An Interview with Martina Evans / John Lavin

Martina Evans grew up in County Cork and trained in Dublin as a radiographer before moving to London in 1988. She is the author of eleven books of poetry and prose. Bernard O’Donaghue has described her new book, Now We Can Talk Openly About Men, as ‘a remarkable document, a major work’. Here, our Editor, John Lavin, talks to Evans about this extraordinary new collection, as well as her new poems in Issue 9 of The Lonely Crowd.

John Lavin: The creative spark for your new book Now We Can Talk Openly About Men came about at a talk on Republican Women by Louise Ryan that you covered for the Irish Post in 1997. What was it that particularly inspired you about this talk?

Martina Evans: When I arrived in London at age 26, I thought I’d left Ireland behind me – I was reading French novels and had no interest in Irish history. But it was 1988, the IRA bombing campaign was in full spate and the papers were full of news about the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six whose convictions would be overturned  in the next few years. I found myself having to explain Irish history because it seemed to me that people in London didn’t know anything about it. Looking back, I realise that I probably didn’t have to explain as much as I thought I did. I realise now that it would have been more sensible to say nothing.  The experience was very unsettling though coming up like that against high walls and deaf ears. I began to feel increasingly unsure about the facts myself so I began to read Irish history again and that made me even more confused and increasingly fascinated. It’s probably significant that my father, fifty-nine when I was born, died in 1988 also. He’d been in the I.R.A, had witnessed all the great upheavals at first hand. I’d never asked him about them and now he was gone to his grave with all the answers to my new questions.

So the ground had been prepared before I covered that academic conference for the Irish Post. I was naturally drawn to the historians like Christine Kinealy and also Louise Ryan, a sociologist, now Professorial Research Fellow at Sheffield University. She was speaking about Republican women and they were a revelation to me. I knew nothing of Margaret Ward’s ground-breaking work in this field and until then, I hadn’t known the extent of the role women had played in the War of Independence. It reminded me of my paternal grandmother who had been a great nationalist and went to prison in 1881 during the Land War. And then Louise is terrific speaker. Her tales of women cross-dressing, smuggling gold and ammunition and playing dangerous spying games were very rich and exciting. I was hooked.

When we learn about this period of Irish history, it is very rarely women’s stories that we read about. Asides from the creative compulsion, did you also feel a need to address the injustice of this?

Initially, yes although as the book has developed over the years, I tended to edit out anything didactic because that’s the way I work. I believe the act of writing is political in itself but if it becomes all about ‘the message’, it loses its power. I’m certainly not interested in giving answers, what writer is? This is poetry, not reports from the front. I enjoyed giving the normally insignificant middle-aged women a voice. When I was researching, I’d been fascinated by the way class had coloured the eye witness accounts. I actually had empathy for the Tans who didn’t have much choice about going to the trenches in the first place. Unemployment was rife after the first world war. And many of them came from very poor backgrounds. It was Lloyd George who sent them over as Mrs Pound points out early on. I was really hoping to show how wounded they were through the fear and contempt of the commentators. Anyway, how could the women who, as usual,  were bearing the brunt feel anything but anger? It’s complicated and I know that it is a risk writing dramatic monologues because invariably some people see them as my mouth-pieces. But I still feel it’s worth taking the risk  – other readers might (I hope!) read between the lines. There’s a quote from Denis Donoghue that nails it for me: ‘Above every poem or novel, there should be a motto: ‘This road does not go through to action.’  A poem is not a tract, an editorial or a sermon.’

You mentioned before that the book has taken twenty years to write and has in fact been cut down from a much larger work. Could you tell us a little about the gestation period of the book, and the subsequent editing process?

The book will be twenty-one years old in June. To be honest, I was a bit scared and later horrified that I had somehow got myself caught up in writing historical fiction. I didn’t feel that was my field at all but somehow there I was researching like crazy, drowning in history books. Louise became a friend and she was very generous with her help. She brought me to the British Newspaper Library in Collindale which is where she’d made many of her discoveries. Initially she’d been researching Irish flappers but had become drawn to the Cumann na mBan through the news stories where they were described as ‘furies’ and particularly denigrated during and after the Civil War, They had served their use and were expected to get back to their pianos and knitting.

Louise recommended many books – one of the stand-out volumes for me was Kathleen Clarke’s My Fight for Irish Freedom, Siobhan Langford’s The Hope and the Sadness was also influential. And Louise’s own work in particular a paper entitled ‘Drunken Tans’ and her wonderfully fascinating, seriously readable, Gender, Identity and The Irish Press, 1922-1937: Embodying the Nation. Ernie O’Malley was a source of inspiration too although I did not take him as seriously as he obviously did himself!

