Book Review: Sarah Clancy: Stacey and the Mechanical Bull. Lapwing Press, Belfast 2010.
Sarah Clancy is interviewed by Dave Lordan below
It’s rare enough to go come across a volume of poetry that wouldn’t render you catatonic with boredom, but Sarah Clancy’s isn’t one of those. It pokes you in the eye repeatedly and kicks you in the heart as if your heart were a lazy dog that needed to be shifted urgently before it slides into oblivion by the fire, dying of its own complacency. It keeps you alert from start to finish. From the very first lines of the eponymous sequence we find ourselves in thrilling, unfamilar territory- that of a young woman’s freedom, physical and spiritual, to do as she does, to be as she is, to want as she wants and to ride as she rides:
Stacey liked nothing better
after two pints of Australian bitter than
to go three rounds with a mechanical bull
and she could really ride them
In a degraded civilisation it’s difficult, and maybe hypocritical, to be tender and honest about people at the same time. Clancy’s take on those cast-adrift souls that her poet’s eye plucks from the legions of the Galway lost is a kind of palatable cruelty. Everyone here is absurdly familiar to us. She offers a menagerie of the deluded, in which we might all find a spot. We warm to her wackos even though they are panicked and directionless like insects in a forest blaze:
Seamus is a taxidermist and not a good one either,
but his drawers are full of plastic eyes
that he sticks on dead foxes late at night,
his whole house is full of wonky animals -
they never look quite right, his wife left him
and of course the joke was that he’d had her stuffed
but I’m inclined to think she couldn’t suffer….
I don’t think I have come across such an exact and interesting character poet for a long time. She’s an expert at capturing those tiny pointless dramas that obsess us as we scrawl our incoherent life stories out in the crowded margins of existence:
Martin is the type of man that never
forgets a wrong, from a lifetime’s taxi driving
he once knew every street in town,
last year he had a stroke,
now it wasn’t too severe
but it left him with just dull inklings
about who he did and didn’t like
trying to track down house addresses
nearly drove him spare
so he signed up down at welfare
for a state sponsored computer course
where he learned to compile all his lost directions
into ‘Martin’s easily-updatable-user-friendly guide’,
now its become his full time occupation,
and is all he ever mentions….
If I had to come up for a term for the kind of poet I believe Sarah Clancy to be, I’d call her a cowboy feminist, a culchie Patti Smith busy rewilding the Irish west, driving out the fake and made-over in name of the bare and indigenous truths of our nature:
…..When did you think
my skin must be orange
or if it was orange anyway
that it should be white?
Was it your father’s razor
that enticed you to scrape
fine soft hair from limbs
later graduating to ripping
it out by the roots leaving
plucked, puckered but acceptable
chicken flesh? Did you learn
the words exfoliate, moisturise
and tone in some tome I’ve
never read or in a class
I missed in school?…..
(Life in Jeans)
No need for any ‘ology’ here. Stacey and the Mechanical Bull is pop culture being choked from within by a daemon poet with a Strangler’s grip on reality. Buy it , read it, dry it out and use it as kindling to burn down the nearest tanning salon.
Interview with the author
Dave Lordan: Your book is full of very funny, very well observed individual character sketches. mostly of outsiders, eccentrics, marginals, failures, comedy to everyone but themselves. I suppose the overall impression is of a society where everyone is separate and alone in a bubble of their own self-delusion, and you are the bubble burster. Is that a fair description? Is it a task of writers to smash people’s illusions about themselves?
Sarah Clancy: Thanks Dave , I agree with most of that question with one small difference, rather than necessarily poking fun at these people and smashing them, I think it was an effort to display that in one way or another we are all like that. I was a little afraid actually that didn’t come across so to make it a bit clearer I made the last part of that sequence a send- up of myself and I thought that might steer any reader closer to my meaning.
In my head while writing that, was the way we create little sustaining alternative realities and these are like the crutches that get us through every day. In my opinion actually achieving any of the pipe dreams or realizing those obsessions isn’t necessary, i.e. to succeed is irrelevant and to quote my sister – all you need is a plan every day to get you out of bed and to mis- quote a line of yours that I loved- the thing about solving problems is that you then immediately need to find new ones.
In response to the last part of that question, I wouldn’t say there is any set ‘task’ for writers other than to communicate something they have a creative impulse to share. Actually in a way I would hate to be an illusion smasher, as I think what I was trying to get at, is that in a type of atomic society like the one we live in now, our illusions are often the glue that hold us together.
Dave Lordan: What writers, past or present, are vital reading for you?
Sarah Clancy: Well I read obsessive compulsively and I’m not that discerning really- I’d read the instructions on a shampoo bottle if I couldn’t find anything else, I read mostly fiction and some poetry. In terms of recent fiction I have a love -hate relationship with Roberto Bolano he melts my brain but I can’t stop reading his books. I would give my right arm to have written one paragraph of Eduardo Galleano’s The book of Embraces, I love E Annie Proulx and Alice Munro’s short stories, Doris Lessing, Barbara Kingsolver, William Boyd for a good engrossing read, Richard Ford I think writes better about men that anyone else working at the moment, John Burnside – I like both his poetry short stories and memoirs, recently I was totally blown away by William Wall’s This is the Country I hadn’t come across anything since Train spotting that displayed that type of existence without condescending but actually William’s book was full of a kind of awful aching hope which I don’t think Train spotting managed to convey. I suppose it’s unsurprising that I really enjoy Joseph Conrad, John Steinbeck and George Orwell. Poet wise, I am a bit boring and predictable here, I love Derek Mahon, Carol Ann Duffy, Rita Ann Higgins, Roger Mc Gough, Charles Bukowski, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, anything by Neruda except maybe the infamous ode to Stalin ? and I may well be the only Irish person who finds Seamus Heaney’s work meticulous, well crafted, lyrical and totally boring.
