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Thursday, November 7, 1996

Galway poet Rita Ann Higgins, a writer whose wild spirit is untamed by her recent - and belated - election to Aosdana, talks to Katie Donovan

A right terror

"I CARRY illusions/of becoming a famous poet."

These lines are from one of Rita Ann Higgins's first poems. Consumptive in the Library. She didn't start writing poetry until her late twenties, but in the last ten years has published four collections (all with Salmon).

Sunny Side Plucked, her Selected Poems, has just been published by Bloodaxe Books in the UK. She has just been elected to Aosdana. She gave a reading in London's Royal Festival Hall last month to an audience of 400. Today, as you read this, she travels to Germany to give readings in Berlin and Bamberg. It looks like she is well on the way to realising those early illusions.

Typically, she is sceptical of the attention she's getting. She draws her expressive eyebrows together and remarks suspiciously: "Suddenly, there's a big interest in me. Why, I wonder? All these interviews are getting boring. I look forward to getting my privacy back." More to the point: "If you want to honour me, do it with a cheque. Not with baubles."

She does admit to being pleased that her Selected Poems has been given a Poetry Book Society Recommendation in the UK. The judge, Peter Porter, called her "quiet untameable ... she roams the provincial towns and countryside of Ireland fomenting rebellion and writing the unstaunchable energy of everything warm and unrespectable in Irish life."

One of 13 children, Higgins comes from a working-class background in Galway. Unlike many poets associated with Galway, she is urban rather than rural, and her subjects are the people she knows. Her poems are full of the talk of women in the corner shop, of bored men who work in the post office or turn to the bottle, of rebellious teenage boys in court; and above all, of the humiliations of life on social welfare: "God-of-the-hatch-man, hole in the wall ... He gives us money and abuse, /the money has a price, /the abuse is free./ 'Are you sure your husband isn't working? / 'Are you sure grumbling granny is quiet dead?' / 'Are you sure you're not claiming for de Velera?' / 'Are you sure you count six heads in every bed?'

Higgins explains: "I can identify with people on welfare because I've been there myself. I know the excruciating pain of being made to feel small by the person behind the glass." She left school at fourteen and worked in a variety of different factories: "That was the time when the multinationals were waving big turkeys at us and no unions. My philosophy then was, if you worked you got money and you could buy jumpers in Dunnes."

She got married when she was 18 and, after the birth of her second child four years later, she developed TB. In the sanatorium, she was once again up against a glass barrier: "My husband came to visit but he had to stay behind a glass partition and hold my baby up for me to see. I wasn't allowed to go near her. It was terrible. I was 22 and ready to give up."

She found herself in the midst of a community of older people whose "desperate desire to live" became an inspiration. Although her physical energy was low, she had a lot of mental energy, which she put into reading Animal Farm and Wuthering Heights: "It was a revelation. I had never read a book before. When I was growing up all we had to read was The Messenger and the St Jude Novena books. My mother was very religious."

She joined the Galway Writers' Workshop in 1982 and turned to writing poetry when her fiction was criticised for mixed up tenses: "I thought poetry would be easier. The I discovered it helped me to release my frustrations." Jessie Lendennie, editor of Salmon, who was also in the workshop, gave Higgins "a lot of encouragement."

The difficulty of trying to develop a poetic voice when debt collectors are never far from the door is summed up wittily in Poetry Doesn't Pay: I'm from the Coporation, /what do we know or care about poesy ... If you don't have fourteen pounds/and ten pence, you have nothing/but the light of the penurious moon."

Now that she has been elected to Aosdana, however, she must feel that such worries are over. But the honour has been tarnished for Higgins by the fact that she was turned down by Aosdana five times in the past: "The award doesn't sit comfortably with me because of the humiliation involved. I have no argument with the Arts Council - it has given me a lot of support over the years. But it was the elitist Irish literati in Aosdana who kept me out with their prejudices. I was on the brink all the time. It was like welfare all over again. That sort of humiliation is what I write against.

The anger on behalf of the dismpowered which crackles in her poems is fuelled by welcome doses of humour: "My humour is not planned. It just sneaks in when I'm writing because that happens to be part of my perpective on life, and anyway, humour is more palatable than ramming things down peoples' throats." Hence lines like: "She was a coupon saver/She saved them/ but they never saved her."

Another technique which she returns to is that of listing grievances in a spiral of increasing frustration and surreal exaggeration: "Some people know what it's like ... to be out of work/to be out of money/to be out of fashion ... to be in for the Vincent de Paul man/to be in space for the milk man/(sorry, mammy isn't in today she's gone to Mars for the weekend)..."

Because of her mother's religious influence, Higgins spent a great deal of her early youth saying prayers, and these incantatory "list" poems have the quality of a secular chant. Although she has left those early rituals behind, she still respects the importance of prayer for others. In Middle-Aged Irish Mothers, she intersperses her own stanzas with lines from a prayer: "O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place/all my trust and confidence in thee,'/I like thses middle aged Irish mothers, in heavy plaid coats,/one of them birthed me on the eve of a saint's feast day,/ with a little help from Jesus and his Sacred Heart."

She has written three plays, and her poems are full of dialogue: "It is easier for me to write dialogue than to be descriptive." Although many of her poems are about the disappointments and rebellions of women - from the girl who is given ECT because of her wild spirit, to the exploited factory worker who puts a hex on her boss - Higgins says "I'm more for people than for specific gender. I'm conscious of the imbalance of power in Irish society in general. There's a lack of understanding between the bureaucrats and the ordinary person. There's an abuse of power that goes on which is very subtle."

Her witty poetry about sex, however, is unashamedly from the female perspective: "I like to have a go at this attitude that male sexuality is somehow superior to female sexuality."

She hasn't stopped reading since she first picked up Animal Farm in the sanatorium all those years ago. When she was Writer-in-Residence at UCG she did a diploma in Women's Studies, and she is now doing a diploma in Irish. She is usually interested in finding out more about women, because she has already read so many books by men. A typical scenario was her determination to find out more about the woman for whom Petrarch wrote his sonnets: "I looked up all these books and all I could find out was that she died of the plague." The search inspired her poem, Donna Laura: "Petrarch you louser, /I'm here plagued with plague/and you're off chasing/scab free thighs."

There are two women for whom she has a special respect: the feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the Irish Republican, Mary MacSwiney: "They are my idols. They had unbridled fighting spirits. Wollstonecraft was called 'a hyena in petticoats', she upset people so much, and Mary MacSwiney was a real terror."



Rita Ann Higgins


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