Frances Corkey–Thompson

Guest Poet for Fire River Poets in Taunton, June 3rd

Interviewer: Graeme Ryan (Fire River Poets member)

Firstly, thank you so much for giving this interview Frances, in advance of your much-anticipated reading for us at Fire River Poets.

What is your earliest memory?
I remember being on a station platform with Mum, where we had gone to meet Dad coming home from his RAF place. We caught sight of him in the crowd, he squatted down and the crowd seemed to part as I ran straight into his arms, to be hoisted high in the air. That’s how I remember it anyway.

I think that the very first book I had was about a Chinese girl called Mei-Ling. She wore a coat and trousers, and looked after ducks. My dad pointed to the words as he read them to me, and I was soon copying him, pointing to the words and saying them. ‘Surely to God that child can’t read!’ a visitor remarked. Was I really reading?

There was also Fuzzypeg goes to school. Fuzzypeg was a hedgehog (for those who don’t know), who fell into the water on his way home, and arrived back very bedraggled. My dad always read this as a great tragedy, and I would burst into tears.

When is the first time you noticed a poem or poetry? Have you always wanted to be a poet?
I have no idea when I first noticed a poem or poetry. I was read to, and sung to, from the start by parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. When I was two or three, I made up a poem which somebody wrote down. It went like this:

The sun goes down behind the hill
And all is dark you see.
But whenever we go to bed we’ll go to sleep
As safe as safe can be.

Growing up, I assumed I’d be a writer. I used to imagine headlines like “Astonishing 12-year-old writes Brilliant Novel”. Then it was 13, 14, 15-year-old. That ambition has yet to be realised.

Was there a teacher or teachers who particularly encouraged your writing? Or someone else?
Miss Patrick at my primary school in County Tyrone, who taught every kind of analysis and parsing of the English language, also encouraged my writing. She noticed a poem I had written about my baby brother. I had to copy it out very neatly into the school magazine. Later at grammar school in Belfast, an English teacher called Creeping Moses because of his shoes (I never got why) used to read my essays out to the class with great emphasis and enthusiasm. At the same school, Mr Kane would recite Gray’s Elegy while stalking round the classroom. He said the metre was just right for following a funeral procession.

My friends, too, encouraged me. I was hopeless at games, being asthmatic, and it was a very sporty school, but I used to make people laugh by writing pastiches of Shakespeare. I re-wrote a whole section of Julius Caesar, in which we were betrayed and murdered during cookery lessons.

Books were always around. I taught myself Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin. I found Macauley’s Lays of Ancient Rome and it thrilled me –
“Through teeth and skull and helmet
So fierce a thrust he sped
The good sword stood a handbreadth out
behind the Tuscan’s head.”

I had a head full of poetry and still have.

What influences have you received from the place where you were born, or certain places of your childhood?
My Dad was a Presbyterian minister and a former missionary in China. When I was little, he was the voice of authority for everyone I knew. I was the eldest of four, and the only girl. I think he delighted in me. Growing up singing hymns ensured I never had any problems with rhyme or metre. Some of the old hymns are very beautiful, the words as well as the music, and how they interact. I miss them in my life. I joined our local Choral Society a few years ago, and I’ve participated in massed choirs singing Mozart’s Requiem in the Albert Hall. A truly wonderful experience.

What is your most treasured possession – and why?
If people can be possessions, then my family. Then friends – they know who they are. Then my books and my piano (I don’t play well, but I love it). I treasure a few items of correspondence between myself and Seamus Heaney. I treasure photos that recall memories of places I’ve been which have had lasting influence – Tunisia where I taught English for a year in my youth; Mediterranean beaches; India’s Kerala; Berlin’s European Academy where I regularly attended educational conferences before and after the Wall came down; Paris, Athens, Aegina; The Isles of Scilly; the island of Iona. Of all places, perhaps the London of my youth. The Barrow Poets – does anyone remember them? And London since then too.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Missionary or ballet-dancer. There’s a poem about that in my book Watching The Door.

