In the republic of poetry
Alan Ward speaks to Kaite O’Reilly, winner of the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry
This interview first appeared in the summer 2011 issue of Poetry News, which is mailed quarterly to members of the Poetry Society (www.poetrysociety.org.uk).
Carol Ann Duffy presented playwright Kaite O’Reilly with the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry and a £5,000 cheque at the Savile Club, London, on 24 March 2011. Judges Gillian Clarke, Stephen Raw and Jeanette Winterson selected O’Reilly’s masterly retelling of Aeschylus’s 2,500-year-old play The Persians from a shortlist compiled from recommendations made by Poetry Society and PBS members. “Here’s the truth of language colliding with the clichés of politics and the advertisement of war,” the judges said. “This verse play is entertainment, challenge and a lie detector.”
Photo by Hayley Madden
Winning such a prestigious poetry award has, O’Reilly says, made her reflect on her practice and how she labels herself. “From the beginning of my career, critics have always called my plays ‘poetic’, or ‘lyrical’. Although I have never viewed myself as a ‘poet’, my poet friends do…”
So had she taken particular inspiration from the reworkings of Classical texts by poets such as Heaney, Hughes and Harrison when writing The Persians? “No, I was following a different trajectory,” O’Reilly says, though she had been keen to observe Aeschylus’s “very precise” poetic schema. “When Aeschylus used the heroic hexameter, I tried to echo this, sparingly, so as not to jar the ear of a modern audience. In the sections where he used prose, I did too.”
Poetry is an important part of her personal hinterland: “I’m Irish and, without trying to romanticise my culture, I do believe there is a form of poetics in the way Irish people handle the English language – or there was, certainly, in the living mouths of my parents and the way I was reared. There’s a love of language, an intoxication with what it can do – its lyricisms, its brutality – and this came to me through the language around me as I grew up.” John Donne remains a particular favourite. “He’s the poet I loved first and return to most. He and the Metaphysical poets wrote – to my ear, at least – the human voice in movement, full of humour and poignancy.”
O’Reilly’s adventurousness as a writer continues. She has been developing a series of work for disabled and Deaf performers for several years. In Water I’m Weightless: The ‘d’ Monologues will be produced by National Theatre Wales in 2012, as an Unlimited Commission and part of the Cultural Olympiad. The monologues vary in style and form, and include Sign Poetry. “I have been involved in disability arts and culture for over twenty years, and with Sign Performance for almost as long,” O’Reilly says.
So will the Ted Hughes Award finally allay her anxieties about claims to poetry? “I have always been rather terrified of ‘poetry’ – whatever that may mean,” she admits. “As a child, I gobbled it up and learned, as is so usual in Irish culture, huge swathes of it by heart. Then, somewhere in my twenties I became fearful – I wasn’t clever enough to understand poetry, it was something ‘beyond’ me – although I continued to read widely, especially in translation from German, Japanese, Welsh and Thai. My friend the nature poet Chris Kinsey started my repatriation into the republic of poetry, chasing away my fears, sharing her work and that of others. Now to be formally addressed as a fellow citizen, and by such luminaries – who I am to disagree?”
Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry
The award was founded by Carol Ann Duffy when she became Poet Laureate in 2009. The £5,000 prize money is funded from the stipend that the laureate traditionally receives from HM The Queen. The Ted Hughes Award 2011 will begin accepting recommendations from Poetry Society and Poetry Book Society members from September. Visit http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/content/competitions/tedhughes/ to find out more, to see examples of the type of work that may be eligible, and to make the Society aware of any exciting work you feel your fellow members might like to know about.
Further information about the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry can be found here: http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/content/competitions/tedhughes/