»I'm part female and I'm part fields«

»I spent a morning absorbed in thoughts about religion, books, spontaneous awakenings, but it’s self-revelation that interests me the most. Is there anything more loaded with poetry than self-revelation? Recently I feel like I’m being challenged – not to learn anything new – but to attune to the knowledge that I already have.« – Annemarie Ní Churreáin

Irish poet and former Solitude fellow Annemarie Ní Churreáin was resident at the Heinrich Böll Cottage on Achill Island in Ireland this summer. Many writers before her have worked at this small cottage located in an area of scenic beauty, far from the city and without internet connection. There she edited poems, completed a short story and let her head clear itself of distraction. »Really, the audio of the landscape is bred into me«, says the poet who grew up on a hillside in rural Ireland. »I’m part female and I’m part fields.«

When and why did you apply to the HBC?

I applied to the Heinrich Böll Cottage in September, 2013. I was awarded a two-week residency beginning August, 2015. I needed time and space to write, but I also applied because I have in me a good deal of what Irish storyteller John Moriarty once called »divine dissatisfaction« – that is to say that I struggle sometimes with everyday routine. Some people, Moriarty said, become so »vampired« by routine that they feel the need to »walk backwards over China« to assert their own aliveness. I haven’t walked backwards over China, but I wouldn’t rule it out. I understand the impulse. We live in a world where we’re expected everyday to conform to systems, rules, norms. Essentially, I resist what someone recently defined for me as a ›respectable‹ lifestyle. So, here I am in a fuchsia smothered cottage in the dark lap of Slieve League, writing and building fires. The dog sleeps under my table. Sometimes I sing to myself just to hear a sound in the house before the end of the day. Of course, it’s a routine of sorts, but it’s a routine of my own making.

What is the HBC residency like?

Heinrich Böll Cottage is located in Dugort on the island of Achill off the west coast of Ireland. Böll first visited Achill in 1954 and purchased the cottage in 1958. It was here that he wrote Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Journal). Now owned by the local Heinrich Böll Association, the cottage has been in use since 1992 as a residency retreat for writers and creatives. I arrived just as night was falling and a mist was coming down over the nearby mountain. I found a key in the designated spot outside the cottage door and let myself in. Inside, the rooms are homely and bright, larger than expected. The shelves are lined with signed books, sketches, found pieces of driftwood and shells. It’s a space in which many writers before me have worked, and there is that feeling – of history. I’ve picked the smallest room, which is always the room I want to work in, and set myself up beside a window. During one of my first days here, John the caretaker called in, greeting me with a hug. I showed him the low flame on the cooker and we decided that a new bottle of gas was required. Off we went, over the bog-roads at top speed, with John at the wheel reciting by heart a poem he titled The Ballad of Robyn & Nell. It’s that kind of residency. I suspect that the cottage is loved because of it’s remoteness and because of the charm of the locals and the wildness of the surrounding landscape, abundant with berries and wild-flowers. From the front door, it takes about ten minutes to walk to the beach. For anyone coming here, it’s important to know there is no internet connection and very little mobile phone coverage!

What project/s are you working on?

I’m mostly editing poems composed last year at Jack Kerouac House in Orlando. It has been pretty amazing to relive the Spanish moss, the cypress trees, and St John’s river from a desk in Achill! Also, I’m completing a short story and I’m doing what everyone needs to do once in a while: I’m letting my head clear itself of distraction. I’ve been very strict with myself here; I only take phone calls from my partner and I’m on a diet of good books, good food, walks, and only the purest and most mindful of company – that of Sophie the dog. I believe that dogs have a lot to teach us about love and commitment, and a writer who speaks very eloquently on that topic is Mark Doty in his memoir Dog Years.

A few days ago Sophie and I were coming back from our daily walk on the beach when we stumbled upon a gate, just off the main road. Across the metal bars, in metal letters, was the word ›revelation.‹ Since then, revelation has become the theme for this residency. I spent a morning absorbed in thoughts about religion, books, spontaneous awakenings, but it’s self-revelation that interests me the most. Is there anything more loaded with poetry than self-revelation? Recently I feel like I’m being challenged – not to learn anything new – but to attune to the knowledge that I already have. Hamed, my German teacher at Akademie Schloss Solitude this summer, told me that language is not learned, it’s recalled from the deepest recesses of ancestral memory. Mrs B., my psychotherapist, has formerly said that therapy is the process of letting what we already feel to be true to rise to the surface of conscious awareness. Currently, I’m trying to make room in my creative work for the possibility of revelations.

