On Writing ‘The Moorhen’ & ‘Badlands’ – Jackie Gorman

I was thrilled to have two of my most recent poems “The Moorhen” and “Badlands” in Issue 6 of The Lonely Crowd. They represent a shift in style and approach for me, driven mostly by changes in my process of writing over the last few years, which was influenced by wonderful and generous advice from two great Irish poets, Noel Monahan and Thomas McCarthy.

When I started to write, I was very focused on writing about nature and wildlife as it’s something I feel a strong connection to, but my approach was always very descriptive and did not allow space for much else. During a mentoring programme with Noel Monahan, he encouraged moving out of the writing comfort zone and to explore other things such as dreams, mythology and paintings. I said “but my dreams are really strange and mad”, as at the time I was dreaming a lot of water, birds and my father who had died many years ago. He looked at me and delivered a fine piece of earthy midlands wisdom, “you can’t be looking into the same ditch the whole time”. Any time I get stuck, I think of those words and so it was with the poem about the moorhen. I was out walking one evening close to where I live and saw a moorhen nesting beside an old barge. She was very busy with her chicks and I could not get the image of her out of my mind. Somehow, a childhood memory of moorhens crept in and suddenly, there was my father’s death. Rather than shy away from these strange associations and just describe the bird and its surroundings, I decided the best thing to do was to build with this uncanny flow of words, a type of nest if you like and trust that it would take the shape that was necessary.

The other poem “Badlands” was the result of a memorable holiday last year in Arizona, visiting a good friend Liz. We did an amazing road trip while I was there and the landscape was so alien to me, coming from the wet greenness of the Irish midlands. The place names in Arizona are like tiny poems – the Badlands, the Painted Desert, the Superstition Mountains. At that time, I was one year into my marriage separation and yet again the words of Noel Monahan crept into my brain. I had told him months earlier of my marriage ending and after the usual things people say about being sorry that this has happened and so on, he turned to me with a glint in his eye and said “you’ll get great poems of out this though, I got great poetry from my heart-attack”. It was exactly what I needed to hear. The heat of Arizona burnt into my mind – desert, birdsong, silence and endurance. I wrote the first draft of the poem during my week there and revised it as I was looking out at the rain back home in Westmeath.

In both poems, I kept thinking of the words of poet Thomas McCarthy, when he talked about powerful contemporary poems, he said the key is “coming in late and leaving early”.  The first time I heard this, I struggled a bit as the natural urge to describe everything is so strong in me at times but I see the wisdom and beauty in this approach. It allows the writer to distill with words the essence of things and it allows space for the reader. It creates an experience that is like a painting, you see the image as the mind fills in the gaps between the points of light.  Now, every-time I draft something, I put it through the “coming in late and leaving early” test and it has provided a very useful process for me – does the poem say just enough? I think this approach has a lot of respect for the reader; I’m not trying to tell a story, I’m trying to share an experience in words.

I love accuracy and even if I don’t end up including the finer details in a poem, I can become almost pedantic in reading about a particular bird or animal or medical condition that I am including in a poem. So with both these poems, I spent some time reading about moorhens, brain haemorrhages and desert creeks. I am only sometimes aware that what I am writing about may be deeply personal, sometimes even my own words and metaphors obscure their true meaning from me, usually for months at a time. I’m comfortable with this as a process. I think this is what the American poet Mary Oliver was talking about when she said writing poetry was “a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart [that courageous but also shy factory of emotion] and the learned skills of the conscious mind.”

I am currently doing a Masters in Poetry Studies at the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies at Dublin City University and it’s given me a huge appreciation of the power of poetry and how it continues to stay relevant to people’s lives. I think this is mostly because it finds ways to say things that are difficult to say in ordinary narrative language, poetry can suggest and shyly sneak around corners, looking at nesting birds or strange landscapes whilst at the same time saying something about loss and endurance.

Jackie Gorman is from Athlone. Her poetry has been published in a number of publications including Poetry Ireland Review, The Honest Ulsterman, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Lonely Crowd and Obsessed With Pipework. Her work has been commended in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Awards. In 2016, she won the Phizzfest Poetry Award. She is currently studying for an MA in Poetry Studies at the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies at Dublin City University and is part of the Poetry Ireland 2017 Introductions Series.

Jackie Gorman’s ‘The Moorhen’ and ‘Badlands’ are featured in Issue Six of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here. You can listen to Jackie read the two poems here.

Copyright © Jackie Gorman, 2017. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.