Niamh Boyce: ‘Inside the Wolf’
My thanks to Niamh Boyce, whose poetry collection ‘Inside the Wolf’, is the subject of this final post for 2018. Happy Christmas to all – and more than anything, happy reading.
As a Novel Fair winner with ‘The Herbalist’, you established yourself as a writer of fiction. This collection of poetry, ‘Inside the Wolf’ showcases your talent as a poet. Can you talk to us a little about the different processes involved in writing poetry and writing fiction – or are there differences, in your view? You’ve written poetry for a long time – is it your first love?
Yes, poetry is my first love – the poetry arena is where I got my first thumbs up as an emerging writer (I was awarded Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year in 2011 for my poem Kitty). It was hugely important to me in terms of keeping going, of not giving up. I wrote poetry first, then concentrated on short stories for a time, then on novels. I often write poems or a sequence of poems in the middle of a longer project, and lately have been starting my writing sessions with a poetry writing prompt before going on to work on the novel.
This can be tricky. Poetry and fiction writing are completely different in my experience. They involve stepping into very different creative spaces, imaginatively. The poetry space is much more personal, much more feral! When I move from fiction to working on poetry, I have to readjust my expectations and practice – I have to forget about measuring progress by words written, or time spent writing – to forget about concepts like ‘measuring’ or ‘progress’ at all. It’s one poem at a time – diving in with only a vague sense of what might be down there.
In ‘I am pulling skeletons out of my closet’ you pay, it seems to me, a loving tribute to your ancestors. It’s as though your ‘moon bone friends’ have passed on an invaluable gift of imagination, of the powerful nature of words. What was the inspiration for this poem?
Yes, it is tribute to ancestors and to what we inherit, and also about not looking away from what might seem raw or painful. The poem began in a workshop with Carol Boland. She brought us Spring Cleaning by Laura Gilpin. In that poem, skeletons are buried in the spirit of ‘letting go’. It’s a popular concept – letting go – and is often advocated, as a healing act or to stop someone talking about unpleasant truths. Just let it go!
I really resisted that idea, I actually shivered at the last lines in the Gilpin poem ‘…I must bury/these old bones.’ It’s often rewarding to explore our own resistance to a word, phrase or idea – so I responded by working it out in a poem of my own. I wrote ‘I am pulling skeletons out of my closet’ and when it was finished, I understood my revulsion at Gilpin’s line about burying bones.
Skeletons and old bones, can mean different things to different people at different times. The act of burying, in my mind, was closely linked with secrets, collusion, concealment, and Tuam. It was linked with truth hiding on a national and familial level – just let it go, it was a long time ago! That’s what my poem is responding to – there can be no letting go, until the truth is told, and why it ends with – ‘there will be no burials.’
The poems are filled with domestic imagery – sifting flour, sewing seams, knitting, cleaning kitchen tiles – so-called ‘women’s work’. But in ‘Communion Dress Fitting’, you startle the reader with an image of the pure, white, cotton dress that outlines the child’s body, ‘the most deadly of boundaries’. Like in fairy tales, a darkness lurks under the ordinary events of childhood. How important are fairy tales to the workings of your poetic imagination? You rework the tales in several of the poems, exploring so many violent underbellies…
Fairytale creatures have crept into a lot of my poems over the years, and recently I had thought I was done with them – but the fascination lives on, and they reappear all the time. One of the most potent places to be and to write about, for me, is the forest. Don’t go into the woods. I feel there are endless possibilities in that sentence alone! Working with tales allow me be playful enough to go as dark as I dare to go.
I’m interested in the roots of tales, in the older variations of European folktales – not so much Hans Christian Anderson’s stories, which are beautiful but are original to him. Old oral tales, charms, cures, superstitions and songs give us vital access to our ancestors. Much of what was written down and passed on – Culture and History etc… was done so, or mediated by, a certain class and gender, one I wouldn’t have been part of. So, exploring folklore is a way of tapping into the older oral tradition, one I feel a natural allegiance to, and have an endless curiosity about. Folk tales tell us about the fears, beliefs, and hopes of the ordinary person, from the ‘time before memory,’ as they used to say.
In ‘Kitty’ – another tender tribute – you explore all the ‘don’ts’ and ‘nevers’ that young girls, in particular, have handed down to them. Several of the poems explore this struggle to move away from the stifling conformity of Catholic Ireland. Anger underpins these poems. Can you explore this for us?
That’s true. The poem Kitty is about how you can love someone, and continue to do so – even when their belief system is destructive to your very being. By system, I’m referring to the fundamentalist regime orchestrated by the church/state/family in Ireland up until recent years. It’s a tribute on a personal level to someone who was very kind, but it’s also about the fact that this person thought very differently than I did. Those phrases, never write anything down, never speak ill of a nun or a priest. All those ‘nevers’… contain serious censorship and were the vocalisation on a domestic level of a state/church policy that suppressed truth on a systematic level. So, yes, anger definitely does underpin some of the poems.