Name a couple of Desert Island poems – and say why you’ve chosen them?
Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves by Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was an acrobat with words, a supreme poet, groundbreaker, tortured soul. I discovered him while I was still at school, though he wasn’t on the syllabus. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass ditto. The Beat Poets, particularly Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We devoured him in London in the sixties. I actually met him in San Francisco’s City Limits Bookshop. He was an old man then, but he lived another 20 years.

Also, Edna St Vincent Millay – nobody wrote better sonnets than she did and I just love her take on womanhood and relationships. She could also be very funny. Some of Goethe’s poetry is still with me from my Mod. Lang. days, and I love the playfully creative Oulipo poets whom I first met doing my English MA at Exeter.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party – and why?
Nelson Mandela; my great-grandmother Isabella (Sloane) Corkey; Marie Heaney; Anne Hathaway; Charlotte Bronte.
On second thoughts, maybe I’d keep Nelson Mandela for a different dinner-party, with Jesus, Che Guevara and Rasputin.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?
To my own early childhood in Garvetagh, Co Tyrone. I’d take more notice of the people, the sayings they had, who they were.

Which, if any, of your relatives has influenced your writing?
Undoubtedly, my mother was my greatest influence as far as poetry was concerned. Her influence was the earliest, and it was sustained. I learned several poems by heart from A Child’s Garden of Verses, just from hearing Mum read them to me: The Lamplighter, The Friendly Cow, Bed in Summer, and so on. Mum had studied English and Music at Trinity and adored Brooke, Wordsworth, and Yeats (the poet, not so much the man. She was cross with him for depending on the hard work of his sisters Lily and Lolly.) Mum remembered seeing, as a student, a dignified elderly lady in the streets of Dublin – Maud Gonne.

Which poems in your collections give you most satisfaction?
Good question. I could be rather arch and say the most recently completed one. While you’re working on a poem, it is the most important thing, but once you’ve finished with it, something inside sort of stops caring. However, I’ll try to give you a better answer. The poems I wrote as a result of my visits to China bring great satisfaction, if only because I actually went there, achieved some of my aims, and wrote a book about the experience: Wild Gooseberries of Hailung. One particular poem from my first book, The Long Acre, has lasted well and grown with me over the years – it’s called Wanting to Run on Grass. Poems that have come from being a mother and a grandmother have their own particular claim on me, as have the odd few that mention The Man. Where I feel I have successfully matched the form of a poem to its content can be very satisfactory. I am rather attached to one from Watching The Door, written in a hospital waiting room while my husband was undergoing an operation. Here it is:

Australopithecus Lucy

So she’s in the news again, still a celeb, but stuck now with me
in this end of the hospital, where the cafe has closed,
the last cleaner has departed, and there’s only us, waiting.

By now I think I know her better than I know my own fragmented self.
They only found forty per cent of her, but the brain fills in the rest.
The brain. Look. Here it was.

Three million years, three hours, who’s counting?
We have looked each other in the eye, Lucy and I.
I have learned two things:

1. It’s a bad hair day for us both.
2. I almost love her – the big brow, her half-smile, the crazy
old-woman wrinkles at her teenage eyes.

Emergencies, Lucy, we know a thing or two about them,
and about hope. And dread. My phone’s on the table beside you.
It’s been a long, such a long, long time.

What was Seamus Heaney like? And did you ever meet Marie his wife? (I note she’s on your dream dinner-party list)
Because Marie is the same age as me, I might well have met her when we were all young in Belfast, but I didn’t know her – possibly because of the ridiculous Catholic-Protestant divide. However, a few years ago, I got chatting with her while Seamus was book-signing after a reading and the queue was endless. Every person or couple took their seat and Seamus chatted with them. I said to Marie, ‘This is so exhausting for him,’ (because it was late, and a group of us, including Seamus and Marie, were heading down to the pub afterwards). She replied ‘Yes, it is. But this is what he does.’ We made it to the pub. Great craic. He was very down-to-earth, and very funny

I was on a poetry retreat on Rathlin Island when news came that Seamus had been rushed to hospital. All of us were stunned. The whole dynamic changed: that was the mark of the man. On that occasion he recovered. His final book, Human Chain, came after that event.

