Cork poet clearing the path to creative output

Poet Mary Noonan whose second collection, Stone Girl, has just been published, says that working as a lecturer in UCC’s French Department, means that she has to clear her head of “academic stuff” in order to write creatively.

“It’s only when I get away from my job that I can write poetry. I write more when I’m on holidays. I like travelling, not so much because I get ideas but because it frees up my brain. It’s like clearing a space. Poetry comes from the unconscious.”

The title of Noonan’s collection refers to her fascination with stone, particularly stone statues of women such as that of the Virgin Mary carried through the streets of Seville to the bullring on Easter Sunday. Stone Girl, which follows Noonan’s acclaimed debut collection, The Fado House, is partly autobiographical.

Mary Noonan, Cork poet.

“I wrote the poems in this book between 2012-2017. During that time, my father was dying. He had Alzheimer’s disease. I spent a lot of time with him so, inevitably, I wrote about him and his illness and sometimes, about my own frustrations in caring for him and dealing with the system.”

While some poets “are very anti- autobiographical writing, other poets’ lives tend to feed into their poetry.” In terms of place, Paris looms large in Noonan’s collection.

“I’ve studied French all my life and I’ve been going to Paris since I was 19. It’s the place I’ve always been drawn to and I have friends there now.”

In 2016, Noonan and her then partner, the late poet, Matthew Sweeney, spent a few months in Paris while she was on sabbatical from her job. Noonan wrote poems there, including a memory poem entitled Rue St Paul.

It’s an autobiographical poem that describes being in Paris in 2016 and standing in front of the hotel (now boarded up) that I brought my parents to.

"Both my parents were dead and I was then their age, or even older, when I remembered bringing them to Paris. Thinking about them, I was a bit sad but I was really meditating on the arrogance of youth. I probably saw myself as this sophisticated cosmopolitan young woman showing her poor parents from Fermoy, the sights of Paris.”

Being with Sweeney in Paris (whom she first met when he was assigned as her mentor by the Munster Literature Centre in 2007), Noonan recalls showing her latest poems to her partner.

“We were two poets living together so we would show each other our poems. Matthew was more open to criticism than me. Because I was a youngster in poetry [she only started writing poetry seriously in her forties], I was quite touchy. Matthew had spent his whole life as a poet. If I were to give advice to people starting out in poetry, I would say, ‘Be very open to criticism’, because that is the gift that other poets are going to give you. Don’t be over-sensitive. I was. Matthew would try to be very delicate about it, but sometimes I’d get annoyed with him.

“But I learned from Matthew that a poet doesn’t work in isolation. You could say that no poem is ever written by one person. It’s almost a collaboration. Even poets at the top of their game, with a long life of poetry behind them, all have an intimate circle of trusted poet friends. They’ll fire off nearly every poem they write to a friend, asking them what they think of it and then tweaking it.”

Stone Girl contains a curious poem, ‘The Bee Salon’. It was prompted by a piece in the New Yorker written by a woman who worked as a bee preparator, putting dead bees together for scientists.

“This woman’s job was working on these very tiny things with great precision and care. It’s like a metaphor for poetry.”

Also, Noonan says that bees are “intriguing anyway, the way they organise their lives”. Inspiration, for Noonan, comes from many sources, best accessed when she is away from the day job.

Mary Noonan will read from her new collection, Stone Girl, Dedalus Press, at the Cork International Poetry Festival on March 20 at the Cork Arts Theatre. The festival runs from March 19-23.

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