Dublin Dreaming. An Interview with Kerrie O'Brien
An interview with
Poet, Writer, Editor and Reviewer Kerrie O’Brien
by Caitlin Gillespie
I first meet Kerrie in the iconic literary Dublin bookshop ‘Book Upstairs.’ The shop is a real gem, nestled near to the river Liffey and O’Connell street, its Bohemian Paris blue paintwork and elegant windows an inviting beacon.
As Kerrie later tells me she is a regular here, and it’s easy to see why - the downstairs is a treasure trove of literary delights, and its high ceilinged café is the perfect place to grab a coffee, read and write, maybe even launch a poetry collection, which, co-incidentally, Kerrie is doing in October this year.
On meeting Kerrie I find her instantly disarming and warm, as well as being utterly gorgeous - strikingly pretty, stylish and relaxed. Within minutes we are discussing - yes ‘Quelle surprise!' - that EU referendum result. Kerrie expresses the shock that seems to be reverberating throughout the world in her soft Dublin accent, and I find myself sharing with her about the Irish heritage I have on my late father’s side. I suddenly feel there is no place I would rather be in the wake of yesterday’s historical happenings and the conversation (and coffee) continues to flow.
Settling down to that coffee (mine a cappuccino, hers a flat white in case you were wondering) we then begin swapping poetry books by the likes of Andrew Macmillan, Rebecca Perry, Luke Kennard, Paisley Rekdal and Gabriella Calvocoressi (we both had the same idea and brought something for the other to read, which worked out a treat.)
With Perry’s glossy book in her hands Kerrie lights up as she talks of her love for Bloodaxe books, and we both discover a mutual appreciation for their stunning anthologies, Kerrie asserting it was partly these that first got her turned on to poetry.
As touched on earlier, Kerrie’s own hotly anticipated debut collection ‘Illuminate’ is due to be published by Salmon in October.
Talking fluently about her process (which I can't help being curious about) Kerrie notes the difference between writing poetry and prose, and how she finds writing poetry more intense but with a bigger and juicier pay off. She muses that ‘when you really nail a poem it has a quality about it that gives you an incomparable feeling, almost like a kind of ecstasy.’
I definitely agree - which leads us to surmise about the emotive element present when creating a poem, and neatly, the connection between poetry and trauma.
She then spoke to me about the incredible work she is currently doing with charity 'The Simon Community' to produce an anthology in response to the homelessness crisis in Ireland.
This exciting project, started off, in Kerrie’s words ‘just with a post on my Facebook’ links directly to Kerrie’s belief (and one that I share) that poetry ‘definitely does matter’ and can have a big social impact.
When talking about the vitality of poetry she is also adamant about the importance of the camaraderie and sense of support she has experienced within the Dublin writing community. It is clear that alongside being a shining and rising star in the contemporary literary and poetry scene, she is someone who wishes to actively contribute to this community herself.
Her current projects illustrate this - such as her idea for the upcoming anthology for the homeless Looking At the Stars, or editing the hugely successful online photography and poetry journal Bare Hands.
Kerrie has also been published in numerous magazines and various International journals including Cyphers, The Bohemyth, Banshee Lit, The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, Orbis, The Penny Dreadful and on the posters for National Poetry Day 2016 in Ireland. One of her poems, which you can read below, was chosen as part of an initiative to spread poetry throughout the city.
you need to be very still
to hear the concert of your body
to think about what you contain
salt and water
knows what it’s doing
back to earth
it is a quiet thing
this is where our riches are
we are all red inside
brimming with love
all fluid and quiet and fire.
Here are two of Kerrie's most recent poems for your reading pleasure
I am walking blind
cold white bees at my eyes
the quiet of it magnifies my thoughts
white streams white birds
shrieking against the quiet
you make no sound when you sleep
I never want to lie with another
all I think of is last night
my whole body wept
it became holy
we had entered that sacred place-
I could see it in you
eyes love-fuelled and frightened
and I fell then
as natural as quick
And isn't it what we all look for
Where you can kneel
against the earth and it's knowing
When all we want is quiet
and an answer
Always easier in hindsight
How the dots joined
How the path
was rose strewn
And lit by stars
All laid out
Just right for you
We have so much more to talk about, so Kerrie takes me to a nearby sushi bar.
Whilst inside we share laughs and she talks of her love of Paris (where she recently spent a month after completing the writing of her Arts council funded collection), her fondness for intimate poetry readings, beautiful bargains and art galleries.
