This week I spoke with Roscommon poet Jessamine O’Connor to discuss Silver Spoon, her new poetry collection, which will be published by Salmon Poetry in 2020. We also spoke about the work she has done to help refugees in Ballaghaderreen, and she shared a few poems with us. An Áit Eile is proud to present ‘MY HOUSE’, ‘WELCOME’ and ‘I AM NOT YOUR PET’ below.
Hi Jessamine. How long have you lived in the west of Ireland?
Hi Megan, well I left Dublin for this house in 1999, so that’s… wow… 19 years! It’s a magic part of the world, next to Lough Gara on the Sligo Roscommon border. It seems kinda mad now, moving here with my son when I was 22, but at the time it made perfect sense! And I’ve never looked back, as they say. It certainly takes time to find your own zone and stop pretending to be normal for the neighbours, but then it’s great. There is so much going on here that going back to Dublin for a visit is restful really, when we can manage to get there. Love being a tourist, and now my son is living there, my mum, friends etc. so we have the best of both worlds.
Our house is something I often write about and has been a real haven after growing up as a renter in Dublin. My poem ‘Notice’ was in the Stinging Fly’s housing and homelessness issue recently and lists all the places I lived in as a child. It’s too long to include here (you’ll have to get the book, Pact!) This house is an old train station, so we’ve had lots of visitors who come to see the last place their parents or grandparents stood before leaving the village, so it’s about emigration, as well as how beautiful the place is.
This was the last look at the land,
here where they stood in the wind
and waited, looking down the bog
impatient for a plume of steam
blooming along the narrow-gauge track,
for the doors to open and shut
them in, on the way to the junction
with the big city line,
they say they’ll be back
and don’t know yet it’s a lie,
waiting, pacing, lifting cases,
hoarding in their eyes
the light off the lake,
the way the trees sway,
and all the softness of hills, birds and sky,
carrying their cargo inside;
the entirety of life, who they are,
into the trembling train and away,
far across seas, roads and cities,
into new lives, old age, and death.
For many, here was the last place they left,
waiting on this platform
for change to come, some giddy,
some grieving, leaving
On your website you mention anarchic zines that you’ve written – can you tell us about those?
Ha! Oh wow, it’s been a while. Well I think I had written the occasional piece or little doodle for an anarchist paper now long gone, so then found myself writing/drawing a cartoon leaflet about homebirths – while I was pregnant with my second child – which turned out well and I really enjoyed making – although I never did get the homebirth!
I continued in the same style then; simple cartoons and my own political venting, in a few freesheets called ‘Boglife’. The last one was a proper ‘zine’ with lots of pages and even mad interviews with some of my favourite bands, most memorably The Subhumans. But yes I loved making them, though funnily enough I haven’t done any since I started writing poems; I’m not sure why!?
You founded The Hermit Collective in 2014, which went on to win the EPIC award in 2016. Can you tell our readers about the events you curate? Are there new events in the pipeline, in the west of Ireland?
Yes, well we are always doing stuff, it’s probably best to check up on our website (www.hermitcollective.weebly.com) or Facebook page, (https://www.facebook.com/hermitcollective/ ) as we pop up all over the northwest counties. We are a big medley of talent; lots of poets and writers, musicians, songwriters, and all manner of visual artists. We also have a puppeteer and a potter when they’re available!
We formed for May Day 2014, with an oppressive sense of our rural areas being attacked: some of us threatened with fracking, others by hospital closures, and all of us hit by cutbacks, stealth taxes, massive rates of unemployment, and of course suicide. The pressure is on for everyone at the moment, and it’s the same in the country – we’re not all landowners or big farmers! It felt like we were expected to just roll over, die off, and shut up about it! So, we came together as a protest against that, to basically stand up and say ‘we are here’ – in a positive creative way.
It was amazing to win the Epic award, and over the last 4 years it’s been great to see how much it means to all the members, and the wider community; it has been wonderful. We range around the 5 counties of Sligo, Roscommon, Donegal, Leitrim and Mayo (though we are open to offers from anywhere!) playing different venues every time. We turn up with an art show, musicians, poets, and put it all up, put on the gig, then take it all down and go home. And we don’t charge admission. We have had a couple of fundraisers, for refugees in Greece and Calais, through raffles. It’s a labour of love for everyone obviously.
