Emily S. Cooper, poet

Emily S. Cooper is a poet from North West Ireland. Along with Aisling Flynn, she was a winner of Greywood’s second annual Winter Writing Residency Award. Her residency took place in December 2018. I had the chance to chat with Emily in the writer’s den before she gave a reading later that evening. We discussed summoning the dead in poetry, our shared affinity for London-based publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, dentistry, storytelling, Anne Crookshank, and big projects looming on the horizon. The following is an edited interview based on our conversation. — Ryan Mihaly

When did you start writing poetry?

Well, I came at it in a funny way. I started studying dentistry when I came out of secondary school. I was living with English students and I used to steal all their texts and read them. I was doing a pretend English degree when I was studying dentistry [laughs]. I dropped out after three years; it just didn’t suit me, I didn’t want to be a dentist. So I reapplied to do English, but I thought, we can add an extra spice to this, so I applied to do classics as well. I was talking to my mum and she thought Goldsmiths would be a good place. It’s an art school and I didn’t realize they did English at all. Their program was creative writing and I said oh! I’ll apply for that. So I wrote two short stories and I got in.

I was discussing this with someone recently – I thought I was going to write prose, but then in the second year, I think I preferred the poetry teacher, so I swapped from prose to poetry and… I found out I just prefer writing poetry. I don’t know if it’s because I can’t hold my attention for long periods of time, so writing anything longer than a poem is quite difficult for me.

I’m trying to edit a piece right now. It’s a bit longer and I’m having real difficulty because I can’t see it as a whole on the page. It’s too big for me to really come at it. But poems for me are usually a page or just over a page, and you can reconstruct things quite easily that way… so that’s the long way of how I became a poet.

How many more years of dentistry did you have?

It was a five-year degree.

So after three years it was, “I have to start writing.”

Yeah. Well I actually took a year out to move to Greece after second year. I got sick and missed too much class so I had to take a year out. But I just decided then that I didn’t want to do it. But I went back and did an extra year just to sort of please my parents. But I just couldn’t… I can’t really make myself do things I don’t want to do [laughs]. Some people can!

Steady Hands

He tells us he’s been here for forty years
though they make something more
like fifty when we add them up.
I try to guess his age from the maths
but can’t imagine the young man who left his townland in the North
to travel, along with his brother,
all the way down here to Cork.
In each other we recognise
a specific mode of conversation,
more racketing back and forth
than raconteuring, a rhythm learned
and fallen into. It seems to me
he puts value on his time,
beyond the monetary,
his steady hands find work,
leaving behind remnants of himself
in floorboards, stone walls and stories
of Ivy the goat, acquired in the thatch.

What do you do now?

For money? [Laughs] I do loads of different things. Periodically I’ll work as a chef, and I can only really sustain that for a few months, so I’ve done private chef work, I’ve worked in restaurants. I’ve been doing a lot of extras work…

Like acting?

Well… it’s mostly like standing in the background. Sometimes they make me do things like walk, or pretend to read, or clap [laughs]. I do a bit of research. I used to do research for my aunt, who is a psychologist. Basically whatever I can get paid for as long as it’s short term.

Have these jobs influenced your poetry at all?

Sometimes, but not as much as you’d expect. I write more about where I’ve traveled and the people that I meet and those sort of experiences than anything work-related. It’s kind of hard to write about dentistry [laughs]. I think I did write a short story awhile ago… it’s funny actually, I was reading a magazine and one of the poems was about being a dentist. I followed the girl who wrote it on Twitter contacted her… it turned out that she went to Glasgow as well. We have loads of parallels in our life, like we’ve been up for the same awards, we write on the same themes, and it’s really weird all the coincidences… she’s like my poetry soul mate [laughs].

* * *

Do you tend to write in bursts, or slowly over time?

I’m a crank-it-out kind of person, a crank-out-in-bulk kind of person. Sometimes I won’t write for months at a time, and then I’ll have a burst and just write three or four poems in a day and then I’ll do some editing. I wish I could do that slow-burn writing, but it doesn’t work for me. It’s like a regurgitation state, where you don’t even know where it comes from or what it is until it’s out there. It’s almost like a trance.

Do you have a reliable process?

No. It just happens. And I don’t know when it’s gonna happen.

Do you write on your phone, in a notebook?

