It was the tone of this poem that drew me in. It’s hard to describe. I suppose you could call it a subdued tone, kind of melancholy. It’s philosophical, too, in a way, but I love how the phrase “Ironed out” comes in – not something you’d hear from a philosopher. So it’s the interplay of “philosophicalness” and gritty phrases (“rough efficiency” and “sandboy grins” are other examples) that really makes this poem from Ruth Quinlan shine.
I’m familiar with the setting, Salthill, and I’d imagine plenty of poems have been written about it. But how many would write a poem like this? While we have some of the typical seaside elements – seagulls, candyfloss, the sea – Quinlan makes her approach different by infusing a certain sense of negativity, perhaps jealousy. There’s a real sense of back story, though it’s only hinted at (“this week, life is flat”).
This is very much a poem of observation, watching. It can be easy to make such poems dull and mono-toned. Quinlan steers clear of that. Emotions are fused with mechanical descriptions, and though we might expect such a poem to end on the sea, the idea of the sea itself watching the speaker of the poem adds something new. This is a perfect poem for a crisp December day.
Salthill Ferris Wheel
I’m eager for a bird’s perspective
on a place I know at sea level.
For the chance to see Galway Bay
through the pinhole stare of a seagull.
I’ve passed the fairground many times
during penance on the Prom –
dismissing it as the tourists’ gaudy bauble.
But this week, life is flat. Ironed out.
The routine’s carving furrows in my head.
I slide into the cherry-red seat,
ignoring raindrops on the plastic as
the attendant swings and snaps
a steel bar across my lap.
His rough efficiency makes it easy
to surrender safety to a stranger –
to a man who flashes sandboy grins
as the great wheel shudders
and I am raised above him.
The air is heavy
with burned caramels of candyfloss,
the buttered saltiness of popcorn –
the fragrance of summer holidays
and sublimated teenage desire.
The couple below begin to kiss,
dark hair falling across a cloud
of white whipped sugar
until her fingers uncurl and open
as she reaches to cup his cheek.
The forgotten floss swirls and tumbles,
landing in the carnival dust.
I comfort myself with toffee
and watch the sea watching me.
My mother often tells of how, when I was very young, her heart would sink when she saw me tottering towards her at bed-time, loaded down with a stack of books. I would insist on her reading every single one before I went to sleep, and if she attempted to cheat and skip ahead, I’d immediately correct her and demand that she read the story ‘properly’ (yes, I was a precocious little brat). I worshipped books and was in awe of the people who created them. This meant that, until relatively recently, it simply never occurred to me that a regular person like myself could actually produce something of that ilk.
However, since that embarrassingly belated realisation, I have been writing both short stories and poetry. Short stories came first because I bore a deep antipathy towards poetry that had been instilled in secondary school. God, I despised Yeats and his greasy tills, Kavanagh and his stony grey soil, Keats and his damn urn after memorising and regurgitating their poems ad nauseum in exam-friendly, digestible chunks. However, in 2011, I took a career break and completed the MA in Writing at NUI Galway. There, I was compelled to reconsider poetry by reading Heaney, Rilke, Duffy, Milosz, Tranströmer. Suddenly, poetry had a resonance that it never had before and I wanted more.
I work in the field of technical writing. This usually involves the creation of documentation to explain a product’s usage. It is a profession where strict principles like minimalism control the words used; technical writers are always striving to get their point across in as few words as possible while still retaining all required meaning. This can discipline a writer towards lean, muscular writing but every so often, I suffer unbearable urges to jam five adverbs and adjectives into a sentence. For this reason, it’s good to have the pressure valve of other forms of writing.
I don’t manage to get much writing done, balancing it as I do with a busy work schedule, but I have been lucky with what I have actually produced. I won the Hennessy X.O. Literary Award for First Fiction in 2013 and the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year for my poetry in 2014. My work has appeared in several publications, including the Irish Independent, ROPES, Crannóg, Emerge Literary Journal, Thresholds, and Scissors & Spackle. I have also contributed both fiction and poetry to several anthologies and am a member of the editing team behind Skylight 47, a poetry magazine based in Galway.
This strikes me as a poem primarily about loneliness. What role do you think negative emotions such as this (can) play in poetry/writing?
Would we bother writing if we were happy all the time? I don’t think nearly as many great works of literature would have been produced if Tolstoy, Joyce, Yeats, et al had the cheery dispositions of summer-camp leaders. Writing is cathartic, a way of working out some of the more negative thoughts and feelings we are hesitant in broaching to others. The vast majority of us are not trained in expressing emotions in coherent verbal form, which means it can be seen as ‘safer’ to declare frailties instead on the blank page. We’re fooling ourselves with this logic however, because, if published, our vulnerable selves are exposed to all, naked and unprotected. We try and cover ourselves with the wispy gauze of fictionality, but this is rarely sufficient, particularly in poetry.
I’d say your poem has a very story-like quality. Would you agree or disagree, and would you say there is much of a crossover between poetry and stories in general?
As I mentioned above, I actually write both short stories and poetry and strongly believe that one feeds the other. Quite often I’ll come up with an idea and try it as a story, only to find that there was actually a poem patiently hiding in the prose, waiting for me to unearth it.
You’ve included references to many different senses here (eg. touch – “rough”, scent – “burned caramels”, sight – “cherry-red”, taste – “toffee”), and these really make the experience come alive, I think. How important are the senses in writing?
In one word, critical. I have a terrible deficiency when it comes to writing – unless I can picture something in vivid detail and experience it through several senses inside my own head, the words simply won’t come. Countless hours have been wasted, trying to satisfy that craving for the minute particulars of something potentially insignificant. Does the reader really need to know which exact shade of yellow a flower is, how a waterdrop would curve down the side of its petals, whether its thorns are sharp enough to prick the skin? Probably not – but I must.
I have had conversations on this with other people who write and have learned that this isn’t the case with everybody. Others must hear characters speaking to them in order for a piece to come alive. However, the creative section of my brain seems to be deaf as I rarely hear anything internally.
Could you comment on the importance of place/locations in your writing?
This goes back to the answer above – it’s vitally important. The writing flows much smoother if I can think of a place that I have physically been in and, even better, had an emotional response to.
Why do you write?
I think there are two sides that many people switch between: a creative half and a practical, logical half. This is certainly the case with me. To survive the challenges that day-to-day life regularly throws up, I need to buckle that practical side into the driving seat. However, if I don’t write for a long period, a yearning starts to take hold. Eventually, I know that the logical side will get shoved out the window so that the creative side can grab the steering wheel for a joyride. In a nutshell, writing allows me to exist and function as a complete whole, as an (almost) sane human being.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Be kind to yourself and put the red pen away until you have finished the first draft. If you edit extensively as you write, your progress will be so slow that you’ll become completely discouraged. Get that first draft written and leave it alone before starting the editorial surgery. Many times I have started a poem, lost faith in the mess half-way through, and then resurrected it at the end – often because it morphed into an altogether different beast.