Can you tell us more about revelations in your own work?

For me, poetry is always a process of letting something be revealed, but recently I’ve been paying more attention to the specifics. In thinking about revelation here, I was moved by a quote from Böll himself: »Behind every word a whole world is hidden that must be imagined. Actually, every word has a great burden of memories, not only just of one person but of all mankind. Take a word such as bread, or war; take a word such as chair or bed or Heaven. I’m afraid that most people use words as something to throw away without sensing the burden that lies in a word.«

One evening last week, I took myself to the nearby Strand Hotel for a pint of Guinness and to have a think about ›burdens.‹ I ended up in the company of a gentleman from the UK. We sat at the bar and over a few hours he outlined to me the story of his Polish mother, who had been taken to a concentration camp at the age of nine and who escaped at the age of thirteen. Upon escape, and according to the custom of that time, she somehow arranged for her photograph and contact details to appear on a notice-board in the UK. Soon after, a Polish man living there spotted the photograph, paid her fare to Birmingham, and married her. In the Strand Hotel, her son and I had the most frank conversation about vulnerability and the culture of secrecy and shame. His mother, he said, still feels anxiety about sharing details of what happened in the concentration camp and shame about how she came to arrive in the UK. I came away thinking about the words ›secrecy,‹ ›shame,‹ and ›privacy,‹ and about how these things influence the way we use language. In my own family, as in many, there exists a great deal of unsaid and an extensive legacy of shame, and I have since been examining their ›burdens‹ with regard to the words I use in my poems and what I choose to write about.

Does the environment influence the writing?

Without a doubt, environment is crucial to my poems. I grew up on a hillside in rural Ireland. As a little girl, I used to stand out in a field and shout down to my friend Danny who lived at the bottom of the hill. I’d shout out his name and wait for the echo, syllable by syllable, to arrive at his door. He’d come out shortly after and send another echo back up. There was a great deal of patience involved in this process, for what seems now like not an altogether clear reward. That was my first experience of landscape and words – the landscape as a telephone wire on which word travelled. Really, the audio of the landscape is bred into me. I’m part female and I’m part fields. I was reared on wilderness and sometimes I just need to take myself away from the city to feel like I’m not going mad. To quote Moriarty again, because he is so strong on this particular topic, »unless there’s wilderness around you, something terrible happens to the wildness inside you.« I live by that statement and although I love the city, I think we’re designing and landscaping the soul out of our surroundings. I want eventually to find a cottage for myself in a field that has no road in or out of it, a cottage with a door that opens out onto the grass. I can edit quite well in a city environment, but the wellspring of poetry comes into it’s own when I am in the place where my own mother tongue, Irish, comes from.

What authors are you reading at the moment?

At Heinrich Böll Cottage, I’m reading a lot of poetry and some short stories. I did not bring books with me, I’m cherry-picking off the shelves here; John Montague, Mark Roper, Kerrie Hardie. Claire Keegan, a previous resident of the cottage, has a very funny short story entitled The Long and Painful Death about being here at the cottage and being rudely interrupted by a German visitor who wastes quite a lot of her time. It’s based on true events and so I really wanted to read it again while here. I do read some novels, but very slowly. It could take me two weeks to read one. At the moment, I’m reading The Pleasures of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright. It’s a re-imagining of the true story of an Irish woman in the 1850s who meets the billionaire heir to the president of Paraguay and becomes »briefly, the richest woman in the world.« It’s a tale of opulence, featuring decadent feasts and styles and an epic journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Paraguay. I was about halfway through the book when I took some time out to visit the nearby ›deserted village‹ at Slievemore on Achill – a series of ruined cottages perched on a desolate hillside and abandoned as a result of the Irish famine. Today, only the stone ruins survive. I stood and looked up the hill entangled in mist, mesmerized by the remoteness and the harshness of the landscape and I thought about the famine and about Eliza Lynch, who lived around the same time, sailing away from all this, sailing in wealth and towards greater wealth, by ship to Paraguay.

