The Irish Times lauded her as ‘a true poet.’ Another review celebrated her ‘imagery, honesty and insight.’ Since her first collection of poetry was published in 1993 (with the gloriously playful title, Eating Baby Jesus) Enda Wyley has steadily built an impressive body of work. To date she has published six collections of poetry and three books for children.
Her poetry has been widely broadcast, translated and anthologised including in The Harvard Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry.
She has been poet-in-residence for many projects and institutions including The Coombe Maternity Hospital, Dublin and Dearcán na nDaoine/ The People’s Acorn, a sculpture project by artist Rachel Joynt for Áras an Uachtaráin (the residence of the president of Ireland), among others.
Her latest publication, The Painter on His Bike, feels like a safety net of a book – a collection of sure lines weaving the past and the future together to comfort in an often unsure present. In her interview for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, Enda talks about the importance of her mother’s influence and the bursting excitement she still feels about writing. She says: ‘I felt inspired, close again to the world and I buzzed with an urge to describe all of its varieties.’
In this section we ask writers to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivates people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?
ENDA: “I started down the road of reading and then writing when I was very young. I say reading first, because I was lucky to grow up in a happy house stuffed with books. Inspired by what I read, I began to write when I was seven or eight years of age. And when my hand grew tired from filling the notebooks my father began to bring home for me, I would cheekily dictate to my best friend, who selflessly wrote out my new poems and stories for me. When I read the diaries of Anne Frank at the age of twelve, I began to keep my own diaries and to describe the minute details of my young life. Looking back now, I realise that these diaries trained me to look closely at the world, to see things in a new way. If I skipped a day of filling my diary, I missed it, longed to get back to fatten its pages with my scribbles. Even now, if I fail to write for a few days, I start to feel a bit desolate, need to return to a half-finished poem on a screen, the makings of a story in a notebook. And so, from an early age, I knew that writing was something I needed to do in order to make sense of my world.
Other things in my young life also fed my imagination and gave me the freedom to dream. I loved cycling to school – whizzing down the hill and along the narrow roads to the convent built into a hollow by the sea. Bumping along on my bike, away from the clutter of family life, I had time alone to dream up a line, a story, an idea. Then there was the sea, that great inky expanse, that I saw every day from my classroom, felt its wind on my face at lunch breaks in the yard. Its stretching, powerful presence instilled in me a vast sense of possibility. In biology classes, our eccentric, inspiring science teacher, let us loose to scramble over the granite rocks, to examine marine life. We prodded plum coloured anemones and popped the bubbles of the bladderwrack. I felt inspired, close again to the world and I buzzed with an urge to describe all of its varieties.
Little successes came to me as a young writer. When I was ten years old a letter arrived addressed to me. I had won first prize in a poetry competition. My mother had found a poem that I had written – I’d scrunched it up and thrown it away, thinking it no good – and she had pulled it from the bin, ironed it and sent it off. Far more important to me than winning that prize was my mother’s unwavering support of my poem. We all need someone to say yes to us. Her encouragement was matched equally by my father’s. He often gifted me books – the most precious of which was Ted Hughes’s Poetry in the Making. It remains one of the best birthday presents I have ever received.The book was a series of essays that Hughes had written for children for BBCRadio, and consisted of great advice on how to write about people, animals, the weather… everything! ‘Imagine what you are writing about,’ he wrote. ‘See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic.’
Later, when I was fifteen, my religion teacher submitted a poem I had written about Martin Luther King to a competition held by RTE Radio 1. The Judge was the poet Eavan Boland and when I received the prize I was invited to go on air with her and talk about the poem. I was so nervous and in awe of her but remember how generous and encouraging she was to me that day. Equally too, David Marcus, editor of the New Irish Writing Page in The Irish Press, gave me the courage to keep writing when he published poems of mine when I was in secondary school.
I trained to be a primary teacher and found it to be an energising job which sometimes inspired me as a writer. In the early years, I was working in a very tough primary school and one day, while I was on yard duty, a brick was flung over the school railings. It split open the head of a Junior Infant child. Later, when I went back to my classroom, the priest had arrived wanting to know who had stolen the chalice from the church. When he left, none the wiser, I quizzed the class again. A young boy finally admitted he had stolen the chalice so that he could, ‘eat all of the baby Jesus.’
Bumping home exhausted on the upper deck of the bus that afternoon, lines began to rush out onto the back of an envelope. It was to become the poem, ‘Eating Bay Jesus,’ the title poem of my first collection – one which frequently ended up in the cookery section or religious sections of bookshops! But sometimes, it succeeded in finding poetry readers – and for that, I am grateful.
