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Sunday, February 11, 1990

GENIUS in women comes under many covers. Rita Ann Higgins's fish-and-chip face masks a rich and rare poetic vision. She left school at 14. At 34, she has read her work at Oxford and has seen it taught at Yale. It's rough, tough and muscular stuff and not for the delicate of disposition. Molly MacAnailly Burke spoke to the coruscating bard and found a day-dreaming woman with simple aspirations.

The iron fist

Some people know what it is like

to be called a cunt in front of their children
to be short for the rent
to be short for the light
to be short for school-books...

and other people don't

This is a hard story to write. Rita Ann Higgins, a most extraordinary poet, probably knows what these things are like and I don't Do you? With poetry, good poetry, it doesn't matter. The short sharp shock hits you in the back door like a sudden gale. Rita's work speaks for itself. But how can I tell the story of the poet? Shall I offer a twee rags-to-writers workshops biog, working-class makes good, liberally dosed with 'Educating Rita' imagery, the tough little cookie with her miniskirts and tights-with-ladders?

Well, some people know what it is like to talk into a banana on a job-search scheme -- and other people don't. And if Rita's tense political convictions occasionally earn her a solicitor's letter or boomerang submission, it shows, once and for all, the power of the bard. Brecht would be proud.

Yet Rita Ann is slightly defensive. The transitions in her life over
the last eight years would startle anyone, and she is no doubt wise in her wariness. She is getting famous, this is a fact. But poetry doesn't pay much, and the what-ifs are spurious until they start paying bills.

The facts are simple, even if the poetry is not. Rita is one of eleven from Ballybrit, born into a  family where one left school, got a factory job, handed the money to mother and got your own cup and saucer as proof of adulthood. Women went to church, men to the pub, the art on the walls was bleeding Sacred Hearts and the only literature The Messenger.

If there was pain, she doesn't want to talk about it, but there is
anger in her work, she freely admits. Not overt anger, but anger of the best, most poisonous sort: anger laced with a deadly humour about domestic violence, about gossip, about sex, about the smugness of those with a pinch of power:

... big tits power,
piercing eyes power,
filed witches nails power ...
Your father drank too much power
your sister had a baby when was fifteen power
where were you last night power,
upstairs in your house is dirty power...

Dirty power, the reality of spells.

But don't let me mystify Rita Ann. Her lift has not been that unusual, it is her capacity to  recount it that makes her work as fresh and potent as raw beet juice. Language is power of a different sort.

Rita is 34. After what she calls an empty-headed, boy-chasing youth she married at 17 to a Claddagh man, Christy. The first daughter was born, and while nursing Rita noticed she was perspiring a lot. It was TB. She went to the Merlin Park Hospital, and the TB wards were packed. This was in the Seventies, so much for the eradication of TB in Ireland.

But the time out, and the need for rest,  gave her a chance to stop and assess, to ask where her life was going, to read. 

So at age 22, for the first time, she read a novel. It was 'Animal
Farm', followed by 'Wuthering Heights', followed by a limitless quest for knowledge which has included astronomy, behavioural psychology and medicine.

And the reading, combined with the slow convalescence, began to create a class awareness. "We were living in the Rahoon Flats," says Rita, whose husband, a labourer, was unemployed then, and is now.

"We were on the fourth floor, and I was so tired having to carry the pram up and down the steps because there was no lift. I realised there were thousands and thousands of people in the same position. You wonder why, you begin to ask who is responsible, and you become aware."

In 1982, she started writing. In 1986, Goddess on the Mervue Bus was published to acclaim, followed by Witch in the Bushes two years later. Both are currently being reprinted in one volume, soon to be followed by another new collection, and there is a play in the can, commissioned by what Rita will only describe as a 'prestigious theatre'.

She has read her work at Oxford, it is being taught at Yale, and she recently toured Germany and Hungary. Yet unless you are from Galway, you may never have heard of Rita Ann Higgins. 'Witch' was curiously under-reviewed, and Rita expects her politics may have something to do with it. "The best among the poor," said Oscar Wilde, "are never grateful."

Nonetheless, Rita resists cheap categorising -- 'housewife-poet',
'voice of the working class.' "I'm very level-headed," says Rita.
"Your family won't tolerate any change in you. I don't want to be
adored, set up, or used as a spokesperson. I don't believe I write for the working-class, but if they identify with it, great!"

In her position, flash fame can be dangerous. Wee drips of money from Arts Council bursaries have helped her home life a great deal, and she and Christy laugh about the bursary bedspreads, fridge or wardrobe. But when she made this wee joke on Radio Galway, her husband's dole was stopped ten pounds.

Some people understand 'you sign and work' power, and other people don't.

Hence, she is nervous about interviews. Her aspirations are simple, like buying her husband a car, and the limelight blinds her.

"I'm not savagely ambitious," says Rita. "Maybe it's that I'm not
assertive enough, or maybe it's simply that I'm not ready. I have to be sane about things, and sure, what harm, amn't I Irish?"

She twinkles, her slow voice humorous and subtle. The poetry is strong, pointed and sometimes highly sexual. "I can't deny that and I wouldn't want to," says Rita, whose 'The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World' is a favourite at readings. "But a lot of it is poking fun."

'... in time one will crawl
out from under thigh-land.
Although drowning he will say,
'Woman, I am terrified,
why is the house shaking?'
And you'll know he's the one.'

The sexuality of the poem rejoices as it teases. But politics don't always wash so well. It was easy enough for Rita to
deal with a solicitor's letter served her by her local residents'
association after the publication of The KKK of Kastle Park in a
socialist magazine. Raised to believe in equality for all, the poem was inspired by an anti-traveller rally held in a back garden at midnight, though it echoes a universal anti-racist challenge.

But does she not worry that her strident seeming nationalist leanings may be unpalatable to some newspapers and readers who might otherwise be seduced by the sheer originality of her vision?

It is dangerous territory, but at this juncture Rita does not care. And if some high tone university publisher wanted to print her books and delete the overtly political ones, she would not allow it.

"It would be a lie," says Rita. "It would be disgusting. If supporting national independence and social and economic justice means being a nationalist, then the answer is there. I consider all my work political."

But these are early days, and Rita admits there is a lot more to be learned. The international interest in her work has been a bit of a shock, and though she is coping well, she is justifiably edgy about being misrepresented.

"Does it all seem incredible?" she asks. "This is my life, normality. I doss, daydream, I'm stubborn. If I had all I wanted, I don't know would I get out of bed in the morning at all. I don't want to be a sensation, I couldn't live up to it. And as to the political tag, well, it happens to people. I don't lose any sleep over it. I don't lose any sleep over anything."



Rita Ann Higgins


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