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Sunday, March 16, 1997

While some people publish books for the money and fame they bestow, Rita Ann Higgins does it because her poetry simply has to come out. She spoke to Molly McAnilly Burke about life, Aosdana and being a factory girl who made good

Educating Rita

She sits in the plush lobby of Galway's Great Southern, stiff as a rail and panicked as a perch gob-spiked on a salmon hook. Skinny and tense as ever. Rita Ann Higgins, the factory-bred muse of Ballybane, keeps squinting at the doorway, afraid for her life someone she knows will come in and catch her doing this embarrassing thing, talking to the press. They might think she was acting the Queen of Sheba. Ms High and Mighty, and she hates, positively hates, the limelight that clambers into her haystack with the release of every new book of poetry.

But like it or not, Rita is showing signs of processing, from her
consciously high fashion clothes to the classical references in her most recent book, Higher Purchase. She is now published by the respected Newcastle-bred Bloodaxe, and is just finishing up her second Diploma course at UCG.

The change isn't coming from money: poets have never made any and royalties, says Rita, are a myth. Nor is it from the growing of self-confidence in her success -- she swears she's always been confident. International travel, perhaps, has broadened her politics and education increased her spectrum of references. But the change in Rita Ann, I suspect, has to do with her late-age access to the international language of literary power, from Greek and Roman classics to the analytic dialogue of academic thought. It's a heady time, she feels, fraught with contradictions. Right now, though, she'd rather be left alone.

"I'm nervous about being misrepresented," she says, "misquoted or made bigger than I am. This media attention doesn't contribute to your writing, and it's certainly not applicable to my life. 

"I hate to think my high profile might be embarrassing for my family: you know, this 'Oh I saw yer sister on the telly' business. It's not my family's fault I'm a poet -- no, make that write poetry! -- and the only good thing I can say about my relative success is that I'm not obliged to accept every reading I'm offered, because it really does drain you."

If she could choose, she says, she's never give an interview, never have her photo taken, just get on with her work and be left alone. Rita has no intention of betraying her own background by slipping into theliterary middle class, where she would surely wither and die of boredom. Money means absolutely zip to her and fame even less. Yet her witty, sexy, and poignant blasts from Ireland's muffled underbelly continue to cause her international audience to be curious about this "genuine specimen", the burp from the bottom that is not supposed to enter polite society lest it confront the fact that a factory girl could well have an IQ higher than their own, and have led a much more interesting life. In fact, because of her "difference" she unquestionably gets interviewed a lot more than your
average artsy poet.

Rita Ann has no grudges, however; if any are to be found in this
article they are those, solely, of the journalist, who is bored
gangrenous with books about and by rich, beautiful people and their smug little lives. There is no other voice in Irish literature like Rita's -- it ain't Commitments cool or bog-water Heaney, but breezy statements about a way of life that rarely makes it into publication unless observed by an outsider.

"Some people know what it's like to be called a cunt in front of their children..." says one of Rita's poems in her 1988 publication, Witch in the Bushes. "And some people don't".

God-of-the_Hatch Man, the Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World, several odes to the Butter Balls. The Minister of Misery and another to a man who's kingdom was a toilet. There are plenty of gawks, shakes, and "cures" for corner derelicts as the women go to Knock and do the "Creed, and a blast of Beatitudes". There's the humiliation of fruitless job-search programs, "higher" purchase, factory closures, and shock
treatment for wilful young women. There's also loads of happy fantasy sex that married women find joyous, but rarely makes its way down the gold-plated pens of rugger mothers.

I could argue that Rita owes it to the world to keep publishing, keep representing her own and force the literazzi to swallow the muddy gizzards of life on butter vouchers and welfare, but it would be my own selfishness talking -- I want to keep reading her, as do thousands of others. But Rita thinks it entirely possible that she won't put out another book of poetry for seven or eight years. There are too many things she wants to read, too many things she wants to study: for a woman who never
read a book until she was stuck in a sanatorium recovering from TB at the age of 22, she feels she has plenty of catching up to do. Never mind that by now she's probably read more classics than an UCD Professor of Literature, the limitations of her own experience annoy her as does the adulation. The only thing about international acclaim Rita finds useful is the travel which keeps broadening her horizons and forcing edifying contradictions into her formerly steely politics. There's been loads of trips to the States, and she's been to Sweden and
Buenos Aires. Last autumn, she read to 400 in London's Royal Festival Hall and the following month visited Berlin and Hamburg. This spring it'll be Israel, where she looks forward to a better understanding of the complex Palestinian issue.

