A conversation with Grace Wells

Grace Wells

 
Grace Wells was born in London in 1968. Formerly an independent television producer, she moved to Ireland in 1991. Her first book, Gyrfalcon (2002), a novel for children, won the Ellis Dillion Best Newcomer Bisto Award, and was an International White Ravens’ Choice. Other publications for children include Ice-Dreams (2008) and One World, Our World (2009). Her short stories and poetry have been published widely and broadcast. She reviews Irish poetry for Contrary, the University of Chicago’s online literary journal, is a freelance arts administrator, and teaches creative writing. When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things (Dedalus Press, 2010) is her first collection of poems.
 
 

 
 
Grace, in an interview with Angela France in Iota magazine (Issue 85), George Szirtes says: “Poems are a feeling waiting for a first line.” How do poems come to you?
  
I agree with Szirtes, the entry of a new poem into my world is often preceded by a sort of tingling feeling, a kind of heightened awareness that seems to be seeking form within a poem. These days I’ve started to think that poems come to particular poets for reasons of resonance, something in the world that hasn’t been articulated, and needs to be, resonates against a particular person, and the energetic hum between the subject and the poet results in the poem.
  
I associate that type of calling with a creative freedom that’s only possible when the duties of the quotidian world have backed off a bit. Often I’m teaching, or just scrambling around in life, and poems have to be born more pragmatically. In class I give writing exercises, which I take myself. A lot of my work has been produced that way. Of course I’ve set tasks that interest me (or have already begun calling), so I have a bit of a head-start, but I think there’s quite a balance between inspiration and of perspiration. Also I’m a prose writer, I work in a large notebook and carry a small one in my bag. I write an amount of free prose most days. Often I’ll be writing in a rather random, trance-like way and poems can be born within the prose. Then I whittle away the excess of words to find the clean bones of a poem within.
  
Where is your favourite place for writing?
  
My writing career has been entirely peripatetic. For the first time ever I have a study, but it’s still too new to be favorite: I’m only just out of the boxes. For years my writing self was homeless. I scribbled in cafes, on trains, at the kitchen table. My first children’s book was written in a freezing cold house, in a hat and gloves, at my feet the world’s most nauseous carpet pattern. My first official writing space was a little shed at the bottom of the garden. No phone, no interruptions. It was bliss, but damp, so paper curled and wilted if you left it there over night. Still, in summer, with the flower beds at my back, and my meadow stretching beneath the window, it is paradise and still my favorite place to work.
  
What is the physical act of writing like for you? Do you write first drafts in longhand or type them directly onto your computer?
  
I used never to write anything directly into a computer. I believe in the hand and the pen (I’m almost fanatical about this). With the hand there’s a kind of curl like the beginning of a spiral which moves from the heart, through the lungs, along the arm, to the hand, as the pen moves you spiral deeper into serious matter, unwinding into the subconscious.
  
I write second and third drafts out by hand, re-writing the whole poem as I go. I’ve found it helpful; you sink deeper into the poem.
  
Working with a computer is about brain energy, it’s faster, more electric. It engenders a ‘clever’, sharper, almost cruel mood. Sometimes when I’m reviewing I’ll just work on the laptop, but I’m wary of the kind of writing it produces, there’s enough of that ‘look at me I’m so clever’ writing in our culture without my adding to it.
  
Do you find each poem suggests its form as it emerges?
  
No, not really. Form is often the last thing to make itself known. Form often changes as the poem develops. I think I’m more guided by the words, the meaning, the sounds, then form last of all. This probably mirrors something about myself; I’m not fond of the formal, of routines, of convention. I’m more open to the rebellious, the anarchic, it’s almost as if I see form and have to question it instantly, or run from it swiftly. But with poetry there is always a sense of relief when the form does make itself known. Even the anarchist has to live somewhere; form is a poem’s skin, like its home.
 
When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things is in five parts: ‘Love in all its forms’, ‘The Princess and the Fox’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘The New Life’ and ‘In Such a City’. I’d love to hear a little about your arrangement process.
 
The arrangement really wrote itself as such. The poems are very autobiographical, even if I take on other voices or invade other characters, I’ve mostly written about my own experience. Of course poetry writing isn’t linear, the poems didn’t come to me in the order they are placed in the book; but their arrangement allows for a more natural narrative. I did try sending the work to one publisher with the poems in a completely random order, but the manuscript was rejected and I’m not surprised, the collection really asked for the structure it has now.
 