Yet as the years passed, I couldn’t ignore the fact that these idealistic soldierly women were almost like aliens to me. I couldn’t get into their heads, I couldn’t imagine that kind of idealism. I had drafted (many many times!) two historical novels and I felt I’d gone off the rails. My great love is poetry which feels like flying – it’s full of speed and intensity but writing these novels was more like clumping along with two cement blocks tied to my feet. I was going through a difficult divorce at the time too so it was hard to keep that out of the writing.

Then one day, I began to read poetry again and the poems just poured out of me in a stream like rain falling on parched land. I knew then that poetry was the right form for me and that I needed it. That was such a relief. And while researching the Republican women I found that I’d become even more fascinated in the children and in particular teenage boys who’d been caught up in the crossfire so these were the stories that poured out in the new poetry. Afterwards, I realised that it must have been a way to deal with the pain of the divorce when despite my best efforts, I couldn’t prevent my own daughter suffering the crossfire too. So I thought that was the end of it. The research had led me elsewhere – I’d found my true subject and I was finished with history.  And I was glad to be finished with it because it was a reminder of hard times. But as the years went by, I thought about those novels, the world I’d created. I could see it so clearly the rooms, the streets, what people wore and what they said. I felt guilty for abandoning them or maybe I felt guilty for abandoning the work my younger self had worked on so hard. It was probably a combination of many things. By now I was the age of some of the characters, the middle-aged women who’d watched from the sidelines and it came to me then that I could write from their point of view, in the poetry of the dramatic monologue where they could comment like a chorus. 

The opening sections of Part One were initially published in prose form in The Stinging Fly’s In the Wake of the Rising issue. What made you decide to change the text into verse?

I considered the monologues in The Stinging Fly to be verse in the same way that I considered Petrol to be verse. Petrol, in fact, was originally written in lines. The prose blocks were an aesthetic consideration for me. I liked the look of them on the page and they also allowed a scene per page rather than spreading the monologues over several pages. I like to look at a poem all on one page so my eye can travel around the way it would with a painting. But by the time I was finishing this book, I was getting bored with the prose blocks. I wanted to make the monologues smaller on the page, more intense. I wasn’t sure how I was going to approach this until I changed the title. The title was something my mother said to me when I got divorced and I just loved that line. Then I realised that Now We Can Talk Openly About Men was a ten syllable line so it seemed perfect for the dramatic monologues. Once I had the ten syllable line up and running, I was able to edit down the prose blocks so that most of the monologues were taking up one page. This way they could be looked at as well as read. 

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Martina Evans reading at our Issue 9 preview event in Cardiff, earlier this month.

These lines from Part One certainly feel like a revelation about the painterly aesthetic of the book: ‘Make acquaintance with as many colours / as you please, but let the colours of your / choice, like the friends of your bosom, be a / select and well-tried few…’

Now We Can Talk Openly About Menis one of the most painterly books I’ve ever read. The use of colour is paramount in both sections, the first predominantly defined by a variety of greens and reds (i.e. ‘standing on my green painting chair, pinning the vermillion blankets over the window’).  However, Part Two switches sharply into a monochrome world of ‘black beams & white tissue paper.’ Why did you want to have this contrast between the two different sections of the book? 

Everything I read about the War of Independence seemed full of colour and excitement, particularly at the beginning. Sean O’Faolain in his autobiography Vive Moi quoted Wordsworth, ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive…’ They really thought they were heading into something ‘grand and glorious’ – those are literally the words from a letter my Uncle Tommy wrote from Limerick Prison in 1921. He was twenty-one himself during the Truce. The same words are quoted in a poem I wrote about him called Grey Mare which was published in my collection All Alcoholics are Charmers.But of course all these hopeful young men and women were actually heading into a bloody awful Civil War. After that, there was terrible disillusionment and particularly for the women who had been instrumental in the war but were now expected to get back into the kitchen and keep their noses out of politics. The conservative theocratic state was born. The monochrome seemed good way of expressing that state of mind and the more prosaic language of Babe Cronin is part of that expression too.

Colour has always been important to your writing and I’ve discussed your use of colour in Petrol before. However, while your use of green and red felt largely allusive and metaphorical in that work, in this collection, it is also used in the most extraordinarily direct way to simply – for want of a better phrase – paint with words. And I mean that in the most literal sense. The constant repetition of vivid greens and reds, mixed in with Kitty Donovan’s ‘brown linctus eyes’ and the sudden sunshine of an ‘Indian Yellow dress’, create a remarkable, painterly impression in the reader, one that is unquestionably reminiscent of looking into a painting. I don’t know if this was intentional, but I kept thinking of Jack B. Yeats in terms of brush strokes and especially his painting The Funeral of Harry Boland, with its fever-dream greens. Either way, were their specific writers or painters who influenced this approach? The Stinging Fly version is preceded by a quote from ‘Bavarian Gentians’ by D.H. Lawrence, a poem teeming with blues and darkness, ‘where darkness is married to dark’. Was Lawrence something of a stylistic touchstone?

