Maureen Boyle is an accomplished writer and teacher living in Belfast, she was the winner of the Ireland Chair of Poetry Prize in 2007 and the Fish Short Memoir Prize in 2013. After launching her debut collection of Poetry ‘The Work of a Winter’ in 2017 Maureen has gone on to launch the recently released ‘Strabane’, a captivating long form poem about her hometown, made up of her own and other residents’ memories. I spoke to Maureen all about her new release, the writing process, and how people can misjudge Strabane when it really has so much to offer.
The poem is long and semi autobiographical: made up of a combination of your own memories, your families, and the conversations Strabane locals recorded by Anna Scott-Brown for Radio 4. What is the writing process like when you have to weave in and out of your own perception and other peoples? How does it feel melding all of that together into one poetic voice?
It was a lovely thing to do and I really enjoyed it. The process started with Anna sending me all of the sound files, I listened to them and made notes from them in a big beautiful notebook that a student had given me and I’d never used. I always like lots of space for that kind of preliminary work and it was ideal. I worked on the right-hand page which I divided down the middle-so I made notes of things like subject and vernacular sayings, and then on the blank facing page I would note memories which their stories triggered in me or annotate where I thought something really key was said. The reason for that was that at this early stage I still didn’t know the form the poem would take since I could approach it by retelling people’s stories and keep mine at a distance, but in the end they worked as parallel texts really so the poem is all of my own stories but matched to moments of common subjects – the Troubles, the river, the border and so on. And of course what their memories did was bring to my mind things I’d entirely forgotten from my own childhood – like being taken to see the blacksmith or farrier at work, or the smell of my father’s clothes bought in a bomb-damage sale.
After listening and note-making, I made a further set of notes and a kind of visual map in which I made headings of the subjects I felt I really wanted to include. I’d go back through the voices to bring together or remind myself of key things and the writing wasn’t difficult with all of that preliminary work done. It’s really a version of how I like to work when I’m working on a long or historical poem – I like to be totally immersed in the subject before I hit the page – I think that’s a hangover from being a student – that sense of preparing for an exam where you’d do so much prep you’d get to the stage where you actually sort of want to get a chance to write about it. I went down to Paul Maddern’s lovely ‘Rivermill’ retreat, pinned the visual map above my desk in the smallest room and wrote. I enjoyed it because a lot of it I realised, as I went, were things I’d wanted to write about. I’d touched on some of it before in ‘Incunabula’ – the autobiographical sequence at the start of ‘The Work of a Winter’ but there were things I wanted to go back to – like seeing my Granda’s hand-tied fishing flies on the door of their outside toilet and that mix of fear of the dark spidery place but the beauty of the coloured flies! And I’d never really written explicitly about the Troubles and my anger at the town’s destruction, so that was something that came out of it in the writing.
Throughout the poem there is a sense of time passing, from your grandfather’s era right through the troubles and into the modern day, this sense of passing time reads almost like a map of Strabane; the reader is taken through the town both geographically and chronologically. Was it a challenge to convey both time and space together like this or did it come naturally?
I’m glad that comes across since I think I did want to do that. It came fairly naturally. I knew the river would be important in the poem because it runs right through the town, but I’d not planned to have so much about Sion and the mill in it. That was something that changed in response to the interviews because I’d always thought of Strabane and Sion as being quite separate but listening to the people talk, I realised how important the mill was to the town for employment and how many of those who were interviewed had families who worked in it, and so that became important and gave me the chance also to link in to the hinterland of Donegal since the Herdmans had mills there too.
One of the things the poem allowed me to do was to let the town speak in a way. Strabane has always had a fairly bad press. Growing up, if you said that was where you were from people would always quote George Cunningham who was interviewed about housing in the 70s by UTV’s Charles Witherspoon and who spoke really fast – that’s still online if you want to watch it! And I always thought that summed up a problem with the town in that it was seen as a joke but what he was talking about – discrimination, lack of jobs – was entirely serious. So it always had a kind of dual reputation of being a sad place because of massive unemployment but being the butt of humour too. And indeed a few years ago a younger writer in Belfast started a parody Twitter account about the town and it’s ‘literary festival’ -mocking the very idea of it. I found that very hurtful and rightly or wrongly took it personally since I thought it was so arrogant. I mean that every writer comes from a small place – even Belfast ( which I think is more properly a town than a city) and I thought it was incredibly immature to think that you were so superior as to be mocking like that and how damaging to someone in the town as a young person now who might want to be a writer. Never mind the fact that it’s where Flann O’Brien, Paul Brady, Phelim Egan came from.
“Anyway – one of the things this project gave me – was the chance to show the richness of the place, its traditions and its warmth, since there is a genuine warmth in the people and a great wit.”
I find it very beautiful too – with the river and the mountains surrounding it.
One other thing in terms of history is that as well using the interviews, I read a history of the town in preparation for writing – Jim Bradley’s ‘The Fair River Valley : a History of Strabane Through the Ages’ – and I suppose like any place, what you found then was that so much of Strabane’s recent history mirrored its past. So even pre-Plantation it was a place of violence between the O’Donnells in Donegal and the O’Neills of Tyrone, the river has always flooded, there had often been hunger and so on and that then gave a kind of historical context to much of the writing.
The accompanying photographs by Malachi O’Doherty really aid the reader in picturing snapshots of what you describe in the poem, how was it finding the perfect picture for each section?
We had fun doing this and some of them are my photographs too. We’ve both been taking pictures up there for years when we go back to stay with my Mum who still lives in the town so when I approached my publisher, Alan Hayes of Arlen House Press, to see if he might be interested in this as a separate publication, it seemed like a good idea to think of illustrating it. I was delighted when he said he could do it in colour too – that’s the kind of thing that used to be prohibitively expensive but it’s become more possible now with digital techniques. And then we did indeed go back up and take some specific pictures to match parts of the poem and we had some lucky moments then, for example, finding a fly fisherman on the river at Sion who let Malachi photograph the flies and finding the heron standing at exactly the spot on the weir that I remembered!
Lastly, how have things been since the book was published? How are you finding the adjustment as the world slowly goes back to normal?
It was a sad time to publish really because while we were able to have the Belfast launch, in the Dark Horse in January I think – in the world before! – we had planned a big event in Strabane in the Alley Theatre, the town’s arts centre, in May. Emer Maguire – who’s a really talented singer, songwriter, from the town was going to play, we were going to have a visual display of Malachi’s photographs, Daniel McCrossan, the MLA was going to launch it – but of course that was all cancelled. However, in the way that these things go, something lovely has happened in the meantime and that is that Maria Mc Manus’s company – ‘Quotidian – The Word on the Street’– which specializes in putting poetry into public spaces – managed to get Arts Council money to commission Úna Monaghan – one of my own past pupils – to write a suite of music based on the poem which is lovely. Úna blends traditional Irish harp music with electronic work so it’s really exciting to hear what she’s done. She would often incorporate voice into her pieces by sampling but of course with lock down that’s not been possible, but I’m really looking forward to hearing what she has done with the work. So the thinking is that when we do – at some stage hopefully – manage to go back to the Alley Theatre – who have been really supportive – we can also launch that piece as well as the book. In the meantime my mum has been my ‘dealer’ in the town and has sold lots of copies locally which is lovely!
‘Strabane’ was published with assistance of The Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the National Lottery and is available to buy in No Alibis, Waterstones, Books Paper Scissors, Little Acorns Bookstore, and the Book Depository.
Interview by Sam Dineen