In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists in all fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different in each art form. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.
Annette Skade lives on the Beara Peninsula, West Cork. Her first collection Thimblerig was published in 2013. She has been published in Ireland, the UK and the U.S and has been successful in international poetry competitions. In October 2017 she was Florence Writers ‘Writer in residence’ at St Mark’s Cultural Association. She is currently doing a PhD on the poetry of Anne Carson at Dublin City University.
What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at/curious about this aspect? Do you admire this aspect in others?
I have loved poetry all my life, though I came late to writing it. I love the way it distils language and demands that no word is used that isn’t absolutely necessary. This love of poetry means I get massive enjoyment out of reading or hearing the work of other poets. In my own poetry I try to see things differently, to make unusual connections and to give simple words new energy. Every word has to be thought about, placed just where it needs to be, every line break needs to be considered – but it should look effortless. Due to reading so much I have a wide vocabulary, and very rarely use a thesaurus. I’m more inclined to check examples from an old copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (complete with magnifying glass), which I was given as a present. The sound of the poem is really important too, and I read my poems aloud many times as I write. I love rhymes and chimes but wouldn’t force a line or phrase to include one. I scan all my poems too, sometimes using a formal structure, sometimes not, but always thinking about the rhythms, whether the lines sound heavy or light, whether they reflect meaning, whether a pivotal word needs a change in rhythm, like a faltering step, or snag. Finally, form has become more and more important to me as space around lines and stanzas can allow a poem to breathe. I respond to ordinary things in the environment around me, or to what people tell me, because there is something about the objects or stories that fascinates me, that I want to explain to myself. My feelings or memories might be shown through a common object or process. My poem “Knitting a Father from Nettles” is an example of this. Others do this so well: the modernist poet, Basil Bunting; contemporary poets such as Paula Meehan, Lavinia Greenlaw, Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Mark Doty and , further back in time, George Herbert who explores his belief in God through descriptions of a pulley, or the church floor.
When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?
I read poetry, when I can’t write it. Reading some great poems can spark something or can make me want to try harder. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Sleeping Standing Up”, for example, made me think of a situation in my experience when the world made a quarter turn, and resulted in my poem about vertigo, “Rooted”, which appears in my collection Thimblerig. I also edit work I’ve already done. Every poem needs to be looked at and worked on so many times that this task is always available. I might also focus on the ‘business end’ of poetry, submit some poems, plan a workshop, update my website. Basically, I think it’s important to keep a link with the work. To get myself writing again, I take some idea or image I’ve been thinking about and I just write, without thinking too hard about it, and in, maybe, three pages a few words might give me an in, or a good idea to take further. As I always start with a notebook and pen, sometimes I look back through old notebooks for ideas or starts. This can be a painfully slow process, and you have to be patient with it.
How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?
It seems I only have one voice, which modulates to some extent according to subject, rather as ordinary speech might. Rather than maintaining it, I have to be brave enough not to disguise it. This was a big problem for me starting out, when I was daunted by people saying “What are you on about?” or “Why do you make all these references to Greek myths?” Over ten years ago I did a weeklong workshop with Paula Meehan, which taught me many things, but the most useful one was to stop attempting to disguise my voice to fit in with what I think other people expect. I felt released! Shortly afterwards I began to get published.
I first went on Twitter and set up a website at the behest of my publishers. Personally, I have to be feeling strong to use social media, not because of comparisons- I love the access it gives me to the work of others- but for the negativity you can encounter. I don’t mean personal attacks or criticism, but a general pulling down: when, for example, a well-known person like Mary Beard has spoken incautiously and is attacked, and has her views twisted. I have also felt tremendously supported through Twitter and have actually met people who have changed my creative life through it. It’s also a great way to share work that has been published on line. The main thing to remember is that it’s not obligatory and you can take a break from it whenever you like.
When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Did/Does you national identity influence you?
When I was at school I was exposed to so many great poets ranging from Plath to T.S.Eliot, Wordsworth to Wilfred Owen, and at university I saw an amazing but baffling John Cage and Merce Cunningham collaboration, and read Sappho and Homer. I remember once trying to write some poems but I soon got frustrated with how lame they were compared to these greats and I gave up.
Much later a friend asked me to go to a poetry workshop with her and, very slowly, I began to get some poems together. Starting out, I think I felt embarrassed by my poetry and kept quiet about it. In 2010, as I started to get published, my immediate family were supportive enough but not really interested in reading my poems or going to readings with me. I think they picked up on my embarrassment! An exception to this was my daughter, Aoife, who was very encouraging and helped me to believe in myself. On the whole, I think friends have been really supportive. When, in 2013, Thimblerig was launched in Bantry by Ruth Padel so many of my friends came. I was on top of the world! Also, when I read in Manchester, my cousins and my older son, Mike, came to hear me read and I was really happy they were there. It was a great night! My mum was very proud when my collection was published and all my Manchester relatives bought extra copies! These days my family in Ireland come to more readings and my younger son Cormac, has collaborated with me for a project where my poems are set to music. He also records me reading my poetry for audio projects. I think we’ve all got over the embarrassment.
