Vona Groarke in conversation with Cliff Fell at the City Gallery,
Wellington. 21 May, 2015
the lit window summons the dark
as if from one frame of mind to another,
as if from one future to a future opposite
runs a tripwire of desire.
— Vona Groarke, ‘The Courtyards of Vilhelm Hammershøi’, from X
In the dimly lit auditorium, attended by a good crowd for a rainy Thursday afternoon, Groarke begins by reading from a sequence of poems about her garden, from her latest collection, X. She acknowledges the difficulty in writing about one’s garden—so many people have done it before. But this didn’t daunt her. She talks about putting aside how certain subjects have been written about in the past, and seeing how you can make it grow in your own small patch.
Her poems—and the things she says when she talks about her poems—keep coming back to the idea of ‘negotiating the territory between an object’s physical reality and its metaphorical resonance.’ A murmur ripples through the audience. These are exactly the moments in her poems that catch me—the way we’re suddenly shown two layers of reality at once, in so few words.
When asked about the characteristics of Irish poetry, Groarke smiles and says there might be things that can be identified as Irish inside poems, ‘but all these things don’t necessarily add up to an Irish poem’. Her answer reminds me of things people often say about New Zealand poetry and the impossibility of defining what ‘a New Zealand poem’ is.
She reads one of her ekphrastic poems, ‘La Route’, about a painting by André Derain. It reads ‘your footprints in the dust / fall upon footprints in the dust’. She comes back to this particular image later in the conversation: ‘I’m interested in words being placed on top of other words; words landing on top of their own shadow.’ Reading the poem on the page certainly has this effect, but hearing it aloud is another thing—hearing the words land on top of their echo.
Groarke has many poems about paintings, including a haunting sequence in X about the work of Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi who paints empty rooms with mere traces of human presence left inside them. Looking at a painting sometimes triggers a poem, she says, but not always. When asked about where she finds inspiration, she says there’s no single place; they can come from anywhere. ‘You don’t get better or faster at writing poems. You get better at learning to recognise when something has happened that might result in a poem.’ I sense a murmur of agreement around me. ‘That unpredictability, that not knowing when or where a poem will spring from,’ she says, ‘that keeps me writing.’
As the conversation drew to its end, Groarke read the opening passage of her translation of EibhlÍn Dubh NÍ Chonnaill’s ‘Lament for Art O’Leary,’ a poem extemporised in the Irish keening tradition and considered one of the greatest 18th century Irish poems. She finished with two poems about her daughter. One – an account of a visit to Haworth – focused on an exhibit of Charlotte Bronte’s underwear. As Groake asked of the audience, why would anyone want to exhibit someone else’s underwear, let alone Charlotte Bronte’s? Why, indeed?
Irish poet, Vona Groarke, has published six collections with Gallery Press. Her poems have appeared in the following places: Yale Review, The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Boston Review, The Guardian, The Times and Poetry Review. Vona currently edits Poetry Ireland Review and teaches poetry in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. Vona was judge of the Sarah Broom Poetry Award in 2015 and appeared at the Award session at the Auckland Writers Festival in May.
Nina Powles lives in Wellington and is studying towards an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. Her debut chapbook Girls of the Drift was published by Seraph Press in 2014, from which a poem was selected by Vincent O’Sullivan for Best New Zealand Poems 2014. Her non-fiction writing, ranging from book reviews to essays about whales, has appeared in Salient and Turbine.