Poetry as an art form, it often seems to me, is ideal at blending the abstract parts of storytelling with vivid imagery. This poem is a perfect example. We get a series of memorable images connected by pieces of narrative. Perhaps the most striking image comes in the last line: “Today I mapped a cello in the sky”.
There may be an even more profound connection behind this poem, though. Stephanie Conn presents us with the sheer power of childhood imagination, to the point that it almost takes the breath away. And this fascination transfers to the reader, drawing a link between childhood and creativity (even if not explicitly intended by the writer). Is it this link to childhood imagination that compels poets to write?
Okay, that’s just speculation. Much like the speculation involved in recognising shapes and characters among the random pinpricks of stars in the sky. The mapping of constellations is just one of the many in-built metaphors we inherit from society at a young age, like figures of speech. To be a child, or a person in general, means to be constantly seeking connections. This poem provides them in abundance.
We drew them in daylight,
plotted stars on black paper
to the sound of pencils being sharpened
and boys whispering by the bin.
We connected the dots in white chalk
to see, more clearly, the shapes they made,
watched the outline become a rainbow,
as layer after layer, left behind
tiny mounds of coloured dust.
Yesterday we talked of stories in the sky,
learned how to spell con-stell-ation,
how a winged horse and a hunter’s dog
hide above our heads until we sleep.
I read in a book that chalk is formed
from the skeletons of sea creatures
how things we’ve never seen can become
something else entirely in our hands.
Today I mapped a cello in the sky.
(The Woman on the Other Side, published by Doire Press. Available here: http://www.doirepress.com/writers/m_z/stephanie_conn/)
I was born in County Down in Northern Ireland in 1976 and now live in County Antrim with my husband and two daughters. A graduate of Stranmillis University College, I worked as a primary school teacher and developed and taught the literacy programme Passport to Poetry. In 2013, I graduated with a Creative Writing M.A. from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University, Belfast.
In 2012, I was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Award and highly commended in the Doire Press Poetry Chapbook and Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competitions. The following year I was shortlisted in the Red Line Poetry Competition and had my work selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. In 2014, I was highly commended in the Fool for Poetry Chapbook competition and won the Translink Haiku Competition. In 2015, I came third in the Dromineer Poetry Competition, was highly commended in Gregory O’Dononoghue Competition and was awarded the Funeral Services N.I. Poetry Prize, the Yeovil Poetry Prize and the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing.
My debut collection, The Woman on the Other Side, was published in March 2016 by Doire Press. I am currently working on my second collection, inspired by the lives of my ancestors who lived and worked on Copeland Island, which is now uninhabited.
What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of writing about childhood experiences? In particular, is there anything a writer should be wary of when writing about childhood?
“The Display” was actually inspired by an experience I had as a primary school teacher. It is written from the perspective of a child as this worked best for the poem. There are very few poems in the collection about childhood.
I’m currently working on my second collection and there are more poems written from a child’s perspective – while these are not my own childhood experiences, the child’s voice lends itself to a special kind of wonder and a unique way of viewing the world that adults sometimes lose. Children often live in a world of the senses. A child’s natural curiosity, their ease with questioning, their ability to be still, to be fully present in the moment and to see things with a clear, unbiased eye are the very things I try to capture, or indeed recapture, as a poet.
A poem written from a child’s perspective also allows tension to build – presenting viewpoints at odds with adults, the world around them, societal norms.
My poems are informed by my life experiences but they are rarely records of, or direct references to that life. Feeling the need to stick to the exact facts of an experience can be limiting – twisting a truth will often serve the poem better. As with any poem, the particular details, the images and the language used must all earn their place.
Humans tend to look for patterns, and sometimes see them when they simply aren’t there (as with some visual illusions). Why do you think that is (or would you disagree?), and does such pattern-seeking have any significance in relation to writing?
Trying to impose an order is what we do. Often, we live in the mind and try to make sense of the craziness that is life. We search for meaning in all sorts of ways – some readily accepted, others less so. When we hurt or feel overwhelmed by what life throws at us, when we feel a lack of control over our own lives, we search for reasons.
In my poem “Signs and Superstitions” I consider this.
I spotted the Plough and the Bear, and wondered why
we search for comfort in the stars, when down below
the earth offers up her well-trodden lanes and roads
and we know those who have seen it all before…
The poem finishes:
For days I gathered feathers wherever they could be found,
no doubt from quilts or pillows or from a passing bird.
I looked both ways at crossings, waited for the sound
of crashing glass, avoided cats and ladders, absurd
I know, a pagan prayer of sorts, I jumped the cracks,
crossed my fingers and scattered the jacks.
For me, writing certainly has something to do with patterns. I don’t see it as pattern seeking – rather pattern forming – in making connections, creating patterns, revealing patterns – even in free forms, there are links between words, sounds, images and ideas.
In a way, poetry can be like astronomy – creating images from separate points that are not usually connected. Do you think there are any fundamental links between science and creative arts?
I do. Both science and poetry deal in close observation of the particular. Patterns emerge and unexpected connections reveal themselves as we question and delve into the uncertainties of life. Both try to make sense of the world and of our place in it.
This poem is taken from your first collection The Woman on the Other Side, published this year by Doire Press. Can you tell us firstly about where you placed this poem in the collection, and why? Can you also tell us a little bit about your process of selection and structuring in relation to the collection?
“The Display” appears about three-quarters of the way through the collection, alongside poems containing images from the heavens – the sun, moon, planets, comets, stars – and our relationship to them. Poems that consider how we make sense of our lives – our beliefs, suspicions, rituals.
The first collection developed one poem at a time. One piece led to another and sequences emerged, such as poems inspired by the life of Russian poet, Marina Tsvetayeva and a set of ekphrastic poems. There are pieces set in the Netherlands and others in Australia. The reader is taken on a geographical journey but it is the emotional landscape I am most concerned with. The notion of who we are ‘on the other side’ of our experiences and our relationships.
In many ways the poems ordered themselves – there seemed to be a natural trajectory when looking at the work as a whole. I moved a few pieces around when there seemed to be a better fit and dropped work that felt out of place.
I am currently working on my second collection which starts with a particular focus and writing it has been a very different process.
Why do you write?
I write to make sense of the world; to create order out of chaos. I love to see experience, feeling, confusion even, take form. I also write to question, to discover, to be surprised.
Writing allows me to initiate conversations that cannot take place in reality.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
You are the only person with your particular experiences and your responses to them.
You are the only with your voice – believe in that.