda McKenna about her debut collection from Doire Press, ‘In the Museum of Misremembered Things’.

Colin Dardis: In the title poem of the collection, you address the act of writing, with “unprovenanced vows, misheard |names, missed cues”. The poem “Witness Statements” almost addresses this issue of potential dilution of how an act is recorded. Does this distance between reality and recall inhibit you in any way as a writer, or is this where artistic license is free to flow?

Linda McKenna: I think as a writer, this is where I am most comfortable: somewhere between reality and remembering or misremembering. We live in a society obsessed by remembering partial versions of the past and an insistence on the primacy of ‘our’ version, even if the evidence points to ‘our’ version being ‘wrong’, so I am fascinated by how recollection functions in our personal and collective lives. I am also very interested in how we constantly overwrite or overpaint our personal, local or national history so I tried to focus in some of the poems, on misremembering, which is not the same as forgetting and not the same as lying. It contains within itself both the deliberate and the accidental which is fairly fertile ground for poetry! 

I like the idea as well that we all have a museum of our lives where we periodically rearrange the displays, deaccession some objects and tear up some archival material! ‘Witness Statements’ was inspired by my reading of the court martial records of some of the County Down rebels in 1798. One of the things that I found really interesting about these documents is how, in the middle of the turbulent aftermath of the rebellion, so much of ordinary life comes through. Many witnesses spend as much time talking about what time they were milking a cow, or how another witness stole five shillings five years before, than they do about pikes or battles. For every page of ‘history’ there are two or three pages of ‘life’.  We generally live in a recalled life rather than an official history.

CD: Quite a number of the standout poems draw from history – whether of notable women, naval journeys, or local tales from Ulster, particularly County Down. You work for the Down County Museum, but in your writing, how much do you see yourself as historian as well as poet?

LMcK: Even though many of my poems take as their starting point historical documents or events in history, I would say I don’t see myself as a historian in my poems, because as a historian I know no matter how much information we have about the past, we can never accurately know or inhabit the interior landscape of people from the past. In fact, you could say that, in Ireland anyway, ascribing certain motivation to our ancestors hasn’t really benefited us much! I’m not sure it is the job of poets to educate people about the past, or anything else, either, although of course, poetry has a role to play in encouraging people to explore all kinds of things. 

For me, the use of historical documents or events provides a frame within which I can work. I use and handle historic documents and objects all the time. They are the bread and butter of my working day, so obviously they get in to my imaginative work; but there is a clear distinction, at least in my head, between using an object to explain an element of the past, and using it to enable an imaginative journey. I suppose it is the difference between on the one hand fact and accuracy, and in the other some kind of truth, even if that is a truth about the author. Poetry belongs to myth rather than history and it is myth making rather than documentary.  However, I suppose one of the ways in which, in my poems, I am something of a historian is that I think poetry is a great way of refashioning and preserving language. Linguistically, we live in an increasingly homogenised world; many of the words and phrases I heard everyday as a child have disappeared. I tried in ‘Annexed’ to say something about the disappearance of those words and phrases and maybe to at, least pay homage to them. And I suppose every poet is a historian of their own past and the past of their families, so poems rooted in childhood or childhood memories are a version of history, but like all versions not necessarily true!

CD: We read in the poems of “rigged-up darkrooms”, “dark corners”,  “a dark doorway” alongside a boy “ribboned in blood”, “bloody mouthed princess” and “maggoty corpses of birds and rabbits”. Would it be fair to say – as one might imagine a lot of historians are – that you are drawn more to the macabre?

LMcK: The ‘boy ribboned in blood’ was an actual teenage boy I saw outside a chip shop as I was walking, and the blood running down his pale torso was exactly like ribbons. so he is not imagined although I don’t know who he is or what happened to him. I think history is really all dark corners and pretty blood soaked. I didn’t realise there were so many references to dark and bloody things but looking through the poems there are! I wonder if it’s maybe because many of these poems were written at a time which I found unsettling, a time when we thought we were reflecting on and commemorating some of the most blood soaked episodes in our history, whereas really we were relishing another opportunity (or a decade of them), to retreat into identity politics. When I re-read ‘Unsettled’, I can certainly see a reaction to that. 

I’m not sure if I’m drawn to the macabre but I am drawn to the margins and the edges of history, the spaces between lines and whatever has been scored out. I also think it’s very often in corners that you find whispers and quiet voices. Mainstream history is full of loud voices which we go on amplifying, whereas the ordinary, the nondescript, our great- great grandmothers lived in corners and dark doorways. They lived almost outside of history. As a child I couldn’t believe that my grandmother who was born in rural north county Dublin in 1902, dismissed World War I, 1916, the War of Independence, etc. as mostly irrelevant to her life. She lived her life in the corners of history but knew all the words of ‘Moore’s Melodies’ and could read the tea leaves. There’s something significant there, I’m not sure what; maybe that poetry is really just Moore’s Melodies and reading the tea leaves.

