A telling life: an interview with Vona Groarke, Writer in Residence
‘Creative writing is the mining of one’s own personal sensations and experience in order to create language that is convincing, elegant, intelligent’
Prize-winning poet and author Vona Groarke has joined St John’s College as the new Writer in Residence. She is available to all students and to staff for one-to-one meetings and workshops about writing poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. Ahead of the publication of her 13th book, Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara, she tells us about the value of creative writing, Covid’s impact on language and why her new role captures the imagination.
I’m looking forward to having the time and the space that this residency gives me, and the privacy that it affords me to develop some writing projects. I’m also looking forward to working with students on their own writing in a way that’s different to the weekly workshop format I’m used to, which is how most creative writing courses at universities are taught. The chance to help students develop a piece of writing over a longer period, without academic pressure or deadlines, appeals to me. I like thinking of my work with them as a slipstream to their academic work, with a different energy, timescale and, perhaps, set of preoccupations.
Already I’m finding there is a good standard of creative writing at St John’s. The students I’ve met whose work I’ve seen have very serious intentions for that work. They have a degree of skill acquired through reading and thinking about literature. My job is to help them develop that skill through the practice of writing and editing, and thinking about how words work.
Just being here in this environment is extraordinary, it’s beautiful and extraordinarily different to where I live most of the time, which is in Tubbercurry, County Sligo – a small, rural, inland, Irish town. I don’t think you could get two places more different to each other within the nations of Ireland and England. It’s fascinating to be here, walking, listening, keeping my eyes open, trying to notice detail, to read the buildings, trying to learn the place.
It’s not just the physical environment of the College that is attractive but it’s the intellectual environment as well. I have a diary of events that I’m excited about and that I know I will be stimulated by, because one of the things about writing creatively – as opposed to writing journalism or academic work – is that you don’t quite know where the next poem or project is going to come from. I’m very happy to be able to draw on other people’s expertise in a way that I hope will spark something in my own imagination. I’m taking Irish language classes, joining seminar groups such as the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies, and soaking up as much music as I can. I’m also grateful for such rich library resources and for how helpful the staff there have been in helping me explore them.
Creative writing is the mining of one’s own personal sensations and experience in order to create language that is convincing, elegant, intelligent and that communicates with other people. Whether it’s poetry or fiction or drama, it’s the impulse to craft something well but to craft it with an element of truth, so it sounds as if it comes from a particular personality, sensibility, way of seeing the world. The personal may be a starting point but to it you must bring craft. I see my work with students of St John’s as being, as much as anything, about helping them develop editing skills to distinguish between strong, effective language, and what lacks punch. That’s also a transferable skill; one that will feed back into their other kinds of writing.
During Covid, people were hungry for stories, for narrative, for something to take them out of their immediate physical circumstances. The Covid experience necessitated a flattening of language: medical terminology and slogans came at us relentlessly: ‘Hands, Face, Space’, ‘Wash your hands’; all that. Their purpose was to be simple, instructive and instantly memorable, the opposite of good creative writing, which tends to favour nuance and subtlety. The point was to limit and distil. Good creative writing, on the other hand, especially poetry, tends to be dead set on amplifying and complicating, not just for the sake of it but to think about how to manage the enormous task of declaring something as simple as, ‘I’m here’. The success of online book clubs, Zoom poetry readings and literary podcasts during Covid was a recognition of how important writing can be as a way to situate ourselves in a bigger, tricky story. Writing is recognition of reality, but also escape from it – and that was especially helpful during Covid. It took us out of ourselves and it was a place of refuge.
Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara is a poetic account of an Irish immigrant woman making a life for herself in 1890s New York, working as a domestic servant. It arose out of my time as a Cullman Fellow in 2018-2019 at New York Public Library, which has an extraordinary archive of immigrant records. I don't think there's an Irish family that doesn’t also have an American branch so, one lunchtime, I started casually looking into my American branch – which is a little sturdier than it might be for most Irish people, because my mother was born and reared in America, and came to Ireland when she was 12. A search born out of curiosity, and a curious search, with many questions that, as it turned out, could not be answered in archives. ‘Who was my mother’s grandmother? Why can't I find out much about this woman? How come she doesn’t leave much trace in the record? How can I honour that life? What would be the right way to go about turning those family anecdotes into a biography? What is the meeting point of family anecdote and official record? Should there even be one?’
The book is a way of trying to figure out answers to those questions and to tell the story through the device of a person who is a loose version of me, the researcher. She’s finding the truth from the history she reads and she then runs that truth through the fictional character she has created as the ghost of Ellen O’Hara. The book takes several approaches to telling the story – poetry, fiction, history, lyric prose – because it’s also thinking out loud about its own process, watching itself telling a story; using several formal mirrors, as it were. The different genres come at the story from different angles but cohere, I hope, into a sense of how one woman’s story can speak for more than one life.
Being a poet is a funny business. Your work, your life, rarely goes in a straight line; it tends to wander along uncommon or unforeseeable paths, sometimes into cul-de-sacs and, sometimes (if you’re lucky), out again. Mostly, happily, it seems to find its way. But of all the twists of a 35-year writing life, I would have to say this residency at St John’s is the most promising and delightful turn so far.
Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara is published on 15 November 2022 by New York University Press.