The Heir | Andrew Coburn
Forced March | Robert Lietz
Dear Leader Dreamer | Gabriel Check
Antipastoral: Dairymen | Amy Groshek
Snapshots of the Epic | Gregory Lawless
Three Reliquaries | Laurence Davies
The Inexorable | Stefanie Freele
Travel Photography | Joshua Walker 
Post-Christmas Inventory | Laura Kolb
Cityscapes, Silos, Blue Nudes | Amber Krieger
Farming Silence | Lauren Ashleigh Kenny
Evan in the Tent | Walter Cummins
Three Poems | Grace Wells

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An Interview with Grace Wells

Grace, your work seems simultaneously aloft in the ether and tethered to the earth, offering universal perspectives on such worldly problems as loneliness and violence. Somehow you seem to get closer to those problems by viewing them from a calmer afar, which at first might seem contradictory. Could you tell us a little about that tension? Is it something you're aware of, do you struggle with it, or does it just emerge?

My partner, who is also a poet, first seduced me by articulating, "all poetry is spiritual autobiography". I suppose for me spiritual autobiography is the essence of our drama here: the tension between being tethered to the mucky, earthly reality, whilst yearning and striving for a spiritual purity. The tension and subsequent dramas that occur as we move between these two realms is the over-riding tension of my life and work.

Probably what makes the poetry, poetry, rather than self-indulgence, is that calmer afar; too much heat and one is just scrambling around in the mucky material of being human. Art or spirit only live when we're prepared to elevate ourselves beyond indulgence through the labour of craft—if my work stayed too close to its subject matter, it would just read like “I'm having a horrible time”. 

You were initially drawn to Contrary after reading a poem by our poetry editor, Shaindel Beers' "Why It  Almost Never Ends with Stripping" (Hunger Mountain, Spring 2006). What appeals to you about that poem?

Shaindel’s poem echoes my 'tension', she articulates something of the murky, earthly realm of biography, but her articulation is so lucid it invites art/spirit/poetry. The poem excites me because I always want to know the truth of how everyone else is doing down here. Shaindel's poem tells something of that truth. My first literary love was Raymond Carver; he was the master of Lowell’s phrase 'Why not say what happened?' Shaindel is doing that but with the electricity of, Why not say what’s happening? 

Shaindel is revealing truth and self. Even if the poem doesn’t describe her own reality, the poem still tells me something about the poet because she cared enough about the ‘reality’ to see it and write about it.  If I read a new collection, I can find myself giving up after four or five poems if the poet hasn’t told me something about themselves. That theme is echoed in my poem “The Funeral Director’s Wife” (Winter Contrary...>), where the narrator says of the dead, “he doesn’t know I sit with them”: I like to sit with other people’s lives.

The only other thing that will keep me from throwing a book (and a poet) away in despair is if the poet is using language in an interesting way (say in the manner of Dylan Thomas). Revelation of truth and self, or stimulating use of language, are fundamental for me in poetry.

Of course the other thing about Shaindel’s poem that excites me, is that it articulates female reality. Inner female realities—particularly spiritual and sexual—are still largely unvoiced within our culture. Even after all this time, there’s still a sense that poetry publishers step back from women writing about their reality. Here in Ireland the majority of work published by women is gender-neutral, it could have been written by anybody, that doesn’t excite me. “Why not say what happened?” 

What types of events, experiences, or thoughts inspire you to write a poem?

For the longest time the life, or the biography (my own), absolutely dictated what I was writing about. Emerging from an abusive 'marriage' and surviving being a lone parent were the only clay I could work with. Now I look about me and realize there are other things, other subjects. Why, there’s even humour! But for many years that simply wasn't an option, music and laughter had been erased. I'd like to say something open like “I write about anything that inspires me,” but that isn’t true, I have certain themes in life and work that I gyr around (biography, spirituality, female sexuality) as if I'm always trying to answer a couple of questions that won’t go away.

Do Ireland and England influence your poetry in different ways?

I think of myself as English, I think, dream, relate to, and move through the world as an English person. There's a certainty and self-assurance in my writing voice that comes from being English, a last ripple or dying echo of Britain's colonial certainty—something the Irish, as a colonised people, didn’t collectively have.

Yet Ireland is where I've lived my adult life. For most of that time Ireland was a country where the voice of the land could be heard over and above the voice of its sparse inhabitants. The drama of the landscape and the inherited music of the Gaelic language made its way into the spoken tongue here, and I know I’ve absorbed (appropriated) some of those riches into my own sense of expression.

But the landscape and climate here can be overwhelming and brutal, they pare you back to what is essential. For me that is what Ireland has been, a paring back, hence I consider Ireland ultimately a realm of heart and spirit. I don't mean that in any wishy-washy, 'new-age' way. My experiences in this country have been a sort of mythic task or quest that pared everything back to what I could carry beneath the skin. 

My English self would have once taken everything, but having lived through Ireland, much of my poetry has a sort of this-must-be-essential/am-I-going-to-carry-this-from-a-burning-building feel to it. Unfortunately I judge other poets by my own criteria; I can forget that the building isn’t actually on fire anymore.

About Grace Wells 

Grace Wells’ first book, Gyrfalcon (O’Brien Press), a novel for children, won the Eilis Dillon Award in 2003 and was an International White Ravens’ Choice. Her poetry has been featured widely in Irish magazines, including Poetry Ireland Review, The Cork Literary Review, The Shop, The Stony Thursday Book. She was selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series 2003 and Cavan County Council’s ‘Artists and Writers Introductions’ in 2004. She is currently compiling a first collection, When God has been Called Away to Greater Things. A second novel, Ice-Dreams, is forthcoming from the O’Brien Press in 2008. She is presently working on a third novel, The Goodbody Girls, and a non-fiction work for young women, entitled, What I Want to tell my Daughter about Sex. Formerly a television and pop video producer in London, she has lived in Ireland since 1991; she has worked in arts administration, taught creative writing, and facilitated poetry and biography workshops for people with special needs. She is committed to renewable energies, growing organic food, and protecting the environment.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | spring 2007   

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