Denise O’Hagan

Denise O’Hagan in conversation with Audrey Molloy

Published in The Blue Nib.

Audrey Molloy is an Irish poet based in Sydney. Her work has been widely published and appeared in The Blue Nib, The North, Magma, Mslexia, The Moth, The Irish Times, Meanjin, Cordite, Overland, Verity La and Australian Poetry Journal among others. In 2019 she was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series and she received the Hennessy Award for Emerging Poetry, the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award and the Listowel Writers’ Week Irish Poem of the Year Award. Her debut pamphlet, Satyress, was published in 2020 by Southword Editions.

Audrey: On a trip to my family home in Ireland several years ago, I found a diary I kept, aged 8 or 9.  After a few months of recording the minutiae of my daily life, I’d had enough; there’s a thick line in blue biro after Sunday 12th April 1981. The next page announces ‘My Poems, A-Z,’ and there they are, quatrains with the kind of full rhyme and sing-song rhythm only a child could love. My high-school English teacher, Ita Cummings, took up the baton and instilled a great love of poetry in me through the text Soundings. But I didn’t actually write another poem until 2013, thirty-two years after those childish verses. I woke up one morning with an image in my head and jotted down the words to describe it on two post-it notes. It was a love poem. Since then the poems have variously trickled or poured out. 

Denise: Is there a particular subject or theme to which you find yourself returning?

Audrey:  Impermanence – the way things change, both over time and from different perspectives – fascinates me. We all see our own truth through our own lens. As Marcus Aurelius said: ‘Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.’ Transformation and the peeling away of layers is also something I’m exploring. 

Denise: What, or who, is your main inspiration behind writing?

Audrey: The creative impulse inspires me to write and doing so keeps me sane. I’m happiest when turning a scene, emotion or epiphany into black marks on the page. Words are like oxygen to me. 

Denise: How do you balance writing poetry with your work and family?

Audrey: With difficulty! I’m raising three young children and everything that goes with that. I’m fortunate to also have a companionable partner and an enjoyable day job. If I waited until I had some spare time, I’d never write a thing. But I’ve learned to hive off time for my writing whenever I can. My partner is also a writer, and very disciplined. Discipline isn’t my strong suit, but I’m learning from him and others that writing time is a priority and can always be found. My kids are very supportive of my writing and more appreciative of my time. They’re more inclined to say ‘Yay! Mum’s made chicken and leek pie!’ rather than ‘Oh no, not this again.’ I often find myself toggling between guilt (such as when we run out of clean socks) and resentment (if I haven’t had any time to write for a week). I suspect a lot of writers experience this – especially women. 

Denise: When you’ve finished writing a poem, what is your editing and reviewing process?

Audrey:  I edit as I write, choosing words and line breaks carefully, rather than just getting the thoughts down. Once the first draft is written, I immediately edit it again, weeding out clunky rhythm, prosey constructions, accidental full rhyme, cliché, sentimentality etc. I use a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary a lot and can spend a couple of hours finding replacement words that are simpler, more vivid, or work better with the rhythm. I read the poem aloud. If the rhythm is wrong, I take out the offending word and write in ‘de DAH,’ (or what ever the rhythm should be) and then I search for the right word. 

Once I’m reasonably happy with it, I run it past my mentor or writing group for constructive criticism. I don’t need someone to tell me it’s great; I need them to say – ‘you’ve used the word love three times. That’s twice too many.’ It stings a little, like Betadine, in a healing way that leads to a better outcome. 

Denise: Your poetry has been published in prestigious journals and has received various awards or short-listings. How does this affect your creativity? 

Audrey:  Journal publications and competition successes seem to be like buses – none for ages and then all together. This type of ‘success’ has both a positive and negative effect on my writing. On one hand, it’s very encouraging to have one’s work recognised and to receive feedback from a wider audience. It makes me sit up and say, right, I need to take this more seriously and grow as a writer. Prize money gives me the means to do just that through paying for wonderful books, workshops and time-savers.  But I also find the high can be short-lived and leave me feeling a little hollow.  Success, as far as I’m concerned, happens at the creative stage – bringing a good poem into being on the page.  That feeling is hard to beat. 

