November 7, 1996
Galway poet Rita
Ann Higgins, a writer whose wild spirit is untamed by her recent -
and belated - election to Aosdana, talks to Katie Donovan
CARRY illusions/of becoming a famous poet."
lines are from one of Rita Ann Higgins's first poems. Consumptive
in the Library. She didn't start writing poetry until her late
twenties, but in the last ten years has published four collections
(all with Salmon).
Side Plucked, her Selected Poems, has just been
published by Bloodaxe Books in the UK. She has just been elected
to Aosdana. She gave a reading in London's Royal Festival Hall
last month to an audience of 400. Today, as you read this, she
travels to Germany to give readings in Berlin and Bamberg. It
looks like she is well on the way to realising those early
she is sceptical of the attention she's getting. She draws her
expressive eyebrows together and remarks suspiciously:
"Suddenly, there's a big interest in me. Why, I wonder? All
these interviews are getting boring. I look forward to getting my
privacy back." More to the point: "If you want to honour
me, do it with a cheque. Not with baubles."
does admit to being pleased that her Selected Poems has been given
a Poetry Book Society Recommendation in the UK. The judge, Peter
Porter, called her "quiet untameable ... she roams the
provincial towns and countryside of Ireland fomenting rebellion
and writing the unstaunchable energy of everything warm and
unrespectable in Irish life."
13 children, Higgins comes from a working-class background in
Galway. Unlike many poets associated with Galway, she is urban
rather than rural, and her subjects are the people she knows. Her
poems are full of the talk of women in the corner shop, of bored
men who work in the post office or turn to the bottle, of
rebellious teenage boys in court; and above all, of the
humiliations of life on social welfare:
"God-of-the-hatch-man, hole in the wall ... He gives us money
and abuse, /the money has a price, /the abuse is free./ 'Are you
sure your husband isn't working? / 'Are you sure grumbling granny
is quiet dead?' / 'Are you sure you're not claiming for de
Velera?' / 'Are you sure you count six heads in every bed?'
explains: "I can identify with people on welfare because I've
been there myself. I know the excruciating pain of being made to
feel small by the person behind the glass." She left school
at fourteen and worked in a variety of different factories:
"That was the time when the multinationals were waving big
turkeys at us and no unions. My philosophy then was, if you worked
you got money and you could buy jumpers in Dunnes."
got married when she was 18 and, after the birth of her second
child four years later, she developed TB. In the sanatorium, she
was once again up against a glass barrier: "My husband came
to visit but he had to stay behind a glass partition and hold my
baby up for me to see. I wasn't allowed to go near her. It was
terrible. I was 22 and ready to give up."
found herself in the midst of a community of older people whose
"desperate desire to live" became an inspiration.
Although her physical energy was low, she had a lot of mental
energy, which she put into reading Animal Farm and Wuthering
Heights: "It was a revelation. I had never read a book
before. When I was growing up all we had to read was The
Messenger and the St Jude Novena books. My mother was very
joined the Galway Writers' Workshop in 1982 and turned to writing
poetry when her fiction was criticised for mixed up tenses:
"I thought poetry would be easier. The I discovered it helped
me to release my frustrations." Jessie Lendennie, editor of
Salmon, who was also in the workshop, gave Higgins "a lot of
difficulty of trying to develop a poetic voice when debt
collectors are never far from the door is summed up wittily in Poetry
Doesn't Pay: I'm from the Coporation, /what do we know or care
about poesy ... If you don't have fourteen pounds/and ten pence,
you have nothing/but the light of the penurious moon."
that she has been elected to Aosdana, however, she must feel that
such worries are over. But the honour has been tarnished for
Higgins by the fact that she was turned down by Aosdana five times
in the past: "The award doesn't sit comfortably with me
because of the humiliation involved. I have no argument with the
Arts Council - it has given me a lot of support over the years.
But it was the elitist Irish literati in Aosdana who kept me out
with their prejudices. I was on the brink all the time. It was
like welfare all over again. That sort of humiliation is what I
anger on behalf of the dismpowered which crackles in her poems is
fuelled by welcome doses of humour: "My humour is not
planned. It just sneaks in when I'm writing because that happens
to be part of my perpective on life, and anyway, humour is more
palatable than ramming things down peoples' throats." Hence
lines like: "She was a coupon saver/She saved them/ but they
never saved her."
technique which she returns to is that of listing grievances in a
spiral of increasing frustration and surreal exaggeration:
"Some people know what it's like ... to be out of work/to be
out of money/to be out of fashion ... to be in for the Vincent de
Paul man/to be in space for the milk man/(sorry, mammy isn't in
today she's gone to Mars for the weekend)..."
of her mother's religious influence, Higgins spent a great deal of
her early youth saying prayers, and these incantatory
"list" poems have the quality of a secular chant.
Although she has left those early rituals behind, she still
respects the importance of prayer for others. In Middle-Aged
Irish Mothers, she intersperses her own stanzas with lines
from a prayer: "O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place/all my trust
and confidence in thee,'/I like thses middle aged Irish mothers,
in heavy plaid coats,/one of them birthed me on the eve of a
saint's feast day,/ with a little help from Jesus and his Sacred
has written three plays, and her poems are full of dialogue:
"It is easier for me to write dialogue than to be
descriptive." Although many of her poems are about the
disappointments and rebellions of women - from the girl who is
given ECT because of her wild spirit, to the exploited factory
worker who puts a hex on her boss - Higgins says "I'm more
for people than for specific gender. I'm conscious of the
imbalance of power in Irish society in general. There's a lack of
understanding between the bureaucrats and the ordinary person.
There's an abuse of power that goes on which is very subtle."
witty poetry about sex, however, is unashamedly from the female
perspective: "I like to have a go at this attitude that male
sexuality is somehow superior to female sexuality."
hasn't stopped reading since she first picked up Animal Farm in
the sanatorium all those years ago. When she was
Writer-in-Residence at UCG she did a diploma in Women's Studies,
and she is now doing a diploma in Irish. She is usually interested
in finding out more about women, because she has already read so
many books by men. A typical scenario was her determination to
find out more about the woman for whom Petrarch wrote his sonnets:
"I looked up all these books and all I could find out was
that she died of the plague." The search inspired her poem,
Donna Laura: "Petrarch you louser, /I'm here plagued with
plague/and you're off chasing/scab free thighs."
are two women for whom she has a special respect: the feminist,
Mary Wollstonecraft, and the Irish Republican, Mary MacSwiney:
"They are my idols. They had unbridled fighting spirits.
Wollstonecraft was called 'a hyena in petticoats', she upset
people so much, and Mary MacSwiney was a real terror."