Now, when someone asks me what I do, I keep it simple and say, I write. But the reality is, I know, far more complex than this. What I try to do stretches way back to where it first began in the tangled undergrowth of my childhood, in the life of reading,and imaginative possibilities that first set me off making marks on paper with pens when I was a child. Deep within me, that little girl, bursting to write, still exists, and her enthusiasm keeps me going. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the adventure and challenge that is writing. As the French writer Annie Ernauxhas said, ‘Life is immense and endlessly observable.’
The Australian poet, Les Murray has said, ‘You’ve got to be able to dream at the same time as you think to write poetry. You think with a double mind. It’s like thinking with both sides of your brain at once. And if you can’t do that, you can’t write poetry.’ For me, dreaming and writing poetry are interconnected. Whole days or weeks could go by where an idea for a poem is germinating, coming into its own. I need this time to dream and think. Walking helps, the rhythms and beat of footfall set the images and lines brushing off each other in my head and I often return from a walk ready to get writing.
The blank page can be terrifying. The little girl who rubbished her first poem, threw it in the bin, is still the critic within me. I think I am bravest as someone trying to write a poem, than as the person I am in my ordinary life. It takes courage to start filling the page. But what motivates me is the challenge to do this. There are no rules to writing and to start off, I try to just let it all out, only worry about shaping, decluttering what I’ve written, later. The thrill of getting something, anything on the page, encourages me to keep going and there is an enormous relief to seeing that at last, something eventually is taking shape. When I stop, I sit back amazed that something has appeared, like the magic that Ted Hughes referred to. The poem becomes a living creature independent of me. Often my poems have travelled beyond their first page to places I had never imagined for them – a maternity hospital, on a Dart, as part of school syllabuses, in anthologies for adults and children – and I am shocked to see that they have a life beyond me. And yet, this is how it should be. We think we can control what we write, but really, writing becomes exciting at that very point when the words survive without us and yet because of us.
In this section we ask artists to talk about their workspaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their work day looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’
I have always enjoyed working in my bedroom, my desk close to my bed. It’s a comforting place to write. When we first moved into our city house, the builder built high shelves on one wall of the front bedroom with a long slab of wood attached to it. I liked to sit with my back to the outside world, the high cherry blossom tree and its branches tap-tapping on the window behind me. If I listened close enough at night, I could hear our baby girl shuffling in sleep. Nights back then, seemed the best time to write after a day’s teaching and after the normal family and household duties had ended.
But in the last few years, I’ve taken a career break from teaching. I wanted a change, and now I write in a room downstairs, still with my face turned away from the street. I have poems and photos stuck to my wall that I look up at, every so often – these lines and images inspire me to keep writing. My daughter’s cheeky face beaming at me from a beach when she was three years old. My own beautiful mother, who died in Lockdown. Seamus Heaney’s wise nut-brown eyes staring at me. Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘The Mower,’ – the final lines eternally guiding me: ‘we should be careful/of each other, we should be kind/while there is still time.’
I use my laptop when writing but often the makings of something new comes from lines I’ve gathered in notebooks, on scraps of paper, or saved on my phone. Poems and ideas always hit when least expected and a pen and paper is always a good idea to have nearby. I keep a notebook by my bed, as there is nothing worse than waking from a dream, a poem forming in your head and losing it because you don’t have a pen and paper to capture it quickly.
My day varies. I like to be active and find that by engaging with people, ideas come to me for writing. As a result, I am busy with lots of projects connected with writing. I enjoy collaborating with other artists and particularly liked in recent years working with the sculptor Rachel Joynt on a project for the gardens of Áras an Uachtaráin, called Dearcánnan Daoine/ The People’s Acorn, where writings gathered from writing workshops that I facilitated with children and adults were saved in a time capsule within the giant acorn sculpted by Rachel. I teach poetry classes now and then, and occasionally talk about books I love for The Brendan O’Connor Show, RTE Radio 1. Recently, I’ve also begun to co-host with my husband, the poet Peter Sirr, a podcast about books and writing called, Books for Breakfast.
