One of the amazing aspects of poetry readings is seeing a poem open up before you – hearing the writer’s own delivery of their work, seeing how they perform and learning what effect the texture of their voice has on their words. Live poetry events also offer a different angle of looking at poems, often allowing more contextual background to a piece than before, with the writer grounding it somewhere in ideas and history.
All of these things, and so many more, are true of the final day at this year’s Durham Book Festival. Earlier in the day we heard poets Maura Dooley and Bernard O’Donoghue speak in an incredibly inspirational and touching event. Now, to close the festival, we’re at Palace Green Library for the final time to see Sinead Morrissey’s reading.
Her lilting Northern Irish accent fits every line to the poet, showing just how much each piece is a part of her. She speaks with airy vowels and her consonants click – the word parallax sounds divine. Morrissey’s collection, titled Parallax, won her the 2013 TS Eliot prize. The book opens with an Oxford English Dictionary definition for the word: “Apparent displacement, or difference in the apparent position, of an object, caused by actual change (or difference) of position of the point of observation”, ideas which are drawn through the entire work.
After the reading, I have the honour of sitting down with Morrissey, and the opportunity to ask a couple of questions about her practice. The ideas behind ‘parallax’, it turns out, became apparent in the project towards its latter stages. “I had most of the collection written and I didn’t know what I was going to call it,” she almost whispers to me in the authors’ green room. She had mentioned to a colleague that she was working on a book, “mostly about old photographs,” prompting a conversation on photography. “She said, I take photographs but I use old cameras, and the thing about old cameras is that they don’t calculate parallax.” Morrissey’s eyes widen as she delivers this sentence, and I feel like I’m being let in on something top secret as she tells me that she’d never heard the term before. “She described it in terms of the difference between looking at something through the viewfinder and the aperture. So, when people were using old cameras they’d often chop people’s heads off.” She giggles at this image before delving deeper into the word. “But there’s also parallax in terms of astronomy and then, very generally, in a sort of philosophical meaning, it’s about looking at the same thing from two different perspectives and seeing it differently.” This was the lightbulb moment for her – the realisation that it encompassed the themes she’d been playing with in all the poems written so far.
Morrissey tells me it’s often the case that titles come towards the end of her working process. She always begins by taking each poem in turn “and then, after a while, they gather their own momentum and they start to speak to each other.” It can be too constraining, she comments, to set out with an overarching theme in mind. “I think, if you’re in an intense period of writing, there will be a conversation going on between those poems. It’s just sort of about becoming aware of what that conversation is when you finish.”
She’s an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction, especially loving texts on history, an interest which is evident in many of her poems. “I read a lot of history and I am interested in it,” she says, “but I don’t read history looking for poems.” She thinks about this for a second, before going on to explain that often the idea for a poem might come a long time after reading something, as was the case with reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal for the first time. “I just couldn’t believe how amazing her writing was,” she exhales. Dorothy Wordsworth, she tells me, kept her journal for the purpose of providing her brother with poetic material. “That was kind of the arrangement,” Morrissey shrugs. “I was completely blown away by her wonderful prose and her wonderful descriptions. So I wanted to… I wanted to be her!” Her enamoured reaction to this journal led to the opening poem in Parallax, 1801, in which the poet speaks as Dorothy Wordsworth, taking on her voice and detailing the moments of beauty she’s encountered in the day: ‘I almost said dear, look. Either moonlight on Grasmere / -like herrings!- / or the new moon holding the old moon in its arms.’
As Festival Laureate, Morrissey was commissioned to write a new poem inspired by County Durham, which she read this evening at the closing event. The piece is a truly stunning poem in six sections, which takes as its starting point her grandfather’s experiences as a miner. It develops through the aftermath of health problems related to working down the mines, through his relationship with her grandmother and ends with an address to a racing pigeon. I very much look forward to seeing this work in print, as it’s a poem that deserves some poring over.
Since arriving in Durham on Thursday, Morrissey has been visiting schools in the area and working with children, something which she sees as an important part of being a poet. “When I was poet laureate in Ireland for the year I did a lot of community, school and prisons work. I think it is really important.” It’s with pure joy that she describes how fantastic the kids in Durham have been and how much she enjoyed working with them, yet it’s clear that her year-long post as Belfast’s poet laureate was a different role than she was previously used to. “I also think it’s really important to guard your own writing time, that’s just as important,” she nods, adding that poet laureate is “a very public role, and you talk all the time, and I think poetry comes out of a very private and silent space. So I’m glad I’m getting back into writing again.”
There is a new book on the horizon, “and the first thing that came to [her] was the title!” She laughs here, noting the irony with a grin. “That’s very unusual,” she adds in that whispery voice that’s normally reserved for top secret conversations, letting me in on something confidential.
Morrissey’s work is unfalteringly exceptional, with her ability to speak through others’ voices from any place or time allowing a wealth of differences across each book. She is also a wonderfully kind and friendly person, making it an absolute pleasure to chat with her.
The last day of 2015’s Durham Book Festival was an inspirational, intensely emotional day of stories and poetry from an immense scope of talent. It was a pleasure to hear from all of the writers, and it was a fantastic end to a brilliant festival.
Jazmine Linklater is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.
Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.