When I think of the legacy of the years when the Catholic Ireland had so much power – the sorrow and anger can be overwhelming. So many victims of that regime have not yet received apology, compensation, or even admission of wrong doing. And it’s not over, it is not ‘historical’ (another term that implies, just let it go!) – files are still being kept from the children of the women that were locked up in church institutions. People are still wondering who was my mother? Where is my brother? Had any other organisation committed such atrocities against human beings in this country, it would have been made an illegal institution by now.
Your poems are highly visual – I was really struck by the Harry Clarke poem, and ‘Mister Grey Hair‘…, ‘Frida Kahlo’…What role does visual art play in stimulating your imagination?
Thanks Catherine, I was swallowed by a Harry Clarke Window was written in front of the Clarke window in Kieran’s College in Kilkenny. The poem is quite surreal in a way, as the narrator ends up being swallowed by the artwork, but in another way it’s a very grounded realistic piece, as it stays true to the actual sensations experienced during the writing of the poem. I find art very stimulating as a writer, I love to respond to images – sometimes by stepping into the painting imaginatively, as in Mister Grey Hair Yellow Teeth Finish Me, where I took the point of view of Venus. I use images a lot in my writing workshops, or when I am creating a world for a novel. Sometimes, I sketch characters or objects to get a feel for them. I love to drop into the Hugh Lane, or the National Gallery, or The Visual in Carlow and just write, it’s a very good way of filling up the well – of surprising yourself by what you end up writing.
Women and madness: you reference the The Hanz Prinzhorn Collection in some of your poems. Can you tell us more about this collection, and how it moved you?
Hans Prinzhorn was a German psychiatrist who collected 5000 paintings and drawings, objects and collages made by the patients in psychiatric hospitals throughout Europe in the 1920s. I first came across an image Agnes Richtar’s jacket online. Agnes was confined to an institution for much of her life. She sewed sentences over and over on the inside of a jacket made from an asylum gown. The image of her asserting herself in this way, really moved me. There’s both dignity and desperation in the act. I was compelled to find out more, and came across the photograph of Katharina Detzel holding her life-sized stuffed doll. I read Beyond Reason -the catalogue of the Prinzhorn Collection, and also Agnes’s Jacket, by Gail A. Hornstein. I began writing poems related to art making, sewing, sanity and protest.
It interests me that Agnes and the other inmates’ work became part of an Art Collection, that their work moved from one realm to another, from the concealed (asylum) to the exhibited (Gallery). The Expressionist and Surrealist artists became interested in the Collection, going as far as to copy the techniques and styles, declaring them Primitive and authentic.
The women’s work however, (often involving fabric and thread) was not included in the discourse that arose in Expressionist or Primitivist circles at the time. They were excluded from the (however temporary) inclusion. Artistic value can often be gender dependent – where worth is not based on an assessment of the actual object – but on ‘who’ creates it. (Just like in literature) So I’m drawn to writing about these women, to giving them my attention. They are part of a wider movement, a tradition of textile art, of protest art – Art with a capital A.
Your poems about motherhood are very tender, magical. They are also about all the transformations of motherhood – and the fierceness of the love between mother and child. Or are they?
Thank you, Catherine, I’m delighted to hear you found them tender and magical. And you are correct, the poems are about the fierceness of that love, and also how elemental it can feel, and how powerful. It’s complex, and exhausting and not always wonderful – but I’m really glad I wrote poems like ‘Nightfeed’ for example, a piece written in the middle of the night, with a baby in my arms – just trying to capture that one moment. Its very small, but it brings me right back to exactly how it felt. That baby is turning sixteen years old tomorrow, and unless I had written it, I doubt I would have recalled that night.
Witches appear in this collection: and I think your next novel will explore the life of Alice Kyteler, accused of witchcraft in 1324. Can you tell us what drew you to her life – and her trial?
I don’t live too far from Kilkenny and was familiar with the tale of Kytler since childhood. She was a wealthy merchant accused of sorcery by a local bishop. When I was finishing The Herbalist, my editor at Penguin Ireland, Patricia Deevy mentioned the Kytler case, but I had no interest in writing about it. Sometimes when something is too familiar it has less glamour.
However, a seed must’ve been planted, because even though I was working on something else, a few months later I began to write poems about Petronelle de Midia. Petronelle was Alice Kytler’s maid, and the person most affected by the bishop’s accusations. It made me curious, so I did some quick research about the case, before going back to my other writing. I recall feeling more intrigued by the story than previously, it wasn’t at all what we had been told (bad woman versus holy man) – it was much more complicated than that. I was drawn in at that stage, but I needed to feel a connection, to find a way in – and that was a slow process.
Over a year later, Petronelle’s voice came to me again, but this time it felt stronger, more urgent than before – fine men in robes are coming to see me burn – so I opened a word doc, and started the novel.
Niamh Boyce won Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year and the Emerging Poet Award in 2012. Her novel The Herbalist won Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards and was nominated for an IMPAC. Her second novel ‘Her Kind’ will be published by Penguin Random House in 2019. Her poetry collection Inside the Wolf was released this summer.
Link to Niamh’s Blog: https://niamhboyce.blogspot.com