The Body Electric; An Interview with writer Jessica Traynor – Part 1
by Marie-Louise Blaney.
Marie-Louise Blaney is the Education Curator at The Model, Sligo.
Jessica Traynor is an award-winning poet, creative writing teacher and dramaturg from Dublin. Her debut collection Liffey Swim (Dedalus Press, 2014), was shortlisted for the Strong/Shine Award and her second collection, The Quick, was an Irish Times poetry choice of 2019. She was invited to contribute to The Body Electric. Today I catch up with Jessica on the art of writing.
The process of crafting poetry
MLB How do you define the craft of poetry writing?
JT I suppose it’s a little like lepidopterology. An idea appears, something striking that’s teasing the edges of your consciousness, something you want to capture and examine more closely. Often, it’s an idea or impulse you don’t quite understand. Even when you pin it to the paper, you may not understand it.
MLB Looking at the form poems can take, have you any particular preference?
JT I enjoy the short lyric form for its intensity. I admire long poems greatly, but often don’t have the stamina to read or write them well. The short lyric is flexible and open to deconstruction in interesting ways. And the challenge of brevity is to create something clear and jewel-like – I think those are challenges every writer should set themselves, whatever form they choose.
MLB You have worked as a dramaturg and in theatre/museum contexts. Do you use theatrical or visual art techniques to craft your work?
JT Theatre has been a huge influence in my writing in terms of voice. I like to try and write in a way that is clear and unaffected, in a way you might hear a person speak. In playwriting, the writer has to tackle big, complex themes using language that sounds natural. I try to bear the importance of that naturalism in mind when writing poetry, to prevent the work from becoming too archaic or self-consciously ‘poetic’.
MLB The Body Electric concentrates on ekphrastic writing. Is there a thread of ekphrasis as a technique running through your poetry collections?
JT While I’m often inspired by art, straightforward ekphrasis where I write something directly relating to an artwork is not something I often do. With Dorothy Cross’s Stiletto, which I responded to for The Body Electric, the fact that these wonderful, slightly nightmarish shoes are a physical object rather than a painting sparked my interest. They seemed to me to function as poetic symbol made manifest in the world. And they spoke to one of my current preoccupations – subverting traditional ideas of motherhood.
MLB You have spoken before about connecting the voice on the page to the voice in the body. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
JT As with the last question, I find that we can often engage a self-consciously ‘poetic’ voice when writing poetry which doesn’t reflect the actual sound of our own voices, our own idiom, our personalities. Too much workshopping of poems can also file off these interesting edges, making the poem a little flat and predictable. Our voices and ways of speaking (again here I mean literal voice, rather than the conceptual ‘writing voice’) are often the things that make us individual and interesting. Try to work that individuality onto the page.
MLB When you are about to write a poem, how does it reveal itself to you?
JT Generally a concept or idea will have been floating around in my head and I’ll find a line emerging that expresses some part of it. At that point I try to examine and record any accompanying images and ideas. Much like recording a waking dream that I can then unpack. Images to accompany the concept are hugely important, as without them the poem becomes chopped up prose at best and cod philosophy at worst.
MLB The Waiting Table from your collection The Quick, is very visually rich and for that reason it’s one of my favourite. Do you have a favourite poem?
JT I think most writers spend much more time agonising over the poems that haven’t quite worked out, and I’m no exception! There are poems where I feel I’ve managed to sneak my own, real voice out into the world though, and that makes me happy on some level. From The Quick, I suppose the Witches sequence and Snow Ghost, alongside the Modest Proposal poems are the ones where I felt like I’ve succeeded in communicating myself most clearly.
Tomorrow we hear from Jessica on her work with actor Stephen Rea and the relevance of fairy tales to contemporary human rights issues.