Dave Lordan: You’re a political activist, known for your committment and energy on the activist circuit. Can writing and political activism be combined or are they both a distraction from each other?
Sarah Clancy: That’s an awkward question for me in a way, firstly because like a lot of people involved in any way in the totally radical notion that actually we don’t have to live in a society that writes off half its young people and contracts out care of each other to people who are paid to do it and crosses off half of the world’s population from the list of those who deserve a dignified existence, from time to time I get totally disillusioned by the difficulty of changing something that is so pervasive, so accepted and so supported through culture education politics media and entertainment that I have to step back and go into a shell for myself a retreat of some kind. Perversely it’s often at the times of that disillusionment that I am provoked to write maybe as escapism or maybe as a way to understand or question what it is I’m involved with, so then in fact what I write can easily be critical of the position I support. And when you come as I just have, to where you get the opportunity to make your writing public in some small way, then you run the risk of coming across as critical of something (the chaos of hope and aspiration that activism for social justice is) that is the only real source of hope and community in the current type of societies we live in. Right I just re read that and it might be a bit of a mouthful but basically the answer is both of those two things, writing and activism, compete in a straightforward way- i.e if I am out at poetry or literary events or holed up at my computer scribbling away chances are I’m missing something I could be supporting to do with activism and secondly then in a less straightforward way for me personally I find one can undermine the other very easily. Of course the obvious answer to that is to be writing fabulous mind changing seismic work that makes people abandon all the things they have been brought up to believe but I fear I’m nowhere near, nor will be, a good enough writer to ever do that. Just one more thing on that question is that the biggest personal battle I have with this whole issue is some sort of inherited work ethic – If I’m sitting around writing I fight with myself about the fact that I could be doing something useful instead of lining up my little words just as I want them, I know that’s wrong actually and that writing and all art is actually crucially important in lots of ways but that’s something I’ve internalized in a way whether I like it or not.
Dave Lordan: What role has the spoken word scene played in the development of your poetry?
Sarah Clancy: Not a huge one I’d say, I’m not really a natural performer and in the situation of performing a poem I have to work very hard to stop myself apologizing for whatever I am about to read, that said I do go to the north beach nights slams here in Galway and I have got more comfortable with it as I got more practice, in one really strong way I’ve found that very supportive, the first night I ever tried it I forgot my words and probably came across very nervously but actually when I came down so many people said to me well done, and were so not clique-y and supportive that I was really encouraged to keep at it. Over the year lots of these people (Mags Traynor, Miceal Kearney, Brendan Murphy etc etc) have become my friends and really encouraged me to keep at it and that’s definitely been a huge part of having the confidence to stick at it. Probably one more thing about the ‘spoken’ aspect of it is that when I’m writing I am always writing for sound really, for example until a poem sounds right I won’t think it’s finished and I have noticed in workshops etc that this is not true for everyone. I think there’s a real buzz around spoken word at the moment though and I think it might well, at least here in Ireland be what brings poetry out of the stuffy/ pastoral/ solitary image and into where it should be at the centre of things as music is.
Dave Lordan: You attended creative writing classes with Kevin Higgins. How helpful were they? Would you advise others to take up a class?
Sarah Clancy: I first knew Kevin mainly because I worked for Amnesty and occasionally Kevin would organise events for us such as a reading of the poems from the Guantanamo detainees etc. I eventually, after deciding I was going to write some poems about a year and a half ago and not knowing what to do with them sent them to Kevin and asked him to tell me if they were any good, he was really nice and encouraging in reply and they published one of the poems I sent him on their blog and that was a real vote of confidence- and maybe a good investment because after that I started doing the workshops and I found them great. Maybe in the opposite way to one might expect- I found they stretched my imagination and my limited experience of what a poem could be (like a lot of beginner writers I would have expected a poem would have to look ‘ poem-y’) and actually it was during the workshops that I started to realise that actually it could take nearly any form I wanted and that what defined something as a poem was not iambic pentameter or structure but actually the act of the writer in saying ‘this is a poem’ and causing it to be read in a certain way. I tend to be obsessive compulsive and I need no encouragement to write but I know for nearly all of my work-shop mates that the workshops act as an incentive to write and they give a deadline, where people will be motivated to write at least one poem a week. The last thing about the workshops is that they provide community, and a validation that trying to improve your writing is a valid thing to be doing. So yes I would recommend workshops or writers groups to people wanting to make some progress.
Two other things that have really helped me in the way workshops do also is that evil bastard thing facebook where there is a real community of writers now and they often give feedback or comment if you post a poem there, the other and probably the most helpful thing I’ve ever done was to compile the poems for the Stacey book with the help of Lapwing Editor Dennis Grieg who is a legend, and kept on refusing to allow me to homogenise or take out poems that I thought were off the wall and replace them with more conventional sounding pieces. He’s the man…
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