Without question, Rita's life has changed. No more "God of the Hatch Man, Hole in the Wall", where the money has a price but the abuse is free. After 12 years of writing and four years of diligent applications, she has finally been elected to Aosdana and will be a recipient of its 8,000-a-year stipend, which approximates an "income" on the dole. Unquestionably, this small sum, and the security it affords (Aosdana confers life membership), will make a serious difference to Rita, whose
books budget alone must be major. But she feels the struggle to "make it" into Aosdana was embarrassing enough -- God of the Hatch Man in another guise.

"I feel that the old geezers in Aosdana don't familiarise themselves enough with the work of those applying," she says.
But was there really "prejudice" in Aosdana against Rita as a
working-class woman, or is it just a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude talking? Rita is famous for "attitude", some of it from shyness, some of it from well-earned political rage, and some just pure Ballybane bolshiness.

In truth, Aosdana's female representation, especially in the literature section, is scandalous -- 13 out of 72, to be precise, and that includes those, like Rita, who have been newly elected. But what started out looking distinctly like an old boys' club is nonetheless accountable to the state and the taxpayer, and thus under constant scrutiny by the vocal but invisible Department of Political Correction. Aosdana's administrators are well aware the current gender imbalance does not look good, and today, if anything, they are bending over backwards to make amends. "The problem is that a lot of our Aosdana literary women died," says a prominent female member. "There were more when I came in years ago than today."

Now, committee members are encouraged to close the gap as soon as humanly possible. But, in light of life membership, Aosdana has to maintain standards and many artists have found it takes three or four years of applications to pass the 10-member Toscaireacht and thus be eligible for the general vote. Rarely, it is stressed, are people refused membership when past the pre-selection stage.

"They may want to wait and see consistency in your work," says one well-established writer, "perhaps wait for another publication. But it's not a matter of prejudice or gossip. As far as I know, discussion of other writers is virtually unheard of at an Aosdana meeting, and we rarely see each other the rest of the time. I don't especially enjoy going to the meetings because there can be a lot of hot air and bombast by certain members. But criticism of others, no."

A member involved in righting the Aosdana gender problem spells out the probable source of Rita's delayed entry: the fact that what she does isn't exactly considered poetry but "prose with short lines." What difference should that make, one wonders; a writer is a writer. But bureaucracies of all types deal in categories and Rita, in many wonderful ways, defies classification. One thing she's sure of, however, is that she'll never write a novel.

Most people don't take the Aosdana stipend; it goes to those who need it and poets are always amongst the hungriest. Those with a conventional education tend towards academe, but Rita's start in a factory aged 16 hasn't left teaching as an option -- as yet. But in the last few years she's been soaking up schooling like a sponge and has no intention of stopping now, not for poetry, for fame, for travel or sickness and health or media attention or the Love of God. With the UCG Women's Studies Dip in one hand and another in Irish on the way, she finds
education to be the best revenge on the class system, as it certainly is.

"I haven't written a poem in nine months," she says. "I'm not feeling very creative at the moment, learning Irish has become my total focus and the Conditional is simply killing me. But it's also very exciting, and gives me a lot of pleasure. I haven't gone off poetry, but it's very emotional and I felt that if I didn't start studying now it would be too late. I really feel I have to give it all my attention."

Women's Studies and Irish, hmmm. For those who subscribe wholly to free market philosophies these are perhaps the two most useless courses anyone could take if employment were the end goal. But for Rita it has more to do with the reclamation of her rights as a woman and as a daughter of a dejected man from Lettermore who didn't teach his family what he considered the language of poverty, as once it was. "It's my language and I deserve it," she says emphatically, and who could disagree?

What certainly hasn't changed with Rita is the commitment to soil and family. When possible, her partner accompanies her abroad on "mini-honeymoons", and if there were a little more money? Morocco at Christmas or buy a cottage in Connemara. But everything, she says, is currently arranged around her university schedule.

And she still cherishes the anger that has made her the unique writer she is. "I'm still angry about things. I have to be," she explains. "It surges up from the soles of my feet into my work, and that's why I know poetry won't abandon me. My ideas haven't really changed, but they have developed, and I've learned to hold back now instead of jumping right in with my opinions."

Which brings me right back to language, power, and the evolution of Rita Ann. "I don't care if my poetry is read, or debated," she says. "All I care about is the fact that I was able to say what I wanted without an oppressive regime or anything else preventing me from doing so. I have always had a voice, I just didn't have a channel for it. I was never asking myself if Oxford would ask me to read."

She is unquestionably what you'd call a positive thinker with an iron will. "Believing the positive before the negative gives me the power to go on," she says. "I just tell myself, you will learn, you will study, and I try to instil this in my daughter, as well. Even my anger and frustration are positive." Anger, as we all know, is the best revenge. May Rita Ann never lose it.



Rita Ann Higgins


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