Elaine Feeney is an award-winning writer from Galway. Rise is her third full poetry collection following Where’s Katie? (2010) and The Radio was Gospel (2014), all published by Salmon. She published her first chapbook, Indiscipline, with Maverick Press in 2007. Feeney’s work is translated into over a dozen languages and is widely published. In 2016, Liz Roche Company commissioned Feeney to write for a national production to witness and record through dance, film and narrative, the physical experience of being a woman and bodily choice in Ireland. Entitled Wrongheaded, a film of the same name, directed by Mary Wycherley, accompanies the production. It premiered at Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival and is currently touring. Feeney has just finished both a pilot comedy series, The Fannypack, with writers Aoibheann McCann and Aoife Nic Fhearghusa, which was highly commended by BAFTA, and her first novel, SIC[K]. She intends to take a break now and perhaps keep bees or make furniture.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook, Indiscipline, was published by Maverick Press in 2007, shortly before I gave birth to my second child and while I was in hospital. The book changed very little about my life, except a life long acceptance of my penchant for regular typo and a good double spacing here and there. As for the kid, well, let’s just say, he was an ultimate game changer.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I was sitting in class when I was thirteen or fourteen, (strokes chin) and hearing Patrick Kavanagh’s Inniskeen Road, and that part where the bicycles are passing by and Kavanagh is excluded, well that was my experience of youth. And it was just remarkable to realise this man felt the same, and the rural setting excited me because it was relatable, but there’s a mild savagery at the end of the poem, where he is boss and owns the situation. Depsite the awkward isolation and exclusion, he’d have it no other way. Poetry was like suddenly having a friend who didn’t cause me social anxiety. Poetry has a profound impact on me. It’s always been like this for me. Oh god I loved it, I used to sit in the library at lunch and steal poetry anthologies. Dylan Thomas, RS Thomas, anything they had. They must have liked the Welsh in my school! I never regretted it. I considered it like the timber used up in woodwork. Had to be replaced, books should be considered in the same way.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It comes in many different ways. My best work is oddly instant and catches hold, but I will work at something for years. If I’m commissioned, I work insanely hard on the process, I just copy the way my husband works, he’s a designer, and sweet lord, he doesn’t half plan before anything begins. I write poems in my head a lot when I’m driving. It can be irritatingly intrusive though. Obsessive, almost.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Never working for a book. If someone gifts me something, a line, a phrase, an odd gesture, something weird, I snap it up. I love language, listening to people interact, and then it develops, but no, lots of my poems haven’t seen the light of day, nor will they, but I know what I was trying to do. Some of the best ideas I’ve had I could never execute the poem properly. And I leave it. Like I’ll leave a book unfinished, unread or I quit the theatre or cinema mid way. Life is too short for that, but I do work hard. I’m working on a sequence of poems at the moment about Theodore Roethke’s time on Inisbofin. I’m going to spend some of the summer there I hope.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy readings when I can’t see my audience, everything else is hard for me. That said, the audience are an integral part to the life of any writer, I am indebted to them, they give my work life. And if they put their arse on a seat, they deserve my respect and in a lot of ways they are the book buyers and the supporters. I also love the intimacy of a relationship you can work up with an audience. It’s special (until you see the fucking thing on YouTube and you’ve seven chins and squeak like a chipmunk, drop your water, whatever I hate that, I hate that everything is now public.)
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Of course, the anxiety of influence, saying the word ‘cunt’ or the word ‘cock’, the confessional poetry naysayers and giving them way too much headspace, the Socratic anxiety that comes with more learning, and more learning and knowing how little I know, the form, the appropriation question is huge for me, because I love telling stories, not writing in the first person, or worse, writing in someone else’s first person and not doing a particularly good job at it, offending people, offending everyone (I think I’ve almost managed this) offending the state, (Glad I manage this, but what an ego the ‘state’ has everywhere, it’s a contagion, the ego of a state, the state of an ego) and the day you write a sonnet and realise there’s fifteen lines (not that this has ever happened to me, but I’ve heard stories, hehehe, not sure it’s a theoretical concern, but concerning nonetheless!).