Denise: Your debut poetry book Satyress is being released this year at the Cork International Poetry Festival by Southword Editions. Would you like to tell us a little about it? 

Audrey: Satyress is a collection I think many people will relate to. A metaphorical transformation occurs in a woman who has misplaced her identity in becoming a wife and mother. It suddenly occurs to her in her forties that she’s still there, under the layers. She embarks on an emotional journey through a strange and often surreal landscape. You’ll have to read it to find out what happens to her! 

Denise: You grew up in rural Ireland and now live in Sydney. How has this shift between cultures affected your writing?

Audrey: Sydney has been my home for twenty years and I’m still in love with the natural beauty of the place, but I definitely feel that I’m an Irish poet at heart. Writing about place is essential to any poet, and yet, even after two decades, I feel uneasy writing about this great southern land. I grew up on the Irish coast and I find the sea seeping into my work even though I don’t set out to write about it. The deciduous trees of my childhood also recur in my work. After the devastating impact of recent bushfires, I found myself seeking permission from the local trees to write. I am currently exploring this sense of discomfort in a series called ‘You are not my leaf’. 

Denise: Which other writers have exerted the most influence over you? 

Audrey: The obvious early influences apply, including Irish and Anglo-Irish poets like Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh and WB Yeats.  The lyrics of Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan (among others) have had a deep and lasting impact on my writing.  In recent years, writers such as Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro as well as the poets Sharon Olds, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Alice Oswald and Anne Stevenson have all inspired my own writing.  Australian poet Anthony Lawrence exerts his long-distance influence through tirelessly (and ruthlessly) mentoring me to be a better poet.

Denise: What books are you currently reading?

Audrey:  Although I read a lot of poetryI usually have fiction and non-fiction on the go as well and find these genres feed into my writing just as much as poetry. Right now I’m reading Anne Carson’s Glass and God, Sharon Olds’ The Gold Cell, Richard Powers Overstory and Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of the Octopus.  

Denise: What role do you feel poetry does, or should, play in our society?

Audrey:  Poetry has the ability to communicate emotional experience from the writer to the reader.  People read a good poem and recognise something they’ve been through but couldn’t name – yes, that’s how it feels. Poets make the intangible more tangible by transporting universal emotions into images and words.  I’ve heard that the great ghazal singers of Iran have been known to pack out a stadium. In Western society, however, I think poetry has been in a death spiral for hundreds of years. Thankfully for today’s poets, it’s taking a very long time to die and the slow, quiet contemplation of poetry on the page is a wonderful antidote to the fast-pace of social media.

Denise: Lastly, what advice would you offer to aspiring poets out there?

Audrey:  That’s a tough one, as I still consider myself ‘aspiring’.  But here are a few things that have helped me be a better poet:

Read good poetry. Spend some money every month or two on a great collection and read it cover to cover at least twice. Have poetry books in your car, your bag, your office and bedroom. Relish delays and missed flights. Read while queuing, on trains, at the hairdresser, and doctor’s waiting room. Order the big prize anthologies every year and read them – the Forward, Pushcart, Best of the Net.  Make a wish list on Amazon and direct your siblings, partner and children there to buy your presents. (Who needs another candle or hand cream when you could be reading Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Mama Amazonica or The Captain’s Verses?)  

Go for long walks alone. Bring a phone or notebook to record the ideas that appear after about half an hour of letting your mind wander. Gather your ideas one word, phrase or overheard snippet at a time. When you finally get to sit down and write you’ll have a smorgasbord of good material to work with. 

Make time in your week to write, edit and submit. Daily time may not be possible. The shorter form of the poem lends itself to shorter work windows. Find your ‘writing moments’. Even an hour or two can achieve something. 

Edit your peers’ work if possible. Join a workshop or writing group and get actively involved in editing and commenting on other work. It can be easier to recognise what’s not working in someone else’s poem than your own but the lesson sinks in. 

Send your work out.  Having work published in journals is a great confidence booster and insists that your work is valuable and deserves an audience. Don’t be put off by rejections. Keep sending work. Even to the places that reject you at first. Especially to them.  It may take years, but it feels damn good when you finally see your own work in print in a well-read publication. 

Thank you!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.