Caoilinn Hughes, Shortlisted for the Pigott Poetry Award, Talks All Things Poetry

Caoilinn Hughes
Caoilinn Hughes

Caoilinn Hughes was born in Galway and completed her MA at Queen’s Univeristy, Belfast. In 2007 she moved to New Zealand where she worked for Google, ran a small consultancy and wrote a PhD at Victoria University, Wellington. Her debut collection Gathering Evidence is shortlisted for the Pigott Poetry Award 2015. Poems from the collection won the 2012 Patrick Kavanagh Award, the 2013 Cúirt New Writing Prize and Trócaire/Poetry Ireland Competition. Gathering Evidence picked up The Irish Times Strong/Shine Award 2015.

Q. How important are poetry awards for poets?

A. As important as medals to professional athletes. Granted, there’s more subjectivity involved in art competitions than the stopwatch can account for, but to pull off rhyming ‘goitered’ with ‘reconnoitered’ is surely equivalent to an Axel Jump! There needs to be multi-level podiums upon which great books can be celebrated – in bookshops, in reviews, in newspapers, at festivals. Those moments of recognition, just as for athletes, are hugely affirming and open opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Also, because the poetry book-buying market has too much of the haiku about it, awards are crucial to remind people to buy the most artistically accomplished poetry books.

Q. What do you think the role of the poet is in the 21st century?

A. Hmm… someone full of wisdom, complexly handsome, reliable for good lines, quotable, whose memory gets stuck on certain obsessions, and who hopes that technology might just go away if one glowers darkly enough at it and never uses the i word. We’re kind of surprised that he’s still alive – we (including those who have never really spoken to him) are relieved and reassured by his being alive, even if he’s a bit daft and incomprehensible; alive, even if he lives mostly in a very small back room (subsidised scantily!) happy enough with his lot. We do feel the need to check in on him everysooften, and we’re baffled and charmed and sometimes shocked – appalled – at what he comes out with. The conviction! People keep publishing his obituary, but that’s poppycock. His pacemaker’s more reliable than the holes in his socks. A grandfather, in short. Pops.

Q. What do you think is the most important technique in the writing of poetry?

A. Finding one’s own voice, after a long apprenticeship in imitation. That’s not really a technique, sorry!

Q. How long would you normally spend redrafting a poem before it is done?

A. Three days to three months. Just once, three years. I do a lot of altering immediately after a poem’s writing, as if there is only a short window before the clay sets. I get into this semi-psychotic mode of closing the Word document, thinking that I’m done, but then immediately opening it again to reread the poem, and I end up working the clay smoother on one side, adding a bit of moisture here and there, disturbing the texture, then I close it again. Immediately, I re-open it – terrified at what I’ve committed to – and… pat pat pat. Then I usually go off to mark student assignments or, if I’m lucky, write prose, move countries, chop broccoli in a new way so that it might taste different, until another poem comes, and that might take a couple of months.gathering-evidence[1]

Q. What advice would you give to a poet just starting out?

A. Try to be inside the poem you’re working on while you’re working on it, but absolutely outside and distant from it when it’s done – unattached, in fact. The instinct when you’re starting out is to cling on to your first bits of writing (the first one or two years’ worth – I see it in students all the time) and you shouldn’t. It’s not fair to the writer you might become. There are all sorts of muscles of perception which you need to feed protein shakes and take out on long walks. You’ll know then, when you’ve written a real line, stanza, or gesture into existence – some observation that is your own, and that hasn’t been articulated yet.

Q. Who were your literary influences growing up?

A. I didn’t read novels until I was a teenager. By the time I remember (really) reading a novel, I’d already published a poem. (What a fraud!) I did read a lot of poetry and playtexts though. That had something to do with the books that were in the house; my being a very slow reader; and that novels seemed rude, scary and impermeable. Whereas poetry was unintimidating, and easy on the wrists. I felt that I was being treated as an adult by the poem, which was – pathetically – my favourite thing about childhood. I read whatever was going cheap at Charlie Byrnes’ Bookshop. Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Beckett, Yvengeny Yvetushenko, Larkin, Heaney, Kerouac, Brendan Kennelly, Neruda, all the playwrights… there was no rhyme or reason to my progression. Well, there was one of those things… On top of that, I avoided poetry courses during my English and Drama degree at Queen’s because I didn’t want to ruin poetry for myself (DAFT idea), so I continued to read poetry widely and randomly. It is terrific to have enormous discoveries to make still in my reading. Long may the growing up and being influenced continue!

Q. Do you have an all time favourite poem or poet?

A. I voted for Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’ in the Poem for Ireland campaign. Yvetushenko’s ‘The Companion’ is a perfect poem, but I suspect its translations could be better. Don Paterson’s book Rain in any weather. I better not start on this… I love Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ for what it does to your mood, but I think there are truer poems, by which I mean less of an exercise in breaking ground. I have no authority to say such a thing! I like long lines. I’m hyperventilating. Don’t most people just say ‘Shakespeare’ here and move on?

Q. What are you currently working on?

A. I’m working on a new book of poems (I’m about a third/half of the way there) and a new novel. I write poems intermittently with prose, though I started out as a poet. I’ve written two other novels, one for practice (which formed part of my Ph.D) and one that’s got too much of the poem about it for capitalism. I suspect I’ll have the same issue with the novel I’m currently working on, called Orchid & the Wasp, but I’m trying to write the best book that I can. That’s always what I’m working towards.

Q. Are you still living in New Zealand?

A. I lived in New Zealand for seven years, but I moved to The Netherlands last September for a lectureship/Visiting Writer position at Maastricht University. I like to move around. It helps me deal with the cruelty of only being able to live one life.

Q. Have you been to Listowel Writers’ Week before? What are you most looking forward to?

A. I’ve never been, so I’m very excited to attend this year – particularly the Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín reading. I got my agent by pitching a book halfway between Enright’s The Gathering and Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, so she’s certainly been an influential writer! Nick Laird is great to hear live too. It’ll be nice to see that part of the country, after a good fifteen years.



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