Majella Kelly is an award-winning poet and photographer from Tuam, Co. Galway. Last week I met with Majella to discuss her recent publications, her Masters Degree in Creative Writing at Oxford, her passion for both poetry and photography, and her plans for writers’ retreats this summer.
Majella, many congratulations on your new website and recent inclusions in The Best New British and Irish Poets 2017 anthology, and in Aesthetica’s Creative Writing Anthology 2017. It’s been a very productive couple of months for you, what’s been your favourite moment of 2017 so far?
Hi Megan. Thank you so much. This is my first ever interview. I feel pure famous.
It certainly has been quite a year so far. In fact, it has been quite a roller-coaster since I started writing at the end of 2013. I have to give credit to Susan Miller du Mars and Kevin Higgins in Galway for their encouragement. Without their classes I wouldn’t be here today. They very much lit the flame, and the work they do for creative writing in the west is tremendous. I am looking forward to having the time to go back to their weekly workshops in the Galway Arts Centre. Writing is such a solitary affair that having regular physical meetings with other writers can be so beneficial both for the creative and the social aspect.
But yes, 2017 has gotten off to an amazing start. I can’t quite believe it. Those anthologies are pretty important milestones for an emerging writer. My favourite moment though, has to be when they rang me up from the Resurgence Poetry Prize to tell me I’d won third prize. I was chuffed to bits. I’m off to London soon for the prize-giving ceremony so I’m really excited about that.
You’re currently studying for the Masters in Creative Writing at The University of Oxford. Are there opportunities for practical work placement in the course, and what is a typical itinerary in a residency programme?
There is a week’s work placement in year two. I have no idea where I’m going to go yet. Maybe I could help you out at An Áit Eile?!
Absolutely! That would be great.
There are three residencies in year one and a July retreat. Each residence is four intensive, minimum twelve hour days. In between residencies the reading list is immense. We must complete a critical and creative assignment for each residency as well as pre-work for the workshops and seminars. We have a Moodle site too where we can share new work with our classmates and offer feedback. It is pretty full-on but I absolutely adore it. Definitely one of the best decisions I ever made was to apply to it. I am learning so much.
Do the hours vary, and do you prefer the one-to-one tutoring or the interactive workshop dynamic?
The hours will vary next year slightly in that there will be more time to actually write. It is quite reading-heavy this year. This year too we are encouraged to write outside our own genre, which I’m finding very valuable.
We will be concentrating on our own genre next year and so will be paired with a suitable tutor, which will offer more opportunity for one-to-one. So if you are a poet for example you would be aiming to have 40 to 60 poems ready as a potential first collection. That would be your final project.
As it is we have one-to-ones with the tutors for whom we complete our assignments. Next residence, for example, I get to work with Jamie McKendrick and Emma Jones. I feel really privileged.
My critical assignment for Jamie McKendrick is in poetry translation. I don’t have any real experience with translation so it has been a steep learning curve. Fascinating though. I’ve been looking at translation from Irish into English. I find myself looking at Irish-language poetry and poets in a whole new way.
My creative assignment (which is due soon, eek!) is for Emma Jones. I’m using Omey Island as my theme. I went out there a couple of weeks ago when I read about the death of Pascal Whelan (R.I.P.), its last permanent resident. For some reason I was really struck by it. There’s something magical about a tidal island, a liminal place that is sometimes connected to the mainland and sometimes not and whose road of sand you can watch slowly disappear under the tide. Sorry, I’m rambling…
Yes, I do enjoy the interactive workshops. Although I have to say that I’m not one of these people who can just produce a masterpiece at will in ten minutes. I’m a ruminator. Some of the things my classmates manage to come up with in these workshops is just fantastic. My classmates are a huge part of the experience. They are a real international bunch and all hugely talented. I often feel like a complete fraud in the middle of them.
What’s been your most rewarding assignment in the course so far?
Well we had to do some pre-work for the fiction workshop with Amal Chatterjee in a genre we hadn’t tried before. I ended up doing quite a mad piece of Magical Realism where a woman wakes up with a herd of goats in her head (don’t ask!). I thoroughly enjoyed it though and that really surprised me. So I entered it into the Flash Fiction Prize at Doolin to test it out and it got shortlisted. That gave me such encouragement. I’m going to be experimenting more with flash I reckon.
There’s a very striking photograph of a girl’s body with a picture of a deer with pink antlers for your poem Emasculate. Can you tell us more about that piece?
The original photo is one of me taken by Lola Donoghue who was my business partner in Fotissima. I was smiling away to myself creating her. She’s called Damzelle. If I’m having fun while I’m creating something it usually ends up being a piece I like. And it doesn’t actually happen very often. Writing can be a slog lots of the time. Not that I don’t also enjoy the slog, you must, but the odd time when the magic happens, that’s what keeps me in love with it I think.
Damzelle actually came about after I wrote another poem, not Emasculate. It seems to be a theme with me; the evolving relationships between men and women; what is masculine and what is feminine and the points at which they meet.
Do you find that your combined love of poetry and photography complement each other when you’re working on pieces?
Yes, very much so. I think my poetry is quite visual. And as well as the imagery, it is also very important to me how a poem looks on the page. My photography has taken a back seat since I started writing though. Something had to give I suppose. I work full-time as a teacher and I am a single mother so there were barely enough hours in the day as it was. I’m not taking on any portrait commissions right now so that I can concentrate on my studies; but I still love taking photos of people, so it is something I will definitely come back to…
I can see the photography integrating more with the poetry in the future too. I think words and pictures a great marriage. All sorts of cross-genre work is becoming more and more popular and I’m very open to pollination with other art forms. It’s all very exciting really.
Will you be checking out any events at Cuirt International Festival of Literature in April?
Oh, I love Cuirt. I have my Simon Armitage tickets booked already for myself and my son, and am looking forward to getting my hands on a programme to plan what I’m going to attend. The only problem I have with the festival is that it’s on during a week when I’m at work, so some of the daytime readings are out. It is a fantastic week for the arts in Galway though and I always try to get to as many events as possible.
Have you any writers’ retreats planned for the summer?
The Bantry Literary Festival works really well for me as it’s on during the summer when I’m on holidays. Luckily I’ve passed a love of reading and writing on to my son, so it’s something we can share. I brought him with me last year and he did a teenage workshop with Dave Lordan in the mornings while I was doing a poetry workshop with Jo Shapcott. Then writing time in the afternoon and lots of readings in the evenings. It was a joy. I’m not sure if we’re going to be able to fit it into our schedule this summer as Ethan is going to the Gaeltacht and I’ll have assignment deadlines looming, but if we can make it down for a couple of days we will.
I have actually just submitted an application for a workshop in Southampton, New York with Billy Collins/Sharon olds in July but that would be a dream come true. It’s hotly contested, as you can imagine, and only thirteen people get chosen. You never know sure.
-Exciting times ahead! Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk to us, Majella.
To find out more about Majella’s work, you can visit her brand new website: https://www.majellakelly.com/