A new regular feature in which practicing poets tell Magma readers how they go about overcoming some of poetry’s most common headaches. First off, the Belfast poet Sinéad Morrissey tells Mick Delap how she tackled writer’s block.
“I was silent for three years, gripped with fear I would never write a line again”. Surprising words from a highly successful young poet (Patrick Kavanagh Award, 1990; Eric Gregory Award 1996; Poet-In-Residence at Queens University, Belfast since 2002). Sinéad Morrissey published her praised first collection, There Was Fire in Vancouver, in 1996 when she was 24. She followed that with an even more warmly received second collection before she was thirty, Between Here and There, which came out in 2002 and was shortlisted for that year’s T S Eliot prize. But it nearly didn’t make it to print. After moving to Japan, and writing there a sequence of poems about that country which formed the arresting second part of Between Here and There, Morrissey suddenly dried up. As she explained to Mick Delap, she passed the next three years, in Japan and then New Zealand, in silence. It was only when she came home to Belfast, and drastically revised her approach to poetry, that Morrissey, very slowly, began to write again, producing the twenty or so poems which form Part One of Between Here and There.
How did the silence come? And how did Morrissey overcome those three silent years to produce these sinuous, combative, musical poems? She explains that she had started writing aged eight or nine, and that for the next fifteen and more years, poems had come to her as a series of epiphanies, revealed moments: “I’d been inspired, very directly. It was a listening. Even with the re-writes, I was constantly listening.” Then, after the flow of Japanese poems in her first year there, that kind of inspiration deserted her. As she put it in the poem that provides the epigraph at the beginning of Between Here and There, My voice slipped overboard and made it ashore / the day I fished on the Sea of Japan.
“It felt traumatic,” Morrissey remembers. “I was gripped with fear I would never write a line again. I had severe food poisoning in Japan, before moving on to New Zealand; and one consequence, it turned out, was to knock out my thyroid function. But I didn’t know. I was sick, and I couldn’t seem to write. And I was homesick.” As one year became two, and then three, Morrissey went on hoping her original sense of inspiration would return. But she only began writing once more when she accepted it wasn’t going to. “I probably didn’t need to stay silent for as long as three years. I only started to write again when I accepted I wasn’t going to get that direct inspiration any more. And my manner of writing after the three year gap was completely different.” Her other move was equally significant, she feels: returning home to Belfast. “I’d become alienated, overwhelmed in Japan. I needed to settle”.
Once Morrissey was home, she started to search for ways round the block. “I set myself time to write, even if I didn’t have any ideas. I forced myself to get something onto the page, to do exercises. I was very unsure when I started out. And of course a lot of the poems I started didn’t make it. They were breaking down the earth, before I got to the core of what I wanted to say. But once I had started, all the tension and pain of the past three years became articulated. The new poems didn’t come out in a series of epiphanic moments, like my previous poems – including the Japanese sequence in Between Here and There. Now, I had to lay down the conditions first, in order to enable them to come out”.
The first poem she completed successfully was called On Waitakere Dam which starts:
You wanted to up-end the boat
and set it on the lake we lived by
because no one would know.
It was lavish with silverfish and looked
defeated, humped on its secret
like a hand. There was nowhere to go to
but the magnet of the middle lake
where a vapour sat wide as Australia –
as sovereign, as separate, as intimate
with daylight, as ignorant
of clocks and raincoats and boats.
“It took me a month”, Morrissey recalls. “I went very slowly and cautiously. The longer I was silent, the harder writing actually got, because of all the pressures, the sense of expectation. ‘Please let this work, please let this be good.’ And that almost kills you off before you even begin, it’s such a burden. You are weighting the words to the point where they cannot possibly thrive. So, with the Dam poem, I took one tentative step, then another. I’d work on one stanza for a week. Then – boomf! – the last stanzas came very quickly. The poem itself is about taking a very tentative step, setting this rather ramshackle old boat right-side up, and putting it on the lake, and daring to move out to the centre of the lake. It’s very still, and very measured. And I wanted a quiet ending to a quiet poem. I didn’t want to draw it all together, just let it sit out there in its boat!”
