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Poetry that causes a racket by Una Sinnott
The shocking occurrences that are passed off as normal, the intermingling of private and public life, and the humiliation that accompanies poverty are all themes tackled by Rita Ann Higgins in her newly published volume of poetry, An Awful Racket.

From its irreverent cover to the closing seven-part account of life on social welfare, this collection finds humour in the often-overlooked minutiae of existence, without detracting from the gravity of her subject matter. An Awful Racket is the seventh collection from this prolific Ballybane-based writer who, despite leaving formal education at the age of 16 (though she later returned to study for diplomas in women's studies and Irish) received a Green Honours Professor Award in Texas last year, and is now represented on the English curriculum at Yale University.

Higgins began attending writing workshops in 1982 while recovering from TB it was either that or flower arranging, she recalls ó and hasn't looked back since.

Much of her work is a reflection of modern suburbia, her own life in Ballybane being a major influence which comes through in her writing. "I suppose I am influenced by my environment," she concedes. "It's what you see and hear every day." Higgins' poetry often juxtaposes the two prevailing attitudes within families, the 'what-will-the-neighbours-say' and the 'to-hell-with-the-neighbours' schools of thought. She can deal equally well with the need for a decent public image ("She's pregnant by a married man/After all the money I spent on dancing lessons.") (The extension means more than space,/her status will rise in the estate/so it was written in the bingo book."), and the desire of some people to make an exhibition of themselves ("We're going to see the flasher/'any takers' was the catch cry/we went, we saw/none of us said much/only, what's on him?/The lads said he was a sissy.").

In The Jugglers Higgins describes the constant struggle of raising a family on welfare, along with the humiliation that one is made to feel by asking for financial assistance. Her portrayal of poverty is startling:

"The kids want the food they see on telly.
I say telly isn't real,
when the ads are on I turn the telly off,
mind you it's wearing me out.
Tanya says mammies on the telly are nicer than me
even though she's only four
I feel hurt, I know I'm too hard on them.
I have to watch the food,
I'm on food patrol
and when they bring their friends in
I have to say spare the bread,
It kills me to have to say that to them.
It makes me feel mean."

Far removed from ostentation or the desire to appeal to an academic minority, Higgins' language is easy, everyday, and colloquial. Her poetry enjoys wide appeal as a result of this. An Awful Racket will appeal to poetry lovers, and to those who perhaps feel that modern verse is out of their depth.

Higgins plans to concentrate on drama for the foreseeable future, though she says she has no choice but to continue writing poetry as well. "I don't think I have any choice in that," she claims. "It's still going to happen."

Admirers of her work can look forward to her new play later this year, enigmatically entitled Down all the Roundabouts (or No-one is Entitled to a View), this work centres on the massive increase in development in Galway in recent years. "It's moving at a frightening pace," she says.

Having already read her work everywhere from Israel to Oxford to Mountjoy, Higgins plans a number of readings closer to home this summer, including Clifden, Sligo, and the Oscar Wilde Summer School. She will also feature in a half-hour radio documentary for the BBC.

Though it can't be for the money (poets receive very little as a rule), Higgins obviously receives immense satisfaction from her work, which is evident from her commitment to supporting the literary arts. She is a member of the board of directors of Galway Arts Centre, and has been on the advisory panel for Cúirt for the past two years.

This prolific poet still attends the writing workshops which first fuelled her desire to articulate her surroundings nearly 20 years ago. "I think I would be in a position to encourage other writers," she says of her role in the classes, "and it's always very exciting when new voices come on the scene." .



© Rita Ann Higgins


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