Fall 2001
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TCU Magazine "Academe"
Articles:  Sensing danger

Interview with a poet

Acclaimed Irish poet Rita Ann Higgins came to campus last fall as a Green Honors Chair. In addition to a public reading, the shy poet also consented to a rare question-and-answer interview with 25 students from English Prof. Karen Steele's Twentieth Century Irish Poetry course. After reading the majority of her poetry and armed with pens and paper, tape recorders and a video camera, students questioned Higgins about her writing and education, her fame and her fear of misrepresentation by the press.

Edited by Crissa Strauss

Rita Ann Higgins was born in Galway in rural West Ireland. One of 11 children, Higgins left school for factory work at age 14 to help provide for her family.

She had her second child at age 22, and after giving birth, fell ill with tuberculosis. Isolated in a hospital, Higgins began reading books, such as Animal Farm and Wuthering Heights, for the first time. In 1982, she turned from reading books to writing poetry.

Mainly concerned with the hardships of the working class and her own experiences with family and daily life, Higgins' poetry possesses biting sarcasm, thinly veiled anger and a disarming wit that appeals to all classes and all readers.

Higgins recently returned to school, graduating with distinction in Irish and with a wealth of knowledge of Irish women's history. Higgins also receives an $8,000 stipend, allowing her to concentrate on her poetry and demonstrating the respect given to poets in Ireland.

Despite an Aosdana membership -- an association of Irish artists of the highest distinction -- numerous volumes of poetry in print and readings given all over the world, Higgins shies from the press; she dislikes the confining labels given to her by reporters and critics.

More than the "working class poet" or and "Irish woman" poet, Higgins defies stereotypes.

Q: How do you think your fame has shaped your poetry?

A: Whereas I can be a bit cheeky while I am here and take on the fame thing, I would not really wear that mantel at home. I would not be allowed to; Ireland is crawling with poets. Everyone's a poet and we are all treated very well actually. It is not like the old days here people kow-towed to the bard, but at the same time there is quite a lot of respect for poets. We always have poetry readings and people always attend. So I would be well-known at home. I am fairly well known because of radio and television, but because my family doesn't treat me any differently, I would be very embarrassed to have notions about it. The funny thing is that my husband is not a literary person, and he doesn't understand why people go to poetry readings.

Q. So none of your siblings talked about the fact you were on the late show, the biggest show on Irish television?

A. It's a big deal, [but] no one ever mentioned it. But it's not that they're bad minded. It might be shyness or it might be, "Why should we treat her any differently? We grew up with her, she's not famous to us."

Q. What is your process of writing? Can you write anywhere?

A: I do like my box room at home, the smallest room in the house. You couldn't swing a cat in it. Very small. You would not want anybody to be around when you start the poem. I would take the notes, maybe a line or something somebody said, and I would write that down and have that. Then if it had any spark, I would go with it. You know if it is going to be a poem, it will kind of torment you a little bit and you can tease it out. I don't write a lot. It used to be about six poems a year, but I write about 20 a year now. I really would not want to write more than that. The last book was in 1996, and it is 2000 now and the new book is ready to go. That is a fairly decent time span, I think. You are reading other people's work in the meantime. You're reading to keep your mind active, to be involved. When the poems come, you are ready for them.

Q: There is an underlined tone of sarcasm in your poetry. Are you aware of it when you write it?

A: It is a part of me you can't hide. . . . It would not be a part of the plan when I am writing a poem. It would sneak in like the humor. I would not say I am going to write a funny poem today. That is not the way humor comes. That is not the way sarcasm comes. I do not know how much you are in control.

Q: Where do you think your source of anger and bitterness comes from? Is it from your young experiences?

A: I think that you do inherit some. I hate it when my sisters say, "You are just like our father." But I think I probably get some of that from my father. My mother did not have that at all. She was so serene. She did not have any rage. She would never, ever, curse. She would rather die than do that. Though I don't think there is bad language, only good language.

Q: Later in life you attended college and studied women's studies and Irish language. How did that change you?