I have written full poems on my phone. I have a notebook that I carry with me most places. But I think one of the most important things with poetry is actually writing stuff down when it comes to you, because you have an idea that seems so solid and you never really realise how transient these things are – because suddenly they’re just gone, gone forever.

Do they ever come back to you?

No. Sometimes if I write something down I can get a percentage, but it’s never the whole thing.

How does the internet affect your writing?

It’s a big distraction. But it’s also a great resource. Twitter, for example, is kind of an awful place, but I find many different opportunities through it, things like submission dates and competitions. And just finding out what people are actually doing is good, I think, especially as I live quite remotely… not that remotely, but I don’t have a community directly around me. So it means that I’m sort of connected to the world.

Do you ever draw any sort of creative energy from it? Like, you’re in the middle of a poem, and you need something new…

I think so. I think it’s really good for research purposes. Say you’re writing a poem and you want to know what a word means, or you want to write something factual… I’ve started writing poems and realized half of what I’ve written is just something completely made up when I googled it [laughs]. That’s not real! And you’ve written it as true, and it’s not… Maybe I can style this out and no one will question me…

Chateau Marianne
Because the 2CV was pre-cigarette lighter,
we had to outsource navigation
to the horizon, which ended at the turn
of every bend. Each of which you hadn’t
quite managed to perfect, veering
to the left, and certain death.
At nine we gave up and followed
a hand-painted sign up
to the Chateau Marianne.
You could have bisected the house
to reveal its undergarments
of segregated servitude and civility.
Marianne, herself, had been preserved
as if in Crème de la Mer,
her face soft pillows plumped
to hide the goose down indentations beneath.
She waited at least eight minutes before
telling us she was seventy five.
Fed up of driving and the sticky gear box
of our ride, we decided to stay for dinner
at Marianne’s request.
“My husband does the bread
and I do the rest.”

We were handed a glass of champagne each
as she showed us round her quarters;
her pantry of green dyed pasta and tins,
to her husband’s own specialised kitchen
of sterilised steel and rational ovens.
“The secret to a happy marriage is two kitchens
and, of course, one bedroom.”
On the way to the cellar she pointed to the skulls
of her ancestors resting on the steps,
each with a credit card in its mouth
“To pay their way” she laughed as she pulled
a bottle from the terracotta pipes stacked as shelves,
“This will do” and grabbed another.

Do you read your work out loud when you’re writing? 

I think I’m supposed to but often I don’t. I think I probably should start doing that more… we’ll see at the reading tonight because I think some of these poems I’ve never read out loud. It’s weird – sometimes when a poem exists, it’s like someone else wrote it, and you forget what it felt like to be that person, especially if it’s been a while. What kind of mood was I in then?

I think for me the aural sort of conceits are incidental. It’s not my intention for a poem. But I think because of the way that my brain works, there is some amount of musicality. I think my main intention with a poem is usually just to tell a story and be entertaining. I’m also very much of the opinion that once a poem is out there, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. So I think whatever deeper meaning someone wants to read into the poem, fine by me. It doesn’t bother me too much. I actually quite like misreadings. I find that quite entertaining.

In “Border Baby,” you write: “The Drift Inn was closed; fire burnt, stools upturned. / We drove fast out of Buncrana the bonnet bellowing / like a tin-can toucan, agape.” I love the musicality of those lines, the hard consonants repeating – but for you, it’s more about the story?

Yeah, these things happen. I don’t know if it’s because I’m from a more musical tradition… plus, playing oral tricks is a big part of Irish conversation. For example if you listen to the conversations that I have with [Greywood handyman] Colm, it becomes musical in the way that I say my bits and then he says his bits, and it develops its own rhythm. We bounce off each other. I don’t know if that’s entirely an Irish thing, but I’ve never noticed other people doing that in the same way, where you have a driving force to conversation with a little word play and tricks. I really enjoy that, and I think that sort of falls into the poetry not intentionally, but more in that oral tradition of being amusing.

I think sometimes it can be quite exclusionary for others when you get into that rhythm with someone. I’ll go to the pub with my friends and you get into those conversations and someone will have to be on the sidelines interpreting because it’s not something that everybody’s used to doing… it’s like a tennis match.

So it finds a way into your poems.

Yeah, I think so. I guess it is like pub chat. A lot of my poems are wee stories, anecdotes. If I’m writing and I’m laughing at myself then I know I’m onto something good. Even if it’s something kind of sad, often there’ll be something in there that makes me think, this will freak them out [laughs].