‘Love in All its forms’ is a kind of introduction. Then the poems (and the poet) decline into the experiences explored in ‘The Princess & The Fox’. ‘Pioneer’ is about recovery from that time. ‘The New Life’ is about the redemptive power of love. But it didn’t seem right to end the collection there, this isn’t Hollywood. The last section, ‘In Such a City’ is concerned with where I am now, where the world is; how I sit with the terrible beauty and chaos all around us.
 
Would you give me your thoughts on the roles of literature, storytelling and writing in the healing process?
  
One of my lines is “The only medicine is words”. I fundamentally recognize that literature and storytelling are very ancient forms of human medicine. Fictional tragedy resonates with us because human tragedy is all around us. Life imitates art and art imitates life. As a species we are bound up with words, whether it is through literature or song. As an audience we take the dramatic journey too, and somehow, in an almost shamanic way, the process heals us. Certainly gives us the faith to continue.
  
The act of writing is similar but different. Natalie Goldberg wrote, “writing is not therapy”. But I disagree, writing is therapy and an excellent one at that. But just because someone writes something therapeutic or cathartic, it doesn’t mean it belongs in the world as a published piece. It isn’t enough to just spew it out. Craft, intelligence and art need to be applied. These disciplines are rigorous, they take years to learn.
  
Ultimately our ability to take a difficult life situation, write about it and transform that writing into something palatable and effective is probably the most healing achievement of all. The creation of art is the most profound way to restore human dignity.
  
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Do you think there is still a need for feminism?
  
Yes on both counts. Yes I’m a feminist, yes there is a pressing and urgent need for a new wave of feminist energy. The situation is complicated. As with most things, there is the internal and the external: the self and the culture. For my self, feminism is about many things, a primary one being my ability to be capable, to change a tire, to use power tools, to handle a chain-saw when I have to. But there are also deeper, more distressing and urgent matters of the psyche that I have to address. What does it mean to be female? When faced with difficulties, personal or global, how should I behave as a woman? Where is my female god? How can I temper vulnerability and strength? Where I am safe to be wild? How can I use my anger to bring about change?
 
Women are still not equal in the house of power. We are not in government. We don’t make decisions for the world. We have token figures in place, nothing more. Violence against women is endemic. Our culture permits us to be sexually devalued. Female-defined sexuality and spirituality are still unvoiced. To have these forces unarticulated is very dangerous to a woman’s sense of identity. Sensuality and spirituality are elements very close to our core beings. Without access to vibrant sexual and spiritual debate and positive visual references in both areas, girls grow up without any sense of wholeness. We lack any sense of core female strength. Without a sense of wholeness and strength, we are easily pushed aside, undermined or over-ruled.
 
We see the consequences of that everywhere. War, crime, environmental destruction are not female impulses, yet they surround us. I often think it is female passivity colluding with male aggression that makes the world the way it is. If women protested, acted, went on strike en masse, then things would change over-night. But it doesn’t happen. It seems to me the feminist debate has been internalized: while there is an increased sense of female equality in the world, there is also a greater sense that women are alone, succeeding and failing with the dramas of feminism in isolation. Now each woman has to be her own feminist priest and congregation. I feel my task, as a writer, is to enter our areas of absence, female spirituality and female sensuality, and throw a torch into their darkness. Maybe it will be of some help.
 
But I’m also a realist. As the mother of a teenage daughter, sometimes all I can do is watch her being swept into the make-up–high-heel–thong-wearing mêlée. I am daily reminded that I have failed and succeeded as a feminist. But I’m grateful, this is a legacy I inherited from women who fought all the way through the 1900’s. This ordinary ability to fail as a feminist is a luxury that many of the world’s women still don’t have. So yes, there is much work to do.
  
What prompted you to write ‘For Everything Which is Infinite’?
    
Well, it is something of a ‘found’ poem. Everything in it happened. My then ‘new’ partner, Richard, brought me to Venice, Italy. The whole trip was very healing; Venice is a maze of beauty. I had wandered deep into it, when suddenly, looking up, I chanced to see through a lit window a woman drawing a playing card from a fan some invisible hand held toward her. As I watched, she drew out an ace. The poem is about luck, it’s a celebration of my great good luck, even though I’ve lived a difficult life, I still feel I pulled the ace.
  
Tell me about your wonderfully evocative poem, ‘Aşure’. How did you discover that Aşure “is the Turkish name given to the last dessert Mrs. Noah made before boarding the ark”?
  