CD: It isn’t until about halfway in the collection that you use the first person that might be taken to refer to yourself, the writer, rather than a historical figure or some other speaker. Do you find it easier, or perhaps more comfortable, to inhabit and imagine the voice of others rather than directly put yourself forward as a subject?

LMcK: Definitely! Partly because I find it difficult to see how anyone would be interested in my life or my views on anything. Partly because some of these poems were a deliberate act of imagining the unrecorded or unheroic - often female – voice, and some were conceived as dialogue poems (although they didn’t necessarily end up like that). I suppose in my own reading I like poems that are a bit mysterious and don’t at first appear to be overly autobiographical -although they might be - and where the poet is a bit hidden, so maybe I tried to replicate some of that in my own pieces. Again, I like to read poems where there is a multiplicity of voices and perhaps that influenced me. 

Some poems are definitely based around my childhood and my childhood world but I’ve probably conflated lots of memories together to create these. I think because I find inspiration in the margins, gaps and corners then, inevitably, I imagine the voices of unknown or little known people and use them in my poems. I think as well lots of things anger me about the world but I don’t like very angry poems. Maybe if I were to use my own voice my poems would just be rants and I like fairly contained, almost framed poems so imagined voices are perhaps more useful for me! I hope there is still some honesty in my poems even though there might not be too much autobiography.

CD: Under different circumstances, your collection would have received a physical launch by now. How has the effects of lockdown and the pandemic impacted on the book’s release? To circumvent this impact, have you been able to way new ways of getting the word out about the book?

LMcK: I was really lucky to be featured on one of the ‘Unlaunched’ podcasts, an initiative by John McAuliffe, Sean Hewitt and Victoria Kennefick and RTE. ‘Unlaunched’ was set up to highlight books that missed out on launches due to the Covid crisis, and it was a great honour to be included. I was also lucky to be included in ‘The Holding Cell’ readings, organized by Rozz Lewis and Simon Lewis (a fellow Doire writer) and I took part in an online WANI event too. Damian Smyth of ACNI (ACNI supported the publication of my book) reviewed it as part of his spring/summer books in the Belfast Telegraph and I’ve tried to use social media to get the word out too. I had hoped to use the lockdown to get a website up and running but I haven’t managed that yet. The Doire summer reading tour has also been cancelled but I’m hoping to take part in some autumn events and maybe have an actual launch at some time too!

CD: In 2018, you won both the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, and the Red Line Book Festival Poetry Competition. Tell us about how this helped establish your name as a poet, and how this led to interest from Doire Press.

LMcK: They were both big surprises! One of the best things about winning these was learning that poets whose work I admire (Stephen Sexton, Maria McManus, Damian Smyth, Adam Wyeth) enjoyed my poems and thought they were good. With the Seamus Heaney I followed on from Stephanie Conn and Glen Wilson, two of Northern Ireland’s finest contemporary poets and that was another joy. I am very grateful to both the Seamus Heaney Award and Red Line for picking my poems and it’s great to be able to say ‘I won that!’. But while a publisher might have an awareness of any competitions a poet has won and any ‘prestigious’ publications that have taken their work, they have to like at least most of the poems in any collection you submit, so the overall quality is as important as any ‘star’ poems you might have. Competitions like the Seamus Heaney certainly gave me great confidence that I could go on and develop my writing, and think about a full collection. I think without it, I would never have imagined that a publisher would look at my work.

CD: I’ve known you from perhaps near the start of your “poetry journey”, for lack of a better phrase, as I believe you only started writing poetry around 2015-16. Have you surprised yourself in how quickly you’ve progressed, from your first writings, to your first open mic reading, to now a collection with one of Ireland’s premier poetry publishers?

LMcK: I went to a Saturday morning creative writing workshop at QUB for ‘something different to do’ and a half-baked notion of writing a thriller! I surprised myself at producing a not very good poem during the day, but still it was a poem and I enjoyed it, and thought maybe I’ll do a poetry writing course. The first open mic I went to (at the Crescent), I was so nervous I left out the first verse of my poem. I think the NI poetry scene is so supportive and generous that you are constantly learning how to write and improve your writing without realisiing you are doing so, and that means you ‘come on’ more quickly than you might elsewhere.  There are so many great local writers and writing groups (like WANI, Words for Castleward, Poems on Sunday in Down Arts Centre and the open mic at the Crescent) who encourage you along and great support from organisations like CAP and ACNI. 

I am a slow writer and I tend to let poems percolate for quite a while so maybe because they are drafted and redrafted so much in my head I don’t do that much redrafting on paper. As I am an older poet, and my son is away at University, and although I work full time, I have more free time than younger poets with childcare responsibilities or who are studying or establishing their careers. But I am also aware how lucky I have been, in a pretty crowded market, to get my poems published and to have Doire Press publishing my debut collection.  I still have to pinch myself to believe that I have a poetry book out with Doire! As you know Colin, I like football, and when I sent my poems to Doire I thought this is a big punt: but sure, sometimes the minnows get a good cup run.

In the Museum of Misremembered Things is available now from Doire Press (ISBN: 978-1-907682766, €12)