I love Jack B. Yeats’ work but I wasn’t consciously thinking of that painting – wonderful as it is. I’ve been obsessed with colour since I was young. My dream was to own a paint box so I was very disappointed when Santa finally got around to delivering paints Christmas 1968 – not as a box of bright squares but a box of tubes and he forgot to deliver the brushes! My kind Australian sister-in-law, Anne noticed me trying to paint with my finger and very enterprisingly showed me how to paint with ‘a bobby pin’ but it wasn’t the ideal tool, as you can imagine.

You are the first person to mention colour in my writing apart from my daughter, Liadáin who always commented on it since she was a young child. She is now a video-artist and we have always shared an interest in colour. I spent a lot of time drawing and making things with her when she was a child. In fact, I got told off by both my former agent and ex-husband for ‘draining’ my ‘creativity’ with these activities. And I used to knit doll’s clothes, I really loved that too although the discovery that I could grow things in the garden has since become my passion. Endless opportunity for playing with colour. Liadáin and I are interested in art obviously but our shared passion is film. I was thinking of film before and during the final writing – those really lush fifties films like the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Powell and Pressburger’s colour films, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, John M. Stahl Leave her to Heaven and also Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.

You are right about the paint because I felt like I was opening a paint box when I started to write Kitty Donavan’s monologues. It was a very exciting feeling.  I used the D.H. Lawrence poem because I love it and also because it links colour with the underworld. I was thinking very much of the underworld in the first set of monologues especially the story of Demeter’s concern for her daughter, Persephone. That story was always in my mind from the very beginning even when it was a novel since the late nineties, in fact. The shell-shocked soldiers and Tans are in the underworld too, the frightening husband who is supposedly drowned – he’s from the underworld. Of course the background to the monologues is the true story of the Burning of Mallow so Dante’s Inferno entered my mind too, the boatman cutting the water like an arrow and the reference to the soldiers smelling of the singe because they are from Hell. The people really did believe that the Tans came from Hell and apparently that’s what Dante’s contemporaries said about him, that you could smell the singe off him after he’d written the Inferno. By the time I was rewriting the book in poetry, I was no longer reading the history books, I was more interested in Dante.

The book feels very timely in the current climate in Ireland, as literature by women is rediscovered via Sinead Gleeson’s The Long Gaze Back and publishers like Stinging Fly and Tramp Press publishing near forgotten classics by Maeve Brennan and Dorothy Macardle. At the same time there is the urgent need to Repeal the 8th. Why do you think women’s voices and rights have for so long been quashed in Ireland? Is it simply first and foremost because of the Catholic Church?

I think women’s voices have been quashed everywhere for a long time! It’s always more severe in conservative countries like Ireland and of course the Catholic church is a seriously misogynist institution so the odds were stacked against Irish women for a long time. It is ironic, of course, when you think of the crucial part the Cumann na Mban played in creating the Free State.  Originally many of them had been Suffragettes who put their own cause on hold to attain freedom. Not surprisingly, they felt utterly betrayed.

Finally, what’s next for you? Are you working on any new projects at the moment?

I’m almost finished a collection of poems about shoes, feet and X-ray – and three of those poems are just published in The Lonely Crowd. It started with shoes and then it was poems about feet and X-ray couldn’t help getting into the act I suppose, seeing as I had spent fifteen years in Radiography. I had written seventeen of the shoe, feet and/or X-ray poems when I fell down the stairs and in fact was reciting one of them for an International Women’s Day reading at Waterstones when two hours later, I fell down the stairs. I stepped on a glass and ended up with a ruptured artery and nerve damage in my foot. So that inspired another poem – the ambulance driver didn’t take me seriously, she forced to walk on the glass after a cursory examination and that experience in turn inspired another spate of feet and X-ray poems. I must have about thirty of them now. The walking on glass, although painful, has to be particularly rich experience for a writer – such a fairy tale image – they say there’s Cinderella story in every culture.

Martina Evans will be reading for The Lonely Crowd at our forthcoming London event on 28/06/18. The Lonely Crowd / London Readings: Featuring Joe Dunthorne, Martina Evans, Courttia Newland, David Hayden, Sarah Doyle, Louise Warren & Dan Coxon. Hosted by John Lavin & Michou Burckett St. Laurent. Time: 7-10pm. Venue: The Music Room, 49 Great Ormond Street, WC1N 3JL.

Author photo © Joanne O’Brien. Photo of Martina reading for the Lonely Crowd in Cardiff © Michou Burckett St. Laurent.