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
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
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
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
More than the "working class poet"
or and "Irish woman" poet, Higgins defies stereotypes.
Q: How do you think your fame has shaped
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
got off her bike
to the side
while the bike
was still moving,
graceful as a bird.
We watched out for her
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
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
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
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
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