Again this poem is to do with the great good luck of meeting Richard, who is passionate about Istanbul and Turkey as a whole. Early in our courtship he brought me to that amazing city. In the restaurants there, they have dishes of Aşure lined-up on the dessert counter. It is a strange, jelly-like dish full of “stuff”, you have to stare, there are raisins, chick peas, lentils, nuts … I don’t know who invented it, but everyone seems to know that this is the dish Mrs Noah made that last night before the rains came. Because she was emptying her cupboards one final time it contains an amount of everything.
  
I was struck by the whole idea, it really entranced me and seemed to speak to me because plenty and bereavement seem to converge in that dish. It was like a little mirror to our own situation because all new love affairs are tempered by the threat or fear of loss, of losing the other person. I think my fear of loss got entangled with Mrs Noah’s more real loss. Plenty and bereavement converge in our relationship and in the poem, where the domestic acts as an ideal vessel to convey the bittersweet nature of love.
  
Would you name five of your favourite poems? Why are they important to you?
  
I consider this an impossible task! We could talk all day about great poems. Still, I’ll try to name some important ones. First I’d say Raymond Carver’s ‘Lemonade’. I left school loathing poetry, thinking it was unintelligible torture. Then some years later someone showed me ‘Lemonade’. It changed everything. This poem opened up the entire world of poetry; even, eventually, leading me back to the unintelligible torturous stuff with a more generous eye. It’s an amazing poem, beautifully crafted, well told. It’s about a boy who drowns in the river and how his father can’t heal. I love it still, decades later.
 
Also, soon after ‘Lemonade’, I discovered, Annie Cameron, whose work I admire greatly. I love ‘Sea Fair, Powell River’, which is a very elegant, outspoken poem. In the queue for food at the county fair, Cameron’s lesbian lover suddenly starts “hollering” about child abuse. The man in front of them, who is evidently guilty, turns redder and redder. Soon another woman, “in a voice nearly choked/ silent by conditioning” joins in, then another and another until the whole queue has something to say on the matter, one old woman going on about how it was “back on the farm in Saskatchewan”, where “you took a tom cat and shoved him head first into an old gumboot”. It’s a brilliant piece of political poetry.
 
I also love Coleman Barks translation of Rumi’s ‘The Guest House’, which is a great poem for moody types to keep near to hand. It’s a poem I’ve cherished for years.
 
I think Mary Oliver’s poems ‘Wild Geese’ and ‘The journey’ are somewhere in the top ten too. I blow hot and cold about Oliver, but these two pieces have done more for poetry and for ordinary people’s lives than many others have managed in centuries. I think that’s what poetry should be about, the ability to touch lives and affect change. I have huge respect for Oliver on that account.
 
The final poem I’ll mention is Paula Meehan’s ‘Troika’, which is a much more recent find. In this account of her growing up in tenement Dublin, Ireland, she combines beautiful language, exquisite craft, searing honesty and tremendous art. The lines shock, draw the breath and ultimately heal. It’s an act of total generosity, and a hugely powerful poem. You finish it in awe of the poet and poetry. I could go on about favoured poems all day, but I think I’ve said enough. I love poetry, I just hope there are enough days ahead for all the poems out there.
  
Thank you for your time, Grace, and all the very best with your collection.
  
Thank you too! Thanks so much for having me here on Peony Moon; I loved your questions. Best wishes for your own life and work.
 
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Order When God Has Been Called Away To Greater Things.
 
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Discover more about Grace and her collection at:
 
Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s Women Rule Writer
 
Rachel Fenton’s Snowlikethought
 
Brandon Wallace’s Julius Speaks

4 thoughts on “A conversation with Grace Wells

  1. Nuala Ní Chonchúir

    Great interview. I love that you said yes straight away to the feminism questions. So many women who I consider to be feminists shy away from the term instead of embracing it.
    Lovely to hear too the inspirations behind some of the work. Must go and re-read now.
    Nuala x

  2. Michelle Post author

    Thanks for visiting, Nuala.

    I’m so enjoying Grace’s beautiful, courageous collection.

  3. Julie

    Fantastic interview. I love the description of Grace Wells’ writing process and how the words come. I also enjoyed the poems that have inspired her. But it’s all wonderful and very insightful. I will go read more now.

  4. Michelle Post author

    I’m glad you enjoyed the interview, Julie. Grace and I had fun with it.

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