* * *

What are you writing right now? What is the project that you’re consumed by?

I’m doing a grand project focusing on women in solitude. It’s encompassing a lot of different things at the minute, essays and poetry. I’m writing a piece that’s focused on this woman called Anne Crookshank who lived in my house in Donnegal. She basically created Irish art history as a study in Ireland. She went around the country gathering and documenting paintings and set up the department in Trinity. She sounded larger than life. As far as I know she was single her whole life and lived alone in Donnegal.

Women in history are often placed in connection with a man. For example, if you look at some great poets and artists, like Sylvia Plath and Frida Kahlo, many of them have been in a relationship with another artist, and I’m interested in detaching women from these partnerships and allowing them to stand by themselves. So the piece I’m writing has Anne in it and also quite a lot about portraiture, women in portraits on their own. It’s a question of the reluctant muse, what it means to be gazed at, what it means to be presented by someone else.

Another project is how solitude affects women artists in their practice. I’m going to India in February and that’s the project I want to work on there. I want to chat with women artists (and women in general) about what it feels like to live in India and to move through the world as a woman. Hopefully that’s going to be in documentary poetry form, because it’s other people’s voices. But I don’t want to put too many parameters around it. I want to see what happens, what the research looks like. I don’t want it to be too touristic, because it’s not my experience.

What’s your goal for your time at Greywood?

I’m specifically trying to work on that essay. But I’m having a bit of a problem… I’m going to print it out tomorrow and look at it as a whole and see if that helps. One of my friends read it and gave me some feedback. So I’m going to try and work on that a bit more. And I’ve just been doing lots of admin and thinking. It’s a really good space to think and put things in perspective.

It’s just a really nice experience as well. I keep finding myself in the kitchen having these massive unintentionally deep chats, and people don’t think that I’m too intense every time we have a chat! You can’t always have these kinds of conversations in your everyday life, right? I try to and people look at me like I’m a bit bizarre, but here it seems we can have these conversations out of the blue. 

Yes – the other day before you got here, Laura and I talked for four hours and the time flew by.

They’re spaghetti observations. I met this couple from Norway when I was working in Greece and they had just walked the Camino. The woman was really articulate and she was saying that on the Camino, you have spaghetti conversations with people. You walk together for a bit, you have a conversation, but then you won’t see them for a few days, then you’ll bump into them again. Then you continue the same conversation, and it goes on for however many weeks you’re doing it. Some environments are just ideal for spaghetti conversations – and this is a spaghetti house.

What’s the poem you want to write the most?

I think I would like to write like Michael Donaghy. There’s something special about his poems. I think I tend to lean towards female writers; part of me thinks male writers get enough attention. But I think he was my first great poetry love. He writes this amazingly clever and human poetry with emotion, but it’s not saccharine and not manipulative. It’s always tender, and it does all these amazing formal things while still being accessible. You can appreciate his poems without having a degree in English; it’s all available for you. And there are all these nuggets of information, and funny little anecdotes. He like takes the piss out of himself – you feel like he’s talking to you.

I feel a kind of attachment to him as well because he lived in North London, where I lived with my parents when I was a child. He was a traditional Irish musician; my dad was as well. So in my head, I’ve decided that they both must have been at sessions together and must have chatted. I imagine they would have been quite similar. 

Now that’s a poem to write!

I have tried to write it many times. Sometimes I just give him cameos. I get fixated on dead people and want to find out everything about them, but it’s odd. You can’t ever meet them. They’re a riddle you can’t really solve.

The poem you read before [“Border Baby”] is written from the perspective of my dad. I’ll write things from his perspective or write to him. I think that poem would have especially pleased him, because it got in the Irish Times and I read for BBC Radio 4. He would have said, “Yeah, it’s mine.” He would have seen it as his own achievement!

Emily S. Cooper is a poet from the North West of Ireland who studied at Goldsmiths, London and the Seamus Heaney Centre in Belfast. She was shortlisted for the Mairtin Crawford Award in 2017 and the Donegal Creameries Poetry Competition. She has been published in The Irish TimesBanshee, Belleville Park Pages and a number of anthologies.

In 2018, Emily was awarded a Winter Writing Residency at Greywood Arts for her poems “Chateau Marianne” (featured here) and “Aunty Winnie’s.” She began “Steady Hands” while in residence at Greywood. She will be attending a residency in New Delhi granted by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in February.