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
All actions have consequences, even no actions or inaction. Everyone knows this, of course the writer shouldn’t obsess about this, but they should take some care, mostly of themselves and then of the reader. Poetry is very different to prose in this. Though some would claim it’s not. The role of the writer is as broad and deep as the human experience, it’s not ergomically quantifiable. More’s the pity, how handy if it just passed a user test, but not so. The goalposts are always moving. Truth, it has to have some to do with truth, and good observation. If I met my twenty year old self though, I’d have a very stern chat with her. She’d tell me to fuck off.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s very useful, of course there are very many different editorial styles, I’m rarely bridled by anyone, I need it this way, my life is constrained enough. I think my editor knows this. ‘Leave her be,’ sort of thing, it’ll come nearly alright. And this has to be enough for me, I’m an incredibly random writer, and person. I’m terribly impulsive. It can only ever be nearly enough. And I loathe myself for being this way.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A doctor that looks after my care once said, at a very stressful moment; ‘it is what it is Elaine, and that’s what it is, and that’s ok. Now we need to move from here.’ Hardly ground-breaking, but he was so earnest, and so respectful to my fears. And I just thought ‘you’re a legend.’ I live by the ‘never ask permission’ mantra also. Always have, my mother told me I was a nightmare to rear because of this. I take after my father this way, the freest man I’ve ever known, sadly in some ways. Wheels can really come off like this.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Completely erratic. There is no simple answer. A typical day begins around six am, answering emails, washing clothes, preparing food, Husband grinding coffee beans (he starts at 5 am), make up, hair straighteners, kids whinging, kids eating, kids looking for socks, or football boots or pokemon cards blah blah, school bus drop, school run for older son, belt down the road to my own school, where I teach, about a forty minute commute, staffroom banter, staffroom flirting, or fighting, (love both) coffee, classes, café across road for ‘me time,’ more editing, answering emails, tears the odd time, six or seven loo trips, putting kids outside the door, sitting through detention, corrections, union business, laughter, long run in the forest near my house, pub every Friday straight after work, seven hundred other stupid chores, evenings are reading time, two three hours, cooking, good food, chats with family, wine drinking, gin drinking, writing, editing, chatting to friends, kids gazillion extra curricular things, time for watching the football or the boxing or box sets, music runs, kiss husband or fight, lights out around 12-1 am and back at it next day. Oh and form filling. Always forms to fill. And therapy. Always time for therapy.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Always writer friends, always. The conversations get me going again. Read this, read that, did you read this, did you edit that?
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cooking a goose. That smell.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Yeah, the great reinvention of the few stories there are to be told, or so we’re told. I agree to some extent with this for the fiction writer. Seems to be the way they do things. Poetry is somewhat different I think. Influences, definitely other poets, but also musicians, art, paintings, people, people, people, history, social history especially, carpentry, wood carvings, design, animals, manual workers, students, people, people and more people, everything about them, the way they talk, walk, carry on. Governments and the absolute state of them. They get me going.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ve deleted what just became a long list of my friends. So you’ll just have to guess. I read all the time. Every day. It’s everything to me in lots of ways. But my life and me are important, the private Elaine, the one my family love. I write, I’m not a writer. I teacher, I’m not a teacher. I mother, I’m not a mother. I’m married, I’m not a wife. I hate definitions, labels, and boxes, drive me mental.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to make a chair. I’ve started.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I wanted to study architecture in university, I was accepted onto a very competitive course, but due to economic misfortune (my father doesn’t agree with paying for learning/education, he believes all knowledge comes from the ground or the bog) I ended up doing a state funded Arts degree. I would like to be an architect or orthopaedic surgeon who dabbles in carpentry.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was just mad for the fame and free wine.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Can’t talk in books. Too many.
Just last night movies watched were, Anthropoid, Logan and Jackie. Anthropoid was so fucking sad, and I just adore Cillian Murphy, (And Dornan too) It really was just a lush objectification of men moment, on a serious note, look at the resistance to the Nazi by the Czechoslovakian and how futile it is, Christ History is cyclical, and we really need to tattoo this on our faces. I thought Logan was a disaster, and I know, I know, people will scream at me, but it wasn’t redeemable and Jackie was yawn yawn yawn, but good leading role by the actor, Natalie Portman.
19 - What are you currently working on?
This interview and a good bottle of red.