As well as being a genius poet, he was a genuinely lovely man, friendly and encouraging to lesser minds like my own. I was doing a lunchtime reading with the American Jorie Graham, who had been a student of Seamus. As I got up to read, I noticed his unmistakable tall, silver-haired form slip in at the back of the audience. My legs went to jelly but my voice must have held out. Afterwards he spoke to me approvingly. Phew! When he died I felt bereft, and I was one of millions.

What feeling or impulse tells you ‘I might write a poem about this?
It can be anything. An example: some time after my dad died, I was in his study among all his books and it suddenly occurred to me that the books themselves had lost something. I wrote that his books were ‘losing sight of him’. I built up a poem from that.

A few words from literature can do it. When I was in hospital recently, I was reading, again, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, where young Stephen D. decides to leave Ireland and get by as a poet. ‘How will you do that?’ his friend asks. ‘With silence, exile and cunning,’ he replies. Something about my helpless state in hospital made me hang on to that phrase and I got a poem out of it.

I have written many poems that arise from family memories, people and places.

Sometimes I enjoy going a bit crazy with words. I used to feature regularly on Lighten Up Online, the site for light verse – great fun.

Do you have a writing routine – and what sort of process do you go through before a poem becomes completed? Is there an example you could give from your own work?
If I have a routine, it’s mighty irregular. I can jot down fragments of ideas at any time of the day or night, but my proper writing time is in the morning, anywhere between 10 am and 1 pm, not every day though it should be. Poems go through many drafts. Often I’ll leave a poem with a sense of satisfaction, thinking it’s finished, and then the next time I look at it I think, oh my goodness, why did I say that? – and start re-drafting. They say you should keep all your drafts, but because it’s so easy to delete and change on the computer, I mainly don’t. I’m rarely totally satisfied with a poem, and even after something has been published, I often find myself fiddling with it.

What do you do if you get stuck?
I leave it. But I don’t delete, just in case something sends me back to it.

What advice would you give to someone who’s got the poetry bug, who’s starting out and wants to get a poem or two published?
Read, read, read. And write. Attend poetry events and evaluate. Look at poetry magazines real or online to get the feel of the kind of thing they publish. When submitting, read the guidelines carefully and follow them. Do not be discouraged if/when rejected – all poets have large banks of rejection letters. Keep on. As Beckett said, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

What responses do this quote from poet Selima Hill evoke in you? ‘The only energy we have is the energy of our own lives. But sometimes autobiography is not enough.’
I agree with what she says about energy. And of course autobiography is not enough, but what is meant by autobiography? If something from far off in time or distance has touched us, then it becomes part of our life’s story.

Thank you, Frances. Your responses, much like your poetry, sparkle with a love of life and language. What you say in your final answer, about incorporating what touches us into our life’s story, reminds me of your wonderful poem, The Goat Bells, where the small, remembered sound of a goat bell becomes something universal—a symbol for time, tradition and the precious circumstance of being alive. Perhaps I could conclude this interview with some lines from The Goat Bells:

I want to know what a bell means to its goat.
Do the bells at first drive the goats nearly mad,
and do they in the end settle for this madness
as they settle for the high winds
in the worlds where their clever feet take them
and the sweet still places they know
and the fragrant scrunch of thyme
and the daily giving of the blessing of their milk?
I want to know about the goat bells,
for their faint hollow harmonies are knocking
at the bowl of the mountains under the sun
against the silvered pulse of the sea.

I know I speak for all the Fire River Poets in saying how much we’re looking forward to hearing your poems, in your voice, at our Zoom reading on 3rd June. Thank you again, Frances.