This leads back to her enduring love for Visual Art, which inspired her to take a undergraduate degree in Art History, at Trinity College, Dublin and she says this connection has seeped into her writing. She has been inspired by paintings such as those by Rothko, in an almost unplanned organic ekphrasis, hinting at rich and evocative imagery.
I volunteer that this is because this is a part of her, and therefore her unique voice. We go on to discuss the validity and importance of women having a voice and feeling free to write about sex, love, lust and their emotional and romantic experiences, agreeing with the sentiment that poetry is about re-advertising those universal themes, heartbreak being a theme in her own debut collection Out of the Blueness. When discussing other women writers Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Emily Berry, whose talent embodies liberty and daring, spring to mind.
I can’t help but take stock about how impressed and inspired I am by Kerrie’s achievements, vision and passion for the arts.
Maybe it’s because we are both poets, or as my uncle likes to say ‘poetesses’ and have water moon signs and other super cool astro connections (we also earlier discovered a shared enthusiasm for astrology stuff) but I’m pretty sure anyone privy to our meeting would agree.
Kerrie's humour and infectious and palpable love for literature, as well as a keen sense of providing beauty in her poetry, leaves me even more excited to read her debut collection.
Read on for Kerrie’s answers to some questions I asked.
What first attracted you to poetry as an art form?
I was always quite intimidated by poetry and had no real interest in it in school. When I was sixteen I received a photography book by Nan Goldin called The Devil’s Playground and it featured a poem called The Promise by Sharon Olds. That changed everything for me - I didn’t know poetry like that existed. I then started exploring the Bloodaxe Anthologies - Being Alive/Staying Alive - I still think they are an incredible way to discover the world of contemporary poetry. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I even considered writing poetry.
Why do you think the world needs poetry?
I think William Nicholson summed it up - ‘we read to know we are not alone.’
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m always reading about ten books at the same time! I recently finished Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner which I loved. I’ve just started the Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami, I recently downloaded the Poetry Foundation App so I’ve been delving into that - and I’m currently reading Beauty/Beauty by Rebecca Perry which I think is a brilliant collection. I think to be honest I read non-fiction mostly - I’m starting to read a lot about Louis le Brocquy and Francis Bacon again - art theory about their work and essays written by them.
What are you listening to at the moment?
While I was writing the final bits of Illuminate I listed to Love Streams by Tim Hecker all the time - it’s a kind of minimalist electronic album - very beautiful and easy to write to. I also really love an album called Living Room Songs by Olafur Arnalds - he’s an incredible young Icelandic composer and his work inspires a lot of artists and writers.
What are you watching at the moment?
I don’t really watch any particular series. I recently saw the film Notes On Blindness which is extraordinary and poetic and I highly recommend. I also watched the Bill Cunningham documentary again - I have always had huge respect for him and his attitude towards work and art.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers and poets?
Get involved in a writing course or a writing group if you can and be open to feedback. Go to local poetry readings and events in your area and get to meet other writers. Writing is an extremely solitary process so I think it’s important that writers encourage each other. Be true to yourself and keep at it.
What's your favourite colour?
At the moment it’s blue.
How much would you say living in Dublin has influenced your writing?
I think the close knit community of writers in Dublin has encouraged and allowed be to become a writer. I think my style though is much more influenced by contemporary American poetry.
Tell us about the process of writing your first collection?
I got the offer of a collection about four years ago but I knew I wasn’t ready to bring out a book then and I essentially stopped writing for a few years while I was working full time. Last summer I broke my foot and that time allowed me to get properly back into poetry. I wrote some of the core poems last summer then left my job in February to purely focus in the collection. It was slow and difficult but I put all my energy into it and I don’t think I’ll ever regret that. I knew I was capable of better work and it came in that time.
If you could spend time with dead people (famous or otherwise) who would they be and why?
Viktor Frankel, Hemingway, George Orwell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Beckett, Frank O’ Hara, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon - it would simply be an honour to spend time with any of them.
Biggest poetry crush?
Nick Laird. My God.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
I’ll hopefully have a few novels written by then, more poetry collections and perhaps some non-fiction. When I’m older I’d live to have an apartment in Paris and divide my time between France and Ireland. I’ve also become a bit broody in my late twenties so I’d like to have children by then. Twins run in my family so who knows.
Kerrie’s debut poetry collection Illuminate will be published by Salmon and released this Autumn.