Did you prepare a work schedule before you came to the cottage?

I always plan a work schedule, and I nearly always deviate from it. But perhaps more important than the work schedule are the parameters that I tend to set on each residency. How do I want to spend my time on this residency? And what do I have to do to make that happen? For this residency, I decided that I wanted to be as alone as possible, which meant very little communication with »the outside world« and no visitors. As much as possible, I’ve kept to those parameters. In terms of a schedule, I have a series of unwieldy lists and I revise them every day. Regrettably, I have a very intact sense of failure and I rarely feel contented with the work I’ve achieved. I go to bed every single night saying to myself »tomorrow is a new day: can do better.«

How would you describe your typical working day? For example, are there things which are indispensable to your daily working routine?

Overall, my writing needs are quite simple; I like a table at a window, plenty of silence, and time to write at my leisure. It is always helpful if I am surrounded by old things – woods, objects, anything with a sense of past. I feel more productive in a room with history, which is why writer’s cottages have worked so well for me. It’s also fairly crucial that I am in the vicinity of something a little bit wild. I can’t write new poems in a vacuum. I need, if even just for sanity, to be able to walk to a beach or a forest or somewhere that isn’t ploughed and bricked up. In terms of routine, I’m a deep and enthusiastic sleeper. I dream so intensely that sometimes I really do feel as if I am leading two parallel lives. I dream madly, and often the dreams stay with me for the whole day, sometimes for whole years. So, I sleep for about 10 hours and then I wake very slowly throughout the morning. I have coffee and begin the day by putting my house in order: emails, utilities, phone calls. I do all this so that there is no-one shouting at me for the rest of the day. When on a residency, I usually settle down to write at about 3pm. If the writing is going well, I stay in my chair until late that night. If not, I might become distracted and start reading or listening to a poetry podcast. Always, I aim to stop writing at midnight, but frequently that does not always happen. At the Böll Cottage, you might still see my light on at 3am. It’s been a vague ambition of mine to try and become a writer who starts in the morning, but deep down I know that’s impossible. Something in me settles after late afternoon; I begin to feel at home wherever I am. I quite like to write through the night, though it gives me a feeling not unlike a hangover the next day. Perhaps the most magical hour of all for poetry is that blue-black hour just before the light breaks.

You wrote this great article about residencies. How does the residency at Heinrich Böll impact on you compared to Akademie Schloss Solitude?

As a writer, I pursue residencies for reasons of both comfort and discomfort. A good residency experience will give you the gift of time, but in that time you also have to deal with what in your work you might otherwise try and avoid. So, a certain degree of discomfort and of feeling challenged is inevitable and desirable. At Schloss, I felt immensely stimulated on an intellectual level. It’s a real web of talent and thinking, and each time I stepped outside my studio I was being tested, invited to understand things in a different way. Life at Schloss is very provocative and intense. It was a complete game-changer for me. Here, at the Heinrich Böll Cottage, I’m being stimulated and discomforted in a more emotional way – it is the wilderness in me that is being nurtured. I step outside and all the black-faced sheep in the field run sideways into a corner, and I’m reminded of my own humanity and of my place in the world. I’m reminded of my responsibilities as a human and of how perplexing that often is. I would say that Schloss helped me to develop my thinking and practice and that this short stay on Achill has helped me re-connect with something very old within myself.

What will happen after the Heinrich Böll Cottage? Any upcoming projects?

I have been awarded a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship in Scotland in November for one month. Until then, I’ll be in Dublin. I live in a place called Mount Brown, which is, I think, one of the most beautiful wild pockets of Dublin city centre. I’ll continue writing my weekly column for The Thin Air magazine and for the Bogman’s Cannon. I’m inspired recently by the practices of people like Joan Didion, and in addition to my poetry, I want to spend more time this year writing essays and exploring creative non-fiction. Tentatively, I am also beginning to look at next year – what I want to work on, where I want to be. I plan about six months in advance, so everything is still fairly ›up to the last minute.‹ Right now, I am enjoying the fact that anything can happen, and strange things do happen, and sometimes I get invited to remote and off-the-beaten-track places. Writing is not an easy choice, but there are some perks, and being free to imagine that tomorrow you might walk backwards over China is one.

Interview by Clara Herrmann