With regard to nationality, I’m Mancunian first and English second. I think your body learns the geography of where you are brought up at a young age, like young swallows learn home territory so they can make it back there. This geography is hard-wired into you. I’ve lived in Ireland for nearly thirty years and many of my poems respond to what I see around me and I like to stay present in that environment. However, when I go back into memory, my upbringing comes back to me. It also influences the language I choose and might explain my preferences for plain words in my poetry. It’s my bedrock.
What happens if you ignore your creative impulses, i.e., if you don’t practice for a while?
It’s been a long time since I’ve ignored my creative impulses, but there has been a recent period of several months when, due to a bereavement, I stopped writing, or even reading, poetry. I couldn’t open my heart to it. Even then, after the first few weeks at least, I was writing, but it was academic writing I turned to. In my opinion academic writing is still a creative act, requiring a lively mind, and leaps in intelligence. For real ground-breaking work it’s necessary for your mind to occupy the same space as it does when writing poetry, for some of the time. For those first few months of grieving I confined myself to the dogged persistence required for recording and interpreting. Finally, after meeting with a poet friend who urged me to start submitting again, I began to send out work I’d been writing over the previous two or three years, editing as I went. What actually got me writing again properly was a WomenXBorders event at the Irish Writers Centre and going to a Dublin-based writers group, the Hibernians, which I hadn’t attended for a good while. Both these events were so supportive, so inspiring in the work I was privileged to listen to and read, that they gave me the jolt I needed. It’s so important to meet with other writers, but equally important that you come out of those meetings feeling ready to write more. If you don’t, go elsewhere! It’s so easy to have your creative spirit crushed. On foot of those submissions which my friend advised, two poems of mine were published online and another was accepted for an anthology. This was an affirmation just when I needed it – a reminder that if you don’t submit work, you can’t have it published!
How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get a bad review? How do you cope with the negative feedback?
There is some complaining on Twitter of the “nobody writes negative reviews anymore” variety. I can only say that it must be soul crushing to get a negative review, and I’m very glad I’ve never had one. I’m very grateful to those who have reviewed my work: Bernard O’Donoghue, Paula Meehan and Joe Woods for the cover of my book, and Christine Murray on poethead.org, Billy O’Callaghan for the Irish Examiner and Tom D’Evelyn in Ohio. However, my poems have been rejected by publishers many times. The only antidote for the let-down, is to send different poems to more than one place. If you have other poems on-stream with other publishers, it’s easier to move on if some are rejected. After all, it may not be that the poems are bad, although its always good to have another look at them, but that they just don’t fit the publication you’re aiming for.
Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?
In 2016 I collaborated with Cormac Mac an Fhalla, a composer and graduate in Music Technology, on a work called Compartments, three of my poems set to his music, which was sited on the Dursey Island cable car as part of the Beara Arts Festival that year. I had no input into the music and it was fascinating to see how he responded to my voice saying the words. I’ve done live performances of the poems with this music in the background, which gave them new energy. Later this year, I’m collaborating with a fellow poet on a project. I’d love to do more collaboration.
Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?
I gave up a fairly well-paid job which left me little time to think, in order to write more. In 2012 I took a year off, did an MA in poetry studies and wrote most of my debut collection. I did take on some work in that period but it was the kind I could forget about once I left the office. When I went back to my normal job towards the end of 2012 it felt like a straight-jacket. I left work late in 2014 and think it was the right choice. I’m now doing a PhD on the Canadian poet Anne Carson at Dublin City University and I’m close to finishing a second collection. At first I looked into government schemes and council bursaries but the process was painstaking and frustrating. There are so many writers applying for these bursaries, some with a long track-record, and many schemes survive at the whim of Government departments. On the whole I’ve found it easier to take on just enough work to survive, in a field which doesn’t use up all my head space. I think that having some kind of income stream is important. It’s hard to write when you’re frantic about paying bills.
What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?
Writing poetry has helped me look more closely at the world around me. I have no patience with the idea of transcendence, My aim is to grub in the muck like a child with a stick. That means I have to stay out of my own head and use my eyes and ears. The other great gift it has given me is that, when I’m indoors writing, I’m constantly in dialogue with myself. I recently went to Sicily for several months. It was only when I’d stopped writing and started editing that I felt lonely. Suddenly, I asked myself, “Why am I in this foreign country on my own?”(A fact that had eluded me for about six months).
How do you view the role of the arts in society? The role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?
I think it is true that no-one was ever saved by a poem, but it is also true that they have been comforted and helped to go on, to feel less isolated. Sometimes this may be because an idea or image sparks a recognition, sometimes it’s because the beauty of the words are uplifting, even if they deal with a dark subject. However, if you want to use examples of other people’s suffering in your work, I personally believe it’s necessary to think long and carefully about how you do it. The last time I wrote such a poem, which was based on my own experience, I thought about it for about a year before putting pen to paper.
With regard to the arts in general I think that, at this time, when Governments are only interested in getting their money’s worth, and people are commodities for social media giants to sell, creating something is a revolutionary act. The very action or process is like a banner saying that another way is possible. If you can engage another human being in this process, by sparking a response in them, so much the better.