We bobbed in the reeds.
The trees lay down their crowns
beneath us, an underwater canvas
of spectacular women. Above us
the crowds of their branches were cold.
Black swans were nesting in the nesting place,
trees reared to the rim of vision –
we slid on to the centre …
And now we sat stilled in a boat
in the centre, under the lake’s shroud,
and the listening
was for the car of the caretaker –
weaving down from the Nihotipu Dam
with Handel or Bach on the radio.
Once launched, however precariously, Morrissey was able to push on, with a series of poems which touch on what she calls the pain of silence, of something having been taken away from her. Rock Pool, for instance, which starts like this:
These creatures live on faith that the greater sea,
whose roaring pounds and permeates the rock pool’s floor,
the rock pool’s leather-bound security, will once again rise up
to the little sea and that their salts will mingle and hold.
“Again it’s all about the pain of not being able to write. I was trying to think, how can I articulate what I feel like? Because being able to write is really all I care about. And I was feeling as though my life had retreated from me, and I was completely unconnected o my own existence. And I came up with the idea of this rock pool, and the creatures in it who have infinite faith that the sea is going to come back. At the time, I didn’t have faith that the sea would come back. I was grappling with the terror that it would never come back. So, in the poem, this question of faith is what divides me from these creatures, all of whose genetic coding has told them the sea is going to come back!”
With more and more successful poems wrestled down onto the page, Morrissey in the end found her own faith in her ability to write did return. Listening to her describe the experience, it underlines the stark reality: writer’s block can affect anyone. But there are perhaps other lessons. If blocked, you may, like Morrissey, be forced to accept that you will have to make a change, perhaps a radical one, in the way you write. It’s also clear that there is no substitute for making yourself get words down on the page, on a regular basis. But it may be helpful to ask some other questions, as Morrissey did. Is my health affecting my ability to write? Would a change of scenery help? (in Morrissey’s case, returning home to Belfast was crucial). And have I the nerve to confront silence with words about silence? Like Morrissey, others have, and like her they have won back their voice.
From Morrissey’s experience, there seems to be one final, positive word. That the process of losing your voice, and then finding it again, however painful, can bring new subject matter which is only available to those who’ve been on that particular voyage. The epigraph about her voice slipping overboard, which opens Morrissey’s collection, Between Here and There, was one of the exercises she set herself when she started writing again. “After completing On Waitakere Dam, I still felt very blocked, very doubtful about getting anything else done. So I decided to write about not being able to write. I called the poem Voices. It was really long, pages long! And I didn’t like it. But then I realized that inside this long poem there were four verses which were salvageable. And then, when I took them out, I realized this really was the beginning.”
My voice slipped overboard and made it ashore
the day I fished on the Sea of Japan
within sight of a nuclear reactor.
At first I didn’t notice,
my flexible throat full of a foreign language
and my attention on the poison of the puffer fish.
Sometimes I picture its lonely sojourn
along the coast of Honshu, facing the
And then I’ll picture its return –
eager, weather-worn, homesick, confessional,
burdened with presents from being away
and bringing me everything under the sun.
This is the poem Morrissey chooses to begin her whole collection with. Perhaps because it hints at the elements that may have contributed to her becoming blocked: the stimulating, but eventually alienating experience of Japan, the toll on her health of her own food poisoning (though a puffer fish wasn’t to blame!), and her homesickness. Perhaps also because, in the last stanza, it celebrates not just a voice, but a poet who has returned: happily home to Belfast and also, albeit via a very different approach, to writing. All these hard-won poems produced as she was rediscovering her voice, says Morrissey, are about belief, about “having faith that epiphanies will return. Because the desert in between them is so painful”. Today, she says the epiphanies have still not returned. But the poems have.
There Was Fire in Vancouver (1996) and Between Here and There(2002), from which the poems quoted above are taken, are both published by Carcanet (www.carcanet. co.uk).