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Saturday, Jun 11, 05

After years of 'sex and satire', Rita Ann Higgins, one of Galway's brightest stars, tells Arminta Wallace why her latest collection of poetry was forced to deal with tragedy.

Lovely Rita Metre Maid

'It's cleaning out the hot press - isn't it?" We're sitting in a cottage in Spiddal eating delicious local bread and marmalade, gazing out at the sea, and talking about Rita Ann Higgins's latest volume of poetry, Throw In The Vowels. "You put it off for so long, and then one day you say to yourself, 'I must sort out that hot press.' That's what a New and Selected Poems is like."

Not, perhaps, what you'd expect a poet to say about a book which showcases 20 years of work alongside a brand-new collection. But Higgins's poetry nails the unexpected, squirming, to the page. And in conversation she is remarkably like her poetry: matter-of-fact, wry, clear-headed, compassionate. And sharp. Very sharp. You don't talk to Rita Ann Higgins for very long before you encounter flashes of the anarchic humour which produced poems with such titles as Butter Balls, He Fought Pigeons' Arses, Didn't He?, poems which contain lines such as "Since the whiplash/ my client is left-handed./ This makes shoe removing very difficult . . . "

Throw in the Vowels was dreamed up by Higgins's publisher as a way of celebrating her 50th birthday. Nobody could have dreamed that the book's celebratory tone would be darkened by the murder of her brother Tony, an engineer who was shot dead in Saudi Arabia last August. Dedicated to the man she calls "the funny brother - the kind brother", it features a poem written in his memory. Almost a year after his death, Higgins still can't talk about it. "I am . . . " she begins, then stops abruptly.

"I wouldn't have a clue what to say," she says, after a pause. "I just wouldn't have any idea what to say. It was such a waste of a good human being. I don't think about the people who did it: I just think about Tony, and . . . " The poem, No Chance Encounters, speaks for her: "This is how we knew you./ Champion of your brothers in Brier Hill School, learner of languages, hugger of sisters,/ philosopher, Johnny Casher, jazz devotee,/ lover of Lightnin' Hopkins Blues,/ of Billie Holiday, of Ella Fitzgerald./ Blues lover who rarely got the blues . . . "

One of 11 children, Higgins grew up on a working-class estate in Galway. "We were very influenced by our mother," she says. "She was very kind and generous about people. We weren't allowed to gossip. And we had to pray for other people - which was an awful drag, I thought. It was terrible to be young and to have to pray for people." In her 20s, after a spell in a sanatorium suffering from tuberculosis, Higgins began to write poetry. Why? "I started to read," she says, simply. "Seeing people being very ill - seeing people being brought out in boxes - made me think there had got to be more to life than soap operas and buying Dunnes jumpers. That's what I did, you know? Watched the telly. There wasn't any room for reading. Why would anybody bother? Then once I started reading, I couldn't understand why anybody wouldn't."

Her first attempt at writing was a short story, which she brought along to a women's writing workshop. "The prose was going in and out of tenses - the past, the present and the future. And someone at the workshop said, 'You can't do that. You have to stick to the same tenses. You can't be doing what you're doing.' I thought, 'God, there must be an easier way.' So I started to write poems. You didn't have to worry about tenses and verbs. You could write a poem without a verb, and if you didn't know what a verb was - and I didn't - it was okay."

The craft, she says, came later. Higgins was greatly encouraged - "nurtured", is how she puts it - by her first publisher, Jessie Lendennie of Salmon Publishing. Her craftsmanship has now earned her membership of Aosdána, which is how she can afford to rent a cottage in Spiddal with the sea in front of her and the bog at her back. Poetry, ironically, could never pay for the luxury of having a peaceful place in which to write it. Is she a disciplined writer? She grins. "I procrastinate like no one. It's the hot press again. I'll say, 'If I go for a walk now - before the rain starts - then I can open the book and do something.' And then when I come back from the walk I'll say, 'Well, I might just nip up and get the paper . . . ' So that goes on all day, every day. But out here in Spiddal, in the quietness, it's very easy to sit down and read. I think if you're reading, you're learning and you're having thoughts. Then something might come up."

When critics speak about Higgins's poetry, they generally single out sex and satire as major themes in her work. Would she agree? "Irreverence would be a big thing, yes," she says. And what about sex? Does it embarrass her family, the strain of sexual frankness in her poetry?

"Nobody mentions that," she says. "Nobody ever mentions that - the sex in the poems. But people don't mention other things in the poems either. I suppose they just accept it as part of me. I don't think about it, and I certainly don't worry about it. It's generally playful; at least, I think it is.

"I remember, one time, two women walked out of a reading. What was I reading, at all? Oh, yes. It was a poem called I Have To Stop Thinking About Sex."

She smiles at the memory.

The poem is, of course, a send-up: "They thought/ that I thought/ that the French loaf/ was a you know what . . . " On another occasion a man approached her after a reading at Queen's University Belfast. "He said, 'Young lady. . . ' Okay, I was younger then, but I was never a lady. 'Young lady,' he says, 'poems should not be arguable with.' And I thought, 'You fool: everything should be arguable with.' "

Except, perhaps, creativity: a mystery which Higgins prefers to leave largely alone.

"It's very hard to pinpoint how the creative process works," she says. "I have demented days, and I could be creative in the demented day; and I could have a very serene day and nothing could happen. I don't know why. And who wants to know, for God's sake? I don't think it's good to know all the answers." She is, though, a dedicated rewriter, her notebooks full of drafts and different versions. "When you first write a poem," she says, "you haven't traced the thought to its lair. You're only getting a bit of what's happening. With every draft I write the whole poem again, from the title to the final line, because then you see tiny changes. And the tiny changes would be the big changes in the end. You rewrite, and you wait. I am hugely imperfect, and I like that - that's the way I want to keep it. You keep working on it until you're tired of it, or lose interest - and that's how I know that a poem is finished."

Now that her New and Selected Poems is finished, what's next? Well, Higgins has some plays under the bed which need nurturing - though theatres in Ireland, she notes tartly, don't seem to be as good at nurturing as publishers of poetry.

And then? "I'm just going to go for more walks and have a look at the hot press," she says. "I don't want anything to be next. Isn't it nice for there to be no next? I'll just take it a day at a time. Enjoy the bog. Enjoy the Irish language. Enjoy reading. That's plenty to be going on with."

Throw in the Vowels is published by Bloodaxe Books (£9.95 in the UK). Rita Ann Higgins will be reading in Letterfrack on June 5th: she will be in Ballina Arts Centre on June 30th and on Clare Island on July 7th

Rita Ann Higgins


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