This podcast which we began towards the end of Lockdown 2020 includes us chatting about books and poetry. Freya, our daughter, created the logo and the fantastic musician Colm Mac Con Iomaire kindly donated a tune of his for the signature music. The podcast also features a Toaster Challenge where guests are invited in to talk for two mins, the length of time it takes to make a slice of toast, about a book that has inspired them. This is good fun and our first guest was the writer Christine Dwyer Hickey whose novel Tatty is currently the One City One Book choice. Other guests have included novelists Alice Lyons, Marianne Lee, short story writer John O’Donnell, poet Adam Wyeth and journalist and broadcaster Olivia O’Leary. Listenership to the podcast is increasing and responses have been positive but we are always happy to receive new followers.
All of this work keeps me connected with writing and the world beyond my desk and I am grateful for the way it can feed into my writing and inspire me to continue with new ideas. At the end of 2019 I published my sixth collection of poetry called The Painter on his Bike, Dedalus Press. I could not have written the title poem of that collection, for instance, had I not collaborated with the painter James Hanley on an arts project called the National Neighbourhood Project, supported by Dublin City Council Culture Company.
I found it was particularly challenging to write when I was also teaching full-time in inner city Dublin. And yet, even though at times I was exhausted, the poems did manage to come and my books of poetry were published. At one stage, I was seconded by the Department of Education to work in The Ark, A Cultural Centre for Children, in Temple Bar, Dublin. This was such an inspiring place to work – programming literature festivals, planning with artists, engaging with schools and children.During that period I wrote and published a novel for children called The Silver Notebook, O’Brien Press, and also two other books for younger readers called, I Won’t Go to China! and Boo and Bear, O’Brien Press. Strangely, I write best when I am juggling time and work commitments – though it can be tiring. In the early years of my daughter’s life – she is now fifteen years old – I kept notebooks, scribbling down lines and observations between night feeds and nodding off, bone tired. These notebooks later transformed themselves into a book of poems of mine called To Wake to This, where many of the poems are about becoming a mother for the first time.
BEING IN THE WORLD
Publication, performance, recording, exhibiting. In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?
First and foremost, I write for the enjoyment of it – for the exhilaration of a new poem or story making its way onto the page or laptop screen. It is always a time of great discovery for me. Beyond that, if my poems appear in an anthology or a journal, I am delighted, but I don’t write in order for the work to primarily exist in a public space. Having said that, I do enjoy attending literature festivals and if invited, reading my poems at them. I am by nature a sociable person and it’s always great to meet up with other writers and poets and to read my work with them. It’s also always exciting when a selection of my poetry is finally gathered together into a new collection and published. Poets love to celebrate and I’ve always had very happy and lively launches of my books! I also very much enjoy radio work and over the years have recorded poetry and essays on programmes such as Sunday Miscellany, The Poetry Programme, RTE Radio 1 and it is always heartening and encouraging to receive positive feedback from listeners. I wrote and recorded a piece in April 2020, for Sunday Miscellany, about my mother’s death during Lockdown and it resonated with so many people who heard it on the radio.
When I was younger and starting out, I sent my poems out to journals and poetry competitions and enjoyed many successes and publications. But in recent years, I tend to work quietly on my new poems, shaping them into a new collection and occasionally sending them out to be published. If publications or editors invite me to contribute these days, that’s an added bonus, of course!
BEING IN OURSELVES:
Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt or imposter syndrome. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: How has self doubt affected you, if at all? What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to persist? What has helped you?
I frequently write with a dark voice in my head insisting that what I am writing is no good. I try my best to push this self-doubt aside and to persist with the work. But if I am honest, this niggling lack of confidence is an effective writerly tool, as it helps me to start each poem or piece of writing as if it were my very first to put to paper. Each new poem or story is exactly that, a new beginning and that’s what makes writing so exciting – self-doubt included!
Through very difficult times though, when it feels like the muse has completely deserted me, I take inspiration and guidance from poets and writers I love. I read widely and often an image or a line from a book I am engaged with, will set me off writing again. The poet Éiléan Ní Chuileanáin has said that reading is a talent and if I was to choose anything over writing, it would be reading. Because first and foremost to be a writer, you must be a reader and so I feel lucky to have been sustained in difficult times by some of my favourite poems and books– Thomas Hardy’s love poems to his deceased wife Emma, the heartbreak of Anna Karenina, Seamus Heaney’s love for his blackbird in Glanmore, Edward Thomas’s train stopping at Adlestrop station one summer’s afternoon in late June. These writings and many more have pulled me from darkness into light and given me the courage to pick up the pen again.
Listen to Enda Wyley and Peter Sirr’s podcast, Books for Breakfast, here. Episodes can be found on Spotify, Apple, Podplay and all the usual podcast apps.
Enda’s poetry collections are available here.
Her children’s books are available here.