A: Everybody left school in my family at that time. Third level [university] was never an option. You would not even ask. You would not even think you were worthy. That would require such a sacrifice on your parents' behalf, and just too many kids. . . . You had to leave to get a job, and everybody got a job to help the family out. So when I was a writer-in-residence at the University, I was not challenged enough with the workshops. I heard that there was a women's studies, so I applied for that. I could not get over what I did not know about women excluded from my history. And it was so utterly fascinating that I just devoured it all and read what I had to read. I did the essays . . . I was not a good essay person. My friend Jack was an old scholar, so I would let him read my essays. Now, I had never done essays prior to this, and he said to me, "Every sentence must have a verb!" Well, nobody told me. So I had to learn about structure and sentences. . . . I did not have any English grammar as such; I could speak and write poems, but that does not mean I am good at English.

Q: The tendency to identify an author by gender or class still exists. Are you concerned with this type of misrepresentation within the press? How do these representations of you differ from the real Rita Ann Higgins?

A: It is just that when you see things that have been written about you, print makes everything bigger. . . . There really is not any room for modesty in journalism. They have to put a creative spin on it that sells for the benefit of their writing so things get lost. I don't do interviews very much, but I have to do them occasionally. Sometimes I do them to suit myself, but I do them with [Assistant English Prof. Karen Steele] because I like her. I could not really say no.

Q: Do you think misrepresentations come from your working class background somehow?

A: Well, I know there is this big build-up making me the working class poet, and I was really offended by that. I did not want any title or pedestal that I had to come down from. You have to take on the vernacular to be the working-class poet. It is much easier to just be a writer and get on with it. All the questions of, "Are you a feminist? Are you this? Are you that?" I am a Gemini. That's as far as it goes. It is so difficult to have something to be answerable to. I only want to be answerable to the pen that is giving me the poems.

The Power of Prayer
(Witch in the Bushes, 1988)

I liked the way
my mother
got off her bike
to the side
while the bike
was still moving,
graceful as a bird.

We watched out for her
after Benediction.
It was a game --
who saw her head-scarf first,
I nearly always won.

The day the youngest
drank paraffin oil
we didn't know what to do.

All goofed around the gable end,
we watched, we waited,
head-scarf over the hill.

Knowing there was something wrong
she threw the bike down
and ran.

She cleared fences
with the ailing child,
Mrs. Burke gave a spoon of jam,
the child was saved.
Marched indoors we feared the worst,
our mother knew
what the problem was.

‘Not enough prayers
are being said in this house.'

While the paraffin child
bounced in her cot
we prayed and prayed.

We did the Creed,
a blast of the Beatitudes
the black fast was mentioned,
the Confiteor was said
like it was never said before,
Marie Goretti was called
so was Martha,
we climaxed on the Magnificat.
After that it was all personal stuff.

I liked the way
my mother
got off her bike
to the side
while the bike
was still moving,
graceful as a bird.

For good neighbours with jam
for Pope's intentions
for God's holy will
for the something of the saints
the forgiveness of sins
for the conversion of Russia
for Doctor Noel Browne
for the lads in the Congo
for everyone in Biafra
for Uncle Andy's crazy bowel
for ingrown toenails
and above all
for the grace of a happy death.

 

The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World
(Witch, 1988)

When he says to you:
You look so beautiful
you smell so nice --
how I've missed you --
and did you come yet?

It means nothing,
and he is smaller
than a mouse's fart.

Don't listen to him ...
Go to Annaghdown Pier
with your father's rod.
Don't necessarily hold out
for the biggest one;
oftentimes the biggest ones
are the smallest in the end.

Bring them all home,
but not together.
One by one is the trick;
avoid red herrings and scandal.

Maybe you could take two
on the shortest day of the year.
Time is the cheater here
not you, so don't worry.

Many will bite the usual bait;
they will talk their slippery way
through fine clothes
and expensive perfume,
fishing up your independence.

These are the did-you-come-yets of the western world,
the feather and fin rufflers.
Pity for them they have no wisdom.

Others will bite at any bait.
Maggot, suspender, or dead worm.
Throw them to the sharks.

In time one will crawl
out from under thigh-land.
Although drowning he will say,
‘Woman I am terrified, why is this house shaking?'
And you'll know he's the one.

Students Jack Bullion, Shelley Corder, Laura White, Kami Lewis and Leslie Cook also contributed to this edited interview.


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