So, we just did a show in the Strokestown Poetry Festival, and the next event booked so far is outdoors in Boyle during their arts week, then we’ll be in the Charlestown Arts Centre in August, but yeah probably best to follow the Facebook page or look up the website.
Awesome! You’ve been published widely, both online and in print, and you have received many fantastic awards. Where can readers find the links for your publications?
My website (www.jessamineoconnor.com) has links to individual poems and a link for purchasing the new book Pact. That’s also copies available in Kenny’s bookshop in Galway, which I love, and of course local shops here in Roscommon.
The previous 4 chapbooks are pretty much gone now; a handful of Snowbir is left, and Fusebox is still available from The Black Light Engine Room press.
I think I have poems in the current issues of Ropes and Poetry NZ, and an anthology of Roscommon writing is coming out shortly. Oh yes, and the anthology I’m co-editing now…
Big congrats on your up-and-coming publication of Silver Spoon with Salmon Poetry in 2020. Tell us more! Will there be a launch in Galway?
I would love a launch in Galway! It seems like ages away, so I’ve no launch plans made yet… but yes I’m so pleased about going with Salmon. It felt like I was knocking on their door for a long time but then suddenly it opened and I nearly fell on my face! Enthusiasm is the mother of over-enthusiasm… Anyway, yes absolutely thrilled. I’ve been self-publishing pamphlets and now a book, so it’ll be interesting to see how it works –and what gets selected.
You’re involved with the Welcome Movement in Ballaghaderreen, and your collection of poems entitled Pact explores subjects such as ageing, identity, war, motherhood, family and death. Can you tell us more about the work you’ve done for refugees in Ballaghaderreen?
I’d say people have heard of the place now, as the town was all over the news about a year and half ago, but basically the ‘Welcome’ squad tried to make things easier for people arriving here, putting down foundations really. I set up a new branch of Failte Isteach, conversational English classes, which is now a mixed group with students from lots of countries, as the residents of the EROC finally got English classes provided inside the centre.
The town just won a ‘People of the Year’ award for best community, so that was a proud moment for everyone. An extra bonus has been the bond that’s now been formed between the Pakistani community and the rest of the town; having the centre here has really brought us all together.
Last year I was taken up with that, to be honest, and didn’t do a whole lot of writing. One poem from then, ‘Welcome’, sums up what I believe about our human duty, and what the island would say if she could speak to people coming here.
the island speaks to refugees
I open up my craggy arms, my cliffs,
this shift of whirling gulls,
stretch my beaches wide,
reach out my hands
made of coral, stone and sand,
scatter islands like roses
or breadcrumbs, to show you
where to land
and when you’re close enough
I’ll lift up the rough cloth
of my hedges, fields and loughs,
wrap its patchwork cloak around you,
gather the lush green folds
and rolls of sequin blues
to make an earth cocoon
for you to grow in
because when you’re rested
and ready to stir
it will be my pleasure
to watch your wings unfold,
unfurl in my cloud-thick hair,
sprout your new roots feet deep
into my lungs and feed me
your fresh air.
A few poems in Pact touch on that issue, particularly ‘I am not your pet’ which was my version of some poems by other better poets! But this one is from the viewpoint of a resident of the Ballaghaderreen centre and basically vents my own anger at how they are treated, even by people who are there to help…
I AM NOT YOUR PET
I am not your pet,
your good deed,
I am here
because I survived
a journey I hope you never
know what it’s like to make.
So I am not your photo-op,
your insider gossip
or your interview topic.
And no, I don’t have the same dreams,
skills or beliefs as my friend
in the room next door, or any
of my neighbours down the hall
because we are all unique.
I am not a good news story:
you can’t measure me
in column inches, headlines
I am 3D
a real human being, a person
with history, interests and ambition.
I am not your funding opportunity,
free ticket, or something
to look good on your CV.
You don’t need to know
what’s best for me.
I am not your pet.
Wonderful! Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Thanks so much Megan. Well yes, I’m putting together a Syrian event on the summer Solstice, June 21st. That’s in Strokestown Park House at 4pm, all welcome.
I’ll be with The Hermits in Boyle Farmers Market on the 21st of July, and again in Charlestown Arts Centre in August. There’ll be a book launch for The Wrong Siders, but a date still needs to be confirmed.
It’s been lovely talking to you, and you can find a couple of my links below. Thanks a million!